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Friday, June 14, 2013

Clicks from the Hold Fast Train

I began speaking and traveling, talking about Hold Fast, in January of 2013.  Events were added to events as the months rolled on.   By June, the Hold Fast train -- as everyone at Scholastic began to call it -- had chugged into over seventeen cities;  I'd been from Chicago to Houston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Nashville and a number of cities closer to home, like Naperville and Woodstock and Kankakee and North Utica.

This blur of planes, cars and hotels came together into an amazing experience, as I was able to see Hold Fast welcomed by thousands of kids of many backgrounds and ages, libraries, social service agencies, urban planners, teachers, and teachers of teachers.  I'd never expected such a wild reception for this unusual story.  Hold Fast even hit the New York Times bestseller list in May.

Here are some clicks:

A cake in Houston

Wonderful St. Louis

Hold Fast meets Chasing Vermeer tattoos, New York.

Sizzling day at LA Times Festival of Books

Colorful Palo Alto, California

Closing Keynote, American Planning Association
National Planning Conference, Chicago

Room full of urban and regional planners

Django is not pleased that I'm on the road

"Don't you dare pick up this pen!" 

Visiting Hicklebee's Books, San Jose

Signing books at Hicklebee's . . .

and then the wall

Hold Fast and I have had a winter and spring to remember.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Three Cheers for E.L.K. (1930 - 2013)

E. L. Konigsburg was a very special person in my life.  Sadly, I never met her, but it feels as though I’d known her forever.  I was twelve years old when my mother gave me The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for my birthday.  Quite honestly, it blew my mind: it took place in a museum I knew, not too far from where I was growing up in New York City; it had big, exciting ideas about real art; it had independent characters who were treated as though they knew how to think, and think they did.  I read that book again.  And later, as a parent and a teacher, again.  And again.
I do think that book changed my life.   It changed how I thought about the world around me.
I might not have gotten an art history degree if not for The Mixed-Up Files; I might never have written Chasing Vermeer.  Ever since my first mystery came out in 2004, I’ve talked about how much Konigsburg’s work has meant to me, and about how instrumental what you read as a kid can be in determining who you become.  I do believe that the words and stories absorbed early in life can matter deeply.  
Yesterday Hold Fast, my fifth mystery, hit the New York Times bestseller list.  Would it be there without E. L. Konigsburg?  Would I be writing today if not for The Mixed-Up Files?  A great many things might not have happened.
Thank you, Mrs. Konigsburg, for all you’ve given me and generations of other devoted fans.  A book that gives you yourself, no matter who you are, is truly something.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Angels and Heroes in Plain Sight

       This is a shout-out for the angels and heroes of the book world.  All who publish books know who these bigger-than-life folks are.  They know who they are.  But can the reading public identify these Clark Kents?  (Excuse the retro reference, but I always liked his glasses and the nonchalant way he whipped them off.  I think his specs may be back in style.)

       Just in case, here goes:  these heroes and angels are the people in the independent bookstores around the U.S., and the librarians in our public libraries and schools.  They are angels because they are champions of the art of reading; they recommend, they guide, they educate without demanding.  Most do a heroic amount of heavy lifting.  Witness the owners of independent bookstores, who always have strong backs.  They lug books into schools while ferrying the visiting author, they even lug books to libraries, through many a dark and stormy night, or at the very least through dinnertime…  they don’t complain.  They often supply delicious cookies.  

Arlene Lynes, owner of Read Between the Lynes, 
Woodstock, Illinois.  (photo by Jack Bechaud)
       The librarians read tirelessly.  They sift and sort.  They answer questions from all ages and with great patience.  They take care of authors and make libraries the hands-down heart of a school or a community.  Like the indie booksellers, they work overtime. They change lives by supplying the just-right book at the just-right time; they bear witness to the power of the written word. 
       Angels.  Heroes.  I am currently doing a great deal of travel for Hold Fast, and am reminded, just about daily, of how great these people really are.  They have wings and super-powers. 
       Don’t be fooled – they’re hiding in plain sight. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Holding on for Hold Fast

These days, I’m holding on for Hold Fast; it’s a traveling spring.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve visited many schools in many places and will continue to travel through April.  I am at my most relaxed when with kids, and I have been hearing many surprising, excellent and touching questions.  In addition, I’ve heard or read heart-warming, startlingly wonderful comments from sources of all ages, and at all times of day -- in schools, bookstores and library talks, in a flow of reviews, in outspoken and beautifully-written online blogs. 
I’m not good at taking pictures at each school I visit – I wish I were.  I’m all in the moment, the moment is over, I’m back in a car, and whoosh!  Life goes on.   However, last week I was in a public school near downtown St. Louis that was so unusual that I need to share some of what I saw.  There is much in the news these days about public schools and what’s wrong with them.  Sometimes there is lots right.

