This is not how I’ve used my posts here, in the past. But the past is past and I’m really focusing on staying in the moment and celebrating life, which is what yesterday felt like, all day.
Lake Geneva, WI, Public Library hosted a Beachwalk Authorfest on July 9, their 8th annual, and my first with them. It couldn’t have been more perfect: weather sunny and light breezes, joyful and curious crowds, great company with illustrator of IS IT OVER?, Rebecca S. Hirsch. Add in snacks and sales and it was a fine way to reflect back on the changes in a single year.
Worth every minute of struggle to land on my feet and feel like myself again!
I thought long and hard about this post title, since it humbles me to admit how absent I have been from my public-facing writing life. (Hint, it was NOT about COVID.) There are good reasons for my radio-silence (as old-timers say). I issued this new- newsletter post to summarize what’s been going on in my life, explaining why I have been “ghosting” this site (as young ones say), and what lies ahead. If you don’t subscribe to my newsletter, HERE is a link to that recent post. While I’m at it, I’ll invite you to subscribe to my newsletter in that sidebar, over there to the right of this post. Clearly, I will not be flooding your inbox, but I do expect to return to a quarterly schedule, if you’d like to keep up about four times each year.
Writing about my year of challenges was yet another challenge for me, because I am quite private and tend a bit toward being a recluse. That can be a good fit for a writer, not so much for sustaining friends and followers. But those who have cheered and encouraged me so often in the past, even those with just a budding curiosity, deserve a direct and honest update on what has changed in the last year, and a statement from me about how I plan to proceed.
In fact, I will be returning soon to public appearances, safely outdoors, in the company of other writers for adults and kids, in an upcoming event at a “dream” setting- Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Details below:
Becky Hirsch, the talented illustrator of my recent picture book, IS IT OVER?, will be joining me for part of the day. Learn more about the venue HERE, about Becky HERE, and about the book, HERE.
Fair warning, summer weekends are very busy in this area, but the payoff is that you’ll find a plethora of fun things to do, see, and eat, as well as fantastic shops and that gorgeous beach. Our authorfest is outdoors, so here’s my personal warning: a SEVERE weather forecast will mean I need to cancel. I won’t melt in an occasional sprinkle, but damage to the books I bring along is not something I am willing risk.
Barring bad weather, I’d love to see some/all of you next Saturday, July 9, near the glorious beach of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. If I miss you there, I hope you’ll continue to stay tuned here, and possibly follow my reviews on my picture book blog, HERE, and on Goodreads, HERE, where I review works for all ages, including adults!
For now, I’m feeling good to once again reach out, and I’m looking forward to more in the near future. Meanwhile, here’s hoping that your own lives have been successful and healthy and happy, at least much of the time since I last popped by. Feel free to share an experience from your own year in comments. Take care of yourselves, out there. We need each other, right?
“In war torn Laos, thirteen-year-old Nou daydreams of the legendary heroes and mythical beings who live in the folklore stories she loves to hear. Remembering them helps her ignore physical pain as she struggles through the endless chores expected of a dutiful daughter. Each night, she examines the two books given to her by her ex-soldier father and prays for an end to the Vietnam War.”
Although I read many self-published books, I rarely review them. This, though, demands that effort from me. In the most respectful way possible, I hope to demand that readers spend time meeting Nou and her family, learning about a time in history that is too little understood, or is neglected, distorted, or actively ignored.
It is easy to miss the “BOOK ONE” in the title that indicates this is the first book in a series that will follow Nou through her changing life, in geography, circumstances, relationships, and self-awareness. even if a stand-alone title, the scenes and intensity of character, culture, crisis, and concern are page-turning and absorbing, yet they reveal and inform with details and revelations about the daily life of people trapped and betrayed by political forces on all sides. The fact that we can expect to meet her again in future books is a bonus.
Nou’s role as a middle child, as a girl, also trap her in a culture that denies her what she wants most- to learn to read. The patterns of duties, discipline, and sometimes desperation will elicit emotional reactions, but readers should avoid judgments. This is fully developed view of a culture different from ones most commonly portrayed in familiar novels, but that is a welcome revelation to expand and inform young minds.
