Ms. Bixby’s Last Day

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Copyright Walden Pond Publishing

I picked up this book at our school’s book fair, and wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it during the first chapter. However, I’m glad I stuck with this gem of a book. It made me laugh, and it made me cry. As a former fourth grade teacher, I cherish the emotional connections I made with my students. Many of them needed nothing more than a teacher. But some of my students needed much more. They needed someone willing to go the extra mile–to listen to their fears, show interest in their activities, and comfort them when they were hurting. We don’t realize exactly what Ms. Bixby means to the three boys in this novel until the story unfolds. But they each have a reason, and when the readers learn these reasons, we get to the huge heart at the center of this story.

The boys decide to give their teacher (on leave due to her cancer treatments) a perfect day. The problem is, she’s in the hospital–nobody’s idea of a perfect day! They are also kids without transportation, a whole lot of cash, and a limited time frame to pull off the operation, as they are supposed to be in school. It reads like a quest, and reminded me of the Stephen King short story which became the movie, Stand by Me. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s heartwarming, engaging, and hilarious. This would be a great book for parents to read with their elementary kids, or for independent readers. I might have read it to my class were I still teaching fourth grade, but I’d have never made it through the book without crying!

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Jeremiah Justice Saves the Day

Jeremiah Justice with text
This isn’t final art for the book. Thanks to Vecteezy.com for their superhero kid collection, and Rachel Miles for transforming a generic kid into Jeremiah Justice for the fundraising campaign!

Two years ago, I began writing a picture book about a special needs superhero named Jeremiah. He’s a regular kid with a regular family–until he discovers his superpower.

This isn’t an “issue book” to teach kids to be compassionate. It’s a fun, exciting and humorous story about an amazing kid who taps into a hidden strength. What the world might see as a weakness (the trach tube in his neck) becomes the source of his superpower. He names his power The Super Tornado Blaster and practices using it until he learns to control it. There are a few mishaps, of course. But eventually he is able to stop a notorious super villain’s crime spree in his town.

When I finished the manuscript over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about it. Since then, I’ve shared my story with writers, editors and illustrators at conferences. The response has always been positive. Enthusiastic even. But then it comes back to the world of publishing. It’s a business, you see. And books only sell enough copies to be profitable if they appeal to the widest possible audience. This kind of book is considered a “niche” book. Considering the amount of interest it’s already received, I’m hoping it’s much more than that. I dream of this book being read to school kids, by parents and grandparents, and even some kids who want to read it over and over to themselves. I envision the book being given to kids attending special needs camps in the summer, to families with a new trach patient, and to kids who are fans of superhero stories in general.

April 1st, my Kickstarter Campaign launches. It will run for 30 days, and my project goal is set high enough to cover the costs of publishing the book with the help of a professional illustrator. If you’d like to see a book in the world featuring a medically fragile child brave enough to take on a super villain, please support the campaign. It will take the help of everyone I know to share the word about this project. Thanks in advance!

Update: Check out this great early concept character of Jeremiah Justice by talented artist and SCAD professor Rashad Doucet! RashadDucetCharacter

Book Clubs

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A great conversation with a community book club about my second novel, Burning Prospects.

One of my favorite things about writing books is the chance to meet readers and discuss the plot and characters from my novels with them. Considering I don’t have an agent, publicist, and basically do nothing to promote my novels (shame on me, but I’m terrible at it!), I’ve been fortunate to receive invitations from quite a few book clubs. I’ve spoken to groups at several different churches, neighborhoods and one community group. It’s especially rewarding to be invited back to discuss a new book, when you’ve been a guest of the group previously with an earlier novel.

A couple of years ago, I spoke at a group that was open to the public. A local reporter called me to get a phone interview about my book prior to the event. When I arrived, I noticed an elderly man sitting alone. Everyone else was chatting with each other as they arrived, but this gentleman did not interact with anyone else in the group. The Villages Book Club blurb

Shortly after I began my talk, it became clear why he’d come. He hadn’t read Go Forward with Courage, but he came to “set the record straight” about what happened to the Japanese American citizens who were interned in camps during the war. In his opinion, they got better than they deserved because our government fed and sheltered them and kept them safe. If the tables had been turned, he insisted, the Japanese government would have killed any Americans living on their soil.

It was interesting to see the transformation that occurred in him during the meeting. After allowing him to express his opinion, I politely explained that my book was based on extensive research and first hand accounts. I provided him with the sources to find the information, and others in the room that had read the book informed him that my book paints a very balanced view of what happened, by framing it in the historical context of the times. If you are interested in learning more about Japanese Internment during WW2, Densho.org and The National World War II Museum are both great resources. Just search the archives for interviews from people who lived through the events.

