Monday, March 27, 2017

Little Literacy

Congratulations to Deborah Allmand who won, Midnight Without a Moon from last week's blog.
I'm thankful that each of my five grandchildren's parents are encouraging literacy from an early age. I was on grandma duty last week so allow me to share some pictures and videos I've accumulated over the years. 

At a few days old, Eleanor Edgar was introduced to Sandra Boynton.
Two years later, she's still a fan.

At ten months, Eleanor was "selecting" books.

Now she plays alphabet games with her Mommy,

enjoys independent reading,

and shares books with her dog.

Her cousin Libbie Kasten enjoyed reading DON'T LET THE BEDBUGS BITE by Niki Masse Schoenfeldt in the car.

She memorized favorite books,

and wrote her name in the sand.

My grandson Mason Clark discovered that literacy includes receiving HOW TO CHEER UP DAD signed to him by Fred Kohler,

as well as reading Biscuit, a first reader all by himself.

Caitlin, Libbie's big sister, was extremely proud when she began reading chapter books. She loved the Princess Posey books by Stephanie Greene.

As well as writing her own book.

Caitlin actually told her parents that she hoped to major in reading when she goes to college. Her scientific/math-minded parents raised their eyebrows about that, but she is a girl after my own heart!

My oldest granddaughter, Ebby Clark, is in fourth grade and offered these two book reviews:

I'm delighted that my grandchildren have discovered through The Cousins Club that their Grandma LOVES books!

If you're not tired of videos yet, here is one more that will entertain the favorite toddler in your life:

As a parent or grandparent, how have you encouraged literacy? I'd love to hear your stories!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Midnight Without a Moon: A Review, ARC Giveaway, and Focus on "The Emotional Craft of Fiction"

This blog post is courtesy of Augusta Scattergood who gave me a copy of Linda Williams Jackson's debut middle grade novel, MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON (Houghton Mifflin, 2017) and Vijaya Bodach who recommended Donald Maass's book, The EMOTIONAL CRAFT of FICTION (Writer's Digest Books, 2016).

Since Half-Truths is on hold right now while I'm waiting for feedback from my readers, I started working through the outstanding writing exercises which Maass stuffed into his latest book. Since I love sharing craft resources with my blog readers, I picked a few selections to show you how Linda Jackson answered the question Maass poses to writers, "How can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?" (p. 2)

Heavy Baggage

In the first chapter Maass says, "Only when a situation has heavy emotional baggage will readers pick up the baggage and carry it (Maass, p.14).

Let's look at thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter's life in Stillwater, Mississippi in 1955. In the opening chapter the reader relives the day Rose's mother left her with her maternal grandparents: 
"Rose Lee, honey, yo' momma 'bout to marry a fine man. And I'm go'n take care a his babies for him."
"What about me and Fred Lee? Ain't we yo babies?"
Mama giggled like a silly schoolgirl. "You and Fret'Lee big now, she said, waving her hand at me. "Callie and Christopher is the babies. Besides, y'all got Papa and Ma Pearl..." 
"Can me and Fred Lee come, too?"  
"Nuh-uh," Mama said frowning, as she leaned toward her reflection. "Two babies is more'n enough for me to care for."
After making sure that she was a lovely as a spring morning, she bent down and placed her soft hands on my shoulders. Kissing my forehead, she said, "You be a good girl for Ma Pearl and Papa. Don't make Ma Pearl have to whup you."
That was the last thing she said to me before she became a mama to Sugar and Li' Man and a memory to me and Fred Lee. (pp. 12-13)

The Emotional World

In Maas's second chapter, "The Emotional World," he says, "Creating a world that is emotionally involving for readers means raising questions and concerns about that world. It means both welcoming readers inside that world and making them curious, or uneasy, about where they are." (Maass, p. 29)

A difficult part of Rose's world is that her cousin, Queen, also lives with her grandparents. 
....Plenty of folks in our family were yellow, but Queen was different. And with the way she never lifted a finger to even wash a plate, she acted like she was white, too.
Folks said that when Queen was born, Ma Pearl took to her like ants to a picnic. They said she snatched that newborn baby from Aunt Clara Jean's bosom and claimed her like a well-earned prize. That's because Ma Pearl favored pretty. And to Ma Pearl, light equaled pretty, even if the person was as ugly as a moose. 
Folks said that when I first came out of Mama, my skin was as pink as a flower. Mama said she took one look at me and declared, "I'm go'n call you Rose, 'cause you so pretty like one." But Ma Pearl said, "Don't set your hopes high for that child, Anna Mae. Look at them ears. They as black as tar. By this time next year that lil' gal go'n be blacker than midnight without a moon, just like her daddy."  
Of course Ma Pearl was right. (pp. 35-36)

Rose longs for an education but Queen is allowed to attend school whereas Rose has to work in the cotton fields. Ma Pearl frequently criticizes Rose in comparison to Queen, thus making the reader uncomfortable. 

