From the Writer’s Den

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For the second year in a row I was able to attend the Amelia Island Book Festival, set on the gorgeous Northern Florida Coast.

This festival always gathers famous authors.

I really got the chair de poule when the one and only Goosebumps’ creator R.L. Stine stepped behind his table to sign his books, only a few feet away from mine.

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I spoke with the French chef and TV personality Jacques Pépin. En français, of course.

Although I missed him, David Baldacci was there too.

But it’s even better to meet author friends.

 

photo-50My friend Jennifer Swanson writes awsome non fiction books for children about science.

On Friday, I was part of the Authors in School program and visited a local middle school, half an hour inland. There, I met ninety students who had read my novel Chronicles From Château Moines. Their school librarian had handpicked my book among many others. We had exchanged a few emails prior to my visit, but nothing beats the pleasure to meet in person someone who trusts you with her students.

I’ve already shared on this blog what I think of libraries and librarians. I basically put them on a pedestal. Public libraries have saved me at several moments of my life.

When I was a shy kid who took comfort in books but had no money to buy them new.

When I was a student, new to Paris and still on a tight budget.

When I was a newcomer to the USA and understood that I had to become as fluent as possible in all things American if I wanted to call this vast country my home one day.

The countless hours I’ve spent inside libraries, whether in France or the United States, have offered me so much more than just books.

So on Friday, I was very happy when I found out that I would meet the students inside their school library.

The librarian had given me carte blanche for my presentation, but she had told me that it would be wonderful to emphasize the historical facts that are the backdrop of my novel.

I also knew that most of the students had probably not traveled abroad. After all, I had also lived a rural childhood and only went to London (my first ever trip abroad) when I was at the university, even though I lived right across the Chanel.

So I figured that telling these boys and girls a little bit about France would interest them. But you know what is said about show, don’t tell?

So I added several photos from my native Normandy to my presentation. I’m lucky because Normandy is one of the most renowned French regions in the US. Sadly, it is mostly due to WWII and D Day.

flersMy hometown.

domfrontDomfront, Normandy

caenCaen, Normandy where I did my undergrad studies

plagenormandieD Day landing beaches

But I was visiting twelve and thirteen-year-old students, so this war is a very old war that cannot resonate much with them.

So I told them about my dad chewing his first piece of gum and my mom eating chocolate for the first time in years, when they were barely older than them.

Based on my last school visit and the success of the French song I played, I also added more music to this presention. These kids love French music, even though they don’t understand the lyrics.

I admitted that I couldn’t understand English lyrics either when I arrived in California. They asked me how long it took me to be fluent. In general, specified one.

That’s a hard question. You don’t want to discourage anyone, right? But you cannot lie either. So I made a distinction between oral comprehension and reading skills, between casual conversation and writing skills. Also that is was easier to learn a foreign language when you were a child.

After a Trivia Game based on the novel, we ended with a Q&A moment.

A girl shared that she was like Sylvie in my book: she also wrote songs in a notebook.

A boy told me that he wanted to play professional basketball like Jake.

Another one played the guitar like Scott.

It’s a good feeling when a reader relates to one fictional character.

That’s why I loved reading so much when I was a kid. Finding someone who was a little bit like me or a lot like me made me understand that I was not alone and that much different from anyone else.

Another girl asked me to say something in French. That’s a common question. Even adults sometimes ask me to speak French. So I returned the question and asked them what they wanted me to say.

“Tell us in French that you will sign our books at the end.”

So I did tell them under oohhs and aahhs.

Which always surprises me because French is my native language and I have no idea why everyone thinks it’s beautiful.

I told them that I’d love to speak American English like them and they looked at me like it was the weirdest dream to have.

They also wanted to know if their first names had a French equivalent.

I made Violet (Violette), Luke (Luc), and Alexander (Alexandre) happy and I felt bad to break the news to Tray, Shellby and Devon. But I reassured them: many French kids now have American first names too.

The boys and girls who had a name with a French equivalent asked me to sign their copy of my book in French. Aw…

 

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And they liked the T-shirt I wore. I bought it for another school visit right before Valentine’s Day and decided that it was okay to wear it again, even a few days after Valentine’s Day.

