Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Black and White

Today marks the end of Banned Books Week...the the ALA's celebration of our freedom to read. I make note of the week every year, if for no other reason, to spark a student's interest in reading. The forbidden fruit of a challenged book appeals to some kids. My pre-AP class takes note of the week because they read Fahrenheit 451 over the summer, and the tie-in is obvious. Honestly, a brief conversation on library day is all the mention Banned Books Week usually gets from me. This year it was a little more poignant.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to take a book out of a student's hand for the first time in my career.

My principal came to me after school one day. "Kathy, has the English department added a book called Black and White to the curriculum?"


"Have you specifically assigned this book to a student?"

"No, but I have recommended it to several. I require each student to read one book independently each 9 weeks. They choose the book. My only requirement is that they choose a novel, a biography, or narrative non-fiction."

"Okay, so if a student has that book for your class, then it's because they chose it themselves in the library."


My principal went on his way, and that was that...or so I thought. The next afternoon he was back.

"Mom wants her son to select a different book. She was offended by the content of Black and White."

I shrugged, "I'll help him find something different the next time we go to the library."

I didn't get too bent out of shape in that moment. I completely respect the right of parents to help their kids make choices that are in line with their values. This mom wasn't challenging the book's placement in our library, so she wasn't trying to make choices for my kid and every other kid that patronizes the library. She was simply concerned about her own son. Fine.

Several days later, we went to the library. I was surprised to see the boy with Black and White in his hand. I was even more surprised to see him go to the desk and renew it. I had assumed (yes, I know all about assuming) he would immediately turn it back in when his mom told him to because teenage boys always do what their moms tell them...right?


The librarian raised her eyebrows at me. The principal told her about the situation in case the mom decided to challenge the book's placement in the library. When the line at the checkout desk dwindled, we put our heads together. Neither of us wanted to tell him to hand over the book. Finally, I sucked it up. I'm the teacher. I pulled the boy aside, and the librarian started scanning the sports section for something different he might like.

"Um...student...weren't you supposed to turn this book back in?"

His face turned beet red. "Yeah."


"I want to know how it ends."

Well crap on a stick. The kid liked the book...was about 50 pages from the end and wanted to know what happened...and I had to take it away from him. As an English teacher, an avid reader, a writer, and a lifelong bibliophile, it made me truly ill. Instead of throwing up, I smiled ruefully, put my arm around him, and walked him to the desk where the librarian had several basketball themed novels artfully arranged.

In a surprising turn of events, he opted not to choose a sports book, going instead for a science fiction novel. The librarian suggested The Dead and the Gone, and he checked it out. I sincerely hope he likes it. I hope he gets to finish it.

I still support a parent's right to make choices for her child. I don't know what this parent found offensive about Black and White, but I can't imagine anything in a young adult novel that would override a boy's enthusiasm for reading it.

I wish she could have seen the look on her son's face when he dropped the book into the book return. I saw it, and I never want to be the cause of that expression again.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


So I've been working on this novel for about a year now...okay, 10 months, 3 weeks, and 4 days...but who's counting? I've had my ups and downs along the way, but now I'm in the final chapter of the first draft. I'm going to finish very soon. It's weird knowing I'm a few short hours from the end. Okay...not the end, just the first draft...but finishing the draft will be a major milestone.

Here's the thing. I don't think I like what I've written. When I finished the draft of my first novel, I knew it was rough, but I believed I had written a good story. I don't feel that way now. I don't know if I'm just sick of this book, or if the story really isn't good. I suspect I have a cohesion problem. The novel I started writing isn't the one I'm finishing. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt there will be major rewrites and edits.

When I finish this last chapter, I'm going to walk away from the whole thing for a while. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says he lets a draft sit for at least three weeks before going back to edit and revise, so he can look at it with fresh eyes. I need fresh eyes.

I've allowed my querying efforts on the first book to languish because I've been so focused on this one. I've also had another idea pinging around in my head for a while. I haven't let myself put words to it yet because I'm afraid I'll lose my momentum so close to the end. Momentum has been hard to come by on the thing (11 months=painful).

