“The book is WAY better than the movie!”

How many times have we found ourselves saying this?  Why is it true?  How on Earth could static, black and white, typed text, compare to full animation, HD, 3-D, computer enhanced, live action, flesh and blood CINEMA?  The answer is simple.  Our BRAIN!!

The reason most of us claim to have enjoyed a book version of a tale when compared to the movie counterpart is simply a healthy dose of selfish preference and vivid imagination.  What actress can be more beautiful than your own personal perfect 10?  What evil being can be scarier than the monster that lived in your closet as a kid?  Our imagination can replicate any sound, sight, even touch and smell!  Watch this.

What do chocolate chip cookies smell like right out of the oven?

How in the heck did you just do that!  To accurately be able to recreate the glorious aroma of fresh baked butter, sugar and chocolate, in your brain, just from thinking about it. It’s amazing!  You can close your eyes, and if not for just a moment, see any image you conjure, hear a familiar song playing note for note, feel the fuzzy skin of a peach on your lips just before you take a big juicy bite!  It’s no wonder visual/audio media never had a chance.  The moment they put it on screen, it immediately fails in the one on one match against a well stimulated imagination.

So if we are being honest here, the credit doesn’t go to the King that put together a complex character you both loved and feared with all of your heart, or the McMurtry who described a Texas landscape so beautiful you had to take a deep breath just to soak it all in.  The credit truly goes to none other than…YOU!  Your thousand-synapse-popping-per-second organ floating in your skull gets the Oscar for putting together the virtual reality story of a lifetime, complete with all five senses, starring characters, not actors, all playing…THEMSELVES.  The written word leaves casting, cinematography, set design, sound editing, and special effects, all to our favorite omnipotent movie producer, OURSELVES!

We project our own fears, desires, aspirations, and shortcomings on everyone in our lives, why would we stop when it comes to story interpretation.  We see it the way WE want to see it when we experience a story page by page, and let’s face it, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

So the next time you hear about the latest movie coming out, see if it was a book first, and do yourself a favor.  Pocket the $20 it would’ve cost you to experience the story through someone else’s eyes, hit up your local library, and light up the most powerful tool on the planet.  See if YOUR version suits YOU better than the overpaid storytellers of Hollywood.  I’ll bet you that $20 in your pocket you’ll find yourself quoting the masses, “ No, don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie, but the book was SO much better!”

“I hate reading”

“I hate reading.”

“I am a horrible writer.”

“I haven’t read a book since high school.”

These are all real quotes that I have heard from my class members in medical school. This is a tragedy. Of course success in medical school doesn’t necessarily demand a strong background in creative writing and fiction but I still think this is a shame. We might not ever be able to get everyone to enjoy reading and writing, we might not ever reach 100% literacy for that matter, but if we are still producing smart and ambitious college educated adults with these kinds of biased feelings, we have a long way to go.

Literacy holds the very fabric of an enlightened society together. Without the ability to read, a man is at risk of becoming consumed by bigotry, violence, and gross misunderstanding. According to the CIA’s world fact book, 99% of men and women in the United States are considered literate. Compare this to Afghanistan where 43.1% of men and 12.6% of woman are considered literate. Greenland, Finland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Norway, Andorra, and Georgia all have literacy rates of 100%. To be fair these countries are much smaller and do not suffer from the extreme poverty and income disparities that the U.S. does, but they have attained it, therefore it is possible. This should be what we strive for as a society.

The quotes from my former classmates, “I haven’t read a book since high school”, “I hate reading”, and “I am a horrible writer”, are all biases implanted early in these individual’s education and despite being in higher education for 8 years, they are still running strong. Attitudes are hard things to change. Therefore we need to work towards changing these attitudes early in life. Can any child truly “hate” reading? Fiction is fun. Think Harry Potter. I only know a few bitter 8-year-old cynics who didn’t enjoy that story. Also in the beginning, we are all “horrible” writers. Writing is a skill we gain. If a child isn’t enjoying reading and writing, the approach to his education needs to be changed early before he is stuck in a rut that will last him the rest of his life. Primary education should include creative writing and reading classes where the chains and dogma of stale test-based education are thrown off, letting the kid experiment and create. There are no right or wrong answers in creative writing. Let them fly free for a period of time each day because you can bet that a child who hates reading will grow into an adult who will be at a great disadvantage when they try and teach their own children to read.

