Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Back to School: THE BEST LAID PLANS . . . Bringing THE PULL OF GRAVITY into your classroom

Back to School? Teach OF MICE AND MEN?
Looking for a contemporary companion?
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BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THE PULL OF GRAVITY AND OF MICE AND MEN:   People often ask why I incorporated John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men into my contemporary young adult novel, The Pull of Gravity. The short answer is that it was part intention, and part serendipity.
The Pull of Gravity follows teens Nick Gardner and Jaycee Amato who, armed only with the wisdom of Yoda, a rare first-edition copy of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and the vaguest of plans, embark on a secret road trip to try to keep a promise to the Scoot, their dying friend.
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With the words “vaguest of plans,” those familiar with Of Mice & Men will already recognize a glaring connection between the works: In both stories, plans go awry, and, in the course of the unraveling, Nick and Jaycee (like Lennie and George) learn some valuable, if at times painful, life lessons.
Intention vs. serendipity.
When I started writing The Pull of Gravity, I knew first and foremost that I wanted to write a character-driven piece, the ilk of which I read as a kid from the likes of Zindel, Blume, Konigsburg. To me, character-driven means that the characters are *the* reason you want to know the story, and not the other way around, with the plot driving the story. As Nick and Jaycee formed on the page, I thought, ‘how better to see if Jaycee is as persuasive and intriguing as I want her to be (and the chemistry between the two teens as real as I hope), than by seeing if she can *sell* the merits of an often-taught work of classic literature to Nick, a 15-yr old boy.’ Hence, the muse-driven idea of incorporating a classic novel into my debut was born.
But which piece of classic literature to choose? That is where intention factored in, and the connections between The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men began to take shape.
No alt text provided for this imageWhy Of Mice and Men?
The main reason I chose Of Mice and Men was for the theme of friendship that reverberates through it. Indeed, the ending of Of Mice and Men may contain the ultimate act of friendship to be found in modern literature. Likewise, friendship is the main theme in The Pull of Gravity. Nick and Jaycee need each other, and their friendship buoys them through a time of change, heartache and pain.
I’ve also attempted to keep some structural similarities between the pieces. Of Mice & Men is a short work of fiction – a novella at 107 pages. George and Lennie’s story takes place over a mere four days. They set out on a Thursday and the story concludes on a Sunday.
While The Pull of Gravity is a longer work at 208 pages, the time frame of the story is brief, and the main part of Nick and Jaycee’s journey, to wit, their time in Rochester, NY, also unfolds Thursday through Sunday.
When I go into classrooms, I love to talk to students about how Steinbeck was able to create so much empathy for, and connection to, his characters in the space of so little time (and so few words) – the reader gets to know George and Lennie and, more importantly, to care about them, in not much more than a mere breath.
Similarly, Nick and Jaycee’s relationship unfolds quickly; they become important to one another – and, I hope to the reader— over a brief period.
Other Common Themes
- The American Dream (“Everybody Wants a Place of their Own”). Both The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men deal with the desire to attain the American Dream: work that is bearable (if not more) and a small patch of land that feels like home. In The Pull of Gravity, Nick’s father is unable to attain this goal, to balance metropolitan career aspirations with his family’s move to the suburbs, which is one of the failures that spurs the main action of the book. Similarly, Jaycee is relegated to her mother’s new husband’s gaudy house, and, moreso, to the fluffy pink bedroom of the new husband’s daughter that will never feel like home.
Of Mice and Men illuminates the prejudices suffered by Lennie because of his mental disability, but also the challenges for George, his friend, in trying to care for him. In The Pull of Gravity, the Scoot has a physical, rather than mental, disability, and while he doesn’t suffer the direct prejudices Lennie does, Nick – just like George with Lennie – grapples with his role as a loyal friend versus obligated caretaker. Of course, ultimately, his love and loyalty shine.
Loss & Loneliness
The Pull of Gravity opens with this quote from Of Mice and Men:
“Lennie broke in. ‘But not us! An’ why? Because…because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.’ He laughed delightedly.”
This quote epitomizes the friendship theme that resonates through both stories. Without each other, George and Lennie have no one. Similarly, Jaycee and Nick experience a lack of fitting in, connecting, feeling grounded in their own lives, until they find one another.
Of course, the counters to friendship are loneliness and loss, and these themes also run through both stories. George and Lennie have suffered loss when we first meet them, and, once at the farm, there is the loss of Candy’s dog, of Lennie’s puppy, of Curly’s wife, and ultimately each other. In The Pull of Gravity Nick, Jaycee and the Scoot all suffer loss (whether temporary or permanent), of family structure, of innocence, and of friendship. It is a bond they have in common and that, ultimately, brings them closer together.
*this 2011 essay written with the generous assistance of Paul W. Hankins.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Maybe Your Students Need More Stories About Mental HEALTH

