Monday, June 30, 2014

Summer Reading: Week Four

For a week when I wasn't working, I was working a lot this week, so I didn't read as much as I would have preferred.

I did read a couple of graphic novels, including Bone, which is one that a lot of middle schoolers enjoy and I've been meaning to check out for a while. It was light, and a quick read, but clever and enjoyable as well. I can see why it's popular with middle school readers.

Most of my reading time was focused on another beta read for another writing friend. We're going to have to talk about the ending, but otherwise, it was a really amazing book. She's a very talented writer.

NJ, on the other hand, has read up a storm! We picked up an audio book of Cornelia Funke's Ghosthunters series. We'd already listened to The Incredibly Revolting Ghost and The Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost sometime this past year. This one is #4: Ghosthunters and the Muddy Monster of Doom! Like all the books in this series, it features Tom and
his ghosthunting partners Hetty Hyssop and Hugo (an Averagely Spooky Ghost). I enjoy listening to these audiobooks, too. They are longer and more in depth stories, and are well performed by John Beach. I like how important knowledge is in the series. Tom and Hetty always figure something out through research and applying past knowledge rather than by luck.

The series is the right kind of spooky for my seven year old, too. She feels like she's hearing a scary story, but she won't have nightmares. There's plenty of comedy in the series as well. It's also nice that the main pair of ghosthunters are an eleven year old boy and a woman old enough to be his grandmother.

Besides Ghosthunters, Norah has begun to enjoy Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. She found book one in her sister's discard pile and snatched it up. Just like her mama, NJ enjoys a good graphic novel and Kinney's school situations make her laugh a lot.

She also returned to an old love this week: Mo Willems. NJ loves Mo Willems books, especially Elephant and Piggie books. Currently nearly all our library's collection is in our library book basket. She loves to read them aloud with someone, taking turns playing the part of Pig and Elephant.  There are great fun to read, with wonderful positive messages about friendship without being preachy. And if you read with expression, you'll find plenty to smile about.

M bought something at Barnes and Noble last week, but since she is still with the bio-Dad for her summer visitation, I don't yet know what it was or how she is enjoying it.

So, that's our summer reading this week. I can't believe it's already been a month!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

#SaturdayScenes No. 9

#saturdayscenes #samanthascenes

For #SaturdayScenes this week, I bring you a little scene written entirely in dialogue. Hope you enjoy!


I said so, didn’t I?

So, that’s it then?
            I said so, didn’t I?
I guess I hoped you didn’t mean it.
            Why would I say it, then?
I hate it when you do that.
Answer everything with a goddamn question.
It’s not funny, asshole. Especially not if this is really it.
            Hey, I never promised . . .
Like hell, you didn’t. Everything you did was a promise.
            I didn’t mean—
Don’t give me that shit.  Don’t you try and put this on me.
            I hate when you do that.
Try to make it all about what I did.  You did things, too, you know. You asked me to live here with you. You told me about him.  You told me you needed me.

Yeah, well, I meant what I did.
            Of course you did! You never do anything you didn’t mean to!
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
            Jesus, you really don’t get it, do you?
Maybe I’m just not as smart as you.
            Do I have to spell it out?
Maybe you do. Maybe you should just say it for once. Just tell me what you’re thinking. Stop making me try to guess.

            You say that like it’s easy.
Isn’t it?
I’ve never met anyone as frustrating as you.  You can be right here with me and yet I feel like I don’t have you. You tell me things that break my heart, but they don’t even seem to touch yours. You’re somewhere else, behind your eyes.  I’m leaving because you already left me months ago, if you were ever here in the first place. You just forgot to take your body with you.

Is that what you think?

          I said so, didn’t I?

I don’t want you to leave.

I said I don’t want you to leave.  You can’t just not fucking respond to that. 

Say something!
          Why don’t you want me to leave?
I love you, idiot!
          You love me?

I said so, didn’t I?
If you would like to check out more scenes by some really great writers, you should search under the hashtag #Saturdayscenes.  The movement is the brainchild of +John Ward , who suggested that writers should share their work with the public each Saturday. 


My other #SaturdayScenes contributions:

Week One: Elopement Day from WIP, Cold Spring
Week Two: Linda Makes a First Impression from WIP, Her Father's Daughter, sequel to Going Through the Change
Week Three: Claiming Alex, from unpublished novel His Other Mother
Week Four: Things Get Hairy for Linda, from unpublished novel Going Through the Change
Week Five: a poem: A Clear Day in Kodiak, Alaska
Week Six: a snippet from an idea barely begun, Lacrosse Zombies
Week Seven: Mathilde's Visit, from WIP, Cold Spring
Week Eight: Sherry bakes, from His Other Mother

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Squeezing the Most Out of Summer
Summer is a quiet, calm song wafting on a gentle breeze, promising love and happiness.

Summer is a sparkling jewel on the horizon that helps me pull myself from the quicksand and keep going when it might be easier to give up.

