Friday, November 3, 2017

The One List Everyone Should Make


When I was a young girl, there was a list of chores posted on our family's refrigerator. It was actually more a grid than a list, and it was structured in a way that rotated the various chores among my siblings and me. Each day we'd be required to complete and check off every task in our column.

It was a good system because we alternated chores during the week, and we didn't fight about whose turn it was to do what. The floors got swept, the table got set, the dishes got done, etc., etc..

I liked knowing what I had to do, and I especially liked the feeling of checking something off. And I think maybe that chore grid is why I adopted the lifelong habit of living by the list. 

I've made lists for small tasks and big - for getting into school, finishing school; for grocery shopping, finding an agent, building a house, preparing a nursery, Christmas shopping and cards, party prep and invitations; for what I'm doing tomorrow, what I need to pack, who I need to call, what I need to fix in a book revision...the list of lists goes on and on. Lists have been my road map, my guidebook, my way to focus. I'm a "finisher," not because it's the way I am, but because I live by the list.

But of all the things I've done and tackled and overcome, I never even thought to make the most important list of all: A list of the qualities--the character traits--I wanted for myself.

There is a difference between contemplating who we want to be and actually writing it down.Writing it down makes us analyze. Writing it down helps us to commit.

Writing it down makes it official.

When we're young, the adults in our lives tell us what traits we should embody. They tell us not to lie or steal or cheat or bully or brag or hog the ball. If a child is exposed to the Bible, they're given the Ten Commandments as their guide. Scouts recite that they will be "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent." As children we are told how we should be and what to do, and for the most part we try to please the adults in our lives.

And then comes adolescence.

Middle school is the place where kids start coming into their own. They begin to question authority. That, coupled with the need to fit into a group of their peers, serves to erode the rules they've previously lived by. This can be a slow, stealthy erosion, or one that seems to knock down the barrier of Do's and Don'ts all at once. 


The strength of the pull to fit in cannot be overstated. According to the National Institute of Health the age a person first tries alcohol has continued to drop in the United States, with a rapid rise in its consumption now starting at age 10 (yes, that's 4th/5th grade) and peaking between ages 13 and 14 (the end of middle school/early high school). At that point, more than 50% of students have used alcohol or drugs.


Let's pause and really absorb that.

Half of children in the US have used alcohol or drugs by age fourteen.

These are sobering statistics, but they're real, and they're the reason Wren Clemmens - the girl who goes off the rails in Wild Bird - is only fourteen and took her first wrong turn as a lonely sixth grader, desperate to find friends. And, as edgy and intense as the book is, I wrote it in such a way that middle school librarians won't get flack for "language or content," because I believe middle school is a pivotal chance to engage tweens/teens in meaningful, future-defining discussions. A book can be hugely helpful with that, and I wanted Wild Bird to be available to kids before they're in a wrong-turn situation. 

Aside from Wild Bird being a cautionary tale, it presents the idea of crafting that most important list of all - a list of the traits you want for yourself; a considered definition of who you want to be.

As an emerging adult, I never asked myself (the kid version of) questions like...

Do you want to be someone who's afraid of the dark? Or, do you want to be someone who sends sparks out in it? (I want to be...fearless...)

Do you want to be a pull-toy to your friends' whims? Or, do you want to determine your own direction? (...a leader...)

Do you want to stay singed by the fires life puts you through? Or, do you want to be an instrument for good, forged by experience? (...strong as steel...)

Of all the lists I made in my life, I never made a list like that. I never even considered it. But looking back, I really wish that, as a teen, I'd sat down in a quiet corner with pencil and paper and given serious thought to who I wanted to become. Not who my parents or teachers expected me to be, but who I wanted to be. Because when you decide for yourself who you should be--who you want to be on the inside--that's a whole different mindset than being someone who behaves in a way that's intended to please others.


