All posts by Amber

I Will Wear Orange

When I was a kid I loved everything about going to elk camp—the campfires, the crisp mornings, the star-blanketed night skies. Usually I was the only kid, and my mom was often the only woman along with my father and his friends.

One of my earliest memories is from elk camp. I remember in vivid fragments, a child’s view. On a hill. Yellow aspens, the burn of their leaves, their rustling talk. All of us quiet, watching, waiting, listening, hoping. And then we see her—a cow elk below us and far away. A hushed thrill races through us. The adults raise their rifles. I hold my breath and cover my ears.

One by one the men take aim and shoot and miss. The elk is running now. She’s almost gone. My mother squints through the sight on her rifle. My ears are still covered. She pulls the trigger.

The elk falls silently. Maybe we are all holding our breath.

The men congratulate my mom, rubbing their necks and tucking their chins. And then we hiked down to the still warm animal, I watch my mother field dress it. She’s never done this before. My dad tells her where to place the knife and how to cut. He shows me the heart, the lungs, the liver. I am fascinated. My mother does every single step herself. I’ve never been so proud of anyone. This is my mother. She can do anything. The elk feeds us all winter.

I am no longer a child. We no longer go to elk camp. But that memory of my mother sticks and sparkles. I’m a biologist, maybe because of that still-warm anatomy lesson. I’m a mother, who has lost a child. I’m the mother of two still-living children. We are environmentalists. We are progressives. We are gun owners. My children know how to safely handle and shoot a gun. We own a safe. They do not know the combination.

This Friday, on June 2nd, I will wear orange for National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

I will wear orange because over 20,000 Americans commit suicide with guns every year.

I will wear orange because dozens of American toddlers find guns and kill people with them every year.

I will wear orange because hundreds of thousands of women are threatened, injured and killed by husbands, fathers, boyfriends, and sons with guns.

I will wear orange because I am a grieving mother and I know the pain of the parents whose children have died from gun violence.

I will wear orange because the gun industry puts profits far above people.

I will wear orange because the NRA has blocked the collection of data on gun violence.

I will wear orange because no moral society allows the fear and greed of some to result in the death of so many.

I will wear orange because we expect proficiency and safety from drivers, from food handlers, from the operators of heavy machinery, and from members of the military but not from a person who owns a gun.

I will wear orange because gun homicides in the US are six times higher than in any other Western country.

I will wear orange because honoring the Second Amendment does not mean that you have a right to amass a personal arsenal capable of mass destruction.

I will wear orange because there is a not a single piece of proposed gun safety legislation that would prevent you from taking your daughter to elk camp and teaching her to hunt.

I will wear orange.

Will you?

Book Tour: Southern California Edition

This spring, I have teamed up with the lovely author Elana K. Arnold for a book tour. We’re a great match up because we both have new middle grade novels (A BOY CALLED BAT and the QUARTZ CREEK RANCH series) as well as new young adult novels (WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF and POINTE, CLAW). For each stop on our tour, we are doing both a middle grade event and a YA event. I’ve just returned from the Southern California leg of our tour, and I am bubbly with things to report!

#1

Elana has a bird named Bird, a cat, and two dogs, including this endearing fluffball, who won my heart even though she ate my toothbrush!

#2

The Getty Museum is an architectural marvel perched on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. The paintings inside and the gardens outside were spectacular.

#3

Highland Park has vegan tacos and vegan donuts and men in high-waisted plaid pants. The Pop-Hop is a very cool bookstore, and I got to hang out with Antonio Sacre, one of my favorite writer-storytellers.


#4

Once Upon a Storybook in Tustin has reading nooks, a mouse door, and a wall of fame for authors to sign. I saw lots of my fav books on the shelves including VOLCANO RISING, THE MUSIC OF LIFE, THE SOMEDAY BIRDS, and RAMBLER STEALS HOME.


#5

Gatsby Books in Long Beach has a store cat, a Carrie Fisher super fan, and was hosting a Night Vale event right after Elana and I talked about Feminism and the Female Body. I regret that I did not buy a t-shirt!

#6

Planning an extra play day turned out to be a stroke of brilliance. The beach had whales and dolphins and lots of teeny-tiny bath suit bottoms.

#7

We ate at Snow Monster, and I found my new life motto.

#8

Being with Elana K. Arnold is incredibly inspiring. She’s a brilliant, deep thinker, and her books are some of the best I’ve ever read. We wrote together every day,  talked about our new WIPs, and debriefed this weird business we work in. She fed me donuts and let me hang out with her super cool family. I am grateful to call her my friend.

#9

We are coming for you in the Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle. Click here to go to my events page for details.

When You Don’t Win

(Photo by Laura Stanfill)
At the Oregon Book Award

I have attended the Oregon Book Awards for years. I love being in the Gerding Theater when it’s packed with other people who love stories and who understand what it takes to create a life of words.

I was thrilled when THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN was selected as a finalist for the young adult literature award. And of course, as the awards ceremony approached, I thought about winning. I wanted to stand on the stage and be acknowledged as a valued member of the Oregon writing community. I wanted to get a little more love for a book that hasn’t sold as well as I had hoped. And most of all I wanted to share it with the family and friends that have been in the trenches with me.

