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Well, I made it to June. Not quite sure how, but I did.

Funny, when I wrote that May Madness post on April 30, I had no idea the degree of madness that would ensue. But, here we are, on a cold and rainy June 1. Aaaaaahhhhhhh.

The Young Authors Conference at Fairfax went very well. It was an extraordinary amount of work that required an army of volunteers, to whom I am eternally grateful. But we typed, printed and “published” more than 350 books, 285 of which were printed, tediously, double-sided, on my home computer. The kids produced stories that were funny, clever, creative, original, sometimes sad, a little bit crazy and, on occasion, deeply profound.  As one of my typing volunteers commented, “This makes me wish I knew these kids better. There is a lot going on in their minds!”  Indeed, there is.

Yesterday we had a culminating assembly with a local author, to which the students proudly brought their completed books.

A few brave kids got up to read excerpts including this familiar-looking guy, whose teacher challenged him to use non-human characters so his are mitts, bats and one very unhappy baseball:

This 4th grade girl wrote a beautifully moving, fictionalized tribute to her teacher who passed away very unexpectedly in the winter:

And this 1st grader’s pirate story had a battle “that lasted eight hours, which is a reasonable amount of time for a battle:”

I had the chance to get to know a lot of children, the youngest of whom began calling me “Young Author,” as in, “Look, there’s Young Author” on my daily trips through the building. And many of the kids were genuinely excited about the project and seemed eager to write more stories (although one of my favorite — and most honest — About the Author paragraphs said, “This is so-and-so’s first book and he doesn’t plan to write any more”!).

Ultimately I’m glad I did it and very very glad it’s over. There were several times, after late nights of typing up page after page of unpunctuated dialogue, when I said to Mark, “I don’t see how on earth I can possibly get this done. But I am going to get it done.”  And I did. With a ton of help, of course. Thank you to all, especially Amy and Cynthia of Lake Erie Ink, who partnered with me in this madness and surely, more than once, wondered what they’d gotten themselves into.

Now, I will host the Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast at school on Tuesday and help out with the 2nd grade picnic that afternoon and then, . . . then it’s summertime!

I certainly did not mean to insinuate that my child is not being exposed to literature in his current schooling. He absolutely is, and to a lot of it. His teacher has read them fabulous books, many of long-standing renown. She often (and wisely) reads the first in a series, without continuing on, which piques their interest and then allows the children to pursue the rest of the books on their own. That’s how Braedan was turned on to the Little House books, which I had never ever read until this year, and now with the Narnia books, which again I’d only ever read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Now, Braedan is reading them all on his own, plus I’m following along by reading them aloud at night.

Braedan has also had that wonderful experience of choosing a spot in the room, even under the desk, to enjoy a carefully chosen book. He has done this quite a lot in his English language arts class this year and it has fostered his love of reading in a way I had only dreamed possible a year ago. He absolutely totally loves reading and allows himself to get fully immersed in a story. He said recently that he finds it hard to go twenty-four hours without his book, even (he noted with some amazement) on the weekend, when reading is not so strictly enforced. He — and we together — have gotten to know the characters in some of these books so that we’ll refer to them in completely unrelated circumstances: “Wow, that reminded me of the way Pa always says….” and “I think if Digory were here, he’d ….”

Unfortunately, the reason Braedan has had such wonderful and free exposure to literature is because he’s in the highest reading class. (Of course, no one ever says these things aloud, but it’s true nonetheless…) I’ve seen, both as a teacher and now as a parent, that the lowest performing students (and those, one might argue, who most need exposure to high quality books) are the ones forced to do tedious and repetitive remedial work with little or no literary value. And that, in my mind, is unacceptable. Meaningful learning takes a long time and can be hard to measure, but it is still immensely important.

When I was teaching 6th grade language arts in Cleveland Municipal, I used to allow my students time to write, without specific guidelines, in their journals. I had created a list of possible topics for them to write about, unless they had their own pending issue. The list was stapled in the front cover of their notebooks and they could freely choose from among the nearly 50 topics.  Everything from “Do you think it’s better to be an adult or a child? Explain” to “If you could change one thing about your home life/school/neighborhood/world, what would it be?” Students had to truly think and then had to express their thoughts and opinions in writing in an effective and coherent manner.

