My new middle grade novel Night on Fire grew out of a question that baffled me when I was young: How can good people do cruel things?
My family was from the South—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I loved them dearly, and some of them were racists. For the life of me, I couldn’t reconcile those two facts.
Over the years, the question continued to haunt me. As I pondered it, a character emerged: thirteen-year-old Billie Sims. She lived in Anniston, Alabama, a pleasant town filled with good people. In 1961 the Freedom Riders came through town, a group of black and white college students challenging the practice of segregation on buses. Some people in town stopped the Greyhound bus they rode, set it on fire, and beat the students as they spilled out. All the while, good people watched and did nothing. Billie’s father was one of them. So was Billie.
With Billie, I stalked the streets of Anniston, an African American friend at my side, seeking answers and hungry for justice. We found our way to a church rally in Montgomery, where the night split open and we rang a bell—for those who had suffered, for those who stood by, for those who were sorry and wanted to do better.
Ask yourself the question. Then travel with me to Anniston.
I grew up in Maine, where trick-or-treating was often a frosty affair. My mom would insist that snow boots looked perfectly fine with Cinderella’s ballgown, and that Frankenstein was still totally scary beneath a puffy down coat. My kids are growing up in South Florida, where I wage the opposite battle. Every October, I pitch costume ideas that involve shorts. “How about a boxer? I can give you a fake black eye! Or a lifeguard. You can wear a whistle!” This never works. Our first year here, my boys dressed as Power Rangers, in full-length polyester suits. They got so hot on the walk home that they stripped down to their underwear. Another year, they were Indiana Jones (cargo pants, long-sleeved shirt) and his greaser son, Mutt (jeans, “leather” jacket). That was an especially sweaty Halloween. (Faux leather does not breathe. AT ALL). This year, the boys plan to be Batman and Robin. Come on….wouldn’t some nice cotton shorts look perfectly fine on the Dynamic Duo?
When Sam was three, “fairy” was the Halloween costume of choice. Many trick-or-treaters mistook Sam for royalty. “What a pretty princess!” they exclaimed. “I’m not a princess,” Sam snarled back. “I’m a fairy!”
The funny thing was, no one considered he might be a boy.
At six, Sam startled us by wanting to be Luke Skywalker. Given that we’d never seen him express interest in a masculine costume, we didn’t know what to think, except that Halloween is a time for experimenting, trying on new identities, or being things we are not.
Each year, pink boys wonder: If I wear the costume I want to, will the kids at school make fun of me? The parents of pink boys wonder: Is this safe? Can—should—we trick-or-treat somewhere where nobody knows us? Of course there’s no “right” answer; each family has to work out on their own what works for their child. If this is your family’s struggle, we recommend a video from The Onion, America’s favorite satirical news outlet: “How To Find A Masculine Halloween Costume For Your Effeminate Son.” It won’t answer your questions, but it will help you laugh about them.
Dressing up like pirates was always a fun costume choice when our two boys were small. From store-bought accessories to homemade ones, there were so many options. Eye patches, hats, bandanas and more! School parades and trick-or-treating were lots of fun…but the fun didn’t end on the last day of October for us.
Costumes and accessories were added to a laundry basket designated as “dress-up clothes.” Kept right next to all the gadgets and gizmos of childhood, the items in this basket were played with almost more than any other toy we owned. I loved the imaginative play it encouraged. Our kids loved it for all the exciting moments they had.
They’d play “dress-up” and re-enact favorite stories we’d read. They’d pretend to be a pirate or a dinosaur or an astronaut (Yes, we had a dinosaur and astronaut costume, too!) or “fly” around the house wearing a cape made from a large scrap of fabric. Many family memories were made—all from playing “dress-up” the whole year round.
When I think of Halloween, I think of my right ankle. I broke it three times: in first, fourth, and sixth grades, each time right before Halloween, a holiday where ankles really come in handy for trick-or-treating.
The first time my brother John told the neighbors about my injury and they compassionately dispensed sympathy treats. The second time John was with his fifth-grade cronies and didn’t want to seem uncool, soliciting candy for his clumsy kid sister, though some of the neighbors kicked in an extra candy bar. But the third time we had just moved to a new neighborhood where no one knew us and John volunteered nothing, so no one knew of my candy-less plight.
That night John came home to me lying miserably on the sofa and the guilt kicked in. He gave me the candy he didn’t like, basically anything with peanuts. This brings me to my second, happier Halloween memory: Snickers. Years later, when I took my own kids trick-or-treating, I would relive my youth by coaxing them into sharing their Snickers bars, insisting I deserved something for walking with them for hours. I’m happy to report guilt worked, just like it did on John.
I turned 15 years old on Oct. 19th. This was the first year I started to feel a little old for Halloween — a favorite holiday for my best friend Lori and I since we shared October birthdays, too. I wrote in my diary at the time that John, a boy I crushed on, went trick-or-treating with us that year. Lori and I always had so much fun making costumes and walking out in our friendly neighborhood to collect candy. Afterwards, to avoid eating TOO much candy at once, we made a game of hiding our wrapped candy in our bedrooms. We’d usually forget where we hid it, making Halloween last a long time.
