Monday, May 30, 2016

Solving a mystery in a book...

When we were in the process of cleaning out Mom's apartment, I found a book of Churchill quotes on a shelf in one of the closets. I took it home, because I'm a huge fan of Churchill's oratory and writing, and still remember watching Sink the Bismarck! with Dad. My father did a mean Churchill imitation. This family bred love of Churchill shows up in my upcoming Scholastic YA novel, IN CASE YOU MISSED IT.

Inside the flyleaf of the book was a poem, dated 12.4.1955 To Murray Silverstone, my grandfather. It was clearly written by someone very educated and erudite, but the only clue as to who this person was were his or her initials, H.H.B. I have been fascinated by this person, and asked relatives who were old enough to have some idea who H.H.B might be if they could give me clues as to the identity, but to no avail.

Solving this mystery has been on my back burner to do list, because I had to know: Who was this person who could write so beautifully and who shared my love of Winston Churchill's words?

Yesterday morning, my brother and sister and I spent a few hours at the storage unit where we'd moved the stuff we didn't have the time or emotional energy to deal with when cleaning out Mom's apartment. I took a box of archive material relating to my grandfather for us all to go through with my cousin Paul, who is our family historian, and about an hour ago I just opened it to see what was in it. On top was an album of condolence letters from when Grandpa Murray passed away in May 1969.

I was looking through it and all of a sudden my mouth went dry with excitement - because there was a letter from Harold Hotchkiss Bennett - H.H.B.!!!

The writing style is similar, so I'm sure it must be the same person. I was afraid I'd never learn H.H.B's identity - but I'm pretty sure I can now say: MYSTERY SOLVED!!

Trying to learn a bit more about Mr Bennett. He graduated from Harvard, Class of 1904.

He wrote the text for a book of the illustrated postcards of Portsmouth New Hampshire.

That's about it so far. I wish I knew more. He seems like an interesting guy.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Speech: Ferguson Library Friends Literary Awards, April 17 2016

I constantly joke with my kids that you’re never a hero in your own hometown. But after today I’m going to have to stop saying that, because being asked to speak as an author at the Ferguson Library where I spent so many hours growing up, makes me feel like I am a hero. So I’d like to start off by thanking you for this incredible honor and privilege.

I’m a passionate supporter of public libraries, and especially the amazing librarians who work in them. Librarians made me writer. But just as importantly – or perhaps even more importantly, they helped to make me a thinker.

When it comes to literacy I confess that I started life on first base – maybe even on second. That’s because I was born into a family of readers and a home filled with books. But even within my family, I had a voracious appetite for the written word – I was the kid in the family who was kept getting caught under the covers reading with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep.

To satisfy my book cravings, Mom brought us to the library every week and I got to pick out a new stack to bring home. One reason why I feel fortunate to have grown up when I did rather than now is that, I never, ever, had a librarian, parent, or teacher say “Sorry, Sarah that book is above your Lexile level.” The grownups in my life just kept handing me interesting, challenging, books and I kept on reading them.

If I didn’t know the meaning of words – and I often didn’t – I learned to figure them out from the context of the sentence or if I really got stuck I’d ask my parents. But Mom and Dad never answered my question directly. Instead they’d point me to the “Shorter” Oxford English Dictionary and tell me to look it up. Now here’s some insight into the way my brain works. As I was writing this I suddenly thought: I wonder how much that thing weighed? So I went and got it off the shelf and put it on my kitchen scale. This sucker weighs almost 9lbs – imagine having to haul that around when you were a little kid wanting to know the meaning of a word.

Living in the social media age, I then felt compelled to tweet how much the Shorter OED weighs because the people who follow me on my author account would probably be interested in that kind of thing. And Robin Powell, a childhood friend of mine from England saw the picture and sent me back a picture of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary my parents had given him for his Bar Mitzvah in January 1973. In the flyleaf was an inscription written by my father: “It’s never winter in the land of HOPE and it’s never dull in a dictionary. Use this book a lot and reap its rewards.”

