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Literature, life, reflections on books read and books written. Photography and videologs are integral to the postings.
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This photograph was taken a few short weeks ago, during our first slight snowfall, when the leaves on the trees that shelter my deck were still clinging to their limbs, or falling in red surges.
Today we watch rain turning to slush turning to snow and wait for those we love to find us.
These are restless days in our nation, and on our planet. I wish you peace as you wait, as you watch, as you wrangle with the news which is always, ultimately, personal.
You know how it is—the winding and wending through book booths. The writers signing, the multiples of the new fresh things in stacks; it's hard to take it in, at least for me. I never return home from The Events with a bag full of randoms. I return home with the books sought out or placed in my trust. A handful.
But there I was, Friday, at the National Conference for Teachers of English at the National Harbor Convention Center. I'd be doing my own signing in fifteen minutes, but I had time. And so I walked, my eyes cast down, and there it was, a pile of books, the cover whitish and thin, two streaks of color, a title, a name. Abigail Thomas,
I read. Kept walking. Stopped. Backtracked.Abigail Thomas?
"Um," I said, to the Scribner person.
"Are you giving these ARCs away? By chance?"
"You want one?"
"So go ahead."
It was mine! The new Abigail Thomas memoir, coming in March 2015, but I don't have to wait that long. Not me, who loves Abigail Thomas, who sang her praises in Handling the Truth,
who reads her words out loud to my Penn students. Not me. I have What Comes Next and How to Like It
. I read it when I was supposed to be writing, which is to say I read it today. All day and now I'm done, I'm finished, and I'm sad about that, because books this good don't come around too often. Books this good need Abigail Thomas to write them.
"Abigail Thomas is the Emily Dickinson of memoirists," Stephen King has said. UmmHmmm.
Where to start, or have I said enough? A book about friendship and motherhood, about painting and words, about comfort and soup, about sleeping all day, about waking ourselves up, about love, an "elastic" word, Thomas tells us. Proves it. Thomas could blare, in her bio, about a lot of writerly things, but what she says first is this: "Abigail Thomas is the mother of four children and the grandmother of twelve." Yes. That's how Thomas describes herself because that, with infinite beauty, is who she is first. Who she will be. What makes her the powerhouse writer she is. (Though to that description one must add a pile of dogs.) Thomas writes, in this new memoir, about how we hold on knowing that one day we won't. How we outlast ourselves, or live with the fact that outlasting doesn't last.
I loved every torn page. The arrangement of the pages. Thomas's smart abhorrence of chronology. How many times, in class, to students, to writers, have I said: Don't tell me the story in a straight line. Break the grid. Steer your way toward wisdom by scrambling the sequence of facts.
Now I'm just going to read Thomas:
I hate chronological order. Not only do I have zero memory for what happened when in what year, but it's so boring. This comes out of me with the kind of vehemence that requires a closer look, so I scribble on the back of a napkin while waiting for friends to show up at Cucina and it doesn't take long to figure it out. The thought of this happened and then this happened and then this and this and this, the relentless march of events and emotion tied together simply because day follows day and turns into week following week becoming months and years reinforces the fact that the only logical ending from chronological order is death.
Yes. And that, by the way, is a single chapter in a book built (miraculously) of brevities. A book in which the page by page sequencing is as shattering as the pages themselves.
For the friends we have made, and keep on making.
For the quick lobby Lisa embrace. For the spontaneous crisp-night-air talk with Paul. Because Mark stops when you call his name. Because Michael is there. Because Ilene finds you, and Mary does. Because Susan is there, right there, in the atrium. Because a Freckled Librarian brings her megaphone. Because a friend from long ago surprises you. Because Joan has another Ted Hipple Special Collection book for you to sign. Because Jennifer and Susannah are in the house. Because Edie tells you stories and because Melanie really does have that color hair and because you have found Liz weeks after the panel she moderated and you can tell her (again) how intelligent she was. Because Michaela and K.E. are so talented, and because you have much to learn from Christine and Shanetia (and because you will come to covet Christine's coat and Shanetia's easy dancing heart). Because your sister is there.
Because Chronicle Books is that kind of company, the kind of company you deeply want to keep.
