Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book Scavenger Treasure Hunt

I'm home on spring break for ten whole days of glorious Colorado sunshine, grandbaby-cuddling, dog-walking, cat-brushing, and catching up with as many dear friends as possible, including get-togethers with both of my writing groups: breakfast with my old group of twenty-plus years, dinner with the new group I joined this past fall.

The new writing group is consumed these days with celebration for the June 2 publication date of the debut novel Book Scavenger by one of our members, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman.
The book is amazing. Here's the review of it I posed on Goodreads after reading the ARC (Advanced Reader Copy): How I adored this book! It’s a page-turning thriller, a valentine to the storied city of San Francisco, an exploration of the nature of friendship and family, a feast for puzzle aficionados and code breakers, and a celebration of the community of book lovers everywhere. The reader’s only regret is going to be that the Book Scavenger game Bertmann has created doesn’t exist in real life, so that we could join Emily and James in playing it. Bertmann’s debut novel establishes her as a major new voice in middle grade fiction. Prediction: Book Scavenger will become a beloved classic in the mode of The Westing Game and The Egypt Game. It’s off the charts wonderful.

The book is based around the idea of a fictitious game where players hide copies of books all over the country and the world for other book-lovers to find, via cryptic clues posted on the Book Scavengers website. And the game now does exist on real life, thanks to Jen's website, with copies of the ARC hidden in all fifty states. And our writing group is playing the game ourselves, hiding copies of Jenn's book all over Boulder for each other to find.

Yesterday I got the clue from Laura to send me off to find mine. The clue said:  

It is hidden! Start at Viele Lake. Take a walk to the southern part of the lake, until you get to the fitness sign about the heel flex. Turn your back to that sign. Then try to decode my cipher.

The cipher read: uxmpxxg uxgvaxl, ngwxk kfvd 

So this morning before church I walked down to Viele Lake:

I followed the fitness trail around the lake until I reached the sign:
I turned around as directed and looked behind trees and rocks, hoping I could find it without having to wrestle with decoding the message, as I'm completely terrible at cyphers and codes. No luck. But fortunately, my church has a VERY brainy congregation. Upon arriving I handed the cypher to two of the most brilliant members; both solved it during the sermon. I won't give the solution here in case you want to try to decode it yourselves.

I headed back to the lake after worship. This time I found the correct spot.
The picture is pretty dark and terrible, because I'm a challenged photographer, but let the poor quality just add to the mystery.

I found the rock beneath which the book was supposed to be hidden:
And there it was!
Now it's my turn to hide it for Vanessa. I hope she's better at code-breaking than I am, or that she has similarly brainy friends.

Verdict on spring break so far: tons of fun.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Race and Children's Literature

This past week I hosted a Symposium on Race and Children's Literature at DePauw, funded by the generosity of the Prindle Institute for Ethics. I organized the event last fall before I realized that our campus would be devoting significant time and resources to engaging in a dialogue about racial issues in our own community, and before a racist joke at the National Book Awards ceremony had the unintended result of raising awareness of the need for more diverse books. (MC Daniel Handler, after presenting African-American author Jacqueline Woodson with the award for Young People's Literature for her beautiful memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming, made a joke about Woodson's allergy to watermelon, which prompted a huge social media outcry and led to Handler's making a a compensatory contribution to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.).

My symposium was a day crammed full of wonderful events highlighting my guest speakers, Prof. Philip Nel of Kansas State University (author of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature and Dr. Seuss: American Icon) and Prof. Michelle H. Martin of the University of South Carolina (author of Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children’s Picture Books, 1845-2002). 

In the morning, they taught my 90-minute class on children's literature, generating a lively discussion on the question: "What is African-American children's literature?" (Possible answers: literature by African-American authors, literature about African-American characters, literature for an African-American audience of readers). Some students worried about the whole project of labeling any category of literature in this way: is this exclusionary? But if we don't pay attention to such categories, we end up with what we have now, a publishing industry in which at best 10 percent of children's books published each year are written by diverse authors or feature diverse characters, when 40 percent of American children identify as African American, Native American, Asian American, or Latino. 

