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What is it about second grade? Ask friends and family for a special or important memory they can recall from childhood, and very often you’ll hear a story from around the time of second grade. Perhaps in first grade, kids are still navigating the transition from kindergarten, and by third grade, they’re all grown up. In second grade, our social character traits are beginning to blossom and the sting of failure, fears and flaws feels somehow magnified.

Deborah Hopkinson has written a gorgeous little paean to second grade in her new picture book, A Letter to My Teacher, with pictures by Nancy Carpenter (Schwartz & Wade, April 4, 2017), told eponymously by an unnamed little girl navigating the start of second grade.

Heartbreakingly, she always expects the worst. Will her teacher scold her for stomping into school in the first day with muddy boots, stumbling over words when reading out loud, or wandering away from the group on a field trip? Instead, as we hope and delight in, her teacher is patient, supportive and always encouraging, if sometimes “exasperated,” which delightfully leads our little heroine to search for the word in the dictionary—a true teaching moment.

This story will hearten children and sweep adult readers back to recapture a special time in our lives, while reminding us how exciting it can be to teach children and how grateful we all should be to those who choose to do so.

Hopkinson, a prolific author, has a second picture book also being released in early May—

Independence Cake: A Revolutionary Confection Inspired by Amelia Simmons Whose True History is Unfortunately Unknown, illustrated by Giselle Potter also by Schwartz & Wade (May 9, 2017).

Independence Cake features another strong female character, Amelia Simmons, a “plucky patriot”—a little girl not prone to feeling sorry for herself—with creative ideas of her own to honor the birth of the 13 new colonies and George Washington’s visit. What is especially inventive about this tale is how Hopkinson created a story to surround the few known facts about the real Amelia’s life. The scant record shows only that Amelia Simmons, an orphan, very likely made her living as a servant or a cook, and in 1796 published American Cookery, the first cookbook published by an American. There is something quite satisfying in seeing how Hopkinson’s story details bring Amelia back to life.

Hopkinson sprinkles plays on words related to cooking and baking throughout the book that will delight both children and the adults who will surely be reading this story to them repeatedly. Children will love scanning all the activity going on in the background of Potter’s illustrations, whose style mimics the flat perspective of early Colonial art.

Although Hopkinson and Potter might have included some diversity in other characters who might have interacted with Amelia in real life, they offer us this one thin “slice” of time beautifully.

Thanks again to Deborah Hopkinson for offering me an early read of these titles. For other stops on the Hopkinson Double Blog Tour, please check deborahhopkinson.com

 

 

Adventures and Misadventures: Q & A with Yi Shun Lai

So glad today to post a few Q&A’s from an interview I did with Yi Shun Lai, a super special writer and fellow alum of the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. Yi Shun is currently on a book tour for her newly released debut fiction title, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, published by Shade Mountain Press. Shade Mountain’s mission is to publish “literature by women, especially women of color, women with disabilities, women from working-class backgrounds, and lesbian/bisexual/queer women.”

A little background: Marty Wu, the book’s protagonist, is a compulsive reader of advice manuals, who dreams of presenting herself as a poised young advertising professional. Instead she trips over her own feet and blurts out inappropriate comments. The bulk of her brain matter, she decides, consists of gerbils “spinning madly in alternating directions.” After a career meltdown that sends her ricocheting between the stress of New York and the warmth of supportive relatives in Taiwan, she faces one domestic drama after another, including a formidable mother who’s impossible to please, an annoyingly successful and well-adjusted brother, and surprising family secrets that pop up just when she doesn’t want to deal with them.

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Here’s our chat:

Sharon: Marty, your book’s protagonist, tells us her story thru diary entries. Perhaps because of the form and the nature of Marty’s misadventures, there have been the inevitable comparisons to Bridget Jones Diary. Can you tell us why you chose that form and how that influenced your writing of the story?

Yi Shun: It happened in the most organic of fashions and it was by no means an easy or quick route. I messed around with a few different forms: from first person to third to first again, until finally settling into epistolary form. In the end, it was the character herself who demanded it. The voice itself is a key part of what I believe, ultimately, is a re-telling of the American success story. While I was writing, I imagined that the voices of the young women who were the stereotypical “good girls” of any culture would be a lot louder than we were told or imagined. That voice had to speak for itself. Therefore, diary.

Sharon: You were born in Taiwan and raised in American, like Marty. Are there elements of Marty’s story that relate to your own life?

Yi Shun: Oh, sure. Certainly the overarching themes and philosophy of the story relate. And when I was a lot younger, I was convinced that my experiences were unique. Oh, was I wrong. So although the book reflects some of my experiences, it also draws from so much of what I have been told, and witnessed. A book that’s ostensibly about one culture also resonates with others. Writing and reading are beautiful things that way: they presents opportunities to connect with other cultures.

