Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards -- A Review

Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown FloodMy friend Mitty – AKA Elizabeth Varadan of The Fourth Wish blog – wrote a review for the Sacramento Book Review of Three Rivers Rising: a Novel of the Johnstown Flood by Jame Richards. First, I must admit I have a kind of voyeuristic fascination with disasters. Secondly, I love historical fiction. Thirdly, if Mitty says a book is “compelling” and “lyrical,” I’m going to have to read it, even if it is a novel in verse, which I find a little off-putting. (It has something to do with my insecurity about poetry. See my last post.) I picked up a copy and am so glad I did.

This story has it all – forbidden romance, heroes who risk their own lives to save many others, a boorish upper class who build their private playground with no regard for others, and a natural disaster of Biblical proportions. Richards weaves the stories of three different women whose lives ultimately intersect at the most horrific and remarkable of times.

Celestia Whitcomb spends summers with her family at Lake Conemaugh, a man-made lake created by an earthen dam above a valley of working-class villages and the town of Johnstown. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club had been built by wealthy men on the shores of “their lake” as a summer get-away for them and their families. It is there she meets and falls in love with Peter, a worker at the club and a resident of Johnstown, a town in the valley below the dam. Of course, such a romance is forbidden, and they are forced apart. Celestia is sent to Europe, but they secretly stay in touch and hope to be reunited one day. When she returns to Lake Conemaugh, she finds Peter has left the club. She defies her father and goes to Johnstown to be with Peter.

Also below the dam lives Maura, a young mother of four, married to the love of her life, Joseph, a conductor on the train that runs through the valley. Her life is filled with the never-ending chores of raising a family on the little they have, while she waits for her Joseph to return to her each night.

Kate lost her fiancé in a drowning accident. She had to leave her home because she could not bear to be there any more without her love. She went to nursing school and is on her way to her first job when the train brings her through the valley just as disaster strikes.

Rain had fallen for days and the dam weakened. No one really believes the dam will not hold, but suddenly it is gone. All three women are in the valley below at that moment. All have survival as their goal – for themselves, their loved-ones, and those around them.

The story of the Jonestown flood is a huge one, but Richards tells it extremely well, building great characters and making us care about them, all in under 30,000 words – spare, elegant verse that draws readers in and holds onto them through this sad, sweet story of love, strength, and survival. I recommend it. It’s a young adult book, but I believe adults will love it as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another Writer's Contest and a Winning Week for Me!

Another quick blog today with news that may be important to you as a writer, followed by news about me as a writer, followed by blogging awards I'm handing out.

First, there is another contest for writers that I think is a wonderful opportunity. I’ve read it’s harder to land an agent than a publisher. Frankly, I'm not sure I believe that, but I do know landing an agent is very hard work. There is a contest going on right now that should be of interest to anyone writing for young people. Check it out at: It looks pretty interesting!

Now news from another contest, one that ended last month. The Foster City Writer’s Contest had a children’s division this year. Perhaps they do every year, but this year is the first time I’ve taken a good look at the contest and the first year I’ve entered. My children’s short story, Helen’s Home Run, won first place! Woo-Hoo! There is a nice money prize and it will look good on my bio.

I also was awarded two blog awards by my friend, critique partner, and fellow blogger Elizabeth Varadan. ( She blessed me with the Sisterhood Award and the Versatile Blogger Award! I am so honored. As with other blogging awards, these are to be passed along to other bloggers.

I shall award the Sisterhood Award to my friend Michelle Fayard, a former critique partner who (sad for us) moved away. You can find her blog at She is the one who passed on the information about the agent contest. Good luck to both of us, Michelle! I also want to award it to Barbara Krasner, a friend and collegue who encourages and helps me at every step. More about her and her blog in the next section. She is a double award winner today. She is also a teacher and will be teaching a Highlight's Founders Workshop on writing Jewish-themed children's books. Check it out.

The Versatile Blogger award not only should be passed along, but requires I tell seven things about me you might not know. Hmmmm. When I received a Stylish Blogger award a while back, I had to do the same, so let’s see if I can come up with seven new things.

