Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Diverse Books for Kids

I am extremely proud of my latest children's book, Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess. I remember reading advice from someone (sorry, I can't remember who) about how to handle criticism as a writer, and the advice was to be confident you'd written the best book you could. That is very good advice. Sure, criticism of Petunia will still hurt, but I feel that it is the best book I could write, and so I am happy about it, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Luckily, the early reviews are good! I've linked to the ones that have come in so far on my release post, and you can also always check the Amazon pagefor more reviews. (Also: the raffle in that release post is still active and is quite lightly subscribed... so enter and you have a high probability of winning. Yes, I'll ship prizes internationally.)

So far, I've written a lot about the theme of the book and how I hope it will encourage people to think twice about stereotyping little girls based on the sole metric of whether or not they like princesses and sparkles.

Today's post is about something different, that I think is perhaps even more important. It is the fact that Penelope, the princess in the story, is not white.

Petunia and Penelope. And a cat.

I am a big fan of the We Need Diverse Books movement, and am thrilled to see us talking about this, and addressing the fact that characters in kids books are overwhelmingly white. Here is a story I've linked to before that I think really illustrates why this matters so much. Kids are great at identifying with a wide range of characters (even ones that aren't human!) but representation still matters, and every kid should get to see him or herself reflected in books.

I think that we need more books by authors of color featuring all sorts of characters and tackling a wide range of themes. I am so glad to see the books that are available get more exposure and readers. I do not in anyway want to elbow in on that.

However, as a white author, I also do not think it is right for me to ignore the issue. When I sent my manuscript for Petunia off to the publisher, I included some illustration notes, and among those were requests for a diverse cast in the book. I think the illustrator did a wonderful job with this, and am thrilled with the outcome.

When I sent my manuscript in, I had no idea if this was a good approach or not- I just knew that it felt like literally the least I could do. I talked about this more (and linked to some good articles) in an old Weekend Reading post. I think that kids should read books that tackle themes of racism and the problematic aspects of our history head on. But I also think they should read books in which the princess is Black, or the superhero is Hispanic, or the "everyday kids" are Asian. I don't feel up to writing the first sort of book (at least not yet) but I want my books to be that second kind of book.

Enough about me. I of course hope you'll buy my book, but I also want to share some books by other authors that we love and that have added diversity to our bookshelves and library selections. Here they are:

When the Shadbush Blooms,by Carla Messinger and Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden. This is a beautiful book about continuity in a Native American community, from the time of "my grandparents' grandparents" to now.

This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration,by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome. Another story of change and continuity, this time tracing all the ways a family has used a piece of rope over the years, from South Carolina to New York City.

The Secret Olivia Told Me,by N. Joy, illustrated by Nancy Devard. This is the story of how once you tell a secret, it quickly becomes not a secret at all.

Paper Horse,by Kim Xiong, translated by Clarissa Yu Shen, illustrated by Lei Xiong. In this story, a little boy is staying with his grandparents, and his parents get stuck in a snow storm and can't get back to him when planned. His grandmother cuts a paper horse for him, and he imagines that it brings him to his parents.

Kitchen God,by Kim Xiong and translated by Clarissa Yu Shen, is a cute little story that introduces the Chinese Kitchen God tradition.

Mama Zooms,by Jane Cowen-Fletcher is about a little kid whose mother uses a wheelchair and "zooms" them around various adventures.

And Tango Makes Three,by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, and illustrated by Henry Cole. The main characters in this book are penguins, but we found it to be a great way to help our kids think about that fact that some families have two daddies or two mommies.

Matariki,by Melanie Drewery and illustrated by Bruce Potter is a good introduction to the Maori New Year celebration. My US readers are unlikely to be able to find it, but I know I have a few readers in NZ, too!

I don't have as many recommendations for chapter books, but we really liked Sugar Plum Ballerinas: Plum Fantastic,by Whoopi Goldberg, and I think Pumpkin has decided she wants to read more in this series.

The We Need Diverse Books campaign also posted a list of recommendations for young kids, which I'll be using to help find more books, and Lee and Low Books is a publisher that focuses on diverse books.

