I recently teamed up with independent bookseller Nancy Braus and children’s librarians Lindsay Bellville and Paige Martin to offer a series of book talks featuring great books that have strong girls as main characters. The group of us all have different taste, so it was super fun to combine our lists together and offer a broad range of girl-powered books.
Here are some recent radio interviews I’ve had the privilege of doing. I’ve gotten to talk about the revision process for The Benefits of Being an Octopus, the shifting landscapes around the issue of guns, and my love for democracy.
1) A Conversation with Olga Peters of Green Mountain Mornings on WKVT
Ann Braden talks about her new middle-grade novel, “The Benefits of Being an Octopus.” Braden also shares her experience as a policy liaison for the Vermont Democratic Party.
2) A Conversation with David Goodman of Vermont Conversations, WDEV
How Vermont embraced gun safety: Gun Sense VT founder Ann Braden on the challenges ahead
In The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Zoey’s family relies on their EBT card (aka food stamps or SNAP benefits) to be able to have healthy food in the fridge. This month, there’s a good article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson discusses the importance of supporting low-income families with the financial assistance that is needed so they kids can be more likely to thrive. Some highlights…
“Welfare isn’t just a moral imperative to raise the living standards of the poor. It’s also a critical investment in the health and future careers of low-income kids….”
‘Welfare helps people work’ may sound like a strange and counterintuitive claim to some. But it is perfectly obvious when the word people in that sentence refers to low-income children in poor households. Poverty and lack of access to health care is a physical, psychological, and vocational burden for children. Poverty is a slow-motion trauma, and impoverished children are more likely than their middle-class peers to suffer from chronic physiological stress and exhibit antisocial behavior….Relieving children of an ambient trauma improves their lives and, indeed, relieved of these burdens, children from poorer households are more likely to follow the path from high-school graduation to college and then full-time employment.”
You can read the article in its entirety here: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2018/03/welfare-childhood/555119/
I’ve gone through such a range of emotions since hearing about Parkland twelve days ago. After the massacre at Sandy Hook, I was furious that the public support for gun reform wasn’t being translated to the halls of the Statehouse, and I started GunSenseVT, an organization to champion the common ground on the issue of guns and bring balance to the conversation. We have had some successes and built a strong grassroots movement, but it has still been an uphill battle. So, when I learned about Parkland, my first reaction was one of anguish and hopelessness. Not only had young innocent lives been lost, but yet again we were going to witness the slaughter of children — and do nothing.
Then, I watched Emma Gonzales speak and watched her cut right through the rhetoric that has been used again and again to paralyze any progress on this issue.
Soon after, my fellow debut authors, including Sayantani DasGupta, Amelia Brunskill, and Melissa Ostrom began a conversation that led to the hashtag #kidlitforkidslives and the desire to show the students speaking out that we were standing with them. I created a website, and we began collecting open letters of support from the kidlit community.
Here are some excerpts from the letters:
“You are taking your grief and doing something powerful with it. Your forthright way of speaking out, of demanding change, is breaking the mold of all of the other mass shootings. And I want you to know that, even if you don’t see us, don’t hear us, we hear you. We’re listening. We’re watching. And you have more support here than you can imagine. So, ignore the hatred as much as you can. Remember that fear is often the motivation for hate. Carry on through the days when it feels as though nobody is listening. You’re doing something new, something unprecedented.”
— Brian Lies, Author/Illustrator
“So now, inspired by your courage, I not only stand with you and support you, I’m joining you in action. And I’m sorry I’m so late to this fight. I’m pledging today to write letters. To make phone calls. To vote. To march. Always in favor of gun control. Because I hear you here in Colorado. And I’ll spread the word to make your voices heard from shore to shore of our great nation.”
— Jean Reidy, Author
“What I want you to know most, what I want you to hold onto tightly, is that your voices are the authentic ones now. Adults are supposed to be the authorities, right? We are supposed to be the moral compasses, the wisdom that comes with age—but we’re not right now. YOU ARE.”
— Tamara Ellis Smith, Author
“What I remember about being a kid — being a teen — is that grown ups looked down on us. Our voices, our ideas, our passions — they didn’t appear to be worthy in the world. What I want you to know now is that we are looking UP at you. Your voices, ideas and passions are what we need to make room for, to receive, and to act upon.”
— Liz Garton Scanlon, Author
“Dear Parkland Students, thank you–for giving a voice to this tragedy. For brandishing the truth like a sword and riding into battle against opponents no less formidable than the most powerful politicians and special interests on the planet. Your fire reignites my own. It inspires–because you’re right: there is nothing more precious than YOU. Nothing more important to our collective futures.”
— Kristen Pettit, Executive Editor
“Never doubt your gut feeling that something is wrong. Never doubt your ability to fix it.”