1. This week, was a good week for me as a writer. Besides finding out I’d won the Foster City Writer’s Contest, I received my first publishing contracts – for two poems I sold to High Five magazine, sister publication of Highlights. I’m very excited.
2. My grandson Gehrig is a future baseball superstar and has been playing some amazing ball lately. He may be only nine, but I’m telling you, someday you’ll be reading about him.
3.      My granddaughter Gracie is going to be a famous writer someday. She is only five and is already writing books! Must be something in the water around here.
4.      I have enough “Seasons” poems to submit a collection to publishers. I am polishing them madly and my goal is to submit before summer.  
5.      I had a writing teacher in college tell me to never write poetry again. I guess I just don’t listen well. You did notice I sold two poems, right?
6.      I am an active member of three critique groups. It’s a miracle I get any of my own work done.
7.      I couldn’t possibly do any writing without my critique groups. They give me so much help and encouragement.

I’d like to award the Versatile Blogger award to (drum roll, please):

Barbara Krasner -- -- everything you might need to know about writing for children with a Jewish theme.

Elizabeth Varadan -- -- a treasure trove of wonderful writing.

Maggie Hollinbeck -- -- yes, she’s my daughter, but she may well be the real writer in the family. She blogs every day and I much admire her passion and work.

Morgan Mussell -- -- always interesting, always thought provoking, always edifying and entertaining.

Margaret Duarte -- -- I learn so much from Margaret about blogging and writing.

The Speculative Salon -- -- a group of six writers share this blog. It’s always worth a look.

Have a great day. Back to my regularly scheduled (which means no schedule at all) blogging now.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Writer's Contest

Just a quick post to all my writing readers. There is a terrific contest going on right now. If you go to you can get all the details. To celebrate the completion of her final manuscript for Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, the Editor is giving away a FREE Substantive Edit of one fiction manuscript for adults or young readers. Deadline: April 21, 2011. Check it out!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Let's Go to the Movies

If you are one of my writing friends and have not yet discovered The Speculative Salon blog, you might want to take a look. It’s written by six women who all write speculative fiction, and they take turns in the box. The latest post, written by Elizabeth Gibson, examines some films she loved as a child and how they influenced her writing. My friend Morgan Mussell also often blogs about the influence of film on his writing. You might want to check out his blog, The First Gates. Anyway, it seemed an interesting exercise to me, so, with a tip of the hat to Elizabeth Gibson, I thought about what films had influenced my writing.

Swiss Family Robinson (Vault Disney Collection)Treasure IslandAs many of you know, I spent last year working on a historical novel based loosely on my father’s childhood, The Incredible Journey of Freddy J. It is, I hope and believe, a great adventure story. (It is also my hope and belief that one of these days soon a publisher will realize it should be published!) I certainly was a big fan of adventure films all my life. When thinking about Elizabeth Gibson’s post, the first film that came to mind was Treasure Island, the 1950 version with Robert Newton as Long John Silver. Disney did a surprisingly good job with Robert Louis Stevenson’s marvelous book. The resourceful Jim Hawkins is one of the great young heroes of book and film. The Swiss Family Robinson was another great favorite, the 1960 version with John Mills and Dorothy Maguire, heading perhaps the most inventive and ingenious family in all of filmdom. After seeing that film, I was pretty sure if I could find the right man in my life, I could raise a family in a fantastic tree house. (See how I was thinking, even then? LOL.) My writing certainly has been influenced by these and other sweeping adventures filled with resourceful people.

Calamity JaneSeven Brides for Seven BrothersBeyond adventure films, the next group of films that came to mind were the great musicals of the mid-century that were imbued with adventure and, often, romance – The Wizard of Oz, Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Calamity Jane. I could go on and on. I saw them at the theatres, bought the albums, and tried to replicate them in our living room, sometimes battling a sister for the starring role and best songs. When I look at Freddy J., I see the influence of these films as well. Music becomes a motif: fuel that keeps Freddy going and reminds him of home.The resourcefulness of those characters also shaped Freddy's character.

I could easily write one of my epic posts examining movies that have informed my writing, but I think for once, I’ll keep it short and simple. What movies have influenced you in what you do or even in how you live your life?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ray Bradbury Sure Got it Right

I’ve been doing some substitute teaching the last couple of weeks at a continuation high school (a last chance school for those who don’t find success at the regular high school). I like subbing. It keeps me around teenagers, keeps me in touch with their interests, their language, their problems – all things helpful in my writing for young people. I work at three different schools – the regular high school, a charter school covering 6th through 12th grades, and the continuation high school. Each is a different experience and wonderful in its own way. I had a couple of real surprises while there last week, and not in a good way. Oh, I don’t mean behavior problems. There are always a few of those, but the kids for the most part are nice and very respectful. The principal is one of the best I’ve run across through the years and he runs a very tight ship.

