Happy down under

Australia has been magical so far. Four days at the Melbourne Writers Festival, then three days on the road driving from Melbourne to Sydney. It’s been a perfect mix of books and book people, young readers, great food, stunning scenery, friends and family. (Photos to come…)

Among many favorite moments:

At lunch on Sunday (a group of writerly types met up the Duck Inn Pub, organized by Steven Dunbar—thanks, Steven!), we asked for dinner recommendations. Justine Larbalestier and others recommended Din Tai Fung, a Hong-Kong based dumpling house. (Justine knows her food. If she recommends somewhere, you do not question. You go.)

There was quite a queue waiting when we arrived, but we had been forewarned, and the wait was only about fifteen minutes. You order while you wait, ticking off what you want on a typical paper dim-sum ticket. We were asked if we’d be willing to share a table, to get seated sooner, and we said yes.

When we were shown to our table, there were already two other parties: two women and two men. A few minutes after we sat down, one of the men accidentally knocked over his wine glass. The wine spilled all over my husband’s place setting, but did not run off the edge of the table: Not a drop anywhere on his clothes, so all was well. The guy and his partner were both mortified and offered repeated apologies. Then they gave us a glass of wine from their bottle, which was very nice of them.

After that little drama, we got down to business, eating fantastic soup dumplings (soup dumplings, MargoR!), noodle dishes, and the stereotypical sautéed green beans with pork, but better than we’ve ever had it before. A bit later, we chatted with the two guys. One of them was Spanish, studying to be an actuary; the other was American. We had a nice conversation about traveling in this part of the world, and then they left.

We finished our meal. At Din Tai Fung, you get up to pay the cashier. When I handed her our ticket, she told me that our meal had already been paid for. By the two guys. Because they felt so bad about the wine accident. About NOT spilling on my husband.

The kindness of strangers. . . the sort Blanche DuBois could only dream of.


At the 2012 SCBWI International Conference in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, the Saturday night Hippie Hop dance party featured a flash mob. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, and here’s how it happened:

1) early July: I get the idea of putting together a flashmob dance for the conference–less than three weeks away–as a surprise for SCBWI head honchos Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver. Write to Jolie Stekly, former Regional Advisor for the Western Washington chapter and a fitness instructor, for sanity check.

2) Jolie, unaware of what will be required of her, responds with enthusiasm.

3) Exchange e-mails with Jolie, who points out that the cha-cha zumba routine I originally chose would not be effective as a flash mob because it’s all legs, hardly any arms. Duh. Jolie suggests a ’60s song because the theme of the party is the Hippie Hop. Bigger duh.

4) Write to Chelsea Mooser in the SCBWI office for second sanity check. Chelsea also responds with enthusiasm.

5) Write to Sara Rutenberg, executive director of SCBWI, with query about the logistics of contacting all 1,234 attendees plus dozens of faculty. Sara does not point out that I am asking her to add yet another item to the 738,000 things she already has to do for the conference. Instead, she responds with enthusiasm.

6) Write to my niece, Ailish Dobbin, a dancer. Ailish choreographs a routine to ‘The Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’ by the Fifth Dimension, and uploads the video to Youtube.

Ailish’s video:

7) Skype with Jolie to discuss the routine. Coerce / browbeat / sweet-talk her into making a second video of Ailish’s routine, tweaked slightly, adding captions and more instruction. Jolie gets this done IN ONE DAY.

(Tweaks include elimination of the shimmy. Ailish is 19 years old and shimmies beautifully. Jolie felt that the target audience might not be quite so keen.)

Jolie’s video:

8) Write letter to attendees explaining the plan and including a link to Jolie’s video. Send it to Sara, who forwards it to all attendees without Lin and Steve knowing.

9) Write to DJs. Write to Lisa Yee and Jim Averbeck to ask for help in recording the event on video. Lisa agrees but seems a little confused; it turns out she never received the above letter and has no idea what I’m talking about.

10) Spend the week nervously watching the views count for the video. The number looks encouraging, but in contrast, we receive a total of exactly 14 comments and e-mails on the subject, which does not seem promising. (Much later, Sara will mention that she received more than 200 messages about it, which would have been nice to know…)

11) Order 300 glow bracelets to be delivered to the hotel for mobbers to wear.

