Monday, October 31, 2016

FANNIE NEVER FLINCHED (Guest Post by Mary Cronk Farrell)

I'm so excited to host Mary Cronk Farrell On The Verge today. Mary's known for writing award-winning, thought-provoking non-fiction about subjects not often explored in children's books. The first book that put her on my radar was PURE GRIT, an eye-opening true story of a group of American nurses who were held prisoner during WWII.

Her latest book shines a spotlight on the budding labor movement at the turn of the last century, specifically on Fannie Sellins, an immigrant factory worker turned labor activist. The story is a timely, tragic, and ultimately inspiring must-read (for adults too!)

I am always in awe of writers who turn true events and real heroes into compelling non-fiction narratives, and after reading this compelling story, I was eager to hear more about what inspired Mary to write it.

Here's Mary:

This book was first rejected for publication more than ten years ago, but I never lost my passion for the story of this brave woman. I never stopped believing that Fannie Sellins' biography is relevant today.

Here's the anecdote that first stirred my admiration for Fannie’s courage.  During a coal miners strike in Colliers, West Virginia, a federal judge issued an injunction barring union organizers from talking to workers union "in their homes or on the streets."

Women and children with union sign.
(Courtesy West Virginia & Regional History Collection)

The strikers held a mass meeting at the town Opera House and due to threatened arrests chose a man to speak who was not a member of the mine workers union.

Fannie had already defied the judge once, and been cited with contempt of court. She knew if she spoke, she would likely be arrested. But after the main speaker, she took the stage insisting on her right to free speech.

Fannie told the crowd she had spoken from platforms all across the country in support of striking workers, and a judge in West Virginia could not deny her that right.

“The only wrong that I have done is to take shoes to the little children in colliers who needed shoes. And when I think of their little bare feet, blue with the cruel blasts of winter, it makes me determined that if it be wrong to put shoes upon those little feet, then I will continue to do wrong as long as I have hands and feet to crawl to Colliers.”

The early 1900's have been called the Gilded Age of American Industrialization. Owners of industrial corporations were the “gilded” while hundreds of thousands of workers subsisted on poverty wages. Today the gap between the rich and poor in America rivals the 1920s.

Twenty-two percent of American children lived in poverty in 2013 compared with 18 percent in 2008, according to the Kids Count Data Book,* an annual report that ranks states by the well-being of their children.

With the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percentage of kids in poverty than the United States, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.**

Forbes Magazine disputes these stats on child poverty. Forbes, a leading source of news for American business and financial people, published the assertion that the statistics were unfairly twisted to suggest the level of poverty in the U.S. is higher than is true.***

There will always be disagreement and debate about how to handle the issue of poverty. But while the posturing continues and the arguments fly, it is the innocent and helpless who suffer. The largest group of impoverished children are age 0-3.​​​​​​​****

For more on wealth disparity in the U.S. click here. 

Do you know what economic inequality looks like? Pick it out on a graph here.

Fannie Sellins put her hopes in the union labor movement. She believed America could rise to its ideals of equality and justice for all and she spent her life working to make change happen, even when she ended up in jail and in danger for her life.  In fact, Fannie was eventually shot by company gunmen during a strike in Western Pennsylvania.

My hope is that her courage will inspire us to continue the work of providing justice for those in poverty through no fault of their own.

To find out more about my books, my calendar or how I help students, teachers and librarians visit my website.

Female shirtwaist strikers being taken into custody by the police
 at Jefferson Market Prison, New York, NY, 1909. (Kheel Center, Cornell University)

Entrance to a "drift" coal mine. West Virginia. Sept. 1908
(Lewis Hine, Library of Congress) 

* (page 14)




More about Mary Cronk Farrell and FANNY NEVER FLINCHED

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And here's a book trailer:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Walking While American

Yesterday I was walking around my town, knocking on doors and pondering my own patriotism.

It's something I rarely do. Contemplate the fact that I am an American citizen.

Now that I think about it, the few times in my life when I did think about being American were when I was out of the country.

A trek across the Canadian border when I was nineteen and a sudden (scary) realization that I was no longer on American soil. A week in Barcelona, Spanish and Catalan being spoken all around me-- and other languages too, German, Polish, French-- tourists strolling or sitting at nearby cafe tables-- my ears were tuned into every small snippet of spoken English. When I heard a person speaking with an American accent, I'd want to run over and introduce myself, shake hands, say: Hey! I'm an American too! How the heck are ya'?

