Estela of Small Damages arrives in the mail, in the form of an antique bookmark

Friday, April 24, 2015

I write YA books; that is true. But I never write strictly and only of teens. I care about the sweep of generations. I think generations are relevant. Some of my very favorite characters are women even older (believe it!) than me. My Mud Angel and physician Katherine of One Thing Stolen. Stefan's East Berlin grandmother in Going Over. Old Carmen, the rugged beachcomber, of This Is the Story of You (due out next spring). And, of course, my Estela, the old Spanish cook in Small Damages—a character I lived with for a decade before she found herself inside that gorgeous cover.

But now look at the silver wing near the right upper edge of that cover. That is Estela herself, who came to me this afternoon by way of my husband's cousin, Myra. Estela in real life was my husband's father's mother—a loved, buoyant, life-affirming General Counsel in the United States who had also served as the Philippine ambassador to Portugal. I wear her ring as my engagement ring. I hear stories. And today I received this bookmark, which once clipped the pages of the books Estela read.

Myra's words (in impeccable handwriting):
This is an antique silver bookmark from El Salvador my grandmother Estela picked up—probably 50 years ago.... I decided it was time to send you this now. I always thought this should go to you—since you are the writer in the family and it came from William's home country.
 I am so in love with this gift. This piece of then. A bookmark shaped like a coffee bean that might as easily mark my third memoir about my marriage to this Salvadoran man, Still Love in Strange Places.

I thank you, Myra.

Read more...

One Thing Stolen in a storefront in Florence, Italy, where it all began

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A happy sight this morning—an image of One Thing Stolen in the window of Paperback Exchange, the Anglo-American bookstore in Florence, Italy, where some of the original research for this book took place in the form of interviews with the shop's owners, Maurizio Panichi and Emily Rosner. 

I had gone to the shop in October 2012 in order to write a story titled "Florence's Timeless Bookstore for Expats and Travelers" (Publishing Perspectives). I soon found myself engaged in a conversation about the 1966 flooding of the Arno and the work of the Mud Angels, for Maurizio had played an important role during that terrifying time. Soon thereafter Emily and I became friends. Emily answered questions about Italian and about history as I worked through many drafts. She told me tales about her life. And she was one of the very first readers of this book, sending me a series of encouraging notes while I was traveling by train—just when I needed them most.

Today Emily posted this picture on Facebook. I'm stealing it for my blog, in Nadia fashion.

Thank you, Emily. For all of it.

Read more...

Between You & Me/Mary Norris: Loving the Copy Editors

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

It's possible (very possible?) that this blog post will be imperfect. I will either upmake a word; or use an unnecessary semi-colon. I will insist that those whom read this review go buy this book. I will misapply the heesh. I will call the author an authoress. I will be insufficiently restrictive.

I'm about as imperfect as a person gets, but I still love me my grammar books. I've got a stack of them. I find them foon to read. And these confessions of Mary Norris, who has comma asserted for three decades at the New Yorker, make a wonderful addition to my grammar/memoir/humor shelf. Because honestly, some of the funniest stuff I read is found in grammar books. These checkers have a ripe sense of humor, oh but they do:

Norris is a lovable guide to commas and pencils. She (like Daniel Menaker, the New Yorker editor who visited my class at Penn this last semester) sort of kind of just landed at the estimable magazine. She endured furrowed brows, compensated for her own bad handwriting, studied the-art-of-the-hyphen, heard marriage proposal possibilities in author praise, and made a few good finds (more than a few good finds) on proof pages. She talks about it all (or 200 pages of the all) in Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. I found this book a happy place to be, a bar of sunshine on the couch, a melding of gentle instruction in life and words.

Here is Norris on commas and clauses:

If the clause is integral to the meaning of the sentence, it should not be set off by commas. It is restrictive, that intimidating word wielded by grammarians in the attempt to fend off commas. (People think we live to put commas in, but it isn't so.) A phrase is restrictive if it tightens the meaning, if it draws an invisible belt around which fact, out of all the facts in the universe, pertains.

Here she is on who and whom:

The choice of "who" or "whom" is governed not by its role as the object of the sentence or the object of a preposition but by its role in the group of words that has been plugged into that position. Break it down: You can tell he (or she) is top dog. You would never say, "You can tell him (or her) is top dog." That's the point: "who" and "whom" are standing in for a pronoun: "who" stands in for "he, she, they, I, we"; "whom" stands in for "him, her, them, me, us."

(As I type these words I ponder the punctuation of that last sentence.)

Can we talk about how many times I have been saved by a copy editor? Here I was years ago on a vlog, no less, thanking HarperTeen's Renee Cafiero and Jill Santopolo for their help on an early YA novel, showing off the pages of corrections. And you have, perhaps, noticed my affection for a certain Debbie Deford Minerva  in the acknowledgments of One Thing Stolen and (upcoming) This Is the Story of You, who has saved me time and again, both by her enthusiasm and her fact checking, not to mention her ability to gently ask whether I really did mean to have one character in two different places at one time.

Just the other night, I was at Rosemont College, giving my annual "Love Your Copy Editors" talk for Hobart Rowland, the editorial director of Delaware Today and Main Line Today magazines. I had my slew of books. I told my copy editing stories. I goaded. Learn the rules, I said. Learn how to break the rules. Help us authors be our best and brightest selves.

Help me.



