Secret #2: Picture book coming!

It’s August. How did that happen?! It’s not only August, it’s the very end of August. As in almost September. I can hardly believe how quickly the summer has flown by, in a way that only summers can. Life here has been full of travel, visits with family, adventures by the sea, weekly trips to our CSA farm, digging around in our own small garden, work, deadlines, my son’s second birthday (holy cow, I have a two-year-old), reading (of course), and…writing.

This summer I haven’t just been writing in my journal. In fact, my journal has been about as neglected as this blog. I have been writing a story that you all can read next year when it comes out as a picture book!

I am very excited to announce that I am the author of a forthcoming children’s book from Getty Publications, due out November 2015. Excited is an understatement. This is a long-held dream come true, and I feel just plain lucky. Does luck ever feel plain actually? I feel extraordinary and giddy in my luck!

The picture book, with the working title Therese Makes a Tapestry, tells the story of a young girl whose family works at the Gobelins Manufactory during the era of Louis XIV. It is being published on the occasion of a major exhibition of French royal tapestries at the Getty.

Through the wonders of Skype, I have been able to meet the team of incredible individuals that I’m collaborating with, including my amazing editor and the fabulous illustrator. I truly couldn’t be happier with the process so far. Again, I thank my lucky stars.

So that’s the secret I meant to share much earlier this summer. Thanks for sticking with me as I come and go! Stay tuned for more book updates in the future.

Photo of books about French tapestry and textiles piled on a table

A sampling of the books that have adorned my coffee table and desk of late.

 

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Cover of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFeversLaFevers, Robin. Grave Mercy. His Fair Assassin. Book 1. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Plot: After Ismae Rienne’s childhood in the household of an abusive, turnip-growing father culminates in his sale of her to an equally abusive husband, she gladly takes an offer of refuge at a convent dedicated to St. Mortain, the god of Death. There she learns that her true father is St. Mortain, Himself, indicated by a nasty scar on her back brewed by the poison her mother took to try and expel Ismae from her womb. Ismae embraces her new role at the convent where she joins Death’s handmaidens in dedicating her life to the god and His desired assassinations. After completing her training in weaponry, poisons, history, politics, womanly arts, and her first two assignments, Ismae unwillingly enters into her next assignment posing as the mistress of Gavriel Duval in the court of Brittany’s young duchess, Anne. Her abilities to spy on Duval and identify any treachery on his part are thwarted by her growing affection for the man. With France and other parties threatening Brittany’s independence and future, time is running short for Ismae to collect herself and carry out her assignment. But as she begins to question her obligations to the convent, she wonders whether she has landed on the right side of good and evil.

Setting: 15th-century Brittany

Point of View: 1st person (Ismae)

Theme: Death, religion, romance, political intrigue, historical fiction, Brittany, France, mystery, murder, gender expectations

Literary Quality: LaFevers’ first entry in a planned trilogy grabs readers from the start and does not release them until the very last page. The blend of history, politics, mystery, fantasy, and romance along with well-paced chapters are sure to engage a wide variety of readers. Grave Mercy explores questions surrounding death, religion, gender expectations, love, and duty thoughtfully and with dark humor, but does not answer them completely (unsurprising given the additional novels to follow). LaFevers’ dynamic characters are most human in their combination of endearing and infuriating traits and moments. Ismae’s evolution and concerns over her self-identity nicely parallel the fears and transitions surrounding the fate of the young duchess and Brittany’s independence without being overdrawn. At the same time, readers will find it difficult to feel settled in this startling and provocative suggestion that in a strictly gendered world, women find power and agency in life through death.

Cultural Authenticity: LaFevers elegantly combines both real history and a fictional past in Grave Mercy. She also takes inspiration from mythology and epics. She has explained this process a bit in an interview at The Enchanted Inkpot noting that the most difficult part was paring down the political intrigue, which was even thicker in real life than in the book! Of course, the book coud be further enriched by a list of sources, but LaFevers’ website does offer further information and a select bibliography, as well as explanations on her creation of this fictionalized historic world.

Audience: I would recommend this book for readers ages 15 and up. As mentioned above, the blend of genres and topics should have wide appeal.

Personal reaction: Grave Mercy combines some of my favorite things to read (medieval European history, strong female protagonists, mystery, and romance) so well, I just couldn’t put it down. I did have some lingering questions about the outcome of the story that I expect will be answered in the rest of the trilogy. I felt particularly satisfied that I was never certain of the traitor’s identity until very near the end; new questions and doubts always popped up. I look forward to the next book!

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1, The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson

Cover of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1 The Pox PartyAnderson, M. T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation. Vol. 1, The Pox Party. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006.

Plot: Octavian and his mother live at the Novanglian College of Lucidity in Boston among a set of philosophers. Taught by these men to think rationally, observe, and question, before long Octavian begins to question his lifestyle and the many experiments involved in it. Trespassing behind a forbidden door, he discovers to his horror that he is central to the philosophers’ experiments and observations as they set out to determine the character and intellectual capacities of the African race. As the colonies tremble with the beginnings of a revolution for liberty, the College loses funding and Octavian becomes less and less sure of his role in this world. Should he succeed at escaping, what purpose would it serve? Has his classical training made him useless in a society divided by liberty and property, and can he ever really be free?

Setting: Colonial Massachusetts, just before and at the start of the American Revolution.

