Thursday, June 28, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Tomi Adeyemi

Tomi Adeyemi is a Nigerian-American writer and creative writing coach based in San Diego, California. After graduating Harvard University with an honors degree in English literature, she received a fellowship that allowed her to study West African mythology and culture in Salvador, Brazil. When she’s not working on her novels or watching Scandal, she can be found blogging and teaching creative writing to her 4,500 subscribers at tomiadeyemi.com. Her website has been named one of the 101 best websites for writers by Writer’s Digest.

Her debut West African YA Fantasy novel is CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE (Holt Books for Young Readers/Macmillan). The CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE movie is in development at Fox 2000/Temple Hill Productions with Karen Rosenfelt and Marty Bowen (Twilight, Maze Runner, The Fault In Our Stars) producing it.

If you want to know everything important about her and her stories, you can read this blog post: Why I Write, Telling A Story That Matters.

If you're an aspiring author, check out her writing tips and free writing resource library here.

Click here to read my review of Children of Blood and Bone.

And now Tomi Adeyemi faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?


Some of my favorite YA books are Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.


Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?


I spend about 30-40 hours a week writing, squeezing in reading whenever I can!


Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?


It’s been a wild ride! I’ve been writing my whole life and working on books with the hope of getting published for 5 to 6 years. The first book I tried to get published took me 4 years, but didn’t go anywhere.

However, I learned everything that I needed to learn about writing and publishing with that book, so it will actually always be the most valuable book I ever wrote for everything that it taught me!

With this book, the process was fast, but it was intense. The final product is almost 600 pages that were rewritten more times than I can count over an intense 18 month period, so it was a labor, but I am very proud of the final product!


Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

 I think writers are born with the desire to write, but it's a lifelong education on how to actually do it.


Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?


The most fun part is outlining. It’s pure inspiration and imagination without any of the hard work of getting it on the page.

The hardest part is revision. It’s the most rewarding part, but I’m the type of person who cares about every single word on the page and when you have 140,000 words in your book, it’s a process that can drive you insane!


Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Don’t give up, and know that nothing is wasted. Also read, read, read!


Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I love Dan Fogelman! He is so talented, I'd love to pick his brain.








Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Book of the Week: CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE by Tomi Adeyemi

WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and it is filled with adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie. 

First Paragraph(s): Pick me.
It's all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can't tell if it's from dawn's early heat or from my heart slamming against my chest. Moon after moon I've been passed over.
Today can't be the same.

I adore this book. Esteemed Reader, and I promise it will blow your mind. I'm going to fanboy out for Tomi Adeyemi's incredible novel and I'm squee-ing with happiness that Tomi Adeyemi will be here on Thursday to face the 7 Questions. But at the top of this post, I have a related concern, so the part of this book review that's actually about the book starts seven paragraphs down:)

I'm angry this week. I'm outraged. I'm guessing you are as well, Esteemed Reader. 

Should you be reading this at some future date, we present time Americans have just enjoyed a fifth Jurassic Park film that featured silly performances, a mostly ludicrous plot, and some cringe-worthy stupidity, but also super scary dinos that never fail to satisfy. Additionally, there was the little matter of our Nazi-endorsing, openly racist president ripping thousands of brown kids from their parents, some if not most never to be returned, drugging them and locking them in cages (among other abuses still being reported). 

And while the world was reeling from this news, Paul Ryan and his minions passed a farm bill that strips nutrition assistance, ya know, lunch for hungry kids, ahead of his plans to attack social security and medicare because we don't have the money to not kill kids and the elderly after tax cuts for the wealthy and an objectively unnecessary increase in military spending. Oh, and at the bottom of the news feed, there was a story about white police officers shooting another unarmed black boy who looks uncannily like my nephew as he ran from them. 

I'm outraged and I'm scared and I can't believe I brought a child into this mess (during the Obama years). And I can't believe the number of people I know and used to respect who are all "womp, womp" about things. But I'm not a political blogger. The world doesn't need an insightful post demonstrating my political acumen entitled "AHHHHH, Oh My God, Everything Is On Fire And We're All Gonna Die Screaming As Satan Laughs At Us From The GOP Headquarters, AHHHH!!!" 

A month ago I went off on an emotional rant after a school shooting happened in my town and that post went viral-ish and became the second most read in the history of this blog, which was alarming, but good, I guess (I want to tell the world how upset I am because I want some sensible gun control laws passed), but also irritating. Not for nothing, but I've got publishing professional interviews and guest posts from a lot of amazing authors at this blog that are absolutely worth reading and that the internets should be stampeding toward. And if people really wanted to read me raging about politics, my novel, The Book of David has been available for a year this month and the first part's free.

This has synced up with some other discouraging things in my writing life it would be unprofessional to discuss here, but which all seemed to hit at once for some reason. And it's all had me wondering: What am I doing? Do people care about books anymore? Should they when there's a revolution coming and the American Empire is falling around us and we've got real problems to deal with? Is polishing Banneker Bones and the Alligator People and promoting other writer's books really how I should be spending my time, or should I be marching in protest (doing that also), or prepping for the apocalypse?

Esteemed Reader, I don't know. I do know that this last week as all of this horror has been unfolding, I was held in absolute rapture by rereading an amazing fantasy novel that took me away from the real world for long periods, allowing me to break the surface and catch my breath. Children of Blood and Bone reminded me that books matter. Not all of them maybe, but this one does.

And then I read this inspiring quote by Tomi Adeyemi: “Children of Blood and Bone was written during a time where I kept turning on the news and seeing stories of unarmed black men, women, and children being shot by the police. I felt afraid and angry and helpless, but this book was the one thing that made me feel like I could do something about it. I told myself that if just one person could read it and have their hearts or minds changed, then I would've done something meaningful against a problem that often feels so much bigger than myself.”

My review is: stop what you're doing and read Children of Blood and Bone. Or listen to the audiobook, which is incredibly performed by Bahni Turpin, who is now one of my favorite narrators as I've listened to this book twice and am keeping it on my phone to listen to it again in the near future. That's also the reason I'll be sharing fewer passages from the novel this post.

Esteemed Reader, this book will change lives. I've heard the usual online grumbling from some of the usual folks about another young author (Adeyemi is in her early 20s) making it big on the second book she ever wrote (seven figures and a pre-publication movie deal), and doesn't that just go to show that publishing is a lottery? You'll never hear me argue that publishing is a fair business and I might've grumbled myself about a few other young writers who won the lottery despite their books being less than amazing. But once in a while, the system still works.

