West Virginia Book Festival

Zane Grey and his West Virginia roots

Today is the 140th birthday of the man who, with all due respect to Owen Wister and Louis L’Amour, might have more to do with the development of the western genre in American literature than anyone else.

But if it weren’t for his ancestors in what would become West Virginia — and one ancestor in particular — would Zane Grey have ever set pen to paper?

Well … probably, yes, he still would have. But there’s no denying that Grey’s first novel, “Betty Zane,” was the story of his aunt and her family, the first permanent white settlers in Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia). The story goes that in 1782, during the American Revolution, Fort Henry in Wheeling was besieged by American Indians (with some British soldiers and Tory colonists). The fort’s defenders ran out of gunpowder, and Betty Zane dashed out of the fort back to the Zanes’ cabin, where she gathered up a bunch of gunpowder before running back into the fort.

Did it really happen that way? As the West Virginia Encyclopedia notes, “Some historians are skeptical of the historical accuracy of Betty Zane’s deed, but the legend persists.”

As for Betty Zane’s descendant, he was born Jan. 31, 1872, in Zanesville, Ohio. He tried a few careers, including baseball player and dentist, before he finished “Betty Zane” in 1903. He had to self-publish it, and it wasn’t until his most famous book, “Riders of the Purple Sage,” nearly a decade later that his name as a writer was made.

I’ve never been a big Western fan, but a couple of years ago, I read “Riders of the Purple Sage.” I  wouldn’t call it great literature. It’s got a lot of stilted dialogue and two-dimensional characters. (And if you’re a Mormon, be warned; they are absolutely the villains of the book. Wow, he hates Mormons.) But the story is more nuanced that I expected, and the description of the sometimes beautiful, sometimes bleak landscape of the West is stirring. It’s not hard to see why it’s a landmark in the genre.

Stephen King revisited

Back in my younger days I was a dedicated Stephen King fan but I found my interest waning after September 11, 2001. Too much real-life horror kept me from the fictional kind. But recently I couldn’t resist picking up his newest book. 11/22/63 is the story of Jake Epping, a 35 year old English teacher who is given the opportunity to step into the past. His goal is to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from entering the Texas School Book Depository on that fateful November day. But, as all science fiction readers know, time-travel is never easy.

As a child of the ’60s, and with an interest in the role West Virginia played in the 1960 election, I’ve always been fascinated with JFK and Jackie. And this detail-rich account is surprisingly satisfying. The writing reveals a mature, thoughtful King who obviously did a considerable amount of research to pull this off. At 800-plus pages it is a tome, but I found myself reading every spare minute for two weeks. Is it too long? Yes, but I didn’t want it to end.

I’m going to give Mr. King another chance. If you are looking for a good story that will see you through the cold winter nights, check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

At the 2005 West Virginia Book Festival, Jack Gantos talks with Ian Perry, 8; his sister, Shiloh, 7; and their mother, Tammy Perry. Gantos was named the 2012 Newbery Medal winner on Monday. Photo by Chris Dorst

The name of the latest Newbery Medal winner may be a familiar one to West Virginia Book Festival-goers.

Jack Gantos, one of the headliners from the 2005 Book Festival, won the annual children’s literature prize from the American Library Association. His winning novel, “Dead End in Norvelt,” is an “achingly funny romp through a dying New Deal town,” according to the ALA.

The protagonist is a boy named Jack Gantos — no surprise, since several of Gantos’ books rely heavily on his personal experience. He spent part of his childhood in the real Norvelt, a community planned by the New Deal-era federal government for laid-off coal miners in western Pennsylvania. (The town’s name comes from the last syllables of the name of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.)

After he won the award, Gantos told The Associated Press on Monday where the idea for “Dead End in Norvelt” came from:

Gantos said he thought of “Dead End” after giving a eulogy for his aunt that looked back on Norvelt’s special past.

“I talked about the spirit of people helping people, and how people really banded together,” Gantos said during a telephone interview from his home in Boston. “And at the end of my eulogy, a lot of people came up to me and said they didn’t know about the history of Norvelt. I love history, and I love humor, so I thought history could use a little humor.”

I’m told by a reliable witness that, when he was at the Book Festival in 2005, Gantos was very funny, aiming his remarks at the children in the audience, but giving the adults enough to keep them interested as well. He talked about the importance of keeping a journal, and how that influenced his novels.

By that point in his career, he’d already been a National Book Award finalist for “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” and a Newbery Honor winner for “Joey Pigza Loses Control.”

Speaking of Newbery Honors (a runner-up citation), two of them were named this year: “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” by Eugene Yelchin, and “Inside Out & Back Again” by Thanhha Lai (the winner of the National Book Award for young people’s literature).

The ALA also announced the winner of the Caldecott Medal, given to a children’s illustrator each year. This year’s winner was Chris Raschka, illustrator of “A Ball for Daisy,” a wordless tale of what happens to a little dog when she loses her favorite toy. Several other awards were announced, so if you’re interested, check them out on the ALA website.