The journal entries weren’t graded (gasp! today they’d have to come with a 4-point rubric) but I did indeed read them and often responded in writing right in the notebooks. It provided incredible insight into my students’ lives and minds and built a level of trust between us that served me well. But one day I sat in a meeting with some district administrators where we were discussing the various ways to teach reading and writing, and the woman in charge asked who used journal writing in their classrooms.  I proudly raised my hand (thinking, my god, who doesn’t?) and was completely shot down. She berated me and my methods because there was no measurable data generated from them and because they failed to correlate with any specific tested objective. Ummm, how about to think? To have ideas and opinions and actually express them?

The very students who most need opportunities to connect, either with literature or through writing, are the very ones whose educational experiences are being made narrower and narrower until the whole of what they “know” can be expressed by filling in a bubble.

And that, in my mind, is shameful.

I’ve just finished reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, an author whose books I’ve been disappointed by in the past. Not this one. It’s been out for years now and I was actually encouraged to read it by friends before Austin was even born. Then my mom read it following Austin’s first round of treatment and she encouraged me not to read it, thinking it would touch too close to home.

But I am not one to shy away from delving right into a subject, even a painful one, plus my curiosity was piqued, so I finally picked it up at the library and, well, I’m glad I did. There is something amazingly universal about parenting a sick child. It makes me really really want to get my book out there into people’s hands. Not that it’s some self-help miracle or how-to survival guide. But just that I know it will connect with readers, those with sick children and those without. It humanizes an experience that can be so terrifying and overwhelming that most people would rather just push it out of the way and ignore it. These kind of stories (my true one and Picoult’s made-up one) force people on the outside to see and feel what it’s like on the inside, and I think that’s a good thing. It gives us all a sense of empathy and understanding that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

My Sister’s Keeper is a fictionalized account of a teenage girl who’s had a rare form of leukemia for most of her life. It focuses in large part on her younger sister, who was specifically conceived to be a genetic match in order to donate cord blood and then bone marrow and eventually, as the book opens, a kidney, in order to save to her older sister’s life. (In reality, even a perfectly matched sibling cannot donate a kidney under the age of 16.)

The book jumps back and forth between the points of view of both parents, the healthy sister, the older brother and a few other characters. This is hard to do well, but it is done very very well in this instance. I was struck by the fact that when I was reading anyone else’s point of view, I strongly disliked the mother — she was blinded by the task of saving her one daughter, at the expense of her other children, herself and her marriage. She was overpowering and single-minded and, well, not very likable. But when I was reading her parts, I got her completely. I agreed with everything she felt and most of what she did.

Which is sort of scary, because she made a lot of really obvious mistakes, like completely ignoring the needs and desires of her other kids. She could not see beyond each immediate health crisis and I think the book serves as a serious warning to parents against such a narrow-minded approach to anything.

But, still, I get these parents. They are us and we are them, in so many ways. When faced with yet another pending crisis: “And yet — like always — you figure it out; you manage to deal. The human capacity for burden is like bamboo — far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.”

And this one, as they’re slowly (or quickly, as it turns out) realizing that their daughter has relapsed: “It takes only thirty seconds to realize that you will be canceling all your plans, erasing whatever you had been cocky enough to schedule on your calendar. It takes sixty seconds to understand that even if you’d been fooled into thinking so, you do not have an ordinary life.” Sixty seconds, and, whoosh, you do not have an ordinary life. No matter how badly you want it.

And in one of the many moments when their daughter is on the verge of death and the husband, like Mark has done with me, tries to gently but firmly prepare the wife for what he sees as inevitable. And she says, “She isn’t going to die,” and he says, “Yes, she is. She is dying,”  and the wife responds simply, “But I love her.” Like that’s enough. Like that one little reason, the thing that drives us all in almost every decision we make — how much we love our children — matters at all. It doesn’t matter, not a bit. It is completely irrelevant.

I read these books and I give myself over to them. I feel at once so relieved not to be those parents and so sorry that I am those parents. We are them, even when we don’t want to be. Different outcome (hopefully a better one), different parenting style (hopefully a better one), but we are all the same. We all just want to save our children. Because we love them.

I’m in self-imposed exile here, ensconsed in Chautauqua with my boys for two weeks. My dad asked me the other day if I was going through withdrawal from the blogosphere and I said, “Oh no, I’m still connected, I’ll still update every few days,” but somehow the days pass by and I never turn on the computer. It’s nice for me to wake up each morning (late, by the way — my boys have been sleeping in, today Austin got up at 9:40 and Breadan at 10:20!) and have nothing to do, no daily list to adhere to. We hang out, walk to the playground, the boys went fishing with their grampy today, the first day that actually feels like summer after a week of cool windy weather. I go for runs, tried out our new kayak yesterday, am repainting the porch furniture with Sarah. But no list of people to call, meetings to attend, blog posts to write.

