Books I Recommend: There, There by Tommy Orange

The Women’s Health Building in the Mission District, San Francisco. There, There tells the story of urban Native Americans across the bay in Oakland.

My dad likes to tell a story about the Thanksgiving prayer I said when I was four. Somebody must’ve told me the history of the first Thanksgiving: how the Wampanoag Natives taught the Pilgrims to hunt, fish and farm in their new land which kept them alive over the winter and led to the harvest feast we call Thanksgiving. Flash forward 300 years to the 1960’s. My family is living in Asheville, North Carolina, and my grandparents and cousins have joined us in our new house. Somebody asked me – or maybe I insisted – to lead the table in prayer. I kept it short, bowed my head and said, “Thank you, God, for the Indians.”

To this day, my dad repeats that story whenever he introduces me to someone new. I always thought he was saying something about the child I was or the adult I became. Then, recently, my parents and I were talking about the causes we most champion. “Native Americans,” Dad said, right away. “Wow, why?” I asked. “Because of you,” he said, “What you said when you were little.” I was surprised, but gratified – though I suspect his Quaker mother taught him to respect people long before I was around.

With that conversation in mind, I picked up Tommy Orange’s There, There. Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes of Okahoma. His book is about a wide cast of urban Native Americans who are interwoven in ways they don’t know yet, and are all headed to the same powwow.

The book’s prologue recounts the history of Native American genocide and displacement with such dramatic irony that the real accounts sound absurd – until you realize they are true and caused immeasurable suffering. This sets up the back-drop for his impoverished characters who show up, one by one, each in the middle of his or her own dilemma. The multiple ways the characters are related becomes so clear that you either dread their meeting, or wish for it, and that pushes the story forward to its inevitable end. My heart broke for two sisters whose alcoholic mother drags them to the Native occupation of Alcatraz Island where conditions become less and less ideal. Among the portrayals of individuals trying to make a life in urban Oakland, there were also beloved grandmothers and aunts bringing up children with little support, trying to impart the traditional ways to young adults caught between cultures where they feel they don’t belong. 

This was the third book by a Native writer I’ve read so far this year, after Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, and poet Layli Long Soldier’s award-winning Whereas. All three books gave me a new perspective on the lives, hopes and dreams of their Native American authors. I read a lot of #ownvoices books for children and teens, but am catching up on those by adult authors. For a list of other books written by Native American authors, click here. I encourage you to read one before Thanksgiving. It might change the way you understand the old story, as it did for me.


Why Is Oregon So SMART?

Why is Oregon so SMART? Because Oregon wants to help every child in the state become a reader.

Which is why today I signed up as a volunteer reader.

SMART – Start Making a Reader Today – matches volunteers with young school children whose teachers recommend them for an extra hour of reading a week. Volunteer readers commit to working at school with a student for the whole school year, either reading a book together, or listening while the child sounds out letters and words.  

We’re all voracious readers in our house.

Here’s a cause I wholeheartedly support. I read to my children every single day – not because I wanted them to hurry up and read to themselves but because I understood how literacy would benefit them.

For example, stories provide rich material to help children develop their inner and outer life.

A story can be a window into an experience they don’t already know, like sailing the sea or going up in a rocket or standing up to a bully. Sometimes, a story is a mirror that reflects the child’s own life, like visiting grandma or growing a garden or being a good friend or having two dads. 

A few of the picture books and middle grade readers we brought when we moved.

My own children benefitted from both kinds of stories and more. We read stories that made them laugh, fired up their imaginations, and soothed them before bed. They heard poetry and history and myths and folktales. Through the hundreds of books and stories we read, they absorbed a rich vocabulary of words, some of which we did not necessarily use at home – specific words about sciencey things I didn’t know, or silly, made-up words like vermicious knids and oompa-loompa. They also heard stories in French, the second language in our home. Each child had favorite books that tied them to tales from their Papa’s country.

As I said, I wasn’t in a hurry for my children to read for themselves, but I understood that reading to them early on would prepare them to learn. Research on literacy shows that children who are prepared to read have more self-confidence, do better in school, take more advanced courses, graduate high school, and go to college. Literacy contributes to their emotional well-being, and their eventual economic prosperity. 