After 9/11 I felt a rush of patriotic feelings so profound and overwhelming that I got a lump in my throat every time I saw an American flag. And flags were everywhere in the days after that attack. Like a lot of Americans, I didn't know what to do with these feelings of solidarity and pride in my country except hang my own flag.

But mostly, I don't think about it. There aren't many ways to express patriotism except flag-waving. Or singing the national anthem, hand on your heart, pretending you know every word and can sing those insanely high notes.

And here's a question: Why do we only sing that song at sporting events? I'm not much of a sports person, so I rarely attend games. It's weird that the only time we show our love of country is right before a bunch of guys on a field are about to tackle each other. I know people will say that a sports event is a great place to sing the anthem because of all of the people gathered in one place.

So why not sing before a movie? Or a play? Or a concert?

Schools don't sing the national anthem. This is not a new thing. When I was growing up, we saluted the flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance and then we sang "My Country Tis of Thee" or "America the Beautiful." I visit a lot of schools all over the country, and students still do this.

As adults we don't pledge to the flag every morning. There's not much asked of us, really, as citizens. We can vote (although many of us do not do that). We can serve on a jury (although most of us try to get out of it). We pay taxes (and most likely bitch about it).

But what is more patriotic than contributing to the infrastructure of our society? Our schools and libraries and fire departments and police departments and military--our Government--the people we elect to serve us.

Like most Americans, I am tired and worn down by this election. Dismayed by the vitriol and anger and fear I've been hearing. I've been so disgusted that I have been tempted to turn off all news and social media, just wait the days out until election day is over.

Instead, I voted early.

And I signed up to canvas a neighborhood in my town on behalf of an election campaign. I have never done this before, and honestly, I was not looking forward to it. The idea of knocking on strangers' doors and carrying a clipboard seemed... blucky and totally out of my comfort zone.

But I walked over to the campaign headquarters with a friend and we picked up our clipboard and our flyers, and off we went.

After the initial blucky awkwardness, I felt strangely patriotic. I am not getting all political with you. I am not telling you who I voted for or what campaign I am representing. (If you know me, you KNOW.) What I want to share with you is how nice it was to walk around on a brisk sunny day, to greet people I knew and people I didn't, to feel a part of something bigger than myself, to know that I while I was doing a very small thing, it was better than sitting in front of my laptop and stewing over Facebook post comments.

I wasn't waving a flag or singing the national anthem but showing my patriotism even so. Speaking out about who I think will best lead this country and urging my fellow citizens to do their part too.

Monday, October 17, 2016

On Cakes and Celebration and Community

Last week, as I was putting the final bloody touches on a severed finger cake, I started thinking about writing communities and how I would not be where I am today without mine.

I was making the cake as a centerpiece for my best friend Natalie's book launch party at the local bookstore Cover to Cover. Another writing friend and I drove over early to help the bookstore owner, our dear friend Sally, set up for the party and greet the guests at they arrived, local authors and librarians, friends and relatives, and fellow members of our children's writing group SCBWI. 

Not too long ago I didn't know any of these people.

I'd never heard of SCBWI, the international organization for writers and illustrators of children's books.

I knew approximately one writer, Marsha Thornton Jones, who was my boss when I was working as a teacher in Lexington Kentucky. Turned out she was the best-selling co-author of The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids series. But we never talked about writing in the early years of our friendship.

I "knew" a couple of bookstore owners. But these were bosses too, Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd, the entrepreneurs who started the string of bookstores in Tennessee called Davis-Kidd Booksellers. I met them, briefly, at a company Christmas party when I was working at their Memphis store as a grad student.

The librarians I knew were co-workers, lovely people who talked books and reading with me, but who never knew that I dreamed of being a published writer.

Back then the dream wasn't something I told anyone. It was something I could barely acknowledge to myself. I mean, who the heck was I to imagine my name on a book?

But for years I wrote anyway-- dozens of stories, four novels-- always working on my own--  trying to puzzle out the impenetrable publishing industry, submitting and collecting a growing pile of rejections, celebrating my very few successes with family and close friends, and mourning the many more failures.


And then in 2005, I signed up to attend a Highlights Foundation writing retreat. I went because I'd gotten a brochure in the mail and it seemed like a cool idea to have some uninterrupted time to write. What I hadn't counted on was stumbling my way into my first writing community, meeting fellow writers all on various stages of the journey, from relative beginners like me to multiply published authors.

I was star-struck that first morning smearing cream cheese on my bagel as I chatted with one woman (I'd read her book!!) who had an agent and an editor and a looming deadline, but who also seemed like a ordinary car-pooling mom like me.

If this person could do it, why couldn't I?

