Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Author Interview: Skila Brown

by Cordelia Jensen

Today's interview is with Skila Brown, debut author. Her Middle Grade verse novel Caminar hit the shelves in March. It has received starred reviews from the Horn Book and School Library Journal. Here's a summary of the book:

Set in 1981 Guatemala, a lyrical debut novel tells the powerful tale of a boy who must decide what it means to be a man during a time of war.

Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet—he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist.

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

Thanks for joining us on the Big Blue Marble Bookstore blog, Skila! I just finished reading your beautiful book, Caminar. I had the privilege of reading an earlier version, which made the reading (and holding) of the final product that much more amazing. Your book has been receiving sensational reviews (no surprise), so, also, many congratulations on those.

Thank you for having me, Cordelia, and for those kind words. It’s an honor to be here!

What was your initial inspiration for this story? Tell us about how and where it began.

I’d spent ten years reading about the terrible violence in Guatemala, but I never had the intention of writing a story about it. I had several novels in draft form that I was writing, but nothing was really working. Shelley Tanaka, my writing mentor at the time, asked if there wasn’t something I cared more about. Wasn’t there some story I might have hidden away in my heart that I needed to put on the page instead? Turns out there was.

How did you make the decision for Carlos to be an only child? How did that seem integral to his journey?

I don’t remember ever considering a sibling for Carlos. In an earlier draft, he had a father who had been ‘disappeared’ by the Army, though I later whittled that away. I knew it was only Carlos and his mama in his family. I just had that feeling in my gut early on.

I really like the “animal spirit” theme in the book and how Carlos finds his own guide. It gives a sort of playful quality to the book which is, obviously, a serious book overall. Did you play around with a few animals before choosing one? Or was there always one?

It was always an owl. Long before I knew nahuales would make an appearance in the story, I had printed off a picture of an owl and taped it to my notebook. I thought of Carlos like the owl—always watching, perched in a tree, easy to pass over if you aren’t paying attention. It was only when he was literally in that tree and I knew he needed something to look at, something to focus on, that I realized it would be the owl.

Do you have an animal you feel spiritually connected to?

Jellyfish are my favorite animals on the planet. I could spend all day watching a jellyfish move through water. It’s mesmerizing and so calming.

My favorite part of your poetry style is the way you carve white space with your words. The shape of your poems so often reflect the imagery and/or content of the poem. Is this an energizing part of writing for you?

Yes! It’s so fun. I don’t think about shape when I’m drafting a poem; it’s only in revision that I start to play with space and stanza. And that’s always my favorite part.

What draws you to the verse novel form in general?

There’s no fluff in a verse novel. It’s potent, sparse language that cuts to the heart of the emotion without wasting words. I like that novels in verse are accessible to a wide range of readers. They can be a fast page-turner for the reluctant reader or a slow story to savor for someone else. They often leave things unsaid, making it digestible for a wide range of ages.

Anything else you would like us to know about this book?

I’ve had more than one person ask me if this story is really appropriate for a ten-year old child. The answer is a resounding yes. It’s about a tragedy, yes, but it’s also about growing up, facing fears, figuring out the right thing to do. The violence in the story happens off-screen and without graphic detail. I’d encourage teachers and parents to read this first, if they have doubts that a particular reader is ready for the story, but I think we need to give kids the credit they're due. They can handle more than we realize. And stories about survival can be a reassurance for a child reader.

Any other upcoming projects?

I have two books forthcoming with Candlewick—a second novel in verse out next year and a picture book collection of poetry about sharks out in 2016.

And now for our “3 for 3” book-related questions. What were 3 of your favorite books when you were a child/teen?

I was a huge fan of Shel Silverstein and read to my kids now from the dog-eared copy of A Light in the Attic that I had as a child. I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret at least a dozen times as a kid. And I’m fairly certain I owned the entire Sweet Valley High collection. (I was Elizabeth – wishing I were Jessica.)

What are 3 books you have read recently that surprised you?

