Hold Still and read this book!

Hold Still is a stunning debut novel written by Oakland high school teacher, Nina LaCour. 

As the novel opens, the reader learns that Ingrid committed suicide, leaving behind her best friend Caitlin to deal with the confusion, sadness, and betrayal. From the beginning, we feel the unbearable weight of her loss  and experience the supreme impact Ingrid’s death has on her.

Something is smashing my chest—an anchor, gravity. Soon I’ll cave in on myself.

LaCour’s deft handling of tiny telling details portrays Caitlin’s raw emotions trying to bubble to the surface. Her car, parked in front of her house, becomes a refuge of sorts, and it is here that she spends the hours before she returns to school for the first time since Ingrid died:

It is 3 A.M. …I have five hours to get okay.

Fifteen minutes go by. I’m pulling the fake fur from the front seat covers even though I love them. I can’t stop my fingers; white tufts are falling everywhere.

By four-thirty I’ve thrown several thrashing fits, given myself a headache, put my fist in my mouth and screamed. I need to get the pressure out of my body somehow so I can finally fall asleep.

Caitlin often finds herself amid a jumble of conflicting impulses. She discovers the journal that Ingrid has clearly left for her to find and struggles between wanting to read it all right then and being too scared to open it at all. LaCour somehow captures those moments and relays them authentically to the reader even when Caitlin herself is not yet capable of understanding them.

In the end, LaCour doesn’t take the easy way out—Caitlin doesn’t land on the other side of tragedy completely healed—but she has definitely survived.  She is learning how to move beyond her friend’s suicide and has become more self-aware.

It isn’t the happy ending Ingrid and I had dreamed up, but it’s all a part of what I’m working through. The way life changes. The way people and things disappear. Then appear unexpectedly, and hold you close.

This story holds you still while you read it and holds you close long after you’ve finished it.

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Inspiring collaborators had me Dancing Home

Last night’s Kid Lit Salon was extra satisfying. The topic was collaboration and the guest speakers were F. Isabel Campoy, Alma Flor Ada,  and Gabriel Zubizarreta. Isabel and Alma have collaborated on over a hundred books, including many picture books and folk tale anthologies of Hispanic or Latino origin. Alma and her son Gabriel have written two middle grade novels together.

The salon started in an unusual way because our fearless leader and hostess Lissa was having difficulty getting the video camera going. (Mary usually takes care of the technical stuff, but she wasn’t there last night.) There were only about eight Kid Lit members in attendance. Because there were so few of us, we each told the group what we were doing in our writing lives. Maybe because the authors weren’t using the microphone and we knew we weren’t being taped, a sort of candid, spontaneous conversation erupted between  the authors and audience for several minutes before the official presentation began.

The casual style spilled over into their talk, where the three authors passed the microphone back and forth, adding and commenting on statements by the other two. The most amusing moments were when mother and son had different recollections of the nature of their collaboration.

Each of them had a passion that manifested itself in different ways. Isabel was sparkling and enthusiastic; Alma spoke with a calm reverence; Gabriel was serious and shared what he felt was his mission in writing. Each of them had distinct backgrounds, but they were bound together by a common cause.

Isabel traveled from Spain to America at the tender age of 16 and eventually became an editor at a prestigious New York publishing house, where she met Alma.  That is when she gave up the security of her steady position and began a long career of collaboration with Alma, writing children’s books and teachers’ guides. She is also a storyteller, a poet, and a playwright.

Alma came from Cuba. She rose to the top of academia—a Fulbright Scholar, a Radcliffe Scholar at Harvard, and a professor at University of San Francisco—but gave it up to teach high school, where she devoted her skills to teaching peace and promoting social justice. A white-haired grandmother, she still has the accent from her native land.

Gabriel was born in the United States and became a CPA, but had writing a book on his bucket list. Reading an early draft of his mother’s middle grade novel, Gabriel made gentle, tentative suggestions, which he told his mother she was welcome to use or ignore as she wished. Alma liked his ideas. They sent versions of the manuscript back and forth until it became Dancing Home. Gabriel’s three daughters lent their names to characters in the book, making it a story that included three generations.

As part of my resolution to buy only books that are written by authors that I can meet in person, I purchased Dancing Home for Alma to sign. While we were waiting for one of the pens for her to use, I confessed to her that I had sort of stolen the idea of the title for my middle grade novel from her award-winning book My Name Is María Isabel. I hadn’t realized it at the time of course, but at some point while I was writing My Name Is Lupe Jones, it struck me that I must have had that title tucked into my subconscious. I had bought that book for my classroom. Alma just smiled and said that no two stories were the same, and lots of books had titles that started that way.