My most vivid Halloween memories are about making—never buying—my costume each year. My three sisters and I would compete to see who came up with the most creative idea. My mom was very talented at crafts and sewing, and she supervised in the early years. I remember one truly fantastic papier maché mouse head my mother made for my youngest sister.
As an adult, I continued the homemade costume tradition. Here’s a photo of my first attempt, definitely not up to my mom’s high standards. My then two-year-old daughter was supposed to be a bunny rabbit. Clearly an alien species of rabbit; I had some trouble with the head and ears. (I did get better as the years went by!) Welcoming neighborhood trick-or-treaters is still one of the high points of my year, and I keep an extra candy bar for anyone with a homemade costume.
Dressing up for Halloween was, and still is, my favorite part of the holiday. One year in particular I was so excited to get one of those prepackaged Barbie costumes (nothing like today’s costumes, mind you.) This beauty consisted of a terribly scratchy mask and a preprinted sheathlike plastic ball gown that made me feel—and smell—like a crayon. Needless to say my dream costume quickly became my most loathed costume. But that has never stopped me from dressing up. Instead, I became more creative and designed most of the costumes for my children and myself. Over the years the costumes have consisted of a Football Powder Puff, Shark Boy and Lava Girl, Thomas the Train, Batman’s Poison Ivy and my most recent and favorite, I dressed up as VMA’s Miley Cyrus. The more bizarre the costume, the better, I say. –Dana Elmendorf, author of South of Sunshine (publishing April 2016)
Sam and David wanted to be vampires. Thank goodness for Halloween, I thought as we drove from California to our new home in Texas with Sam, 6, David, 4 and Josh, 1 in the back seats. To distract the boys from everything we were leaving behind, we talked about how quickly we could make the look happen when we arrived the morning of Oct. 31. (Josh’s main contribution was to spit up, which meant he was going to inherit the old pumpkin sleeper that had been worn by his brothers.) We dropped off our things at our new apartment and hit the ground running, seeking capes, white make-up and plastic pumpkins for candy. Over dinner, I read their new favorite book, Matt Novak’s Pete and Ghost, about a boy who finds a friendly ghost in his new house. And then, trick or treat! They ran from decorated house to house, gathering treats and, even better, smiles from the new kids that would become their best friends.
–Nancy Churnin, author of The William Hoy Story (publishing March 2016)
Is my son a zombie? It is possible. Here are the top five reasons why I think he might be: 5) He answers questions with a blank stare; 4) He’s good with directions. Have you noticed zombies always know which way to go? 3) My son played baseball as a kid and now works for a baseball team. Zombies never give up either; 2) He has lots of friends – zombies hate to be alone; and number 1) My son likes ripped shirts and old pants. If that doesn’t scream zombie – what does? So as another Halloween approaches, I’ll be thinking of my wonderful zombie and all the fun we used to have.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Halloween. I mean, free candy! Candy was rare in our house. On October 31 every year, I’d amass as much of it as possible, come back to the house for the sister swap (I had three sisters, we each had different preferences, and usually at least one of us had braces that made some candies taboo), and then put my final collection in a shoe box. Showing willpower that I only wish I still had today, I strictly rationed my stash so that it lasted as long as possible. My record was the year I stretched it until Valentine’s Day.
It’s actually amazing that it’s taken me so long in my writing life to get to Halloween—but I’m happy with the result. The title of my picture book, Trick Arrr Treat, came first, and then I just went with it. Pirates were a big deal to my son when he was little. When we went to the beach, we’d bring along his pirate hat and a pirate flag, and we’d bury some kind of treasure for him to dig up.
My books almost always end up with a dog or two in them—this time, the dog plot was one of several ideas my editor came up with, and it seemed like a natural fit. I especially had fun coming up with the characters’ names; I think everyone should have a pirate name! What’s yours?
The idea for Are You Still There originated after being on a school campus during a lock down. Teachers are instructed to lock their classroom doors and not open them to anyone. Of course that’s logical, because in the case of an active shooter, a teacher could unwittingly let the shooter into their classroom. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what could happen to the kids who happened to be out of class when the lockdown was initiated. When I was a student, we didn’t have lock downs at school, but I could instantaneously put myself in my own teenage shoes, and envision myself stuck in a bathroom during a lockdown.
The idea moved very quickly from there. I, like so many others, am saddened and frightened by the number of acts of school violence. I read an article in the Washington Post that indicated there are now more mass shootings in the U.S. than days in a year. It boggles my mind that we have not yet found better solutions for these problems.
In college, I was on a real crisis helpline. It was the best experience throughout my college years. Helping other people gave my own life a purpose, and the alliances formed with my fellow listeners were like gold. I finally felt at home.