Each speaker gave a well-attended talk. At 4:15 Phil presented "Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature,”which looked at the complexity of Seuss's portrayal of the famous cat and its racist antecedents in black-face minstrel shows. His point was not to get us to repudiate this beloved text, but to see what problematic cultural sources continue to haunt the books we give our children.
At 7:30 Michelle presented "From the Kitchen to the Edges: Hair Representations in African American Children's Picture Books," a look at the political power of children's books to empower young readers to celebrate themselves, their racial and cultural identity - and their hair.
The day also included a luncheon panel where Mollie Beaumont, our Putnam County Public Library children's librarian, joined us to reflect in a more informal setting on the need for diversity in children's books.
In my five-minute panel presentation, I reflected on my hesitation as a white author to write outside of my own ethnicity/culture/race. After all, my first fifteen books were all about girls; it was only when I became the mother of my two sons that I felt confident enough to write about boys. But even as I haven't focused on race in creating the characters in my children's books, leaving physical appearance largely undescribed, I've more than once had occasion to realize that I've created a non-white character - when I saw the illustrations for the book.

Unlike authors, illustrators are unable to leave race, or at least racial appearance, unspecified. The children in my picture book A Visit to Amy-Claire, illustrated by Sheila Hamanaka, appear as Asian-American. Perfect neighbor boy Ryan Mason in the Gus and Grandpa series is black, thanks to illustrator Catherine Stock. And in my current Franklin School Friends series, Izzy, title character of Izzy Barr, Running Star (out next month) is also black, thanks to illustrator Rob Shepperson.

So in 2015, one of the all-too-few children's books featuring African-American characters will be by me.

I do have a twinge of worry that it's my running star who is African-American rather than my reading queen (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen) or math whiz (Annika Riz, Math Whiz). Have I perpetuated stereotypes of African-Americans succeeding in sports rather than in academics? Well, but Ryan Mason in Gus and Grandpa succeeds in everything, and Amy-Claire's story isn't built around any desire for success in any dimension. Right now, my tentative conclusion is that preoccupation with avoiding any conceivable stereotype leads to paralysis, and to a reluctance on the part of white authors and illustrators to engage with diversity at all. What's important is that non-white children get to see themselves mirrored in the books they read, and that white children don't get a steady diet of images that allow them to think the world belongs to them alone. Right now, what we need is diverse books written and illustrated as well and beautifully as we can make them. We need to see all kinds of kids, all colors of kids, succeeding and failing and laughing and crying and growing and changing in all kinds of ways.

Thanks to the Prindle Institute, and to Phil Nel, Michelle H. Martin, and Mollie Beaumont, and to my terrific students and the larger Depauw community, for making this Symposium on Race and Children's Literature such a success.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Antigone, Forty Years Later

In my senior year at North Plainfield High School, our "accelerated" English class was taught by the formidable Miss O'Brien. She gave us a "Great Books" curriculum: it was there that I first read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and knew I wanted to major in philosophy in college. She taught us how to write the five-paragraph essay with the thesis statement in the last sentence of the first paragraph. She drilled us in rules of grammar. The one I still chant to myself is "One, of phrase, relative pronoun, plural agreement."

In one class, I don't remember the particular topic, I made an impassioned speech against compromise (these were the politically turbulent early 70s): I would never compromise on anything I believed in, ever, ever, EVER! As a result, Miss O'Brien gave me Sophocles' tragedy Antigone to read, in the adaptation by Jean Anouilh. In the play, Antigone, the daughter of deposed King Oedipus, defies her royal uncle Creon's edict to leave her dead brother Polynices unburied. Antigone refuses to compromise. Creon refuses to compromise. By the end of the play many characters, including Antigone herself, are dead.

