Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Getting" #Wrecked at School: Bias

Here’s my drumbeat line when I talk writing to students: Plot follows character.

They ask me where I get my ideas and I say, “Plot follows character.”

I finish reading, they ask what happens next, and I tell them, “Plot follows character.”

And when we pick apart the story I urge them to look at the details about the characters. I assure them they are no accident; writers spend a lot of time deciding what to tell you about a character. Because when you know those details, you’ll absolutely know what that character will do. And when you develop those details in your writing, you don’t need to worry about the plot. It simply happens. Those characters jump off the page and starting running in their own direction.

So it was super interesting the other day when I was presenting Wrecked to a high school group and we were talking about the character, Jenny, who is the young woman who accuses a fellow student of rape. I read them part of an early chapter and urged them, “Tell me what you know about Jenny so far. What details jump out at you?”

“Well, we believe her,” one boy said.  “Why?” I pressed. “Because she’s a good student,” he said, and everyone nodded. “She’s shy and she doesn’t go to parties. She’s the type of girl who would tell the truth.”

Now, this was fascinating to me. Because yes, those details were all there intentionally … but dang, as I was writing the book (and asking myself the usual what-does-my-character-want questions) I had seen those details about Jenny’s long hours in the lab, her massive backpack stuffed with books, her indirect shy manner of speaking, her seeming lack of social life, as an indicator that this was an inexperienced possibly lonely girl. Tossed into the maelstrom of a wildly social freshmen dorm, she was vulnerable to the allure of “popular girl” attention. When the chance to borrow a hot dress, down some vodka-laced Gatorade and waltz off with the rest of the hall to a party hosted by older students presents itself, Jenny can’t resist. She’s not out looking to hookup: she simply wants friends. She wants to fit in.

It hadn’t occurred to me that those details indicated her truthfulness. But for whatever reason … and I’m not judging here … to this young man, honesty and truth-telling comes in a “Good Student” package. The kids with the good grades are less likely to lie. The kids who don’t break the rules or get in trouble always tell the truth.

I couldn’t help myself.

“So … if Jenny was a girl who had had a string of boyfriends, struggled with her schoolwork, and wore micro-minis and ripped mesh hose to school, we’d be less likely to believe her when she says she was sexually assaulted?”

“To what extent do we make assumptions based on how someone presents? What they wear? How accurate are those assumptions?”


And that’s when the conversation got interesting.

"Getting" #Wrecked at School: Bias

Here’s my drumbeat line when I talk writing to students: Plot follows character.

They ask me where I get my ideas and I say, “Plot follows character.”

I finish reading, they ask what happens next, and I tell them, “Plot follows character.”

And when we pick apart the story I urge them to look at the details about the characters. I assure them they are no accident; writers spend a lot of time deciding what to tell you about a character. Because when you know those details, you’ll absolutely know what that character will do. And when you develop those details in your writing, you don’t need to worry about the plot. It simply happens. Those characters jump off the page and starting running in their own direction.

So it was super interesting the other day when I was presenting Wrecked to a high school group and we were talking about the character, Jenny, who is the young woman who accuses a fellow student of rape. I read them part of an early chapter and urged them, “Tell me what you know about Jenny so far. What details jump out at you?”

“Well, we believe her,” one boy said.  “Why?” I pressed. “Because she’s a good student,” he said, and everyone nodded. “She’s shy and she doesn’t go to parties. She’s the type of girl who would tell the truth.”

Now, this was fascinating to me. Because yes, those details were all there intentionally … but dang, as I was writing the book (and asking myself the usual what-does-my-character-want questions) I had seen those details about Jenny’s long hours in the lab, her massive backpack stuffed with books, her indirect shy manner of speaking, her seeming lack of social life, as an indicator that this was an inexperienced possibly lonely girl. Tossed into the maelstrom of a wildly social freshmen dorm, she was vulnerable to the allure of “popular girl” attention. When the chance to borrow a hot dress, down some vodka-laced Gatorade and waltz off with the rest of the hall to a party hosted by older students presents itself, Jenny can’t resist. She’s not out looking to hookup: she simply wants friends. She wants to fit in.

It hadn’t occurred to me that those details indicated her truthfulness. But for whatever reason … and I’m not judging here … to this young man, honesty and truth-telling comes in a “Good Student” package. The kids with the good grades are less likely to lie. The kids who don’t break the rules or get in trouble always tell the truth.

I couldn’t help myself.

“So … if Jenny was a girl who had had a string of boyfriends, struggled with her schoolwork, and wore micro-minis and ripped mesh hose to school, we’d be less likely to believe her when she says she was sexually assaulted?”

“To what extent do we make assumptions based on how someone presents? What they wear? How accurate are those assumptions?”


And that’s when the conversation got interesting.

Monday, October 24, 2016

"Getting" #Wrecked at School

My new novel, Wrecked, has been out in world for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been visiting schools and book stores for signings, readings, discussions, that sort of thing. It’s been a busy but fairly low-key, New England-based “tour.” It’s also my fourth book, and I’m used to speaking in public/signing/reading, so while I was excited to finally share Wrecked, I was fairly nonchalant about the whole thing.

Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the emotional impact of presenting Wrecked to young readers.