Summer is the softly lit respite I long for when I suffer under fluorescent lighting.

I love summer.

I teach for a living. So, for me, maybe more than for other adults, summer is important. Summer is this shining light at the end of a, sometimes, very dark tunnel. It's the carrot I drag myself behind when the school year gets tough and I'm tired and burning out. I promise myself the sacrifice will all be worth it and I'll be rewarded with summer.

Summer vacation is short this year. I lost a week to snow days, so today is actually my first day off. I've been home for a few days already though, having used leave days to take off optional teacher workdays. It's not that I lacked things to do at school. It's that I lacked energy and enthusiasm for the tasks.

This week isn't really off either. I took an extra contract for some work on a new district initiative, so I'll work two days this week, too. I'll work four or five others days over summer, here and there. But, mostly, I've got long hours of time to use as I see fit.

So, what to do, what to do?

First and foremost: write. I've got two books to finish, for goodness sake, and another one or two waiting for me to start them.

Secondly: do lots of fun summer things with the kids that don't cost very much. Squirt each other with the hose. Blow bubbles. Take long walks in the shady woods. Eat ice cream. Read.

Thirdly: make myself relax. This is harder than you might think. I'm used to working very hard. On an average school day, I prepare twelve meals (four people, three times a day), teach six classes, facilitate a meeting, prepare six more lessons, run at least one life errand, do a load of laundry and a set of dishes, care for the dog, and write my daily minimum 650 words. I try to exercise, too. Though I fail at that most of the time.

It's both lovely and difficult to go from so much to do to a smaller list. I have to stop myself from taking on every organizational and repair project that has come up since last summer. I have to tell myself that it's okay to spend some hours on the couch reading or watching television.

Time resting is not time wasted. That's my summer mantra. So, on that note, I think I'll take a book outside. It's nice this morning.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Reading: Week Three

Having looked forward to more time to read for the entire school year, I am now having a little trouble focusing my energy and reading time, and balancing it with everything else I want to do, so I've begun several things.  I'm often guilty of beginning too many books rather than finishing any of them. I think it's because I want to read it all!

I began Flying Over Home by Jeanette Stokes because she had a reading this past week and I bought my copy. I'm excited about this one because I was there when she was writing it. Jeanette facilitates weeks of writing and quiet for writers through her organization, The Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. I was attending one of those weeks to work on His Other Mother, and this is the book she was working on, a memoir of her journey to find her peace with her father.

I also picked up The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar, a graphic novel that been on my to-read list for quite some time, and Women and the American Experience by Nancy Woloch, a fascinating, but dense history that I've been working through bit by bit for a year or so. It's given me a lot of food for thought for my historical fiction WIP.

I'm still reading Greatshadow by James Maxey. I met James through some writing workshops he taught at our public library and have enjoyed several of his books now. It's because of James that I also began William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!  He's holding monthly book talks at my library on classic literature.

The only thing I finished was one of the beta-reads for a friend this week. If you're not familiar with the term, it's when someone reads an unpublished novel for a writer, offering feedback about flow, plot, characters, and even line edits. I really enjoyed the book. I hope to be able to tell you where to get a published copy soon.

NJ (7) has been reading lots of fun and funny books like the Fancy Nancy series by Jane O'Connor (a great series for future word nerds) and Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble by Nick Bruel (She admired the picture book, and likes this direct talk from the author).  She loves to read me parts out loud then laugh at the top of her lungs. I love it, too.

She's also hit a stage of being interested in fact books about animals. We have lots of these around from when big sister was younger and had a similar obsession, and NJ recently discovered them. The one she left on the sofa just now is called Reptiles and Amphibians Dictionary: An A to Z of Cold-Blooded Creatures by Clint Twist. It's really fun to listen to her being amazed by some of the truly wild and weird things created in nature.

NJ has an impressive memory and, given an opening, will quote to you for hours from these books. Today, she's focused on the Hellbender, a salamander from Up East. I suspect she's interested in him because she gets away with saying H-E-L-L when she says his name. Since she is asked to stick to a level of profanity appropriate for one of her tender years (as in none), it's quite the little thrill to say that word.

M, the elder daughter, is traveling in Alaska with the bio-Dad this week, so I don't know if she's reading much.  She is, however, having good bonding time with her other dad, and getting to see some of the places he and I used to live in when we were married. I'm jealous as hell that he can manage the trip and wish I were the one taking her.

In the meantime, time to read!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

#SaturdayScenes: No. 8

#SaturdayScenes has been a lot of fun. As an unpublished writer, I long to have people read my work, so appreciate this opportunity to share my words with an audience. I've really enjoyed this venture, begun by +John Ward , which asks writers to share bits of something they have written for public enjoyment. Following the hashtag is a great way to get a little taste of a wide variety of writing.