And of course, I welcome your suggestions in the comments. Now, because I believe in author karma, I am going to go write some Amazon reviews for the books in this post!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Its Release Day for Petunia!

I'm excited to announce that you can now buy my latest children's book, Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess from these fine retailers:

You can also ask your favorite bookstore or library to order it. It is available as a hardcover book and as an eBook. 

It is also available as an eBook through the Epic ebook subscription service. In fact, it was released a little early there, and has already picked up over 450 reads, which is pretty cool.

I wrote a little bit about the story and showed some of the illustrations in an earlier post. In brief, it is a story about a little girl who is NOT a princess. She is lonely among all the princesses until she discovers that the new little princess in her neighborhood is not JUST a princess. Here are some early reviews:
I'll add more reviews as they come in.

Here's a bonus sample page:

Thanks to Penelope (far left), Petunia tries out dancing... but she stays NOT a princess
I've promised a couple of people copies of the book in gratitude for beta testing it. I'll send those out as soon as I get the hardcovers. If you aren't one of those people, you can still get a free copy of the book- I'm giving away my last paperback advance review copy in a raffle. 

I'll even sign it if you want!
If you already have a copy of Petunia, you can substitute The Zebra Said Shhh instead.

I'm giving away a couple free ebooks, two t-shirts, and three buttons, too. If you win the ebook and already have Petunia, you can substitute one of my other ebooks instead.

The t-shirts say either "NOT a Princess" or "Not JUST a Princess," and if you are so inclined you can also buy them.

The sample t-shirts I ordered for my kids
My kids both wanted white shirts, but they also come as black shirts with white text. There are ladies, unisex, youth and toddler shirts and infant onesies available. If you win this prize, you can pick the style and size you want. 

The buttons were swag my publisher made to hand out at the American Library Association conference, and were apparently quite popular. 

The publisher sent me five of the buttons left after the conference. My kids have claimed two, and I'm giving away the other three.

You can enter the raffle by:
  • Buying the book
  • Reviewing the book (on a retail site, GoodReads, or your own site)
  • Tweeting about the book
  • Tweeting about how your kids (or you!) are #notaprincess or #notjustaprincess
  • Telling people about the book via any other means (tell a friend! tell a librarian! share on your favorite social media network! hire a skywriter! It's up to you.)

I also added an option to donate to a charity working to alleviate the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, because I've heard that those charities aren't getting the level of donations they need and that breaks my heart.

I'm running the raffle through Rafflecopter again, but if you have any problems with it or just don't want to give Rafflecopter your email address, you can email me directly (wandsci at gmail dot com) and I'll enter you into the raffle. You get two entries for buying a book, writing a review, or donating to charity. You get one entry for the other options, but you can do those once per day. Yes, sharing a link to this page or RTing one of my tweets about the book is a perfectly fine way to enter. But you have to tell me about it, either via the form below or via email.

You have until 12 a.m. on Friday, November 7, to enter.

Here's the raffle:

Good luck!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Weekend Links: The Don't Panic Edition

One of my more stereotypically geeky attributes is that I love Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. I even programmed my very first cell phone (one of those StarTAC flip phones) to say "Don't Panic" on its tiny little screen when I first opened it up.

The "Don't Panic" line, for those who don't know the series, comes from the guide itself, which has the words printed "in large, friendly letters" on its cover.

I put the phrase on my phone because I, like most people, can get myself worked up over things, and it was actually useful to have my phone remind me to calm the eff down.

Which is all to say that I am very sympathetic to the people who are freaking out over Ebola right now, but think it would be better if we all heeded the advice on the cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and calmed down.

I wasn't going to write a post about this, because I am not a virologist or an epidemiologist or really in any way the sort of scientist whose expertise gives her reason to write about this outbreak. But then I came across a post from another scientist who is also not a virologist, epidemiologist, or even, apparently, someone who has bothered to read some basic science about Ebola and apply some common logic to the facts we have. I will not link to that post because it is bad, and full of things that are not true. But it made me want to write this post, just to link to some resources that are more useful, and to say: a scientist speaking outside his or her own realm of expertise is no more believable than anyone else blathering on the internet. That includes me. Check the sources and make sure the information tracks back to someone who is speaking within their realm of expertise.

