Monday, April 28, 2014

Apologies in Advance as I Briefly Rant about School Testing.

In a few weeks kids around the country will be taking standardized tests. I've got some thoughts on the subject that could probably fill up a book. I used to be a teacher--but I was fortunate to be teaching at a time when the stakes weren't quite as high as they are now in the standardized testing game. 

I'm a parent too, and I got to witness firsthand what it was like when things started to go off the deep end in my kids' schools. 

Example: when my daughter was in third grade, to encourage the students to get a particular score on a writing test, the teachers gave many many practice tests and posted the model essays on the classroom walls. For further encouragement the kids were given glass beads to wear on a bracelet whenever they got the desired score. 

My daughter didn't get many beads and was heartbroken. She honestly had no idea how to go about achieving the approved score.

Example 2: Right before the testing period, the school held a pep rally with popcorn and balloons and music. The kids who'd done well the year before were paraded around and allowed to eat the popcorn. The kids who hadn't done as well, were allowed to watch. This was a fun way to encourage kids to do their best, said the principal. 

See, kids, maybe next year, you too can eat popcorn and be in the parade.

Then there was the year they didn't teach science because it wasn't on the test. 

What killed me about all of this is I know that everyone's hearts were in the right place. The kids really wanted to please their teachers and do well. The teachers wanted to teach the kids. The principals wanted the best for their students. 

Something was obviously going wrong, though. 

The thing that made it very clear to me was the day the school decided to let the librarian go. This was a woman who knew every child by name, who knew what the kids' reading choices were, and who had books picked out and waiting for kids when they came into the library. 

But dropping the librarian position freed up the money to hire a reading specialist. All of that testing required a full time person to analyze the data and plot out how to improve the reading tests scores.

I have never done a study. I don't know if there is such a study. But here's a question I've always wondered: you know those kids who always have their noses in a book--I don't know, um, let's call them READERS--those kids--

What do you think their reading test scores look like? 

Okay. Getting off my soap box now. 

Good luck, kids, on your standardized tests!

When you have finished the test sections for the day--after you have carefully checked your answers--I hope you attend a school where you are allowed to open up a book and read for a while. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

"The Process" Blog Tour (with a digression on classroom management, pig attacks, and giving teenagers a voice)

Jen Doktorski, my friend and author of the hilarious How My Summer Went Up in Flames and the sweet and thought-provoking novel Famous Last Words, tagged me on this 4-question blog tour.

Confession 1: I love answering questions for blog hop tour thingys.

Confession 2: I cringe at tagging other writers. It's the chain letter-y aspect of these tours that trips me up. Somehow I always end up being the final link in the chain.

But I found two good sports and willing participants for this tour, Kim Purcell and Susan Brody. (See below for more on these fantastic writers.)

Here's Jen Doktorski's post  And I must say that it contains one of my favorite lines ever and sums up how I feel too as a YA writer. Jen says she strives to "Be the kind of adult who never forgets what it is like to be young."

On with the questions:

1. What am I working on?

The short answer is a revision of a revision of a revision. The 5-second elevator pitch: "Greek Mythology Meets Environmental Disaster."

I've been working on this book on and off for 5 years. It started as a middle grade book but several editors looked at it and said: NO WAY is this a middle grade book.

Two years ago I had the stupidly naive thought that I could change the ages of the characters and be done with it. It took much more than that, I'm afraid, to tackle this project.

On the positive side, the book is firmly set in YA land now. Oh, yeah, baby. We are YA all the way.

Negative side, 5 complete revisions later, it's still kind of a mess.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

(I love that--"my work.") Answer: I have no idea.

I'm not the first writer to explore and modernize a Greek myth. This book is a fantasy.  But it's the kind of fantasy that is firmly set in the real world. Other YA writers do this, though. IE Maggie Stiefvater and Laini Taylor.

PS. If my name is ever muttered in the same breath as those two, my work here is done.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Bear with me while I relay this seemingly unrelated story:

I used to teach high school English. The first year I was 22ish and my students were 16 and 17 years old. I had no idea how to control the class and for the most part the kids freaked me out. They came late to class. They asked to leave to go to the bathroom so often that the door to my classroom was always open and half the class was always gone. One guy jumped out of a window. Okay, the room was on the first floor, but still, WTH??

Year two I clamped down hard with the rules. I told the students they were going to be on time, and no one, for any reason, was leaving until the class period was up. Immediately, kids raised their hands to ask if they could go to the bathroom. It was almost funny--until I realized they were testing me, trying to see if I meant what I said.


Flash forward several years and I am the hardass, strict teacher. Everyone comes on time. No one dares ask if they can leave. This actually leads to several extreme situations. A kid vomits on his desk. A girl gets a horrific nosebleed.

I ask them exasperated: Why didn't you leave the room? Both answer: You said we couldn't.

This adherence to my rules comes to a head one day when my students were taking a test. I'm sitting at my desk and a girl stands in front of me. I don't look at her. I wave her back to her seat, and she goes.

And then she is back.

I still don't look at her. "What?" I whisper, annoyed.