Videos from last fall’s WV Book Festival

The good people at West Virginia Writers have produced a couple of videos from last fall’s West Virginia Book Festival and put them up on YouTube. First up, National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon sits down for an interview with WV Writers member Edwina Pendarvis (and the whole thing was arranged by blog contributor Phyllis Wilson Moore).

Also, several West Virginia humor writers — Karin Fuller, Terry McNemar, Rick Steelhammer and Diane Tarantini — gathered to talk about their work and about humor in the Mountain State.

In both cases, the videos are broken up into several parts on YouTube. Watch them now, or squirrel them away against the 10 long months until this year’s Book Festival.

“Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend”

Authors: Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud

Illustrator: John Holyfield

Publisher: Candlewick Press

“Belle, The Last Mule at Gee’s Bend” is a timely picture book related to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights era and Black History Month (coming up in February).

In this depiction of true historical events, Alex, a boy of elementary school age, is bored.  He sits and waits on the porch of a rural store in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, as his mother shops. There is nothing to do except watch a mule graze in a garden across the road.

When Miz Pettway, a native “Bender,” joins him on the bench, she tells him the mule, Belle, is hers. She adds, Belle is a hero and allowed to eat anything she wants in the garden.  Alex asks how a mule can be a hero and Miz Pettway explains: Belle had the honor of being one of two mules chosen to pull the farm wagon holding the casket of Martin Luther King Jr. And the story unfolds.

As unlikely as it seems, this picture book about the Civil Rights Era and the efforts to organize voter’s registration in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, tells the painful truth in a soft heartfelt way without being morbid or dwelling on the civil wrongs of the era.

West Virginians will be pleased to note the illustrator, John Holyfield, is a native of Clarksburg.  In addition to producing fine art in his Virginia studio, he illustrates picture books about the black experience.

Get out of my head, Archer Mayor

Every so often, I (like many readers) go through my books and get rid of ones that I’ve read and won’t read again, or ones that I’ve decided that I won’t ever read. Last weekend, I did just that, and a couple of dozen books got pulled off the shelf and headed toward the door.

One of the books I went back and forth on was “Open Season,” the first book in a Vermont mystery/police procedural series by Archer Mayor. There are 20 books, featuring protagonist Joe Gunther. I think I became intrigued by the series a few years ago because someone compared it to K.C. Constantine’s Rocksburg series (which I love).

But I’ve had “Open Season” for a few years and haven’t cracked it, and so this past weekend, I put it in the library donation pile.

And then on Wednesday, I’m checking the Book Festival’s Twitter account (@WVBookFestival), and I see that we’ve been followed.

By Archer Mayor. Author of “Open Season.”

It’s hard to do a full-body double-take when you’re sitting down, but I think I pulled it off.

Anyway, I know a sign when I see one. “Open Season” has been pulled out of the pile, and I’ll be reading it. Soon. (And if you’d care to join me, Mayor says on his website that “Open Season” is being offered as a free e-book for a limited time.)

2011 meant some bookish baby names

Although the official results won’t be in until the Social Security Administration weighs in later this year, many people have weighed in with some of the most popular names for new babies in 2011 — and one list has several names with some literary associations.

Pamela Redmond Satran, co-author of “The Baby Name Bible,” wrote recently about the most-searched names in 2011 on her website, nameberry.com. Among the most-searched names:

| Charlotte is at No. 1 on the girls list; Satran calls it “an elegant name with literary cred, from Charlotte Bronte to ‘Charlotte’s Web.'”

| The No. 2 girl’s name is Seraphina, which happens to be the name former Charleston resident Jennifer Garner and husband Ben Affleck chose for their second daughter a couple of years ago. No word if either had read Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, which features the witch Serafina Pekkela (described by Washington Post critic Michael Dirda as “wise and profoundly sexy”).

| Finn has only been used in the U.S. over the past decade, Satran says. It now sits at No. 2 on her list for boys. The initial push may have come from Huck Finn, but a character on the TV show “Glee” has driven its success in the past couple of years, she says.

| No. 4 on the boy’s list is Milo. Last year was the 50th anniversary of “The Phantom Tollbooth” and its protagonist, Milo. Coincidence? Hmmmmmm …

| Jasper is No. 5 on the boys’ list, almost certainly because that’s the name of one of the Cullen vampires in the “Twilight” books.

| No. 6 on the boy’s list is Atticus, which I’d imagine is almost completely attributable to “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. (Harper, incidentally, is Nameberry’s top-searched unisex name.)

| Oliver, No. 7 on the boy’s list, is the most popular boys’ name in Britain, Satran says, and that must have at least something to do with that Twist boy.

| Alice is probably the most traditional female name on the list, at No. 8, and Satran notes several writers with that name, including Walker, Sebold, Munro and McDermott, as well as a certain children’s heroine who fell down the rabbit hole.

| Scarlett is No. 9 on the list, but that’s probably more to do with Ms. Johannson than Ms. O’Hara.

Satran also lists the top 100 for each gender, and there are several literary names there as well (it does my hard-boiled heart good to see Dashiell at No. 28 on her list).

To call Walter Dean Myers a West Virginian, you have to rely on a somewhat narrow definition of the phrase. He was born in Martinsburg, but his mother died when he was a toddler and he was taken to Harlem to live with a couple there. The New York City area is the setting for many of his books, and he lives now in Jersey City.

