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...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bad Cyber Behavior

Kids behave badly right out in the open. It's the impulsivity thing. By the time they've had a chance to think about it, the crime has already been committed. The crayon has already been broken, the chair has already been kicked. Adults will do the same thing, of course, but what I've noticed is that politeness is often tossed aside when they think they are anonymous.

I was recently reading a newspaper or magazine blog where someone made a horrendous comment about the writer of the article. Sure, they'd signed it, because on that particular blog, it is required for commenting. But the commenter had used what I like to call their Internet nickname, their cyber CB handle, GarbageMouth43. (The names may have been changed to further protect their anonymity.) Why do people think they can completely forgo any social graces when they are hovering over their computer keys eating fried Twinkies and sipping their YooHoo?

I know these are the same people who have thrown down that candy wrapper or that soda can that you see in the street--the very same person who emptied their car ashtray in the parking lot of the grocery store. In my utopian world, a magical police spotlight will automatically flash a high beam on them as they toss their dirty paper towel on the bathroom floor. Who doesn't get satisfaction when they pass the person who cut them off on the freeway as the offender is pulled over at the next exit?

Maybe I'll just forget about politeness, too. Maybe I'll aspire to be one of those old people with their filter system removed. I'll make loud judgmental comments at the grocery store about other shoppers' children and the items they have in their cart. There's something freeing and anonymous about that, isn't there?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Did I pay extra for that advice I got on the train?

It's prime commuter time on the train into Penn Station, so there is a certain set of rules, both spoken and unspoken.

I'd have to say, at the very top of that list would be the No-IPod-loud-enough-to-seep-out-of-your-headphones rule. But even higher on chart is the it-goes-without-saying-no-loud-cell-phone-talking rule.

One thing that I've noticed is that the cell phone rule violators usually fall into one of two categories. They are not having one of of your run of the mill casual conversations with a friend or coworker. They are either:
(1) having a heated/tearful/pleading conversation with a spouse/partner/significant other
or: (2) giving unsolicited/wise/arrogant advice.

The woman committing a category 2 prime-time commuting train transgression was about three seats ahead of me, but projecting very well at all angles. And she was giving funeral etiquette tips and advice. You gotta love that.

It went like this:
"People who go to the cemetery just assume they're going to the house after." (Hmm...I think to myself. Better write this down, lest I forget...)

Then she elaborates, of course:
"Not everybody goes to the cemetery. I'm just sayin'--it's tradition." (So what advice was she giving anyway? That the advice recipient should take a cell phone to the graveside service to give the caterer a last minute head count?)

Then she goes on to give the person tips of the Hallmark nature:
"The best thing is, I say as little as possible."

Now at this point, I'm practically falling out of my seat to get these magical words of condolence. What will they be?

Sadly, I never hear. We go into a tunnel and her phone service must have been cut off. I'm left with the realization that I'll never have the proper words of condolence filed away. And if I don't have those perfect words to utter to the bereaved, how will I show my face at the cemetery? Because I now know, if I don't go to the cemetery, I can't automatically assume that I will go back to the house after...

Friday, November 13, 2009

We All Need a Little Help From Our Friends

Who doesn't need a little help from their friends? Those of us who know Susan VanHecke as a music journalist and the co-author of ROCK 'N' ROLL SOLDIER wouldn't be surprised to see her pen a story about the Beatles. In AN APPLE PIE FOR DINNER (Marshall Cavendish, 2009), Van Hecke journeys across genres to the English countryside.

True, it is the English countryside, but the Fab Four are nowhere in sight. What VanHecke does have is a delightful cast of characters. Based on the English folktale, "The Apple Dumpling", VanHecke makes the story her own, using the universal themes of friendship and working together to take care of the needs of others. As Granny Smith sets out to make an apple pie with nothing but a basket of plums, she makes trades along the way to ultimately get what she needs and a whole lot more.

The illustrations by Carol Baicker-McKee are whimsical and unusual. Done in 3-D, the mixed media bas-reliefs make a perfect compliment to VanHecke's visual setting. I found myself wishing I could be a fly on the wall of the art studio to watch that world come to life.

As an elementary teacher, I've found that stressing the need for empathy as well as just a desire to help out our friends and neighbors is something I hope to get across to my young students all year long. Susan VanHecke has done this so well in AN APPLE PIE FOR DINNER. I would highly recommend it to parents and teachers, alike.

Please read on for interview with the multi-faceted, Susan VanHecke...

A picture book seems so completely different from what I’ve seen you do. Is this something you have thought about doing for a while?

You know, I never even considered writing children's books until I became a mom. Four years ago, when my kids were 2 and 4, I was reading a ton of picture books. Some I loved, others I thought were pretty lame. So I thought I'd give it a try.

Coming from the world of grown-up book publishing, I knew I'd have to streamline my writing style. To practice, I took several of my favorite folktales and retold them. I tried to use as few words as possible, and tweaked details – characters, settings, action – to update the stories.

An Apple Pie For Dinner was one of those exercises. Marshall Cavendish bought it as an easy reader and asked fabric artist Carol Baicker-McKee to create the amazing 3D bas-relief illustrations. I never, ever dreamed that my less-is-more writing exercise would become such a beautiful picture book!

You have written a lot about the music business and rock and roll, in particular. Are you a musician?

I come from a musical family. My mom is a church organist, choir director, and piano teacher. My dad has a beautiful tenor voice and sings all the time at church. My older and youngest brothers play drums. My other younger brother is a professional guitar player. I took piano lessons for many long years growing up, and also played clarinet and bassoon in school band.

