Saturday, December 17, 2016

Short review: Shirley Jackson biography

I just finished Ruth Franklin's marvelous biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which would make a great gift for writer-mamas.

Best known for her short story "The Lottery," Jackson wrote six novels--one of which was nominated for a National Book Award and another made into a movie--five story collections, four children's books, and two hugely popular comic memoirs about her family. She managed all of that while raising four children in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s with little support from her husband--in fact, her writing income supported the family for many years. (Her advice? Do less housework.)

Franklin engagingly weaves aspects of Jackson's personal life with summaries of her work and its critical reception. I particularly enjoyed the head-scratching from critics who didn't understand how the same writer could publish funny stories about her kids and literary fiction that explores the human capacity for evil.

Fascinating and inspiring, Franklin's book ought to reinvigorate interest in Jackson's work; her titles are on my wish list! (I'm already obsessed with We Have Always Lived in the Castle... just look at that cover!)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Books, books, books

Checked out a stack of recent goodies from the library...

Looking forward to settling in with a cup of tea and Mom's crocheted afghan! (I'll let you know which ones keep me up all night...)

Friday, December 9, 2016

My Multicultural Children's Book Day book is coming!

Excited! Got an email saying my MCBD 2017 book will be matched sometime this week!

I signed up to review a book and share my impressions on Multicultural Children's Book Day, January 27. On that day blogs and social media will be buzzing with information about new books that celebrate multiculturalism.

Why is that important?

Here's info from the founders:

Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team are on a mission to change all of that. This event has also proven to be an excellent way to compile a list of diverse children’s book titles and reviews for parents, grandparents, educators and librarians to use all year long.
Check out a list of sponsors already signed up: 
Our very first Platinum Sponsor, Scholastic, has signed on and we are beyond thrilled to have their support. Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. RomanAudrey PressKidLitTVCapstone Young Readers, Author Gayle SwiftWisdom Tales PressLee& Low BooksThe Pack-n-Go GirlsLive Oak MediaAuthor Charlotte Riggle and Chronicle Books.

Can't wait to find out what my book will be!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Sixfold contest results

The results are in! I participated in one of Sixfold’s reader-voted writing contests, and I found it a fascinating experience.

Unlike most contests, each entry is judged by other entrants in three rounds of voting. After I submitted my batch of poems, I received an email telling me when voting began. Then I was able to read six collections of poetry, rank them 1 – 6, and share comments.

Two more rounds followed, each a week apart. Just today, the final results were shared. The first-place winner was a collection that I had read and ranked highly, so that was cool to see!

My own ranking was lower than I had hoped—somewhere in the middle—and I received a few comments, some helpful and some not-so. (Respectful, just not specific enough for me to use in revisions. Though one was glowing, so that was nice!)

I really liked the experience of a peer-reviewed contest, and I thought the winners deserved their prizes. It’s a different feeling to see how other writers in similar circumstances receive your work, and to have the chance to read and comment on other submissions. I like the egalitarian aspect of this system very much.

If you’re new to submitting your work, I suggest doing something like this to give you the opportunity to read and critique other writers’ efforts. It’s incredibly helpful to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in someone else’s writing in order to improve your own—not to mention sharing insights with others.

At the same time, it was a bit of work, and I didn’t receive as much helpful commentary as I had hoped. Next time, I’ll try to choose a submission time when I’m not feeling so under the wire (the holidays have enough going on!).

Curious to discover other egalitarian-based and/or peer-reviewed literary journals or contests. Do any build into a real community of writers and reviewers? Which ones have you tried?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The books of Crystal Allen

If you like character-driven, middle-grade fiction about realistic kids of color doing real things--with a lot of humor and learning-from-mistakes--check out Crystal Allen's wonderful books.

When I attended the SCBWI Houston conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Crystal and having her review my manuscript. Her advice has been incredibly helpful, and I'm hoping it's the beginning of a writerly friendship. I've been studying (and enjoying!) her books to pick up tips about creating great characters.

Crystal's first book, How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, features wise-cracking, prank-pulling, 13-year-old bowling prodigy Lamar--a kid whose big talk hides his insecurities. Lamar's voice and sense of humor keep readers rooting for him: "Since Saturday, I've fried Sergio like catfish, mashed him like potatoes, and creamed his corn in ten straight games of bowling."

Everybody loves Lamar's basketball-star brother Xavier, to the point that Lamar feels invisible. Because of his asthma, Lamar can't play most sports and worries about attracting attention, from both his dad and cute Makeda. Lamar gets mixed up with troublemaker Billy Jenkins, despite his own conscience and best friend Sergio's warnings. When Xavier pushes Lamar too far, he and Billy aim for the biggest prank of all--not realizing until too late the extent of the consequences.

I love how Lamar navigates the tricky choices he makes, eliciting compassion even while the reader shouts, "No, Lamar, don't do it!" The realistic aftermath allows Lamar to work toward redemption in believable, heartwarming ways.

Crystal's second book, The Laura Line, introduces Laura Eboni Dyson, another powerhouse character full of personality and endearing flaws. She's a 13-year-old wannabe plus-sized model and powerful baseball pitcher, dreaming of the day girls can play baseball--not softball--in her Texas hometown.

Laura's crisis centers around the "slave shack" on her grandmother's property: a building that housed her ancestors when the land was a plantation. Laura refuses to step foot in the shack, despite her family's gentle insistence that it is a "monument to the strong women of her family." When Laura's teacher announces a field trip for the whole class to visit the shack, Laura decides she must get the trip canceled--but the harder she tries, the more fascinated her classmates become. Laura must come to terms with the shack, and when she finally takes a peek for herself, she's astounded by what she finds.

Like Lamar, Laura slowly learns from her mistakes; she sees herself as part of a continuum of strong women only after she threatens the shack's existence. Again, Crystal raises the stakes believably and allows the characters to both escalate their problems and find satisfying resolution afterwards.

