Newbery award winner and New York Times bestselling author

Archive for the ‘picture book, middle grade, YA’ Category

Football, Racism & Latino History for Teens: A talk with Sandra Neil Wallace

Muckers_coverThe holidays are a time to invite friends to your house, and that’s true for this blog, too. I’m honored to have Sandra Neil Wallace with me this week. Sandra is a former ESPN sportscaster and author of Muckers (Knopf 2013), a YA novel for anyone who loves fútbol Americano and underdog stories. But more important to me, it’s also a thoughtful look at anti-Latino racism in the 1950s and the difficult circumstances of Mexican-American families in Arizona at that time. Based on true events, the novel follows Red O’Sullivan, team quarterback, and his friend Cruz as they cobble together their high school’s last football season.  It offers us not only an inspiring look back, but also a way to ask questions about where we are now in sports and race.

________________________

How did you discover this story?

I was living in Sedona, Arizona, working as an ESPN announcer and discovered the Muckers story in a box of letters written to the principal of Jerome High School. Most of the letters were from young Mexican-American men who had graduated and gone to war. The letters helped me uncover the incredible sports triumph of the 1950 football team. Despite being the smallest squad in the state, playing on a rock field, and facing ridicule for being an integrated team, they made a run for the state championship. The football season in Muckers is modeled after theirs, and I interviewed surviving players to create characters I’d imagine experiencing the hardships of that time period.Author_Sandra_Neil_Wallace_2013

Muckers is set in a mining town that forces a diverse group of people to survive together, yet racism runs deep. Can you tell us about the racism that existed at that time in Arizona?

The extreme danger involved in that profession forced a diverse group to develop trust in each other to stay alive, but once the shift ended, miners headed to different sections on the hill, and your position dictated where you lived. Many Mexican American miners were muckers (they shoveled waste into ore cars) and blasters living in the gulch section known as “Mexicantown.”

The majority of Jerome’s citizens were of Mexican descent, yet there was a tremendous amount of confusion when it came to classification. Census takers check-marked boxes labeled “white” then wrote “Mexican” beside it. But what was clear was that Mexican Americans did not have the same rights as whites in Arizona. Many districts forced Mexican-American students to attend different schools under the guise of “separate but equal” education.

Jerome’s schools and teams were integrated but players still faced daily paradoxes competing against teams from segregated schools. What struck me hardest was the segregation of the town swimming pool. The humiliation felt by the young Mexican-American players was palpable in the letters they’d sent to their principal. How could you be on the same team and not be able to swim with your teammates? How could you be counted on to win a championship, yet afterwards, be prevented from socializing with your peers? The repercussions of these boundaries are what I explore in Muckers.segregation2

Any surprises in the research for you?

Yes; resilience, dignity, and hope amidst adversity. And how a single act of kindness from a teacher or a coach can influence a generation of men. As humans, we intrinsically search for glimmers of hope and when we find it, we take hold of it. Jerome’s principal and coach encouraged students and players to break down racial barriers. As a team, the Muckers responded by banding together and becoming a symbol of hope for their community.

This amazing team is such a contrast, for example, to incidents such as the Miami Dolphins and Richie Incognito.

Racism still exists in sports at all levels and will continue if management and coaches don’t set policies that get enforced to stop the culture of racism. What’s different now is that it’s getting exposed. It’s unfortunate when the result is to walk away from the game that you love in order to avoid racism instead of it sparking discussion that could lead to change.

Your characters are layered characters, young men of many cultures. What must a writer get right when writing across cultures? What were your guiding principles in your work on the characters?

Immersion, inquiry, and empathy.

As a journalist I immersed myself in 1950 Arizona through personal interviews, newspapers, oral histories and photographs, to capture the language and points of view of those living through the social injustices, the Communist scare, and the Korean War. But once this groundwork is done, you have to ask the difficult questions– the ones that make people squirm—in order to capture emotions and get at the truth. Empathy allows you to understand.

I could draw on my own experience with gender discrimination as a sportscaster and my family’s history of ethnic discrimination in Europe as German Yugoslavs after World War II, when they became property of the state and were sent to concentration camps.

