Monday, November 28, 2011

Why Google's algorithms are sexist and FAIL

I was sick and tired of getting the same ad from the same wealthy "I'm going to try to buy the CT SEN election again" politician on EVERY. SINGLE. WEBSITE I visit, so I clicked on the Google Adsense button to see if there was some way I could opt out of receiving it. And boy, did I learn some interesting things about myself and Google's algorithm from that experience.

Here's what Google thinks about me:

Yep - apparently, based on my searches, I am a male between the ages of 55-64. On what would Google possibly be making that assumption, I wonder? Because I'm searching Finance? News and Politics? Science?  C'mon Google... I've got some "womanly things" like "Books and Literature" and "Arts and Entertainment". What would it take for me to convince you that I'm a female, Google Geeks? Searching for the Kardashians? Justin Bieber? Breast implants? Shoes? 

This makes me furious - because it's so inherently sexist. Why does a keen interest in politics automatically make me male? Women often bear the brunt of the political policies wrought by men for ideological reasons - be it cutting social services, defunding Planned Parenthood, or...well, I could go on. We need to be politically aware and active to protect ourselves and our children's futures. 

As for finance - well, look what a smashing job the Old Boys Network has done with our financial infrastructure. Is it any wonder that I take an interest in what's going on when the future financial stability of the country has been in the hands of people who are so grossly dishonest, greedy and incompetent, presided over by an enabling Congress? 

If that makes me a man, well, send me my Man Card. And while you're at it Google Geeks, how about you guys do the dishes and cook and do the grocery shopping and laundry and all many things I do as well as my "manly" interests, while working my freelance jobs and raising two children with better values than any of these so called "men" appear to have. 

And PS Google Ad Geeks:  - I'd really like to not see that ad again.  Even if it is from a woman.

Innovation, creativity, and humanity - what I learned from reading Isaacson's Steve Jobs

Last night, just as my daughter was coming in to say goodnight to me,  I turned the final page on Walter Isaacson's fascinating biography on the late Steve Jobs. My daughter, who is, like me, a big Apple fan, asked me, "So did it change your opinion of him?"

The answer is complex, as it must be for a very complicated man.

There are  many things I admire about Jobs, both as a creative person, and someone who studied business administration  (I hope this becomes required reading for MBA courses).

The first, and perhaps the most important is that Jobs had a fervent belief of the importance of the liberal arts and humanities - as exemplified by the slide at the end of his product presentations showing the intersection of Liberal Arts Street and Technology Street.

"It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. We believe that it's technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing...We think we have the right architecture not just in silicon, but in our organization, to build these kinds of products."
Compare this thinking with that of Tea Party politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott, who wants to drastically cut funding for higher education in the liberal arts in favor of the "STEM" disciplines. Scott should read Isaacson's book, pronto, in hopes that he might gain some understanding why his approach is moving us back to the past rather than preparing us for the future.

Steve Jobs was a great example of the term "Synthesis" - he drew ideas from different, disperate sources, many outside the field of technology and from them was able to originate a new way of looking at an issue.

Isn't that what we need more of in our society, in business, education, and government? There's so much pressure on kids to focus, focus, focus, so they can get into the "best college" (but is it the "best one for them?) and then get out there and make money. But we need more polymaths -people who can see beyond the balance sheet and profit and loss. People who can draw inspiration from other cultures instead of fearing them, because like it or not, we are a global society and there's no way to turn back the clock, no matter how much some people appear to wish to do so.

One of the most fascinating things for me from a business management perspective was Jobs' unique understanding of how the very culture of a business is shaped by the design of its' headquarters. (p.430-431).

"Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. 'There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,' he said. 'That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow', and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas.'"

The Pixar building, therefore, was designed around one central atrium in order to promote just those kind of serendipitous encounters. The front doors, main stairs, and corridors all led to the atrium, the company cafe and mailboxes were there. It was the hub around which Pixar gravitated. And it worked.

"Steve's theory worked from day one" [John] Lasseter recalled. "I kept running into people I hadn't seen for months. I've never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one."

But like many geniuses I've read about, Jobs was not an easy man to be around.  He clearly had disordered eating, if not an actual eating disorder. He appeared to exhibit many symptoms of  narcissistic personality disorder. Perhaps the best example of this comes late in the book (p.543). Isaacson is talking about Jobs' "complicated but always loyal" relationship with his wife Laurene Powell, who, early in their marriage, cofounded and launched College Track, an organization that helps disadvantaged kids graduate high school and get into college.

While Jobs paid lipservice to her work: " What she's done with College Track really impresses me," he never actually visited her after school centers.

So here's the woman who has supported him, loved him, looked after him, raised his kids - yet he couldn't even put himself out to visit the centers that are important to her? Sorry, that's husband fail on a grand scale. One of the most poignant parts of the book was an interview Isaacson had with Jobs' middle daughter, Erin, in which she made excuses for her father's inattention to her:

"He does his best to be a father and the CEO of Apple, and he juggles those pretty well...Sometimes I wish I had more of his attention, but I know the work he's doing is very important and I think it's really cool, so I'm fine. I don't really need more attention."
 Erin...for the record - I just want to say that I think YOU are really cool and I think you are very important. I bet you'll do some pretty cool stuff yourself someday.

So in answer to my daughter's question about if reading the book changed my opinion of Jobs - I think it made me respect his ideas and genius more, but him as a person less. Could he have been one without the other?

Isaacson's conclusion is that Jobs could have controlled himself if he wanted to. "When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will."

But on the other hand - even the people who he bullied acknowledge that he pushed them to do things they never thought possible.

My final line to my daughter: " He was a genius and a brilliant businessman, but I wouldn't want him as my husband or my father."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Universe. And Car Talk

I've been feeling pretty down about human nature recently, what with the happenings at Penn State and idiotic conservatives making awful "jokes" like these in defense of Herman Cain.

Hardly surprising that the Wall Street Journal columnist would make insensitive sexist jokes. When I worked on Wall Street it was a cesspit of sexism and harrassment.

But sometimes, just when you're ready to hole up on your sofa in a Snuggie with a huge supply of chocolate and avoid the rest of the human race until it runs out,  G-d , the Universe, Fate, or whatever you want to call it, sends you a much needed reminder that there are really good people out there. 

So Friday afternoon, I got in the MomMobile, a dented, scratched, but regularly serviced SUV with 130K plus miles on the clock, and set off for Lititz, Pennsylvania, home to the amazing Aaron's Books

Unfortunately, in order to do this, I had to brave what Son and I refer to as The First Circle of Hell, otherwise known as the New Jersey Turnpike. (It used to be the Second Circle of Hell, but because of what I'm about to relate, it has been promoted to First.)

I'd just pulled off the Turnpike onto I-78 when, upon checking my rear view mirror*, I noticed white smoke emitting from my exhaust pipe. As a big fan of NPR's Car Talk, I knew that this was not a good sign. I went to get off at the next exit. As I went down the exit ramp, my power steering went. Then I noticed my brakes weren't so well either. At this point, you didn't have to be a Car Talk fan to know that things were seriously FUBAR. But as if I needed any more clues, white smoke started pouring out from under the bonnet. This car was smoking.

I managed to pull the car into a gas station forecourt across from the end of the exit ramp. Turned it off because I was afraid it was about to blow up. I asked the attendant if he could help me. He was more pissed off that my car was leaking some kind of fluid on his property. But then this wonderful man came out from the convenience store where he'd been buying a snack. His wife had seen me in trouble and she told him he had to help me. His name is George Gibson and he owns Gibson Auto Repair, right around the corner from where I rolled up in my smoking MomMobile with no brakes or steering. 

