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The Where of it All: Place and Story, a guest post by Kathi Appelt

underneathYears ago, when my novel The Underneath came out, one of the reviewers called it “Southern Gothic for the middle-grade set.” At first, I was a little on the crushed side, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realized that the reviewer actually got where I was coming from—they understood me as a person who dwelt on the beauty of extended syllables, who cools them down with iced tea from a jar, a person who was raised on William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. It shouldn’t have come as a big surprise that my voice was a reflection of that. I decided to own it.

 

 

 

And now, a little over ten years since the publication of that first novel, I have this new novel, Angel Thieves, that is also deeply ingrained in the place of it. Houston. Fourth largest city in the country, also the most diverse.

 

I really believe that the most important three things in our lives all start with the letter P. They are: People. Places. Pets.  They’re the “whirled P’s,” as my friend Liz Garton Scanlon calls them.  Our deepest loves, our most profound fears are found there. And they’re intertwined, woven together—whirled–in all the ways that generate stories. Try telling a tale without one of those three P’s.

 

For me, as much as I groove on my People and my six gifted and talented cats, Place is almost always where I begin when it comes to a story. You could say it’s the where of it all.

 

I don’t have to think for very long when I conjure up Houston. I remember the house where my sisters and I scrawled our names on the interior garage wall, and our big dog Sam watched over a batch of kittens after their mother was hit by a car. (Fyi, Sam was my role model for Ranger). I remember sitting behind a large window and watching the shingles blow off of the house across the street as Hurricane Carla’s winds shook every square inch of the city. I remember the drive-in movie theater called The Thunderbird, where I can still see Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera” from the fifty-foot tall screen.

 

Big, expansive Houston. It’s all sprawled out. And yet, it’s knitted together by those slow-moving bayous that flow right through her heart. 

 

But how did all of the stuff about this particular place play into my work? For one, it made me want to write a tale that was itself expansive, that spanned time periods and crossed borders. Likewise, it made me want to explore the indigenous plants and critters, including the mosquitoes who once spread one episode after another of yellow fever, each time reducing the population by dozens, hundreds.

 

This central wildness invited me to incorporate wildness into the very middle of my story, and that brought me the ocelot.  Like so many other species, they’re no longer extant in Houston. In her own way, because she was once native, she bridges the time spans of this story, from past to now, from dream to real.

 

To me, place also offers up its unique voices, what some call a sonic landscape. Houston has its own homegrown music. It’s a music mixed up by generations of freed Creoles with their German polka-playing neighbors, making Houston the birthplace of Zydeco. The sounds of an accordion, with its breath being squeezed in and out, the notes pushing and pulling against each other is pure Houston. I love the syncopation of it, the big mixture of joy and sorrow, all forced into those breathy notes. I kept Zydeco in my ear as I wrote, I looked for ways to push and pull the different threads of time and purpose, to squeeze the chapters when called for, to find some moments of joy and urgency and a deep sigh at the end.

 

There’s so much about Houston that calls to me, even though I haven’t lived there for some time. It feels ripe for Story. Not only that, but I come from seven generations of Houstonians. My roots are deep. I knew Houston. And yet, it wasn’t until I began to write that I felt like I was seeing the city clearly enough to set a story there.

 

We are always told to “write what you know.” There is a good amount of wisdom in that. But I also want to say, “write because you want to find out.” Years ago, I happened across the paintings of Houston artist John Biggers. One of them stood out to me. I was so struck by it, that I found that I couldn’t step away from it. Maybe I stood there for ten minutes. Maybe it was only ten seconds, but I’ve never forgotten it.

 

It was a painting set in the Fifth Ward, called “Shotguns,” for the style of houses that stand there, nothing at all like the Fifth Ward I thought I knew, a place considered at the time to be crime-ridden, run-down, the absolute poorest neighborhood in Houston. In this beauty of a painting, suddenly, I saw the Fifth Ward in such a different way. It wasn’t that Mr. Biggers denied the abject poverty. He didn’t. It wasn’t that he was trying to cover something over. He wasn’t. It was that he showed how a place occurs in layers. There was layer upon layer of the Fifth Ward, like looking into a receding wall of mirrors, or the striations of a canyon wall. Before this, I had only seen the surface of the Fifth Ward, an ugly, falling-down place, with trash-strewn yards and boarded up shanties. That was only one layer. And there was the message.

