The Life of a Book

Happy “Paperback Birthday” to ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  The hard cover version has had a wonderful year, and I wish its paperback little sister even more success!

Turning “soft” is part of the natural life-cycle of a book, but it is only a small portion of its Life.  We all have favorite stories that have wormed their way into our hearts, and influence our daily lives through conversation, quotes, or contemplations.  How an audience reacts to a story, and what they take from it and keep for themselves, is something no author can predict.

Pardon today’s reblog, then, about one small moment in the Life of ONE FOR THE MURPHYS, after it left the author’s desk.  We write stories for many reasons, but in the end, we hope that someone will read them and connect to what we’ve written.  I hope this particular copy reached its intended audience!  Read on, Macduff:

Book Bravo: One For the Murphys

POSTED ON MAY 17, 2012 BY 

 

We’ve all been there.  You can tell the moment you answer the door that this person is there to sell you something.  Usually magazines.  Sometimes new windows.  Or the deal of a lifetime on a lawn care system.  Almost always, I’m pretty militant about sending them on their way.  I don’t even open the door, just shout a hearty, “NOT INTERESTED, THANK YOU!” and watch them fumble with their pamphlets as I move back into the safety of my house.
But today was different.  For one thing, I was outside, weeding.  Nowhere to hide.  For another thing, the woman who approached me (for the record, yes – she was selling magazines) started with her life story instead of her sales pitch.  Or maybe that was her sales pitch.  Who knows.  But whatever it was, today was different.

“I never thought I’d be going door to door,” she told me, after introducing herself.  She said she was in a job training program through a nationwide organization (that much, I later confirmed, was legit).
“I’m working hard to finish this program and prove to the state that I am stable enough to get my kids back.”  Uh-huh, okay, what are you selling, and how much is it going to cost me? Still, there was something in her eyes.  She looked so tired.  I stood up, brushed off my knees, and moved toward her.  Maybe her story was real, maybe not.  Without a door to shut between us, I figured the least I could do was make eye contact with her.

Then she seemed to deviate from her script.  She told me she had recently been hospitalized after being beaten by her long-time boyfriend.  She kicks herself for not listening to her 12-year-old daughter who begged her to leave him.  And she was working hard to get her life in order so that she could get her kids out of the foster care system, where they’d been ever since the beating.

This is where the hairs on my arms and neck stood up.  Sadly, I know this is not an uncommon story. However, the particular familiarity of it was freaking me out.  I felt like one of the characters in Lynda Mulally Hunt’s newly published One For the Murphys (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books) was standing in my driveway and talking to me.
Here is an overview of the story (From Barnes and Noble, One For the Murphys):
“A moving debut novel about a foster child learning to open her heart to a family’s love.  Carley uses humor and street smarts to keep her emotional walls high and thick. But the day she becomes a foster child, and moves in with the Murphys, she’s blindsided. This loving, bustling family shows Carley the stable family life she never thought existed, and she feels like an alien in their cookie-cutter-perfect household. Despite her resistance, the Murphys eventually show her what it feels like to belong—until her mother wants her back and Carley has to decide where and how to live. She’s not really a Murphy, but the gifts they’ve given her have opened up a new future.”

So yeah, my hair stood on end.  The book moved me, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it’s story and message.  In the story, Carley learns that you can lean on good people to help you in a bad situation.  Something about the similarity between Mullaly Hunt’s tale and the one this woman was sharing with me made me listen to her, instead of brushing her off.  Maybe I’m a schmuck.  But just in case, when I went inside for my checkbook, I also picked up a signed copy of the book I had gotten at a recent Wellesley Books event.  I gave it to the woman, and wrote her daughter’s name inside.  When I explained the premise of the book, the woman said she couldn’t imagine how her daughter would feel reading it, knowing she is not alone.

        Then she said, “I wish I had had a book like this, when I was young.  My brothers went to Gramma’s, but I was too little, and went to foster care.”  How would her life have been different if she’d had Gilly Hopkins (from Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins) as a childhood companion?
        So maybe I’m a shmuck.  Or maybe there is a little girl out there who is hurting, scared, and confused, and will be able to read One for the Murphys and know she is not alone, and that good, caring people do exist, and sometimes they are all you need to get by.
        Well done to Lynda Mulally Hunt for the perfectly paced writing in this fantastic novel.  The characters are real, flawed, and quirky, just like you and me.  I highly recommend this book for girls age 9-13, or anyone who loves a good hero story.  You will be enlightened and enriched.

A Stormy Read

How bad could the storm possibly have been, I wondered, as I read the first pages of Donn Fendler’s fantastically exciting memoir, Lost Trail.  (Down East Books, 2011)  Then five days ago, Sandy blew in with her hurricane force tropical tempest, and I realized how anxious bad weather can make us.  Even though I was safe in my home, miles and miles from the storm’s true path, my heart was racing and my ability to prioritize real vs. imagined danger was compromised.

So, in that moment, it was easier for me to imagine how a 12-year-old Donn Fendler from New York felt when a storm blew in as he summited Mt. Katahdin 73 years ago ago.

When Donn went on a fishing trip with his father and a group of friends in the northern Maine woods in the summer of 1939, the only care on his mind was finding the best fishing spot.  He never imagined he’d soon be in a race for his life.

Lost Trail is the true story of Donn’s 9-day adventure and struggle for survival alone on Mt. Katahdin, with nothing but the clothes on his back.  It is an exciting, page turning, uplifting story, which has been retold in a fantastic graphic novel format with Lynn Plourde.  The amazingly talented illustrator, Ben Bishop, has rendered the story with pen strokes that seem to grab the urgency of the situation and pull you into the story.

The story alone had me reading at a frantic pace, but the kicker is the actual newspaper articles and clippings from the Bangor Daily News, which chronicle the swell of people who surged in to help, and their trickling departure when it seemed all hope was lost.  I couldn’t imagine what Donn’s parents were thinking and feeling the day that the News reported: “Boy’s Body Likely Found.”

Of course, since he tells the story himself, you know the ending is a happy one:

Mr. Fendler now splits his time between Tennessee and Maine.  Through the years he has told his survival tale countless times, including in the 1939 book Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Joseph B. Egan (HarperCollins), which I’ll likely check out now for my son and I to read.

If you’re like me, you struggle with whether graphic novels are “really” books that your kids can “really” put on their reading log for school.  Since he was tiny, my son has always gravitated toward anything resembling a comic.  I remember snuggling my then two-year-old, wanting to read The Very Lonely Firefly, but instead reading something like:  and then with his last mortal breath, Dr. Mentor slashed the antidote from the wretched hands of the evil bomb maker…ROARRRRR screamed Hulk, his sinewy muscles snapping…. 

I’ll tell you what, those ‘graphic novels’ often have some pretty juicy vocabulary. Lost Trail is no exception.   The story is uber-compelling, and this re-telling is a guaranteed slam-dunk in any 8-10 year-old’s arsenal,  reluctant reader or not!

Meet Author Ellen Booraem!

What a treat I have for you today, book lovers!  Allow me to introduce you to Ellen Booraem, and her wonderful (second) novel, Small Persons with Wings (they hate to be called fairies), from Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011.

My interest in middle grade fiction (loosely translated:  stories for kids in grades 3-6 , or ages 9-11) often has me pilfering books off of my daughter’s nightstand.   This book cover grabbed my interest immediately, and so did the story, which I read in two sittings.

Here’s what it’s about (from the author’s fantastic website, www.ellenbooraem.com):

“Thirteen-year-old Mellie Turpin once declared to her kindergarten class that she had a fairy living in her bedroom. But before she could bring him in for show-and-tell, he disappeared. Years later, she is still trying to live it down, taunted mercilessly by classmates who call her “Fairy Fat.”  Her imagination got her into this.  She’s determined to keep it turned off.  When her parents inherit an inn and the family moves to a new town, Mellie sees a chance to finally leave all that fairy nonsense behind. Little does she know that the inn is overrun with…you guessed it.  Oh brother. There’s no such thing as fairies, she keeps telling herself. And if there were, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. Right?”

What Ms. Booraem has created here is basically the opposite of a cloyingly sweet fairy story.  It does have wonderful elements of magical realism, but these fairies aren’t delicate.  In fact, they are quite a rowdy bunch.  Ellen graciously agreed to be interviewed about this story and her writing career.  Read on!

Nancy:  How did your writing career begin?

Ellen:  I got my first writing job a year after I graduated from college—in fact, it was at my college, which hired me to write and edit alumnae publications. I produced publications for colleges and corporations over the next ten years, then moved to Maine and started in as a reporter and editor for weekly newspapers. My last job—arts and special sections editor for the county weekly—was really my dream job, but I quit it at age 52 to write my first novel, The Unnameables. It was nuts—I’d written fiction on the side in my 20s and 30s, but for at least ten years I’d done nothing but my job. I’m incredibly lucky that it worked out.

Nancy:  In the beginning of Small Persons With Wings, Mellie Turpin discovers she has a Small Person (a fairy – but they hate to be called fairies) living with her.  Are Mellie’s experiences based on events in your own life?  Did you ever have an imaginary friend?

Ellen:  My imaginary friend was an alligator, useful mostly so I could berate people for stepping on him. Later on, though, my friend and I pretended that fairies lived in my front wall, and we decorated their houses with great care. One draft of SPWW described that wall as the Parvi’s home before they arrived in Mellie’s basement, but I ended up cutting that out.

Mellie is a lot like me, except that I was skinny rather than plump. I was an only child more comfortable with adults than kids, and I did experience some bullying, although nothing as horrible as what Mellie’s classmates did to her.

Nancy:  The fairies (sorry, SPWW) in your story are far from Disney-esque.  I love how irreverent they are!  I’ve never read about fairies having a penchant for bourbon before.  How did you come up with the idea for this particular set of Parvi Pennati?

