May I Have Your Attention, Please?

National Book AwardsImag­ine for a moment: you are an author devot­ed to cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful and inspir­ing books for chil­dren and young adults. Per­haps, some­where in the back of your mind, you won­der if, some­day, your work might be hon­ored to receive a Nation­al Book Award. Then imag­ine that the impos­si­ble hap­pens: You learn that your lat­est book was select­ed as a Final­ist! You are bare­ly over the shock and awe at your good for­tune, and are set­tling into hap­py antic­i­pa­tion of the com­ing awards cer­e­mo­ny, where—who knows— your book might even be cho­sen the win­ner! Then, sud­den­ly, all hell breaks loose. A book that was not select­ed is mis­tak­en­ly announced to the world as a final­ist. The after­math is down­right nightmarish.

Once the full truth comes to light, you are as dis­traught as every­one else for Lau­ren Myr­a­cle, the author in the eye of the storm. But, at the same time, you are heart­bro­ken because your spe­cial, once-in-a-life­time moment was swal­lowed up in a con­tro­ver­sy not of your own mak­ing. The nation­al press and social media are all over the sto­ry, of course, but the title of your hon­ored book scarce­ly comes in for a men­tion. Ouch!

Here’s the thing: the authors select­ed as this year’s NBA final­ists in Young Peo­ple’s Lit­er­a­ture are as blame­less in this fias­co as Lau­ren, and yet, in a very real sense, they too were harmed. How? In the midst of the firestorm that fol­lowed, their sin­gu­lar achieve­ments were over­shad­owed, over­looked, and almost com­plete­ly ignored. That’s just plain wrong.

I’m not going to rehash the details here. Every­body knows them already. Suf­fice it to say, griev­ous mis­takes were made, and have been cor­rect­ed, out­rage has been voiced, copi­ous amounts of mud have been slung, and apolo­gies have been offered. It’s done. Now, let’s take a deep breath.

For the record, there were a num­ber of extra­or­di­nary books that just missed being cho­sen this year, and each judge had a favorite title or two fail to gar­ner enough votes to secure a place among the final­ists. (I’m still in mourn­ing over the loss of one of my faves. I fought for it right up until the very last vote!) But that is the nature of the beast. There were more than 270 books sub­mit­ted for con­sid­er­a­tion, and there were only five spots to fill. We read, dis­cussed, and delib­er­at­ed over these books for four months, and we chose as care­ful­ly and thought­ful­ly as we could. The work was ardu­ous, and the hours long, but we con­sid­ered it an hon­or, and han­dled it accordingly.

Now, speak­ing as one of the judges for this year’s NBA pan­el on Young Peo­ple’s Lit­er­a­ture, I think—we all think—it’s time to shift the dia­logue, and give some over­due, pos­i­tive atten­tion to the books select­ed. Here, then, are descrip­tions of the five finalists.

My Name Is Not Easy by Deb­by Dahl Edwardson

Set in Alas­ka above the Arc­tic Cir­cle, My Name Is Not Easy inter­weaves nature, cul­ture clash, reli­gion and sci­ence into a vivid, mul­ti-voiced nar­ra­tive. The time is the ear­ly 1960s at the Sacred Heart Board­ing School near Bar­row. Eski­mo, Indi­an, and White kids hud­dle at their own tables. Noth­ing is easy for kids uproot­ed from their vil­lages: the food is not what they’re used to (where is the cari­bou meat, the whale fat?), the Catholic school rules are for­bid­ding, the Cold War looms. This nov­el is deeply informed by the his­to­ry and land­scape of the high arc­tic region, where the relent­less march of moder­ni­ty press­es on native cul­ture. Back home the vil­lagers still hunt, but now with the help of snow­mo­biles, not sleds. Though, as a wise elder remarks to a young hunter, “How is that snow machine going to find its way home in a bliz­zard?” This nov­el is deeply authen­tic; Edward­son lives where she writes, and she nev­er falls into cliché. Even the nuns and priests are ful­ly real­ized char­ac­ters, with dilem­mas of their own. This nov­el gives voice to an over­looked, out­lier part of Amer­i­ca, yet the dilem­mas and vic­to­ries of the char­ac­ters are universal.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