The SMART program aims to improve reading outcomes in Oregon by increasing the chances for all children to become literate. Now that’s a cause I can get behind.

On Writing, Oregon

Building a Writing Community: Fairy Godmothers, Lifelines and Schmoozing

Children’s book writers listen to one another’s work at an SCBWI Critique Cafe in Napa. (2014)

I read two picture books every night for years. Eventually, my daughters began reading to themselves, but I missed the magical world of their children’s books. I’d gone to journalism school and figured, hey, I can write a kid’s book, no problem.  It turned out writing novels is a practiced art.

My first effort was a chapter book about a narwhal and a unicorn. I trucked off to share it with a writers’ group that met at the local library. I brought some pages, read them aloud, and listened while they discussed my fledgling efforts. It wasn’t easy to stay quiet which was the rule. When the first critiquer stated how much she loathed talking animals, I wanted to leap to the defense of my characters. Yet, if I had done that, I would have missed the entire point of the meeting: listen to feedback and improve the story, so even the snarkiest critic finds merit in it.

Sherry and Hillary (pictured) ventured up to Willamette Valley to winetaste and write (2019)

The writers’ group whittled down to four steady members – Leslie, Hillary, Sherry and I. We met monthly for the next 14 years, sometimes around my creaky dining room table, or in Leslie’s cozy living room, or in Hillary’s home office. Every July, we trekked to Sherry’s for a homemade meal and one of her signature desserts. 

We settled into the “sandwich method” of critiquing. The critiquer says what she likes about the story or chapter, then defines problems with voice, character, plot, setting, etc., and, finally, finishes on a positive note. 

Leslie and I at the SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles ( 2014)

Over time, we become familiar with one another’s strengths and difficulties, commiserated over rejections, and celebrated every gain. My critique group  transformed a very solitary vocation into a shared journey. They are the fairy godmothers who help me turn a pumpkin of a story into a chariot every time, as I hope I do for them. Even after I moved, we continue to sprinkle fairy dust on each other’s work though semi-magical Facetime. 

Another writer I met along the way became a daily lifeline. In 2015, I met Debbie through the SCBWI Nevada Mentor Program (more on SCBWI in a sec). A bestselling author picked both our manuscripts and helped us revise them over six months. A couple coincidences become obvious right away. We lived 3000 miles from each other, in each other’s home states and close to each other’s hometowns. With the clock ticking, we emailed each other five days a week about our revision progress.  It was like riding in a bike race as a team and tossing the water bottle back and forth. Last fall, we spent a few days together on the East Coast. What a pleasure it was to pull out our laptops in a coffee shop in person and read each other’s work. Four years later, we still check with each other several times a week. 

Debbie and I dashed to New York City for writing inspiration. Here on the High Line.(2018)

I met all the writers above – and many more – through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). SCBWI is a professional organization for writers and artists who create stories for children and youth. This largely volunteer-run nonprofit hosts conferences and workshops across the U.S. (including my new home state of Oregon) and in over 20 other countries. In 2015, I started the Napa County arm of SCBWI’s San Francisco North and East Bay Region, and ran it for the first four years. Now I’m happy to grow my writing community in Oregon, and schmooze with local writers here.

These are just a few ways to find support as a writer – critique group, productivity partner, professional associations. What supports your writing life?  (Other than coffee.) 


The Work of Writing: BIC, or Getting to Your Desk

My current writing space is the desk I was given as as a child.
My Napa space looked into the branches of a fig tree.

In Napa, we built a 5 x 11 studio for me out of a garden shed attached to the garage. Though tiny, the door closed and the window faced the spreading branches of a fig tree. The leaves unfurled day by day, sometimes outpacing the progress of my own work.

For the last few years, that project was a 90,000-word young adult novel that I was rewriting with a mentor, the wonderful Veronica Rossi. When the process stalled, I questioned myself, literally, like in this journal note:

November 10, 2015

Wow, really hard to focus. Nothing’s in the way except my own lazy a$$ self. 

