Monday, July 9, 2018

I didn't notice her foot was raised

The one time I visited the statue was on an eighth grade class field trip. We took a choppy boat ride to the island and climbed the windy stairs inside. I wasn't thinking about the statue, the history, the symbols, or give me your tired and poor, I was thinking of my own feet on the stairs because those stairs were scary, steep.

Each step, a grate you could see through with no back to it, so it felt like your foot could slide out the other side. Only room for one person, climbing single file, and once you were on your way up, there was no turning back.

I gripped the railing, kept my eyes on the person in front of me, tried not to look down, but every so often caught a dizzying glimpse of the space around me, the contours of the statue's body, the dress.

I just wanted to make it to the top. I was imagining the spacious crown, the view of the city (my first time visiting New York even though my hometown was less than a two-hour drive away) but when I finally made it, it turned out the space up there was cramped too, the windows in the crown too small to see much of anything. As we filed past, I peeked out, caught a flash of a green arm, the one holding the torch, the rivets holding it together,

and then we were filing our way down, this time scarier than going up because the person behind me kept knocking his knees into my back, threatening to tip me over the rail.

We saw other things on that trip. The stock exchange. The UN building. A stroll around the roof of one of the Twin Towers. I think you could see the Statue of Liberty from up there. But still, I never noticed the raised foot. There's a new book about it, a kids' book that we've been featuring at the bookstore where I work, but one I hadn't picked up until the other day.


A fun story about the statue and who came up with the idea and how it was built, some facts I knew, and some I didn't, like, for example, that for the first thirty years, the statue was brown (it's made of copper and it took that long to oxidize); that the statue was assembled in Paris and stood there for a year before it was taken apart and reassembled in America. 

So, the statue is, in a sense, an immigrant, someone in motion, if you remember her raised right foot. The author of the book makes us think about why that might be so.  

If you stop by the bookstore, I will push the book into your hands. I will also hand you a tissue.



Saturday, June 30, 2018

I don't remember how many people were protesting

ten? Twelve? The group was in the center of campus and I was walking past on the way to dinner. They carried signs and shouted but I didn't stop to hear what they were saying or do more than glance at the signs. Something about Apartheid, which I knew was a Thing in South Africa.

Something bad. But I knew this on an intellectual level only. I want to tell you I felt something more than mild curiosity, something more than Meh Whatever, as I continued walking by. But I can't remember feeling anything. The truth is I didn't care. I was going to say it was because I was twenty,

but the protesters were the same age, so that can't be the reason. Maybe it's because I was a mess, too wrapped up in my own problems to imagine other people's pain. Not a good excuse, but it's all I have.

I don't know when that changed. After having my children? After years of teaching hundreds of kids? Reading books? Studying history? Writing stories and living inside made-up people's heads?

growing up?

Who knows. But back then, there was probably nothing anyone could say to make me veer off the sidewalk and join the group who cared about the suffering of other people.

So I am not going to try to explain to you why you should, except here's a story:

one day, I was picking up my four-year-old son from his darling little church preschool, a place he went to play two afternoons a week.The classrooms opened into a large hall and after the kids raced out, waving their still paint-drippy art projects, the moms would often linger,

chatting, holding our napping younger children, while the four-year-olds darted around our legs. Oh my God I loved those brief conversations with the moms, a moment of adult conversation after hours of incessant high voices, the whining the wailing the crying, the endless making and cleaning up of meals, the never-ending scooping up of strewn toys,

but for those precious few minutes after school, a connection, and this one day, a few of us got to talking, absorbed in who knows what topic, slowly walking along the whole time toward the door and out the door,

onto the edge of the parking lot, our kids still scampering around us, except at some point, I realized that my son wasn't there. (This is not a story of kidnapping or gruesome injuries requiring stitches, okay? So don't worry.) All that happened was

I stopped my conversation and walked back inside the building where I saw my son and he saw me at the same moment, and he ran toward me, hysterical, and I stooped down to hug him and he flailed in my arms and hit me,

which would have been embarrassing for the other mothers to see, except I didn't care

what they thought. All I could think about was what I'd just seen on my kid's face. One moment, terror. Then a moment of pure relief. And then a whoosh of rage, at me, for allowing us to become separated. It couldn't have been more then two or three minutes that we'd even been apart from each other

but my little boy cried all the way home.