Adeyemi is a better writer than me and many, many other writers and if there were ever a book that should shoot to the front of the line, it's Children of Blood and Bone. It really is that good. Sometimes in life, you encounter someone who is just plain smarter than you (happens to me all the time) and better at something than you. People have said some nice things about my stories and sometimes I get to thinking I'm the bestest (or periodically, the other extreme), so it's helpful to remember there are next level writers like Tomi Adeyemi in this world. The rest of us should tread lightly.

People have and will continue to compare Children of Blood and Bone to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and other YA fare, as well as The Lord of the Rings (both have spirit army battles), and Black Panther (both are examinations of race and culture within the context of an epic narrative with heavy influences of African mythology). There are fantasy genre staples along the way and clear influences from other works, but Children of Blood and Bone is its own thing.

This is not a book about a plucky white protagonist and his black friend, or even a black protagonist and his white friend. Near as I can tell, there are no white people in Orïsha (and I better not see Martin Freeman cast in the movie). This is a story primarily about two black girls with explicitly dark skin, at least one of whom has magic powers (though I found it hilarious to learn that one of the key inspirations for Adeyemi was the Lindsey Lohan version of The Parent Trap). But don't miss the detail that those in the palace have lighter skin than those outside it and Princess Amari is made to lighten her dark skin while in the palace.

Our main protagonist, Zélie Adebola, is a magi warrior in training, although her people have been subjugated since their magic was stolen from them. Zélie's earliest memory is of her mother being hung because of her magic. Soldiers collect taxes too steep to be paid, beating, raping, and sometimes killing the magi, who they call "maggots." It's not insignificant that Zélie's power is calling on the strength of the dead who came before her and whose previous resistance fuels her own.

Meanwhile, the occasionally obnoxious and exasperating, but ultimately lovable Princess Amari steals a scroll with the powerful ability to return the magi's power and flee's the palace after her father kills her best friend. There's a lot of murder and cruelty in this story as Orïsha is a very difficult world for everyone living there, which is compelling and probably why they swear so often. But make no mistake, this is a YA novel, and in no time some handsome male characters are also introduced for our heroines and so it goes--do you want an epic fantasy with some romance in it to take you away to a magical place, or don't you?

Me, I preferred the many battles and relentless bloodshed to the dancing and psychic romancing (it takes some explaining, but Zélie hooks up with a sexy enemy because they can chat on the spiritual plane like Kylo and Rey and see each other's souls). But there's plenty of action and one super awesome sequence with a sea battle with all the explosions and bloodshed to make up for the kissy parts:)

Tomi Adeyemi is writing a meaningful tale with beautiful language and imagery, but she never forgets to show the reader a good time. It's entirely possible to read this story and miss some of the deeper significance of certain events, but still be enthralled in a the magic of Orïsha and of a great story well told. Children of Blood and Bone is the first novel of a planned trilogy, so don't expect to have all your questions answered, but that's okay. I can't wait for the next installment. Should it become five more books instead of two more, that would be just fine as well.

My father-in-law has frequently recalled with a special bitterness that the only book with a black character for him as the only black boy in a Mississippi classroom in the 1950s was Little Black Sambo. "That wasn't any kind of book," he's told me on more than one occasion, his face going dark like a storm moving in. "And I could tell the white teacher was making fun because all the other kids were laughing at me when she read it."

Never been a big reader, my father-in-law (he's still smarter than most), but he encouraged his daughters to read and he sometimes wears his Banneker Bones T-shirt with pride. I wonder what his opinion of books might be if Children of Blood and Bone had been available to be read back then. I wonder what future writers and artists Tomi Adeyemi is inspiring. These are dark times we're living through, Esteemed Reader, but the world is getting better. A novel as wonderful as Children of Blood and Bone is proof.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Children of Blood and Bone:


“I teach you to be warriors in the garden so you will never be gardeners in the war.”

“Your people, your guards – they’re nothing more than killers, rapists, and thieves. The only difference between them and criminals is the uniforms they wear.”

“In this man - this one wretched man - is an entire kingdom. An entire nation of hate and oppression, staring me in the face. It may have been the guards who broke down the doors in Idaban that day, but they were simply his tools. Here lies the heart.” 

“Let them taste the terror they make us swallow.”







STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

7 Questions For: Public Relations Expert Joshua Redlich


Josh Redlich is a Publicist for Random House Children's Books, where he works with authors like Mary Pope Osborne, Louis Sachar, Jay Kristoff, Gennifer Choldenko and Marisha Pessl to promote their works. He formerly worked at Sterling Publishing on titles ranging from children's picture books to adult nonfiction.

Josh is also the Chair of the Young to Publishing Group (YPG) and Co-Chair of the Publisher's Publicity Association (PPA) planning committees.

And Now Joshua Redlich faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

This is NOT an easy question. I have a lot more than three. But if I had to choose . . . well, I’d probably cheat and give three series instead.

1. Harry Potter by . . . what’s her name again?
2. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede
3. The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

(And the Oz books and His Dark Materials and Mistborn and The Chronicles of Narnia and Red Rising and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Phantom Tollbooth and The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine and The Inquisitor’s Tale and The Night Circus and Uprooted . . .)


Question Six: Could you give us your take on a strategy to market one of your three favorite books if it were being published this year?

For a book I love as much as these, I would probably do a special media mailing of some sort, way in advance of the book’s release. I’d include nice packaging, and maybe an author letter and some sort of book-related swag to make it stand out from all the other book mail they receive each day and really drive home that this is a book worth their attention. I’d also try to arrange a lot of in-person meetings with media personnel so I can tell them about the book face-to-face.

Question Five: What are the typical services you provide and what results can an author reasonably expect?

As a publicist, my job is twofold: media outreach (which includes drafting press materials, sending out ARC and finished book mailings to media personnel, and extensive follow up in pursuit of book reviews and features) and events (which includes everything from a launch event and local school visits to national tours and festival and con appearances).

As for results? That’s a tricky question. In truth, an author can’t really expect anything. Those in media who handle book coverage receive far more books a day than they are able to feature, so there’s never a guarantee that a particular book will be featured, and probably a much larger chance that it won’t be.


Question Four: What sort of author and/or project(s) would you most like to work with?

I’m a total fantasy nerd (if my list of “three’ favorites didn’t give that away), and that’s what I love to work on, too. But I can get behind just about any children’s books (YA in particular), and I enjoy working on graphic novels, too.


Question Three: What is your favorite thing about what you do? What is your least favorite thing?

There is A LOT I love about my job, not least of which is that I get to talk about books all day. I get to spread the word about books I love and help them find readers, which will never stop being exciting. And I get to work with a host of really incredible authors, like Mary Pope Osborne, whose Magic Tree House series I read when I was 6, and Rachel Hartman, whose Seraphina is another favorite of mine.

