Telling stories

When I worked at the Roanoke Times, I covered a few KKK marches in Radford and in Blacksburg, both Virginia college towns.

The hardest part, for me, was watching small kids marching alongside their parents. I remember, especially, a young girl with dark, brown hair and braids. She looked like I looked when I was 9. She was marching with her mother, who dressed in white but did not wear a mask.

The photographers at the paper weren’t able to find pictures of the pair, when I asked them, years later, to check their archives. (No photos ran after the event, per newspaper policy at the time; there was a small turnout on the KKK side and little conflict had erupted.) The picture has beenĀ  in my mind ever since, though. The girl’s shirt was pink. She wore jeans. I couldn’t read her face. Her mother’s face was contorted because she was yelling, like the men carrying torches last week at the University of Virginia. But I’ll bet when she smiled, she looked completely different, like someone I would have talked to at Kroger.

I’ve wondered for years what happened to that girl and her mom. In my brain, I make up an ending: The girl went off to summer camp or maybe a school field trip, and had to share a room with a girl of another faith or race. They liked each other at once and became friends — best friends. In summer, they caught fireflies in mason jars and then let them go. In the winter, they went sledding behind the elementary school, sharing a sled, and falling off when they went over a ramp they’d built from packed snow. At first, Emmy (that’s what I’m calling the girl) hadn’t been allowed to have her new friend over to spend the night. She didn’t understand why. For her, whiteness was just about the snow. But when she was in middle school, her mom finally gave in. In high school, Emmy joined the debate team. She was good at it. So good, she won the regional tournament in Bluefield. So good, she somehow convinced her mother that they had been wrong to shout the things they had once shouted in the streets. They had been wrong about the things they whispered, too. Racism was wrong. That’s what Emmy started whispering. And then she got louder. She went to college and then law school and then started working for a civil rights organization. Her mom volunteers there sometimes, on weekends.

Because I don’t know what happened, I can make up my ending. But I can’t believe it. Though I’ve read news stories about real life changes, I know my story is a fantasy.

Speak up, people have said all week, after white nationalists and neo-Nazis invaded Charlottesville. Speak out.

I’ve tried, but I haven’t known what to say. That I’m heartbroken? Nauseous? Scared? That this isn’t what our country stands for? That we won’t let the racists win?

None of that seems to help. None of that seems enough.

I write a poem and scratch out the second line. Then I scratch out the whole damn thing. I do not have answers. I do not even have the poetry that comes from searching for one.

The writer in me is tempted to make up a new ending for every person who carried a torch last weekend in Charlottesville. But I know that I can’t just write a decent ending. I have to work for one. And we’re not even at that part of the story yet, are we? After all of these years, we are still at the beginning. And we have to work for that, too.

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It’s been a while since I posted, so I thought I’d take a moment and pound out a few August updates:

THIS IS JUST A TEST, my middle grade novel with Wendy Shang, is now out in the world. We had a great launch in June at One More Page Books. (Order through them if you’d like a copy signed by both of us. They’re located halfway between us!) One of the best things about the evening, besides seeing so many friends in one place, was getting to meet Chris Danger, the cover artist, who’d recently moved to our area. Here’s a photo of the three of us together:



In other book news:

-Wendy and I will be speaking at the National Book Festival at the Library of Congress over Labor Day weekend. We’re spending the next few days working on our talk, and figuring out who we want to go hear ourselves.

– Wendy and I will also be on a panel together at the VAASL (Virginia Association of School Librarians) conference in October. The panel is moderated by Meg Medina, and features Virginia author Lamar Giles and Tennessee author Ruta Septys. We love all three of these authors and we’re excited to spend the morning with them.

-When we were at Swanson Middle School in June, they interviewed us about the Swanson Writers Project, a school-wide effort to link authors with students. Here’s a link to a video about the program, which is the closest we’ve come to the Today show thus far:

-Wendy and I are going to be on a panel with some fabulous friends at East City Book Shop in D.C. on Sept. 9 at 3 p.m. More details when we have them. (I know which friends Cecelia was asking; I just don’t know who is confirmed.)

-I’m going to be moderating a panel at One More Page on Sept. 23 at 3 p.m. featuring Tracey Baptiste, Caroline Carlson, Jessica Lawson and Tara Dairman.

For some reason, summer hasn’t felt like summer so hoping to fill the rest of this month with putt putt, lemonade, and homemade ice pops. Hoping you’ll do the same.

And this isn’t book-related, but don’t forget about the eclipse on August 21st!









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3…2…1… Launch and Giveaway

this is just a test coverTHIS IS JUST A TEST, written by yours truly and Wendy Wan-Long Shang, goes out into the world on June 27. We’re celebrating with a launch party at One More Page Books, and by hosting a little giveaway.