My father died two and half years ago after a long journey with Alzheimers, so seeing what he’d written 43 years ago made me pretty emotional. But it also made me realize that this apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

I was curious about the phrase “It’s never winter in the land of Hope” and I wondered if it was from a book. So I Googled it and it turns out it’s a Russian proverb. What’s interesting about that is my Grandpa Harry, who died when I was 11, was from the Ukraine, and so I wonder now if it’s a proverb my father heard from his father.

One of the things we lose with e-books is discovering these kinds of gifts from the past in books. But that’s not the only thing we lose with technology. When my parents made me look up a word in the dictionary, in the process I’d inevitably find other interesting words on the page around the word I was looking up, and so I’d end up further developing my vocabulary and love of language. By just entering the one word you don’t know in a web browser and getting the definition in seconds, you lose the magic of doing that.

I was also fortunate because my parents never censored my reading. They put the so-called “inappropriate books” on the top shelf, but they also always had a set of library steps in the room so that we could get to those books on our own when we were old enough to be curious.

I followed this strategy with my own kids. When my daughter Amie was in middle school, the film version of Alice Sebold’s book “The Lovely Bones” came out, and most of her friends were reading it. Amie asked me if we had it – which we did, because I’d read it many years before, and then wanted to know if she could read it.

I didn’t say no. What I did was discuss the book with her. I told her it was a thought provoking book and well written, but the first chapter was very upsetting to read. Because she had nightmares sometimes, I worried that it might be too much for her so my advice would be to wait a year or two. But I told her that I would leave the decision up to her, and if she really felt like she wanted to read it, the book was on the shelf, hers for the taking. She took my advice and waited.

That’s why I get very angry when parents try to censor books for other people’s children or ban books from school libraries. What they are doing is abdicating their own job as parents. It’s all about the conversations we have. Different kids are ready for different books at different times, and that’s why trained librarians are so incredibly important, both in our public libraries and in our public schools.

It’s thanks to librarians that I Journeyed to the Center of the Earth, went 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days with Jules Verne. It’s thanks to librarians that I solved the mystery of the Hound of the Baskervilles with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Because of librarians I went from wealth to poverty and back again like A Little Princess and discovered a Secret Garden with Francis Hodgson Burnett. Because of librarians I asked G-d if he was there and discovered how to improve my bust with Judy Blume.

Not long after my first book, CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC, came out, I met Judy Blume at the memorial service for my mentor, the late Paula Danziger.. I wanted to tell her how much she inspired me, not just because of her writing, but because of her passionate advocacy against censorship. The problem was I literally, couldn’t talk. 12 year old Sarah inside was like: “OMG OMG – I’M STANDING 18 INCHES AWAY FROM JUDY FREAKING BLUME!”

It just goes to show that even middle-aged authors can be utter and complete fangirls.

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school, but I didn’t try to write a book until I was almost forty. Even thought my parents always acknowledged that I was a talented writer, I was given the same message back in the late 70’s that I hear constantly from politicians and business leaders today: “You’ll never make a living as an English major.” So even though writing was what I loved, and literature was my passion, I majored in political science and got an MBA in Finance. I worked on Wall Street as a financial analyst, until I met my kids’ dad and moved to a small village in Dorset, England where by marrying I doubled the Jewish population (and by having Josh and Amie tripled and quadrupled it). I put my MBA to use by managing the finances of the family’s dairy farming and cheese making enterprise. If you want to know about the lactation yield curve of a dairy cow, I’m your girl, but in the 17 years I’ve lived in Greenwich it’s never once come up at a cocktail party.

But all along, a voice inside kept saying “I want to write.” I ignored it, because I was doing the things that everyone expected me to do: making a living, being a good daughter, a good wife, and a good mother. It wasn’t till I was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown at age 38 that I realized I didn’t want to end up in a nursing home at the end of my life thinking, “What would have happened if?” I was so busy being an overachiever that it took all my bricks falling down to finally give me the clarity I needed to build myself up in a stronger way. I knew then that I had to give myself the chance to pursue my long held dream of being a writer, even if I failed, because I’d rather have tried and failed than never have tried at all.