I received some beta-reader feedback this week, and used it to do some mild rewrites on His Other Mother.  I've posted a couple of other scenes from this novel previously (chapter 3: the kidnapping; and a thoughtful chapter with Kirk at the beach). So, if you like it, you can check out some more.

This chapter comes in the second section of the book. It was one of the first scenes I wrote for the book. Sherry, the main character, is on a baking binge as a coping mechanism for dealing with her latest disappointment in her fertility struggles.


Sherry had spent her sick day baking, trying to knead out her frustrations over the failed final round of Clomid. If Clomid wasn’t going to work for them, they were running out of options. In vitro was almost as expensive as adoption, with no guarantee of a baby at the end. Sherry wasn’t sure she could take it if they tried it and it failed.

Slamming down the last loaf, now ready to rest and rise, Sherry thrust her hand into the middle of the first one, punching down the dough and her worried thoughts—the usual litany of self-blame for past mistakes or for waiting too long--if, if, if, if only—the usual whining self-pity that even her subconscious recognized and scorned as weak.

The dough sank satisfyingly, releasing a burst of yeast-scented air into the room. The oil on the outside felt good between her fingers as she worked out the blisters. She began to form a round loaf out of this one, a “rumpy” as she called them. No-manners bread, Gram called it. She had been partial to it, too. Her bread was the kind you could tear hunks from when it was fresh from the oven, warming your fingers in the steam. Eating the bread like this was as much a part of the ritual as kneading and baking.

As Sherry cut the traditional criss-cross pattern into the loaf, she eyed the knife and thought about putting similar markings into her forearms, thought how that might let something out, relieve a pressure valve. She put the knife down with a clattering force, shoving the thoughts away roughly and turned up the volume knob on the little red CD player perched in the windowsill. She hadn’t done it, but her imagination had supplied a stunningly clear vision of what the cuts would have been like. Obviously, she hadn’t yet succeeded in shutting down her over-active brain. “Stop torturing me,” she said aloud, wondering if she was talking to herself, the doctors, or the gods.

Sherry was wrist deep in dough when she heard the front door open. Kirk didn't call out or come straight to her with his backpack still on and his keys still in his hand like he would have six months earlier. A year and a half made for eighteen disappointments; eighteen nights spent soothing his bereft wife—who could blame him if he was in no hurry to face another one? He knew the calendar as well as she did. He had hoped, too. She could hear him close the door gently, hang his keys on the hook, place his backpack in the closet and head quietly to the bedroom for a tee shirt and jeans.

By the time he appeared in the doorway, watching her with that careful, questioning look she had come to dread, the loaf was coming out of the oven. That was good because they didn't have to talk. She wondered if he had stayed out of view on purpose, listening for the sound of the oven door opening before coming in. She set the loaf on the stovetop, and, without giving it time to cool, ripped into it with her hands, glad to feel the mild burn on her skin, and offered a hunk to him.

He took it, stepping nearer, but still staying at arms-length, watching her while he chewed. They stood like that and ate the whole loaf while she finished making the others. It was the only supper they ate that night before taking their respective sides of the king-size bed and turning back to back to stare at opposite dark walls. That was probably when Kirk gave up. Sherry was sure he didn't even hope with her anymore. If there was to be any more hope, it was up to her. Sherry didn’t think their odds were good.

My other #SaturdayScenes contributions:

Week One: Elopement Day from WIP, Cold Spring
Week Two: Linda Makes a First Impression from WIP, Her Father's Daughter, sequel to Going Through the Change
Week Three: Claiming Alex, from unpublished novel His Other Mother
Week Four: Things Get Hairy for Linda, from unpublished novel Going Through the Change
Week Five: a poem: A Clear Day in Kodiak, Alaska
Week Six: a snippet from an idea barely begun, Lacrosse Zombies
Week Seven: Mathilde's Visit, from WIP, Cold Spring

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The pleasures of silly surveys

 PlayBuzz, Survely, and other such companies are pumping out silly little surveys lately. I see them most often on Facebook. Normally, I don't play Facebook.

I keep a Facebook account basically so I can see the highlights of the lives of people I no longer see regularly (former students, friends in places I used to live, etc.). I don't play any of the games or engage with the site that way.

But I've been kind of addicted to these little quizzes that promise to tell me which character in this or that I'm like, or what category of monster I am.

From these surveys, I've learned recently that:

  • I am Athena
  • The kind of woman I am is: Loyal
  • The song "You're Beautiful" by James Blount was written about me
  • I am 68% scientifically literate
  • I'm 10% stereotypically white
  • I've read 62 of the 100 books the BBC says we should all read
  • I should star in Sweeney Todd
As I clicked on another one today, I asked myself why I enjoy these silly little surveys so much. It's not that I put stock in their assessments of me. After all, how does what kind of kitten picture I pick tell you about my beauty or intelligence?

But I am curious. I want to know what they'll say. I love to agree with or dispute the results just like you might with your Chinese fortune cookie ribbon or your newspaper horoscope. I love it when my Facebook friends take the same quizzes and we compare our results. 

