Hoping It’s the Highlight of my Summer!

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Copyright Highlights Foundation

I’m all set to attend my first ever week long writing workshop, and this is a big one. I will be traveling to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania to participate in a “Summer Camp” for writers. I’ve sent in a writing sample and will be paired with a mentor for the week. There will be time for writing, honing my craft, networking with other authors, and a little bit of fun! I will blog again about my experiences there, but I know I will learn a great deal about writing books for young people.

Here are some pictures of the facility:

I’ll update the blog once I’ve arrived. Wish me luck! 🙂

Book Sale Next Month!

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Christopher Nolan’s upcoming summer blockbuster movie, Dunkirk is being released next month.  Over 40 authors from the Facebook Second World War Club have joined together for the “Dunkirk Week WWII Epic Novels Sale”. From July 21-27 (the opening week of “Dunkirk”), we will discount a selection of our books to 99 cents to bring you more riveting tales of WWII from around the world.

This is a great chance to discover some awesome WWII stories. To find out more, go to:http://alexakang.com/dunkirk-book-sale/

The Power of Language

A man named Alex Tizon wrote an article for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine detailing the life of the woman he says raised him. He called her “Lola” and she made the journey with his family from the Philippines when the author was 5. It would be a lovely endearing story of a woman dedicated to his family except for one thing–she was essentially his family’s slave–unpaid, overworked, and unable to leave due to an expired visa.

Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly prior to this publication, but his wife was interviewed on NPR about the backlash the family has received after his revelations became public. One interesting thing about this story is the author’s decision to refer to Lola as a slave. In fact the title of the article is “My Family’s Slave.” According to Mr. Tizon’s wife, this terminology was never used to describe her by the family. But as her husband began the process of writing this story, he decided to use the word that best described her status in relationship to his family.

When I wrote Go Forward with Courage, I conducted extensive research about the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast during WW2. I came across discussions about the importance of language–specifically the terms we use as a society to define people and events. Roger Daniels wrote an article, Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese AmericansHe makes excellent points about why, as a society, we still use the terms internment in relocation centers rather than incarceration in concentration camps. I get it–we all associate the term concentration camp with Nazi atrocities, making the term practically taboo. But our aversion to using the more correct language only serves to whitewash over the reality of what actually happened to over 100,000 people in our country.

It’s tempting to use lighter, fluffier words to diffuse the negative connotations associated with the harsher, but often more truthful definitions. In the case of Mr. Tizon and his family’s relationship with Lola, his decision to refer to her as his family’s slave seems to suggest that he understood the power of language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Tenacity the World Doesn’t See

I recently read an article that gave valuable insight into why life for a person with high functioning autism (frequently still called Asperger’s Syndrome) is so challenging. It’s one of the best I’ve read to help us “neurotypical” people empathize with those on the spectrum. If you know a single person on the autism spectrum, please take a moment to read this (click hyperlink above). I forwarded it to several people that I especially wanted to read it, and I hope they did. If we can change the lens we view people with ASD through, our interactions with them can become more positive, and hopefully there will be less misconceptions on our part for their actions.

Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it’s easy to get frustrated with someone who gets upset by so many things that “shouldn’t” bother him. We think, It’s not that loud, it’s not that bright, I can’t even hear anything. It’s tempting to want to say, “Just do it.” Whatever “it” happens to be at the moment. Go there. Do that. Say this. But what me, and anyone else that loves a person on the spectrum, sometimes forget is how much tenacity, sheer will, and courage it takes to just get through a plain old day. Like so much of autism spectrum disorders, this tenacity is invisible. The world doesn’t see it, because the world doesn’t see what it takes for someone on the spectrum to cope with his or her challenges in the first place.

If you’ve read my previous blog post What I’ve Learned in the Asperger’s Trenches, you’ll know I have a son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in preschool. He’s almost 21 now, and even though it’s been a long and sometimes painful journey to get to this point, we still celebrate the milestones he reaches–even though some days each tiny step forward is followed by a big leap backwards. Life is tougher for him that I wish it was. But I wanted to write a post acknowledging exactly what it’s taken for him to get to where he is today.

