Almost Zero

Posted November 27th, 2012

Almost ZeroThirty-plus years ago, at my count, the teenaged daughter of a friend came home one day, demanding that her mother buy her a certain thing—an article of clothing? a music system? a television for her room?—I can’t remember. Whatever the item, the teen insisted she needed it, and pointedly informed her parent that said parent had to supply the item because, well, that’s what mothers are for. To my friend’s credit, her head did not explode, nor did her voice, or her hackles, rise, neither did she scream or shout. Instead, she did a very slow simmer, nodded her head and said something like, “I see. Let me give that some thought.”

The next day, while her daughter was at school, my friend removed almost every stitch of clothing her daughter owned from her room, as well as pretty much everything else—posters, radio, music albums, etc, etc, etc. What remained was one school uniform and, I think, underwear and a nightgown. When her daughter ran screaming through the house, my friend explained that, as the parent, she was responsible for providing her child with food, basic clothing, and a roof over her head. Everything else was extra!

Now, that’s what I call poetic justice!

I’m willing to wager her daughter never forgot this lesson, and neither did I. In fact, I remember filing this incident away in my mind, and thinking, “One of these days, I’m going to use this in a story.”

Several years ago, I found myself bemoaning the rise of entitlement in our society, but most especially among our young. Others noticed and frequently commented on the matter as well. That was my signal to tackle the topic, and I began sketching out a draft for Almost Zero: A Dyamonde Daniel Book. 

In the original draft, Dyamonde orders her mom to buy her an expensive pair of high-top sneakers. After her mother responds by taking away almost all of Dyamonde’s clothing, Dyamonde schemes to get them back. Some of her schemes were pretty funny, I thought, but my editor felt there needed to be more to the story so I put my thinking cap back on, and wondered what Dyamonde would do if she encountered someone who, for some reason, owned even fewer clothes than Dyamonde had left in her closet. That question led me to a secondary story about a classmate whose family loses everything in a fire, to which Dyamonde responds by organizing a clothing drive.

In the end, I was glad my editor had pushed me to expand my original story. The final version was richer and deeper by far. Almost Zero went on to win great reviews, as well as the Horace Mann Upstanders Award.

I’ll leave you with excerpts from one of my favorite passages in the book. It poses the key question we all should ask when we recognize a need in our community or in our world: What can I do?

“Class,” said Mrs. Cordell, looking up now. “Some of you may have noticed that Isabel isn’t here today. Last night, there was a terrible fire in the apartment house where her family lives, and their apartment was destroyed. Everyone got out safely, thank God, but the family lost everything they owned….” 

“Is there gonna be a clothes drive or something?” asked Dyamonde… 

“Well, Dyamonde, the school can’t do anything officially…Of course, you’re always free to do something on your own, if you like.”

What can I do? Dyamonde asked herself. I don’t have any money. Then it hit her. But I do have clothes! Somewhere…

“Mom!”

Voices of Christmas

Posted November 20th, 2012

Voices of ChristmasMy editor at Zondervan asked if I was interested in writing a retelling of an Old Testament story like David and Goliath, or Noah and the Ark. I said no thanks. Neither interested me, but I thought it might be fun to figure out a fresh way to tell the Christmas story. What if I told the story in the voices of the characters who were central to it? That was the question that led me down the rabbit hole of my imagination. Voices of Christmas, a story in poetry, was the result.

Truth be told, this approach was not as big a leap as you might imagine. A couple of years earlier, I’d written the Easter story in a similar fashion. That book, titled At Jerusalem’s Gate, explored Easter from the points of view of priests, disciples, Pontius Pilate, Pilate’s wife, and a host of other characters one meets in the traditional story. The Christmas book, though, was unique in that it was told not only from the point-of-view of the characters, but was written strictly in their voices, as well. This approach takes the reader more deeply into the story. When you hear the character speak, you are better able to view the unfolding mystery of Christmas through each character’s eyes.

It’s always a bit weird trying to figure out what kind of language to use when writing about people who lived thousands of years ago, and who spoke a very different language than your own. But then again, that’s part of the challenge, and part of the fun.

Creating details of the environment was helped by research, and by drawing from notes I’d taken on a trip to Israel. There’s simply no substitute for walking on the same ground where your character’s trod.

As always, I strove to climb into the skins of my characters, and to view the world through their eyes. One thing I’d never contemplated, though, was climbing into the skin of an angel! It seemed only natural, though, because Gabriel is the one who introduces us to the core of the Christmas story: it is Gabriel who brings Mary the message of the Christ child, soon to be born through her.

Eric Velazquez

Voices of Christmas illustrator Eric Velazquez and I shared a stage last year at NCTE. He made a wonderful Gabriel!

Gabriel is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, and in this book. Illustrator Eric Velazquez used himself as the model for Gabriel, and I love the result!

