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Tabula Rasa

In Kansas, 2011 started off cold but incredibly bright, the kind of bright that only a cold winter day brings. The sky isn't the same vibrant blue that you see in July or October, but there are no dark clusters of leaves to block the light, no clouds to blot the color. Its paleness seems wider against bare branches. The horizon stretches a little farther in a midwestern winter. It's a sky of possibilities.

So I sit here, looking out my picture window, past telephone poles and electrical lines, past the cars that pass here and there, through the web of empty branches. What can I achieve this year? How can I grow? Where can I make a positive difference?

Launching a Guys Read Field Office

When I tackled the idea of starting a lunchtime Guys Read field office at my son's elementary school, I figured he and maybe two other kiddos would show up. I invited all boys in grades third through six but honestly assumed the art room where we'd meet would be so cavernous you'd hear echoes. 

Today was our first meeting and WOWZA! About 60 or so guys and a fourth grade teacher showed up! Some guys had to eat lunch on the floor. Not really, but it came close. Here are our highlights:

First order of business: Vote for your favorite things to read.
The top 10:
  • Books about war and/or weapons
  • Books with at least one massive sword fight
  • All Wimpy Kid books
  • World records or other weird facts
  • Anything having to do with Percy Jackson
  • Monsters and ghost stories
  • Books that explain how things work
  • Books about sports or athletes
  • Joke books
  • Cereal boxes
Second order of business: Pick a Guys Read Field Office name.  The top suggestions so far:
  1. Chicken Machete
  2. Read Big or Go Home
  3. Daffodil Squad
  4. Attack of the Mutant Reader Guys
Third order of Business: Decide how often to meet. Every other Monday during lunch.

So many guys showed up that we didn’t get to talk about some of the cool things we can do this year, like post suggestions or reviews or write and post our own stories at our Guys Read website. The older kids were mightily impressed that I'd met Gordon Korman (and more impressed when I described how big Mr. Korman's arms are in real life) (they're huge) and that I had an autographed copy of Coraline by Neil Gaiman. The younger guys mostly just wanted to tell jokes (Why did the elephant cross the road? To prove he wasn't a chicken!) and to gape over my son's copy of Ripley's Believe it or Not!

It was so much fun.We talked about zombies and smashing stuff. I can't wait until next time!

What is the best solution for our children?

A month ago our school superintendent proposed several major boundary changes and school closures for the 2011-2012 school year. The reasoning was that streamlined operations and reduced facility costs would save significant money. We will overspend by huge amounts if we keep the status quo.

My son's school is among those proposed to close, with our entire student body transfering to another, newer facility. To make room for us, the plan proposes to transfer 100 students in the other school to a third school, and by doing so make use of the natural boundary of a major, busy roadway. This affected neighborhood happens to the more affluent in our area.

When I first read the report detailing the changes, I thought the planning committee had tried to make significant improvements in a short time while minimizing the impact on the majority of the district’s students. It would be great to have more time to fully exhaust every option, but would it give us different, better solutions? Can the district afford to wait? I don’t know. It seems to me it would be little more than a delay. I’d rather we make our changes and get on the road to financial stability.

Our board held several community meetings to hear from parents. At our school our families wanted reassurance that the planning committee had considered other options before proposing to close. Our teachers wanted the board to know about the many families who benefit from Title 1 services and asked how they might be affected by the change. My concerns were for our staff, the future of the building and site, and how the district might reinvest in our schools once it’s in the black.

Then I read comments from other meetings. If only you could have seen all the resentment and senses of entitlement. I discovered more parents than I expected don’t welcome us at the new school. Comments made at their meeting alluded to assumptions that our parents won’t participate in our children’s education or interact with the school's community, that we will drain their PTA funds and extra-curricular services without contributing in turn, and that our Title 1 families will strain the learning environment.

I wonder how the thousands of silent parents in our district feel. Do they, like me, believe this is as fair and reasonable as we can hope for given our financial problems? Do they resent those of us who will disrupt their good thing? Do those parents unaffected by the changes feel their opinions don’t count? I understand the gut reaction, “Why should our school suffer?” I hoped rationality would win out and most parents would see the changes, while difficult, eventually benefit all. But emotions ran hot for those who spoke up.

During our community meeting, one of our teachers made an impassioned plea that the board consider the emotional strain on those students for whom our school is the only stability in their lives. Every school has families whose personal issues carry over into the learning environment, but it didn’t hit me until that moment the huge responsibility we ask of our teachers and staff. Each day a river of smiling children flows past me as I wait for my son after school. Whose lives, if we knew the truth, would fully illuminate our own pettiness so blatant in too many of these community meetings? We should be better than this. 

I want to believe the families at the other school will roll with the changes should they occur. I do believe our students will adapt and thrive. Still, I worry about the ripple effect from those parents who assume our school's “lower socio-economic” families will cheapen their school. I want them to know that on October 14 our staff and students received the Standard of Excellence rating.

I support the proposed changes. At the same time I dread the coming school year if the proposals are approved. I write this with a sick feeling that the best we humans can be with each other might not happen, that there is too much resentment and not enough kinship.
On this lovely Friday, here are five observations about life via my underwear drawer.