If you were for­tu­nate enough to read the New­bery Hon­or book, The Wednes­day Wars, you’ll be famil­iar with the main pro­tag­o­nist here. In the sum­mer of 1968, Doug Swi­etek moves to a small town in upstate New York, which he fond­ly refers to as “The Dump.” Not that it would mat­ter much where he lived, since he’d still have to con­tend with an abu­sive father, a delin­quent broth­er who rou­tine­ly mis­treats him, while sore­ly miss­ing the old­est, most beloved broth­er who is away in Viet­nam. Des­per­ate for inspi­ra­tion, Dough clings to a one-time encounter with a base­ball star in this tour-de-force. What are the stats? A town that offers up a lit­er­ary dugout of eclec­tic char­ac­ters with bite and wit: a librarian/art teacher, an eccen­tric play­wright, past her prime, a feisty female friend who proves she is more, and a host of grand­moth­er­ly neigh­bors who show Doug was kind­ness looks like. Schmidt uses these, along with Audubon’s Birds of Amer­i­ca, to lay­er a rich sto­ry about choice, inner strength, and the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of art. In fact, this is the first work of fic­tion I’ve come across that actu­al­ly takes the read­er inside of the process of cre­at­ing art, while allow­ing him to expe­ri­ence, along with the char­ac­ter, the won­der­ful ah-ha moments that comes with explor­ing the cre­ative process. An addi­tion­al ele­ment that made this book a stand­out was the promi­nent place of the library in this nar­ra­tive. Alto­geth­er an amaz­ing achievement!

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Immi­gra­tion was a recur­ring theme in the books we read this year but this one, which hap­pens to be a nov­el-in-verse, was the clear stand­out. In a pure and authen­tic voice, a girl named Ha tells the sto­ry of her fam­i­ly’s har­row­ing escape from Saigon as it falls, the hor­rif­ic ship-ride to Amer­i­ca, and the oth­er-world­ly expe­ri­ence of land­ing in Alaba­ma where the cold­ness of strangers awaits them. Ha, a tough and ten­der ten-year-old fights for her place in Amer­i­ca while rely­ing on the strength of the cul­ture that gave her birth. The emo­tion­al impact of this sto­ry is felt as much in the words that aren’t said, as in the words that are. With hints of humor through­out, the poet­ry car­ries the rhythms of the Viet­namese cul­ture. Read­ers will think more kind­ly toward the immi­grants in their midst after spend­ing time between the pages of this book. For me, this was love at first read!

Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

This work of non-fic­tion explores the infa­mous Tri­an­gle Fire, one of the worst, and most pre­ventable, work-relat­ed dis­as­ters in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, eclipsed only by the events of 9/11. In the hands of Mar­rin, the scope of this sto­ry is deep, and wide. The book traces key points in the his­to­ry of South­ern Ital­ians and Russ­ian Jews—the pri­ma­ry vic­tims of the fire—exploring the rea­sons their fore­bears immi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca, and what brought their descen­dents into the fac­to­ry sweat­shops of ear­ly New York. Read­ers learn about the so-called “Black Ital­ians,” the impact of the Mount Vesu­vius erup­tion, the Russ­ian pogroms, the Pale of Set­tle­ment, right up to Ellis Island, once known as “the Island of Fears,” and the fall of Tam­many Hall, illu­mi­nat­ing bits of his­to­ry con­nect­ed to the Tri­an­gle Fire event. The book then fol­lows the impact this dis­as­ter had on shift­ing labor laws and prac­tices to cre­ate the more humane, and safe, work­ing envi­ron­ments we all enjoy today. Mir­ren also brings to light unher­ald­ed heroes and hero­ines of the Amer­i­can Labor move­ment who rose up to lead reform, and orga­nize unions to push for nec­es­sary changes in the work­place. There is dra­ma, poet­ry, and music in the lan­guage here, allow­ing this his­to­ry les­son to flow with ease.

Chime by Fran­ny Billingsley

Don’t be fooled by the cov­er. There is noth­ing cook­ie-cut­ter about this nov­el. Take twin sis­ters, a bog­gy land­scape, a hand­some young stranger, a ghost or two, then add a mag­ic caul­dron, and stir. This book fea­tures some of the most live­ly, orig­i­nal, engag­ing line-by-line writ­ing you’ll find any­where. What’s more, the lush lan­guage is at the ser­vice of a sto­ry which man­ages to explore a dark psy­cho­log­i­cal bond that will be eye-open­ing for alert, self-reflec­tive read­ers, and heart-pound­ing for fans of romance in a kind of steam­punk fan­ta­sy land­scape. This book will be a stretch for many read­ers, but the remark­able use of lan­guage makes the jour­ney a sin­gu­lar experience.

