Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter

         Welcome back to my (Mostly) Weekly Reads feature!
          I took last week off in light of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have the bandwidth or, frankly, the will to write a bookish blog post last week. I became, like so many people, consumed by news media, especially by the portraits of those who were lost, yet again, to gun violence. I couldn’t find words to articulate my deep dismay, and still struggle to.
          But I will share a couple of things I have done in the past week before we dive in to the weekly read, in the hopes that others may feel motivated to do a couple of things too:
         I joined Moms Demand Action and donated to Everytown. Moms Demand Action has an app you can put on your phone, and they make it very easy to do some actionable steps, like contacting senators or signing petitions.
                I donated copies of TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND to 600 BOOKS OF HOPE: COMPASSION THROUGH STORY. This initiative seeks to collect at least 600 new children’s books with hopeful messages to ensure that every child at Robb Elementary School would receive one new book, “one tangible thing they can take with them that might shine a ray of promise in their unbearable darkness,” according to organizer e.E. Carlton-Trujillo. The goal is also to collect 1,300 more books to gift to the town’s other schools, from K-12. You can read more about the initiative here, and if you are a children’s book author, illustrator, editor, or publisher, please consider signing up to donate new books!
            And finally, as I work on my new mystery novel (which also took about a weeklong hiatus while I processed the news), I revisited an essay I wrote for the Huffington Post back in 2014: Unarmed and Dangerous: On Writing a Thriller With No Guns.” Sadly, this essay often gets dug up and circulated on the Internet after school shootings. But if you’re writing a book for young readers and contemplating whether or how much to include guns, this might be worth reading and thinking about. It describes my attempt to avoid guns in my second YA novel, which was harder than it sounds.
         And so, on to this week’s Weekly Read, which is, fittingly in many ways, a survival narrative. I’m almost done listening to Megan Freeman’s marvelous middle grade novel in verse, ALONE. The premise immediately grabbed me, as I can well remember the feeling of being a child or even a young adult, and finding that a morning seems particularly quiet, the streets emptier, even the birds subdued, and wondering: Where is everyone? Did they evacuate and forget to tell me??
        That’s pretty much what happens in ALONE! Maddie, age 12, is scheming to have a secret sleepover with friends, capitalizing on the shuttling she does back and forth between divorced parents and the occasional times when logistics slip through the cracks. But plans change, she sleeps at her grandmother’s empty house on her own, and wakes up to find herself completely alone; her town has been evacuated and abandoned overnight, for no clear reason. Is the thread environmental? Invisible? Potentially under attack from an enemy? The messaging about “relocation” and transport, with the tone of vague threats, was eerily relatable. Maddie must learn to survive on her own in a town that seems to have every creature comfort, but in fact has no infrastructure — no cell phones, no electricity — and the isolation she feels is one of the hardest challenges to overcome. Fortunately a dog named George and a library full of books provide companionship.
       This book is Home Alone on steroids. Maddie’s plight is a scary prospect to contemplate, but also a powerful reminder of how resourceful we can be, and how impactful the written word can be, as Maddie turns to all kinds of reading material for insight, instruction, and inspiration.
     I’d love to know what you’re reading, and how words sustain you through difficult times; feel free to drop a note in the comments!
Welcome back to Weekend Reads, my attempt at sharing something about books I’m reading or intend to read, roughly every Friday! 
A Song Called Home - Kindle edition by Zarr, Sara. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.      This weekend I hope to finish up an audio book that I’ve been immersed in lately: A SONG CALLED HOME, the new middle grade novel by award-winning author Sara Zarr.
        I’m a longtime fan of Sara’s YA novels as well as her This Creative Life podcast (and her more recent mini series podcast, The Launch Pad – a must-listen if you are anywhere in the book launch process!) And I had the pleasure of editing one of Sara’s short stories once, years ago, when I was the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network). When I heard she was moving to middle grade for her next book, I was immediately excited to get my hands on this book!
       Well, I got my ears on this book — I’ve been listening to more audiobooks lately for a variety of reasons. And I’ve been trying to find times outside of driving to listen to audiobooks, and wean myself off news and social media. As an experiment, I have been starting my days with story, and am trying that out with this book. I have a golden half hour in the morning before my own writing time, when I’m helping my kid get ready for school, getting his lunch together, taking care of the dog and cat, doing a few chores, all while this beautiful book is pouring into my ears.
                I look forward to my mundane morning chores now because I want to get back to this novel.
                Sara Zarr is well known for stories about family dynamics, and I am completely immersed in this particular family. Set in San Francisco – one of my favorite cities – A Song Called Home is about a fifth-grade girl named Lou who is going through some massive changes. An alcoholic father who’s not really in the picture, a mother remarrying, a new stepdad to get used to, a move, and a kind of mystery — a guitar that shows up at her front door, a guitar she has no clue how to play. The dynamic with her older sister Casey is also changing, as Casey deals with the family’s changes in her own ways, and both girls are growing up. Friendships shift around them too, especially with the move. These are such finely drawn, nuanced characters, every single one of them. All of their reactions to one another and to certain events feel totally organic and real. This is a contemporary novel, but I relate to it powerfully as an 80’s child of divorced and remarried parents. Although I admire so much about this novel’s craft and enjoy reading it on that level, there’s something very healing and validating about reading, as an adult, middle grade novels that deal with divorce. The honest portrayal of kids’ inner lives – confusing and conflicting feelings, a range of emotions — is fully on the page. And I love how some adults make mistakes or say the wrong things, but sometimes they say just the right things at the right time. This is a great book for understanding how parents have their own complex lives, as well as pasts and futures.
               So immersed am I in this novel that when my library loan ended mid-week, and my book abruptly left my account, I felt like it had been snatched away from me, and I was totally grumpy! I was also dying to know what happened next to Lou! There’s a long wait to get the book again, since it’s in such high demand. So I bought it on Audible, which I should have just done in the first place, because, honestly, why would I not want to own this beautiful book??
                My library loan lapsed because I was listening in short bursts of available time, but also because I was lingering, deliberately, in the language and the characters, and in Lou’s entire world. Normally I speed up my audio books, but not this one. I love the narrator’s voice (narrated by Ferdelle Capistrano), which conveys different characters and emotions so beautifully, and I love the pace of the book. It’s not slow. It just . . . unfolds. If you listen to the audio version, let it simply unfold. I think the pace of this book is so important. Don’t tamper with it.
                 I will likely finish the book this weekend, so I’m including it here in my new “Weekend Reads” post. I hope this book finds a wide audience, and highly recommend!