(adapted from an article I wrote on Linked In)
As we get ready to send our children, our adolescents, our teens and young adults, back into the classroom, it's time to think about those fall stressors, what each child is dealing with at home, in their personal lives, plus the pressures they face, perhaps, from the kid sitting next to them, or waiting for them down the hall.

Knowing this, knowing how many of our teens, especially, are suffering these days, many educators will encourage them to read books about mental illness. There are long lists of such books, many of them great, compelling stories, many award-winners, but how often I wish these stories reflected less about mental illness and more about mental HEALTH.
In fact, IMHO, some of the most famous of these books seem to glamorize mental illness and/or suicide in problematic ways. In these stories, the adults are rarely helpful and rarely very present at all.
In the face of rising natural, and unnatural, disasters, there's an oft-quoted Mr. Rogers' line, "Look for the helpers," but so often in these stories our kids read, the helpers, quite frankly, just aren't very good. They really don't seem to care much. They don't have much skill.
When I sign copies of STARS, I often include
a replica of Sister Agnes Teresa's ladder up.
Because who doesn't need a ladder up sometimes? 
I wondered why this was. . . and, as I wrote and shaped IN SIGHT OF STARS and realized my protagonist, Klee, was in a bad way and needed help, I wanted to present the other side, the side I have been lucky enough to experience -- from my high school guidance counselor who offered me a safe haven through all of junior and senior year, through some of the extraordinary therapists who have helped me and my family through some of our roughest times, their roughest times, as I raised my kids.
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That is Dr. Alvarez, a character modeled largely on a real therapist, a true and extraordinary helper who patiently works with Klee until he is ready to participate in his own healing during his stay at an in-patient rehab facility in a fictional town in upstate NY.
Therapists can be like shoes -- it often takes several tryings on before you find one that fits, find one that is comfortable, the right size and style for you. But they are out there, and I'm hungry for them to be fully reflected in books for teens.
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Similarly, I'm anxious for the use of psychotropic medications, where needed, to be positively reflected in young adult stories, which is to say, they don't change who a person is, or undermine their ability to be creative -- If they are, perhaps that person is on the wrong medication for them, or the wrong dosage. My experience with such medications is they simply allow the person to function more typically, as themselves, by quieting or taking the edge off atypical and problematic body chemistry.
In IN SIGHT OF STARS, Klee needs the help of medication for the time being, and may not need those medications in the near future.

No alt text provided for this imageYes, there is language in the story. YES, there are intense situations. Have you seen what our kids are privy to these days? Have you met any of our teens?
Look, all I know is our kids need help and support ,and if you want them to feel safe seeking it out, share stories with them where the help HELPS. Because it can, and does.

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I promise, it can and does.

- gae

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Friday Feedback: Speaking my truth fearlessly, and asking you, How will YOU write forward?

"To tell the truth, Pop, there’s a whole slew of people missing points.

There are people busy condemning books they haven’t read.

And people trying to regulate who is allowed to write what." 
A few years ago, writers, especially in the children's book market, started speaking out loudly. Calling out other writers. The underlying reasons were good. The initial motivation altruistic and important. We need diverse books. We need "own voices." Mostly no one debated this. At least not those in our industry. More importantly, mostly everyone wanted to help! Really! We chimed in. Amplified diverse voices. Shared diverse titles. And more. 
And yet.