Really, I've always liked surveys. Even though I'm not a beauty magazine girl, I always take the relationship quiz when I'm waiting to have my hair done. I like the simple organization. The idea that complex things like people can be analyzed by simple check-boxes and conclusions drawn. It's soothing and entertaining.

Plus, they just told me I'm Athena. That's a compliment I'll take :-)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Summer Reading: Week Two

It was a rough week for me in terms of reading. I'm truly exhausted at the end of the school day from riding herd on a surging tsunami of middle-schoolers fit to burst with excitement about summer. But, still I am reading, just not as much or as quickly as I want to.

This week I finished The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. I read it in paperback as a choice for a neighborhood reading club. 

I really enjoyed it. The premise was a joy, though it sounds like a joke: a golem and a jinni walk into a foreign city. The author did a beautiful job pulling it all together into what felt like exactly the right ending to me. I did get a little bored during the second third of the book, when the characters were established, and we weren't yet in the crisis moment. That second third is tricksy . . .I'm struggling with it in the rewrite of one of my own novels. There are a lot of good quiet moments in Wecker's book during the part, but the quietness might be the problem. So again, not a perfect book, but a good book. One I would recommend to each of you.

I've also continued reading Greatshadow by James Maxey this week. It's my bedside book, and I've not lasted long for bedtime reading in my current state of exhaustion, so I didn't make a lot of progress. But I continue to really like Infidel (the main character: a woman with indestructible flesh and a mysterious past), and am engaged by the unusual choice of narrator. Where I am in the plot, the adventure is really about to begin. We've gathered our motley crew of heroes/mercenaries and are off to find the dragon. It should make good reading this coming week as I appreciate my first student-free days.

I just started Lilith Dark and the Beastie Tree by +Charles C. Dowd . I've been following him on G+ for a
while and knew I'd eventually get this book to share with my seven-year-old. There was a sale recently that suited me, so I bought it. It's perfect for my daughter, featuring a fierce little girl with a powerful imagination as the main character.  I'll probably finish it this weekend and pass it on to the Small Fry. It reminds me of other graphic novels I've enjoyed with my daughters like Ernest and Rebecca by Guillame Bianco and Antonello Dalena or Courtney Crumrin by Ted Naifeh.

Other than that, I've been working on a beta read for a friend. Her novel is quite good! I hope to be able to tell you where to buy it a few months down the road.

NJ (7) has really jumped into summer reading with both feet. She's very motivated by the little chart where we record our reading numbers. She's recorded somewhere between 75 and 150 minutes each day . . . and I suspect we're under-recording her a little bit. If you leave that child sit anywhere near a book, she's reading. :-)

She brought home a darling picture book from school: Slugs in Love by Susan Pearson and Kevin O'Malley. It's a sweet story about a girl slug with a crush who writes poems to win his heart. NJ is such a romantic soul. When she finished reading it, she said, "Mommy! That was the best book ever! And you have to read it right now!" So, of course, I did.

She's been devouring Tiny Titans since our last trip to the library as well.  I think she's read each volume that we checked out at least six times. She loves Beast Boy. He's just her kind of silly.

In the car, we're listening to Horrible Harry. He's new to us, and I appreciate the change of pace after nearly a yearlong obsession with Frannie K. Stein and Junie B. Jones. Harry's got an obsession with gross things that suits NJ's sense of humor right now, so I think it's going to be a hit.

The older daughter (14) is almost finished with Fangirl, which I read last week and passed on to her.  She doesn't like it as much as another book by the same author (Eleanor & Park), but she says it's pretty good. She just finished Cress by Marissa Meyer, the third in a fairy-tale derived cyborg series. I read the first two with her and really enjoyed them. She said the third one is more complicated because there are so many more characters now, but that it's still well worth the read.

Next on her list is The Evolution of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin. It's another one that I read with my school YA reading club and passed to her. I liked it, though some parts of it disappointed me. I suspect M will like it better. She is, after all, the target audience and is much more interested in angsty teen love than I am :-)

So, there you go: another week of reading by the Bryant girls. I love summer.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

#Saturday Scenes: No. 7

This week for #Saturday Scenes (the brain child of +John Ward ), I bring you a scene from Cold Spring, my current WIP. It's a historical piece set in rural Kentucky in the early 1900s following the lives of two sisters, Lena and Freda. At this point, it's looking like it might be a three or four books series, following these sisters through the decades.

This scene is near the beginning of the novel and introduces the older sister, Mathilde, a minor character who now lives in Lexington. It's 1915. Mathilde is 23 and married, but without children. Lena is 16, and has been running her father's household for two years, since the death of her mother. Mathilde has just arrived for a visit.

Mathilde stood when their father came in. She held her hands primly at her waist and watched as Gustav
hung up his hat, removed his boots, and washed his hands and face in the basin Lena had placed for that purpose. She smiled in greeting when he raised his eyes, but their father walked past her without acknowledgement and headed for his usual chair near the fireplace.