And because Debbie Levy is in the mix—Debbie with her wide intelligence and big heart, who drives you, when it is all said and done, to the shadows of the Capitol and to a reservation she has made in a restaurant called (appropriately) Art & Soul. Debbie, who has given you two of her most recent books—the award-winning We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song,
illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and utterly smart as it offers the biography of a rich and prevailing song; and Dozer's Run
, illustrated by David Opie, the adorable true story of a dog that ran a marathon, and then ran home. Debbie, who has given you, as well, "Dark Lights," the original jazz recordings of Alex Hoffman, her very talented son.
We go to NCTE for the people we find there.
Oh, that Philadelphia Inquirer.
Oh, Kevin Ferris and your design team. You make waking up every fourth Sunday such a pleasure. Thank you for the glorious celebration of the Reading Market in today's Inquirer.
I loved writing this piece and taking those photographs. I love being a Philadelphian.
The story can be read in its entirety here.
This essay is one of three dozen that will appear in LOVE: A PHILADELPHIA AFFAIR, due out from Temple University Press next fall. More on that here.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Clare Dunkle
, Elena Dunkle
, Elena Vanishing
, Ginee Seo
, Hope and Other Luxuries
, Jaime Wong
, NCTE 2014
, One Thing Stolen
, Sally Kim
, Tamra Tuller
, Add a tag
A few years ago, in a novel called The Heart Is Not a Size,
I wrote of Juarez, of a squatter's village, and of two best friends, Georgia and Riley, each of them navigating this foreign terrain while also navigating secrets. Georgia was privately negotiating anxiety attacks. Riley was declaring to anyone who asked (and Georgia, seemingly unwisely, had begun to ask) that she did not—absolutely did not—have an eating disorder, that she was not starving herself.
I wrote the book and created the characters because I understood both conditions all too well.
This coming spring, Chronicle Books will publish two companion books—true mother-daughter stories—about a young woman's struggle to stop hearing the hectoring internal voices that left her body starving, her heart working too hard, and her future imperiled. Calories were Elena's enemies. A bite of toast was a grave mistake. Numbers were everything. And Elena Dunkle was, in too many terrible ways, dying.
In and out of hospitals. In and out of rehab. In and out of conversations with the family who loved her and the specialists who seemed incapable of hushing the terrible voices. In Elena Vanishing
, a memoir written by Elena's mother, Clare Dunkle, and grounded in extraordinary medical records, journals, and conversations, Elena's story gets told in a high-velocity, present-tense voice. We see Elena's world. We hear the voices in her head. We rush headlong into an illness that may have a name but still remains, for every person afflicted, a mystery. Where does anorexia begin? How is it finally controlled? Where is the key that fits the lock, that stops time from running out?
You will read, your heart pounding. You will remember a version of someone you were, or someone you loved, or love still.
Ultimately, as Clare reminds the reader, "this isn't the story of anorexia nervosa. It's the story of a person. It's the story of Elena Dunkle, a remarkable young woman who fights her demons with grit and determination. It's the story of her battle to overcome trauma, to overcome prejudice, but most of all, to overcome that powerful destructive force, the inner critic who whispers to us about our greatest fears."
There is depth, beauty, horror, and beauty again in Elena Vanishing
. You'll read it, as I did, in a single day. You will think not just about the story that got made, but the story as it was being made—this mother, this daughter, remembering together, writing together, reaching out to the world together.
And when you are done there is a book called Hope and Other Luxuries
to turn to—Clare Dunkle's memoir about loving this vanishing daughter of hers. Both books are being released by Chronicle next May. Both were edited by Ginee Seo, who poured her heart into these true stories and, once again (in Chronicle fashion), broke new ground by deciding to publish both sides of a story about an illness that affects millions of people around the world.
I own, it seems, the first two signed ARCs of both books, for I met Clare and Elena at the Chronicle booth at NCTE yesterday morning. I would like to thank Chronicle, as I close this blog, for including me at this event, for making such a home for me, for extending your friendship so warmly. Ginee Seo, Sally Kim, Jaime Wong—you threw one heck of a party, you look so good surrounded by Chronicle blue, and I am so proud to be a Chronicle author (and a Tamra Tuller writer).