We should first aspire for 100% literacy. After that we can strive for 100% literary enjoyment, which will be a much loftier goal. I understand that if you’re reading this you are not the exact audience that needs to be reached, but perhaps you know someone that does.

The Power of Stories to Change Minds

Wild Onion Press took off in 2009 on the mission to change minds one at a time about children (as well as about all creatures great and small) with physical differences.  We aimed to do this through literature, believing that a story is a powerful influence on the emotional lives of readers.   Remember what it was like to fall in love with a book when you were a child?

No matter if we “fell in love” with the main character of Lassie, Jo in Little Women, or today’s Harry in Harry Potter, we transferred that affection and admiration to a real-live person whom we met—or will meet—along the way in our own lives.  That’s the idea behind Wild Onion Press.  Our heroic characters just happen to have a physical difference, yet they drive the story, save the day, are funny, adorable and naughty just like any other child.

The day that Grace McClelland in Indiana sent her picture book manuscript to Wild Onion Press was only a few months after the publishing company opened its doors.  Her surgeon recommended Wild Onion Press to her, and the Fed Ex truck drove up to deliver her “life story,” which she had dictated to her mother when she was five.  By the time Shelley Fraser Mickle, the publisher, turned the last page, she said, “I was not the same person.”  Yes, that’s the ultimate measure of a successful piece of writing:  it invites you into a unique world and leaves you changed.

Grace was born without fingers on her right hand.  Her surgeon made her fingers out of her toes (which by the way, she still likes to polish) but when she was on the preschool playground, a boy said, “You must be stupid because you have stupid little fingers.”  When her mother picked her up, she got in the car and said, “I’ve got to set him straight.”  So before Grace could even write, she dictated in perfect free verse her response to her classmates’ curiosity and reluctance to see her as “one of them.”

Her picture book, THE GIFT OF GRACE, won a Nautilus Award in 2010 as a book that promotes social change.  Now Grace is becoming a national celebrity.  She was recently interviewed on Indiana ABC news, and the tape is going viral, as we say in this information-speedway- world.  What better way to change perceptions of physical differences than in a story through the eyes, ears, words of unique children with extraordinary gifts, such as little Grace?  Stay tuned as in the next few weeks, Wild Onion Press announces the winner of the Grace McClelland Prize for another story that will change the world.  Keep in the loop with Wild Onion Press on Facebook and online.  www.wildonionpress.com

To view the Indiana ABC news video click on this link: http://www.theindychannel.com/video/30515457/index.html

Reading Comprehension

This Christmas season I was reminded of the many meanings of “reading comprehension”.  Probably one of the most troublesome skills that a student faces throughout his career, reading comprehension is the higher order learning checkpoint that every subject includes in assessments.  Sure you can read the directions, but did you understand what they were asking?  You can look at a diagram and tell me it is a triangle, but can you induce the value of the missing angle?  You can read a passage, but did you understand the author’s message?  Was he being sarcastic or serious?  Was he informative or trying to sell you an idea by giving you partial or skewed information?  What reminded me of this cumbersome necessity was putting together Stunt City with my 7-year old nephew. 

