Dear Sister, the backstory

Picture the scene: Me arriving home to find my youngest plopped on the couch happily watching tv alone, surrounded by her stuffed animals, blankie, and an assortment of the pretzels and crackers that at the time comprised most of her body wScreen Shot 2018-09-28 at 1.11.39 PM copyeight and were the reason my nickname for her was Dry Salty Crunchy Carbohydrate.

Me, wary: “Where’s your big brother?”

Her, happy: “Dunno.”

At which point I walked into the kitchen to find this note on the fridge. Which I stuck in a box of my son’s childhood mementoes and forgot about.

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 1.15.25 PM copy

Picture this scene as well: me noticing one weekend day that my youngest seemed to be spending much of her time trundling about the house doing small chores and fetching things for her big sister and big sister’s friend. 

Me to big sister and big sister’s friend, who were clearly enjoying a life of leisure with their indentured servant, suspiciously: “What’s going on here?”

Them, airily: “Nothing. Just playing.”

Later that day I found the above note. Which I stuck in a box of my older daughter’s mementoes and then forgot about. Until a couple of years ago, when they were all in college and I decided to go through those boxes and found both notes and a bunch more. Which gave me the idea to write a book about the sibling relationship that consisted entirely of notes and drawings. And here we are! Dear Sister, a graphic novel-ish book for all ages, illustrated by the fabulous Joe Bluhm, comes out tomorrow wherever you buy your books. 

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 5.59.26 PM

To order a copy

From your local indie bookstore
From Amazon
From Barnes & Noble

 

Dear Sister, a siblings book for all ages

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 5.59.26 PM

Early reader reviews are already in for Dear Sister, which comes out next Tuesday and is illustrated by the wildly talented Joe Bluhm, and so far they’re all full of love, like these from Goodreads.

“As evidenced by my rarely awarded five star rating, I loved, loved, loved Dear Sister! In fact, I would go so far as to say it is my favorite children’s book of 2018. Cue the fanfare!”

“Hilarious!! Such a fun and sweet book. If you have siblings, you will love the tone and the humor found in these pages!”

“Made me sob. In a very good way.”

Want to know where the idea for Dear Sister came from? In part, from someone I used to call Duggle. Wuggle. Dougie. Douglas. Aka my baby brother, born to a family of three older sisters, me being the oldest, when I was nine years old.

I remember the day he came home from the hospital. My parents let us skip 4-H so we could come straight home and meet our little brother. We tiptoed into the den, where he lay in a blue and white baby carriage. His hair was extremely black and his face was extremely red. He looked up at us suspiciously and after a few minutes started to wail.

Who could blame the poor thing? We were three little girls and he was our living doll, putty in our hands, ours to play with, ours to torture, ours to dress up, ours to hand around one to another. IMG_0898

Doug is still nine years younger than me and always will be. That’s how it works. He’s 6’6” to my 5’10”, no longer a red-faced and rightfully suspicious baby but all grown up and hilariously funny. He and my wonderful sister in law and my wonderful nephews live a few miles from me in Minneapolis.

When my phone barks out the crazy piano tune I assigned to him –Brother is a crazy piano player himself—I pick up.

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 10.21.06 AM

“Brother.”

“Sister.”

How lucky am I to have a brother like Doug? Very. Dear Sister was inspired in part by my love for my siblings. I hope you like it. It’s out next Tuesday, and you can preorder it wherever you buy your books! 

To order a copy

From your local indie bookstore
From Amazon
From Barnes & Noble

Pablo and Birdy: Immigration Story #4

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrWhat sticks with me about this tiny story, more than anything, is the fact that when she told it to me, my grandmother used the term “slavery” with regard to her grandfather. As a child, I thought slavery was confined to the U.S., the great and irredeemable horror and shame of white people owning black people. But according to my grandmother, there were slaves in Denmark, white slaves, and my great-great-grandfather was one of them.

As a child, that word “slave” haunted me. Now I know, thanks to Google, that he must have been not a slave, exactly, but a serf, a villein, who was legally bound to the land and the landowner.