Nou’s series has the tag YOUNG GUARDIAN for many valid reasons. Each event, each challenge in her journey of personal growth and family roles strengthens her capacity to move beyond the deeply traditional cultural expectations into which she was born. Her intense drive to learn to read comes from her storytelling talent, but she discovers that reading can be a survival skill, too.
This is a sensitively-constructed story that was inspired by various true experiences, written with rich details. I imagine that it will ring true to those many who lived in those times and places, but will also make young readers feel immersed in that very real world. Hmong Americans have far too few books that reflect or reveal their history, and those of us who are NOT Hmong also suffer from that lack. It is also America’s national history, and one we should all learn. In this novel we can expand our understanding while meeting a character who rises from the page and stands fully formed in our lives. Nou is a character reader will want to meet again.
As we reach the second half of the short month of February, I’m belatedly poking my head above ground to apologize for my absence in recent months. Some intense personal demands occupied my full attention since early Fall. I’m overdue on newsletters, blog posts, and reviews. The good news is that there has been some good news during that period which I’ll begin sharing, I have read some outstanding books to review, I have been writing, and my life is coming back under control with prospects for continued improvement in the coming year. Thanks for your patience in waiting for things to reach this stage!
Some sunlight for this stormy story!
The first and most important news to share is that KIRKUS REVIEWS has published a full review of my nearly-abandoned picture book, released in July, 2021. IS IT OVER?is a story of my heart, and one I had hoped would reach many readers. My personal issues, the limits of a pandemic, and other factors meant fewer events, outreach efforts, and school visits. I did share copies of this book with quite a few FISHER HOUSE sites and received some touching letters in response.
By the way, if you know of a Fisher House or other veterans group who might appreciate having a copy to share with their members, please respond below. I welcome a chance to share this book with those for whom it might be especially meaningful.
The review offered a comprehensive story summary (using more words than the word count of my sparse text!) but especially focused on glowing praise for the illustrations by Rebecca S. Hirsch. I’ve said from my first glimpse of Becki’s art that this could nearly be a wordless book, with her evocative and appealing narrative art knocking this story out of the park and into hearts of readers. Please read the full review below to appreciate the specific examples noted by this reviewer.
“A young girl dislikes a loud storm but uses her imagination to calm herself and her military veteran father in Brehl’s illustrated children’s book.
Risa is playing at the beach when a thunderstorm approaches. She runs to her house and says, “A STORM Daddy! Make it stop!” He tells her that he wishes that he could and that it will be over soon. He reassures her that she’s safe and encourages her to play in her room. As the wind howls and the waves pound, Risa tells her stuffed elephant, Ivan, not to be scared. When there are loud thunderclaps, she runs to Daddy again. Risa feels his heart racing, and he says that when he was young, he loved storms, and “skies were stages for my imagination.” (Hirsch’s upbeat illustrations show clouds playing instruments and riding on a ship and a whale.) But Daddy says his stories won’t help Risa, because they changed when he was a soldier; this is demonstrated by images of menacing animals. When the youngster looks at the skies, she sees golden elephants, including a baby one that looks like Ivan, led by a daddy elephant; Risa declares that the elephant family is safe, and the daddy elephant is shown fending off dangerous creatures. Daddy claims he also sees the golden elephants, and now his heartbeat is steady. Over the course of this book, Brehl presents a story that may help readers whose experiences mirror the characters’—particularly those in military families with members who struggle with PTSD. In the illustrations, Ivan, the stuffed elephant, is delightfully drawn with a heart on his body; his eyes widen with surprise at a loud crash, as if he’s a living creature. Interestingly, Risa’s father is depicted in Hirsch’s work as having a prosthetic leg, which is never directly addressed in the text—an effective narrative choice. Lavender shading is intriguingly used to indicate fear.
An often engaging work that may help to allay fears of readers young and old.”