I asked him, “Are you good at following directions?”  “Not really,” he replied.  I said, “Well, practice makes perfect.  Let’s give it a shot.”  For the next hour, we bounced back and forth between totally focused, and completely uninterested.  My nephew did well for a 7-year old.  Turns out he is pretty good at following directions, but he does struggle a bit with staying focused on one task at a time.  To his credit, it was Christmas afternoon and he had a remote control helicopter begging for his attention.  But when I did have his attention, I was impressed at his ability to look at the illustrated diagram on both the front of the box and the set of directions, compare them, and then decide if we had made the right move or not.  The funny thing about it was, there were absolutely no words on the instructions.  It was completely done in diagrams and arrows!  Is this still ‘reading comprehension’? 

In a world of icons, it seems that everything from airport kiosks to iphones focuses on pictures for explanation rather than the written word.  Let’s face it, the earliest languages were written in pictograph, and maybe they had a point.  I am not saying that reading is on its way out, but clearly there are times when the brain can work better if it can make a picture of the information.  In the math world many teachers think a student must be able to draw his own diagram.   Yet every set of ‘instructions’ I stumble upon is nearly void of a written word, and riddled with pictures.  Maybe it is a time of change.  Maybe we are ‘dumbing’ down as a society.  Maybe it is time that we changed the definition of ‘reading the instructions’.  Comprehending what one has read can often be aided by supplying a diagram of known information.  Then the pupil can compare what he thinks to be true, to what he sees to be true.  I know that it leveled the playing field between my nephew(no degrees) and myself(3 degrees) in the assembly of Stunt City, as he corrected me three times.  I don’t think you have to stick a book in front of a kid to get them interested in gather information from a piece of paper.  Reinforcing the fact that learning through following a model is a good first step towards getting young ones hooked reading.  It opens their eyes to the fact that years of knowledge have been put down on paper, waiting for discovery.  And even if you have never done something before, it could be possible if you are able to follow someone’s written instructions. Hopefully, they included a diagram or two so you can get the picture.

The Perfect Gift

This is a commentary that aired on Mid-Florida NPR several years ago and has become a favorite of many at this time of year.  It is adapted from Shelley’s essays in her collection THE KIDS ARE GONE; THE DOG IS DEPRESSED AND MOM’S ON THE LOOSE.

Some years ago, I saw a child receive the perfect gift.  I didn’t expect to see it. He didn’t expect to receive it. And it happened in the most unlikely place— on an airplane when I was flying back home to north Florida from a horse show in Oklahoma.  Sitting beside me were eight-year-old boy and his mother.

 Just as we started to come in for a landing, the heavens let loose with one of those gully-whopper thunderstorms:  lightning, rain, thunder—you know the kind—so you start wishing the stewardess would get up and start serving drinks again.  You begin to wonder, too, if your affairs are enough in order to keep all your relatives from squabbling over whatever piddling stuff you leave.

We bounced around for a while like one of those carnival rides that I never have the guts to buy a ticket for.  Then the pilot came on over the microphone and said in his smooth-as-chewing-gum voice that it was just way too rough for him to set us down “here,” so he was going to head on over to Jacksonville and set us down there.

As soon as we flew out of the bad weather and the plane stopped bucking, a low moan of complaint moved throughout the coach section.  Not only did we now face another thirty-minute plane ride, but our relatives or friends who’d come to meet us were now standing down there on the ground being told we were a “no-show.”  The plan was that a bus was being sent to pick us up at the Jacksonville airport and we’d have to ride it all the way back.

The boy sitting beside me was dressed in jeans and boots and a plaid shirt.  He had a cowlick over his forehead like a hand of cards, and his mother was in shorts with a ruffled blouse. They reminded me of people I had grown up with in the cotton belt in Arkansas.  More than likely their lives moved to the rhythm of weather and crops, or maybe night shifts and overtime.  When I asked them who would have been waiting for them, I learned that the boy’s father had driven fifty miles to be at the airport.  Our delay was a real bummer, we agreed.  And the mother was a good bit distressed.  It was then that the most amazing exchange took place.