My ancestor supposedly did not have a last name, as he was a serf. But when he was a young man, his landowner’s son fell into a river and nearly drowned. My great-great-grandfather jumped in and saved the child’s life. As a reward, his Danish owner freed him from his indentured servitude and also gave him his own surname, “Hoff,” followed by “beck,” which means river in Danish. (Or so I was told; I don’t speak Danish.)

And my ancestor, now a freeman, and bearing the last name of Hoffbeck, made his way to America to seek a new life. Which tends to be the story, with the single and huge exception of those who lived here before the white conquerors came and claimed it for their own, of pretty much every other American family.

* * *

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” 

Pablo and Birdy: Immigrant Story #3

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrMe on the way to the airport and halfway into a deep conversation about religious extremism (any religion) with my Somali-born Uber driver: “It horrifies me. How does the longing for purpose and passion that every young person has turn into the belief that their god is the only god, and that their god justifies murder and mayhem and terror?”

Him (31 years old, handsome, laughing, who along with his Somali-born wife works full-time on different shifts so that they can trade off taking care of their four little kids): “I will tell you something. I almost became one of them.”

Pause.

“Um. . . you did?”

“Yes. After we fled the civil war in Somalia we lived in Nairobi for three years and I went to a new mosque. I was 18. And the leader taught hate. I began to be filled with hate and to think that others should suffer and die.”

“What changed?”

“I felt my heart turning hateful. And I decided to bring a notebook to the mosque with me for one week. I had one column Hate and another column Love and I kept track of what he was teaching. At the end of the week it was all hate. And I stopped going to the mosque.”

“And now? Did you find a mosque in Minneapolis that feels right to you?”

“I don’t go to any mosque anymore. I don’t raise my kids in any religion. If I want to pray, I pray inside my own head. My religion is two words only. You want to know what they are?”

“I do.”

“Don’t hate.”

* * *

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

Pablo and Birdy: Immigrant Story #2

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrI’m thinking of Cheng right now. He was a skinny, small kid with huge black glasses who always wore a plaid shirt and big tie shoes, a student of mine long ago when I first moved to Minneapolis and took a job teaching Mandarin at a big urban high school. Cheng sat in the front of the class. His voice cracked frequently. He was full of a nervous energy and he had a nervous laugh to go with it. He had one friend, a near-silent boy with dark, dark eyes. Cheng’s parents had a tiny Asian restaurant and they worked nearly around the clock in it. Cheng’s time outside school was spent on homework and washing dishes at the restaurant.

Chinese was an elective, meaning that no one was forced to take it, which translated into a classroom full of students from all walks of life. Some were focused on futures which included college, others on vocational schools, others on high school graduation.

Many were first-generation immigrant students who, as a result of the Secret War in southeast Asia (which preceded the official Vietnam war),  had grown up in refugee camps in Thailand. Their families were originally from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. Most of them spoke English with a strong accent and unconventional grammar, and they studied Chinese because it was an Asian language, closer to their own than German or French or Spanish.

At parent-teacher conferences, if the parents of my immigrant students came, their children came with them to translate. Many of their parents, who had lived powerful lives in their native countries and had been forced to flee because of direct threats to their lives, were either unable to find work in this country or worked intensely hard shifts at minimum wage, barely able to support their families. My students constantly navigated a delicate balance between dutiful child and not-quite-adult interpreter of all things American for their parents. 

I used to have a potluck party at my house every June, to celebrate the end of the year. We set up badminton on my tiny city front lawn and set out food on the dining table inside. All my students were invited.

Cheng was more nervous than usual in the weeks preceding the party.

“When is it?” he would ask. “Where is your house again? What should I bring? What time does it start? Is everyone invited?”

On the day of the party, I was outside welcoming students and directing them where to put their potluck offerings. A big, old, rattly car pulled up to the curb. It was stuffed full of adults and children, Cheng among them. They all poked their heads out the window, chattering in a language I couldn’t understand. Cheng emerged, clutching a big brown take-out bag. He ran up the walk toward me, then turned around and ran back to the car, which was belching exhaust at the curb. The people inside urged him on and he came back to where I was waiting on the steps.

“Mai Laoshi (my teacher name), here you go!”

He pushed the heavy bag into my hands and crouched down to untie those big lace shoes. He placed them carefully on the steps (it’s customary in Asia to remove your shoes before entering a home) and made his way into the house.