The first surprise came from a very sweet senior girl. She seemed to work hard and behaved well. She asked if she could go to the restroom, and I told her to sign out and take the restroom pass – standard operating procedure at the school. I was busy with some paperwork, so when she asked me what time it was, I just pointed at the clock. She stood there for a few long moments, then said, “I don’t know what that is.”

“What what is?” I asked, baffled.

She pointed to the clock. “The time. I don’t know how to tell time that way.” She smiled sweetly.

She had never learned how to read a clock. Nice girl, seemed bright, used the language well, but at about eighteen years of age, she couldn’t read a clock! I thought a lot about it after the incident and have come to the conclusion that she never needed to learn to read a clock. We live in a digital world. Most clocks display the time digitally. When kids want to know the time, they take out their cell phones and check the digital display. Clocks in cars, outside of banks, on the stove, etc., etc. are digital. Why learn something one doesn’t need? And yet, I do think kids should learn to read a clock. I can't imagine clocks will completely disappear.

The other surprise was a young lady who came into the math class in which I was subbing. I had the workbooks laid out and told her she could get hers. She told me she wouldn’t be working in the workbook – all her work was done. She had completed everything in the book.

“I have a 4.0 GPA. I do all my work,” she said proudly.

“You can do work from another class then." 

“I’ve got all my work done in all my classes. That’s why I have a 4.0.”

“That’s great!” It was nice to hear that kind of pride from a student at a continuation school. “I’ll bet you’ve got a book to read then.”

“Oh, no. I don’t read. Reading is boring and it gives me a headache. I hate reading.”

Other students came pouring in, and I couldn’t carry the conversation further, but I spent quite a bit of time pondering it. There have always been kids who don’t like to read; that hasn’t changed. But students with a 4.0 GPA? That has changed. So I have to ask, how can a student reach the level of learning it takes to truly earn a perfect grade without having some love of reading or at least an appreciation of what reading gives? I hope I run into that young lady again this week so I can continue the conversation. I’d like to try to suggest some things that might change her thinking on reading. Maybe no one has ever spent the time to talk to her about what she has read, help her find her way through great literature, and teach her to divine her own maps through her reading.

But on a larger scale, I wonder if kids need reading these days. Just as the girl who can’t read a clock, maybe kids don’t believe they need to read in today’s world. I know the art of writing is rapidly falling by the wayside, and I blame it largely on email and texting. u no wat I meen? y lern wat u don need? (Sorry about that punctuation. I couldn’t help myself.)

Whenever I talk to young people, I ask what they’re studying in English class. Can’t help it. I have to know. So often the answer is something like, “We’re watching The Lord of the Rings.” “Oh,” say I, “so you’re reading Tolkein.” “Who’s Tolkein?” comes the response.

I know a lot of great English teachers who make sure their students read good literature, but time in the classroom is being shortened every year and more and more demands are being put on the teachers – time for test preparation, time for testing, time for parent conferences (or should I say confrontations?), time for tutoring, etc., etc. Some don’t fight the good fight so much. It’s just easier to show the movie or read an excerpt and talk about the story instead of reading it carefully, perhaps aloud, and discussing it, peeling away the layers, and taking the time to consider the power of words on a page.

Fahrenheit 451Every chance I had when I was teaching, I would insert Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 into my curriculum. I told my students I thought it was the most important book of the twentieth century. We read much of it aloud in class and talked of what Bradbury was trying to warn us. Some of the kids really got it. They are the ones, I like to think, who carry books with them and carve out a little time each day to let great authors help them explore the far reaches of their minds, help them find texture in their lives, and enrich their existence. They are the ones who will read to their babies every day of their lives until they, too, become readers and lovers of books. 

Readers may be an endangered species. The world is becoming a place where young people don’t NEED to learn to read. I don't mean learning to read words; I mean learning to really read books. We must do what we can to make sure young people need and value reading. We have to continue to share great books, share the love of reading, and continue to write good books that engage children and young people in ways that will help them become readers. Ray Bradbury got it right. His great book is frighteningly close to coming to pass. If you haven’t read it lately, you might want to revisit it. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and give yourself the time to read this fine book and the leisure to think about it, then act on what you learn. Bradbury would want you to.