I loved the play, though it did not make me any more inclined to compromise. Instead, at age seventeen, it made me yearn to be a tragic heroine. Even more than loving the play itself, I loved that Miss O'Brien gave it to me, that a teacher would think an ancient tragedy could be relevant to a 20th-century schoolgirl's life and way of being in the world.

At DePauw this spring, I'm in a reading group on Antigone. The Prindle Institute for Ethics sponsors a number of reading groups each semester. Some faculty member proposes a book on which he or she would like to lead a discussion. The Prindle purchases the books and the lovely snacks. Then the group members meet together for a period or weeks or months to discuss the book, over wine and cheese, by the Prindle fireplace. I just finished leading my own group on philosopher Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Now I'm in the group on Antigone, led by Keith Nightenhelser, who also happens to be my dearest friend from graduate school.

This group is erudite and intellectual beyond anything my youthful self every could have imagined. We've read Judith Butler's book Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. Now we're on to Bonnie Honig's fabulous book Antigone, Interrupted. Both authors continue what I now know is a long tradition of thinking that the play is relevant to our way of being in the world. Hegel's famous reading of the play is as a dialogue between the opposing claims of sovereignty (Creon) and kinship (Antigone), the state and the family, the public and the private. Butler complicates this view considerably: Antigone, as the child of an incestuous union (her father, after all, was Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his own father and married his own mother), is hardly positioned to defend traditional family values. Honig focuses on "interruptions" in the play: which characters interrupt other characters, and why, and what does this say about the balance of power among them? She interprets Antigone not as crazed with lamentation for her dead brother, but as a political actor, committed as strongly to life as to death.

At my second meeting with the group last night, I loved thinking how happy Miss O'Brien would have been to have eavesdropped on our discussion. Oh, and how happy she would be that I could spot the error in the first sentence of Honig's first chapter: "I am one of those people who finishes other people's sentences." NO! One, of phrase, relative pronoun, plural agreement: "I am one of those people who finish other people's sentences." And how happy she would be that now I compromise all the time, probably too much, a result of all that has happened to me over the intervening forty-three years: wonderful things, terrible things, transformative things, things that make me much less willing to stake my life on any absolute.

The reading of Antigone has been a beautiful gift to me, then and now.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"All Right, So Far"

As a child I liked the following little ditty. In fact, I liked it so much, I wrote it on a postcard sent home to my friends on my honeymoon:

The optimist fell ten stories
And at each window bar
He shouted to his friends,
"All right, so far!"

I think of this whenever I have a busy, fraught schedule. Right now my busy fraughtness is around a series of trips. I'm toward the beginning of six straight weekends of travel.

Last weekend: Costa Mesa, California, for the annual conference of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Conference highlight below:

This weekend: home in Colorado for Kataleya's first birthday. Weekend highlight below:

Next weekend: speaking at a children's literature festival in Tampa.
The following weekend: speaking at the children's lit festival I attend every year in Warrensburg, Missouri, the one where we all buy shoes at the old-timey shoe store downtown.
The following two weekends: to Colorado for spring break and back to Indiana again.

That is a lot of travel, especially in this snowy winter, especially when two of the trips involve connecting flights. I added up all the flights: 14. The odds become very good there will be a snafu for at least one of them, wouldn't you say?

I now have five of the flights done: two from Indy to California, two back to Indy from California, and one home to Colorado. I had one minor snafu. The Indy-Chicago leg of my trip out to California was delayed for some kind of "VIP hold" on incoming flights (the president?), so I missed the last flight of the day to Santa Ana (Orange County), but luckily I was able to fly to Los Angeles that evening instead, and take an hour-long-shuttle to the hotel, so all I really missed was two hours of sleep and didn't miss any fun at all.

