One of the bright spots in January 2017 has been launching the Quartz Creek Ranch series that I co-authored with Kiersi Burkhart. We are so proud of these books for 9-12 year olds. Each one is full of a diverse cast of characters, taking on real issues in heartfelt ways. The ensemble nature of the books makes them a ton of fun both to read and to write, and of course, horses make everything better!
Our Oregon launch party at Roundabout Books was a great success. We told horse jokes, played pin the stirrup on the pony, challenged our knowledge with horse trivia, and ate cupcakes. It was super! Thanks to Arwen, Lily, and Beryl for being amazing party planners and to Cassie for hosting our fun event!
Here are some highlights:
And of course, you can order books any time! Click here for buy links!
I remember with great clarity the moment when I really “got” evolution. Before that I could have given you a vague explanation for evolution, but that was book learning. The moment I’m talking about was a revelation, an awakening, an eye-opening realization: THIS IS HOW THE WORLD WORKS! Suddenly I grasped that given a few fundamental principles, the inevitable conclusion was that the diversity of life on this planet is explained by descent with modification. It was a fireworks moment.
I’ve just had another one, and this time I have the Cheeto President to thank for it.
I believed/assumed that our democratic system of government was unassailable. Some people chose to get involved and run for office or work for campaigns, while others, like me, voted and donated money. Sometimes my candidates won. Sometimes they lost. Sometimes I liked policy changes. Sometimes I didn’t. Ho-hum. Politics as usual.
What I did not know until now is that democracy, even one as lauded as ours, is constantly in flux. It must constantly be defended lest it fall away from the delicate balance of powers that defines it. Like a house by the sea, we must reinforce the foundation and re-shingle the roof. Voting is no longer enough. Speaking out and insisting that each branch of government does its job without overreaching its bounds is an absolute necessity.
The democratic experiment that is America is on the knife-edge of an autocracy. Without us, the people, raising our voices and our fists, it will crumble. We must write a new narrative.
And you know what? I am made for that. I am Jew. I know history. That means I recognize the beginnings of fascism. It also means that means I know how to wrestle with the story we are telling ourselves. I know that we must constantly re-interpret and re-vision the story that we are living. I am a writer. I am made for telling the story that I want to fight into existence.
Download and read the INDIVISIBLE GUIDE. Find a local activist group. Make your voice heard.
The poet, David Whyte wrote: Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us.
I am paying attention—
To the singularly self-absorbed, little man who has revealed the bigoted underbelly of this country.
To the acts of hate and intolerance that have galvanized so many.
To the 64.6 million people, the majority, who voted for the progressive agenda of Hillary Clinton.
To the 3.8 million people sharing their stories in Pantsuit Nation.
To each of you who has written about transcending the hurdles of your past, about finding your voice, about standing up for yourself, about standing up for others, about building your true family, and about living an authentic life.
I am paying attention—
On one side, I see a thin-skinned man surrounded by hoodlums and supported by a mere 31.2% of registered voters, who willfully abandoned both critical-thinking and compassion.
On the other, I see survivors. I have read your stories. I have heard your voices. I know your strength. You are survivors of abuse, assault, and oppression, of illness, loss, and trauma. You have endured a thousand other indignities large and small, and still you shine.
You are light and fire and strength.
I am paying attention, and I am grateful. More than that, I am hopeful. I know that might be hard to believe, but it’s true. Dick and Jeanne Roy of the Northwest Earth Institute define hope this way: Hope is our highest vision of the possible.
YOU are my highest vision of the possible—an unstoppable, rising tide of humans united to take care of each other and the planet.
As for tantrum-throwing toddler man and his cronies who are determined to take it all for themselves, they have already lost. They don’t know it yet, and you might not be quite ready to believe me, but that’s okay.
The momentum in this country is toward a browner, queerer, greener, gentler, smarter future. We, the survivors, the highest vision of the possible, are using the power of the stories we share to take control of the narrative. We are the future.
Fourteen years ago I was on a canoe trip in the Canadian backcountry with my grandmother, my parents, my husband, and our infant son.
*Note: This is not as weird as it seems. My grandmother was Ontario’s first licensed female canoe guide. My father practically grew up in a canoe, and so did I. All of us trekking out into the wilderness is just what we do.
We’d set up camp and pitched a tarp when a huge storm rolled in. I put our son in his bright yellow rain suit onesie (yes, they make these), and the rest of us pulled on our rain gear. As the storm intensified, we gathered under the tarp. The campsite began to flood and we huddled together with my son in the middle of our circle. Rain sluiced down our backs and puddled around the high patch of ground we were gathered upon.
My grandmother joked about us being like a herd of musk ox, who gather their young into the middle of the herd for protection, and indeed we were just like musk ox weathering a storm or the threat of predators.