I decided to arrange the poems sequentially, so that the story would move from prophecy to fulfillment. I wanted the story to unfold for the reader as is it were happening in real time. The hope was that the reader would feel a part of the story. To underscore that idea, I address the last poem to the reader. After introducing Gabriel, Mary, the shepherd, the Inn Keeper, three Magi, King Herod, and the rest, I ask the reader:

And who are you?
Not an angel, no.
Nor Herod.
But perhaps you are
a magi, mapping the miracle
on a chart of stars;
a shepherd
trading sleep
for a chance to seek
a golden child
in swaddling clothes;
a Simeon
who has hoped for a lifetime
to find the one called
Emmanuel, God with us.
Or are you like Mary,
prayerfully waiting
for the King of Kings
to be born in you?
Well, He is here!
Sing! Sing “O, Holy Night.”
Run toward His Light!

Once the story was complete, voice artist Craig Northcutt and I recorded the text. A bonus CD of that reading accompanies each copy of the book.

As I wrote and recorded Voices of Christmas, I imagined children and families gathered together, sharing these poems, one by one, as they count down the days of Advent.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

Barack Obama

Posted November 8th, 2012

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of HopeYou know how I’m always saying I’m up for a challenge? Well, with this book, God called me on it.

Everything about this book was impossible.

In 2008, I was going along, minding my own business, writing my books and sweating the latest deadline. I’d instructed my agent to restrain herself from offering me any new projects. My plate was full, and my cup had long since runneth over. “No problem,” she said. “I understand.” Then, barely two weeks later, she sent me the email: “I know you’re busy,” it began, “and I know you said you didn’t want to consider any new projects, but I really think you should scroll down and read this email from Simon & Schuster.” Breathing heavily, and letting fly a few words I can’t repeat here, I scrolled down the page. It was a letter from Justin Chandra asking if I’d consider writing a picture book biography of then-Senator Barack Obama who, as it happened, was running for the Democratic nomination for president.

If you think I jumped at the chance, you’d lose the bet. I didn’t know much about Mr. Obama. (That’s a strange name, I thought.) And I’m not particularly interested in politics. I did, however, realize the offer was substantial, and that I should at least appear to be giving it serious consideration. With that in mind, I decided to wait two weeks before turning it down.

During that two months, I did a little research on Senator Obama, and noticed that there seemed to be a growing degree of excitement about him. And it began to dawn o me that a book about him would probably be a high profile project. In other words, this could potentially be a very big book. What were the odds, I wondered, that I would ever again be offered such a high profile project? Not very good, I decided, and so I called my agent and said, “Let’s go for it.”

I had no idea what I was in for.

Bryan Collier and Nikki GrimesSimon & Schuster had set their book release to coincide with the Democratic National Convention in August. Counting back from that date, and considering the least amount of time illustrator Bryan Collier would need to complete the artwork, I had roughly three weeks to research and turn around a polished first draft. I’ve written biographies and works of historical fiction before, and I can tell you I usually spend months just doing the research.

Job number one became not to panic! As it happened, a friend had recently mentioned having a love for research, so I gave her a call and put her to work culling material for me to pour over. She sent me articles, book titles, and various interviews with Obama. I felt like I was back at college, cramming for an exam only, this time, the results would be read by thousands of people, not just my professor!

This project was unusual in another respect. Writing in a normal time-frame, I would consider several possible approaches to telling the story, and I’d try a couple until I figured out which approach worked best. In this case, however, there was no time for that. I had to come up with an idea and just run with it, hoping it was the right one.

The publisher wanted this book to capture some of the energy of the race for the nomination, as well as tell the back-story of Obama’s life and what led him to decide to run for president. That meant the book needed to be both informative and engaging. But how do you engage the littlest readers in a book about a political leader? I decided to view this story though the eyes of a young child, and to incorporate that point-of-view throughout the text. That way, even the youngest readers would have a character with whom they could relate. It felt like a bit of a gamble, but I believed it could work, so I went with it.

I experienced the tyranny of the clock during every step of this project. I knew how extremely challenging it would be for Bryan to create the art for this text, given the insane schedule, so to give him a leg up, I started secretly funneling him pages, so that he could get going on his own research for artistic reference. My editor would probably have had a cow, if she’d known.

At three weeks, I sent off my first draft, then spent the next month or so in revisions. Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope released the day before the DNC. Bryan and I were in attendance to sign copies of the book.

What a rush!

I wasn’t quite done with the book after its release, though. Once Obama was nominated, I had to update the Author’s Note. When he was elected, I had to update it yet again. When he won the Noble Prize, it was updated. And once he began campaigning for a second term—you get the picture!

Three years after it reached #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list, a special edition, with a CD of me reading the book, was released. And the book that proved to be a challenge with a capitol C is still going strong. And to think: I almost turned this project down.

Wow.