Me: Hey, lazy a$$ self. What’s the problem?

LAS: Momentum. Dragging our feet.

ME: Why? 

LAS: Afraid of failure. 

Me: Oh. That. 

LAS: Also fear of success. How it changes things. 

Me:  Let’s just be in the process and not think about outcome. The fun is in the process, and the flow. I’m going to do my best, one step at a time. If I get ahead of myself, it’s stultifying. Just get BIC.

LAS [melting like Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz]: AAAaaaaaa….

If you’re a writer, you know that “BIC” – getting “butt-in-chair” – is one of the hardest parts of the process. If you approach it in fear, like my imagined self above, you may wake up out of a fog and finding yourself doing dishes instead. Or picking the brown leaves off the strawberry plants. In winter. Several months from any actual fruit appearing. Or endlessly scrolling through Instagram. If you’re ambivalent about writing, your mind is going to march you in the opposite direction of your desk.

One thing that helps is following an established routine.

I often start at the same time every day. When I worked fulltime, my alarm clock went off at 5 am. I made tea, ignored my cat and dog’s excitement about getting fed, walked past the dirty dishes, and went straight to the studio. 

After that, I take steps to get inspired. For a couple of years, before I wrote anything, I’d read one page a day from a book that inspired me. One year I read one passage a day from The Bhagavad Gita, in a tiny version with illustrations from ancient paintings. Another year, I pulled a card a day from Affirmators!, wacky affirmation cards that don’t take themselves too seriously. My favorite year, though, I read a page a day from 365 Days of Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Each page’s quotation sparked hope and something to think about. Like this one: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”(Milton Berle). Or this one: “What you do every day matters more than what you do every once in a while.” (Unknown).

Lastly, I open a digital notebook devoted to my work-in-progress. I read where I was yesterday and type in what I intend to accomplish today. When I need to noodle out overarching things – like character motivation or the ten things my YA character likes about so-and-so – then I write it all out. It’s like clearing a cluttered shelf in my head. Then I’m ready to pick up where I left off. My digital journal also contains separate tabs for plot points, character sketches, setting descriptions, drafts for query letters, and pitches. 

The last and most supportive part of my regular practice is writing partners. But these fairy godmothers deserve a post of their own. More on that next week.


A New Start: A Writer Finds a Home

We started out in this cute AirBnB a few blocks from downtown McMinnville, OR

Eleven months ago, I left Napa Valley and the friends I’d made in 20 years of living there, and I moved to Oregon. At the time, I could count the number of Oregonians I knew on one hand, and that included their children. It was the big adventure. My three daughters were more or less launched, and now there were only two of us at home, me and my French husband who I’ll call P.  P. wanted to pursue a new adventure in vines and wines. And me? I would be Jenny 2.0, an updated version of myself as a writer.

I vowed to Paterson-ize my journey. In the movie Paterson, a gentle bus driver writes thoughtful poems about life as he drives his route in Paterson, NJ. He navigates the streets, mentally rewriting lines in his head. While he turns the oversized steering wheel, he muses about space, time and love. He manages to be present to everything that happens to him, no matter how odd, and, in turn, those things become the stuff of his poems. 

Before moving, I had lived mostly in Connecticut and California, two places far apart geographically and culturally. My parents and sibs dispersed to the wests – the Midwest, the Southwest, the Far West. France was the only constant. P.’s family still lives in the wide river valley where he was born. 

Photo by Philippe Pessereau

Oregon reminded us both of home – the big, puffy clouds that sail overhead in the summer, vineyards climbing the hills, and the profusion of spring flowers. The smell of blackberry bushes warming in the sun was familiar. The sharp peak of Mount Hood in the distance was not. I learned to pick out a decent pinot noir. Break up clay to make a garden. Listen for the sump pump under the house after a day of rain. Little by little, my life was becoming Oregon-ized. Instead of me writing poems about Oregon, Oregon was writing me a poem every day and inviting me to live it. 

I look forward to sharing my musings about writing, children’s books, the Northwest, France and beyond. But, wait, I forgot to introduce myself! My name is Jenny Cox Pessereau and this is where I live now.