Read more...

the great magnificence of the flowering trees (at Chanticleer garden)

Monday, April 20, 2015





Read more...

growing into happiness: the Guardian, Little Flower, the Penn community, Hodgman

Sunday, April 19, 2015



The annual Little Flower Teen Writers Festival is a school-wide celebration of writing and reading—a marvel of an invention in which a school, on a sunny Saturday, opens its doors to story weavers and student hearts. The dynamic, unstoppable Sister Kimberly Miller leads the way. Her girls wouldn't be anywhere else. And yesterday all of us who were in attendance were given keynote words from A.S. King that leapt us to our feet (yes, that's a deliberate inversion of language logic, but that's so what happened). King is one of those writers who has earned her status as a star. Her stories are essential. Her sentences are prime. And when she gets up there behind a microphone she has something actual to say—words that belong to her, ideas unborrowed.

I left Little Flower, rushed home, put on a skirt, swapped out my graffiti boots for a pair of four-inch heels, picked up the cake I'd made the day before, and headed out again to celebrate the career of Greg Djanikian, the exquisite Armenian poet whose life and work I profiled in the Pennsylvania Gazette last year. Greg is stepping down from full-time administrative duties at Penn so that he might write more and live less bounded-ly. Saddened as we are by the thought of seeing him less, last night was anything but a sad event. It brought together (in true Greg fashion) the teachers, writers, and student advocates who give Penn's creative writing program and Kelly Writers House their aura. Oysters, sherbet-colored shirts, an undaunted cat. Talk about food carts, the meaning of words, 1960, serial memoirists (the third Fuller), astonishing turns in storied careers, the art of the frittata, and the costs and high rewards of loving students. Sun when we arrived and stars when we left.

In between the two events, Kit Hain Grindstaff sent word of something wholly unforeseen—a Guardian review of Going Over. It begins like this below and can be read in full here.
Lyrical prose, beautiful and sensual imagery, a dark setting; yet, hope: there is always hope – because for the stars to shine, there needs to be darkness. Going Over just shot to my 'favourites' of 2015 list and I regret nothing. This book is graffiti, and colour and play dough and bikes. It is love, it is death, it is life; it is astronomy, maps, escapes and archery. It is a wall, splitting the earth with dark and hateful ideologies, and it is a spring in your step on one side: pink hair and coloured moles with a quiet and thoughtful being on the other; scope in hand, love clenched in heart and freedom circling though mind. Going Over is Ada and Stefan, Savas and Meryem, Turks and Germans and kids and adults. It is a story of humans and their plight in this world, and it is a story of love.

As is perhaps clear in this recent Huffington interview, I've been thinking a lot of late about what happiness is. I wrote toward that in today's Philadelphia Inquirer story, which has Frenchtown, NJ, as its backdrop. (Thank you Kevin Ferris and your team for another beautiful presentation of my photographs and words.) I've been also thinking a lot about kindness (never simple, often rare), thanks in part to George Hodgman's glorious memoir, Bettyville, which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune, here.

Today there is sun out there, flowering trees, wet-headed daffodils. I'm going to celebrate by finishing the fabulous Between You and Me (Mary Norris) and later checking into Chanticleer garden for the first time this year. I'm way overdue for a visit.

Read more...

On Why Living a 'Small Life' Is Big, interviewed by Annie Scholl, on HuffPo

Thursday, April 16, 2015

On the campus of St. Albans there is this rich and purple light. There is this calm.

Yesterday morning, I talked with Annie Scholl for close to an hour by phone. Annie, a writer and photographer, is an interviewing pro. She asked questions I sometimes found difficult to answer. I was glad, in the end, to be pressed, for I knew that, with Annie, I was heard.

There are—make no mistake—deep frustrations that attend this writing life. I don't always successfully rise above them. I can sink to confusion and also to despair. I can wonder why, and also, why not? I can grow confounded.

But I'm happiest and more whole when I climb to whatever elevation is required to gain the broader view.

We talked about all of that. A fraction of that conversation is here now, on Huffington Post.
The final question is below:

You're not openly seeking to be a popular writer and make millions, but if that were to happen, how would you feel about it?
I actually think it's a scary thing to be in the glare and blare of the spotlight. I feel very lucky to have the life I have. I'm able to publish books that matter to me. I am not in the cross fire of envy. I am, in the end, enormously grateful for what I have. My ambition is to do well enough to be allowed to publish again. To remain rooted in the work. To participate in the literary conversation. Small ambitions. A fulfilled existence.

Read more...

reviewing the powerful, wonderful, kind BETTYVILLE, in Chicago Tribune

How I loved this book—for its kindness, for its wisdom, for the way it cracked itself open, quietly. My full review of Bettyville by George Hodgman can be found here, at the Chicago Tribune. It will appear in Printers Row this weekend.

Read more...

the ALA and my library love

Discovered on my Twitter feed. 
So beautifully designed.

Read more...

On Being the Book Brahmin, on Shelf Awareness

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


A few months ago, I was generously invited to write a Book Brahmin column for Shelf Awareness, which appears here, today.

I loved that assignment. I still do.

Weeks have gone by since I set down my words. Nightstand books have been read and reviewed. Many new books have been bought and loved. To all of you whose books I've danced with in the interim, know that they matter deeply to me, too. And so do you.

Read more...

Jeff Hobbs + My Spectaculars + Two Possible Quakers = Perfection

Here am I, sitting at this very desk this very morning, smiling still. My muse, She, standing tall back there in the light. The Easter orchids blooming. The books falling off their shelves. My boundary marker protecting my Qi. And a beautiful new swirl of bamboo, a gift, a remembrance, a dancer's pose.

Jeff Hobbs (The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace) visited with our Spectaculars yesterday, via Skype (with help, thank you, from Christopher Martin). So did two prospective Penn students, Jane and Josh (with help from the heart and soul of our operation, Jamie-Lee Josselyn, and my friend Cynthia Kaplan).