Traumatic events are universal and also unforgettable. My grandmother vividly remembers what the sky looked like when she was taken to the concentration camp. The Mexican-American players from Jerome can recite the segregated swim times 65 years later. As a writer, it’s your responsibility to get as close to these realities as possible and if you don’t, the writing will be weak. But if a reader believes that an author should only write about characters that are their own gender, ethnicity or race, that’s discrimination, too.

What did you learn from the Muckers’ experience?

Well, the Muckers story continues. The novel unleashed a voice that had been silenced for more than 60 years. Players say the book has enabled them to talk about the town’s segregation and brought them closer together. But what means most to me is the letter from a player taped on my office wall with two words written on it: “You understand.

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Read the Kirkus review of Muckers here.

Sandra Neil Wallace is a former news anchor and ESPN sportscaster, who is now a full- time author. She was named an outstanding newcomer to the children’s literature scene by the Horn Book following the publication of her first novel, Little Joe. Her forthcoming book is a children’s biography of sports legend Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Sandra lives in New Hampshire with her husband, author Rich Wallace.

Follow her on Twitter @SandraNWallace or by visiting www.gomuckers.com

I Can Almost Smell the Sunscreen: Girls of Summer 2013

It’s almost that time again!  Gigi and I are putting the very last touches on Girls of Summer 2013, our annual curated reading list of summer reads for strong girls.

Girls of Summer 2013Two dates for you:

June 10, 2013:  the new list and our reviews will go live on the blog (www.girlsofsummerlist.wordpress.com)

June 18, 2013:  Our live launch party 7 pm at Library Park, behind the main branch of the Richmond Public Library. 101 East Franklin Street, Richmond, VA. Free and open to the public. Refreshments, book giveaways, and an author panel with Jeri Watts and Kristen Paige Madonia.

Hope you enjoy our new trailer!

What I’m Reading for Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s that time of the year again! Hispanic Heritage Month is around the corner (Sept 15 – Oct 15). Here are the picks for my nightstand.

YA/historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War. You may remember Christina from her lovely debut novel, The Red Umbrella. This one releases early October.

 

Remember Maria from Sesame Street? This is her new YA set in Spanish Harlem in the late 1960s. She had me at the scene with the plastic slipcovers in the living room.

Twelve short stories by Latina authors celebrating the power of friendship.  I adore short fiction as much as I love mis amigas so I’m really excited about this one. Edited by Adriana V López.

Hate Crimes, YA Lit & Latinos: An interview with Caroline Bock, author of LIE

LIE

Caroline Bock

St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011

978-0-312-66832-7

I can’t say it’s a pleasure to read a book about hate crimes by teens. But since hate crimes against Latinos have seen  the highest spike in more than a decade – according to the FBI, over 66% of hate crimes in 2010 targeted Latinos – I was intrigued to find LIE by Caroline Bock. This debut novel tackles the topic by taking us inside the minds of both victims and victimizers. Ten lives intersect one horrible night when two brothers – one an immigrant from El Salvador, one a natural US citizen – are brutally assaulted by a group of Long Island teenagers. The novel lays bare the land mines of power groups among teens, racism, and ineffective adults. Mostly, though, I admire this powerful book for making us consider the bigger question of how hatred this dark can take root in people who are young, bright, and at the beginning of everything.

I’m honored to introduce you to Caroline Bock in my first Q & A feature, where we’ll talk about both craft and content.

Congratulations on a great debut, Caroline. To start us off, would you tell us a little bit about yourself in terms of what brought you to writing? What made you move from film and marketing to the world of writing for young people?  

Thank you so much, Meg. I feel like I’m in terrific company with you and your readers!

I’ve always had dual career dreams – to work in television and to write novels, screenplays and poetry. I was the editor of my high school literary magazine, I went to college, on scholarship, and majored in Communications and English at Syracuse University. I thought I would work for a few years in this job I found as a public relations assistant for a cable network and then go to graduate school and write my novels. Twenty years later, I was leading the marketing and public relations teams at Bravo and at the Independent Film Channel and I realized that I hadn’t written that novel I thought I would always write. I quit. (Well, it wasn’t as easy a decision as that but pursing one’s dreams is important at any age, isn’t it?). So about eight years ago, I started my second career as a writer, which by then also included being a mom.

Is the title LIE, as in the Long Island Expressway… or is the title Lie, as in an untruth? Both work, of course, but which did you have in mind?