The man began to ask questions, nod when certain points were brought up, and by the end of the meeting he thanked me for allowing him to speak. Nothing prepares a person for this type of encounter. I think that’s why it can be intimidating to accept an invitation to speak at a group where there will be back and forth dialogue, and Q & A. But I love hearing from my readers, and even the occasional “non-reader” who has an opinion about the subject matter.

If you’re a member of a book club, have you ever hosted an author visit? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

 

The Legend of Sautee and Nacoochee

 

 

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Painting of Sautee and Nacoochee. 

Is there a story from childhood that still captivates you to this day? I grew up hearing The Legend of Sautee and Nacoochee. My grandmother would tell it to me from a porch swing, pointing to Yonah Mountain where the tragic ending occurred. As a child, I believed it was a Native American legend, but now it seems much more likely that it was actually first told by early white settlers. Since it’s called a legend, I suppose it’s possible that some kernel of truth could exist somewhere in the telling. But whatever the origin of the tale, I wanted to share it with my followers. Please let me know what you think of the tragic story of these two ill-fated young lovers. I’d also love to hear the stories of your childhood.The Cherokee and Chickasaws were two neighboring tribes that inhabited the area known today as the Sautee-Nacoochee Valley. The Cherokee people were often at war with the Chickasaw people. According to the legend, it was during a rare time of truce that the Cherokee allowed the Chickasaw to pass through their land as long as they stayed on the Unicoi Trail. A traveling group of Chickasaw stopped to rest under the shade of a large white oak tree where two trails crossed at the junction of the valleys. As they rested, a group of Cherokee gathered around them, shouting insults, perhaps to provoke them into breaking the truce.

Among this group was Sautee, the handsome son of the Chickasaw chief. He dreamed of a negotiating a lasting peace between the tribes after he became chief. Among the Cherokee people who gathered that day, was Nacoochee. Her father was the Cherokee chief, Wahoo. It happens that she caught the eye of Sautee. When their eyes met, they fell instantly in love.

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A tapestry owned by my grandmother. I believe it was purchased in the fifties or sixties from The Old Sautee Store.

That night, Nacoochee snuck out to meet Sautee under the same oak tree where they’d first spotted each other. They decide they can convince their fathers of their love for each other, hoping their union will bring peace to their tribes. Their love for each other blinded them to the dangers they faced. 

They present their case to Nacoochee’s father. Instead of granting his blessing to the union, Wahoo orders Sautee to be captured and thrown from the high cliff of Yonah Mountain while his daughter is forced to watch. 

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The cliffs on Yonah Mountain.

Nacoochee is horror-stricken to see Sautee thrown to his death, and breaks free of the braves holding her to leap from the cliff after him. Nacoochee’s father is overcome with grief and regret. He has them buried together at the ancient burial mound that still stands today in the Sautee-Nacoochee Valley. 

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The burial mound where legend states the two young lovers were buried by Nacoochee’s grieving father, Chief Wahoo.
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A beautiful view of the burial mound. Both these images and the painting above were taken from a YouTube video documentary about nearby Hardman Farm. 

The legend reminds me of Romeo and Juliet set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But just like that tale of star-crossed lovers, this legend reminds us that nothing good comes from hate. Maybe we can learn something from it. Thanks for reading!

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Yonah Mountain as viewed from the valley.

Hiraeth Portrayed in Art

IMG_3983Many moons ago, I blogged about the Welsh word hiraeth (HEER-eyeth). The word is used to describe a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or even a home which maybe never was. It describes a sense of nostalgia and yearning for lost places of your past.

I’ve thought of that word many times since then, and wondered why we don’t have such a word in our language. Am I the only one who gets this word? Who deeply feels this longing for places in my childhood that I can never return to? I’m pretty sure I’m not.

The above picture was drawn by my Aunt Rebecca. It depicts me (as a small child) approaching my grandma. I love this image. It shows how casual life could be up there in the mountains–my grandma in her fuzzy slippers and floppy hat. She added vines of wisteria for a whimsical effect that I find especially fun. It also reminds me of how much I always wanted to spend time with my grandmother, and in the picture I’m walking toward her carrying my own smaller version of her coffee mug.

If there were a place and time that I could return to for just a while, it would be here–on my grandparents’ porch. I’d share my drink and ask her to tell me stories. To have that moment would satisfy the longing I feel for that place and those people. If you could have that moment, where and when would it take you? Who would you see? What would you do? I’d love to hear your stories.

 

Discovering Our Ancestry

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Recently I’ve seen numerous ads on TV for DNA kits promising to help you “discover your true ancestry.” I’ve tuned into the PBS program Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates to see people stunned and enthralled by tidbits of information about ancestors from centuries ago. I’ve even briefly explored the wildly popular website Ancestry.com to see what I could dig up about my own family roots.