I'm still in the middle of Crystal's latest series, The Magnificent Mya Tibbs, about a younger girl navigating the tricky waters of third grade friendships. I love Mya's cowgirl-boot-wearing character and can't wait to find out how she handles being Spirit Week partners with the biggest bully in school. (Not to mention Mya's newest adventure, The Wall of Fame Game).

Funny, thoughtful, stubborn, and brave, Lamar, Laura, and Mya are unique and inspiring kids who will remind you of people you know--and people you would like to know.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Upcoming Bar Poems anthology

Yay yay yay!

My poem "Valencia Street, Sunday Morning" has been selected for an upcoming Bar Poems anthology from Main Street Rag!

Besides a quarterly print mag that features poetry, fiction, art, interviews, and reviews, Main Street Rag publishes books of poetry, and (under other imprints) fiction, nonfiction and anthologies.

This one is expected to publish in Fall 2017. Just imagine, a whole book full of poems about bars. Here's the description that lured me to submit:

Most of us have been in a bar or two sometime in our lives. Some of us frequent them often. Maybe you have a corner in the neighborhood pub where the bartender knows you by name and what you drink. Life happens in these places. People gather here, talk shop, make deals, have a good time, sometimes not such a good time. Sometimes things happen at a bar we wish we could forget. Other times we wish we could remember. Each has its own flavor and patrons, expectations and surprises. They have been the muse for a multitude of writers of the centuries. Tell us about yours in the form of a poem, a story, a colorful anecdote. As long as a bar is part of it, we want to see it.
I wrote about the corner bar down the street from our apartment in San Francisco. Not the cool one across the street where the hipsters hung out, but the grimy one that was serving patrons as I rushed past on my way to catch the train to work in the mornings. Every so often a certain whiff of stale booze and corned hash brings me right to that corner...

I'll share more info as I know it. Excited to be included and can't wait to read the whole thing!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Birth Writes cover reveal

Hollering from the rooftops:

My Katrina birth experience essay is in here, along with birth stories from a bunch of talented writers. It's going to be great!

The anthology is being finalized, and last I heard it would be ready to buy sometime in December...I will DEFINITELY let you know!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Post-election review: Boxers and Saints

Today, when our country feels so divided, I’m gonna recommend a good book. Actually, two: a pair of YA graphic novels that tell the same story from two opposing perspectives.

Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints, a 2013 National Book Award Finalist, can be read in either order; I read Boxers first. Set in Northern Shan-tung Province, China, in 1894, Little Bao loves spring in his village because the festivals feature operas that convey stories of gods and heroes through costumes and music.

But when foreign missionaries and soldiers begin bullying and robbing Chinese peasants, Little Bao’s brothers begin to train in kung fu with Red Lantern Chu—and so does Little Bao, in secret. Over time, Little Bao gains the ability to harness the powers of Chinese gods as he assembles a people’s army to free China from “foreign devils”: the real-life Boxer Rebellion.

Battle scenes are gorgeously rendered, vivid and violent, with gods and humans engaged simultaneously. Yet Yang also demonstrates Bao’s growing unease as he recognizes the humanity of the people he’s killing. Bao must make increasingly awful decisions: what should he, as the army leader, do about Chinese peasants who have converted to the foreign religion? Is the “glory of China” worth killing innocents for?

In the other volume, Saints, a young girl grows up unappreciated and unwanted—her family doesn’t even bother giving her a name, calling her Four-Girl because she is the fourth daughter. Her vibrant personality makes her sympathetic and lovable—even when she decides that she might as well be evil.

When she’s 8 years old, Four-Girl is taken to a Christian healer because she keeps making a face like a horrible mask. Dr. and Mrs. Wan treat Four-Girl well, telling her stories about Christianity. Four-Girl begins to have visions of Joan of Arc, who encourages Four-Girl to believe in something bigger than herself.

Finally finding a place where she belongs, Four-Girl chooses a name—Vibiana—when she converts to Christianity and leaves her family. Anyone who has created their own family or found a new home will relate to Vibiana’s newfound peace, as well as her struggles to simultaneously embrace and leave her past.

But the Boxer Rebellion is underway, with young men (and women) throughout the countryside murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. It’s fascinating to see the same characters—heroes in Boxers—as villains to Vibiana and her friends. Vibiana has friends and family on both sides of the conflict. Although she admires Joan of Arc’s sacrifices, Vibiana is unsure: can she give her life for a cause? And if she does, which does she choose, her country or her faith?

By portraying both sides of a historical conflict, Yang shows that there are no “good guys/bad guys”; it’s all perspective. He humanizes people trapped on both sides, demonstrating that the lines between them are blurred.

I found this pair of books engaging, diverting, and hopeful as our country attempts to resolve its differences. They reminded me that we may be more alike than we think, if we can see each other as individuals with hopes and dreams for our futures.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What a great opportunity! For Multicultural Children's Book Day on January 27, 2017, the nonprofit is offering free books to reviewers! What a fun way to encourage diversity in children's literature.
I signed up and can't wait for my book. Watch my blog on January 27 for my review!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Spooky book review: Hoodoo

What's worse than being six years old and too sick for trick-or-treating on Halloween? Not much.

My youngest is home with a fever today, and between Dan TDM videos (Minecraft fans know what I'm talking about), we're reading spooky books.

Ronald L. Smith's Hoodoo is a little intense for a six-year-old; I'd say it's geared for 10 and up. And it's creepy as all get-out, so make sure your reader likes a good, scary story.

Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher lives with his grandmother, Mama Frances, in a small Alabama town in the 1930s, conveyed through Hoodoo's wonderful voice and observations: "Supposedly [my daddy] went and put a curse on a man in Tuscaloosa County, but I didn't believe that. I didn't think I'd ever know the real truth."

Mysteries surround Hoodoo. He comes from a family that practices "folk magick," but he's never shown any abilities, despite the heart-shaped birthmark on his cheek that inspired his name: "That child is marked. He got hoodoo in him." Yet suddenly a Stranger is after him, growling strange things about "The One That Did the Deed."

