Tuesday, September 18, 2018

ANYTHING BUT OKAY pre-order giveaway

My latest YA Novel, ANYTHING BUT OKAY, comes out from Scholastic Press on October 9th.

I'm really excited for this book to come out in the world, and to encourage you to pre-order, I will send you a signed bookmark, a personalized bookplate, and these awesome temporary tattoos to sport when you get involved (and VOTE, if you're old enough!) in the mid-term elections. Unfortunately, I have to make this US and Canada only. Sorry international readers... Pre-order giveaway ends on October 8th.

The temporary tattoos read:

If that's not enough to convince you, for each pre-order entry, I'll make a donation of 5% of your cost of purchase to your choice of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, The League of Women Voters or HIAS.

But wait — there's more! All pre-orders will be entered into a raffle to win copies of IN CASE YOU MISSED IT and BACKLASH.

How do you get this swag? It's easy! Just email me at sdlgiveaways@gmail.com with a proof of purchase and your mailing address.

As with most of my books, the idea for ANYTHING BUT OKAY started with questions that were knocking around my brain.

The first one was inspired by my friend Rob Jordan, a USAF veteran.

Back in December 2014, Rob made a post on Facebook about the problems he had getting disability for the health issues he'd developed as a result of serving in Afghanistan, at bases where there were burn pits. His post made me angry about the way we treat our veterans - I wrote about it here.

Seeing Rob and so many other of our veterans struggle to get help from the Veteran’s Administration after having served our country with pride got me wondering: Why is our country so quick to send troops off to war regardless of the cost, but when our vets come home struggling with the emotional and physical costs of fighting it, the focus is suddenly switched to reducing taxes and a deficit swollen by the costs of prosecuting that war?

I had a write a novel to work that one out, and it's dedicated to Rob.

The second question was “What is a patriot?” and the related question of who gets to define that. I spent fourteen years writing political opinion columns,. and count George Orwell as one of my major influences. Hearing our government using the euphemism “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” for torture was a perfect example of what Orwell warned of in his essay, Politics and the English Language: “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Yet because of the views expressed in my 650-word columns, I was called un-American, and a terrorist lover, which was confusing because I thought I was doing my job as a journalist and my duty as an American.

The news was another inspiration for ANYTHING BUT OKAY. Watching politicians use rhetoric to portray different groups as “animals”, and working to restrict the ability of refugees to seek asylum has a disturbingly familiar ring for someone who grew up in a family with Holocaust trauma. Teachers and librarians described how that rhetoric 'trickled down' to their schools, both virtually on social media and in real life bullying. My heart broke as I heard about students in tears concerned for the safety of their families. I read the news stories about white, privileged kids from the suburbs shouting racist chants when they play teams from schools with a more diverse makeup. This made me wonder how we can help create more understanding and empathy; how we can start conversations and bridge differences. As a white woman of a certain age, I’m learning how many blind spots I have, and I hope reading about Stella and Farida’s friendship will encourage young people to think about what it means to be a good ally; to recognize that we can’t stand by in silence when we see injustice, just because it’s not happening to us personally.

Speaking of the news and how critical it is to learn media literacy skills, particularly in the Internet age, I’ve watched as the number of school librarians and media specialists has been cut by twenty percent since 2000, particularly in predominantly black and Latino districts, despite rising student populations. Technology can be a great tool, but Google will not teach our students media literacy.

I hope that this book will encourage discussion of these questions—and through those conversations enable us to find the humanity we have in common.

