A Week of Mentorship

From the moment my feet touched the ground at the Highlight’s Foundation property in Pennsylvania, I knew I’d made the right choice. I selected Summer Camp at the Barn from a long list of amazing workshops for the opportunity of mentoring. I shared a van from the airport with three of the talented and generous mentors for the week, and from the beginning I felt welcome.

I discovered fairly quickly after arriving that it wasn’t only the official mentors I’d learn from during the week. The group of talented writers assembled at Summer Camp 2017 taught me more than I’d thought possible. Through critique sessions on the screened porch of the farmhouse, impromptu discussions between activities, and chats during meals, I learned. I grew as a writer. I felt a part of a community.

Here it is, October already, and I’m taking time to reflect on how much this experience meant to me. I’m happy to say that through a Facebook group and email list, some of us are exchanging manuscripts for critique and sharing exciting news. One of our group just signed with an agent, and another was chosen as a mentee in Pitchwars. I’m polishing two articles I plan to submit to Highlights, and have already received feedback from two of my fellow “summer camp” alums.

I would highly recommend this experience to anyone interested in writing for children and teens, no matter where you are in the writing journey. You will meet people at varying stages at Highlights that will become a part of your own journey. The generosity of the staff, mentors, and other attendees will remain with me for years to come.

 

Advertisements

Review: The Hate U Give

41HJfA10vTL._SL375_
Copyright (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)

This novel gave me more insight into race relations in America than anything I’ve read up to this point. One of the best descriptors I can apply to The Hate U Give is “real”. It is raw, it is gritty, it is sad, and it is even funny in places. But I didn’t find it to be sensationalistic or gratuitous. For parents of younger readers, there is a fairly large amount of language, including multiple F bombs—but staying true to form, it is “real” language for the characters in the novel.

The book condemns police brutality, but not police at large. I appreciate the way Ms. Thomas creates a compelling and likable character who also happens to be a police officer. Having a character like Uncle Carlos creates balance in the narrative, making it clear that not all police officers are racist. I found Starr’s family to be compelling and well developed as characters. Every one of them reminded of someone in my own family. Some of Starr’s high school friends might be a bit stereotypical, yet truthful enough that you’ll likely also see similarities to your own high school friends—we all had at least one that wasn’t great for us, but we found him/her hard to “drop” from our life.

I am not a fan of rap music and know very little about the late Tupac Shakur. However, the meaning of the acronym THUG LIFE really made me think. As a pediatric nurse and certified teacher, I’ve spent my life working with young children. I see kids that seem broken, cynical and filled with rage because of the environment they live in. Some of this has already occurred by the time they enter our public school system in pre-K. As adults in our society, we need to work together and listen to each other in order to find real solutions to the causes of suffering. This was a book that was hard to read in many ways, but it was also a book that I needed to read—and I’m glad I did.

***Spoiler alert*** If you haven’t read The Hate U Give, you might not want to continue reading.

Starr’s life is abruptly changed during what should have been a routine traffic stop. Not only does she see her childhood friend gunned down, she isn’t sure for a long while that she won’t be shot herself. It is just her, her dying friend and the armed police officer who just shot her friend—alone on a dark street, until other first responders arrive on the scene. During these moments, the police officer aims his gun at Starr. The terror she feels during these tense moments comes through to the reader. Her internal monologue as she remembers the rules her parents taught her about interacting with police accompany her increasing anxiety as she watches her friend Khalil breaking those rules one by one. I found myself as the reader silently pleading right along with Starr for him to keep his hands in sight, don’t move, don’t argue, etc.

After the shooting, the police officer testifies that he mistook a black hairbrush in the door of the car for a gun. Khalil opened the door while the officer had walked back to his car to check on Starr. The officer saw this as an attempt to go for the gun and shot him in the back 3 times. The horror of the situation is palpable. Yet, Ms. Thomas creates a scenario that is very plausible.

