Friday, August 19, 2011

Dear Melissa - Interview with Middle Grade Author Melissa Glenn Haber (and giveaway!)

From From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors:

Welcome author Melissa Glenn Haber to From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!

Melissa is the author of several books for MG readers, including  The Heroic Adventures of Hercules Amsterdam (Puffin Paperbacks, 2004, recommended for 9+); Beyond the Dragon Portal (Dutton, 2005, a Keystone State Reading Association Book Award nominee, recommended for 9+); The Pluto Project (Dutton, 2006, a Junior Library Guild selection, recommended for 11 and up).
Since Melissa’s latest release Your Best Friend, Meredith (Aladdin, previously released as Dear Anjali, Aladdin 2010) is a novel in letters, we thought we’d conduct her author interview a bit differently! Below are some questions from, erm, kind of imaginary readers, and Melissa’s thoughtful answers. (Dear Abby has nothing on this MG author!)

1. Dear Melissa, In your novel, your character Meredith types (and writes) long letters to her friend Anjali. Only problem is, Anjali has recently, and unexpectedly died. What inspired you to write a novel about a girl writing letters to her dead best friend? Were you worried it would be too dark? Signed — BFF in Boise

Dear BFF:
I mostly always start a novel because a first sentence comes to me, and that’s what happened here. Meredith just started speaking to Anjali in my head, and then I was writing this potentially depressing novel. I did worry a little about the novel getting too heavy, though it’s as much about friendship and first love as it is about death; to deal with that I tried to balance the times Meredith’s really despairing with goofier material.  (My favorite: when Meredith’s at her lowest and suddenly loses the “e” key on the typewriter).  I guess it worked, because the most common comment I hear from kids about the book is that they thought it was really funny. Which is a little bizarre.  I mean, I have books about baby sisters turning into dragons, and three inch tall boys living with mice, and kids pretending to be spies and finding out that what they pretend to discover is actually true, and it turns out that the book about the dead girl is the laugh riot.  Go figure.

2. Dear MGH, What made U decide 2 write a novel in ltrs? I mean, doesn’t everyone IM these days? xo — techwiz999

Dear Techwiz999, Ah: you discovered the secret!  I originally set the novel when I was 13—back in 1983.  That’s why Meredith is writing on what she calls a typerwriter.  My agent suggested that I update it to the present, which meant all sorts of small changes in technology (I think there are still some LP records that stayed in by mistake). I kept the typewriter in part for the reasons Meredith says (she claims it lets her write in the Heming way), but also texting and IMing are not very useful when it comes to working out what Meredith would call your Inner Feelings (TM) For that, a diary—which is sort of what Meredith’s letters become—is necessary.  It also turned out there was a major advantage to writing a novel in letters—aside from the fact that writing unanswered letters felt like a fitting metaphor for reaching out to someone who can’t reach back.  Writing in letters dealt with the fundamental problem with the first person: unless the first person is written in the present tense, the narrator knows what’s going to happen.  Here, Meredith was in as much in the dark as the reader.

3. Dear Author, In your novel, the three main characters are from three different religions – Meredith celebrates Christmas, so she seems like she’s Christian. Her friend and crush Noah is Jewish. And Anjali is Hindu. At the end of the book, Meredith even writes a letter to God. What role did spirituality and faith have in this novel? Yours Sincerely, Spirited and Spunky

To read the answer to this letter, and a few more, as well as to qualify for the giveaway, please visit here!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Say My Name, Say My Name: Writers on Naming

It started with Kate DiCamillo's The Magician's Elephant. I was reading the novel on a plane and kept wanting to turn to my fellow passengers (none of whom I unfortunately knew) and read the beautiful words aloud. These were words meant to be spoken, sung, shouted, I thought. But, for fear of being hauled off by the TSA, all I could do was keep them to myself, rolling them around and around in my mouth, feeling their heft and weight and beauty.

As I read, I kept thinking about the wonderful community of my new literary agency (The Erin Murphy Literary Agency, EMLA), and how meaningful it was to me to have so many differing communities of support around me, some who knew me well, and some -- like EMLA -- where many just knew my name. But even in that "just name knowing" - there was something so vital and beautiful being built - one more net beneath my various, precarious high-wire acts.