While I was studying film at New York University, I did an internship at Island Records, then went to work at a music industry PR firm in NYC after graduating. There, it finally dawned on me that I could actually make money doing the thing I loved most – writing – about a topic near and dear to my heart – music. I became a freelance music journalist, an article turned into my first book, and it kind of took off from there.

I must confess, though, that I haven't touched a piano – other than to dust it – in years!

You must have come across some interesting people while doing your nonfiction research work. What is one of the most memorable things that you discovered?

While working on The Girl In The Box, my historical fiction for middle-graders, I learned that my ancestors in western New York were abolitionists. Not only were they abolitionists, they were "stationmasters" on the Underground Railroad, hiding fugitive slaves under their farmhouse and in a swamp on their property. This was at the time of the Fugitive Slave Law, where harbored runaways were considered stolen property. My relatives risked their livelihood, prison time – perhaps even their lives – to help slaves to freedom. It still blows my mind, and makes me so proud.

You mentioned on your website that you often work with a co-author and help people tell their own stories. What is one story that has stuck in your mind?

Actually, I worked on two books back-to-back that touched me deeply. The first was Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out, the memoir of rock photographer Tom Wright, who befriended guitarist Pete Townshend at Ealing Art School before Pete formed a band called the Who. Tom would go on to travel with the Who and other famous rock bands – the Stones, Faces, Joe Walsh, the Eagles – shooting the most extraordinary pix (now a part of the collection at the Center for American History) and developing them in hotel bathrooms.

It was probably inevitable, but Tom wound up with a major drinking problem. There's a point in the book where he's sleeping on the gravel floor of a friend's garage, living on red wine and cigarettes, estranged from his wife and son, questioning his art and his life. Such giant talent, such enormous sadness. Thankfully, Tom pulled himself together, but re-living that time with him was very painful.

After Roadwork wrapped, I went straight to work on Rock 'N' Roll Soldier, a Vietnam War memoir for young adults I co-wrote with veteran Dean Ellis Kohler. The things those young soldiers – teens, a lot of them, like Dean – were forced to see and do just broke my heart. No wonder they didn't, and still don't, want to talk about it. It's indescribable.

Dean had repressed some devastating memories and I hated having to make him relive them. On the other hand, my hunch is that our dredging up those experiences together and making them public, sharing them, trying to make sense of them via the book, might have actually been helpful (Dean's such a stoic, I'm not sure he'd tell me if that were the case or not).

Regardless, our veterans – of all wars – deserve our utmost gratitude for what they've endured and sacrificed for our country.

THE GIRL IN THE BOX has such an intriguing title! Can you tell us a little about it.?

It's based on the true story of a 7-year old slave girl who, with her pregnant mother, hid for 21 days in a wooden box in the back of a horse-drawn produce cart as they were smuggled from the Washington, D.C. area to Warsaw, New York. The plan of those who helped them was, no doubt, to get them to Canada. But when they arrived in Warsaw, the mother gave birth to a son – in my ancestors' kitchen! – then died soon after of tuberculosis.

Since there was no way an infant and a 7-year old, both considered fugitives, could fend for themselves in Canada, the Warsaw townsfolk rallied around the children and raised them as their own. Like all who assisted runaways at that time, these people were putting themselves and their families at great risk in order to do the right thing.

The girl grew up to become a beloved member of the community and married a cousin of W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP. It's really an incredible story.

The research for this book has been especially challenging, though, as not many records were kept regarding the Underground Railroad. It was just too dangerous for all involved. So I've been digging extra-deep – which I really enjoy. I almost turned a cartwheel when I discovered the pair's actual "runaway" advertisement in an 1850 newspaper!

If you weren’t a writer and editor, what would you be?

Maybe an architectural historian. I'm a sucker for old houses, have renovated two. I live in an historic neighborhood, and want to adopt every "stray" home in the area – you know, those grand old beauties that just need a little love?

For fun, I like to research the homes' histories – who built them, who owned them, who welcomed new babies and saw relatives off to war and celebrated graduations and weddings in them. I know, it sounds a little crazy. I'm a certified research-aholic!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Stay Away From the Tunnels

"Don't go in the tunnels," Mom said...And since we were such well behaved kids, we never went anywhere near them. Sure.

They were part of our apartment building and they used to be fall out shelters--tunnels that ran underground from one apartment building to the other.

"Go play. Dad is trying to study." Mom would shoo us out of the apartment, so we really had no choice...did we? It was the heat of the summer in New York and we didn't have a television.

Sometimes my brother Tim and I collected kids along the way. Nobody ever asked where we were headed. The forbidden was always unspoken.

The laundry rooms for the apartment building were down there, but there wasn't very good lighting, and the tunnels had a damp, moldy feel to them. And it echoed down there. How great is that? Perfect for playing hide and seek. The fact that none of us was supposed to be down there, combined with a creepy, dimly lit area that used to be a bomb shelter really cranked up the excitement meter on the game.

I can remember feeling such relief when we ventured back out into the hot sun. Kind of like we had defeated a villain or something down there and come out unscathed.

So when my friend Margaret and I went suburban exploring a while back and we found the abandoned house with the Keep Out sign, it was the tunnels all over again. Don't go into the house. My mom's voice came up loud and clear in the back of my brain. Hmmm...we really had no choice, did we?

Monday, October 5, 2009

My Brother is Still Kicking My Butt

Three pages a day. If it's good enough for Patricia Reilly Giff and Linda Sue Park, it's good enough for me! I figure if I set out to do three to five a day, I'll be able to come up with a solid two--easy...right? I'm going to also allow myself to adhere to the Anne Lamott SFD (loosely translated, "crappy" first draft) rule.