As Hoodoo's nightmares start to affect the waking world, Hoodoo needs to solve mysteries: What does the Stranger want? And how is his father mixed up in it? When Mama Frances and Pa Manuel finally tell him the truth, Hoodoo must learn some serious magic fast, or his entire family--and his town--will be destroyed.

This is a real page-turner, and Smith creates an immersive world where the line between natural and supernatural is believably thin. Hoodoo and the other characters are warm, loving, and funny, overcoming their flaws in interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) ways. Hoodoo learns about bravery, loyalty, self-sufficiency, and family bonds by the satisfying conclusion.

I'd recommend this for older fans of Goosebumps, the later Harry Potter books, and other scary titles. Sad and frightening things happen in the story; characters kill and die. It's not for sensitive readers. But this is a great, thrilling read. It's such an immersive experience that I found myself jumping at noises in the dark!

Worthwhile, especially for a dark and stormy Halloween night.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Socially conscious kidlit

A recent New Yorker piece got me thinking about how we define "good" kidlit.

Using Goosebumps books as an example, the New Yorker author questions whether financial success, awards, psychological value, or popularity makes a book "good"--by which he means lasting, rereadable, culture-changing "literature."

I found his discussion of "socially conscious" children's books particularly interesting. There seems to be a resurgence in content-driven kids' books with Important Messages for Children. Perhaps this trend is a long-overdue response to the lack of diversity in children's literature.

Many of the books I'm reading lately are excellent: beautiful images, artistic language, powerful messages. I'm proud to share them with kids, and I'm glad the books are getting attention in the world of kidlit.

Of course, now I want more. I'm looking for books from diverse perspectives that aren't explicitly about identity, race, or social status. I'm on a quest for science fiction, slipstream, fantasy, action, and humor that bucks the tradition of white, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied characters as the norm.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Poetry for Kids: Emily Dickinson

I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the gorgeous, brand-new Poetryfor Kids: Emily Dickinson from Quarto Publishing. If you love poetry and art--or heck, just appreciate thoughtful contemplation of the seasons--check out this book.

Divided into seasons, 35 of Dickinson’s nature poems edited by Dickinson expert Susan Snively dance among beautiful ink-and-watercolor illustrations by Christine Davenier. Classics such as “Hope is the thing with feathers” and “There’s a certain slant of light,” as well as lesser-known poems, are celebrated with bright, lively flowers, insects, birds, and children dancing, reading, cloud-gazing, and running in tall grass (while a snake slithers in the foreground); my only complaint would be the lack of people of color in the paintings with human characters. 

Definitions of challenging words, such as “troubadour” or “pensive,” appear in unobtrusive, italicized text near the bottom of each page (thank goodness poems are not marred with asterisks). 

At the end of the book, two pages titled “What Emily Was Thinking” offer short summaries of each poem, providing not only context (“A cricket’s song helps the sun finish its daily work”) but also simple explanations about how the poem’s craft affects our understanding (“The poem’s gentle rhymes…create a hymn of farewell”). 

This lovely book, a wonderful gift for budding poets, is also appealing for teachers to encourage students’ careful observation and inspiration to write—and paint—our world.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Surrender to the Story: Houston 2016

This weekend I attended my first SCBWI conference!

I drove six hours to Houston and stayed in a very shiny hotel (my car seemed so old and dirty!). The Hess Club was just down the street in an upscale shopping area that reminded me of Southern California or suburban Phoenix.

Unlike the intimate picture book conference I attended in NYC last year, this was much bigger. About 100-150 people, mostly white women my age or older, sat at round tables in a sparkly meeting center listening to authors, agents, and editors discuss elements of craft. The day was jam-packed and well-organized, and by dinner my head was spinning.

Conferences are funny things. So many hungry writers and illustrators, so few gatekeepers standing between us and publishing nirvana. Part of the point is to meet people who might help on your career path. I printed out business cards but only gave out a couple. Schmoozing is not my forte! But I did have great conversations and think that I made some friends.

I signed up for a one-on-one manuscript review with a local author whose work I admire. We had 12 minutes to discuss her feedback. She was incredibly nice, even when sharing some constructive criticism that I didn't like to hear: my main character was coming off as an unlikable stereotype. Ouch.

BUT when we talked about what I was trying to do--show a kid who is sweet inside, tough outside--she seemed interested in continuing the conversation (our time was up!) and told me to contact her. Extremely generous. So I'm not hopeless!

When I got back to my table after my critique, my tablemates sympathized with my less-than-stellar response. They'd all been in my shoes, which made me feel better. That's the benefit of writing conferences: tough-love feedback combined with commiseration from like-minded folks.

Here's to new friends and building community in this crazy profession!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review: Last Stop on Market Street

Have you read Last Stop on Market Street yet? It's the first picture book AND the first Latino author, Matt de la Pena, to ever win the Newberry medal. If you haven't, pick it up, because it's gorgeous.

Of course, even with a book this lovely, there's controversy. Apparently, some commentators think that diversity can't exist simultaneously with quality. Which is ridiculous.

This deceptively simple story, with equally deceptively simple pictures by Christian Robinson, chronicles the journey of a little boy, CJ, and his grandmother across town by bus. Along the way, CJ asks his grandmother questions like "How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?" and "Nana, how come we don't got a car?"

His grandmother answers with grace: "We got a bus that breathes fire, and old Mr. Dennis, who always has a trick for you." (Sure enough, Mr. Dennis the bus driver has a magic trick for CJ.) In the illustration, the bus has the image of a fire-breathing dragon along its side, merging imagination with reality the way young children do.

On the bus, CJ and his Nana interact with a variety of people, and Nana sees the beauty in each person. My favorite line comes after CJ asks about "crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, / graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores." The illustrations show a cityscape, but a flock of grey and black pigeons flying across the front of buildings and a fence prepare for Nana's answer:

"Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful."

