Alpaca, Get Yer Alpaca Here!

Alpaca CropSince I live out in the boonies, and countryside even boonier is close at hand, I have the opportunity to see plenty of critters that all you city folk don’t. For instance, I regularly see deer (aka, rodents with hoofs), red-tail hawk, the rare bald eagle, beaver, wild turkey, and peacocks. Okay, that last one is just a bizarre fluke since they don’t really belong in my boonies, they’ve just been brought in and set loose by someone.

In addition to the wild critters, there are any number of domesticated and semi-domesticated animals close at hand. Horses and cattle and goats, of course, but also emus, a zebra, bison, and lovely little alpaca.

Trebuchet sideGood friends of mine own a ranch called Bluestone Meadow up in an area of Northern California known as Apple Hill. They grow pumpkins in the fall and scrumptious, fragrant lavender year-round. They’re developing a Christmas tree farm. They have this amazing trebuchet they use to fling pumpkins with during pumpkin season.

They’d been wanting to add alpaca to their farm, and found four females at a ranch where the breeder was selling out her stock. I was about to sell my horse trailer, but I took it on one last haul up to Grass Valley.

Alpaca TrailerIt was very entertaining watching them wrangle the “girls” onboard. Alpaca don’t exactly lead as willingly as a horse (at least these didn’t–they were a bit rusty). But what’s cool is that when alpaca ride in a trailer, they “cush” (if I’ve got the spelling right). They lie down, which makes them much easier to transport than horses.

Once the first two were in, the second two should have been a piece of cake. But while the third alpaca hopped right in, the final one had to be persuaded. It took a little wrassling, lifting her front feet onto the trailer bed to persuade her back feet to follow. But then even she was inside, and we were ready to head out.

Alpaca FieldThey traveled pretty well (although a few times, I wondered if one or more of them had un-cushed because the trailer was rocking) and after backing the trailer into the pasture gate, they all exited and explored their new digs. I took a couple of videos, one of them wandering about, and one of the smallest girl, Foxy, meeting Jake, one of their the Bluestone Meadow dogs.

A footnote about Jake. He was obsessed with these new giant creatures and managed to make his way into the pasture while my friends were away. When my friends found him and got him out again, he was covered with stinky alpaca spit. I hope he learned his lesson.

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Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide

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L-R, my mom, Barbara, and my grandma, Pauline.

January 16th would have been my mom’s 83rd birthday, so my sisters and I were sharing memories of her that day. My mom was a hoot–wacky, creative, and with a great sense of humor. She’s the one who invented our imaginary family friend, Henry, and she introduced all of us to the Tilly Williams Club.

But a common thread in my and my sisters’ reminiscences was Mom’s oft-repeated advice: Let your conscience be your guide.

We all admitted that when Mom said that, we’d always feel a tug of guilt inside. Probably because she knew that we knew what the right decision was to make, even though we really wanted to choose the wrong (easier) path. Mom didn’t judge us for that desire to make things soft for ourselves. “Let your conscience be your guide” was just her way of reminding us to make the moral choice rather than the convenient or self-indulgent choice.

Grandma's Yearbook InscriptionWhile I was mulling over my memories of Mom, I happened to pick up my old high school yearbook. To my surprise, I found an inscription from my grandmother. I had no memory of her writing in my yearbook. It’s great advice, and such a precious gift to have it written in her own hand.

So many people are generous with advice whether we want it or not. But when counsel comes from someone who we know loves us and wants the best for us, it’s good to pay attention and give it more weight.

What good advice have you gotten over the years, either from your parents/grandparents or friends? Feel free to share in the comments.

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Taxes, Books Read, & Diversity

3 CoversI’m having a grand old time getting my taxes organized…perhaps not. But in the course of said organization, I made a tally of books read in 2014. The bulk of what I’ve read were ebooks purchased from our Beloved Overlord, er, Amazon, and since they send an email for each book purchased, it’s easy to count them up.

Print books I purchased at either my local Barnes & Noble (the only big-box bookstore still in my area), my local IBS* (we have a few very nice ones) and my local UBS* (again, a couple great ones) are harder to track. I’d have to (a) remember that I read it or (b) stumble across it on one of my myriad bookcases. Much trickier. Also, there are a not insignificant number of picture books I bought for my granddaughter. I include a couple below, but can’t recall all of them.

