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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.


Top 10 things I’m looking forward to in 2014

January 1st 2014

I don’t make resolutions because I never keep them. So rather than make empty promises, I decided to write a Top 10 list of things I’m looking forward to in 2014.

10. Downton Abbey Season 4! Hello, January…Dude, I am so excited to get back to the 1920s. Holy hell, how will Lady Mary cope? How will I?

9. Veronica Mars movie. I kickstarted $35 for this to get made. ‘Pixie spy magic’ for everyone!

8. Finishing my damn edits. I’m behind already because of Christmas and sickness. But I will finish in ’14. That’s an absolute. Act 2 is currently with my editor.

7. The third book in the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. According to her website, it should be out in September. I love this series. Who doesn’t love this series? Everyone should love this series.

6. The Lair of Dreams (Diviners Book 2) by Libba Bray, release date in August. I luuuuurved The Diviners ever since my friend scored me an early copy at BEA. Apparently, the release date for Lair of Dreams has been pushed back and pushed back, but it will be worth it. Trust me.

5. Tori Amos’ new album! Unrepentant Geraldines. (That title!) According to Mercury Classics’ website, the album is supposed to be a return to her contemporary works. I am so excited. And she goes on tour in the spring, but alas, I’ll have a newborn. (See #2)

4. My 35th birthday. I’m sort of ambivalent about this. I’m going to be 35?! That sounds old. When my mom turned 35, I was 13. I remember that day vividly. I was in 8th grade and we got a puppy. When I turn 35, I’ll be nearly 9 months pregnant. When I have energy, I usually feel 25. Because 35 sounds old. It just does.

3. My book! My book! My book is being published. Again, the month of its release is still in the works. But it will be released in ’14. I’ll be a published author! It’s a dream-come-true.

2. The birth of my baby. Oh yeah, this too is definitely happening. May. And it’s a girl! The whole family is on excitement overload. Hope her big brothers are ready.

1. I’ll leave this one up to the universe. Surprise me with something good!


What this Jew does on Hanukkah

December 26th 2013

My author friend, Kate Moretti, asked if I was going to write a post about my Hanukkah traditions. And even though Hanukkah has been over for a month, I figured, why not. But be prepared. Apparently, I got a lot to say.

When I was a kid, Hanukkah was a magical time. It was the only time of year, other than your birthday, where you got presents. (*calling out to my kids* Do you hear that kids? You got presents only twice a year!) And not just a present. But 8 friggin presents! My grandparents would ask for a gift list in early October, which always crazy early to my kidself. I didn’t know what I wanted for Hanukkah in October! The Toys R Us catalog wasn’t out that early. On the other hand, my mom wouldn’t ask for a list until late November, early December. (By the way, things haven’t changed much with my kids.)

At some point, my mom (never my dad; and guess what? Things haven’t changed much. He’s as surprised at the gifts as my kids) would wrap all the presents (mine and my brother’s) and stack them all the way on top of my dad’s armoire. My brother and I would sit on my parents’ bed and stare at the gifts, trying to figure out what they were. Was that Justin’s Ninja Turtle? Was that my barbie? (Best thing for my parents about not having to worry about Santa, is they could hide the gifts in plain sight.) And then for each night, my mom would ask me if I wanted a big gift, medium gift, or small gift. Did I want to get my big present right away or wait and savor it? I think I always went big on the first night.

Usually, on the first night, my mom would make matzoh ball soup and latkes. Then my dad would drive us kids around the neighborhood so we could see the Christmas lights (there was one house a few blocks away that was ah-mazing) and count the menorahs in the windows. (I always say that we were made Jewish for a reason. Because if my father had to hang Christmas lights, his OCD would kick into overdrive.) We’d come home and light the menorah before opening gifts. Then on the weekend, my grandparents would visit and we would open all the presents they brought us. My grandma would make brisket and matzoh ball soup. (It’s so good, we’d have it all week).

Coming from Queens, there was familiarity and comfort in seeing other Jews living in the area. Of course, my hometown in Central Jersey was a mecca for displaced New Yorkers. My junior-year English class was easily 50% Jewish (I counted once). So, we never felt like outsiders for being a different religion. In fact, I didn’t feel like the odd-girl out until I went to college (in-state, mind you) and was one of only two Jewish students on my floor and met other Jersey kids who had never met a Jewish person before! And don’t even get me started on the time, my mom and I went to Denver for a bar mitzvah. The hotel shuttle driver, who was a nice guy, spoke to my mom and I for 20 minutes about how he once had a Jewish boss. (We were apparently the second and third Jewish people the man had ever met!) Anyway, I digress….

Now that I have kids, I’m trying to establish our own Hanukkah traditions. Although, I am not a religious person, I want my kids to appreciate their Jewish heritage. So a lot of what we do is cultural, not Godly. I have a large collection of menorahs, but I only light one. (It’s a bicycle menorah, if you’re curious). The rest are on display. I make a point of lighting the menorah in the right order, from right to left using the Shamash (leader candle). I say the prayer, although I had to download it from the Internet to get the phonetic pronunciation because hell if I remember how to read Hebrew. My husband fries up the best latkes, but we don’t use my grandma’s recipe (we use Duff Golman’s on FoodNetwork). My boys get small gifts for each of the eight days. Because they also get Christmas gifts and my older son’s birthday is a week after that, the boys receive books. Mostly, if not all, their gifts are books. Maybe a toy car, a coloring book, a CD. But small gifts. Hanukkah is not meant to compete with Christmas. And the idea of giving them 8 medium-to-large gifts is not only overwhelming, but ludicrous and I refuse to do it. Anyway, that night, I read the boys their new books and some Hanukkah stories from the library. Earlier that evening, they might even watch Shalom Sesame. (Perhaps, we can all learn something.) We don’t drive around the neighborhood counting menorahs because there are very few Jews where I live and it’s sort of depressing.