The mixed-media art looks like cut paper layered and painted or colored to create a bright, textured cityscape. Simple shapes, gestures, and details convey surprising depths of emotion with what appear to be a few strokes.

The language conveys CJ's and Nana's voices in realistic, imperfect syntax, capturing spoken word. Narration features rhymes and rhythms that float across pages like improvisational jazz, perfectly suited for reading aloud again and again.

This book made me think of Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day, another beautiful story about a simple day, as well as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (and Sesame Street)--celebrations of vibrant city life and loving communities. I want to live on Market Street, a testament to the beauty, amid the "dirt," that its creators witnessed there.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: Thunder Boy, Jr.

I love Sherman Alexie's writing, so I was excited to see he has a new picture book.

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is a cute story--with deeper themes--about a chubby-cheeked kid who doesn't think his name is "normal." His real name is Thunder Boy Smith, named for his father, but people call him "Little Thunder," which he thinks "sounds like a burp or a fart."

With charm and humor, Thunder Boy imagines all the other names he might like to be called: Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth, or Can't Run Fast While Laughing. This part of the book practically invites kids to come up with their own names based on what they find important about themselves--as well as celebrating Native American naming traditions.

Morales's illustrations are bright and energetic, with Thunder Boy and his little sister dancing across the pages (parents nearby, particularly the father, smile, hug, and reach out to the children) against a textured background filled with colorful abstract shapes. In the end, this short, sweet book becomes a meditation on identity and family, as well as on the importance of a name.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Banned book review: I Am Jazz

Banned books stun me. Seriously? We're still doing this?

When I read about a school in Wisconsin cancelling an author's reading--of a PICTURE BOOK--for fear of lawsuits, and then 600 people packed a library a week later to hear that author read, I knew I had to check out this book.

I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, with illustrations by Shelagh McNicholas, is a sweetly illustrated, gently narrated story of a little girl--she appears to be about 7--who likes "dancing, singing, back flips, drawing, soccer, swimming, makeup, and pretending I'm a pop star."  Her best friends are Samantha and Casey...but "I'm not exactly like Samantha and Casey."

Jazz has "a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender." The story goes on to describe how as a very little child, she felt wrong dressed as a boy or when told to do "boy" things. Her parents, holding her on their lap, talk with a doctor, and afterwards hug her and say, "We understand now. Be who you are. We love you no matter what."

Jazz grows her hair and wears girl clothes to school, and though she has (very gently handled) challenges with other kids and teachers, her parents tell her "being different is okay" and Jazz remembers "the kids who get to know me usually want to be my friend."

Illustrations are soft, pastel watercolors with flowing lines and rosy cheeks. Empathetic faces convey love and joy. I wish there was more racial diversity among the people; Jazz in real life (on her reality TV show) has an olive complexion, but in the book she and her family are rendered very pale-skinned.

I Am Jazz is a celebration of uniqueness, reminding readers that we are all different, which makes us each special and deserving of love, respect, and understanding.

When I read this with my 6-year-old, we talked a little about how it's good for people to be who they are inside. He nodded and said, "That book's OK. But I like more adventure. Or scary and funny together. That's what I like."

All right. Knowing what you like is a good step toward accepting who you are!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: One Crazy Summer

Rita Williams Garcia's One Crazy Summer hooked me right away. Narrator Delphine, a spunky 11-year-old girl, travels across the country with her sisters to see their mother, but spends her summer at a Black Panther camp for kids in 1960s Oakland, California.

Having just read Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, similarities jumped out: the strong first-person voice of a young black girl coming of age in the 1960s, and an absent mother who returns and struggles with her own identity. Although One Crazy Summer is fiction and Brown Girl Dreaming is memoir, both resonate with an unforgettable, confident character growing up in a turbulent time and place.

Traveling alone from New York City to Oakland to visit their mother, who deserted them six years earlier, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern hope that Cecile will greet them with open arms. Instead, a woman dressed like "a secret agent" strides ahead of them, demanding that they "keep up." This mother doesn't want them in the house--especially the kitchen--so she sends them to the Black Panther-led Community Center down the street for free breakfast and activities.

This is a different view of the Black Panthers than Delphine--or most readers--has from TV (or history books). At first, the girls are frightened of the tall men with black berets, and Crazy Kelvin seems to enjoy being a bully, but soon they are welcomed to a hot meal, free clothing, and arts and crafts with kind Sister Mukumbu and Sister Pat. As Delphine says, "I started to think, This place is all right. I watched the white guys leave unharmed, laughing even. I couldn't wait to tell Big Ma all about it."

The mystery is their mother. Why does she refuse to call Fern by her name? Why does everyone call her Nzilla instead of Cecile? What's she hiding in her kitchen? And most of all, why isn't she the mother the girls want her to be?

As the summer wears on, the girls find a sense of belonging, which inspires them to overcome their fears. Delphine undergoes an unexpected transformation, from overly responsible mom-substitute to independent young woman learning to speak up for her own needs. Her sisters flourish and grow into themselves, too.

Although real trouble affects the characters, Williams-Garcia keeps the story age-appropriate while not sugar-coating the girls' experiences. Their mother doesn't become a traditional "mommy, mom, or ma," but she and the girls learn to appreciate one another's strengths, coming together as family by the end.

Overall, this is an uplifting, sweet, empowering novel with doses of poetry, history, and community responsibility. I highly recommend it for kids between 8-12 (and grown-ups too!).

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Anthology ahoy!

So excited! An essay I submitted some time ago will be published in an anthology!


The anthology is a collection of birth stories, and mine is about giving birth five days after evacuating from Hurricane Katrina. The editor said the book should be available sometime before December. I will definitely share the word when it is!


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

How did I not know that Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming was a book in verse?!

Highly awarded, this memoir (in verse!) describes the author's childhood in the 1960's and '70s in Iowa, South Carolina, and Brooklyn. Woodson paints portraits of places and people with spare-yet-lush poetic language. Each poem could stand alone, some moreso than others. Together, they offer a prismatic collection of memories crafted into a gorgeous merging of form and subject.