To read more about ANYTHING BUT OKAY, here's the link to the book on my website.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Gina Haspel nomination - revisiting The Politics of Mockingjay

Watching the politics around Gina Haspel's confirmation as CIA Director, and the reprehensible attacks from the White House directed at Senator John McCain, I've been reminded of a piece I wrote eight years ago for The Girl Who Was on Fire, an anthology of essays about Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series. I thought about it as I was listening to different news channels while stuck in traffic on I-95 this afternoon driving back from an author talk. Two themes of the essay - what it means to be patriotic and the use of torture, seem to be as much if not more of an issue today as they were back in 2010 when I wrote this:

"In the summer of 2008, two letters from readers arrived at my paper. One, addressed to me, asked, “Can you name me an instance where you are on the United State's side on an issue?” The other, addressed to my editor at the paper, complained: “ If you're going to continue to publish the far left ramblings of Sarah Darer Littman on your editorial page, you can at least try to balance things out by having somebody else on who actually wants to see our country win the war on terrorism.”

I found myself bemused by both, because as far as I’m concerned, I’m on the United States’ side on EVERY issue. It’s because I love my country so much, because I believe so passionately in the ideals upon which it was founded, that I’m so vocal when I feel that our government and our elected officials are taking us down paths that diverge from those principles.

So what does it mean to be patriotic? What does “being on America’s side” constitute? Does it mean “My country”—or in Katniss’ case, the rebellion—“right or wrong”? Personally, I don’t believe that is the case. One of the greatest minds of all time, Albert Einstein, said, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

To me, it is about asking questions, fighting for what you believe in and holding our leaders accountable. It’s about making sure that making sure that they don’t take us down a path that is antithetical to what we stand for. It’s about saying “The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values” as President Bush declared in a speech on September 6th, 2006, but really meaning it, not coming up with rationalizations for how and why we are allowed do so.

It’s about facing the real challenges ahead of us without losing who we are as a nation, without compromising the core values and beliefs that made America the shining beacon of democracy in the world.

I have a letter to the editor from a World War II veteran, Richard P. Petrizzi, that I keep pinned above my desk. It reads ; “I have many friends who are veterans who have never worn a flag on their lapels or flown flags in front of their homes. Yet these same people went to war to fight the dictators who were trying to conquer the world. We fought at that time to preserve our freedoms, including freedom of speech. I urge Sarah Darer Littman to keep writing her column and standing up for what democracy is all about.”

Almost two thousand years ago, the poet Juvenal wrote the Satires, a series of poems highly critical of the mores and actions of his Roman contemporaries. In Satire X, he writes of the downfall of the head of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, and the reaction of the citizens of Rome as he is dragged through the streets to his execution. One citizen asks ”But on what charge was he condemned? Who informed against him? What was the evidence, who the witnesses, who made good the case?"

Another replies: "Nothing of the sort; a great and wordy letter came from Capri, " in other words, Sejanus had been condemned to death on the basis of a letter from the Emperor Tiberius, because he’d fallen out of favor with his former friend. “Good; I ask no more," replies the first citizen – abandoning law and order to the winds.

Juvenal rails that “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things----Bread and Games!”

Or, in the original Latin: Panem et Circenses. The phrase originated with Juvenal and two thousand years later, it describes how much of the American public preferred to lose themselves in “reality TV” than pay attention the erosion of civil liberties during the War on Terror; “asking no more” in the way of evidence from their government when confronted by policies that so clearly contradict our laws and our national values. From warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, to the politicized hiring and firing of Department of Justice officials, from the abrogation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture, to leaking the name of a covert CIA agent for political purposes - the list of Bush Administration transgressions goes on. Although the Obama Administration has corrected some of the worst abuses such as the use of torture, it still hasn’t rejected the use of extraordinary rendition or closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay, despite the fact that the harsh treatment received there has motivated several released prisoners to become members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet much of the American public remains too busy watching Reality TV, preferring to discuss Dancing with the Stars and Jersey Shore, and continue to accept the harsh treatment of prisoners under the guise of “national security”, without understanding the global strategic implications, let alone the immorality.

My upcoming novel ANYTHING BUT OKAY, (Scholastic, October 2018) is a further exploration of the questions I had in 2010 about what it means to be a patriot and who gets to define it. Rereading the essay from eight years ago reminds me that the seeds of our current political chaos weren't planted by Trump. Trump's election is the ugly weed that sprouted from the seeds planted years earlier. We have to recognize that in order to move forward with any vestige of a civilized society intact.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Branding or Gendering

#kidlitwomen, is a month of essays and posts about gender inequities and other disparities in children’s literature. Join the conversation at KidlitWomen on Facebook and by searching #KidlitWomen on Twitter.