What little specialized knowledge I have about Ebola comes from having once worked on a biodefense project, back in the early 2000s when those projects were all the rage. I was involved in the database design (since that is my area of expertise), but I also helped explain the biology to a lot of people whose backgrounds were more on the defense part of biodefense. As part of that project, I read a lot of papers about a lot of infectious diseases and for awhile, I was on the mailing list that sent out notices about reportable diseases. I learned a lot about Listeria from those notices, which perhaps made me a little more paranoid than strictly necessary about that particular risk during my pregnancies.

It was a fascinating project for a lot of reasons, but one of the things that stuck with me the most was the glimpse it gave me into the inner workings of government. Every few months or so, we would all fly to DC to have a meeting with the people assigned to this project from all the various governmental agencies- CDC, Homeland Security, the State department, various branches of the military, the Post Office (remember the Anthrax attacks?), and on and on. There was even a guy who we were pretty sure was there representing some part of the intelligence community, although officially he was there in some other capacity. His knowledge and his official capacity were greatly mismatched- i.e., he knew far too much about far too many obscure diseases for the title he supposedly held.

Anyway, at the second or third such meeting, it dawned on me that my entire project was a bit of a cover. Oh, we would turn in a fairly decent work product and perhaps the system we were working to specify would even eventually get built, but the real benefit of the project was that it forced all of the government people from all those different branches to sit in a room and talk to each other. This was good because it made them learn how their counterparts in other branches saw similar issues and gave them an inkling of the different constraints everyone operated under. It was also good because it meant that they developed some personal relationships, which would come in handy if there ever was really a crisis and they needed to get something through a bunch of inter-departmental bureaucracy quickly.

I came away from the project impressed with the intelligence and diligence of the governmental officials I'd met (with one notable exception), and absolutely in awe of the bureaucracy under which they had to try to get things done.

That is a very long preamble to my first link, which is a post from Ezra Klein about why a bureaucrat with a reputation for being good at navigating through inter-departmental morasses is actually a really great pick for an Ebola czar.

Assuming that not much has changed in government since my brief stint interacting with it, I'd guess that we have plenty of really smart people who know what we need to do, and what we want the czar to do is help them get it done. The best response to the Ebola outbreak undoubtedly will require involvement from a wide range of agencies across several departments- not to mention various state and local health departments. I know that a lot of people are upset that the Ebola czar is not someone with a scientific or medical background, but personally, I'm glad Obama seems to have picked someone who knows how to get things done in our bureaucracy.

OK, on to some information about the disease itself.

This article from USA Today provides a good overview of why the people most at risk of getting Ebola are the ones treating late-stage patients.

This also matches what we saw happen in Dallas: no one who was in the apartment with Mr. Duncan between his first and second trips to the ER has gotten sick. None of the doctors who treated Mr. Duncan have so far gotten sick. The people who got sick are the nurses, who were the ones getting exposed to large amounts of infected fluids. Really, if you read no other article I link to here, read the USA Today one above to get an understanding for the difference between a patient in the early days of symptoms and a late stage patient.

If you want to really dig into what we know about how Ebola is transmitted, this post from some Australian virologists is full of information.

One of the egregiously false statements in the post that set off this rant/link list was that people infected with Ebola almost always die. That is just not true. Even in the current outbreak in West Africa, mortality is somewhere between 50 and 70%. That is still a very high percentage, but it is not "almost always." Also, good "supportive care" (e.g., rehydration- Ebola patients lose a lot of fluids) is known to improve survival. One of the challenges in West Africa is the lack of hospital beds and trained personnel to care for patients and provide that supportive care. That is not a problem in developed nations like the US. Here in the US, we have lost one patient, had four recover completely, and have another two who seem to be doing well under treatment (update: there is one more patient being treated at Emory: a WHO doctor flown in from Sierra Leone. I don't know anything about his condition). I came across this Megan McArdle article, which has a quote from Paul Farmer (a well-known and well-respected figure in public health in the developing world) stating that he thinks the mortality rate in a developed country is more likely to be about 10%.  I've also seen estimates of 20% mortality with proper supportive care, but I can't find a link for that right now. Sadly, we don't have any actual data on this because the world has never cared enough about an Ebola outbreak to send sufficient resources to the effected areas to provide good supportive care to all of the people who get sick.

