Friday, December 14, 2018

Holiday Book Giving Guide for the Kids in Your Life (and You)

Everyone who knows me knows that I am the lady who gives books. It's kind of a joke in my family. Hmm, I wonder what Auntie Jody will give us this year...

I read once (in a book) that we give the gifts we most like to receive. News flash: I like to receive books!!

Here are some of my favorites from the past year:

For a baby (or new parent): You can't go wrong with Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers. This was my go-to baby shower gift idea when I worked at the bookstore. Basically, a welcome to the planet earth written and illustrated by a new dad. This book is gorgeous with a kind message. And bonus points for being a fun read-aloud for kids nearer-to-age-three.

Pre-school: What Can a Citizen Do? by Dave Eggers. (The NY Times calls it "obligatory reading for future concerned citizens.") Also by the same author, my all-time favorite Her Right Foot, which tells the story of why the Statue of Liberty's foot is raised.

Early readers: Forget Dr. Seuss (okay, don't forget him, but if you are ready to branch out a little, try anything by Mo Willems in the Elephant & Piggie series. My favorite, of course, is We are in a Book. 

Early chapter books: ready to move beyond Ramona or Junie B. Jones? Try Jasmine Toguchi. She's sassy and smart, and delicious bonus, in the first book there's a recipe for mochi balls.

Middle Grade (8-12): Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. Eye-opening, thought-provoking and ultimately inspiring story about a girl living in a small village in Pakistan, sent to work (against her will) as a servant in the home of a powerful, corrupt family.

Upper middle grade (10-up): Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (and anything else written by this brilliant, beautiful human). This book is a gut punch-- one 60-second elevator ride down in the life of a boy intent on revenge.

Graphic novel: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. Russian immigrant kid in the suburbs, longing to fit in with her American friends, turns to summer camp as the solution. Unfortunately, this camp is not what she had envisioned. An absorbing mix of horrifying and hilarious.

Young Adult: Sadie by Courtney Summers. Riveting and viscerally moving story of Sadie, a girl on a quest to find her sister's killer, told in alternating segments with a podcast that's trying figure out why Sadie herself has gone missing.

Adult: Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott. Like all of Lamott's books this one is a surprising blend of funny, religious, outraged, amused and painfully human.

Spoiler alert: I am buying it for every woman I love this year.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

How to Write a Natalie D. Richards Book (part two)

The book is called What You Hide, but for me it will always be called The Library Book. Because it takes place in a library; specifically, the library where Natalie works as an executive assistant, but SHHHHH, don't tell anyone. Let's pretend it's any small-town library.

But the library is only one piece of this puzzle.

There's a thing that the author Sid Fleischman said-- that just as it takes two sticks to build a fire, it takes two ideas to spark a story. The other idea for Natalie was a poor girl who runs away from home and starts hanging out at her town's library. 

Add a rich boy who's sentenced to community service at the same library. 

And because this is a Natalie D. Richards' book, there's going to be a creepy, thriller twist:

There's someone (something?) else hiding out in that library... 

Side note: Let me tell you it is a fascinating thing to watch a person create a book in real time-- 

from the brainstorming ideas part (ooh, what if the girl hides in the restroom when the library closes? What if the boy finds a dead body in the stacks?) 

to the first-draft/narrative-crafting part (okay, I'm thinking that the boy has a secret he's hiding too, but I can't figure out what it is yet...)

to the revision/plot-hole-filling stage (ugh! the timeline's totally off! How am I going to get everyone back inside the library for the climax??!!)

to the cover reveal:

A lot of this is worked through during daily phone calls (did I mention that Natalie and I are critique partners?) and she calls me every morning on her way to work at the library so we can discuss things like 

character motivation 
and homelessness 
and upper middle class towns 
and the opioid epidemic 
and privileged teenagers 
and spousal abuse 
and libraries as sanctuaries 
and psychopaths 
and techniques for climbing the outside of a building. 

And now after more than a year, the book is out and on the bookstore shelves and IN THE LIBRARY!

Want to know more about the lovely Natalie D. Richards and her books?

Follow her on Facebook Author Natalie D. Richards
On Twitter: @NatdRichards 
On Instagram (where she shares fun pics of her enormous dogs)
Barnes & Noble
Cover to Cover-- For signed copies (and to support an awesome local bookstore)

Friday, November 30, 2018

It's quiet in the stacks

At least it is first thing in the morning. I'm here an hour before the library opens, searching for books that have been requested by customers. Every day at my branch there are several hundred of these, and the goal is to pull them all before noon.

Only a few weeks working at this library and I already have a pattern-- where I park the cart and how I stack the books so I can pull as many as I can in one load. I know the more popular, requested books by sight. The cookbooks and books on knitting, the testing prep books for the ACT or GRE, the latest bestsellers.

But every day there are a couple of oddball books that end up on my cart.