When my editor sent me the cover concept for my upcoming novel, ANYTHING BUT OKAY, I liked it – a lot. Nonetheless, there was something that concerned me, and I wrote back posing the question of cover gendering.

My last three YA novels all have a technology element. As far as protagonists:

BACKLASH is told from four points of view, three female, one male.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT is from the point of view of a bright female who does probability trees to figure out if the guy she likes will invite her to the dance, and if she should accept if another guy asks her first.

ANYTHING BUT OKAY is told primarily from a female point of view, but with part of the story told in diary entries from the main character's older brother, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who is struggling with PTSD.

Here are the covers:

In comparison, I looked at the covers of some well-known male YA authors who also published books with a female protagonist, including several from my publisher.

Here are some examples:

When I look at these, I can't help but wonder if this is truly a branding and marketing issue or it’s gendering issue. Even the covers by male authors that do feature a girl on the cover are in more gender neutral color palettes. Not a hint of pink to be found. Why does this matter? Because despite the admonition that we "shouldn't judge a book by its cover", we all know that's what happens.

I’m by no means the first one who has raised this. Back in 2013, Maureen Johnson tweeted to her followers: I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. - signed, A Guy”. She then had the genius idea for a Coverflip.

The results were illuminating, as you can see here.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes wrote a fascinating post the causality of a book's success and gender.

There are important reasons why we need to examine this more closely, particularly now that #Metoo has started past-due conversations about harassment. Covers create a perception of the book, and that translates to school visits - an important source of income for authors, and a source of book sales, which then translate to other forms of recognition - the cascading model, as Jennifer put it.

At a school visit not long after my novel IN CASE YOU MISSED IT came out, the media specialist told me that she almost had me only speak to the girls, because I write “girl books”.

I don’t think of myself as a writer of “girl books.” I do my best to create intelligent, thoughtful female characters with a full range of emotions – just as I do with my male characters. Then I put them in situations where they have to make choices, choices which are difficult because the answers aren't clearly spelled out in black and white. The grey areas of the human experience fascinate me, because it's those choices, as Albus Dumbledore observed: "that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

As far as I’m concerned, I write books for thinking human beings of any gender. Not only that, my school visit presentations cover completely non-gendered topics like research, the important of writing well no matter what you do in life, inspiration, creativity, and persistence. There are even butt jokes and corpses.

I asked the media specialist what message she was sending to both boys and girls if the girls were required to listen to male authors, but boys weren’t required to listen to female authors.

Her reply: “I never thought of that.”

It's just not good enough. We all need to think a harder about that, because the messages we’re sending boys are ones that will stick with them when they are men in college and the workplace. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. Boys shouldn't grow up with the message that women's voices are unimportant and can be ignored. Shannon Hale has been powerfully outspoken on this.

When I asked other female kidlit authors for their thoughts, I heard a depressingly familiar story.

Here's Melanie Crowder:
I did a middle school assembly-style visit with a group of debut authors in 2013. We were brand new, bright eyed and enthusiastic, but the school nearly cancelled at the last minute. When I approached the principal before the visit he said something along the lines of: "Oh, we almost cancelled because you're all women and we didn't think the boys would get anything out of it."

A woman author who wished to remain anonymous told me: “I was meeting with a bookseller who is influential in selecting our city-wide read. She was flipping though my books, looking for one that had broad enough appeal for the program--and she made it very clear that by broad appeal, she meant one with a boy protagonist.”

Christina Soontornvat spoke of a problem that is all too familiar:
"I have gotten so many comments of "Do you think my son would read this?" or "Oh, we have some girls in our class who would love that". Too many comments to keep track of! But when kids are allowed to choose, I find that boys tend to like them in the same proportion as girls do. "

At least she gets asked if the adult's son would read it. I get people just telling me: "Oh, it looks great, but I only have sons/grandsons/nephews." They take one look at my covers and ASSUME that the book wouldn't be of interest - and I can't help but wonder if it would be the same story if my covers were more like the male author ones above.