Beginning with the day she is born, Woodson introduces a marvelous voice: an adult Jacqueline who knows things the infant Jacqueline couldn't know. Yet later poems are imbued with a childlike quality that allows the reader to hear the young Jacqueline's adoration of her grandfather, confusion at moving from her beloved South Carolina, and wonder at her ability to tell, and later write, the stories that pour out of her.

Born in Iowa to a mother who misses her family in South Carolina and a father who can trace his family's heritage to a son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Woodson sets her narrative firmly in a historical continuum. The second poem describes Martin Luther King, Jr., planning his march in Birmingham, John F. Kennedy as president, and Malcolm X "standing on a soapbox / talking about revolution."

Without going into much grown-up detail--the narrative stays close to what the child Jacqueline knows and experiences--Jacqueline's mother leaves her father and takes the three children to South Carolina to live with their grandparents. In a big house in a small town, their grandfather--who the children soon call Daddy--is a supervisor at a printing press who loves to garden and their grandmother teaches part time and takes on "daywork" cleaning white people's houses.

The Civil Rights movement is a constant. In "south carolina at war," young Jacqueline describes "teenagers...sitting / where brown people still aren't allowed to sit / and getting carried out, their bodies limp, / their faces calm." In another poem, their mother participates in "the training," where demonstrators learn nonviolent techniques:
How to sit at counters and be cursed at
without cursing back, have food and drinks poured
over them without standing up and hurting someone.
Even the teenagers
get trained to sit tall, not cry, swallow back fear.
Little Jacqueline absorbs the quiet determination and bravery of her family and community as she learns to write her name and have her hair pressed in her grandmother's kitchen. Woodson balances a child's preoccupations with the grown-up world's slow progress, creating a textured narrative that works on multiple levels.

When Jacqueline's mother leaves for New York, where an aunt and other family lives, the children ache for her return while reveling in their grandparents' love. Returning from her second trip with a new baby brother in tow, the mother and four children move to New York, eventually settling in Brooklyn near an aunt, an uncle, and friends from South Carolina. Still, the children feel torn between worlds: North and South, urban and rural, parent and grandparents.

Bit by bit, Jacqueline finds her talent despite feeling overshadowed by her brilliant older sister and brother and "the new baby." Although sad events take place, Woodson handles them with tenderness and gentle honesty, never getting too deeply into the world that the adults must be experiencing yet remaining clear-eyed. This child-focus makes for a YA-appropriate portrayal of a girl coming of age surrounded by a loving family in a time of tremendous change.

A portrait of the artist as a young girl, inspirational for all ages.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

It's been a while since I've read a book for adults, and Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle had me rubbing my eyes. Some things you can't unsee.

I recently encountered the term slipstream, fiction that crosses boundaries of sci-fi, fantasy, and literary fiction, or "the fiction of strangeness." The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle fits that bill. It reminded me of magical realist books that explore a moment in history, such as Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or Roy's The God of Small Things. Unlike those novels, however, I felt lost and a little annoyed with Wind-Up Bird. More of a mashup of Camus' The Stranger and Burroughs' Naked Lunch, this novel lingers between existentialism and surrealism, finding meaning--and escape--in the bottom of a dry well.

Strange things happen to Toru Okada. He wants only a quiet life with his wife Kumiko, but when their cat disappears, Toru--having recently quit his job--is tasked with spending his days finding it. Soon he begins receiving mysterious phone calls, meeting strange people, and exploring an abandoned house at the end of the street, known as the "Hanging House" because of the awful ways the family died.

A sense of ennui and foreboding surround each odd interaction, from retrieving the laundry to chatting with teenage May down the block. This subtle sense of disparate elements building toward something kept me reading, but Toru Okada is a difficult character to care about. Languid and aimless, he drifts along, listening to the bizarre stories of the people he meets and quietly struggling to make sense of the nonsensical. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there about modern society ignoring a spiritual and historical past it doesn't want to remember. But I found myself distanced and frustrated.

Mysteries deepen when Kumiko disappears and Toru is pulled into a world of surreal psychic phenomena, including a "prostitute of the mind" and a politician with a false face (surprise!). The story is bizarre enough that I wanted to know how everything came together, and I wasn't disappointed by the ending, though I did feel as though I wasn't quite "getting it" when reality and dream-reality finally collide.

I was turned off by some of the explicit violence, most of which occurs as part of elderly Lieutenant Mamiya's stories about his service during the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo before WWII. This seems to be the history modern Japan hopes to sweep under the carpet, but its horrors won't go away easily. And now they're in my head, too.

By all accounts, Wind-Up Bird is a revered work of literary fiction by a modern genius. I had high hopes when I picked it up. Unfortunately, its combination of existential detachment and detailed gruesomeness didn't speak to me as a reader.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Speculative Literature Foundation

Crossing fingers!

I just submitted a travel proposal to the Speculative Literature Foundation, which supports writers and publishers of sci-fi, fantasy, slipstream, magical realism, and so on...any lit that has a fabulist element.


I'm hoping to win their Gulliver Travel Grant, which would allow me to travel to Mexico City to research my next book.

The organization offers a bunch of grants, articles, links, and other resources, so be sure to check them out!

UPDATE 5/2/17: Well, I didn't get that grant, but I did receive a nice note from the judges with suggestions on how to improve my book. Will definitely take them into consideration and try again!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

One step forward...

...and a couple backwards. The thing about rejection is that sometimes they're right.

Which doesn't make it suck any less.


I recently submitted a manuscript I was really proud of to a writing professional I respect. Her response was quick, brief, and a little painful to hear.

I rearranged deck chairs on my little Titanic and sent it back, asking for clarity.

She had the grace and patience to tell me what was missing, to ask me questions I hadn't asked of my own text:
  • Who is this character?
  • Why should a reader care?
  • What is the universal aspect to this isolated incident?
It dawned on me that she was right. I needed to hit the drawing board. Again.