I chose the word tenacity for the title of this blog because it represents one of my son’s character traits that has been a part of his personality for as long as I can remember. He actually has many of the same personality traits as terriers: intelligence, loyalty, bravery, and especially tenacity–an absolute unwillingness to give up on something he’s set his mind to do. But it’s the trait of tenacity that’s helped him persevere through the worst times.12743546_10207121592136251_7231589288252981407_n

This trait showed up at an early age in my son. His preschool teacher observed that he was very rule oriented and thrived on structure. She used this to set goals for him, and by God he was going to make that goal no matter what. It continued on into Boy Scouts. He joined a troop when we moved back to Georgia (from Germany) that had some boys who ostracized him, at one point even informing him that he couldn’t stay in their patrol. I’ll admit, I suggested he find another troop, but my son wasn’t having it. He called the scout master and asked if the other scouts could decide who stayed in patrols. When he heard the answer was no, he said, “Good. I’m staying in my patrol then.” He wasn’t going to let anyone keep him from his goal of becoming an Eagle Scout. Which he accomplished beautifully.

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Fritz and Zoey. Photo courtesy of Ms. Mechelle Lang.

When he started playing the saxophone, he was in one of the lowest “chairs” in his middle school band. This didn’t seem to bother him until the kid next to him started annoying him throughout the entire class. I made a comment that if he moved up to a higher chair, he wouldn’t sit next to that kid anymore. Once my son latched on to that concept, he started practicing the saxophone like his life depended on it. By the end of the year, he wasn’t only in the top chair he was awarded the Outstanding Woodwind Player in his band at the final concert. In high school he was nominated for the Governor’s Honors Program for music.

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Yamaha Alto Sax. Image from Wikipedia

When he started looking at colleges, his first choice was Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Known for extremely competitive acceptance rates and challenging course work, it was nevertheless where he set his sights on going. Not only did he get accepted, he was accepted “early action” which affirmed his decision to go there in the first place. But it hasn’t been easy, to say the least. At Georgia Tech, sheer tenacity has kept him hanging on through some of the most challenging years of his life. When he mentioned the possibility of transferring to a less rigorous school, my husband and I fully supported his decision to do so. But ultimately, he has stuck it out at Tech and will be a senior in August when the Fall semester begins. Seeing him walk across that stage to receive his diploma will be an absolutely overwhelming moment of emotions for me, representing a culmination of years of overcoming obstacles.

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Photo copyright: The Georgia Institute of Technology

If you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, I’d love to hear from you. We’re definitely all in this together. My best advice is to take each day at a time. Don’t look ahead too far into the future, but celebrate the small successes of today. I’d love to celebrate your child with you and cheer for him or her to reach every single goal.

 

Wolf Hollow: What Does Evil Look Like?

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Image copyright: Dutton Books for Young Readers, Penguin Group (USA)

Wolf Hollow is a book that I couldn’t write about for quite a long time. It required some time to think about first–to marinate in my brain for awhile due to its themes. The writing is amazingly descriptive and beautiful. It evokes the same beautiful rural imagery of books like The War that Saved My Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Because of Winn Dixie. And like those books, it also deals with some very adult issues that kids face on a daily basis in this world.

In Wolf Hollow, the main character Annabelle comes from a loving home and is surrounded by a large support network. Even though the novel is set during war time, she lives a relatively peaceful life until a new girl moves to town to live with her grandparents. Enter one of the most unlikely villains you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature. Betty isn’t your typical school-yard bully. She isn’t Nelly Olson on steroids. She is sadistic. Cruel. Manipulative. Dangerous. Dishonest. Evil. She poses a threat to anyone who comes between her and whatever she takes a liking to at the moment.

How could a young girl be evil? Ms. Wolk brilliant shows readers this as the narrative unfolds. Her writing is gorgeous, and makes the reader feel as if he/she is right there in the thick of it all. The story will force a reader to face prejudices and ask the question,”What does evil look like?” Kids and adults alike will root for Annabelle and Toby (a veteran of WW1) who appears to suffer from PTSD (known as shell shock back then) and keeps to himself.

Betty makes it her mission to torment Toby. Her methods are calculated and terrifying to read about. You will ask yourself, “How could a little girl be this cruel?” Almost as frightening as the fact that Betty would do some of the awful things she does, is the fact that people so readily believe her side of things. She’s like a spider, craftily spinning her web and waiting for an innocent victim to wander into her trap. If J.K. Rowling had written a book about a middle school aged Bellatrix Lastrange, Betty could have been Bellatrix’s best friend–they are cut from the same cloth.

Wolk’s perfect pacing builds to a momentous climax. I won’t spoil the ending, but be prepared that it will make you think. It’s not easy, and certainly not your typical fairy tale happily ever after. But when are endings ever that way in real life?

A Review of Pax

Sometimes I wish I could start every new book with a completely blank slate–zero expectations. Occasionally it works out that way, especially if I’m browsing the shelves in the library and something happens to catch my eye. Usually though, there’s been enough buzz generated about a book by the time I read it that I’ve built my expectations fairly high.