That McArdle article is a bit alarmist about the risk of an Ebola patient using a public bathroom- Emory tested surfaces in the rooms of the Ebola patients it treated and found no contamination. The article describing this testing is quite clinical (but worth a read!) so I'll extract the key phrase:

"Environmental testing in the patient rooms had no detection of viral RNA and included many high touch surfaces such as bed rails and surfaces in the bathroom."

The evidence we have indicates that this virus- like most viruses- does not live long on surfaces. McArdle is a smart journalist with a lot of experience covering health issues. I am disappointed she didn't do better in this regard.

The McArdle article does a good job, however, of explaining why the people in the know are focusing more on West Africa than here. The best way to keep the US safe isn't to issue travel bans- we know that does not really work. It is to help the West African countries contain their outbreaks, which is why the CDC has people deployed there and why we have our armed forces there building treatment centers.

My statement about the weaknesses of the McArdle article leads to my final point in this post: a lot of what you read in the media is unnecessarily alarmist. McArdle's bit about the bathroom is mild compared to the nonsense that has been spewed by Fox and CNN.

In fact, Media Matters found that the more Ebola coverage you watch, the less you know.

The case of "clipboard man" is another example of some people in the media not taking the time to get the facts before they speculate and freak out... and freak a bunch of other people out, too.

In closing, I fully understand why people are a little freaked out about Ebola, but the reality here is a lot less scary than many of the media reports will lead you to believe. I think hospital nurses have every right to be screaming at their management for better gear and training. The rest of us should take the advice of the Hitchhiker's Guide. Don't Panic.

But maybe donate to Doctors without Borders or UNICEF, who are on the ground in West Africa trying to help the people who are really at risk.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Space Between

I expected a lot of things to change when I quit my job. One thing that has happened that I didn't anticipate, though, has been the way in which the entire family seems to have taken a deep breath and stretched into the space my change in work arrangements has created.

Pumpkin comes home from her after school care 30 minutes earlier most days. She is a complete bookworm these days, so she after we walk home, she gets herself a snack and then disappears into her book while I wrap up my work.

Mr. Snarky has started going for a run every weekday morning, except Mondays, when I get up early for a run or other short workout. Monday mornings are the only day of the week I can force myself to get up earlier than I absolutely have to these days.

Petunia is requesting- and getting!- more after dinner games. She is also requesting, but not yet getting, Mommy to pick her up from day care more often. Her day care is close to Mr. Snarky's work, not my home or any other work location I go to right now. She did get one of the periodic "special days" I do with each kid from time to time, though, and we had a blast.

And everyone is just more relaxed in the morning.

This is not a complaint- I don't really begrudge anyone the extra space. I've taken some of the space, too. I go for a run on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, as a mid-afternoon break (this is awesome both for my fitness levels and my ability to think of good and/or creative solutions to problems I'm working on). I can usually stop working early enough on Thursdays that I can go to my favorite spot for a nice long rollerblade while Pumpkin gets her Chinese lesson. I am reading more.

Still, I am keeping an eye on this trend, because it plays into one of my fears about my new, more independent work arrangement. I worry that without the external pressure of a boss and a full time job, it will be too easy to prioritize other things over my work, and this chance I've given myself to try to build something of my own will slip away.

On one hand, part of what I wanted when I quit my job was more freedom to optimize my time use globally, instead of in little local "work" and "home" namespaces.  On the other hand, both those namespaces are notoriously greedy.

I've decided to handle this by just acknowledging my fear, to both myself and Mr. Snarky. The kids are too young to really understand the issue, although I think Pumpkin halfway gets it. At least she can see the benefits of me getting the work stuff sorted out, if only so that she can again have an easy answer when people ask her what her mother does for work.

