{sing out loud: the girls of summer}

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“In summer, the song sings itself.” ~ William Carlos Williams

A secret cupped like a gorgeous blossom in small, grubby hands: the first day of summer. Anything can still happen, and there is wonder and beauty around every corner, and every day is at least a week long. At least, that’s what summer seemed like, all the days of childhood. Now, it’s more people frowning about if what they’re wearing will be a wrinkled, sweaty mess by five o’clock, and if they can get away another day without shaving. Never mind. I’m here to reconnect with wonder, and do a little happy dance that I’ve been named a Summer Girl by the fabulous Girls of Summer Book Club.

The Girls of Summer are the girls of awesome. Co-founder Gigi Amateau (CLAIMING GEORGIA TATE; COME AUGUST, COME FREEDOM) is a children’s author in her own right, and as such, this is doubly wonderful that she gives back to her community in this way. Each year, she and her friend and fellow author, Meg Medina (TIA ISA WANTS A CAR; YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS) pull together a list of just eighteen books – definitely difficult! – as their Summer Girls reading list. The list covers picture book to young adult fiction that are fab for summer reading and celebrate and develop that awesomeness that makes a summer girl strong. Each year, Gigi and Meg hold a live launch in Library Park (a name that just begs you to get on the lawn with a book!) – behind the Richmond Public Library (or inside, in case of rain) where readers meet Virginia authors in person, take part in book giveaways, helped along by bbgb books, and indulge in cool, sweet treats. As PR icing on the cake, Richmond Family Magazine and the Richmond Times-Dispatch covers the events and the books in their literary section. These Summer Women are, together with their community of book people, making Richmond, Virginia an awesomely more literary place.

And this, their third summer together, they picked one of my books!

I’m in such excellent company as Ian Falconer, Sharon G. Flake, Kekla Magoon, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Atinuke, Anita Silvey, and more. Every Friday, there’s an author Q&A with one of the eighteen selected authors. I had a great time being involved – this was such a treat for me. I wish I could have been at the reading the other night – and had some of that ice cream.

Virgina Summer Girls

Click to enlarge; photo courtesy G. Amateau

Thanks, Girls of Summer. Thank you, Gigi and Meg. Thank you, Richmond. I’m honored.

Today is still a glowing secret, cupped in your two hands – the longest day of light. What is it, that you plan to do with this one, wild precious life?

Celebrate it.

{my posse don’t do history: the case for historical fiction}

Cross-posted at Finding Wonderland

Imagine two best friends, united against a common enemy. It is the pitch of midnight, and they are making a desperate flight across country, to deliver a package necessary to the scrappy resistance fighters desperately battling a corrupt government for their freedom. There’s been a car accident, so they’re the emergency fill-ins. Neither of them are supposed to be where they are. And then there’s another, bigger accident. In a foreign country, neither with any business being there, the girls have to split up and vanish — and those who are caught disappear into the night and fog — for good.

It is the pitch of midnight. And the enemies of truth and right are playing for keeps.

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Wouldn’t you be on the edge of your seat reading this book? I know I was…at times feeling quite hopeless and desolate upwellings of terror and the word, “Nooooooo!” pulled from deep within. I could imagine myself there — and making a horrible mess out of EVERYTHING. If you read it, you’d imagine yourself there — and screwing up badly — too.

It’s exciting. There’s espionage, airplanes, parachutes, firefights, and girls hunched in dark places under umbrellas, waiting for safety in breathless silence. There’s fear — bleak terror — great laughs, and the best friends you could ask for.

So, why’d we want to go and ruin it all by calling it historical fiction???

~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~

For a long time, the biggest concern of the Gatekeepers in our world o’ books was where to put historical fiction in the canon for young people. Was it “edutainment?” Was it fictionalizing history or historicizing fiction, sliding in a character’s fears and hopes and their thoughts where students perhaps ought to be better employed with learning dates and facts? Was it, and could it ever be, authentic?

These big questions were hashed out in historical journals and literary papers and I think it’s safe to say that though some historians remained uncomfortable, the majority of teachers, especially in the middle grades and junior high, where I served most of my time, felt that historical fiction was an important lamp to illuminate some darker corners. Especially with the rise of multiculturalism, some pieces of history that “we” – as in mainstream, dominant culture America – had not realized were part of “our” story needed to be dug out, rediscovered, and explored. Historical fiction was a great tool to bridge the gap with the unknown pasts of a commingled people with the commonality of the human story. Through the insertion of tiny, literal accuracies, historical fiction maintains a sturdy cover story of “true enough,” and more quickly engages young minds with the history before them. For most students, blending stories into a study of history helps to recreate the past as a dynamic place.

