October 29, 2018

Birth Stories for Books: ANYTHING BUT OKAY by Sarah Darer Littman

Today we continue the series, Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication With Published Authors and Illustrators. My guest this week is author  Sarah Darer Littman, discussing the story behind the story of her timely novel, ANYTHING BUT OKAY that released earlier this month. Welcome Sarah!

I Write Books to Answer Questions
by Sarah Darer Littman

Image Provided by Sarah Darer Littman
As with most of my books, the idea for ANYTHING BUT OKAY started with questions that had been knocking around in my brain for a while. The first one was inspired by my friend Rob Jordan, a USAF veteran. Back in December 2014, Rob made a post on Facebook about the problems he had getting disability for the health issues he'd developed as a result of serving in Afghanistan, at bases where there were burn pits. His post made me angry about the way we treat our veterans - I wrote about it here. I didn’t support the Iraq war. I wrote a political column on the eve of the war headlined “Bush in a china shop,” warning that if we broke this, we’d pay to fix it. And pay we have. Back in February of this year, The Cost of War Project at Brown University estimated that through the end of FY2018, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) will cost the American people $4.6 trillion. That’s trillion with a T. Add in another trillion for the cost of medical and disability for GWOT veterans through 2056, and we’re talking $5.6 trillion. That’s before we even get to the interest on the debt that we took out for war appropriations. Back in 2003 when the war started, my town was filled with people sporting those yellow ribbon car magnets that said “Support the Troops” on their cars, combined with a healthy dose of American flags. There was no yellow ribbon on my car. But despite not supporting the war, I wanted to support the people fighting it. My kids and I adopted a soldier who was serving in Iraq, and sent him weekly letters and care packages. It felt like the least we could do for the people who were putting their lives at risk while America went about its business. Seeing Rob and so many other of our veterans struggle to get help from the Veteran’s Administration after having served our country with pride got me wondering: Why is our country so quick to send troops off to war regardless of the cost, but when our vets come home struggling with the emotional and physical costs of fighting it, the focus is suddenly switched to reducing taxes and a deficit swollen by the costs of prosecuting that war?
Cover Image Provided by Author
I had to write a novel to work that one out, and I dedicated it to Rob.

The second question that has been bothering me for a long time was “What is a patriot?” and the related question of who gets to define that. I spent fourteen years writing political opinion columns, and count George Orwell as one of my major influences. Hearing our government using the euphemism “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” for torture was a perfect example of what Orwell warned of in his essay, Politics and the English Language: “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Yet because of the views expressed in my 650-word columns, I was called “un-American,” and “a terrorist lover.” The hyperbole really made me laugh one day, when I received an email telling me I was “using the American way of life to destroy the American way of life and the rest of Western Civilization in the process.” All of that in 650 words, and I couldn’t even get my teenagers to put their dishes in the dishwasher! I guess the pen really IS mightier than sword. Still, I found these accusations confusing because I thought I was doing my job as a journalist and my duty as an American by trying to hold those in power accountable. The current political climate was another inspiration for ANYTHING BUT OKAY. I sold the book right before the 2016 election, and as I was writing it, I watched politicians use rhetoric to portray different groups as “animals,” and working to restrict the ability of refugees to seek asylum. It had a disturbingly familiar ring for someone who grew up in a family with Holocaust trauma. As I traveled to promote my previous novel IN CASE YOU MISSED IT in the lead up to the election, teachers and librarians described how that rhetoric 'trickled down' to their schools, both virtually on social media and in real life bullying. My heart broke as I heard about students in tears concerned for the safety of their families. I read news stories about white, privileged kids from the suburbs shouting racist chants when they played teams from schools with a more diverse makeup. This made me wonder how as writers and educators we can use literature to help create more understanding and empathy; how we can start conversations and bridge differences. As a white woman of a certain age, I’m learning how many blind spots I have, and I hope reading about Stella and Farida’s friendship will encourage young people to think about what it means to be a good ally; to recognize that we can’t stand by in silence when we see injustice and hate speech, just because it’s not happening to us personally. Speaking of the news and the disinformation campaigns that were employed during the 2016 elections —and presently— it’s critical for young people to learn media literacy skills, particularly in the Internet age. And yet I’ve watched as the number of school librarians and media specialists has been cut by twenty percent since 2000, particularly in predominantly black and Latino districts, despite rising student populations. Technology can be a great tool, but Google will not teach our students the media literacy they need to be informed citizens in our constitutional republic. I hope that this book will encourage discussion of all of these questions—and through those conversations enable us to find the humanity we have in common. To read more about ANYTHING BUT OKAY, here's the link to the book on my website as well as a reading/teaching guide with extension activities.

Thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing the questions that inspired ANYTHING BUT OKAY. It's an important and timely book to put into the hands of young readers who are trying to make sense of the world we are living in today. THANK YOU also for doing your job as a journalist and your duty as an American by trying to hold those in power accountable...and for your ongoing advocacy for information literacy and for continuing to shine a light on the importance of school librarians and media specialists.

Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of Young Adult novels, In Case You Missed It, Backlash (Winner of the Iowa Teen Book Award), Want to Go Private?; Life, After; and Purge; and middle grade novels, Fairest of Them All, Charmed, I’m Sure and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. As well as writing novels, Sarah teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University, at the Yale Summer Writers' Conference, and is an award-winning opinion columnist. She lives in Connecticut. You can find Sarah on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @sarahdarerlitt.  

October 18, 2018

Birth Stories for Books: MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH, by Jody J. Little

Periodically, from now until next October when my two new books come out, I will be running a series of blog posts called "Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication from Published Authors and Illustrators." I'm so happy to welcome Jody J. Little, and her debut novel, MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH, as the debut for this series of posts! Jody calls her path to publication a journey of wonder. Here it is:

A Journey of Wonder
by Jody J. Little

Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder. E.B. White

Getting a book published is hard.