I wasn’t prepared for the tears. The stricken expressions and extra beat of silence preceding the requisite claps at readings. I should have expected it. Kids lead with their hearts, so they were never going to read Wrecked with a pencil in hand, underlining salient passages that gave them hints about the characters’ motivations, or how the plot might develop. And the early, online responses should have warned me, because it’s been so emotional: the young bloggers don’t analyze and review the book as much as they emote over the characters. Like they’re real people, and this has really happened.

It’s a storyteller’s greatest wish, to connect with another person and transport him or her temporarily into a different world. But when you take that story on the road and witness the emotion … hell, share the emotion (when those college students in the front row started crying, so did I) … you realize you’re in a new place, a different “stage of development” with your baby, and it brings a whole new set of responsibilities.

Anyway, the tears and stricken expressions was the college visit. Then, there was the high school visit, and wow, we were off to the races. I presented Wrecked to groups of juniors and seniors, roughly half of whom had “consent training” by a group of professionals shortly before my visit.

Where do I even begin to describe this experience? First of all, can I just say I love teenagers and every time I visit a school I’m reminded why I write YA fiction. Second: don’t worry about the state of the world. Spend some time with young people and you’ll feel confident that they are very capable of fixing all the things we’ve messed up. Eventually.

Because these kids were courageous. They were serious. They were honest, engaged and intense. And they were a case study in the difference education about sexual assault and consent can make. After my presentations, I spoke to the teacher and librarian who had attended. We marveled at how easily the students who had had the training understood the difference between “no means no” and affirmative consent, how they recognized and called out slut-shaming, how they “got” the different standard of proof between a criminal trial and a college hearing. The kids without training were just as earnest and honest but way, way less sophisticated and informed. And, ironically: the untrained kids were the seniors. Which means younger, less experienced kids were more savvy than their older peers simply as a result of workshopping these issues.

So here’s the thing: I’m no counselor and I’m no expert on sexual assault. I’m a novelist, and I’ve written a book which is, first and foremost, a story. One of my editors for Wrecked warned me, early in this process, “I’m allergic to bibliotherapy,” and so am I. Our primary goal for Wrecked was to create authentic characters and weave together a compelling story. It’s not meant to be a counseling tool.

But if a story can transport us to a new place, and inspire us, and create empathy then I’m all for it. And here’s what I saw happen with Wrecked: it cracked open important conversations. Edgy, values-laden, honest conversations between girls and boys. And that’s how we’re going to make real change: from the bottom up, one awkward conversation at a time.


All this week I’m going to blog about Getting #Wrecked at School, because it’s going to take me that long to process all that happened and all I learned. Chime in, I’d love to hear what you think, what you know, and what you might suggest as I continue to take this book on the road and share it with young people.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The #1 Most Difficult Question

Here’s the #1 Most Difficult Question I’m asked by teens: Where do you get the ideas for your books?

Maine writer Stephen King has a pretty straightforward answer to that question: “Everywhere.” Now, while that might seem a bit sweeping and not particularly helpful to young, would-be writers (and given the plots to Carrie, Cujo and Christine probably doesn’t warm the hearts of our state tourism officials) it’s spot on. Because here’s the thing: stories come at us from a lot of different directions. My honest response when asked the #1 Question?  “Life, pretty much.”

The trick is focus. Sorting through all the noise of “life” and “everywhere” and following a couple of interesting threads. King picks one or two then asks himself, “What if?” and he’s off to the races with a bestselling novel. For me it’s a little more arduous, especially if the thread feels scary or fraught. Maybe not as scary as killer cars and rabid St. Bernards, but for me, writing realistic young adult fiction? Definitely fraught. And for my latest novel, Wrecked, a story about a sexual assault on a college campus, the Where-did-you-get-THAT-idea? question feels personal. There’s a hint of prurient curiosity behind it. As if what they really want to know is: Did this happen to you? Why would you choose to write about something so awful?

 Is this story true?

For the record: I’m not a victim, and Wrecked is fiction. As for the “Why?” Well …

I could have been that girl. I was almost that girl. The evening started at a frat party where I was dancing with friends and drinking the Mystery Punch (it was delicious.) Next thing you know I’m downtown with a guy I sort of knew (where were my friends?) having more drinks, followed by the long walk back to his dorm room where, as I sat on his bed, I marveled at how the room wasn’t spinning clockwise but rather end to end. Somehow he’d discerned I was a literature buff, so to further woo me he began reading aloud from … no joke … Moby Dick.

That was when I realized this was not at all where I wanted to be, nor with whom, and declared my desire to return to my own room. Pronto. And here’s where I got lucky: I was able to voice that desire and he wasn’t a predator. He walked me back; we said good night. The next morning, I was shocked by how easily, thoughtlessly, I had drifted into that young man’s room. Never before had I considered myself a person without agency or volition. How had I ended up in that situation? The experience branded me with a fresh empathy for any young woman who had started her evening like I had, but encountered a very different guy.

Another thread: years later, I went to see the play “Doubt” on Broadway. It’s set in a Catholic school, and involves a nun’s accusation of sexual misconduct against a priest. I went with friends and was fascinated by their reactions: each came to vastly different conclusions about what “happened.” Some absolutely assigned blame to the priest; others felt the nun misjudged him. Each defended her position passionately, despite the fact that we never saw what took place between the priest and the child. We drew our conclusions from the other side of a closed door.