Now, twenty years later, I can still hear him crying, still see his terrified face, and I don't know why. I don't. I don't. But here it is, that face and somehow it's imprinted on other faces, 2342 faces and counting,

the children taken from their parents at the border, but those kids have not been reunited (yet?) with their parents, and if, when, they are, their suffering will not be over.

I am not so naive to think that holding a sign will make a difference, but I sure as hell know that walking by without a glance is no longer an option. 





Monday, June 25, 2018

Four bookstores in four hours in New Orleans

The one where Mardi Gras beads dangle from the tree branches outside and across the street's a cemetery with white and gray tombs, which you'll wander between in a moment, 
but first you thumb through the vampire books you were obsessed with in college. 

(Why are the books stacked like this? Who knows?) 







The one where all the books are French children's books. (Fun fact: there are several French immersion schools in this city.) 

A porch swing inside. A loft. Small tables, each one set with paper and markers and while your friend buys a Harry Potter book in French, you sit doodling in every color. 


The one that used to be a boarding house where Faulkner lived for eight months and wrote his first novel. This store is small but the books reach up to the ceiling. The only clerk tells you stories about New Orleans in the 1920's, which somehow leads to a political discussion because isn't everything a political discussion these days.

The one where the books are stacked in teetery tottery piles and you can only wind between them single file, afraid a quick turn could lead to a domino-toppling disaster. But the guy working here, buried behind books, somehow knows where everything is.

Outside, a band playing in the courtyard. You wade with your bag of books through crowded humid streets, already planning your escape. 





Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Every day I walked across the bridge

to the castle on the other side, the orange roofs, the towers, the church steeples. Sometimes I touched the blackened statues, angels, saints, the guy who was thrown off in chains--

he's the oldest statue on the bridge, his body gold from people touching it for luck. I don't believe in that kind off thing, but still, I admit, I touched him, stopping to look out at the river, imagining for a moment the man hurling toward the water, and all of the people over the years doing the same thing I'm doing,

strolling, rubbing statues, wanting to believe.

(The St Charles Bridge, Prague, one year ago today)
Around me tourists ignored the beggars, examined jewelry for sale while musicians played The Moldau or Mamma Mia, and I was thinking how weird it was to be moving in a crowd but feeling apart from them at the same time. Maybe it was all the different languages,

none of them mine, alone with my own loud thoughts. On a mission to explore the place on my own, wander through hidden gardens, eat street food, poke around churches.

No pictures, said the signs, but I sneaked one anyway. Some ancient church and inside, another church, and inside that one, a beam of wood that my guidebook said came from the house of Mary. Yes, that Mary. The mother of God. It looked like an ordinary piece of wood but for some reason I was teary-eyed.

And choked up again watching the people in wheelchairs bless themselves at the altar under the Baby Jesus of Prague, basically a china doll dressed in a poofy ornate gown and why would anyone think this would work, but still I take my turn and kneel. No one gives to the beggars on the bridge. They have a particular stance here, crouched, face down, their arms out, so no one has to meet their eyes.

Some of them have puppies. In a garden I find what I think is a good place to write, tucked behind bushes on a stone bench, but apparently, it's a popular wedding photo spot and two by two, the brides and grooms troop by, pose, set up their shots, the red roof backdrop, blue sky.

One of the photographers takes my phone, snaps a picture. We arrange this transaction without speaking. It's amazing, when you think about it, how we much we can understand each other when we want to.