Like this one:

The title-- Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone-- sealed the deal and I pulled a second copy and creeped myself out over the next few days reading it on break. (side note: it's a kind of horror fairy tale about a group of kids growing up in a weird village somewhere in Germany. The story was unsettling, to say the least.)

Also, unsettling, was this one:

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America is not fiction but a collection of thought-provoking and disturbing essays written by Sarah Kendzior, an expert on authoritarianism who lives in St. Louis. Each essay, which Kendzior wrote over the past several years and leading up to the 2016 election, centers around topics such as poverty and class and race.  

I have been thinking about some of these issues after my library training, which turns out, covered more than simply how to pull requested books and how to shelve them after they're returned. For example, I learned about how public libraries are pretty much the only places in our country open and welcoming to everyone.

Sometimes that means people checking out cookbooks and books on knitting and sometimes that means young children hanging out without a parent and sometimes that means a homeless person coming inside from the cold and sitting in a comfy chair to read the newspaper. 

It's not often that all of us are in the same room together.  

I pull books on baking Christmas cookies and how to start a new business and how to take care of your autistic child. Books of poems and books on dinosaurs and yoga and computer languages. I ponder baking bread and learning Japanese and worry about climate change. I stop to help a man log on to the library internet. I lead a woman to the books on grammar. I recommend a picture book on unicorns. 

I shelve books and pull books and organize books. I pass the teen section where I see my own book and think about how it is just another book, waiting for someone to check it out and return it so I can shelve it again. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

This is the earliest we have ever put up our tree

We always get a freshly cut one and I don't like the needles falling off and ending up all over the floor. Plus, there's a rule I have of One Holiday at a Time. For example, I can't stand hearing Christmas music while I am shopping for my turkey and cranberries.

I can take this idea to the extreme. Last year, we didn't put the tree up until the weekend before Christmas. The needles fell of the branches and ended up on the floor anyway. Because none of the trees are freshly cut, my husband says. They probably cut them months ago, so who cares if we buy the thing in November.

He's right, I know. But it was weird last night tromping around the Christmas tree lot. It's been rainy lately. Warm. The ground was muddy. The place where we always go is run by a Boy Scout troop and the little boys helping us were wearing mud-spattered boots. Usually we spend more time choosing. Circling trees to examine them from every angle. Last night, our daughter, home from college for a few days, pointed at one, and we called it a night.

She teased me about not having any Christmas spirit. It's November, I tell her. Our fridge is full of Thanksgiving leftovers. We still need to rake the yard.

Mom, she says, rolling her eyes.

We haul the tubs of decorations up from the basement. Is it just me or was it only a few weeks ago I was packing up these tubs, putting them away? Where did the time go?

My grouchiness gives way to nostalgia. Picking out the tree with one child in our arms. And then with two. The years we drove out to a tree farm and cut our own tree. The homemade decorations, beaded gluey things and dried macaroni. The family pictures taken in front of the tree with someone inevitably breaking down and/or having a silly fit. The obligatory annual watching of It's a Wonderful Life.

But I don't want to spiral down that nostalgia tunnel. For one more day we've got our daughter home. It's sunny outside and the leaves need raking, but we'll worry about them next weekend.

Today, we're eating Thanksgiving leftovers and decorating the tree.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

We may never leave this building again (now that we have discovered Uber Eats)

Why didn't someone ever tell me about this?

Okay, my daughter told me about this. This, meaning Uber Eats. It's like ordering a pizza, except it's food from potentially every restaurant in the area. My college age daughter and her friends are huge fans. They say things like, Gotta Go, Mom, Uber Eats is here with my Panera broccoli cheese soup in a bread bowl.

I confess that I would roll my eyes. In my day we picked up food ourselves. In our cars. It was called Take-out, young lady. 

But now, consider me a convert. I am on a weekend writing retreat with my friend Natalie. We have gone on retreats before, productive and rejuvenating and sometimes haunted, but for this retreat we have changed things up. Instead of traveling off to a remote cabin in the woods or to a creepy air bnb in a quaint tourist town, we've settled on a high rise apartment in our own city. Fifteen minutes away from our homes, but it may as well be a million miles.

We have goals.

Natalie has signed up to do NaNoWriMo and she wants to write 10,000 words on a middle grade novel. I want to finish the damn scene that I've been treading water through for a week and break into the next scene.

I know. Natalie's goal is a bit loftier than mine.

But first, we order Uber Eats. A pizza-- I guess we could've just ordered out for a pizza? The difference here is they show you who is driving the food toward you and where his little car is on google maps and no money actually changes hands. It's all done ahead of time and it is so easy that we are already planning our next meal.

Tacos and chips and guac.

Which we eat as Natalie hammers out 5000 words and I write a page that finishes up my scene! Then we stay up late reading each other what we wrote and brainstorming next scenes and snarfing down the rest of the chips and guac.

