Conversations, continued


photo courtesy, “Child Studying Under Tree” by jannoon028

I saved one more letter from the reading group in Illinois for today’s blog, because it was one of the most thoughtful. Here it is, from Kyrstina:

. . . I am curious where you got the ideas for the book.  For example, how you decide to have Annie and Rew being captured by Andrew Snow.  That really kept me interested and I couldn’t stop reading to see what was going to happen.  

My favorite part is when Annie got interested in Andrew Snow and she wanted to know what happened to him? While I was reading I was thinking, “what made him do this?” Annie reminds me of my friend Annie because they both are determined to learn more.  I had one question about the book. I wonder if Gran knew that Andrew Snow was going to come looking for them.

 I thought that was a great question and deserved an in-depth answer, so here’s part of my response:

Your questions are great, especially the one about Gran. I thought for a long time about how Gran felt about things and why she did what she did. To answer you, I’d say that she didn’t know that Andrew Snow was going to escape, because she couldn’t have predicted that. But she did find herself a house that was the closest to the prison on the other side of the woods, just so she could know she was near him. Because of what he did, and all that happened when Amanda left, Gran found it too painful to live her old life, and so she made herself and the kids disappear. But even though she couldn’t bring herself to visit Andrew or let him know where she was, she still needed to be close to him, because she loved him. Rew understands this toward the end of the book, when he yells at Gran, asking her why she brought them there if she never went to see him anyway. Some people have wondered if it was a coincidence that Andrew Snow came to the house where his family lived. Maybe. But Gran did know where Andrew Snow was, and she picked the house to be close to him. And Andrew Snow, who loved the woods because of his father, turned that way because his father had taught him how to know his way in the forest, and he had always wanted to see the bottoms of the trees he could see from behind the prison wall. So maybe a part of Gran was always hoping that her son would come out to them. Sometimes people wish things without even knowing they’re wishing.

When I started writing fiction, I sometimes thought about it as having a conversation with my imaginary readers. What I couldn’t have guessed was how much I’d enjoy the real conversation, when it finally came. Thank you, Kyrstina, Tony, Emily, and the whole reading group!



Photo courtesy of, “read written in kids’ letters by Stuart Miles”

One of the best things about having made the move to fiction, and especially fiction for children, is the mail I’ve gotten from some of my young readers. Sometimes adults who’ve read my book will comment that they liked it, but can’t imagine children getting it. I’ve never agreed with this attitude, because I remember myself as a reading child, and I remember my own kids reading at various ages, and I know that kids get a lot more than some adults give them credit for. And, like adults, they don’t just read superficially, understanding the story line, but missing the themes. I have had kids notice things in the story, and show deeper levels of understanding, than some adults. I’m a firm believer that age is not a barrier to understanding a book and relating to it on a deep level. Which leads me back to a group of letters I recently received from a sixth grade reading group in Illinois. They gave me so much pleasure that I asked their teacher for permission to share them. She got it for me, (Thank you, Colleen!) and so I thought for this week and next I’d post excerpts from some of them here, especially the ones in which the kids asked questions that intrigued me, and that I’ve noticed other readers asking occasionally. Alongside them, I’ll post some of my responses, because of course I had to write back to such wonderful correspondents! I should say spoiler alert here, because if you haven’t read the book, the letters refer to things that you might not know just from the first few pages. So, with that out of the way, here are some pieces of the letters:

One letter-writer, Emily, wrote the following:

. . . My favorite part was when Andrew Snow arrived and when Annie was going to mail the letter but she didn’t. I feel like she didn’t mail the letter because half of her wanted Andrew to stay because he was taking care of them and half of her did want him to go because he was causing trouble.

Honestly, that blew me away. Here’s part of my answer:

You understood perfectly why Annie had so much trouble and why she didn’t want to mail the letter for Rew. I like to write about thoughtful people who don’t know the answers right away. It’s especially hard for people like Annie to figure out what’s right when there are other people, like Rew, who feel so sure they know the answer. But sometimes it’s the people who take the time to think for a little while longer who end up making things better.

And then there was Tony’s letter, which probably made me the happiest:

. .  . I would like to thank you because your book really changed my thoughts about reading in general.  It has made me want to read more books because as I read Zebra Forest I realized how enjoyable reading can be.  . . .

Is there anything better than that? Not likely. And that’s exactly what I wrote Tony.

Veteran’s Day

Today is veteran’s day. I often think on these days of how societies normalize things that are terrible. Wars are terrible, and yet if we don’t fight them, home becomes terrible as well. No society can survive without people to protect it.  So we create a military, with a culture of its own, with rules of its own, and this is how we “normalize” the hideous reality that young people are going off to face death. As a person obsessed with stories, I see this as another type of story, and another use for story. But not all stories are good, and sometimes I wonder if we have normalized this dark part of life too much.