Now that you’ve had a chance to learn some­thing about these out­stand­ing books, I hope you’ll check them out for your­self. They are well wor­thy of your atten­tion and the authors deserve all of our sup­port. Just imag­ine, for a moment, if you were one of these authors.

Nine Not-to-Miss Novels

National Book Awards readingCom­ing up with the title for this blog was a breeze. As a poet, I’m par­tial to allit­er­a­tion. How­ev­er, I fell in love with a good deal more than nine books this sum­mer, so I’ve decid­ed to list all of my faves and let some­one else wor­ry about the final tally.

First, a cou­ple of caveats: I don’t gen­er­al­ly talk about spe­cif­ic books on this blog because that’s not what it’s for. I’m mak­ing this lone excep­tion because, as a judge for this year’s Nation­al Book Award, friends have been ask­ing me what won­der­ful titles I found along the way. So, this once, I’ll give you my two-cents worth of com­men­tary on some of the lat­est, and what I, per­son­al­ly, con­sid­er the great­est YA titles enter­ing the mar­ket­place this year. Again, this is a one-time thing, so please don’t send me any books to review, because I won’t. That’s not my gig. You’ll also notice, I did not include pub­lish­er, price, or grade-lev­el. Again, not my gig.

Sec­ond, the titles on this list are not the only good books pub­lished in 2011. There are many more, I’m hap­py to report, but you won’t find all of them here. These, in addi­tion to the five final­ists, are sim­ply my own, top-tier favorites.

I love me some nov­els-in-verse, don’t you know. Besides Inside Out and Back Again, I found three titles to add to my col­lec­tion. Hur­ri­cane Dancers by Mar­gari­ta Engle gets my vote. An evoca­tive sto­ry of adven­ture on a pirate ship and an island along the Caribbean Sea, this is a gem of a book with a lyri­cal lure. Eddie’s War by Car­ol Fish­er Saller shows us the impact of WWII on a farm boy in the Heart­land. True and ten­der. Then there’s Allan Wolf, who does not dis­ap­point. This time around, his tome is The Watch that Ends the Night, a nov­el about the Titan­ic. Writ­ten in the voic­es of those inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with the story—including the ice­berg! (I love that)—Wolf steers the sto­ry place it’s nev­er gone before. Kudos, Allan!

I’ve nev­er been one for sci-fi nov­els, but one nov­el so cat­a­logued got my atten­tion. Awak­en by Katie Kacvin­sky was fas­ci­nat­ing, and thought pro­vok­ing. It answers the ques­tion “What if online com­mu­ni­ca­tion com­plete­ly replaced face-to-face human inter­ac­tion?” The answer will give read­ers a lot to pon­der, and they’ll enjoy the jour­ney along the way.

Sara Zarr is up to noth­ing but good once again. How to Save a Life, a nov­el about a baby in need of a par­ent, and a par­ent in need of a moth­er, is a big sto­ry with an even big­ger heart. When you’re done, you’ll want to give this book a hug.

Speak­ing of babies, do pick up Preg­nant Pause by Han Nolan. I guar­an­tee you’ve nev­er met a char­ac­ter quite like Eleanor Crowe, nor thought of plac­ing a preg­nant teen in a so-called fat camp. Yes, there is some hilar­i­ty, but that’s not the half of it. What can a preg­nant teen learn about her­self in this envi­ron­ment? Read to find out.

I love books about tough-talk­ing girls, and I could not put down The File on Ange­lyn Stark by Cather­ine Atkins. This smart, and smart-mouthed, teen is rough around the edges, and with good rea­son. But she fights to claim the good in her­self, and dis­cov­ers the courage to set her life on a healthy path. She’ll make you a believer.

Bird in a Box, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, is a break-out title about the impact box­ing leg­end Joe Louis had on Depres­sion-era Amer­i­ca, in gen­er­al, and on the African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty, in par­tic­u­lar. The voic­es are authen­tic, and often joy­ful, and the his­tor­i­cal detail brings the peri­od to life. An uplift­ing sto­ry about hope and the human spir­it, this would make a great class­room read. The author’s note and back mat­ter expand nice­ly on the his­tor­i­cal detail. Fab­u­lous job, Andrea!

