Wednesday, May 30, 2012

LIFE OF AN AUTHOR: When Nature Has Other Plans On Your Writing Day

Today was supposed to be an all-out writing day. I’d had it all planned.   

I’d get up early and dig right in (putting the window fan on before the heat made things too sweaty to focus).

I was going over how it would all play out, lying under the thinnest covers in the late hours the night before, listening to the remnants of a violent thunder storm that had swept through our New Hampshire town. The rigorous cloud burst had left our dog Lucy shivering a few hours before it even began. Rich and I had decided to read by a lamplight expecting the electricity to go out, but it only flickered. We listened to the rain, which sometimes came down in sheets that drenched any windowsill beneath a sash that had been left open just a crack. But I’d checked my computer twice and it was functioning fine. I was still on track for my mega-writing day.

A few hours later, after it had long gotten dark, we’d still heard the rain. Checking the backyard before heading to bed, we scanned the lawn with our flashlights for any signs of collecting pools—we live about a 100 yards from a brook that can overflow---but we’ve never seen it happen.

But then the fire department’s pick-up truck zoomed down the streets and we heard voices at 3 in the morning. The brook had gone over its banks further down from where we live, and some of the streets had flooded.

Our backyard started pooling toward the forest but luckily, nothing major. Still, the anxiety of the wetness and the newness of it brought out weird behavior in some animals. (Did you know that squirrels can dive into puddles of water and swim to the other side?)
Our sudden "vernal" backyard pool.

Ground hogs wriggled in the grass of our yard, disoriented, as robins hovered at the edge of the temporary, grass-fed pools. And chipmunks frantically dug to see if their acorns were still safe where they’d buried them.

On the streets, I could tell some of the neighborhood kids were scared. It’s one thing to don your billy boots to jump in puddles, but not when the puddles are twelve feet long and deep.

Heading over to the post office, we started hearing the sound of pumps siphoning out water from basements and water-logged streets. The day soon became full of stories--just not the one’s I’m supposed to write about for editors who go by deadlines. But the weather has a way of disrupting schedules, and also pulling people together—the closer the pools of water come to a neighbor’s house, the closer you become to them, reaching out to help. Rich is talking about getting Kentucky Fried chicken for supper and having the neighbors come over to nosh on the porch and get away from the thought of water.

If it were any other day, I’d say no to a deep-fried supper. But there are times when something greasy can be comforting, and when writing what you’re supposed to can wait.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Inside Out And Back Again

One of my New Year's resolutions was to make time every week to read more books, which I tend not to do when I'm fully absorbed in my own writing. Being a finalist for this year's South Carolina Children's Book Awards, (it's still thrilling to say that), and seeing so many titles on the list that intrigue me, I'm determined to read most of them before the winner is announced in March of 2013.

While I usually don’t gravitate toward novels told in verse like Inside Out And Back Again, Thanhha Lai--the first-time author of this National Book Award winner--composes such beautiful, vivid prose, I feel as if I could taste the papaya tree fruit  “middle sweet, between a mango and a pear,” and feel the warm breezes of Saigon just before South Vietnam crumbled.

Told by 10-year-old Ha, who navigates her place in a community left cautious, frightened, and rationed at the cusp of Vietnam War, Ha feels helpless both as a child, and as a girl in a culture favoring boys like her 3 older brothers. Ha’s bursts of random thoughts riddle the calendar of the novel (which begins and ends with Tet, the first day of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year), like sharp staccato notes on a keyboard. Her two anchors are the papaya tree that has grown serendipitously in the yard from discarded seeds, and her beloved mother.

The family manages to escape just before Saigon falls, and journey by boat to become refugees. Finally ending up in America, the tone and pace abruptly changes, and Ha’s disappointment with her new world is palpable. As Ha pronounces: “No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”  

I preferred hearing about Ha's life on the run (I suppose I was hoping things would then get better for them in America, somehow). Yet the language of the book is so unexpectedly stunning, I spent the day away from my writing and read it in one sitting. 

I won’t soon forget my favorite line in the book where Ha writes about her mother: ”She’s wrong, but I still love being near her even more than I love my papaya tree. I will give her its first fruit.”

Sunday, May 13, 2012


I saved my favorite animal book for last. I’m capping off CHILDREN’S BOOK WEEK with SOUNDER.
Our 11-year-old Coon-like dog, Lucy, nestled by SOUNDER

William H. Armstrong's heart-wrenching story, set in 19th century Virginia, tells of a poor sharecropper, his family and their coon dog, Sounder. When I first read SOUNDER it stayed with me for days: the cadence of the characters’ dialogue, and the thoughts of the boy. (There are no characters with names, except for Sounder.)

The story is as much about perseverance, acceptance and dignity despite injustice, as it is for fighting to save your family in the best way circumstances allow. For the boy, it’s about finding Sounder--which is his only tangible bond with his father. For the mother, it’s caring for her children instead of herself. Sounder is the glue that binds them, and a beacon for the truth that animals live among us, not beneath us. 

Metaphors in this Newbery novel abound, but every line is so brilliantly heartfelt and haunting, the images of Sounder and his family are indelibly etched in my mind.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


To celebrate CHILDREN'S BOOK WEEK, I'm continuing to pick favorite animal-themed books. As much as I love LAURA INGALLS WILDER’S Farmer Boy, OLD YELLER is superb in giving us a glimpse of a boy coming of age amidst the hardships of pioneer life. (And of course, I love first person narration.) How do we get drawn in after being told on the first page how the story will end? Because author FRED GIPSON is so convincingly 14-year-old Travis—every line oozes the boy’s love for his dog. And Travis is so convincingly trying to be brave—taking care of his mother and tiny brother in the Texas wilderness—the only crack to appear is the love he can’t help feeling for a dog he tries so hard not to like. Knowing that Travis is re-living the outcome again by sharing OLD YELLER’S heroic spirit with us makes the story even more aching. And every time I read it, I have to run down the stairs & give my own yeller dog a hug.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What's Your Favorite Animal-themed Book?

To honor CHILDREN’S BOOK WEEK I’m sharing my daily picks for the best animal-themed children’s books (with the help of our dog, Lucy). First up: CHARLOTTE’S WEB
Our 11-yr-old shelter dog, Lucy with Charlotte's Web

By now you know E.B WHITE’S classic animal/fantasy tale has had a profound effect on me (although I haven’t crossed the anthropomorphic threshold yet). With one of the best all-time beginnings: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” it’s a story that makes you laugh, cry & appreciate animals (can anyone kill a spider, now?)as well as the world around you; which is my kind of book.What's your favorite animal-themed book?