It occurred to me that one’s truth varies with point-of-view, and that our opinions are informed by biases we might not realize we have. That fascination with how a story changes depending on the narrator has haunted me ever since, and combined with the more recent  threads of having kids in college at a time when so much national debate swirls around issues of sexual assault on campus, new definitions of consent, new federal guidelines, etc., well … Wrecked pretty much insisted on being written.

So here’s how I answer the #1 Most Difficult Question: We get our ideas from the myriad threads we collect. We twist them into a stout rope, then go fishing. We toss that rope overboard, let it sink deep into our imaginations, then haul. It comes up dripping and draped, with seaweed, garbage, shells. Some of it’s trash, some of it’s treasure. But if you keep pulling you eventually get to the end of your rope. 

And there’s the story.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Harriet's Legacy

The newly renovated Stowe House
I've been fascinated by a real estate battle in our town. It seems Bowdoin College is suing a woman in California over the sale of her house.  At issue: a building at 28 College Street, Brunswick, Maine, owned by Arline Pennell Lay. Bowdoin says they made a deal with Ms. Lay ten years ago to buy the property for 125-percent of fair market value. Ms. Lay says the house is worth much more, and has a buyer who will pay her much more. That’s because – according to Lay --- Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in that house.

We take our history, and our place in it, very seriously in Brunswick. We like to think the Civil War began and ended here: sparked by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and effectively concluded when the 20th Maine, led by our very own Joshua Chamberlain, fixed bayonets at Gettysburg and successfully defended Little Round Top. A statue of Chamberlain (which looks less like the general and more like a cross between Senator Angus King and a popular third grade teacher here in town) stands poised just outside the gates of Bowdoin. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are both Bowdoin alums.


So claims of who wrote what when, and where, is no small thing in these parts. Still, this argument over where Stowe penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin  -- and how it affects a property’s value -- is pure silliness.  Ask any mother who writes.

At a time when there were no washing machines, dishwashers, or personal computers, Harriet Beecher Stowe had seven children and completed more than 30 books. She wrote with ink and a steel nib; she lit with lamp oil. I had two children, babysitting help, and a MacBook, and when my children were young I could barely complete a grocery list, let alone a novel. Sleep and logical, sequential thought were both casualties of those early parenting years.

I can tell you that Stowe probably wrote wherever she could: the family’s house on Federal, her husband’s office in Appleton Hall, maybe even, occasionally, that house at 28 College (although in Stowe’s day the building was located on Park Row.)  I’ll bet she’d have locked herself in the privy out back with ink and paper if she thought it might buy her 15 minutes of alone time.

We Writer-Mothers claw, carve, eke out and wrest time and inspiration from the daily storm of errands, diapers, and meals prepared, eaten and cleared. Children comforted, entertained, bathed. Stowe wrote to her sister-in-law, “Nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write.” God, yes. We must be determined. And deadly.  Not in the violent sense, but in terms of taking the work seriously. This pursuit is not a hobby (despite what my accountant says) or a passing phase. It’s a passion and a calling and it requires, demands, rests upon, time and space, both literal and figurative. 

 Bowdoin has recently completed a marvelous renovation of 63 Federal Street, the house where the Stowe’s lived from 1850-52. A room on the first floor of the house has been designated “Harriet’s Writing Room,” and the college has done a fine job of weaving together the history of the house, the family and the larger community.

But let’s be honest: this lovely space, which rivals the platonic ideal of a Pottery Barn catalogue home-office, is not the only room where Uncle Tom’s Cabin might have been written. I actually take issue with any attempt to pinpoint the “place.” Because as those of us who write, and who mother, know, that’s just not how it happens.

“Writing” doesn’t always involve a well-appointed office and clear desk in a room of one’s own. We make space when and where we can and these spaces are rarely neat or convenient. JK Rowling scribbled the plot for Harry Potter in a tea shop, on a napkin, with a child in a stroller. Toni Morrison composed novels while her children played at her feet. Louise Erdrich would strew toys in a line on the floor, buying precious writing minutes as her baby crawled to each one. Laurie Halse Anderson brought a laptop to her kids’ games, tapping out Speak while perched on the bleachers.

So the question for me is not where Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin … but how?

I’m confident Arline Pennell Lay’s attempt to pick Bowdoin’s deep pockets will be sorted out by lawyers who specialize in contracts. Meanwhile, I’m in awe of Harriet’s achievement. And grateful that in my history-rich town, her determination and her spirit continue to inspire. You can’t put a price on that.



Tuesday, July 5, 2016

21 Childrens Books

Today is the last day of Ramadan 2016 so I thought I'd wrap up #RamadanReads with this terrific list from Colours of Us, a site devoted to multicultural children's books. I've already blogged about several of the books on this list, but many others were new to me, so enjoy!

Eid-al-Fitr is tomorrow, July 6th. Best wishes to all my Muslim friends and their families as you celebrate!

Monday, July 4, 2016

What we Celebrate

Fireworks, Orr's Island, Maine
I grew up in a family where we said our bedtime prayers. I still remember my nightly "tag line" to God: Bless Mommy, Daddy, Jerry-Boy, Nana, Polly, Christine, Coco and Ellie. And Dear God, please don't let it rain on the Fourth of July.

