Sunday, June 25, 2017

Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation

A few months ago, an ELA teacher who works on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota got in touch with me. She wrote to tell me that she has used Flipped in the curriculum for years, with great success in engaging her at-risk students. She sent me photos, letters from students, and art. In return I sent her a big box of assorted books for her and her students. It included a copy of Runaway which she immediately took home and read.

During the next round of communication, I learned a lot more about her and the job she does. For 25 years she has commuted 40 miles each way to teach on this reservation, which is right up near the US/Canada border. It's a very rural, high poverty area, and a lot of her students live in housing projects based on government funding. Drug use and abuse are extremely high, and she deals with deaths of former students almost monthly, trending toward weekly, from incidents related to addiction.  A lot of her students are raised by grandparents, relatives, foster homes, or live in the local shelter. She said that her students tend to thrive with reads that deal with the issues presented in Runaway, because they can relate directly.

Despite this bleak reality, one thing shined through her correspondence with sharp clarity: She loves her job. She loves the kids. She’s their cheerleader and champion, and she goes to work each day with a determination to pave a path away from the statistics that face her at-risk students. 

You may have heard that I have a book coming out on September 5th. The title is Wild Bird and it’s the story of Wren Clemmens, an at-risk teen who gets sent away against her will to a wilderness therapy camp in the Utah desert. It has a Native American component to it because almost all wilderness therapy camps have one, and I wanted to make Wren’s experience as authentic as possible. (And to ensure the Native representation was done correctly, I worked with a sensitivity reader from the Southern Paiute Nation, which is featured in Wild Bird.)

What you probably haven’t heard (because I haven’t told anyone and the dates/times/places aren’t entirely cemented) is that my publisher is sending me on a West Coast tour when Wild Bird comes out.  Mostly, I’ll be in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Seattle.

The publisher’s purpose in sending an author on tour is to help launch the book. To help sell the book. It’s very expensive to send authors on tour. Where they send them is tied to the return they expect/hope to get on their investment. They like to work with stores that have a good track record of smoothly run, well attended events, with good community outreach. It also helps if the store is in or near a big city, where multiple tour stops can be arranged from a single flight into that city.

Publishing is a business. One that has had to tighten its belt over the past decade to stay competitive. It doesn’t make financial sense for a publisher to send an author someplace where books won’t sell, or is too remote.

So I knew there was no chance that my publisher would add a tour stop to Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation. For one thing, being at the tippy-top of North Dakota, it’s nowhere near the West Coast, and the tour is specifically West Coast. For another thing, it’s, like, seventeen flights and a three-hour drive to get to the reservation. And, of course, the ELA teacher made clear that there's not a lot of money for discretionary things like, say, books.

So, yeah. No chance in France my publisher would even consider sending me there.

And yet, I asked.

And to my astonishment, they said yes.

Well, actually, they said, “We think it’s a fabulous idea!”

It may be a business, but my publisher (Random House) has a heart!

And so, added to my tour stops this fall is Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation, where I will do my best to convey a message of hope, and encourage the students to find power through both reading and writing. I am so looking forward to meeting the students and staff there, and plan to do a lot of listening to them.

Meanwhile, I’ll post my tour dates and locations when they become official, which should be soon.

Thank you for checking in. I’ll see you in the comments! 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Girl Power

When I was a kid, "girl power" was not a thing. Girls who would rather do sports or dared to compete with guys were called "tomboys."

I was definitely a tomboy.

For me, this was partly survival. I was sandwiched between two brothers. If I was going to have any fun, I had to keep up with the things they wanted to do.

Also, nowhere in my parents' playbook was the notion of treating their daughter like a princess. They were immigrants, and in this land of new opportunity, they valued hard work, discipline, and education. I wasn't treated differently or given "a pass" on things because I was a girl. We all worked together. We all helped out. My hands were as calloused as my brothers'. Hard work knew no gender.

In school, I was different from my peers, and it made me uncomfortable around them. Girls had Barbies, fashion sense, and pop culture crushes. Me? I could beat every boy on the playground in the 100 yard dash.

What I wish for my young self is that I'd grown up in a time when my mom - or my teachers or my Scout leader or my librarian or anybody - would have known how to articulate the notion of "girl power." The words, the concept, the discussion of the value of being true to yourself would have helped me embrace who I was, rather than try to conceal my differences. Because all kids want to have friends. All kids want to fit in. All kids are afraid that their differences will ostracize them. Back then there wasn't a movement to empower individuality.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm in the process of delicately updating all 18 books of the Sammy Keyes series as the new covers roll out in 2017 and 2018.  (You can read about that process here if you're interested.) Next year will mark 20 years since the first title (Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief) was published, and the truth is, I hadn't read that book (or any of the books I've written) since it went to press. So I was a little concerned that the actual edition I held in my hands wouldn't compare to the romanticized version I held in my head.

The delightful surprise (and relief) for me has been how Sammy is even better than I remember. She really is, in the wonderful words of Sue Grafton, "feisty, fearless, and funny," but more than that, she is unique. She is herself. Despite all the pressures against it, she is true to herself and the things she believes.

And in revisiting the books, I'm understanding better why the impassioned young women who come to my signings with sacks of Sammys have the same message for me:  Sammy empowered them to embrace themselves and pursue extreme goals. In short, Sammy gave them girl power.

I didn't set out to write girl power books. Sammy was just a kid - like any kid - struggling to figure things out. She was me and you, our fears and frailties, flaws and strengths, stumbling through life for truth, trying to find her way, and in doing so, somehow helping us find our own.

It is still mind-boggling to me how much I have learned and grown from a character I created.

Looking back, I can see that my being an outsider influenced the creation of her as an outsider, which, in turn, helped kids who feel like outsiders see that their uniqueness is a strength; that it's okay to be different; that it's okay to be strong. But it has gone beyond my wildest dreams to see the empowering impact that Sammy has had on young girls.

Today, "girl power" is everywhere, and it fills me with joy. When I was in New York for the Bank Street College of Education award, I had the privilege of meeting a huge Sammy Keyes fan and her son. They have read the entire series together three times and are starting on a fourth go-round. 

It turns out that this Sammy fan / mom - Julie Kerwin - is also the founder of iamElemental - a company that makes girl-power action figures. Their motto is "Play with Power" and their action figures are named after power "elements" like Creativity, Ingenuity, Curiosity.... I have Logic on my desk - she's awesome!

So if you're looking for something for girl-power play, I encourage you to check out the iamElemental line of female superhero toys. Smart, fun, and empowering.

I also exclaimed "Hallelujah!" when I first saw Strong is the New Pretty. Anyone looking for a book to encourage young girls to embrace themselves should check this one out. The pictures are gorgeous, the quotes will make you laugh and cheer, and the opening essays before each section are truly inspiring. And if you're a grown woman, reading it will make you want to go back and be a girl all over again....and this time do it your way.

It's important that we promote the idea to girls that it's okay to be feisty and fearless, that it's okay to be different - to be unique - and that strength is beautiful. 

Because the girls who will go on to change the world are not the ones who conform to it.