IMHO, like with religion wherein the core of each is good, yet the interpretation of each has sparked nearly every war throughout history, the WNDB/OwnVoices movement -- and motivations? -- seem in some instances to have morphed, gotten bastardized. I can't really think of the right words.

I won't go into further detail. If you're paying attention to our industry, you already know what I'm talking about. Articles have been written. Books have been cancelled. Anger and righteousness have been spewed.

Anyway, Christopher Myers says it best up there, and right here:

"And Pop, don’t get me started on Twitter. 
You’d be amazed at the number of people who think they can say something 
nuanced and important and
worth the time it takes to type it, in 280 characters. 
I don’t think they love language the way you taught me to, 
at least most of them don’t."

What I will say is that, while trying to lift others daily, I spoke out against the anger, the delivery, and the platform. I spoke out against the calling out that sent good people spiraling, into actual despair (yes, even non-white authors) while also suddenly seeming to sell the books of the callers-out in the process (which, yes, troubles me). I also spoke out against subsets of "other" left woefully out of the diversity conversation, especially Jewish authors, and Jewish books, and yes this continues, and yes I can give you examples if you need them.
As a result of speaking out (either on my private facebook page or a friend's private page), last summer I was essentially told I was tone policing (notable that I was only ever concerned with the behavior of either white writers or certain others who point blank told me they had zero duty of good faith) and asked to leave Teachers Write. I was told that despite (or notwithstanding) my politics,  my day to day actions in voting, marching, protesting, donating, lifting others, and simply doing my best to exist as a good human, that I was "not on the same plane about representation," and thus not worthy of being a part of TW anymore.
I decided last summer, when announcing it would be my last as part of TW, to gently share on my own blog here that I was not leaving my campers of my own volition.

In response, I was told not to speak about it, not to share my own truth, by a well-known children's book writer I barely know. Here's the DM I received:

Begging people to know my truth? Actually, yes, perhaps that feels important to me.

So, this is me, now, on my quiet little blog that almost nobody reads anymore, speaking my truth, because sometimes the truth will, in fact, set you free.

I didn't want to leave Teachers Write. I was asked to leave.

So, this is me saying farewell to this feature I started so many years ago, before Teachers Write, when my first book was bought by fsg.

Please know, I did try to continue Friday Feedback this summer. But, without the community I helped build, especially on facebook (the page there having been my initial idea -- and me having been the one to initially breathe life into it and maintain the interest there even in the off season, but having since been archived though I requested to keep it), there's just not enough activity here. We had cultivated over 2,000 followers there, and though a few hundred of you have joined me on the new Friday Feedback page I started end of last summer, it simply isn't enough to bring enough of you here each week to justify asking guest authors to write posts, or even for me to put in the time it takes to
Me, on my computer screen, talking with my online
novel-writing class.
put each blog post together. Especially at this time in my life when I'm juggling teaching in-person novel writing classes as well as online (ask me about this!); four manuscripts in various stages of writing/production; a dog who needs walks and attention; my kids (who need versions of the same ;) ); a very part-time law practice; weekly, if not daily, activism; household to-do lists, and, of course trying to yoga and swim. Whew!

YES, this makes me sad. 

YES, I will miss it and all of you (though presume I will continue to see all my hard-cores elsewhere. . . )

So, that's that. I have NO further need to discuss it all, and request that you refrain from bringing it up the comments OR ELSEWHERE (though I get this is public and I'm really not going to be able to stop you). Look, as they say, it is what it is, I know who I am, and I am more than ready to move forward with new ventures.

But where to leave you all? 

Us all.

Happily, teaching online. :) 

I leave you with my sincere wish that you continue to write forward.

That you KEEP GOING.

That is all.

So, here's my question for you:

You've started something you love.

You've started something you might love.

You've started something you hate, but you've always wanted to write, and, heck, maybe you will love down the road.

Here's the fancy water I serve to my in-person
novel writing workshop students for inspiration!

You've yet to start something, but you have always wanted to.

How will YOU write forward?