Of course, the emotional journey between "I've created something amazing" and "Oh crap it's not enough" is fraught. I'm usually good at sussing out when (and where) a piece needs more work. But this experience shook my confidence. Do I really know what I'm doing?

Feeling that the answer was, uh, no, I decided to get some help. 
  1. I contacted an editor I know for a professional critique
  2. I signed up for an online class
  3. I read a million how-to blog posts and signed up for a couple of newsletters
  4. I unraveled my carefully wrought story and started over
  5. I bought a new purse. With tassels!
I'll blog with updates about my critique and class experiences. I'm looking forward to them both. Investing in my education as a writer can only make my writing stronger. Right?

Either way, my new purse will look really cute all season.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

BoucherCon Kids Day 2016

Today I attended an all-star panel of kidlit authors at the New Orleans Public Library as part of BoucherCon Kids Day 2016.

As part of Blood on the Bayou: BoucherCon 2016, the world Mystery convention, authors Harlan Coben, Chris Grabenstein, Kelley Armstrong, Lissa Price, and Ridley Pearson were in town, and they spoke about writing kidlit, with R.L. Stine moderating.


For an entertaining hour, the authors answered questions from R.L. Stine about bests and worsts:

Best and worst public reading

  • R.L. Stine once sat on a panel next to a writer who brought a live chicken to pass around the audience!
  • Ridley Pearson did a reading at Disneyland, complete with a cannon and characters dressed as Peter Pan and Captain Hook

Best and worst things about writing for kids

  • Kelley Armstrong appreciates kids' brutal honesty--if they love it, they really love it; and if they don't they'll let you know!
  • Chris Grabenstein likes writing for short attention spans like his own, which helps reluctant readers like he was
  • Lissa Price: Learning to balance writing with promotion

Best and worst advice

  • R.L. Stine: Don't sit here writing all day, go outside and play! 
  • Harlan Coben: You bring your own weather to the picnic, and mistakes are part of life--don't be afraid to make them (or to ignore advice)

I think what I love about listening to writers riff is feeling like these are members of my tribe. Senior members, sure, but I still know what they mean when they are excited about the existence of waterproof paper and pencils you can stick in your shower for when ideas pop in your head. Or how impressed everyone was that Isaac Asminov used the same post office as R.L. Stine to mail his manuscripts--all 550 of them.

It's also heartening to hear that each writer up there had two or three novels in their drawer before one got published. 

I'm intrigued by something Ridley Pearson mentioned about how he wrote the last book of his Kingdom Keepers series. He posted a website where kids could vote on which direction each chapter would take, and then he'd write it accordingly and publish it the following week. What a cool collaborative idea! He said it was an amazing experience. Something worth investigating!

And their advice to the kids (and other writers) in the audience about process is just good advice and so helpful to hear: outline or don't, start from the ending or the beginning, begin with short stories and work up to novels, but whatever you do, keep writing. 

A not-very-good photo from my view in the back of a good-sized crowd:

Pretty sweet way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Inspiring visit from R.L. Stine!

Our little Waldorf School of New Orleans won a citywide contest hosted by the New Orleans Public Library for the most pages read per student. The prize? A visit from R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps! books!

Representatives from the library and Channel 6 news, students, parents, faculty, and staff gathered outside--until the rain started! Everyone gamely pulled out umbrellas and dashed into the Sun Room, spirits undampened, where Mr. Stine engaged the kids in creating a ghost story and told a real ghost story from his childhood. When Mr. Stine asked "Who here has seen a real ghost?" most of the hands went up. This is New Orleans, after all.

During question and answer time, the kids had prepped a list of questions, which Ms. Lesley handed to Mr. Stine to choose from. To his credit, Mr. Stine laid down the piece of paper and interacted with eagerly raised hands instead. Double proud moment when my first-grader asked, "How many sentences do you write a day?" and Mr. Stine answered, "Nobody has ever asked that before!" Points for uniqueness!

Fun facts:

  • He writes 2000 words a day
  • His writing room has a human skeleton, lots of eyeballs, horror movie posters, and a 3-foot roach that he likes to say he caught under the sink
  • Each book is plotted and outlined, start to finish, before he gets down to the writing
  • He's written about 350 books
  • He started writing at 9 years old, and his mom always nagged him to go outside and play, but he said, "Outside is boooring!"
  • Slappy is his favorite character
  • He's currently working on "Slappyverse," four new books featuring Slappy; the first one will be "Slappy Birthday to You"

The upside of being rained out was bringing visitors into the school: instruments in corners, choral risers ready for rehearsal, artwork on the walls, and handmade items on the office shelves. Here's hoping that Mr. Stine's lasting impression was memorable both for the weather and the amazing group of kids and adults who comprise WSNO!

Tomorrow, the New Orleans Public Library hosts Boucheron Kids Day as part of BoucherCon, a mystery writing convention in town for the weekend. Mr. Stine is moderating a panel about writing kidlit. I'm so there!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A.C. Thomas speaking at New Orleans kidlit conference

Oh wow! A few months ago, the kidlit industry was ablaze with news about A.C. Thomas's debut YA novel winning a publishing auction. Her story sounds like a fairy tale, and I can't wait to get my hands on her upcoming novel, The Hate U Give.Already there's a movie deal, and the book hasn't even come out yet!

I've been enjoying her website: I mean, what's it like to suddenly have the world's attention on something you wrote?

(Apparently, it's really hard. In a recent Twitter fiasco, trolls did their best to shut down her positive #ISupportDiversity thread. But lots of us support and believe in her efforts.)

The Louisiana/Mississippi chapter of SCBWI will be honored with A.C. Thomas as a guest speaker at our upcoming kidlit conference, JambaLAya, in New Orleans on March 10-11, 2017. Can't wait!!