The other writers were friendly and welcoming too. That week they shared success stories and failures. Book deals and rejection collections. Writing and revision tips and industry secrets. They inspired me to keep writing and to put myself out there. They made me believe that my dream was not some crazy thing but something entirely possible.

That one retreat led to other retreats. I heard about SCBWI from someone along the way. I started attending workshops and conferences. I made more writing friends. I found my long-time critique partner in a line for a port-o-potty at another Highlights retreat. I found my first mentor.

It took me eight years from that first retreat to see my first book on the library and bookstore shelves. And since then I've become a part of-- and a creator of -- more writing communities. I have mentors and mentees. Critique partners and too many writing friends to list here. I lead the Central and Southern Ohio chapter of SCBWI and speak at their conferences.

Sometimes I forget that I was once struggling along alone.

Writing is such a solitary activity. Every day it is just You, at your lap top or sitting with a notebook, facing a blinking cursor or a blank page. The publishing industry-- oh man-- it will eat you up alive and spit you out. The rejections never stop coming. The bad reviews can derail you. Book sale numbers, deadlines, marketing pressures....

Failure and success. Self-loathing and elation.

But I am not alone.

The other night I baked a bloody severed finger cake and brought it to my best friend's book launch party.

I took a seat surrounded by my friends and we all celebrated, together, the success of one of our own.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Camping Stories from Hell (also known as A Review of My Friend Natalie's Book)

It must be said that I have a love/hate relationship with camping.

Okay, mostly hate. When I was a kid, my family went camping. A lot. The summer I turned six, we lived in a tent at a campground. On sunny days my younger brothers and I went swimming in the lake and played on the playground. I think?

Mostly, I remember the never-ending, boring rainy days, sitting at the picnic table under a tarp, coloring in damp coloring books. The nights in the tent, my sleeping bag bunched up and slipping off the inflatable raft I used as a mattress.

Skunks. The constant terror of tics. Flies dive bombing my Kool-Aid, their drowned bodies drifting around on the orange surface. The middle of the night stumbling up the road to the bathroom.

After my father died, my mother joined a single parent support group and the fun family activity was spending weekends at campgrounds. And then, after she married again, my stepfather bought a pop-up trailer, and later, a much nicer camper with all of the bells and whistles—stove and sink and TV and even a bathroom, which seemed like a real upgrade from the middle of the night stumbling. But for whatever weirdo reason, we were never allowed to use the bathroom, so. Yeah.  Fun times in the middle of the night.

Now I am trying to remember where the love part comes into it. Oh, um, I liked the campfires. Also, the roasting of hotdogs and marshmallows. Boat rides and floating on my raft mattress on the lake. The loveliness of the woods.

My point, and I do have one, is that while I’ve never gone camping as an adult, I do like hiking, and the allure of being in the woods was slowly coming back to me…

until I read my best friend Natalie D. Richards' book, ONE WAS LOST.

This book, which I have read four times (as Natalie’s critique partner), has viscerally reminded me of every damp day of my tent-living youth, the droney buzz of mosquitos, the peeling off of wet socks, the dripping moldy-smelling tent canvas, the fear of stumbling through the dark woods to find the bathroom…

And yet-- yet-- YET--  I couldn’t put the book down ALL FOUR TIMES that I read it.

So here’s the premise: a group of teens with lots of angsty baggage reluctantly sign up for a camping trip as a type of school-bonding-trip activity. A couple of nights in and it’s already turned horror show. Non-stop rain and the bickering stress that comes from hanging around people you don’t want to hang around with. And then a bridge washes out, and four students are separated from the main group. With no food. Wet, reeking tents. A teacher who seems cool but who knows.

The next morning they wake to find that it’s much later than it should be, their backpacks and phones have been destroyed, their teacher has been drugged... THEY’VE been drugged. And as they crawl out of their drippy tents groggily, they find that they’ve each been marked. 

Words written in sharpies on their arms:




And on our bristly heroine’s arm: DARLING

The next 300 pages are non-stop Whodunnit/what the heck happened/how do we get the hell out of the woods. Because this is a Natalie D. Richards' book there's also a bit of romance and a thought-provoking exploration of teen stereotypes and identity.

It’s Blair Witch Project meets the Breakfast Club, a breathless page turner with a super-charged warning:

Do Not Read at Night and for God’s sake, DO NOT READ IT ON A CAMPING TRIP!

Fun fact: Nat will be signing the book (and all her books) at Cover to Cover Bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, this Thursday, October 13 from 6:00-8:00. Come meet her!

For more on Nat and her books, see: