In the Bleak Midwinter

IMG_1473“Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow on snow…”

If you’re like me, this part of winter is not your favorite.  The Christmas lights and decorations are gone, but the bleak gray cold remains.  And though my neck of the woods has been spared the brunt of the Polar Vortex, it’s still bitter enough to make going outside unpleasant.  But instead of becoming bitter, too, I like to use this time of year to layer on blankets and immerse myself in wintery books.

You may think it would be a good idea to read stories set in warmer climes this time of year, but I disagree.  There is an extra degree of coziness when you can sit fireside, roasty-toasty, and read about someone else’s frostbite.

During the New England 2010 Snowmageddon, ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton my book club’s read. What had been a chore as a seventh-grader became a surprise delight to my grown-up self.  The snow banking up against my sliding glass door mimicked the whirling, freezing scenes in the story, and I fell so deep into Ms. Wharton’s brief novel that when it ended, I was compelled to turn right back to page one and start reading again.  

I may not be able to convince you to pick up ETHAN FROME again, but here are two fantastic reads for winter that beg to be read under extra layers:

THE BOOK THIEF By Markus Zusak

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This story was published in 2006 and has been recently made into a movie.  From Goodreads:

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.”

Writer Marcus Zusak uses words like an artist uses paint, making you truly feel the cold as the newly formed family and their dangerous guest weather the winter months.  For example, in this passage from page 214:

It was early December and the day had been icy.  The basement became unfriendlier with each concrete step.

“It’s too cold, Papa.”

“That never bothered you before.”

“Yes, but it was never this cold…”

…Slowly then…the emaciated body and face of Max Vandenburg appeared.  In the moist light, he stood with magic discomfort.  He shivered.  

Hans touched his arm, to bring him closer.  

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You cannot stay down here.  You’ll freeze to death.”

If you missed THE BOOK THIEF when it came out, like I did, I encourage you to put it in your “must read” pile for 2014.

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On a much lighter note is another great read for winter, or any season:

HATTIE BIG SKY By Kirby Larson

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From Goodreads: “Alone in the world, teen-aged Hattie is driven to prove up on her uncle’s homesteading claim.  For years, sixteen-year-old Hattie’s been shuttled between relatives. Tired of being Hattie Here-and-There, she courageously leaves Iowa to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim near Vida, Montana. With a stubborn stick-to-itiveness, Hattie faces frost, drought and blizzards. Despite many hardships, Hattie forges ahead, sharing her adventures with her friends–especially Charlie, fighting in France–through letters and articles for her hometown paper.

Her backbreaking quest for a home is lightened by her neighbors, the Muellers. But she feels threatened by pressure to be a “Loyal” American, forbidding friendships with folks of German descent. Despite everything, Hattie’s determined to stay until a tragedy causes her to discover the true meaning of home.”

HATTIE BIG SKY is wonderfully written and will appeal to anyone who grew up loving Little House on the Prairie.  Who can forget the Christmas when the snow was so deep that Pa had to go out the second story window to get across to the barn, where the presents were?

Even with their hardscrabble lives, there has always been something romantic about being a pioneer.  This particular book packs the extra punch of being based on a true story. (The author is Hattie’s great-grandaughter).

Here is one of my favorite snuggle-up scenes, from pages 65-66:

The wind, brisk before, had worked istslef up into a temper.  It whirled around my head, threatening to suck the very life out of my lungs. I couldn’t catch my breath.

…Icy snow slashed at my head and shoulders….My chest tightened in panic, but I forced myself forward.  Icicles formed on my eyelashes.  I could not close my eyes.  They felt frozen open.  And yet I could barely see…I placed one foot in front of the other in the snow.  

…My face was raw.  I tasted the salt of blood trickling down my cheeks.  I worked my shawl over my face.  It was a frail barricade, but it did help…I pried off my mittens and felt as if I’d plunged my hands into a glacier-fed stream.  The ache in my joints rocked me back on my heels.

Yes, we are a country in a deep freeze right now, but we’ve got our Gore-tex jackets, heated car seats, electric blankets, and roaring furnaces to help see us through.  What wimps we would seem to Hattie and Liesel!

And now, I’m off to put on another layer and another log, and crack open another book.  I hope you get some time to do the same this winter!

Poem In Your Pocket Day

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Head’s up!   Thursday, April 18th, 2013 is Poem In Your Pocket day!  Originally started by the New York City Departments of Cultural Affairs and Education,  in partnership with the Office of the Mayor, PIYPD was launched in 2002 as part of the city’s National Poetry Month Celebration.  Then, in 2008, the Academy of American Poets got involved to make the day a national event.  

Each year on Poem in Your Pocket Day, people are encouraged to select a poem they love, then make copies of it to share with co-workers, students, family members, strangers…anyone!  

I first head about PIYPD from a friend, who works as the director of recreation in a small town in CT.  Several years ago, a couple of young women came in to the town offices, and handed out poems that were “small enough to fit in your pocket.”  My friend chatted with them and thanked them for the poem.  After they left, she looked down to see that the poem they had given her was written by my brother-in-law, the poet Jason Tandon.  Small world, small poems, big fun!  

I hope you’ll consider finding (or writing!) your own poem to share this year.

Here’s a nice pocket-size poem by Jason Tandon, from his upcoming collection Quality of Life ( Black Lawrence Press, May, 2013):  Your Voice.

I’m planning on handing out copies of one of my favorite poems to people I see walking their dogs on April 18th.  Here is a lovely audio of Garrison Keillor reading Jason Tandon’s :  Cleaning Up After the Dog.

And because my inner writer sometimes plays around with poetry, here’s one from me:  

Aisle 12 

Under the fluorescent din

I scan the bags for a salty, crunchy escape

You trap me to tell me that their pretzels are better, and

I shouldn’t get the ones you are stocking, because

Screw them,

Screw them.

You lean in to tell me

What was 3% is now .75, and who is supposed to live on that?

I don’t know what that means,

But I know disgruntled when it grunts.

I picture you at home that evening,

Honey I really stuck it to them today

So pleased that you got some lady in yoga pants to buy the other brand.

And as you’re gloating

That same lady is whetting her salt-puckered pretzel lips

With a nice Cabernet,

Because all I wanted was a snack.

 

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!)

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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!