Fab website makeover & giveaway

January 20th 2014

I am so excited because my website got a fabulous new makeover! Tasha at My Cute Lobster created the design based off an idea I had. The girl on the homepage is my accidental sleuth. She’s stumbled upon a mystery and is taking notes under the lamplight, with her trusty greyhound protector by her side. I even wrote a piece of flash fiction for the homepage.

With trusty Sergeant by my side, I stand beneath the yellow light and watch. And wait. From my vantage point, I can see shadows moving behind closed curtains. No one’s left the apartment building for hours and my feet throb in these dreadful heels. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have left the sock hop early to tail Mr. Key, especially not during a slow dance with dreamy Bobby Goldman when Buddy Holly was playing. I just keep telling myself that I’m doing this for Edith, my best friend. There will be plenty of school dances to go to once I figure out how Mr. Key is involved. Until then, I stand in the shadows and watch and wait.

In honor of my website’s fabulous new look, I am going to giveaway a fabulous ARC — Mistwalker by Saundra Mitchell — to a random commenter. (I feel like it’s a fitting novel for the mysterious and intriguing atmosphere on my new site.) Please leave your email in the comments section so I can get in touch with the winner.


How a YA book prompted some social action

January 16th 2014

The following post is the true story of how one YA novel prompted me to unleash my frustrations about my library’s crappy YA collection development to my library administrators, county commissioners and state senator (and surprisingly, only my state senator responded).

It all started when I wanted to read In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters, a critically-acclaimed YA novel that is nominated for a Morris Award, and unsurprisingly, my poorly-funded county library system did not have the book. Now, you might be asking yourself, why is this a problem? Can’t you just get the book from interlibrary loan? Or buy it? Sure. But if I bought every book my library doesn’t have, I’d be broke. Also, my county library has an asinine policy of not ILL’ing (yes, I use that as a verb) books published within the year and ITSOB was published in April 2013. So not only does my library not have this Booklist starred-review book, and probably isn’t going to buy it anytime soon since it is January 2014 already, but they won’t necessary get it for me because it’s not a year old! Can you feel my frustration bubbling because even as I type this, I’m getting angry. (Long story short, they did ILL it for me and I read it and loved it.)

I started to think if my county library (which consists of 2 branches) doesn’t have In the Shadow of Blackbirds, what other awesome YA novels are they missing? Because every time I check the shelves (which is once a week), I am sorely disappointed at my options. So one day, I spent a good hour on their catalog checking to see if they at least had the Printz winners and honors books. And the results were disappointing.

The county library has 2 copies of the 2013 Printz winner In Darkness by Nick Lake, but is missing 2 of the 4 honors books for the same year. The county does not own the 2012 Printz winner, Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, at all and has only 1 of the 4 honors books. For 2011, the county has the Printz winner but we’re missing 3 of the 4 honor books. For 2010, the county has have the Printz winner but we’re missing 2 of the 4 honors books.
And it only gets worse from there. The county library doesn’t have any of Maureen Johnson’s newest books. I mean none. The last MJ book they bought was from 2006! No Suite Scarlett. No Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes. No The Name of the Star. The library doesn’t have anything by Holly Black past White Cat! And we’re still missing the second novel in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys. And don’t even get me started on authors such as Rainbow Rowell and Andrew Smith.
In a furor, I wrote an email to library administration detailing these egregious offenses. I know money is tight, but how is the money being spent? How are books being identified for the YA collection? Is whoever doing the ordering knowledgeable in YA collection development? I wasn’t just spouting off a bunch of complaints, I also volunteered my help.
I have a master’s degree in library science. Before having my sons, I worked for two years as a YA librarian in a NJ public library. Unlike Pennsylvania (apparently), NJ requires librarians to have a master’s degree. NJ libraries also get their funding through a large local tax base, which isn’t true for PA. My county library system gets its funding from the state who slashed the library budget by $20 million during the last few years. And, a few years ago, a proposition for additional tax money to go directly to our library was voted down by residents. So there’s that, too.
My county library is trying to do the best with the financial resources its got, which isn’t much. I’ve learned that only one person does the book ordering for our county system. One woman who orders children’s, teen and adult fiction for a county servicing 40K people. How can she be expected to know what to order? But that’s a problem in itself. If you’re on a tight budget, you should be doing the best with the funding available and that means prioritizing.
Just last week, I received a phone call from my state senator’s office wanting to know if I’d like to participate in a live town-hall meeting on the phone. Would I? I stayed on the line and volunteered to ask a question. I chose to address the issue of my county library’s poor funding and inadequate resources. To my relief, the state senator seemed interested. Later that afternoon, an aide from her office called me to discuss the issue further. For all I know the woman was humoring me, but for those 20 minutes, she listened and responded to my concerns and it felt good, cathartic even. Maybe what I said will make a difference when the senator votes, maybe not.
As it turns out, I am not the only frustrated county resident. Some of my friends are willing to purchase non-resident library cards in neighboring states so they can use their libraries. Interestingly, it was this notion that surprised the senator’s aide. That people would be willing to pay for services in another state. Why not pay for those services here in our county?But that’s up to voters and last time, county voters didn’t want to pay more money for the library. Even if that money equated to $35 per household per year.
Some of those same friends wrote to the senator and got phone calls as well. I can only hope when the library funding is discussed in budget hearings, my state senator voices support. Because as much as I love buying books to support my fellow authors, I’m also a librarian who believes in checking out books to support the library. And that’s the point. I’m for my library. I’m critical because I care. I will always support my library even when I may be frustrated with the lack of selection. (I donate what I can from my SLJ books, but I can’t do this alone). I want it to be the best library it can be and that won’t happen without adequate funding.
Are you in a town, county, state without adequate library funding and support? What do you do to help your library? What can you suggest?