I'm also using time-tracking to try to keep me honest. I "charge" all of the hours I spend on work and work-related things (including blogging, which I call "work-like," since it has created the platform from which I have been able to launch other things). My goal is to make sure I get in at least 30 solid hours of charged time, which past experience tells me translates to roughly a 35 hour work week. I charge more time sometimes- for instance, in the run up to our vacation, or when I was pushing hard to get Navigating the Path to Industry released. But my past time-tracking experiments tell me that 35 hours per week is peak productivity for me, so that's what aim for.

The other tool I'm starting to use to make sure I don't let "home"  crowd out "work" is Trello. I decided to use Trello to organize my projects, mostly because I wanted to compare it to KanbanFlow and JIRA, both of which I've used and liked. It took me some futzing to figure out how best to use Trello for my current situation, but I eventually settled on a system that includes having a "master" board that I fill up from my various project boards once per month. What I put on the board is what I intend to do that month. It is early days, but this seems to help keep me focused, and to get me past issues I have with asking people for help (for instance). If I put it on my board, I have to do it and I push past my silly hang ups.

The final tool I'm using is a real surprise to me. I decided to write a monthly newsletter that focuses on starting my business. I'm only on my second month, but I'm settling into a format in which each newsletter has three parts: a story about starting/running the business, promos for whatever I've released in the last month, and links to things I've liked (including my favorite Tungsten Hippo recommendation of the month). Due to when I decided to start the newsletter, it comes out on roughly the second Friday of each month. When I sat down to do this month's newsletter, I was annoyed by the fact that I didn't have that much for the promo section. I anticipate that I'll be a bit more focused on getting things done and out there in the world in time for future newsletters- which is a good thing. (If you want to follow along on this part of the experiment, the newsletter is called Founding Chaos, and anyone can subscribe.)

So I think I've got some checks and balances in place to allow me- and everyone else in the family- to relax and enjoy the space I created. And that, frankly, is just awesome.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Happy, Fluffy Things

It has been a dark week on my Twitter feed. Normally, I love Twitter. I have learned so much from following people, and I have found people all over the world I consider friends. I am not ready to step away from it, but I also have to make sure that I limit the bouts of ugliness that I let into my life. It is a hard balance to find, and I haven't even had any of the ugliness directed specifically at me.

Anyway, I'm feeling like I need some happy, fluffy things. Also, I have the antsy feeling I get when I want to create something, and I'm having a hard time quelling it. I went through the little notebook I carry with me and use to jot down ideas, to see if I had any ideas ready to move closer to reality. I didn't really. I did transfer some ideas for kids' books into my digital ideas list, to make sure I don't lose them. While I was in that folder, I added some lines to the story I'm currently working on, but quickly got stuck again, so I went back to looking through my idea book.

I found a page on which I'd written some things Petunia-isms I didn't want to forget. These are definitely happy things. I can't remember if I ever made a blog post from them, and already some are in the past.

She doesn't call my Kindle a candle, anymore, or say "chopstick" when she means "chapstick." (She calls it lipstick now, anyway.)

I haven't asked her recently if she still wants a Yo Gabba Gabba bed when she grows up.

She still calls ketchup "checkup," though.

I also found a note about this song:

It is really good.

I don't have any notes in my book about Pumpkin, but there are a lot of happy things about her, too. She loves to read right now. Her current favorite books are the A to Z Mysteries,by Ron Roy. She's read some of them at least five times by now. I keep having to remind myself not to be frustrated by how slow she is to decide to try new series. She'll get there on her own time.

The title promises fluffy things, not just happy things. The fluffy things are bunnies. I love bunnies, but am sadly allergic to them and cannot have one as a pet. Since I now have a tumblr, I decided to follow some bunny tumblrs, so that I could vicariously enjoy other people's pet bunnies. Also, looking at cute bunnies cleanses some of the ugliness from my brain. If you, too, want to replace ugliness with bunnies, here are some particularly cute ones.
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