What's particularly depressing is how young kids are when they get this message from parents and gatekeepers. Here's picture book author and journalist Dashka Slater: "I have watched parents literally take copies of my book Dangerously Ever After out of their sons' hands because it's about a princess."

We all know how subversive it would be for a young boy to read about a princess. Heck, he might grow up to respect and understand women better!

Here's an unutterably depressing story from Newbery award-winning author Linda Sue Park.

One of my books, KEEPING SCORE, is a baseball book with a girl protagonist. Uphill work getting boys to read it, sigh. When the paperback jacket was dummied, the publisher showed it to me. It had even MORE 'girl' markers (more pink, very domestic scene). I told them about the difficulty of getting boys to even open it. They switched to a cover with a DOG. Boom! Boys read it now. It's such a quandary: Is it better to have the dog on the cover so boys will at least open it, and read about a girl character? Or leave the girl on the cover while we work on dismantling the patriarchy--which means countless boys WON'T read it, at least for now.... OY."

What does that say about the messages we adults send young men and boys, that they will pick up a book with a dog on the cover over one with a girl - even if it's about baseball?

I know that boys DO read my books, and again, I can't help wondering how many more might if my covers were more gender neutral.

Here's Jen Brooks, a media specialist in Findlay, OH:

Sayantani Das Gupta wrote:
On the flip side my new female protagonist mg book with a brown girl on the cover front and center is actually getting really good reception so far from boys and girls and teachers seem to be pushing it toward both - is it because it’s a funny fantasy and not realistic fic? I don’t know .

It's an interesting question. I wonder if it's because it's humorous fantasy or that one can get away with more when it's a drawing of a girl than photograph? Or if it's because middle grade rather than YA?

Holly Westlund was working as a bookseller when Marie Rutkowski's WINNER'S CURSE trilogy first came out.

I think THE WINNER'S CURSE trilogy is an excellent example of series that should realistically appeal equally to both genders and was marketed to girls only (see covers), despite the dual protagonists.

Maureen Johnson made the papers when she highlighted the gendered covers issue in 2013. Sadly, five years later, it doesn't seem like much has changed.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

About Valentine's Day...

Haven't had much time to blog lately due to...well, lots of reasons, but the best one is the impending deadline for my 2019 Scholastic book. But given the fact that the #MeToo has finally hit the kidlit world and tomorrow is Valentine's Day, Auntie Sarah wants to share a few words about love.

I hate Valentine's Day - I think it's a ridiculous holiday. I told my then boyfriend, now husband, that I never want or expect anything from him on V-Day. Here's why - because love isn't about a day where you get expensive presents, chocolate (okay, you can give me dark chocolate if you REALLY want to), and flowers which have been hiked in price because supply and demand.

Love, as far as Auntie Sarah is concerned, is shown by being there on a day-to-day basis, not by overpriced flowers and dinners on a prescribed day. By being supportive of your partner's career, and strong enough in your own self to rejoice in her successes, instead of feeling threatened by them. By believing your partner when she tells you about the experiences she had with harassment and abuse in life, and in the workplace. By taking action and having conversations with other men about how you can make the world a better place for her, instead of shrugging and saying: "boys will be boys."

Love is surprising your partner with flowers or chocolate or something you know she likes and will make her laugh - but when she least expects it, not just because you're supposed to because it's Valentine's Day and everyone else is doing it.

Love is laughing together. And crying together when hard times hit, and helping each other to find hope again.

Love is experiencing true intimacy when you talk about the things closest to your heart.

"But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

The love and respect your partner shows you on a day-to-day basis is so much more important and revealing than the most extravagant prescribed expressions on Valentine's Day.

Go forth and love. But don't make it about the Hallmark Holiday.