Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THE TURTLE OF OMAN - QUOTES ABOUT HOME


I like to collect quotes about the subject of “home.”  Here is a recent one, gleaned from Naomi Shihab Nye’s lovely book, THE TURTLE OF OMAN. 


       “What makes a place your own?  What makes a home a home?  It wasn’t something simple, like a familiar bench, or a fisherman’s yellow sweater vest with a hole in it, or the nut-man’s fat red turban.  It was more mysterious, like a village with tiny stacked houses, so many windows and doors with soft flickers shining out into the night.  You weren’t sure who lived in any of them, but you felt you could knock on any door and the people inside might know some of the same things you knew or welcome you in—just because you all belonged there.  They might tip their heads and say, “Oh yes, aren’t you that boy with the stones in his pockets?  You want some soup?” and it would be lentil soup, which you loved.  Or maybe it was how the beach air smelled--- salty and sweet  in whirls.  You didn’t have to do anything to feel comfortable here.  You just walked outside, took a long breath and thought—Yes.  Sure.  Here I am.

       I am on page 166 of this book but already, I find myself going back to re-read certain passages.  It is a book to savor.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

DIVERSITY IN ALL THAT'S MISSING

     When I was writing ALL THAT’S MISSING, I attended a writer’s retreat during which there was a heated discussion about the lack of diversity in middle grade fiction.  There was not yet a WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS campaign, though the need to bring more diversity to children’s literature had been on the radar of children’s literature enthusiasts for a long time.    
      
         At the time, I was focused on revising the second half of my novel.  Okay.  What I was really doing was RE-WRITING the whole second half of the book.  Trusted readers had told me it needed work.  And they were right. 
   
         All That’s Missing is realistic fiction with a hint of magic realism.  It is also, in many ways, a quest.  My protagonist, Arlo Jones, must go on a journey to find his grandmother, a woman named Ida Jones, whom he has never really known.  Once he finds her, his task is to discover the reasons for the rift between his mother’s and father’s sides of his family and to heal what is broken. 

        
The first half of the book is a road trip.  The second half is a story about what happens once Arlo reaches his destination.  I had a pretty good idea of how Arlo’s relationship with his grandmother would develop.  What I needed to figure out was what else would happen to him.  He needed to have a friend near his own age.  He also needed to meet people who had memories of his father and who could help him figure out the reason for the hard feelings between the two sides of his family. 
           
         Somehow I knew Arlo’s friend would be a girl and that she would be of a mixed racial background.  (If we adopt Toni Morrison’s more enlightened approach to “race,” I would say “ethnic,” rather than “racial” background.) 
           
         But, here’s where I think I was headed down the wrong path.  I was making my character’s racial identity an issue in the book.  That was turning the story into something it was not intended to be.  It was not a story about racial prejudice.  It was a story about understanding what family means, about finding your place in the world. 
           
         At the writers’ retreat, I listened to a discussion about diversity.  I heard an African American writer ask her fellow writers when there would be books for her daughters to read in which there were characters of different racial and ethnic identities where race was NOT what the story was about.  She wanted kids doing normal kid things who happened to be of diverse backgrounds.  And wasn’t this what the world looked like?  Shouldn’t contemporary fiction reflect that?
           
         Hadn’t I spent years going into a local elementary school to share books with kids who came from all kinds of backgrounds and who had different colors of skin and who did not spend their time thinking about these differences in their day-to-day lives?  Weren’t these the kids I was writing stories for?
           
         So, I revised my novel.  I created a community of characters whose young people were not fixated on ethnic origins.  Family heritage is very much a part of the story, but in a historical context.  In other words, history informs the narrative, as it must.  For example, in one scene a character named Matthew Healy tells Arlo uncomfortable truths about his grandfather, Slocum Jones, the grandfather Arlo never knew, the one who lived with Arlo’s grandmother in the town where his father grew up.  Matthew Healy had been a close friend of Arlo’s father and, as it happens, he is African American.   Now he is the one to help Arlo understand why there was a rift in his family. 

         Matthew squinted at the sun, working the muscles in his jaw like he was trying to figure out how to say something unpleasant.  “Everyone around here knew Slocum,” he said.  “He was a man of strong opinions, I guess you’d say.”

         “Did you like him?”
              
         Matthew coughed.  “Slocum wasn’t the kind of person you warm up to.  Besides, things were different in those days.”

         “Different how?”
              
         “Between black and white people.”  Matthew took a long, slow breath.  “You know what I’m talking about?”
              
         “Yeah.”  Arlo tucked the wood carving back in his pocket.

   So, there it is – the weight of history that informs the present, as it must.  But, it’s not what the book is about. 

   In the tiny Tidewater town of Edgewater, Arlo develops a friendship with Maywood, a girl whose mother is an Art History professor in Richmond and whose father runs the family business, an independent bookstore/cafĂ© in this town where they make their home.  What is evident from the story, but is NOT discussed as an issue, is that Maywood’s mother is African-American and her father is white.  That is NOT what the story is about.  But, Maywood is a fully developed character, (or, at least  I hope she is).   
           
         I tried very hard to write a story which acknowledged the weight of history, while also reflecting the reality of today’s world.  I thought it was critically important to reflect the ethnic make-up of today’s generation of young people. They are ethnically diverse.  This is not a big deal to them.  It is just life.  Middle grade contemporary fiction should reflect this.  We should, in fact, celebrate the richness which comes with such diversity.  I don’t understand why we don’t.    
           
         I will confess that I have been disappointed that, despite my efforts, despite reviews which said things like, “an outstanding debut novel,” (VOYA) and a starred review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, the book has not received much attention.  However, those who know me well, know that I am not very good at self promotion and so, perhaps, where there is blame to attach, it must attach to me. 
           
         All that aside, I still love Arlo and Maywood and Poppo and Mama Reel and Matthew and Ida and I guess I can’t help wanting others to love them too.  It brings great comfort to read comments on Goodreads such as this,
            Such a moving and thoughtful story with a lovely main character. I wanted to scoop Arlo up and look after him.”

    And, especially this, from a reader of the age group to whom I directed the book:  “There aren’t any boring paragraphs that you want to skip.  Read every single word.”  Goodreads reviewer. 
          

         I still hope the book will find its way into the hands of 8 to 12 year-olds elsewhere.  I would like for them to know Arlo and Maywood too.  I would like for them to understand that they have deep reserves of strength and understanding that will help them face life’s most demanding situations if they will only believe in themselves.  The bottom line is I tried to tell a good story.  That’s what I’m always trying to do.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

WILLIAMSBURG REGIONAL LIBRARY-SOMETHING TO BE VERY GRATEFUL FOR!



I want to say a belated THANK YOU to ELETHA DAVIS, Mobile Library Youth Services Director at the WILLIAMSBURG REGIONAL LIBRARY, as well as her staff and the staff at the Community Center at  LAFAYETTE SQUARE for arranging my visit in August.  This was my first experience as a visiting author in my new hometown and I had a wonderful time.  Tova Johnson of the WRL wrote a wonderful Reader’s Theater script – THANK YOU, TOVA!  She and Chris helped the kids prepare for their performance.  They chose the scene with the ghost in the attic near the end of All that’s Missing.  Chris provided the sound effects. The kids played each of the roles and they were terrific.  Afterwards, we talked about books and reading.  They told me about their favorite books and asked me about mine.  It is a privilege to live in a town with such an outstanding library.  As we approach next week’s holiday and count our blessings, I am incredibly grateful for the WILLIAMSBURG REGIONAL LIBRARY and its OUTSTANDING STAFF!

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