12) Jolie arrives in LA on the Thursday. Initial inquiries are gloomy: People seem very hesitant, unsure if they will take part. Then she attends the meeting of the RAs–regional advisors, the volunteer backbone of SCBWI. All 70+ practice the routine with her and promise to help generate buzz! Jolie leaves the meeting feeling much better and sends me an upbeat text.

13) I arrive in LA on Saturday, the day of the flashmob. Nerves jangling… Despite Jolie’s reassurance about the enthusiasm of the RAs, doubts persist: What if only seven people do this with us??

14) Dinner before the party with Jolie and Lisa, at Red Medicine. The food is weird enough to provide a good distraction.

15) Back to the hotel. Party has started. Begin passing out bracelets and encouraging people. Still hard to tell how this will come off. I have my fingers crossed for a hundred people–if we could get a hundred, it will probably look okay and not be too embarrassing.

16) Costume competition precedes flashmob. As usual, folks have been very creative and the costumes are great fun.

17) DJ Cazanova calls Lin and Steve to the stage. They look a little confused. ‘Cue’ song: the Monkees’ I’m a Believer, then the first notes of ‘Age of Aquarius.’ It’s showtime!

An estimated FOUR HUNDRED PEOPLE do the routine with us. Every one of them deserved to see what Jolie and I saw, from in front of the stage: Lin and Steve’s expressions, from puzzlement to stunned disbelief to joy and delight.

It was better than perfect.

Wonderful wizards of Oz…

…and Indonesia.

In a few days, I’ll be leaving home to go on a magical trip. Destinations: Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Jakarta. My incredible itinerary:

August 27-29 Melbourne Writers Festival

September 3 Events in Sydney (TBA)

September 5-8 Brisbane Writers Festival

September 11-23 Jakarta International School

A list of the wizards responsible for the magic:

Kristina Schulz, editor at University of Queensland Press, who has bought several of my titles for publication in Australia

Meredene Hill, Marketing & Publicity at UQP, who lobbied for my inclusion in the festivals

–Program Manager Mike Shuttleworth and Festival Director Steve Grimwade (Melbourne) and Festival Director Jane O’Hara (Brisbane), who extended the invitations

Sally Patrick (BWF), Molly Ward (BWF), and Bhakthi Puvanenthiran (MWF), who have helped with the (nightmarish) travel itinerary and my festival scheduling (XXL-size thanks to Sally!)

Steven Dunbar, who mapped out the route and days between Melbourne and Sydney for me, and will play host even though his better half Margo Lanagan has swanned off to Scotland

Liz Smilie at Jakarta International School, chief architect of my visit to the school, as well as Lesley Henry and Matt Schafer of JIS, for their helpful e-mails

I’m truly grateful for all the work these wizards have done in preparation for my visit, and more thanks to the festival workers and the teachers at JIS who are continuing that work at this very moment….

Recent reading (to prep for the trip!):

THE BROKEN SHORE, by Peter Temple and DRAGON MAN, by Garry Disher (adult mysteries set in Australia)

A BALI MURDER MOST FOUL, by Shamini Flint (adult mystery set in Bali. Did I mention that I’m going to Bali!??)

JELLICOE ROAD, by Melina Marchetta (YA set in Australia, Printz winner)

All good, except for the Marchetta–which was GREAT.

Currently reading (and loving): A MAP OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD, by Tash Aw. (Adult novel set in Indonesia)

Taking with me on the plane: Bill Bryson’s IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY. Other suggestions welcome…

CAN’T WAIT to meet Australian readers, writers and other book people, and everyone at JIS–see you very soon!

On NPR ‘best ever teen novels’ list

Most visitors to this blog have probably heard by now of the recent NPR list of ‘best-ever’ teen novels. The link to that list is further down in this post, but first, a few comments.

The initial nominations were made by NPR listeners/readers. 1200 titles were proffered. A panel of judges narrowed the list to 235, and it was once again listeners/readers who voted for that top 100.

Anybody see a potential problem here?

I listen to NPR. I love it. It’s on permalock on my car radio. And I would wager that its demographic is: educated, middle-class or wealthier…and *mostly white.*

I have tremendous respect for the panel that narrowed the list; I have worked with some of them personally. But if NPR had been serious about that ‘very best’ label — as opposed to ‘very best if you’re white, educated, and middle-class’ — it should have attempted a vital corrective by selecting a panel that included at least one person of color.