For MOST students.

For other students — and for many of the rest of us — it’s an automatic “No.” Seriously. I read through the comments of the people who have talked about CODE NAME VERITY when it was recommended to them. “I don’t usually read war books…” “I’m not usually a fan of wartime historical fiction…” “I don’t normally do historical fiction…” Is it the war? Or is it just the past?

Author and teacher Ashley Hope Pérez responded to a post a few days ago, “I have a kind of knee-jerk recoil from the term “historical fiction,” probably because I know how it would make my kiddos eyes glaze before they even tasted the prose.” Jen over at Reading Rants agrees: “In my experience, most teens won’t even look at hist. fic. unless they have to read it for a school assignment. You know, stuff like My Brother Sam is SO Dead, or Johnny TREmain (as in TREmendously booorrrriiinnggg!).”

It’s baffling, really — no one characterizes, say, The Great Gatsby as historical fiction — or, a better example, The Key to Rebecca, not really. They’re listed as what they are, first – a novel of manners. An espionage thriller. Nothing to do with their setting and time period and everything to do with their plot content. In part, the sticky label of “historical fiction” is a marketing key for parents and librarians to identify the book: Here is something semi-educational to slap into the unsuspecting hands of innocent youth. Fool them into thinking it’s just a good story! Go to it! *cue maniacal laughter* Bwa-hahahahaha!

That, mainly, explains why it doesn’t work.

Oh, come on: how many of us pick up a book of fiction for the its educational aspects? Not me! When I pick up a book, I want a good story, period. Unfortunate, but the label attached to this genre can sometimes shoot even a very good book in the foot. The only thing we can really do about that is to book talk, book talk, book talk. Word of mouth will win the day! Talk up the other aspects of the story – the plot, the characterizations, the types of planes, the outfits, the guns. You can order the story bits by their importance: CODE NAME VERITY is a.) a thriller, b.) a story of the kind of intense friendships that start in a bomb shelter c.) a fast-paced, dangerous tale full of espionage, spies, and double agents d.) a cracking good read, which just happens to be, e.) set about sixty-some years ago.

Y’know, I think we can just leave off that last one.

As an author, I can say that one of the hardest things about writing historical fiction is the tightrope walk the author has to do — between historical accuracy and humanity. It’s important not to infodump dates and names, but it’s also crucial not to veer the characters – and the details of their daily lives – into obvious anachronisms by using more modern tools, language, and attitudes about social tolerance which make the historical accuracy a lie. Further, I know that writing about a war is tough because historical accuracy is a must – the dates have to match up, including when historical people die, and when troops moved in fact, they must move in fiction, too. But people’s characters — their loves and needs and fears and even their grocery lists — are much the same, no matter what era they’re in. Sure, they might swear a bit less or a bit more, wear their hair down, their pant-legs shorter; they might speak another language, but the human animal remains a constant – an important thing to know.

As a (former) teacher, I know that this is the saving grace of historical fiction, or any fiction, really — the people. The characters make the story, and you just have to close your eyes to the fact that since it’s history, you think you already know how it’s going to end, jump in to knowing the characters, and let go —

— you may find yourself on the edge of your seat, in the pitch of midnight, with two best friends, delivering a necessary package, having an accident, and disappearing into the night and fog…

Call it “historical fiction” or “historical suspense” or anything you’d like, the word is out: CODE NAME VERITY is a sensational novel. The Blog Tour is moving along; don’t forget to check out the stops along the way:

* Chachic’s buzzing about Verity; stop by and read her great review, as well as some discussion on starting an All Spoilers, All the Time discussion group so that people don’t have to keep the spy secrets to themselves.

* The Scottish Bookstrust is a fab organization interesting young people in books. Visit them at BookTrust.org.uk for more from Elizabeth Wein about friendship in CODE NAME VERITY. And stay tuned for Monday’s review of the novel, and links to Elizabeth’s interview on the BBC’s Book Cafe!

FOLLOW UP ARTICLE: Further Musings on Historical Fiction, and finally a review of Elizabeth Wein’s novel, Code Name Verity.

{that intelligent librarian, Lizzy Burns}

“…ignorance and innocence are not identical…keeping teens from the books that will help them with difficult things under the belief that this makes the difficult things never happen does more damage than good. I’m also of the belief that once it’s decided that certain things should not be spoken aloud — incest, abuse, suicide — and not included in books, it makes it that much harder for those teens who do experience those things in life, either directly or indirectly, and people end up thinking that those people who experience those things should likewise be hidden. Not talked about except in a whisper.”