Struggle and Failure may be unpleasant companions, but they are tremendous teachers. I am a better writer now than I was a year ago. And that, my friends, makes the whole process worthwhile...even if I have to rewrite the entire book.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Wednesday night's episode of Glee made me laugh harder than anything I've seen on TV in a while. This is particularly hilarious to me because my husband is a football coach. My son is a high school football player and a member of the school choir. My son watched the episode with me. His response? "They would get a delay of game penalty for that. I fell out of my chair...seriously.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My high school English teachers were fabulous, especially Mrs. Holinde, my Junior and Senior English teacher. She is one of the reasons I am an English teacher. It's funny, though. I don't really remember studying poetry in her class. I remember reading short stories and novels. She made them come alive for me. I wept at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. But poetry? No real memory of it.

I did study poetry in way around it with an English major...but I didn't love it. We talked a lot about rhyme scheme and meter. Bo-ring.

I didn't love poetry until I had to teach it to 7th graders 13 years ago in my first teaching job. I taught at an inner city middle school where most of my students were reading well below grade level. Approaching poetry as an academic exercise with those kids would have been the kiss of death. I had to make poetry accessible, a difficult task since I didn't find it accessible. I had a list of "the dead white guys" in the curriculum at the time, but what I needed was a poet that mattered to them. I went online and discovered Tupac's poetry. I've been introducing students to poetry with him ever since. The kids can't discount poetry when one of their heroes clearly valued it. I've purchased The Rose that Grew from Concrete three times because it keeps "disappearing" out of my classroom.

From Tupac, we hit Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou. Then I sneak in some Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Paul Laurence Dunbar, then some Robert Frost. I found a book of poetry in Spanish with the English translation across the page. We read it in both languages. Dylan Thomas, ee cummings, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot...they all get their turn.

I've grown to love poetry with my students. As a writer, I've learned that every word has to count. In poetry, that idea is even more intense and condensed. Every word, every breath between words has to count. I read something new now, and I'm blown away by a poet's ability to capture the essence of something in a single word or phrase. I encourage my students to memorize a poem. I've memorized a few along the way, and sometimes those poems come back to me when I need them.

I'm going to end this post with a poem I've recently given to someone close to me.

William Ernst Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Saturday nights bring either brooding silence or happy satisfaction to my house, depending on the outcome of the day's work. Either way, we're always tired. The massive surge of adrenaline brought on by the game, regardless of the outcome, is followed by the inevitable crash. The crash is much easier to handle after a win.

We won today, and we learned a long time ago that every "W" is a good "W," but we experienced a first today, and my house is caught somewhere between the silence and the satisfaction. Bruce has coached 23 years now, but today was the first time we ever had to go to overtime. How weird is that? You would think in over 200 games, there would have been a few ties at the end of regulation play, but today was the first one.

Bruce's teams have served up some gut-wrenching, heart-stopping finishes in those 23 years (including a come-from-behind kick-off return with 11 seconds on the clock), but today takes the cake. Riding the elation/devastation see-saw left me feeling physically sick, and we won. I don't even want to imagine how it would have felt if our DB hadn't stepped in front of their receiver on the one yard line and picked off the touchdown pass that would have sent us into double-overtime. Players for the other team literally curled into the fetal position on the field when it was over. I was glad it was them and not us, but I felt sorry for them.

Our fans left the stadium jubilant. They certainly got their money's worth today, intense hard-hitting football with an exciting finish. I had a moment or two of jubilation, but it was tempered by knowing it could have easily ended differently. On the field when we hugged each other, there was more a sense of wide-eyed "holy crap" than joy.

I wonder if there are other professions where intense emotional highs and lows are inherent in the job? I've had several jobs over the course of my life, but none that made me want to scream until I was hoarse or curl up in the fetal position at the end of the day.

Aristotle says catharsis is good for the soul. I'll bet he never coached a game that went into overtime.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


I found a link on Moonrat's blog that floored me. As of October 2, 2009, the Philadelphia Public Library system is closing its doors. Read the article here. There is also a great discussion in the comments section of Moonrat's blog.

Philadelphia is the city where the fundamental belief of our nation was given words and life. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." The irony of losing libraries in Philadelphia is tragic.

In my classroom, I indoctrinate students with another fundamental belief. "Knowledge is Power." People with accurate information are the people with power. Libraries have always been one of the great equalizers in providing access to information. Several of the commenters on Moonrat's blog talked about libraries being like livery the digital age they are obsolete. This comparison is just wrong.