My least favorite thing about my job? It starts at 9am… 


Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to a writer marketing their book? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Build your social presence. We live in a digital world, and the best way to reach the parents, children, teachers, librarians, and other potential book buyers is to go where they are—online! Maintaining an active social media account is time consuming, but it is definitely worthwhile. Twitter is my preferred social platform, though illustrators should definitely be on Instagram, as well. Google can probably provide better tips on how to grow your social presence that I can, but I would recommend engaging with other members of the literary world (authors, book bloggers, etc.) and sharing their news as well as your own. You won’t get followers by only talking about your own book.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

J.K. Rowling. I would not be in children’s book publishing today if it wasn’t for her and Harry Potter. (But don’t ask me what I’d say to her. I’d probably just stare open-mouthed, drool a little, and then ask her to sign my Harry Potter yarmulke, which I wore just about every day from age 13 to 22.)


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

GUEST POST: “Why Picture Books Aren’t Just for Elementary School Kids” by Salvo Lavis and James Munn


We write children’s picture books about an elementary school-aged boy and his marvelous pet weasel. Often we are asked—understandably so—for what age groups our fun little episodes are intended. The answer: children between four and ten years old and the adults who read with them. But the deeper truth: anyone and everyone.

Humans love a good story and are not always picky about the source. In the pursuit of meaningful entertainment, boundaries between story formats rarely seem to matter. Storytelling method becomes secondary if the story is strong and the characters speak to the audience. And, if done right, a picture book can have the similar effect as a comic or graphic novel--both of which are widely read by readers of chapter books. 

Also, it certainly helps to be funny. In Wild Wild Weasel, our second adventure in the World of the Weasel book series, the boy imagines all sorts of things he can train his pet weasel to do, from chauffeuring the boy around to shampooing the boy’s hair. Laughter knows no age.




In addition, it helps to include words that the child may not know but will come to learn and use in later years. “Pandemonium” and “rambunctious” may not roll trippingly off the tongue of the average first grader, but in Once Upon a Weasel, our first book, we wanted to include words that would be fun for the parent to say to the child and also make the child curious about their meaning.
 




And it helps to create a complex story where new details are revealed with each reading. In Wild Wild Weasel, some visuals may very well escape notice upon first glance—a pigeon holding a diploma in its beak, a bunny stuck in window blinds, an astounded fish lifting itself onto the edge of its bowl to get a better look at the action. (And, as you read all of our books, look for one particular little girl who simply cannot seem to stay awake.)

Middle-grade readers then have an opportunity to laugh, learn, teach, and discover. We think that’s golden, and we hear from plenty of young people who agree!

All of these things we have been learning since we first decided to write kids stories. And we continue to check ourselves to make sure that the story is trim and that every word tells. Our first drafts always contain too many words, which is often the case for any writing project. But for picture books especially, each word is carefully considered. By the time illustrator Dave Leonard gets to work it becomes clear that many of our story points come across better in illustration. Thus begins another round of culling words. (We always knew a picture was worth a thousand words, but that old idiom was never so profoundly felt until we began creating picture books.) Sometimes we describe too much, or grip the reader’s hand too tightly as we lead them down an obvious road, or try to make things overtly Meaningful with a capital M. The end product, we hope, is a balance between showing and telling.

Indeed, we are learning. Trust the reader and let them discover things on their own. If they don’t grasp everything at first, they will when they reread the book years later. And they’ll feel good about the discovery.

In the end, we as a creative team don’t really have the middle-school student or the adult or even the four-year-old in mind when we write. To us, the age of the reader is immaterial. After all, adults go to see animated films geared toward the younger set. Why shouldn't tweens and teens read picture books? We simply tell a story that entertains us. Then we hope that people of all ages like it—you too!





Salvo Lavis is a writer and producer who has worked in digital, video, print, and radio. He established the online brand for indie film distributor Cohen Media Group, where he directed social media Oscar campaigns for the Academy Award-nominated films Timbuktu and Mustang. He has also produced content for Disney.com, Yahoo! Entertainment, and Live Nation. His personal interests include math, science, and design. Salvo is from Houston and lives in Los Angeles, California.


James Munn is a freelance writer, film historian and former editor at Architectural Digest. In addition, he and his friends Salvo Lavis and Dave Leonard have created the World of the Weasel series of children’s books, which includes the titles Once Upon a Weasel and Wild Wild Weasel. He is the author of This Is No Dream: Making Rosemary’s Baby and recently edited Autobiography of a Magazine: 1920 – 2010, an illustrated history of Architectural Digest by former editor-in-chief Paige Rense. James grew up in rural Nebraska and currently lives in Hollywood, California.

Connect with Salvo Lavis and James Munn:

WORLD OF THE WEASELpresents picture books about a young boy and his pet weasel who injects excitement into the boy’s quiet life and helps stimulate his imagination. Published by Spitball Studio, the series currently has two books available with more to follow. There’s also handmade plush dolls as well as fun t-shirts for adults and kids.



Wild Wild Weasel                                                               
ISBN: 978-0-9977982-2-7
Amazon:



Once Upon a Weasel
ISBN: 978-0-9977982-0-3
Amazon:

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Middle Grade Ninja TV 01: Author Laura Martin

Esteemed Reader, prepare to be transformed into an Esteemed Viewer! I'm jumping into the deep end and taking Middle Grade Ninja into a new medium.

Here is the first ever episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV. If y'all like it and some other folks want to be guests, we'll probably do some more episodes in the near future.

Laura Martin, my friend and author of The Edge of Extinction series discusses her newest middle grade novel, Float. She also shares intimate details into her writing process and her writer's journey thus far and provides unique insight to inspire authors at all stages in their career. Our discussion of the edited "skinny dipping" scene from Float alone is well worth your time. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this discussion between two middle grade authors about writing, publishing, and life.

Don't miss Laura's excellent guest post "The Art of the Middle School Presentation." 

And make sure you see her face the 7 Questions.

And now, enjoy the inaugural episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV:











From the critically acclaimed author of the Edge of Extinction series comes this fast-paced, action-packed, and heartfelt adventure about a group of kids with uncontrollable abilities, perfect for fans of Gordon Korman, Lisa McMann, and Dan Gutman!

Emerson can float…he just can’t do it very well.

His uncontrollable floating is his RISK factor, which means that he deals with Reoccurring Incidents of the Strange Kind. The last place Emerson wants to be is at a government-mandated summer camp for RISK kids like him, so he’s shocked when he actually starts having fun at camp—and he even makes some new friends.

But it’s not all canoeing and capture the flag at Camp Outlier. The summer of fun takes a serious turn when Emerson and his friends discover that one of their own is hiding a deadly secret that puts all of their lives in danger.

It’s up to the Red Maple boys to save themselves—and everyone like them.