I am always surprised by books because I never read summaries or jacket flaps or even blurbs—I just open them up and dive right in, not knowing what to expect at all. Recently, I loved Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home. The tone of the story was such a surprise to me as it wasn’t what I expected from the cover. P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia surprised me because it’s so rare to find a sequel even better than its predecessor. Finally, I’ll have to go with Two Boys Kissing. Just when I think David Levithan can’t get any more brilliant, he goes and writes another piece of spectacular.

What are 3 books that influence/d your writing?

Only three?! That seems incredibly unfair. The first three that pop into my head are: George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From, Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave, and Encounter by Jane Yolen (illustrated by David Shannon.)

 Thanks, Skila!

Skila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana. Caminar is her first novel. You can find her at www.skilabrown.com

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to order a copy of Caminar. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Next up on 5/13: Jill Santopolo, author of the new Sparkle Spa series.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Author Interview: Delia Sherman

by Jennifer Sheffield

Hi, Delia! Congratulations on the recent paperback release of The Freedom Maze! Here is my synopsis of the book:

Slated to spend the summer on her family's sugar plantation in Louisiana, 13-year-old Sophie wishes for a storybook adventure and is sent back in time by 100 years. In Sophie's own 1960, there is no question of who is black and who is white. It has never occurred to her that in 1860, tanned and barefoot, she might be taken for a slave in her own ancestral home...

I was excited to learn last fall that the paperback was finally coming out this year. I’m curious about what it’s like when you have a book published in hardcover by one publisher and in paper by another.

Believe it or not, when I first got into publishing, it was pretty much standard operating procedure for a paperback house (like Ace, Berkley, or Pocket Books) to buy reprint rights to previously published hardcovers. Now that the publishing business has changed, this is far more unusual, but it still does happen. In this case, it was because a small press like Big Mouth House doesn’t have the time, money, or personnel to send out all the free copies and file all the paperwork necessary to get a book into schools and libraries, which is where we all agreed that The Freedom Maze belonged. Things have worked out perfectly—for me, anyway. Kelly Link, who has been cheering me through TFM since I first started working on it 20 years ago, was the perfect editor for it, and Candlewick, with their impressive roots in the children’s book world, is the perfect distributor.

While I think of you mostly as a New Yorker, I know that you spent time in Louisiana while growing up. How did your own experiences influence Sophie’s character and the development of her story?

Since my father was from South Carolina and my mother had family in both Texas and Louisiana, there are ways in which I grew up in the South even though I actually lived in New York. Take my family’s views on race. Although Papa held extremely progressive views for his age and background, Mama was a little more, shall we say, conservative, as were most of her relatives. One of my aunts, for instance, came back from Africa full of indignation about about how bad Africans smelled (which made me wonder why she would go in the first place, but people are strange, right?). Add to this the fact that none of the African-Americans I met, either in the North or the South, conformed in the smallest detail to the stereotypes my southern relatives described, and you got a kid who did a lot of thinking about prejudice, blind assumptions, and privilege. My life-long wrestling with these issues is reflected in Sophie’s story, as are my thoughts on Being A Lady, how to define Family, and the importance of Blood and Heredity—all of which are more important (or at least more discussed) in the South of my youth than in the New York of today.

I really like reading about Sophie’s friend Canny and her family. It's always good to have people on your side when you're in a new and overwhelming reality! How did they come to be? Did you create the family all together, or did the characters come along separately?

I tend to make up characters as I need them. And since I adore making up characters, the problem, really, is keeping them down to a manageable number. My favorites arrive fully fledged and determine the course of the narrative. For instance, I knew Oak River needed a cook because every plantation needs a cook. I began to write and Africa appeared on the page and kind of took over. And of course she had to have a family, and of course they turned out to be interesting, active folks. It took me a while to get to know Ned and Poland and Flanders, but Canny, like her mother, was always very much herself.

The Freedom Maze tackles complicated issues of race relations and racial identity. And while Sophie herself is certainly coming to her travels from a world of white privilege, she is surrounded by people who aren't. How did you approach the task of writing the stories of your African American characters living in slavery? What kinds of reactions have you had from readers?