Anoth­er nov­el of note for its his­tor­i­cal theme is Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Supetys. This nov­el explores a Holo­caust sto­ry few have heard before. This book reveals the hor­rors suf­fered by cit­i­zens of the Baltic States, under the heels of both Hitler and Stal­in. A pow­er­ful sto­ry of sur­vival, com­pas­sion, and amaz­ing grace. Anoth­er title that cries out for the classroom.

Danc­ing Home by Alma Flor Ada is a small, but impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the nation­al dia­logue on immi­gra­tion. This gen­tly writ­ten sto­ry takes read­ers inside the dual­i­ty of being a first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can, with a foot in two cul­tures. The read­er is chal­lenged to exam­ine what it means to be an American.

As most of you know, I am not a fan of pro­fan­i­ty in books for young read­ers, but some­times it’s nec­es­sary to make an excep­tion. Com­pul­sion, by Hei­di Ayarbe is one. In this nov­el about a boy wrestling with OCD, the rough lan­guage is a pow­er­ful expres­sion of the severe frus­tra­tion this char­ac­ter expe­ri­ence every day of his life. He strug­gles, and often fails, to hide or con­trol his symp­toms, often tee­ter­ing on the edge of despair. But he nev­er gives up on him­self, and nei­ther will the read­er. This is a great book for engen­der­ing empa­thy for those around us who bat­tle their own dis­or­ders, whether they are phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, or eco­nom­ic. This book is one worth check­ing out.

Miles from Ordi­nary by Car­ol Lynch Williams stole my heart, broke it, and then pieced it back togeth­er. This is a beau­ti­ful book about hope, with a char­ac­ter who emerges in lay­ers. Loved, loved, loved this book!

There’s anoth­er Lynch on my list. The won­der­ful Chris Lynch rocked it out with Angry You Man. In this sto­ry about, quite lit­er­al­ly, being our broth­er’s keep­er, we are remind­ed to check the tim­ber in our own eyes before judg­ing the mote in some­one else’s. That will make lit­tle sense until you read the book, and I sug­gest you do. And, oh yeah, there’s a bit of eco-ter­ror­ism thrown in, so I’d call this title rather time­ly. Lynch is a mas­ter of the pow­er­ful voice, so you’ll be hooked in no time.

Won­der­struck, by Bri­an Selznick. Need I say more? A light-filled com­bi­na­tion of visu­al and lit­er­al sto­ry­telling, as only Selznick can pro­duce. This tale is rich­ly imag­ined, and gives a glimpse of the World’s Fair in NYC, then brings the sto­ry for­ward. This book is a treat. Do your­self a favor and get this one.


Hey 13! by Gary Soto

Paper Cov­ers Rock by Jen­ny Hubbard

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Drag­on Cas­tle by Joseph Bruchac

Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon

Lie by Car­o­line Bock

Bloody Times by James Swan­son (non-fic­tion)

A Girl Named Faith­ful by Richard Bernstein

Joseph’s Grace by Sheila Moses

The Sum­mer of Ham­mers and Angels by Shan­non Wiersbitzky

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy


Heart and Soul by Kadir Nel­son (absolute­ly stunning!)

Nev­er For­got­ten by Patri­cia McKissack

We Are Amer­i­ca by Wal­ter Dean Myers

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Car­men Agra Deedy and Ran­dall Wright

Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck

The Flint Heart by Kather­ine and John Paterson

Eliza­’s Free­dom Road by Jer­dine Nolen

St. Louis Arm­strong Beach by Bren­da Woods

So, there you have it! I’m sure I left off some impor­tant titles, but after read­ing 279 books in one sum­mer, I’m doing good to be able to nar­row the list at all! So for­give me. I hope this list gives you a good start­ing-off point. That’s the most I can hope for.

The Trouble with YA Literature Today

Wizard WomanThe prob­lem with YA lit­er­a­ture today is— fill in the blank. Some scream that the genre has gone too dark: drugs, alco­hol, dystopi­an tales, pro­fan­i­ty-overkill, parades of para­nor­mal fan­tasies. All true. Oth­ers com­plain about zom­bies and oth­er gore, about witch­es and war­locks and were­wolves. But I have a big­ger bone to pick: orig­i­nal­i­ty, or the lack there­of. That, my friends, is what’s wrong with chil­dren’s and YA lit­er­a­ture today.