“Why is my tea not waiting, Lena?”

Heat rushed to Lena’s face. After her sister had just praised her household skills, it was embarrassing to immediately be called on the carpet by Papa. “It’s here, Papa, at the table. I thought you would want to sit and talk with Mathilde.”

The man looked at his older daughter briefly, then turned back to Lena. “I will have my tea as usual, daughter.”

Lena scurried to bring his cup and biscuit to him at his accustomed seat by the fire, not sure what to make of Father’s treatment of Mathilde. Mathilde’s face was frozen, set in an expression of shock. After a moment, she recovered. “Quite right, Father. It is nicer here by the fire.” She picked up her own cup and plate and seated herself opposite Gustav in Mother’s chair.

No one ever sat in Mother’s chair. In fact, Gustav had once given little Freda a hiding for sitting in the chair. Lena was shocked by her sister’s audacity and, at the same time, admired her for it.

“How is the farm, Papa? What did you plant this year?”

“Why would you care?”

“I only meant to inquire--”

“Be nosy, you mean. It’s no business of yours. Not anymore.”


“I’ve heard about what you’re doing in Lexington.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re one of them--one of those ridiculous ladies marching and meeting to get the vote.”


“Maybe if you stopped going to useless meetings and stayed home like a woman should, you’d have children by now!”

Lena knew that her sister had struggled through a difficulty pregnancy at the beginning of her marriage only to bring forth a stillborn son. She couldn’t believe her father’s cruelty in attacking Mathilde with her tragedy as if it were a personal failure. Mathilde’s face showed the sting in the verbal slap. “I nearly died, Papa. The doctor says--”

Father brushed off her words with a gesture of his hand. “If you can’t give your husband children and me grandchildren, what use are you?” He paused, long enough to put down his cup and leaned menacingly towards his daughter. “Your mother was more delicate than you, yet she birthed me six sons.” Lena noticed that the three daughters were not listed among her mother’s accomplishments.

“And it eventually killed her!”

Gustav stood then. It seemed as though his body had grown with his anger, the hulk of him filling all the space in the room. “Get out of my house.” He grunted between gritted teeth. When she didn’t immediately move, he took a step towards her, and shouted. “Get out of my house!”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Evil Children

What is it about evil children in movies and television? Done right, they can be so chilling.
The first episode of The Walking Dead begins with a flash forward. The first live zombie we see is a little girl. From the back you can see that she was a beautiful girl, long and lean with long blonde hair. You can see the softness on the main character's face, as he calls to her, "Little girl?" He wants her to be okay, but, even before she turns around he (and we in the audience) know that she won't be.  Sure enough, when she turns, she is revealed as a zombie and Rick has to shoot her. Heartbreaking. There are others in the series, too. Carol's daughter, Sophia, and the Governor's daughter, Penny.

Hmmmm. . .just noticed they are all girls, too, all somewhere between eight and twelve years old. That probably means something, too.

It's not just zombie children that are creepy though. Think about The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark played by Patty McCormack in the 1956 movie. She's so cold, dispassionately admitting to the violence she has wreaked on others. McCauley Culkin played the boy version in The Good Son.

Or possessed kids like Regan in The Exorcist or Carole Ann in Poltergeist.

Or ghost children like the Grady twins in The Shining or Samara from The Ring.

Or vampire children like Claudia in Interview with The Vampire or Eli in Let the Right One In.

I think what makes them all so effective is that they so not-child-like. Children are full of life and movement. Sure, they can be mean, but they are not cold or calculating. They are not still. Not unless something is very very wrong. There's something visceral and soul-chilling about the evil child that no number of evil adults can match.

Maybe it speaks to the fears in us all about children--about failing them, all the bad things that can come about if adults don't protect the young the way they should.

I can't define it well, but it gets me every time. (Shiver).

Monday, June 9, 2014

Summer Reading: Week One

The little one and I went to sign up for summer reading at our library today.  We don't need a special program to read, especially not her. I'm always having to tell her to put down a book because there's something else we have to do (and laughing on the inside, that I, of all people, am telling someone to put down a book).

But, we love the summer reading program anyway. It's not about finding motivation to read, it's about spending time in that energetic buzz of rooms full of people who love to read. Especially rooms full of very young people who love to read and librarians who love to help them find the right books for them.

So, this summer, I thought I'd post each Monday about what NJ (age 7) and I (age 43) are reading.

Me: I just finished Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I read it in hardback. It came to me via a bookclub at school (a bunch of middle school teachers who read young adult literature together).  I liked it. It was light fun, and became more engaged in it than I thought I would at first. I didn't love it. While I connected with the character at some levels, at others, I didn't. Plus, I'm getting old . .. and right now, the age of people who make me want to roll my eyes the most is people in their early twenties. I'm sure I was equally intolerable at that age, in very similar ways, but it doesn't make me want to read books about people who are college age.