Laura Martin believes in chasing dreams, and she brought that philosophy to her classroom for six years as a seventh-grade English teacher. She is the author of the Edge of Extinction series. When she isn’t writing stories about dinosaurs and underground civilizations, she can be found in the Indianapolis area with her dashing husband Josh, her two adorable kids London and Lincoln, and two opinionated bulldogs. You can visit her online at www.lauramartinbooks.com.

Her latest, Float, released on May 29th.





Friday, May 25, 2018

NINJA STUFF: A School Shooting Happened Here, In My Town

Fair warning, Esteemed Reader, I'm going to use just a bit of adult language in this post. I'm emotional today because I've just picked up Little Ninja after his school went on lock down following a shooting.

I don't want to be writing this. I want that amazing interview with my hero Louis Sachar, author of Holes, Sideways Stories From Wayside School, and other classics,  to be the top post at Middle Grade Ninja for as long as possible because it was a really big deal for me to get and you should read his interview if you haven't already. It's inspiring stuff and the proper subject of a blog about reading and writing middle grade novels.

But I live in the United States, so it was just a matter of time until a school shooting happened here, yes, even in a nice little Indiana suburb where we bought our house originally for the great schools.

They're still great schools. One angry young man with a gun doesn't change that. And truth be told, there was a time in my life when I might've been that angry young man. More on that momentarily, but first, let me tell you about my morning:

I had my coffee and read a good chunk of Float by my friend Laura Martin, who will be here soon to discuss her amazing new novel. I adore and admire Laura's writing, so the day started off right. I woke up Little Ninja, who wasn't feeling morning just yet, so I held him and let him sleep in my lap and read some more of Laura's book because cuddles from my four-year-old and a good book are the best thing in the world.

If this had been our last morning together, I'd know my boy knew I loved him. So I'd have that to hold onto as I spiraled into whatever Dr. Lois Creed Pet Semmetary madness awaits those poor fathers who lose their children. I can't imagine... but today, I'm forced to, and I tell you I'd never be okay again. Not ever.

Eventually, Little Ninja was awake enough to eat some toast, put on a long-sleeved shirt (he won't do short sleeves, despite a temperature of 75) and brush his teeth. We went outside to wait for the school bus. And he wanted a hug because he's only four and hugs from his dad are still wanted. The day may come when he's too old for all that, but I'm putting that day off for as long as I can. My son's love has given my life a greater significance than I ever expected it to have.

I wished the bus driver and the attendant a happy Memorial Day weekend and they wished me the same and it was all smiles and normality because this is small-ish town Indiana and we Hoosiers are generally happy folk who like each other. I've visited your big cities and lived in Chicago and that's fine if you're into that sort of thing, but I like knowing my neighbors and who's minding Little Ninja when I'm not--and that's ONLY during the couple hours a day he goes to early education, the two, almost three hours a day I'm not watching him. I trust the bus driver and attendant as well as Little Ninja's extraordinary teachers and the administrators at his school because I've met with all of them multiple times and determined them to be trustworthy.

The moment the bus left, I started on my usual morning walk during which I brainstormed some brilliant ideas for revisions to my newest novel, Banneker Bones and the Alligator People, which will be available this Halloween if nobody shoots me first. Banneker Bones is my favorite character and I was smiling and listening to The Dark Knight soundtrack, which always puts me in a Banneker mood, because all was right with the world, just another Friday morning, no reason to get excited, though there was one here among us who felt that life was but a joke.

I was nearly home, could in fact see my house in the distance, just as I'd thought of the perfect super hilarious thing for Ellicott Skullworth to say to Banneker Bones, when my phone buzzed with a notification: "Shots have been reported at Noblesville schools. Police are on site and all schools are on lock down."

And there it is. That's all it takes for the whole world to turn upside down and for nothing to ever be the same again. Never for one minute think your phone can't buzz with the same message.

Less than 30 minutes ago, I was the content father of a four-year-old. Am I still?

Oh my God, oh sweet Jesus, I know I wrote The Book of David and said a whole lot of mean and blasphemous things about organized religion, but please God, I take it all back, I'm sorry, Jesus, don't do this to me, don't do this to my wife, don't do this to Little Ninja's grandparents, please, Lord, I know I'm an American and I didn't protest for gun control because I was busy trying to make ends meet and I didn't take the threat serious, and I should've called my senators and congressmen, but I figured they don't care about me anyway and I had enough problems without worrying about the Washington swamp, but if You're real, if You were ever real, Lord, if any of the religion I learned in my youth ever meant anything, please don't do this,  I'm not home yet, God, You still have time to take it back, You can still make it okay, I know You can, don't do this, God, please, I beg You with my whole heart and soul and everything I ever had or ever will have, don't do this, I'll make it up to You, God, I swear I will, just don't take my son from me, I can't live without him, Lord, don't do this, Lord, please don't...

I ran all the way home.

I got online to read the news.

God didn't let my baby be murdered today. Or there is no God and I got lucky. I don't know. Maybe it's the Indiana in me, but I needed God to be real today and today She was.

When I read the news, I saw the shooter had already been apprehended. And it was the middle school, not the elementary school that had been attacked. So my baby was probably okay... probably.

It's Little Ninja's first full year of school. And he loves it. His teacher is truly one of the best human beings I've ever met. Hands down, Mrs. Sarah Dodson is a better person than I am. She has infinite patience and limitless love for her students. Every parent-teacher conference we've had, she's expressed love for my son and for her job and if it were up to me who Noblesville, Indiana built our next statue of, it would be her. My son has some special needs that have worried me a whole lot, and Little Ninja has made so much progress under her tutelage. I tagged along on a field trip on a rainy October day to a pumpkin patch and I personally witnessed Mrs. Dodson muddy and exhausted, but still filled with enthusiasm for her students. When I think of the great teachers of the world, I will always think of Mrs. Dodson.

Today, I saw Mrs. Dodson cry. Who would do that to so wonderful a woman? Who would make her hurt? What unjust, cruel, uncaring God would look down from Her heaven and allow that to happen?

I won't pretend to remember everything that happened this morning. It's all a blur of panic, but I remember thinking, please, Lord, make that son of b**ch Marco Rubio hurt. Let Ayn Rand sycophant Paul Ryan feel this pain (and please, let hell be real so there's a place for him to burn in after this life). Twist Mitch McConnell's turtle guts with the evil he's allowed to befall the people he was supposed to be watching out for. These are bad men, Lord, and enemies of the American people who sold their souls to the NRA and let innocent children be murdered so they could collect campaign contributions. They are worms crawling bare-bellied in the dirt and beneath my contempt.

I know this. Every American who reads the news knows this.