When the awards ceremony finally rolled around, I was nervous. I picked my outfit careful. I invited my people, who came in a rowdy, optimistic crowd. I wrote a  speech. My anxiety was subtle but present. I wanted the book to be recognized, and I feared that if it weren’t then I might somehow think less of my own work.

As it turned out, I did not win.

Was I disappointed? Yes. Not a lot, but a little. It never feels good to be passed over. It always hurts a little to have your work judged and found wanting. So yeah, I felt a little bad, and I worried about letting down my family and friends who came to the awards ceremony ready to cheer for me.

But the next day, I visited a class at one of Portland’s alternative high schools. The students had just finished a unit based on THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN. We had a really good conversation about the book. These teens, whose lives are anything but easy, connected to Rakmen and his story. They got what I was trying to do.  And this ultimately is what really matters to me—that a reader who needs a story like this finds it.

I didn’t win, but losing didn’t make me feel any different about my book. I wrote the book I need to write and I put it out into the world. That feels like an accomplishment. So in honor of that, I’m going to share with you the speech I wrote but did not get to give on the stage at the Gerding. I mean every word of it.

I wrote a book about the saddest, hardest thing that ever happened to me—the death of my daughter, Esther Rose. It took 10 years to be ready to write it. It took me another five to actually write it. 

That I’m standing here, that I survived much less that I wrote a book is a testament to those who held space for my grief as well as my writing: my husband, my parents, my other children, my writing group, my closest friends, my agent. Most of them are here tonight.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe it was my moral responsibility to make meaning out of tragedy. THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN contains everything I know about grief and loss and the healing power of wilderness. 

It turned out that the writing of this book was my own way back from broken. And that’s a good thing. I’m proud of the book, but it exists because my daughter died. And the complex, sweet pain of that is staggering. 

Such is the power of story, and I am so grateful to share it with each of you.

Q2: The Brutality of Ballet

As POINTE, CLAW leaps into the world, I thought I might answer some questions posed by readers…

Q2: Is ballet really that competitive?

Yes.

At least at the elite levels it is.

Ballet is very much a metaphor for being female in this society. Little girls take ballet and fall in love with dance and tutus and pink tights and sparkles. As they grow, they are further indoctrinated (yes, I use that word on purpose) into believing that they can become ballerinas. They compete with each other and are brutal on themselves (dieting, purging, starving) all so they can achieve a dream (like being the “perfect” woman).

The dream is actually impossible for all but the smallest fraction of women because of factors completely outside our control: genetics and physiology. As teens, our bodies go wildly out of control (like Dawn’s in POINTE, CLAW) and most of us discover that we will never be “perfect” because that definition is so narrow, but by then, we are so firmly brainwashed that we keep trying to match what we see on stage (or on magazine covers).

As long as women continue to buy into the idea of the “perfect woman,” we will continue to do violence to ourselves and other women. This is POINTE, CLAW.

Q1: On the Meaning of Names

As POINTE, CLAW leaps into the world, I thought I might answer some questions posed by readers…

Q1: What are the significance (if any) of the names in the story, particularly Jessie and Dawn?

This book began with two visceral images.

The first—a dancer taking off her pointe shoes and seeing that they are full of blood. This happened. The dancer was me. The blood was mine. Jessie contains so much of my real life that I gave her a version of my middle name, Jessen.

The second image—a girl disappearing into the forest at at daybreak. The sun rises through mist and birdsong. The end of this book is the beginning of a new day, a new life. Even though she is a carnal and earthy character, Dawn is dawn—full of promise.

POINTE, CLAW – a rallying cry

This week Novel Novice, one of my favorite book blogs, posted a really great review of POINTE, CLAW. It’s the kind of review that makes me blush a little but also fist-pump the air because when a reader really gets what you are trying to do as a writer, it feels like victory!

Here’s the whole thing:

A cutting look at the many ways teen girls’ bodies and lives are viewed as objects, Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser is the rallying cry for young women everywhere to stand up and own their voices, their bodies, and their selves.

Steeped in a subtle, barely-there magic realism, Pointe, Claw is at times surreal, at times jarring, but always poignant and relevant. Keyser has written a bold and unforgiving look at the lives of teen girls today, told through the dual narratives of Jessie and Dawn. Connected by a childhood friendship, their stories are both starkly different and eerily similar.

A book that feels more important now than ever before, Pointe, Claw forces the reader to face the reality of life as a young woman today and consider the unique challenges and expectations they/we face on a regular basis. So regular, in fact, that we often forget to question it. Dawn and Jessie forget to question it.

Until they do question it.

Until they break free and start pushing for something more. Pointe, Claw follows these girls on a journey to self awareness, acceptance, strength, and freedom. We see what can happen through the power of grace and self-ownership. It’s only through letting go that these characters can move forward, and it’s a powerful, startling thing to witness.

With barely-there touches of magic realism and superbly wrought prose, Keyser invokes a powerful and unforgiving set of emotions. Regardless of how you feel after reading this book, it will make you feel. And isn’t that the sign of a truly remarkable book?

