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.  

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