"I have to go to the bathroom," she whispers back.

"We're taking a test. Go back to your seat," I hiss.

She does.

And then she is back again, standing in front of my desk, her shadow falling over me.

I look up.

She is swaying. Her face is ashen and sweaty. At the same moment I notice that blood is seeping through her jeans.

Good God.

I jump up and grab her before she keels over.

Long story short, the girl was bitten by her pet pig that morning. She'd taped a bandaid to her leg and had made it through second period, my class, before nearly passing out from pain and blood loss and possibly infection. I escort her to the office where she is taken, by ambulance, to the hospital emergency room for stitches.

The incident horrified me for several reasons. My rules were not bad. I had to put them in place for my own sanity, nevermind the fact that very little teaching could be done with students constantly leaving the room. But it was pretty clear in my quest to clamp down and be consistent, I had taken things too far.

I used to tell this story to my own son and daughter when they were little.

You have to speak up, I told them. You have to tell people what you need. Adults don't always listen. Sometimes, I am sad to say, they don't even SEE you. If you have a problem and you tell someone and they ignore you, GO TELL SOMEONE ELSE. You are a human being and you know what you need and what is best for you and you have the right to assert yourself.

So, why do I write for young adults?

Because I know that adults don't always listen to them.

And I hope in a very small way to give them a voice.

4. How does your writing process work?

I think I've blathered on too long with my pig story. So see here if you want a fun taste of my angsty process.

Now it is my turn to tag. 

Kim Purcell is the author of the critically acclaimed book about human trafficking called Trafficked. Talk about giving kids a voice! I was so honored to sit on a panel with Kim last week and speak with her (and Jennifer Castle and Phoebe North) about Survivors in YA Fiction at RJ Julia Books in Madison CT. Kim's story and her work with organizations to stop human trafficking is changing and saving lives.

Susan Brody writes the awesome The Art of Not Getting Published Blog. I stumbled upon this site a few months ago and I am hooked. One, because I recognize a kindred soul in Susan. I soooo wish I had found her a few years ago when I was chronicling my own publication journey in On the Verge. Susan is going to hit it soon. Mark my words.

And then we are all going to have to help her figure out a new name for her blog.

Not the pig who bit my student. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Excuse me, Miss, There's a Spider about to Drop on Your Head." Tales from the Book Tour Road (Plus, a BIG REVEAL...)

I just got back from a whirlwind trip through Connecticut and Massachusetts, and my head (and heart) are still throbbing from all of the activity. Most of the visit circled around promoting my YA book Thin Space, but seeing as how I grew up in the area, I made time to reconnect with friends and family, which cast a nice nostalgic tinge over everything.

There's material for 15 blog posts here--and maybe I will expand upon all of this in the near future, but for now, a few highlights:

1. Oh please please please --if I ever die and come back as a teen, let me return to this planet as a student at Wilbraham and Monson Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts! Geez louise, this is an awesome school. I didn't know when I set up the visit that this school is a boarding school. Actually, it looks a lot like a college campus (and I have been visiting a lot of these lately with my daughter, a high school junior, but I digress.)

W & M is set on a hill with a darling brook meandering across the campus. The librarian, who is also a teacher and a writer, escorted me from building to building so I could meet with five classes, from Creative Writing to AP English to 7th grade Language Arts. These kids are clearly smart and creative but what blew me away was how kind they were in their welcome.

Case in point: I'm just starting my little "How to Write a Book from Idea to Revision to Publication" talk, when I notice two boys sorta leaning toward each other whispering. I'm thinking, huh, that's kind of rude, but okay. I keep talking and one raises his hand hesitantly.

"Yes?" I ask.

Boy: Um, excuse me, ma'am, but there's a spider about to drop on your head.

I look up and find this tiny, adorable (thank God!) spider slowly making its way down a web strand about a foot above the top of my head.

The boy gallantly catches it with his notebook and shuffles it over to the window and returns it to the wild.

This situation could've totally gone off in another direction and I could picture it: Me, with the spider landing on my head and the kids watching curiously and amused as it skittered around in my hair while I blathered like a clueless loon.

Sad truth: When I was a teen, I fear I would've been the one watching amused instead of the kind person alerting the strange middle aged woman to the impending spider droppage.

LOVE LOVE LOVE that kind boy. Whoever he is, he has given me new faith in teens and humanity in general.

2. I am bowing down to the librarians at the Storrs Library in Longmeadow MA and particularly grateful for the generous Odierna family who made my visit there possible.

3. Since I am on the topic of librarians... Have I mentioned how much I love libraries and librarians lately? I talked at the New Britain Public Library (the very library I blogged about in the linked post above) to an audience of family and friends. Also, a few patrons who happened to wander in, probably wondering why everyone was hugging each other.

mini reunion of middle school pals
the crowd of relatives and friends

Me and my best friend Kimmy  (NOW)
(And THEN)

There is more to share (and I promise I will), including a TV interview that I will never watch, but, uh, you can. But first, I must reveal some exciting news:

So, this Wednesday, April 16, my publishing company will be doing a live video chat interview at 4:00 EST. I am ridiculously helpless in the tech area so I am going to share this link: CLICK HERE and hope that gets you through to the interview.

