I was visiting one of my fifty-plus first cousins a couple of summers ago.
“We’d all be out there playing,” Glenda said, reminiscing, “and Sharon would be in the corner reading.”
This year I kept track of the books I read, more than 120 of them, ranging from picture books to doorstop-sized tomes for adults with longer attention spans than mine. If it’s that thick, it had better be good.
This week, the last week of the year, I read two books.
An Ignorance of Means is the debut novel of Oklahoma author Jennifer Oakley Denslow. It is set in 17th-Century France. The story has a feminist slant by dint of its educated female protagonist, but it isn’t about feminism or romance but survival.
The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida is nonfiction, written in question and answer form, separated by lovely pieces of literary fiction. The author has been diagnosed with severe autism, and he struggles with spoken language. Thanks to the Herculean efforts of his mother, he can spell out words to communicate. The writing is beautiful. You feel this book.
What the two books have in common is their ability to enlighten. One teaches you about the plight of cast-off women in 17th-Century France. The other lets you in on Naoki’s struggles to control his own responses to stimuli. Both books help your brain and your understanding heart grow.
Connections. Empathy. Enlightenment. The sheer joy of experiencing something new! These are just some of the reasons why I read. And write!
I’m canning black-eyed peas tomorrow, just in time for the new year. I plan to read Dactyl Hill Squad once the pint jars of yummy goodness are in the pressure canner. I can’t think of a better way to see out the old year and welcome in the new.
I write for young people, and while there are certainly 50,000-word novels for children, most of the ones I read and love are much slimmer than that. So are the ones I write. That doesn’t stop me from doing NaNoWriMo.
And I don’t just write books. I have two blogs going, one about gardening and self-sufficiency called Apocalypse Farm, and the other about books and writing where you are probably reading this post, at sharonedgemartin.com. I write political and education essays for The Oklahoma Observer, and my second picture book will be coming out in 2019. One of my sisters calls me ADHD Girl.
So, how does a writer of short stuff do NaNoWriMo? And why would she? Because I’m good at getting down short drafts and revising them as many times as necessary, but keeping up the daily focus on a longer piece is a little harder. While I won’t win at NaNoWriMo, it is good for me to take up the challenge, to come up with a plan to win my way.
This year, I’m writing a middle grade mystery. I have written poems this month, three blog posts, and four essays for The Observer, but I’ve written at least a few hundred words on the mystery every single day.
I have updated my word count daily, and with five days to go, including today, I intend to get that daily progress badge. I will keep writing a few hundred words a day until the first draft is complete, probably around Christmas.
When it is finished, I’ll put it away. I have a novel in verse to revise at least one more time and a nonfiction manuscript to finish. It will likely be summer before I get back to the mystery, but I’m already thinking about next November. Wouldn’t ADHD Girl make a good superhero!
At the Oklahoma Book Festival, a young lady in the audience asked me if I accomplished anything by mixing art and politics. I had the feeling she didn’t think much of the practice, although I may have read her wrong.
The fact is, making art has always been political. Think about this: when a dictator puts down his thumbs on the necks of citizens, who are among the first to be targeted? Artists and intellectuals!
Artists and scholars are both critical thinkers. They create ideas out of disparate pieces of thought. They make connections, then they make something new out of bits and pieces of the old, out of those sudden revelations of connectedness.
This is not what I told the young lady. I’m a slow thinker, taking my time to pull all ideas together before I write them down…or spit them out. What I did say was that I was pretty sure my poetry didn’t change many minds about politics, but as a political minority in Oklahoma, maybe someone out there like me would feel less alone.
I feel the same way about the political essays I write for Oklahoma Observer.
Here’s the answer I wish I’d given her, the one that came to me well after the fact:
Logic hasn’t worked to change regressive economic and political thinking in Oklahoma. Maybe art can.
If I gave stars with my book reviews, Jo Watson Hackl’s Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe would get a whole constellation. It’s the best middle grade mystery I’ve read since I discovered Sheila Turnage’s Newbery Honor Book, Three Times Lucky.