Back across the bridge, the sun setting, the boats in the river, the statues, some of them 600 years old, a teenage boy drops a coin in front of a beggar, so quickly even the beggar seems surprised. A young couple dances past, the song lovelier than any I have ever heard.



Thursday, June 7, 2018

Both Summers Someone Drove Me To Work

the summer I was twenty, on the verge of turning twenty-one, and living, as some said, "in sin" with a boy-- an archaic and silly rumor because we were always only friends, but whatever, people are going to think what they're going to think--

and what I was thinking was great relief at being one thousand two hundred fifty miles away from home, playing the part of a grown up with my best friend, living in a cool apartment (okay, the apartment was filthy and infested with flying cockroaches and I had to sleep on a futon where I tried not to think about them landing on my face in the middle of the night)

and working two jobs,

an internship downtown at Memphis Magazine, fact-checking articles, talking on the phone with PR departments, fetching coffee for editors and writing a few of my own articles (one was about flying cockroaches. Shockingly, they did not publish it.)

and a waitressing job at Perkins Restaurant where I always had way too many tables and for some reason the trend was to tip the waitresses with religious pamphlets instead of money, and one of the most ridiculous pamphlets said: WHAT DO JANICE JOPLIN AND JIMI HENDRIX HAVE IN COMMON?

THEY'RE BOTH ROCK STARS AND THEY'RE BOTH DEAD!! JESUS IS THE ONLY TRUE ROCK.

But I digress. The point is that someone drove me to work.

The boy I was living with is the unsung hero of that summer, basically acting as my chauffeur because I had no car and he was a nice guy, dropping me off at my internship downtown promptly at nine and picking me up at noon and then driving me to Perkins at four and picking me up after midnight, and in between he drove around delivering pizza,

so maybe he enjoyed driving? I don't know, but I do know that I hated that ride to Perkins, how we'd listen to the same cassette tape every afternoon, Best of the Moody Blues, and we'd only make it to song number three "Ride My Seesaw" before I'd have to lurch out of the car, tightening my side ponytail, bracing myself for my collection of quarter tips and inane religious tracts that promised I'd burn in hell.

That summer was a kind of hell, now that I think about it.

But I am digressing again, because what I really wanted to write about is this summer and how it is exactly thirty years later and someone else is driving me to work each afternoon, but this time the person is my daughter, who is twenty, on the verge of turning twenty-one, and my job is in a lovely children's bookstore,

something out of You've Got Mail, but hopefully not like the one that Tom Hanks will put out of business because I really love working there, touching books and talking about books and chatting with customers and my co-workers, one of whom, at least for a few weeks, is my daughter,

home for part of the summer before heading off to Rome. We don't listen to the Moody Blues when we ride together into work and I don't have my hair in a side ponytail (not sure what that was about. A possible clue to the religious pamphlets?) My daughter wouldn't be caught dead with her hair in a side ponytail.

She is way cooler than I was at her age. Possibly not having to sleep on a futon and whack at flying cockroaches in the middle of the night will have that effect on a person,

or who knows all of the things that add up to who we are, what makes some of us condemn frazzled waitresses to eternal damnation and others drive them to work,

what makes time fly so fast that one moment you're twenty-going-on-twenty-one and the next

you're not.






Thursday, May 31, 2018

One True Way: An Interview with Shannon Hitchcock

I am so happy to have Shannon Hitchcock back On the Verge!

I'm a huge fan of her work. Her debut novel The Ballad of Jessie Pearl is a favorite-- a girl's coming of age in 1920's rural North Carolina after a family tragedy, and Shannon's take on school integration in Ruby Lee & Me is heart-breaking and thought-provoking. Her new novel, One True Way, skips forward in time to more recent history, 1977. It's a story of friendship and first romance-- between two girls-- set in a period when the country was nowhere near ready to accept, or even acknowledge, homosexuality.

The subject can be touchy for some people even today, but Shannon's a pro at creating three dimensional characters and believable, compelling plots, so I knew I would love the book. And I did!