Today’s Washington Post had some powerful coverage of the day. One was a front page story about three women who became friends because they share the same hideous experience — losing a child to war. Each one of them comes every Sunday to visit her son’s grave in Arlington Cemetery. Each has been doing it for years, and so, over the years, they’ve bonded. You can see a short video about them here.

So many things struck me about this story. One was a description of the raw grief that people feel when they lose someone:

“In the first years after her son was killed in Afghanistan, she raced to the cemetery to see his name etched into the headstone and sit among parents and spouses experiencing the same all-consuming sadness. Wives lay facedown in the new grass covering their husbands’ graves. Children worked nearby on crayon drawings.” 

Another was a paragraph about one mother’s dreams for her son when he was a child: “Davis didn’t know much about the military when her 18-year-old son enlisted. During his school years, she decorated his room with signs meant to inspire him: Justin Davis: neurosurgeon,” read one. “Justin Davis: history teacher,” said another. After his starring role in his middle school’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” she added, “Justin Davis: actor.” The military was never something she wanted for her only son, especially not during a time of war.”

Finally, there was this  image of the dead frozen in time: “Listening to the two soldiers, she is seeing her son still alive and seven years older.”

 This is the reality of war, not just for the people who go, but for the ones left behind. 

In the same newspaper, Chris Marvin, who founded a group to try and bridge the  civilian-military divide in this country, wrote an opinion column. He starts off by talking about why he’s uncomfortable when people thank him for his service. He goes on to say that he’s part of a generation of soldiers who volunteered, and who want to serve, even after they’re out of the military. Thank yous make him and many veterans uncomfortable because service — in many forms — was a choice they made, and continue to make. He’d rather people reach out and talk to veterans, find out about their experiences, and what their lives are like now. 

That’s a good point, but I think he’s missing something when he tells people there’s no need to thank veterans. There’s very much a need. We can’t fall prey to the story that this is normal. That some people choose the military as a line of work just as others choose to be a mechanic, or grocer, or lawyer, or doctor or actor. It’s not normal to put your life on the line, it’s not normal to lose a child, and we shouldn’t normalize it. 

So veterans deserve thanks, every day, all the time, for choosing a path that is dangerous, sometimes heartbreaking, and so important. That’s the thank you I’d like to give today. 


The Color of Light


Today I have a special treat — a guest post by Helen Maryles Shankman on her debut novel, The Color of Light. An artist-turned-writer, Helen has written a book  that weds fantasy to history, vampires to World War II, and the vision of an artist to the novelists’ ear. So here’s Helen, in her own words: 

For many years, when anyone said, “Tell me something about yourself,” my answer was, “My parents are Holocaust survivors.” Despite their unique and terrible upbringing, our house wasn’t grim; we were always laughing, though the jokes could get pretty dark. When I began writing, I wanted to address that, but I also wanted to write about my own experiences attending art school, working as an artist’s assistant in Tribeca, slaving away at Conde Nast.

Then, Buffy happened.

It was a frosty January night, probably around two in the morning. I had just watched the killer second season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I was still gasping. Suddenly, it dawned on me. Vampires were the perfect metaphor for anyone living outside society’s boundaries.

I’d always wanted to tell the Holocaust stories my mother shared with me, but I hadn’t the slightest idea where to start. I was already working on a different story, based on my years in the art world. Now I saw a way to marry them together, in a way that would make each of them more meaningful.

Raphael Sinclair, my vampire, appeared in my bedroom the very next night, sitting beside me as I typed away, whispering his sad story into my ear.

Though I’ve loved writing since I was a little girl, I wasn’t a writer when I began working on this book. But as I moved through the worlds of plot, sentence structure and story arc, I found I was using the same familiar rules of thumb that I use when I paint. I still depended on form, color, and composition, only now, composition was transformed into the pattern of storytelling. Color was the way I used all the senses, sights, sounds, smells. Texture became the nature of the writing itself; dialogue or narrative in this passage, exposition or summary? Does this adjective precisely convey the emotional shading? Is it balanced, or is it too dark in one area?

Artists are a little messed up. And by artist, I mean anyone who paints, writes, acts, sings. You see, you don’t become an artist because you like to paint. You become an artist because you will die if you don’t paint. Normal people do not abandon conventional jobs–jobs that come with a regular paycheck, by the way–to daub oily goo onto canvases, nor do they stay up all night to brood over a single paragraph until they get it just right. Normal people don’t spend hours pretending that they are someone else. I wanted to celebrate those outsiders, people, who, in a curious way, are the most normal people I’ve ever known. The Color of Light is a love poem written for them.

Helen Maryles Shankman lived in Chicago before moving to New York to attend art school. Her work has appeared in Grift Magazine, Cream City Review, Danse Macabre,,and The Kenyon Review. Her story,They Were Like Family To Me, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with her husband, four kids, and an evolving roster of rabbits. Her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are Holocaust survivors. Many of the events in her fiction are based on personal family stories of Holocaust loss and survival.

Learn more about The Color of Light.