How will YOU carve out the time a few hours a week, to do what you love, to do what moves your soul, to tackle this item on your wish list? To be who and what you want to be?

I've said this over and over again, the time IS there. You have to carve it out. You have to make it, then TAKE it.

Here are a few thoughts I shared with my in-person novel writing group last night for when our weekly classes end in two weeks, and fall sets in and busy fall schedules ensue:

Pick two times per week that could work for you to write (say, Wednesday nights when you used to come here to class anyway, and Sunday mornings before everyone else wakes up. Tell your partner, your kids, your dog, this time is YOURS. That you're a writer. And that's what you will be doing during that time. Better yet, leave your house for the library, the local coffee shop, a park, the beach, etc. for those hours. Heck, sit in your car in the driveway if it's too late at night to go anywhere.

Engage in physical activity/see the world (or just around your local world). Sitting staring at a blank page or screen, especially when you're "stuck" will rarely get you going or inspired. Go for a swim, a bike ride, a walk. Go do something new you've never tried before. The world is full of endless inspiration. Write into yours.

So, how will you write forward? I'd love you to share your intentions in the comments, along with your excerpt for feedback.

Now, without further ado, let's Friday Feedback. You know the rules (but in case you don't, read them here: THE RULES).

Here's another excerpt from an adult manuscript I'm working on. A few weeks ago, you saw Paul. This is a glimpse of his wife, June.

Looking forward to reading yours. 

Twenty years after.


June Sobel sits at the living room window, across from the piano, and stares out at the patchy lawn. She’s not thinking about the small lump her OBGYN found in her breast yesterday morning, or the biopsy she has to go in for next week. She’s thinking about Gabriel and the time he explained chord progressions to her, a moment that comes back to her lately, again and again.

“Since there are only so many chord progressions to choose from,” he’d told her, “you can’t protect them, or accuse other people of stealing them.” 

He’d been sitting at the piano, then, absentmindedly fiddling with the last two high-pitched keys, to the point where she’d lost her patience, annoyed at the repetition. It infuriated her, the way he’d do that, play nothing at all, or worse, something aggravating just to get on her nerves, when he was more than capable of playing something beautiful.

Thanks for sharing along all these years.
And an especially huge thank you to all the guest authors!!!

With love and affection,


Friday, July 26, 2019

Friday Feedback with Sarah Aronson: Top 5 things about writing picture books—even if you think you are a novel writer.

Hey, all, Happy Friday! I am so ridiculously happy and honored to have Sarah here. She's an extraordinary writer, teacher and human, and I'm so thrilled she agreed to be here to give feedback to you today!

I was especially excited for the release of Sarah's awesome new picture book, JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG, because, from a young age, my parents taught me about him, and his name became like Kleenex-for-tissue in our house, a two-word description for anything that was deliciously eccentric, complicated, or complex. Here's a brief description for the book!

Discover how Rube Goldberg followed his dreams to become an award-winning cartoonist, inventor, and even an adjective in the dictionary in this inspiring and funny biographical picture book.

See? An adjective!! Yes!! Just like he was in our house!!!

So, please check out this -- and her other books, order a copy for your classroom or kids, and ask your local library to order it in if they haven't already. A worthy title for any and all collections!! And now, without further ado, here's Sarah, who, I think, expands on the concept of finding the joy and play in our work as we go along we started talking about last week, and then shares FIVE awesome tips for picture book writing:

Hey there! My name is Sarah, and I like to write in multiple genres. 

I didn’t think it was going to be this way. 

A couple of years ago, after two YA novels and a MG novel, I took the dramatic (at least to me) step to try and write the genres I didn’t think I was good at. I have talked about this decision a lot over the years. Mostly because it changed my career. And made me a happier writer. But at the time, I didn’t know what was going to happen. All I knew is that my third book sold poorly. My fourth book didn’t sell.

I was having less fun. 

I needed to get out of my own way. To learn to play. To be like David Bowie. To embrace the creative life all over again. To think less, write more. 

And did I say have more fun?
I really wanted to have more fun.

During the next six months, (and ever since) I totally indulged myself. And it worked. I wrote The Wish List Book One: The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever. 

