Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Good Braider: A Review and a Giveaway

When Tracey Adams of Adams Literary recommends a book, I listen.  As a result, when I was given the opportunity by Recorded Books to listen and review the book Tracey recommended,  the good braider (Skyscape, 2012) I jumped at the chance. For one fortunate blog reader, you'll be glad that I did. Following this review you'll find directions on how to win this beautifully produced audio CD, narrated by Cherise Boothe. Written by Terry Farish, the good braider was selected in 2013 as the Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year and a book of Outstanding Merit. You can find the study guide here; Farish has donated this book to the Worldreader program.

South Sudan. A nation torn by civil war as well as religious and ethnic conflict. The country from which Viola and her mother escape to the United States. The story told poignantly in free verse, is captured in this trailer:

Viola's father is a rebel soldier who has been gone for five years and she lives with her beloved grandmother, mother, and younger brother, Francis, in Juba. Their lives are full of two enemies: the Sudanese soldiers who rape women and kill young boys or conscript them for the army, and poverty. Yet the family are embraced and loved in their community. 

Viola yearns for freedom, and to escape to America where her uncle lives. When she is raped by a Sudanese soldier, she is full of shame knowing that she will no longer be valuable as a bride:
      At home I rub palm oil into my mother's hair.
     She is silent. 
     She knows. Everybody knows.
     The story rolls along like drumbeats from house to house.
     Viola has lost her bride wealth. 
Her daughter's devastation and pain precipitates her mother's push to escape. But the family must leave her grandmother and beloved village behind. Although they journeys thousands of miles, Viola can't leave behind her feeling of being ruined as a woman. While waiting to be approved to immigrate to America she thinks:
      I cannot imagine my future and my past is a snake, ready to strike.
Francis sickens and dies while they are waiting to leave Africa. His loss is huge to both Viola and her mother. She wakens from a nightmare about the rape and clutches one of her few possessions, a book her grandmother gave her: 
    I hold it to me and breathe
    as if I could breathe life back into us all. 
The metaphor of braided hair weaves throughout the book. It was an important way in which the women connected with one another. Viola learned how to make tiny rows of braids from her mother:
    When I was young, my little fingers rode on her long              narrow ones 
Explaining the death of her brother to her friend Lokolumbe, Viola says:
    I am not who I used to be.
    We were three, like three strands. 
    We lay, three of us, on the steamer warming each other.
    Without the third, I don't know what to do.
She asks him:
    What does it matter about a refugee’s hair?
    Why not have knots like a child? What does it matter?”
    He looks ahead into the sand.
    As tall as I am,
    I come only to Lokolumbe’s shoulder.
    He does not answer at first.
    We both keep walking in the desert,
    following a fragile dream of America.
    “Braids are from our culture,” he says, this boy who   read and knows all the American capital cities.
    “They are the African designs we give to the world.     When you are ready, you will braid.
 After almost two years of living among other refugees in a church courtyard in Cairo, Viola and her mother receive the blue card needed to go to America. But life in an apartment in Kennedy Park in Portland, Maine has its own set of challenges. The language, culture, the color of the people--even the weather--are all foreign. Eventually, Viola gets used to her new school, the new technology, and different foods, but she feels caught between two cultures:
    I wish I could see my grandmother’s bright eyes.
    I have been here less than a year,
    yet I do not think I can be all Sudanese, all the time.
    Already, am I part American?
    I don’t feel like any one thing. 
Her friend Jackie, explains the gap between Sudan and America:
    “If you live in Kennedy Park, you remember.
    The elders make sure you remember.
    Your mother makes sure you remember.
    If you go to McDonald’s, your mother makes you remember,
    ‘You need African food,’ she says.
    ‘You cannot eat this food. You will die!
    That’s what they say if you forget to remember.”
Viola's confusion is reflected in her feelings about her hair:
    That night I stand at the mirror
    and see my ragged, broken hair.
    With scissors I cut, cut,
    cut, until my hair all around
    is cut as close to my head as I can make it.
    When I am done,
    I gaze at my unflinching eyes.
    Hey ! I tell Lokolumbe,
    this is the way I look in America
Viola and her mother survive the turbulence of Viola's friendship with Andrew:
     A girl as skinny as the Nile on a map of Africa and a boy with red hair who smells like fish. 
but it is not without a run-in with government agencies and agony for both mother and daughter. Viola confides her despair to her guidance counselor:
   “I am not doing well. I am not American.
    Or Sudanese.
    I’m not in Sudan and not really in Maine.
    Or maybe I’m in both of them
    at the same time.
    I’m in someplace I’m making up.
    Even talking to you.
    This story about the soldier . . .
    my people
    would never talk about it.”
    Still I go on, leaning into her.
    “I don’t do the Sudanese braids
    in my hair we all do in my culture.
    Why don’t I? I don’t know.”
    I rub my hair again. I laugh
    and hold my hands out, palms open,
    my body is all question.
Farish's simple, yet eloquent free verse ends Viola's story with hope. She misses the feeling of braiding other people's hair and in the end she braids a white girl's hair and is wearing braided extensions in her own hair. 
In the final scene, the reader sees Viola playing with a young child:
    The nights have gotten longer.
    I sit on the couch beside my mother with Jamal,
    a solid, warm weight plopped
    in my lap. He is singing the names of
    animals he looks at in a picture book.
    Out the window the moon is shining.
    My mother tells me to sit on the floor.
    I do with Jamal still in my lap,
    and her strong fingers
    begin to massage jojoba oil into my hair.
    Jamal holds the book high in the air,
    then drops his head back against my belly,
    grinning upside down at me.
    “Who is this boy,” I tease,
    “this one who eats Cocoa Puffs for breakfast?”
     I scoop him up the way Habuba would have.
     I play the traditional game. “Who wants this child?
    Anybody want this child?” and pretend to pass him
    around to Frieda or my mother while he squeals.
    My mother describes for him
    the feel of the earth when the elephants walk,
    and Jamal’s eyes grow wide.
    I shut my eyes and can feel the heat
    of the cook fire in our courtyard.
    Then comes a hint of the smell
    of the earth by the Nile.
    I’m an American girl in Portland, Maine.
    But I am also
    a girl from Juba.
To win this audio CD please follow these directions:

1. Leave me a comment with your email address (if I don't have it.)
2. Become a new follower of this blog and I'll add your name twice.
3. For each time you post the link on social media I'll enter your name again.
4. Drawing to be held before noon on Saturday, May 31. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Mother's Gift

Mother's Day has never been a big event at our house. But as it came and went two weeks ago, I remembered that last year I gave my mother a little Mother's Day book. At the time, I suspected it would be one of my last Mother's Day gifts to her. I was right.

My mother has been gone for seven months and it has taken me this long to be able to share with all of you what I said at her graveside. This is in Margaret Federlin's honor-- as well as for all of you who nurture children and grandchildren.  Your gifts of time, inspiration, and encouragement are priceless.

Lori, Lydia, and Lisa Baldwin
with their Grandma Federlin
circa 2012

"Two weeks ago my mother and I started looking through old photo albums. We looked at more recent ones of my children, and also ones of her and my father in their earlier years. I found an half-empty album that had an envelope stashed in the back full  of pictures that my father had taken of her paintings. We decided to fill up the rest of the pages with these pictures. As we did, it struck me how much she painted (even until the week before she died she was still talking about the paintings that she was thinking about and planning), how many pictures she had given away, and how much people enjoyed her artwork.
Margaret's wall of bird pictures
circa 2010

"I asked her if she was disappointed that none of her children had inherited her artistic talents. She said no, she was confident that each of us was following our own interests and passions.

"I have thought often that one of my mother’s gifts to me was her saying to me when I was about 10 or 12, 'You have a way with words.' Her belief in me has continued unabated into my adult years even as I told her about my struggles writing my first novel. In some ways, she has been my biggest fan. I will miss her being in my corner, rooting for me and encouraging me to persevere. But I have her words, her voice, and her belief that I can do 'whatever I set my mind to' inside of me now, and I will never lose that.

"I was privileged to have had both my parents live nearby for the last years of their lives.  I think it was Charlotte’s warmer climate—compared to upstate, NY or Milwaukee that drew them here—but my life has been richer as a result. But for Tom and Barbara, I want to tell you that I can’t tell you how many times she said to me, 'I am blessed to have three wonderful kids.'
With my sister, Barbara and brother, Tom
June, 2014

"About a month ago she said, 'I have more than I anticipated. I didn’t think I’d live to be so old, have so many friends, be so happy and be satisfied.' She said she wanted to be remembered as a 'someone who loved her family, her children, and her life.'

Margaret with Lindsey Kasten and Leslie Clark
along with her first two great-grandchildren:
Caitlin and Ebby
Circa 2010

"Every inch of wall space in her room at the Stewart Health Center was covered with her paintings. 