Libraries have changed radically since I was in high school. They have adapted to the electronic age, but their fundamental mission remains the same. Libraries provide books and information FREE to anyone in the community. I have surprisingly large chunks of students who do not have computers in their homes or who do not have Internet access. This seems outrageous to many of us...almost akin to not having indoor plumbing or electricity...but the reality is there. When times get tight, and they are, families choose to keep the indoor plumbing and the electricity over the Internet service.

These families rely on the public library. I know our school library spends more of its budget on keeping electronic database subscriptions up to date than it does on books. My guess is our small town public library does the same. Any night of the week, you will find all of the computers in the public library occupied. Saying libraries are obsolete in the digital age is ignorance.

Library programming is integral to many communities as well. Our library has fun activities all summer long for children and teens centered around literacy. These programs morph during the school year to support school activities. The library has classes for adults to help them navigate the digital age. Information is useless if people don't know how to access it.

Then there are the books. Where else can you read to your heart's content without paying a dime for the privilege? I have always been an avid reader, so libraries have always seemed like treasure houses to me. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the weekly trips we made to the public library. My mother waited patiently while I spent hours in the stacks. I would come home with a carefully selected stack of books, and every week it felt like Christmas.

Where will the children of Philadelphia go for books?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Without equal access to information, those are just pretty words.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

No writing. Lots of reading

After my writing frenzy last weekend, I didn't write anything else all week. I have lots of excuses, and some of them are even good ones.

My family needed me this week.

I wrote about young son's problem becoming my problem on Tuesday. Then last night, we celebrated his birthday with 9 freshman boys spending the night, tearing through pizza like they might never see it again, repeatedly trying to sneak in a round of UFC on the living room floor when I wasn't looking, and watching slasher movies until 3 or 4 in the morning. Fun, but exhausting.

My boys needed me in other ways this week as well. I remember when my boys were babies, thinking how much easier it would be to meet their needs when they were older and could tell me what they needed or wanted. Any parents of teenagers out there are probably laughing ruefully now. I know. I've come to realize there will never be a stage in their lives in which my heart doesn't seize in my chest because I can't fix all their problems. The older they get, the less fixable their problems become. The best you can do is teach them how to cope with the curve balls life throws them, and in the words of Dorie from Finding Nemo, "Just keep swimming."

The physical and emotional exhaustion took its toll this week, and I didn't write. I know professional writers put their butt in the chair and write even when the world is falling down around their ears. They have to. It's their livelihood. My livelihood is teaching, and I soldiered on in my classroom. I didn't have enough left in the tank at the end of the day to open the manuscript. Honestly, I was a little afraid. The writing went so well last weekend. What if I struggled again?

When I don't have the mental fortitude to work on my own book, I go to my fall-back position. I read. I read three books in the last four days. People engage in all sorts of unhealthy behaviors to forget their problems. I read. I disappear into someone else's world for a while. I'll end this blog post by sharing a snippet of those worlds.

STORM OF SHADOWS: Christina Dodd's follow-up to STORM OF VISIONS. This book features a Native American art thief turned Chosen. He has to protect the bookish, socially inept heroine. The characters made this book fun.

CATCHING FIRE: The second book in THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. I found Katniss' adventures as compelling in this book as I did the first. Suzanne Collins weaves social commentary into page-turning storytelling. It's no wonder her books have "caught fire." I stayed awake until 3am one morning finishing it. The problem, of course, is waiting a year for the third book, and second books in trilogies tend to leave you hanging in a major way.

SUCCUBUS BLUES: I bought this book solely because of the title. How can you not like that title? The heroine is a conflicted succubus whose job is to use her feminine wiles to steal men's souls for the forces of evil. Seriously. This is a new author for me: Richelle Mead. Her sense of humor is right up my alley, so I enjoyed the book. The sequel is already in print, and now I'm gonna have to go find it

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The calendar says it's Tuesday, but I've had a Monday. I spent most of the long weekend buried in my manuscript -- 23 pages (I lost track of word count, but it was big.). I mentioned yesterday that coming out of it was like waking up from a really intense dream. Today I got smacked in the face with reality.

My alarm seemed more obnoxious than usual. Yesterday, I popped out of bed early and went right to my laptop. Today, the same hour seemed ungodly. Why would anyone get up so early? I staggered into the shower and washed my hair in a daze. A moment later, I realized I had shampoo in my hand again. I know the instructions say lather, rinse, repeat, but I usually only lather and rinse once. Not wanting to waste the shampoo, I lathered and rinsed again, ignoring the fact that lathering and rinsing clean hair is probably still a waste. I was trying to get my brain in gear, mentally running through my first hour lesson plan, when I realized I had the shampoo in my hand AGAIN. I lived the hair-washing version of Groundhog's Day.

Finally, I managed to escape the shower. I should have realized the kind of day it was when my boys woke up easier than I did. Anyone who lives with teenage boys knows you need necromancy skills to wake them up. They sleep like the dead. Except for today. Younger son had a birthday today and a football game after school, so he was up and at 'em. Older son, well I don't know why older son got right up, but he did. I seemed to be the only one in slow motion.

I managed to get through the morning okay, but then at lunch time, I discovered that I had not in fact grabbed the leftover grilled Italian sausage. I had actually grabbed the leftover onions and peppers. I had a bun and onions and peppers. Mmmmmmmm

The piece de resistance was the panicked phone call I received from young son after school. He was on a bus halfway to the freshman football game and realized he left his cleats in the locker room. I run to the custodian and talk her out of her master key. Doesn't work. I run to the Principal's office, praying he's still there. He is, and thankfully, his key works. I frantically search the row of lockers for my son's. (Side note: high school football locker rooms are disgusting.)

Once I have the cleats, I have to get them to my son before his coach realizes he doesn't have them. The game is set to start in 40 minutes and driving at a reasonable speed it will take at least 30 minutes to get there. As a bonus, I'm on empty, so I have to stop for gas. I hit the road and drive a smidge past reasonable for exactly 5 minutes when the heavens open. The interstate looks like a lake, and traffic slows to a crawl. I grab my phone and call my friend who is certainly already there.

"Is it raining there? Have they started warm-ups yet? Is my kid barefooted?"

"I have no idea. There's been a bad accident. The highway is a parking lot."

Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be on this Tuesday-Monday. I call another friend who directs me off the highway and on to a back road. It's now 5 minutes until gametime and I'm sure my son is toast. I generally believe in letting kids live with the consequences of their mistakes, but the idea of my son not getting to play on his birthday is too much. I'm almost in tears at this point.

I finally arrive, and miracle of miracles, the players are all still in the locker rooms. The refs saw lightning and made them go inside until it cleared. I found a kid who had come out of the locker room for something, and I used him to smuggle my son's cleats inside. He had snagged a 4th string player's shoes, and the coach caught them switching back...of course. Luckily, my kid is usually responsible, and the coach forgave him. Turns out he was a game captain today. Can you imagine him going out for the coin toss with no shoes?

I sat in the stands, exhausted. The skies cleared, and we played football. All's well that ends well. We won. My son made a couple of pretty good plays, and more importantly, didn't have to sit the bench on his birthday. And I enjoyed the game with really clean hair.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sing in me Muse, and through me tell the Story

I'm starting Homer's Odyssey with my students at school just as I'm completing another phase of my own personal odyssey. An odyssey is a long journey marked by many changes of fortune. Writing a novel certainly qualifies as an odyssey under that definition.

I've been working on my current WIP (Crimson Crimes) for almost 10 months. That's already 2 months longer than it took me to finish Sapphire Sins. I've blogged endlessly about how I've had to drag the words kicking and screaming out of my head and onto the page. Honestly, I started this blog so I would have something different to write, a diversion I could justify. But finally, finally, FINALLY, the end is in sight.

I've had a brilliant weekend. A massive, creative brain dump where everything seemed easy. The words lined up in my head like good little soldiers and marched themselves onto the page. I didn't have to sit and ask myself, "What comes next?" The next thing just came, and holy cow, it was exciting. It was like reading a really good book. You can't wait to see what happens next, and then you turn the page and there it is.

My protagonist is alive in my head in a way she hasn't been for a while. She and I haven't gotten along very well during this book. She's a child of my imagination, but like my real children, once I gave birth to her, she insisted on free will. I can almost hear my hero laughing at me. He learned a long time ago not to fight with her. She always insists on winning, even when she's wrong.

But man oh man we've been in sync this weekend. I feel her righteous anger. I mean I really FEEL it. The rumble of the engine, the ear-shattering music on the stereo, the two worlds she straddles ripping her apart...all of that comes together in a moment of intense unadulterated rage, and I realize I'm enraged. I'm pounding on my keyboard like it's committed some grievous offense. She wants to kill somebody, and I want to help her do it.

I actually made myself stop as I transitioned into the next scene. She needs her rage to do what needs to be done, but I need to calm down. I have other characters on the page, and they're looking at me with frightened WTF expressions. They shouldn't be. Some of them are villains, and none of them are shrinking violets. I find I just don't write shrinking violets in my stories. They annoy me.

So I've taken a break, made tacos for the boys, and calmed down. I feel like I've awakened from a really intense dream, and I'm debating whether or not to go back to it today. If I do I think it will be to tinker with what's already on the page. I'm happy with the 20 pages I wrote this weekend, and a little real life would do me good. If the rain doesn't cancel it, I've got a freshman football game to go to later. But wow, do I have a rush of endorphins going.

I see the finish line on the horizon, but I'm trying not to get too happy-faced. When Odysseus got home, he found his house full of murdering suitors, so you never know what the next writing session will bring. Right now though, I think my heroine would kick all their asses.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dark Endings

Several months back, I blogged about happy endings. The romantic in me loves them. I've read two rather dark books recently, both with major unresolved problems at the end. In an interesting turn of events (at least to me), I liked them both.

I'll be honest. When I was younger, I despised books with dark endings. If real life problems weren't always neatly and justly resolved, then fictional problems should be. That was my attitude. I haven't been a starry-eyed teenager for a long time. I still don't like nihilistic endings or "gotcha" endings in which the author seems to revel in kicking the reader in the teeth, but I have matured both as a person and in my reading tastes.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins is an absolutely gripping book. I've read positive reviews all over the Internet for the last year, but I just now got around to reading it. It's one of those crossover young adult books that appeals to readers of all ages. It contains political and social commentary, and it's action-packed. I lent it to my friend, Linda, and she had her husband go out and buy her the sequel as soon as it was available on Tuesday.

In the world of the story, North America has become one big country called Panem with a totalitarian seat of government in the Rockies. As punishment for previous attempts at rebellion, each of Panem's 12 districts must hold a lottery in which two teenagers are selected to participate in the hunger games. Poverty and starvation are rampant in the districts, and the poor may enter their children's names multiple times for extra food rations. The hunger games are a nationally televised last-kid-standing, fight-to-the-death reality show. The book follows Katniss through her ordeal as one of District 12's "tributes." District 12 includes Appalachia, and it's people are sneered at by the other districts. Being a Kentucky girl, this made me root for Katniss even more. The writing is superb, the action is brutal, and every person I know who has picked it up can't put it down. The ending isn't neat and pretty, and I'm eagerly awaiting my turn at Linda's copy of the sequel, CATCHING FIRE.

Last night I finished Karen Marie Moning's FAEFEVER. Holy cow! The end of that book stayed with me a long time. It's dark and frightening, and I didn't want to turn off the lights when I was finished. FAEFEVER is the third in a series that follows MacKayla, a transplanted southern belle, through a dark version of Dublin, Ireland. She tracks her sister's murderer through all three books and discovers that faeries live among us. Not sparkly Disney faeries, but the scary ones about whom the Irish have passed stories for generations. Moning creates scenes of such tension and foreboding that you feel like you're right there in the dark with Mac. It has an "Oh shit!" ending that wraps back around to mirror the beginning. The storytelling is masterful, and I can only hope that someday will I leave readers with that same tingly feeling of horror and admiration I felt when I reached the end. I waited for this one until it was in paperback, but I won't be able to wait that long when DREAMFEVER is released later this month. I'll be adding another hardcover to my collection.

Although I loved both of these books, I think I'm going to dig down in my TBR pile for something light and happy, something that reinforces my core belief in happy endings, something that doesn't remind me the world can be a dark and scary place. Or maybe I won't. Maybe I'll take this dark, foreboding vibe with me into my own story.