I call them the “Second Novel Willies”

Many readers ask me these days what I’m writing next. Do I mind talking about it? Of course not, I say. And I don’t. The more I talk about it, the more real it becomes: I declare, I’m writing a second novel, so I know I have to do it.

I tell them the book is set in Gloucester, Massachusetts (my hometown) in the 1920s. It’s about an abandoned baby, Prohibition, female hysteria, quarrying, a shipwreck, and tons of other fun stuff. Lots of drama, a bit ol’ cast of characters, and Cape Ann – my favorite place in the world.

I don’t tell them that writing the book is pretty scary. Thrilling, but scary, too. But I’m telling you – and I wrote about the experience at length for the fantastic literary blog, Beyond the Margins. I also gathered quotes from stellar writers including Eleanor Henderson, Joshua Henkin, Lauren Groff, Jenna Blum and many more to broaden my perspective – and yours – on the particular leap of faith it takes to write a second novel.

So read on! And let me know what you think.

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A little rant on princesses and happy endings

Over at Beyond the Margins today, I have a new post up about why princesses really drive me crazy. Hint: it’s not just their little waists or passive dispositions. It has something to do with: story.

Check it out, and let me know what you think!

 

 

 

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Oh, Hannukah books.

I waited until 2011 to start a blog – so I thought I’d wait until Hannukah was officially over to share a couple new discoveries: two children’s books that illuminate this already-bright holiday (especially if you don’t know Antiochus from Atalanta.*)

This year, I have an almost four-year-old who’s caught on to the facts that Santa Claus is easier to say than Judah Maccabee and Christmas lights last even longer than our miraculous menorah candles. So I’ve started to overcompensate, like all good Jewish parents, by making Hannukah a bigger deal than it was ever meant to be.

We decorated our dining room, making “stained glass” pictures with glitter and glue – just like my mother used to do with me and my sisters. (In later years she even introduced “fairy lights” – a.k.a. Christmas lights – around the moldings.)

We went to two Hannukah parties and had one of our own. I made my first brisket:

There were gifts, of course. And we sang the three Hannukah songs we know approximately 80 times.

But perhaps the most exciting part came one night when we attempted to tell Sylvie the Hannukah story.

Once upon a time, in Israel…

We knew that much. We knew there was a bad king (but we called him Ahasuerus – whoops, that’s Purim! – intead of Antiochus) and a brave guy named Judah Maccabee (who later becomes a tyrant but let’s not focus on that now…). There was a ruined temple, and some need for one-day’s worth of oil to last eight nights. (Why? Well. You know. We made something up about them needing to hide in the temple for eight nights, then the bad guys would get tired and go away.)

We were floundering. Then along came two books, to help. First, the aptly titled “The Story of Hanukkah,” (so many ways to spell Chanuka!) by David A. Adler, illustrated by Jill Weber:

This is a straightforward account of the real Hannukah story, with bold, beautiful paintings that add depth and energy to the simple prose. Turns out they needed the oil to last eight nights because that’s how long it took to prepare more oil! The only tricky part about reading this with Sylvie was a) we feel a little funny teaching her the ‘good Jews vs. bad other people’ narrative at a point when the world already looks pretty black-and-white to her; and b) when we got to the phrase “House of God,” Sylvie asked, “What’s God?”

So maybe we’re not quite prepared to embrace/explain “The Story of Hanukkah.”

But there’s another, gorgeous book, called “Harvest of Light,” by Allison Ofanansky (with photographs by Eliyahu Alpern), that’s accessible to everyone – from Judaic scholars to goyim:

The cover looks pretty similar at first glance – but look closer, at the white blossoms, and the girl with her hands in a big pile of something… they’re olives! This book tells the story of the olive harvest, in Israel, and how those olives are made into oil – yes, to light the Hannukah candles, but also (yum!) to eat with pita. All through the voice of a young girl who lives with her mother and father among hills of olives.

It’s an inspiring, educational read – great for future farmers, and anyone interested in where their food comes from. Oh yeah, and it’ll make you think about Hannukah in a new way, too.