1. You might think that each person you meet instantly sees your flaws, but more likely they're well hidden under layers of better qualities.

2. A frayed, run-through-the-wringer you can still protect your tender regions from zipper nips and durable but abrasive outer materials.

3. The people who matter don't care if your elastic shows.

4. You might not get a gold embossed Victoria Secret seal of approval, but you won't chafe either.

5. Trends come. Trends go. White cotton bikini cut prevails.

Happy weekend!

Aug. 10th, 2010

Today I become an official children's author with the release of Kentucky: Past and Present (Rosen Publishing).

To all you fifth graders out there: THIS is the book you'll need for that report about Kentucky your social studies teachers will force you to write this year.

Hope you get an A+++!
Quick! Drop what you're doing and go to Elizabeth C. Bunce's blog. Share the debut love and win a signed copy of this gem:

Already CROSSING THE TRACKS has received a starred Kirkus review! Even Betsy Bird fell under the spell of its cover :)

Read it, love it, clasp it to your heart.

Jul. 5th, 2010

So far, 2010 has been good to my fellow writers in Kansas City.

In March, Laura Manivong's young adult novel Escaping The Tiger (HarperCollins) debuted. In it, twelve-year-old Vonlai escapes the dangers of Communist Laos only to find worse dangers in a Thai refugee camp. That most excellent summary comes from Laura. The story is based upon the experiences of her husband, Troy, his family and many other Lao refugees in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

Barbara Stuber celebrated the release of her historical young adult novel Crossing the Tracks (Margaret K. McElderry Books) in June. Barb takes her heroine, Iris Baldwin, and her readers on a poignant journey that shows at heart we're all hobos - homeward bound.

Find out more about Laura at www.lauramanivong.com

Find out more about Barb at www.barbarastuber.com 

Writing is simple, right?

Humans need to simplify. We listen closely to those who explain things easily because we assume they’ve figured it out. Sure, there are things in life that are that simple: You gotta eat, you gotta breathe, you gotta move. Clean up after yourself. Honor your commitments. Wash your hands before you eat.

But much of life isn’t so delineated. Our values can’t be color coded into Blue vs Red. Morality and ethics exist beyond religious labels.

 The goal for a nonfiction writer is to simplify topics to make them readily understood. We adapt a point of view (often determined by whoever pays us to write it), then research, interview, analyze facts, consider differing opinions, write, strip away half of what we wrote, rewrite some more. Eventually, if we’ve done our job, we make that point so concisely readers will say “Aha! I get it!” And we’ll have taught them something new.

 Fiction, like life, is complex. We still adapt a point of view. We research, eavesdrop, ponder, recall, write, strip away half of what we write, rewrite some more. But instead of making our point in two columns, we must layer in fears, longing, smells, tastes, sounds. We veil an essential truth with all the complexities that make us human. If we’ve done our jobs, our readers will say, “Ah. I get it.” They’ll clutch our books to their chests and sigh. And we’ll have made their word a richer, more complex place.

Paying it forward with Dawn Metcalf

The lovely dawn-metcalf interviews up-and-coming writers this week at Officially Twisted. Today is my turn. Swing by and have fun at my expense. Be sure to check out Dawn's YA novel, SKIN & BONES, coming out Spring 2011 by Dutton Books!

I will pay it forward sometime in April, but first I must narrow the list of all the great writers I know. Time to pull names out of a hat!

Hello strangers!

Lots going on in my world this last month. 


First, a road trip to Austin, via flight to Dallas.

My longest-known friend Deanna and I Thelma and Louised it to Austin to see Jonathan Coulton and Paul & Storm in concert. Highlights of the road trip include Airstream cupcakes, glass blowing, Manos Hands of Fate MST3K-style, kolaches and free-range chickens.

 Then on February 19, nine other area writers and I visited Mill Creek Elementary’s Author Illustrator Workshop. My group, the fifth graders, learned the two most important qualities of a freelance writer: the ability to stare out windows for long stretches and work in slippers. 

They also learned being a freelance writer means you have to be an impersonator, to mimic the personality and voice of the company that hires you. I taught them the clever acrostics STUDY, WRITE and CREATE!

Next up: Laura Manivong’s ESCAPING THE TIGER launch party! It was SRO for Laura’s novel debut! The masses were out to celebrate with the entire Manivong Clan. Escaping the Tiger is based in part on the experiences of Laura’s husband Troy and his family, who escaped Communist Laos by crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. Reading Reptile managed to pack in about 250 family, friends and fans last night and sold every last one of Laura’s books.

Also of note: I submitted my second and third manuscripts for Rosen Publishing, created a yearbook for my kiddo’s school, started a new project with American Animal Hospital Association, saw the mockup for my first book with Rosen, and wrote lots with my Jedi Council Jenn Bailey, Lisha Cauthen, Kim Peek and Sue Uhlig.

We have tons planned for Kansas SCBWI this year. In January Jenn brought her talents as a social media maven to Social Media 101. This weekend Sandy Asher taught our writers the secret to the perfect picture book. In May Lisa Harkrader will lead us all into four-alarm novel writing. Stay tuned for more details on our July workshop and September conference (hint: Bruce Hale)!