Monday, January 27, 2014

Dispatch #17: I Heard It at The Y

by Lupe Fernandez

"Homeless people," Y_ says to a woman siting on a lap pull-down machine, "it's a choice."

Across the exercise room, I stretch on a mat and listen to Y_ chronicle the history of homelessness starting with President Ronald Reagen's closure of mental hospitals. He is stocky in his gray shorts, t-shirt and sneakers. His baseball cap hides a receding hair line. He adjusts his black framed glasses as he cites the example of the "homeless guy who became a fireman", proof that homelessness is a lifestyle of choice.

I wonder what formative experience shaped Y_'s opinion. That and I want to punch him in the nose. Since I write about the teen and middle grade experience, I will confine my hypothetical scenarios to twenty to thirty years ago.

Scenario 1
The cot is hard on Y_'s back. He covers his nose with a frayed, itchy blanket against the stink of stale beer, dried vomit and damp cigarettes. His mother's bruised hands rattle her rosary; she prays for God's Mercy and His Deliverance. Y_ imagines the sweet taste of a hot fudge sundae with icy scoops of vanilla and bubble-gum, topped with a smooth mountain of whipped cream. The crunch of almonds. The pluck of the stem off the bright red cherry. He licks his dry lips, parched from too much salt in the canned pea soup. He sees shapes behind the long curtain separating the men's side from the women's side. In the dim light he unfolds the crinkled page of a vacation ad for the Grand Canyon. "Mom," Y_  shows her the ad, "why can't we go this year?"

Scenario 2
Y_ glances at C_, his girlfriend, caressing the plush leather upholstery of the Jaguar. His whole body trembles from the growling motor, the power, the mastery of the road. He drives with one hand, windows open, hot wind blasting in their faces. The yellow street dividers flick by like dots. Y_ and his girlfriend scream the lyrics blasting out of the disc player. "Cancun this year again?" The girlfriend sighs, "There's this club in Vegas where you can drink as long as your 16." If I'm going to Vegas, Y_ thinks, I don't want her with with me. He feels in his pocket for Uncle M_'s the card credit with a $50,000 limit. Yesss, he gloats. I'll buy me a shitload of hookers from Fantasia Escort Service.

Scenario 3
The spring of the screen door squeaks. Watching unseen from the kitchen doorway, Y_ hears his mother speak in a hushed voice to a stooped woman who fidgets in and out of the dim porch light. Angry rashes and scabs cover her face, neck and arms. Y_'s mother offers a plastic bag of clothes to replace the woman's greasy jeans, torn blouse and dirty jacket, and leftover stir-fried vegetables, a loaf of bread and six pack of Dr. Pepper to feed her. Y_ covers his nose and mouth at the stink of the unwashed woman. She takes the bag without looking at it, but doesn't leave. Y_'s mother rummages through her purse. The crinkle of cash sounds like nails on a chalkboard to Y_.  His fingers dig into the wooden door frame. That thing at the door is not his sister banished from house two long years ago.

I finish stretching, take a shower and drive home.
I don't know what formed Y_'s opinion. 
As a writer, it's my job to pause and wonder and write it down.

Monday, January 20, 2014

I Have A Dream

9 comments Susan J. Berger

When I was young I didn't know there was prejudice in the world. No one told me. I thought my father and mother went to different country clubs because they were divorced. No one mentioned the Jews weren't allowed at the Buffalo country club. That the Jews had to start their own.

When I was in second grade, my best friend was black. Neither her parents or mine commented on our color differences.

In 1954 we moved to Cape Town and I got my first view of racial hatred. My mom said I should feel sorry for people who could only see a person's color and not their real selves because those people missed so much. I comforted myself with the thought that such a thing could not happen in America.

Our next move was to Westport, Connecticut where Mom divorced her second husband and married her third. My mom's best friends were poets and painters and MAD Men.  Two of the couples in our circle of friends were bi-racial. No-one cared. Certainly not me  I was too busy being thirteen and suffering agonies in Junior High.

I went to high school in Atlanta during the bus desegregation. My mother and second stepfather belonged to H.O.P.E -Help Our Public Education and I belonged to S.O.S Students For Open Schools. These organizations were committed to peacefully desegregating the schools. The majority of the members of these groups were white because - well - because we didn't have desegregation yet. We moved away in 1960, but I came back in 1961 to attend the University of Georgia. One year after Charlene and Walter became the first two black students there.

I am a child of the sixties. My friends and I shared the dream. We wanted a world where no one was looked down upon because of race or religion or nationality. We wanted to see it on television, in films, in books and in our every day lives.

We've come a long way. In my personal life my friends are a bouquet of colors, nationalities and faiths. I even have friends that are Republican.

I started this post with the intention of mentioning books for young people that had black protagonists. I did lots of research.

Then I thought Why am I doing this? Why do I still have to search for books that have people of color. Why aren't all of us writing them?