People get tetchy about this. Of course white gatekeepers are capable of recognizing quality work by people of color–it happens ‘all the time’.


When we reflect on this question, our focus as a culture is almost always on the ‘creators’–grants and awards and media coverage for authors and illustrators of color. These efforts are essential and laudable.

But to me, what gets almost completely ignored is the absolute necessity of people of color in the gatekeeping roles. The editors & publishers. Reviewers, critics, commentators. Academics. Booksellers. Librarians. Um, panelists. We will NEVER achieve the diversity we seek in books for teens and younger readers until the gatekeepers themselves reflect that diversity.

To have more people of color in these roles would result in a paradigm shift: Not simply more books by and about people of color, but better and more diverse books for everyone.

Yes, BETTER. Why? Because the experiences of people of color and what they bring to the table questions and stretches and enriches the definition of what it means to be human. And expansion of the understanding of the human condition, for me = better.

A thoughtful post by a Minnesota teacher: http://www.shakesville.com/2012/08/on-nprs-very-white-best-young-adult.html

The list itself:

And in case anyone thinks this is about sour grapes–which it isn’t, but I guess you’ll just have to take my word for that–a link to Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog entry on the topic: http://madwomanintheforest.com/happy-sad-about-the-npr-top-100-ya-list/

SCBWI International Conference, 2012

Oh how I love this conference. For me the best part every year is seeing many old friends and making a few new ones, and that alone would be reason enough to attend. But because Lin Oliver and Steve Mooser, aided by Sara Rutenberg and the SCBWI office staff, do such an amazing job putting it together, the conference has countless other highlights. This year I arrived Saturday at noon, which means I missed the first day and a half. And *still* the weekend was chockfull:

–keynotes by Ruta Sepetys and Gary Schmidt, who both hit it out of the park.
–the Hippie Hop party Saturday night, for which there will be a separate post in a few days (flashmob, anyone?) 😉
–Sunday’s Golden Kite luncheon, with great acceptance speeches from all the winners.
–my Monday writers’ intensive, titled SPITSHINE: Putting the final polish on your novel. 25 attentive and enthusiastic writers participated. I gave a lecture, presented revision techniques, and gave them exercises to do on the spot. I hope they had as much fun as I did!
–an interesting and productive Board meeting.

Of course, I was so busy learning and teaching and talking (and hot-tubbing…just once, though) that I almost always forgot to take photos. Here’s one taken at dinner on Saturday with Jolie Stekly and Lisa Yee:

Rice porridge with egg yolk and uni at Red Medicine. I wish I could eat this every week for the rest of my life.

It occurs to me that this dish is an apt metaphor for the conference: It was both exciting and supremely comforting.

Vermont College weekend

I spent a wonderful few days at Vermont College in Montpelier, as a lecturer for the Fine Arts / Writing for Children Alumni mini-residency weekend. Fifty-plus graduates of the VCFA master’s program reunited for lectures, workshops, meeting with editors and agents, and lots of conversation about books and writing in a beautiful New England setting. What’s not to love!?

In addition to two master-class lectures on writing and revision, I did a reading and an informal talk to the whole community, which included the current crop of students getting their degrees. That meant I got to hang out with them and their terrific faculty, including Tim Wynne-Jones, Martine Leavitt, Uma Krishnaswami, An Na, Sarah Ellis, Matt DelaPena, Rita Williams-Garcia, Mark Karlins, Sharon Darrow, and many others. I sat in on lectures by Matt and Sarah, and readings by Rita and Mark.

Marion Dane Bauer, founder of the program fifteen years ago, was presented with an honorary degree for which M.T. (Tobin) Anderson provided a great introduction. The next day, Marion gave a talk to the alumni group, and I felt so privileged to be able to hear it.

There was a dance Saturday night (I had fun dancing! with Erszi Deak and Deb Gonzalez and everyone else), the highlight of which I missed: One of the students actually GOT MARRIED at the dance! And on Sunday I played in the “basketball” game run by Alan Cumyn, a bizarre, ridiculous and riotous combination of H-O-R-S-E and charades. (To give an idea of how little basketball is actually involved: Na and I, 5’0″ and 5’2″ respectively, made the winning shots for our team….)

Many thanks to Janet Fox and Deb Gonzalez, who organized the alumni event, and to Ann Cardinal of VCFA who facilitated *everything*. All three of them, as well as everyone from students to faculty and staff, made me feel very welcome during my time there.