Besides, the story is about peace, said one girl. Right.

So, in case we doubt that our diverse backgrounds and personal stories cannot open discussions and create links between us, here is the truth:

Kids and teens in this early part of the 21st century are curious, smart, open minded, generous and non judgmental.

The future is theirs and it is in good hands when the heart is at the right place.

I trust them. All of them.

From one coast to another and everywhere in between.

And of course, beyond our frontiers.

 

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From Maine to You

 

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Over the last months, many countries, including my native France, have been the target of particularly cruel violence. Whether the acts of radicalized Muslims blinded by the agenda of ISIS/Daech or unstable men, this violence triggers legitimate fear and more hatred. I’ve stopped reading about them, focusing instead on the simple joys of summer, especially short and hence precious here in Maine.

Before summer officially started, I was finished with the revisions I intended to complete on my new Young Adult novel. I have now started the long process of submission. Please, please, can you keep your fingers or whatever you want, crossed for me?

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While waiting for feedback, I’ve started a new story while another simmers at the edge of my mind. For the longest time, I rarely shared that I had too many stories on the stove. I thought it was the proof of an unfocused mind. Until I read that most writers had always several manuscripts on the back burner, too. Many of them renowned authors. But. They also know when to bring one of their simmering stews to the front burner. I’m undecided. Both of my new work-in-progress manuscripts are Middle Grade stories. Both are dealing with contemporary issues linked to economical and social inequality. While I’m covering pages with words and scenes, watching the lake already tipping into August, I leave you with a few photos from my July in Maine.

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Bear with me when I don’t comment on your blogs. I still think of you and wish you well. It’s just that my mind is churning ideas and trying to sort them.

Wherever you are, fill your days to the brim with the precious days of summer.

 

P.S. In my new YA novel tentatively called All the Mountains We Can Climb, there is food. A café. And three restaurants. And many meals around (or not) tables.

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This is our front lake family table in Maine. The table is my son’s age. We bought it so it could fit four children and their parents. I found a tablecloth with fish and I got the small water can at a school event. I love this table. As I love any table where so much happens besides eating.

Trapped in Paris and a Little Bit More…

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One of the bonuses when writers attend conferences and book events is to meet other writers. There is a genuine and quick sense of recognition among people who write for children. And of course there is always the one who goes the extra mile.

Like Christina Benjamin. When our paths crossed at a book festival this winter, I was impressed by the quality of her books and her gorgeous promotional material. We spoke about our books and projects and she spontaneously offered to showcase my YA novel Trapped in Paris on Pages Burners, one of her websites.

You can read her review here and listen to the short interview and watch the video clip here.

My daughter #3 was on her spring break when I asked her to play the interviewer role. She immediatley agreed. My youngest daughter is the one who encouraged me to write when I started jotting down words and sentences in my notebook and didn’t believe that I would ever write in English. As any typical first-generation born-American child she is often my teacher. She calls me Mom and Maman. Our conversations are always a blend of the two languages that cement our home. Here, though, we kept it in English. With a little bit of French touch. Of course.

I want to thank Christina and my daughter for their support and kindness.

And You, for following my writing adventures and other things of my life on this blog.

 

My Essay on the Children’s Writer’s Guild

 

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I’m pleased that the Children’s Writer’s Guild published my essay Written Words Don’t Have an Accent this week.

This essay about language is right in sync with my current A to Z series about these little identical French and American words that have a different meaning, whether they are used in France or in the USA.

I’m also humbled to find myself on the Children’s Writers Guild in the company of authors and illustrators who bring their talent and passion to children’s literature.

Whether you’re a parent, a grandparent, or have children in your life I encourage you to visit their website and particularly their section Review, filled with great feedback about Picture Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult novels.

 

See you tomorrow for the letter G on my series All These Little French and American Words…

 

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What if You Went to a Book Festival?

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Most writers I know would rather stay home or in the corner of their favorite library or café to write. But once in a while we all need to get our introvert selves out there. Me included.

Last Saturday, I joined more than one hundred authors who participated to the annual Amelia Island Book Festival in Fernandina Beach, Florida.