I was relieved. I had the blessing of this accomplished children’s writer to use my title. Of course, it hasn’t been published yet…

When I got home, I was bubbling with observations and showing my husband the book I’d bought. He seemed surprised that I would buy a book in Spanish. I replied that the author was Cuban but the book was in English, pointing at the cover. He opened the book and I saw pages of Spanish text. Beneath the English-language book jacket was Nacer bailando. I had bought the Spanish version that somehow wore a jacket for the English edition.

And I don’t speak or read Spanish. But I can’t exchange the book for an English-language copy because Alma inscribed it especially to me. So I guess there’s only one solution.

I’ll have to take Spanish so I can read it.

To see a video of Alma and Gabriel discussing Dancing Home, click on this link:

http://almaflorada.com/video-alma-flor-ada-and-gabriel-zubizarreta-discuss-their-inspiration-for-writing-dancing-home/

Silver lining of National Book Award debacle shines

Lauren Myracle

Note: I originally make the headline for this piece “Silver lining shines for NBA debacle” since NBA is well-known enough in the world of publishing to be understood, but I felt sorry for some poor guy googling NBA who just wanted to get some news about the National Basketball Association, and I thought, why disappoint him when with a tiny bit of forethought I could just prevent that mistake altogether?

Which is probably what the judges should have done when they announced the nominees for the National Book Award—use a little forethought.

Imagine getting a phone call from the director of the National Book Foundation telling you that your book has been nominated for one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the biz. And then imagine getting a second phone call that essentially says, oops, never mind! That’s what happened to Lauren Myracle, who wrote Shine. (You can read her account in heartbreaking detail on Huffington Post at this link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-myracle/lauren-myracle-national-book-awards_b_1019972.html.)

The first reason offered for the mix-up was that for security purposes, all communication was conducted on the phone. (Have the judges not read or watched any spy thrillers in the last 30 years? Everyone knows that phones are the first things to get tapped…) Okay, this blows my whole image of a bleary-eyed panel of distinguished readers who have locked themselves and all the eligible books published in the last year in an underground windowless room with armed guards at the only entrance.

The second reason for the mistake is that Shine sounds a lot like Chime, which was the book that actually made the list. Uh huh…

My confidence in their system is about as high as my ankles. Wasn’t there any discussion of the books’ relative merits? My curiosity led me to find out a little about both books.

From what I can tell from the book’s website, Chime, by Franny Billingsley,  is a romantic fantasy about Briony who speaks to marsh spirits.

Shine, on the other hand, deals with bullying and hate crime against gay teens in a small Southern town.

So you can see that with very little description, they are easily distinguishable. Which makes me wonder how the judging process goes…. Are they all on a conference call with a handwritten list in front of each of them?

Susan: George, I like that one about the swamp girl…

George: That’s a good one, Susan, but I think I’m voting for Shine.

Susan: That’s what I said—Chime!

Harry: Wait, isn’t Shine the one where…

Susan: Harry, we’re agreeing—don’t make this harder than it needs to be. I have dinner reservations for 7:00!

Okay, maybe it wasn’t just like that. For one thing I have no idea what the judges’ names are, so don’t infer that Susan,George, and Harry refer to real people.

The silver lining promised in the title is this: because the whole debacle made headlines, there was a gay boy who lives in North Carolina who heard about Shine, picked up a copy, read it, and wrote to the author that it saved his life. And the National Book Foundation—feeling a little guilty, I imagine—donated $5000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. 

And Lauren Myracle is now a saint in my book for handling the whole situation with grace.

But I still think the National Book Foundation needs to design a better system for nominating books…

Top 10 lists too tempting

I’m a list slut. If I see a title that begins “Top (insert number here)” anything I’m there as fast as my finger can click. This is true even if the list is only remotely connected to my life or interests. Top 10  Novels of All Time, 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die, Top Ten Writing Conferences—these would be no-brainers.

But resource lists that could somehow get me a step toward getting published definitely grab my attention. Here are some fairly recent lists that made me drool: “Ten Things NOT to Say to an Agent,” “23 Websites that Make Your Writing Stronger,” and “101 of the Best Fiction Writing Tips.”