I was almost completely undone by one passage where DiCamillo reminds us what powerful magic names are:

Deep within herself, the elephant said this name, her name, over and over again. She was working to remind herself of who she was. She was working to remember that, somewhere, in another place entirely, she was known and loved. --- Kate DiCamillo

As a writer whose 'day job' in medical humanities is steeped in examinations of intersubjectivity, what Martin Buber called the "I-thou" relationship, I suppose it's no surprise that I am particularly moved by writing regarding names and naming. As DiCamillo shows us, a name connects us to those who know and love us, those who, in the Levinasian sense, recognize our very face. 

In fact, one of my favorite writing exercises in any group I teach begins with the prompt: "Tell me the story of your name." It's a relatively low-risk exercise - certainly every person in the workshop or class has a name, and certainly every name has a story. Yet, it's an intensely personal exercise as well - calling forth stories of family, ancestry, history, identity, immigration, community, pain, loss, aspiration, and dream. Inevitably, there are tears and there is laughter when each member of the group reads aloud their own unique tale of their own unique name. And in the process, we recognize and honor the presence of each and every individual. From strangers, we become a community.

But it doesn't explain why every novel I seem to read lately has the most beautiful passages about names and naming. This week, it was Rita Williams Garcia's georgeous and powerful One Crazy Summer:

A name is important...Your name is how people know you. The very mention of your name makes a picture spring to mind, whether it's a picture of clashing fists or a mighty mountain that can't be knocked down. -- Rita Williams Garcia

In the book, a name given and refused leads to the loss of a mother. A mother who herself has given birth to a new self, a new avatar, a new name.

Last night, I gobbled up DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie, in which Opal, the young protagonist, adopts and is adopted by a dog on the loose in a Winn-Dixie grocery store:

"Here boy," I said again. And then I figured that the dog was probably like everybody else in the world, that he would want to get called by a name, only I didn't know what his name was, so I just said the first thing that came into my head. I said, "Here, Winn-Dixie."

And that dog came trotting over to me just like he had been doing it his whole life. -- Kate DiCamillo

Tonight, I'm reading Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, in which the Indian American physician protagonist (hm... why does that sound familiar?) is searching for answers in the death of her colleague Anders. She has traveled to the Amazon, where she meets a young deaf boy named Easter who was the last to see Anders alive.

Marina could see him sitting on a log, a pad of paper out across his knees, Easter pressed in close beside him. Of course he could teach a boy how to make his letters. He'd done it three times before. It wouldn't make any difference to him that Easter couldn't hear. This is who you are, Anders tells him, pointing to Easter's name. Then he points to his own, This is who I am. 

Marina and her companion, Dr. Swenson, wonder at Anders teaching the boy to write both his own name, and Anders' as well. Finally, Swenson concludes,

Maybe he felt it was a way to be remembered. -- Ann Patchett

What are your favorite quotes about names?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Thembi Ngubane's Story: HIV and AIDS Acceptance

“Our parents struggled against apartheid, they wanted to be free. And it is the same with HIV/AIDS. This is the new struggle.” – Thembi Ngubane

Thembi Ngubane was a 19-year-old South African woman from Khayelitsha township, outside Cape Town. She never thought she would inspire people from around the world with her life’s story. Surely, she never thought she would continue to be an inspiration even after her death.

But when Thembi was given a tape recorder by NPR’s Radio Diaries, and asked to record the day to day experiences of her life as one of South Africa’s millions of HIV+ youth, everything changed. In light of the severe social stigma that remains around HIV and AIDS in Southern Africa, Thembi had until then been relatively silent about her condition. Even when Radio Diaries played segments of her story on National Public Radio in the U.S., she did not want her story broadcast in her home country.

Yet, in the personal to political tradition of so many social change movements in the U.S. – the 1970’s feminist movement, the civil rights movement, and now the body acceptance movements – Thembi took her personal story and connected it to a broader global movement around HIV and AIDS acceptance. She traveled to the U.S. and met with former President Bill Clinton and then-Senator Barak Obama. In March 2007, she spoke to the South African Parliament about the need to address AIDS-based discrimination in her country. Indeed, in the sheer act of telling her story, Thembi galvanized a movement around acceptance of HIV and AIDS both in South Africa and around the world.

To read the rest of this blog, please go to Adios, Barbie!