Thursday, March 30, 2017

On meeting Angie Thomas

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, at our local SCBWI LA/MS JambaLAya conference.

As you can see, I was fangirling a little bit, and I hadn't even read her book yet! I still regret not making intelligent conversation at the signing or later, at dinner. Sigh.

Angie and our regional SCBWI coordinator Cheryl Mathis held an inspiring conversation about Angie's incredible road to publication (and subsequent best-selling status and film-in-production).

Though her story sounds like a fairy tale, I was struck by her discussion of the book she'd written before The Hate U Give--which had been rejected 60 (did I write that down correctly?) times. After banging her head against that wall, her mom said, "Why don't you work on that other one?" meaning what became The Hate U Give. Way to go, Mom!

Obviously, Angie was not a neophyte: she'd earned a BFA in writing, submitted drafts of her queries to Query Shark for feedback, and researched her "dream agent," "stalked" him through Twitter, and contacted him through his agency's Q & A with her idea. As a writer, hearing that her success came after hard work, struggle, and disappointment made it seem even more impressive (and, potentially, achievable for the rest of us!).  

In her talk, Angie addressed the trolling she experienced after starting a diversity hashtag. Speaking to a young black writer who had expressed her admiration for Angie, she said, "What helped me was knowing girls like you would have my book in a few months." Angie's humor, strength, and grace in the face of overwhelming success as well as mean-spirited criticism will stay with me a long time.

To her readers, as well as other writers, Angie Thomas offers "light in the darkness." Many thanks for her visit, and blessings for her continued success.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review: The Hate U Give

Believe the hype. This book is as good as everybody says it is.

From its elegant front cover to its subtly devastating back cover (of a barely visible, faceless, brown-skinned young man) this book had me riveted.

Sixteen-year-old Starr attends a party she shouldn't (her parents would freak) with a friend she barely knows anymore. Although Starr's family lives in a working-class black neighborhood, Starr lost touch with her old friends once she started private school in a mostly white neighborhood 45 minutes away. Now she's interacting with people who only remember her as Big Mav's daughter and think she thinks she's "all that."

Shots ring out, and her oldest friend (and former crush) Khalil whisks her to his car, offering to take her home. Their sweet reunion is cut short when the car is pulled over on a deserted street for a broken taillight. In a grueling scene, Khalil is shot to death by the cop, with Starr as the only witness.

In the following days, Starr works through her shock and grief with the loving support of her family and Khalil's. Starr is terrified to let anyone know that she was the person riding with Khalil; she wants to be treated normally, not like a freak. But when she returns to school, her classmates--including her white best friend--have a totally different response to the news that a "suspected drug dealer" and "gangbanger" has been killed. So careful about her cultural code-switching, Starr's silence begins to eat her up inside.

As Khalil's death moves from personal to public, Starr realizes her testimony might change the narrative. It might also get her killed; a violent gang leader warns against snitches. She gains courage from her community: her family, true friends, police officer uncle, and activist lawyer encourage her to do what she feels is best.

Although heartbreaking events drive the plot, Thomas's well-rounded characters engage with humor, love, and empathy. For example, Starr's obsession with the proper care and maintenance of "vintage" '90s sneakers: "No lie, every time a sneaker is cleaned improperly, a kitten dies." Starr and her boyfriend Chris share inside jokes about "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and love of '90s hip-hop (including his charmingly awkward public rap to win her back). Her dad teases her with his theory that Hogwarts houses are secretly gangs: "with their own colors, their own hideouts, and they are always riding for each other. ... 'Just 'cause they was in England don' t mean they wasn't gangbanging.'"

I loved these characters, their love for one another, and their desire to protect their community. As Starr says, "People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time, though, that one time, when it ends right."

Angie Thomas has humanized the people behind the hashtags, bringing readers inside the minds and hearts of people caught in impossible situations. Her book encourages empathy and compassion while demanding justice. A powerful, beautiful, uplifting book.

Friday, March 10, 2017

JambaLAya Kidlit Festival tomorrow!

Exciting! I'm attending the LA/MS SCBWI children's literature festival here in New Orleans tomorrow!

AND I might get a chance to meet the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Angie Thomas!

Ms. Thomas is a guest author at the conference, offering her insight into writing and publishing her first book. Her story is amazing, and I look forward to hearing more from her--and lots of other exciting editors and authors!--tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book review: The Bitch Is Back

Great title, right?

Perfect for on A Day Without a Woman, when women around the country are marching, striking, and celebrating women's work and accomplishments (by showing what happens if we step away, Lysistrata-style).

I'm home with a sick kid today, so I'm celebrating women by wearing red (and my 1 Billion Rising t-shirt) and writing about women's writing. Unpaid labor? Maybe so. But a joy to create and support women creators.

Sequel to The Bitch in the House, which I haven't read yet, this collection of personal essays is the literary equivalent to eavesdropping on 26 juicy conversations, getting the dirt (albeit well-composed and edited) on a variety of women in midlife:

  • The university president who hobbles in heels for six months after breaking her foot but before seeing a doctor, scared to admit she's getting older
  • A trans woman who comes out after 12 years of "supposedly heterosexual marriage"--and whose wife chooses to stay after her transition
  • Two different stories from the "other women" who blew up their lives for a lover...and the sometimes messy, sometimes beautiful aftermath
  • A Muslim woman, married at 14, who earned a Ph.D. while raising 8 kids and her thoughts on leaning in...and out
A diverse selection of writers, yet with several common threads: Most are professional authors, editors, or professors, not surprising for a memoir collection. A large contingent are able to jet off to Paris and Hawaii, own second homes, and write $12,000 checks. This lends an odd homogeneous quality to the voices that I can't relate to, though I connect to the emotional core of their stories.

One essay, however, sticks out like a sore thumb. "Dirty Work" is the story of a woman who owns a housecleaning company "as told to" the editor. Her story of surviving abuse and homelessness is authentic and important, yet the essay's structural differences, as well as the narrator's class and age, ostracize her story as if it were something outside the norm. I wish there had been a wider socioeconomic range in this collection to represent a truer range of experiences.

Overall, I was engaged and engrossed in these well-written stories from women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. In our youth-obsessed culture, it's refreshing to know what midlife women think about where they've been and where they're going.

I recommend this book for any woman with a story to tell. C'mon, you know you do.