Mr Gibson could be on Car Talk himself because he REALLY knows car repairs. He stuck his finger into the liquid and immediately ascertained it was transmission fluid. He figured it was a hose that had snapped. But then he got worried because there was also green/blue fluid, which looked like a different problem, maybe the radiator.

 Meanwhile, the gas station guy is still freaking out that my car is leaking on to his forecourt, so Mr Gibson helped me back the car off the forecourt onto the street - by this point so much transmission fluid had leaked out that the car wouldn't move forward in drive, only in reverse. Then he and his employee Marvin towed me around the corner to his garage. 

At this point I'm totally panicking, because I have this crazy weekend schedule that involves much driving - book festival, visiting Son at college, then Philadelphia for Awesome Boyfriend's big family birthday celebration on Sunday afternoon. And now my car is kaput. To the rescue comes Mrs. Gibson, who drove me, the bagels I'd bought for Aaron's Books, the presents for Awesome Boyfriend's family, the 2 dozen chocolate chip cookies I'd baked for Son, my laptop bag, my weekend bag, and my presentation stuff (I wasn't exactly traveling light because I thought - "hey, I'll just THROW IT IN THE CAR") to Newark Airport so I could get a rental. 

Mr and Mrs Gibson and Marvin didn't know me from Adam. I was just some random author in distress who rolled in (literally) in a smoking (and I don't mean that in the OMG wish I owned one sense) car. But they couldn't have been kinder to me at a time when I was panicked and stressed and after a week when I hadn't been sleeping well because off all the stuff triggered by Penn State. I also have to mention the guy at Hertz,Newark,  who saw me schlepping all the aforementioned stuff trying to locate my rental car and asked me if he wanted him to go and get it. He also helped me load it all in the car, and when I tried to tip him he refused, and just told me he hoped my day got better. 
I was so touched by the kindness of these people I didn't even know, and it helped heal some of the scabs that have been torn open by the PSU stuff. 

And then this morning at breakfast I was blessed to met Sharon Robinson. Hearing her speak so passionately about her deeply personal connection with winners of the Breaking Barriers in Sports and Life Essay contest made me so profoundly grateful that we were brought together at this particular time. Because I needed reminding that for every Mike McQueary, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, there's a Sharon Robinson, a Mr and Mrs Gibson, and a Marvin. 

There's hope for us yet.

*My fellow Americans, particularly those who stick in the left lane holding up traffic: I urge you to do this on a regular basis. Far more regularly than you apparently do. It could save your transmission.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Albus Dumbledore on Joe Paterno

 I've not been sleeping well this week. When you've been sexually abused as a child, you can do years of therapy and think "okay, I've dealt with that and I'm 'cured'" but then when you least expect it, something will happen that triggers this reaction from your reptilian brain, the one where the trauma was imprinted when you were young and scared and voiceless. I wrote about that here

So ever since I heard about the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, it's been one massive trigger after another. I wrote this initially, but watching the PSU students riot in support of Coach Joe Paterno was incredibly disturbing.

And then I read this piece by Joe Posnanski, Paterno's biographer.

Here's the part that really got me:

 Joe Paterno has lived a whole life. He has improved the lives of countless people. I know — I’ve talked to hundreds of them. Almost every day I walk by the library that he and his wife, Sue, built. I walk by the religious center that tries to bring people together, and his name is on the list of major donors. I hear the stories, the countless stories, of the kindnesses that came naturally to him, of the way he stuck with people in their worst moments, of the belief he had that everybody could do a little bit better — as a football player, as a student, as a human being. I’m not going to tell you these stories now, because you can’t hear them. Nobody can hear them in the howling.
But I will say that I am sickened, absolutely sickened, that some of those people whose lives were fundamentally inspired and galvanized by Joe Paterno have not stepped forward to stand up for him this week, have stood back and allowed him to be painted as an inhuman monster who was only interested in his legacy, even at the cost of the most heinous crimes against children imaginable.

I've been thinking about this a lot, and although I realize my perspective is colored by my experience, I still disagree with Posnanski and here's why. I'll let Dumbledore explain, because he is so much wiser than I am:

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
         Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  JK Rowling

When I teach writing workshops, I always start with character, because to me exploring the human character is the most interesting part of writing a novel. When we talk about plot, I explain the need to throw create tension by throwing stumbling blocks in the way of our character, because that forces the character to make choices, and it's through choices that the character experiences growth - or, conversely, exhibits the fatal flaw that leads to his or her downfall.

When I think about Joe Paterno, I think about the decent, good man that Posnanski sees, who had superlative abilities and indeed helped many young people. But who nonetheless had a tragic flaw.

Why did he make the choice he did? Is it because he was concerned about his legacy? Was it out of loyalty to a colleague whom he'd worked for years? We don't know the truth yet. But what we do know is that he made a despicable choice, for as yet to be ascertained reasons. And no matter what Joe Posnanski says, despite everything that has gone before, Joe Paterno deserves a tarnished legacy. Because our choices DO show what we truly are.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Do I dare disturb the Universe?

There will be time, there will be time, To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create,  And time for all the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate; Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.  In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo. And indeed there will be time To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
 Time to turn back and descend the stair, With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”) My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) Do I dare Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
  For I have known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall Beneath the music from a farther room. So how should I presume?
When I speak in schools, particularly to high schools, about my path to publication, I talk about "my first mid-life crisis" at age 38 when I realized I didn't want to be in my nursing home at the end of my life thinking "What would have happened if...?" and finally gave myself the permission to pursue the lifelong dream I had of being a writer. I made myself a secret promise that I would get a book contract for my 40th birthday, and sold my first book, CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC almost two months to the day after I turned 40.

 I tell them that I believe in having a mid-life crisis at least once a decade, if not more. Not the kind of mid-life crisis where you leave your spouse and elope with your much younger secretary and buy a Ferrari (although yes, I am divorced and I do have a thing for fast performance sports cars.) What I tell them is that at least every 10 years - if not more often - you should do something that you've always really wanted to do, but that scares you. Challenge yourself. Push the boundaries of your thinking and your actions, so you never get to the point of "I'm too old" and "I can't."

 The quote above is from one of my favorite poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. It's in my mind at lot at the moment, because recently I took my own advice and did something about which I thought so many times, "Do I dare?" "How should I presume?" It scared the heck out of me to take action: it felt like jumping off a very tall cliff. But in the end, I would rather disturb the Universe then end up drowning from indecision and timidity like Prufrock.'s to scaring yourself once in a while. May the fright be with you!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In honor of Dad on World Alzheimer's Day

Today is World Alzheimer's Day, and I want to honor a very special person in my life who is suffering from this awful, soul destroying disease, that affects not just the person who is diagnosed with it, but the entire family who loves them. That person is my father, seen here with my dog, Benny, someone who can still bring him joy and comfort just by showing up.

I was in therapy myself when I first started worrying about Dad. His side of the family has a strong family history of Alzheimer's, or dementia or whatever you want to call it. My grandma Mollie had it, her mother Clara had it, her brother, my great uncle had it.

Back in 2005 or 2006, I started noticing that my father, who was extremely eloquent and never at a loss for words, suddenly was. Our conversations during those years under President Bush were usually about politics. Dad was a lifelong Republican and I'm a "recovered Republican" - or what critics of my political columns call variously "an America-hating communist, a socialist, a terrorist -lover" or my all-time favorite, someone who is "using the American way of life to destroy the American way of life and the rest of Western Civilization in the process!" But I noticed during those conversations - which inevitably devolved into arguments - that Dad would suddenly pause and struggle to think of a word - a word that normally would have tripped off his tongue easily. The kind of vocabulary that someone with his background in government would have to hand as easily as we writers would have manuscript or revise or adjective. And given the family history, it scared me.