 Family members and friends will treasure them for years to come. 
Raggedy Ann
Given to Lisa Baldwin, 1988
Given to Caitlin Kasten

Lisa Baldwin
Circa 1990

Painted Circa 1990

Hung in Tom Federlin's room growing up
Given to him, 2013
"Her artwork is most certainly part of her legacy to us. But as her children, we also can treasure her other gift to us: a simple belief that we were important, special, and very much a part of the reason she was thankful to 'get out of bed' each day."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Where are the People of Color in Children's Literature? An Answer from Vanessa Newton

As a member of SCBWI, I follow topics of interest through LinkedIn. Recently the question, "Where are the People of Color in Children's Literature?" generated many comments. When I read a personal response from a Charlotte, NC illustrator, Vanessa Bradley-Newton, I asked her permission to post it here. Vanessa is also our featured illustrator in this issue of Talking Story.

I am a child of the 60's. I remember a time when I didn't see myself in children's book. I loved Golden Books and Humpty Dumpty magazines, but they never got around to putting people of color into their stories. We were not a thought really. My mom and dad would purchase these books for my sister and I and we never saw ourselves through the pages, even though we could identify with the characters in our own way. The Little Golden Book about prayers was very important to my sister and I. My mom and Dad used it to teach us our prayers and that was the thing that we identified with. As a child, when I saw a person or person of color in pictures book, they were often crudely depicted. They weren't drawn beautifully as in other picture books. 

One day when I was about five, a teacher named Mrs. Russell, put me on her lap and read a book that set my very soul and heart aflame with passion. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jacks Keats was a life changing book for me.  

Since I am dyslexic, the words at the time didn't make sense  but the pictures spoke volumes!!! There was this deliciously yummy chocolate boy that looked like me. He was beautiful and exciting. His Mama looked like my Mommy and this Daddy had a mustache just like my Daddy. Even the wall paper in his house looked like mine. Peter and I were brother and sister in my world or head. It was the very first time that a black character would be at center stage in a book. It was drawn so beautifully that now at 51, the illustrations still make me cry and smile and feel proud. 

While visiting the Jewish Museum in New York one year, I got to see the Ezra Jacks Keats show. It was wonderful!! They displayed a letter written by an editor to Mr Keats. The editor wanted to know why Ezra made Peter black. "Are you trying to make a statement?" she asked. 

Mr Keats replied, "I am not trying to make a statement. I'm just saying that Peter should have been there all along." It moved me to tears again. 

There are many wonderful writers and illustrators of color just waiting for an opportunity to illustrate the multicultural world around us. I just illustrated a book with the fabulous Debbie Levy called, We Shall Overcome with Disney-Hyperion Books. 

We put a little black girl on the cover of the book. A week or two later, l read an article that stated, "Black children on the cover of children's book don't sell."

Sometimes I ask myself, "Are we still there?" and answer, "Yes we are."

I'm not talking about just being inclusive, but we need to be intentional when creating books. There is a great need for diversity. Children live in a real world with many different cultures all around them and we can't shelter them from this truth. It helps children with their self-esteem when they can identify with people that look like them or the people in their communities. There are more blended families and the need is ever before us as writers and illustrators to meet the need [of representation] or not. 

I come from a very, very blended family. I am Gullah Geechee and we come from Low Country, South Carolina. My grandfather was Chinese and Gullah and my dad had Gullah and Jewish roots.  

Just recently I was at a conference and I was going upstair to my room when I passed the cutest little golden blonde-haired and blue-eyed 4-year-old holding the hand of her dad. I had on a full face of makeup and conference attire as well. As I strolled by, I spoke to them and said, "Hello there!" (Because Ms.V can't pass up a chance to have a chat with a 4-year-old!) The little girl waved at me and then asked her dad, "Was that a black person, Daddy?" Just being real, I said to myself, " Y'all need to get baby girl out a little bit more!" But then it made me even more conscious that not only children of color need to see themselves, other cultures need to be exposed to them as well!  

It disappoints me greatly when people say that there is no need for diversity in children's publishing, but it also means that we STILL have a long ways to go and lots of work to be done. I have had editors ask me to lighten the characters as well as remove some. But at the same time, it is refreshing and reassuring to see that many writers and illustrators are seeing the need and are filling in some of this great gap in children's publishing. It is important for all children to be represented in books. 

An Illustrator and writer of children's books as well as a collector of them, I can visibly see the gap. It's getting better, but we still have a ways to go.  