So of course I want to check out everything on all the lists I find, which has often lead me on a veritable scavenger hunt. For instance, I happily click on “23 Websites That Make Your Writing Stronger” and scan the list. I know some of them and even have a few on my homepage, on my favorites bar, or get them sent by e-mail. But that means I still have about 17 to check out, so I begin going down the list.

I don’t bother with the ones that are about screenwriting, since that’s one kind of writing I don’t do. I already read my own agent’s blog and Nathan Bransford’s, so I rule out the other agents on the list. I’m not a mystery writer, so that’s one less site to check out. So I begin going down the culled list of about 9.

Storyfix.com looks helpful, and I notice that on the sidebar that it’s been selected as one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers by Writers Digest. Hmm, I wonder who’s on that Top 10 list…

Well, there is some overlap, but I’ve just added 7 new sites to the list I already had. On WordPlay, the first one I check out on the Writers Digest list, there is an article labeled #10  in the “Most Common Mistakes” series, so of course I get sidetracked there for a while before I return to Writers Digest’s Top 10 Blogs for Writers, which, as you’ll remember, I found while making my way down the “23 Websites That Make Your Writing Stronger.”

On the Courage 2 Create  my eyes immediately go to “10 Tricks to Motivate You to Write—Right NOW!”

It occurs to me that I’ve spent an hour of my writing time, which is already precious, investigating a labyrinth of web sites and their lists that will make my writing stronger, help me avoid common mistakes, and motivate me to write. But I don’t actually have anything written down.

And I haven’t even finished exploring the original list of 23 websites that I started with.

I resign myself to not checking out every blog on both lists, and I promise myself that I will not get sidetracked by any additional lists. I’m not even going to return to see what numbers 1–9 were on the most common mistakes. Well, not now anyway…

Because in order to write, I don’t have to exhaust every resource out there that’s available—I just have to WRITE!

What I really need is an article titled “Top 10 Ways to Stop Reading Lists and Just Write!” Hmm…maybe I should write that list…

Know those lyrics that you’re bopping along to

They look like nice enough boys...

I found myself singing along with this catchy tune that’s been playing on the radio a lot lately. I say singing along in the sense that I was saying words that seemed to sound somewhat like the lyrics of the song even though they didn’t really make sense to me, in the same way that I sang “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” (My apologies to Creedence Clearwater Revival.)

 

I sang the chorus with enthusiasm: “All the young kids with the pumped up kids, they’d better run, better run faster than my pocket…”

The part about kids being with pumped up kids running off all that energy seemed logical enough to me, and I figured there was something I didn’t know in kidspeak that would explain how something could be faster than a pocket.

I couldn’t make out many words from the verses at all, but I knew there was a cigarette involved and at one point the singer says “you’re hair’s on fire.” So I’m thinking this is a fire safety song along the lines of “Be careful with cigarettes or you could catch stuff on fire.” I wasn’t sure how the pumped-up kids fit into all of this, but I thought they might be running away from the fire. Maybe the cigarette lighter was kept in his pocket and they needed to get away before he lit his cigarette?

But then I read the actual lyrics of the song:

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet.

Oh.

I read the first verse:

Robert’s got a quick hand

He’s looking round the room, he won’t tell you his plan

He’s got a rolled cigarette hanging out his mouth

He’s a cowboy kid

Yeah he found a six-shooter gun

in his dad’s closet with a box of fun things

I don’t even know what, but he’s coming for you

Yeah he’s coming for you

Chorus:

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you’d better run, better run, outrun my gun

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet

Okay, so this is a messed-up kid who found his dad’s gun and is threatening to shoot all these kids with the pumped up kicks (whatever those are). Not exactly the lyrics one expects for such an upbeat tune.

Then I read the second verse:

Daddy works a long day

He’s coming home late, yeah, he’s coming home late

And he’s bringing me a surprise

His dinner’s in the kitchen and it’s packed in ice

I’ve waited for a long time

Yet the slide of my hand is now a quick-pulled trigger

I reason with my cigarette

And say your hair’s on fire–you must have lost your wits

Now I know this is not a fire safety song, and I’m assuming that this poor father who foolishly did not lock up his handgun is about to get blown away by his own son. I still don’t get the hair on fire, but that seems minor at this point.