The Golem and the Jinni

January 6th 2014

So two renews ago, I checked out The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker from my public library and I’m absolutely smitten with this debut (I’m also uber jealous of the author’s talent, but I digress). I rarely read adult fiction, mainly because as a YA writer, I’m mostly interested in reading YA books. But sometimes an amazing book comes along that checks all the boxes. Historical fiction. Supernatural creatures. Jewish folklore. 1899 NYC. Immigrants! And I just have to read it.

My library copy next to a sweet cup of coffee. The best pairing.

My library copy next to a sweet cup of coffee. The best pairing.

It’s 1899, and a female Golem, a supernatural creature made of clay, arrives on the shores of New York City. Widowed and with no master to guide her, the Golem is lost. She can speak any language and can read people’s thoughts, but she cannot blend into the throng of immigrants. Not without help. At the same time in New York, a Jinni appears in a tinsmith shop. He is released from a flask with no clothes and no protection until the kindly Syrian shop owner offers him a job and helps him navigate the city. Despite the kindness of benefactors, the Golem and the Jinni can’t shake their otherworldliness. In a random meeting, they discover a connection and they quickly become friends. Together, they explore the city and ponder their futures. Because what can two immortal creatures do for eternity? Not much more than the mundane, it seems. But, there is someone lurking, someone who can wield power and destroy them. Life becomes pretty precious when you can lose it.

The Golem and the Jinni is the book I wish I had written. It’s imaginative, character-driven and compelling. Wecker combines both Jewish and Middle Eastern folklore and sets the story in the richly-detailed Lower East Side.

I’m particularly drawn to this story because my family (both sides) comes from the Lower East Side. My grandma grew up in a railroad apartment on Avenue B and my grandpa grew up in a tenement on Avenue D. My paternal great-grandparents lived somewhere over too when they arrived from Odessa, Ukraine. My roots and my history are in New York. In fact, just yesterday, I asked my grandparents if they knew the word ‘Golem.’ My grandma did not, but my grandpa not only knew the word, he knew the Yiddish pronunciation. It sounded something like “Gurlem.” He added this soft ‘r’ into the word. I couldn’t recreate the pronunciation if I tried. However, his mother taught him that a Golem was an evil being. He didn’t know about the stories of creatures made of clay. Still, he knew the word and remembered his mother telling him about them (pretty good recall for an 86-year-old man). And I got to hear a brief tidbit of family history.

Whether you were Polish or Ukrainian, if you were Jewish, you spoke Yiddish. It was a unifying language; a language that connected Ashkenazi Jews from all over Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the only Yiddish words I know are the few I’ve learned from my grandparents and those that have popped up into our vernacular. You know…putz, schvitz, shlepp. (On a side note: if you’re interested in the Yiddish language, check out this book — Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky.) Unfortunately, Yiddish is a dying language and my generation will probably never know it.

That’s why books like The Golem and the Jinni are special to me. Stories like this remind me of my personal connection to the immigrant experience that I don’t think about enough. Because had my great-grandparents not arrived at Ellis Island from Odessa in the early 20th century and toiled away in a tenement, I wouldn’t be here luxuriously writing a blog post and drinking a cup of coffee — my life eons easier than theirs ever was. And that’s meaningful to me.

So, dear readers, what books have you read that are truly memorable? Books that have reminded you of a connection to your family? your heritage? your past? Or books that you just can’t shake? I hope you’ll comment below.