— Lori Snyder, Teacher and Author
“You have friends all over the world now, and though I know they can’t fully replace the ones you have lost, know that your heroism and fierceness will mend us.”
— Jeanne Dutton, YA author, College Professor
“You are staring into the eye of the storm and attacking it with a vengeance, no let up. Stick to your ideals. Use your wonderful voices to go out and change the world. I am with you. I believe in you. You are the future.”
— Kim Turrisi, Young Adult Author
“One thing that impresses me is that you are working so well together, that you share both the limelight and the work, that you are inspiring legions of young people to join you, that you’ve created a big enough tent that people can respond to the call from wherever they are, physically, politically, emotionally. This is how you build a movement — with other people. You’re doing that.”
— Dashka Slater, Author
“You teach us that angels exist in hallways and classrooms And podiums and behind microphones And holding doors and speaking truths.
You make us remember to gasp out the wrongs of this world. You make us remember to say there should be no such thing as ‘being silent’
With our voices With our votes With our hearts”
— Carrie Jones, Author
“I will work to be as brave as you are. I will try to risk more and fear less. And if it feels like I’m failing–I’ll keep trying to do what needs to be done anyway. That is what courage is. I see that in you.”
— Kim Sabatini, Author
Your anger gives me hope.
Your readiness to burn it all down; your fiery rage that these tragedies are allowed to happen over and over over again; your quivering, livid faces as you call out the gutless lawmakers that pride money over lives… your fury is my breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Maybe I shouldn’t fan the flames, and maybe I shouldn’t embrace the red hot emotions we’re all feeling right now. Maybe I should encourage you to be diplomatic as you drink hot coffee around large tables, grateful to be invited to the discussion. But also? If you want to fling that cup of coffee into the face of anyone who has chosen cash over your friends’ lives, I wouldn’t scold you. If you want to scream until your voices create the tornado that tears down the status quo sky we’ve all been living under, I won’t cower.
Your anger feeds us. Your anger fuels us. Your anger unifies us.
Maintain your rage. Share your sorrow. Keep demanding action. And if they offer only simpering words and patronizing burbles? I know your anger will propel you forward.
You know what happens after fire and fury burns it all down? A phoenix rises from the ashes. A new day is born.
— Kari Anne Holt, Author
“By terrible chance, this path has chosen you and it will not be smooth. Some will disparage you and some will mock you. Some will seek to bring you down. Please know that you have all of us behind you and though we can’t stop the arrows we will gladly take them in your place.
You are the Mockingjay. You are Starr. You are Martin, and you are bringing Martin’s dream. We will follow you.
You are the future and the past will fade in the brilliance of your light.”
— Janet Fox, Author
“If you are the arrowhead, then we must be the shaft and the fletching. As you fly into battle, we must be with you—behind you—every step of the way. Lending you strength, carrying your voices, protecting you from those who would stop you from achieving your goals.”
— Victori Jafari, Mother, Teacher, and Writer of Children’s books
“In Eastern traditions, the master knows the greatest teaching comes from sitting at the feet of students and I would tell you we are sitting at your feet but we do not have time for pretty metaphors now.
So I will tell you we are standing marching rising up with you behind you beside you.”
— Sayantani DasGupta, Author
“You are inspiring all of us to try again, no matter the odds. You are giving us hope. It’s not enough to tweet our disapproval, or to post angry Facebook memes. We need to stand up, speak out, and MARCH.”
Coming up with the right title for a novel is always a process. I had the working title I used when writing it, but I knew that wouldn’t be the final version. A year ago, I bounced ideas off my critique partners, but none of them felt quite right. Over the past month, my editor and I e-mailed back and forth with one brainstormed list after another, but we weren’t quite satisfied. Then TODAY we landed on the perfect title for the novel:
THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS
It cuts right to the heart of the story, and it’s such a natural fit – and there has been much rejoicing!
In the The Benefits of Being an Octopus I explore how difficult — yet how necessary — it is to develop friendships cross barriers. This TED Talk by Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge centers on a great examples of two friends who were able to maintain their relationship in a true and honest way, despite their political differences. It’s worth a listen.
One of the major themes in my novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, centers on the power of finding your own voice. Sometimes the obstacles in front of us feel way too overwhelming to tackle. On top of that there is the failure — in public! around people you know! — that can keep us from speaking up. But often if we’re able to push back against that fear, it can be possible to take one tiny step forward. And then another step forward. And another. And before you know it, you’ve grown so big that now the obstacles are looking up at you, and THEY are the ones getting overwhelmed.
Today, I had the good fortune to speak with Chris Lenois of Green Mountain Mornings on WKVT radio and talk about the importance of speaking up in light of the white supremacist gatherings happening in Charlottesville and other places. Even if it’s hard, and even if we’re afraid we’re going to do it wrong, we can’t afford to be silent.