Sharon: How much did Marty’s bi-cultural background play into her personality? Are there parts of her make-up that you see as typically Taiwanese or typically American?

Yi Shun:
 At this stage in her life, Marty would say that who she is comprises much of how she was raised. Her quick tongue, I think, is biologically inherited. But her confusion is entirely a product of her bicultural upbringing. The answer to your question though is, a lot. Marty thinks she’s uniquely damaged because of her bicultural background, so we’ll respect that, even if she’s not unique in this regard, or not even particularly damaged in the grand scheme of things. She’d also say that her bounce-back mentality is stereotypically American, and that her need to please her parental unit is stereotypically Taiwanese. But I think we, as readers, can see that the things she’s struggling with are more human than they are any one particular ethnicity.

Sharon: You do a great job of telling a serious story with humor, which I found particularly important in the scenes between Marty and her critical-bordering-on-abusive mother. Was that a challenge, finding a good balance when you were writing?

Yi Shun: Yes. Someone asked me recently what I’m most proud of in this book. I hadn’t ever thought about it earlier, but now that I’ve had a chance to consider, I think it’s exactly what you posit above: Trying to show everyone a glimpse of what this alternate American experience could be like, while preserving Marty’s voice.

Sharon: This one is for all the writers out there. How long was this idea simmering before you felt was ready to start submitting to agents or editors?

Yi Shun: Oh, gosh, a long, long time. I first started thinking about what it means to be American when I was in college, and started thinking more critically about my experiences—what they meant, and whether or not it was worth it to try and tell this story. But it wasn’t until a long time after that when I started thinking that a novel would be the right way to tell this story. Once I started writing the novel, I think it was a long, cool decade before it got published.

Sharon: Can you share what your working on now?

Yi Shun: With pleasure! I’m working on a novel that involves some time travel: and Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers ever. I’m pretty excited about this project…but first, there’s marketing, and book promotion, and so many more other readers and writers to meet.

Thanks Yi Shun!
You can learn more about Yi Shun’s life and writing at her website The Good Dirt or on Twitter @gooddirt

Building Bridges, not Walls

UnknownThis September will mark 15 years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Not yet a generation, but long enough that children who were just born are only now slipping into adolescence. So it is not surprising that there has been a flurry of books about the attack coming on the market for middle grade readers. I’ve spent the last month reading a good number of them, and one, in particular, stood out for me.

“Towers Falling” by the already accomplished author Jewell Parker Rhodes, has done a brilliant job making a difficult story compelling yet accessible for 10-year-old readers. In her capable hands, one of the most horrific tragedies in recent memory shares space with the numbing everyday tragedies so many souls on our planet endure daily.

Rhodes’ plucky protagonist, Deja, tells her first-person point-of-view narration in the short, clipped sentences you might expect from a kid who’s sharing one room in a homeless shelter with her parents and two younger siblings. Deja is mad—at the world, at her classmates, especially at her dad. His physical and mental troubles keep him unemployed and keep Deja’s family on the edge.

When Deja’s sixth grade teacher begins a month-long lesson meant to introduce the class to the upcoming 9/11 anniversary, Deja is clueless. Why is everyone staring out the window at the downtown New York skyline, looking so stricken? She’s been so busy struggling to get through every day, that she sees no purpose in looking backwards to the past.

But slowly, Deja comes to understand how the “far past” affects the “recent past” as well as the present, interwoven with the stories of her friends Ben and Sabeen, and especially in her family. The pitch-perfect characterizations of these three kids—their compassion, their vulnerabilities, and the realities of their lives in 2016—ring so true. Jewell’s feel for each one, as unique individuals, is deft. No stereotypes or tropes here.

Perhaps it’s because of this fractious election season or maybe it’s because I’m an ex-New Yorker, but in my opinion, “Towers Falling” should be required reading for ALL Americans, not just middle graders. We need its healing now.

Review: It Came In The Mail

it-came-in-the-mail-9781481403603_lgOf all the delightful picture books out there, I keep a special place reserved for those that are author-illustrated. Maybe it’s because I’m a graphic designer as well as a writer. Most people just naturally assume that means I can draw. I cannot. Designing an exhibit or a publication, or even a book is a totally different animal than being able to draw and illustrate—anything. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to see what my drawing sketches look like—they’re frightening. 
 
So author-illustrated picture books always fascinate me. Not only for the twin sets of technical prowess they showcase, but also because I often wonder about the process. As a writer, I’m always revising and sometimes second guessing decisions I’ve made in an earlier draft. When you’re the one creating both the pictures and the story, those lines must inevitably cross over and blur. Are there internal battles that rage between words and images? Do you wake up in the morning, knowing n your heart that one of them has to sacrifice itself for the good of good of the whole?
 
I’ve been musing on this recently after reading a great new author-illustrator picture book, “It Came In the Mail” by Ben Clanton just out from Simon & Schuster. Ben’s story and images work together seamlessly. The result is a quirky, funny book that will entertain young readers and also satisfy parents who will be enlisted to re-read the story nightly with witty little asides. 
 