Seen any new movie sequels, late­ly? What about remakes? The enter­tain­ment sec­tion of the local news­pa­per reeks of them, and there’s plen­ty more where those came from. But you won’t just find them in the neigh­bor­hood six-plex.  A trip to your neigh­bor­hood book­store (if you still have one) will do just as well.

Here’s what you’ll find. In vol­ume after vol­ume, you’ll meet a char­ac­ter who leaves the only home he’s ever known. He attends a school with famil­iar Goth­ic archi­tec­ture. Along the way, he dis­cov­ers a super­nat­ur­al gift. And, oh yes, the child is an orphan.

Then, of course, there is the sec­ond type of vol­ume. This one fea­tures a teenaged girl who is far away from home. She meets a dash­ing, but rather stand­off­ish, young man she finds her­self attract­ed to. There’s some­thing slight­ly odd about this boy, though. His hand is cold to the touch and some­times his eyes turn blood-red. If this sto­ry­line does not sound famil­iar, then you, my friend, have been liv­ing under a rock.

Chil­dren’s and YA lit­er­a­ture has gone Hol­ly­wood, peo­ple. I’m not talk­ing so much about the pletho­ra of sequels as I am about the pletho­ra of clones: Har­ry Pot­ter-wannabes and Twi­light re-treads chief among them.

Why all the copy­cats? There’s a shake-up in the indus­try, as we all know. The chil­dren’s mar­ket has shift­ed from back­list, to mid-list, to front-list. Then, too, as libraries dwin­dle at an alarm­ing rate, so do library sales, which once account­ed for a large chunk of a pub­lish­er’s bot­tom line. The increas­ing num­bers of titles avail­able on the Inter­net are also hav­ing an impact on cloth-book sales, though few of us are sure of what the end result of this trend will be. I, per­son­al­ly, wave away those who make loud pro­nounce­ments about the death of the book. No, Chick­en Lit­tle, the sky is not falling. It is, how­ev­er, extreme­ly overcast.

I’ll grant you, from a mar­ket­ing point of view, there is rea­son for con­cern. I get that. Because of that con­cern, few­er pub­lish­ers are will­ing to pro­duce the so-called qui­et book. Good Night Moon and Char­lot­te’s Web would have a tough time find­ing a pub­lish­er in this econ­o­my, and that’s absolute­ly crim­i­nal. Lit­er­ary jew­els are not what pub­lish­ers are seek­ing, in the main. Every­one has gone block­buster-crazy. Every­body wants the big book, the run­away best­seller. And who would­n’t rel­ish the out­ra­geous suc­cess of Twi­light? I can under­stand why an author might be tempt­ed to try her hand at cre­at­ing a lit­er­ary clone for a chance at reap­ing sim­i­lar mon­e­tary rewards. But here’s the thing: best­sellers become best­sellers large­ly because they’re orig­i­nal, whether in con­tent or struc­ture.  And, by def­i­n­i­tion, an orig­i­nal is orig­i­nal because it is one of a kind.

But let’s say your copy of some­body else’s idea is suc­cess­ful. Let’s say you do make a few extra bucks hash­ing out that clone. What hap­pens to those sto­ries that are unique­ly your own, those books that you alone were meant to write? Will they ever see the light of day? It’s doubt­ful. And when those extra C‑notes are spent on the house, the car, or the clas­sic Armani, and the hol­low­ness of your “suc­cess” clangs in your ear to dis­trac­tion, what then?

No one can keep you from pour­ing your cre­ative ener­gy into cloning some­one else’s orig­i­nal idea, of course. But if you do, chances are you’ll have lit­tle self or soul left to pro­duce, and enjoy, the bril­liance of your own orig­i­nal cre­ations. And, by the way, your orig­i­nal idea is price­less, sim­ply because it is yours.

My men­tor, James Bald­win, encour­aged me to guard my gift and to write with integri­ty. He warned me not to ever com­pro­mise in the area of my gift­ing. Now, more than ever, I under­stand exact­ly what he was talk­ing about.

When you first dreamed of becom­ing an author, did you have dol­lar signs danc­ing in your head, or were your thoughts filled with liq­uid lan­guage, imag­i­nary vis­tas, and larg­er-than-life char­ac­ters who might leap from the page? I think I know the answer to that ques­tion. Here’s what I have to say to you: write your own sto­ry, not some­body else’s. In the end, you’ll be proud of your­self for hav­ing done so.

