Interview with Alexis Coe, Author of Alice + Freda Forever

I’d like to say that I got to sit down with Alexis in a lovely little diner somewhere, drinking coffee as we chatted about vicarious menstruation and murder, but alas, I only got to email her my bizarre questions, but the answers are fabulous, and I appreciate her being a good sport about my admitted weirdness. Here we go!Alice+FredaForever_9781936976607 Alexis Coe_Alice and Freda Forever_1Julie: One of my favorite details in Alice + Freda Forever was that Sarah Bernhardt was trying to get an opera written about the couple–I think that would have been amazing.  Do you think your book might spawn a movie which will then become a musical which will then become a movie musical? And who would you cast as Alice and Freda? 

Alexis: I like this question so much—you clearly read the endnotes! Fortunately, my literary agent is at William Morris Endeavor in New York, and their LA office is handling the creative rights, so we might just see AFF the movie->musical->movie musical. I’ve only seen one of her movies (“Hanna”), but I can see Saoirse Ronan playing a wild-eyed Alice. I’ve got no idea who would play Freda, but I imagine she’d be very pretty and flirtatious. I’ve been on a serious “Good Wife” kick, so I picture Julianna Margulies as Alice’s mother, Isabella Mitchell.

Julie: I’m now fascinated by vicarious menstruation and erotomania. Are there any other esoteric and/or antiquated diseases that you are particularly interested in?

Alexis: This is going to seem morbid, in addition to writing a book that opens with a gruesome murder, but when I worked at the NYPL I spent way too long perusing a log book about causes of death in the 1820s. That’s where I was first introduced to “bad blood,” which is syphilis, and the many ways people died by horses hooves. They were most often kicked in the face, but children crossing the street were trampled by buggies, too. Memphis had a series of Yellow Fever outbreaks that devastated the city, and there were reports of “black vomit,” which was vomiting old black blood.

Julie: The story of Alice and Freda has been compared to the Parker-Hulme case in New Zealand (upon which Heavenly Creatures was based). What do you make of these comparisons? Are they apt?

Alexis: Although Alice was never tried for murder, I can see how the Mitchell-Ward case reminds some readers of the Parker-Hulme case. In both instances, media coverage was sensational, and same-sex love was linked to insanity. Issues of morality were at the forefront. But from there, I think their stories and lives were quite different.

Julie: As a librarian I love how well-researched your book is, with great citations and list of sources. Once you’ve researched a topic, how do you transition into writing the narrative so its engaging to readers while still adhering to the facts?

Alexis: Thank you! That’s high praise from a librarian. I write a very dry first draft in order to lay a solid foundation. It could probably pass for a graduate thesis, and is by far the most agonizing part. I then rewrite as often as I can. If I take a break to walk my dog, I think about what I’m writing, where I’ve been and where I need to go. I worry. I get upset. I laugh. I get angry. That’s when I know the historical actors have become real people to me, and that shows in the writing. If I’ve got a lot of time, which almost never happens, I’ll try to take a few days away from the project. That’s the ultimate luxury.

Julie: I loved Alice + Freda Forever so much, I’m already curious about what your next book might be. As a farmer’s daughter I’m hoping it might come from one of your Modern Farmer articles. Can you tell us anything about possible future books?

Alexis: You’re so kind! I know what you mean. When I finish articles, I often think, this should be a book! People need to know about this! Alas, saying that and starting the process of researching is quite different. There have been a lot of ideas that I thought about often, bemoaning how little time I had to explore them, and then, when I finally do, they never get past the first day of research. As far as the next book, I’ve been researching an economist who had been blacklisted by McCarthy, but then AFF came out, and it has taken up all my time since October 7th. I’m still the Toast’s history columnist, so you can find me there, and check out my Author Facebook page or twitter for the latest. By the time this goes up, Vice may have posted a personal essay I wrote about AFF.

Thanks, Alexis! When that essay goes live, I will link to it here.

Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis

Publisher’s information:

Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn’t her crime that shocked the nation – it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell planned to pass as a man and marry seventeen-year-old Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden to ever speak again. Desperate and isolated, Alice pilfered her father’s razor, and on a cold winter’s day, she slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat. Now more than 120 years later, their tragic but true story is being told. Alice + Freda Forever, by historian Alexis Coe and with illustrations by Sally Klann, is embellished with letters, maps, historical documents, and more. (Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe / Published by Zest Books and distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / ISBN-13: 978-1-936976-60-7 / $16.99 Hardcover; 224 pages, Ages 16+)

Alice+FredaForever_9781936976607I have to say I love this book. Like many I go through reading phases, including but not limited to: YA Fantasy and Sci-fi, YA Romance, Adult Fantasy and Sci-fi, Comfort Rereads, Biographies, Radiolab-esque nonfiction, and the genre that Alice + Freda Forever falls under, True Crime. One of my favorite true crime stories is that of Juliette Hulme and Pauline Parker, which, while a different story, does contain a couple of similar elements (which is something I asked Alexis about in my interview with her, which you can read here), so when the chance to read Alice + Freda Forever came up, I quickly took it.

In my work as a youth librarian who works closely with educators, I often think about how the books I read could be used by teachers, and I can see a lot of ways that Alice + Freda Forever could be used in high school classrooms and even in college classrooms, in addition to just being a great, high-interest read. Pair it with Orlando and discuss gender identity, or with In Cold Blood to compare and contrast murder narratives. Assign it in a course about civil rights along with reading the works of Ida B. Wells. Include it in a reading list about obscure and outdated diseases. The possibilities are endless and that is, for me, a mark of quality nonfiction.

Although this book is definitely aimed at an older audience, with upper high school at the low end, I am really, really happy to see the copious amount of research that was done, and the list of sources that were referenced. Nonfiction for youth, despite being an in demand property, is, in my opinion, often lacking in references and source material, and the authority of the author is often questionable (have you noticed how many former lawyers write children’s nonfiction these days?). This is not the case with Alexis Coe, I am glad to say.

I also thought the design of this book was beautiful, and spot on for its audience. I can see teens who enjoy graphic memoirs easily embracing this beautifully illustrated title, and reluctant readers being pulled in by the striking red cover.

AliceFreda_parting
Alice and Freda parting.

One final note about this book and its imprint, Pulp. Ever since the term “new adult” appeared on the scene, I’ve scorned it. It seemed silly, redundant, and none of the books bearing that stamp seemed at all fresh or interesting to me. But then Pulp gave me a definition of new adult that I could accept and even support:

At Zest Books, we’ve been publishing nonfiction books for teens and young adults since 2006, but we’re growing up a little bit in 2014: Today we’re proud to announce our launch of Pulp, an imprint for “new adults.” Like our previous Zest titles, the books in the Pulp imprint will include contemporary and narrative nonfiction books, specializing in memoirs, graphic novels, and art and humor books, but for a slightly older audience. [...] We’re looking forward to taking even more risks with these books, especially in terms of how we cover our topics. Many of our Zest authors were coming to us because, as readers, they appreciated our honesty and curiosity, but that sensibility is something that has value for adults as well. In fact, that sensibility is already being reflected at sites like Rookie and The Toast, where some of our current authors now publish. Additionally, the issues that we’re now covering for teens—such as sexuality, health, behavior, and relationships—shift significantly as young adults mature, and the Pulp line allows us to expand both what we can cover and how we can cover it. Some of our Pulp books will have immediate appeal to teens in the same way that our Zest Books titles often sell into the adult market. We embrace that fluidity, while at the same time recognizing a need to let booksellers and librarians know how our respective books are intended. (Emphasis added. Via Zest’s website).

Anyway, this book is a great read and belongs in most public and academic library collections, and could certainly see some applications in upper high school courses. Highly recommended.