At first she and her parents want to keep her identity a secret. Her parents want to protect her, as she has already suffered enough. Eventually, they help her understand that sometimes speaking out against injustice is worth the heat you’ll have to take for it if you ever want things to change. One of the best things about this novel is the transformation of Starr, as she becomes stronger and more certain in her beliefs. She also reflects on her own biases, and owns up to feeling ashamed of her friends from her old neighborhood once she starts making friends with affluent kids in her private school. My heart ached for her in the scene where she denies to her two best friends that she even knew Khalil when they ask her if the guy that was shot was her old friend. Any one of us who can remember the angst of our teen years will relate to Starr’s feelings in many ways—especially the way we tended to blame ourselves for things that were never actually within our control in the first place.

Starr’s parents particularly resonated with me. They are torn between wanting to stay in the neighborhood where they were raised and protecting their children from many of the pitfalls that are so common there. Garden Heights isn’t a particularly safe place to live. There are gangs, guns, drug dealers and looting going down. Hearing gunshots sounding at night is a common occurrence there. After Starr’s best friend is killed in a drive-by shooting, her parents decide to move all three of their children to a private school in the suburbs. Eventually, it becomes clear that it isn’t safe to remain in the neighborhood, and the family makes the painful decision to leave. We feel the pain and shame Starr’s father battles over his feelings that he’s selling out and abandoning his home to the gangs. It’s heartbreaking.

The most gut wrenching part of reading The Hate U Give is the realization that this story is the reality for thousands of young black men in America. Garden Heights was a fictitious neighborhood in an unnamed city and state in our country, but it could have been anywhere. For the young boys growing up in this neighborhood, there existed a lack of hope—a lack of the promise of a bright future awaiting them. This lack of hope is mirrored in real communities across this country. Starr’s father was able to leave behind the life of gangs and crime, but he makes it clear to Starr that it’s nearly impossible to do. He was only allowed to leave (without being killed) because he took the rap for a gang leader who was facing his third conviction and would have been sentenced to life in prison. Through his character, as well as Devonte and Khalil, it isn’t hard to see why young men in their situation might make bad choices, even knowing the potential consequences. Starr’s half brother Seven was probably my favorite character. The scene at his birthday/graduation party where he confronts his mother was so beautifully written, yet so painful to read. I found myself rooting for him the whole story, and would have been completely devastated if Ms. Thomas had allowed him to die (which I feared in at least two scenes!).

I hope this book creates honest discussion within communities. It is a discussion we need to have in our country, no matter how difficult it is to openly talk about. Of course, I’d love to hear what you thought of this book.

Hoping It’s the Highlight of my Summer!

images (3)
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!

Dunkirk-Image-1-640x333

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/

Wolf Hollow: What Does Evil Look Like?

26026063
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?

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.

    ghost.jpg
    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.
    download (1)
    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.

    536
    Copyright Random House 

    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.

A Tiny Superhero with a Huge Heart

guardians-of-the-galaxy-2-baby-groot-jumpsuit
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!

The Song of the Valley Dweller

Have you ever been to a place that has captivated you? A place with the spirit of an enchantress? Somewhere you want to stay forever? I’ve been fortunate enough to spend many of my life’s hours in such a place. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia is a tiny valley that most people have never heard of- but if you’ve been there, you’re not likely to forget. It oozes with charm and a level of serenity that will almost convince you that you’ve stepped back in time.

My great-grandfather, Dr. John Coit, was captivated by the Nacoochee Valley. The views he saw all around him-mountains, streams, rivers, granite cliffs, waterfalls, sunsets, etc., inspired him to pen a poem titled, The Song of the Valley Dweller. It is a beautiful love story, written for a place, rather than a lover. The last two stanzas of the poem read:

Fair Nacoochee, Vale of beauty,
Thou has won my very heart,
All my love is gladly given, 
For a smile of love thou art.
Lynch, Tallulah, Tray, and Yonah, 
May thy circling summits high,
Ever guard this charming valley,
As the years pass swiftly by.
Then if I should fail to hear Him,
And these hand should folded be.
And this heart must cease its labor
Ere the Master’s face I see;
Then may those who know and love me,
Come and lay me close to rest
By the bright streams of Nacoochee,
Near the hills I love the best.