I looked in the bag. Six heavy take-out containers full of stir-fried shrimp. No rice, just shrimp. Jumbo prawns. I knew that all that shrimp had come from his family’s restaurant. How much had it cost them? I looked down the walk at that big family car, still lingering at the curb, dark heads still poking out the window, watching me. I smiled and waved, and so did they. Eventually they pulled away from the curb, still looking back at me. Cheng’s mother put her hands together and bowed her head. 

When I went into the house, Cheng was leaning up against the kitchen counter. He looked so unsure of himself. His plaid shirt was tucked into his black pants. His sock-clad feet looked even bigger than usual. 

“Cheng, stir-fried prawns are my favorite dish,” I said. “Thank you so much for bringing all these shrimp.”

He looked up. He was about to cry.

“Mai Laoshi,” he said. “This is my first party. I don’t know what to do.”

* * * 

 

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

Pablo and Birdy: Immigration story #1

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrLike all U.S. citizens but Native Americans, I’m descended from immigrants. One grandfather arrived on Ellis Island with his Russian Jewish family, fleeing the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. My great-grandparents all came to this country in hopes of a better life, from Russia and Ireland and Denmark and Germany and France. Their journeys were, without exception, long and hard and painful.

One great-grandfather was sixteen years old when his mother died. He walked alone from the mountains –he was French Basque, born and raised in the Pyrenees Mountains– and stowed aboard a ship bound for New York City. He was discovered halfway across the Atlantic, put to work on the boat, and put in the brig when they docked in the harbor so that he could be returned to France. In the middle of the night he escaped and dove overboard into the frigid waters of the harbor and swam ashore. Sixteen years old. He emerged in lower Manhattan, where he lived for the rest of his difficult life. His is not the American rags-to-riches dream story most of us are fed from birth, but it is certainly an American story.

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

 

Pablo and Birdy

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hr

McGhee’s tender tale of the search for home, belonging, and identity smoothly incorporates elements of magical realism and powerful allusions to the refugee experience. Publisher’s Weekly, starred review.

A quiet, memorable, fantastical tale beautifully complemented by Juan’s illustrations. Kirkus, starred review.

Friends and future friends, please welcome Pablo and Birdy, my brand-new novel for children and anyone who used to be a child, to the world. 

The novel is about Pablo, who lives with Emmanuel, his adoptive father, and Birdy, his beloved parrot, in Isla, a Key West-like town of fisherpeople and shopkeepers.

Pablo doesn’t know who or where he came from, and the unanswered questions of his past hurt him to think about.

But local legend tells of a mysterious Seafaring parrot –whose existence has never been verified– a parrot who holds within itself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who can reproduce those sounds under special circumstances. 

Is the legend true? If it is, would a Seafarer be able to tell Pablo where he came from? If he had a family before he arrived in Isla?

And if he did, did that family . . . love him? 

Twin Citians, I hereby invite you to a launch party at the wonderful Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul on August 23rd at 6:30. I’d love to see you there.

I’ll be making additional appearances (listed below) in New York City, Mississippi, Georgia, South Dakota, Vermont and Massachusetts this fall, and I’d love to meet some of you at the readings. 

August 19, Jackson, MS. The Mississippi Book Festival. Panel presentation on middle-grade fiction, followed by a book signing for Pablo and Birdy, 9:30-11:30 am

August 23, St. Paul, MN. The Red Balloon Bookshop. Launch party, reading, discussion and signing for Pablo and Birdy, 6:30 pm

September 2, Decatur, GA. Presentation on Pablo and Birdy at the Decatur Book Festival, 3:15-3:45 pm

October 27, Barneveld, NY. Unity Hall. Free public reading, discussion and signing featuring both Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back, 7 pm.

October 28, Liverpool, NY. Barnes and Noble. Public reading, signing and events for both Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back.

October 29, Chelsea, New York City. Books of Wonder. Panel presentation, reading and signing for Pablo and Birdy.

November 2, Shelburne, VT. Flying Pig Bookstore. Back-to-back readings, discussion and signings for Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back. (Come for the children’s novel, stay for the adult!)

November 4, Plainville, MA. An Unlikely Story. Back-to-back readings, discussion and signings for Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back. (Come for the children’s novel, stay for the adult!) 4 pm.