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Copyright HarperCollins Publishing

This was definitely the case with the book Pax, a middle grade novel recommended for ages 10-14 by the publisher. The story is set in an indistinct time and place (though I assumed it was America due to the baseball references). All we know starting out is that there is a war brewing. We don’t know who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys” and honestly that seems to be the point the author is trying to make. In fact, Vola (a wounded veteran from a previous war) asks the MC Peter, “Do you think anyone in the history of this world ever set out to fight for the wrong side?”

Peter is twelve, his mother is dead and his father is emotionally unavailable with anger issues. His dad signs up to fight in the war and Peter is sent to live with his equally anger prone and emotionally zipped up grandfather. On the way to deliver Peter to his grandfather, Peter’s dad insists that his son’s pet fox be dumped by the roadside. He can’t risk having him underfoot at his father’s place. To Peter’s credit, he is heartbroken to abandon his pet (he rescued Pax as a tiny kit) but does it anyway–unable to bring himself to defy his father and ignite his temper.

The book alternates between the Points of View of the boy and the fox. There are some scenes depicting violence that cause death and injury to some animals. Some of the scenes in the novel seemed too contrived to be believable. I enjoyed the perspective of Pax (which means Peace in Latin) especially, as it brought back memories of one of my favorite childhood films, The Fox and the Hound. The author’s note at the end describes Ms. Pennypacker’s research with wildlife biologists to get aspects of fox behavior correct.

Overall, it was a good read. For a short book, it packs a big punch. If you’ve read Pax, I’d love to hear your opinion about the book.

My Favorite Ghost Stories

One thing about being an author is you never know what ideas will pop into your head. I was driving home from work a few weeks ago and I heard a song on the radio. The song started my mind down a certain train of thought. By the time I got home, I had a fully formed idea for a novel. After dinner, I went out by the pool with a clipboard, crashed into a chaise lounge chair and completed a 4 Act Plot Chart for a YA novel involving a MC who isn’t still living. This is a huge departure for my writing, but so far I’m enjoying this work in progress and just passed the 6K word mark.

Anyone who knows me, will understand this isn’t a scary story. I don’t do horror in any shape or form. In fact, I’m a huge chicken when it comes to scary books or movies. Beginning this new project made me start thinking about my favorite books and movies that involve ghosts of any kind. Some of them are mildly scary, but certainly not horrifically so. So, without further ado, here’s a list of my favorites.

  1. Ghost. What’s not to love about this 1990 movie with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore? It’s got all the emotions you want to see in a romance, plus the comedic element added by Whoopi Goldberg (who completely nails the role of the psychic Swayze nags into agreeing to help him). You’ll laugh, cry, scream at the screen, and even swoon at the famous pottery wheel scene.

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    Image copyright Warner Brothers Studios
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This classic tale has been retold many ways over the 100+ years since it was released, but it’s never lost its punch. This great exchange at the very beginning of the novel between Ebenezer Scrooge and his nephew is just a tiny example of the wit evidenced in this book:

    “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
    “Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”
    He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
    “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”
    “I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
    “Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
    Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
    “Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.
    “What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

     

    Does it get any better than this? Haha. Boiled in his own pudding? But this novel isn’t all humor. There are poignant lessons learned by Scrooge that can benefit us all to this day. * Note: The link above directs you to a free copy of the novel online through The Gutenberg Project.

  3. The Sixth Sense. Oh this movie…sigh. I loved it. I dragged my husband to see it a second time because I just couldn’t believe we’d miss the signs that could have led us to figure out the big plot twist before it happened. And yes, on the second viewing it was much more obvious. 🙂 But what I loved about this movie was the heart of the MC, and his relationships with child psychologist Bruce Willis and his Mom. The scene in the car with his mom where he recounts for her something his grandma told him will cause an ugly cry instantly.
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    Image copyright Buena Vista Studios

    4. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I knew nothing about this book when I began reading it, but by the end it had a powerful hold on me. As a pediatric nurse, I’ve experienced first hand the devastating effects losing a child can have on a family. Even as a child dies, he/she worries about the sadness of the parents.  A child viewing the post-mortem disaster her family becomes in the wake of her death makes for a gripping novel. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare in more ways than one.

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    5. Casper the Friendly Ghost. Admittedly, this one goes back to watching the cartoon as a child (and reading the comics!). It was comforting to think of ghosts as friendly and childlike. Nothing like the scary ghosts of my teen years, like the ones found in The Shining or Poltergeist. My sister was always terrified of ghosts, but I never have been. But like I said earlier, I’m a chicken so I avoid reading or watching scary ghost stories if I can help it. 🙂 Casper is my kind of ghost! Casper_the_Friendly_Ghost_issue_No.1_(March,_1991)

     

    I’m sure I could think of more favorites, but I need to get back to working on my own ghost story. As a writer, you have to write never knowing for sure if your story will see the light of day. So you’ve got to love what you do. If you have favorite ghost stories, I’d love for you to comment and share them. Thanks.