So I can say, of my intense travel schedule this spring: "All right, so far!" I'm hoping the travel gods will think that the delay on the Indy-Chicago flight counts for my mandatory snafu, even though it was barely a hiccup. If not, here's to handling all future travel travails with the optimist's cheer.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Prioritized Productivity

In my beloved Betsy-Tacy books, Betsy's father, Mr. Ray, likes to say of February, "When the days begin to lengthen, then the cold begins to strengthen." That is proving true here in Greencastle. It is also true that "As the to-do-list begins to lengthen, the stress begins to strengthen." Betsy's family comes up with various strategies for defeating February, from hosting a thimble bee to trying to catch bluejays by putting molasses on the end of a stick. I have a new strategy for defeating to-do-list-triggered stress. I'm calling it "prioritized productivity."

It goes like this. I have my long, long list of things I have to do. I have a sense of what counts as a reasonable amount of work to expect from myself in a day. I know which projects are most urgent (need to be done soonest) and most important (matter most).

Each day I pick from my list a few things to do. Because I like to do things in multiples of five, I usually pick five. I make sure the list includes at least one or two of the top-priority tasks. Then I do them.

That's it.

That's really the whole thing.

Yesterday my five things were: 1) teach my children's lit class; 2) teach my Rousseau class; 3) shop for the snacks for the Prindle Institute reading group that I'm leading on Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters; 4) lead the book group; 5) read an eighty-page manuscript from one of the writers I'm mentoring through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators mentoring program.

Today my five things are: 1) eat breakfast with a job candidate for our Schanen Scholar position; 2) attend the candidate's job talk; 3) type up all my extensive comments for my mentee (generated from yesterday's reading); 4) write my monthly blog post for the Smack Dab in the Middle authors' blog; and 5) lead the discussion at the Janeites book group tonight, a delicious collection of essays on the pleasures of reading called Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.

I did all five yesterday. I'm going to do all five today. I was proud and happy yesterday. I'm going to be proud and happy today.

Note that my list includes things that I was already definitely going to do, list or no list, like teaching my classes. That's okay. I love giving myself credit for doing things I was going to do anyway. The lists for these particular two days don't include any writing on my own creative projects. That's okay, too.  Right now I am waiting on editorial comments on not one, not two, but THREE books, with no other project hanging over my head. If I did have writing to do, that would be the highest priority task of all. Pretty soon coming up with a new project will be the highest priority task of all. But that's not on my list for today.

The beauty of my system is that I do my five things, and I'm done, and I know the rest of my life will be fine, because my five things include a couple of the most important things for me to do right now. If I do five things every day on this system, everything I need to do will get done. Anything that is left undone is something of lower priority, anyway.

Here's the most crucial part: After I do my five things, I do NOT say, "But oh, my God, my to-do list is still endless! I still have a zillion things on it! I will never get them done! There aren't enough hours in a day! How will I get it all accomplished?!!!" Instead, I say, "Look how productive I was today. Look how I now have five things crossed off my list.And I can cross off five tomorrow, and five the next day, and five the day after that."

Prioritized productivity is defeating stress for me. Now maybe I'll find a stick and put some molasses on it....

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Everything is made out of magic"

As a writer, I'm more of a plotter than a "pantser." Before I write the first line of chapter one, I usually have a good sense of how the story is going to be structured, how its central dramatic question will be answered, its central conflict resolved, its central theme illuminated. But there is still magic that assists in the writing of the story itself.

Right now I'm working on the fifth book in the Franklin School Friends series, this time starring struggling student Cody Harmon and featuring a plot involving a school-wide pet show. The previous books established Cody as a farm kid with an affinity for animals; e.g, he brings his pet pig, Mr. Piggins, to school to be kissed by the exuberant principal, Mr. Boone, as the culmination of the reading contest in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen. In this book-in-progress I planned to have Mr. Boone appear on the day of the pet show riding into school on an elephant. I knew the story would culminate in allowing Cody to have his turn to shine at the show. But would be the obstacles along the way to his day of glory?

When I sold the book idea to my publisher, I planned for Cody's problem to be that he has too many pets and so can't afford to enter them all in the pet show, with its ten dollar entrance fee for each one (to benefit the local Humane Society). There is no way Cody can afford ten dollars for each of nine pets! I knew the solution would involve a plan where Cody would let his classmates borrow some of his pets. And one of his classmates, Izzy, star of Izzy Barr, Running Star, would fall in love with Cody's badly behaved dog, Angus, and want to keep him.

