Wednesday, July 29, 2015


     I do love me some Sarah Bird.  By which I mean that I love her novels, but I also mean that I have a very strong sense that if I were ever to actually meet her, I would want so badly to be her BFF.  Her books glow with wacky humor and deep compassion.  Her sharp intelligence enlivens all of her intricate plotlines and their satisfying conclusions.  She's one of the handful of authors whose names I periodically Google to see if they've published any new novels, and if they have, I scoop them up.  That's how I found out about Bird's ninth novel, ABOVE THE EAST CHINA SEA (Vintage Press, April 2015).

     Unlike her other novels, this one didn't draw me in at first.  Writers are always told to begin a story with a hook, and I have to admit that a first chapter consisting of a conversation in stylized language between a dead fetus and his dead teenaged mother missed the sweet spot for me by a wide margin.  But this was Sarah Bird, so I persevered.  I'm glad I did.
     We don't learn the name of Tamiko, the pregnant 15-year-old, who lived on Okinawa and died during World War II, until much later in the book, but we do learn a lot about her life before the War.  Her two parents exemplify opposite ends of the social spectrum at the time: her mother comes from a long line of pragmatic, rough-mannered Okinawan peasant farmers, while her father's family has long followed white-collar pursuits - mathematics and calligraphy -  and considers itself refined and elegant, superior in every way to those who toil in the fields.  Tamiko is ashamed of her mother, and ashamed that she takes after her physically: dark skin, round face, broad feet.  Her older sister Hatsuko, on the other hand, seems to have inherited more of her father's genes, and is everything Tamiko longs to be: beautiful, graceful, sophisticated.  Of course, Hatsuko was selected last year to be one of the Princess Lily girls - the chosen few from the entire island who will be invited to attend the one and only girls' high school.  Tamiko is up for the selection process this year, but she has almost no hope for her own prospects and is more or less resigned to her fate - a lifetime of farm work - in advance.  But when the war suddenly arrives on Okinawan shores in the form of invading American ships, the old social order is instantly upended.
     Switch gears to the book's other story, also set on Okinawa but 70 years after Tamiko's.  Luz James is a tough-talking, rule-breaking 17-year-old military brat who pulls off looking like she has her shit together, but secretly contemplatesending it all by jumping off one of the island's high black cliffs.  For Luz, Okinawa is just one more in the endless series of her mother's interchangeable short-term postings.  At first her mother pumps her up about the prospect of meeting their Okinawan relatives - Luz's maternal grandmother was from the island - but that idea is shut down totally after her mother receives a mysterious letter she refuses to discuss with Luz.  So now, the only difference between Okinawa and anyplace else, as far as Luz is concerned, is that this is the first time she's started over in a new place as an only child. When Luz's older sister stunned her by enlisting right out of high school and then promptly getting herself killed on her first deployment, Luz lost the only person who made her feel like she mattered.  All she's doing now is going through the motions of hanging out with yet another band of base-kid stoners while trying to decide whether it's even worth the effort.  But that begins to change when Luz finds herself trapped in a cave and follows the sound of whimpering until she comes upon a starving, wounded young Okinawan girl who wordlessly begs Luz for help - not for herself, but for her tiny newborn baby.  And it changes even more when she leads Jake, the handsome Okinawan boy who follows Luz to the cave because he's worried about her, back to where she saw the girl and her baby.  But now, only minutes later, there's nothing there but a pile of bones.
     But what's even crazier is how matter-of-factly Jake reacts when Luz can finally bring herself to tell him about the disappearing girl in the cave.  "This is Okinawa," he tells her.  "This is how it is: We live with the dead and the dead live with us.  It's not spooky or creepy or woo-woo; it's just how it is."  But what Jake fails to mention at that point is how much more true all of this becomes during the three-day festival of Odon, when the line between the living and the dead becomes so thin that it requires almost no effort to slip across it  - in either direction.
     I don't know about you, but my knowledge of Okinawa has, until now, begun and ended with Mr. Miaggi.  Wax on, wax off.  I didn't know that Japan had used Okinawa as a pawn in World War II, putting it in harm's way and then not even making a pretense of defending it.  I didn't know that, despite the fact that Okinawa had no stake in the outcome of the War, something like a third of its population was killed by the end of it.  And I didn't know that afterward, part of Japan's peace treaty with the Allied forces was its agreement to cede about one-fifth of Okinawa (which was given no say in the matter) to be used for American military operations. 

Or that it didn't matter to the Americans what they were plowing under - fertile fields, ancient burial grounds - in order to build their bases and airstrips.  I didn't know that the tiny island of Okinawa has been shamelessly screwed over by more powerful forces, time after time after time.
     I was bothered by one gaping plot hole.  There's a ton of backstory for all the major players, and a huge emphasis on family, but Luz's absent father barely even gets a mention.  Still, to me this omission is heavily outweighed by the sheer pleasure of reading this lovely novel and following its clues until, at the end, the reader fully understands how and why - as the Okinawans say - "life is the treasure."

Sunday, July 26, 2015

NEVER THOUGHT I'D GET THE CHANCE... meet my #1 Kidlit Writing Hero, but barring something unforeseen, it's going to happen.  I'M GOING TO HAVE TEA AT HER HOUSE, you all!! Okay, first let's see if you can guess who it is.  This person:
     - was born in China between the two World Wars;
     - was a teacher in Japan;
     - has won (among many other awards) two Newbery Medals and two National Book Awards;
     - was recently a U.S. National Ambassador for Children's Literature; and
     - is (I just discovered) active on Facebook!

     It's Katherine Paterson, and here's how this came about.  In June I saw on someone's website that the MFA program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts was going to be hosting an auction.  Just out of curiosity, I looked to see what the prizes were, and saw to my amazement that one of them - the only one, as far as I was concerned - was Tea with Katherine Paterson (who's on the VCFA Board of Trustees) at her house.  I mean, how many world-famous writers do you know who would open up their homes to complete strangers and serve them tea??  So I pledged an absolutely insane amount of money, because talk about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!  And I won the auction, because luckily for me, no one else seemed to be willing to spend quite so much of his/her children's inheritance as I was.  Sorry, kids.  Someday maybe you'll understand.

     Katherine Paterson is who I want to be when I grow up.  She's been publishing books since the 1970s, and they've been delighting and inspiring me for twenty years or more.  And I heard her deliver a keynote address years ago at some conference or other, and she was exactly as awesome as I expected her to be, which is an extremely high bar to meet.  She signed books afterward, and when it was my turn to get her autograph and I asked her if I could give her a hug (yes, yes, I'm mortified that I did this, okay?), she didn't bat an eye, just smiled, stood up, came out from behind the desk, and hugged me back.
     Paterson has written picture books, a memoir, some essays and other nonfiction, and 16 novels for young people covering an enormous variety of subjects, both historical and contemporary.  The common thread between almost all of the novels is that her protagonists are outsiders and sometimes outcasts.  They're displaced persons, uncomfortable in their surroundings and, often, in their own skins.  Paterson understands them all so deeply that she makes the reader love them even though they don't (yet) know how to love themselves.  Paterson's background is intensely Christian (her parents were missionaries, her husband was a minister, she has an advanced degree in Christian education).  She doesn't ever use her books to shove her faith at you, but what she does do, over and over, is beautifully, credibly illustrate both the pain of isolation and the power of redemption.  Her books have brought solace to kids all over the world, and are very close to my heart.
     And in September I'm going to meet this woman and spend a few hours in her company and bask in her glow.  And then I'm going to come back home and write about every last detail.  So stay tuned.  And follow her on Facebook!  Because, as if all her other accomplishments weren't enough, apparently she's tech-savvy too!

p.s.  No, I'm sorry, you can't have tea with Katherine Paterson, because (as I might have mentioned)  I WON THAT, but maybe if you're lucky (and also cool with hijacking your family's financial security), you can have lunch with A.S. King:  I guess writers eating meals with their slavering fans is a thing now! Go for it!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


     So have you heard already that there might be yet a third Harper Lee novel lurking in that mysterious vault in Monroeville?  Or possibly even fourth??  That vault seems to have the capacity of Hermione Granger's bottomless bag, doesn't it?  But here's an exclusive scoop the media hasn't gotten hold of yet: the vault also contained an fully authenticated Harper Lee graphic novel, carbon-dated to the year 1958, only a few years after the time when GO SET A WATCHMAN took place.
     That's right, folks.  Harper Lee wrote a graphic novel decades before the genre was thought to have been created.  And not only that - although I cannot reveal my sources, I have been given permission to share here an exclusive excerpt from this extremely rare and valuable manuscript.  Are you ready?  Okay then, here goes:

Don't forget, folks - you saw it here first. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015



     I love Elizabeth Wein.  That's why I drove two hours each way to see her at a book signing last year.  I adored ROSE UNDER FIRE and CODE NAME VERITY.  The second I learned that she had a new historical YA novel (Hyperion, March 2015) coming out, I preordered it.  I've read it now, and I wanted so badly to love it and to write a shamelessly glowing review of it, but I can't.  Wein tells a good story - I don't think she could do otherwise if she tried - but I felt distanced from the characters as if I was seeing them through a screen.  And I think that's because Wein herself is more in love with Ethiopia, where the heart of the book is set, than with either of her two main characters.
     The original Black Dove and White Raven of the tale were, respectively, Delia (African-American) and Rhoda from Blue Rock Farm in Pennsylvania (Caucasian), a pair of Jazz Age, fearless, wing-walking, barnstorming young pilots who traveled around the United States in their little biplane, performing in air shows. 

     Oh, and each of these Wonder Women had a baby: Rhoda's daughter Emilia (Em) was eight months older than Delia's son Teodros (Teo), and the two solo women were essentially co-parents of both children.  Life was wonderful and exciting, but the women chafed against the racism they encountered everywhere they went.  Delia proposed a solution: that the four of them move to Ethiopia, the homeland of Teo's conveniently deceased father, a place to which she's never been but which she imagined to be race-blind.  Rhoda soon comes to embrace this dream too, and they begin diligently saving money to prepare for the move.  But then Delia dies in a terrible airplane encounter with a flock of birds, and Rhoda, now somehow the uncontested guardian of Teo as well as Em (the facts get a little hazy here), retreats to her parents' home where the children are cared for by her family members while she suffers a prolonged and extreme period of depression.
     Meanwhile, while Em and Teo's physical needs are being met, they have no one but each other to turn to for emotional support.  Together they develop a fantasy world in which the two of them are now Black Dove and White Raven, encountering comic-book-style adventures and perils from which they always emerge victorious.  Eventually, Rhoda recovers from her grief to the point where she decides to pursue Delia's dream on her own: she pulls up stakes with the two children and moves to Ethiopia.  But unfortunately, there are a lot of things about her newly-adopted country that Rhoda has yet to learn. 
     It's probably safe to assume that 1930's Ethiopia, a.k.a. Abyssinia,  is not a subject about which most modern readers would have an expertise.  But Wein wants us to know everything about the country as it was at that moment in time - its history, climate, geography, culture, political situation - because she so passionately wants her readers to love the place as much as she does.  And the way she solves this problem is via information dumps.  Over and over, people toss into their conversations the kinds of facts that people never toss into conversations, like that Ethiopia was the only African nation never to have been colonized, or that it had just joined the League of Nations, or that a lot of the guns on the street when Teo and Em first arrived in Ethiopia had been picked up at the Battle of Adwa in 1896.  Wein creates elaborate backstories to explain how her characters have come to be who they are, but to me, the stories were too elaborate, and by and large unnecessary.  After I finished reading the book I went back to the beginning and realized that I had no recollection of most of what I had read there.  I didn't care how Rhoda and Delia first met, or how Rhoda met Em's Italian father, Papa Menotti, or how Delia met Teo's father, or how and when Rhoda and Delia had first learned to fly.  I just wanted to find out what happened to Em and Teo, and none of the backstory mattered to me so I forgot it as soon as I read it.  And I'm an adult, and I'm generally fascinated by history, which to me suggests that a teenage reader with a shorter attention span would forget it all even faster.
     It's easy to see from photographs how mesmerizingly beautiful a place Ethiopia is.

     You can't possibly fault Wein for having fallen in love with it after she'd been there.  Em and Teo have a lot of adventures in Ethiopia, some wonderful, some horrifying.  Often their former imaginary identities as White Raven and Black Dove help them to navigate through the worst real-life catastrophes that befall them.  They make a great team, and their devotion to each other is lovely to read about.  But the real, in-your-face star of this show is Ethiopia itself, not Em and Teo, and I kept finding myself wishing that it were the other way around.