Originally it was L.I.E. —  after the expressway – I thought I was being clever. But here’s why having early readers – and little brothers — is so important. My younger brother, David, who lives now in Cleveland, Ohio read the title and said to me, “What are you thinking? Nobody outside of New York is going to know why you are naming your novel after a highway.” So, after some thought, I changed the name to LIE, as in “untruth,” though I asked my publisher if we could have the title all in caps so all the New Yorkers – and all the close readers — would read the double meaning.

We’re both Queens, New York girls, which is always fun to find out. Do you still live and write there?  

When I was in my 20s, I lived in Queens in several different neighborhoods — Flushing, Rego Park, Forest Hills.  In LIE, I write about baseball and the Mets — I lived within walking distance of the baseball stadium – and it was a lot of fun going to games with my super-fan husband. About a dozen years ago, I moved out to Long Island where I live now – but it’s still only about 30 minutes (without traffic) to get to a Mets game and we are often there.

What drew you to write a novel about a hate crime against Latinos on Long /Island?

The first was having a very good friend from El Salvador with two teenage sons. The second was reading a 2008 front page New York Times story about the murder of young man from Ecuador by a group of mainly white teens on Long Island, who were out “beaner-hopping” in their words, i.e. beating up people they assumed were Latinos for sport.

I kept asking myself, “How could this happen here – in Long Island, in these nice middle class suburbs, in the 21st century?”  I turned to my friend and asked her that. She wasn’t shocked  – she knew prejudice, discrimination, violence  — she knew it well in El Salvador, where she fled from a civil war, and here, on Long Island in New York.

Describe your research for this novel. Were there any surprises as you dug into real-life cases? Have you come to any personal conclusions about what spurs this type of violence?

I read intensively about hate crimes across the country; I spoke at length to many friends and acquaintances from places such as El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico about their experiences in the suburbs; I even called the county sheriff’s office to confirm details about visiting hours for the county jail.  However, I never spoke with anyone involved with the actual incident on Long Island. By the end of the day, when I started writing, I wanted to make these characters my own and I put away the research. I think that’s why you come way feeling that these characters are “real” – the fiction makes them so.

In doing my research what surprised me—and saddened and angered me the most—was learning that these kind of violent hate crimes against Latinos were not isolated to Long Island in any way.   I keep hearing from readers across the country that they can relate to the themes in the novel.

One last thing, one thing that kept me going: all four of my grandparents were immigrants (from Russia, Poland and Italy) and they had hard times when they first arrived. They faced discrimination and many obstacles to the American dream. Yet, what I want more than anything is for this country to shed our 20th century prejudices. I hope my debut novel makes people think about how we break the cycle of racism and prejudice and embrace the diversity that is the destiny of the America  in the 21st century.

You tell this novel from alternating points of view. Tell us a little bit about that decision. What worked about that strategy and what was difficult?

I think I should have put a warning label on my novel: beware 10 distinct first person points of view even though 17-year-old Skylar and Sean emerge as the two main characters.

What worked? I believe in some ways the reader becomes the 11th point of view and hopefully is asking himself or herself by the end of the novel: what would I have done?   There’s not a lot of authorial moralizing in this book – which some readers have liked and others have been critical of – you read it and judge!

What was difficult? I had 10 different characters in my head – sometimes all talking to me at once, demanding to be written.

Many of the characters in LIE fall far short of the way we’d like to think that people of good conscience behave. I admire that you still make them feel fully realized – and not just twirling moustache bad-guys. Which character proved the most challenging for you to write? Is there a favorite – or one you’d like to slap around in a dark alley?

I’d like to give a good talking to Lisa Marie. She’s the best friend from hell.

To some extent, all writers call on their personal experience in shaping characters. Skylar lives with her single dad, a trait you share with her. How did your life experience of being raised by your father inform how you developed these two characters?

When I was four-and-a half my mother had a stroke, which left her brain-damaged and paralyzed and hospitalized for the rest of her life. My father raised four kids alone and I’m the oldest of the four. There was always a sense of loss in our house. We were the kids without the mother. I felt like I had to find my own way in life, though my father was there – a big, gruff, kind-hearted presence.