J.K. Coit, May 1922

Years after these words were inscribed as a tribute to the valley, his adopted daughter (my grandmother) moved there with her family. My grandfather became the only doctor in the valley and treated patients in a room converted into his office. The house, with its wrap-around porch and mountain views, was enticing enough to inspire someone in a NYC office to select an image shot from that very porch as the cover of the New York Times best selling  novel, The Notebook.

the_notebook_cover

The 1800’s era farmhouse comes complete with ghost stories, Native American legends, and a sleeping porch upstairs with full windows on 3 sides. Lucky for my own family, and others who’d love to experience these majestic views for themselves, the house operates as a Bed and Breakfast named, The Stovall House. If you are planning a trip to this area, at least plan to stop in for a meal at the restaurant and soak up the views from the porch.

If you do get a chance to stop in, I’d love to hear about it. Also, if you have a place in this world that has captivated you the way this valley has captivated me and so many others before me, please let me know.

Go Forward with Courage

Sometimes book titles can literally be the hardest part of writing an entire novel. You can spend months or years thoughtfully creating characters, putting them into situations that create drama or suspense for your readers, and crafting dialogue that feels natural and realistic. But once the book is finished, finding the perfect title that feels worthy of the story can be elusive–nothing seems quite right. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across something that strikes like lightning, and you’ll know you’ve landed the perfect title.

That was the case for my latest novel, Go Forward with Courage. A central part of the novel deals with Michi and her family, who are forced to relocate to an internment camp in Arkansas after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the thousands of families impacted by the Executive Order to remove all citizens of Japanese ancestry from the west coast, every step of their journeys to these camps took courage. But it didn’t end there. When they were finally allowed to leave at the war’s end to return home, what were they returning to? It varied of course, but for many of these displaced persons, they had nothing tangible to return to.

The title, Go Forward with Courage comes from a quote by a Native American Chief after his realization that he had no other choice but accompany his people to a reservation.

white-eagle

“When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mists envelope you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists — as it surely will. Then act with courage”.

Pocono Chief White Eagle

When I came across this quote while writing the novel, the similarity of the plight of the Japanese-American citizens displaced from their homes to the Native Americans generations earlier seemed incredibly relevant. My character Michi, and the thousands of others like her, would need courage to face the unknown waiting for them when they returned “home” after the war. Some of the images captured from that time period, express more than my own words ever could.

I have so much admiration for the people who rebuilt lives after having them interrupted during the war. The courage it took is inspiring, and I hope that my story does them justice.

Continuing to Write When “Life” Happens

I made an interesting discovery yesterday while cleaning off the kitchen counter (which has been unusually cluttered lately due to my lack of emotional energy to actually deal with all of that “stuff”). I found my calendar. Now you would think I’d have noticed that it’s been buried under bills and other debris long before now. But when I saw the week it was opened to, it made perfect sense to me. It was opened to a certain week in July.

My older sister died on July 25. It was a Monday and the week was fresh and full of possibilities. But then she didn’t wake up that morning. The possibilities turned into responsibilities as I poured my energy into assisting my parents with everything that accompanies an unexpected death in the family. Since then, when I’m not working or helping my parents, my mind has just not been functioning properly to get any fresh words down.

So yesterday, I flipped the calendar to this week. The current one. Sure, maybe I’ve skipped a couple of months of my writing life, but I’m feeling determined this morning to get back on the saddle. It’s time to revise my completed manuscripts and then plunge into some new ideas. Please wish me luck, and hold me accountable. If you see me (even virtually on Twitter or Facebook) please ask me how my writing is coming. So much of life is a mental game and writing books is certainly no exception.

As I open my documents this morning, I’ll be thinking about how proud my sister was of the books I’ve written and how much she loved reading new chapters as I finished them. I’d like to think that she’s cheering me on still as I attempt to get my head straight to write again. I have to believe that I still have stories to tell and people who want to read them. Mary Beth, this one’s for you!

toy_story