That's right. In my child's hierarchy of Divine Entreaty, the American celebration of Independence ranked right up there with my parents, siblings, best girlfriend, dog and parrot. That's because in my small town, the Fourth of July was a magical day.

For months in advance, men in straw hats went door to door asking for contributions. These were The Holiday Observers, basically a group of town fathers, whose job it was to make sure the holidays were properly observed.

These guys didn't just collect money. They organized the Fourth of July sack races and potato-on-a-spoon races and hoop races and sweated in the melting heat of the all-day-grill at the ball field, selling burgers and dogs for improbably low prices (I remember 25-cent burgers, could that be right?) and purchased the trophies for all the end-of-year baseball and softball All-Star games which were held that day (along with all the races) and made sure the cotton candy truck showed up, as well as the guy who sold Pixie Sticks (three-foot long tubes filled with tart sugar) and the other vendor who sold those glow-in-the-dark necklaces which you later put in your freezer (who said they lasted longer that way? what a lie) until they slowly, sadly glowed out, and most importantly, above all: purchased, and ignited, the annual fireworks display at the town fields.

For some reason this was always the best day and the best night of my young life. I'm trying to figure out why. I never won any races (Joanne Stiles, the fastest girl in town, always won them all. All. Even the potato-on-a-spoon.) and my softball team usually came in second and got the consolation trophy and frankly, the 25-cent burgers were gross and greasy. But I remember my excitement on Fourth of July morning when I'd get on my bike early and peddle downtown and spend the entire long lazy day into late afternoon with ... everyone. The whole community. You'd bump into pretty much everybody you knew and graze the bad food and play the games and watch Joanne win all the races and I've never felt so free, yet so connected, at any other time in my life. As the sun set the entire town would gather at the ball field and set up blankets and lawn chairs, staking out little family islands which actually had no boundaries, everyone eventually fading into shadows illuminated by those glow-in-the-dark necklaces, until the first of the Holiday Observers pyrotechnics sputtered to life and ... the moment we had all been waiting for! The fireworks.

They were predictable as well as spectacular, which is why we loved them. There were the cannon booms and individual sparklies which burst over our heads in varying colors and circumferences. There was the "waterfall," in which a string of white lights erupted into a Niagara-like cascade of sparks. There was the Portrait of George Washington, a "tableau" if you will, of red,white and blue flame. And of course, the penultimate Grand Finale. So loud, so bright, so many fireworks shot into the sky at once. When it was over, to the smell of sulphur and the haze of drifting smoke and ash, we gathered our coolers and blankets and lawn chairs and herdlike, shuffled en masse to our cars or neighborhoods if we were walking distance ... or even if we weren't walking distance, it made more sense to walk a mile than deal with the clog of cars. In the dark, amidst the strange smells of afterburn, we resembled a retreat of sorts. A shadowy, hasty evacuation. Keeping track of the small children was important.

I loved it all, every bit of it, and prayed the weather would comply each year. Sometimes it didn't, and this was a bitter disappointment. I don't think my own children, despite growing up in a smallish town and coming from a community where fireworks and cookouts are a big part of life, had quite the experience I had. That heady combination of freedom and community. This massive party to which we were all invited and everyone belonged.

I still pray. I'm a big believer in prayer, actually, although the list has changed. And grown. Exponentially. And I've changed. And I'm worried my country has changed, too. And while I still love fireworks and clapped and laughed the other night watching the lovely display over the water near Orr's Island and I'm making potato salad and burgers on the grill for friends this afternoon, I have a nagging sense that's not enough. It's not enough to simply be happy and have fun today. Not when I read what passes for political "discourse" these days. Not when I see our country locked in a state of perpetual war. And young men who graduated from high school with my son don uniforms and talk about their future deployments.

Roy Scranton, a writer I never heard about until I read his essay in The New York Times, is a veteran who urges us to examine what we celebrate today. I think he speaks with the hard-earned authority of someone who has seen combat and put his life on the line. Take a look at his essay. These lines particularly resonated with me:

There is another version of America beyond the noise our fireworks make: not military strength, but the deliberate commitment to collective self-determination. Perhaps this Fourth of July we could commemorate that. Instead of celebrating American violence, we might celebrate our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the ideals those documents invoke of an educated citizenry deciding its fate not through war but through civil disagreement.

John Lewis, who crossed that bridge at Selma and sat on the floor of the House of Representatives last week comes to mind. Who, or what, can you name?






Saturday, July 2, 2016

Best Eid Ever

The Best Eid Ever, written by Asma Mobin-Uddin and illustrated by Laura Jacobsen, is about Aneesa, a Muslim girl who will celebrate Eid with her grandmother because her parents are away.

To cheer Aneesa, who misses her parents, grandma gifts her with several beautiful outfits, one for each of the three days of Eid. However, when Aneesa wears one of them to the mosque, she notices some refugee girls who are dressed poorly ... I guess you can imagine what happens next.

