Life 1

Today, I returned from a trip to SC and WV. In SC I visited with a group of 2nd and 5th graders at Tigerville Elementary, where my sister-in-law teaches. I hung out with her 2nd graders for much of the day, talking writing (mine, theirs, and others'). At the end of the school day, we headed to Pipestem, WV, to spend time with my in-laws, celebrating my grandmother-in-law's 90th birthday.

A recap: at Tigerville, I began the day by reading Big Chickens by Leslie Helakoski, a great picture book to show alliteration and rhyme, and according to my sister-in-law, prediction. Sure, why not--I missed that but the kids didn't. I then left to videotape students doing writing, since several of the teachers employ a writing workshop-styled class, beginning at the kindergarten level, on through to the fifth grade. It was exciting to see these kids be so into their writing. In kinder, the kids were working on an alphabet picture book, or whatever other project of their choosing, but they were writing. One kid was working on a letter to her Nana. Another was working on a comic book-like piece, using as characters three action figures that he was drawing then writing about. I talked with the fifth graders who had read one of my short stories, "Jump Away," which appeared in both Every Man For Himself (an anthology edited by Nancy Mercado) and Boys' Life. Later, I sat on the floor with my sister's kids again, and talked to young writers about the Writer's Life, talked about being observant. There is a story, potentially, in every minute of the day, if we are living like writers. Later, I taped the fifth graders in workshop, then wrapped up the day by talking to them and the second graders. I loved every minute. I didn't get to sell copies of my first novel b/c American Eagle lost my bag, in which I had the books. But that was cool b/c it was at the house when we got back before heading out to WV.

WV: got there late at night, having driven in with Maria, my sister-in-law, and my father-in-law. We went through Bristol, where, incidentally, it was race weekend, and I'd never been that close to anything real NASCAR. I got pics (or my sister did) of several of the trailers and the Bristol Motor Speedway, traffic slowed down to a crawl since the entire town just about is taken over by fans, walking and riding and driving. I was awed. On the way out of town, we stopped at a brand-spanking new Cracker Barrel, up on a hill. What a view of the mountains. So we get in and I'm back with my wife and kids, and by brother-in-law and his wife and their friends, over from Dubai and Sweden, respectively. On Saturday, we spent a bit of time with Grandma Neely, then left to get ready for her birthday celebration. What a party! Everyone of her sons and daughters, grandkids, great grandkids (which Lukas and Mikah are), and even her great great grandkids were there. What an experience. We enjoyed a walk on the farm, family, and left over dessert. Sunday we spent at Cooks Chapel Baptist Church where my father-in-law taught Sunday school. Then we went back to Grandma's for some last minute family hanging out, then the Ryan's buffet, and back to Greenville, for the night, and I flew out today.


Reading Life 1

I shared last night a bit of my reading life, jotting down a few titles I'm in the middle of reading, others I've really enjoyed reading. You'll note from the titles (or not) or by checking them out online or a library, that all are aimed at the young adult readership. Although I do read mainstream adult fiction and non-fiction, and enjoy it quite a bit, I am more into YA at the moment for a few reasons, among them 1) I write in this genre so I have to keep up with what is being published out there by my peers; 2) I'm teaching in a college of education where I help prepare future teachers by exposing them to children's and YA literature; 3) I sincerely feel there is more exciting things happening in the world of YA literature than in the mainstream market for adults; 4) aside from it begin good and strong writing, and of high quality, it's fun to boot.

Understand, though--I have not always enjoyed the act of reading. It was something I had to work my way back into. Understand also that I am a horribly slow reader, what I consider a curse and a blessing both. Curse b/c I feel that at this stage in my life I am playing catch-up; there is so much I've yet to read, so much I can't possibly get to, especially due to my slow-as-molasses-in-mid-January reading ability. Blessing b/c I get to go over every single word and relish them all; I get to paint a clearer picture than if I were skimming, or glossing over. That is not to say that my wife, who breaks all kinds of speed-reading laws, doesn't relish and paint awesome pictures; she most definitely does; but we are not all cut from the same reading cloth, if you allow me to mix all kinds of metaphors there.