Repeating the Ancient Tale

On Saturday, my sweet daughter will be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. She will lead our community in ancient prayers and chant ancient words, and more importantly she will find her own meaning in them.

As Jews, our task is to wrestle with narrative–to preserve history, to reinterpret the past, and to write new stories that will carry us into the future. It’s a tradition that resonates with me as a writer and as a person who has seen again and again the power of stories to change lives.

Also on Saturday, in a beautiful intersection of occurrences, my next novel, POINTE, CLAW, enters the world. Somehow it seems fitting that this book, which wrestles with the challenges girls and women face in our culture, is born alongside my daughter’s passage into adulthood in the Jewish community. It’s a fierce story and she is a fierce girl.

I hope you’ll understand that I’ll be focusing on my daughter this weekend. Book celebrations will follow later in the week. I’ll be posting a series of answers to questions posed by early readers of POINTE, CLAW–some serious, some goofy, some revelatory–also I’ll be sharing a mind-blowing review by a teen reader. Lots of book events to come in Los Angeles area, the Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle. Details here.

To close, I want to leave you with one of my favorite poems. (I honestly don’t know the author. It’s been attributed to multiple people.) I’ve shared it before. These are words I return to again and again. I offer them in love.

We are simply asked
to make gentle our bruised world
to be compassionate of all,
including oneself,
then in the time left over
to repeat the ancient tale
and go the way of God’s foolish ones.

This weekend we repeat the ancient tale and go forth to make gentle this bruised world. Join us.

 

Fierce Girl, Margaret Atwood, and Me

I love Fierce Girl.

As soon as I saw her, hands on hips, and her chin jutting out toward that bull, I loved her. Yes, I know she is white girl and that’s not intersectional enough for me. Yes, I know she was put there by Big Money and that means they have their own corporate interests at the center.

I love her anyway.

And yes, I know she is called Fearless Girl but I am renaming her.  I am never going to tell my daughter that she should fear less. I am going to tell her to be fierce. I am going to tell myself to be fierce.

These days I often feel small and fragile and powerless, almost like a little girl. Who wouldn’t? We are facing a cabal of rich, powerful, racist, sexist white men, who have their fingers in every pot and their hands grasping at every pussy. They plan to make us sick and poor and weak so they can take everything for themselves.

But Fierce Girl puts her hands on her hips. Fierce Girl juts out her chin. Fierce Girl has no more fucks to give.

When I saw this photo of a white guy in a suit pretending to rape Fierce Girl, I went rage-y.  The woman who took the picture nailed it when she wrote: “Douchebags like this are why we need feminism.”

This week I’ve been working on a series of blog posts for the #SJYALit project (Social Justice YA Literature) at Teen Librarian Tool box. In April, authors Elana K. Arnold, Mindy McGinnis, Isabel Quintero, and  I will be featured in a series about feminism.  I’ve been thinking a lot about why and how I wrote POINTE, CLAW, and why I think it is the book I needed to release at exactly this time in history.

Way before I started writing POINTE, CLAW, I was jotting down nuggets that might find their way into its pages. Things like: men staring at young ballet dancers, vaginal plastic surgery, men’s responses to menstruation, girls kissing each other, friendships that turn into more than friendship, removing dry tampons,  men following girls into the lingerie department, the ways that women can help or hurt each other, the ways in which fathers avoid daughters… The douchebag pretend to rape Fierce girl would have gone on my list.

In a recent article about the upsurge in interest in her 1985 book THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Margaret Atwood discusses a question that she is often asked about the book: Is it a “feminist” novel?

Here’s her answer:

If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.” Why interesting and important? Because women are interesting and important in real life. They are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. 

I keep thinking about that first line. Ideological tract. Angels. Victimized to the point of no moral choice. It’s a little weird. Why would I assume that “feminist novel” means any of those things?

Any kind of ideological tract would be a shitty novel from a craft perspective. A novel that presents all women as perfect is, in fact, a reflection of a sexist system that either demonizes women or puts them on a pedestal. A novel with such an oppressive system against women that they can do nothing turns women into mere plot points.

Instead, Atwood goes on to say that novels should present women as human beings. Let that sink in. Sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton saying that women’s rights are human rights. Atwood takes the next step to say that any book which depicts fully-fleshed, complicated, complex female characters with agency could be considered feminist. She goes on to imply (though I wish she had stated it explicitly) that the other necessity of a feminist novel is to explore how these characters push against a system designed for the benefit of men.

I have no doubt that POINTE, CLAW is a feminist novel. The vast majority of the characters, both animal and human, are female. They are mothers and daughters and wives. They are dancers and strippers and home-based business owners and doctors and teachers and students. They are angry and content and complicit and miserable. My goal was to show all the different ways girls and women get boxed in by the expectations of a patriarchal society that has very narrow ideas about what defines a woman.

It’s a rage-y book. It’s a Fierce Girl book. I’d like to take a copy and bludgeon the Douchebag with it. Because I have no more fucks to give.

 

Pony Parties are the Best!

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!

A New World View

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.

Join me.

Download and read the INDIVISIBLE GUIDE. Find a local activist group. Make your voice heard.

We must rise.