In my quest to better understand this song, I watched the band’s official video. It opens with a home movie of someone jumping in the water and has live concert footage interspersed with band members playing frisbee, standing around in sweaty T-shirts, and surfing. Their band is called Foster the People, and they look like nice-enough boys.

So not much in the way of explanation there. No scene of an angry young man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a loaded six-shooter.

The video shows an audience dancing along and smiling. I’m wondering how many of them know exactly what it is that they’re bopping along to. Even having read the lyrics, my head couldn’t keep from bobbing to the beat of this irresistibly catchy tune. Especially when they start whistling.

I’m not trying to curb anyone’s right to free speech. Music is a valid form of expression. Although as a writer, I do question the way it switches from a third-person narrator to first-person after the first verse without any discernible reason.

I’m assuming that the band member who wrote this song was exploring the mind of a disenfranchised youth who had lost all hope. And his mind. Maybe this is a plea for better mental health care or gun control or parental supervision. I really don’t know. And the video certainly didn’t answer any of my questions.

But I do know that  in the future before I mindlessly sing along with a song, I will listen more carefully to the lyrics.

 

Alien pests worse than terrorists

the poor wiliwili tree

Okay, this is pretty scary. I read in the paper that after 9/11, hundreds of agricultural scientists who had been in charge of keeping out invasive insects were reassigned to the new anti-terrorism arm of the government—Homeland Security.

And now dozens of foreign bugs are taking over the country.

The number of border inspections that were supposed to curb these invasions plummeted between 9/11/2001 and 2010 resulting in at least 30 new species each year who are now threatening our crops, which drives up food prices for us all. California and Florida have been hardest hit because the climate makes it easy for foreign species to survive and reproduce.

Here are just a few of the culprits:

  • Nineteen separate infestations of the pesky Mediterranean fruit fly have occurred in California alone.
  • The Asian citrus psylid has already decimated Florida’s orange groves, has done its victory dance, and is now heading for California.
  • The erythrina gall wasp has dealt a great blow to the wiliwili tree in Hawaii from which we get the seeds used to make leis.
  • The insidious apple moth made its way from New Zealand to the Monterey Bay, and in trying to eradicate it, government officials sprayed 1600 pounds of pesticides in the Monterey Bay area, killing birds and causing respiratory problems for residents. But the apple moth still lives.

And he is laughing at us.

the evil emerald ash borer

Forests all over the Northeast have been inundated by the emerald ash borer and other beetles who were stowaways on Chinese shipping pallets because nobody was there to check for them.

An economic report put out by Cornell University estimates that the cost of these unwanted visitors is $120 billion each year.

So we’ve gotten rid of bin Laden, but at the price of the nation’s agricultural health. It turns out that the real terrorists have six legs and wings.

 

Mango for a Teacher bueno, bonito y barato

Okay, I don’t actually know much Spanish. I took an eight-week adult ed class some time in my late twenties, and all I remember is how to say “My necktie is cheap!”

But the beauty of reading Deborah Frisch’s memoir A Mango for the Teacher is that you don’t have to know Spanish, yet you feel like you’re a native of Cancun when you’re reading it.

In the prologue of , she describes the school that she founded in Cancun:

“The gossip in Cancun had it that Escuela Xicalango was bueno, bonito y barato, good, good-looking and cheap.”

And these same words are good descriptors for the book itself—it’s a good read and well-written (bueno), it’s set in beautiful coastal Mexico before the touristas invaded (bonito), and at $3.99, it’s a steal (barato) available through Smashwords and Amazon.com.

Written in short, easy-to-digest chapters, it’s actually perfect beach reading. Or for someone like me, it’s a perfect book to have on my bedside table so I can read a few chapters each night and pretend I’m in Cancun. Although it’s definitely entertaining, it’s not of the fluff variety. Through the laughter and adventures, it’s a very real account of the situations that present themselves to a young New Yorker finding her way in a foreign country. And while she builds a school from nothing and navigates the frustrating bureaucracy of the Mexican government, she forges strong friendships, embraces a new culture, and finds (and loses) love.

I loved it when I realized that the Arturo introduced in the later part of the book is named for the Arturo at the beginning of the book and is also Arturo the talented illustrator of the book and the son of the author! For me—someone who is always looking for connections and patterns—it made for a very satisfying reading experience.

And the best part for me is that I know the author. Deb is in one of my writing critique groups and we’re in the California Writers Club together. (And just because I love all those funny little connections, I have to also mention that her husband was my daughter’s first pediatrician.)