While writing this book, I was essentially trying to climb into my character Stranger’s brain. What a sad, lonely, and angry place to be. Spending a lot of time there led me to a lightbulb moment. It surrounds what I’ll call the Four P’s: Problems, Pain, Perspective and Permanency.
Problems: We all have problems. We don’t always know other people have them, because some people hide them better than others. And some people don’t talk about them. But we’ve all got them.
Pain: We all experience pain. And it sucks. Emotional pain can be overwhelming.
Perspective: Over time, our perspective changes. This happens to everyone. Things that seemed important or particularly painful at one point in our lives fade over time. They may still be painful, but not as painful. Sometimes we see that the pain sparked personal growth.
Permanency: Some choices in life are permanent. If you ever make a permanent decision when you’re highly emotional and in significant pain, then you can’t benefit from the perspective you’ll gain over your life. Example—violent or self-harming acts. Any time young people choose a violent act as a solution to a problem, they’ve forgotten that their perspective will change over time. They’ve forgotten that their emotional pain will lessen in intensity. I wonder how many violent acts could have been avoided if people could press “pause” in their lives and fast forward five years to see if they’d still care.
When author Jandy Nelson’s 2010 novel The Sky is Everywhere was optioned for film by Warner Brothers in late August, I let out a little “whoop!” The book is amazing, but more importantly, it launched my love of reading contemporary YA literature and inspired me to write my debut novel, Burn Girl.
Ever since her stepdad’s meth lab explosion, Arlie has avoided the stares from strangers and questions about her face. But can she stay hidden forever?
While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed fantasy, paranormal and dystopian YA series (you know which ones I’m talking about), I am especially drawn to stand-alone contemporary YA novels. There are a number of extraordinary writers tackling once-taboo subjects like death, physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault, drug abuse, bullying, gender identity and more. The prose is sometimes described as dark or gritty, although I think those labels are inadequate attempts to say that these books I love to read deal with real life.
I’m a huge fan of author Courtney Summers. Her latest book, All the Rage, addresses rape culture, class prejudice, and bullying, and has been called unflinching, powerful, brutal and heartbreaking. To me, that’s a good sign she’s hit a nerve with readers and is shedding light on subjects we’ve been reluctant to talk about in the past.
I believe that YA literature dealing with serious subjects gives teens (both female and male) a voice they may not have had otherwise. My two latest purchases are Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ about a self-proclaimed fat girl who’s comfortable in her skin, and Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not, which navigates subjects like suicide and gender identity in a skillful, honest way.
It’s not a surprise to me that so many of these books are being optioned for film. I don’t believe we’ll see a downturn in YA contemporary literature in the near future. There’s still so much that has to be said.
What contemporary YA title has made an impression on you?
The early morning air wafting through the open windows was softly crisp on the eve of the autumnal equinox. The front lawn, an aging green, was littered with large curled sepia sycamore leaves. The house sat blissfully quiet, everyone else having left for school and work, except for “Autumn Music” playing on Pandora.
For me, the first day of fall heralds the decorating cycle—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, Winter (snowmen!), Valentine’s Day, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day (family birthdays/wedding anniversary), and Easter—that will culminate with growing season next spring. I’ll display my father’s collection of roosters in the bay window as it overlooks a young green yard carpeted with purple violets and welcomes a symphony of birdsong into the house.
As a child I learned about the changing year—bolstering what I learned in school—through the lens of what was happening in our yard. This became linked with the cultural holidays and religious feasts taking place in each season. For example, I remember crunching through crystalline snow in rubber boots to see if the fragile gold and amethyst crocus were blooming in the icy cold beneath the birdbath near the brook that divided our front lawn. No matter how miraculous this seemed, I learned it was a sign that spring and Easter were coming.
My parents and sisters populate these memories. My dad loved decorating the house for holidays and tended the yard with my grandfathers. In the kitchen, my mom turned garden peppers and eggplant into glorious feasts. Everyone wanted to eat at our house! Though my children find this bizarre, some of my happiest family memories involve raking leaves and shoveling snow together, talking and laughing while washing dinner dishes, and picking and canning endless pounds of plum tomatoes in late summer to jar for gravy (tomato sauce) for Sunday macaroni in the coming months.
Today, while decorating the house for holidays, I display a variety of seasonal picture books. The most weathered copies are mine from childhood, some belong to my children, others I’ve collected since commencing my journey as a picture book author. I love them all, but the fall and Halloween picture books are especially dear. A favorite among favorites is Pumpkin Pumpkin, by Jeanne Titherington. The simple text and amazing textured illustrations distill the story of the seasonal year down to six amazing pumpkin seeds. It’s poetry.
It also represents everything I aspire to in my own writing—capturing the essence of an unfolding story in vivid and efficient text, and delighting in the privilege of watching as illustrators such as Susan Swan and Julia Patton elaborate in color, texture, and image.