The good news is that I didn’t fail. Since that hospitalization in 2001, when I finally gave myself permission to write, I’ve written fifteen books, eight in my own name and seven under a pseudonym. I get emails from readers all over the United States and from abroad, too – my books have been translated into German, Greek and soon, Serbian.

When you get emails from teenagers saying: “I really loved your book, like more than I love the world! It felt like you described my whole life” or simply “Thank you for helping me,” - well let’s just say it’s so much more pleasant and rewarding than the comments I get from grown ups on my political columns. The emails I get from my teen readers remind me why it’s worth fighting every day to try to make the world a better place, even on the days when the hateful comments I’m getting from adults make it especially hard to be courageous.

I’m going to finish up with a few pieces of advice based on the things I’ve learned from my long, circuitous and somewhat unconventional journey to doing what I have no doubt is my G-d given purpose in life.

The first is something I learned from my father, and that’s to always be aware of what is going on in the world around you. Inspiration is everywhere, but you have to be paying attention.

The second is something I learned from my mother and that’s to be a good listener. Writers are like sponges – constantly listening to the people and ideas and dialogue, because we never know when something might be useful for a book.

The third is from me – and that’s don’t ever lose your curiosity. Writing is the perfect career for me because it’s lifelong learning. Each of my books begins with a question, which I start off by researching. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to interview really interesting people about what they do as part of the research process. Some people I’ve interviewed include a supervisory special agent at the FBI in New Haven, an emergency room doctor, a talent agent, a Catholic priest, the senior Naturalist and education specialist at Greenwich Audubon, an employment lawyer, and the head of the Special Victims section at Greenwich police. Using the information I learn from my research, I then create situations where my characters can help me work through the answer to the question I want to answer in the book.

But the most important piece of advice if you want to be a writer comes from Jane Yolen, who’s an incredibly prolific and successful author, as well as being the first cousin once removed of Stamford resident and travel writer, Malerie Yolen-Cohen. I heard Jane speak at a writing conference about ten years ago and the best advice she gave was: “Get your butt in the chair and write the damn book.”

Because in the end that’s what makes the difference between me and the people I meet at cocktail parties who tell me “Oh, I’d write a novel if I only had the time.” The difference is that I made the time. I wrote in doctor’s office waiting rooms and carpool lines while waiting to pick up my kids. I wrote late at night after spending the day doing freelance business writing, and early in the morning before I had to take the kids to school. I wrote when I didn’t feel inspired and when I was convinced that what I was writing was total rubbish – and it probably was. But that rubbish helped me write better rubbish and eventually I wrote something good enough to get published.

And now, all these years and fifteen books later, I’m standing here giving a speech in the library where I worked on papers in high school and dreamed about being a writer. Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for giving me this honor. What I’m really looking forward to is the day in the future, when I’m in the audience listening to one of you giving this speech as the featured author. So make sure you get your butt in the chair and write that book.

Friday, January 8, 2016

In our thirst for revenge, who have we become? A question for my people.

At the place I worship each Saturday, we have kiddush and lunch after the service, which, being Orthodox, is quite long. I enjoy it because it's a way to catch up with members of the community after we pray.

Last week, however, I was horrified by the conversation between the two people I sat next next to.

The man opposite me started the conversation, asking if we'd heard about the latest terrorist attack in Israel. Both the woman next to me and I had. Man starts saying approvingly that the shooter's family and residents of the Arab neighborhood in which he lived were urging him to turn himself in. Indeed, it was his father who recognized his son on the security footage and contacted the authorities.

I know the Man is a rabid hawk. I avoid political conversations with him, because I go to synagogue to get away from the hate and arguments of politics, not to engage in them.

Last Shabbat I listened, in growing disgust and horror, as he and the woman, who I consider a friend, started discussing how they should just arrest the entire family of anyone who conducts a terrorist attack. This despite the fact that the shooter's father in this instance was the one who alerted authorities to his identity, and the fact that his family was urging him to turn himself in.

