In Response to My Middle School Readers: Why you write is as important as what you write

Recently, middle school students at a charter school in New Jersey, who also happen to be writing novels, read my book Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things and invited me to visit. It was gratifying to meet people who took the serious issues seriously, laughed at the comedy, loved the characters, and begged me to write a sequel. But before I arrived, they sent me a list of questions and comments that gave me a chance to look at my story with fresh eyes.

I realized that writing Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost things was very much influenced by a book of photographs I received as a prize for winning an essay contest in high school. It came from a famous 1955 photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Family of Man.” They were vivid black-and-white images of people of many cultures and colors from around the world— working, playing, laughing, crying, eating, dancing, falling in love, getting married, celebrating, and sometimes mourning. It was a moving representation of the idea that in spite of our different appearances, religions, abilities, and traditions, we all share these experiences. Growing up in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War reminding us every day that differences and fears can lead to violence, I knew I wanted to stand against that in my writing.

Respect for diversity, and love for what is good in humanity is at the heart of my writing. The dictionary says that diversity means, “being composed of differing elements or qualities,” but in America today that word suggests a lot more. It’s about people—and the racial, cultural, sexual, and ability-related “qualities” that make each of us unique and yet part of the human family. The trouble is the human family is often dysfunctional. Nevertheless, we humans have our moments of excellence. I found many in Powderhorn Park, the inner city neighborhood where my novel is set.

In Powderhorn Park “family is who shows up.” It isn’t always what we might expect—two working parents and a nice house in the suburbs. Often, it’s a mix of people coming together to help each other when the “usual” supports are missing. Maybe, there’s one parent, or no job, or no house and not enough money; or, maybe bullying, war, and prejudice, have turned the world upside down for a lot of people all at once. Those are the harsh realities that sometimes, in some places, create new families and new communities.

Powderhorn Park has always been that kind of place. Negative TV and movie images of the “city” are not the whole story of what goes on there. It is also refuge for people when they get lost in life, when they might not be welcome anyplace else because they’re poor or sick or troubled. It’s a place of hope as well as problems, where people do turn their lives around, where people do help each other.

In the book, there is a Powderhorn Parade based on a real  parade (the May Day Parade) that has been going on for forty years. It is a yearly event in which most of the costumes and floats come from recycling and repurposing things that might otherwise be thrown away, and the people bring to it all their cultural influences, colors, and rhythms like pieces of a mosaic. It’s a way to refresh and hold on to traditions and share them with new neighbors.

It is not just “stuff” that can get lost or “thrown away” but also people. It is hard to accept, for example, that anyone or anything we love can be truly lost to us, but it happens. It’s not always easy to know what we can do about the bad things that happen in the world, but the students I met let me know that they were glad to read about a fatherless “brown boy, wiry and strong, with dark eyes shaped like almonds, clear and alert, wide-set in a face the color of coffee with cream” and named Paris Thibideaux, who gave it a try.


March 14, 2016 Visit to Ridge & Valley Charter School, Blairstown, NJ

I am excited to visit middle school students reading my book “Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things” and to hear all about projects, including a parade, inspired by the book! Thanks to inspired teachers Krissy Caggiano and Kristine Tucker for your enthusiastic invitation.

Book Talk @ Friends Library in Kane, PA

I’ll be at the Library in Kane, PA at 7pm on Tuesday, May 19th to talk about Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things. I am looking forward to sharing images from the real Powderhorn Park and discussing the book, writing, publishing, teaching, and whatever else comes up among delightfully bookish people.

Thurber Writes a Revew: A Dark Road by Amanda Lance

Amy Lance, in A Dark Road, has created an engaging teen romance that is deceptively simple on the surface, but has a dark heart. It’s a quick and satisfying read with snappy dialogue and the melodrama of young people in an imperfect world. The moral challenges that break families and friendships are exposed gradually as the bright and promising protagonists, Hadley and McKay, deal with the consequences of McKay’s meth business. Young readers will recognize the culture, language, and day-to-day business of high school. The setting is rural Pennsylvania, not very diverse racially, but the author suggests that economic disparities play a role in drug culture. A lot of chemistry is explained, and the danger inherent in “cooking” methamphetamine creates a menacing backdrop for the budding romance. The effects of McKay’s products on his “customers” are realistically portrayed, but the tone is not preachy, and that’s a good thing. The focus of the narrative is the romance and its potential for tragedy, but it also touches on broader societal issues around meth manufacture and use in rural America.