Joyce Hostetter has taught me to always consider the wider world in which the character lives. Rose's world is filled with blacks who are murdered by whites. This passage follows Rose finding out from her friend Hallelujah that a mutual friend had been killed:
As I stumbled clumsily between the dusty rows of green cotton leaves, I could't help but resent them. Levi Jackson, a fine young man, had spent most of his life tending to this field, bringing that cotton to life every summer. Now he no longer had his.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream until my anguish was heard all over Stillwater--all over Mississippi--all the way to Chicago, straight to my mama's ears. I don't know why but I hated her at that moment. I hated her more than the nameless face that had shot Levi Jackson for no good reason.............I shouted into my palms. "Why, Hallelujah! Why?"
"He registered to vote," Hallelujah said, his voice hoarse. "And they killed him." (pp. 43-44)

Stirring Higher Emotions

Rose's and Hallelujah's world also includes Emmett Till, who was hunted down and brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman. As these events sink into Rose, she is torn between desperately wanting to leave Mississippi and Hallelujah's comments:
"...if she [Rose's Aunt Belle] had been able to open a shop here, in a place where our people are shunned and oppressed, it would have made her feel even more accomplished than she already does."
"Stars shine brighter in the darkness," I said quietly.  
Hallelujah crossed his arms over his chest and nodded. "Dreams have more meaning when you have to fight for them," he said. "That's why folks like my father choose to stay. They know they have a right to be here, and they're willing to do whatever ir takes to make those rights equal." (pp. 254-255)
 Maas says, 
When we are moved and inspired by the actions of characters, what we feel are higher emotions....
When reason prevails over impulse, when disgust is replaced by insight, when an act of generosity is underserved, when love is given where rejection seems certain, when someone sticks up for another, when help is unasked for, when apology is humbly made and forgiveness unexpectedly given, when doors are opened in welcome, when truths are spoken and the origins of conflict laid bare, such acts stir in readers the swelling of the chest and opening of the heart. (Maass, pp. 43-44)
Aunt Belle invites Rose to move to St. Louis with her and Rose struggles over her decision to leave Stillwater: 
My heart ached, both at the thought of leaving and at the thought of staying. 
Levi stayed and he didn't live to see a week over the age of twenty-one. Would that happen to me? I didn't know--couldn't know--but I had to be strong enough to find out. I had to stay--not just for the sake of those I didn't want to leave behind, but for my own sake. I had to know if I could shine in the darkness.
Imagine how bright a star would shine at midnight without a moon! (p. 308)
It was difficult selecting only a few passages from both books to quote here. I hope I've provided enough that you'll decide to read them yourself. To enter the giveaway for Midnight Without a Moon, please leave me a comment by March 25th with your email address if you are new to my blog. If you are an educator or a new follower, I'll enter your name twice. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Meet My Experts - Part II

Congratulations to Kathy Wiechman who won FIRE, COLOR, ONE from last week's blog.

Three years ago I posted a blog about some of the people I'd interviewed for Half-Truths. These experts as well as other men and women willingly shared their life stories with me in order to make my story more authentic. 

Since I'm at the beta/sensitivity reader stage, I'm no longer interviewing folks but I'm still fact-checking and always keeping my eyes and ears open for material that will inform Half-Truths.

For example, I had written a scene about Sam, Lillie's older brother who had enlisted for the conflict in Korea. But as I was re-reading my manuscript I wondered:

    a) Did Sam enlist or was he drafted? How would his choice affect my story? (Lillie's father came home from WWII and met with ridicule in North Carolina. How would he react to his only son enlisting in the service? In turn, how would that affect Lillie?)

   b) Was there even a draft then?

Not finding the answer online, I turned to the Korean Veterans Club in my community. 

KWVA  Chapter 169
I was allowed to speak at one of their meetings and discovered that men could enlist or be drafted. (Whew! I was safe with that part of my story!) When they found out the premise of Half-Truths, the men were quick to tell stories of those first attempts at integrating the armed services. It reinforced, to me, how integration was a process that happened over time. 

  • One vet laughed about being mistakenly assigned to a black truck company. 
  • Another told me of how the troops were integrated during training on Parris Island, SC and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina (during the mid-50's), but as soon as the men stepped off the base, "segregation was rampant." He said that it was as if the blacks lived in two separate worlds. On base they were treated as equals, but if they left camp, they were in a different, biased world. 
  • One man's brother who had served in WWII said, "Treat Negroes with respect because we bleed the same red blood to keep this country free." 
  • One vet said he was accused of being a "McCarthy boy" because he wanted to go to college. The consensus in this group was that Communism wasn't talked about much at home.
  • Truman knew the country wasn't ready for another war, that's why it was called a "police action."
  • I was left with the overall impression that these men worked and fought with black men and that was their "normal".

Of course, I've read some of this accounts online and in articles. But it was different hearing these stories from the men who witnessed and lived them. 
I received this star from one of the vets.
And their stories make mine a little bit richer as a result.

Stay tuned. Soon I'll be sharing stories and pictures of one of my African American experts in Charlotte who has meant so much to me. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fire, Color, One: An Audio Book Giveaway, Review, A Look at Flashbacks, PLUS Story Innovation

Congratulations to Rosi Hollinbeck, my California blogger counterpart, who won FUZZY on last week's blog.