 

So this is, I think, what Place offers to us in matters of story: multiple layers that only that particular place can hold. For me Houston is a layer of rich black dirt, washing down from the Great Plains and piling up so that the azaleas blaze every March. It’s a layer of fog that streams up from the Gulf of Mexico and hides the skyscrapers, closes the airports. It’s a layer of animals and plants that came and went and might come again if we have enough heart for them. It’s a layer of flood after flood, always bracing for the next flood. Water, layers of water. It’s also a layer of families, including those that settled there long before the Europeans, long before the Mexicans and Texans, long before me. It’s layers of gospel and field songs and blues and Jim Crow and desegregation and Barbara Jordan. It’s layers written in twists and turns, like the Buffalo Bayou herself. Mother River. It’s seven generations of my family, many buried right along that bayou in the old Washington Cemetery.

 

It’s that Place.

 

So, I have told my students, and I will tell you, start with Place. Pull back the layers. Stand in the old cemeteries and ask your people to tell you their stories. Ask their neighbors to lend their voices. Ask the trees and the streetlamps and the nighthawks.

 

Ask that bayou. And then, let it be the where of it all.

 

 

Meet Kathi Appelt

Photo credit: Ken Appelt

Photo credit: Ken Appelt

Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honoree, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award–winning, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the National Book Award finalist The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man SwampMaybe a Fox (with Alison McGhee), Keeper, and many picture books including Counting Crows. She has two grown children and lives in College Station, Texas, with her husband. Visit her at KathiAppelt.com.

 

Connect with Kathi online:

Twitter:  @kappelt

 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kathi.appelt.7

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/29011.Kathi_Appelt

Pinterest board: https://www.pinterest.com/kathi5cats/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kathiappelt/

About Angel Thieves

angel thievesAn ocelot. A slave. An angel thief. 
Multiple perspectives spanning across time are united through themes of freedom, hope, and faith in a most unusual and epic novel from Newbery Honor–winning author and National Book Award finalist Kathi Appelt.

Sixteen-year-old Cade Curtis is an angel thief. After his mother’s family rejected him for being born out of wedlock, he and his dad moved to the apartment above a local antique shop. The only payment the owner Mrs. Walker requests: marble angels, stolen from graveyards, for her to sell for thousands of dollars to collectors. But there’s one angel that would be the last they’d ever need to steal; an angel, carved by a slave, with one hand open and one hand closed. If only Cade could find it…

Zorra, a young ocelot, watches the bayou rush past her yearningly. The poacher who captured and caged her has long since lost her, and Zorra is getting hungrier and thirstier by the day. Trapped, she only has the sounds of the bayou for comfort—but it tells her help will come soon.

Before Zorra, Achsah, a slave, watched the very same bayou with her two young daughters. After the death of her master, Achsah is free, but she’ll be damned if her daughters aren’t freed with her. All they need to do is find the church with an angel with one hand open and one hand closed…

In a masterful feat, National Book Award Honoree Kathi Appelt weaves together stories across time, connected by the bayou, an angel, and the universal desire to be free.

ISBN-13: 9781442421097
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Publication date: 03/12/2019

Writing Outside Your Own Life (and Not Chickening Out), a guest post by Jacqueline West

collectorsAs an author, I make a lot of school visits. And at a lot of school visits, a student will hurry up to me before my talk starts, hand me a lanyard microphone—the kind that links with hearing aids— and disappear again. I’ll wear the microphone as I speak, remembering, every time I bump it with an overdramatic gesture (which happens not infrequently), that one person in the crowd is experiencing the moment just a bit differently than everyone else.

 

I’ve always been drawn to stories about people who see things that others don’t see, who notice things that others don’t notice. I didn’t realize it until just recently, but all the main characters in my novels—at least so far—have this in common. Olive in The Books of Elsewhere finds magic spectacles that bring paintings to life. Jaye in Dreamers Often Lie has brain trauma that brings on Shakespearean hallucinations. When I started writing The Collectors, I knew eleven-year-old Van would be one of those people too. I knew he would be an isolated kid, shuttled around the globe by his opera-singing mother, often lost in his own miniature, collectible world. I knew he would perceive things differently from the people around him. But it wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I realized something huge: Van was hard of hearing. Suddenly, with that discovery, both the logic and the magic of the story fell into place.

 

My first instinct was to chicken straight out.