It's hard to talk about this stuff though, to the person and to other people in the family. "Uh, hey guys, I think Dad's losing it." I was fortunate that I was in therapy, because I could talk it through with my therapist, and she was able to tell me something very important - that if we got Dad on some drugs like Aricept early enough, it might prolong the onset of the more serious cognitive decline. She also gave me the name of someone at Greenwich Hospital who specialized in elder issues, who my parents could go and see. It was that knowledge that gave me the courage to mention my concerns to first my brother, then my mom, and finally Dad.

I took him out to lunch at the Bulls Head Diner, and told him that I was worried about him. And he admitted that he was worried about himself. It turns out that everyone was worried, but no one wanted to worry anyone else. We were all living on own little islands of anxiety, until finally one of us swam across the sea and brought it out into the open. The thing about bringing the worry into the open is that you can DO something about it. While there's no cure for Alzheimer's, I'm convinced that getting Dad on those drugs early slowed his decline, giving us a few more years, particularly precious for my kids so that they can remember Grandpa (or "Grandpoo", as he's affectionately known) more as he was than as he is now.

Towards the end of last year, however, the decline started to accelerate. We had to deal with the very painful issue of his driving, which I talked about in a column here. Understandably, he was upset and angry about having his license taken away. He still talks about it sometimes.

Earlier this year, there was another marked decline - this time involving a personality change and violence. The day we'd been dreading, but thanks to my brother's foresight, he and I had been planning for financially for over a decade, arrived - when we had to make the incredibly difficult decision to move Dad to assisted living. I remember visiting my Grandma Mollie when she was in a nursing home, and it was so awful and depressing - I couldn't bear the thought of Dad being in a place like that. But we found somewhere that is different - for what it is, it is wonderful. The rooms are light and sunny and there are always activities going on. Dad had been going there for outpatient adult day care for a few months, so he was already familiar with it.

But's not home. And he might be out of it, but he still knows that.

A week or so ago, the awful Pat Robertson said yet another awful thing, for which I will never, ever forgive him: Divorce your spouse with Alzheimer's. It made me furious beyond measure, and to me, is yet another example of how sometimes (not all the time) those who follow the letter of the Bible's laws completely miss the spirit, and end up being some of the most godless, least compassionate people on the planet.
Last Friday afternoon they had a Dog Show for all the residents where Dad lives. Although Benny isn't an "official" therapy dog, he certainly brings joy to Dad's life and a smile to the faces of all the other residents he encounters. I brought him for the dog show and he won "Waggiest Tail". Dad was VERY proud.

Right after we took this picture, they had a singalong of Patriotic songs in honor of Constitution Day. My dad spent decades working for the US government, and he served in town government when I was growing up as a Republican. He is one patriotic dude, let me tell you. He used to know every word of every patriotic song there is. When we started singing, he was proud - so proud that he had tears in his eyes, and saluted every few bars. But HE COULDN'T REMEMBER THE WORDS. It made me want to cry, but I didn't want to cry in front of him. But that's what Pat Robertson doesn't understand. My dad is NOT walking dead. He may not remember my name. He doesn't remember my kids' names. He remembers the dog better than he remembers me most of the time. But he's still at his core, who he always was - a patriot and a man who loves his country. And his face lights up every time he sees me. He still loves me. Alzheimer's has just robbed him of his words to express it. I'm grateful to G-d that I still have mine so that I can express my love to him, and that, Pat Robertson is why you are so very wrong.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On September 11th...

Ten years ago today, I was in Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT, after taking an overdose of Valium and almost ending my life. I was supposed to have been released the previous Friday, until the psychiatrists realized I'd was doing what I always did - donning The Mask of Coping. They called me on it and so I was still in the hospital, due to be released that afternoon.

Just before that nine that morning, I went into the phone booth and called my friend Barbara, who gave massages, because after 10 days in that place, I really need a healing touch. There was a glass door on the booth, and as I was speaking to her, I glanced out and saw the TV in the common room.

"Oh my G-d! The World Trade Center is burning!" I said to her. She didn't have a TV, so she couldn't see what was happening. I hung up with her and walked into the common room where a few other people were gathered around the TV. They told me a small plane had flown into the WTC.

I don't know if it's because of my father's background in intelligence, but my first thought, the first thing I said was, "It's terrorists."

People started arguing with me. They said it was a small plane. The guy must have had a heart attack. Or lost his bearings. I argued back. "It's a clear blue sky. No clouds. How could he lose his bearings?"

We were still arguing as we watched - horrified, shocked, disbelieving - the second plane hit the South Tower. And then there everyone knew. It wasn't accident. There was no heart attack. No one lost their bearings. It was a deliberate. It was intentional.

Then we heard plane hit the Pentagon. It wasn't just a terrorist attack, it was a terrorist attack on a grand scale.

One of the women in the hospital with me was there from MA. She wanted, more than anything at that moment, to be with her family, to hold her children close. As she cried, I tried to comfort her, telling her we had to be strong, because if we panicked, if we fell apart, they'd achieved their objective.

Kind of ironic coming from someone who was in a mental hospital for, well, falling apart.

The Powers That Be at Silver Hill were trying to figure out how to deal with something this enormous and help us deal with it. Although they were experts in the field of mental health, this wasn't something that hadn't been taught in med school.

They called us into a meeting where they discussed limiting our access to the TV, because it was distressing some patients, which only upset and stressed out the news junkies amongst us even more. People cope with stress differently. Some want to turn off, wanting some form of escapism. Others need to know more, wanting details, seeking knowledge. Neither one is "right," to each their own. But I'm definitely the latter.

In the end, they decided to take us to the gym so we could work off some stress. In the van on the way down there, we heard on the radio that the South Tower collapsed.
And that's when my Mask of Coping finally slipped, fell, cracked and broke. Because all I could think of was the people still in that tower. I started crying hysterically and repeating over and over, "All those people, all those people." The same woman who I'd comforted earlier took me in her arms and held me. She repeated back to me the same words I'd said to her earlier.

In the gym, I went straight for the heavy bag, pretending it was the faceless enemies who'd flown the planes, punching it over and over until I was sweaty and breathless.
I'd just started on the treadmill when I heard the North Tower fell.

Later, one of the male nurses, or "techs" as they called them, walked those of us who wanted to pray over to the non-denominational chapel. He turned to me and said, with no small amount of anger in his voice, "You tried to kill yourself - but would you change places with anyone in those buildings?"

It's a question that gutted me then and has haunted me ever since.

What drove me to take those pills was the thought on that different awful day in 2001, August 28th, was that my life was a long, dark tunnel with no light of hope at the end, and that most of all, my kids would be better off without me.

I know better now. I'm grateful to G-d, to my family, to my friends and my therapists for the fact that I was given a second chance, one that those in the buildings and on the planes didn't have. I'm blessed that I've lived to see my children grow up to be the wonderful, bright, kind, empathetic, loving, thinking human beings that they are. When I listened to the young people at the 9/11 memorial event this morning talking about the things they missed about their parents it made me weep, but it also made me realize how very ill I was to think my kids would be better off.

It took four hours this morning to read the names of the all the victims. As I heard each name and saw each picture, I thought of the complex web of lives behind them that have spent the last 10 years trying to rebuild their lives from loss, or as one relative put it, living without "the missing puzzle piece in our family."