As my life begins to resume a more predictable pattern, I hope to soon share some book reviews, distribute a spring newsletter to update changes in the past year, and reach out to loyal readers here on a more regular basis. Notice that I said “HOPE”, not “PLAN”. This year has certainly increased my awareness that plans can change and adapting to realities as they unfold is the best possible survival skill one can have. But HOPE? No one will ever make me give up that practice!
Along with that is my deep gratitude, for this lovely review, for the powerful support of a talent illustrator I’m proud to call my friend, and to readers like you who continue to show interest in my goings on!
Jolly Fish Press, 9781631635359
Publication Date: September 1, 2021
148 pages, Middle Grade Novel
I AM AMERICA Series
Description from Indiebound:
“It’s 1951, and workers at the Empire Zinc mine in Alba, New Mexico, have been striking for months. Among them is Ana Maria Garcia’s father, who says they may need to sell her vihuela to pay rent. But her vihuela was a gift from her recently deceased mother, and her dream is to be a corridista, a singer of Mexican ballads. As Ana Maria is drawn to the picket line, she is inspired to write a corrido about her mother and the other women of the mining community. An upcoming talent show may be Ana Maria’s chance to earn money for rent and save her vihuela–if she can give voice to the song of her heart. It’s the storytellers that preserve a nation’s history. But what happens when some stories are silenced? The I Am America series features fictional stories based on important historical events about people whose voices have been excluded, lost, or forgotten over time.”
I was eager to read this recent release because I am a fan of author/historian Judy Dodge Cummings. Her research, reflections, and writing are reliably thorough and engaging. In this case I was particularly intrigued because of the emphasis in this series on exploring and sharing lesser-known stories from American history, stories lost, in large part, due to systemic underreporting and ignoring heroic, historic events from any non-dominant culture in America.
In the details of this case from the early 1950s, the injustice is particularly egregious because the mining corporation employed both Anglo and Mexican-American workers. Their segregated housing locations and conditions meant that Anglo and Latin men might be working in identical conditions, side-by-side, but were paid unequally. Mexican-American workers were only rented land to build their homes on “the other side of the tracks”. It was that side of town, on land owned and controlled by the same mining company, that indoor plumbing or gas lines for cooking were not provided, as they were in Anglo housing.
Those and other conditions, including the size and amenities of the homes in direct proportion to pay inequities, meant that Ana Maria Garcia and her father lived in hardship, especially after Ana Maria’s mother died. That tragedy, too, was related to the poverty in which they lived. Surrounded by Papa’s angry grief, financial stress, and expectations for his daughter to take over Mama’s household duties magnified Ana Maria’s frustration and sadness. All this is made worse when Papa scoffs at her love of making music and her dreams of becoming an accomplished corridista (balladeer and player of traditional stringed instrument).
I loved much about this story, including the many ways in which a culture unknown to me was made to feel familiar and respected. Cummings provided skillful revelations along the way, gradually allowing Ana Maria to better understand her papa’s struggle with loss, to regain her song-writing and storytelling voice, and to recognize the strength of women and girls in her community, despite culturally assigned restrictions and expectations. even secondary character were written with depth and allowed growth long th course of the story.
I was fully engaged with the many aspects of character development, political forces, and threats to physical, emotional, and social safety that unfolded through Ana Maria’s point of view. The tension never eases, although there are pauses as she incorporated events from the strike to extend the story and lyrics in her ballad. This provided readers a brief reprieve in which to deepen their connections and prepare for ongoing assaults on all aspects of life to Ana maria’s community at home and on the picket line.
The resolution was satisfying without being predictable, including the epilogue in which the characters are woven into the true story of a documentary film about the strike. Back matter allows readers to access websites and outer sources to learn more about events, culture, music, and language.
This slim and accessible middle grade novel will be welcomed by readers with Latinx heritage but also by Anglo and other readers. All will be drawn to the relationships, power struggles, and intense inner emotions of moving through loss and loneliness to acceptance and identity. As a coming of age story this is a welcome addition to home, classroom, and library shelves. It’s a book that should be widely shared.