And you go straight to hell, Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who came to Noblesville to offer your empty thoughts and prayers when we know you accepted $2,896,732 in contributions from the NRA. You give up every cent of blood money you've taken and dedicate the rest of your life to making this right and maybe we Hoosiers can forgive you. Until then, go f**k yourself.

I thought of all this today, and of the political tweets I've sent and the occasional FB posts I've made, but all that makes no difference when there's a shooter in your community. I haven't attended any political protests recently (I can't get a sitter for Black Panther, let alone a protest march).

All that political rhetoric, all that wasted energy raging about what crooked officials are doing hundreds of miles from here in Washington means exactly f**k all when it's your child's school that's on lock down from a shooter and you get that call in the middle of your morning when you're supposed to be focused on writing a lovely children's story and imagining a better world.

Mrs. Dodson called me as I was watching for Little Ninja's school bus to tell me the bus wasn't coming. If I'd stayed home today, if the bus had brought Little Ninja to me as usual, this incident might've just been another school shooting on the news. I would've still been terrified, but one step removed. Instead, I had to go to the school in person.

Here's what I experienced and what you can look forward to happening to you WHEN, not IF, this happens in your town at your kid's school:

I arrived at the same elementary school I've been to dozens of times and turned into the wrong entrance despite being 100% sober because I was not in the right frame of mind. I still didn't believe my son was okay until I held him in my arms and even then knowing what could've happened, what maybe even did happen in another reality before God took pity on me and made it right, what might happen next time... I turned around, getting honked at by a passing driver, and then went into the correct entrance.

At the front door was a regular dude in a police uniform. Not an Avenger, not a member of the Justice League, just a dude like me if I were brave enough to put on that uniform. He assured the parents ahead of me that the victims of the shooting were probably going to survive, but he didn't know for sure. Of course he didn't. How could he? His job was to ensure the distraught parents arriving weren't packing heat and that's more than I did for my community today.

I went inside and showed my driver's license, but the people in the front office know me. I'm not an absentee parent, so they smiled and said, "Hello, Mr. Kent," and called Mrs. Dodson to bring Little Ninja to me. While I waited in the front office, another little girl of approximately six was brought to her mother. "Why are all the parents picking up the kids?" she asked. Her mother thought up a lie and she thought it up quick: "They must all be going to the lake for Memorial Day weekend as well."

No judgement here. If Little Ninja had asked, I'd have lied as well, and I admire the way this woman maintained a smile despite the tears in the eyes of the other adults present.

The next little girl who came into the administrator's office wasn't so charmingly gullible. She was in the fourth or fifth grade and if it hadn't been for her, I think I could've maintained, honestly. But this little girl saw her mother and burst into tears and I won't ever forget it as long as I live. She knew the danger she was in. She'd seen through the bulls**t and knew anyone could come to her school and kill her anytime and it was sheer luck it hadn't happened today.

And her mother was trying so hard to be a strong parent, to tell her that yes, Santa is real, and you can grow up to be anything you want even though the American economy is rigged against you, and of course you were never in any real danger. But she couldn't. Of course she couldn't. She burst into tears and embraced her child.

And I cried. God**nit, Esteemed Reader, I don't cry. Not ever. I've cried maybe three times in my whole adult life because big strong Hoosier men don't cry outside of when I'm watching a movie and it's cool to tear up a little when Spider-man tells Iron Man "I don't want to go," but I cried at real life today.

I'm crying as I type this, because I never thought I'd see something like that in little old Noblesville, Indiana. Because that nasty, awful stuff only happens on TV. It doesn't happen here where I live. That little girl knew she wasn't safe, hadn't ever been safe, not really, and I don't know how she'll ever feel safe in school again. And her mother couldn't maintain. Of course, she couldn't. I couldn't either. I doubt I'll ever forget today, but I know that little girl and her mother won't forget it.

They embraced and wept because they live in the United States where this happens all the time. Her child wasn't safe, my child isn't safe, and neither is yours. Politicians will stand back and let our children die so long as their campaigns are funded. Never think they won't.

It was at that moment that Mrs. Dodson arrived with Little Ninja. Probably she would've maintained. Mrs. Dodson is tough and I have infinite respect for her. But she saw that little girl and her mother and she saw me looking away and being all I'm-not-crying-you're-crying, because there are innocent children in this office and I'm not going to bawl in front of them.

Mrs. Dodson cried then and I cried. Maybe it's not appropriate to hug your kid's early education teacher. God knows I've never done it before, nor would I have under any other circumstances. We hugged and we cried and I said, "I'm so sorry this happened."

And she said, "He was safe. He was always safe."

Oh, Mrs. Dodson, how I wish that were so. And I don't doubt for a single second that you'd take a bullet for any of your students if it came to it and I love you for it, but my boy was NEVER safe in an American school. Not for one minute. It's his first full year of school and today I briefly thought somebody killed him just for wanting to learn.

Esteemed Reader, your children aren't safe either. Not in the United States.

And that's where I should leave it. I don't know how we fix this. I'm not that smart. We can write to our senators, but I don't have $2,896,732 to offer them unless y'all buy a whole lot more of my books, and politicians don't give a sh*t about average people. We know this. They think they're better than us and they're wrong, but I've seen the members of my fellow populace, and I get it.

Here's something else I know: I almost took a gun to school in the seventh grade. My father had a pistol in his closet he thought I didn't know about, but I did. And I put it in my backpack. I put it back where I got it before my bus came and my father never knew it was temporarily missing.

It's hard for me to accurately remember what went through my mind. Seventh grade was over 25 years ago now (Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast).

But I remember I was angry. Of course I was. Adolescence is hard, much harder than I care to recall. I had terrible acne and despite the title of this blog, I've never been ninja-like. I was chubby then and I'm chubby now, I've just learned that life is short and you can still find someone to love you despite chubbiness.

But seventh grade seemed like forever while it was happening; like it was all the time that ever was or was ever going to be, and my fellow seventh graders were as mean-spirited as I was. Everyday, I got picked on, and not just by the other kids, but by the teachers as well, and you bet I fantasized about making them pay.

Some of their scorn I brought on myself, not that I could see it then, being too young to know I was a jerk. I'd repeat just about any phase of my life, but Jesus save me, not middle school. If I should die a long, painful death, at least I won't be in middle school. Probably that's why in the one YA novel I've written, I made most of the adolescents zombies:)

Here's something that's been messing with me today: I wrote a novel in the seventh grade called James' Demon about my temptation as well as my very real fear, even in 1993, that one of my classmates might shoot me. That book won't ever be published (pretty sure it sucked), but I suppose I'll reread it tonight because here's what haunts me: the main character, James MaGinty, was haunted by a demon the way David Walters is haunted by Sexy Jesus in The Book of David, and that demon eventually convinces James to take a gun to school and shoot a bunch of his classmates.