I walked into the Maplewood Richmond Heights Elementary School, in Richmond Heights, Missouri, and stopped.  What – a Banksy-inspired painting?  A close-to-Lichtenstein?  An unusual piece of art designed to honor and support a center for homeless boys?

This is a school with social justice overtones that structures projects around a theme each year, supporting their budget with grants and the input of local artists.  This year, the theme was exploring the idea and metaphor of ‘School as Museum’, and the kids had painted, built, researched and designed some amazing exhibits.  The topics were issues they felt needed some museum attention, like bullying; the environment; drug use in neighborhoods; poverty in the world around us. Kids were obviously building and documenting knowledge using real-world issues and problems, and I could see that Ms. Hussey and I, if we’d been invited to teach there, could have jumped right in. 
In this photo, a group of sixth graders pose in front of an exhibit which studies both interrelated facts and some proposed solutions to poverty and homelessness. 
I was on a schedule and couldn’t stay long, but the whiff of powerful yet heartfelt critical thinking that I witnessed there is still with me.  After my talk, I grabbed my phone and took these pictures.  For anyone wanting to get a close look at an awesome constructivist curriculum in a public school setting, I say, Go to St. Louis!  Visit the MRH kids, as they call themselves.  Hold fast for some powerful learning. 
And, by the way, the kids seemed pretty excited about Hold Fast, which makes me happy.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ouch, Oof: the Battle of Fiction vs. Nonfiction

     I’ve just returned from the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, one with strands reaching into the lives of teachers, librarians, academics, university students and lifelong learners.  It’s a fabulous gathering of thinkers and word-lovers, and again and again I heard the tension in conversation about the looming public school Core demands, and the place–if any–of fiction in the structure of that upcoming Core curriculum.
     Ouch!  Oof!  Fiction and nonfiction are slugging it out behind closed doors.  I’ve just read a marvelous New York Times article called, What Should Children Read? http://nyti.ms/RXKCQi  It inspired me.  As it isn’t fiction, is there irony here?  Nah, behind all inviting nonfiction lies a story.
     These are odd times.  It used to be that fiction and nonfiction carried equal weight as complimentary ingredients in a school curriculum; they were also the salt and pepper, or maybe the oil and vinegar, that seasoned lots of less intriguing but healthy stuff, at least for those students who weren’t math and science stars.  Both fiction and nonfiction shared stories that gave you a reason to gather necessary skills and tools -- tools that would send you out into the world one day as a capable communicator and wage-earner yourself. 
     Not to overdo the cooking metaphor, but everyone likes to taste and eat, and…  well, I see my job as a fiction writer, one whose work often appears in schools, as this:  I’m a maker of good smells in the learning kitchen. I try to leave readers of any age hungry.  To make anyone who reads my mysteries want to dig and explore further, and to ask more questions.  (I should also mention that my books don’t fit neatly into the category of either ‘mysteries’ or ‘fiction’ as they always seem to be packed with facts and real-world ideas.  Facts, after all, are the best teasers in our puzzling times.)   I wish I heard the messy word ‘inspiration’ being mentioned in talk of school reform as much other multisyllabic terms like ‘data-driven instruction’ and ‘high-stakes assessment.’ I feel this is a mistake, simplistic as it sounds.
     I believe the job of fiction in our schools should be to make readers curious about non-fiction, to make them love the process of following words and ideas, and to make the world at large feel more relevant.  Fiction has the power, ironically, to make nonfiction come alive. 
     There.  I’ve thumped the podium.  And waved my spoon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Unlikely Paths

I’m clearly not in the habit of blogging, but sometimes I’m moved to say, Yes! Yes!   Here’s an essay on career choices that is such wonderful advice for people of any age that I have to point wildly to it:  http://nyti.ms/QlPHiD.

This story sure resonates with my past; although I wanted to be a writer, I couldn’t seem to make a living doing it, and so I did many other things.  The most demanding of these things was teaching young kids, which had never been a part of my original Author Plan.  Lo and behold, as I let go of writing dreams and learned to teach, something very odd happened: I grew from feeling I wasn’t a natural in the classroom to loving it, then eventually writing about it, which brought me back to my earliest passion.  I’d arrived at my goal by leaving it behind.  In addition, I’d found a new passion that could coexist with my oldest one.

I think that doing the very best you can on almost anything is, in itself, a liberating process, and can open many unexpected doors.  Perhaps at the moment you lose sight of where you thought you wanted to go, the journey really begins.