Ellen:  After I quit my newspaper job, I replaced the newsroom camaraderie with an online private forum of Harry Potter fans. We did some silly role-playing, and I made up this hapless, overdressed fairy who lived in a pub chandelier. I loved her so much that I decided to write a book about her. The first image in my head was this poor disheveled lady sleeping in her chandelier with a nip bottle of bourbon beside her, surrounded by this decrepit pub. I started asking questions: Why is she alone in such an awful place? Why’s she such a mess? Why the bourbon? The book grew from the answers, some of which I found in Charlemagne legend.  I modeled their culture on 18th century France because I wanted them to be as foppish as possible.

(NT:  What a fun way for a story to be born.  And I just adore the word foppish!)

Nancy:  Mellie is the target of some bullying from her classmates.  This has been an age-old problem.

a) Why do you think it’s so much more prominent in our news now?

Ellen:  Seems to me everything gets more scrutiny nowadays, thanks to the electronic media and the internet. Where bullying is concerned, that’s all to the good. Incidents that used to be known only to a small group are now in everybody’s news feeds, and sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say. The most important message to kids is to tell an adult what’s going on—I never did, and I think the girls who bullied me would have gotten some attention and some help if I had.

 b)  Does your work with the Brooklin Youth Corps (a summertime self-esteem program for teenagers) specifically target anti-bullying topics?  Can you tell us more about the BYCorps in general?

Ellen: The BYC isn’t specifically targeted to bullying, although of course we’ve occasionally had to deal with it. My little town, Brooklin, had a problem with youthful vandalism in 1996, and it turned out the kids were on their own while their parents worked—they had nothing constructive to do all day. So the selectmen got a Community Development Block Grant to start the BYC. It’s run by a steering committee that I chair, with a hired coordinator in the summer. The program matches teens with homeowners who need chores done, transports and supervises them, and teaches them basic job skills like being on time, talking to a stranger, making eye contact, etc. We also tend a vegetable garden planted by school kids and sell the summertime harvest at a farmer’s market. The fall harvest goes into the school lunch program.

(NT:  Fun fact – Ellen lives and writes in the same small town in Maine where E.B. White lived when he wrote Charlotte’s Web).

Nancy:  Mellie is also obsessed with art history, Edgar Degas in particular.  Did you ever think about putting a “photo spread” in the book?  Or, would copyright red-tape have prohibited it? 

Ellen:  I did suggest including photos in the book, but my editor preferred that I put that stuff on my web site. So I did. (It’s here.) I suspect we would have had copyright problems with museums if we’d tried to publish some of the art. I got the web site photos from Wikipedia’s creative commons, so I guess I’m okay.

Nancy:  What kinds of books did you enjoy reading as a child?

Ellen:  I liked mysteries and fantasies, mostly. I loved Greek myths, anything that offered a supernatural explanation for everyday objects and events. My all-time favorite book was The Daughters of the Stars by Mary Crary, an obscure novel published in England in 1939. The premise is that the heavens are run by a bureaucracy in which women hold most of the power, although sometimes only behind the scenes.  The heroines are a ten(ish)-year-old girl and her mother,  who is luminary of two continents and therefore very influential. They have adventures traveling across the sky and under the sea, and are quite capable of taking care of themselves.

(NT:  I’m going to have to check that one out!)

Nancy:  What role, if any, has a critique group or partner played in your writing process?

Ellen:  I’ve been in a small, local critique group for seven or eight years, and it’s been hugely important. Not all the members are kidlit writers, or even fiction writers, but the feedback and the moral support have been a godsend.

Nancy:  Can you describe the process of finding the right agent for you?

Ellen:  I happen to live in an area that’s rife with creative types, so I pretty much used contacts. I think I sent only one cold query letter.  I was rejected, I think, three times. Then an acquaintance sent my book to his agent at Janklow & Nesbit in New York, and the agent passed it along to Kate Schafer, a colleague of his who was just starting out as an agent after several years spent handling foreign rights. I was very lucky: Kate took me on, and I stayed with her when she left to start her own agency. She eventually got married (she’s now Kate Schafer Testerman) and moved to Denver—the distance has proved to be no problem at all, thanks to email and the internet. Her agency is ktliterary.

Nancy:  What are you working on now?  

Ellen:  A third book, TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD, is due out next August, again with Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers. One of the main characters is a banshee, so it’s essentially about death even though it’s funny. We’ll see how that goes over. I’m in the early stages of another book about a boy in the future who finds a junction between his world and an alternate past.  Nobody his age knows how to read, and he meets a girl from the alternate 17th century who is desperately trying to learn.  An alchemical pamphlet from her world endangers them both.

(NT:  Sounds exciting! Can’t wait to read both!)

Nancy: Do you have any advice for other writers?

Ellen: The advice I wish I’d followed decades ago: No matter how busy you are, sit down and write a little every day, even if it’s just for half an hour. A page a day ends up as 365 pages when a year is out, and that’s a lot better than the nothing you’ve written if you keep not doing it.

(NT:  Oooh, well put!)

****

Thank you, Ellen, for your time and your insights.  I hope you will all check out Small Persons with Wings, and that you (and your kids) enjoy it as much as I did.

Happy Reading!