And here's another brother is completely kicking my butt in the blogging area. Not only is he incredibly prolific, his entries are incredibly not SFDs. keep up with this standard I've set, I need to maintain the 5:15 am start. As I pointed out to my friend, Laura, there is nothing pretty about 5:15.

This morning, I wrote about a page and a half, then went on a quick run to jumpstart the creative juices. So I'm running along the sidewalk in the neighborhood, and I see some kids emerge from the bushes across the street. I recognize a couple of them right away. They are now middle schoolers, but they were once my first graders. Something is up across the street, but being middle-schoolers, nobody is likely to squeal. So the best thing for me to do is to let them know I am on to them. As soon as we make eye contact, a tiny glimmer of panic flares up on their faces, because they know what I do; once you are in my first grade, I am forever your teacher. So I pick up the pace on the sidewalk. "Hi guys!" I call out.

"Hi," they say, nervously, wishing without a doubt they hadn't strayed from their backpacks at the bus stop.

"What's across the street?" I ask, freezing them to the sidewalk with my first grade teacher/Tony Soprano eye lock.

"Oh, nothing," one of them squeaks, weakly. "We just wanted to see what was over there."

Lame excuse, my teacher eyes tell them. Because a couple of them have lived down the street from that swamp their entire lives.

"Your feet must be wet," I say. "I'm sure you won't be going back there again, since it's just a big swamp."

They laugh nervously, trying unsuccessfully to avert their eyes from mine.

"Have a great day at school," I tell them. Don't worry, my eyes say. I'll be by again tomorrow.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


The dinner table at our house was centrally located, with the kitchen behind my dad, and the living room television directly behind me. There was a definite routine to it. My brothers and I sat in the same places and the television was always on, permanently tuned in to the evening news, which was the closest I ever got to Vietnam.

I have several close relatives that served in the military in Vietnam, and not one of them was willing or able to say much about it. But Dean Ellis Kohler and Susan VanHecke do in the new young adult memoir from HarperTeen, ROCK 'N ROLL SOLDIER.

It's a good thing my family is pretty self-sufficient, because I had to force myself to put this book down. VanHecke and Kohler had my undivided attention from page one. I truly felt the grit and visceral emotions of a kid just out of high school as he lands knee-deep in Qui Nhon, Vietnam, a newly trained nineteen-year-old military policeman.

Before Vietnam, Kohler, like so many young adults, had dreams of making it in the music world, in a legitimate rock and roll band. And he was living his dream, having landed a national record deal. But his life was one of bad timing, because before he and his band could set foot in the recording studio, Kohler received his draft notice.

But he never feels sorry for himself. He sets out to get a band together-- a fully-functioning, touring rock band in the middle of the muddy, mosquito-infested war.

So here is what kept me wasn't just the fast-paced action that held was the incredible voice. I was there in Vietnam like I'd never been during the evening news at my dining room table. I was in the makeshift club, listening to Kohler's band, The Electrical Banana, wanting to go put their record on my stereo. Kohler and VanHecke gave me an unusual glimpse of the humanity of the war, from pondering who the not-so-obvious enemies were, to coping mechanisms the young soldiers would acquire to keep from losing themselves.

This book will stay with me for a long while.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Driving to Sunday School in the Chevy BelAir

My favorite quote from yesterday's first day of Sunday School. The five-year-olds were looking at their new children's bibles..."I've got two of these God books at home."

Whether you went to CCD or Hebrew School or Sunday could probably insert your name into my story. First of all, you got the new shiny shoes. I loved my new church shoes. We weren't poor, but we didn't have a lot of extra money to toss around, so my mom was always screaming at us about not going outside and scuffing them up before we pulled out of the driveway in the station wagon.

I remember exactly what my brother looked like in his. He used to walk, looking down at them, with a big smile on his face. I was just thrilled that I didn't have to wear my ugly everyday saddle shoes, built to last and to survive a nuclear explosion. I'd tried to destroy those things. I'd get up to an earth-shattering speed on my bike, careening toward the vacant lot at the dead end of our street, and at the very last second, I'd slam the toes of those saddle shoes down on the pavement and skid to a stop. Yes, they were scratched-up a bit, but my mom would just smile with her wry, I'm-on-to-you face and get out the polish. I think that polish she soaped them up with had liquid concrete in it, because they always seemed a little heavier each time.

So back to the driveway... You'd think all would be well in the Haywood station wagon. New's Sunday...supposed to be a day of rest and reflection. My dad will tell you there was nothing restful about the Chevrolet BelAir on a Sunday morning. That was when all the fights broke out. It usually started with our older brother not wanting to go...or maybe someone had gotten grass stain on their good pants trying to act out their best NFL plays in anticipation of the afternoon television marathon. Then an all-out battle would break out in the back seat. No seat belts in the Chevy, so when my dad took a corner, there was the inevitable sliding into your brother. And my older brother was king of the painful finger flick. He could thump you a terrible one in the arm with virtually no detection from the front seat. Then there was always a good amount of sharp kicking. We usually arrived at church with my dad careening around the corner, one hand barely on the steering wheel and the other trying to take a wild swipe at anything in the back seat. One big plus to not having seat belts was you could slide swiftly on the vinyl and out of his reach. Thinking back, I'm surprised my mom didn't get out at the first stoplight and jog off into the sunset. Whenever I see a mom with a tight smile on her face on Sunday morning, I know exactly what went on in their car.