We sat in our old Victorian room, beguiled by and grateful for Jeff's authenticity, grace, talent, and emphasis on empathy. Can we ever really know another? No. Does it matter that we try? Yes. Are some conversations uncomfortable? Absolutely. Are we better people when we ask questions, remain humble, try for better every time? Am I growing rhetorical? Perhaps and indeed. It's my blog. I can.

We learn how to make great narrative nonfiction reading Jeff Hobbs. We learn the value of humility in speaking to him. Too many authors pose. Too many demand the central planks in the room. But greater is the impact, more true is the exchange, when someone who wrote something beautiful sits down with those who found the beauty, listens to the questions asked, asks questions, too. Simple as that. Profound as that. And lasting.

Read more...

One Thing Stolen. Today is the (second) day. It's also the day My Spectaculars and I meet Jeff Hobbs via Skype.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One Thing Stolen has had a two-step launch—last Tuesday, this Tuesday—and that seems to fit this old amateur dancer just fine.

Today I want to thank all of you who have been so kind to this book in its early days—who took the reading risk, who made room for Nadia and Maggie, and Katherine, Florence and West Philadelphia, neuroscience and a raging flood, who wrote words of encouragement. I don't write books that fit into established patterns, and there are, of course, consequences. But I can't imagine doing books or this life any other way, and I'm so grateful to be on this journey with you. I'm grateful, too, to the entire Chronicle Books team and to my editor Tamra Tuller.

In lieu of a launch party for One Thing Stolen, I'll be traveling to a few local venues to talk either about this book or about the writing life. The events are here, below. If you are out and about, I'd love to see you.

April 18, 2015
Little Flower High School Teen Writers & Readers Festival
Little Flower High
Philadelphia, PA

April 23, 2015
Let Us Be Honest
A New Directions in Writing Memoir Workshop
Residence Inn
Pentagon City, VA
details here

May 3, 2015, 1 PM
Schulykill River/FLOW presentation
Ryerss Museum
7370 Central Avenue
Philadelphia, PA

May 20, 2105, 7 PM
Body, Mind, Heart, Soul:
The Whole Self in Contemporary YA
IW Gregorio, Beth Kephart, Margo Rabb, Tiffany Schmidt
Children's Book World
Haverford, PA

June 5 - 7, various times
Moravian College Writers Conference
Keynote Address, Panel, Conversation with A.S. King
Foy Hall
Priscilla Payne Hurd Campus
More information here

June 27, 1 - 5 PM
Arcadia University
Creative Writing Summer Weekend
Master Class/Reading/Q&A
450 South Easton Road
Glenside, PA 19038
More information here


Finally, I'm grateful for these recent reviews, fragments presented here. To read all official trade reviews as well as some early blog reviews, press releases, and the official teaching guide, please go here.

BookPage
One Thing Stolen explores themes of destruction and rejuvenation, emphasizing the possibilities and hope found in disaster. This is a unique and engrossing exploration of how characters deal with the pain and beauty of the real world. — Annie Metcalf 

Sarah Laurence
One This Stolen offers no easy solutions but still leaves the reader with hope. I'd strongly recommend this literary novel to adults and to teenagers who are interested in psychology, art, history and Italy. Kephart does a marvelous job with a difficult topic.— Sarah Laurence


And now I am off to Penn, to teach my immaculate Spectaculars and to meet a few prospective Quakers who sound spectacular in their own specific ways. We're hosting the superlative Jeff Hobbs via Skype today. Jeff's The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a seminal reflection on possibilities and choices (my thoughts on it here), and he's going to tell us how it came to be.

Read more...

my husband's artistry (prints, cards, pillows) can now be purchased here

Saturday, April 11, 2015

From time to time I am privileged to share the artistry of my husband here. His photographs embellishing Ghosts in the Garden, his illustrations alive in Dr. Radway's Sarsparilla Resolvent, his graphic and typographic sensibility behind the annual reports, commemorative books, and employee publications we create for our clients.

Today I'm (very) happy to share Bill's stunning photographs of his gorgeous ceramics, which are now for sale as framed prints, gift cards, even pillows. His Fine Art America page is located here. More work—graphic, illustrative, wildly interesting—will soon be available elsewhere.

I see this work hanging in kitchens and living rooms around the world. In the backdrop of independent films. On the stages of Broadway. Floating through the US mail.

Please do help us spread the word.

My thanks.

Read more...

At St. Albans, where the boys are gentlemen, and where history begins





I had been looking forward to meeting Tina Hudak and the young men (young gentlemen!) of St. Albans for a long time. Then yesterday came. The students I met were gracious, funny, engaged, and engaging. I might also use the word "charming." The teachers have ideas. And Tina herself, the librarian of the Lower School, was—is—not just a woman who knows books and gets young readers charged up about their powers. She is an artist, too, a book and paper maker, a guardian angel with energy and wings to spare.

Located on the grounds of the National Cathedral (the world's sixth largest cathedral, stretching one glorifying tenth of a mile long), St. Albans has been named the country's smartest boarding school. It was home, for a year, to Curtis Sittenfeld, of Prep. Its alums include Al Gore, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Jeffrey Wright, Brit Hume, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and astronaut Michael Collins. And the best, I am now confident from my conversations with the young gentlemen yesterday, is yet to come.

I talked about history and how alive it can be. I talked about research and the imagination. I talked about the books these students had read—Flow, Dr. Radway, Going Over—and about One Thing Stolen and how that story had erupted.

This: Midway through the day, Tina told me about her aunt, who had lived in Florence and had, indeed, endured the 1966 flood that lies at the heart of One Thing Stolen. Tina has transcribed her aunt's notes about that time, which you can find on her blog here. An amazing coincidence, an amazing resource, or perhaps not all that amazing, for Tina and I connected long ago in ways that can't be entirely explained.