Research, research, and more research. I read social histories, memoirs, slave narratives, plantation documents. I went to plantation and folk-life museums in Louisiana (I recommend one in Baton Rouge particularly) and asked a lot of questions of the docents. I had conversations about civil rights, white privilege, writing the other, the religion of Voodoo, weaving, sewing, and cooking in the 19th century, sugar culture and manufacture with friends, experts, and historians of all colors, ages, and backgrounds. I gave my manuscript to kind and rigorous readers, and listened to what they had to say, and I talked with them about how I could fix (or at least address) its problematical parts without compromising the story I wanted to tell. On the whole, readers' reactions have been wonderfully positive. I have done a couple of talks after which a reader has asked me how a fair-skinned child (even one with a tan) could possibly be taken for a slave, and on both occasions, the questioner has been white. There has also been a little discussion about whether Sophie is a White Savior.

Having heard you read aloud -- both from Freedom Maze and from your other works -- a number of times, I know you have a particular ear for language and dialect. What was it like coming up with the different voices for your characters?

Fun. One of the things I’ve always noticed about people is how they speak. Even in the most casual conversation, the language a person uses reveals something about their education, interests, experience, social context, age, even character. For me, language is a method of characterization. If I know what a character looks like and how she talks, I’ve pretty much got her. That said, sometimes I have to do a bit of writing and rewriting to pin down a character’s voice. You don’t want too many crabby old ladies (or at least not crabby in the same way), for instance, or characters who are nothing but mean or helpful or sassy or comforting. You want people who sound like they have a life when they’re not talking to your hero. Varying the way they speak helps with that.

One of the things I love about The Freedom Maze is that at the end (only mild spoiler, I think) there is clear evidence – both to readers and to Sophie's family -- that the adventure was real. No one tries to convince Sophie to dismiss her tale as a dream or the product of wild imaginings. Did you do this deliberately, or did it just flow from the progression of the story?

A little bit of both, actually. Sophie doesn’t really expect anyone to believe her, so she doesn’t tell anyone but Aunt Enid. She only tells her because she’s tired and sad and can’t think of a plausible lie. She also knows that Aunt Enid absolutely believes in ghosts and strange happenings and magic, even if she is freaked out when confronted with proof that they’re real. Sophie’s actually having aged 6 months was very deliberate indeed. I can remember being utterly disgusted when the Pevensies became children again when they tumbled back through the wardrobe from Narnia. They’d been adults, for Pete’s sake: Kings and Queens with responsibilities and knowledge and experiences under their belts that would have made becoming children again almost impossible to bear. I wasn’t going to do that to my magic adventurer, no siree—especially since I have seen for myself that adolescents do tend to change pretty dramatically once they get going and those closest to them are the least likely to notice (or accept) those changes.

The eponymous maze has an interesting journey itself throughout the book, as it moves from background to forefront and then fades again multiple times. And of course because it’s made of growing things, it looks and feels different in different eras. Have you spent time in places with this kind of living maze?

Nope. I just love the idea of mazes, and always have. I stink at actually figuring them out, except in those puzzles you find in kids’ activity books.

Do you have current or upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

I’m delighted to say that The Freedom Maze has just been published in France by Editions Hélium, in a beautiful translation I got to read and comment on. I’m closing in on the last draft of a new middle grade book, this one set in Maine, about a boy who runs away from home and is taken in by an Evil Wizard. It’s got Selkies and werecoyotes and motorcycles and magic in it, it is called The Evil Wizard Smallbone, and it is a lot of fun to write.

And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:

1. What were 3 of your favorite books from childhood/teen years?

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you?

Adaptation by Malinda Lo
Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann (which is not a kid’s book, but is absolutely astonishing)

3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work?

The Nine Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
The Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit

Thank you so much for joining us!

Delia Sherman writes short stories and novels for adults and young readers. Several of her short stories have been nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, and her most recent novel, The Freedom Maze, received the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award, and the Prometheus Award. A collection of her short stories will be published by Small Beer Press in 2014. She has taught many writing workshops, including Clarion, the Hollins University Program in Children's Literature, and Odyssey. She has taught Freshman Comp, worked in a book store, and been a freelance editor. She can write almost anywhere, but prefers cafes and comfy sofas near a source of tea. She lives in New York City with her wife Ellen Kushner and many fine books, most of which at least one of them has read. Besides reading other people's manuscripts and writing her own, favorite occupations are travel, knitting, cooking, and having fun adventures, as long as they don't involve actual dragons.