I wore my black patent leather shoes yesterday, but my Honda CRV is not the same. I miss that Chevy BelAir. Thinking back, if I would have had any sense, I would have positioned my saddle shoes in the driveway behind the back tires. Those saddle shoes are probably in some landfill near Auburn, Washington. I can see them sitting right on the top, virtually unscathed and still shining with my mom's seventy-two coats of cement polish.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Tweet of Anxiety

I am fighting off Internet-based anxiety this morning. Do I know how to Twitter? Can I...should I figure out how to Tweet?? There's this really frightening feeling trying to surface in my brain: if I add one more thing to my technology challenged list, will my life turn into a retro Twilight Zone episode? Will I wake up one morning and find that the line between cyberspace and reality has been permanently blurred??

Running always reduces my self-imposed anxiety, so I go out for a nice long jog. As I'm going along, I picture this weird Twilight Zone scenario. If I do succumb to one more Internet-frenzied time suck, will I only be able to talk in web speak? Instead of deep conversations with my cousin, I'll only be able to say, "LOL, Trish. OMG . Let's TWEET-UP. TTYL." And on my runs, perfect strangers will start "following" me, waving a file folder, trying to get me to look at their questionable pictures. Then more people will join in the chase, trying to give me crucial information about how to enhance/alter one of my body parts that I may or may not have.

Someone honks their car horn at me and zaps me back to real time. An actual person! Yay! Someone I know! A friend who is giving me a real-life wave!

There's a chance for me, yet. All is not lost. I'm going to go home and write TWO snail mail letters...and two chapters for a book that will be on real paper with a nice, sturdy hardcover and book jacket...with real pages that you can turn and smell the newness or the unmistakable library shelf scent...

...Uh oh....what was that? You know TweetDeck makes a very appealing and realistic sound...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

My Brother is a Facebook Addict

Okay...this is totally cheating...I did not write the following blog....but I did keep it in the family. My brother wrote it. He's a year younger than me, so we spent a lot of time together as kids. You have to read it, because it shows, in a few short paragraphs, why my childhood was never boring and always an adventure...
Click HERE

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Harmony Book Reviews

Today I am guest blogging over at Harmony Book Reviews. Click here to find out how she's giving away a free copy of ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Everything Hurts

I can't move. I tried to climb the stairs to change into my running clothes, but my body was fighting back. Why do I always forget how young a six-year-old is? First graders are wonderful and funny and the first day of school is absolutely exhausting.

My favorite quotes from today:

"Will you read us another book?"

"I used to be a black belt, but it got lost."

"I like your toenails."

"I loved everything today, especially recess and lunch and P.E.."

"There is no video arcade at Niagara Falls."

"Can I call my mom?"

"I like it here."

"My cousin goes here. Can I go find her?"

"You have lots of pencils here."

So...I'm off to change my toenail polish, sharpen my pencils, and try to come up with some lessons that are more interesting than recess and lunch and I can go back and do it all again tomorrow.

Monday, August 17, 2009

You CAN Go Home Again

The building was different. It was just a few feet from the one I remembered, but it was still the Auburn Public Library and it was where I got my first library card.

You had to be able to write your full name, first and last, to get that coveted library card. And you had to be six. I can remember standing in front of the children's librarian's desk; I can even remember exactly what the form looked like. And then I got it. I listened dutifully to the rules-of-the-card as Mrs. Barnhardt slowly handed it to me.

And last Tuesday, I was back at that library with my first published book, ready to share Also Known as Harper with the teen writing group. Or so I thought.

As I was walking in, a woman behind me had her hands full and dropped one of her books. I pointed her out to my husband. "Let's go help her." And when the woman looked up, it was someone I hadn't seen since I was in high school. An old neighbor and friend of my mom's. I thought running into her was just a coincidence as my mom passed away over ten years ago.

...Until all the other people started walking in. The first woman stood very still and smiled at me.

"You don't know who I am, do you?"

Let me just say, I am not a crybaby. It takes a lot to get my tears flowing. But it was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Kelly.

And then came my third grade teacher, Mrs. Henderson. And the principal of my old elementary school, Mr. Kuhlman. And my junior high English teacher, Miss Olsson. And another teacher, Miss Mielke, and a high school teacher and more friends of my mother's.

"I tried to get ahold of your sixth grade teacher, but she must be out of town," Mr. Kuhlman said.

So I read from my book. I read to the people who had taught me how to read and how to write. It doesn't get any better than that.

There's more, but I must save it for another blog.
Don't pay any attention to the old saying, because you definitely can go home again.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Wordage That Makes You Squirm

Some might call it creative wordage. Others might call it the massacre of the English language. I just call it word pet peeves. These are particular expressions that are the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard or aluminum foil and fork tines against an amalgam filling.

I once knew someone who had a gift for changing words. She did this really creative thing where she would add an extra syllable or two to a perfectly good word. Talking to her always left me scratching my head, thinking, hmmmm...have I been saying it wrong all along? She said things like, "I'm going to go cook the chicken on the rotisserary."

I like to periodically work one of my cousin's pet peeves into our conversations. But then I have to run, because she gets really annoyed. She hates it when someone says, drive careful. "It's drive carefully!" she'll yell after me as I'm making my getaway.

My friend, Penny, likes to get people to say things a different way on purpose. She's got my entire extended family now referring to the Internet as the Internets. It's a mystery how she does it. You say it once, and you automatically have to keep saying it that way.

A few small things that make me wince (when adults say them--kids have a free pass until they get to upper elementary school): "kindeegarden", "I brung it with me", "I lied on the beach", "I have an idear" (I don't care if you live in New England--there is no r on the end of idea).