So, life is good.

I’m ready to start thinking about my queries again and wanted to thank you for the comments and encouragement following my last posting. It was interesting to hear from so many people with experience in one or another of the arts, about rejection and success and luck and perserverence and all that.  I mentioned one of the messages to my dad and he said that the same thing is true in all aspects of life, from business to school to the literary world. Everyone is out there working and waiting and hoping for someone to recognize their talent and hard work and sometimes the right people get overlooked and sometimes the right people get rewarded. I am certainly not giving up and will rework my query and send out many in the following weeks.  My mom and I are going to an open mic and “literary feast” over at the Institution this Sunday, so we’ll see if that provides some inspiration (or connections!).

A small request, and I don’t mean to sound as if I’m fishing for compliments, but some of you have sent messages that describe what Austin’s story, or my rendering of it, has meant to you over the past year or two.  Now I know you haven’t read the actual book, but those of you who’ve followed the Carepage for all this time have a good sense of the framework on which it’s built, so if you wouldn’t mind sending me a quick line or two, a little gem, that distills for you why you’ve kept reading . . . that would really help me define the value of the book to the outside world.  This is particularly helpful coming from people I don’t know or don’t know well (or didn’t know well before all of this), since you would more closely represent the general book-buying public. In essence, why would someone who doesn’t know me and doesn’t have any reason to care about Austin’s well-being, enjoy this book? Thanks, guys . . . I like that I’m comfortable enough to even ask for such a thing. You are, as always, appreciated.

For now, the boys and I are eagerly awaiting “Daddy Day,” which is tomorrow (and can’t come soon enough). As I left them in their bunk beds tonight, I could hear Austin say, “Bay-den, when Daddy be Chautauqua?” and, from his coveted perch in the top bunk, Braedan replied, “Tomorrow . . . do you want me to come snuggle with you?”

Like I said, life is good.

I think I’ve been wrong. This book started out all about Austin. And it is obviously Austin’s story that sits at the center and that moves the narrative along. But this book is really about me and about being a mother. Or a parent. Or a person, for that matter. This is a book about hardship, of course, and overcoming hardship, but it is also about appreciating the little things, about relishing the joys large and small that come your way, about remembering what’s important.

It all sounds sort of cliched, “every cloud has a silver lining,” “life is what you make of it,” but it’s still true. I guess it’s time for me to sit down and rewrite these queries from scratch with that as my selling point — the human part not just the cancer part. Who really walks into a bookstore and chooses a book about cancer anyway, unless you’re living it at that moment. It’s all pretty depressing after all. And while my book is no doubt sad, depressing it is not.

This is such a revelation for me. I’m so glad I posted those letters and got such thorough and thoughtful feedback from so many of you (through all my various modes of communication, especially — of course — Facebook) about what has kept you coming back, even when the life-and-death moments were safely behind us, and reading my every word for the past year and a half. I wish I’d done it sooner.

Thank you. Yet again . . . thank you.

See, it’s a good thing when I post those big whiny complaints because I get so much encouragement and positive feedback, it keeps me going. I especially appreciated hearing from all the people who said they could tell exactly which words in the DF article were mine and which were the editor’s. I guess my voice is being heard above the static after all!

I’m taking a deep breath and diving right in by posting two verisons of my query letter for your very expert review. I feel nervous about this, like it’s easier to send these to perfect strangers (even perfect strangers who hold the key to my future career) than to show them to you. Sort of like how it’s emotionally safer to make out with some random crush at a party than to kiss your best guy friend (I’m talking years and years ago, people). You know, that sense of vulnerability or fear of judgement that exists with the people who know you best. But oh well, I’ve never been one for sitting on the sidelines avoiding vulnerability, so here goes.

Keep in mind that a query letter serves as your introduction to a literary agent, who you hope will then read your enclosed pages (usually five to ten, depending on what they ask for) instead of automatically putting them in the reject pile. This golden letter is one page and one page only (and both of mine, which officially fit on one page, veer towards long so don’t tell me to combine it all into one version). The query should include your hook (the quickie statement about what makes your book special, which I have yet to perfect), a brief synopsis or overview of your story, and any relevant information about the author (which can be left out if you have no publishing history). Agents receive upwards of fifty unsolicited queries a day, so they are rather quick to reject them. Feeling desperate yet?