While the rest of us ducked back into our magazines, or went on with grumbling about our inconvenience, the boy began telling his mother stories.  I don’t know what they were about, or where he got them, but looking at his mother’s face you would have thought he was telling her the most wonderful and hilarious tales she’d ever heard.  She was laughing and watching him as if his every third sentence held the most delicious surprise.  More than once, she reached over and punched him on his arm and cried out, “Stop! Stop!  I can’t take it anymore,” as if she were someone being tickled to death.  The more she teasingly punched him, the more he talked on.

Throughout our whole ride, and even after we were taxiing down the runway into our detoured airport, the boy and his mother continued their interchange.  When I got up to get my bag out of the overhead compartment, I glanced down at them.  They weren’t even aware that I’d been watching them. But the boy’s mother was still listening, and I could see that without a doubt the most wondrous light had been lit in that boy’s face.

I’m pretty sure it’s still there.  In fact, I’m pretty convinced that if anything lasts at all, it is this kind of light that is eternal.

I consider it a privilege to have been there when it was given.

Run Turkey Run

My first book, a harrowing tale of life and death in the animal agriculture business, was published in 1993, and by published I mean laminated by my 2nd grade teacher and made available on my class’s bookshelf. The book, an epic 12 pages long, was called, “Run Turkey Run.” I know what your thinking, just another elementary school knock off of Updike’s classic “Run Rabbit Run”, but I assure you of my artistic integrity. I thought the title was completely unique to me at the time. So “Run Turkey Run” followed the life of a young bird, torn from his family, and desperately trying to find a way not to become a Thanksgiving Day treat. The book was crafted from colored paper and illustrated with crayons. The front and back covers were carefully cut into the shape of a turkey, its fan of tail feathers rising up above the pages while the skinny turkey neck protruded from its side. I personally thought the book was glorious so naturally I set about writing a second one which was released shortly thereafter, the immensely acclaimed (by my mother) “Surfing Snail”. This book explored the attitudes and lifestyles of the southern California snail surfing community. These books were a huge deal to me at the time. I would look at their shiny laminated covers and feel pride in the fact that I had created something with my ideas and my hands alone. These books were all made possible by the Shady Grove Elementary “Publishing Company”. So to the teachers and the school that offered their students a chance to write a book, I extend my thanks.  By giving children the shot at creating something completely unique and all their own, they instilled a confidence in their creative abilities, which should not be overlooked. The whole American ideal is built on the ability to make our dreams a reality, to build that which has not been built, to do the undone, and to think the unthinkable.

Prepare for a sharp left turn as I try to make this idea stretch. The now defunct Soviet Union, that wrecked communist mothership to the east, competed with the United States and gave it a good run for its money. However, in the end the country flopped and I would argue to a certain point that creativity, art, and self-expression were at the roots of American dominance. In the Soviet Union Stalin led a self-imposed brain drain, killing the artists, scientists, and anyone else who had any independent thoughts that they dared express. When people were stripped of their ability to freely create and share their ideas a whole generation of people were deprived of something to be proud of. Engineers, artists, and architects were forced to create bland things, stripped of the pride, energy, and enthusiasm that circulates in people who act freely without the threat of censorship. Man must be able to express himself without remorse, it is a basic human need that has resurfaced again and again throughout our history. To limit self-expression is to suppress the insuppressible. It was no small wonder the drab televisions and airliners created in the USSR were blowing up spontaneously due to their faulty circuitry, victims of the uninspired. Meanwhile, here in America, people kept doing what they wanted to do and success came naturally. As humans each of us wants to do our own thing, each individual searching for a way to be unique among the choppy waves of this sea of humanity. So to tie this all together, when my school let a bunch of second graders pick up crayons and vomit there literary inspiration on to pages and pages of colored paper they were giving us the opportunity to, and I say this with all the seriousness I can muster, be American, a feeling of unabashed creative confidence that rains down from sea to shining sea. From birth to the grave we must feed this very human need for the artistic endeavor, be it cave paintings or towering buildings, and writing is one of the most powerful conduits for us to do so—all it takes is a pen.