*Atalanta is a huntress in Greek mythology – but in our family she’s better known as the super awesome feminist princess from Free to Be You and Me – clicking on her link above will take you to the full story.

Look out for my next post, on a very different subject: did you know that Virginia Woolf wrote a children’s book?

 

 

 

 

 

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My favorite picture books of 2011

I often make fun of end-of-year lists. So I thought I’d try one of my own. And here you have it: In no particular order, the children’s books I fell in love with (for the first time or the 100th) in the last year.

1. Arnold of the Ducks, by Mordecai Gerstein. Transformation, feathers, and a mother duck called Leda.

2. Skippy Jon Jones, by Judy Schachner. A very funny, misbehaving, Spanishey-speaking Siamese cat.3. Imogene’s Antlers, by David Small. This girl wakes up with elk antlers, and is happy about it. 4. The Crows of Pearblossom, by Aldous Huxley, illus. by Sophie Blackall. A 50′s style marriage, with timeless anxieties. Check out my post on this book from a couple weeks ago.

5. Corduroy, by Don Freeman. A little brown bear, a missing button, and a new friend. If you don’t know this book, well, I won’t tell anyone – just go get it, now.6. Nurse Lugton’s Curtain, by Virginia Woolf, illus. by Julie Vivas. A nurse (pssst. she may show up in my next novel!), and the wild world that comes alive while she sleeps. I plan to write a blog post about this one soon.

7. All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon, illus. Marla Frazee. Simple, poetic, idealistic, moving. What to read when you’re feeling all kumbaya.

8. The Lorax, by Dr. Suess. As if I have to tell you who this book is by. But really, if you haven’t read it in a while, revisit. Just as devastating – and finally inspiring – as ever. 

9. Fish is Fish, by Leo Lionni. Lionni may be my favorite children’s author/illustrator ever. A tale of friendship, and difference.

10. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, by Judith Kerr. The title says it all. Here’s a great post about this book – and 10 more great picture books! – by bloggess Sophie Duffy.

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Book tour 101

Now that my first book tour is over, I have some wisdom to impart. I also have new packing skills, stiff limbs, and intimate knowledge of red-eye flights. (Hint: Don’t do it.) I tell the whole story – foot-in-my-mouth moments and all – in NOTES FROM THE FIELD: ONE BEGINNER’S BOOK TOUR over at the fantastic Beyond the Margins, where I’m now a regular contributer.

So go check it out. But before you do, here are a few pictures, just to prove I was really there.

Efficient packing: I wore the same thing (usually washed) on every leg of my trip.

The bag - with my special curly-hair product that was CONFISCATED at TF Green!!

I make it home for Halloween - but Sylvie's still pissed.

Talking to students at the lovely Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland

 

Speaking (yes - that's the same outfit!) at the Denver Jewish Community Center

One wonderful book group in Providence, RI

That’s it for now. Coming soon, I’ll share some of the most interesting questions – about THE LITTLE BRIDE, myself, and my writing process – I’ve been hearing from book clubs across the country.

 

 

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DISCOVERY: Aldous Huxley’s children’s book

One of the pleasures of having a young kid is rediscovering many of the books I’ve loved but forgotten. Harold and the Purple Crayon comes to mind, as do A House is a House for Me, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Katie and the Big Snow, and too many others to list.

Then there are the books that weren’t around when I was a kid. I love anything by Mo Willems, all the Ladybug Girl books by David Soman/Jacky Davis, and especially a gorgeous, simple story called All The World by Liz Garton Scanlon/Marla Frazee.

But the best is when I stumble across old books that are new to me. My daughter, Sylvie, was recently given an utterly magical picture book – called The Crows of Pear Blossom - by none other than Aldous Huxley.

 The book (beautifully illustrated by Sophie Blackall) tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, who live in a cottonwood tree in Pearblossom. For years, Mrs. Crow has been trying to have babies, and for years, her eggs keep disappearing. One day she catches Mr. Snake (who lives at the bottom of their tree) eating her 297th egg of the year.