Daisy to the Rescue: Book Review

Daisy to the RescueTrue Stories of Daring Dogs, Paramedic Parrots, and Other Animal Heroes

By Jeff Campbell and illustrated by Ramsey Beyer, with a foreword by Dr. Mark Bekoff / Published by Zest Books and distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / ISBN-13: 978-1-936976-62-1 / $17.99 Hardcover, 320 pages, Ages 12+)

Daisy to the rescue

As a single woman with two cats, I’m always interested in a good “animal saves human” story, especially ones involving animals other than dogs. Cats are more known for their propensity to eat your corpse if you die at home alone (although I recently learned that cats will mostly eat only your face, so as a “green burial” strategy, corpse removal via cat is not your best option) so I’m always on the lookout for a cat hero story to make myself feel better about the beasts who occupy my home.

Campbell’s book meets this need of mine and then some. Not only do cats save lives in this book, so do parrots, potbellied pigs, ponies, and kangaroos. I was personally greatly comforted by the tale of Inky, who saved his owner from being crushed by a fallen door. I hope my cats show the same heroic spirit should I ever become trapped under my refrigerator. Not that I think about that. No.Inky Card front

Campbell divides his tales into four parts to cover a variety of animal stories, including my favorite part, Legends and Folktales. This section includes a story of feral girls in India who may or may not have been raised by wolves, and whether or not a priest was trying to spin their story into an elaborate hoax.

The tale that sticks with me most, though, is the story of Kabang, the Filipino street dog. In the Philippines, street dogs (referred to as aspin) are often raised for meat rather than kept as pets, and live short, brutal lives before being slaughtered. Before this could happen to Kabang, however, she saved the lives of two young girls in the family who had been destined to kill her for food.

Kabang jumped at a motorcyle that was bearing down on eleven year old Dina and three year old princess, knocking the bike over in time to save the girls. In the process, Kabang had her lower jaw torn from her face. The family, despite her ugliness, regarded her as a hero, and treasured her as a member of the family for the rest of their lives.

This is being listed as 12+, and I can definitely see it having wide appeal for advanced elementary school readers through high school students. The stories are short and vividly told, and could even be used as read alouds for a class. I also love that the design of the book will appeal to younger readers without being overly childlike—no older kid will be embarrassed to be seen reading this book, yet the beautiful illustrations will still draw in younger readers.

Share with readers who enjoyed Nubs : The True Story Of A Mutt, A Marine & A Miracle, Alex & Me : How A Scientist And A Parrot Discovered A Hidden World Of Animal Intelligence–and Formed A Deep Bond In The Process, fans of Jon Katz’s books, or people who have read the entire James Herriott canon and are hungry for more animal tales.

This post is part of Zest books True Stories blog tour. I have to say that Zest is now one of my favorite publishers, and I am loving the titles that they are putting out. I’ll be writing about another one of their newest titles on Monday!ZestBooksTrueStories2014

See You Later, Alligator

I’ve just started a new “stop the summer slide” session of Beginning Reader Storytime, the first time I’ve presented this program at my new library (it’s still new to me, really, even after almost two years here). For this community, I made this program drop-in, and the ages are entering K to entering 2nd grade in the fall. Here’s the plan for week one ( I am pretty sure that I am going to be able to work in alligators for all five of the sessions I am presenting, so my alligator puppet will be the consistent mascot):

Opening Routine
This is the same routine I use for all storytimes, babies through about second grade.
I’m so glad (I really need to record this)
Say Hello

Storytime Message (the storytime version of a prek class morning message):
June 19th, 2014
Dear Friends,

Today we will read some stories about alligators!
Circle the As in the message.

Book: Hooray for Amanda and her Alligator!
This book is perfect for this age group. It is divided into six and a half short chapters, which is a great stepping stone for the early chapter books many of these kids will be reading soon.

Song: “Alligator Pie”
I use Hugh Hanley’s version of this song, which includes a brief introduction for kids to “get the rhythm”. (an aside: If you don’t already own all of Hugh’s CD and book sets, why not? Do you hate being good at storytime? No? Then order them, please; ideally two sets, one for professional use and one set to circulate.)

Book: I’d Really Like to Eat a Child
(The first review there on goodreads is GOLDEN.) Yes, this book is about a little crocodile* named Achillles  who wants to eat a child. But he doesn’t. But even if he did, most kids aren’t bothered. My group joined in on the “eat a CHILD” part with great enthusiasm.