“It Came In The Mail” is the story of Liam, a boy who really, really, really, REALLY wants some mail. No spoiler alert-needed. As the title suggests, Liam gets his wish—in more wild and crazy ways than he could have imagined, and of course with surprising results. Bonus points awarded to Ben for the additional life lessons Liam learns along the way, including a new understanding of the joys of giving as well as receiving and how sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
 
What’s exciting about the marriage of Ben’s pictures and words in this book is how he builds his world little by little, layer upon layer. The image spreads deepen in complexity along with the story as the book progresses. Empty to full. Scarcity to overabundance. Adding meaning are the postcard, paper and stamp ephemera that Clanton skillfully incorporates into his drawings that add a tactile feel and richness to the pages. 
 
It’s hard to say whether, by the time Clanton’s intended audience grows up, there will even be anything sent by snail mail. But at least for now, kids can enjoy running out to their own mailbox to see what’s arrived. Kudos Ben, for giving parents extra work.  
Ben will be holding a book signing on Sunday, July 10 at Queen Anne Books in Seattle, WA 

Writing Real

Illustration by Suzana Apelbaum

Booksellers continue to tell us that girls will read books where the protagonist is a boy but it doesn’t work the other way around. The concept is controversial and debatable whether this is yet another self-inflicted bias perpetuated by how our society divides and compartmentalizes according to race, class, gender and ability. As author Shannon Hale notes, “I’ve heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: “Boys, even though this is about a girl, you’ll like it!” Even though. I never heard a single time, “Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you’ll like it!” Read Shannon’s excellent post on her experiences being stamped as a writer of books intended for girls only.

So when I stumbled on Mary Hershey’s novel, The One Where the Kid Nearly Jumps to His Death and Lands in California, (Razorbill) I was pleased on multiple fronts. The book has an unwieldy title, a complicated plot with too many subplots, creepy characters, difficult father-son relationships, rough language…hey, wait a minute…this is starting to sound pretty appealing!

It also had something else to recommend it. The story centers on thirteen-year-old Alastair, who calls himself ‘Stump,’ who is shipped out to spend the summer with his estranged father in California. When Alastair was eight, he lost one of his legs after a too-soon jump from a ski lift. Guess who was supposed to be supervising him at the time? Now Stump is ready to confront his father for ruining his life. Except he didn’t count on a host of new discoveries he makes, not least of which is the unrelenting optimism of Skyla, his father’s new wife who also happens to be a double amputee.

Hershey has woven macabre humor and irreverence into Alastair’s life that I suspect young readers will find satisfying. The jump in the title is both literal and metaphoric, as the best jumps should be. Both Stump and his father are on the brink of looking at each other in new ways. Hershey lets us see their journey with wicked humor and underlying affection.

But the real star of this story is Stump and his voice. Hersey skillfully writes Stump’s disability as just one facet of his personality, not the story’s focus. Stump is the first one out of the gate to crack jokes about his own disability, such as when he takes off his leg at school, puts it in his locker, then ties a rag with fake blood around it. It is worth noting that the author is a former juvenile probation officer who says she has had ‘the great privilege of working with some very funny, smart, and resilient kids.’ In her wonderful depiction of Stump, it shows.

Light Up the Night

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I came across this title The Firehouse Light by Janet Nolan, illustrated by Marie Lafrance. It’s my kind of book, a story that starts with a kernel of truth and brings it alive through fiction, with the added fun of research along the way.

Apparently, in 1901, the owner of the power and light company in Livermore, Calif., gave that Bay Area town’s volunteer firefighters a four-watt bulb to help them find their equipment in the dark. The bulb, made of carbon filament and hand-blown glass, has been burning ever since, and is thought to be the world’s longest continuously burning bulb.

Nolan says, “I walked around in an excited daze for a while,” she says. “I kept thinking of all the things that have happened—all the things that have been invented and all the wars fought —while this tiny lightbulb kept burning.”

Leaving Yesler by Peter Bacho

I just found out that Peter Bacho’s book Leaving Yesler, that I reviewed for the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA student site is going into its second edition after only three months! He’ll be one of the visiting faculty at Whidbey in January 2011. Congratulations Peter! Here’s a reprint of my review. An interview I did with Bacho can be found here as well.

People who read novels know that fiction can sometimes get closer to the truth than facts ever can. For young readers, this is less of a revelation than an expectation.

Leaving Yesler is Seattle author and Evergreen College professor Peter Bacho’s new novel set in 1968 Vietnam-era Seattle about the truths 18-year old Bobby Vicente discovers about his past. What Bobby learns about his past weaves and merges fluidly with his present reality to ultimately shape his future—a forward-looking recipe young readers will take to heart. Continue reading