If you know me in person, you know I'm not afraid of speaking my mind, but I was so upset I just got up and left. I could not believe that civilized educated Jews could think and speak this way. I've been brooding about this conversation all week as I've gone about my work, and decided to make a difficult decision that has been growing for a while.

I am not going back to that congregation for Shabbat services.

Before you go all Tommy Wallach on me and proclaim that this is why religion sucks and we should all be atheists, I look to faith for the guidance on how to become a more understanding and compassionate person, and to connect with the rituals that gave comfort to my forefathers. I view myself as a link in a long chain, one that I'm not willing to be the one to break. Between some of the sermons and now this, I'm heading to the Conservative synagogue that I joined after Mom died instead.

I feel particularly strongly about this because I feel that leadership on conduct at a synagogue has to come from the top, and when I have asked the rabbi to speak out against some horrific anti-Muslim emails that were being circulated in the community he didn't do so - in fact, to my deep horror and disappointment he made a really feeble excuse for them.

Some of his sermons have made me deeply uncomfortable in their characterization of "others" en masse.

I feel yet another bereavement about this decision, because I've worshipped at this congregation since I moved back from the UK in 1999, and I have a deep connection to it. But my view of faith is Franciscan: "Where there is hatred, let me sow love." I can't keep attending a congregation where there are constant messages about the evildoings of others from the pulpit, but no similar condemnation (or even mention) of this.

I'm not a terrorist lover. I'm not weak on National Security (heading off the inevitable comments, which I can predict after 13 years as a political columnist).

What I am is a lifelong student of history and geopolitics.

In 2000, my family spent the summer in France, and we visited the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. If you haven't heard about what happened at Oradour, click on the link above and read this brief history from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Once you've read it, try to imagine the cognitive dissonance and horror I felt as a Jewish woman listening to another Jewish man and woman (particularly a woman from the former Soviet Union) advocating the "retaliate against the entire family" approach.

As a young girl, I size up pretty much everyone I met to evaluate if they would hide me if another Holocaust happened - one of the reasons I particularly loved this Jill Sobule song.

So many Jews are alive today because someone had the courage to do hide their ancestors - knowing the risk that their own family might be murdered in retaliation if they were discovered for doing so.

 I am in no way comparing shooting people in an cafe to hiding a Jew in your attic, but trying to get to the deeper issue of revenge and retaliation for acts against the ruling authority. (And no, I'm not comparing the Israeli government to the Nazi's either, let's make that clear, just in case anyone tries to go there. My opinion is, however, that the actions of the Netanyahu government have done more to damage Israeli and Jewish safety and security worldwide than to protect it.)

 But think about it, fellow Jews, when you sit around blithely advocating for such an approach. How well did the "retaliate against the entire family" thing work for us?

Let one of the most brilliant opening scenes in the history of film refresh your memory:

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.mp4 from Pierre Vella on Vimeo.

Thirst for revenge shouldn't make us engage - or even think about engaging - in the tactics of those who murdered our mishpoche.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


חזק חזק ונתחזק

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!

As we conclude the reading of each book of the Torah, it is customary for Jews to say these words, which mean: Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened!

Today we read Parashah Vayechi, the last in the book of Exodus. Joseph mourns the death of his father, Jacob, and then at the end of the parashah,Joseph himself dies. And then the congregation recites those words, "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek."

Ever since my father died in November 2013, I've had a hard time saying and hearing those words without crying. Because I hear my father saying it to me, when I was depressed, or sad, or going through a particularly rough time in my life. Chazak. Be strong.

It's been two years since Dad died. Mom died suddenly and unexpectedly in March of this year. Every time we finish another book of the Torah I think, "Maybe this will be the time I finally hear those words without crying."

Today wasn't that day.

Now, more than ever, I miss my father, because I realize more and more each day I owe who I am to the person he was. How much of my knowledge of and interest in of history and world politics comes from sitting watching documentaries and war movies with him as a young girl. How I heard his voice in my head when I went into New York City two days before Christmas and instead of being distracted by my cell phone made sure I was aware of what was going on around me at all times because of the terrorist threat. Life goes on but be aware. CHAZAK!