This is us now. In the storm. The biggest, worst storm I have seen in my years on this planet. I won’t lie—I’m scared. I have never felt this vulnerable or this disappointed in humanity. My belief that most people are fundamentally good is shaken, deeply. But I keep thinking about that storm and about my herd.
Moving forward, we must be musk ox—big, powerful, badass, and working in unison. We must gather together with the most vulnerable in the center. Our future is the young people of today—the queer kids, the Jewish kids, the kids of color, the kids new to this country, the girls who don’t want to be groped, the boys who want to be kind. We have to keep them safe and also teach them how to deal with this kind of fundamental threat to our humanity.
So shake the snow off your shoulders, people, and circle up.
Hold onto your hats, cowgirls and cowboys! The exciting story of saddle bronc rider, George Fletcher, is out today! I am so happy to introduce OREGON READS ALOUD, a beautiful anthology of 25 stories by Oregon authors and illustrated by Oregon artists. I love this book and I love SMART: Start Making a Reader Today and I love horses and I love George Fletcher! It’s a win all the way around. Grab a copy and snuggle up on the couch with your favorite little person for OREGON READS ALOUD!
The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur concluded at sunset yesterday. It’s the most serious, the most intense, and the most challenging of the Jewish holidays. The services are long and the liturgy is one that is often hard to fit inside the norms of modernity. We are asked to meditate on the possibility of death, on sin, and on all the ways we have failed to live up to our ideals.
Like I said, a tough holiday.
This year during the Kol Nidre service two lines stood out to me. No, more than that, they grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me hard.
When the wrongs and injustices of others wound us, may our hearts not despair of human good. May no trial, however severe, embitter our souls and destroy our trust.
Let us not despair of human good.
Of human good.
As I thought about these lines, I noticed my son, sitting close and wearing his late grandfather’s tallit (a prayer shawl). Now my father-in-law was an opinionated, curmudgeonly pain-in-the-ass. (I’m sure I won’t get any disagreements from those who knew him!) I am pretty sure he didn’t share my views on plenty of social issues. But I am also sure of this–he was a good man. Not a perfect man. Certainly not a champion of social justice. But a good man to his friends and family. A man who would go down fighting for those close to him.
I’m also pretty sure he would have been a Trump supporter.
I can tell you’re starting to protest. Wait a second, Amber. If he was a Trump supporter, how can you say he was a good man. Bear with me here.
My father-in-law was a defender of many American values–country, military, family, community–what he lacked was not a good heart but a widened circle of empathy. Let me explain. Each of us has our own specific set of circumstances. It’s easy to empathize with those exactly like us, same religion, same upbringing, same gender, same sexuality, redheads, whatever. Most of us expand the boundaries to include others, more like us than not, but still different. How many of us can claim a truly encompassing embrace that takes in even those we can barely comprehend? Not many, I expect.
Last night I read this article, which looks like a silly clickbait piece (you should read it), but is saying something very important about why people have flocked to Trump. It dissects the urban/rural divide in a way that opened my eyes to the perspective of people very different from me. Here I sit, a member of what the article calls the liberal elite. How easy for me to judge. For me to call them racists because they are not heeding the clarion call of Black Lives Matter (which is really, really important in this widening circle of national empathy) is in itself a failure of empathy.
For us to put this country back together after this election cycle (When the wrongs and injustices of others wound us…), we must continue the fight for social justice and we must also widen the circle of empathy to disenfranchised white people living in struggling communities outside of the urban/liberal bubble.
But I digress into political solutions…
This year on Yom Kippur, I meditated on empathy. My mission as a writer, a parent, and a human being to expand the circle of empathy, wider and wider at every turning. And this is why I am proud every time I see my son in my father-in-law’s tallit.
For a while I was just burned out. Writing four books in less than eighteen months will do that to a writer. But now it’s been almost three months since I turned in the last project. I’ve been on two canoe trips and spent lots of time in my happy place. I’ve rehabbed my knee and gone back to doing aerial silks. I’ve been trail running with the dog. And I’ve been trying to map out my next project.
It’s not working. The words aren’t cooperating.
Quite a few years back, when my daughter was little, she came home from an obviously awesome lesson about story structure declaring, “I hate stories that don’t have trouble!” It’s Writer 101 material, of course. Good narratives need conflict—they start conflicted and get worse and then even worse. Trouble is key.
And trouble is also my stumbling block. I am so very weary of conflict. My social media universe is nothing but trouble. My morning OPB shows. The newspaper. Every conversation. Everywhere I turn. Trouble. Sometimes it seems like the world is going down in flames. Or maybe just American democracy and civility and the safety of children and respect for other members of humanity.