A View from the Alley: The Diversity Movement in YA & Middle-School Literature

So, I’m a writer looking at the world from my back door–not the front lawn, the shopping center, or the rarified atmosphere of intellectual movements. I’m just saying: if you are a group of bloggers or agents or social justice activists, for example, frustrated (unto outrage even) with the lack of books being published about or by people of color, why would you limit your reviews and promotional activities to books published only by commercial publishers? Aren’t you saying, as an advocate, that they are the problem? In other words, they may publish “some” but “not enough” of what we think is missing from the bookshelves.

And by refusing to review self-published books for young people, that are by or about people of color, aren’t you perpetuating the “ghettoization” and inferior stereotyping of self-published writers? Some of these self-published books are being used in classrooms already because teachers recognize their value. Thank goodness they are responding to direct marketing from self-published writers, and not waiting for commercial publishers or well-intentioned but self-limiting activists to tell them what to buy and teach. Change is coming, and there is plenty to praise in the promotion of diversity in literature movement. I just wish I could see it from my alley.

The Metaphorical Alley

The word “alley” brings to mind city neighborhoods and a mix of people living in close community. In Minneapolis I lived in an inner city neighborhood with that kind of alley running behind my house, and it drew me into community activism and politics, and inspired me to write a novel Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things.

Now, I live in Central New York in a little old Cape Cod house set back from the road by majestic sugar maples and a horseshoe driveway. There’s nothing like the alley we had in Minneapolis. Here in suburban Syracuse we have a little saltbox barn, a small lake, and a wetland with a mix of wildlife living as close to my cat as instinct will allow. He will chase anything except maybe the deer.

I work at a community college in Syracuse where I am an English tutor. The Writing Center has become my metaphorical “alley.” We serve a mix of students not unlike an inner city neighborhood, drawing a diverse group of people seeking a better life. I work with students from the rural and urban communities of New York, who have never had to write, or (for whatever reason) have never learned to write an academic essay.

Many students, however,came to Syracuse from all parts of the world seeking refuge from war, persecution, and poverty.  They speak English as a second language (ESL) and English classes can be very challenging. Imagine being a student from Vietnam or Bosnia, Nepal or Cuba—being asked to analyze American poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, or to write about social justice themes in the movie “The Grapes of Wrath.” Now, imagine that the English language is as new to you as Spanish One is to an American middle-schooler. Not to make my work sound more heroic than it is, but my job is to help people meet college level writing standards that many native English speakers have trouble meeting. Fortunately, in the process of working with all of these students, I get to hear their stories  . . .

I Love My Vacuum Cleaner

She was a 41-year old housewife from Managua, coming to community college in hopes of becoming a social worker. A single mother with three children, she was on her own in America, and the hours she spent in classes were hard for her because they took her away from her family. When her English teacher suggested that she needed to spend some time with a writing tutor, she nodded politely, went into the hallway, and burst into tears. To her, our first session was about as welcome as a root canal. She let me know right away that she was here to “get good English” out of me, the way one squeezes the juice out of a grapefruit.

I took a deep breath, “So, what is the assignment we’re working on here?” I began. She sighed and began absently shuffling papers in her folder.

“Look,” she said at last, “I have to write about an object that has special meaning to me. I have no idea. I am not sentimental,” she declared.

“Well,” I said, “do you have anything from Nicaragua, maybe something from your mother, or your grandmother, a keepsake maybe? A favorite something?”

“No,” she answered without hesitation, “We are not like that.”

I smiled and looked around the room, stumped.

“Okay. No keepsakes,” I mused, “how about something practical? Is there anything that has special meaning just because it’s so darn useful to you as a working mother trying to go back to school?”

Her face lit up, and she looked me in the eye for the first time.

“I love my vacuum cleaner!” she exclaimed, “I really do. It was very expensive, but it’s worth it. It changed my life.”

“Really?” I laughed.

“Oh, yes,” she went one animatedly, “It is very special because of the filter. It’s called HEPA, and I got it because my son’s asthma was so bad. The County helped me get it, and oh, I just love it. Do you think I could write about my vacuum cleaner?”

“It has special meaning to you, doesn’t it? That was the assignment,” I said.

She looked worried, “Most people are writing about a special ring or a book or something like that, but this machine is saving my son’s life. I don’t know what I would do without it. You don’t think it’s funny to write about a vacuum cleaner?”

“What’s wrong with funny? Besides, that’s not all there is to it,” I said.

“Okay, I want to write it,” she said. So, I helped her organize her thoughts and map out the content of the paragraphs, and she went on her way.

A couple of weeks later, a colleague approached me in the hall, waving a paper.

“I love my vacuum cleaner!” she exclaimed.


She told me that the essay had been a real triumph for my student. Her success made me very happy to be doing what I do.