This: Before I left for cherry blossoming DC, my father told me a story about how, years ago, he had made his way to the St. Albans campus as a senior in high school. My father was hoping for the financial aid he would need to be able to attend college. His interview for a scholarship was conducted in the halls of St. Albans. Changing his life. Making room for mine.

Read more...

Marking my boundaries (from Two Buttons)

Friday, April 10, 2015

At Two Buttons, the Frenchtown, NJ, store that Elizabeth Gilbert currently owns with her book-and-movie famous husband (the store is now up for sale), my husband was one determined shopper. The place is several thousand square feet and what feels like millions of on-sale items large, but he was looking for one thing.

Boundary Markers, he called them. I'm not leaving until we have one for you.

My husband had already arranged my exquisite birthday retreat. He'd already taken me to lunch at Lovin' Oven, where they put kale, apple juice, and lemon into a glass and you finally understand the word elixir. He'd already given me a respite from the enormous pressures of this spring and bought me two fine editions of high-gloss Doc Martens.

But a Boundary Marker was a gift absolute, he said. He found the cutest one.

So that's my new Boundary de-limiter, please don't keep treating me like a second class citizen buffer, please don't think I didn't notice what you just said (or didn't say) rebut-er, please be apprised that I'm fully aware that life is too short guy sitting there, right at the edge of my computer, where I need him most. Here is the official store description. I have a feeling that it was penned by Elizabeth Gilbert herself:

Boundaries and Boundary-Markers are very important in the Indonesian life and culture. Often used to literally mark land boundaries, these statues are also used to protect one's emotional boundaries as well. Carved out of lava rock from the island of Sulawasi, these wonderful individually unique statues help to support and protect your boundaries. Haven't we all had times when our boundaries needed a little help?
(Typing, I think again: Elizabeth Gilbert must be the voice behind this merchandise.)

This is the year, my friend Kelly and I keep saying, that we turn it all around. This is the year. I'm starting by respecting myself a little bit more. And hoping that such a bold new stance will be noticed.

(and adopted by my many friends who are in need of their own boundary markers)



Read more...

On Nova Ren Suma and the power of vivid

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I bought Nova Ren Suma's The Walls Around Us strictly on the power of the word-of-mouth roar this writer has accumulated over the years. Didn't read a single review. Didn't read the jacket copy. Did (confession) read the persuasive Publishers Weekly interview, but that was just for edifying fun, for my mind had already been made up.

What kind of writer is the kind of writer that other writers gush about?

What kind of writer reminds other writers of the need (importance, glory) of writing away from commercial expectations and toward one's own heart? Saying,

The Walls Around Us was a book written solely and unapologetically for me. I allowed myself to be as weird and wild as I wanted. I did not hold back. I stopped trying to write to what I thought an audience or a publisher might want from me. It was freeing and exhilarating. And the outcome – what this book has become, and the reaction it’s gotten out in the world so far – completely surprised me. I learned a lot from this process: I should probably stop worrying so much about what everyone else thinks of me more often.

What kind of writer? Nova Ren Suma. (Words above from the PW interview)

I opened the book. I read the first page. What the bleeping heck, I thought. What the wondrous heck. This Suma is a writer, just like everybody said.

First sentences.
We went wild that hot night. We howled, we raged, we screamed. We were girls—some of us fourteen and fifteen; some sixteen, seventeen—but when the locks came undone, the doors of our cells gaping open and no one to shove us back in, we made the noise of savage animals, of men.
Sometimes a writer will take her foot of the gas after the first stellar page or two, then just lay out, in ordinary fashion, the plot, the themes, the (I am sorry to have to use this word) message. Not Suma. Her exaltation of and in language can be found on this book's every page. Her willingness to risk. Here she is, for example, describing an attempted escape from the juvenile detention center where much of this supernatural story takes place. There's a storm going on out there. There's a girl trying to get away.
I caught the rest in flashes. It wasn't that I couldn't focus; it was the lightning, the summer storm raging through the window. She'd be dark, and then she'd go bright. Her yellow hair black, her yellow hair white. I caught her, foot kicking out and the perfect hit in the center of the glass that caved in. Then came the second and third kicks that made it shatter. She'd gouged open the window into the night.
I'm going to call that urgent pattering. I'm going to say I felt the night blow through.

And how about this:
I have this distant memory, hanging on a ratty clothesline in the backyard of my mind, and in this memory, I am running. There I am, running fast and hard for that window as if it's a set of doors that will soon be slamming closed to passengers and I'll lose my chance. I will lose at all chances forever. That feels real enough.
The ratty clothesline in the backyard of my mind. Damn, Suma. Damn.

I am not in the habit of reading supernatural paranormal whatever it is that critics might be calling The Walls Around Us. I cannot tell you where this book falls within the canon. I can only say please count me in to the rapidly growing Nova Ren Suma fan club. She tossed conventional expectations aside. She wrote for herself. She had fun. She was not locked into The Ideas Others Have About What Makes for YA Fame and Glory. And look at what she made—and how the world is responding.

We need, we want, we celebrate the new. Think less of what others think of you.

Read more...

traveling far to write close (in the abrams and chronicle blog)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Over the course of the past several days, my Twitter feed has bloomed with posts from the good people of Abrams & Chronicle. Chosen lines from One Thing Stolen, posterized. Words of encouragement and hope. It's been a quiet, miraculous thing. This sense this UK publishing arm has provided of a story fully seen.