And now…..

Version One:

Dear Gatekeeper of my Future (or Mr/Mrs So-and-So),

The luckiest. That is what we called ourselves, that is what we believed we were. We were wrong.

My 81,900-word memoir Whoosh: One Ordinary Family, One Extraordinary Year traces my son Austin’s eight-month battle with bilateral Wilms’ tumor, a rare and sneaky pediatric kidney cancer. All the elements of a typical cancer story are present: A family’s stunned disbelief as we slowly reconcile the idea of this dreaded, deadly disease with our lively, lovely child. The litany of gruesome medical procedures, surgery after surgery, complication after infection, night after night in the hospital. The anguish of parents forced to admit that even the fiercest love may not conquer all. But this narrative touches upon the unexpected as well: The atheist mother grappling with how to accept the prayers of others on behalf of her child. The moments of laughter and joy, normal family life carrying on despite our horrific new reality. The concern for all that our other son stands to lose, from his beloved brother to the gift of growing up in a home not shadowed by sadness. And also this: There is hope, amidst the gritty and the heartbreaking, the mundane and the humorous, there is always hope and there is always love.

Whoosh tells Austin’s story with raw immediacy, interweaving postings from the Carepage blog I wrote during his illness with private journal entries. The inclusion of the most poignant messages posted by Carepage visitors lends a conversational tone to the book, drawing the reader directly into our lives. Like Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place, you can “come for the writing, stay for the drama. Or vice versa. Either way, you won’t regret it,” (San Francisco Chronicle). But unlike Corrigan, who is stuck between being a mother and being a daughter, trying to balance caring for her sick father with caring for her sick self with caring for her healthy children, my role is unambiguous: I am the mother. And my task is clear and pure: I will care for my son, I must save my son.

I have enclosed the first xx pages and would be happy to send the completed manuscript upon your request. Please note that I am simultaneously submitting this to other agencies. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

KDG

Some comments, although I should really let you think these things on your own: It’s often recommended to compare yourself to a current book or author, while also pointing out how your work differs from theirs. Of course, my comment about Kelly Corrigan is a tad obnoxious as she is on the NYT Bestseller list and I basically said I was as good a writer as she. At least I didn’t say Oprah would love my book (which she would!).

And numero dos:

Dear xx,

The setting: From a hot July day to the cusp of spring the following year, from Cleveland’s premiere children’s hospital to our nearby home and back again and back again and back again.  The protagonist: Ten-month-old Austin, a sweet and spunky boy facing the fight of his life, while his parents and brother watch from the sidelines, doing all they can but never convinced they can do enough.  The antagonist: The brutal rogue that is cancer, six tumors destroying Austin’s kidneys, taking up vital space in his small body and challenging him and his family to an epic battle.

Whoosh: One Ordinary Family, One Extraordinary Year, an 81,900-word memoir, traces my son’s eight-month battle with bilateral Wilms’ tumor, a rare and sneaky pediatric cancer of the kidney.  Austin is obviously the hero of the book, but it is also a mother’s story and a mother’s journey, as she moves from a gloriously normal life to the edge of disaster and back again.  Part medical mystery, part epic adventure, part motivational guide, Whoosh is, at its essence, a love story: a great big public declaration of a mother’s love for her sick son, her healthy son, her husband, the family, friends, doctors and nurses, and wide community that sustained one family through its darkest hour.

Told with raw immediacy as the drama unfolds, Whoosh interweaves postings from the Carepage blog I wrote during Austin’s illness with private journal entries. The inclusion of the most poignant messages posted by Carepage visitors lends a conversational tone to the book, drawing the reader directly into our lives. While Austin’s tale is both as stunningly extraordinary and sadly ordinary as any other sick child’s tale, it is rendered with such an abiding love and endless optimism that this book would appeal to anyone who has ever been afraid,  down on their luck, or faced with a nearly impossible task. It is a lesson in hope, in community, in courage, a lesson in living and dying and loving.

I have enclosed the first xx pages and would be happy to send the completed manuscript upon your request. Please note that I am simultaneously submitting this to other agencies. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

KDG

Alrighty, there you have it. Please post your comments here, good and bad, I can take it, I promise!

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