I've gotta go now. Me and my computer got to search the Internets for some good idears.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Outdoor Confessional and Teachers With Unusual Names

Sometimes when I'm running, I pray. People passing probably think I'm a crazy neighborhood lady talking to herself, or possibly that I can't be without my cell phone for my workout and I have a very cool hidden micro headset. I don't say the things I think God wants to hear, either. I say all kinds of stuff. Things I'm happy about, things I'm proud of, maybe even things I'm embarrassed about. And unlike my husband who tunes me out when he's had enough, I'm pretty sure God stays in it for the long haul. It's all very relaxing--not in a scary priest-behind-a-screen sort of way. More like a cool-Dominican-priest-who-smokes-cigars-while-he-chats-at- your-college-dorm-nonjudgmentally sort of way. Two things that I believe before I totally exhaust the four credits of philosophy I took in graduate school: God doesn't hate anyone and He appreciates a good joke.

A totally unrelated blog paragraph, but one definitely worth sharing was my conversation with a six-year-old boy at my husband's softball game. The kid was climbing around on the metal bleachers. I tried to distract him as he climbed to the top, backless one. "What grade are you in?" I asked, willing him to take a couple of steps down to safety.
"Kindergarten." He shook his head at me like I was insane. "Whaddya think?"
I kept going, because it was clear he had spunk, which could make things interesting. "Who is your teacher?"
He took one step down. "Her name is Mrs. Poop." He raised one eyebrow. "She poops her pants."
"Realllly...." I say. "Do they know about her down at your school?"
He took a step back up and ignored me.
Another woman was listening in and smirking.
I shrugged. "She must have tenure," I said.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The View From Outside the Pawn Shop

I'm sitting at my favorite organic cafe. The inside is gorgeous--decorated in peaceful, healthy shades of green. But I prefer one of the two outside tables. Not so pretty out there on the sidewalk, but totally worth it. Why, you might ask? Because it's directly across from a pawn shop. It's a book waiting to happen.

A tall pair of bongo drums is prominently displayed in the window. Kind of sad, really. What if that bongo music was the only thing that made someone happy, and they were reduced to hocking them?

As I'm contemplating the tragic, downward spiraling life of the bongo player, one of the restaurant owners comes out and gazes across the street, smiling, because he knows exactly what I am doing. "I once saw a guy carrying in a suit of armor," he said. "I swear to you."

That took some deep thought. "Did he carry it in under his arm?" I tried to picture it.

"It wasn't really full-size," he told me. "For the longest time, I wanted to go in and buy it. I wanted to put it in my bathroom or something."

I tried to imagine my husband's face if I did something like that. "I've got something I need you to bring in from the car," I'd say. I doubt that he'd be surprised. Especially after the lime green Formica table I brought home from the antique store (just a few steps away from the pawn shop, by the way). I'd been on my bike when I saw it, so I had to go back for it. I'm pretty sure I'm the only one in the family who likes it, but I don't care. Green Formica makes me happy.

I started to go back to my tofu wrap when business picked up at the pawn shop. An SUV came zooming up the street and screeched to a halt in the middle of the road. A woman is driving and a man is in the passenger seat. They are having a screaming fight, but I can't tell what they are saying. Finally, the man jumps out of the car and runs into the pawn shop. The woman tries to parallel park, badly. Then she gives up and speeds away.

Hmmmm. Probably her jewelry he was hocking, because she doesn't come back for him.

Great stuff. I'm definitely going back. Maybe I'll go in next time. Put something on layaway, maybe -- some firearms or a suit of armor or something.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Was that the Partridge Family Bus?

How could the line be so long? I listened to the advice of my friend, Nadine (she's an amazing children's librarian and has never steered me wrong!), and I got there early...but apparently not early enough. After almost an hour, a casino employee came out. She obviously had no idea that David was actually expecting me and she neglected to let me go to the front of the line.

"I'm sorry," she said (in an incredibly un-sorry voice). "We have finished our regular seating."

"But you have tons of empty tables!!" screamed an over-40 woman wearing more makeup than I owned.

"Those are for our invited casino guests," the casino lady said in her go-home-you-loser-you-probably-only-play-the-quarter-slot-machine voice.

"What's an invited casino guest?" I asked my husband (who was incredibly thrilled to be there, by the way).

"Their high rollers, I guess," my husband said in his I-wish-I-was-watching-Sports-Center voice.

The woman in front of us turned around and shot daggers at the casino lady. "Does she really think a high roller is going to step away from the table to see David Cassidy? I'm staying in line."

I decided to wait in line, too, only to have my hopes dashed when the same mean Casino lady let almost everyone in front of me in, but stopped about 7 or 8 people in front of me. I felt like I was in a Seinfeld episode. My husband became Man of the Year right then, because he'd saved an amazing standing spot for me pretty close to the stage. I had to push past angry fans to get to him though, but it didn't matter. David was just a few yards away, singing "Point me in the Direction of Albuquerque".

My husband rolled his eyes when I sang along. "You think you're the number one David Cassidy stalker--I mean--fan?" He shakes his head hard and points to the tall blonde lady on the other side of him. (She was also singing along, but she was dancing, too--vigorously--and she kept yelling, "I love you, David!!). My husband tried to scoot away from her. "She keeps touching me," he said. "Maybe she thinks I'm David's brother. I kind of look like him, you know."
"No you don't," I said.

And at that very moment David Cassidy pointed right at me. Right as he was beginning "Echo Valley 26809".

But the absolute best thing--what I had been waiting for ever since I plastered my walls with his Tiger Beat photos--was when he sang, "I Think I Love You." I tried to rush the stage, but my husband held me back. I think I tore a hamstring.