Edited to add: I'm reminded of lines from Psalm 126 that gave me so much comfort while I was in the hospital: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.” Ten years later, that has certainly been the case for me.

I'll end this with the words of a mother who lost her son at the WTC:

"To the world he was just one person, but to me he was the world."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Congratulations to Plainfield Public Library!

Thanks to your rockin' YA Librarian, Joe Marcantonio, a set of FIVE signed copies of WANT TO GO PRIVATE? will be heading your way, to help kick off a book discussion group.

That's assuming this big bad lady doesn't blow me and my post office away in the meantime.

Hurricane Irene - One day ago

According to the latest updates, she's supposed to hit CT as a Category II, at high tide. I was supposed to head down to the PAYA festival in West Chester, PA tomorrow, but regretfully had to pull out an hour ago, when I heard that the entire Metropolitan Transportation System is going to shut down at noon tomorrow. That means the New Jersey turnpike is going to be a parking lot.

Anyway, when the storm passes, I'll be getting the books in the mail, and everyone else who entered will get signed bookmarks. Stay safe everyone who is in the path of the storm!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Boycott or Mob Justice? My answer to the Casey Haters

On July 21st, I wrote a column for Hearst Newspapers which I am reproducing in full below because as the author I contractually own first rights after publication.*


A young-adult-author friend of mine received two disturbing emails through her website earlier this week.

The first read: "I am sending you this email in reguards to the justice Caylee Marie Anthony didn't receive...This child was failed by our justice system...The supporters of Caylee don't want her mother becomming Rich off of her Death... The word is out that Trident is working on a deal to have her write her story... There will be many emails and phone calls from the supporters of Caylee... Please help in this fight to keep Casey Anthony from becomming rich off the Death of Caylee. Robert Gottlieb, Chairman of Trident Media Group, made the statement in USATODAY that she's entitled to tell her story and Trident would be interested ."

The second was even more disturbing: "This is to inform you that you books are now blacklisted due to your working relationship with Trident Media Group. Trident is offering to pay Casey Anthony for her story. Promoting a child killer is unjust. These are the people you have chosen to publish your stories. Good luck with sales now."

Leaving aside the fact that my friend is no longer represented by Trident, and that Trident Media is a firm of agents, not "publishers," there's a much more pertinent question here. Why on earth is an author who has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a capital case in Florida, in which the accused was acquitted of murder, being sent threatening emails that might potentially cause damage to her career?

It's a symptom of the mob justice insanity that has surrounded this case and continues to be whipped up by irresponsible people in the media.

Florida author and parent advocate, Sue Scheff, who purports to be one of the "top 5 Parenting Experts to follow on Twitter" has written pieces encouraging her readers to join the Facebook hate groups "I hate Casey Anthony" and "F*** Casey Anthony." She justifies this irresponsible "journalism" (and I hesitate to even use the term here) because she has determined - probably from watching Nancy Grace, who with this trial proved that she's crossed the line from journalist to carnival barker, that the jurors, "didn't have a full understanding that circumstantial evidence is evidence [and] ... that they didn't understand the jury instructions."

It couldn't possibly be that they saw and heard all the evidence and she didn't, or that the prosecution bungled the case. Just this week, the The New York Times reported that the prosecution might have withheld exculpatory evidence from the jury. No, Ms. Scheff is online tweeting links to the FB hate pages to her followers, repeating the mantra "Accept not respect" and using the hashtag #idiotjurors.

I started following Ms. Scheff on Twitter because she writes about online safety issues for teens, and was thus appalled to see someone who warns parents about the dangers of cyber bullying doing exactly that. In a series of tweets, I said as much to her: "With all due respect, isn't this modeling cyber bullying for teens, which you have written against? Our kids look at our actions, much more than they listen to our words. Liking `hate' pages undoes everything we've told them. There are much more positive ways to express your outrage. Give to charity. Volunteer at a shelter for abused kids."

The fact she didn't reply speaks volumes.

Casey Anthony was judged by a jury of her peers in a court of law. We might not like the verdict. Our hearts break for Caylee Anthony, whose life was tragically cut short. But as citizens of the United States, we either respect the law and behave like civilized human beings or we turn into savages, led by Nancy Grace. I chose the former.

Clearly this piece is making its way around the Casey haters, because last night I started hearing from them on Twitter:



I should known from my experience as a political writer not to engage, but it was late and I was tired and yeah, I'd had a glass of montepulciano while I was cooking the bolognese earlier. So I tried to reiterate in 140 characters why they were being unfair to my author friend.

AmySum1 then lets herself off the hook with this: does she know? I've never mentioned the author by name. And with this napalm approach to boycotting, the Casey haters are going to be catching many innocent people who have nothing whatsoever to do with her crimes in their crazy net of vigilante vengeance.

Oh wait. You think I'm unfair for saying they're a little over the edge in their hatred? Read this tweet:

This morning, I got another round of tweets:

I know these ladies are working together, so I'm going to attempt to answer all their questions here. This is my final word, because I've learned from 8 years as a political columnist that further engagement is futile. Therefore I will not respond to any comments you might leave, so don't even bother. You can just complain about what a "pinhead" I am amongst yourselves.

Elizabeth: You ask "Should professionals that are represented by an agency that represents a person found guilty of murder be punished." And you feel that "people have a right to believe a company is behaving unethically and to withhold money from all people associated with co."

and TMHCO says that I don't "understand what a boycott is."

I understand full well what a boycott is. I'll even give you a definition so we make sure we're all on the same page.

BOYCOTT: to refuse to have dealings with (a person, organization, etc) or refuse to buy (a product) as a protest or means of coercion.

But here's where you ladies and I differ. I strongly believe that a boycott should be directed only at the people who are responsible for the perceived wrong. So no, Elizabeth, I don't believe you should boycott professionals who are signed with an agency whose head mentions that he MIGHT sign Casey Anthony.

Because let me tell you a little bit about publishing.

These authors might have been with that agency since before Caylee Anthony was even born. I don't know how old Trident Media is, but in the case of my agency, some of the authors could have been there before CASEY Anthony was even born. These are long-standing relationships, kind of like marriages. There are contracts involved. But more than that, there are relationships involved. An agent is the person who guides you, helps you navigate the stormy seas, listens to you cry on the phone about how you're such a loser and then tells you to shut up and go write another book. It is not "Easy :)" to move, as AmySum1 seems to think. If I told you ladies to get divorced and find another husband tomorrow "Easy :)" what would you say to me?

Well, telling an author to get another agent is a similar thing. And let me reiterate in case I didn't make it clear enough to you. A BOYCOTT SHOULD PUNISH THE PERSON OR COMPANY WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ACTION AND ONLY THAT PERSON OR COMPANY.

So if you don't want to buy Casey Anthony's book, fine. If you want to write threatening letters to the head of Trident Media so he doesn't represent her, Fine. But for you to write threatening letters to authors who have nothing to do with her case? SO NOT FINE. That is not a "boycott." That is mob mentality. And like it or not, you, ladies, are a mob.

PS: back to the crazy hater thing...Right before I posted this, I got another tweet


So anyone who knows me personally for a microsecond knows how much I love kids. Or even some of the 770,500 viewers of Q & A, the animated video of the StoryCorps interview between my then 12 year old son and me who don't know me personally get that idea.

Because I don't HATE Casey Anthony, Porcelain10 now assumes I don't love kids? There are more nasty tweets since then, but case closed, people. I have nothing further to say, because these "ladies" have just made my point for me.

