Saturday, November 27, 2010

Who are You?

Lately my blog has averaged about 150-200 hits a week. That's great news, but with only 7 "registered" followers, I wonder who my readers are. When I look at my blog statistics I find readers as close as Matthews, NC and as far away as Mountain View, California and Alberta, Canada. I also gather hits from Kingston, JamaicaSydney, Australia; Manama, Bahrain; and Spanish Lookout, Belize-- to name just a few of the more exotic places.

I'd love to know who you --my unnamed blog readers--are. So, from now until the end of December, I'm sponsoring a giveaway of an autographed copy of Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8. Send an email to and tell me how you found my blog and why you read it. Then click on the "Follow" button on the left below "Speaking Engagements." I'll announce the winner here and share what I learn about my blog demographics in the beginning of 2011.

Be more than just a face in the crowd or a statistic on my blog. Intoduce yourself and enter to win a copy of my book! 

                                              picture from www.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


If you want to teach your child or student what the word "empathy" means, then read Mockingbird together. The author, Kathryn Erskine, takes you inside the heart, mind and body of 10-year-old Caitlin who has Asperger's syndrome. The recent recipient of the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, this book well-deserves the award.

Caitlin's brother Devon was just shot and killed in a random shooting at his middle school. Caitlin and her father are left with a huge weight of grief as well as Devon's incompleted Eagle Scout project, a wooden chest draped in a gray sheet that sits in the middle of their living room. In Caitlin's words it looks like a "...bird that is trying to fly but never getting anywhere. Just floating and falling. Floating and falling." (p. 2) A description that applies equally to Caitlin and her father.

In the world of Asperger's, the reader discovers how difficult it is for Devon to not only make sense of her overwhelming grief, but also how to function in school and relate to other 5th-graders. When her counselor suggests she learn social skills by befriending a younger student, Caitlin is drawn to a first-grader who she figures out is sad. This is Caitlin's first step towards healing and empathy as she befriends Michael whose mother died in the same tragedy.

There are so many wonderful parts of this book that I find it difficult to share just one selection. But since I appreciate how Erskine skillfully used one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, in this book; here is a section where Caitlin is remembering watching the movie with Devon, who nicknamed her "Scout."

The first time we watched To Kill a Mockingbird I waited through the whole movie for the dad to shoot a mockingbird. He'd already shot a dog. And he was a good shot. No one shot a bird for the whole entire movie. At the end I said it was the stupidest name ever for a movie. Devon said I didn't know what I was talking about. This year he reads it in English and he said the title makes perfect sense and this is what it means:

It's wrong to shoot someone who is innocent and was never going to hurt you in the first place.

I still don't Get It and said, But you told me the dog was sick and he WAS going to hurt them.

And Devon said, "It's not about the dog! It's about people! You shouldn't hurt innocent people Scout. That's what it means.

I guess the evil school shooters didn't listen in English class because they did not Get the meaning of that book at all. (p. 80)

Typically children read books in which the protagonist is older than themselves. That would put this book in the hands of young elementary students and in Caitlin's own words, I'm not sure they'd "Get it." But like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas that also has a young protagonist, perhaps this book will be read at many age levels--from children through adult--and that each reader will take away something different from the book.

As long as part of what each reader takes away is empathy--then I'm good with that.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Committed Writer

Last February I had the privilege of reading a rough draft of Committed! (working title) by Joyce Hostetter, my fellow Talking Story partner and my inspiration for writing historical fiction. Although Joyce hadn’t signed a contract for it, she had already spent two years writing it. I finished reading it with tears in my eyes and thought that it was close to being ready to be sent to the publisher.

I was wrong.

Joyce has a proclivity for serious subjects. In two of her previous books, Blue and Comfort, she writes about a girl who loses a little brother to polio, contracts polio herself, and then recuperates at Warm Springs, Georgia. In a third book, Healing Water, she tells the story of a Hawaiian boy whose life is devastated by leprosy.

Now, Joyce takes on another serious topic: a young man who follows his Mennonite beliefs and becomes a conscientious objector (CO) during World War II. For over a year he serves in a mental hospital becoming a part of a group who successfully lobbies to get the horrendous conditions in the hospital alleviated.

Working from memoirs, letters, and interviews with conscientious objectors who worked in a variety of mental hospitals, Joyce incorporated details of how they worked to instigate change in these institutions. Their attitudes towards their work and compassion towards their patients deeply influenced this story and her fictional character’s motivations.