 

A story about deafness was not mine to tell. Deafness and hearing loss are not my personal experiences. There are no deaf or hard-of-hearing people in my immediate family. There are authors, like Cece Bell of El Deafo, who do have this background, and who have used it as material for recent, brilliant work. Of course, I write about characters whose lives are different from my own all the time—but this difference felt so foundational to my character’s experience, hoping that I could understand it well enough to use it in my own story seemed arrogant. Maybe even stupid.

 

My second instinct was to leave that element out of the story and just go on without it. But when I tried, I couldn’t get through a single scene. It felt like I had just met someone named Timothy and told him that I was going to call him Reginald instead. My characters wouldn’t go backward with me. They wouldn’t let me rip this vital thread out of the story. Van was hard of hearing. He just was. This was an important part of his life, and it had stemmed from the very heart of the story, and there was no way I could cut it out now without killing the whole thing.

 

So my third instinct was to give up on it completely. I would say goodbye to Van, a character I utterly loved, and goodbye to the magical world I had nearly finished building, and leave them on the shelf in my office that’s stuffed with other out-of-steam manuscripts. But days went by, and then weeks and months, and Van’s story refused to leave me alone. That’s when I started to hope that a fantasy about wishes and underground worlds and distractible talking squirrels—all experienced through the perspective of a boy with hearing aids—might be a story I was meant to tell. So I got help.

 

I read like crazy (I highly recommend What’s that Pig Outdoors? by Henry Kisor and Gerald Shea’s Song Without Words). I reached out to local DHH teachers, who let me visit with their students, interviewing them, shadowing them during their school day, peppering them with questions. (One of those teachers even read the whole manuscript for inaccuracies. Thanks again, Angela!) I met with a book club from a school for the Deaf, and with parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing kids. The generosity and insight of all these people were incredible. The things they shared with me combined with the Van who already existed in my imagination, giving him his own unique view of the world—a view that leads him into danger, wonder, and unexpected magic.

 

I was reminded of something important as I wrote this book: we all want to find ourselves in a story. When you ask people to share a tiny bit of themselves, so that you can weave it into a story that will resonate with others, they don’t usually say no. They say sure! And then they tell stories of their own. It’s such a gift—and it’s one that I hope I can pass along to every reader who opens a copy of The Collectors. That, and some dangerous wishes, and an underground collection, and a distractible talking squirrel. Hope you enjoy.

 

 

Meet Jacqueline West

JacquelineWest2.2017Jacqueline West is the author of the middle grade fantasy The Collectors, the YA novel Dreamers Often Lie, and the NYT-bestselling series The Books of Elsewhere. Her debut, The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere, Volume One), garnered multiple starred reviews and state award nominations, was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, and received the 2010 CYBILS award for fantasy/science fiction. Jacqueline lives amid the bluffs of Red Wing, Minnesota, surrounded by large piles of books and small piles of dog hair. Find Jacqueline online: www.jacquelinewest.com, Instagram: jacqueline.west.writes, and Facebook.

About THE COLLECTORS

Even the smallest wish can be dangerous. That’s why the Collectors are always keeping watch.

The Collectors sweeps readers into a hidden world where wishes are stolen and dreams have a price. Fast-paced, witty, and riveting, this contemporary fantasy adventure has magic woven through every page.

It’s the first book in a two-book series from Jacqueline West, the New York Times–bestselling author of The Books of Elsewhere series. For fans of Serafina and the Black Cloak, The Isle of the Lost, and The Secret Keepers.

Van has always been an outsider. Most people don’t notice him. But he notices them. And he notices the small trinkets they drop, or lose, or throw away—that’s why his collection is full of treasures. Then one day, Van notices a girl stealing pennies from a fountain, and everything changes. He follows the girl, Pebble, and uncovers an underground world full of wishes and the people who collect them. Apparently not all wishes are good and even good wishes often have unintended consequences—and the Collectors have made it their duty to protect us. But they aren’t the only ones who have their eyes on the world’s wishes—and they may not be the good guys, after all.

Jacqueline West, author of the New York Times–bestselling Books of Elsewhere series, draws readers into a story about friendship, magic, and the gray area between good and evil. The Collectors is for fans of Cassie Beasley’s Circus Mirandus and Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener.

Rah! Rah! Rah! Sis boom bah! School Is in Session, and It’s Time to Get Fired Up about Reading and Writing, a guest post by McCall Hoyle

McCall Hoyle, avid reader, high school English teacher, and published author of young adult books, shares her thoughts on the importance of firing up everyone involved in education when it comes to reading and writing for pleasure. Yes, just for pleasure. No grades. No logs. No strings attached.