Congratulations to Vanessa and Debbie Levy for winning the 2014 Honor Award given by the Jane Addams Peace Association. 
Interested in reading more? Here is an excellent article by author Walter Dean Myers on this topic.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

You Heard it Here First- Introducing Miriam Franklin

Congratulations to Deanna Klingel who won Christy Allen's book, Samantha Green and the Case of the Haunted Pumpkin
As my faithful blog followers know, I enjoy giving away books, recommending well-written books, and sharing updates on my own WIP Half-Truths.

But my favorite post is when I announce an author landing an agent or a book deal. This post inaugurates a new series I am creating: "You Heard it Here First." I look forward to adding posts as I share more authors' news in the future.
Miriam is an elementary/middle school teacher currently working with homeschool students. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Charlotte, NC. 
I am very excited to introduce you to Miriam Spitzer Franklin, a hard-working writer who was one of the original members of the SCBWI Charlotte critique group. I have watched from the sidelines as Miriam has persevered and didn't give up on a story that she believed in--and that I loved! I'm pleased to announce that EXTRAORDINARY, her debut middle grade novel, will be published by Skypony Press in Spring 2015. 

Take it away, Miriam!

Carol: Tell us about your book. What prompted you to write it? 
MiriamEXTRAORDINARY is about ten-year-old Pansy Smith who vows to become an extraordinary person after she learns her best friend Anna, who hasn’t been the same since a brain injury at summer camp, may soon be cured. Because the girls’ last words to each other were angry ones, Pansy wants to make it up to Anna by becoming the kind of best friend that Anna deserves. Although the subject matter is heavy, much of the book is humorous as Pansy formulates an elaborate plan to reach her goals, persevering in the face of many challenges.

I started with Pansy’s character, a girl who seems mostly average in every way and wants to become an extraordinary person. I knew that friendship would play an important role, and I was inspired to write Anna’s character because of my niece, who had meningitis at age two and suffered a stroke and permanent brain damage. At first, Anna’s brain damage took place five years before the story started because I thought it would be too sad otherwise. But eventually I realized if I wanted the story to work, Pansy’s emotions needed to be a large part of it. In my last revision, Anna gets sick a few months before the story begins.

Carol: I personally know you have had a long journey towards publication. Can you share how many years you spent writing and revising it?
Miriam: This manuscript has been through so many revisions and rewrites I’ve lost count! The first version ended up in a drawer for years while I worked on other projects. Many of my original readers said it felt like two separate stories--one about Anna and one about Pansy--that weren't connected. One day when I wasn’t even thinking about it, the solution came to me out of nowhere and I knew exactly what I needed to do. 

Originally, Pansy’s motivation for becoming extraordinary wasn’t clear. In order to link the two storylines, I changed it so that Pansy wants to become extraordinary BECAUSE her friend is going to have surgery and she wants to prove she’s the kind of friend Anna deserves. In my rewrite, the story lines become linked together on the first page when the reader finds out what Pansy’s motivation is for the change.

I revised again before signing with my agent, after the first round of subs, for a revision request for an editor, and one last time before subbing my final round.

CarolHow did you find your agent?
MiriamFinding an agent was the only thing quick in this process for me, and different from books I’d subbed in the past. This time I posted a query letter on the Blue Boards (now SCBWI boards) for feedback, and received a request from my agent before I’d even sent out any queries. She requested the full within a week, a revision request two weeks after that, and I received the call a week after that.

Carol: What role your agent took in getting this publisher?
Miriam: I’m the one who suggested subbing to SkyPony Press. I saw that they were interested in books with special needs themes. It took them a long time to read the manuscript, though the editor, Julie Matysik, kept checking in and saying she was still interested and would get to it soon. Eight months after my agent sent the book out, Julie responded with an enthusiastic “I love this book!” and an offer.

CarolWhat have you been asked to do for marketing?
Miriam: My editor has sent an author’s guide with marketing suggestions. I’m starting by setting up an author’s website; I’ve also been strongly urged to set up an author’s FaceBook page or a Twitter account. I’m interested in setting up school visits once the book is published since I’m a former teacher and more comfortable talking to groups of kids than groups of adults! But it seems most of this can wait until the cover is designed and the catalog goes out in the fall.

Carol: What's next? 
Miriam: I have two other completed middle grade manuscripts as well as a younger middle grade, still in progress. Although I’m focusing on my debut right now, I’m hoping my editor will take a look at one of my other manuscripts when we’re finished with revisions. 

Congratulations to Miriam who persevered, wrote, and rewrote. I can't wait to see this book in print!


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