Writing is just plain hard.

It’s really a wonder that we do it. The number stats are not on our side.

-I’ve attended 12 SCBWI conferences.
-I’ve worked with 13 amazing critique partners.
-I’ve read 20,290 middle grade novels (made-up number).
-I received 27 agent rejections.
-I wrote the 1st draft of my debut in 2008.
-It was my 2nd full-novel manuscript.
-It was rejected by 23 editors.
-I did 24 full revisions before it sold.
-I’ve cried 4096 times (made up number, probably higher).
-I was 50 years young when I received a first offer from a publishing house!
-I’ll be 52 when it is released on March 12, 2019.

I think wonder is the key to most writers’ journeys.

My wonder began when I was seven years old. I gleefully came home from school and announced that I was going to be an author when I grew up. I held my first story in my hand and showed my mom. It was brilliantly titled, The Nut and the Boy. Each page was lovingly adorned with a crayon-colored illustration. Here’s an exclusive excerpt:

Onse a pon a time ther was a boy. He whet to the store he said to his mom which fish shed I pik. don’t pik a fish pik a nut a nut yes a nut o.k. but nuts make a spot.

This brilliance was followed by many other stories like, Tommy Turtle and Fanny Fish, Me the Dime, Melvin Goes on a Trip, and The Glerp.

By fourth grade, I was writing my first chapter book. It included the characters from the Boxcar Children and was set in the time of Little House on the Prairie. I worked on it every spare moment I had while in school. When my fourth-grade teacher asked if she could read it, I anxiously handed over the forty pages I had written, filled with wonder of what she might say. Would she love it? Would she tell me I was talented? Would she share it with the class? There was little to wonder about when she returned my story. I received a verbal lashing for my spelling, particularly my inability to distinguish long vowels from short vowels, and how with short vowels you must double the final consonant before adding -ed or -ing. That conversation is tearfully vivid in my mind. Clearly, if I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t write.

In looking back, I wonder if this moment instilled a misbelief in me, one that took me years to overcome. I never once thought of pursuing writing as a career. I was a good student, I loved school, and I followed in the footsteps of my parents and became a teacher. I taught middle school for nine years, and then had two wonderful children and decided to stay home. Up until my kids were born, my adult writing life consisted of required college papers, comments on student papers and report cards, emails, grocery lists, and thank you notes.

Being a stay-at-home parent is something I’ve never regretted, and I have fond moments of those years, but it was also isolating at times. I missed the professional world. I missed having a sense of self-purpose. I felt directionless. I started to wonder about writing, so I enrolled in a correspondence course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. During and after the course, I sold a handful of stories and articles to children’s magazines. A second course a few years later, offered me the guidance to write my first full-length children’s novel. I sincerely believe that these courses, along with The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators are responsible for putting me on my path to publication. I attended my first regional SCBWI conference in 2005 and joined an online critique group soon after. I continued to write and submit short stories, articles, and puzzles for magazines, selling a few of them, and all the while dabbling with that first novel.

Then in 2007, I submitted the novel to the Delacorte Contest for First Time Novelists. I didn’t win, but I was a finalist and was assigned an editor to work with on revisions. I was certain this was going to be the trigger for getting my novel published, but after a year, the editor left Delacorte leaving me no contact information and no directions on who to contact. I was crushed. I was certain that this writing business wasn’t meant to be. At least not for me.

Fortunately, my critique group would not allow me to quit. They’ve never allowed me to—not when I returned to teaching—not when my first novel didn’t sell. Never. They became my writing backbone, sending me virtual high-fives and real chocolate when needed. They knew all my stats on rejections, but they didn’t pay any attention to those numbers. They cheered with me when I landed my agent. They encouraged me when my chapters needed work—a lot of work. They are the best, and I never wonder about writing without them.

Published by HarperCollins
Last fall, on September 6, the second day of school, almost nine years after writing the first draft of  Mostly the Honest Truth, my phone rang. I was right in the middle of a math lesson, but when I went to silence my phone and send it to voicemail, I noticed the number was from New York. I checked the voicemail while the students were at recess. It was my agent, telling me to call him back. He said he had good news and bad news. I had forty minutes left in the day before I could call him, and I have no memory of how I made it through those forty minutes. I do recall exactly what he said, though, because I had dreamed of this conversation for years. It remains the best phone call of my life.

Hi Jody! I’ll start with the bad news. You’re no longer an unpublished author. The good news is you just received a two-book offer from HarperCollins!

I still have a long road to travel on my publication journey. Having a two-book deal is all-sorts of stress which I never imagined, but it’s what I’ve dreamed of, too. My books are going to be bound, and sitting on bookshelves, and in the libraries of teachers, and in the hands of young readers.

And I’m still filled with the wonder of what will happen around the corner.

How many more books will I write?

Will my students like my book?

What would my fourth-grade teacher think if she read it?

I’m pretty sure all the spelling is correct.

Thank you, Jody, for such an inspiring story! You've taught us to wonder, and then to persist and persevere to bring the stories we believe in to life. I can't wait to read MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH when it comes out next spring! 

Jody J. Little is a third-grade teacher who loves sharing her joy of books and reading with her students. She lives in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon with her family and an immortal pet rabbit. MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH is her first novel and will be published by Harper in March 2019. It was recently selected by the American Booksellers Association to be included on their Indies Introduce List for Winter/Spring 2019. You can pre-order through multiple vendors at HarperCollins. Visit Jody on Facebook @jodyjlittleauthor or follow her on Twitter @jodyjlittle