SCBWI-LA/MS Announces YA author A.C. Thomas will speak at JambaLAya Kidlit Conference.

A.C. Thomas, author of The Hate U + Give (Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins June 2017) will speak at JambaLAya Kidlit Conference 2017.
“I was struck from the very first pages,” Donna Bray told PW. “What an accomplished debut. [Thomas] painted a picture of this girl, this family, and this community in such an authentic way that I rarely see in YA literature.” Publishers Weekly 2/25/16.
Additional faculty to be announced soon!
JambaLAya Kidlit Conference
March 10-11, 2017 at the Academy of Sacred Heart Mater Campus on Historic St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Stinkwaves Magazine accepted my poems!

Woo-hoo! Two of my poems, "American Inferno" and "The Threshold Machine" are going to be published in the Spring 2017 issue of Stinkwaves Magazine!

Stinkwaves is a literary magazine for adults and kids who are fans of the "beautifully bizarre." On its homepage, it invokes writers such as J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman, Madelaine L'Engle, and Roald Dahl. My kind of people! It publishes fantasy, folklore, and adventure-themed stories, poems, and illustrations. I bought an ebook issue through Amazon and really enjoyed the mixture of humor and imagination in the writing and artwork. I'm so excited to be part of an upcoming issue. If you haven't yet, go check out Stinkwaves!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review: Firebug by Lish McBride

It is so exciting to read books by somebody I know!

Lish and I attended UNO together, graduating in the same year. We never shared a class, but we did hang out with many of the same people and heard each other read around New Orleans. I always admired Lish's ability to create dark, magical worlds filled with unique, funny characters. I loved her first two books, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and Necromancing the Stone.

Firebug is the first in a new YA series, with Pyromantic expected sometime in 2017.

Cool cover, right?

Ava is a teenage firebug, who can create fire with her hands. At 13, she was forced into assassin duty for the Coterie, a magical mafia in the Northeast. Ava hates working for the Coterie, especially for her boss Venus, but she must comply or she and everyone she loves will be destroyed in really unpleasantly creative ways.

Working with her best friends Lock, a dryad, and Ezra, a were-fox, makes life bearable. Her guardian Cade tries to keep life as human-normal as possible. To that end, Ava has been dating Ryan, who knows nothing about her magical side. She soon realizes that building a relationship on lies is dangerous--to everyone.

Ava is a fun character, hot-headed (natch), impulsive, funny, and argumentative. At 17, she's trying to control her literally explosive nature and keep her makeshift family safe. Those family members are memorable too, particularly Lock, Ezra, Cade, and grandfatherly golem-builder Duncan, with lots of sarcastic-but-loving interactions. I'd love to see Ava interact as positively with another girl as she does with the guys; many of the female characters are catty and competitive. Here's hoping for more of smart Sylvie, young Olive, and tough Ikka in the next book.

Overall, I loved the variety of unusual magical abilities and clever settings. As the first in a series, this book lays groundwork for the world we're welcomed into and the characters we're learning to love. There's lots of action (and violence) and a satisfying finale that feels complete, yet leaves room for the next book. Can't wait.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I did something bad last night.

I stayed up really late to finish Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Yeah, as vices go, reading until the wee hours is probably not so bad. Occupational hazard.

Anyway, here's my more-or-less professional take on this latest installment in the Potterverse.

Over the summer, I finished rereading all seven Harry Potter books and had the excellent seventh one fresh in my mind when I picked up Cursed Child. Although the newest book is an enjoyable read and a welcome dip back into the Potterverse, it stumbles more often than the novels.

First of all, yes, it’s a script, written in dialogue with stage instructions. This has some advantages: Plot moves quickly and characters are developed through speech and action. Disadvantages include the lack of inner dialog and outer description you get when watching a play or reading a novel.

Cursed Child is written well, and is a familiar world and cast, so the disadvantages are minor. When someone says Hogwarts Great Hall, we immediately have a mental image. We can even picture Harry, Hermione, and Ron as 40-year-old adults. Without some of that inner dialogue, however, the Big Lessons can sound overly melodramatic:
Draco: I never realized, though, that by hiding him away from this gossiping, judgmental world, I ensured that my son would emerge shrouded in worse suspicion than I ever endured.
Harry: Love blinds. We have both tried to give our sons, not what they needed, but what we needed. We’ve been so busy trying to rewrite our own pasts, we’ve blighted their present.
The story begins exactly like the final chapter of Book 7, on the platform to board the Hogwarts Express. Harry and Ginny are married with three children, James, Albus, and Lily. Hermione and Ron have daughter Rose. Albus is nervous about his first trip to Hogwarts; he’s worried about being sorted into Slytherin. Harry reminds him that many good people come from Slytherin, including one of Albus Severus’s namesakes, a bit of foreshadowing.

On the train, cousins Rose and Albus meet Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Draco. Rose turns up her nose and leaves, the first indication that Albus and Scorpius will be challenged as the sons of infamous fathers.

Time speeds up in a montage of scenes of the boys becoming close friends and school pariahs. Albus and Scorpius are well-rounded, dynamic characters expressed through great dialogue:
Scorpius: Look, I am as excited as you are to be a rebel for the first time in my life—yay—train roof—fun—but now—oh.
Albus: The water will be an extremely useful backup if our Cushioning Charm doesn’t work.
By the time they turn 14, Scorpius and Albus decide to commit a heroic act, but end up endangering the entire wizarding world. Time travel rehashes some of Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, which feels a little like cheating. At the same time, the revisits are cleverly done (three versions of adult Hermione and Ron are particularly fun) and make excellent points about the dangers of reliving the past, while also giving opportunities to achieve closure with beloved characters.

Another pervasive theme is the relationship between fathers and sons. The difficult relationship between Harry and Albus propels much of the story’s action and emotional drama, with parallels between Draco and Scorpius and Harry and his father-substitute Dumbledore. Each yearns for the approval of the other while finding his own footing, a theme as old as writing. 