Making my own list--defining me for me--would have helped me be a stronger, wiser, kinder, better person at a younger age, and this realization is at the heart of why I wrote Wild Bird.  Wren's reluctant metamorphosis finally springs from her building her list; from her defining who she wants to be, and coming to grips with the person she had become by default.


Every synopsis/review of Wild Bird I've read centers around Wren being sent against her will to a desert camp for troubled teens and what she has to do to survive. But that's just the setting. The set up. The purpose of the story is to help the reader see that their future is shaped starting now; that it's time to figure out who they want to be.  

Because everything else--good friendships, true love, career success, a charitable heart, happiness--everything else is the result of figuring that out. 

The purpose of Wild Bird is to help teens find courage to be themselves, and fly.


As always, thanks for checking in - I look forward to hearing your thoughts. See you in the comments!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Be the Oxygen


The Wild Bird tour ended in North Dakota this week with me wrapped in a Native-made honor quilt at Turtle Mountain Community School on the Chippewa Reservation. 

It's hard to describe the emotional impact the kids there had on me.

I have never been hugged by so many middle schoolers in my life.

That was after my assembly with them. Before it, they just sat on the bleachers and stared at me in the way all middle schoolers do - with a combination of skepticism, boredom, and tightly masked curiosity. 

The truth is, I was a little anxious about going to the Turtle Mountain Reservation. As someone from "outside," I didn't want my visit or intentions to be misinterpreted or misunderstood. I was there to do what I do at all schools I visit - get kids fired up about living their best lives; about learning to take whatever life throws at them and harnessing it in a way that'll make them stronger, better, happier.


The day started out with a tour of the middle school, which was once the reservation's high school. The hallways are painted with vibrant scenes depicting Chippewa legends, and every mural has a plaque explaining the scene. At each hallway turn there is a new scene reminding students of their heritage. I took pictures of all the murals and legends so I could take my time studying them on my flight home. 

My tour of the school included stops in classrooms that had projects and decorations based on two of my other books - Flipped and The Running Dream - titles that were studied before my visit and Wild Bird's release. I saw very creative "prosthetic legs" made out of duct tape, cardboard, pipes and such, and doors decorated with trees and chicks and typography art. 


I also got time with the book club students who had written me last year - the ones who put this whole visit in motion. These kids are now high school students, but got permission to attend the assembly and a special luncheon because of their role in my visit. They each received a copy of Runaway, courtesy of a middle school librarian in Oklahoma who wanted to contribute to the occasion and open up communication between schools. (Yes, awesome.)

But my favorite parts of the school day were the moments right before and right after the assembly (those hugs!). 

To begin the assembly, the student body was addressed by the leader of the Northern Lights drum group. He explained that the drum group was there to play an honor song - something that would signify respect that I had traveled such a long distance to come to their community. 

I was not expecting to get teary eyed during their performance, but I did. There were no words to their song, just rhythm building and ebbing along with vocalizations, which created a powerful surge of emotions. It was spellbinding and moving and powerful.

And then I had to pull myself together and talk to the kids. 

I don't "pitch the book" when I do school visits. I tell stories. And I do it in a way that keeps in mind what it was like to sit on a hard bench for nearly an hour while some adult talks at you. I try to forget that there are adults in the room, and just go for it, striding back and forth, jumping around, using funny voices, acting more than just a little crazy. 

My philosophy is that if students are engaged and like the story, they will get the message behind it, and that message will stick. I have different stories for all my books, and some books have several. The one I like the best about Wild Bird (which is the story of an at-risk girl sent to a desert therapy camp) has to do with starting a fire with just friction. 

In all the camping and backpacking I've done in my life (and that's been a lot), I'd never started a fire with just friction. Since this is something Wren (the protagonist in Wild Bird) must do, well, I had to do it too so I could write those scenes authentically. 

Like Wren, I used the bow-drill method. Like Wren, I discovered it takes a lot of effort/energy to start a fire with friction. Your arm gets tired, you break out in a sweat, and when you finally have a tiny coal, there's no guarantee you'll be able to transfer the coal successfully and coax it into a flame.