What are we talking about here? Wellll, the Wall Street Journal has discovered the Breaking News that there are Dark Topics covered in books for children and young adults. And such eeeevil is being force-fed to some imaginary children somewhere, and coarse writers, booksellers, reviewers and publishers – who are okay with bad words, vampires/self-mutilation, and probably child murder – are to blame.

Well, gee.

It seems like every six minutes someone who doesn’t actually read enough sets out to speak to a topic. I know, I know — it happens in schools all the time when students write papers. But, see, they’re not getting paid, they’re merely getting graded, and we’re not a captive audience to their nonsense (and their teachers hopefully can cure them of their bad habits). When someone is getting paid to espouse an opinion in a publication, I do wish they would check facts and try to present a balanced article. Our national conversation is so taken up with inflaming rhetoric that people have ceased to think, and merely hurl invective for entertainment. It’s ugly and unnecessary, so I shall set aside my tendency towards sarcasm and ask you to go and look at Liz’s piece in the School Library Journal about this, read, think and respond. The above quote is going to be on my email for awhile, because I agree strongly: pretending that reality doesn’t exist has never yet changed it.

Here’s to writing about reality, and helping literature continue to be both window and mirror – showing us what other people have survived, or maybe telling us that we, too can survive ourselves.

{it’s all in the design: book designing MARE’S WAR @ That Cover Girl}

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How often does anyone think to ask the behind-the-scenes people anything? (I’d like to discuss this underground chapel with the architect, for instance, but there’s the whole issue of Built In the Fifth Century, So (Hopefully) Long Dead with which to contend…) Capillya’s remembered the behind-the-scenes folk in publishing, and today at That Cover Girl, it’s all about the design! She’s talking to Kate Gartner about how she does the magic she continues to do for Knopf/Random House and its associated imprints. Don’t miss!

Nine, Maybe Ten Good Things

  1. The middle grade novel is done, at last, and out it goes, synopsis written, shoes tied, face washed, on Monday. Calloo, callay! O, frabjous day! Thank you, God. NOW I feel like my brain is back online for the first time since — sheesh, October? — and can resume revising my science fiction novel…
  2. I am being interviewed by someone named Capillya. The name is undeniably awesome.
  4. Yesterday, the sky was blue for seven hours straight.
  5. The Little (Bro) got his passport this week, which means the week after his Senior Trip to San Diego, he’s going to come and slouch around my house and eat all of my food for a week. Nice, huh?
  6. The Niecelet – whose Scottish name is Ms. McFlea-McFly, is coming with him. She explains that she does not slouch. Nor eat nearly as much. This is good.
  7. Did I mention the snow drop?
  8. Another good thing: plum-apple sauce. And the ease of making such. And eating it out of the jar, by the spoonful.
  9. The CIA has pictures on their Flickr (Wait – seriously. Let’s take a moment. The CIA has a Flickr account!?!? …Because???) of something like the Bug thingies in my science fiction novel. Yeah, I know!! How cool is that?
  10. Just…swimming. And indoor pools with foggy glass ceilings on a cold morning.
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What I have been working on all this time in my Super Seeekrit lab!

Mare's War paperback

Okay, maybe not. Kate, the Knopf Book Designer of Great Awesomeness, is the one who’s been working on this. I merely pointed and said, “Oooh.” This is the paperback cover, aimed at an entirely new audience, and coming soon to a paperback in Spring 2011.

What I have been doing in the Super Seeekrit lab is working on REVISIONS, which I will get back to shortly. But first:

Check out that Tangee lipstick, people.

Tangee was the lipstick of choice for many women during WWII. Although orange in the tube, it “changes color to accentuate a woman’s natural skin tone,” or so the ads said, and allegedly goes on clear. Postwar, my maternal grandma wore something called Blue Flame which was sooo dark red, it looked black. Now, as much as I love orange, I have to admit Blue Flame works better for me. I’d love to get my hands on some of that!

Note the unique texture of Mare’s helmet. The M1 helmet, issued to the U.S. Army, was covered with bits of cork and painted that famous Army drab, so it wouldn’t catch the light. Helmets were actually made of two parts — the shell, that sat, bucket-like, right on your head, and the liner, which had, in WWII, a brown leather chin strap.

So, most people who have seen this say, “This doesn’t look like Mare!” Well, probably not; the imagination of one doesn’t ever match the imagination of the many. But, didn’t Kate do a great job with her interpretation of Mare?

Here’s to a long shelf-life for our girl, Mare.