Family beyond fathers and sons is less important here than in other Potter books. Hermione, Ginny, and new character Delphi are the most well-developed female characters, but they reinforce the primariness of the father-son dynamic. Albus’s older brother and younger sister are oddly absent from the bulk of the book. Thinking of the close-knit Weasley family, it feels strange that Harry and Ginny’s other kids are such afterthoughts, especially in situations that affect the whole family. Then again, stage production may limit how many characters can crowd into the story.

To be honest, these blips are pretty minor, and almost welcome (there is some writerly fallibility, even in the Potterverse!). The overall story, with its twists and turns, offers surprises while revisiting older themes in fresh ways.

It’s fascinating to me that Rowling has built an entire world that exists beyond one writer’s creation. Cursed Child is a welcome journey into that world, filled with so many of the things we look for in a Harry Potter book: action, love, and the battle of good vs. evil—without as well as within.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Sustainable Arts Foundation awards

Hey parent-artists!

Have you applied for the Sustainable Arts Foundation award yet? The deadline is tomorrow, Sept 2, at 5 pm Pacific time.

Here's the link:

The organization offers one award of $6,000 and five awards of $2,000 each fall and spring to writers and visual artists who are parents.

How cool is that?

Go to their website and check it out. It's a great opportunity! I just submitted my application and portfolio...crossing fingers!


Saturday, August 20, 2016


I've got Sex Pistols in my head.



OK, I know the song's not about submitting to contests and publishers. But dang if it isn't in my head when I'm doing it!

This summer I dusted off a bunch of old pieces and started sending them out into the world again. I had stopped submitting for a long time. I got really tired of the rejection letters. The occasional acceptance was exciting, but I realized I was starting to place too much emphasis on what might get my piece accepted when I was writing, which sucked most of the joy out of writing.

I also didn't have a good idea of what it was all for. If I had 5 poems published in 5 journals, so what? I wasn't very good at maintaining relationships with editors or readers, or getting paid, or working toward some goal beyond submit/reject-or-accept/repeat.

Yeah, I was getting jaded. So I stopped.

Editing, revising, and considering the reader are all important, but writing for an imaginary editor--or worse, changing your writing to be more like what you see published--is a bad road to travel.

It took dealing with lots of submissions as an editor for me to wake up. When I'm reading subs for Literary Mama, I have to consider many factors: Does the poem move me, is it well-crafted, does it fit the journal's mission and style? And of course, where can I fit it, and do we have too many poems similar in theme/style/subject?

We receive lots of excellent poems, and it's a blessing and a challenge to have to choose among them. I try to add personal notes on those that I really considered, but when I get 50-100 in a month, and I respond to them all, there's only so many responses I can write. And sometimes the decision is so difficult that I worry I let something really good get by.

On the other hand, when I accept a poem, or work with an author to polish a piece to perfection and then help to share it with readers, it does feel like I'm part of something bigger than myself, sharing art and vision and voice with people who really care. Oh yeah, that's why we do this!

I started to realize that acquisition editors are just people--no, really--doing their best. Yes, they are gatekeepers, but each gate looks different. Even the gate I manage has other editors that must also approve the work, and they don't always agree with my taste--but we all work as a team to choose the best work that will embody our journal.

For my own writing, this opened up possibilities. Rejections still suck, but I don't feel quite as worried about it. My responsibility is to my work, and making it the best and the me-ist I can make it. Somewhere out there gates will open for it. And communities of readers will be excited to read my words, be moved by my ideas. Then we'll truly be sharing something magical, from one mind to another. I won't find them unless I submit. And neither will you!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Writing beyond "what you know"

Every once in a while, I come across something offensive.


I don't, generally, offend easily. Mostly because I tend to avoid that which I know is going to be problematic. (Ahem, politics.)

But as an editor, and a reviewer, I don't get to filter before I read. I am the filter. And that's a strange responsibility.

On one hand, I need to offer the author the benefit of the doubt. I need to assume good intentions and consider the work's merits.

On the other hand, I'm pissed off as hell!

In situations where I can get a second opinion, I do. When that's not an option, I give myself time--to cool down, reconsider, look at it again. Reevaluate. Approach with a cooler head.

When it's something I need to review, I have to come up with a measured, well-researched response, considering the author's intention as well as my reaction. In most cases, the author's intent is not to be inflammatory or offensive--usually it's quite the opposite. The author is trying to be helpful, but is doing so without looking at all angles or considering viewpoints other than his/her own.

I represent the reader, and my job is to consider how different perspectives might approach the piece in question. If I think the author has written something potentially hurtful to some audiences, I'm going to say so in the kindest terms possible--again, because the author is usually blundering along with good intentions.

Nonetheless, the result is "the grossest thing ever."

It's impossible to guess how every single person in the world would interpret your work. But sharing it with a variety of people before submitting it, training yourself to consider many viewpoints, or listening to what people very different than you say about similar works will give you a head start.

  • Do your research. Especially about the group of people you're trying to help. Do they want your help? Who else has offered, and what did those offerings look like? How does yours compare?
  • Know your limits. If you know what you've written is not for all cases--maybe there are some extreme situations that are beyond the scope of your piece--say so. It is even better to mention who you're writing for, and who not.
  • Offer alternatives. It's also beneficial to suggest alternatives to your own perspective in your piece, and the ways you agree or don't with those alternatives, or where some readers might find more of what they're looking for if you can't provide it. Admitting you're not the end-all be-all makes you seem well-researched and intelligent, not to mention truly helpful.

For my own writing, I take these instances (as I pace back and forth and try to come up with the right way to express ARRRGGHH) as lessons to remember to get out of my head sometimes. Come up for air. Read widely, and consider opinions other than my own and those closest to me. How might someone completely different from me interpret what I've written? How can I move forward instead of shutting down?

When we write beyond what we know, we risk offending the very readers we're trying to reach. We can minimize the problem with a little research. Or we can stick only to our own experiences. But what fun is writing if you don't get to explore?