Deepest thanks to those who stopped by to say hello, who stood in line for One Thing Stolen,
who came and surprised, who spoke with me over a delicious meal. Twenty-four hours at the National Harbor. Not to be forgotten. Nor are these two books, by a mother and daughter.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Ann Marie Anderson
, Avery Rome
, Gary Kramer
, Kevin Ferris
, Micah Kleit
, Philadelphia Inquirer
, Philadelphia: A Love Affair
, Temple University Press
, Add a tag
A year from now, Temple University Press will release Love: A Philadelphia Affair,
a collection of thirty-six essays on the intersection of memory and place. Thirty-eight of my black-and-white photographs will accompany the text.
Some twenty of those essays first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer—
pieces I was lucky enough to write for Inquirer
editors Avery Rome and Kevin Ferris.
Others have been written over the past few months for the book itself, taking me into and around the city on days of rain and sun to consider the streets, the architecture, the gardens, the sidewalks, the highs, the lows, and the communities that have played such a powerful role in the ways that I see, the books that I write, and the stories I teach. Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, Dangerous Neighbors
(1876 Philadelphia), Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent
(1871 Philadelphia), Small Damages, Handling the Truth,
and even One Thing Stolen
all reflect, in different ways, my love for this region and the people I have met here.
My great thanks to Micah Kleit, Ann Marie Anderson, and Gary Kramer at Temple University Press for helping me to see this dream through. My deep gratitude to Kevin Ferris and Avery Rome, who made my writing about this region such a pleasure. And huge appreciation to my agent Amy Rennert, who saw the details of this project through.
Micah and I wrapped the book up yesterday, from an editorial and photography perspective. I can't wait to hold this book in my hands, to be able to tell the world again and in new ways why I love where I live.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Joe Hernandez
, Masterman High School
, Morning Edition
, Radnor High
, Science Leadership Academy
, Berlin Wall
, Downingtown West
, Going Over
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What an honor it was to join Jennifer Lynn, host of National Public Radio's Morning Edition, at the WHYY studios in Philadelphia.
We were talking about the Berlin Wall and the conversations I've been having with students at Science Leadership Academy, Downingtown West, Masterman, and Radnor High about freedom, risks, and responsibilities.
The Berlin Wall is down, but what walls still stand?
Would you risk it all for freedom?
Do you know what you desire?
Given a wall and some cans of paint, what mark would you leave behind?
Given a page, what poem would you write?
What matters most in our lives?
I loved the students I met, the stories they told me, the deep respect these students clearly have for those who nurture and teach them. I am incapable, often, of fully articulating just what my interactions with students and their beautiful librarians and teachers mean to me. Jennifer and Joe Hernandez were exquisitely kind to invite me onto their show and to work with me so that we might tell this story succinctly.
The story will air this morning at 7:45 AM. More on the work of these students and the experience can be found here:On Teaching the Berlin Wall
At Science Leadership Academy: the Huffington Story
At Downingtown West: poems and graffiti art
At Masterman High: poems and graffiti art
At Radnor High: poems and graffiti art
At Radnor High: photographic outtakesCommon Core Aligned Teacher's Guide
Please go here
to read the teacher's guide for Going Over,
a Berlin Wall novel
Once again, the Chronicle team has done an exquisite job of creating a teacher's guide.
This time the guide was created in support of One Thing Stolen
, a story about dangerous obsessions, an Italian city, an historic flood, and hope, due out in April 2015 (more on the book here
). We'll be posting a live link soon. This, above, is just a fragment. It moves me deeply to think of someone giving a book such close attention, pondering its heart and lessons, and crafting (and designing) a guide this lovely.
The teacher's guide to Going Over
, another Chronicle masterpiece, can be found here.
Thank you, Jaime Wong and Chronicle Books.
I've been experimenting with new shapes and cone 10 firings at the Wayne Art Center.
Yesterday the browns and reds of my newest business card holder were enlivened by purple, thanks to the graciousness of the Chronicle Books team.
A few weeks ago, a note arrived from Laura Stanfill, the publisher of a brand-new press called Forest Avenue
. Laura knew of my interest in the Schuylkill River. She'd been talking with a mutual friend (the fabulous Colleen Mondor, a fabulous author
AND indie publisher)
. She wondered, she wrote, if I'd be interested in taking a look at a new novel by an award-winning poet named Kate Gray, a book, she said, that "is an unblinking look at boarding school bullying based on Kate's first year as a teacher, with a strong rowing emphasis, including a major plot point that happens on the Schuylkill." The book, Laura continued, "celebrates the river's strength and beauty—and its rowers." It has already been celebrated by writers like Hannah Tinti (about whom I once wrote here)
, Ron Carlson (whose work I love and mentioned here
), and Christopher Buckley.