I'm a multi-book reader. I keep books in different locations and read them when I am in that location
(bedside, car--not while driving, but while waiting for children--, near the sofa, etc.).  So I'm in the middle of two other books right now, too. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and Greatshadow by James Maxey. Both are good choices for me at the end of the school year because they are fantasy stories with a lot of good escapism.  The Golem and the Jinni is lagging for me a little right now, but I've heard it's worth sticking with to get to good stuff at the end. Greatshadow, on the other hand, is rocking right now. It's a very interesting premise and even more interesting female protagonist. I'm anxious to see where it goes!

I also need to find time for two unpublished novels I'm reading for writing friends and Faulkner's Absalom!Absalom! for a library book club on classics. Good thing school is almost over and I can clear more time to read!

NJ: We just returned most of the library's collection of Charlie and Lola books by Lauren Child. Charlie is an amazing big brother with a clever and amusing little sister. NJ really enjoys the dynamic between the two siblings. I've caught her trying to convince her own teenaged sister to be more like Charlie :-)  Norah has devoured all of these books much as she devoured Mo Willems books a few months earlier.

We may finally be done with Babymouse for a little while.  This is the
first time we've left the library without a Babymouse in many months. Babymouse may have caught the short shrift this time because there were so many awesome books in the kid-appropriate graphic novel section and because our library just reorganized some shelves making those books more prominently displayed. This time, she picked some Tiny Titans and a new-to-us Papercutz series called Béka and Crip: Dance Class: School Night Fever.

NJ definitely loves graphic novels. She is both an artist and a reader, so this makes perfect sense to me.  It's a lot of fun when we read them together and pick different characters to voice. She's even beginning to write a series herself. They are one page scenes called "Family Disasters."

Watch out. All three Bryant girls might be available in a bookstore near you before too long. In the meantime, I'm heading outside to read for a while.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

#SaturdayScenes No. 6:

For #saturdayscenes this week, I bring you a little piece I'm playing with. I think it might be a middle grades novel about a girl who learns witchcraft as an academic pursuit, and her friend who helps keep her grounded. Right now, it's only this little snippet and I've promised myself to finish my other two WIP before taking on a new project, but I think it will be fun when I get there.

The lacrosse boys were turning their sticks in their hands, moving their wrists in small motions, the tai-chi of restless thirteen year olds waiting for the game to begin. From the stands, Maxwell watched. He noticed when the movements of the boys seemed to synchronize. It happened bit by bit, boy by boy, until all of them moving together: twist, twist, twist, flick right, flick left, twist, twist, twist, repeat. 

He turned to point it out to Sam, but the words died on his lips when he saw her. Sam was staring out at the field with a focused intensity usually reserved for her lab experiments. Her eyes were wild and her lips were twitching. Her hands were clasped hard against her thighs. Sweat was dripping down her cheek even though it was a mild spring day. “Sam?” Maxwell spoke gently, feeling oddly as if he were waking a sleepwalker. “Sam?”

Suddenly, she went limp. Glancing back at the field, Maxwell saw the boys moving normally again, no more eerie choreography.  The other five or six kids in the stands for the Wednesday afternoon game didn’t seem to have noticed anything. They still looked at their phones or nodded their heads to music streaming through their headphones.  

“Sam?” This time she looked at him, wiping the sweat from her cheek as she pulled her long dark hair into a ponytail. The movement revealed the small scar in front of her left ear. She saw him notice and dropped a lock of hair in front of her ear.  When he looked into her eyes, she returned his gaze steadily and Maxwell felt ridiculous for what he’d been about to ask. He decided to change the subject. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

EOG Testing From the Inside: The Waiting Place

Have you ever read "Oh! The Places You'll Go!" by Dr. Suess? Do you remember the waiting place?

That's where I spent my day today. 

There's a lot of waiting involved in End of Grade Testing. You wait for supplies and materials. You wait on test administrators and proctors. You wait to begin the test. You wait for a break. You wait for the break to end. You wait for others to finish the test. You wait for lunch. You wait some more for lunch. You wait some more for lunch after that. Then you wait for the school day to end. 

Middle schoolers are not particularly patient people in general. Some of them at my school (the ones taking high school credit courses) are now on their fifth school day in a row of intensive, hours-long testing, with two more yet to go. 

It would be hard on anyone, but it's especially hard on 12-14 year old people full of hormones and energy. With each successive day, it becomes harder for them to cooperate and harder for us teachers to help them cooperate. 