*I would like to point out here that this means that NO ONE other than Hearst Newspapers of Southern CT and me have this right. Under Fair Use, you may copy a small portion of the article and link back to this blog or to the Greenwich Time, Stamford Advocate or CT POST websites. YOU MAY NOT REPRODUCE THE ENTIRE ARTICLE IN FULL ANYWHERE ONLINE WITHOUT MY EXPRESS CONSENT. (or, paying me). THIS IS THE LAW, KIDS. If I find you have broken it, I can, and will sue you.

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Life is a Sitcom (or why the truth is often stranger than fiction)

I was just emailing ubercool author and editor Dan Ehrenhaft this morning about how real life is often stranger and more humorous than anything we authors can make up.

And BINGO! As if to prove my point, life decided to throw another example my way.

I'd emailed Dan from the very long security line at LaGuardia airport, where I was dropping my daughter off for her flight to visit a friend in Florida. It was her first unaccompanied flight so we were both a bit nervous, and the airport being a complete zoo did nothing to assuage our anxiety. But her flight got off fine, and I headed back to CT.

We'd visited my dad yesterday and he was very upset because his watch strap broke. Dad is suffering from Alzheimers and has been in a residential facility since March. I took his watch and promised I would get it fixed and return it to him as quickly as possible. Ten minutes later he would pat his empty pocket where the watch had been and start to tell me about how upset he was about his watch and how he couldn't understand how he'd broken it. I'd reassure him that I'd taken it and would get it fixed. "Don't worry, Dad," I kept telling him. "I'm on this. It's all under control."

So on the way back from the airport, I went straight to NAGI Jewelers in Stamford (great service, use them!) The man in the service department was able to fix the watch in less than a minute. Then I hit the hardware store for some bulbs. Finally I made it to the residence where Dad lives and signed in. They were having a music and dancing for the residents, and everyone was enjoying "Roll out the Barrel," which always kind of cracks me up when I hear it in the nursing home for some reason. Dad saw me right away and was so excited and relieved to get his watch back.

But as I'm hugging him, one of the nurse aides who happened to be standing behind me taps me on the shoulder says, "Did you realize you've got a huge split down the back of your pants?"

It took me a minute, because, you know, "Roll out the barrel" was pretty loud and my dad was talking to me at the same time, because he was so happy about his watch, but when it finally clicked what she said, I reached behind me and felt...BARE BACKSIDE.

Because (and forgive me if this is TMI) I was wearing a thong, and the split was indeed big, and my forty-something year-old, not particularly shapely butt was there hanging out for the world - or at least all these seniors with various degrees of memory impairment to see.

See what I mean? You cannot make this sh*t up.

Because my entire day up to that point suddenly replayed itself before my eyes, but this time with my ass hanging out. LaGuardia airport...CROWDED LaGuardia airport. The very nice jewelry store, where the guy didn't charge me for fixing Dad's watch. The hardware store. And now, the nursing home, with all these elderly people with frail hearts.


Dad's still thanking me for fixing his watch but all I can think about is my butt. I feel my face starting to flame. Fortunately, the very nice nurse offers to get me a garbage bag to wrap around my waist.

I talk to Dad with my back against the wall, trying to explain that I'm going to have to go home and change because I have a wardrobe malfunction, but I'm glad he's got his watch. Nice Nurse comes back with the garbage bag and I try to wrap it around me, which is really confusing my father who can't understand why I would want to wear a garbage bag. I try to explain again about my trousers ripping and my butt hanging out, which makes him smile (at least one of us is laughing) and Nice Nurse makes sure I'm all covered. Then I kiss Dad goodbye and head home to change.

Actually, I think the garbage bag look is kind of stylish. Maybe I can just pretend to be all hipster about it. "I wore Hefty Bags BEFORE THEY WERE COOL."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Winners: Shelf Awareness Contest WANT TO GO PRIVATE?

Thank you everyone who entered the Shelf Awareness contest to win a copy of WANT TO GO PRIVATE? has picked three lucky winners:

1) Loreli Stochaj

2) Melissa Stumpe

3) Jessica Fujita

But all is not lost! I'll be sending a signed bookmarks to everyone who entered.

And please check out the dedicated book websites, and for more information about the book and Internet Safety. A comprehensive curriculum/discussion guide that can be downloaded as a PDF will be available in the next day or so.

I'll post the link here and on Twitter and on Facebook as soon as it's posted.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


How cool is a library with a TURRET?!

As a kid, I would have dreamed of creeping up to the top of the turret with my library books and being able to read in the window seat of a round room.

But tomorrow night, I get to read at this awesome edifice. Not in the turret, unfortunately. Downstairs. But to make up for the lack of turretosity, I get to read with these amazing authors:

Tara Altebrando, Dreamland Social Club

Matt Blackstone, A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie

Christopher Grant, Teenie

Alissa Grosso, Popular

Blake Nelson, Recovery Road

Gae Polisner, The Pull of Gravity

Nova Ren Suma, Imaginary Girls

Melissa Walker, Small Town Sinners

The festivities start at 6pm, Jefferson Market Library, 425 Avenue of the Americas (off 10th Avenue). Hope to see you there!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

And the winner is...

So I went to Son's graduation yesterday prepared for a deluge:

After all,it doesn't take a lot to get me going. I once cried watching a McDonald's commercial.

The entries ranged from a low of 5 (Peter) to a high of 2,650,000 (Gae - It felt like that much emotion, but would have needed a much bigger handbag for all those tissues!)

I think the number would have been much higher, if Son's speech hadn't been so darn FUNNY. I was laughing and crying at the same time! See for yourself. I think the kid has a future onstage. As Mr. Oncale, one of his amazing and influential teachers at Winston, said when giving him one of the drama awards, "He's always played old people but very, very well."

I ended up sobbing and laughing my way through a grand total of SEVEN tissues.

And so...*drum roll* the winner of the OMG WHERE HAS THE TIME GONE GUESS THE TISSUE CONTEST, with the closest guess of SIX tissues, is SHARI GREEN!

EDITED: I checked the entries on FB and this blog but forgot that Aurora M was having blogger issues and Tweeted me her entry of 7, which was SPOT ON! So I will send out not just one, but TWO copies of Life, After!

Congratulations Shari AND Aurora!! DM me on Facebook with your snail mail address and your signed copy of LIFE, AFTER will be on its way. I promise NOT to send you the soggy tissues as a souvenir.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The OMG, Where did it go? LIFE, AFTER Contest

I was talking to someone last week and she observed, "You have a lot of transitions this year." I'd been feeling very stressed and unsettled recently and ascribed it to any number of things but that was one I hadn't pinpointed. But it's true. It's been a year where I've had to confront some very major life issues - like realizing I'm really in that "sandwich"generation part of life when we had to take the very difficult decision to put my dad, who has been suffering from Alzheimers (how I HATE HATE HATE that disease) into an assisted living facility in March. On my birthday. Happy Birthday, Sarah. You are really ARE middle aged.

And then there are the happy, joyous moments, like when my son turned 18 recently.

We had a big barbecue for his birthday, with family and his friends. His college and high school age friends played soccer and video games easily with his 1st grade and nursery school age cousins. It was a wonderful celebration. As I posted on Facebook that morning, "Eighteen years ago today, after 48 hours of labor, this smart, handsome kid was born. Like all really meaningful things in life, I had to work hard for him."

On Wednesday, Josh is graduating from high school. I keep hearing my Grandma Mollie, whose amazing singing voice I did NOT inherit, singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in my head, as teen me accompanies her on the piano.