It was definitely worth it.

"Guess what?" I said to my husband the next day. "Tom Jones is coming to town."

He bit his lip. "You're on your own for that one."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My Brother Will Make Fun of Me Unmercifully if I Write About The Following

This is a working list of things that will undoubtedly cause my brother to make fun of me unmercifully if I include them in my blog:
(I'm not saying I have, just that he most definitely would...)

*Random musings about my cat, especially when he does that thing with his litterbox (how exactly does he know that I've just changed it?)

*How much I still love David Cassidy.

*The fact that late 60s/early 70s pop music is clearly underrated and one of the best kept secrets in American music history. (Actually, he probably agrees with that one.)

*Anything that has to do with heroes, unless they're the sandwich kind.

*The wildlife in my back yard.

*Stupid things that I'm doing throughout the day, like laundry, making dinner, checking my email (truly why do people think that's acceptable to put that on Facebook, anyway??)

Tag, you're it, Tim.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Barbie Tenement House

The Barbie Dreamhouse--who didn't want it? I kind of knew someone who had one, but she was a friend of a friend of a friend who wanted nothing to do with me. There was absolutely no possible chance I would get invited over to even look at it, much less have my Barbie and her posse of riffraff stink up that girl's beautiful pink plastic house.

But what my best friend, Leslie and I had was so much better. It was more of a Barbie tenement house, really; a kind of Hooverville for Barbie and her friends. I have never been an elitist--everyone could pretty much play: GI Joe, Skipper, and all the Little Kiddles. If you needed more kids in the family, there were always Leslie's green plastic Army men. We'd line them all up and pick, kind of like a slow, thoughtful sports draft. You'd think the actual Barbies would get chosen first, but it was the plain, sometimes ugly generic dolls that often got scooped up at the beginning. They were much more interesting, because they got to have tragic situations like incredibly mean or just dead parents.

Then we got to build the tenement house. It took hours, because you had to divvy up different areas of Leslie's living room. Everyone wanted the double decker end table, because that was an instant 2-story house. The piano bench was also a prime piece of real estate. There were some things that we saved in her closet and brought out each time. Like the big blue Tampax box that we'd made into a stove. Or the Kleenex box swimming pool.

Who needed the Barbie Dreamhouse? Our Barbies kept it real.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tiger Beat Lives On

I started to walk past it, but something on the sign caught my eye. It couldn't be. Could it? Could it really be David Cassidy in the flesh, coming to a casino near me? I don't normally do music reviews here. In fact, I don't think I ever have. But David Cassidy? How can I not?

I saved my 12-year-old birthday money and a good chunk of my babysitting money just so I could go down to the Piggly Wiggly and purchase the monthly issue of Tiger Beat on the day it came out. I wanted to be the first one of my friends to have the most current double-page spread of David Cassidy photos up on my bedroom wall.

My husband rolled his eyes when I said I was going to the concert. (He has a lot of nerve, because I'm pretty sure he had the Knight Rider up on his wall, or something a la Starsky and Hutch.) I ignored his eye-rolling and launched into "I Think I Love You". Do you think he'll sing it?? I asked him. (No response, as I'm sure he'd tuned me out partway through the chorus.)

I was all of a sudden desperate to dust off my "Cherish" album and play it, and I was cursing myself for giving away my old Partridge Family album to my cousin, Heather. My husband is always all too happy to make a stop at Best Buy, or any electronic supplier for that matter, but he zoomed past it when he found out I was planning on purchasing one of those turntable converter things.

But I perked right up when I realized that I-Tunes has all the songs ready for downloading.

The concert is next week which gives me plenty of time to brush up and create some amazing playlists. And Andy, don't even think about trying to hide my I-Pod.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


"It's not my sharing day. Can I share?" She hopped from foot to foot beside my desk, so I could tell it was important.
"Sure." I pointed to the end of the first grade show and tell line.

"I've got something to tell." I could tell she was going to be a good public speaker some day, because she leaned into the crowd and made some good eye contact, making them all stop chewing their fruit snacks and fish crackers before she went on.

"I'm going to my grandma's house and I'm going to play cards."

She paused again for effect.

"And I think I'm going to win, because every time I play cards with my grandma, I win."

I wanted to ask her what kind of cards they were playing, but that was just opening up something I probably didn't want to have any part of.

"I'll take three questions," she said, scanning the audience.

They're now supposed to come up with real questions, not "telling" statements about themselves, but six-year-olds have their own set of rules.

She pointed at a boy who had his hand waving so hard, it had lifted him off his seat like a helicopter propeller.

"My grandpa was a marine," he said. He did a quick scan of the crowd to see if he needed to crank things up a notch. "They had a war and they didn't pick him. So now he's a hardware guy."

Grandparents are the best. They are the true American heroes. And you don't even have to be six to think so.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

False Teeth, Poetry, and Formula 44 Cough Syrup

It felt as if I had been waiting for hours, but it probably hadn't been more than thirty minutes or so. And when the train finally coasted into the station, my mother could barely keep me behind the safety line.

The conductor would put out the step for her and the first thing I always saw were my grandma's black, t-strap shoes. I can still hear the clang on that metal step as the conductor helped her down. There was no one like my grandma. My cousins and I were sure she loved each one of us the best. It got a little brutally competitive at times about who Grandma's favorite was, but all I knew was, when I met her at the train station, she was all mine for a few days.