Hackl’s character, Cricket, drags you along from the first paragraph:
“Turns out, it’s easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketfuls of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for merchandise from Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry grocery store.”
And there’s the humor:
“Even at a time like this, it’s important to keep moisturized.”
Head out the door of that Mississippi store with Cricket (the human) and Charlene (the cricket). On the journey your traveling companions will enlighten you about the nature of art, self-reliance, and loyalty, and how to live with and love someone who has a mental illness.
The setting is real. The characters are believable. And there’s a little history thrown in, to boot, about this neck of the Mississippi woods.
Love this book!!!
Ransom Game, Howard Engel’s 1981 Benny Cooperman mystery from St. Martin’s Press, has too many descriptions for my taste. The women are complicated, but they all look good. Cooperman…or Engel…must be lonely. But excellent plots and passages like this keeps me coming back for more:
“Did he come to the club alone?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes not. It depended on whether there were other people with him.
“I see what you mean.” At last, a careful witness.
The plot is delicious, even if Cooperman’s diet is lacking. When things get thick, you get a belly-laugh moment to break the tension.
I appreciate Elmore Leonard’s advice, to leave out the parts that people skip. And if you wax on and on about a character’s looks, I scan through and get back to the action. For all that, I still recommend you find used copies of, or download to your e-reader, Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman mysteries. They’ve aged well, like his women.
You might like rambling descriptions. And even if you don’t, the laughter and the carefully placed clues more than make up for them.
I am delighted to see book talks on PBS, so please, public television people, take what I’m about to say as what it is, a gentle suggestion. I’m glad that the Hundred Best Books in America includes titles for kids and young adults. There were even a few that were published by authors who are still alive. But I have to ask, how old does a book have to be before it’s considered one of the best books in America?
I love Where the Red Fern Grows and Charlotte’s Web. I do, really! And I’m good with hearing adults gush about reading their childhood favorites to their children and grandchildren. But if you want to get young people involved in literacy, you need to pick books that young people would choose for themselves. The books on your list seem to have been chosen by adults.
I will vote for Harry Potter and The Outsiders and Hatchet. I won’t argue with you about your choice of Hunger Games over Collins’ Gregor, the Overlander. But can we have more recent titles? I want to see more of the books I couldn’t keep on the shelf in my Reading Lab. How about Newbery winners like The One and Only Ivan or the picture book, Last Stop on Market Street? How about a graphic novel or two, maybe something by Ursula Vernon or Dan Santat or the Holm siblings? Have you read Going Bovine by Libba Bray? Did you even consider including books of poetry? Kids love good, accessible poetry.
I hope the Great American Read isn’t a one of. I hope you come back again next year with even more books. But, please, can we let librarians, teachers, and young readers help decide what goes on the list? You might be amazed.
If you know Oklahoma, you know that summer can be brutal. Even if you get out in the early morning to do your gardening, you come in buggy and wet and thirsty.
For me, gardening starts with a good coat of bug spray because I’ve chosen carcinogens over chigger bites and tick-born diseases. I start early and work in short sprints. Fifteen minutes of weed pulling is enough before I need to dry off my glasses and rehydrate.
If I can get a full hour of real work in, I’m happy. Sometimes the chickens get the lion’s share of my time, and they always get the weeds. You should see how excited a closed-in flock gets when the weeds show up! I try to do my little bit in the garden as close to daily as I can, so that weeds and squash bugs and perennials I planted years ago and shouldn’t have can’t take over.
Once I get started, I don’t want to stop. I go in and out at intervals and keep going back out. While I’m engaged in happy physical labor, I’m plotting stories and perfecting lines.
To get those lines on paper, I have to do with my writing as I do with my weeding, commit to that daily little bit and get started. That little bit usually becomes a good stretch, but even if it is just a little bit of time, it keeps my writing project rolling.
Commitments, like diets, have to be reasonable. For me, a little bit every day is a commitment I can honor.