Song: “Five little monkeys swinging in a tree”
After the previous book, I said I had an animal friend who would like to meet them. They pretty quickly guessed it was an alligator. I told the kids he was hungry, and could they guess what he ate? “Children??” they asked. Oh, no, no, absolutely not–I would never be allowed to bring a child eating alligator to work. This alligator loved to eat MONKEYS. Five was the perfect number.

I used the head only alligator from folkmanis, but I still had all of the monkeys to stay in the alligator’s mouth, and I made plenty of jokes about chewing with your mouth full, etc. COMIC GOLD.

Book: There’s an alligator under my bed
This book is a classic for a reason. The rhythm is perfect and the note that the kid leaves for his dad at the end is a perfect example of emerging writing.

If I had thought of it, I should have had some nonfiction on hand to talk about what alligators REALLY eat, because I am pretty sure it’s not cookies and vegetables (or children or monkeys, for that matter). You live, you learn.

Activity:
A art—younger kids can glue down the letter and add to their picture, older kids can write a story.
Supplies:
Ellison die As
paper
Glue sticks
Markers or crayons
This is a super easy art activity/craft. The kids enjoyed making their As into alligators, people, etc.

While this program is very similar to the original incarnation, I did make adjustments for my new community (drop-in, parent not required), and I think for the future sessions I will tweak it further still, and work on some higher level literacy skills than I did for this first one. Overall I felt good about it, and the kids that attended had a good time and enjoyed the stories, which is really the primary goal.

*Crocodiles, alligators, I know they are different, but…whatever.

 

Programming for Preschoolers: Take a Tip from Preschool Centers

photo from Alternative Heat (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alternative_heat/) via http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
photo from Alternative Heat (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alternative_heat/) via http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

When I was still teaching preschool (oh how I love to talk about when I taught preschool) one of the early literacy tactics we employed was to integrate literature and literacy skills into every center. This meant having books with building themes in the block center, books about nature in the science center, having pads of paper to write shopping lists and recipes down in the dramatic play center, etc and so forth.

Are you familiar with the centers in a preschool classroom? Many youth departments now have set ups similar to a preschool classroom, including block play, dramatic play and puppet stages. If your youth space is lacking distinct areas for different kinds of play, you might want to consider changing things around to allow for these play spaces. If you’re not familiar with preschool classroom centers and how classrooms are arranged, here are a few links:

NAEYC guide to setting up literacy rich classroom centers
Centers in a preschool classroom
Introduction to Preschool Classroom Centers

Now, if you’re stymied for some “beyond story time” programs for three to five year olds, just take those varied centers and start creating programs based on them.

Here are just a few ideas from some of the “centers” you’d find in a preschool classroom.

Discovery, Sensory, and Science

STE(A)M is a buzzword that can potentially get concerned parents into your programs. In certain communities, you need to promote programs as being enriching and academically rigorous to get buy-in from families.

For any science, cooking or making program, try to have the recipes or steps printed–with accompanying picture instructions–to amp the early literacy.

  • Invest in a sensory table, which you can fill with sand, colored rice, moon sand, cotton balls–the possibilities are endless!
  • Have a mixing & “cooking” program where you make  flubber or playdough.
  • Write or draw in shaving cream
  • Play with a light table
  • Mix up bubble solution and make giant bubbles
  • Do a “sink or float” program

Writing Center

Writing is just as important an early literacy skill as letter recognition, phonemic awareness and print awareness. Fine motor skills and being able to hold a writing utensil correctly is an important skill to have for Kindergarten as well.

  • For any program, have kids write their own names on name tags or on a (large) sign-in sheet
  • Practice writing with different media, including  crayons, markers, paintbrushes, colored pencils; write on chalkboards, white boards, and tablets, too
  • For a more sensory experience,– in rice, shaving cream, or tracing letters on sandpaper

Dramatic Play

Dramatic play is the perfect opportunity for children to try out different characters, work through difficult emotions in a safe space, and “…it remains an integral part of the developmental learning process by allowing children to develop skills in such areas as abstract thinking, literacy, math, and social studies, in a timely, natural manner.” (x)

Further, the ability to retell a story verbally or using props is a CCSS benchmark from Kindergarten up. Helping kids retell stories and get a handle on narrative structure–beginning, middle, end, etc–makes for a perfect preschool program.