She always stayed in my room. She slept in my bed and I got to sleep on a cot next to her, a TV tray of her pills and Formula 44 cough syrup between us. She'd take out her false teeth for my brother and me, as many times as we asked her! And she had a real corset. I used to get to help her lace it up in back, because she had severe arthritis and she was born without the fingers on one hand. I loved that hand, because it was smooth and warm and it fit inside my little kid hand. I can still remember how her watch looked on the wrist of that hand.

But the most wonderful thing about my grandma was her poems. She would tirelessly recite poems to me. Even now, I can hear the ebb and flow of her words. That's probably what made me love poetry. Someone recently asked me why I made my main character in ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER a poet. I said it was to give Harper a way to feel heard and not to feel invisible. I guess that's pretty much what we all need--someone to listen like what you're saying is the most important thing in the world...and, of course, to take their false teeth out as many times as you ask them to.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Written Word

I always said that first grade was the one grade I'd never teach.  You are responsible for far too much.  My mother was a first grade teacher.  I'd see her up late every night, preparing and planning.  Imagine my surprise when I was offered a first grade position nine years ago and I heard my voice say, I'd love to.  

Now I can honestly say it's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.  There's nothing like teaching someone to read.  I love seeing their face when everything starts to blend together and the light goes on.  Sometimes it takes a while for things to start to click.  But when it does, it's all worth it.  

I love it when someone will hold up a book from the classroom and say, "Can I take this home?" 

The written word.  There's nothing like it.  

Monday, May 25, 2009


Only five and a half hours until ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER!  Oh...wait...I guess that's only a Twilight/Harry Potter thing.  I don't think there's a midnight release party...I could, however, push back the basketball hoop and arrange one in my driveway.  I might be able to get a few random neighbors and family members to come out...

The good news 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday (May 26), Other Tiger in Westerly, Rhode Island will be having a launch party.  Please join me!

Also, if you would like to win a free first edition hardcover of ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER, click "Follow" in the sidebar, or say "I already follow this blog" and leave your email address in the comment section for this post.  I'll be drawing the name of one lucky blog follower on Monday, June 1 at midnight (okay maybe 7 or 8 p.m....I don't usually make it until midnight...)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My First Novel

I was twelve and I had finally finished it.  I remember knowing it was done, because I'd reached the magic number of one hundred pages.  It was in my loopy cursive and extra-special, I thought, because it was on the colored notebook paper I'd convinced my mom to buy at the beginning of the school year.  It was more expensive than the regular old white kind with the red line up the side, but my mom was an artist and recognized the importance of such things.  And it had almost no messy erasures either, because I always got hundreds on my spelling test, and more importantly, I was definitely not into revision.

Then I told my friends and family that I was going to get it published.  I believed that with all my heart--so much that I wrote to Judy Blume and told her all about it!  Don't ever throw away your work, she told me.  And I didn''s still in a green binder, and I look at it from time to time.  For a long time, I kept it in the corner of my room where I could see it when I was writing.  Maybe it was to remind myself about how great it felt to sit in that orange plastic chair in Mrs. Rinear's class, tuning out everything around me and getting my words down on paper.

Thank goodness I finally did learn to revise, because this Tuesday, I  get to see ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER on a shelf.  It's not those same one hundred pages from the sixth grade, which is a really good thing for the readers!  The story on the pages is a different one, but my own story hasn't changed.  I'm still someone who tunes out the rest of the world to try to get my words to take shape.   By the way, I'd do anything to have one of those orange plastic chairs for my house!

If you are in the area, I'd love to see everyone at Other Tiger bookstore in Westerly, Rhode Island on Tuesday, May 26 at 6:00.  (Maybe I'll read from the green notebook...) 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Harper Lee

Happy Birthday, Harper Lee!  Today she is 83.  Thanks to my friend, Waterford Public Library children's librarian, Nadine Lipman, for letting me know!  

My biggest reader's dream is that Harper Lee has several rooms full of manuscripts in her home in Alabama, just waiting to be shared with the world.

What made the month even better, was I received a package on my doorstep from my editor at Henry Holt:  preview copies of ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER.  It felt very surreal to hold the actual hardcover in my hands...

I took ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER to school to show to my first graders.  

"It's coming out on May 26," I told them.  
A few looked mildly interested.  Most just kept working on their drawings.

Then one boy raised his hand.  I got really excited for about half a second, thinking they might actually be interested in my writing process.  

"Yes?" I said.  "You have a question?"

He looked toward the windows.  "When's P.E.?"

Oh well.  Back to more important business.  

About an hour later, a boy came up to my desk.  "Mrs. Leal?  You want to hear something?" he asked.

"Of course I want to hear something," I said.

"It's really exciting."  He bounced on the balls of his sneakers.  "My book is coming out today!"  All I have to do is finish the front cover and staple it on, and it's done!"

Wow.  Things move quickly in the first grade publishing world.

Then the very next day:  "Mrs. Leal?"  The same boy sat down at the reading table with me.  "Remember when I told you I had a book coming out?"  He paused for effect.  "Now I've got three."

A triple book deal.  Maybe I should give him my agent's number... 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kicking Serious Butt on My Bike

It was a perfect day for a  bike ride.  I was all by myself and pedaling at what I thought was a pretty good clip up a monstrous hill.  Okay, it was a slight incline, but I was the only one around, so who's to know? ...Until this little kid comes out of nowhere.  He's about ten, and he's on a shiny blue bike.  

He doesn't look directly at me, but I know he's got me in his peripheral vision.  I've got the lead, but he's gaining on me.  I'm on my twenty-one speed and he's on his minus three speed, and I know I can take him.  Then something starts to snap inside of me, and I realize I want to kick his butt.  