It was my first time and I was filled with anxiety. What if I got lost on my way to an unknown place? What if I didn’t find a parking spot close enough to the venue? What if I had to make several trips to unload my books and my material? What if nobody stopped by my booth? What if I spent the next eight hours alone?

“What if” is a good question to unstuck our brains and unleash our imaginations but totally worthless on the road.

This is what really happened on Saturday.

I almost got lost. There was unexpected fog and roadwork. But I made it way ahead of time to the Fernandina Beach Middle School where high school students unloaded my trunk and carried my books, my material, and even my lunch to the table I would share with another children’s book author. Meanwhile I parked under an oak tree laced with Spanish moss.

Inside the school I met volunteers who welcomed me with warm smiles and led me to the multipurpose room, already buzzing with activity. Authors were unpacking and organizing their table. Most had great promotional displays. Mine were modest in comparison, and yet everyone congratulated everyone’s books. My right and left side neighbors were super friendly and shared their chocolate and mint candies with me.

Starting around ten o’clock, visitors, many with kids of all ages, swarmed the place. Most stopped by my table and many bought my books. I spoke with all of them and was so grateful for their interest, curiosity, and warmth.

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We live in a world that focuses too much on what goes wrong. Many things go wrong and we need to address them. But many things go right, too. Lots of people are hungry for stories, for them, for their children, their grandchildren, and any child in their lives and beyond their lives. Stories remain a universal human link that ties all of us.

Saturday was the proof (if I ever needed one) that books are alive and well alive.

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An awesome addition to this kind of event is also the chance to meet other writers. Although we love the safety of our caves, we also know that we can be ourselves with people who share the same passion for stories and won’t judge our awkwardness.

The camaraderie between authors who write for children and teens is a well-known fact. The generosity when it comes to sharing our struggles, successes, and dreams is genuine.

 

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At some point, I felt a little lightheaded. No wonder: It was one o’clock and I ate breakfast around six. I took a lunch break (Volunteers could man authors’ tables during breaks. How cool is that?)

I stepped outside, blinded by the light. I sat on a stone bench near a grouping of trees. My shoulders relaxed under the warmth of the sun. It was a crisp day for Floridians, I heard. Perfect for me. Despite the beautiful day, I ate my sandwich faster than I had planned.

What if I missed any of the fun?

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Take your iPad to Paris and Normandy For Free Until Labor Day

To introduce my Young Adult and Middle Grade novels to the readers who cannot travel without their iPad, I’m offering Trapped in Paris and Chronicles From Château Moines for Free on iBooks until Labor Day.

Enjoy! Spread the news! Leave reviews!

Happy Reading to All of You From my Favorite Summer Writing Spot in Maine!

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Publishers Weekly

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I am pleased to share with you what Publishers Weekly wrote about my Middle Grade novel Chronicles From Château Moines.

Through my blog posts, my stories, and novels I share snippets of my life, a delicate balance between two languages and two cultures, and my affection for the USA and France, my two homes on earth.

My writing illustrates my journey as a non-native speaker.

I am a work-in-progress and practice is what I get to make it better.

Practice and readers’ support, and once a while a professional review that sustains my goal.

Thank you for reading me.

 

Readers Are Writers’ Gifts

Sometimes I find it hard to return every day to my notebook and computer to go on with the story I’m currently writing. Even though I’m disciplined enough to write on a daily basis, I’m also lazy and easily distracted. There are so many books to read! So many movies to watch! So many desserts to bake! So many walks to take!

It’s also fair to say that writing is a solitary task that doesn’t bring immediate results. And when the result – the book – is there, I always feel a little lonely. Now what?

This is why any acknowledging nudge is a gift to me. Thank you for your reviews, your invitations on your blog, and your links to mine. Thank you.

But when the kind nudge comes from a young reader, my audience, then I have no excuse to feel sorry for my lack of courage.

This is what I received yesterday morning, sent by an English teacher who liked my novel Chronicles From Château Moines well enough to have it read and discussed in her seventh grade class.

I don’t know the student who wrote this. I won’t probably ever meet her. And yet she is the reason why I dragged my lazy little me to my table this morning and wrote another page. A gift, really.