Crossing the Cultural Divide

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For some reason, I’ve been reflecting on the three years my family spent living in Germany lately. Maybe it’s because the world seems so divided these days, or maybe because my kids are grown and I’m nostalgic for the family time we shared back then.

We took advantage of the wonderful opportunity to live overseas and traveled as much as our schedule and bank account allowed. In those travels, we met a great many people. People of different religions, races and cultural practices than us. Our kids played with other kids on playgrounds and swimming pools, even though they couldn’t understand a word of the other’s language. Verbal communication is important–we all know that. But a smile or an act of kindness transcends language barriers and reminds us that we are all sharing this planet together.

The older I get, the more I seek out friendships with people who come from different backgrounds than I do. It makes my life fuller and helps me view the world in a broader sense–and not merely from my own narrow cultural lens. It’s reflected in my writing as well. As I envision characters for my stories, they are much more diverse than they were a few years ago when I started writing.

I hope you have a change to share a smile with someone today, even if that someone speaks a different language. Like the proverb says, “All people smile in the same language.”

A Tiny Superhero with a Huge Heart

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Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (Marvel) takes down a much bigger bad guy! Copyright Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

I have always loved characters that surprise me. Especially if that character is a child that no one expects to do great things. This character is found in all of my favorite books by Roald Dahl–unloved, orphaned, tiny, impoverished–whatever the reason, the world at large has low expectations for the character. And then, our scrappy little kid goes on to prove the world was completely mistaken and we learn that he/she is truly amazing.

In my recently completed picture book manuscript, my main character is certainly not the kid anyone would expect to be a superhero and save his school from a robber. But that is exactly what he does. My character was born with a disability that required him to have a special tube placed in his neck to help him breathe. But don’t count him out just yet. He’s packing a hidden punch.

As a pediatric nurse, I’ve been awed and inspired countless times by the enormity of courage packed into tiny little bodies. Kids are my passion, and writing stories that show their powers (in ways the world doesn’t expect) is more fun than should be legal. I hope that one day this story will make it out into the world and you can share in the fun of watching my tiny little guy with the huge heart take down the bad guys. Until then, Google some videos of Baby Groot in action for a guaranteed smile!

A Look at Childhood Poverty

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Several years ago when I taught fourth grade, I attended a training on childhood poverty. We were each handed a tool to measure how comfortable we were doing various tasks. The questions were things like, “Would you know how to cash a check without a bank account?” and “Could you organize a formal function for 300 guests with a seating chart?” I don’t remember what the exact questions were, but when I was finished and was told how to “score” my inventory, it revealed that I was solidly middle class. How could this assessment measure my social class? It simply looked at the tasks that I felt I could easily accomplish. I felt completely comfortable performing tasks that middle class Americans tend to perform on a regular basis, and because of this “comfort zone”, I was categorized as middle class.

Why is this important? Because most teachers in America come from a middle class background. It’s what they know. It’s where they are comfortable. It’s what they understand. Therefore, when planning lessons, assigning homework, holding conferences with parents and interacting with students, the teachers are viewing each situation through a “middle-class lens.”Through this workshop, it became apparent to me that the very way I perceive the world, react to situations, evaluate objects and behave are all tied to my socioeconomic level.

And this is fine if I’m teaching in a school where my students all have the same perceptions and experiences. But what about when we have students who live in poverty? When assigning homework and projects, don’t I make the assumption that my students will have pencils, crayons, paper and electricity? And to be honest, don’t we tend to assume that a student will have a parent to help them? Because we help our kids and our own parents helped us. This is where we can run into trouble.

The book, How to Steal a Dog, offers readers a glimpse into what life is like for a child living in poverty. Even though Georgina’s family has lost their apartment (after being abandoned by her father), life goes on for them. Her mom still has to work and the kids still have to go to school. They live in their car with no assurance of safety, no comfort, and no real hope that things will get better any time soon. Georgina’s teacher isn’t aware of her changed circumstances and makes incorrect assumptions.

I highly recommend this book. Read it yourself and read it with your kids. It offers a wonderful insight into what life is like for families living in poverty. Families who are hit with unexpected setbacks or tragedies that change their circumstances in the blink of an eye. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you think. Also, if you’re a teacher with experience teaching children who live in poverty, please reach out and let me know of your experiences.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: FS&G, 2007. Frances Foster Books