If you tune in that day (or thereafter) there will be an opportunity to order
*a copy of Thin Space
*The first 5 orderers will win a lovely hand-crafted necklace by my creative and clever friend Deb.
drum roll--
              when you order the book, you can purchase the first two chapters of the Thin Space Sequel for the bargain basement price of $1.99.

Here's the fun teaser:

Marsh revealed all of his secrets and now he's got to face the consequences. His parents are shocked and grief stricken; his friends are angry and confused. But he's relieved that the truth is out and his brother is safe.

What he doesn't foresee is a surprise visit by his gruesomely dead former neighbor Mrs. Hansel. She's got bad news for Marsh, and suddenly, telling the truth is the least of his problems...

A lovely necklace available to 5 lucky winners... 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"This is Your Life" Meets a Book Tour with a dash of Thelma and Louise

If you're even a casual reader of this blog, you know I've been writing and pursuing publication for years and day dreaming for just as many years about what it would be like to have my book on the bookstore shelves. My day dreams tended to be very specific. I could visualize myself signing books and doing library and school visits. I imagined the book launch party and the interviews and the movie deals and the large advance and royalty checks.

Some of these things have come true (see: book signings, library and school visits, interviews, book launch parties)

Some, alas, have not (see: movie deals, $$$) 

But, one thing I did not ever think about was what I will call the This is Your Life aspect of book promotion.

My book launch party last September had a guest list that included my book club, my neighbors, my Bunco group, my local SCBWI chapter fellow writers, my best friend and her teen daughter, my best friend from college who now lives in Minnesota, my mother, and my in-laws. Plus, numerous librarians and teachers from the area.

When I went to Lexington KY (a place I lived for ten years) to sign books at Morris Book Shop, I visited a school where I used to teach and had a blast catching up with old teacher friends and students, and I reconnected with friends from my uber-volunteer PTA days, many of whom had no idea that I was a writer. 

During my visit to Memphis (where I went to college and taught high school English) I signed books at the Booksellers at Laurelwood and saw old college friends, including my roommate and several sorority sisters, a few of my former students (and their parents!), the best man from my wedding, and my cousins.

A trip to Nashville to sign books at Parnassus Bookstore led to a reconnection with a college friend (and a trip to the university where she is now a professor) and a cool bonding experience with my in-laws. I also had a chance to have dinner with a sorority sister and lunch with another college friend who is now a sociology professor at Vanderbilt.

I feel like I'm caught up in that old game show "This Is Your Life," where the announcer parades long lost relatives and friends on stage while you cry. (I've never actually seen this show, but I have seen the Sesame Street version.)

But now, the grand daddy of all book tours is about to begin... 

Tomorrow, I embark upon a whirlwind trip to Connecticut (where I grew up). I'll be visiting schools and libraries and a bookstore. Also, I'm doing my first ever TV interview at a local public TV station. 

It's all very exciting and cool but I must admit there is an anxiety factor involved too. Picture how you feel before you attend your 25th high school reunion. You're curious to see old friends. You're a little nervous about how they'll perceive you vs how they once knew you. Now, throw in a talk at the library where you checked out books when you were ten and a bookstore visit with three writers you don't know and

a ten hour car trip with your mother

if you want to get a sense of how I'm feeling as I pack my suitcases today...

Yeah. This is going to be interesting. 

Here's the schedule--in case you live up that way and want to poke your head in to see how I deal:

Monday April 7
*Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Wilbraham, MA

*Storrs Library, Longmeadow, 6:30 (open to the public) (My college friend and sorority sister Noel set this visit in motion. Fun fact about Noel that she may not know: she is the reason I married my husband.)

Tuesday April 8
*Interview for the Meet the Author series at Wethersfield TV14 (thanks Uncle Don for getting this one in the works!)

*New Britain High School (thanks to Beth M., now an English teacher there, once my across the street neighbor) 

*Book Club and dinner with Beth's mom and her book club. Also, my mom.

Wednesday, April 9
*Willard School, Berlin, CT (I keep forgetting I have story in Highlights Magazine. I will be reading and discussing it with the second graders there. Thanks to my Mom and darling niece for setting this visit up)

*New Britain Library, New Britain CT 7-9 pm (Open to the public) I'm talking writing and growing up in New Britain (This is going to be a fun one--equal parts Casella family reunion and St Joseph School and Aquinas High School class reunions....) Also, I may once and for all solve the Mystery of the Missing Librarian

Thursday, April 10
*Metropolitan Business Academy, New Haven CT and the all-city New Haven teen book club
(Plus, a side trip to see my son at college)

*RJ Julia Bookstore, Madison CT 6:00 (open to the public) Book Panel discussion with Jennifer Castle, Kim Purcell, and Phoebe North. We're talking "Survivors in YA Fiction," answering questions about writing and publishing, and signing our books. 

Tune in soon for the post trip recap.