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MLK

En l’honneur de l’anniversaire de Martin Luther King Junior (né le 15 janvier 1929), les écoles, les services postaux, les banques, et bureaux du gouvernement fédéral sont fermés aujourd’hui lundi aux Etats Unis. Ce jour devint une fête fédérale par une loi signée en 1983 par le président Ronald Reagan, mais ce n’est que depuis 2000 que les cinquante états des USA le célèbrent unanimement.

Un certain nombre de business privés sont également fermés. Le cœur d’une entreprise américaine balance entre deux jours fériés : Martin Luther King’s Day ou Presidents’ Day, le 16 février cette année.

On dit que les républicains préfèrent Presidents’ Day et que les démocrates penchent pour Martin Luther King’s Day. Dans le doute je suis les écoles et fête les deux.

Presidents’ Day, comme son nom l’indique, célèbre les présidents américains dans leur ensemble, même si techniquement ce sont Lincoln et Washington, qui sont fêtés, nés respectivement le 12 et le 22 février.

Quant à Martin Luther King Jr., lorsque je suis passée à Memphis en 2012, j’ai eu la possibilité de voir le lieu exact où il a été assassiné le 4 avril 1968.

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Mon blog était peu lu à cette époque. En fait, il est possible que personne n’ait lu ces billets écrit en français ici et in English .

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Mes nombreuses années en Californie m’ont davantage familiarisée avec le mouvement des droits civils des noirs américains, dont Martin Luther King Jr. était le leader, qu’avec la ségrégation raciale du sud des Etats Unis. Les deux sont cependant indissociables.

Si vous voulez que vos enfants découvrent les racines de ce mouvement sans passer par un livre d’histoire, je vous recommande One Crazy Summer, un roman à la fois drôle, honnête et très sensible, écrit par Rita Williams-Garcia et publié en 2010.

A travers Delphine et ses petites sœurs, dont elle s’occupe du haut de ses onze ans comme une vraie maman, maintenant que la leur a décidé de quitter Brooklyn pour Oakland de façon à vivre à fond le style de vie californien des années 60, l’auteure nous fait découvrir les évènements les plus marquants et transformateurs de l’histoire récente des USA. Excès et espoir se poussent constamment du coude à travers une série de personnages extrêmement bien campés. Delphine et ses soeurs vivent la montée des droits civils au plein coeur d’Oakland, des moments extraordinaires mais aussi banals qui font l’enfance, et aussi un rapprochement inattendu avec leur maman.

Un thème sérieux avec une sérieuse dose d’humour, des personnages et situations réalistes et émouvants. Franchement excellent.

Le site web de Rita Williams-Garcia est aussi une bonne source d’information sur son parcours de femme noire écrivaine aux USA.

Malgré le succès de ce livre aux USA, je n’ai pas trouvé de traduction française. Si quelqu’un la connaît, faites-le moi savoir.

Si vous voulez remonter quelques années plus haut dans l’histoire, lisez le grand classique de Christopher Paul Curtis The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, publié en 1995 et étudié très souvent dans les écoles américaines (c’est ainsi que je l’ai découvert au début des années 2000). Le roman est traduit en français sous le titre Voyage à Birmingham.

La famille extravagante de Kenny (10 ans) quitte Flint, Michigan pour visiter sa grand-mère à Birmingham, Alabama. Ce voyage du nord au sud du pays sera comme un aucun autre et transformera non seulement Kenny et sa famille mais encore les Etats Unis.

Un livre incontournable dans lequel on apprend tant de choses, non seulement sur l’un des évènements les plus sombres de l’histoire des Etats Unis et sur la discrimination raciale, mais aussi ce que tous les humains ont tendance à faire : assumer sans savoir. Les états américains, les villes, le climat, les accents, tout est l’occasion de décaper les stéréotypes.

Tout comme One Crazy Summer, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 est un roman plein d’humour, très drôle malgré son sérieux, avec une palette de personnages inoubliables, sur un sujet difficile qui divise encore trop souvent les américains.

La mémoire de Martin Luther King est présente aux Etats Unis à travers les avenues, les boulevards, les rues, les parcs, les squares, et bien sûr les écoles qui portent son nom.