I think we are at one of those periods in our history where we need to take a bit more care. All of us who are writing and illustration can add flavors to our worlds. My dream is that stories will, as a matter of course, contain characters of different racial make-up and that the race, religion and nationality of the authors and illustrators will not be a matter for remark. It's already happening.
   Lisa Yee writes about people. Some of them are Chinese. Some of them are Caucasian. All her books are satisfying because it's the people who are important. Not their racial make up.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius

Tamora Pierce's The Circle of Magic books
feature four protagonists. Daja is black, Briar is mixed race, Tris is Caucasian and I am not sure what race Sandry is. Who they are inside and the magic they possess define them.

                           Jerry Pinkney's wonderful illustrations are not only of black people.

Nancy Stewart's Bella series feature best friends who are Caucasian and African American. Pelican at a Time
Margot Finke is a transplant from Australia. Her hero in Taconi and Claude and her new book, Trial by Walkabout is an Aboriginal Boy.

I'm still revising Tasha, The Magnificent. Tasha was inspired by a trio of friends who stayed with me one summer: They were of different races. Their commonality was the dreams in their eyes and their belief in magic. I love the story. One day I'll get the plot right and send it out again.
Lupe and Hilde are both working on books that have Mexican and Cuban characters.

I know all of you readers could give me lots more examples. I believe we all share the same dream. And I know it's coming true. 

All of the pictures in this post link to books on Amazon or Goodreads. Here are some of the other books I looked up.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Conversation with Richard Peck

by Victoria Krol and Hilde Garcia

Pen and Ink met Richard Peck at the 2013 SCBWI Summer Conference. Hilde asked if she and Victoria could interview him for the blog. He said yes. It took some time and doing, but we finally connected.

Scene 1- The Call

Hilde: (The number on the screen is a NYC number I don’t recognize.) Hello?

Richard Peck: Is this Hilde Garcia?


Richard Peck: This is Richard Peck. (My heart skips a beat. My hairdresser waits patiently, blow dryer in hand.) Is this a good time for an interview?

Hilde: Umm, well, (I sound so dopey), I'm getting my hair styled for a party. Could we possibly do it in 30 minutes?

Richard Peck: (chuckle) Yes of course. You can call me.

Hilde: I know I said I would drop whatever I was doing to be at your disposal, but I don’t think I can drop the hair dryer.

Richard Peck: (chuckle) No, I don’t think you should.

Scene 2- The Introduction

One very excited eight-year-old, pen and pencil in hand, was waiting for me to run in through the door, with perfect hair, no doubt.

I am ready mom.

Me too.
(I am about to interview THE Richard Peck, author of more than 30 incredible novels. I am most certainly not ready.)

We run to the garage and set up our call. We dial.
Good evening, Mr. Peck. We are ready and the hair dryer is safely put away.    
That’s good.

Hi Mr. Peck, remember me? We met and I was wearing my Hello Kitty earrings.

Yes I do.  Hello Victoria.

  (To me, she mouths: “He remembered me!")

To Mr. Peck:  May I ask my first question?

 Yes, you may.

Scene 3- The interview

Why do you use a typewriter to write your stories and not a computer?
I use a typewriter because I have never lost a young reader to a typewriter, but I have lost too many to computers, games and texting.
My teacher says that we have to rewrite our stories to make them better. How do you revise your stories, because there are no mistakes in them at all?
I write each page six times because I don’t get it right the first 5 times.  Then when I get it right, I take out 20 more words because I wasn’t confident initially with the words I chose.  Then I go to the next page.
Why did you decide to become a writer?
I was a teacher but I couldn’t find things for my students to read that had any worth.

Well, that answers the question of what other jobs have you done.

Yes, it does. My students didn’t know it was stuff I had written.  And eventually, I had to stop teaching because I needed the time to write.

I had a teacher in high school for advanced English Literature, Mr. Harrell, who did the same.  He would write poems, essays, and short stories, and then have us analyze them for daily assignments or exams.  I never realized he was writing these original pieces of literature.  I simply thought they were from some famous writer I hadn't studied yet.  I think I figured out it was Mr. Harrell a couple of years after I graduated. I was in a college literature class and it suddenly dawned on me that none of those pieces were actually published.  Thank you, Mr Harrell. 
In The Secrets of Sea, you made the mouse, Louise, and the girl, Camilla, friends, and then their lives took a lot of crazy turns.  Why?  
Louise and Camilla. Well I created the story with three sisters. The older sister was bossy.  The youngest was the rebel.  And then Louise was the communicator even with human beings.  I often use middle children in my stories because they are good communicators. And taking the story through many turns is what makes it compelling.
So in essence the middle child or mouse becomes your reliable source of information.
Mrs. Dowdel (from A Season of Gifts, A Long Way Down from Chicago, and The Year Down Yonder) is a completely unique character. 
Yes, she is unparalleled and works her way into your soul the more you read of her in each of those books.

Is she inspired by someone you know?

She is inspired by all the old ladies in my house. I had a grandmother that was six feet tall with a crown of snow-white hair, that lived in that house and in that town.  My dad told me the story so in a way, these stories are his, and I felt they had more poetry than my own, so I wrote them. I will share with you something serious, too.  Mrs. Dowdel loved her grand-kids, where my own grandmother didn’t.