I didn't see all of these today. But all this waiting, with no supplies, leads to some creative self entertainment:
  • Writing acrostic poems on scratch paper
  • Dismantling a pencil. Entirely. Leaving a piece of lead intact and the casing of the pencil cracked in pieces next to the eraser. All the more impressive given that no tools were used. 
  • Designing elaborate mazes using graph paper
  • Measuring one's own arm in thumb lengths
  • Closing the drawstring of the hood so tightly that only the mouth and bottom of the nose can be seen and going into a defensive sleep
  • Rediscovering all the words that can be spelled on a calculator held upside down
  • Picking their fingernails, pimples, and G-d forbid, their noses
  • Inventing new ways to tie shoes
  • Removing all the embroidery from a pair of socks with the fingernails
  • Drawing a map of Panem with annotations
  • Inventing of a new pattern of braiding for one's own hair
  • Folding oneself into pretzel-like shapes in a chair
It was a little better for me, myself, today, at least in terms of boredom. I had a read-aloud group. It's a test modification often given to students reading below grade level or who have limited English proficiency, wherein the test administrator reads the questions aloud to the students. The idea is that we are trying to test a student's math knowledge, not his or her reading (we had the test over that yesterday), so we remove that obstacle by reading the test to the child.  So, at least I had something to do. 

Reading a math test aloud is challenging for a math-phobe like myself, though. When I found out I would be doing so, I went and asked a math teacher for some pointers on how to read some things aloud. I was glad I did.
Whew! Talk about a foreign language! After all, I'm the one who tells the students who want to calculate their grades on the spot: No hablo matemáticas. But we made it through. We are tougher than the test. I just wish we didn't have to be. 

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

My book has gotten bigger than I wanted it to.

It seemed like such a nice, little idea: take a bit of family lore that no one seems to know much about and make up the details. I thought it was a smallish story, a domestic piece. Admittedly, it was quite a dramatic little bit: threatened suicide thwarts a marriage, but still, I expected to tell it in 85,000 words or so.

After all, I'd written two other books, and they were both around 85,000 words. I figured that was my comfortable length.

So, I've written 65,000 or so words into this one. And the end is nowhere in sight. In fact, I suspect I'm
less than 1/3 of the way in.  I took it to my critique group this past weekend, saying, basically, "Help me end this puppy!" Universally, they said that I'm not close to the end yet.

(Sigh). I really didn't want to take on something quite that large. Up until about seven years ago, I hadn't written anything longer than fifty pages. Novels are still pretty daunting creatures. Epic novels? Holy crap!

One of my critique group friends suggested thinking of it as more than one book. That helps a lot. There are already some clear and natural breaks in the story that could be End of Book One and End of Book Two. So maybe I'm actually writing three or more books.

And I love this story. It might be the best thing I ever write. It's definitely the best thing I've written so far. It's just . .. when I got on this boat, I thought it was a skiff, not the Titanic! Let's hope it doesn't sink me!


This post is part of the Insecure Writers Support Group.  Click here to check out the home site with Alex J. Cavanaugh and find more great posts from other insecure writers.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

EOG testing: What It's Like on the Inside

End of Grade Testing is going on in schools across our country right now (or recently finished).  I administered one on Reading today in a middle school classroom. Here's what it was like:
Before we even begin the actual test, a blanket of boredom has fallen. It's stifling beneath it. We've been waiting for an hour for proctors, test materials, and students to get into place. We can't begin until everyone and everything is in the right place. The children are still and without that liveliness in their eyes they usually have. It's eerie. Only the occasional tapping foot or wiggly knee betrays the suppressed vivacity.

At last the test begins. Students begin reading and carefully coloring in little grey dots on colorful answer sheets. I wonder distractedly how come these tests can afford to print the answer sheets in color, when I can't have color copies of anything for class because it's too expensive.  I pace as the kids work, peering to make sure they are putting their answers on the right part of the paper, and not looking ahead at the math section. As the first hour nears a close, I have never been so aware of each small complaint of my body: the creaky knee, the mild pain the arch of my foot, the dry itch of underslept eyes.

Hours at school are always relative, growing long or short according to the activity at hand. But no minutes are as long as testing minutes. Entire cosmos are born and burn out and die between each rotation of the clock. We begin the second hour after a three minute stretch break.

Maybe because teachers are so accustomed to constantly interacting, it's me who succumbs first to the
feeling of impending madness. Like a character from Edgar Allan Poe, I am hyper-aware of each sound in the room. Shuffling paper sounds like a thunderclap. I know the breathing pattern of each child I pace past. A shift in a seat makes the entire room turn and look. The stillness calls attention to each wobbly desk and chair missing a foot as the furniture creaks in time to the restlessness of its occupants.

The longer we sit, the twitchier the children become. Some have given up, having encountered their threshold of ignorance, and become unwilling to invest in the remainder of the questions. They choose answers at random or doodle on the scrap paper.

Others have reached the end of their endurance for quiet concentration on a single task. They stare into space for long minutes and examine any classroom displays that didn't have to be removed for testing.

Still others are already finished. They draw elaborate scenes or patterns on the scratch paper as this is the only distraction allowed them. They may not read. This, we have been told, is because it would make others feel pressured to finish quickly. I comply with the rule because I must, but I find it silly. It's not as if the children are not already aware of who has and has not finished. They always know what is going on with each other, even if they don't know what their teachers have said.