I visited a third juvenile detention facility last month, and while the program was similar to my other visits (read from my novel The Brothers Torres, spend an hour or so talking about it and answering questions) this visit was different. After the program, I went back “on unit” with the boys, where I spoke with some of them individually as I signed their books. A few of them took the opportunity to grab a quick nap (on the floor of their cubicle-like cells, of course, so they wouldn’t have to re-make their beds for inspection) and didn’t want to talk to me, but I had the chance to interact with most.

It was an odd sensation, small talk about books and reading and where they were from, what they liked to do. Me always on one side of the yellow line, the boys always on the other side. Each little doorless cubicle had a bed, a shelf, and a desk and chair. It felt somewhat cold, the assembly line aspect of it all. There were about fifty of them, and I knew they had a full day of school ahead of them—because the boys are there for years at a time, the facility has a full staff of teachers—so I was torn between the pressure I sensed to move it along and the desire to have a genuine interaction with each.

Then I came to Curtis. An Anglo kid with a crew cut and a few indecipherable tattoos on his arms, Curtis was ready for me. He was holding the first three books in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. “I read these,” he said. “Have you read them?” I told him that I had, and that I’d loved them. (Both true)

Curtis then talked about other books he’d read, about how much he enjoys to read, about my favorite books and what I think of vampires, and why I haven’t written about vampires. After that, he came to my book, which he said needed a sequel and here’s why.

I’d love to say that for a brief moment I forgot where I was, that it was just a conversation between a reader and an author and that the fact that we were in a detention center didn’t matter at all. The truth is that I was never more aware of being in the detention center that during those few minutes with Curtis. We sometimes think of reading as an escape from the real world, and I couldn’t help imagining Curtis in his cot before lights-out, reading City of Bones and being transported.

I don’t know much about Curtis. I don’t know what he was in for, and I don’t know how long he’d been there or when he was getting out. I know he’s not eighteen yet because he wasn’t allowed to have his picture taken with me. But I know he likes to read, and—at the risk of sounding overly saccharine—that means a lot. I know the statistics on reoffenders aren’t promising, but I’m hopeful that his passion for reading will lead him far from places like the detention center.

I know one other thing about Curtis. He likes to do origami. After I’d met with the rest of the boys on his unit, Curtis called me over again. He showed me three well-worn how-to books on origami and gave me a shiny gold paper cube about the size of a sugar cube. Here, he told me. This is for you.


The Power of Reading

Shelley Mickle is an award-winning novelist. Her first novel was a New York Times Notable Book, her second became a CBS movie, and she has been a commentator for National Public Radio for more than fifteen years. Her humorous essays have been collected under the title, The Kids Are Gone; The Dog Is Depressed & Mom’s on the Loose. All of her essays are based on some true life experience, but names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent, or those who might just get their noses out of joint.

How many of us remember the one who taught us to read? Yes, read: that magic moment when we looked down at a page of letters and realized they could make sense. Whoever gives us reading gives us one of the most powerful forces in the universe. After all, the ability to read can’t be stolen. It can’t be lost. Even when a teenager gets dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend, reading stays steadfast. The one who’s dumped can even write the dumper a mean note, and if, later, either one wants to write a conciliatory letter, then each can read that. Oh yes, without the ability to read, love letters would become extinct; and the world would be a dark place, indeed. All teachers know that there are some 200 words that appear most often in print in anything we might read throughout our lifetimes. And these 200 must be mastered by every child by the end of the second grade when learning to read switches to reading to learn. It was my grandmother who played a big part in giving me that magic moment when I realized that words have voices of their own. Every year when she came for a visit, she’d come trotting in the house calling, “Yahoo!” and sweep me up in a hug to measure me against her waist. Even as a five-year-old, I seemed half her size.