    (This was whispered to me, and Mr. Peck obviously couldn’t see Victoria’s face, which was both excited and sad.)

I love the chapter in A Long Way from Chicago entitled “Shotgun Cheatham.”  Why did you decide to have the cat jump out of the coffin?
Mom, why wouldn’t you?  That was the funniest chapter I have ever read.  A cat jumping out of a coffin, but everyone thinking the dead person was still alive.
(chuckle) Well, the cat in the coffin was from a story I heard as a child.  The idea intrigued me and stayed with me throughout until I finally wrote it down.  And here’s a little something about Mrs. Dowdel.  She is a free thinker.  She doesn’t care what other people do or other people think.  She decides what’s right.
I think she’s a great example of what our current generation lacks, this moral compass, which guides each and every individual. Everything about today’s world is about mass mentality and conglomeration.  Free thinking is a lost art.
Yes it is.
Mr. Peck, have you read The Harry Potter series?
I haven’t read all of it.  I don’t really like fantasy and witches and all of that business.  But it wouldn’t be bad to be J. K. Rowling. (Another chuckle).  Not every character is for every child.
Which is why we need so many writers, to write for each child.   
So true.
Our principal’s book club chose to read A Season of Gifts. It was amazing to see how many children -- and in some cases, very young children -- identified themselves with Mrs. Dowdel and Bobby and how many of them understood very well the scene in which Bobby is bullied into the privy. It seems a universal feeling.
Principal Atikian's Book Club - Morning Meeting
Bullies are mean. Mr. Peck, did you write your stories about your time in school and places you lived in or visited?
I am very fond of geography and when I grew up, classrooms had maps.

Imagine that!  Well, I am happy to say that my classroom has one map.  
Good.  I’ve never written a story about a place I haven’t visited. I tried once, but it didn’t work. My newest book is set in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.  It took me a long time to get into the gardens because they weren’t public until recently, but once I visited them, I could write the story.  It wasn’t enough to look at photos for me.  I had to be there. 

Now, the three books that feature Mrs. Dowdel were about my father’s home and I did visit that house.  On the Wings of Heroes and Dreamland Lake are about my hometown and my experiences, though I doubt you can find those books in print  anymore.
Well, I'll just have to pay a visit to Amazon or eBay and see what they can turn up for me.
 Do you have a favorite character that another author wrote?
Yes of course, because I am a writer. My teacher in the 4th grade gave me a book about a boy named Huck Finn, and then I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of  my life.
I love that story too!  I also love Phyllis and Ruth Ann in A Season of Gifts.  What inspired you to make the sisters so different?

Yes, they are quite opposite aren’t they?
Here’s another story about a middle child. The brother is very protective and that I find interesting. Having three siblings in my stories always fascinates me even though that wasn’t the case for me, as it was only my sister and I, and I was the oldest.

Also, in A Season of Gifts, these kids are PKs- Preachers' Kids- and where ever they live, they are watched and judged for everything they do.  Ruth Ann ends up becoming a little Mrs. Dowdel. This is an example of how your characters become living people and will do and say things that don’t seem to come from you, the author.
Mr. Peck, I am a writer too.  And I was wondering if you had any advice for me?
Yes.  Learn five new words a day.  Every book has a new vocabulary.  You want to use words to create new worlds.  And you need more words than you and your friends use every day.  If you are going to be a writer, you need to collect words.
I will do that, I promise.  I do have one more burning question.   
Well, you spelled Ruth Ann with an E at the end of Anne.  My middle name is Anne with an E like the main character Anne in Anne of Green Gables. Well, with or without an E, she’s a great character and you are a great writer.  I love your stories, all of them that I’ve read so far.
Thank you, Victoria.

Mr. Peck, it was an honor to have your book selected by our Principal for her book club and to have so many children inspired by Mrs. Dowdel. Many of the students in our club drew their own version of the cover for A Season of Gifts and I promise to send you photos of our bulletin board.
 That would be wonderful.
I hope to see you at the next SCBWI conference in LA next summer, Mr. Peck.
 Look forward to it.

We hang up the phone.

Scene 4- The Aftermath

Hoo Boy.
My daughter and I sat in euphoria in our garage studio, trying to linger in the glow of the interview, letting the words fall on our memory.

We were on our way to a holiday party for the teachers at our school, and couldn’t help bouncing on our way there.

There are magical moments in life, moments you know you will not forget. I remember turning 19 and waking up in Paris. I remember holding my children the day they were born. As a child, I remember the day I won the school’s spelling bee at age 8.

And for my daughter, I think this become her first of what I hope will be many magical moments, the evening she interviewed Richard Peck. I have to say, I was quite impressed with her poise, her calm, her questions. She is a greater woman at 8 than I could ever have been, even now in my 40’s.

I will add this magical moment to my collection and she will use it to start hers.

Thank you, Mr. Peck.