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To any of the following questions, you have now received your answer:

  1. Are you still alive?
  2. Are you ever coming back?
  3. Are you still working on your revision?
  4. Are you still getting random ideas for your SF story in the middle of your revision?
  5. Had you heard about Justine Larbalestier’s repetitive motion injury?
  6. So, does that mean you’re getting out of your chair at times to get exercise?
  7. Are you still slightly panicked about your Google Video chat with Oakwood School’s 6th grade Language Arts class?
  8. Did you see that great Darcy Pattison thing about how to do lighting for your vid chat?
  9. Are you already panicked about what you’re wearing to ALA?
  10. Are you still having nightmares about the speech?
  11. Have you heard from The Taskmaster lately? Did she remind you not to slack off?
  12. Do you still love your job?

Yes, yes, yes.

March appearances look like they’ll continue to be a bit sparse, seeing as I somehow agreed to write an essay for the Hunger Mountain Journal and begin editing my church’s newsletter again, am doing long-distance book chats, still revising and writing and still getting all kinds of squirrelly new ideas for new books that I don’t need quite right now, and I’m trying to finish baby hats and baby blankets in my copious free time since everyone on the planet seems to be popping out a bairn, and I’ve fallen behind.

The essay I’m writing? Is on depictions of race on young adult book covers. I read this, and felt slightly ill.

I shall return. No guarantee whether or not I shall be sane at that time.

Bonne weekend.

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Curriculum Assistance, Anyone?

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I’m always a little grumpy that I’m not teaching anymore when I see the great book resources available now for those who work with young adults. I want to say, “No fair! They didn’t have that when I was teaching back in the dark ages!” Okay, so it was really only about ten years ago, and my last job was teaching fifth graders so some of it wouldn’t have mattered/applied to the age group anyway. But the point is: it’s awesome, and you need to know now. So, listen up, and pass it on:

I’ve previously mentioned the energetic and amazing Kay Cassidy, whose tireless efforts to pay forward the booklove she learned at her library as a kid has encouraged her to give back to librarians. By contacting over 150 authors and getting us involved in her Great Scavenger Hunt, Kay has created a free resources for librarians, enabling them to give away books and allow their readers to have more fun at her own personal time and monetary expense. Wow. And let’s all please repeat that little word together… F-R-E-E. This is a GOOD word for librarians, whose budgets are being eviscerated and bled dry. If you’re a librarian who hasn’t yet taken advantage of Kay’s Great Scavenger Hunt, find out how it works, and get involved!

Another great group of people working with classroom teachers are at Teachingbooks.net, an ALA affiliated website. They provide curriculum support in the form of book guides, links to author’s websites, little videos of authors, filmed in their homes, and probably the most fun thing, that great little feature about author’s name pronunciations — so now we all know how to say RYE-OR-DAN when we say Rick Riordan’s name, instead of the completely wrong REE-OR-DAN way I used to say it. (My all-time favorite is still Mr. Rhymes-with-Fresca, our former Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, but you can listen to mine here.)

The Teachingbooks Web 2.0 guru, Danika Brubaker, is corralling award honorees to become involved in the Coretta Scott King Book Award curriculum resource site. Have you ever explored this site? If you’re a teacher or librarian who works with older readers, it’s well worth your time. This site allows teachers to teach this year’s Coretta Scott King Book Award-winning books with extra help – a free online collection of primary source materials and lesson plans, including videos and audio clips from the authors themselves. Teachingbooks loves teachers, people. What a way to give back, and make their jobs easier!

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(I sound like someone else, but here’s my little three minute reading from MARE’S WAR — and those in my grad school classes are now laughing at me, since I have successfully thus far avoided reading in public. I’m sure you can now hear why. I sound like I have a stuffy nose and I’m reading down a hole.)

(P.S. – Kay Cassidy’s book, The Cinderella Society is all about paying it forward… and comes out April 13, 2010.)

All the World is Glad & Sad

It’s nice to be right about how awesomely a book will be received by the larger world. I was awed and moved and impressed. And the Cybils Picture Book Award judges agrees.

Congratulations, Liz!

Congratulations to the rest of you fabulous writers as well.

Meanwhile, on the down side of Fortuna’s wheel, my corn snake died yesterday. I’d had him for eleven years — a long time for a normal pet, perhaps, but a very short time for a snake – they’re supposed to live for fifteen-twenty years or something. He was with me from my second and most challenging teaching job, and I’m feeling like an unfit mother for having left him behind in the States (first in a high school biology classroom, more recently with my horrified parents), and let him die. It’s likely very odd to cry over a reptile who never “felt” anything for me, but…one, I never claimed to be anything but very odd, and two, we don’t only love those things which love us, do we? Anyway, I’m not feeling chatty, so it’s a good excuse for me to dive into my work just now, and so I will. Ciao for now.