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to order a copy of The Freedom Maze. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Next up: on April 29th, come check out Cordelia's interview with Skila Brown, author of Caminar.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Grace's Five Best Big Blue Books

So you're looking for a book...and you can't remember the name, or the author, or what it was about. But wait! You are pretty sure the book was blue. I definitely don't know what book you're looking for, but I can recommend all of these big, blue books.

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick (HarperCollins, $25.99)
Matthew Quick's novel The Silver Linings Playbook was a Philadelphia book that took Hollywood by storm when the movie adaptation entranced viewers all over the world. Now, Quick has done it again with this quirky, hilarious, and absolutely heartwrenching story that takes place in Philadelphia, with the bonus of a road trip to Canada. Topics such as bipolar disorder, Richard Gere, cute librarians, and aliens are all addressed in this wonderful coming-of-age tale about a 38 year old man navigating life without his mother.

How To Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia by Kelsey Osgood (Overlook Press, $26.95)
Kelsey Osgood's book is a special one. The memoir serves as not only a commentary on eating disorder memoirs themselves, but also a genuinely good criticism of recovery culture and modern anorexic life.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton, $17.99; paperback forthcoming!)
The Fault in Our Stars is the sort of book you immediately start from the beginning again after you finish it. Interwoven with romance, tragedy, illness, and hope, this book is an honest portrait of young people with cancer. Author John Green always manages to make his characters very real, and they will stay in your heart even after you finish the book (twice). Join the YA book club and discuss this amazing book in May 2014!

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (Tor, $7.99)
This epic fantasy novel is the beginning of a fourteen book series that outlived the author himself. I first received this 800 page book when I was nine years old, and immediately tore through it and what else was released in the series. Note: NOT a children's series.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Books, $9.99)
You've heard of it. Maybe you've seen the show. But have you read the books? Spoiler alert, they're REALLY GOOD. Join the Read the Movie book club to discuss this amazing book, and also watch the premiere of Season 4, on April 9th at 7:00pm.

Grace Gordon, April 2014

(Some other blue books: Blue book display
from Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas!
-- Jen)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Interview with Abigail Perkiss, author of Making Good Neighbors

by Grace Gordon

Please join Big Blue Marble Books this Friday, April 4, at 7:00pm, as we welcome Mt. Airy resident Abigail Perkiss in celebration of her new book on the history of integration in postwar Philadelphia. Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia examines the history of race, ethnicity, and urban identity in post-WWII American cities, and focuses on the neighborhood of Mt. Airy.

What’s your relationship to Mt. Airy?

My relationship with Mount Airy is two-fold:

First, I lived in the neighborhood until I was nine years old and grew up steeped in the story and legacy of Mount Airy's integration efforts. I moved back in 2005 and have lived here ever since. My husband and I have enjoyed finding and creating a community here as adults, and we're about to add to the newest generation of Mount Airy-ites.

Second, I am an historian and my doctoral dissertation examined West Mount Airy's integration project, from the early 1950s through the turn of the 21st century. This book is based on that research.

At what moment did you decide you wanted to write a book about integration in Philadelphia?

Again, this book stemmed from my doctoral research. I hold a joint JD/PhD from Temple University, and while I was in graduate school, I found that my research interests in both history and law were coming together around issues of civil rights and racial justice, property rights, and community-building. When I began thinking about my dissertation, I knew that I wanted to explore these themes within the broader context of questions of identity formation, community cohesion, and historical memory. West Mount Airy's integration efforts kept emerging as a plot point, pulling together these various threads.

So, my interests in studying the neighborhood stemmed from a desire to understand and engage with both the actual history of post-war American cities and neighborhoods, and the story of Mount Airy's integration project and how that narrative has been constructed and shaped.

What are some things you learned in your research that surprised you?