Four years ago, in what I feel was a gift from G-d, but was probably more the vision of Executive Director Scott Bezsylko and Head of School Beth Sugerman and the wisdom the the school's Trustees, Winston Preparatory School decided to open a campus in Norwalk, CT.

When Beth told me that Josh was admitted, I started crying, so great was my relief that my son would finally be at a school where I thought his strengths would be appreciated and his areas of weaknesses supported. And most importantly, where he could feel safe. Things had gotten so bad that about a month before the end of 8th grade, I pulled him out of his middle school and said said I wasn't sending him back until they could provide him with a safe environment. The school's solution? To have him complete the year by doing independent study in the guidance office, thus further stigmatizing him.

Attending Winston Prep changed his life. It's not to much to say that it saved his life. When he was being bullied every day, his grades suffered. He was so depressed he was on medication that, it turned out from a later neuropsych we had done, slowed down his cognitive functioning, but it had helped him get through the pain of living through each day at school.

He touched on the both the depression and the bullying when he asked about "life is hopeless" and "mortal enemies" in our now famous StoryCorps interview, which was when he was in 7th grade:

The environment at Winston has allowed Josh to thrive and grow into the young man he is today - someone who really cares about what is going on in the world, who has been following the Arab Spring as avidly as some other teens follow the World Series or the World Cup, who will greet me first thing in the morning with "Did you see what is going on in Misrata?" or "Who do you think is worse, Gaddafi or Assad?"

His teachers have inspired him, helped him, pushed him, and coached him through the social issues that he needed to work on. Since his junior year, he's been taking classes at Norwalk Community College, to further broaden his education and to help him learn to transition to college and learn to start advocating for himself in a college environment.

On Wednesday, he's graduating. I've spent a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking about all the work it's taken to get him here. The PPT's when he was in the public school system where getting every accommodation was like fighting a battle with Goliath - particularly the one in third grade where the Vice Principal of his elementary school sat across the table from me and told me that his problems in school weren't because he had Asperger's Syndrome, they were because I'd been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. (I'm looking at YOU, Damaris Rau, you EVIL woman, who should never, ever, be allowed near special ed children or parents). When we left the meeting, the psychologist who'd done the neuropsych eval of Josh asked me if I was okay, and said she'd never heard anything like that in her entire career.

It's been a long road, and it's been a very hard and bumpy road at times, like that PPT. But when I look at my son today,I am so unutterably proud. And happy. And sad. Because I'm going to desperately miss his morning political reports next year. And his hilarious, sardonic one-liners, delivered in that deadpan English accent.

So you're probably wondering by now, where's the contest?! Didn't she mention a contest?! I thought I was going to win a book and I get all this freaking mushy stuff!


Josh is giving a speech on Wednesday at graduation. I am going to cry.


The closest answer wins a signed copy of LIFE, AFTER - if you already have LIFE, AFTER, you can wait till WTGP comes out and I'll give you a copy of that.

Enter in comments. If you tweet contest +1 entry. Make sure you @sarahdarerlitt so I know.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thoughts on being a 2011 Scholastic Arts and Writing Juror

This year, for the second time, I was privileged to be a National Judge for the 2011 Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards. I was particularly excited to be a judge in a category that resonated so much with me in both my author and political columnist lives, the new Creativity and Citizenship: Art for Social Change Award.

Here's what the award is about:

From the women's suffrage movement to the civil rights movement to saving the environment, Americans have used the arts to create an awareness of history and promote social change. Teens in grades 7 – 12 are encouraged to submit their works of art and writing that address contemporary social issues important to them. Three winners will be selected to receive $1,000 scholarships and select works will be included in the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Teen Exhibition in June 2011. This special award is presented in collaboration with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

It was such an honor to be a judge for these awards because of the feeling of hope I felt reading these works. They were as diverse in style and subject as the composition of our nation itself. These were not the voices of teens who are only obsessed with celebrity and Jersey Shore and who is going to win American Idol. These writers were keen observers of what is going on in not just in the US but in countries across the globe. Whether they chose poetry, script writing, persuasive essay, personal memoir or fiction, the teenagers in this category were concerned with deep issues of social justice,losing a valued cultural heritage, the mistreatment of women, feeling displaced in one's own neighborhood by gentrification. Their writing made me cry, made me angry, made me want to reach through my computer screen to hug them and tell them "Don't give up! Your words give you a voice, and having a voice gives you power!"

I wanted to tell them that as a columnist, I've learned that when you write about social and political injustice, you will not always be popular. In fact, sometimes you will receive hate mail, letters and emails that make assumptions about you as a person that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject you have tackled in your column. No matter how thick a skin you think you've developed, there are times when it can be pierced - deeply. But remember: these letters mean your words were powerful enough to provoke a reaction. I've learned that the people who agree with you don't always write - but when you bump into them in the supermarket, or at the library, or at school open house night, or on the street, they will thank you for giving them a voice. So don't ever give up. Keep observing, and keep writing. There is so much injustice in the world yet there are unsung heroes in every day life, who work day in and day out without fanfare to try and make the world a better place - you have the gift to put the spotlight on both.

My sincere thanks to the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers for inviting me to be a judge this year.

Today at 12 noon, you're invited to join me and several other national writing Jurors including two of my favorite writing peopleOlugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich and Courtney Sheinmel. Tune in to:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why I write

I am not a NYT best-selling writer. While my books have won awards and made lists, when it comes to publishing, I'm "mid-list". Sure, I hope that some day I will "break out" into the big time. There have been plenty of difficult and frustrating moments when I've thought "If I only could be inspired write about vampires/wolves/faeries/paranormal romance" or whatever the publishing phenomenon du jour happens to be. But alas, it doesn't work that way. I write best when I'm writing about a subject that fills me with passion. Maybe it comes from starting my professional writing life as a political op-ed columnist.

I've also been told that I'm hard to "brand" because the subjects of each of my books have been so vastly different. It makes it harder for readers to know what to expect when they pick up a Sarah Darer Littman book - unlike say a reader of Sarah Dessen or Ellen Hopkins.

LIFE, AFTER is my quietest book to date. It was well reviewed (well, except for Kirkus, but my reviews from Kirkus grow progressively worse with each book, so I'm expecting to be prostrate in bed with a chocolate IV drip after I read the one for WANT TO GO PRIVATE?) and was awarded a 2011 Sydney Taylor Honor. But it wasn't picked up by the chains and it hasn't set the world on fire.

Sometimes I get sad and discouraged, because I really love this book and it means a lot to me for so many reasons. But then, on Friday, I got an email from someone who had read it. She'd immigrated to the US with her family about five years ago* and identified so strongly with Dani, the main character in LIFE, AFTER that she thought that Dani's story was really my story, and asked me if I still kept in touch with the characters in the book, and how I dealt with my father. She told me that I was "a courageous woman" for sticking up for Jon with the bully.

It really touched me that anyone would identify with my characters that strongly. I wrote back to her, explaining that I was born in the United States, but having moved to another country and been teased for my accent and using the wrong words for things, I did draw on my personal experiences for Dani. I told her that my son had been badly bullied in middle school, and that I wished there had been a person like Dani who had the courage to stick up for him when other kids were mean to him. And I told her that I know both how it feels to be depressed myself, and how debilitating it is for the entire family to live with someone else who is depressed and angry and refuses to seek treatment. So while LIFE,AFTER is a complete work of fiction, I drew on all of those things to write it.