And so, when Abrams & Chronicle (through Lara Starr) asked me to write about how my travels have influenced my stories, I was more than happy to comply, writing the story that appears today, here. Please take some time to review the many lovely posts on A&C blog. I promise you good reads and eats.

But while I'm at this, I'd like to thank my dear friend Ed Goldberg, who has been such an exquisite companion through my many seasons as a writer of books for young adult readers. I was standing in the lobby of an Atlantic City hotel years and books ago when I first received an Ed email. I was standing in Books of Wonder when I first (a surprise) met him. And here he is again, reading One Thing Stolen and offering his support in his beautiful blog, Two Heads Together. I am forever grateful.

Read more...

above all else, these things I seek

Thursday, April 2, 2015

I went away to celebrate my birthday—up the Delaware River, on the New Jersey side, in the town made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert. I wore funky boots and worried about nothing and bought the coolest felt coat for close to nothing, gifts for a friend, a brass feather for my hair. Walking and walking beside my husband, who had surprised me with Frenchtown, who understood my deep need to be elsewhere.

These few things, while I was gone:

One Thing Stolen was named an April Editor's Pick by Amazon and a Top 14 YA April book by Bustle. I am grateful and humbled.

Galleys for Love: A Philadelphia Affair arrived. This book becoming a real thing, then. More gratitude.

The German edition of You Are My Only showed up in a white box. It is always deeply interesting to see a story remade in another language, announced to the world with a new image. I'm grateful for Hanser's faith in the novel.

I had many thoughts while I was away about what really matters, what makes me happiest. Family. Friendship. Time. Peace. These things I seek, above all else. You can make something special without spending lots of money. You can say love without wrapping it in a bow. You can look ahead and worry less. I keep getting better at that. Family. Friendship. Time. Peace.

Familyfriendshiptime.

Peace.

Read more...

Thoughts on I Refuse (Per Petterson) in today's New York Journal of Books

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Readers of this blog know just how much I love Per Petterson. Indeed, having read all of his books I can say with some assurance that I Refuse, his newest, is his most technically astonishing and emotionally devastating.

My thoughts can be found here, in the New York Journal of Books.

Read more...

when diversity is not a strategy but an essential element of the story being told: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We Need Diverse Books. We absolutely do. Books that don't merely place a "non-mainstream" character into the story for the sake of inclusion. Books that go much deeper than the announcement of, or allusion to, skin color, origin countries, sexual preferences. Books that don't operate as if conforming to PC checklists. Books that function outside the circle of slogans and tell real stories.

Truly diverse books are books in which the culture and cultural heritage and economics of the characters are essential to the story being told. They explore wide ranging personages, languages, histories, orientations, dreams. They are steeped in the particular social and personal pressures faced by very particular (and particularly well-drawn) characters. They introduce characters that seem to live not just on the page, but off it.

Middle grade/YA novels such as Ann E. Burg's Serafina's Promise, Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, Kwame Alexander's Crossover, A.S. King's Ask the Passengers, and Patricia McCormick's Never Fall Down and Sold have, among many other titles, introduced lasting, fully dimensional, diverse characters to younger readers. With her second stunning middle grade novel, Blue Birds, Caroline Starr Rose has made another important addition to this canon.

Blue Birds is a novel in verse that explores a little-known chapter of American history concerning the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke. It's late in the 16th century. English explorers have arrived to Roanoke Island, off Virginia. Conflict and distrust erupt among the native tribes and the English.

Into this setting Rose has placed two young girls—Alis, from England, and Kimi, a Roanoke who has watched the English bring disease and disaster to her world. Out on her own, Alis discovers the natural beauty of the place. Watching, Kimi must decide whether or not to trust this fair-skinned creature. Will Alis and Kimi be able to peel back the social prejudice and befriend one another? Will they be able to step over the great divide that rises whenever individual people are presented with difference? And what will they do—what can they do—as tensions mount in their respective communities?

Rose has given us a complex story, a real and researched story, a story that, despite its roots in late 16th century America, feels contemporary. The questions about other are neither dodged nor trumped, and they never feel commercially strategic. The questions arise because such questions naturally do, because this is the story Starr is telling. And look how gracefully and honestly she tells it:

Why do they dress as they do?
To speak their language,
does it feel as it sounds,
like sharpened rocks on  your tongue?
What makes their skin
the color of a snake's underside?
Why do the men not keep their faces smooth
but grow hair from their cheeks?
Do they ever bathe?
For their strong odor lingers
long after they've gone.

Though they
have brought us heartache,
must all of them
be enemies?
In bringing readers Alis and Kimi, Starr has not just brought us a distant era. She's brought her readers a way of sinking in with real questions about difference—and a credible suggestion that such differences might be overcome.

Read more...

Writing about Mental Health, One Thing Stolen, and New Hope for Frontotemporal Dementia

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tomorrow evening I'll be down at Penn, at Kelly Writers House, participating in a 7-Up program that promises to be provocative. The theme is mental health and literature. The evening, a Junior Fellows Program, was knit together (so ably) by Hannah White. You can find more about the evening below, and of course you are welcome to come.

In trying to develop a presentation that fits within the given seven minute boundaries, I'm aware of all that I won't have time to say about the medical research and stories that have been released in the months after I finished writing One Thing Stolen, a novel that has a rare neurodegenerative condition—frontotemporal dementia, primary progressive aphasia—at its heart.

(Generally speaking, FTD is a category of conditions brought on by the "progressive degeneration of the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain." Some patients afflicted with the "language subtypes" of FTD erupt with new artistic capabilities—a sign, it is thought, of a brain attempting to compensate for those parts of the brain that are no longer working as they once were.)

I would like, then, to summarize four key stories here—stories that validate the hope that readers will find in the final pages of Nadia's story.

In writing One Thing Stolen, I grounded my hope in the work of (and email conversations with) Bruce Miller, MD, who directs the UCSF Memory and Aging Center and whose work on FTD "emphasizes both the behavioral and emotional deficits that characterize these patients, while simultaneously noting the visual creativity that can emerge in the setting of FTD."

But in my novel, Penn doctors are at work as well, and just days ago, on March 20, Penn Medicine researchers announced, and here I'm quoting from the press release, the discovery that " hypermethylation - the epigenetic ability to turn down or turn off a bad gene implicated in 10 to 30 percent of patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) - serves as a protective barrier inhibiting the development of these diseases. Their work, published this month in Neurology, may suggest a neuroprotective target for drug discovery efforts."

Later on in the release, this quote from Corey McMillan, PhD, research assistant professor of Neurology in the Frontotemporal Degeneration Center in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania:  "We believe that this work provides additional data supporting the notion that C9orf72 methylation is neuroprotective and therefore opens up the exciting possibility of a new avenue for precision medicine treatments and targets for drug development in neurodegenerative disease,” says McMillan.

So all of that is number 1. Hope, again.

For number 2, I encourage you to read this deeply moving essay by Daniel Zalewski in the March 30 issue of The New Yorker. Titled "Life Lines," it traces the journey of a former New Yorker illustrator whose brain, attacked by a virus, now lives in the ever-present now, most of her hippocampus destroyed. Researchers are studying her ability to learn and form memories within this new neuronal environment. There is hope there. There is also the prospect of new science.

Finally, for numbers 3 and 4, I encourage you to return to two blog entries posted earlier in this year. The first reports on Judith Scott, a woman born profoundly deaf and with Down syndrome, whose artistic capabilities were unleashed late in life—that brain wanting art again. The second reports on the lawyer Patrick Fagerberg, who was struck in the head at a music concert and diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. Here again the brain compensates and, in compensating, chooses art.

This—the compensating brain, the deep neuronal desire to make beauty out of chaos—is the theme of One Thing Stolen, a book that takes place both in Florence, Italy, and on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania (and features some Penn students as key characters.) Some of what I'll briefly touch on during our 7-Up tomorrow night.

Hope to see you there.

WRITING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

Junior Fellows Program

6:00 PM in the Arts Cafe

As this years recipient of the Kelly Writers House Junior Fellows Prize, Hannah White has undertaken a project to make the Writers House a space where we can talk about issues of mental health and illness from a writers perspective. In traditional "7-Up" style, seven different people (students, professors, community members) will each select and then write/speak about an important novel, short story, or poem dealing with issues of mental (in)stability. "Important" can mean anything here: personally important, culturally important, historically important, obscure but interesting, challenging to the traditional ideas of illness and wellness, etc. We hope that a wide range of perspectives and literary works will bring together seemingly disparate subsets of the wider community—and will also reveal plenty of interesting ideas about health, culture, relationships, and what is "normal."
  • Ryan Cambe
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • Beth Kephart
  • One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart
  • Devon O'Connor
  • "Round Here" by Counting Crows
  • Nick Moncy
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  • Julie Mullany
  • "Barbie Doll" by Marge Piercy
  • Emily Sheera Cutler
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Claudia Consolati
  • Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier
  • Lance Wahlert
  • Narratives of suicide
  • Michelle Taransky
  • "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg

Read more...

let's all be kind for a week: a modest social media proposal

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Last night, 11 o'clock-ish, my hair flat, my eyes slightly swollen, my red and white striped socks in grotesque visual combat with my too-tight but also floppy-collared top, I read this story by Pamela Paul in the New York Times. You'll get the gist from the title, perhaps: "She Sounds Smart, but Look at Her Hair!" If you need more, I share this paragraph below—an email Paul received following her seemingly successful (televised) moderation of a book-fair panel in Miami.
“Had the unfortunate experience of seeing you on Miami Dade College video tossing your head around and continuously pushing the hair out of your face. What the hell is the matter with you? Why wear hair that covers your eye? You are an insult to women.”
Paul's piece goes on to feature a handful of other women (Lori Gottlieb, Rebecca Skloot, Bridget Todd) who spend time in the glare of the media sun talking real issues. Women who, after adding something to the intellectual exchange, are barraged later on by inane commentary. Hair. Baggy eyes. A twice-worn purple sweater. The works.

My first thought (and I have been having this thought a lot lately): Glad I am not famous or TV-worthy. Indeed, except for those few days after a stylist has blown some sense into my tresses, I am not even hair-fit for the gym. I've lost friends over the wilderness of the stuff that sprouts from my head. I've endured the exasperation of a colleague who, while perfectly balanced on a stool in a swanky bar, implored me to find a way to fix it.

I have tried. I cannot. Imagine what the anonymous, peering-in-from-their-living-room crowds would say about me were I equipped to endure the media glare in an attempt to say something that mattered.

My second thought (and this should have been my first): Why does it give so many people so much pleasure to be unkind, inconsiderate, ruthlessly shaming? What sports zone are we living in? Why have so many grown so vigorously immune to seeing the bigger picture, and of exercising compassion?

My third thought (and this follows on the heels of my compassion post) is this: What would happen if we all agreed to use our social media channels—our blogs, our Facebook walls, our Twitter, our LinkedIn—for unadulterated good? I know it's a tall order. Heck. There are times when I want to shout, and sometimes do. But what if, for this week ahead, starting now, we set aside our inner mean and only wrote kindly of others (or, as our mothers taught us, held our tongues)?

I'm going to give it a shot. Perhaps you'll join me.

And if you want to join me, pass it on.