Esteemed Reader, I'm wrung out. It's been a long day and my heart has been broken. The school I send my one and only child to everyday was threatened and I can't ever put Little Ninja on a bus again without wondering if I'm sending a lamb to the slaughter. I doubt any Hoosier parent here in my town will ever take that for granted again.

What I do know is we can't live like this. Don't kid yourself that this can't happen where you live. That's what I thought. America is a land of violence and violence will find you, even in the quiet town of Noblesville, Indiana. Even where you live.

I don't know what the solution is. Honestly. I think sensible gun control laws are a damn fine start and I think politicians not bought and paid for by the gun lobby would be an even better one. But I had access to a gun when I was in middle school, despite my father's being a responsible gun owner. I didn't shoot the place up. I wrote a novel instead.

I do know that the United States has an epidemic of gun violence and it seems unrealistic to hope all potential school shooters are also aspiring novelists. And I know that if I'd had no access to guns, I would've never even come close. And the young man today, who's name I won't publicize, couldn't have shot squat if his access to a gun had been restricted.

I don't know the young man, but I'd be real surprised to learn he was a pure monster from birth until he picked up those handguns. I'd be real surprised to learn he had no good qualities and no one ever loved him ever.

I'm not a monster. Adolescence is a hard and confusing time of raging emotions and if you never had a dark moment in your youth, that's great for you, but most of us had one or two. Kids are allowed to think dumb thoughts. Around that time, I also courted racism as a philosophy (white guy in a small town, remember). Yet, I've shared my life with a black woman for 13 years and Banneker Bones is a biracial boy just like my kid.

Children should be allowed to be wrong and explore dark thoughts. It's part of growing up. Our job as parents is to keep them safe and restrict their access to weapons so they don't hurt themselves or others before they reach adulthood.

Alas, our government is bought and paid for, and guns remain plentiful. I assure you, for every school shooting that happens, there are ten, twenty, maybe a hundred or a thousand or more that don't happen. If we take access to guns out of the equation, maybe we can further drop that number.

This isn't something that just happens elsewhere. It happened here. It will happen where you live. Unless we get serious as a nation and do something to prevent it. Heck, I'd even be okay with fewer school shootings. It would be a good start and fewer dead kids, though not perfect, would be better.

I pray we do that, Esteemed Reader. I pray you don't ever feel the way I do today. And I'm going to do more than think and pray. I'm going to speak out. And I'm going to vote.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Louis Sachar

Newbery Award–winning author Louis Sachar is the creator of the entertaining Marvin Redpost books as well as the much-loved There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, winner of 17 child-voted state awards.

Louis Sachar’s book Holes, winner of the 1999 Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, is also an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Quick Pick, an ALA Notable Book, and was made into a major motion picture.

After graduating high school, Sachar attended Antioch College for a semester before transferring to University of California, Berkeley, during which time he began helping at an elementary school in return for college credit. Sachar later recalled,

“I thought it over and decided it was a pretty good deal. College credits, no homework, no term papers, no tests, all I had to do was help out in a second/third grade class at Hillside Elementary School. Besides helping out in a classroom, I also became the Noontime Supervisor, or 'Louis the Yard Teacher' as I was known to the kids. It became my favorite college class, and a life changing experience.”

Sachar graduated from UC Berkeley in 1976 with a degree in Economics, and began working on Sideways Stories From Wayside School, a children's book set at an elementary school with supernatural elements. Although the book's students were named after children from Hillside and there is a presumably autobiographical character named "Louis the Yard Teacher," Sachar has said that he draws very little from personal experience, explaining that "....my personal experiences are kind of boring. I have to make up what I put in my books."

Sachar wrote the book at night over the course of nine months, during which he worked during the day in a Connecticut sweater warehouse. After being fired from the warehouse, Sachar decided to go to law school, around which time Sideways Stories From Wayside School was accepted for publication. The book was released in 1978; though it was not widely distributed and subsequently did not sell very well, Sachar began to accumulate a fan base among young readers.[6] Sachar graduated from University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1980 and did part-time legal work while continuing to write children's books. By 1989, his books were selling well enough that Sachar was able to begin writing full-time.

Sachar married Carla Askew, an elementary school counselor, in 1985. They live in Austin, Texas, and have a daughter, Sherre, born January 19, 1987. Sachar has mentioned both his wife and daughter in his books; Carla was the inspiration for the counselor in There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom (1988), and Stanley's lawyer in Holes.

When asked about whether he thought children have changed over the years, Sachar responded: "I've actually been writing since 1976, and my first book is still in print and doing very well. ... I don't think kids have changed."

Click here to read my review of Fuzzy Mud

Click here to read my review of Holes.

And now Louis Sachar faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?


The Unconsoled -- Kazuo Ishaguro
East of Eden  -- John Steinbeck
Clockers  -- Richard Price.

If I answered this at a different time or day, I probably would have chosen three others.


Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?


Maybe ten hours writing. Some weeks very little reading. Others, quite a bit.


Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?


During my last year of college, for an easy 3 units, I signed up to be a teacher's aide at a nearby elementary school.  It turned out to be my favorite class.  I loved being with the kids.  When I graduated, I decided to try writing a book about the kids I knew there.  That became Sideways Stories From Wayside School.

I mailed the manuscript to ten different publishers. One accepted it.


Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I think writers mostly teach themselves. It takes a lot of perseverance and a love of literature. I suppose writers are born with certain qualities that, if exposed to good writing, would choose to pursue it for themselves.


Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?


The freedom to let a story take me places I never expected; the way characters become real to me.

Least favorite thing?  The isolation. I have worked on plays and a movie, and I enjoyed the collaboration with other talented people. I don't have that when writing novels.  Yes, I enjoy working with an editor but it's not the same thing.


Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Don't expect too much from yourself. The first draft is always awful. The fun part is after the first draft is written, when you begin the process of turning it into something. My second drafts are also awful.  It's not until I get to the third or fourth draft of a book that I start to think it might be good.


Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Kazuo Ishaguro.  He's always been one of my favorite writers, and I am thrilled that he just won the Nobel Prize.









Monday, May 21, 2018

Book of the Week: FUZZY MUD by Louis Sachar

First Paragraph(s): Woodridge Academy, a private school in Heath Cliff, Pennsylvania, had once been the home of William Heath, after whom the town had been named. Nearly three hundred students now attended school in the four-story, black-and-brown stone building where William Heath had lived from 1891 to 1917, with only his wife and three daughters. 
Tamaya Dhilwaddi’s fifth-grade classroom on the fourth floor had been the youngest daughter’s bedroom. The kindergarten area had once been the stables. 
The lunchroom used to be a grand ballroom, where elegantly dressed couples had sipped champagne and danced to a live orchestra. Crystal chandeliers still hung from the ceiling, but these days the room permanently smelled of stale macaroni and cheese. Two hundred and eighty-nine kids, ages five to fourteen, crammed their mouths with Cheetos, made jokes about boogers, spilled milk, and shrieked for no apparent reason. 
Tamaya didn’t shriek, but she did gasp very quietly as she covered her mouth with her hand.