I say we’re an interfaith family. We’re certainly not dual-faith as we don’t religiously school our kids in Catholicism and Judaism and I can’t say we’re no faith either. Although, what my husband and I know about our respective faiths could fit in a shot glass. But despite our lack of knowledge about our religions, we value our cultural backgrounds and want to instill those values in our kids.

So, ask me how I celebrate Hanukkah now…well, it’s a little of this from my youth and some new things I’m trying out. And perhaps, somewhere in between latkes and Shalom Sesame, my children are filing away these traditions in their adorable, young brains for their future families. One can only hope they are being good listeners.


Being a Jew on Christmas

December 22nd 2013

When I was a kid, Christmas was the most boring day of the year. Of course, everything building up to Christmas was great. Making holiday decorations in school (My second-grade teacher gave us the option of decorating a Ziggy cut-out to either make him look like Santa or a rabbi, depending on your religion, before hanging them up on the corkboard outside the classroom. Try doing that now.); watching Frosty the Snowman on television; eating candy canes; Hanukkah! (it usually came before Christmas); and our school holiday party. All that holiday stuff was awesome.

And then came actual Christmas day. What a yawn fest. You see, for a little Jewish girl, there was never anything to do. My mom was a nurse (still is) and she always volunteered to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas. After all, we didn’t have a party to go to or church to attend and she got time-and-a-half (still does). So my dad stayed home with my brother and me while we surfed the basic channels for something, anything to watch that wasn’t the Twilight Zone (although that usually won out). All the stores were closed. None of the other kids were available to play, assuming they were opening gifts somewhere. Our Hanukkah toys lost their novelty. The weather felt cold and drab. My dad was probably in charge of dinner, which couldn’t have boded well for us kids. Even my grandparents went to Atlantic City every Christmas, leaving their bored grandkids behind.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I understood what us Jews actually did on Christmas. Chinese food and the movies?! I want in. That sounds fun. Better than Twilight Zone marathons. How do I get in on that? It’s not like I didn’t grow up with other Jewish kids. I was raised in the NYC metro area. But while other Jewish kids in my neighborhood were seeing the latest movie at the Metroplex, my brother and I were stranded at home without a way to get there (at this point, my father also worked Christmas).

Perhaps, it was all those Christmases feeling left out of the fun that I started to fantasize what Christmas must’ve been like for all those people who celebrated it. As a kid, my best friend’s house became a gingerbread wonderland. Her mom made popcorn balls and always embellished our hot cocoa with candy canes. I imaged her family went to festive parties where everyone wore snugly sweaters, drank egg nog, and sang carols around a piano. You know, a Hallmark movie.

In college, my then boyfriend invited me to his house for Christmas. Finally, a chance to get in on this magical holiday. You should’ve seen my surprise when they spent most of Christmas watching TV, only to then split immediately after dinner for the movies. Wait. You’re allowed to do that? On Christmas? Apparently, people were breaking some Christian-Christmas rules I had made up in my head and it was ruining my idolized version of the holiday.

Years later, when I was dating my now-husband, I got to experience an Italian Christmas. But then this too threw me off. Their big celebration was on Christmas Eve. And they ate nothing but seafood, until midnight when they produced a plate of sausage. I think the biggest kicker was that my inlaws did not wrap their gifts. Why? Because Santa doesn’t wrap gifts, a tradition passed down from my mother-in-law’s childhood. What’s a Jewish girl to think?

Now that I’m a grown-up with an interfaith family of my own, we get to celebrate Christmas the way we want to, the way I want to and I’m not gonna lie, I aim for some Hallmark-y things. Bob plans the seafood menu a year in advance, making adjustments and tweaks as he sees fit. (The man is passionate about food.) We hang our stockings on our mantle and for the last few years, we’ve gone out and cut down a tree. We light a fire in our fireplace and stuff our selves senseless. The boys have matching Christmas pjs this year too. And we wrap our gifts because I want to see my kids tear into the paper. (I love the suspense). After the kids go to sleep, we all take a turn opening our presents and oohing and ahing. Then the following morning, we wake and have a big breakfast. The kids open their Santa gifts and then we all get gussied up and drive to Staten Island for more celebrating.

But our celebration is no Normal Rockwell painting. We don’t always get around to hanging Christmas lights, especially this year with the weather. And this is the first year, I’ve ever bought egg nog and I’ve been drinking it in the morning before my coffee. Not very festive-like. And we don’t have a piano and I never play Christmas music.

Maybe this post should be titled ‘Being This Jew on Christmas’ because my experiences are obviously unique to me. As a kid, I never got to celebrate the Norman Rockwell Christmas, but who does? As a parent, I’m establishing traditions unique to my interfaith family. Depending on when Hanukkah falls, it could mean having latkes with our rice balls. Or egg nog with my Manishewitz. And when my kids are teens, it could mean a matinee after presents. Whatever. It’s all good because it’s ours.