FIRE, COLOR, ONE by Jenny Valentine is about as different from FUZZY, the book I reviewed last week, as you can get. Jenny Valentine's edgy young adult novel is a serious portrayal of Iris, a young woman caught up in the addiction of pyromania. With some language and an attempted rape scene, it might not be the book for every teen reader. But, it's also a story of healing, friendship, art, and found family. 

Plus, it's a story masterfully told through many flashbacks. (Disclaimer: since I listened to the audio book provided by Tantor Media, some of the quotes might not be as exact as if I had read the print version.)

"I wasn't ready, once I found him, to let him go."

That line from the book's prologue summarizes Iris's heartache and grief. Like a pretzel without beginning or end, this prologue is actually the end. From the beginning of the story, the reader knows Ernest, Iris's father, dies from cancer. What we don't know, is how she "lost" him.

Enter the masterful flashbacks. 

As the story moves forward. the reader discovers that Iris, her selfish mother (Hannah) and egotistical step-father (Lowell) have returned to England. You don't know where they came from or why Iris is unhappy until Iris reflects on the fact that, 

"...when the only person you care about is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and that person is not talking to you and you haven't had time to say goodbye and haven't had time to say I'm sorry."

The reader discovers more backstory as Iris looks around her new sterile room and misses the California landscape, the posters on her walls, and Thurston standing at her window waiting for what they're going to do that day.


Valentine's masterful use of simple flashbacks layer in vital backstory but keep the story moving forward. As a reader/listener I was never bogged down in the past. Rather, these flashbacks always informed what was happening in the present. 

In this way, the reader learns how and why Iris began to set fires. She says, "Some days inside my head there is nothing but fire." Imagining herself setting a fire relaxes her and provides an adrenaline thrill of excitement and a rush of release. Iris is not an arsonist; she doesn't want to harm anyone or anything. But she is an angry, hurt young woman.

Upon his request, Hannah brings Iris to her father's deathbed. Iris does not want to be near the man she believes abandoned her as a baby, but eventually bonds with him over art, music, and literature. As Iris watches her father draw near to death, she hears his story, her mother's story, and finally, the truth of her own story. Valentine fits these puzzle pieces together through one flashback after another. 

Towards the end, as Iris stands outside her father's bedroom door, she hears her mother talk about how dangerous she is as an arsonist. Iris has moved from not caring about her father, to being worried about what he'll think of her. "I knew there was nothing I could say or do to save myself."  As she listens to her mother's betrayal, it's excruciating for the reader who knows that inevitably, Iris will start another fire looking for the calm, peaceful, emptiness it gives her.  When her mother came to find her, "The next morning my fire was still smoldering. I was still angry. So is she." 

Valentine does an excellent job portraying Iris's troubled relationships with Hannah and Lowell. They are wannabe actors and their pitiful attempts at pretending to be people who they aren't is in juxtaposition with Iris's real emotional struggles and Ernest's serious physical struggles. Valentine's portrayal of Iris's grief after her father dies was authentic; it reminded me of how I felt when I lost a loved one forty years ago.

When the reader gets to the end (which remember, is the beginning) Ernest gives Iris a huge surprise--after his death. Even within this last twist, flashbacks are folded into one another.


Coincidentally, at the same time that I listened to FIRE, COLOR, ONE in my car, I listened to THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin on my phone. (Well, not exactly at the same time, but you get the idea.) Although this a totally different book (adult fiction with two POV: Lina is a white, modern lawyer; Josephine is a black runaway slave in Virginia before the Civil War) from FIRE, there have a lot in common. Both center on art and involve mothers who abandon their children in one form or another. There is a similar close POV (in FIRE it is first, in THE HOUSE GIRL it's a tight third) with well-chosen details showing the characters, their nonverbal language, and vivid settings. Like FIRE, THE HOUSE GIRL heavily uses backstory to propel the story forward. Much of this backstory comes from documents that Lina uncovers as she searches for a plaintiff in a civil rights reparations case. 

Conklin is as masterful as Valentine in weaving a story together. Both authors do not present books with a linear plot path of Beginning-Middle-End. The books reminded me of this recent article on Writer Unboxed in which Heather Webb wrote,
Story—and innovation—is king. To keep readers coming back to the blessed book, it’s imperative to stand out in all the noise. Maybe this is why writers are experimenting with stylistic changes. Readers are demanding something sensational that really grips them, and even changes their view of the world. Writers can’t sit back on their laurels. They must STRIKE OUT and be unique, as well as create a story that’s universal. (You know, because that’s so easy.)

There you have it. Two books which demonstrate exactly what Heather Webb described. 


Gemma Dawson, FIRE, COLOR, ONE's narrator, does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. I'm always impressed when a narrator does both male and female voices and flips between different accents without a hitch. It was interesting that Iris spoke as if she was British, although she spent most of her life in the United States. Perhaps it was because she ended up coming home to her British father.

I am offering my copy of FIRE, COLOR, ONE to one of you. Please leave me a comment by March 11 with your email address if you are new to my blog. As always, if you share on social media, I'll enter your name in twice.  

For more information:


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