Joyce has skillfully woven together her CO’s story along with the story of Kelsey, his granddaughter, who decides to tell his story for her senior project. After I read the rough draft in February, Joyce decided to tell the contemporary story line in the form of a blog, in which Kelsey reflects on personal dilemmas related to modern day wars. This added layers and layers of details which then needed to be integrated into the story

Intertwining the two stories and time periods was part of Joyce’s challenge. After several months had passed when she thought it would be ready to send, I asked her how she would knew when the manuscript would be “done.” She replied, “I think there’s always room for improvement. But right now, I just see missing elements. I’m trying to make sure themes, characters, and subplots are evenly woven throughout the story. And tweaking of course. There’s always that obsession over the perfect word choice.”

Finally, months after she had hoped to submit the manuscript, Joyce finished tweaking word choices, cleaned up her bibliography, (which she accumulates as she writes,) and mailed her story to her editor.

I try not to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and tweaking that Joyce put into her manuscript. I try not to think of the mountains of work and time and revisions that are in front of me as I push through a rough draft of my first novel.

I try to think of the day that someone will take a picture like this of me—kissing Half-Truths  goodbye and getting ready to mail it to a publisher.

I try to just write.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

National Novel Writing Month has arrived!

For me that means trying to finish a first draft of my novel, Half-Truths, that I started two years ago. I'm trying to crank out close to 2,000 words a day and not stopping to research or edit. That is hard for someone like me who wants to get the facts right the first time around!

It also means that the Young Writers Program at NaNoWriMo just put up an article I wrote entitled,  Mine Your Life. Who knew when I participated two years ago that I would be one of their "Writer's Block" authors this year? Not me!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Historical Fiction: Covering New Territory

Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli (Random House Books, 2009) and The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages (Viking, 2006 ) are set in times and locations which are not normally depicted in juvenile historical fiction; and both can be used as classroom supplements in the 5th-9th grades. Teachers can integrate literature with social studies by challenging students to examine the parallels between the protagonist’s conflicts and the conflicts in the world around them.

Alligator Bayou tells the story of orphaned Calo who emigrates from Sicily in 1899 to Louisiana. He is taken in by five men and one boy, Cirone, all of whom were friends of his father. The story came from a newspaper article which Napoli found detailing how five Sicilian grocers were lynched when they served a black customer before a white one. From that tiny piece of information flows a book that is beautifully written, despite its shocking story.

This is a story of bigotry, jealousy, love, hate, and survival. Calo and Cirone are more accepted by the blacks than the whites in this small community 200 miles from New Orleans. At one point one of the Sicilians relates to Calo, “The Negroes here are so much more timid than the ones in New Orleans. They won’t take your hand, no matter how far you stretch it.” (p. 108). But the boys prove them wrong. They initiate friendships with the Negroes and end up sharing adventures and celebrations with them. In an awful turn of events, these friendships lead to the lynching that takes all of Calo’s friends’ lives.

Calo’s heart-wrenching escape is facilitated by an old Indian who earlier charges him, “An orphan is free to become anything. The choice is yours.” (p. 121)


Fast forward fifty years to 1943 and move west to New Mexico, the setting for The Green Glass Sea. Eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is taking a train to meet her scientist father who is working on a top secret government project. The reader quickly discovers that Dewey was deserted by her mother, left with a grandmother who just died, and has developed a tough self-reliance. In addition, she is a mathematical whiz and obsessed with taking gadgets apart and using the parts to build devices such as a radio or an alarm clock that wakes you with music.

Like Napoli, Klages weaves in numerous details making this book resonate with authority. Everything from Dewey’s knee socks, the comics she reads, and the types of junk she finds in the town dump, all convincingly depict the time period. But the hastily built city where she lives is unique. It is not on any map and has one goal: to build a “gadget” (the children’s term) that will end the war.

Dewey faces an assortment of conflicts: she is ostracized by the popular kids (in today’s terms she is a dork) and she walks funny because of problems with one leg. But she always can retreat to the safety of being with her father who she adores. Suddenly this relationship is destroyed when he dies in a freak car accident. Without other family, she moves in with one of her father’s co-workers, whose daughter despises her. The process of the two girls becoming friends is beautifully portrayed, but a new fear overwhelms Dewey. If the gadget works and the war ends then what will happen to her?

The ending is powerfully disturbing—and one that readers won’t forget.


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