So I won’t claim this is a complete list of the books I read. I have eliminated those I bought and started, but did not like well enough to finish. First the Amazon list:

12 Years a Slave
Sand Omnibus
The Rosie Project
Hercule Poirot & the Greenshore Folly
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities
Typhoid Mary
The First Phone Call from Heaven
A Monster Calls
Fake ID
Blue Boy
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf
Openly Straight
The Living
Boy Meets Boy
The School for Good & Evil
The Great Greene Heist
The Summer Prince
Magic Under Glass
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The Chaos
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Things
The Only Thing to Fear
Charm & Strange
Hollow City
Ship of Souls

And the print books purchased from brick and mortar stores or other venues:

Fat Angie
Ball Don’t Lie
Yacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
The Beast
Brown Girl Dreaming
Each Kindness
The Other Side
The Star Fisher
Shadow Hero (addition)
El Deafo (addition)

I’m pleased to note that of the 41 43 I could account for, 31 33 were books either by diverse authors and/or featured diverse main characters. Apologies for not including author names–I have a new resolution to make my blog posts quicker and simpler. If you can’t figure out the author, ask me in the comments.

So for those who might be thinking diverse books are hard to find, do the math here. A full 75% of my reading material this year (possibly more since there might be a few I haven’t accounted for) is diverse. And there are many more I’m eagerly looking forward to reading, both new, and classics.

Happy reading to all in 2015.

*IBS – Independent Book Store, such as my local fave, Face in a Book.

*USB – Used Book Store, such as my local faves, The Almost Perfect Bookstore and The Bookery.

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Innate Identity vs. Imagining the “Other”

Rebellion Final Cover medWith all three books of the Tankborn trilogy completed and released into the wild, I’m doing as a writer does and working on my next project. Not to give too much away, but it’s a dark fantasy YA with a multi-cultural cast. No elves/orcs/wizards, but my own invented world. I’m on solid ground with my world-building, because it’s not based on anything except my own fertile imagination.

But what about creating that multi-cultural cast, or more importantly, my main character? She’s Alejandra, a 16-year-old, 2nd generation Mexican-American girl who’s Catholic and lives in Reno, Nevada. She and her mom aren’t below the poverty line by any means, but they struggle a bit financially. She’s not a super-genius, but smart enough to get a scholarship if she works hard.

Some of the cultural/identity elements of the character:

  • Mexican American
  • Catholic
  • Speaks a little Spanish (but not enough to carry on a conversation with her abuelita)
  • Lives in/grew up in Reno
  • Her family is little lower on the socio-economic scale
  • Very close to her mom
  • Hard worker
  • Not one of the popular kids

Some of my personal cultural/identity elements

  • Russian-Austrian-Italian-German-American
  • Catholic raised, Jewish heritage
  • Speak quite a bit of Spanish (I could carry on quite a credible conversation with Alejandra’s abuelita)
  • Grew up in Southern California/live in NorCal
  • Have relatives in Reno & have visited there often
  • My family was middle-class, but we went through some rough financial difficulties
  • I was very close to my mom
  • I was a very hard worker in school
  • Most definitely not one of the popular kids

Based on who I am, how well can I get into this character’s head? How authentically can I write her identity, her culture?

It might seem like I’ve got it covered since there’s quite a lot of overlap in our life experience. But there’s a very key area missing–she grew up Mexican-American, and I grew up as a white American.

People are people, you might say. We have more in common than we have differences. Absolutely. But if I want to write an authentic character, one with a different core identity than mine, who grew up immersed in a world different than mine, I can only imagine so much. And it’s possible that what I “imagine” about the character will come from my own ingrained stereotypes that will worm their way into my writing.

Rosary-sSo what do I not have to imagine? What have I lived? I’ve lived the Catholic upbringing. Catholicism is so rooted inside me that to this day I can’t walk inside the church without reaching for the holy water to dip and make the sign of the cross. Even though I haven’t attended Mass in years, I immediately feel comfortable inside a Catholic church, like I’m home.

By the same token, I often feel out of place during services at other Christian churches. And although I am Jewish by heritage from both sides of my family and am married to a Jewish man, I’m a complete fish out of water in a synagogue. I don’t know the prayers, in either Hebrew or English. I don’t know the songs. Judaism wasn’t part of my upbringing, so it didn’t get into my DNA like Catholicism did.

I know what it’s like to be the unpopular outsider as a teenager. After all these years, that pain still lingers. I know what it’s like to work hard in school. I lived through difficult financial times when I was a kid, where my parents’ worries filled me with anxiety. I know what it’s like to be female, to sometimes be slighted because of my gender, and to sometimes fear men.