  • An easy “unprogram” would be to gather toys, puppets, props and costumes for 5-6 well known fairy tales. Station them in your programming room or even all around your Youth Space. Have staff available to read the stories if kids aren’t familiar, then encourage the kids to use the props to retell the story, even changing it if they like.
  • Another unprogram would be to create a dramatic play center if you don’t have one. Create a house, grocery store, post office, shopping mall, farm, or restaurant, and stock it with books about those places. Have lots of paper and writing tools available to create shopping lists, menus, take orders, or whatever else the kids want to create.

Building/Block Center

Fine and gross motor skills are developed in the block center, depending on whether you use large wooden or cardboard blocks or smaller duplo sets. Seeding this program with related picture books, both fiction and non-fiction (Iggy Peck, Architect, any and all construction books, Lego guides), will give kids ideas without being prescriptive. Include toys and props with your block program, and kids will also engage in dramatic play.

These are just some suggestions, and often play centers and areas will intersect. For example, dramatic play will often happen in the block area, and building will often happen during dramatic play. It’s easy to work math into dramatic play (How many bears are there? How long do you think it would take to climb a beanstalk to the sky?) and work writing in science (write a question you want to answer, or draw something you’re observing). Retelling stories overlaps literacy activities with dramatic play. By using centers as a starting point for programs beyond storytime, it allows you to have one main focus, to which you can add and tweak as suits your mood and your audience.

Also, nothing precludes you from adding elements of different centers into your story time if you want. Instead of a craft at the end of story time, why not give the kids costumes and props and a chance to act out the stories you just shared? Or do a science experiment? The possibilities are endless and there’s no one way to do it.

egotism vs self worth

In January 2013 I wrote a post that touched a raw, exposed nerve for many in the library world. One year later, I’m still amazed at the outpouring of reactions to that piece, and the variety of reactions it provoked. I’m also very proud of some of the projects that it inspired, including the very valuable and very amazing Storytime Underground.

In addition to inspiring big and awesome things, I’m pleased that my post articulated for a lot of librarians a feeling that they had been wrestling with for a long time, but could never quite express–a feeling that librarians who work with children and teens aren’t respected, aren’t taken seriously, and aren’t valued. And in the year after writing that post, I realized I wasn’t really talking about ego, I was talking about self-worth.

Many of us struggle with self-worth and self-esteem on a regularly basis, both personally and professionally, constantly feeling that we are falling short. I know I do. I feel guilty about something pretty much every minute of every day–about an email I didn’t answer quickly enough, or how I don’t visit my family enough, or what junk I ate for lunch because I am incapable of packing one, and on and on. When I fall into these spirals of shame and self-blame and awfulness, sometimes the only thing that can snap me out them is a thank you note from a grateful teacher, or a compliment from a coworker about a recent success. Because sometimes no matter how intrinsically and self-motivated I am, or how much I believe deep in my heart that my work is valuable and I am good at it, sometimes you just stop believing that until someone else recognizes it and reminds you of it.

The youth librarianship community has really stepped up in this area (or maybe I’ve just become more mindful of noticing it). Not a day goes by that I don’t see compliments flying on twitter, conversations full of idea sharing, heart felt “thank yous” and pats on the back. And I see more of us reaching out into different areas of the profession, staking a claim in the worlds of tech, letting it be known that we have expertise that is worth listening to.

To that end, let’s keep it going– let’s dig deeper and reach higher. Make sure to take advantage of any local and national awards, and take the opportunity to speak out about your favorite librarian. Even if they don’t win, you can certainly share with him or her what was said–and just the process of nominating someone, thinking deeply and thoughtfully about their contributions to the field, will be a benefit to both you and them.