I was too busy having fun to take many photos, but here are a few:

Kekla Magoon and Tim Wynne-Jones.


Dot (left) and Tarquin, who own Tobin Anderson and his partner Nicole.


Tarq and Tobin.

While in Vermont I read:

ROOM, by Emma Donoghue. Adult fiction, library. Haunting. I found the first half stronger than the second, but overall a compelling read.

DOUBLE HELIX, by Nancy Werlin. YA thriller, purchased from the college bookstore. Fascinating scary-science stuff, from an author who never lets me down.

TWAIN’S FEAST, by Andrew Beahrs. Nonfiction, half-price from Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. Delightful exploration of Mark Twain’s favorite American foods, and what has happened to them more than a century later.

I’m glad to be home, but couldn’t have asked for a better time away.

A wonderful evening with Salva!

Last night I participated in a terrific event sponsored by Water for South Sudan: a presentation and booksigning with Salva Dut, the subject of my book A LONG WALK TO WATER. Salva is visiting from South Sudan, where he lives now. I’ve given dozens of presentations about the book, but this is the first time Salva and I were onstage together.

The turnout at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY, was terrific. Some people drove several hours to be there. The books sold out: a very special memento of the evening, copies signed by both me and Salva!

It is always so inspiring for me to have a chance to be in the same room as Salva, and clearly everyone there felt the same. He reported that WFSS had its most successful drilling season to date: 33 new wells drilled! And with the total count of wells now over 130, Salva estimates that the lives of about 9,000 children who would have died from water-borne disease have been saved. WOW.

The signing queue.

Pens at work all evening long!

Photos by Ben Dobbin

Many thanks to Chris Moore, who emceed the presentation; to Lynn Malooly and the WFSS board; to everyone who was there; and to the thousands of readers all over the U.S. and the world (I was able to display copies of the book from Italy, Australia, Japan, and Korea) who have read the book and embraced Salva’s story.

Printers Row Book Festival in Chicago!

Here’s the schedule of my appearances at this terrific event:

Date: Saturday, June 9th
Time: 3:00 PM to 3:45 PM
Program: Panel Discussion: Blue Balliett, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Linda Sue Park, moderated by Steve Edwards
Location: Grace Place/2nd Floor

Date: Sunday, June 10th
Time: 12:30 PM to 1:15 PM
Program: Newbery Award winning authors Richard Peck author of “Secrets At Sea” and Linda Sue Park, author of “A Long Walk To Water”
Location: The Mash Stage

And here’s a link to the whole shebang:


Looking forward to a whole weekend of NBB–Nothing But Books! 🙂

Last school visits of the year!

The last two in-person school visits of the year: Bell Elementary in Chicago, and Apex Middle School in North Carolina.

At Bell Elementary:

Back row, with librarians Eileen Aldrin and Donna Wojcik. Front row: Book-club students.
If the student in the middle at the front looks a wee bit peculiar, it’s because he’s wearing a costume in honor of my visit. Here’s a closeup:

Any guesses?

Eileen and Donna did an *awesome* job getting the students at Bell ready for my visit–they knew my books inside out!

At Apex Middle School: The Battle of the Books team that won their county and regional Battles, and took sixth place at the State level:

With Carole Daley, media assistant, and Donna McAlonen, media specialist.

Many thanks to both schools for a great finish to the 2011-12 school-visit year for me!

READING: Just finished POTSDAM STATION, by David Downing (adult spy thriller). Just started THE JEWEL OF THE KALDERASH, by Marie Rutkoski (middle-grade fantasy).

Big doings

On April 21, my son got married to the lovely Stephanie Veale. I’m still in something of a daze; it’s not often that you get to experience a Perfect Weekend.

For now, just one photo, taken at the wedding brunch on Sunday: the newlyweds with the women on my side of the family, all of us wearing Korean hanbok. Stephanie’s is a special bridal hanbok. My mother and my cousin Natalie are wearing hanbok handmade by my grandmother some sixty years ago.

From left: Daughter Anna, sister Julie, me, niece Margaret, Sean & Stephanie, my mom, niece Emma, cousin Natalie, cousin Jeesun, cousin Yoonjung.

Link to the announcement in the NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/fashion/weddings/stephanie-veale-sean-dobbin-weddings.html?_r=1&ref=weddings

O happy day…