So I tell the kids (in a very animated way) how I had three false starts at getting the coal into the "nest" of dry grass (which is supposed to ignite and light the kindling that's inside the wood structure you've built to create your fire).

On the fourth try, I tell them, it hits me that Oh, yeah, oxygen. Fires need oxygen. 

So I huff and I puff on the little coal inside my nest and I can see sparks taking hold. I can see smoke rising. And as I'm doing this, it hits me that this is a metaphor for life. And that it's also just like being in middle school. 

How?

When we're young, just starting out, just figuring out who we are and what we want, little sparks happen inside us. And what we need is to find people who, instead of stomping out the spark, are willing to add oxygen to it; people who will help us turn our sparks into flames that burn long and hot and bright. 

We need to be the oxygen for each other.

We need to feed the sparks.

From the hugs I got after the assembly, I think the kids heard me.

I know I heard them, too. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Popcorn, Please!


"It started with a nail in a tire."

That was the explanation a dad and his teen daughters had for why they were just arriving at the Irvine, CA Barnes & Noble tour stop for Wild Bird as I was packing up to leave.

I had someplace to be, but clearly, they knew how to tell a story. And then I noticed the dad was wearing a Wild Bird pin he'd made himself. 

I put my stuff down, and listened.

Turns out they were all three big Sammy Keyes fans. Turns out they'd driven about 60 miles - a considerable distance, especially given the region's notorious traffic congestion. And, it turns out, there are three Barnes and Noble stores in Irvine. It wasn't just the distance or the traffic that made them so late. They'd gone to the wrong two stores first.

(Hey, when you're stressed and running behind, and you've started your trip with a nail in the tire, you punch in Barnes and Noble, Irvine. You don't think there'll be more than one, let alone three of them.)

Me and my cousin's girls - my "cousin-ettes" - about 10 years ago
Me and my cousin-ettes now, during the Wild Bird tour..
Lucky for me, my presentation had run late. (As Mark would - and did - say, "Shoulda brought popcorn.") Lucky for me, I got to meet this awesome dad and his delightful girls. And after they bought copies of Wild Bird and we talked about the importance of edgy-yet-clean literature for "the kids stuck in between," talk turned to Sammy. 

Want to revive me? Start talking about Sammy like she's real. And this family knew how to do just that. 

Being on book tour sounds glamorous, but it can be exhausting. Especially when you tell your publicist you'd be happy to drive yourself to and around Los Angeles because, come on, you're familiar with the region and that's the only sensible way to approach it. Plus, everything seems doable from the comfort of your office chair. 

I tried to talk Mark out of it, but he took one look at my final itinerary and insisted on coming with me. 7 days, 702 miles, 6 bookstore events, 8 school assemblies, 1 public library, and 14 cities later I'm so glad he did. 


I enjoy in-store events because you get a chance to one-on-one with people who love your work. I love school assemblies because there's nothing better than making middle schoolers laugh when they weren't expecting to. Give me 500 middle schoolers in a hot, sweaty gym and I'm in my wheelhouse. 

But the very best encounters on tour are with people who share their personal stories with you; the quiet stories that tell you that what you do matters. Seeing what impact something I wrote from my heart had on another person's heart is a profound experience. I never, ever let the intensity of a schedule or the weight of fatigue interfere with appreciating the significance of the quiet stories people tell me. Popcorn, please! 

So as the Wild Bird tour continues, I'll look forward to sweating in gymnasiums, meeting dear friends and new ones, too, and hearing any quiet stories readers are willing to share. 

If you're interested in knowing the upcoming public events schedule, check this link.  And if you can't make a tour stop, I'll meet you back here next week. Until then, lean in and don't let go!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Help Me Start A Fire

It's Opening Week(end) for Wild Bird

If you have thought you might want to buy this book - for yourself, for your teen, for your friend, for a Christmas gift, for what/whomever - please consider buying it this week. (Unless you're coming out to see me on tour, and then buy it at that bookstore!)