She tinted her permed gray hair pine-needle red, and she fixed it in a style similar to a pot scrubber. She wore chunky black shoes and silky dresses and stockings with garters that she often readjusted just over her knee. I was so taken with the lace-like wrinkles on her face that I often traced them with my finger like the jigsaw lines in a puzzle. To everyone else she was feared, since she was a stickler for manners. But to me, she was like something that had come alive from a storybook. Best of all, she was easy to scare.

Snakes and cats she mentioned in the same breath. So I put my twin cats in the bed with her and watched her come whooping-hollering out, galloping in her nightgown. I tied her up to a kitchen chair pretending to be a cowboy sheriff and she was my outlaw. Whenever she was standing front and center talking to someone, I wiped my nose on the back of her skirt.

Each afternoon, she and I lay on the big bed in my room. With a book propped on her stomach, her voice lapped up and down on a story like the coming and going of an ocean’s tide. I’d study the black squiggles on the white page and wonder: Who decided which word should mean what? Was there an appointed Communications Bureau Chief who said a rope should be a rope and not a tire? Or, a tire a tire and not be known as a chicken? My parents had named me, so was there someone who named all things? Who was in charge of these stories on pages that came to me on my grandmother’s voice?


My grandmother, stumped by my question, aimed for distraction and put her wrinkled finger on an A: “Look here,” she said, then pointed to a B, and soon made the sounds of all the letters down the page while I watched her lips do fascinating gymnastics. When I pinched her lips together, she made sounds like Donald Duck, and soon we were both laughing until the bed shook like our own carnival ride.

Of course, her good humor didn’t last all day. By suppertime, I’d driven her to a state of utter exhaustion, which is when she would give me orders: eat your peas, brush your teeth, feed your awful cats, go to bed. And I had to obey, for I knew that she held an undisputed power over me: she could read, and I couldn’t.

Every morning at the breakfast table when my family read the daily newspaper, I asked for a section. Snickering, my father gave me the financial pages. My grandmother handed me the classified ads and told me to find a job. Not discouraged, I opened the newspaper and pretended to read it.

Of course I had to stay that way for a very long time, because that’s the thing about a lie. Once you start one, you have to live it out, or else you have no character.

But then, in the middle of that year, the magic struck. I looked down at a book in my lap, and the letters on the page spoke out of the silence and made sense. They had sounds of their own; I could hear their voices.

Aha! The lie that I could read was now swallowed by the truth that I could. Stories no longer had to come to me on only the voice of my grandmother, or from someone else. Now they came in a silence so lasting, nothing spoken was even close. Or as neat.

I began to think of words as the magic of silent language, even though I did not yet know the word language. Language was what lived in my fingertips. It was the words I was learning how to write. I could write words I could not even pronounce, and every story had its own put together in its own way. When the words were read, they moved. Yet, when I went away and came back and opened up the book again, the words were still there on the page in the exact same way that someone had left them. They were the storyteller’s fingerprints.

A short while after my grandmother left that year to return home, she wrote me a letter. “I hope you are being good,” she said. “I wonder too, how that story ends—the one we were reading before I left? And next time, when I come to visit, will you please lock up those awful cats?”

I laughed, and for a very long time, I kept that letter, not because of the way she teased me in the way she wrote it, but because she knew that it was the first letter I would ever read.

Oh yes, whoever bestows the gift of reading carves a sweet, long memory in our own life-stories: one that gives us magnificent power.

School Success

When young children are first introduced to books, we must teach them to read from left to right. To do this, we move our fingers under the sentences as we read aloud. Of course we’re all aiming to give each child a chance at school success.  After all, it’s a swell accomplishment to be called “head of a class.” But then, we often get so wrapped up in the meaning of success, we forget that it is a word of many colors.