Laura went on to describe Forest Avenue Press, which has recently signed with a division of the distributor PGW/Perseus and which (pay attention to this) is opening nationally for submissions in January.
A new, award-winning press with promise, I thought.
An editor who deeply loves her authors and is committed to finding a broad audience for her work.
A poet novelist.
Yesterday and early this morning I've been reading Carry the Sky
, this newly launched novel. Gray is a poet all right—a fierce one, a smart one, a writer who knows her rowing, her rivers, the claustrophobia of boarding school bullying, the ache of loss, Physics, and origami. She tells her story through the alternating voices of a Delaware boarding school's new rowing coach and the Physics teacher—both of whom are operating within a haunted psychic space. She tells her story with urgency and with details—physical and emotional—that are wholly unexpected. No cliches here, not in this urgent novel.
For example: Here is Taylor, the rowing coach, in a field with a boy who is different, a boy talking about death, a boy around whom the plot will soon turn:
The flocks of geese in these fields made the ground come alive. Their way of feeding and calling made a hum, something steady. "Why are you talking about death?" His face jerked left like a machine, then jerked right. Without looking at his face, I put the dinosaur on his blanket.
"Why do you like rowing?" he asked. The question was drum roll, cymbal crash, horn.
It was something to do with not wanting to feel pain but wanting to know pain. Like wanting to know fire. You light it in front of you, the colors all over the place, the heat all over your skin, but you don't want to burn or anything. I don't know, but I understand him a little more in the middle of that field, with geese all over everywhere, geese getting along with the swans, and all of us finding a place to land.
In a Q and A at the end of Carry the Sky,
Kate Gray speaks of the road she took toward publishing. It wasn't an easy one. It required fortitude—eight years to write the book, two years to revise it, a series of rejections, and then the balm of a writing group:
After I had written and rewritten a complete draft, received rejections when I sent the manuscript out, my indefatigable partner gathered a group of twelve friends to our house for potlucks once a month, and we read the entire draft out loud. Their questions and insights were invaluable. Reading the whole thing out loud let me hear the gaps, the promise.
And so, to a riveting debut novelist, to a brand-new press, to the partner who cared, to the friends who listened, to the rivers that haunt and sustain us — many congratulations on a work of art.
Earlier today I traveled to the gorgeous WHYY building in Old City to talk with Jennifer Lynn, gracious host of WHYY FM's Morning Edition, about the students I've been meeting during my Berlin Wall talks.
I'll share a link when the segment goes live. Between now and then, my thanks to Radnor High and those who snapped these photos of our Friday conversation.
And my great thanks to Jennifer and Joe.
(And Ellen T!)
This coming Friday and Saturday I'll be in Washington, DC, for the NCTE, signing and talking about One Thing Stolen.
But the best part of events such as these is the conversations one has with other authors and educators. With people who get books, and love them.
A few days ago, Jaime Wong, the lovely marketing coordinator for Chronicle Books/Children's, sent copies of two books by the authors with whom I'll be sharing a Friday evening meal (alongside educators and the Chronicle team).
The first, by Michaela MacColl (Always Emily, Nobody's Secret, Prisoners in the Palace
), is a mystery called the Revelation of Louisa May
. Michaela, who I first met in Boston last year, specializes in the "intertwining of the facts of a beloved author's real life with a suspenseful fictional tale." Here we meet the great Louisa May Alcott as a teen—her principled family struggling to make ends meet, her home a station stop for runaway slaves, and Emerson and Thoreau counted among neighbors and friends. Louisa has a lot on her hands when we first meet her, and there will be plenty of excitement ahead, as Louisa's mother leaves for a stint at paying work, a runaway is kept hidden in the house, a slave catcher comes to town, and a mystery erupts. There's a reason these Michaela books are so popular—just the right amount of history, just the right amount of maybe, and an intriguing historical lesson for teens.