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Jody: Shannon, something I've learned working at a bookstore is how important it is to be able to sum up a book in a sentence or two in order to grab a potential reader's attention. What's your ten-second pitch for One True Way?


Shannon: From the moment, Allie Drake meets Samantha Johnson at Daniel Boone Middle School, she knows there is something special between them. But Allie never knew a first crush could be so wonderful—or cause so many problems.

Jody: I love that. It perfectly encapsulates the book. Your other novels were inspired by events in your family history. Is that the case for One True Way as well?

Shannon: The idea sparked at a National Council of Teachers of English. I was attending a diversity panel and the librarian/moderator said what she really needed were more middle grade books that deal with homosexuality. She went on to say that’s the age same sex feelings emerge, but there were very few books available.

That resonated with me because many years ago a person I love came out to me. Because we’d both been raised in conservative churches, it was gut wrenching for both of us. I knew immediately I wanted to tell that story.

Jody: There's been a pretty big shift, I think, in the last decade, on how we as a society talk about and view homosexuality. I've noticed that there was a shift even between the years my own two kids (who are four years apart) were in school. When my older son was in college, several kids he knew came out and it was without much fanfare. Only a couple of years later, kids were coming out in my daughter's high school. Now, kids are coming out in middle school.

Your book feels essential for those kids who are thinking about their own sexuality-- coming out or on the verge of coming out, but also for their classmates, and let's face it, for adults who haven't caught up yet with the kids! Were you thinking about any of these issues when you were writing One True Way? Have you gotten any push-back from readers or gatekeepers (teachers, parents, etc.)?

Shannon: The problem with writing a novel with LGBT content is you’re never sure if a negative review is because your writing stinks or the reviewer does. I suspect lots of the push-back for One True Way will be silent censorship. Educators who simply won’t buy or use the book. I agree with you that adults haven’t caught up with kids on LGBT issues.

A recent article in the NY Times reinforced that for me:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/books/george-alex-gino-controversy-oregon.html6.

Jody: I haven't read George by Alex Gino yet, but I know exactly what you mean. A few years ago I teamed up with a librarian to present on silent censorship at an American Association of School Librarians conference. We called our presentation "Two Boys Kissing Is Always Missing" because my librarian friend realized that while she carried that novel by David Levithan in her school library, no child every officially checked it out.

Still, the book was never where it was supposed to be on the shelf. Kids were slipping it out of the library to read. David Levithan himself spoke about that. He acknowledged that kids might be afraid to check the book out or buy it, but just that fact that it existed, that it was on a book shelf, made them feel less alone.

Which is what I think homophobic people are most afraid of when they hear about books like that, and like yours. There's an element of If we pretend homosexuality doesn't exist, then it won't, or something like that.

Shannon: This is true, sadly. In my experience, the prejudice many homosexuals face stems from religion, so if I really wanted my book to make a difference, I needed to examine the source of it. Three books were invaluable to me: Defrocked: How a Father’s Act of love Shook the United Methodist Church by Franklyn Schaefer, Crooked letter i: Coming Out in the South by Connie Griffin, and When Christians Get It Wrong by Adam Hamilton. I also worked with my minister, the Reverend Vicki Walker.

Jody: I'm glad you brought religion up. It's a huge part of many kids' lives but it's rare to see characters in children's books going to church or talking about church. You do a great job depicting different kinds of churches in the story. There's Sam's church-- a fundamentalist church, and there's Allie's, a more progressive one.

Shannon: That was something I worked on and thought about a lot. The readers I am most trying to reach are the kids being raised in conservative churches. I want those kids to know not everyone interprets the Bible the same way, and that it’s important to be true to who they are.

Jody: Something we haven't talked about yet is the setting. This book takes place in the 1970's and reminded me of books I read in the 70's -- books by Paula Danziger and Ellen Conford, books about divorce, friendships, gentle romantic relationships, school interactions...