This read-aloud for young elementary school kids would be a great choice for Muslim and non-Muslim children alike, and is perfect not only for teaching simple lessons about generosity and kindness, but also for capturing the spirit of Ramadan and Eid.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Neighbors to the North


Instead of posting a #kidlit recommendation for #RamadanReads today, I'm sharing this article from today's New York Times: Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome.

It's an inspiring but also unblinking look at the generous, heroic actions of Canadians who are sponsoring Syrian families. And it reminded me of many Mainers I've met, and learned from, over the years, who have devoted their careers, their time, and their friendship to newcomers from around the world. Several that come to mind (and I encourage you to visit these sites and check out their work!):

Julia Sleeper of Tree Street Youth in Lewiston, Maine
Molly Haley of The Telling Room in Portland, Maine
Kirsten Cappy and Anne Sibley O'Brien, creators of I'm Your Neighbor

These folks inspire me! I hope they inspire you.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Eid Reads

Ramadan is ending soon, which means Muslim families are preparing for Eid on July 6th.

As I was putting together my list for this last week of #RamadanReads blog posts I found this incredible site, All Done Monkey, which not only has a wealth of suggestions for kids, but is super well-written and accessible. There are also "teaching plans" for your classes and your own families.

I got completely lost in this site, jumping from one great recommendation to the next ... yeah, like an excited monkey. I know: such a book nerd. But this site is a terrific resource, and I guarantee you will spend a lot of time here. I guess that's a warning: Time Suck Ahead. Because it's that good.

Thanks to Leanna at All Done Monkey for creating this wonderful resource!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Golden Domes

This color-themed, read-aloud book for the very young (ages 0-3) introduces Islam to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors is written by Hena Khan and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Salaam Reads

Growing up in Connecticut as a Muslim-American girl, Zareen Jaffery came of age reading books by established kidlit authors like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. These books fueled her love for reading, but didn't necessarily help her find her "place" in the world. She didn't see herself reflected in those books.

Today, while Muslim characters in children's books are still scarce, they won't be for long if Jaffery, now an Executive Editor at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, has anything to do about it. This year she became head of their new imprint, Salaam Reads, which features Muslim characters and stories.

Salaam Reads aims to offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works. The imprint, which takes its name from the Arabic word for “peace,” plans to publish books for young readers of all ages, including picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult.
So far, Salaam Reads has acquired four books that will come out in 2017, including “Salam Alaikum,” a picture book based on a song by the British teen pop singer Harris J. Others planned for release next year are “Musa, Moises, Mo and Kevin,” a picture book about four kindergarten friends who learn about one another’s holiday traditions; “The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand” by Karuna Riazi, about a 12-year-old Bangladeshi-American who sets out to save her brother from a supernatural board game, and “Yo Soy Muslim,” a picture book by the poet Mark Gonzales.
In addition to publishing works acquired through literary agents, Salaam Reads will also consider for publication unagented and/or unsolicited manuscripts. Submissions can be sent to SalaamReads@SimonandSchuster.com.
This post is adapted from an article in The New York Times and from the website I'm Your Neighbor.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Enrique's Journey

I know, I promised to post Ramadan-related Reads every day throughout Ramadan but this morning's Brexit headlines and yesterday's Supreme Court ruling about immigration have shaken my author's soul so deeply that I can only respond the way I always do ... turning to words, and stories, for answers.

Sonia Nazario won the Pulitzer Prize for Enrique's Journey, an account of a Honduran boy who journeys to find his mother. Here's the Amazon blurb:

Enrique’s Journey recounts the unforgettable quest of a Honduran boy looking for his mother, eleven years after she is forced to leave her starving family to find work in the United States. Braving unimaginable peril, often clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains, Enrique travels through hostile worlds full of thugs, bandits, and corrupt cops. But he pushes forward, relying on his wit, courage, hope, and the kindness of strangers. As Isabel Allende writes: “This is a twenty-first-century Odyssey. If you are going to read only one nonfiction book this year, it has to be this one.”

We need to put a human face on the headlines, and this is what Nazario has done. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Some Things Never Change

Joseph has come to America from a refugee camp in Kenya. While he was in Kenya, his dream was to ride a bicycle ... a dream which remains unchanged when he arrives in the U.S.

In Joseph's Big Ride, written by Terry Farish, with art by Ken Daley, we see how even when you are transported to a different world, some things never change. And getting up and trying again, no matter how many times you fall, is a metaphor for more than just riding a bike.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Refugees United

When I'm beginning a new book I usually don't talk about it. Those early months, as I'm figuring out what the story might be and getting to know the characters, is fragile as a bubble. Blow too hard, whisper too loudly, and it will burst.

Eventually, though, there are enough words on the page and the thing seems real, and I'll tell a few trusted souls about my new imaginary friends. This is good, because The Circle of Trust usually makes useful suggestions. Which, when I was writing Out of Nowhere, came in the form of this book: Outcasts United.

After hearing I was writing a novel about refugee kids in Maine playing high school soccer, a friend told me the college where she worked had just done an all-freshmen read which sounded remarkably similar. I picked up a copy of that book and was stunned: writer Warren St. John had written about the very kids I was interviewing in Lewiston, Maine! Except he'd met them and their families when they first arrived to the U.S. and landed in Clarkston, Georgia.