This is going to be huge week at the blog, Esteemed Reader. We've talked about my love for the writing of Louis Sachar before, of course (if you love middle grade fiction, but you don't love Louis Sachar, you don't love middle grade fiction), but this week Louis Sachar talks back! The author of Holes, Sideways Stories from Westside School, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, and many, many other classic middle grade works, not to mention the winner of a Newberry, a National Book Award, and many many others, the man, the myth, the legend, Louis Sachar will be here to face the 7 Questions on Wednesday.

When you're the man, the myth, and the legend, I imagine you can do just about anything you want within some thin threshold of reason. If. Mr. Sachar wanted to do a middle grade version of The Human Centipede, I'm sure somebody, somewhere would publish it and market it and sell the movie rights. I'd definitely want to read it:)

Fuzzy Mud is not a new version of Westside School or a Holes-ish adventure. This is a separate, new thing. Fans of Sachar will recognize some familiar elements inherent in the voice of the author we love, but one of the things I most admire about Louis Sachar is his diverse body of work. He's done a lot of different types of stories and books and left behind classics in multiple genres. If the returning reader drops any preconceived expectations about the book they're going to read and gives Mr. Sachar the trust he's earned, they're going to find a powerful book that moves the reader in a new way than Sachar has moved us previously.

It could be because I've been obsessing over the works of Kurt Vonnegut the last couple years, but in trying to classify the genre of Fuzzy Mud, I found myself thinking of it as being similar to an essay-ish novel like God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Both Vonnegut's and Sachar's novels have characters that interest us and a story that moves us, and yet the focus of both works is more the arguments of the author regarding society. Vonnegut's books opens, "A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees." Fuzzy Mud's leading character is, appropriately, some fuzzy mud:

Her mind barely registered it at first, but the more she gazed at the odd-looking mud, the more it drew her attention. 
The mud was dark and tar-like. Just above the surface, almost as if it were suspended in midair, there was a fuzzy yellowish-brown scum. 
Something else struck her as strange about the fuzzy mud, although it took her a moment to realize what it was. There were no leaves on top of the mud. Leaves had fallen everywhere else. They completely surrounded the mud puddle, right up to its edges, but for some reason, no leaves had landed on top of it.

There are some charming child-aged middle grade characters we'll get to in a moment, but the story of every character in this novel revolves around the fuzzy mud. And somewhere between a third and a half of this book is devoted to the perspective of adult characters. We'll be in the heads of parents and teachers before Sachar finishes, and most notably, we'll read large sections of transcripts from senate hearings:

In February of the following year, three months after Tamaya went back into the woods to search for Chad, the Senate Committee on Energy and the Environment held a new set of hearings. These hearings were not secret. By this time the entire world knew about SunRay Farm, Biolene, and the disaster that had occurred in Heath Cliff, Pennsylvania.

These transcripts serve a number of purposes, most chiefly among them is as a vehicle for the exposition our child protagonists have no way of knowing. Through the transcripts, we're going to learn the origins of the fuzzy mud and why it's such an environmental disaster. Sachar also has some assertions he wants to make about the corporate culture and legal loopholes that allow for the creation of the fuzzy mud.

Again, this is a novel about the sort of society that allows for Fuzzy Mud just as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is about the sort of society that allows for income stratification (perhaps it's a mercy Mr. Vonnegut didn't live to see the ongoing collapse of the United States due to trends he was discussing in 1965). To the best of my knowledge, the sort of mud Sachar is discussing is fictional, but it's plausibly imagined enough that I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was real.

Certainly, environmental disasters are real and the factors that create them are very real. To this day, I won't buy BP gas and I'm still furious that everyone involved in their spills hasn't been thrown in jail--but of course, we all know that neither justice nor the law apply to people above a certain income bracket (note the Koch brothers still walking around free and buying up politicians despite the many deaths their political meddling has caused). But let's not go down those dark tracts of discussion about how broken our reality is. Instead, let's focus on Sachar's fictional reality and his brilliance.

Exposition and theme expounding aren't the only use for these sections of the book devoted to transcripts. Sachar also expertly uses them to foreshadow coming events and to masterfully build suspense around the pending fate of our characters:

Thousands of people were infected. Five people had already died—the one found in the woods, and then four more who were infected later. 
Senator Foote: All because of one little girl? 
Dr. Peter Smythe: One week after Tamaya Dhilwaddi went into the woods, more than five hundred people showed signs of the rash, including many of her classmates. But it would be wrong to assume that it was caused by Tamaya. The invading organisms had simply overwhelmed the environment.

That passage probably makes a much greater impact when you know that Tamaya Dhilwaddi is our main protagonist. And what a wonderful protagonist she is. She's thoughtful, she's considerate, and she's caring, all of which are characteristics that are about to get her in a whole bunch of trouble. She's not just innocent, she's actively kind and compassionate, even toward a bully she should hate.

Too bad she's going to be poisoned by the story's real leading character.

But before that, note the expertise with which Sachar uses another character as a means to describe Tamaya's appearance, which is of interest. Note how he simultaneously describes her character, which is of importance:

Summer was the prettiest of Tamaya’s friends, with straw-colored hair and sky-blue eyes. Tamaya figured that was probably the reason the boys were talking to them in the first place. Boys were always acting silly around Summer.
Tamaya had dark eyes and dark hair that hung only halfway down her neck. It used to be a lot longer, but three days before school started, while she was still in Philadelphia with her dad, she made the drastic decision to chop it off. Her dad took her to a very posh hair salon that he probably couldn’t afford. As soon as she got it cut, she was filled with regret, but when she got back to Heath Cliff, her friends all told her how mature and sophisticated she looked.

See what he did there? We now know that Tamaya has dark eyes and dark hair. More important, we know that Tamaya cares what her friends think of her, that she's aware of boys but not boy crazy, and she's concerned about her father's finances beyond her own appearance.

Actually, there's a sub theme of money's scarcity to Fuzzy Mud, the way there is to a great deal of books written now in our time of the aforementioned pending economic collapse. The adults in this story are all struggling to provide a diminishing lifestyle for their families in a time of stagnant wages, which is a contributing factor to why there isn't more supervision to prevent the tragedy that occurs when Tamaya comes across that fabled fuzzy mud.