9/11: Fragments of Thought

LeavesIt was a love­ly, late-spring day. The blue sky seemed lim­it­less, and the first fin­gers of almost-sum­mer-sun warmed the air. I’d just fin­ished turn­ing in final grades for the stu­dents of my fresh­man cre­ative writ­ing class at Liv­ingston Col­lege, and was look­ing for­ward to a few days of rest and relax­ation. I was ready to spend some qual­i­ty time with my daugh­ter that evening, with­out the dis­trac­tion of les­son-plan­ning or grad­ing papers. I smiled at the thought.

An hour lat­er, I learned that my not quite four-year-old lit­tle girl had drowned in the swim­ming pool at the home of my care­giv­er. I promise you, I nev­er saw that coming.

My daugh­ter’s death was not a nation­al hor­ror, but it was a per­son­al one. So, when I think of those who suf­fered a loss on 9/11, I need only vis­it my own heart to under­stand their pain. That said, I know their expe­ri­ence was singular.

I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber that day. I had just moved into my house a few days before, and was busi­ly paint­ing and faux paint­ing a wall in my din­ing room when the phone rang. I put down the paint­brush and grabbed the hand­set. My sis­ter’s voice burst through the wires.

“They’re com­ing, Sis!” she cried. “They’re com­ing right now!”

“What? What are you talk­ing about?” I asked.

“Turn on the TV!” she ordered. “Turn it on!”

“Okay! Okay!” I said. “I will.” And she hung up.

There was some­thing very unset­tling in my sis­ter’s voice, and so I left the open paint cans where they were, switched on the tele­vi­sion and sat down to watch the news. I did­n’t get up again for a long, long time.

I grew up in New York City. Every per­son who calls him­self a New York­er either knew some­one direct­ly, or indi­rect­ly, who died in the tow­ers that day. I am no excep­tion. I can tell you, there was grief enough to go around.

Clear­ly, 9/11 was about a great deal more than loss of life. It was about a nation­al loss of inno­cence, as well as loss of even the illu­sion of safe­ty. Every man, woman, and child of us sud­den­ly under­stood that Amer­i­ca is not, in fact invul­ner­a­ble to mod­ern ter­ror­ism. But I won’t try to address the broad­er aspects of this mon­u­men­tal event here. My focus is on per­son­al loss and grief and how we choose to shape that in our lives mov­ing forward.

Why is it still so hard to talk about this? Why is the heartache still so close to the surface?

I’ve suf­fered a great deal of loss in my life, attend­ed too many funer­als, wept my way through count­less memo­ri­als. Giv­en a choice, I pre­fer the memo­ri­als because they allow for moments of humor and shared laugh­ter, moments of cel­e­brat­ing the life, rather than mourn­ing the death, of the per­son for whom we’ve gath­ered to say good­bye. The sad fact is that we all have to say good­bye to some­one, soon­er or lat­er. That some­one might be a father, a moth­er, a friend, or a sister.

A few days ago, I got a call from my broth­er-in-law inform­ing me that my sis­ter, Car­ol, had just been rushed to the hos­pi­tal with a pos­si­ble heart attack. My own heart skipped a beat, and when it start­ed up again, fear held it cap­tive. Late that night, Car­ol, her­self called me from the hos­pi­tal. When I heard her voice on the phone, I began to cry. In that moment, I under­stood how deeply I feared nev­er hear­ing that voice again. Car­ol is fine, now, and I can breathe again. But, I under­stand, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, at least, that there will come a day when I will hear her voice for the last time. Her life is as frag­ile as any oth­er. This most recent close call punc­tu­ates that fact. The events of 9/11 did the same, in spades.

The attack on the World Trade Cen­ter was stu­pe­fy­ing. The wounds are still fresh, and it would be easy to wad up all our grief into a ball of hatred against those who brought the tow­ers down. Some have cho­sen to do exact­ly that. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that hatred too often extends to the races, cul­tures, and nations that spawned the ter­ror­ists who crashed those planes into the tow­ers. Whole peo­ple groups have been blamed for the dead­ly acts of those few. We need to be care­ful, here. His­to­ry teach­es us that humans of every race, cul­ture and reli­gious per­sua­sion, are capa­ble of enor­mous harm and hor­ror. Think the Mid­dle Pas­sage, the Cru­sades, the Holo­caust, Dar­fur. The list, alas, goes on. Let him who is with­out sin cast the first stone.

Is there evil in the world? No doubt. Should we seek jus­tice? Absolute­ly. But if we allow hatred to rule our hearts, we will become what we hate.