Point of View: 1st person (Octavian), 1st person (Mr. Goring). Other characters also contribute 1st-person narrative, however the bulk of the narrative is given to Octavian with a large chunk also held by Mr. Goring.

Theme: Slavery, science, American Revolution, colonial history, Enlightenment, self-identity, racism, freedom, mother-son relationships, societal norms and values, injustice

Literary Quality: The first volume of Anderson’s 2-part saga is truly a work of art. Written in the form of a compilation of historical documents to tell a single narrative, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing delves into important historical questions at the same timer hat it brings a fascinating and very human character to life. Anderson took on a daunting task with this novel, looking at the nuances of slavery, scientific inquiry, freedom, and hypocrisy while attempting to portray the uncertain outcomes, immense hopes, and cruelty of the American Revolution. His novel successfully depicts what nonfiction historical monographs often fail to: the interconnectedness of all of these issues that are often studied separately, the ambiguity of sides and coexistence of ideals in a single individual, let alone society, and the possibility of history taking new directions. Indeed, it is often difficult to think of historic events and outcomes as anything but inevitable. At the same time that Anderson accomplishes this, Octavian comes to life — slowly but surely — and drives the reader to ask with him the reasons for his training, his treatment and mistreatment, and to what hope he might cling. In the end, Anderson’s well-crafted work illustrates a point that university professors struggle to teach: the hypocrisy of a society still largely functioning along a socially constructed dichotomy of color and race: “they told me of color, that it was an illusion of the eye, an event in the perceiver’s mind, not in the object, they told me that color had no reality; indeed, they told me that color did not inhere in a physical body any more than pain was in a needle. And then they imprisoned me in darkness, and though there was no color there, I still was black, and they still were white; and for that, they bound and gagged me.” (316) Anderson tells us something of the process through which history is constructed, too. Octavian’s voice comes and goes. Shortly after his revelation (which we learn through another’s voice) that he is “nothing,” his voice disappears for the second part of the book, returning in the third with more confidence and anger. However, when considering the title of the book, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, the reader faces the suggestion that it is the philosophers who won after all. That they have put these sources together and manipulated them to speak. That Octavian continues to be observed as a specimen.

Cultural Authenticity: Anderson’s Author’s Note at the end of the book explains some of the sources and events on which is novel is based, his decisions about grammar and word-use, and offers an excerpt from one of his primary sources.

Audience: I would recommend this book for older teens and up. Anderson’s marketing of the book to both teenagers and adults makes sense based on the age of the protagonist and his coming-of-age, as well as the historical and social questions stake.

Personal reaction: It took me about 30-50 pages to really get into this book, which I thought moved a bit slowly at first. From that point on, though (and there are 353 pages), I was hooked. Once I had decided that Anderson wasn’t just including historical details unnecessarily (deism, philosophies, salons…the extension of the French Enlightenment into the colonies in general) but had a point to make (and more importantly that familiarity with those details wasn’t essential to understanding the story), I fell in love with the book. While deconstructing “black” and “white,” Anderson also creates characters who possessed both lovable and detestable traits. Octavian’s mother, Mr. Gitney, Mr. Goring, etc. all have traits that might be considered despicable, and yet there are moments when I admire them as well. These dynamics are humanizing, and bring the story that much closer to home.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Image of book cover for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.

Plot: Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of a Paris train station. His belly is often empty, but his life is full of secrets: his father died in a fire at the museum where he worked, his drunken uncle who took him in is missing, and he winds the station clocks in his uncle’s place. Perhaps his biggest secret is that he is trying to complete his clockmaker father’s last project, fixing an automaton, a mechanical man who can write. When stealing necessary parts gets him into trouble, he loses his father’s notebook of crucial drawings and diagrams to a grumpy old toyseller. Will he ever be able to solve the mystery of the mechanical man, or will he be alone forever?

Setting: 1931; Paris, France.

Point of View: 3rd person limited (to Hugo) until the last chapter when it switches to 1st person in Hugo’s voice. The perspective is also unique because large portions of the story are told through illustrations.

Theme: Orphans, death, mystery, work, imagination, magic, film, drawings, mechanics, 1930s, France

Literary Quality: This book breaks boundaries set by most novels in its alternating storytelling modes of prose and illustrations. Mixing reality with invention, it intertwines some real history of filmmaking and particularly of the filmmaker, Georges Méliès, with a fictional story about young Hugo Cabret, hidden behind his clocks. Beautiful pencil drawings and photographs from old movies create a cinematic effect and add to the enchantment and mystery of the story. Selznick won the Caldecott Medal for this book.

Cultural Authenticity: Selznick includes detailed source notes and clarifies which aspects of the book are fiction and which are historic. His research shines through on the history of filmmaking, automatons, and the Paris train station. He explains that he invented a personality for Georges Méliès to fill in some blanks. His inclusion of stills from several films also adds to the authenticity of the novel.

Audience: I would recommend this book for ages 9 and up, for whom the ages of the characters, the storyline, and the illustrations hold attraction. The story has broad appeal across genders and generations. It is a great group (classroom or library or other book group setting) or individual read.

Personal reaction: I absolutely loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I found it to be wonderfully enchanting, and felt swept away by the story and illustrations into another place and time. The illustrations and photographs complement and support the text, adding a dimension of magic, creativity, and movement to the novel that uniquely captures the story’s essence. The subtle differences between varying depictions of the same scene enabled a sense of motion, which, along with the quietness of the book, was emblematic of an old motion picture. This is a book I recommend every chance I get.