I wondered today in synagogue if Dad's parents said that to him. In the picture above we are with my paternal grandparents, Harry and Mollie. I'm in the lower right corner.

2015 has been a tough year. But thanks to the guidance my parents gave me, my family, my friends, and my faith, I am still standing. Chazak. Chazak. V'nitchazek!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Emotion Regulation - because Life has no "Trigger Warnings"

There's been a lot in the news recently about trigger warnings on college campuses. Depending on who you listen to, they are necessary to protect those who have been through traumatic events and whose PTSD might be triggered by the material to be covered in class, or a symptom of the "PC police" coddling Millennials from true intellectual engagement. As someone who has suffered from PTSD from childhood sexual abuse (wrote about that here) I have stayed quiet on the issue.

Until now.

Last night my daughter and I went to see Spring Awakening. I'd bought her tickets for Hanukkah, but I've been so busy with work and other life issues that I went into the performance knowing absolutely nothing about it other than that people said it was amazing. I didn't read the Playbill beforehand and so the entire story and performance was a complete surprise.



There is a scene where Martha and Ilse sing about the sexual abuse they experience ("The Dark I know Well"). During this scene, I was well and truly triggered. I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to curl up into a ball. I wanted that song to END. Every second it went on seemed to last a freaking hour. I was deeply, deeply uncomfortable and unhappy and I did not like feeling those feelings or being in that place one little bit, especially since I'd paid no small amount of money for the privilege.

But I took deep breaths, and I told myself I'd get through it, and the song would end, and I'm not the child I was then, and it would be okay, and the song did end, and I felt sick for about another ten minutes, but then I was fine.

During intermission, I told my daughter that scene had been rough for me. She said that she'd wondered if I would have to leave, and I told her that it was okay, because I've learned how to regulate my emotions and breathe through it. I can't stop the feelings from happening, but I can sit with them and know that they will pass.

There were times in my life when I didn't know that, like when I was a teenager. Then, in order to not feel, I would get stoned, or drink. Or when I was an adult, when I would eat and then purge.

And this is why I'm finally saying that I don't think trigger warnings are a good thing. Because there are no trigger warnings in real life. You will be assaulted by these emotions when you least expect them and you have to learn strategies to deal with them. If you're constantly given warnings, you won't get the practice you need for a lifetime of unexpected triggers.

In terms of learning those strategies, what worked best for me was Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which I did as part of my bulimia treatment.

But whatever you do, learning to regulate those emotions is going to be more useful in the long run than any number of trigger warnings.

Friday, November 20, 2015

You call this progress? Dumbing down our kids in the name of Education Reform

I've been working my tail off the last few weeks revising both of my 2016 novels, CHARMED I'M SURE (S & S Aladdin) and IN CASE YOU MISSED IT (SCHOLASTIC).  ICYMI is the one I told Mom I sold on a three page proposal. She died suddenly and unexpectedly four days later, so I have not only been writing and revising this novel through deep grief while helping my siblings deal with Mom's estate, I've been doing it on an incredibly short deadline. I think that qualifies as "grit" don't you?

In this latest round of revisions on ICYMI, my editor queried if high school students would know what the Rosetta Stone was.

     When something like this comes up, I go on social media and ask teens, HS teachers and media specialists for the answer. I also get answers from my peers who have kids of that age. What I found from this query was that everyone of my generation - ie/ graduated high school in 1980's or before had learned what the Rosetta Stone was in either middle school or high school. 

Today - not so much. A few high schools yes. Most no. Some whose kids had been to London knew it, because they'd been to the British Museum. 

Why is this? 

Well,  this might explain something. 

I've written many, many many times about how the overemphasis on standardized testing is damaging education.  But now, when we see candidates for the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE making claims that the pyramids were built by Joseph for grain storage it's all the more important that our kids know about the Rosetta Stone - so they know that it was the key to deciphering hieroglyphics and can use their critical thinking skills to put two and two together to realize "No, Dr. Carson, we know your bizarre theory isn't true because the Egyptians WROTE THIS STUFF DOWN!"