So when I started writing and I wanted to create a particularly vulnerable family, I created Skylar, who had lost her mother the year before from cancer, and her father, Tommy Thompson. I didn’t realize how much I was drawing on my inner self until I finished writing but I think that’s the way it is with a lot of writers.

You delve into the psychology of power.  I’m always interested in how that plays out in the lives of young women. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between Jimmy and Skylar? 

Jimmy, the leader of the group, handsome, confident, star Scholar-Athlete, wants to control Skylar – as much as he wants to control everyone around him. He sees the world in terms of winners and losers – and he plans to be a “winner.” In his world, there’s “first place or no place.” Why wouldn’t Skylar want to be his girlfriend? Everyone wants to be Jimmy’s friend. Haven’t so many of us felt giddy being picked by the boy we thought could do no wrong – until he does.

 The book contains violence, sexuality, and suicide. What’s your answer to critics of these elements in books for young people?

I devoured novels as a teen to understand the way the world works – I think many teens read for that reason.  At the end of the day, we can’t make the world —  either in fantasies such as Hunger Games or in  contemporary, realistic novels such as LIE – any prettier or lighter than it is and still be true to our characters and our stories – and our lives.

Most of all, I’m in the Sherman Alexie  camp (one of my inspirations for LIE  is his brilliant novel: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).  Earlier this year, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal a response to such critics that he writes books for teenagers, “Because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers.  I don’t write to protect them.  It’s far too late for that.  I write to give them weapons—in the forms of words and ideas – that will help them fight their monsters.”

Are there upcoming projects you want to tell us about?

Yes, but they are still in development, and I am very superstitious and cannot talk about them until I know they will exist beyond my computer screen.  But I do hope to have a long second career writing novels, screenplays and poetry, so stay tuned as they say in television.

Meg, thank you for the chance to speak with you and your readers!

WIN AN AUTOGRAPHED COPY OF LIE.

Enter a comment on this post and you’re automatically entered.

Drawing on July 16.

(FB mentions and retweets about the giveaway are always appreciated!)

Scenes for the Girls of Summer Live Launch

The Girls of Summer 2012 site is live — 18 great summer reads for girls! But here are some shots from a truly magical night under the shady trees of Library Park in Richmond, VA. More than 100 girls, moms, librarians, teachers, and friends gathered for ice cream, book talks, and a chance to meet the fabulous Wendy Shang, author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. Thank you to everyone at the Richmond Public Library, to bbgb tales for kids (our bookseller), to Penelope Carrington for filming, and to the Ice Cream Connection for the fantastic refreshments and music!

Mammas, grandmas, bitty babies

Winners of our picture book, chapter book, and early middle grade bag of books! Cute or what?

My new magical realism book bag. A present from Betty Sanderson!

The lucky winner of our middle grade and YA book titles!

Back again! Girls of Summer 2012

Ah, it’s almost time to kick back and read the way you’re supposed to read in the summer: curled in a hammock or beach chair. Here comes Girls of Summer 2012.  Gigi Amateau and I are updating our curated reading list  with 18 new titles for this summer. It’s an absolute joy to work on this project for a second year. I get to read (or re-read) books that I think celebrate girls, share time with a close friend, and talk to authors I’ve long admired all summer long. It doesn’t get better.

You’ll find the spiffy new list and our comments on the website starting June 20. (We’re under construction now with updates, so please be patient.)

But what I really want you to do is save the night of June 19, 2012, 7 – 9 pm and join us at the Richmond Public Library for the live launch. It’s free. It’s fun. It’s the best thing you can do on a Tuesday night. Were you there for our inaugural event last year? We promise another crazy, fun-filled evening, complete with book giveaways, summer refreshments (think popsicles) and authors on hand. Mark the date!

Oh — and don’t forget Anita Silvey will be speaking on children’s books at the library this Saturday, May 19. Not to be missed if you are even remotely interested in books for young people. She’s amazing.

Charlotte Zolotow Award

awarded by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

A big thank you to the Charlotte Zolotow Prize committee for selecting Tía Isa Wants a Car as a highly commended book for 2011.

I’m also happy to join in a standing ovation for this year’s big winner, Patrick McDonnell, whose nifty picture book, Me … Jane is the 15th annual winner of the prize. The Charlotte Zolotow Award recognizes outstanding writing in a picture book. Thanks to Patrick’s book, kids from birth to age seven can learn about the incredible life of Jane Goodall.