 

As a high school English teacher, my job is to teach standards that pertain to reading, writing, listening, and speaking. I could do that all day long using nonfiction and classic works of literature. But teaching is about so much more than content. Like many educators, and I include librarians in the educator category, I see teaching as a calling. For me, teaching language arts is about more than decoding and comprehending words or constructing grammatically correct sentences.

 

Teaching language arts is about inviting students into the humanities to explore the lives of others and to wrestle with where they belong in this world. I also really, really want students to take risks and experiment with using their own voices aloud and on paper. And what better way to facilitate reading and writing than by immersing students in tons and tons of popular fiction?

 

Here are some of McCall's students in her school’s media center “tasting” books they might want to read for pleasure.

Some of McCall’s students in her school’s media center “tasting” books they may want to read for pleasure.

Nancie Atwell, my teaching role model and hero, cites a study in her book The Reading Zone. She references a study conducted by the International Reading Association that shows the single greatest indicator of academic success across contents is the amount of time young people spend reading for pleasure. If we trust Atwell and the IRA, and I certainly do, we best start spending lots and lots of money on all kinds of books. We must stock our public and school libraries, and even more importantly, our classrooms with high-interest books. Teens need to be surrounded by books. Books need to be displayed face out, and they need to represent a wide variety of genres, and characters, and authors that kids look like, sound like, and can relate to.

 

We know these things, yet time and time again, we in the classroom get sucked into the stresses and pressures imposed by pages worth of standards and hours and hours devoted to high-stakes tests, and in libraries there are the pressures of recommended summer reading lists and encouraging students to read what their parents and teachers want them to read.

 

Reading for pleasure matters. Experimenting with writing, and that includes poetry and fiction, not just five-paragraph essays matters too. That means we must arm ourselves with knowledge. We must charge ourselves to read more professional texts. Think the new release–180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle or an oldie but goodie, like Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone. We must vow to set aside time and money to attend professional conferences such as ALA and NCTE. And we must remind ourselves and each other daily of the importance of the work we do as teachers and as librarians.

Note the book tasting comes with placemats, menus, and silver trays!

Note the book tasting comes with placemats, menus, and silver trays!

Today, as we look out at the school year ahead, we must suit up in our metaphoric cheerleading uniforms and pick up the biggest megaphones we can find, and shout from the rooftops the principles that guide us in authentically teaching kids what it looks like to be literate in the twenty-first century.

 

Meet McCall Hoyle

Photo credit: Lily McGregor

Photo credit: Lily McGregor

McCall Hoyle writes novels for teens about friendship, first love, and girls finding the strength to overcome great challenges. She is a high school English teacher. Her own less-than-perfect teenage experiences and those of the girls she teaches inspire many of the struggles in her books. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s spending time with her family and their odd assortment of pets—a food-obsessed beagle, a grumpy rescue cat, and a three-and-a-half-legged kitten.

 

 

 

 

meet the skyMcCall’s second novel, Meet the Sky, releases September 4, 2018 from HarperCollins/Blink. It’s a story about a seventeen-year-old girl named, who’s struggling to keep her fractured family together. Sophie’s all about sticking to a plan—keeping the family business running, saving money for college one day, and making sure her mom and sister don’t endure another tragedy. Then a hurricane forms off the coast of the Outer Banks, and Sophie realizes nature is one thing she can’t control. She ends up stranded in the middle of the storm with Finn, the boy her broke her heart freshman year.

To learn more about McCall, her teaching, or her books find her on the web at mccallhoyle.com.

You can also find her on the following social media platforms.

Instagram: @McCallHoyleBooks

Facebook: @McCallHoyleBooks

Twitter: @McCallHoyle

 

What a strange time to be a woman, a guest post by Bree Barton

tltheader

Author Bree Barton, whose book, HEART OF THORNS, is out today, joins us to talk about freedoms, feminism, power, and stories. Hop on over to this link to see Amanda’s review of Bree’s new book. 

 

 

In some ways, we have never enjoyed more freedom. As I write this post, I am sitting in a café drinking crimsonberry tea and wearing short shorts—an outfit that would have seen my grandmother shunned by “polite society.” I went to a good school and got a good job. At thirty-three, I don’t have kids, and no one is pressuring me to. Last year I saved up money and took myself to Iceland for ten days on a book research trip. I never once felt unsafe.

 

In other ways, we are stripped of our freedoms every day.