One of the most compelling stories to me was the marketing of integration. In the early 1960s, once the process of creating integration in the community had been relatively well established, community leaders set out to market the idea of integration to a broader audience, both to attract new like-minded residents to the area and to situate their efforts within broader national and global conversations about racial justice, neighborhood sustainability, and democracy.

In 1962, for instance, West Mount Airy Neighbors hosted 200 individuals from 31 United Nations-member countries, to introduce them to and, in a sense, "sell" residential integration as part of the country's broader Cold War efforts to spread the democratic ideal around the world. Through this UN Delegates Weekend, they turned interracial living into a performance, a brand - an outward manifestation of liberal politics and achieved racial justice.

This vision of the neighborhood was critical to establishing the predominant narrative of Mount Airy's integration project and was disseminated in publications ranging from the New York Times, to McCall's, to Women's Day, to the Christian Science Monitor. It had pretty significant implications for how people within the community conceived of integration as well.

This branding of integration is directly related to another piece of the Mount Airy story: the differences - and at times disconnects - over the meaning of integration among black and white residents of the community. I was struck throughout my research by the ways that racial identity impacted how homeowners thought about interracial living.

For many of the white residents in Mount Airy, living in an integrated community served to legitimate their identities as liberal, urban Americans - again that idea of integration as a performance. At the same time, though, this white conception of integration was grounded in a sense of de facto economic exclusivity attached to middle-class notions of postwar liberalism. The WMAN integration project, then, at once allowed white residents to protect their homes and their quality of life in the neighborhood, and to live out their vision of manifested racial justice.

Meanwhile, for many black homeowners in Mount Airy, the prospect of integration brought with it a set of very material conditions - more secure investments, better schools, safer streets, more reliable municipal services - and a window into a professional culture with which they were trying to engage. Certainly, African Americans in West Mount Airy believed in and fought for racial justice and equality, but their interest in living among whites often stemmed as much from these tangible opportunities as it did from an abstract sense of justice.

These two ideas of integration very much complemented each other - as the class-based exclusivity critical for white residents allowed for the stability that many black homebuyers sought - but they also revealed that the experience of interracial living was bound by racial identity, and by the mid-1970s, these disconnects in the meaning of integration would create some pretty profound tensions in the neighborhood.

What did you learn that made you appreciate our Mt. Airy neighborhood more deeply?

One of my main goals as an historian is to teach my students that our world today was not an inevitability - that it has been shaped by the deliberate decisions and actions of individuals and groups of people and the intended and unintended consequences that emerged as a result.

And this applies to this research as well. Accounts of post-WWII neighborhood racial struggles aren't new. There is now a well-established narrative about the contentious relationship between race and urban space in the middle of the twentieth century, one in which the movement of African American homebuyers into previous all-white enclaves prompted aggressive clashes over ideas of private property and individual freedom, the threat of instability and crime, and the push for racial equality. In this story, segregation and racial inequity in American cities were not the inevitable outcome of postwar race relations, nor were they a reaction against 1960s radical racial power movements. Rather, the racial composition of neighborhoods was the result of intentional political, legal, and economic initiatives that fostered racial separation.

But - and this is an important "but" - just as segregation wasn't inevitable, neither was it the only possible outcome of these deliberate policies and practices. West Mount Airy's integration efforts offer insights into the decisions that individual homeowners had to make as they negotiated the racial landscape of postwar American cities. Here, a community in transition came together to find an alternative to racial separation, without knowing what they would create in its place.

That sense of the unknown - the commitment to embarking on something different without having a concrete sense of what the outcome would be - has given me a greater appreciation for what the neighborhood is today.

What can readers from Mt. Airy expect to find familiar in your book?

For many, the origins story of Mount Airy's integration efforts is a familiar one. But what was most striking to me in writing this book, and what I hope will be compelling to folks who read it, is not just that process of integrating, but the challenges, contours, and complexities that emerged out of that experience of interracial living.

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. Her research centers on the history of race, ethnicity, and urban identity in post-WWII American cities and has been guided by questions of identity creation, community cohesion, and historical memory. She holds a joint JD/PhD in history from Temple University, and her first book, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia, examines the creation of intentionally integrated neighborhoods in the latter half of the twentieth century. She lives in West Mount Airy.