 I know it's in the bag.  All I have to do is switch gears.  I'm mid-shift and something washes over me... guilt...shame ...I don't know--maybe just the realization that he's ten and I'm...well...over thirty.  

So I let up, ever so slightly, and he coasts by me--still only looking straight ahead ...but with a small victory smile on his face.  Maybe I imagined it, but I think I heard, Sucker...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

No Video Equipment Allowed

I have been doing Tae Kwon Do for a while now, and I have my second degree black belt test coming up in a little over a week.  I'm worried about the usual... that I'll freeze up and forget what I'm supposed to do, or the universal worry, that I'll make a fool of myself.  

A couple of years ago, I took my first degree test.  It went pretty well, except for that special part that my husband caught on tape and set to music.  It was the second half of the test, and I was sparring.  I was exhausted at that point, and I got side kicked pretty hard and went down. The soft mat was feeling quite good, but I made myself get back up.  I was so happy for that part to be over, and it didn't occur to me that I'd have to relive it via videotape.  

I should point out that my husband is somewhat of a computer genius, but he doesn't always use his knowledge for good.  This was one of those times when his computer genius went to the dark side.  He made the video repeat several times in a row; I just kept falling on that mat... over and over again.  To make things so much more delightful, he added a nice cartoony sound effect.  I could hear him, on the upstairs landing, in front of his computer, laughing really hard at his creation. 
He's going to be frisked at the door of next week's test.  No video equipment allowed. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

An Interview with 2k9 Author, Sydney Salter

Today is the first in (I hope!) a series of interviews with my FabulousAuthorFriends.  My first interview is with fellow 2k9er, Sydney Salter.  

Sydney's recently released debut young adult novel is MY BIG NOSE AND OTHER NATURAL DISASTERS.  I'm not sure if she actually sleeps, because her middle-grade novel, JUNGLE CROSSING, will be on the shelves in September!

I actually caught up with Sydney (virtually!) on the ferry as she was traveling to Lopez Island.  And yes, she was writing on that ferry ride...

Me:  I fell in love with your main character, Jory, from page one.  Is she based on anyone in real life?

Sydney:  While Jory is completely her own unique self, I did give her my biggest insecurity from my high school years (I hated my nose!).  Some of the things Jory does with her friends are things I did with my friends during my Reno High years.  And, yeah, I did wreck a delivery van and a wedding cake on the same day.  Except I'd only had the job for four days!

Me:  Do you have a special writing place?

Sydney:  I work at a messy table in my living room, overlooking my bookshelves, while gazing out at my neighbors walking their dogs.  I also love to write away from home--at the bookstore, a noisy cafe, a ski lodge...Writing under deadline often means writing in creative locations.  Yesterday I revised a chapter on the ferry boat to Lopez Island, Washington on my way to visit my brother's family.

Me:  How do you manage your writing day?

Sydney:  I race my two daughters to school, peek at a few emails, and then dig into writing or revisions until the end of the school day.  If I'm working on a first draft, I aim to write about a chapter a day and I try to write seven days a week.  If I'm revising, I try to work just five days a week.  I also meet my writing group at our local bookstore once a week for tea, chat, and a bit of critiquing (although I don't share my work until I've completed an entire draft).

Me:  Do you remember the first story you wrote?

Sydney:  My mother saved My Fish Book, a nonfiction picture book I created as a child, but I really don't have other early stories.  I still cringe at the awful story I wrote in a creative writing class after college about professional football-playing brothers.  Shudder!

Me:  What is one book that you hope your own children will read?

Sydney:  I always resisted my mother's reading suggestions, so I've been reluctant to recommend books to my own daughters.  I just want them to love reading!  I do try to read books that they love so we can talk about them together.  And we have a large selection of books to choose from...I rarely say no to adding a book to our collection.

Me:  Do you have a mentor?

Sydney:  Oh, wouldn't that be so nice?  I have friends who have been with me since the beginning when our writing group met in the bookstore's children's section so our preschoolers could play (we've now happily graduated to the cafe area).  Every few weeks I meet another group of writers for dinner.  My agent also gives me a lot of support, and my editor makes herself available, too.  And, of course, I have my online friends from the Class of 2k9!

Me:  I love hearing stories about "The Call".  Can you tell us what that was like?

Sydney:  My agent called me while I was in the airport waiting to board my flight to the SCBWI Conference in LA.  I loved sharing my good news with so many writers!  My husband flew out for the weekend and met me in the hotel bar with champagne.

Me:  Can you describe your works-in-progress?

Sydney:  Right now I'm revising another humorous YA called SWOON AT YOUR OWN RISK.  It's about a girl who has broken up with five boyfriends over the past year, so she's afraid to risk falling in love again.  But, of course, there's this guy... The girl also has to deal with the repercussions of having her grandmother, a famous advice-columnist, move in with the family for the summer.  If all goes well, it should hit the shelves in 2010.

Me:  You have a second book coming out soon.  Is it anything like MY BIG NOSE?

Sydney:  My second book is a middle-grade novel called JUNGLE CROSSING.  It's a coming of age story about a thirteen-year-old girl who reluctantly travels to Mexico with her family on vacation, intertwined with an ancient Mayan story about a royal girl who is stolen, enslaved, and must find her way back home.  Both books share a sense of humor and themes about family relationships.

Many thanks to Sydney Salter for stopping by The Backstory.  So drop by your local bookstore and ask for MY BIG NOSE AND OTHER NATURAL DISASTERS.  I think you will be drawn in, just as I was, by her great voice and sense of humor.