I also wrote to her: I hope that Dani's courage will always inspire you to stand up for anyone you see being treated unfairly. It's not always easy to do what is right, but it is so, so important. Edmund Burke, a famous British statesman and political theorist said: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." That goes for women, too. (He lived a long time ago, when women weren't as liberated).

I thought I was writing to a teenager. But she wrote back to me today and told me more about herself. She is working at a job she was told by her father was the job that was available to her. But her mother (who I want to celebrate and hug) has been encouraging her and her sisters to study and learn and be independent. So she is studying to get a degree in what she really loves, while working at the job she was told was the only option.

She wrote that her mother has told her that "education is very important for everyone and especially for women. Books are the gateways to this world."

Her mom sounds like one wonderful and wise woman. I wrote back to her, telling her how my dad told me I would "never make a living as an English major," and how I worked at a job I didn't enjoy for years until I finally started doing what I loved when I was 38 years old. My message to my own children - and to the kids I speak to in schools - has been very different - that yes, it's important to make a living, but they should try to make a living out of their passion.

I thanked her for the gift of writing to me, asking her to keep in touch, and told her this:

My books might never be NYT Bestsellers, but I feel like my life has been a success when I receive a letter like yours, telling me that my words have resonated with and helped to give hope to another person.

This is why I write. The rest is gravy.

*I'm changing some details slightly to maintain privacy

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Help us stop dangerous practice of "weight grades" on report cards - and enter to win a copy of PURGE

I've struggled with distorted body image for most of my life, and was actively bulimic as an adult in my thirties. My novel, PURGE, while a work of fiction, is based on my very real struggle to overcome the voice in my head that told me that I was fat, ugly and worthless.

The response to PURGE from both teens and adults has told me that I'm not alone in this struggle. So many of us struggle with negative body images and issues with food, even if it isn't at the stage of being a full blown eating disorder. Young teens are especially susceptible; eating disorders and body image issues (including self-harm) are on the rise.

Dr. David Rosen of the University of Michigan says epidemiologic studies show the numbers of children and adolescents with eating disorders increased steadily from the 1950s onward. A recent analysis by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality says hospitalizations for eating disorders increased most sharply -- 119 percent -- for children age 12 and younger from 1999 to 2006.

Now there’s something that will make this worse – many states are now sending “weight grades” and BMI scores home on students’ report cards. Can you imagine the affect that will have?

Cheryl Rainfield, author of Scars and I were having a discussion about this on Twitter and we were both so upset about it that we had to take action. We decided to start a petition. We hope you'll join us in fighting this very dangerous practice.

To help encourage you, I'm giving away two copies of PURGE. To enter, sign the petition and tell me you have in the comments. For extra credit entry, tweet about the petition and tell me you've done that, too. I'll give away the first book on May 31st and the second book on June 30th.


Now you can win 1 of 2 signed copies each of Scars by Cheryl Rainfield, Purge by me, Hope in Patience by Beth Fehlbaum, and I’m Not Her by Janet Gurtler just for signing the petition! Let us know on here or on Cheryl's blog , and we’ll be picking winners May 31 and June 30.

Thank you for caring!

Live Strong and Be Healthy...


Monday, April 11, 2011

Celebrating National Library Week: Why Authors LOVE Libraries

It's National Library Week and what better time to celebrate the places that are havens of learning and community for all citizens and the wonderful,incredible librarians who make it all possible.

Libraries have been a beloved part of my life for as long as I can remember. Being able to go to this magical building where kindly, people would hand me books, encouraging me to discover new worlds, opening my young mind to new ideas, but best of all, making friends in the characters who stay with me to this day.

Now, especially, when library funding is under threat, we need to be vocal and active in our support for this beloved and necessary institution.

I recently joined the ALA's Authors for Libraries The ALA asks each author who joins to write a quote about why they love libraries. Here's mine:

Libraries are an essential cornerstone of our democracy. But my love of libraries began as a young girl, before politics held any meaning for me, when these wonderful people helped me find books where I explored new worlds and made lifelong friends. Libraries made me a writer, but more importantly, they made me a thinker."

The ever energetic Katie Davis has worked incredibly hard to put together an amazing Podcast O'Love for National Library Week. I forgot to say my name, but I'm the one who talks about the Marylebone Road Library in London.

Please help spread the word about National Library Week - and support your local library however you can!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Typing the 10K

Every time I start a new project I go through the same panic. That same sick feeling of dread and insecurity, that same voice in my head that asks: "What if the previous book(s) was just a fluke? What if I can't actually DO this?"

At first I thought it was just my second book blues - and boy did I have a dreadful case of them, probably not helped by the fact I was going through a lengthy and horrible divorce.

But despite the fact that I've now written and published three, soon to be four, novels there's still that anxiety whenever I start a new one that I won't have what it takes to pull it off again.

I heard the incredible Laurie Halse Anderson speak about writing a while back, and it gave me comfort when she talked about finding the right tools for each book.

I've kept those words close, because for me they're so true. When people ask me about my "writing process", the honest answer is that it changes with every book. There are certain things that have evolved and are consistent. I've learned to try to write the first draft as quickly as I can - I aim for 1,000 words a day when I'm in the first draft stage. I've started trying to outline more or at least write a synopsis - something I had to do for the books I've sold on proposal.

Today I hit the 10,000 word mark on my latest WIP, the one I'm calling The Funny YA for now. I'd been struggling to hit my 1,000 word a day stride on this one, partly because of family craziness and partly because it's told from four POV's and it took me a while to get a handle on the voices. But in the last week, as I approached the 10K mark, my characters started to come alive. And they started misbehaving, the rotten miscreants. I went back and looked at my outline and realized that they've already deviated in a big way, but I like where they're taking me, so I'm just going to hitch a ride for now and see what happens.

Looking back, it's about this point - I think it was 11,000 words - that I realized that I needed to completely rewrite WANT TO GO PRIVATE? from third person to first person. Something wasn't working, but the minute I made that decision and started rewriting in 1st person, the book came alive and suddenly I figured out a structure that made sense and added tension and suspense.

During my Second Book Blues phase I used to feel really bad about myself, because I'd hear about authors getting three book deals on a two page proposal. (That was back in 2006. Maybe things are different now.) But I need to write to figure things out. I spend a lot of time researching, thinking and taking notes before I start writing. I can try to make outlines. But it's not till I get my butt in the chair and struggle through those first ten thousand words that I have any idea where the novel is really going.

This is the one thing that's consistent through all my books, and I've learned to accept and embrace it as an essential part of my process.

How I end up getting from the 10K to the end is a another story, which I'll save for a different post.

Monday, April 4, 2011

And we have a winner!

Congratulations to: "Moriah D" (hylianvampire at and Natalierisk04 at! You are the two tributes from District 10 who will receive copies of THE GIRL WHO WAS ON FIRE!

Thanks to everyone who participated in the contest. You all had such great books and now my TBR pile is even longer than it was before! You should be hearing from either me or SmartPop asking for your address shortly!

Why I disagree with Cory Doctorow - Thoughts on the ALA/OIF Youth Privacy Conference

Is privacy dead, or do kids just use a different vocabulary to describe it? How can we as adults help to give kids the information they need to make informed choices about privacy, and encourage them to think critically about privacy issues in all aspects of their lives, both online and offline?

These are some of the issues we grappled with at the ALA/OIF Privacy and Youth Conference, held in Chicago March 24-25th. Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have noticed the stream of #youthprivacy tweets.