Nearing the end of the second hour, we are growing hungry. Lunch is still a long time away. We cannot interrupt the testing session to eat. Even when we finish, we can't just go to the cafeteria. We can't move through the hallways until everyone is finished. In the second hour of testing, this group is forty minutes past the accustomed lunch hour already. We are creatures of routine at school and the change makes it even more difficult to focus.

The adults in the room--the proctor and test administrator--have to play this strange improv game of watching each other's positions. Only one may be seated at a time; the other must be standing. It's the rules of supervision. When I get very bored and tired, and feel punchy, this almost makes me giggle.
After the third hour begins, my feet and knees really hurt. I'm getting old after all, and I'm not as svelte as I once was. I begin to pace the room in patterns, stepping only on the lines of the tiles or making geometric shapes with my trajectories.

The students who are done now outnumber those who are still working. They must all sit still and quiet until every student has finished. They begin to study their own bodies--counting their freckles, tracing the shape of their hands, running their hands over their elbows and knees. If they have long hair, they braid and unbraid it. They might tie and untie their shoes over and over. They notice each rough cuticle or oddly growing hair. They pick, scratch, and fidget. They begin to resent the students who haven't yet finished.

The last kid knows he is last, and, in spite of himself, he tries to hurry. Though no one is asking him to speed up, he feels the pressure of being last.

Finally, he finishes, and I collect the testing materials and return them to the secure room. Now, we are allowed to read, but we still cannot talk, as others are still testing in the nearby rooms. We still cannot go to lunch, as others are still testing in the nearby rooms. We hang in a limbo of waiting, watching the clock and door and hoping the next person to walk by invites us to go eat lunch.

Tomorrow, we do this again. In math, this time.

Testing Season
So, it's testing season. When the teachers and students feel like rabbits being chased into their various holes.

It's not a happy time at school.

Everyone (teachers, administrators, students, families) is under stress and pressure, just when they are also exhausted and least able to deal with extra stress and pressure.

My oldest daughter in eighth grade. So, her list of standardized tests this year includes: Math End of Course Exam (for high school credit), English End of Course Exam (for high school credit), Reading End of Grade Exam, Math End of Grade Exam, Science End of Grade Exam, Social Studies Final Exam. On top of this she had a placement test for Humanities in high school and a choral audition for placement in high school.

She also had a major research essay due today in English, a math project due late last week, and a couple of other smaller projects due in the next few days.

It could have been worse. She didn't take yearlong world language for high school credit, so she isn't taking that End of Course Exam. She chose not to do the portfolio for advanced placement in visual art, even though she could have performed at that level. She just felt too buried and it was something she *could* take off her plate. So, she did.

I hope you've never seen such a bright and vivacious young woman turn into a grey and listless zombie in such a short time.  It's harrowing, as a teacher, and as her mother.

All this is required by external organizations at the state and federal levels. Very little of the decision making about how and when to test our children is in the hands of the individual schools, school districts, or parents.

I have to fight my anger or I could drown in the tide of it.

My daughter has wonderful teachers. If you went to each of them and said, "Does Samantha's daughter know the class material?", they could tell you. They could even list her specific areas of weakness and strength and suggest materials to shore up her weaknesses. If you give them the time and resources to do so, they would address those weaknesses themselves, and shore them up before they send her on to the next level. They care about her and her learning. They are professionals with experience and expertise in assessment and instruction of their given subjects.

Even that one year, when she didn't have a wonderful teacher, she had an adequate teacher. She still learned. Not as much as she would have learned with someone more inspired, but she still learned. 

But for some reason, we've decided to spend millions of dollars in this country to get assessment information we could get by asking the teachers. Don't get me started on my theories about why. We don't want another diatribe about sexism and classism, do we?

I could write dissertations on what's wrong with this picture. But no one would read them.

Maybe it was always this way. I don't know. I've only been a teacher for eighteen years and a mom with a school age child for nine years. I do know there is more testing for higher stakes now then there was when I was a child. I feel that my daughter's education is not improved by it, that the education she receives is not more rigorous or challenging then the education I received. It's just full of more tests, written by companies that were created to write tests and take government dollars to torture our children with them.

Here's what I suggest. All politicians and policy writers must sit in public school classrooms during testing season and perform the same battery of tests the children do under the same constraints the children suffer in.  Then, they must go to another school, and administer all the tests to children under the same constraints that the teachers do. Do you think they can focus for four or more hours a day and perform well on these tests? Do you think they can go four or more hours a day without an opportunity to go to the bathroom or eat anything? I doubt it.

If they can defend this method of assessment after participating in it, then I'll listen. But, frankly, I'd be stunned if a one of them would have anything to say.

The youngest is only in first grade. There's two more years until we start torturing her. I wonder if I can get my entire government replaced by then.