There seems to be a craving in our country right now to find out where we came from and more importantly who came before us.  What kind of lives did they live? What kind of people were they? It’s no secret that it’s much harder for African Americans to trace their roots due to the poor records kept by slaveholders in the 1700’s and 1800’s. And even if they were able to trace their roots, what would be left for them to discover about the lives of their ancestors?

What if you did trace your ancestry back to enslaved people, and you had the opportunity to visit the very place your ancestors were enslaved? Would you do it? Even more pressing: What if you had the chance to meet some descendants of the people who’d enslaved your ancestors during that visit? It seems far-fetched and unlikely, but it’s exactly what has recently happened at Prospect Hill Plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi.

My second novel, Burning Prospects, is based on the true story of the events that took place on this plantation after the death of Isaac Ross. I’ve found the story fascinating ever since I heard it as a child. But in past years, I’ve had the privilege of talking with those who trace their ancestry back to Prospect Hill slaves. They have gone back to the plantation and met with the descendants of the very people who enslaved their ancestors many years ago. Their graciousness has been an inspiration. I wanted to share two articles recently published about a reunion held at Prospect Hill as well as a link to a video about a young man’s solitary visit to the site.

Alan Huffman, author of Mississippi in Africa wrote an article for The Guardian titled ‘This is surreal’: descendants of slaves and slave owners meet on US plantation. It’s a fascinating read with a brief summary of the case that inspired my novel. His book further explores what happened to a group of slaves from Prospect Hill who went to Liberia, so please check out his book if you’d like to know more.

Just today, I saw a link to an article on NEWSONE, posing the question “Would you Meet with the Descendants of Those who Enslaved Your Ancestors?” It references Mr. Huffman’s article in The Guardian, but adds even more background about the people who chose to attend the reunion and why.

Perhaps the most poignant piece on descendants of enslaved people visiting Prospect Hill comes in the form of a documentary film by Blue Magnolia Films. Please take a moment to watch this beautiful story here.

I’d love to hear your comments. Would you go back? Why or why not?

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.

 

Unity

I know I’m not the only one who’s hurting over recent events in our nation. I’m certainly not the only person praying for our country to figure out a way to come together and stop allowing differences of opinion to lead to a loss of civility. One of the best things about America is our diversity, and yet we’ve become increasingly divided.

I wish I had some answers. I wish I could fix things that aren’t working. I wish I had a way to level the playing field and give all kids opportunities. One thing anyone who knows me can tell you is that I love kids. Working with kids is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and all I’ve done as a career and as a volunteer in my community. Some days at work, my precious little patient “J” takes my hand. He doesn’t say anything, but he holds onto to my hand. It melts my heart into a puddle and I yearn make this world a better place for him. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such sadness for my country.

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Even though I don’t have the answers, I’m encouraged that my community is having a service of unity this evening. Maybe, just maybe, if all communities around the country begin listening to each other and addressing issues we can start to see changes. Little changes, when multiplied around the country, can become big changes. I look forward to doing whatever I can do locally to make this community a welcoming place of opportunity and acceptance for anyone who lives here.

Review: The Hate U Give

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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.

A Touch of Whimsy

I’ve read some articles recently about how “no one wants their parents’ stuff” anymore. It might be true. Most young people don’t entertain with fine china and crystal. Life is more casual than it was in previous generations. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have registered for china and crystal before our wedding. We never use it, and it brings me no satisfaction stored in a cabinet. I’m certain my two young adult children won’t want it, so it will likely be hauled off to a thrift shop one day.

I try not to become too attached to “stuff” in general. As we are in the process of evacuating for our fourth hurricane, I can’t help but be reminded that stuff can be destroyed in moments. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t things collected by my parents and grandparents that I wouldn’t miss–things that I’m drawn to for the joy they bring me.

My grandmother had a wonderful sense of whimsy. She didn’t collect expensive, delicate objects but rather she was drawn to folk art and chunky wooden things. These egg cups were a childhood favorite of mine, and I still love them. They don’t get used, but they sit on top of my kitchen cabinets and the sight of them brings a smile to my face.

Whimsy at its finest!

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The wooden buckets are for salt. They also have spoons and knit caps to keep the eggs warm.
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From their perch high atop my kitchen.

Another strange acquisition of my grandmother came from her time in China back in the 1930’s. She picked up this “puzzle”. How many babies are there? Two or four? I spent many hours as a child turning this over and over trying to be certain of my answer.

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Strange, but oddly captivating.

One of my favorite collections of my grandmother is her Figgjo Flint Norway pieces. I loved drinking from the mugs–sitting next to my grandmother on a porch swing while she sipped her coffee. I’ve been able to add a few pieces to the collection through Ebay, and I’ve given some away to cousins who share the same special memories.

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This milk pitcher has Norwegian Folk art covering it.
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Flip side of milk pitcher.

Do you have any objects from your parents or grandparents that you enjoy? I’d love to hear about it! Thanks for sharing.