Here is my column that served as the basis for our conversation:
Our collective horror over the events in Charlottesville was deep and palpable. But just as pressing was the question: “What can we do about it?”
One of the videos that made the rounds on social media soon after was a Saturday Night Live clip with Tina Fey eating sheet cake in reaction to the horrors of the news. I’m all for sheet cake, but that cannot be the end of the sentence.
The cake may be the short-term band-aid our soul needs until we can find our way to action, but we must act. Tina Fey urged people to stay home and let the white supremacists march in a vacuum, but our silence will not speak louder than their rallies.
There were no headlines during the Jim Crowe era about the thousands who stayed home and didn’t join the KKK. Instead, the actions of the Klan echoed throughout society, just as the message of the Charlottesville white supremacists could echo throughout our country today if left unchecked. And that is a dangerous prospect.
A call to action issued by the Daily Stormer (a fascist website that has since been taken down by GoDaddy) laid out a clear marketing strategy that draws on the same dynamics in our society that shaped the last election: the swaths of disaffected white men who were taught to bottle up their emotions and assume their superiority, and who, when economic success hasn’t been forthcoming, have ended up angry and eager to blame. The white supremacists are using their voices, trying to recruit. What are we going to do with our voices?
I used to think there were benefits to the way our society’s racism came into clearer focus during President Obama’s tenure because finally whites wouldn’t be able to pretend it didn’t exist, and we’d be able to address it more directly.
But in the week after Charlottesville, it felt instead like opening up this box of ugliness was only going to embolden other racists, anti-Semites, and white supremacists. What happens when people start feeling like it’s okay to say blatantly racist things out loud?
When gripes about “political correctness” really mean that we shouldn’t have basic societal norms that require decency towards our fellow humans? Those social norms are vital for the same reason we have laws that instill consequences for assault and murder. A functional, democratic society can’t exist without them.
But those social norms don’t exist in places where people don’t value them, and they will disappear from other areas if the loudest voices are the ones peddling hate and racism.
And people understand this. When 75 white supremacists rallied in Boston to show their strength, 40,000 counter protesters showed up to march in the name of love and Black Lives Matter.
Last week in Keene, N.H., hundreds lined Main Street in love, lighting each other’s candles and reminding each other to “Be the light.” The day after Charlottesville, 144 folks gathered at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center’s Local Love Brigade event to send love postcards to key organizations in the area.
These voices make a difference. The day the love postcards arrived, we received a note from a woman who works at a Jewish center at UVA expressing her deep gratitude for the postcards and raising the possibility that the student leaders at the center might start a Local Love Brigade of their own. “From kindness, comes kindness,” she said. “From light, to light.”
Together we can drown out those who hate. We need to make it clear to those the white supremacists are trying to intimidate that they are not alone, and that we will never stand by and watch our country become more racist rather than less. We need to talk about it at work, in classrooms, at the grocery store, and at school pick-up. And when a neighbor makes a casual yet racist remark, we need to be ready to respond. Even if we don’t yet feel ready to engage that neighbor in a discussion of racism and white privilege, a simple reply of, “I wouldn’t put it that way” is a decent start. You might be by yourself in that moment, but know that you are connected to a long line a people whispering in your ear, “Be the light.” Because if we care about making our country a more just and compassionate place, silence is not an option.
Ann Braden lives in Brattleboro and serves on the leadership team for GunSenseVT, the Local Love Brigade, and the Windham County Action Network (WeCAN). She writes about the joys and struggles of staying engaged in democracy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
It is important to understand how hard people in poverty are often working. The reality came through loud and clear when I did research for The Benefits of Being an Octopus, and I am glad Betsy Rader is speaking up about her own experiences in her Washington Post Opinion piece: “I was born in poverty in Appalachia. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ doesn’t speak for me.” Click on the link below to read it in its entirety.
I know that my family lived on $6,000 per year because as children, we sat down with pen and paper to help find a way for us to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, much less live on credit. She bought our clothes at discount stores. Thrift was not inimical to our being; it was the very essence of our being…
It isn’t a character flaw that keeps someone in poverty. It isn’t their unwillingness to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, it is the very conditions of poverty that keeps them in poverty.
The problem with living in constant economic insecurity is not a lack of thrift, it is that people in these circumstances are always focused on the current crisis. They can’t plan for the future because they have so much to deal with in the present. And the future seems so bleak that it feels futile to sacrifice for it. What does motivate most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to achieve it. But sometimes that takes help.
Yes, I worked hard, but I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance. The truth is that people helped us out: My public school’s guidance counselor encouraged me to go to college. The government helped us out: I received scholarships and subsidized federal loans to help pay my educational expenses. The list of helpers goes on.