Read more...

after being in the company of the rock stars of YA, I have a dream

Friday, March 27, 2015

Above? That's Libba Bray reading from her forthcoming novel (Lair of Dreams, due out in August) at Children's Book World in Haverford, PA—a scary little ditty that has Amy Sarig King and Gayle Forman shaking in their respective (albeit from opposing sides of the fashion world) boots.

Before them sit many of my neighborhood's finest writers. Also Sister Kim and her Little Flower students. Also bloggers and readers and enthusiasts and at least one bookseller from down the road and shall we go no further before we mention Heather Hebert, who makes it all happen, and with enthusiasm, and while I am at this, because heck, why not, can we locals all just pause for a minute and welcome Margo Rabb to our neighborhood, because she's here now, newly arrived from Austin, with her second YA novel (Kissing in America) due out in May.

(Seems like I might be reading with Margo and two other fabs from Round Here soon, but more on that to come.)

What a performance these three gave—Amy and Libba gamely (respectively) playing the parts of a stoner and a slick boy in a choral reading from Gayle's new bestselling book, I Was Here. Amy giving a thrilling preview of I Crawl Through It. Libba forcing everyone else into scare mode, then zapping the conversation with four parts hysterical ad lib and one part Barbara Walters. And then plenty of talk about the F word, by which I mean (of course) Feminism.

The doors were open at Children's Book World, to dispel all that animal heat. The skies were ripped apart with rain. I headed home among storm-imperiled drivers and then I fell asleep. At which point I dreamed I was still with the gang, only we had moved onto a Friendly's Restaurant (note: Friendly's, I lie not) and we were having high-calorie ice cream and nobody would speak to me. My offense, in my dream, was that I been me—asking too much, pressing too hard.

I woke just after I'd leaned over somebody's shoulder and read the texts that were circulating about me.

"Beth Kephart," they said, "is so annoying."

Read more...

come and get some LOVE

Thursday, March 26, 2015


(With thanks to Temple University Press, and special thanks to Ann-Marie Anderson)

Read more...

writerly responsibilities and rewards: words from the wise Dorothy Allison (yesterday, Kelly Writers House)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dorothy Allison is one of three Kelly Writers House Fellows hosted this semester by Penn professor and poet Julia Bloch.

Yesterday she sat among us, in conversation with us. There, beside Julia, she is.

Oh, I liked her. So very much. She's everything you've been told she will be. Iconoclastic. Irreverent. Touching. A firebrand of deep opinion and great craft cares who may believe in the act of revenge on the page, but only when the author holds him- or herself equally accountable for the unforgivable past. We writers, we survivors, may not be the heroes we think we are, Allison reminds us. We have responsibilities. Work that lasts is work that is rich with a felt sense of responsibility.

Any writer who believes that writing is a mere game—a toss-off and toss-up of the randomly odd, the relentlessly clever, the tried and true brand—must spend a bracing hour and change in the company of Allison. Sitting beside my friend Nathaniel Popkin and just one row ahead of August Tarrier (Jamie-Lee Josselyn waving a hand from the near distance, one of my students a few rows back, Lily Applebaum at the mike ready), I filled my little notebook with Allison's words. I'm going to share a few of them here—transcribed as nearly as I could, but not always verbatim. Spread them, oh ye writers and readers who care.

In response to Julia's questions about craft (comments from across the conversation, gathered here): Craft sharpens the contradictions. It produces prose that takes the reader by the throat. Craft requires writers to read as writers, not as readers, and so we writing readers cannot merely wallow; we must assess. To make a reader care, the writer must keep paring the prose down, constructing the truth, acknowledging one's purpose. You are going for the long reach, not the quick tears. You want to haunt a reader six months on. The more talent you have, the more responsibility you have.

On writing with compassion: Recognize that you will never get it right. Recognize that those who survived, who got out of there alive, are in some ways the cowards, the ones who had to compromise. Hold yourself accountable for the choices you made. Recognize that you have a higher moral authority to tell the story right. This applies, by the way, to both writers of fiction and nonfiction.

On life's purpose: I don't want to be rich. I want a different world. I don't want the hatefulness of this world. I have a conviction about justice and social responsibility, a concept of citizenship at great variance with what I see in this world.

Paradise: is having an audience.

What the world is: We don't know what the world is until it is shown to us in story.

A story, much condensed (forgive me, Dorothy Allison, for this condensed version). In response to a question I asked about when Allison knew teaching was joyful, she first spoke of how she made sure to make teaching as hard for herself as it was for her students (amen to that, oh yes, amen to that), then told a story about one of the most talented students she ever had—a woman who didn't know where sentences began or ended, but knew vivid and had material. For nine weeks, Allison worked within a workshop and outside the workshop with this "baby" writer. That ninth week, they had a conversation about the writer's future. The student writer had a question: How much would she get paid for the stories she wrote? How much for a collection of stories? How much how much how much would she get paid—and how long would it take? Allison painted a picture of the future, spoke of the rewards that aren't numerical, finally confessed, when pushed, that her own most recent collection of words had received an advance of $12,500. "I earn that in tips a month," said this student writer. And that, pretty much, was it. The end of this genius writer's aspirations.

And so, Allison reminded us, one has to have more than a gift. One has to have desire. One has to cherish the audience, the chance to speak, the conversation—for that, in the end, is what matters most, that is the gifted writer's only sure provenance, that is where responsibility begins.

Let's get less caught up in the noise about books and more invested in making extremely fine ones.

Read more...