A bit of my reading autobiography: I do recall back in elementary school loving to read; I read it all, most probably at a snail's pace, too, back then, but who cared about literacy theory and practice then? I most certainly didn't. I most likely couldn't've spelled any of that if I wanted to. But reading, that I cared about. Early on, I found the coolest of characters in one of our in-class texts: Wet Albert. Then I had no clue he existed in his very own picture book, but as tiny stories within this greater text. Nevertheless, I loved this kid. Wet Albert wore a yellow slicker, rain boots, and hat, and everywhere little Wet Albert went, a grey and rain-heavy cloud followed. I don't recall many of the specifics of the stories, but when asked, that's my first ultra-very-positive experience I had with reading. Try as I might, over the next many years, I searched and I searched for copies of that text, but to no avail. Until I visited a local Salvation Army in McAllen, where I'd go ocassionally and look through their books. My son Lukas was close to being born, and I so wanted to find something for him, and on this particular day, I was perusing the picture book section, and to my joyful surprise, there it was, in picture book format. Wet Albert in a book all his own, and wearing a blue slicker, boots, and hat, but that same boy and his story. I snapped it up for no more than 50 cents, I'm sure, but I would've paid more, much more to be able to share it with my soon-to-be-born boy. And he came, sooner, way sooner than we expected, early by 6 weeks, and so what was the first book I ever read to Lukas on his first night on this earth while plugged into all kinds of machines and all kinds of tubes sticking in and out of him, but Wet Albert by Michael and Joanne Cole. What a treasure!

But I'm getting so ahead of myself. Back in elementary, I read voraciously, slowly sure, but I couldn't do enough of it. I read Encylopedia Brown (even though then nor now could I figure out what Brown could), biographies of Terry Bradshaw in short chapter book format (this was kept to a minimum as in Texas you were either a Cowboy fan, or an Oiler fan, and in the case you didn't root for either, you most definitely couldn't be a Steelers fan as they'd whooped up on the Cowboys a few times in Super Bowls), stuff on treasure hunting, lost treasure, great wonders of the world, and U.F.O.s. I also read the Hardy Boys and (I'm secure enough in my manhood now that I can admit it openly) Nancy Drew, actaully preferring her b/c in her books, it took one chick to do what required two guys in the other. Little House on the Prairie, too. At Foys Supermarket, where we shopped for groceries, I'd always stay behind at the magazine rack, pouring over Lowrider Magazine and MAD Magazine. Mabye even a few of the Teen rags (one clear memory I have is of me trying to uncover the identities of the then make-up encrusted faces of KISS bandmembers; every so often, they'd be shown minus the make-up, but covered by handkerchiefs, etc).

But then came junior high, where we couldn't be reading the things of children anymore, I guess, so we were introduced to DeMaupussant's "The Necklace" and O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," both stories and authors I can appreciate now with a BA, an MA, and a PhD in English, but for a junior high kid, whoa! What drivel! What boring and irrelevant garbage. Yuck! is what I would've said in those days, most likely.

High school wasn't any better. Among all of it, one Shakespeare play after another, The Pearl, The Great Gatsby, and Catcher in the Rye (more on this last one in a bit). Like I've heard many young people say today, this kind of reading was a chore to do, a chore also to write about. So I was going downhill fast. In 11th grade, my English teacher, Ms. Ida Garcia (now Vela), assigned us Salinger's coming-of-age novel, and a friend and I asked to be allowed to read something else, on religious grounds, we argued. We attended a Baptist church (and still do although now he in Michigan and I in Lubbock), and knew that this novel dealt with material we didn't care for and the langauge was a bit rough (ironically, it's no rougher than much of what's being published for this younger market today). So, Ms. Garcia agreed. She did say, though, that we were still expected to read something, but not just anything. She is the very first teacher I remember having an in-class library. It was small compared to what Dr. Teri Lesesne describes having when she first began her teaching career, but still. So, Ms. Garcia said, "You'll choose something from my shelves, write a report, and you won't be able to participate in the discussions with your classmates" (first time also for this, for choice in reading material). I went for it. But silly me, I gave up a relatively short book and in its stead pulled an abridged version of Dumas' The Count of Montecristo (even abridged it was way longer than Salinger's--what a doofus! Or was I?) I'd argue no, not that big of a fool. It was the first book I couldn't put down since back in my elementary days. I read it day and night. I sacrificed sleep over it, too. But it wasn't enough to change my mind. It was my "homerun" book, but it was the last time I chose my own reading. The rest of the school year and the following, it was back to status quo. Go figure. Even so, I'd gotten a taste for it.

All the while, I never shied away from the library. Even in high school I was still reading up on long ago lost treasures, the Titanic (and so you can imagine my disappointment in the movie by the same name years later), the mafia, football, and the like. I did take my book(s) to a corner where I sat on a bean bag and hid behind a chest-high shelf, leaning on an air vent that connected to the teachers' lounge, where I was exposed to second-hand smoke (it was still not against the law to smoke on campus, that's how long ago it was) and where a few of us unbeknownst to these gossiping teachers, we found out the skinny on things that mattered to teachers (who was getting in trouble for this or that, who was in danger of failing, etc.). Later, a teacher myself in the old school district, I mentioned this little "secret" to one of the teachers from back then, and she informed me there was nothing "unbeknownst" about the air vent talks. Hmm.

More later.


Writing Life 1

It's been an intersting time leading up to the publication of my latest book, The Whole Sky Full of Stars. First, about the cover: the car pictured is a 1964 Ford Galaxie, the make/model that a father and son would travel halfway across the country to buy. That according to my father-in-law who owns one, who let me get grease under my fingernails while I passed wrenches and screwdrivers to him while we "worked" on it to ready it for my wife's and my wedding. I say we worked on it, but really, I did more standing around learning about the art of cars and science of mechanics, which was fine by me. And so I write about the '64 Ford Galaxie, make it an integral part of the story, b/c of the above, but mostly b/c my wife and I drove away from our wedding in my father-in-law's car, the very car he and my mother-in-law drove away in after their wedding. Later, I found out that my father owned a '64 Ford Galaxie as well when we lived in California, so another reason to insist on this version of this cover, although in retrospect. In any case, the publisher decided to go with a '65 version (which I'm including below for you to compare to the final cover to your right on the screen). The '65 is a nice enough car, but not the one a father-son team would travel to SC to purchase.

Note the difference in shapes: the '64 end is tapered, the '65 more blocky, a move toward muscle rather than style. I asked my editor to please rework the cover, and she did. (Wendy is awesome in so many ways.) To boot, it's a wrap around cover, and very gutsy, in my opinion, since we left to top half of the cover empty of text; the title and byline both are made to fit at the bottom. So much space, so much, but I like it b/c the title, in part, concerns itself with the sky, and that's what you get.

Second, the editing process: wow! It's a lie if I say it's getting easier. It's still a hard thing to go through, but it's a part of the process that I've grown to love. I'm doing everything in my power (and with the help of a very good editor) to communicate as clearly as possible with my readers. It's at this point that I keep the reader in the foremost part of my mind. Am I willing to take my editor's suggestions to cut (sometimes dramatically and traumatically) seriously? Will it help me reader understand better what I want them to understand? If yes, then do the deed. Anyway, it's a great time.

I am encouraged b/c the book's been picked up by the Junior Library Guild, which is too cool b/c they put the title out there, get it into school libraries. And so far, the reviews are positive. Discouraging is that my brother's gone to two of the major book chains, a friend into one, and a former student into one, and each has been told that they, the bookstores, are having a hard time getting copies for whatever reason.

What I'm reading: The Book Thief by Mark Zusak, Night of the Howling Dogs by Graham Salisbury (ARC), A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt, and Running Loose by Chris Crutcher.

Loved reading: American Born Chinese by Gene Yang and Mediggo's Shadow by Arthur Slate.