Morning, I realize that I have no idea how to start my next scene and Natalie is gearing up to write 5000 more words and we're both jonesing for coffee.

Too bad they don't have Uber coffee, Natalie says, and lightbulbs spark in our heads and we both hop up excitedly to look at our phones. Within twenty minutes we are drinking our coffee and eating full blown breakfasts of potato hash and toast and eggs made to order.

Natalie pounds out her 5000 words. I write my way into the next scene.

Thanks, Uber Eats!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Most people aren't home

or they're pretending they aren't. My husband holds the map and charts our course, while I knock on doors. That's the deal we struck, although one of the days we go out canvassing together, when it looks like it's going to rain, he darts across the street and hits the odd numbered houses on the list while I do the even.

I can hear him knocking, talking enthusiastically about how much he loves the candidate we're canvassing for, how he's met her five times. I laugh when we're back in the car, safe out of the downpour. What was that all about, I say. You've never met that candidate.

My husband shrugs. I got caught up in the moment, he says.

Here's the thing about canvassing, at least how it's done in our part of Ohio: you're not knocking on every door. You're not knocking on most doors. You're only knocking on the doors of likely supporters. The point is to energize these people to go out and vote.

But I wonder about the houses we skip. Not the obvious ones with Republican candidate signs in the yards. But the others. Houses with bikes thrown on the lawn. Carved pumpkins on the stoop. Leaf piles. Maybe they're not registered in either party. Maybe they keep their views private, their right, of course. Or maybe they don't vote.

I knock on a door and the man inside scolds me. I'm tired of you people coming here all day, he says. You're going to wake my baby.

Flustered, I tell him I'm sorry.

But my husband, down at the curb, is furious. You should have asked him why he has a front door, he said. You should have asked him if he's okay with his baby sleeping in a cage at the border.

Ah well, I say. I check the box for non-supporter. I cross the house address off the list.

Something I remember from history class is that in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War only 40% of the colonists supported fighting the British. Twenty percent supported the British, the presumed MABA crowd (Make America British Again).

Everyone else was neutral.

I mean, I get it. We're all busy. Going to work. Taking care of the kids. Making meals. But how do you not have an opinion one way or another? How do you not take a stand?

And I wonder, Did the neutral ones stay neutral throughout the war, or was there a line for them, a moment when a light bulb went off and they thought, Hmm. Okay, that's it. Now I care.

At the house where we meet for canvassing duty, volunteers are bustling around. Checking in address packets. Signing out the next shift of volunteers. Leading a brief training for the newbies. Someone's in the kitchen setting out sandwiches and a bowl of candy.

It reminds me of my PTA days, the same core group of volunteers, the people behind the scenes making sure that the teachers had the supplies they needed and that all the fun programs went on without a hitch.

Day three, canvassing, I go out with a friend.

A woman out raking her leaves says, Oh good! I need one of these sample ballots to take in with me when I vote. A man says, I'm a Republican, and when I start to turn away, he laughs and says, I'm joking!

But most of the people are not home or are pretending not to be. We hang a sample ballot on the doorknob. Head to the next house on the list.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The moment I walk in I am calmer

It's the smell, I think. Books, specifically, library books, all smell the same to me. Something familiar and comforting. Paper and dust motes. My ten-year-old self with the bed covers thrown over my head.


As a kid I liked to wander the aisles, trace my fingers along the book spines. I still like to do this. I don't know why it's taken me so long to work in this place. 

And how fitting to be the person who gets to shelve the books. I start each day with a cart, everything quickly and perfectly organized by the alpha numeric label. 

There's a whole system going on behind the scenes that I never thought about. All of those books being checked out and checked back in. All of the carts that need to be shelved, and shelved, and shelved. Am I too fast and maybe making a mistake? Am I too slow, struggling to see those teeny tiny numbers? 

Those labels are what I'm focusing on when I shelve, but still, I can't help glancing at a cover here and there, thumbing through pages. A book of essays I heard about on NPR. A true crime story. That novel I've been meaning to read. And other books that snag my interest as I fit them into their proper place on the shelf. 

Books on photography and printmaking. Biographies of obscure people. Holiday decorating. I want to check out all of them. And I can. 

Different from when I was a child and restricted by what I could carry in my arms for a mile. My mom and little brothers and I walked to the library back then. Actually, it was only that one year when we didn't have a car. The walk took forever. A hilly trek through a park. A rounding of the corner. And then, the wall along the front of the library. My brothers and I would climb on it, pretend we were walking at the edge of a high building, arms out. 

A few months ago I went back with one of them. We stopped in the park and walked from there. It was a gray chilly day. The town where we'd grown up was exactly the same and totally different from when we were kids. 

We came upon the wall and I said, do you remember--

at the same time my brother hopped up onto it, walked the edge, arms out. He read as much as I did when we were little. Now he reads ten times more. 

Although, now that I am working at a library, maybe I will catch up.