Why?

Because books, like movies, get (or lose) their momentum from that crucial first week of sales/box office. 

I remember reading an interview with Oprah about her movie Beloved which put the reality of opening weekend into harsh perspective. Here's an excerpt:

Q: And then, after 10 years of struggling to get the film made, Beloved opened and Bride of Chucky beat it at the box office.

WINFREY:  I didn’t know what the hell Bride of Chucky was.  And I didn’t know anything about how the movie business worked because I was doing my daily show.  I was all excited.  I didn’t know that you only had one weekend, and then it’s over.  So,  it came out on a Friday, and that Saturday morning I got a call and they said, “That’s it.”  I got the call at like 8:30 in the morning, and by 10:30, I had my face in a bowl of macaroni and cheese.  

Sammy Keyes fans worldwide would have suggested salsa to go with that mac'n'cheese, but wow, how harsh is that? And this is Oprah - an incredibly powerful force in the entertainment world. 

Creative works need a chance to breathe. To seep into hearts and minds and move people. Unfortunately, their success - or how widespread they are viewed or read - is often linked to early lists. If your work doesn't "make box office" opening weekend, people quit breathing oxygen into it; they turn to a new spark happening over there. Years of intense work and passion and hope slowly extinguish.

So, if you like my work, if this book seems like it would be of value to you or someone you know, if you think it's important for teens to have relevant books that are "real" yet clean - and, of course, if it's within your means - please "vote at the box office" this week. (And if you love the book and want to help stoke the fire, tell your friends, and review it online.)

Thank you for your support - some of you have been fanning the flames of my work all along. I can't tell you how much that means to me.  

Order Wild Bird wherever books are sold.
IndieBound  / Amazon / Barnes &  Noble


Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Long View

Another priceless treasure landed in my in-box this week. Here's a little excerpt...:

I'm here on behalf of my fiancée. She's a huge fan of your Sammy Keyes book series--she has almost the whole series, library-bound. She's from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and has been reading your series from before Katrina hit the area. The books have remained by her side through that disaster and many others she has faced in her life. She's the strongest woman I know and reading your series has been very important for her.

This letter made me realize that taking the long view - moving forward with persistence, staying true to vision and purpose despite marketplace fads - does eventually return rewards beyond measure. I can't stress enough how much I appreciate that my editor and publisher enabled me to reach the conclusion of an 18-book, nearly 20-year series. Not all editors or publishers are willing to take a view that lengthy.

When the first Sammy Keyes book was published, I tried to figure out how to get on Oprah. I wasn't the only one - every author wanted to be on Oprah. I think authors drive their in-house publicists mad with all their enthused suggestions. My publicist at the time told me something really wise. She said, "You don't want to be on Oprah. You want a long, slow build. You want a sustainable career."

Of course I didn't agree. I didn't see how the two were mutually exclusive. Taking the long view takes confidence that you'll get another chance after this book. It takes patience. Back in 1998, I wasn't long on patience. I wanted things to happen now.

The long view is way easier to get perspective on from the far side. You know, after you've traversed twenty years and have a sustained career to analyze. It's almost impossible to truly take the long view when you're at the beginning of your career because you don't know how things are going to go.  And it feels almost like cheating to look back on a successful career and say, See? This is what happens with steady, consistent effort. You have an awesome career without the catapult of Oprah. You built your catalog without the distraction of a blinding spotlight. You got to hunker down and focus on the work, not the trappings. 

It's taken twenty years, but my publicist was right - I didn't want to be on Oprah. Sammy might not have become...Sammy.