Beyond Movers and Shakers and I Love My Librarian, I assume most state library associations have awards for librarians, so take a look and see who you can recognize. I know that my state’s awards for librarians are often lacking for nominations, so if you’re in Illinois, I plead with you to submit one. YALSA has an award for excellence in Teen Librarianship, as well as awards recognizing excellent programming. ALSC has the ALSC Distinguished Service Award, but perhaps another award or two could be implemented– youth librarianship is vast.

Are there any opportunities to recognize our fellow librarians that I have missed, especially those that are youth and teen centric? Let me know.

And thank you, dear reader, for being a friend. Next time I see you in person, the cheesecake is on me.

1985-GOLDEN-GIRLS-006

George Carlin, MLIS

Within the context of ALA policy and the professional practices of librarianship, critical examination of beliefs and viewpoints does not, by itself, constitute hostile conduct or harassment.  Similarly, use of sexual imagery or language in the context of a professional discussion might not constitute hostile conduct or harassment.

http://alamw14.ala.org/statement-of-appropriate-conduct

When Carlin rattled off the seven words you can’t say on television, they gained the musicality of a poem, an incantation that summoned to mind whatever images you wanted those words to stand for. Because that’s all words are–they are symbols for larger, messier thoughts that are imperfectly expressed. Carlin knew this, and pointedly commented on how some “dirty” words were situational. Ass, for instance, was okay when it brought to mind a donkey; but it was decidedly not okay when it brought to mind someone’s posterior. Bitch was fine for dog breeders, but not for a man referring to his cruel girlfriend. Carlin, with the ribald glee of a manic linguist, tore apart these words and put them back together like a master sculptor.

Note that when he performed this piece (and he performed pieces; Carlin was know for the careful writing, rewriting, and honing of his work), he was not directing these words at anyone in particular. He was not demeaning a gay man by calling him a cocksucker. He was not attempting to intimidate an outspoken woman by calling her a cunt. He was exploring the power and impact of these words in a raunchy yet cerebral exercise that poked fun at how much power we give to these sounds that inherently have no power of their own. The only power words have over us are the power we give to them, power that is given by the intent behind them and the way we say them.

It is precisely that distinction that means that Intellectual Freedom lovers everywhere have nothing to fear from the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences. Because it is not meant to curtail lively, intense, thoughtful intellectual discourse. It is not meant for the George Carlins, Richard Pryors, and Margaret Chos of conference presenting. It is meant for furtive come-ons and anger filled insults that are designed to demean, intimidate, and take down other people. It is meant for the person who scrawls cocksucker on the picture of a homosexual keynote speaker. It is meant for the disgruntled male who calls a colleague a ball busting bitch after she adroitly points out errors in his proposed idea. It is meant for all the people who use words as weapons, which is often a prelude to physical violence as well.

Further, you need to consider that if you’re going to listen to a speaker, especially a keynote speaker, you should have some idea about their style and approach. I’m happily looking forward to David Sedaris at PLA this year, and being familiar with his work I fully expect some profanity and tales of disturbingly hilarious subject matter. For people who aren’t into that, you have the choice of not going. Most street harassers don’t afford people that sort of courtesy. “Pardon me, ma’am, but I’d like to subject you to a tirade about how much I enjoy your tits in that blouse and what I would like to do to them. All right?” Having your choice taken away is another important factor when it comes to deciding if something is frowned upon, whether it’s part of a statement of conduct or not.

So for anyone who is planning on saying “fuck ebook borrowing restrictions!” in their next conference presentation, keep that f-bomb in there. Even if someone does complain, the statement is not meant for you. Fuck in this instance is an intensifier, a rallying cry, a sharp blast designed to grab attention and incite action.

But I and many others are damn comforted that if someone tells me to shut the fuck up because they don’t like what I have to say, I have that statement as a starting point to push back and find some recourse.

And just for fun, here’s a video I found of Louis CK honoring George Carlin at the NYPL.

Baby, do you understand me now
Sometimes I feel a little mad
But don’t you know that no one alive
Can always be an angel
When things go wrong I seem to be bad
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

-The Animals, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

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