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference (non-fiction) is the story of a youth soccer team made up of diverse refugee kids. They are coached by an amazing young woman, herself a first-gen American, Luma Mufleh. All of these kids and their families were relocated by the U.S. and the United Nations to Clarkston, a typical sleepy southern town, after it was designated a refugee resettlement center. St. John's book is about the kids and their families, about Mufleh, and also about Clarkston and its residents. There are two versions of this book, one for adults, and another for students (cover featured here).

Lewiston, Maine, the setting for my book, is an example of "secondary migration." In other words, after an initial placement in an American city, refugee families often seek new homes in communities which are a better fit for them, might have better job opportunities, etc. Many of the kids I met in Lewiston had started out in Clarkston.

When Out of Nowhere came out I was thrilled to learn that my publisher (then Random House, but nowadays I think of it as Random Penguin) had created resource materials linking it with Outcasts, one of those Common Core non-fiction/fiction pairings. Regardless of what you think of the Common Core, RH did a terrific job creating discussion questions and resources for schools using both books: Resource Guide for Out of Nowhere and Outcasts United.

Warren St. John has written a book which goes far toward building bridges between communities. Particularly for students who like sports, this one might make a good summer read.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I'm New Here

It's the first day of school for Marie, Jin, and Fatimah, and while for all children the First Day can be equal parts exciting, fun and nerve wracking, for these three immigrant kids (they hail from Guatemala, Korea and Somalia, respectively) there are especially big challenges.

What is it like to be a child in school who encounters a wall of words you don't understand? What must it be like to negotiate the American school lunchroom (not to mention the lunch) for the first time?

In I'm New Here, (Kirkus starred review; Kirkus 100 Best Picture Books of 2015) author/illustrator Anne Sibley O'Brien explores the "New Arrival" experience from a child's perspective with her usual insight and beautiful art.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Coming of Age as a Muslim American Teen

I met author Farhana Zia in Boston when we were both panelists at a National Council of Teachers of English conference. Lucky me! That's when I first learned of this terrific middle-grade book.

The Garden of My Imaan is about an ordinary middle-school American girl, Aliya, struggling to fit it. Well, maybe not so ordinary. In addition to dealing with mean girls and wondering if the cute guy likes her, she's navigating a visit from her ethnic grandma (the passages with grandma are pretty hilarious) and comparing herself to the seemingly-perfect Muslim girl from Morocco who appears to know herself well and be confident in her faith and culture. Meanwhile, Aliya anguishes: should she wear the hijab and appear even more different to her non-Muslim classmates? She's old enough: should she fast during Ramadan?

This is a great read for middle-school kids, not simply because the characters are delightful and their struggles real, but also because it presents lots of information about Muslim faith and how various cultures practice differently.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Muslim Teenager's Handbook

This book was designed for American Muslim teens (obviously) but I'd suggest picking up The American Muslim Teenager's Handbook if you have basic questions about Islam and how an observant person living in a Western culture would practice.

Hijab, or not? Prom, or not? Drinking, or not? Fasting during Ramadan, or not? It's all here, delivered in a kid-friendly, down-to-earth style.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Somali Diaspora

While I was researching Out of Nowhere a friend invited me to join her to see a photography exhibit at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. We entered a room filled with the beautiful images which comprise The Somali Diaspora, a chronicle of one family's journey from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya to resettlement in California to eventual arrival in Lewiston.

Photographer Abdi Roble, a native Somali who came to the U.S. in 1989, opens a hidden door into the lives and experiences of Somali immigrants with this book. A White House "Champion of Change," he is the executive director of the Somali Documentary Project and a visiting scholar at Ohio State University. Doug Rutledge, a poet and playwright who is also the writer for the Somali Documentary Project, contributed the essays.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Memoirs from Kenya to Maine

When I was researching Out of Nowhere, I went to Portland one evening for a reading from this collection, They Were Very Beautiful, Such Things Are. Several of the writers/contributors to this volume read from their work. It was quite the night, and this is an incredible book.

Once an isolated outpost in a desert region of northeastern Kenya, today Dadaab is the site of the largest refugee "camp" in the world, with more than 300,000 people. I use the term camp loosely, because Dadaab has grown so exponentially and residents there have remained so long, it has taken on a permanence that "camp" does not convey. It is a harsh place to dwell: daytime temperatures rarely fall below 90, summertime is often above 115, annual rains bring disastrous floods.

Beginning in 2001 Somali refugees, many who were resettled to the U.S. from Dadaab, began making their way to Lewiston, Maine. By 2008, more than 3000 Somalis lived in Lewiston: a former mill town of about 30,000, where annual winter snows of several feet are typical, and the population is predominately white, Catholic and Franco. Maine is the "whitest" state in the nation (although Vermont rivals us); Lewiston the most Franco city in the nation.

This book is a collection of voices from this unlikely merge. Unpolished, raw, and completely honest.
#RamadanReads


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Faith Club

A Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew walk into a ... sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?