 

I’ve always been interested in what it means to have a body, especially as a woman. What brings us pleasure? What brings us pain? Who has control over our bodies? I wish the answer to the last question were unequivocally “ourselves,” but we know that isn’t true. Controlling someone else’s body is about power, and historically, that power has belonged to men. The church. The government. Husbands. Doctors. And, most recently: the Supreme Court.

 

But to be perfectly honest, those questions were not at the forefront of my mind three years ago, when I started writing my debut fantasy novel.

 

We’d had a good few years. I canvassed for Obama in 2008, riding the wave of optimism undulating across the country. Sure, the years under the Obama administration weren’t as rosy as they’d appeared on those “YES WE CAN” posters. But they weren’t that bad. Right?

 

Besides, we had Hillary. I watched Hillary Clinton decimate Donald Trump in the debates with tears in my eyes and pride in my heart. We were going to have our first female president. If I did decide to have children someday, they would grow up never questioning that a woman could be in charge.

 

As a cis white woman, I thought about power in an abstract sense, the way a palm tree imagines a blizzard. That’s the thing about privilege: it’s so inherent for those of us who benefit from it, most of the time we don’t even know it’s there. I knew my book would have magic—it was, after all, a fantasy—and magic typically involves an exploration of power. But that was just fiction. It wasn’t real.

 

Then November 2016 happened.

 

Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of what people of color, my LGBTQIA+ friends, and anyone from a marginalized community had known all along: the world was not an equal playing field. The game was rigged. I only got a taste of the reality they faced on a daily basis, but that taste was staggeringly bitter.

 

Though I will never understand their centuries of pain, I began to see the ripple effect of our new president’s policies. I could no longer afford my health insurance. On my last covered trip to the gynecologist, she urged me to consider an IUD. “Just to be safe,” she said. “Since we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

 

Meanwhile, one of my favorite nonprofits closed its doors after 20+ years. My local library had to abbreviate their hours, thanks to budget cuts. Nightmare stories began to pile in—hate crimes, casual racism, threats to deport kids from LA Unified. I did what everyone did: Unfriended bigoted relatives on Facebook. Read all the memes. Cried over the thought pieces. Called my representatives.

 

heart of thornsAnd then I took the draft of my debut novel—and I burned it to the ground.

 

Heart of Thorns didn’t start out as an expressly feminist fantasy. I hope everything I ever write is feminist, but not until the presidential election did the story truly snap into focus.

 

In the first two drafts of HoT, I had a fuzzy concept of an “evil king.” After Trump seized the throne, let’s just say that character emerged in high definition. For the first time I saw King Ronan of Clan Killian for what he was: a hateful tyrant who seals the borders, persecutes people of color, and abuses his bisexual son. A man who not only condones assaulting women, but makes it actual policy.

 

I wrote about the unmitigated reality of the United States: racism, misogyny, xenophobia, hate. Sci-fi and fantasy authors talk a lot about wordbuilding, but for me worldbuilding was a three-prong process: read the news, shudder in horror, then write it into fantasy.

 

As I shredded my draft to ribbons, a new question knit itself together in my brain. What if our bodies evolved to shift the power imbalance? What if the “tables turned” and magic focalized in a woman’s body gave her power over men? How would she use that power? For good, or for evil?

 

I knew in my bones I wanted to create a magical system in which the female body had evolved to right the imbalance of power. In the world of Heart of Thorns, this power is why women are feared and hated…but the more they are feared and hated, the more powerful they become.

 

This is a strange time to be alive. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from the heartbreaking events of the last two years, it’s that we have never needed stories more. Stories allow us to write about the horrors of the present—and they also empower us to write the future we desire.

 

In 2017, I launched Rock ‘n’ Write, a nonprofit dance and writing class for preteen and teen girls. Every week we come together to dance, write, and connect; to move our bodies and open our minds. What I tell my girls is, stories have power. Anyone who tells a story—or crawls inside the ones they read—does possess magic.

 

Today’s culture tries to alienate us, to remind us of the ways we are different. Books remind us of the ways we are the same. We need libraries now more than ever. We need librarians to lead kids to books. We need stories to shine light on every corner of humanity—the bad, the good, the resplendent. This is why we read. Always and forever, we yearn to be drawn into the light.

 

 

Meet Bree Barton

Bree BartonBree Barton is a writer in Los Angeles. When she’s not lost in whimsy, she works as a ghostwriter and dance teacher to teen girls. She is on Instagram and YouTube as Speak Breely, where she posts funny videos of her melancholy dog. Bree is not a fan of corsets.