Helen Macdonald's Magnificent H Is for Hawk, in New York Journal of Books

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I became obsessed with birds with the passing of my mother. The way they came to me. The way they called to me. The hollow of their bones. The other women, throughout time, who have buried their hearts in wings and feathers. This was the subject of my sixth memoir, Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time. This is the subject, again, of One Thing Stolen, the obsession that lies at the heart of that book.

And so when I began to read of Helen Macdonald's new memoir, H Is for Hawk, already a bestseller in England, I became desperate for the time to read that book myself. Over the past two days I have done just that, then sorted through my thoughts to write a review for the New York Journal of Books, where I'll now be penning my thoughts on literary adult fiction, memoir, and literary young adult novels.

The other day one of my students asked me to name my favorite memoir—an impossible question, of course. But now, whenever I'm asked that question, I'll be whispering Helen Macdonald's name. This is a book. Oh. This is a book.

The full review can be found here.

Read more...

realizing "our need of one another": Sarah Gelbard on our shared humanity

Monday, March 23, 2015

Not long ago, while I was enthusing about my students to a friend, I was stopped by a gently lifted hand and a question: "But don't you always love your students?"

But love, I wanted to say, is particular. Love is not an undifferentiated rush. Love happens because. Because of who these young people are, because of the community they've built, because they are working proof of the power of unshackled hearts and vulnerability and the kind of imagination that becomes another way of saying compassion. I love my students. I love these students.

Last week, while posting my HuffPo essay on My Spectaculars and their expectations regarding the memoirs they read, I promised that we would soon hear from Sarah Gelbard, my graduate student who slipped into our classroom as an auditor that first day and (we're so infinitely glad) stayed. A few Tuesdays ago, I asked Sarah, who works with the Friedreich Ataxia Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, to read to the class a piece she had written for Arts Connect International, where she was recently named content editor. I've been eager, ever since, to share this complete essay with you, especially in light of, well, everything. Including this.

Here is how Sarah's piece begins:

Disability is dealt arbitrarily; it is not a welcome present. Nobody goes to the gift shop, and says, “Ankylosing spondylitis— that sounds lovely!” Or, “I’ll take a brachial plexus injury for my brother on his birthday, with the red wrapping paper, please, and a free sampling of multiple sclerosis for me.” While I did not choose cerebral palsy, I do consider myself lucky to be a part of the disabled community. Through it, I have forged valuable connections with a great many, and we are allowed singular insight into the broad spectrum of human empathy. We encounter those who judge harshly, cruelly, fast to reject apparent otherness, and those who reach out seamlessly, kindly, fast to recognize apparent humanness.

Here is how it continues. Please read this. Please share it. It matters. So does Sarah.


Read more...

on compassion and (also) on negating our shame culture (Monica Lewinsky)

Sunday, March 22, 2015



This morning I did that thing I love to do—plop on the couch, pull the fuzzy blanket to my chin, and read the New York Times online. It is one of my limited online reads. I value the words as much as the multimedia links.

Perhaps because I just finished writing and sharing a piece (in today's Chicago Tribune) on the empathetic imagination, perhaps because I teach memoir largely because I believe that teaching memoir is (or can be) akin to teaching compassion, perhaps because I have lived in shadows, too, been attacked, yearned for intervening empathy, the first two Times pieces I read today were compassion invested. The first, titled "The Brain's Empathy Gap" (Jeneen Interlandi), reports on studies designed to answer questions like: "How much of our empathy is innate and how much is instilled in us by our environment?" and "Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare?" I recommend the read.

The second story, by Jessica Bennett, led me to this recent TED talk by Monica Lewinsky (yes, it was a busy week and I'm only catching up on this now; don't, as my student recently wrote, judge me), which I watched in its entirety. Brave, bold, bracing, Lewinsky reports from the depths of a personal hell and from the realities of a humiliation culture (as she puts it) that is shameful to us all.

Anyone who is out here in any public way—writing books, making songs, sharing ideas, blogging—knows that the risks are enormous. We see how a nano-second of inarticulate self-searching can become a Twitter storm. We see how a straying from the pact or pack opens the door to virtual mobster hatred. We see how a careless, insensitive Tweet can rearrange a life. And we see the opposite, too—how ideas or art or stories that do not conform to prevailing notions of cool, branded, or trending can go unseen, unheard, unheralded—which is, let's face it, a kind of humiliation, too.

Oh, it takes time to listen. Oh, it is so easy to judge. Oh, we can, from the protected privacy of our keyboard feel so empowered. Oh, anonymity is a sword.

But why build a world of cruelty when you can build a world of good? I laud Monica Lewinsky for asking that question. For standing up. For leaving the shadows.

Read more...

Walking West Philly with Lori Waselchuk and Writing ONE THING STOLEN, in this Sunday's Inquirer

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Philadelphia Inquirer editor Kevin Ferris and I have been working together through many columns now, and I am always—always—grateful for his generosity. He has a huge heart. He allows me to write from mine. I'm neither a journalist nor an academic, and I'll never be famous. Kevin doesn't mind.

This month I wanted to celebrate West Philadelphia, where part of my new novel, One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books), is rooted (much of the book also takes place in Philadelphia's sister city, Florence, Italy). I wanted to return to those images and places that inspired scenes in the book—and to Lori Waselchuk, a West Philadelphian who walked me through those streets two years ago to help me see them with insiderly eyes.

Lori is both a maker of art and a promoter of it. She is the force, for example, behind Ci-Lines, about which I wrote on this blog a few days ago.

To Kevin, who lets me love out loud, and to Lori, who gave me ideas that kept me writing forward, thank you. A note of thanks here, as well, to Hassen Saker, who offered kindness this week, and to Anna Badkhen, whose work inspired this blog a few days ago.

The link to this story is now live, here.

Read more...

  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP