Love Cake: Confessions and THE END OF OVEREATING

I. love. cake. cookies. pies. Anything sweet and full of fat, it seems. I also love vegetables and other things, but these sweet monsters exercise a particular pull on me. Why do we love cake (and other fattening foods)? And what do we do about it when it’s true?

I’m not so worried about my figure; there’s health to think of. Plus the uncomfortable feeling that something as cute and innocuous-seeming as a cupcake is the boss of me.

So: I continue to struggle to find a way to enjoy foods without letting them take over or endanger my health. This is the time of year that this effort becomes more challenging. 

Why do I like cake? David Kessler’s The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the American Appetite has satisfying answers on why some foods never satisfy, driving us to overeat. He explores how eating has become an area of our lives where we don’t really understand what we’re doing or why. Nor, oftentimes, do we understand why certain foods exercise the pull they do over us. Check out these highlights from the book for a few of the insights that it offers.

What I liked best about this book was how it changed the way I view an encounter with tempting foods. No, I am not now Ms. Self-Control, but I do find that it’s easier to resist commercial items. I can understand that they’ve been engineered, not to satisfy my craving, but to encourage it. I really don’t like the idea of being manipulated in this way.

Another thing I appreciated was the readability and moments of personal reflection that Kessler offers. Unlike many “dieting” books (and that’s not what this is), Kessler’s book doesn’t feel preachy. We get the sense that he, too, is on the same journey. You can get a sense of what he’s like on this edition of Fresh Air.

The problem of showing “love” through food is a topic for another day, although my passion for baking always raises some concerns for me; I want others to enjoy yummy foods from time to time, but I don’t want to derail their health efforts.

Here’s a sweet treat that won’t overwhelm you with calories. It’s the “Love Cake” song. A couple of British (?) girls singing about cake, what’s not to love? I watch it whenever I need a little lift that doesn’t mean blowing my eating goals for the day. Watch it with me now:

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Historical fiction, part II: because some stories haven’t been told

TexasHistoricalCommissionMarker

A week ago I did a general post on historical fiction. Today I want to add that historical fiction is a way to preserve (or imaginatively recreate) stories that have gone unrecorded. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

In Longview, Texas, where I went to high school, there’s no historical marker to commemorate the experiences of thousands of black students in segregated schools. And it doesn’t look like there will be one any time soon. Why? Because the Texas Historical Commission has certain requirements for documentation. But the usual sources for this documentation–newspapers, above all–are no help because the East Texas press of the time did not include many events affecting the black community.Here’s a bit from a Longview News-Journal article on German Anderson’s efforts to overcome these barriers to recognizing an important chapter of black history:

Anderson is coming up against major gaps in the documentation required by the state to back up the history he knows is there. Some of those gaps are the result of the media of the day, including newspapers, turning a blind eye to the existence of schools serving the black population.

“There just was not much written about us then,” he said. “I know the Longview Negro High School was destroyed by fire between 1945 and 1946, but there’s nothing I’ve found written about it in any local newspapers.”

Good news didn’t get coverage, either.

“The Colored High School football team went to the state semi-finals — but there was no mention in the newspapers,” he said.

That means the history must be re-created from other sources. While a difficult task, it’s important to keep those bits of Longview history from being lost, he said.

Longview, Texas, stands for the broader situation of the black community in East Texas during past years. And while I can’t solve Anderson’s documentation problems or get that marker up, I can incorporate the stories of segregated schooling in my own writing. So while my novel-in-progress is about a tragedy that takes place in a white school during the 1930s, I also incorporate the experiences and responses of teens from the black community.

This is my way of creating a monument. But I still hope Mr. Anderson gets his marker.

(*Photo: this is the kind of marker Mr. Anderson would like to see for Longview’s former black school system. Credit: Matthew High)

Mad Props for The Freak Observer

TheFobservermorris_seal_fin

And mad props to Blythe Woolston, fellow Carolrhoda Lab rat  and author of The Freak Observer. Blythe’s novel is one of five finalists for the ALA Morris Award, which goes to a debut YA author for being kickass  (Okay, so I’m about a week late with my congrats for Blythe. But I’m about a week late on everything.)

Here’s a drool-worthy review of the book:

Readers meet 16-year-old Loa in her guidance counselor’s office as she is being encouraged to return to her schoolwork after witnessing her friend’s death in a road accident. Although physically battered and bruised, Loa seems disengaged, which is surprising until it quickly becomes clear that this horrific event is one in a series, including the death of her baby sister, that has torn her family to shreds. This text provides a sharp snapshot of Loa’s life as she battles PTSD from these events and attempts to conquer related vivid death-related dreams and hallucinations. Anchoring each chapter is a short question or statement, generally related to science, that ties to the forthcoming chapter—although Woolston makes readers work to see the connection, enabling them to understand Loa on another deeper level.·A keenly observant narrator noticing life’s small details, Loa holds nothing back, which is both riveting and heartbreaking. An auspicious debut for both the author and Carolrhoda’s new Lab imprint.·(Kirkus Reviews)

And another from goodreads.com reviewer Karen Gowen (because we everyday folks matter, too):

This book is sort of like the female version of Catcher in the Rye. Or maybe it would be what Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird might write as a senior in high school, if her best friend had died, and her world had fallen apart, giving her nightmares and PTSD. Can you tell I’m saying “literary classic” here? Because it really is a brilliant little book. I loved the scientific references, and the little bits from the classroom at the beginning of each chapter. It was so lovely to read an intelligent YA novel once again.

Check Blythe out on goodreads.com and review her book if you’ve read it, add it to your shelf if you haven’t! 

Also, my RSS feed and I just happily gobbled up Blythe’s blog, which is a lovely writerly, readerly, thinkerly potpourri. Highly recommended reading.

Audiobooks

Audiobooks are the best. Seriously. For the record: I think listening, while different from reading off the page, is just as legitimate. 

I can read so many more books a year thanks to audiobooks, and I’m extra blessed that my local library has an amazing (and growing) selection of YA titles. My favorites from listening this year are Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Madapple by Christina Ledlum.  These are beautifully narrated. There are a handful of nice audiobook review blogs. One I like is Melissa Brisbin’s

I have secret fantasies of being a narrator for audiobooks, although no one has ever told me that I have a great voice or that I should be on radio. In fact, my third-grade music teacher discreetly asked me to “just mouth the words” before our Christmas program, and my husband is decidedly not thrilled when I offer to read for hours at a time on car trips.

So if What Can’t Wait ever gets picked up for audiobook production, I probably shouldn’t be the one to read it. But I am enjoying reading to my son Liam–at least until he gets old enough to tell me not to.

Historical fiction: because there’s always plenty of evil (and good)

Reading the Kirkus list of best YA historical fiction and best children’s historical fiction from 2010 ups my desire to write a historical novel.

There are so many amazing stories and settings from the recent and distant past that are worth researching and writing. That’s reason enough to work in the historical mode.

But I have a bigger (and perhaps slightly twisted?) reason. It drives me nuts when people wax nostalgic about “the good old days” and complain about our corrupt present reality. I always want to say, “Really? Really? Don’t you think people were selfish and rotten then just as much as they are now?”

My opinion is that there is a pretty much steady presence of good and evil in the world, it just gets expressed differently in different eras. If the 1950s offered safer streets than today’s suburbs, against that “good” was all the heartache of women raising kids alone while dads worked crazy long hours, the pain of openly expressed racism and painfully closeted homosexuality, and the wounds left by sexual abuse that went unrecognized and unreported in those same “picture-perfect” neighborhoods.

Of course, there are also always folks making choices worth being proud of, whether their world is Internet-enabled or only on the cusp of electrification.

Here’s a secret: I’m working on a historical novel, I’m just not ready to talk about it to anybody but my cat. Call it superstition or prudence, but I don’t like to “spend” ideas by talking about them before writing them through. It’s not just me; smart people like writer Tony Ardizzone say the same. (Tony gave a great class on strategies for writing success at the 2009 Indiana Writers’ Conference. If he’s ever at a writing conference near you, I recommend checking him out.)

Banning Books Blows: Bad news in Texas

Catching up on blog reading, I came across bad book news about my old stompin’ grounds of East Texas in this Bookshelves of Doom post. Turns out that a superintendent in Quitman, Texas (not far from where I grew up), decided to pull Carolyn Mackler’s Vegan Virgin Valentine from the middle-school library shelves after a parent complained. The good news: the school board decided to buy out the superintendent’s contract (although they didn’t explicitly say that it was in response to this action). The bad news: many people in this community and beyond still think “books like” Vegan Virgin Valentine don’t belong in schools.

From trolling a few of the East Texas media items (like this one and this one), it seems like the responses that are in favor of the superintendent’s actions assume that the offended individuals are somehow speaking up for “the values of the community,” as if these were monolithic. The best response to this assumption I’ve come across is in Barbara Caridad Ferrer’s post on the exclusion of Chris Abani’s Graceland from a summer reading list based on one parent’s complaint:

if this parent objects to the material so much, then fine. Find an alternative. There were three books on that list; students were to read two of them. […] Because of this woman’s complaints, the book has been removed not only from Mandarin High’s reading lists, but the whole of Duval County […] Seriously, this woman has no business dictating that my kid cannot read this book just because she found it objectionable. That’s my decision and I would resent like hell anyone laying down that sort of dictum. My kid, my decision. Better still, since we’re talking about a teenager, My kid, our decision. 

That last bit is really important. Because difficult books (and other media) provide opportunities for families to have important discussions. This, in my opinion, is the appropriate model for involved parents: read with your teens. Speaking of which, Carolyn Mackler, the “offending” author in the Quitman case, is wonderfully supportive of parent-teen book groups as you can see here.

Another recent instance of resistance to the idea that YA fiction may contain challenging content: Ellen Hopkins was kicked out of a Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas because one middle-school librarian objected to her influence. Ellen has an excellent post about this maddening situation. Here’s what she says about the importance of books that push the envelope and address issues like drug addiction and teen prostitution:

I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day. An author who tries to dissect those problems, look for reasons, suggest solutions, show outcomes to choices through characters who walk off the page. I’m an author who cares about her readership in a very real way. I am thoughtful, respectful of my readers, and not afraid to tell the truth.

That is what censors fear. The truth. […] The truth may not always be pretty, but it is positive. What’s negative is hiding truth in a dark closet, pretending it doesn’t exist. 

Author Carrie Ryan takes a strong stance against censorship in this post on why teens need books that show broken, imperfect lives.

Maybe we need to have more faith in teens that reading a book won’t brainwash them.  That maybe instead it will expand their horizons. And maybe as the adults of the world that’s our job – to show them the world and be there to answer questions and support them.

I get it. […] It’s easier to believe that teens aren’t dealing with these difficult issues.  What parents want to introduce their precious child to all the bad things in this world?  What father wants to explain what rape is?

But I need to make this clear, and this comes from my experience and from my friends experiences and from the teens I’ve talked to: this stuff happens.  And it happens to teens and tweens far younger than any of us would ever want to contemplate.  They deal with these issues whether we want them to or not.  This is life and life can really suck and it can be messy and dangerous and sad.  And hiding from it doesn’t make it go away.

My conclusion: the books that most offend some adults may be the very ones that teens most need to be able to find on the shelves. Want more resources to battle censorship? Check out the National Coalition against Censorship and George Suttle’s page on all things related to censorship and free speech.  

How to judge a YA book by its cover

Cover Image

Actually, I hope you won’t, but if you’re going to, you should check out this hilarious post from Forever Young Adult (what other site offers  a Sweet Valley High drinking game?).

Full disclosure: the title of my post is ripped off from FYA, too. Basically, I have no ideas of my own today. Except…

Except I really want everyone to love the cover of my book. I love it. Really. (Thank you, design folks at Carolrhoda Lab.) It’s definitely better than anything I would have come up with. The butterfly is there without being cheesy, and my husband (resident math nerd) assures me that the math on the front makes sense. After all the insanity with whitewashed covers, like what happened with Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, and again with Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass, I’m just grateful that the girl on the cover looks reasonably like my description of Marisa.

As the Jezebel and Reading In Color posts on whitewashing note (above), authors don’t actually have any say about their covers. Yeah, it’s a little scary.

Lucky for me, I have an editor (Andrew Karre) who is (a) reasonable, (b) smart, and (c) thinking about what a cover is for, as you can see in his recent post on the subject, where he says, among other things:

“I can’t quite articulate what bugs me about the state of covers and the web, but I think it boils down to a suspicion that we as publishers and passionate readers aren’t thinking about them correctly—or at least we’re failing to understand their role in the new marketplace fully.”

Commenting on a recent bookshelves of doom contest, the purpose of which is to “fix” covers that don’t match the tone of the books, Andrew points out that a die-hard fan of a book or series might not be the best judge of what should be on a cover. Why, you ask? Because from the publisher’s point of view, the cover is a tool for attracting new readers, not just keeping the old faithfuls happy.

(Ironically—and I promise this is no conspiracy to prove Andrew’s point—I was totally drawn to the cover of The Explosionist, one of the titles suggested for a cover redesign, and it’s from a genre I don’t typically read.)

Of course, all readers are new readers when it comes to my book, and I hope that the cover does draw them in. As in… must… buy… this… book… now…

We’ll see in March.

Readers should support the DREAM Act

dreamactOkay, everyone should support the DREAM Act. But especially folks who think books and ideas matter. The undocumented immigrant population in our country is a rich fund of experience, stories, and intelligence, and I want to see these strengths represented in future generations of writers and thinkers. The DREAM Act would make that possible.

First, what is the DREAM Act? It’s a piece of proposed legislation that would provide opportunities for legal status and higher education to undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minor children. Under the DREAM Act, students who meet certain basic requirements (came to the US before age 16, have been here for five continuous years, have completed US high school or have been accepted to college) would be eligible for permanent resident status after completing two years of college or military service. Read more on the specifics of the DREAM Act on the Justice for Immigrants information page.

Why is the DREAM Act so important? On a human level, it’s about providing opportunities for children raised in the US—many of whom have no memories of their parents’ home country. Without the DREAM Act, there is little incentive for undocumented immigrant kids to pursue higher education because the doors that a college degree would open are bolted shut by their illegal status.

This is a frustrating situation I saw repeatedly while teaching senior English in Southeast Houston. Some of my best students—straight-A kids who spoke perfect English and had been in US schools since pre-K—felt paralyzed by a secret: they didn’t have papers. According to a recent College Board report, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools every year. In Texas and nine other states, these kids can attend college and even receive some financial aid, but that is where the opportunity ends. There is currently no clear path to legal status, as this CNN article discusses. Everybody should read this powerful story by an illegal immigrant on the cusp of graduation from Harvard.

Here’s the opening bit:

I was a little girl who hadn’t even learned the alphabet when I overstayed my visa. If the DREAM Act doesn’t pass, I might have to take my degree and go back to a country I never knew.

Okay, so someone you care about—a friend, a student, a family member—would benefit from the legislation. But what do you say to skeptics? Even those who are adamantly opposed to legalizing undocumented immigrants would have to admit that the DREAM Act makes economic sense. I’ll let you do the math, but check out this document on immigration and the economy.

The DREAM Act does not reward so-called lawbreakers; it relieves the consequences of an immigration system that’s broken and protects the children who have been caught up in that system.

Want to do something? Sign a petition in support of the DREAM Act. Contact your senator or representative. The St. Vincent de Paul Society (Catholic social justice organization) offers an easy way to make your voice heard in Washington. Or you can make your voice heard–literally–by calling your representative or senator and asking them to support the DREAM Act. For the U.S. Senate: 202-224-3121. For the House of Representatives: 202-225-3121.

“Every writer worth reading…”

“Every writer worth reading offers us the gift of self.” –John Lienhard, Engines of Our Ingenuity, episode 1047

John Lienhard is the voice and writer behind Houston Public Radio’s technology and science program. In this episode, he’s speaking of the importance of a real human presence behind “technical” writing–essentially arguing against the conventional wisdom that technical writing ought to be impersonal.

Lienhard’s observation has value for fiction writers, too. The self that gets offered by the fiction writer may belong to a character, but that character exists thanks to the writer’s personal investment. I disagree with the common assumption that writers working in memoir or autobiographical fiction somehow are offering readers a bigger chunk of their selves. Fiction writers are just as “naked” before their readers.

In fact, I feel more vulnerable in my work as a fiction writer than when working in the personal essay. If a reader doesn’t like a piece of autobiographical writing, sure, I feel rejected. But when a reader doesn’t like my fiction, I feel like my characters–who are like my children since no one but me “made” them–have been rejected. This is far, far worse.

But if we go with Lienhard–and I’m with him on this one–this risk, this vulnerability, is the price for offering something worth reading. So I guess I’ll just have to keep getting naked.

Writing Motivation: Don’t Break the Chain

My successful chain of daily goals…

Last week I did a post about the challenges of sticking to a writing schedule these days (“these days” = now that I have a little boy).  I’ve been trying something new to help me meet my goal of doing some writing everyday. I’d like to take credit for the idea, but it came from a blog reposted on lifehacker.com.

Basically, you set a reasonable goal that you want to accomplish each day. You choose a color to correspond to that goal, and you make a line through the calendar day if you have met the goal. For example, my goals are:

ORANGE: Exercise for at least 15 minutes

PINK: Write for at least 15 (focused) minutes

GREEN: Make good food choices 

PURPLE: Blog (prep or publish)

This is perfect for people who love planners and color-coding (me!). What makes this different from a traditional to-do list is that you have a visual record of your success at keeping your promises to yourself each day. You also create a sense of momentum. You’ve been making it for two weeks, say; no way you want to break the chain just because you are feeling lazy/tired/busy today.

So far it’s made a huge difference in getting me to put in my time–I’ve written every day for over a week, which is something I haven’t managed to do in Lord knows how long. I’m astonished at how much I can get done in 15 minutes, and when circumstances (and my motivation) cooperate, I’ve tricked myself into writing far more than I planned to.

I’m thinking that the satisfaction of doing what I know I want to do will be payoff enough, but I’ve considered instituting some kind of a reward for meeting my daily goals for two weeks straight. What kind of reward? I haven’t decided. A “free pass” to bake whatever I want? An afternoon at a bookstore? A day to sleep in late? A cheap-o massage-school rub-down? We’ll have to see about that…

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