But despite all that Spanish I learned over the years, despite living with many Hispanic neighbors in L.A., do I know what it means to grow up Mexican-American? No. Not in any gut way. I’m white, and I lived the white experience, with all its privilege and dominance, during a time when racism was far more accepted. I’ve experienced subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bigotry and trivialization because of my gender. But it’s a white face I present to the world, and the world has treated me accordingly because of it.

So how do I authentically write Alejandra? To some extent, I use my imagination, but in the end, I need some expert input. A friend has been giving me advice about the Spanish that is sprinkled throughout the book. And before the book ever sees the light of day, I intend to find a Mexican-American beta reader to vet my cultural references and make sure I haven’t let stereotypes creep in.

Could I just decide to write only white characters in my books? I could. But I choose not to. And with that commitment to write diverse, comes the responsibility to make my absolute best effort to do it right.

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#LA14SCBWI: Schmooze, Learn, Get Inspired


The view from my room at the Century Plaza #LA12SCBWI.

I’m really looking forward to my upcoming trip to SCBWI-LA, the annual summer conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. My flight down to LA is at a much less ungodly time than my usual trips–it leaves at a very civilized 10:15am.

Besides all the fun and inspiration of attending panels and keynotes and seeing author friends I only see at conferences, I’ll be seeing a couple of l*o*n*g time non-writer friends. We’re talking one friend I went to kindergarten with and another friend I met in college (which believe me, was a long time ago). I think my college friend and I haven’t seen each other for close to 30 years. I’m also going to be meeting up with a brand-shiny-new friend I met by chance at Burbank airport.

diverse-logo-sI’m also thrilled to be participating in a We Need Diverse Books™ poolside chat on Saturday (more info here). This will be my first time taking part in an “official” WNDB event, so it’s pretty cool.

Anyone else going to LA? Or any other conferences you’re looking forward to this year? There are so many great ones. Which are your favorites?


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Adventures at the ALA #alaac14

Me and StacyThis was my first trip to the American Library Association’s annual conference and it was a whirlwind tour for me. I arrived in Las Vegas around lunchtime on Friday, then headed back to the airport around dinnertime on Saturday.

In between I packed an inhumanly large number of activities. After communing with a couple slot machines, I scoped out the convention floor, then had dinner with my editor, Stacy Whitman (@stacylwhitman), publisher of Lee and Low’s Tu Books. Librarian Nina Lindsay and fellow author Valynne Maetani (@valynnemaetani) joined us.

On the way to the restaurant, I noticed an odd thing about Las Vegas (okay, there are a lot of odd things about Las Vegas)–all the faux architecture around town. Like the imitation Arc de Triomphe outside the Paris hotel and the fake Eiffel Tower. It’s like Disneyland for adults. A never-ending costume party as well with some very interesting apparel choices.

Saturday morning, I met with representatives from two of ALA’s ethnic caucuses–Heather Devine from AILA and Eugenia Beh (@ebeh) from APALA. We discussed ways they could get involved in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and how WNDB can utilize the ALA caucuses as a resource. Sadly, we didn’t think to take a selfie of the three of us. :-(

Me and Don TateAfter a cruise of the convention floor, I returned to the Lee and Low booth to meet fellow Lee and Low author and new WNDB team member, Don Tate (@Devas_T), who was signing at the Lee and Low booth. Seems I can’t quite keep my eyes open when I get my picture taken. I got a copy of Don’s book IT JES’ HAPPENED which will probably end up with my older granddaughter once I’ve read it a few times and had a chance to enjoy its beautiful illustrations.

Me and Meg Medina


After visiting with Don, I stopped at Meg Medina’s signing (@Meg_Medina) to buy her book YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS. I later crashed Matt de la Pena’s signing, stopping to introduce myself. He was very nice about my interruption. Also, Stacy introduced me to Jacqueline Woodson and between her and Matt, I was pretty starstruck.

Eriq La Salle I timed my return from lunch perfectly. Not just because I had a 2pm signing of the Tankborn Trilogy at the Lee and Low booth, but because Eriq La Salle (@EriqLaSalle23), the actor who played the prickly surgeon, Peter Benton, in ER, was just starting his signing. He’s writing a thriller series, self-publishing through Ingrams program. I managed to get a quick shot of him in passing.

My own signing was great, giving me a chance to meet fans and talk to librarians about the Tankborn Trilogy. After my autographing session, I headed over to the Special Events section where the Oakland Library (@oaklibrary) was participating in a poster session. They’d put together a bunch of the beautiful #WeNeedDiverseBooks photos that they’d taken during the campaign.