In this photo from December 2010, author Walter Dean Myers takes a look around his old Harlem neighborhood. AP photo.

But when you get a national honor like Myers just did, everyone wants a piece of you, and we’ll happily claim our share.

Myers was announced as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature on Wednesday, the third person to hold the position since it was created in 2008. He’ll formally accept the post in a ceremony next week at the Library of Congress, whose Center for the Book was one of two groups to choose Myers. The other was an arm of the Children’s Book Council, a trade group of children’s book publishers.

As ambassador — which The New York Times described as “a sort of poet laureate of the children’s book world who tours the country for two years, speaking at schools and libraries about reading and literacy” — Myers, 74, follows “Bridge to Terabithia” author Katherine Paterson (who also spent some time living in West Virginia) and “Time Warp Trio” author Jon Scieszka (who, I don’t know, probably drove through the state at some point).

Myers is very different from those authors, and from many young adult authors writing today. As Julie Bosman wrote in the Times:

The choice of Mr. Myers represents a departure from his predecessors and is likely to be seen as a bold statement. His books chronicle the lives of many urban teenagers, especially young, poor African-Americans. While his body of work includes poetry, nonfiction and the occasional cheerful picture book for children, its standout books offer themes aimed at young-adult readers: stories of teenagers in violent gangs, soldiers headed to Iraq and juvenile offenders imprisoned for their crimes.

While many young-adult authors shy away from such risky subject material, Mr. Myers has used his books to confront the darkness and despair that fill so many children’s lives.

But he does so, critics say, with a sense of possibility. Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 2008, Leonard S. Marcus praised Mr. Myers’s body of work. “Drugs, drive-by shootings, gang warfare, wasted lives — Myers has written about all these subjects with nuanced understanding and a hard-won, qualified sense of hope,” Mr. Marcus wrote.

He’s certainly got the resume for the job: two-time Newbery Honor winner (“Scorpions” and “Somewhere in the Darkness”), three-time National Book Award finalist (“Monster,” “Autobiography of My Dead Brother,” “Lockdown”) and numerous other awards. Still, it might sound strange to have a 74-year-old man hailed as someone who can relate to today’s teenagers in his books.

But Myers knows what he speaks of: he dropped out of high school, spent a few dead-end years in the Army, and worked a succession of jobs before finding his footing as a writer. In a profile last year by The Associated Press, he said:

“I know what falling off the cliff means … I know from being considered a very bright kid to being considered like a moron and dropping out of school.”

No matter what else was going on in his teenage life, though, Myers continued to read — and he says he wants to instill the idea that reading is not optional in today’s parents. The Times reported:

“I think that what we need to do is say reading is going to really affect your life,” he said in an interview at his book-cluttered house here in Jersey City, adding that he hoped to speak directly to low-income minority parents. “You take a black man who doesn’t have a job, but you say to him, ‘Look, you can make a difference in your child’s life, just by reading to him for 30 minutes a day.’ That’s what I would like to do.”


George Whitman and a missed opportunity in Paris

The Shakespeare and Company bookstore, on the Rue de la Bucherie on Paris' Left Bank. AP photo

George Whitman tried to ask me about my writing once, and I blew it.

Whitman, the longtime proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, died last month, two days after his 98th birthday. As The Associated Press wrote in his obituary, “For more than half a century, his eclectic Left Bank shop was a beacon for readers.”

My encounter with him came several years ago. It was a gorgeous spring day. Pope John Paul II had recently died, and they were holding a funeral mass for him at Notre Dame (just across the Seine from the bookstore), and the bells could be heard throughout the area. The whole scene was something else.

We were spending the day browsing around the Left Bank, and one of our planned stops was Shakespeare and Company. It’s still a literary landmark for English-speaking tourists in Paris, even though it’s not the same place that gained fame as a haven for the Lost Generation in the years between the World Wars.

Before our trip, I’d read something about the bookstore — and the semi-crazy bookstore owner who would invite aspiring writers to come to dinner with him and discuss what they had done and what they were working on. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I entered the store; we were just going to spend a few moments, buy something and move on.

So I’m in the bookstore just a couple of minutes — and suddenly, this tall, gaunt fellow with unkempt white hair was next to me.

“What have you written?” he asked, without preamble.

I was taken aback, and stammered something like, “I’m sorry?”

He repeated his question, as if talking to an idiot. This time, I shook my head and said, “Nothing.” (I may have said, “Nothing yet.”)

Really? Nothing? I mean, I’d been working for the Gazette for a decade. I’d written several freelance pieces, and a couple of abortive attempts at a novel. Of course, I’d written something. I wasn’t Joyce or Hemingway, but …

It was too late. He shook his head and made some dismissive noise, and he was off, looking for other potential dinner companions.

I didn’t mind a whole lot. We had other plans, and too many sights to see, and not enough time to see them. But I couldn’t help but think about my encounter with Whitman when I read about his death. His daughter, Sylvia Whitman, said she’ll keep the bookshop open. I hope I get the chance to visit again.