My purpose for the Sammy Keyes series went far beyond forays into clever sleuthing. Sure, I love a good mystery. Good mysteries are awesome! But the larger picture of Sammy's purpose is what sustained me across the series and through twenty years of writing about her. It's what kept me going back, full of enthusiasm - not just for the next mystery - but for the next chapter in Sammy's life. It was about her evolution. About her learning to calibrate her moral compass. About her character, her strength.

If you're looking for girl power, I've got 18 kick-ass books for you. 

But in the marketplace, what happens is, people need to figure out where to shelve, how to categorize, and how to summarize.

For Sammy, that became "mystery" (clever sleuth) and "series" (of little literary merit).

And since there wasn't a contract for 18 books and there was no guarantee that all 18 would be written or published, there was little talk (other than from me) about the larger picture. 

But the larger picture is the key reason for the series. To instill the notion of nurturing individuality and internal strength in young readers - and yes, especially girls - is of such greater value than assembling the pieces of a clever puzzle. Yet breaking out of the "mystery" and "series" molds seemed, ironically, a more and more remote enterprise as the story unfolded and deepened. Would any critics / reviewers ever read from beginning to end and understand what was going on here? 

After reading one or two, most probably assumed they knew the drill, and now with 18 books to catch up on and a deluge of new works to review each season the answer has became, more and more clearly, probably not.

And yet...I get mail. Like the letter from the fiance. And it reinforces that in the long run, the long view does pay off. A letter like that makes me teary with gratitude: You read. You understood. You felt her. She helped you believe in yourself. 

Now that the series is complete and all 18 books are available without having to wait for the next installment to come out, I'm hopeful that a whole new generation of readers will discover and devour these books, and that they, too, will see Sammy as a friend who helped them face the troubles and roadblocks in their life. I'm looking forward to their letters. And their kids' letters.

Look at me. I'm taking the long view. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Bryce" & "Juli" Weigh In On "Wild Bird"


It was in August seven years ago when Flipped came out in theaters. It was an exceptional experience. Many of you have already heard the tales, so I won't repeat them, but for those of you who haven't, track down a copy of the anniversary edition of Flipped and read the thirty new afterward pages to get a sense of what went on behind the scenes. From meeting Rob Reiner (who directed the film) for the first time to why the movie was set in the 50s and 60s when the book was written as a contemporary story, to the how the movie has expanded the audience for Flipped - there are some good stories there!

People ask me when another one of my books is going to be adapted into a movie, and my answer is that it's not right to get greedy. Flipped was turned into a feature film by the director of The Princess Bride for goodness sake. And he wanted to do the film because he read and loved the book.

Hello? He read and loved the book!

It would be bad karma to want more.

One of the fun and also unexpectedly wonderful things about the Flipped book-to-movie experience was meeting the cast of the film. The "kids" were all so nice and down to earth and patient. We had a premiere where, for two showings, they stood with guests for hours, smiling and taking individual pictures as people filed into the theater. They were such troupers!

Premier night, the thing that also struck me about Callan (Bryce) and Israel (Garrett) is that they're funny. Like, really funny. I have lots of pictures of Callan mugging for the camera. They're hilarious, but they're gonna stay in my vault. Seven years later he's not needing to see them pop up around the internet.

What I will share is that since Flipped came out, Callan's been in lots of projects, like I Am Number Four, The Great Gatsby, Blow Your Own Trumpet, and Hacker to name a few. If you want to see the full list of what he's been up to, check here.

Madeline's been busy, too, working on such projects as Mr. Popper's Penguins, The Haunting Hour, Scandal, Blink, with multiple other projects completed just this year. In all our communications, she's kind and upbeat and focused on her faith and doing good. Check out the full list of her projects here.

Stefanie Scott, who played Juli's best friend (Darla in the book, Dana in the movie) was really busy with A.N.T. Farm after Flipped and has lots of other projects completed. Very impressive!

Israel, Stepfanie, Madeline, Callan - an awesome bunch!
And Israel Broussard, (who played Bryce's best friend Garrett) has also been in a bunch of stuff - including Fear the Walking Dead - and is starring in Happy Death Day, which my son (the one who loves "funny horror films") is dying (h-hm) to see. It releases on October 13th (a Friday) and you can learn more and watch the trailer here.

For all of them, Flipped was one of their early projects, and seven years later, Callan and Madeline were both kind enough to make the time to read and blurb Wild Bird. I love what each of them had to say (see opening graphic), and it means a lot to me that the book resonated with them.

So this month brings a sense of nostalgia (how could seven years have gone by since the Flipped movie came out ?!?) and optimism for the future. Wild Bird comes out on September 5th and I can't wait. Years in the making, it's finally almost here and I'm hopeful that everyone will have reactions similar to Callan's and Madeline's.

For more information about the book, click here.

Fly, Wild Bird, fly!

Thanks for checking in - see you in the comments!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

This Is My Why

Where did you get the idea for this book? is a common question authors get. Usually, authors relate an anecdote of some sort. Or share an epiphany. Or confess to having read something in the news that sparked the basis for their story. (Florida authors seem particularly adept at this.)  

I do fumble about for adequate answers to share with people who ask, but the question I  wish they'd ask instead is Why did you write this book?

The why is so much more important.

It's actually everything.

Why did I spend years of my life thinking about, researching, plotting this story? Why did I obsess over word choice, balance, message, accessibility, theme, resolution, heart? Why did I put myself in this world, endure this character's agonies? Why? Why? Why?

For Wild Bird, the answer comes down to reflection. Reflection on how seemingly insignificant choices can set us off in a slightly wrong direction, which, over time, can land us in a place we never intended (or wanted) to go.

Reflections on the importance of friendships in shaping our direction.

Reflections on the questions we should ask ourselves when we're young. The ones that will help keep us moving toward where we dream of being. The ones that matter most.

When we're young and under the guidance of parents and teachers, we're given rules. Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not cheat. Think about the 10 Commandments -- it's simply a list of things you should not do. The rules we're given when we're young become our de facto moral compass.

But then adolescence happens and peer pressure (or curiosity or defiance or...) can lure us away from the things we've been taught not to do. Having friends, being accepted...it is a powerful force, one against which rules alone cannot compete. Our moral compass finds a new true north - peer acceptance.

It has helped me, I think, to see adolescence again through the eyes of a classroom teacher. I've seen my own youthful mistakes repeated by my students. I recognize the pressures and emotions and remember the agony of being that age. 

I taught high school for 15 years, and for many of those years I also worked two nights a week at the continuation high school, helping at-risk kids get through school. These were teens whose choices had betrayed them. And beyond getting their GED, most had no clear direction. They were young souls already lost. 

In education, we focus on helping our students complete the steps necessary to move forward toward careers. It's our job. But if I were back in the classroom now, I would pause that and ask my students to answer one life-defining question:

Who do you want to be?

Not what career are you after, or what position do you want to hold, but what kind of person do you want to be? What characteristics do you want to embody?

Because everything else in their lives will spring from a thoughtful defining of that.

So the why behind Wild Bird comes from reflections on the power inherent in defining our who. If we're able to define our who when we're young - if we're able to make our decisions by that guide - attaining happiness and fulfillment has a much better chance than if we let the pressures around us push and pull us in directions we never intended to go.

Wild Bird is the story of a girl who, at fourteen, is already defensive, bitter, angry, and lost. Her parents don't understand what went wrong. How did this happen?

It happened by degrees. The compass shifted. And, unfortunately, Wren's not alone. Nobody wants to end up where she did but a lot of teens do. And I don't claim to have all the answers - not by any stretch - but maybe changing the question can help teens consciously choose their direction. Maybe it can give them the strength and conviction to stay on the path they want for themselves. 

This is my hope for Wild Bird.

This is my why.
-----

(Wild Bird will be out on September 5th. If you'd like to read a short excerpt, there's one here.)