How to enter: The book is set during the 1980s, when the two of us grew up, so we thought we’d show you our best 80s selves (below) and ask to see yours. Just tweet us a photo of your best 80s self and use the hashtag #TIJAT. Tag @wendyshang when you do. For Facebook folks, look for Wendy’s post about the contest (or mine) and put a photo of your 80s self in the comments. If you weren’t around in the 80s, dress up your current self in your best 80s garb and send it along! We’re enclosing photos of us below (Madelyn, trying to be Molly Ringwald, Wendy, all prepped out and sporting a forensics trophy.)

That’s it! We’ll draw a name from the people who enter and that person will win our prize pack of a copy of the book, one of Madelyn’s lucky charms (of a cassette tape), and, Holy Shoulder Pads! A book of paper dolls called Great Fashion Designs of the Eighties.

madhat wendy80







Visit Scholastic to learn more about the book or check out this review in School Library Journal.





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Book Launch!

Wendy Shang and I will be holding our book launch for THIS IS JUST A TEST on Tuesday, June 27, at One More Page in Arlington. The event starts at 6:30. We’ll have cake, perhaps some trivia, and we’ll read to you and answer questions. We hope you’ll come see us.

More details:

In other news: We got a lovely write-up in today’s Christian Science Monitor.

Here are links to some of our other reviews:

School Library Journal


Publisher’s Weekly



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Rolling Thunder by Kate Messner

If the windows are open on the last weekend in May, we wake to the sound of motorcycles. My husband makes coffee. The kids grab granola bars. And we all head over to the bridge overlooking I-66. Everyone from the neighborhood is there or on the way. Little kids are lifted high to peep through the fence. There’s often a flag hanging above them, but many neighbors bring their own. Below us, the motorcycles honk and wave. We wave back. It is like this on the other bridges in Arlington, too. No matter our jobs or our politics, everyone is side by side cheering for the veterans and the other riders who honor them as a part of Rolling Thunder.

51JR25ssiLL.SX316It never occurred to me that Rolling Thunder would make a perfect picture book. Fortunately, it occurred to Kate Messner, whose new book by the same name chronicles the ride of a little boy and his grandfather. Beautifully illustrated by Greg Ruth, the story follows a grandfather on his motorcycle and a little boy on a train. They meet up at their camp site where the boy falls asleep to whispered memories and wakes early to ride in his grandfather’s side car.

The story is told in rhyme. My favorite lines are these, when they stop at the Vietnam Memorial:

Leave a single flower. Kneel.

Names in charcoal. Cry. And Heal.

The theme throughout is one of remembering, something Rolling Thunder reminds us to do, even as swimming pools open their gates and we hear ads for Memorial Day sales on linens and bath towels.

Kate Messner was visiting D.C. with her family one Memorial Day many years ago when she saw Rolling Thunder for the first time.

“I’d made the trip to do research at the Smithsonian for one of my mysteries, and we decided to make a family weekend of it,” she recalled. “We didn’t know about Rolling Thunder before we saw (and heard!) the demonstration thundering down the street as we walked toward the monuments. Someone filled us in, and then we just stood on the curb, watching and waving and saying thank you until the last motorcycle passed by. My kids were little then, and I remember my husband lifting my daughter up so she could high five one of the riders. It’s a moment that stayed with me, and several years later, I had the idea for how to tell the story in a picture book.”

Did she always know the book would be in rhyme? “This was one of those stories that took a long time germinating,” Kate said. “After feeling the rumble of all those motorcycles in my chest and seeing the veterans honoring their fallen friends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, I knew I wanted to write about that some day, but I didn’t know how at the time. I scribbled the idea in my writer’s notebook, and it was years later, in my tiny hotel room at the Kindling Words retreat in Vermont, that I decided it was time to try writing it in the voice of a boy going to the Rolling Thunder demonstration with his grandfather. I’d never planned to write this as a rhyming picture book (or to write any writing picture book, in fact) but the first thing that came out when I started typing was ‘Rolling Thunder, freedom ride. This year, I’m at Grandpa’s side.’ And so there it was.”

And here it is. The book was released April 25 by Scholastic. The illustrations by Ruth have a misty, nostalgic feel, befitting a book about remembering. Kate said she’d used few illustration notes when she submitted the manuscript. “I left most of the imagining to Greg, though as always with a book like this, there were little details that we talked about later, like making sure the POW-MIA flag was represented along with the American flag.”

The book is dedicated to veterans, including Kate’s father, who served in the Navy during the Korean War. “Remembrance is important to him, so I knew he’d love this book,” she said.

Ruth’s dedication is also to veterans — “and to the people who hold them in their hearts until they return.”

A donation from the book’s proceeds has been made to Rolling Thunder. For more information about Kate Messner, visit For more on Greg Ruth, visit him at And for more about Rolling Thunder, visit




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