It's not a coincidence that our tale is set at a private school that none of the parents seem to be able to afford. Tamaya's most pressing concern is her school sweater, which she cannot afford to replace. Her friend, seventh grader Marshal, who is definitely not her boyfriend (it's a whole thing), has his own economic anxiety at home:

He’d gotten in trouble for coming home so late from school. He was supposed to have looked after the twins, and when he hadn’t shown, his dad had had to leave work early. 
“The only way we can afford to keep you at Woodridge is for everyone to do their part,” his father had reminded him. 

One of the questions Sachar raises is why there's no one to look out for the three children who are about to be exposed to mud.  Where are all the parents? And not just in a condescending way that made me go, screw you, Sachar, being a parent is hard, especially when you don't have that sweet Shia-Labeouf-stared-in-the-movie-version-of-my-book money:) 

Although, there is just a little of that. Consider this line by a school administrator during a mandatory evacuation:

“No, we need you to personally pick up your daughter. Your babysitter’s name is not in our files."

This is balanced, however, with a depiction of more caring parents who want to be there for their children and can't be. Sachar isn't making any definitive judgement other than that children need parents (anybody disagreeing with that premise?) and without them they're vulnerable. See how he is more sympathetic toward Tamaya's home life:


Her mother set down the pizza, kissed Tamaya on the cheek, and said, “Help yourself. I just need to answer this one email.” 
The pizza box smelled of onions. Tamaya had to pick off a few strays before putting a slice on her plate. She had to do it all left-handed, so as not to get any of the restorative hand cream on her food.
One email turned into six, but that was fine with Tamaya. The more her mother was wrapped up in work, the fewer questions Tamaya would have to answer. 
Her mother had made a salad as she’d read through her emails. She rarely did only one thing at a time.

I think even young readers who's parents are divorced, likely causing some sort of personal feelings in them toward a parent or two, will be sympathetic to the fact that Tamaya's mom gots to make dat papah. Nonetheless, all personal judgement aside, the fact remains that Tamaya is neither eating a delicious home cooked meal nor having to explain why she's put restorative hand cream on the rash she got after touching the fuzzy mud.

Because her mother is engrossed in work, she misses the rash that's going to threaten her daughter's life. Because she has a meeting scheduled the next morning, they schedule an appointment with the family doctor after school rather than before. Whatever the confluence of circumstances that led to it, Tamaya does not have the adult intervention she needs to prevent her rash from getting much, much worse.

Again, the leading character in this story is a patch of fuzzy mud, and the circumstances that lead not only to its creation, but to the exposure of children to it. It's sobering stuff, even as there's a lot of Sachar's usual humor throughout.

And there's more to this novel than we have time to discuss as this review is already running long. So we won't really discuss how Sachar shows us Tamaya's faith in God without beating us over the head with it. She prays and her faith leads her to do some heroic things, but I wouldn't put Fuzzy Mud in the religion section.  Atheists will enjoy this book as surely as people of faith because the focus is mud, not God.

We won't talk about Marshall and his complicated feelings about himself and Tamaya, but we will make just a little time to discuss Chad before we call it a day. Chad's a bully, and you know I love a good bully. He threatens Tamaya, but when he's afflicted by the same fuzzy mud, she sees past his gruff exterior to his sympathetic under-pinnings.

We'd go into that in more detail if we had time, but we don't, and what I really want you to know about Chad is that he's ultimately not so very bad. He has a couple speeches that are not unlike Judd Nelson's "No, Dad, what about you!?!" speeches in The Breakfast Club, but for the middle grade audience. Here's how birthdays are celebrated at Chad's house:

“No one cooked me lasagna,” Chad said. “No one did anything. You want to know what my dad said? ‘Why should we celebrate the day you were born?’ ”

This isn't a story about Chad's redemption. As I've said, it's a story about mud. But Chad's being sympathetic is crucial because the reader needs to see him as Tamaya sees him. Tamaya's biggest act is the saving of Chad because she believes he's worth saving. She's right, of course, but how can Sachar show us for sure? A number of ways, actually, but he does need to show us.

We need more than just Chad's word that his home life is the sort of toxic environment that breads an angry young bully. And because this is a book that occasionally dives into the perspective of adults, Sachar is able to provide third-party verification while still keeping his word count low:

But she knew the type of boy Chad was. Whatever had happened to him, wherever he was, she hadn’t thought it had anything to do with the rest of the school. Not that she hadn’t been concerned about him. She had been very concerned. She just hadn’t taken his disappearance as a danger sign for the other students. 
She remembered when Chad and his mother first came to her office. His mother wrote out a check for the tuition, handed it to her, and then, right in front of Chad declared, “He’s your problem now.”

And that's going to do it. Fuzzy Mud is a first rate environmental thriller that will both keep you on the edge of your seat as well as make you think. Obviously, we need to know no more than that this is a story by middle grade master Loius Sachar to know its worth reading. Don't miss this book and don't miss Louis Sachar's interview on Wednesday.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Fuzzy Mud:


Tamaya had sat quietly with her hand raised, but then someone else had shouted out, “I want Lincoln,” and then someone else had claimed Washington. Ms. Filbert had assigned those presidents to the shouters, even though she had just told the class, “Sit quietly and wait until I call on you.” 
It was Ms. Filbert who had suggested Calvin Coolidge to Tamaya when it had finally been her turn. “He was a lot like you, Tamaya,” she had said. “They called him Silent Cal because he was known for being quiet.” 
Ms. Filbert had said “being quiet” as though it were some sort of abnormal behavior. You’re the one who just told everyone to sit quietly, Tamaya had thought.

“Rashes are gross,” Monica agreed. “Tell them you stabbed yourself with a pencil!” said Hope. “That’s gross too,” Tamaya pointed out. “But it’s the kind of gross that boys like,” said Monica.

“Chaaaad!” she shouted.
She didn’t have a very loud or strong voice. Ms. Filbert was constantly trying to get her to pro-ject. “You have a lot of good ideas, Tamaya. You need to speak with authority.” Whenever it was her turn to read aloud in class, everyone always complained that they couldn’t hear. And out on the playground, sometimes she’d shout at Monica or Hope, and they wouldn’t hear her, even though they were just on the other side of the dodgeball circle. 
She tried again, this time putting extra oomph behind it. “Chaa—aad!” 
The extra oomph just made her voice crack.

His face was a mass of blisters, crusted with pus and dried blood, and so badly swollen, she could hardly see his eyes.

Within hours of the children’s rescue, everyone who had been involved in the search began showing signs of the rash: redness, small bumps, a tingling sensation. By the next morning, many of these bumps had turned into blisters, and people awoke to find a mysterious powder the color of their skin on their bedsheets. As it turned out, the powder was their skin, or what was left of it after the mutated ergonyms ate “the good parts.”








STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.