Souvent seulement ces/ses initiales: MLK.

A Galette des Rois and a Kings’ Cake

Traditionally a religious celebration commemorating the visit of the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus, Epiphany Day is thoroughly enjoyed in France beyond the official January 6th and beyond religious meaning, too.
All over the country, bakeries sell the galette des rois (Kings’ Cake) in different versions depending on the French regions.
Americans are more familiar with another Kings’ Cake, a Louisiana specialty.

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Unlike the French who celebrate the end of the Christmas season with the Epiphany, the people of Louisiana celebrate the beginning of Lent with the famous New Orleans Carnival mid February. Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. During the Carnival, thousands of locals and out of state visitors savor the Kings’ Cake.

The galette des rois I know best, however, is made of puff pastry filled with almond paste.

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Despite the diversity of the cakes, the tradition of hiding a small plastic or porcelain trinket inside the dough is the same. In France, family and friends gather pour tirer les rois or to draw the kings.

Traditionally the youngest person in the room hides under the table and decides who gets which slice of the cake. Then whoever finds the trinket is crowned king or queen and can pick his queen or her king. The following year this is the turn of the king or queen to host the party.
In the old days a dry bean or fève in French was hidden inside the cake. One said that cheap people swallowed the bean so they wouldn’t have to host the event the following year. And this is how tiny porcelain trinkets replaced the traditional beans. Who knowns? In any case, the trinket is still called fève.
When I was growing up, the fève had some kind of Christian connotation: a manger, a lamb, a star, a baby Jesus, an angel, or still a shepherd.
Nowadays the selection is more eclectic which explains why a museum in Blain, on the French Atlantic coast, and another one in Ronel, in the Midi- Pyrénées region, display them.

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I love anything with almonds and almond paste, so I like the galette des rois very much. Yet more than the cake, this tradition reminds me that the French love the association of traditions, food, family, and friends.
I also enjoy sharing the traditions of my native country. One of my very first children’s stories happened to be about the galette des rois. Like Max, the protagonist, I was tempted more than once to cheat and steal the fève to be queen for a day.

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Pelican Publishing Company, based in Louisiana, has published several children’s books around the Kings’ Cake and the New Orleans Carnival.
I like their most recent picture book (2008) Timothy Hubble and the King Cake Party written by Anita Prieto and illustrated by Virginia Howard.
Timothy has just moved to New Orleans and worries about this strange Kings’ cake “with a baby baked inside” that his new friend describes to him. Of course, things will turn around in a good way for him.
However, his initial reaction reminds me of the first time I introduced the French tradition to a California teacher.

This teacher taught at my oldest daughter’s preschool and she wanted her students to learn about their classmates’ cultural heritage. Parents were invited to share traditions from their native country. The teacher didn’t know about Epiphany Day, so she was happy for my participation. Until I told her that I would hide a small trinket inside the galette des rois.
“No, no, no”, she said. “You can’t do that. Imagine if one of the children swallowed this small thing.”
“Oh, it won’t happen,” I said. “I ate many Kings’ Cakes and I never saw anyone who swallowed it.”
“No,” she insisted. “Besides, some kids could be allergic to almonds. Can you bake another cake?”
I thought that the teacher overreacted. Yet I could only obey. So I came to school with a homemade pear cake. It had nothing to do with the galette des rois and no trinket was hidden inside, but we were safe. I explained the tradition to the children.
“Where is the small thing?” asked a little girl, digging with her plastic fork through her slice of cake.
Patiently the teacher explained that an object inside the cake would be too dangerous for children. The little girl nodded and asked if she could have more cake.
Years later I purchased my first store-bought galette des rois.
When I opened the box I saw a note taped inside the cover. A warning about the trinket/fève tucked inside the cake and the fact that it was baked with almonds was printed in bold. A description of the tradition followed in regular print.
I wasn’t surprised to find such a note and in retrospect agreed that the teacher had two valid points.
You see, after years in the States, what once shocked me has lost its strangeness.
Speaking of cake, can I ask you why the Americans say: “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too?”

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Because I think that I have in fact the best of both worlds.

 

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