It's actually a TERRIFIC book. The Faith Club: Three Women Search for Understanding, written by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner, is an honest conversation among three women of different faiths. They don't shirk from the hard questions, and they don't always like each other's opinions or answers, but they all come to respect each other and learn from each other. Here's the summary:

In the wake of 9/11, Idliby, an American Muslim of Palestinian descent, sought out fellow mothers of the Jewish and Christian faiths to write a children's book on the commonalities among their respective traditions. In their first meeting, however, the women realized they would have to address their differences first. Oliver, an Episcopalian who was raised Catholic, irked Warner, a Jewish woman and children's author, with her description of the Crucifixion story, which sounded too much like "Jews killed Jesus" for Warner's taste. Idliby's efforts to join in on the usual "Judeo-Christian" debate tap into a sense of alienation she already feels in the larger Muslim community, where she is unable to find a progressive mosque that reflects her non–veil-wearing, spiritual Islam. The ladies come to call their group a "faith club" and, over time, midwife each other into stronger belief in their own respective religions. More Fight Club than book club, the coauthors pull no punches; their outstanding honesty makes for a page-turning read, rare for a religion nonfiction book. From Idliby's graphic defense of the Palestinian cause, Oliver's vacillations between faith and doubt, and Warner's struggles to acknowledge God's existence, almost every taboo topic is explored on this engaging spiritual ride.

If I had to say anything critical about this book it's that ... well, it's almost too easy. Look at these women: beautiful, educated, safe, upper middle class. These well-heeled "People of the Book" don't have to stretch too far to be civil, find common ground and learn from one another. A far more challenging conversation might take place among women whose religious practices are more rigid/conservative and whose educational and economic backgrounds more disparate.

Nevertheless, this book was well done and the topics important.
#RamadanReads

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Warm Rain

I Remember Warm Rain is The Telling Room's first anthology, and I remember when my friend, Gail, handed it to me. I was in the early stages of writing Out of Nowhere and driving between Brunswick, Lewiston, and Portland to meet and interview kids who had arrived in Maine after their families fled war zones. While there's no substitute for actually sitting with a person and hearing his/her story over many hours and many cups of tea, not everyone has that opportunity. Or privilege.

You can do it here, with this book. Fifteen teenagers from around the world share their coming-to-America stories, and each is unique and honest. Here's the summary:

Fifteen students, from countries such as Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, and Iran are represented in our first anthology, I Remember Warm Rain. In it, you meet Ali killing hyenas and Arunda speaking to his father by phone after ten years of believing he is dead. You meet Kahiye, revealing his first experience of snow, and Stella doing something once forbidden to her, playing a game she loves: soccer. These rich stories were written as part of The Telling Room's yearlong Story House Project, a multi-media initiative built on the collaborative efforts of local artists, writers, filmmakers, sound technicians, teachers and the 15 young storytellers who bravely told their tales of leaving home in hopes of finding a new one in America.

#RamadanReads #RadicalEmpathy

Monday, June 13, 2016

New Mainers

Guess what? We're not all lobstermen, lumberjacks, or exiles from Massachusetts and New Jersey. Stroll down the streets of Portland and you'll find a startling diversity of faces, languages and YES! restaurants.

From Amazon: "Who are these new Mainers, and why have they come here? They are from war-torn countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Cambodia; from poor Latin American nations; and from economically vibrant places like Hong Kong, India, and Europe--in other words, from across the global spectrum. They came to Maine for a job or to reunite with their family or because they fell in love or to attend college here or to flee persecution in their homelands.

Although the twenty-five immigrants who tell their stories had widely varying reasons for coming to Maine, many have made remarkable contributions to the state. Some contribute high-level skills in medicine, engineering, academia, law, public-school education, hotel management, and social services. Others have enriched the state's arts and sports worlds. Several are used to going back and forth across borders, either as transnational professionals or as migrant workers. About one-third of these immigrants are successful entrepreneurs.
As you will find out, the journeys of these immigrants have not been easy, but all of them are glad they wound up in this state and are proud of their new identities as Mainers."

This terrific book is written by Pat Nyhan and Reza Jalali; photography by Jan Pieter van Voorst von Beest

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Curious George Does Ramadan

What can I say? My "kids" are 20-something adults now, but it feels like yesterday we were cuddling together reading Curious George. To this day, whenever one of us screws up (which is fairly often) we'll comment, "Sometimes little monkeys forget!"

So, this is terrific, right? A board book to introduce the very young to Ramadan.

In  It's Ramadan, Curious George by H.A. Rey and Hena Khan, it's the first day of Ramadan, and George is celebrating with his friend Kareem and his family. George helps Kareem with his first fast and joins in the evening celebration of tasting treats and enjoying a special meal. Then, George helps make gift baskets to donate to the needy, and watches for the crescent moon with the man in the yellow hat. Finally George joins in the Eid festivities to mark the end of his very first Ramadan. 
     This playful tabbed board book would be good not only for those who celebrate Ramadan, but also for those who are learning about it for the first time!
#RamadanReads

The Good Braider

I remember the day I first heard author Terry Farish read from her novel, The Good Braider. It was the section where the main character, Viola, a Sudanese refugee girl/rape survivor who has been relocated to Portland, Maine with her family, reflects on who she is now and what remains of her shattered, former self.

Terry's voice is gently haunting, and the section she read was particularly honest. We were sitting together at a long table, part of a YA panel at some book conference, and I couldn't help it: I started to cry. I wasn't a colleague in that moment, speaking "professionally" before an audience. Her words transformed me into another reader/listener, moved to tears by this powerful story.