There’s a bet­ter take away from 9/11 than bit­ter­ness and hatred. Life is frag­ile, unpre­dictable, and it is almost always too short. Live into each day ful­ly. Love with aban­don. Take no good thing in your life for grant­ed, espe­cial­ly those you love. Pur­sue your dream regard­less of how long it takes. Time will pass, either way, so use that time to pur­sue what mat­ters. Final­ly, when­ev­er the oppor­tu­ni­ty aris­es, show kind­ness. Each hug, kiss, or deep bel­ly laugh could be your last. And if it isn’t, your day will be rich­er for your hav­ing lived it that way.

Where Have All the Female Illustrators Gone?

Thanks a MillionFor the longest time, I had the dis­tinct impres­sion that there were pre­cious few women illus­tra­tors in the chil­dren’s book mar­ket. Can you blame me? Accord­ing to one not­ed illus­tra­tor, a scant 20% of the illus­tra­tion work goes to women. If that’s true, no mat­ter how you look at it, that’s a pret­ty low per­cent­age. When you set that per­cent­age next to the rather large, com­pre­hen­sive list of female artists avail­able today, the per­cent­age seems even more egre­gious. What’s going on here? Time to ask some hard questions.

Ques­tions are what led me to write this par­tic­u­lar blog. Recent­ly, I approached the edi­tor of a cur­rent work-in-progress about seek­ing out a female illus­tra­tor for one of my new books. The book is writ­ten by moi, a woman, and is about women, and so I thought it only right that the book be illus­trat­ed by a woman as well. He did not dis­agree. So, to help mat­ters along, I decid­ed to put togeth­er a com­pre­hen­sive list of female illus­tra­tors from which to choose. To build that list, I went on Face­book, sug­gest­ed I was build­ing such a list, and asked my FB friends who should be on it. The response? A ver­i­ta­ble del­uge of names! I was pleased, but more than a lit­tle sur­prised. Why did I not have a sense of their pres­ence in the mar­ket­place, I asked myself. I’ve been in this busi­ness for more than 30 years, and yet I had no idea of such a dom­i­nant female pres­ence. What were the reasons?

Are the skill sets of male and female artists sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er? A female art teacher I spoke with sug­gest­ed that, on aver­age, men have a bet­ter spa­tial sense and a bet­ter intu­itive idea of per­spec­tive than female artists, while women, on the whole, are bet­ter at draw­ing fig­ures. I find that argu­ment intrigu­ing. I can per­son­al­ly think of an artist cou­ple I know for whom that is exact­ly true. But I don’t know how com­mon that is. I do a lit­tle paint­ing, myself, but I’ve nev­er attempt­ed illus­tra­tion, so this is not my area of exper­tise. Still, it would seem to me, for the many dif­fer­ent kinds of books that are pro­duced, more than 20% of them would ben­e­fit as much from the skills of a woman as that of a man, whether or not those skill sets differ.

There may be anoth­er rea­son why the lion’s share of illus­tra­tion work seems to go to men rather than women.

Even a cur­so­ry look at the pub­lish­ing indus­try will reveal that women dom­i­nate the field. How many male edi­tors or art direc­tors do you know? Go on. Count them. If you need more than one hand, I’d be sur­prised. When it comes to illus­tra­tors, which gen­der do you think a female edi­tor or art direc­tor will be inclined to hire? Go on. Be hon­est. And if that male is cute? For­get about it! I’m not blind. I see all the flirt­ing that goes on between male artists and the women who hire them. Still, I’d nev­er thought about how that casu­al inter­play might impact the selec­tion of illus­tra­tors for book projects. (And don’t even get me start­ed on the num­ber of women NOT win­ning the Caldecott!

Do all male artists flirt? No, not all. Does sex­u­al heat always play into the hir­ing choice of an illus­tra­tor? Absolute­ly not. To sug­gest so would be an insult to many out­stand­ing men work­ing in this field who eschew the very idea of using their man­ly charms to secure a con­tract. How­ev­er, to deny that gen­der pref­er­ence is, indeed, a fac­tor on many occa­sions would be, at best, dis­hon­est. That’s not hap­pen­ing here.

So, what is the solu­tion? How can we even the play­ing field for women artists? That’s a tough one. I have a sug­ges­tion, though, a place where we can begin.

