Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Writers' retreat

This past weekend I coordinated and participated in a children’s/young-adult writer’s retreat led by award-winning author Kit Pearson on Mayne Island, British Columbia. It was inspirational and fun!
Top row, L to R: Penny Draper, Kit Pearson, Sheri Radford, Cynthia Heinrichs, Lois Peterson, Maggie deVries, P-j Sarah Collins, Sara Cassidy
Lower row: Marion Crook, Pam Withers, Silvana Goldemberg

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The car trip that launched a book

Pam Withers with (to right) her older sister and co-author Cynthia Gill
The inside story of writing Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life (Viva Editions 2013)

Everyone knows that boys are falling behind in education. Largely left out of the discussion are parents of boys, who are most aware that their bright, eager sons hit an invisible wall somewhere near fourth grade, after which they become disengaged, discouraged, and disaffected. There are dozens of books on underachieving boys, but most parents brave enough to lift one off the shelf are instantly intimidated by the footnotes, graphs, case studies, and academic-speak addressed almost entirely to educators. What about the average guilt-ridden, frustrated mother or father of an underachieving boy? Jump-Starting Boys is the first book on the market that empowers parents, helping them reclaim the duties and rewards of raising their children and navigate the influences of school and media. Filled with reassurance and support, the authors turn fear and guilt into can-do confidence. Through easy tips and action list sidebars, this is the most practical, readable book on the topic.

From Amazon:

When I first started writing adventure books for teen and pre-teen boys, librarians used to comment to me, “These are perfect for reluctant readers!”

The first time this happened, I responded, “What are reluctant readers?”

That launched me on an investigation that became a passion. I immersed myself in reading on the topic, and started gathering statistics and stories for presentations. The trouble is, most of the books on the topic are written for academics rather than parents and mentors. They can make parents feel even less empowered and frustrated than they already do.

A few years later, my older sister Cynthia and I found ourselves riding in a car together for six hours while en route to a family funeral. Ever tried to find conversation good for six hours with a sibling with whom you aren’t particularly close? (Cynthia is two years older, and all my life I saw her as prettier, smarter, bossy, more popular and confident; I looked up to her and was intimidated by her!)

Cynthia (who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota) is a long-time educator who went back to school to become a therapist; she now works with at-risk teens and their families. http://www.cynthiagill.info/
I certainly admire that about her. Anyway, we chatted about raising boys (she has three; I have one), and the challenge of turning them out as happy and successful citizens. We also both have a mutual love for reading, planted in us by our parents who read to us much as children. So we spent lots of time talking about the importance of getting boys to read. (Boys form the majority of reluctant readers.)
By the end of the six hours, we said (naively!), “Let’s write a book together about that!”

It was supposed to be an eight-month project, but it turned into a two-year labor of love. Our biggest fear was that we wouldn’t be speaking to each other by the end of it, but happily, it actually brought us much closer.

Viva Editions of California http://www.vivaeditions.com/index.php was the publisher who took us on and encouraged us all the way through. They were great to work with, and pulled out all the stops for publicizing the book.

To us, and I think to Viva Editions, it’s more than just a book. It’s a mission to help reluctant reader and under-achieving boys. We want parents and mentors to know that they have the power and responsibility to make a difference.

Feedback we’ve received is very positive, and we hope Jump-Starting Boys continues to contribute to the parenting, education and mentoring of boys. They deserve the best!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Kindness abroad

Last week a friend and I went to a Spanish-speaking country for a week of relaxation and Spanish practice. We hired a tutor there, Carlos, and enjoyed several hours a day with him; he was fun and open, a natural teacher, a lively and trust-inspiring personality. One day he offered to show us his village after class, a 20-minute bus ride away. Off we went.

As we arrived, we noticed a large fire burning in the not-so-far distance, like an oil tanker on fire or something. I was about to inquire about it when I realized there was no reason Carlos would know anything more than us.

He crossed a street at one point to have a long, fast-paced conversation with a woman. We figured he knew her, or was asking directions to somewhere. Minutes later, he urged us to come view the local church because it was a tourist highlight.

On arriving at the church, he immediately dropped to his knees and began praying. We sat quietly and respectfully, looking about. The church seemed quite full, and it was indeed very pretty. When Carlos stood, he encouraged us to take photos and we spent a bit more time there. Then he took us through the markets and put us on our bus, which delivered us back to our hotel twenty minutes later.

Only after we arrived did we learn that the hotel was advising no one to leave the premises that afternoon, because gangs with masks and machine guns were riding around in pickups bombing gas stations and businesses (including the bank across from our hotel, where we’d been using the cash machine). They also shot a military helicopter out of the sky, killing the police officers inside it.

Later, Carlos told us he had learned from the lady across the street what was occurring, and ushered us to the church for safety. Then he had prayed for us, his community and all nearby communities. But he had not wanted us to know or to worry, as the gangs were not targeting tourists.

I am not revealing the location because the district doesn’t need the negative publicity. But my friend and I found Carlos’s kindness heart-warming, and a story worth sharing.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Importance of getting kids (esp. boys) comfortable with reading

A key reason boys struggle more than girls in school and life: Adults fail to help them get comfortable with reading at a young age. Here's an excerpt from my book, Jump-Starting Boys.

Boys read less than girls do.
Parents read to boys for shorter periods of time than they read to girls.
Teen girls read almost twice as much as boys on a per-hour basis.
Some thirty-seven percent of male college freshmen, and only twenty-three percent of female college freshmen, say they spend no time reading for pleasure.

More boys than girls struggle with reading and writing.
The average eleventh-grade American boy writes at the same level as the average eighth-grade girl.
Boys start school with a considerable verbal and psychosocial developmental lag (up to eighteen months), behind girls. They often do not catch up until into their late teens—if then.
The majority of reluctant readers are boys.
While seventy percent of children learn to read with no special support, most of the rest—those with problems—are male, nonwhite, and economically deprived.
Boys get most of the D’s and F’s in school grades.
Adolescent males are significantly more likely than adolescent females to be left back a grade.
Boys have a harder time finding books on their own.
Adolescent girls outscore adolescent boys in reading and writing—the gender gap being equivalent to a year and a half of school. In other words, the average high school freshman girl is reading as well as the average high school junior boy.
Boys are four times more likely than girls to be in learning disability programs.
The gender gap in literacy is worldwide. Even in Finland, which boasts the top-ranked students in literacy, girls scored much higher than boys.
Adolescent males drop out of high school at four times the rate of adolescent females (this includes females who drop out to have babies).

Boys have more attitude and are less active in the school community.
Males are more likely to view schooling in general (and specifically literacy) as artificial, even unmanly.
Ninety percent of adolescent discipline problems in schools involve males, as do most expulsions and suspensions.
Boys are the primary victims of violence in schools, and comprise the majority of dead, injured, mentally ill, and substance-abusing adolescents.
The majority of salutatorians and valedictorians now are female. Adolescent females also dominate school clubs, yearbooks, and student government.
Boys are four times more likely to be referred to a school psychologist.

There’s a direct link between comfort with reading and attitude.
“Once they begin to fall behind, they act out because they are bored or disengaged, and a really difficult downward spiral results.”
“Poor reading among boys leads to antisocial behavior.”
Low literacy is related to crime, poverty, and unemployment.
There’s a direct link between comfort with reading and academic achievement.
The most important predictor of academic success is the amount of time children spend reading books; it is even more important than economic or social status.
“The act of reading or being read to develops the mind and increases intelligence.”
“Kids who stop reading start to fall behind their classmates.
They lose ground in vocabulary, in comprehension, in advanced thinking skills, even in the ability to write.”
“The achievement gap between boys and girls is driven primarily by performance differences in literacy.”
Teaching boys science, math, or social studies poses problems if they have difficulty reading the textbook and won’t admit it.

There’s a direct link between academic achievement and life achievement.
With the decline of high-paying work in traditional male occupations, such as manufacturing, and the increase of high-paying work in occupations requiring informational processing skills, men without a college education have been left behind.
A college degree is linked to higher earnings, increased civic participation, marriage and family stability, lower rates of incarceration, and national economic competitiveness in a global environment.
“A college degree today is as necessary to success as a high school diploma was a few decades ago.”
Those with a bachelor’s degree earn upwards of forty percent more than high school graduates, a gap slowly but steadily widening.
Eighty percent of high school dropouts are male.
Eighty percent of convicted felons are high school dropouts.
Sixty-eight percent of the people incarcerated in federal penitentiaries have limited literacy skills.
Sixty-three percent of Canadian social assistance recipients have not completed secondary school.

Boys’ enrolment in institutes of higher education is decreasing.
In the U.S., women earn sixty-two percent of all associates’ degrees, fifty-seven percent of all bachelors’ degrees, and sixty percent of all masters’ degrees.
Boys finish their education less frequently (high school graduation rate of only sixty-five percent), they finish high school with lower average grades (girls average 3.10 GPA, boys average 2.90 GPA), and fewer go to college. Since 1981, more women than men have been enrolling in college.
Between the years 1990 and 2009, the male undergraduate enrolment dropped from forty-five percent to forty-three percent in the U.S.

“Something is not working for boys, but there is little to no direct research on gender and literacy, and not much in the way of support for boys’ literacy,” Jon Scieszka declares on his Guys Read website (www.guysread.com).
We like to think that’s changing, but not fast enough, and certainly insufficiently in terms of information parents receive.

Excerpted from Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life, by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill (Viva Editions). All references (footnotes) contained in the book.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Family reunion

I've spent the past week in Minneapolis with my dad (88 years old) and my older sister Cynthia Gill. While visiting Dad, I opened Andreo's Race to the page that dedicates the book to him, and held it up to him as he lay in bed recovering from a fall. What a great smile spread across his face, and my son Jeremy (who joined us for a visit to his grandpa and aunt) read it to him for a while.

For Cynthia and me, of course, it was a reunion during which we recounted the fun and stress of co-writing Jump-Starting Boys. While in Minneapolis, Jeremy and I also visited two of Cynthia's sons and their kids. A fun family reunion and I still feel the warmth of our many hugs!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Portland, Oregon Aug 7-9, 2015

Hello, Portland! I've just been informed I will be offering two presentations at the highly respected 46th annual Willamette Writers' Conference 2015 August 7-9, as well as doing one-on-one manuscript evaluations for selected attendees.
It's my second time as a speaker there, and who doesn't love Portland?
So this is just a head's up that registration opens on May 1. Check out the following website then for the full lineup of workshops, presenters and activities.

Monday, April 13, 2015

My new novel is hot off the press, and here's the inside story of writing Andreo's Race

My Bolivian researcher Richie

Hot off the press tomorrow!! My new young-adult adventure novel set in Bolivia: Andreo's Race. For the story of how it came to be, read on...

Summary: Just as sixteen-year-old Andreo, skilled in death-defying ironman events in wilderness regions, is about to compete in rugged Bolivia, he and his friend Raul (another Bolivian adoptee) begin to suspect that their adoptive parents have unwittingly acquired them illegally. Plotting to use the upcoming race to pursue the truth, they veer on an epic journey to locate Andreo's birth parents, only to find themselves hazardously entangled with a gang of baby traffickers. Never suspecting that attempting to bring down the ring would endanger their very lives, the boys plunge ahead. Compelling, poignant, and heart-stopping, Andreo's Race takes readers on a perilous quest to discover the true meaning of family.

To order a copy of Andreo’s Race from Amazon:


     The seed for Andreo’s Race came from reading an article on black-market adoptions in my favorite magazine, Foreign Policy: “The Lie We Love” by E.J. Graff, Nov./Dec. 2008:
My mind immediately gravitated to the adopted child’s point of view: What if a boy who has always known he was adopted, learns that the adoption may have been illegal? A typical teen might fantasize that his birth parents are ever so much nicer than his adoptive parents – maybe even that his birth parents have been searching for him for years. What if he had the opportunity to track down his birth parents, or decided to run away from home to do so? But what if, instead of being nicer, they’re actually quite evil?
My first challenge was deciding what nationality my teen would be. After extensive reading on black market baby rings, I narrowed it down to several countries, including Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Guatemala and Bolivia. Since I speak Spanish and the possibility of visiting Bolivia was far more realistic than Cambodia or Kazakhstan, I chose Bolivia. Since it’s no longer easy to adopt from Bolivia, I was “lucky” that my teen would be just old enough to have been adopted back before laws tightened up.
I then immersed myself in reading up on international adoptions and black market baby rings, seeking out personal accounts by the adoptees themselves where possible. Some of the books were sobering indeed. I also watched a heart-touching documentary of an international adoptee seeking out and meeting her birth parents, who basically advised her to love her adoptive parents.
Next I immersed myself in reading up on adventure racing, and found an adventure race organizer to interview and consult with. Then I started wondering where exactly to set the novel in Bolivia, and which sports to include in the adventure race.
As a subscriber to a website that matches individuals who wish to exchange language practice, I started scrolling through those subscribed from Bolivia. I paused when I came across Richie from Cochabamba, given that he listed his hobbies as bicycling, mountain climbing and running. I contacted him to see if he’d like to exchange language practice, and was delighted when he responded.
He was way more competent in English than I was in Spanish, but what amazed me more was to learn, within our first conversation, that he volunteered for a children’s literacy organization. It seemed like we were made for partnering on this project. So I mentioned that I was an author of teen adventure books, and hoped to set one in Bolivia.
“How can you set a novel in Bolivia if you’ve never been here?” he challenged me.
“Well, I hope to visit Bolivia this coming spring, and I also hope to find a researcher there to work with me. Maybe you could help me find a researcher, or maybe you’d be interested?” I asked.
There was a short pause on the Skype line. Then he shouted, “Me! Me! Me!”
So, I explained adventure racing to him, sending him lots of sites to look at.
“This will be my next passion!” he responded.
I asked him where he thought I should set the novel, and he quickly sold me on Cochabamba, for its proximity to national parks and outdoor activities. I asked him if he’d ever been caving at nearby Toro Toro National Park, and he said no, but that he’d be willing to go. I booked him a three-day tour.
And so we began to work together, emails flying back and forth as we agreed on the sports and race route. I named him my “adventure race organizer,” and we continued to concoct the details of our fictional race for months as I began to write the novel.

He named most of my characters. He took a super-bumpy five-hour bus ride to Toro Toro and went caving there, keeping a diary and taking more than eighty photos he sent to me. The diary included minute details of peoples’ dress, market scenes, geography and geology. On a trip to Villa Tunari, he did the same. When he read the first-draft scenes I wrote up of these places later, he asked, “How could you describe these places so accurately without having been there?”

I replied, “Duh! Your diaries and photos!"
When I told Richie about how the protagonist had a hand-knit baby hat, which was his only link with his birth mother, he promptly sent me an internet photo of a colorful hand-knit baby hat:


     He also told me he was an adoptee himself, and had a baby outfit from when he was handed over. Seriously, how perfect a match was Richie as my researcher? 
     In March, I flew to Cochabamba. Meeting Richie after months of skyping with him was so fun. It was like finally stepping through the computer screen and shaking hands. He showed off his city with great pride, organized a driver for us to visit some of the sites in the novel, and read through what I’d written, correcting where appropriate. We visited a village market together, Mercado La Cancha, and he helped me negotiate good prices on sweaters and a woven wall hanging.
Meeting Richie for the first time in person (I was jetlagged and altitude sick)

When our driver got stuck in a four-hour traffic jam, Richie jumped out and jogged miles down the road to bring back news of what was happening. When we got stuck at an airport for 11 hours, we sat down with the manuscript and worked on it together. He helped me with my Spanish, and I gave him tons of English practice. We became great friends, and continue to correspond.
More than any novel I’ve written in the past, I feel I “partnered” on this one. Richie was an integral part of it, from beginning to end.
 I can’t resist sharing a few paragraphs of his Toro Toro diario (with his permission):

Being inside the bus was like being in a continual earthquake, always shaking. At night I could see many hills surrounding us, some of them really high and dangerous. It was around midnight that I saw a welcome sign at the entrance of town. We passed by the main square and I saw a big dinosaur in the middle of it. Everyone was tired because of the trip. I took a shower in the hotel, went to bed and slept tight. I set my alarm to wake up at 6 and start the adventure earlier than the others.
The air was so pure and the weather was cool. I ran wherever my feet took me. I saw a church up one hill, then went down to the river. I crossed the river to the next hill, went up again and ran. There is not a lot of vegetation this time of year. But the clouds touching the highest hills and the mountains made it look like paradise.
I returned to the town. People were smiling, working, waking up, washing clothes, going to the market. I felt happy to be surrounded by humble people who offer you a smile or a wave even if they don’t know you.
I drank my tea fast and met with the others. The next bus was a 21km trip, two and a half hours, the road really rough. The earthquake inside the bus was even worse than on the bus from Cochabamba.
We finally arrived around 11:30; our bottoms really hurt. All around us were hills, big rocks and some tufts of grass. We walked half a kilometer to reach the tunnels.
The guide told me there are 21 caverns in the zone of Toro Toro. The tunnels were spectacular, really high and shaped by wind and water. One of them is prepared for people who want to get married. We saw stalactites, one called the Virgin (a mother with a baby in her hands), a tree and Christmas tree. There was sandstone and gypsum.
Many years ago there were bats inside the caverns but with tourism they have migrated to other caverns. It was humid and warm. We descended with a rope in some parts, slipping in slippery parts, always holding something not to fall down. There was water going through the cavern, but not much. Deep in, we were like soldiers dragging ourselves through small, narrow cavities. I never was in such a place. I loved the experience. The guide told us to turn our lanterns off and keep silence in the darkness for two minutes. I could listen to the beats of my heart. A nice cascade formed a lagoon where blind fish live. 
The humidity was intense. I was sweating a lot!
After a lot of climbing we finally saw the sun’s rays. I could not see straight because my eyes were used to the darkness. Finally I was up, and totally happy. I screamed out “libertad!”

Helping research Andreo’s Race

by Ricardo (Richie) Borda
January 2015
One day, like any other -- during my normal routine of studying, exercising and developing my English skills -- I received a reply from one of the many language exchange websites I subscribed to. It was from a lady named Pam. I quickly answered back and we scheduled a Skype conversation in order to exchange English and Spanish language practice.
Finally that day came and during our Skype conversation we got to know each other better. We began talking about our respective countries and our dreams of the future.  I have always wanted to cycle around the world and to experience different cultures, but being from Bolivia, that dream requires a lot of effort to accomplish. Pam in turn spoke of some of her favorite aspects of Canada and the work that she does.  I was amazed to hear about everything she has done during her lifetime.  She introduced me to her world of books, with all the adventures that they bring. 
After talking for a while, she proposed that I might be able to help her with a book that she had been thinking of writing for a long time.  This was a great opportunity that I couldn’t resist. I knew it would be interesting and also challenging but I was ready to face whatever came. 
A couple of days later we started to get organized about the work we would do together. Pam put me in charge of the investigation details and provided me with some instructions on what and how I should develop my work.  I started out trying to find an ideal setting for where the novel would take place and the possible routes to get there.  The novel required places where our protagonists and antagonists can have extreme adventures, like cycling, canoeing, trekking and caving.  We had to also take into consideration the distance, weather and what obstacles they could face.  Some days later we reached a final decision to select my hometown, Cochabamba.  It is where my knowledge can be put to best use and it is also a beautiful region with lots of mountains and a varying climate throughout the region.  Most of my work was focused on a province named Toro Toro, partly because there you can find a National Park filled with the remains of dinosaurs.  It is quite arid, mountainous and sparsely populated but rich with culture.  To help Pam see for herself, I took many pictures to flesh out the details of the story along with an accurate report of all the information I had collected.
Now that the preliminary part of the novel was finished, it was time to work on the story.  Pam has an amazing natural talent to create stories, and the short amount of time it takes her is impressive.  It was a great pleasure to help her work on the novel.  I can say that I learnt a lot from her experience and wisdom. As a final point I would like to thank her for everything.