Huxley writes:

When Mr. Crow came home that evening from Palmdale, where he worked as Assistant Manager in the drugstore, he found his wife looking very pale and haggard, pacing up and down the branch outside their nest.

‘What’s the matter, Amelia?’ he said. ‘You look quite ill. You haven’t been overeating again, have you?’

‘How can you be so coarse and unfeeling?’ Mrs. Crow burst out. ‘Here I am, working myself to the bone for you; when I’m not working, laying a fresh egg every single day – except Sundays, of course, and public holidays… and not a single chick hatched out. And all you can do is ask if I’ve been overeating.’

Pure brilliance – in my opinion. Here’s marriage, infertility, suburbia, and female malaise, all rolled into a little kid-friendly package!

I won’t ruin the ending: let’s just say it involves the somewhat cowardly Mr. Crow and his wise friend Mr. Owl literally baking up a surprise that will keep Mr. Snake from ever stealing another egg.

But I will say that there’s something about adult authors like Huxley writing children’s books that makes for complicated, surprising, and yes, moving, stories that wind up sticking with kids and growmups alike.

This morning, I was frying a few eggs and Sylvie said, “We eat these eggs, but sometimes if we don’t eat them eggs grow into birds, or people!”

I prepared myself. She’s going to tell me she wants to be vegan, I thought.

“That’s right, Sylvie,” I said. I explained how these eggs weren’t fertilized, and wouldn’t have become birds anyway. Then I said, “Where did you learn about this?”

“From Mr. and Mrs. Crow!” she said, smiling.

Of course.

***

Coming soon, a report on Virginia Woolf’s children’s book, Nurse Lugton’s Curtain. In the meantime, what other famous literary authors wrote books for kids? Please share your favorites!

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Welcome to Solomonville

I’ve said it so many times now, it longer embarrasses me: I discovered the subject of my first novel while Googling myself. Most of the other Anna Solomons didn’t interest me: a real-estate broker in L.A., a social worker in Brooklyn. But one, Anna Freudenthal Solomon, captured my full attention.

She was on a website called Stories Untold: Jewish Women Pioneers.

Take any one of those words and you’ve got me hooked. I quickly learned that Anna Solomon, along with her husband Isador, founded the town of Solomonville, Arizona in 1876. I also learned about other Jewish women toughing it out on the frontier, including Rachel Bella Calof, who came to America in 1894 as a mail-order bride to North Dakota.

Though Rachel Bella became the main inspiration for my book, THE LITTLE BRIDE, I often think of that little town – Solomonville – which no longer exists on a map but lives large in my imagination.

In Solomonville, Anna Solomon slept on a mud floor, cooked on the ground, and raised three babies without any help. Eventually, she and Isador built the Solomon Store, then the Solomon Hotel – where “continental pastries” were served each morning – which Anna ran with the help of a Chinese cook named Gin Awah Quang. In all, she raised five children, grew her own fruits and vegetables, oversaw the Solomon Ranch and the Solomon Store, and maintained her family’s Jewish traditions.

Anna Freudenthal Solomon (courtesy Jewish Women's Archives)

Supposedly, life has gotten a lot easier. I’m writing this from a desk chair more comfortable than Anna Solomon’s bed (and probably faster, if you got it going downhill, than her buckboard wagon). Still, I often feel like I’m living on my own frontier: a post-modern, post-feminist, high-tech, locally-grown, do-it-all territory unlike anything my mother or her mother (or Anna Solomon) knew.

I write novels, and I write copy for a PR firm. I teach fiction writing, and I teach my daughter how to wipe herself. I Skype with a book club who’s read my book, then I realize I still haven’t ordered a Thanksgiving turkey. I have a new idea – a brilliant idea! – which I become so engrossed in I forget to change the laundry (for days). Or I have a new, brilliant idea but by the time I’ve changed the laundry and gone to the post office and picked up my daughter, it’s gone.

I’m far from alone. You have your own version of Solomonville, I’m sure. So I hope you’ll come along for the ride, and share your own stories.

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