Did you read those kinds of books when you were growing up in the 1970's? Did you think about books like that when you were writing? What other kinds of research did you do before/when you were writing the novel?

Shannon: Yes, I read those kinds of books, but I didn’t really think about them in writing One True Way. I started by reading YA LGBT books and making note of what content was appropriate and inappropriate for a middle grade audience. I read Boy Meets Boy, Two Boys Kissing, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Annie On My Mind, and many others.

What those books taught me is the emotions are the same whether the relationship is between two boys, two girls, or a boy and a girl. The difference is in the way society reacts to it.

Jody: I've read those books too and they do what the very best books do-- drop the reader into another person's shoes and get them walking around for a bit in a different life. And now we can add One True Way to that list.

Before I let you go, Shannon, I'm excited to hear what you are working on now.

Shannon: I’ve been revising a novel called Callie In Color. I had decided it would never see the light of day, but then received feedback that Callie needed a subplot. I don’t know whether Callie will ever be published, but adding the subplot has reinvigorated my enthusiasm for it. That old adage about not revising in a vacuum turns out to be true.

Jody: I have no doubt that you will figure it out! Thank you, Shannon, for joining me today! Dear readers, if you'd like to learn more about Shannon and her books, see below.

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Shannon Hitchcock is the author of the critically acclaimed One True Way, Ruby Lee & Me and The Ballad of Jesse Pearl. Her picture book biography Overgrown Jack was nominated for the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award. Her writing has been published in Cricket, Highlights for Children, and Children's Writer magazines. She lives in Tampa, Florida.


You can find her online here:
www.ShannonHitchock.com
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Twitter
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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Things I Learned on My Summer Vacation

The air in the southwest is nowhere near as humid as it is in central Ohio (and as a person with normally out-of-control/mad woman in the forest curly-hair, I appreciate that).

The Grand Canyon is a must-see in real life. (Pictures do not even begin to capture the view). But here's one anyway:


I like the contrast of red rock against bright blue sky. Georgia O'Keeffe knew what she was doing, living out in New Mexico, painting red rock formations and bleached animal bones and skies so blue they make your eyes burn.


She also painted churches.


There are tons of old churches in the southwest and one of them, the Santuario de Chimayo, has a special room tucked away behind the altar where you are invited to scoop out sacred dirt.

Which I did. Into an empty pill bottle.


Because you never know when you are going to need some sacred dirt.

And speaking of old churches, they are not nearly as old as the Native American towns you will pass through. Pueblos carved in mountains. Multi-storied adobes. Mud-brick foundations dating back to the 1000s, some still occupied by nations you've never heard of, and you think as you wander through some of these places how ignorant you were,

thinking that old places like these exist only in other parts of the world. Europe, for example, where you've see the foundations of Roman walls and all of those ancient churches, the bones of saints behind glass or buried under the slate floors.

Ignorant, because you didn't remember the civilizations here, in America. Ignorant, because you thought most of these people were gone. But here you are at one place where the people still live, their homes situated around buildings their ancestors made one thousand years ago.


You haven't read or looked at the news all week, but somehow it leaks in anyway. Another mass shooting in a school. More corruption in the administration. Something about yanni and laurel. Oh, and the president of the United States of America called immigrants animals.

The sky is so blue and the landscape is so red and you know the terrible things that have been done here to other human beings, that are still being done, this moment, and how very lucky you are to have passed through this world mostly unscathed,

to be on vacation.

Later,

when you are walking by what looks like a bookstore/barbershop in Durango, Colorado, and the bearded clerk asks you what book you are looking for and you start to walk away because the place looks super sketchy, with its two barber chairs and only one bookcase filled with dusty books,

but your husband walks closer and says, "Young Adult novels?" and the clerk says, "We have that for you right here," and then he opens the bookcase...

and there's a room glowing on the other side.

Go in.



You'll be glad you did.