So far, so good.

But as I started to write, another problem began to appear. Cody needed to have a best friend, although no best friend had been mentioned in the previous books. Okay: it would be Tobit, another kid who struggles with school as Cody does. But what would be Tobit's role in the story?

What if. . . . what if . .. what if Tobit engages in some behavior that is unkind to some animal? So that Cody doesn't want to lend a pet to Tobit - especially his most beloved dog, Rufus? How can Cody tell Tobit this? How do we ever call others on their bad behavior without feeling intolerably self-righteous? How can Cody balance his loyalty to his friend with his loyalty to his pets - and to himself?

Here is where the magic enters. Throughout the story, Mr. Boone keeps promising the kids that he'll bring an elephant to school on the day of the pet show. The kids scoff - but hope he means it. So I Googled how to find elephants to rent out for such events. What I found was not what I expected. What I found were pleas NOT to rent elephants, not to ride them for fun at kids' birthday parties, not so support an industry that treats such magnificent beasts with indifference to their animal needs and desires.


So much for Mr. Boone arriving at school astride an elephant.

But: what if . . . what if . . . Mr. Boone himself finds out what I just found out? And changes his pet show plans? And shares this with Cody and Tobit after their hallway shoving match? Yes! That's just what I needed to deal with how to resolve the Cody/Tobit standoff!

The book is still a long way from being published. I have no idea if these scenes - if any of this - will survive the revision and editing process and make its way into the final book. But right now, I'm feeling the magic of having one plot problem solved precisely by having another plot problem arise.

In The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett says this: : "Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.”

To this I add: "and on the page." And to this I say: "Amen."

Friday, February 6, 2015

Free Lunch (and Breakfast and Dinner)

I have never been to a place where there is as much free food as DePauw. This week alone I have had:

1) lovely wine and cheese and other nibbles at the Antigone reading group out at the Prindle Institute on Monday night.

2) soup and salad and brownies at a teaching roundtable lunch on Tuesday, focused on the topic "Are quiet students really a problem?"

2) lovely wine and cheese and other nibbles at the reading group I'm leading on Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters on Tuesday night; food included amazingly delicious and nutritious Boulder Bars made by our two Prindle graduate fellows who are also co-CEOs of the fledgling company C & J Foods.

4) another soup and salad lunch (different soup this time) on Wednesday for faculty who are planning proposals for Winter Term study abroad courses (I'm trying to plan one called "Protected Places and Enchanted Spaces: Children's Literature Sites in London, Oxford, and Paris").

5) extremely elegant wine and hors d'oeuvres reception that afternoon for Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black on which the hit TV series is based.

6) even more elegant dinner for Piper Kerman and some forty students and faculty that evening.

7) sumptuous lunch today at Gobin church after a worship service where the preacher was Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, with the sermon title: "#blacklivesmatter."

8) lavish breakfast AND lunch tomorrow for participants and judges (me) in the all-day high school Ethics Bowl hosted by Prindle.

And this is just one week!

Now of course the question arises: are these really FREE lunches, breakfasts, and dinners? For there is said to be no such thing. It's true that the "price" for these meals is attendance at these free and fabulous events. But that seems to me no price at all. And the "price" for getting to participate in all these free and fabulous events, for me, is being a visiting professor, which means teaching what I love to motivated students and pursuing scholarly and creative work of my own choosing.

Well, the cost is also creeping weight gain from the food and periodic exhaustion from the events. I've gained two pounds already, a combination of nonstop feasting and lack of exercise (because I'm devoting all the time I would have spent walking at all these reading groups, discussions, and lectures). I'm behind on the book I have due on February 15, which is barely more than a week away.

So I'm chubby but contented, exhausted but exhilarated. And that's okay. I might as well cram each day of my all-too-brief semester here as full as I can of intellectual stimulation - and cram my tummy full, too.