My December reading list

I did some holiday shopping today, but to treat myself kindly (and to avoid becoming a lunatic by Noche Buena), I made a pit stop at my favorite public library. That’s the Tuckahoe Area library in Henrico, VA, where the librarians make me feel like family and don’t mind walking me around to the different shelves like a lost puppy.

These days I’m on the hunt for books at every age group that really dazzle me for their appeal for girls. (All suggestions welcome.) You might remember that I’m half the brains behind Girls of Summer with my friend, Gigi Amateau. We are spending this winter and spring discovering new writers and dreaming of what will make our Must Reads for 2012.

Vicky Smith at Kirkus recently posted a nifty list of best books for 2011, so naturally I got curious. Very helpful, as it’s divided by categories. I picked up Inside and Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and The Fires Beneath the Sea by Lydia Millet on her recommendation.

Then, because I’m a browser, I grabbed How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (Nat’l Book Award finalist for Story of a Girl) and Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace, which the Times of London compared to Philip Pullman’s work on Victorian life.

Finally, I took a drive to my closest indie bookstore, bbgb, where a team of design “elves” were making snowflakes and other store decorations. I picked up Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. If you follow Shelf Awareness, you know that NPR’s BackSeat Book Club is reading it this month. Michele Norris will be doing an author/reader  segment on All Things Considered.

Who knows what I’ll love and what I won’t. But when I despair at the early nights of winter, I’ll be thinking, “ooh, let me read a while….”

My Favorite Book This Year: A Monster Calls

I love so many books, it’s usually impossible for me to say that I love one more than another. It’s the mother spirit in me, wanting to love them all in some special way.

But all that changed this morning when I finished reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Candlewick Press, 2011). The chilling illustrations by Jim Kay, the balance of tenderness and rage, the magical realism  — I can’t heap enough praise on this work about a boy visited by a monster during the final days of his mother’s illness. Even more awe-inspiring is the fact that Patrick Ness was asked to complete a story idea first proposed by Siobhan Dowd, the human rights activist who lost her own battle to cancer in 2007, shortly after her spectacular debut novel, A Swift Pure Joy, was published.

Let me just say this: I started reading this gem Saturday, while I was manning a volunteer table at a school function, and it took no time to go deaf to the world around me. Sunday morning before the sun had even come up, I ignored the chance for an extra hour of sleep and reached in the darkness for the book.

A parent and child having to let each other go too early is, in fact, a monstrous event. To me, Patrick got it exactly right in this magical book, and as frightening as it is to follow a tale of a boy’s grief, it is a beautiful and resonant story.

For my Holladay ES Peeps

So fun to visit Holladay ES this morning. They’ve been reading MILAGROS in the fourth grade and also TIA ISA in the second grade.  We ran out of time for questions, so as promised, I’m answering here. From grade 2:

How did you get to be so good at writing?
Practice, practice, and more practice. I took lots of writing classes in high school and in college. Even today, I will take a writing class to learn how to tell a story better. Best of all, I have a writing group where I share my work with author friends and get their advice.  
How do you go about writing a book?
I usually start with a good character who has one big problem to solve — but that’s all I know. I write for a few hours every day, and I always start my day by fixing what I wrote the day before. (Sometimes that means I throw it all out and start that work again!) Slowly, slowly — chapter by chapter — the story starts to take shape. One secret is that I usually rewrite the first chapter after I’ve finished writing the whole book. Why? I like the first chapter to give a good hint about everything that is going to happen in the rest of the book.  Since I don’t know what’s going to happen until the book is done, I have to go back and redo it. 
What was your favorite book when you were in 2nd grade?

I can’t remember exactly from second grade, but I can tell you some of the books I loved in elementary school. My all-time favorite book was Charlotte’s Web. Such a sweet story of friendship. I also liked that it was set in the country. I grew up in the city, and the idea of cows and pigs and country fairs seemed so wonderful.

But there were so many books I loved. Here are some of the old book jackets of the stories I loved most. Some of them are still in print today, but they may look very different. Do you love any of these? 


City Mouse Visits Country Mouse, pictures by Richard Scarry