A summary of the book: "In spare free verse laced with unforgettable images, Viola's strikingly original voice sings out the story of her family's journey from war-torn Sudan, to Cairo, and finally to Portland, Maine. Here, in the sometimes too close embrace of the local Southern Sudanese Community, she dreams of South Sudan while she tries to navigate the strange world of America—a world where a girl can wear a short skirt, get a tattoo, or even date a boy; a world that puts her into sharp conflict with her traditional mother who, like Viola, is struggling to braid together the strands of a displaced life. Terry Farish's haunting novel is not only a riveting story of escape and survival, but the universal tale of a young immigrant's struggle to build a life on the cusp of two cultures."

The Good Braider received the Maine Literary Award and the Lupine Award.
#RamadanReads

Friday, June 10, 2016

New Arrivals

Why focus on a single book when I can recommend a few thousand at once? Today, it's I'm Your Neighbor.

The creation of Kid Lit Grande Dame Kirsten Cappy (Curious City) and author Anne Sibley O'Brien, I'm Your Neighbor is an incredible resource for teachers, librarians and parents looking for diverse books for young readers.

Inspired by the influx of "new arrivals" to Portland, Maine, Kirsten and Anne have curated a list which is organized by setting, groups represented and theme. The books cover a wide range of age needs and reading levels and adults will find a wealth of good reads here as well.

#RamadanReads #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Telling Room

I'm a big fan of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement but frankly that's not enough. We need diverse voices. If you've ever attempted to crack the publishing business and see your writing bound and displayed on store shelves, you know getting to that stage is akin to getting struck by lightening.

So the books out there are a slim reflection of the stories that beg to be heard.

The Telling Room in Portland, Maine is a hub of diverse, soul-searing stories. A non-profit writing center that works with children all the way through high school age, it draws not only the reluctant but also the inspired writer. And the writer "from away." In Maine, anyone who wasn't born here is considered "from away," and Portland in particular, as a refugee relocation center, is home to many from FAR away.

Working with young people who represent myriad cultures, races and religions, The Telling Room publishes anthologies of their  stories. They are honest, funny, inspiring and devastating. You won't find them in Barnes and Noble or trending on Twitter, but they are the stories you'll want to, need to, hear. Check them out: The Telling Room.

#RamadanReads #WeNeedDiverseVoices

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Early Ramadan Reader

With beautiful illustrations by Sue Williams, Under the Ramadan Moon, by Sylvia Whitman, tells the story of a modern family's traditions during Ramadan. Good for grades 2-4.

There's also a detailed note at the end about Ramadan.

#RamadanReads

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Culture, or Religion?

Wearing the hijab: is it a religious requirement, or a cultural practice? I have Muslim friends who are covered from wrist to ankle, and others whose gorgeous long hair flows freely. All are observant Muslims.

The delightful YA novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah addresses this issue. When sixteen-year-old Amal decides to wear the hijab full-time, her entire world changes, all because of a piece of cloth...

She makes the decision to start wearing the hijab full-time and everyone has a reaction. Her parents, her teachers, her friends, people on the street. But she stands by her decision to embrace her faith and all that it is, even if it does make her a little different from everyone else.
Can she handle the taunts of "towel head," the prejudice of her classmates, and still attract the cutest boy in school? Brilliantly funny and poignant, Randa Abdel-Fattah's debut novel will strike a chord in all teenage readers, no matter what their beliefs. 


Monday, June 6, 2016

Ramadan Reads

Welcome to Monday, June 6, 2016, the beginning of Ramadan!

In my novel, Out of Nowhere, the main character, Tom Bouchard, is dismayed to learn that Ramadan ... the Muslim holy month of fasting, alms giving, and much more ... falls during the height of his team's soccer season. And four of their star players are Muslim! Predictably (for the evolving Tom) his primary concern is how this will affect their performance on the field.

Writing Out of Nowhere gave me a marvelous "excuse" to seek out and get to know Muslim teens in Maine and ask them about their faith and their various cultures. Much of the novel is based on anecdotes they shared and insights they trusted to confide.

Despite all I learned from them, I continue to be surprised by what I don't know or understand about this holy month. So in the interest of deepening my own knowledge and sharing a wealth of terrific titles for all ages, I'm going to post, throughout the month of Ramadan, about books for both children and adults which not only explore Ramadan but also include stories with Muslim protagonists. It's all part of #RamadanReads and I encourage you to follow that Twitter hashtag and check out the wealth of books people are talking about.

I want to kick off with Moon Watchers: Shirin's Ramadan Miracle, by Reza Jalali, illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien.  Moon Watchers offers an inside view of daily life in a modern Muslim family during Ramadan. Shirin and her older brother Ali have a history of not getting along, so when she discovers him sneaking food one afternoon during his Ramadan fast, she is tempted to tease him about his weakness. Instead of tattling, Shirin decides to mind her own business. She is determined to prove to her parents that she is ready to participate in this important rite of passage. Ultimately the little sister is surprised by a gift from her brother. Readers from all faiths will appreciate this universal story with its thought- provoking focus on family life.

From now until July 6th (Eid al-Fitr) I'll share a book per day. Happy reading!