Me and Oakland Library CrewAs inspiring as it was seeing those photos come through tweet by tweet, it was amazing seeing them all together in one display. I also got a chance to meet the librarians responsible, Sharon McKellar (@sharon), Nina Lindsay, and Helen Bloch. They had sheets handy with “We Need Diverse Books” across the top for people to write their own response. Sharon took their pictures and insta-tweeted them on the spot.

I headed back to the airport shortly after the poster session. Great conference. I’m looking forward to ALA 2015 in San Francisco. :-)

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If #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Why Not Just Self-Publish?

diverse-logo-sA while back, I wrote this post. I ranted about how during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, some white folks jumped on the hashtag to flog their own books (which may or may not have been truly diverse). I got into a mostly polite back and forth with an anonymous commenter who among other things suggested that if diverse authors can’t sell their diverse books traditionally, they should just self-publish.

On the surface, this sounds like a splendid idea. Self-publishing has become a much more acceptable route to publishing, and there have been some mega-successes (Hugh Howey and Barbara Freethy come to mind).

But how many self-published authors have actually made a go of it? According to Bowker, in 2012 alone (the most recent statistics I could find), nearly 400,000 books were self-published. So that’s a lot of people striking it rich, right?

Not so much. According to this study by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, the bulk of self-published authors (about 82%) make less than $5000 per year. The chart they included with the study shows that 19% of the 82% segment make nothing. Zero, nada, zilch. And the chart also indicates that the percent of self-published authors dwindles even more in the higher income brackets.

So right out the gate, if a diverse author went the self-published route, they, like all self-published authors, have a lesser chance of being compensated for their work. Therefore, by being channeled into self-publishing instead of into traditional, diverse authors are almost certainly placed in a lesser position financially.

So a diverse author self-publishing is very likely going to make less money. How about if we move to the other end of the financial issue–what it costs an author to self-publish. I can speak with some authority on this since I have a dozen or so indie-published books up for sale. Here’s what you have to pay for if you’re not publishing traditionally:

  • Editing — If you hope to have any credibility as an author, you need a clean, professionally edited book. Traditional publishers do this in-house, but self-published authors have to pay someone for this service. Costs can be $1000 and up per book
  • Cover art — You think you can do this yourself? Maybe some can, but most authors are masters of the written word, not the visual arts. Even using royalty-free clipart, authors usually don’t have an eye for composition, nor do they own the pricey programs need to put the elements together. An unappealing, amateurish cover can lose you sales, so you’ll want to hire someone experienced to do it for you. Expect to pay $100 and up for cover art per book. It will be even more if you’re going to print rather than just ebook since there’s more work involved in a full cover.
  • Formatting/Uploading — If you’re a technical whiz, you can probably handle the tedious work of getting your book properly formatted and uploaded onto the myriad of sites that sell ebooks. But as someone who has an MS in computer science, I can tell you that this process has been a trial even for me. The worst thing for any author would be to put up a book that’s riddled with errors. Believe me, readers notice and will warn off other readers. So you may need to go the route I did–hire a virtual assistant to do the work. Depending on what their hourly rate is and the formatting problems the VA encounters, I’d say it could be $50 and up per book.
  • Marketing — There are a lot of free avenues for marketing/promoting your book–Twitter, Facebook, e-newsletters. In my opinion, it’s pretty obnoxious to see a million tweets or FB posts urging people to buy your book. But it’s free…and it’s also rarely effective. A lot of people barely register those “Buy me, buy me” tweets, or ignore them entirely. So you might need to go with promotion that costs money, many of which start at $50 or so and go up into the stratosphere cost-wise.

So before a diverse author can get their book up on the virtual shelves of online bookstores, they’ve had to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars. Money that the statistics show they are unlikely to recoup. But there are many out there (like my anonymous commenter) who think that self-publishing is a viable way for diverse books by diverse authors to get into the hands of readers.

Expecting diverse authors, but not white authors, to go the indie route is a ghettoization of publishing. Let’s say two authors, one white, one diverse, both have a well-written, publishable book. We’re saying to the white author, “Step right up to this line, the traditional publishing line. We’ll pay for everything, and give you an advance to boot.” Then we’re telling the diverse author, “You have to go to the self-publishing line over there. You’ll have to take all the risk of getting your book published.”

Just as white shouldn’t be the default for characters in books, self-publishing should not be the default path for diverse authors.


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