You see, the most accomplished person in my fourth-grade class passed every test only by the skin of his teeth.  And the fact that Clyde Barnett was my fourth-grade boyfriend has almost nothing to do with this story, except that I wanted to nominate him to receive the award at the end of the year for being the most successful student, but I couldn’t spell success.  Most of all, what I want you to know about Clyde is this:

Whenever we played kickball at recess, if the teams got into a fight over someone being called out, Clyde (who was always the captain of his team) would call even his own player out, if that was the truth.  At our games of marbles, if he showed up with a bag of shiny new cats-eyes,  Clyde would make sure that eveyone’s marbles were equal in size and were unchipped before he joined in a game.  Once during a math lesson, when Mrs. Dickenson’s frustration with him was clearly on display, he told her he was really sorry but it just seemed that he wasn’t cut out for long division.

Apparently, he wasn’t cut out for history or geography, either.  But never again did Mrs. Fletcher show her distress at Clyde’s learning speed.  He always learned what he was supposed to, it just might be a day or a month later.  And then one day, Clyde discretely handed Mrs. Dickinson a note to tell her that her slip was showing, right before a bunch of boys in the back row were ready to start a chain of giggles.

Yes, Clyde Barnett was the most honest and well-liked person in my fourth grade.  So it was especially gratifying to me when Mrs. Dickenson gave him the award for being the most successful student in her class.  That award meant a lot to Clyde, which certainly gives meaning to something Sir William Osler, a Canadian physician, once said:  that no bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.

Oh yes, scores on a test are one thing. But tests of character are scored over a lifetime.

Juvie Book Tour, 2011

In September I took part in what I would describe as a small book tour of juvenile detention facilities. As part of the American Library Association’s Great Stories CLUB, my novel THE BROTHERS TORRES was selected (along with Jennifer Brown’s debut THE HATE LIST and DOPE SICK by the incomparable Walter Dean Meyers) for inclusion in this year’s theme “Second Chances.” According to the ALA’s website, the Great Stories Club “is a reading and discussion program that targets underserved, troubled teen populations.” I spoke with detainees at the Green Oaks Juvenile Detention Center in Monroe, LA and the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center in Austin, TX.

The programs for both visits were similar. I read the first chapter of the book to a group of twenty-five kids and followed that with a Q&A session and a book signing. My favorite part of each visit was the Q&A. The kids were respectful and interested, and once we got the basics out of the way (I don’t really have the tattoo on the cover of the book, I do really speak Spanish, and I did not make a billion dollars writing the book) we settled into a wonderful back-and-forth.

One of our most lively exchanges came in Austin when I talked about how as a writer you can choose to write about everything you want. Reading may be an escape into another world, but writing is much more so. For example, I wrote THE BROTHERS TORRES, a book that takes place in small-town New Mexico, when I was living in Northern California and missing the food and culture of my home state. I wrote LUCKY FOOLS, which comes out in 2012 and takes place in Northern California, after I moved from the Bay Area to Houston.

But my best example of writing being able to take me somewhere else has to do with my upcoming adventure novel, ANNIE FLEET AND THE GOLDEN JAGUAR. Basically, I thought to myself, where would I go if I could go anywhere? What would I do if I could do anything? The answer, when I really thought about it, was that I would go scuba diving all over the world searching for lost treasure. So that’s what I decided to write about. I was already a certified diver, but I took all kinds of advanced scuba certification classes, such as Rescue Diver, Underwater Hunter, and Diver Propulsion Vehicle. I read books about shipwrecks, fantasized over tourism websites, and longingly devoured YouTube videos of other people’s exotic vacations. Then I got to work and made an adventure of my own.

Research, perhaps paradoxically, is one of the best aspects of writing fiction. The old cliché goes, “Write what you know,” and my response to that is simple: “Know more.” In researching my various projects, I’ve visited a chicken processing plant, taken diving classes, visited a shooting range (where I discovered I’m a terrible shot), and so much more.

That’s what I tried to stress to the kids. Our world is so much more than our physical surroundings. We have the power to create entirely new worlds to visit. Worlds where wemake the rules, where there’s priceless treasure we get to find, where we know how to stand up to the people who try to put us down.

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