We can and should encour­age edi­tors and art direc­tors to do a bet­ter job of shar­ing projects with female illus­tra­tors. We should raise our voic­es when­ev­er we encounter this type of gen­der inequity. And, as authors, we can make a con­cert­ed effort to sug­gest and rec­om­mend more female illus­tra­tors for our own books. That’s my plan, and I hope oth­er authors will do likewise.

Heck, my own future might include cov­er art and pic­ture book illus­tra­tion. If it does, when I ven­ture out into the mar­ket­place, I’d like to find a lev­el play­ing field. Would­n’t you?

“Eyes on the Prize”

1st prizeChil­dren’s poet­ry is the bas­tard child of Amer­i­can Literature.

Bet that got your attention.

“That’s strong lan­guage,” you say.  Actu­al­ly, the term is quite appro­pri­ate.  Let me explain.

You can win a Pulitzer Prize or a Nation­al Book Award for poet­ry, pro­vid­ed you write poet­ry for adults. As a poet for adults, the Guggen­heim is avail­able to you, and the Push­cart Prize, and the NEA grant, among oth­ers. Nation­al Poet­ry Month has ded­i­cat­ed sev­en days of its reign for the cel­e­bra­tion of chil­dren’s poet­ry but, then, they don’t give out any awards. There is an NCTE Award for Chil­dren’s Poet­ry, which I myself was pleased to win a few years ago, but that is for a body of work, not an indi­vid­ual book. And that’s my point. There is no major, nation­al award giv­en for a sin­gle work of poet­ry for chil­dren. Why is that?

Mind you, I am aware of, and grate­ful for, the awards cre­at­ed by Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins and, more recent­ly, by SCBWI, but I am talk­ing about an award com­ing from the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion. Where is that award?

At the moment, when it comes to chil­dren’s book awards, all gen­res are lumped togeth­er: fic­tion, humor, non­fic­tion, mys­tery, fantasy—you name it. It is impor­tant to note that indi­vid­ual prizes do exist for humor and non­fic­tion. They exist, one would assume, in recog­ni­tion of the fact that each of these gen­res incor­po­rate a spe­cif­ic set of skills not evi­dent (or usu­al) in oth­er gen­res. That can cer­tain­ly be said of poet­ry, yes? So why isn’t there a major, annu­al award offered in this par­tic­u­lar genre?

On sec­ond thought, for­get the ques­tion. I’ll jump right to the point, obvi­ous though it may be: the time is past due for a stand­ing, annu­al poet­ry award with­in the realm of chil­dren’s and young adult lit­er­a­ture. Period.

I’m thrilled that poet­ry has its own month, and that it does include a spe­cial week rec­og­niz­ing and cel­e­brat­ing poet­ry for chil­dren and young adults. That’s won­der­ful. Now, let’s take anoth­er big step. Let’s cre­ate an annu­al chil­dren’s poet­ry award, with a spe­cial cat­e­go­ry for verse nov­els, may I add. Poet­ry for young read­ers deserves that recog­ni­tion. ‘Nough said.

At Jerusalem's GateAs much as I love Nation­al Poet­ry Month, there’s some­thing about this time of year that excites me even more: East­er. A few years ago, I wrote a book called At Jerusalem’s Gate, a poet­’s take on the East­er sto­ry, seen from the mul­ti­ple points-of-view of the char­ac­ters who were part of the orig­i­nal sto­ry 2000 years ago. And so, in this month of East­er, I close out with two poems from this collection.

“An Act of Kind­ness” focus­es on the Phar­isee, Joseph of Ari­math­ea. The sec­ond, “To Be Con­tin­ued,” is from the point-of-view of a soldier.

An Act of Kindness

Christ cru­ci­fied lay limp
as any son undone
by beat­ing, cross, and spear,
a Phar­isee the one
to bear him to a place
of rough rock and rest.
Perhaps—this God knows best—
he swabbed away Christ’s blood
with tears, the only bath
the Sab­bath would allow.
Per­haps he chose instead
to kiss the Mas­ter’s brow
and whis­per his goodbye.
Per­haps he mere­ly wept,
while tired mus­cles strained
to roll the stone in place
and sol­diers sealed it tight
to inch by inch lock out
the air, hope, light.

To Be Continued

Don’t tell me he is God.
I pierced his human side,
used my dai­ly-sharp­ened spear.
In time, I’m certain
some­one will explain
how he can be here
preach­ing still
and rising
on the wings
of the wind.