The conference was the kickoff to a new phase of privacy initiatives from the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom following the success of the annual Choose Privacy Week (May 1-7, 2011). For over three years, ALA/OIF, assisted by two grants from the Open Society Institute, has been focused on creating a national conversation around privacy. The Youth and Privacy conference came from the following realization:

The future of privacy advocacy and protections in the United States really depends on young people’s awareness of the long-term importance of personal privacy protections (particularly regarding use of the Internet and social media), and how government surveillance of citizens’ activities poses a chilling threat to our nation’s future. Libraries are ideal places for youth to learn about privacy and see it in action, given our long history of protecting the freedom to read.

David Levithan suggested I go (thank you, David!) because I've written extensively about the Patriot Act and FISA in my political columnist life, and also because my upcoming book WANT TO GO PRIVATE? is about a high school freshman who develops a relationship with an online "friend".

When I was at Scholastic for the NY Teen Author Festival, the On Our Minds Blog asked us me why kids (and adults) should read every day. This was my answer:

That was an important part of this conference for me. It was also how I got into an argument, via Skype, with Cory Doctorow. Yeah, *that* Cory Doctorow.

So here's the thing. I have used monitoring software on both my kids laptops since 2006, which I found out that my daughter had been the victim of a cyberbullying incident. One of her 5th grade friends was mad at her and created a website called "Ihate_______"(insertdaughter'sname). I didn't find out what was going on until the situation had been going on for well over a month and a half, and my daughter had responded to the friend with a serious of emails.

When I did find out, I had a long talk with my daughter, and even though she had initially been the victim, I revoked her Internet privileges for several weeks. Why? Because I told her by retaliating instead of coming to me, she hadn't used good judgment and further, the way she'd responded in those emails wasn't the way I'd brought her up to behave.

I'd expected a fight when I took away her computer but she handed it over without a peep. I honestly think she was relieved.

What blew my mind, after talking to the parents of the other kids involved, was the level of denial. One mom said, "Oh, but they're such good kids, I can't believe they'd do anything nasty." I wanted to forward her some of the emails her little darling had been sending, filled with foul language and vitriol - IN FIFTH GRADE!

I'm not saying these weren't good kids. They are all "good kids". What I am saying is what we all know - that even "good kids" can behave badly online. Look at the way adults behave on any newspaper comments section.

I never wanted to be blindsided by a situation like that again. A few years previously, I'd taken part in the Citizens Police Academy run by Greenwich Police Dept, so I called the Detective who'd talked to us about Cyber Crime and asked him for advice. He recommended the monitoring software that I've been using ever since.

I told both my kids I was putting the software on their laptops. It's never been a matter of me being sneaky and conducting secret surveillance. I just said that it was a condition of them being on the the Internet until they were legally old enough to take responsibility for their own actions. Because let's face it - I'm the Parent with a capital P. I'm the one who is legally and financially responsible for anything that they do until they reach majority.

At the conference, I met two representatives from the National Youth Rights Association, Jeffrey Nadel, President, and Alex Koroknay-Palicz, Executive Director. Alex was part of my discussion group, and it was from him that I got first shocked, horrified, expression when I said I used monitoring software. That was the start of the belief-challenging exercise.

It continued the next morning when Cory Doctorow Skyped in from London to address the conference. Cory went so far as to say that when parents are using monitoring software on their kids computers, they're giving them the message that privacy isn't important, and thus this leads to a generation that accepts government surveillance as "good for them".

Well, it's not easy to get up and argue with someone like Cory Doctorow, but at that point I was mad enough to do it. Because, frankly, I think that's bunkum, and I still do. Maybe it's true if parents are secretly using spy ware, but my use of monitoring software has always been part of the wider conversation about online use, etiquette and safety. It's helped prevent at least one potentially dangerous situation and created countless teachable moments about what is and is not appropriate to do online.

My son is turning 18 soon and he's getting a new computer for college. He knows that the new computer will be monitoring software free, and we had a conversation about what he's learned from the talks we've had. He also knows that he will now be legally accountable for himself. No Mommy to fall back on.

One person at my table asked me if I'd ever read my daughter's diary. "Of course not!" I answered. Alex asked me what's the difference between reading my daughter's diary and using monitoring software.

Here's the difference and I think it's REALLY important: My daughter's diary is in a notebook somewhere in her disgustingly messy room. But that room is contained in my house, which is protected by a security system that is linked to the Greenwich Police Department, and I know personally everyone who comes in and out of that room.

BUT: The minute she turns on her laptop the situation changes. The entire world gains access to my daughter's room. Any stranger can enter. And because my daughter feels safe because she is in her room, in our house, she'll feel more comfortable interacting with them than she would if she were at a shopping mall or on a city street or in a dark alley.

Hence the monitoring software. I view it as the online version of the burglar alarm I have to protect my home, until my kids are 18.

For those who would say that this destroys my relationship of trust with my kids, I cannot tell you how wrong you are. The opposite is true - because I've always been open with them, because we discuss things and have these important conversations, we trust each other implicitly.

As for Cory Doctorow's argument that it's teaching my kids that government surveillance is okay, that's where I get really pissed off.

I'm a political columnist and my kids have heard me railing against the Patriot Act since the day it was passed in 2001. I've read them the hate mail I've received from angry readers after some of my columns were published, the ones that called me an "America-hating Terrorist lover", or telling me that I was "using the American Way of Life to Destroy the American Way of Life and the Rest of Western Civilization in the Process". They've had to deal with us having an unlisted phone number because I started getting nasty letters at our old house and I didn't want people to know our address after we moved.

I truly believe that it's false argument that a parent who openly monitors their child's Internet activity because they want to keep them safe (not to mention that they are legally responsible for their child's actions until the age of 18) is teaching them to accept government surveillance. Because it's ALL ABOUT THE CONVERSATIONS. It's something I say over and over again. It's called PRO-ACTIVE PARENTING. Monitoring the kids has allowed me to be proactive rather than reactive, like I was when the cyber-bullying incident occurred. There are plenty of fires happening offline when you have teenagers that you have to deal with re actively on a day by day basis - but the Internet is just too big of a risk to take. It's like an elephant. It never forgets. And one little mistake can travel worldwide.

Let my kids make their mistakes in their offline lives, where they have the privacy to do so.

And Cory - your child is still in day care. Let's revisit this argument when she's a teenager. I'll be interested to see if you're quite as sanguine as you are now.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Reaping: District 10 The GIRL WHO WAS ON FIRE Giveaway

I thought it ever so appropriate that I was chosen to represent District 10 in Smart Pop Book's Panem-Style Reaping Giveaway for the new anthology THE GIRL WHO WAS ON FIRE - Your Favorite Authors On Suzanne Collins'Hunger Games Trilogy.

After all, I'm a former farmer's wife who spent 10 years in South West England amongst the cows in the beautiful Bride Valley in Dorset.

Cows grazing in the Bride Valley, Dorset (Photo: Ben Pentreath)

I was thrilled when I was asked to be a part of this anthology, because it gave me a chance to expand upon a blog post I'd written about my take on the political undertones in MOCKINGJAY just after I'd finished reading it. Politics and YA fiction. It doesn't really get a whole lot better than that. You can read an excerpt of my essay, The Politics of Mockingjay, here.

And now I get to give away TWO COPIES of the anthology to YOU! And that means ALL of you, wherever in the world you might reside. No ethnocentrism here!

Here's what you do to enter: The BookPage blog asked Suzanne Collins: What do you hope these books will encourage in readers?

Her answer: I hope they encourage debate and questions. Katniss is in a position where she has to question everything she sees. And like Katniss herself, young readers are coming of age politically.

In the comments, tell me has a book has ever inspired you to think about and maybe challenge the status quo?

Winners will be picked by