As I scribble ideas in my journal, I can think of lots of snippets and images — a fish floating through a girl’s room, Miyazaki-style; a road made of solar panels; a boy farming carbon in some future world; a cross-country romp. Yet when I try to shape them into a narrative, I run into the trouble problem.
I want male characters who ask for consent and diverse characters who are not oppressed and female characters who aren’t demeaned. I don’t want them to have to fight for their lives or save the world or make heart-rending choices or defy authority. I don’t want to write villains or a world in ruins or a broken family or abuse. I just want everyone to be calm and happy and swaying in place with their hands entwined.
I am overwhelmed with heartache and trouble. The words aren’t cooperating. Everyday I try to acknowledge the suffering, to speak against it, and to amplify the voices that the world needs to hear, and then I try to turn away from horror and circle back toward a place where I can create. I try to return to joy.
But it’s not working. That’s the truth—at least it’s my truth right now. The words are not cooperating.
Before reading it, I would have looked askance at any dog that resembled a pit bull. After reading, I have a completely different perspective. I learned so much from this book, including the basic impossibility of looking at a mixed-breed dog and making solid inferences about its breed stock, the breed-specific laws that hurt primarily poor people and people of color, and the massive myth-making around these dogs.
As I read, I was struck by how the historical and social narrative that Dickey details mirrors similar false narratives like the demonization of Hillary Clinton and the refusal to analyze these narratives with actual data and statistics.
The story of the pit bull is inextricably tied to the story of race in America and thus it is an important social justice story as well. In fact as Dickey concludes: “What pit bulls have taught us is that justice for animals cannot happen at the expense of social justice for humans. The divide between the two that has existed for almost two centuries needs to be bridged. If we fail to do that, the cycle is destined to repeat itself with another type of dog and another group of people.”
As a side note, this book came onto my radar screen because the author was targeted with death threats and hate mail upon its publication. She required security at her book events. Who were these people? They were anti-pit bull activists NOT the so-called “thugs” who own pit bulls. After reading Dickey’s book, it is hard not to see racism at the core of the hatred leveled at these dogs.
I haven’t been blogging much lately because of the double whammy of deadlines and burnout, but I did a recent interview with Ruth Tenzer Feldman, the author of an amazing trio of books that link near past and ancient past Jewish history through time travel and feminism. You definitely want to read Blue Thread, The 9th Day, and the forthcoming Seven Stitches! Anyway, here’s the interview we did (which originally appeared here). It was lots of fun! Thanks, Ruth!
So, Amber, with all you’ve done, what has brought you to writing?
I am pretty sure that Mo Willams based one of the characters in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog on me:
I write because I am curious about so many things. I want to know about Ama divers and Antarctica and the history of women explorers and Nordic biathlon and dog genetics and how toilets are made. I love documentaries and memoirs because they plumb people’s obsessions. The writing life gives me an excellent excuse to learn and experience all the things I’m interested in.
I write for teens because I like them better than adults (present company excepted). Young adults are on the cusp of the world. So many possibilities are on the horizon. It’s an exciting time in life when you get to figure out what you stand for and carve your own path. The problem with many adults (again present company excepted) is that they get entrenched in ways of thinking and being and living. I love the brilliant energy young adults bring to the world.
Do you have a favorite piece of your writing?
If so, what is it and why? There is a scene in The Way Back from Broken (the beginning of chapter 33) that is really important to me. It began as a picture book manuscript in the very early days of my writing adventure. I took it to a manuscript critique at a writing conference. The literary agent who read it told me (to my face) that the world doesn’t need another ugly duckling story and that I wasn’t a very good writer anyway and that it would be best if I quit immediately.
I probably wasn’t a very good writer back then but I ached to write about how we can live with our own brokenness. It was a story that I needed to tell whether the world needed it or not. And that’s the thing about writing… it is an audacious act that proclaims: My story matters. I matter. My voice will not be silenced.
Every time I read that section of the book, I want to simultaneously offer a rude hand gesture to that agent and a fist bump to my own pugnacious self.
If you could change one aspect of the publishing business, what would it be and why?
So many things… First… Oh, wait… What did you say? I only get to change one thing? Well… shoot (actually I’m saying a bad word here)… Here’s the deal: Writing a book is hard. Selling books is even harder.
Thousands and thousands of books are published each year. Some are amazing. Some are boring. Some are downright terrible. Helping your book—your blood, sweat, and tears on the page—swim to the surface and into the hands of the right reader often feels like an impossible task. I wish that it were easier to sell books. I wish less of the publicity work fell on my shoulders. I wish that good books always sold well and that writers could create without the looming threat of unpaid bills.
Word-of-mouth (direct or via reviews on Facebook, Amazon and Goodreads) is still the primary driver of book sales. If you know and love a writer, the most helpful thing you can do is share your appreciation for their work with your friends and family. Plus, it’s cool to talk about books with interesting people. Books are awesome!