We need to study history so that as we hear all the anti-immigrant rhetoric being bandied about by politicians about Syrian refugees, kids know about the tragic voyage of the SS St Louis, "The Voyage of the Damned", a shipload of Jews trying to escape Hilter's Germany who were refused by country after country and were forced to return to Europe - many to their death. If you haven't read it, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum put out a powerful statement yesterday:

When I write about the overemphasis on standardized testing and STEM, I inevitably get anonymous commenters on my political columns making statements like this with no evidence to back it up:

Except then you look at the evidence:

So we're narrowing the curriculum on the false premise that it pays. And meanwhile, we are taking away the very subjects that provide context and meaning. The subjects that help students develop empathy and theory of mind. The subjects that might prevent us from making the same mistakes we did in the past. 

George Santayana

 Please. Get involved. Lobby your politicians. Lobby your Board of Education members. Fight this. Our country depends on it. Our world depends on it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

How my writing kids (ages 10-12) would vote to change society

      When I went to meet with my Writopia writing workshop kids this evening, I'd just read that voter turnout in my town was a mere 20%, and that really depressed me. I know it's not a Presidential election year, but municipal elections count. We're electing the people who run our towns and cities and perhaps most importantly, our schools. As it turns out, there was a late burst which brought us up to 33%, but still, that's pathetic.

If you don't vote, folks, you shouldn't complain when things aren't the way you want them to be. Yes, there are problems with the system, and yes, it often feels that our voices don't count nearly as much as the deep pockets of corporate interests, but not voting is an illogical option.

We always do a short writing warmup, and this evening, I spoke to my kids about how sad I was about the low voting turnout and so for the 10 minute warmup, I asked them to think about what issues would be important to them if they had the power to vote.

The answers were worth listening to - particularly for politicians.

  • more subjects in school, such as social studies, chemistry, and much more.
  • more gun safety.
  • more air conditioning, because some schools don’t have any air conditioning.
  • more activities, so kids can learn more, such as music, karate, art, and more.
  • more recycling.
  • more medicines for sick people.
  • more homes for the homeless.
  • no more war.
  • no bullying, not just in school, but everywhere.
  • good education for kids, and parents get paid a good amount of money.
  • healthy food in school cafeterias.
  • more food donations for the poor.
  • food for less money, for poor people that have at least a little money.

  • All guns illegal
  • no homeless people, and everyone has a least a small apartment
  • Things cost less
  • You can drive at age ten, but only in small cars, and you can’t go on main roads or highways
  • School lunches gave real food, and not some horrible mixture of stuff that they call salad.  Also, they have a real menu, and fancy waiters and stuff
  • Everyone gets a phone, at age seven in case of emergencies, but it only calls parents and 911 until they're older
  • no homework, you spend six hours in school why should you spend another hour with mountains of homework
  • no war

  • I would change gun laws. I would make guns illegal all over the world. They don’t solve anything. Except killing people.
  • I would make a law so that people of any race could vote.
  • Cafeteria Lunches. They suck and they aren’t healthy. I would make sure every kid in America would get a healthy lunch.
  • Every kid could get a good education.
  • Every adult could get a good paying job. And they would get paid more than the minimum wage.
  • Make sure that schools are safe for the kids. Make sure that no shootings happen or bomb threats… Make sure there are at least 2 police officers on guard every day.
  • There wouldn’t be as many homeless people. Make sure they have food, water, and a little shelter.
  • People that live in places where a lot of hurricanes, tsunamis… happen. They could have a place where they would be safe. Equipped with food, and water, and most importantly candy… J.K( but candy would be nice)

That 10 minute writing prompt told me so much about kids in city schools.They want more from their education than core curriculum and standardized tests. They want arts and music and the things that other kids have.

Holding class in Stamford on the day after a woman was shot dead in a city park, these kids want gun safety laws.

But most this was the sentence that spoke to me most: "No racism!!! It kills people on the inside!!!"

Out of the mouthes of babes...