The second book in my package is by the debut author K.E. Ormsbee. Called The Water and the Wild
, it is graced with a most gorgeous illustrated cover by Elsa Mora. It is a charming fantasy that takes its heroine down through the roots of apple tree to another world "in pursuit of the impossible: a cure for the incurable, a use for the useless, and protection against the pain of loss." The language here beguiles:
Lottie, like any red-blooded girl, had been taught to get out of the way of things like speeding convertibles and masked men with guns, but she had never expected to have a run-in with a homicidal tree. More than that, and what confused Lottie the most in the split-second she had to realize that she was about to get smashed to smithereens, was that she had not seen any lightning. If she was going to be killed by a falling tree, Lottie thought in that last moment of cognizance, she wished it would have at least had the decency to get struck by lightning first. That would have been a much more dramatic way to go.
Look for both these books from Chronicle Books next April.
I published three books with Alane Salierno Mason and W.W. Norton years ago, and every now and then, Alane returns—her words on a page, that page slipped inside a book she's been working on.
A few weeks ago, My Life as a Foreign Country
showed up at my door—a new war memoir by
the poet Brian Turner. I had been living a long, solid stretch of distracting diminishings. I had been finding it nearly impossible to read—no time for it, or no energy when the hour was to be had. I had a mile-high stack of other books that had been sent my way, of requests I couldn't get to, of requests I was meeting instead of reading, but something about this one book commanded my attention. I kept clawing my way back to it, read it by half page and full page, by train ride, in a room brightened at 3 AM by a lamp.
Because My Life
breaks the rules, I liked it. Because it reads more like a hallucination than a life. Because Turner doesn't set aside his poetry in writing prose.
Turner's memoir tells us something of his Sergeant years in Iraq, something of the wars his grandfather, father, and uncle fought. He slides in and out of what he remembers and what he conjures—taking the powers of the empathetic imagination to an entirely new realm. He sees the thoughts of the suicide bomber, sings the song of the bomb builder, lives for and maybe beyond the enemy. The dreams are feral and the details are specific, and Sgt Turner is dead, too, but he is writing his death down, he is writing himself into the final page and "there is nothing strange" in all of that.
Earlier this morning (it seems a year ago now) I was finishing a book of my own, responding to final manuscript queries. I was asking myself how one authentically renders shock.My Life
authentically renders shock. It reveals how the terror lives on, how it knocks on the door, how it enters the room, how it watches you sleep with your wife. Years on, the shock does that. The war, Turner tells us, is never done.
The language smears and catches. It sounds like this:
This is part of the intoxication, part of the pathology of it all. This is part of what I was learning, from early childhood on—that to journey into the wild spaces where profound questions are given a violent and inexorable response, that to travail through fire and return again—these are the experiences which determine the making of a man. To be a man, I would need to walk into the thunder and hail of a world stripped of its reason, just as others in my family had done before me. And if I were strong enough, and capable enough, and god-damned lucky enough, I might one day return clothed in an unshakable silence. Back to the world, as they say.
This spring, my creative nonfiction students at Penn will assess and learn from the poetry of Sgt. Turner.
At Radnor High, I was hosted by the exquisite Michelle Wetzel and Fran Misener and that most fabulous Molly Carroll Newton (of Radnor Memorial Library). There were brownies, pretzels, sandwiches. There were students who had much to say, teachers who made room for the session, a vibrant and vast library world. There was a story about a family member who lost his life in East Berlin because he would not relinquish his bicycle to the guard. There were healthy debates about risks and choices. There were the kinds of conversations that leave a happy buzz inside my head.
The art above is by Fran Misener, one of my hosts for the day. (I so love this.)
The poem below is by Eun-Soo Park, who leads the book club at Radnor High and who had me sign his copy of Going Over
for a friend who was off on a field trip that day. She really wanted to meet you,
he said. So I think I should give the book to her.
(I so love that.
The Cost of Freedom
Waiting with words trapped within
Ready to burst with irrepressible emotion
Unable to make a choice
For fear of stumbling into regret.
Bonds broken, lives at stake,
Stuck with a feeling of stasis.
Every second, a wasted opportunity.
What stops a fleeting rush toward freedom?
The danger, the worry, the risk of death.
But what really hinders the dreams of life
Is believing that one can exist without freedom.
Jake wrote as well. I share his words here as emblematic of many of the wonderful words the students of Radnor High produced during our time together:
The promised land is a distant light,
A chasm, deep and dark.
Too wide to see where it ends
Crossable, but with a steep cost.
The fear of the unknown: the final barrier.
My work with these students is not done. My pleasure is ongoing.
Finally, Ms. Wetzel gave me a gift of air which also turned out to be (surprise) a pair of air-colored earrings. I believe that it was those very earrings that got me through a long ride and a final river talk yesterday. Michelle, you were there with me.
(I so love that.
I asked readers of this blog to tell me something about the way they think of or remember Florence. What is that building, that bit of landscape, that dish, that way of walking, that weather that is Florence to you?
On my blog and over Facebook they answered—so many lovely responses that I find myself simply wanting to list them here. To you, to those who stopped by, Florence is (in part):
The trip Florinda and her art major husband will take to Italy before this decade is through.
That moment when Sandra Bullock says, in "While You Were Sleeping," "And there would be a stamp in my passport and it would say Italy on it."
A statue of Bacchus.
The stories Hilary's backpacking sister would tell.
The cement slab that sloped down toward the river.
The smell of leathergoods shops on the Ponte Vecchio.
Florence and the Machine.
A woman named Florence who helped Lisa feel hopeful about staying intellectually engaged at any age (and being kind while you are at it).
Outdoor cafes and hot waiters who are working to pay for their art.
The Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo, a city close to the city where George Clooney got married.
Two small gold rings.
An art history class.
The nearby beaches.
The similarities between the Arno and the Schuylkill (woman after my own heart, that Victoria Marie Lees)
A mother, now gone, who lived the dream of traveling Italy.
(And so much more.)
This morning I've asked my sleepy husband to give me a number (each entry had a number). His number correlates with Amy, who said that Florence is, to her, the cement slab that sloped down toward the river (and where she wrote in her journal).
Amy, I can't tell you how cool it is that you have been randomly selected, for a very major scene in One Thing Stolen
takes place on that very cement slab. Please send along your mailing address so that I can send you a copy of the book.
Looking forward to seeing my Chronicle friends and the teachers of NCTE (and wonderful, intelligent, blessing-of-a-friend Debbie Levy
!!!!!!) next Friday/Saturday in Washington, DC, where more copies of One Thing Stolen
will be shared. I'll be at the Chronicle Booth at 3 PM on Friday.
Today I'll return to Radnor High, where I learned the periodic table, Algebra 2, Shakespeare, poetry and a little something about people.
I'll be talking about Going Over
and the Berlin Wall.
I'll also be remembering the Beth of long ago and the Beth of 2010, who stood with the great filmmaker Lee Daniels and others celebrating the school that partly shaped us.
I am deeply grateful that so many Radnor alums have returned to my world in recent years. I continue to learn from them.
With thanks to Molly Carroll Newton, Michelle Wtezel, Fran Misener, and Ellen Tractenberg.
The rain was just beginning to fall as Rob Cardillo and I set off down the hill of Chanticleer. The glorious garden is closed now for the winter, but Rob, a tremendous photographer (see his images here
), was taking portraits for a new project now under way with our mutual friend, Adam Levine.
I've contributed in a small way to the project and agreed to an accompanying portrait if (and only if) Rob kept me in the far distance of his images.
He kept that promise.
I snapped these two photographs in between takes.
On November 15, one reader/commenter on this blog (see details here) will be named the winner (that sounds like such a big word; let's try recipient) of One Thing Stolen, my novel due out in April 2015 from Chronicle Books. At the heart of the novel lies a ravaging flood that swept through Florence, Italy, on November 4, 1966 and destroyed some of the most important art of the civilized world. The footage above tells the story. The flood is one of three obsessions that I explore in this novel about then and now.
On November 21st, during NCTE, I'll be at the National Harbor Convention Center signing copies of One Thing Stolen at the Chronicle booth. Please come and visit if you can. 3:00 PM is our signing hour.
Again, go here for your chance at an early copy.
Today is not just the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
It's the 25th anniversary of the remarkable, enduring, smart, and somehow simultaneously huge and intimate Children's Book World of Haverford, PA.
As part of the celebration, CBW hosted The Caldecott Panel at Friends' Central School—the very best of the very best right there on City Line Avenue. Chris Van Allsburg. David Wiesner. Brian Selznick. And Jennifer M. Brown as moderator of what quickly became a wide-ranging conversation about black and white vs. color, visual narratives, filmic translations, the plot power of the artistic media, the certain school of design attended by all three of these great storytellers (RISD), and who taught who, or who might have taught who, or who wished they had taught who.
There they sat on one long couch and two book-ending chairs, surprising each other, while Jenny Brown, who knows this business better than anyone anywhere (our Ambassador of Children's Literature, I've always said), asked her intelligent questions, sat back, and enjoyed the surprises, too.
A packed house. An eager audience. Dozens of hands flying up during the Q and A—half of those hands belonging to children.
You want to celebrate one of the top children's book stores in the country? I can think of no better way.
Congratulations, CBW. The lovely lady with the dark tresses, by the way, is CBW's own Heather Hebert.
Readers of this blog know that I married a man from a land that was foreign to me. El Salvador. That I traveled there. That I studied it. That I tried to make sense of that world in a memoir that took years to write, Still Love in Strange Places.
I read every last news story I could find at the time, every antique coffee brochure, every photograph made available to me (this one, here, I especially love, featuring my husband's grandfather on the far right). I talked to dear Aunt Adela, my brother-in-laws, Mario and Rodi, my mother-in-law, anyone who had the time.
But the story is never over, and this morning I found myself spiraling back toward El Salvador while watching this New York Times
retro reportage on the four American nuns who were murdered in December 1980. Their story horrified me when I first heard of it (a few years before I met my husband). I never could make sense of it. But love and memory keep a story alive, and justice finds its way.
For those interested in footage of El Salvador that I never saw and in a story that has many twists and turns, I highly recommend this story
by Clyde Haberman and important video.
I am off to Masterman High, in Philadelphia, to talk with students about the Berlin Wall, about the world beyond, about risks and responsibilities. There is, I believe (I stake my small legacy on it), nothing like the real world to inspire meaningful conversations.
I took the story of the Berlin Wall to Philadelphia's academic magnet school, Masterman—meeting with the students of two exquisite and clearly well-respected history teachers, Liz Taylor and Janel Vecsi.
In the Spring Garden neighborhood, inside a circa-1876 building that has inspired filmmakers and hosted President Obama, we talked about risks, responsibilities, and choices. I met students with a personal tie to East Berlin. Students who knew history and the world around them. Students who watch the news out of curiosity and not out of an assignment. Students who work extremely hard at school and at home—and excel. Students who willingly make art and share it. We hear about the terrible struggles of the School District of Philadelphia. We meet and write about the teachers
who work so hard under difficult circumstances. Then we hang out with the students themselves and are (again) reminded how important this teaching enterprise is, how necessary it is to get it right, for them.
I came home with a fat file of graffiti art and poetry. What do you want that you do not have? I'd asked the students, after sharing Wall stories, playing Bruce Springsteen
, reading from Going Over.
What separates you from your dreams or those you love? What is the cost of desire? What are the consequences of change? What are the lessons of the Wall?
And student after student thoughtfully answered. A mere sampling:
I know why the caged bird sings
because I am that caged bird.
My wings are clipped,
my legs are tied,
yet, I will still warble in
this dark, pressing night.
I will walk up to this barrier,
this solid thing that embodies
all forms of constriction.
I don't care, I will fly,
my ropes are loosening,
my wings are growing.
The bird knows its risks.
Yet it flies, it flies.
The bird has one
thing that I cannot attain:
Freedom is on the other side.
Will I jump?
I know why the caged bird sings.
He's telling me to jump.
It's safe to stay where I am.
That's what people say, at least.
It's too risky
To risk the distance,
Defy the borders.
Your life is fine here, easy.
But I don't live to feel fine.
I live to feel alive.
To do what I want to do.
To pursue freedom.
To chase my own dreams.
I don't live to listen to washed-up lyrics
Written by tyrants.
I live to dream.
Mentally, physically, emotionally...
On one side, ideals.
The other, truth.
People have ideals,
A set mind on how they
Want to live.
But then there is the truth.
How they are living ...
If there ideal is their truth
There would be no wall.
The cost of desire is terror—
the Terror you feel when change occurs,
when it does not turn out the way you thought.
like you wanted it to.
You do not know what answer you will get.
What feelings you will have.