I started an adult novel (that I still have to finish). I wrote a bunch of picture books—some awful. Some didactic. Some pretty good. One of them came like a spark of inspiration. It became Just Like Rube Goldberg—which was published by Beach Lane Books with GORGEOUS illustrations by Robert Neubecker. 

The process of making that book taught me a lot. More than five things. But today, let’s talk about the top five things about writing picture books—even if you think you are a novel writer.

Let’s start with the thing everyone talks about when they talk about picture books: 

Here is what I learned right off the bat: Short word count is not a demotion. It is a challenge to get to the heart of the story. To embrace THE FORM. 

A short word count helps create better pacing. 
(Don’t you hate it when you are ready to turn the page for a new illustration, but there are still more words to read???) Remember: picture books (like all books) are cinematic. But unlike novels, they are driven by and inhabited through the pictures. Although the words come first in the submission process, the words cannot interfere with the illustrations. 

When I saw Robert’s illustrations taking shape, I deleted words.

Now when I work on my picture books, whether fiction or true stories, I try to make them as short as possible. Because words you don’t need are…well…words you don’t need.

Or in other words: you have to love what you are writing.
Or in other words: your heart must be in your story.

Just like Rube Goldberg is all about Rube. But it is also all about ME. It’s about my ideas about creativity—that are embraced by Rube’s. Every second of the process was FUN. Even when I was frustrated with my own limitations, I was enjoying playing with the words. 

If you are not having fun…
If writing is not feeling like ice cream…
If you are making decisions because of THE MARKET. Or BECAUSE SOMEONE TOLD YOU SOME RULE. Stop.

Start a new page.
Find your heart in the process.
(You will thank me later.)

Writing a true story? BACK MATTER MATTERS. Back matter isn’t just a chance to show off how much research I did. Back matter marks the spot where curiosity met process. (Not for nothing, editors like to see that you did your work.) TRUE STORY: when I was researching Rube, I actually found ANOTHER STORY. But mostly, thinking about back matter made me think more about my reader. There was a lot more I could have shared. I created back matter and a bibliography knowing that my readers would be curious, too. I want them to keep learning after they are done reading, since the book couldn’t be about everything. 
Note: I will be on a panel talking about this at NCTE. Come say hi!

See your story on the page.
Draw bad drawings.
Read your book and turn the page. 
My first Rube Dummy showed me where I needed to show more.
The dummy I just made for my new secret project which I cannot announce yet (Shhhhhhhhhhhhh), showed me where I was overindulging and writing too many words that I did not need. When I cut those words, THE BOOK SOLD.



Just like any project, you have to trust yourself. 
You have to trust your reader friends.
You have to trust your agent.
You have to trust your editor. 
You have to trust your illustrator. 
It’s a lot of trust.
And I will admit: I am bossy. I had ideas for Rube. BUT NONE were as good as this:

So that’s it.
Five things.
In less than 1000 words.

And, now, I guess it's my turn to put my words where my mouth is and offer up a brief excerpt for your feedback, inviting you to do the same in the comments!

If you've never participated in Friday Feedback, please first read THE RULES!!!

Here is a piece of a picture book WIP I am working on. I'm actually about to submit it. 

It's called As Easy as 1 2 3.

Who is the most exhibited artist in the world? 
Would you believe Picasso?
Or maybe Monet?
Or how about Dan Robbins?

Never heard of him? Pull up a chair.

Dan Robbins worked at Detroit’s Palmer Paint Company in early 1950. His Boss, Max Klein, could see the writing on the wall. For the first time, Americans had the time, inclination, and money to take up new hobbies—including art. 

He asked Dan to create a coloring book—to drum up sales of children’s paints.

But Dan had a better idea. 

He knew that the great master, Leonardo da Vinci, taught his apprentices to create fine art by giving them numbered patterns. 

Each number on the canvas corresponded to a unique pigment.

Like 1 for red.
And 2 for yellow.

Dan figured if it worked for Leonardo, it could work for America, too.


So that's it! Looking forward to your comments and your excerpts!!!

Sarah (& Gae)