What the long-term outcome will be.
But you try and you try
And you hope change will go your way.
They protect but also confine.
They keep out the bad but
also the good.
They protect us from the outside world
but also block us from the outside.
So break down the walls
and let yourself free.
Because the walls can't protect you forever.
And when they break,
make sure you're ready.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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Yesterday, the Armed Services Council of the Union League of Philadelphia hosted a celebration of Veterans Day. Well more than 300 people turned out for what was a moving remembrance. My friend Cindy was there; five generations in her family (including her son) have served our nation. General James L. Jones, the 32nd commandant of the United States Marine Corps and a former National Security Advisor to President Obama, was there, receiving the Union League Lincoln Award. The people to my left at the luncheon were remembering Coast Guard duty. Across the way was a man who, through a not-for-profit organization, helps those who lose their limbs to walk and write again.
And in that hallowed space, the Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed were honored—by flowers, by gifts, by standing ovations, and by the book, Unbreakable Bonds,
released yesterday. Written by Dava Guerin and my friend Kevin Ferris, the book features forewords by President George H.W. Bush and Connie Morella. It tells ten moving stories about young people wounded at war and the mothers who will not leave their sides throughout the healing process. My thoughts on the book, published by Skyhorse, were first shared here.
Kevin isn't just my friend. He is an assistant editor with the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer
and a man who served in the US Army from 1976 to 1979. He's the sort of person who consistently shines the light on other writers and broad national and local issues. Yesterday was our chance to thank him and Dava and the Mighty Moms and the Vets and those who love them.
It was, as well, our chance to sing a medley of Service songs—the songs of the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. My father, who also served, sang those songs to me when I was young. It was hard to get through them without wiping away a few tears.
Truth? I haven't written anything remotely bookish for a while because, well, I've been busy. That harried woman running from place to place, topic to topic, responsibility to responsibility, and only sometimes to her own kitchen? That would be me. There's wind in my hair.
But I've been thinking
about writing and when the good folks at Chronicle asked me to offer writers a NaNoWriMo tip, I knew exactly what inspiration I wanted to offer.
It's all here,
along with a few of my photographs. And one silly picture of me. What I wouldn't give to be pretty. What I wouldn't give.
Wait. I'm off topic. I'm also off again, and running —
Let's acknowledge this:
It isn't easy out here.
We have dreams, and the path ahead isn't clear. We were promised, and the promise vanishes. We love, but some of those we love are missing. We are full of hope and that hope is splintered (compromised) by the facts as we know them, the counts against us, the world as it is, so much that is breaking apart.
In the afternoon a neighbor tells a heartbreaking story.
In the evening a friend writes of hurt.
In the morning a shattering email arrives.
Desire is so open-ended.
Tomorrow is a distance.
Certainty is breached.
Today, following a legendary four-and-a-half-month search—dozens of interviews, so many almosts—my son begins a new job. Nothing has ever mattered to me more than his happiness and, let's face it, I am nearly powerless. In the end, he did it all—strategically searched, persevered, did the work on complex projects, showed up for the interviews, landed the job.
I don't know what tomorrow will bring. Nothing seems sure to me anymore. What I know is what I continue to learn from my son—about holding fast, not giving up, enduring through optimism, placing faith in creativity. Again and again, since July, my son has told me this simple and profound tale: Tomorrow is a new day, and a new chance.
For all those I love, for those who are hurting, for those who can't see through the windowpanes just now: Tomorrow will come and with it some sun.
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Can we give it up this morning for Sister Kim of Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls? Who has ignited her students with a love for stories. Who drives them to their super stars. Who gives them book projects that yield stunning results.
Who makes videos that make writers cry.
Who puts together a massive and massively successful Little Flower High School Teen Writers & Readers Festival.
(Look for the 2015 festival on April 18, 2015, when I will join a fantastic cast of area writers for a day of workshops, panels, and signings.)
Who writes to me last night to say that 42 copies of Going Over
have arrived at her classroom and will be taught this spring.
Who tags me this morning to say:Going Over is on the 2015 Tayshas Reading List.
This was a dream I had. But. I hadn't dared to dream it fully.
Props. To Sister Kim. To the so-generous TAYSHAS committee. To Chronicle Books, whose glorious team members have opened more doors for me than any publishing house ever.