Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Red state, blue state, Hannah and Ashley

A reader who saw my posting about, also suggests (Thanks Carol!) She calls it the coolest website ever and God's gift to fiction writers. She's right.

The site is the creation of Laura Wattenberg who labels it the "guide to every aspect of baby name style." You plug in a name and up pops a graph that displays the waxing and waning of the popularity of the name. My first stop was the obvious. JILL was #109 in popularity in the 1950s when my mother chose it. MARY dropped from #1 in 1890 to #63 in 2004. SUSAN graphs out like a witch's hat. From hardly there in the 1890s to a rapid rise to #4 in the 1950s and then a plunge. That's proof that every other girl in my high school class was named Susan.

Type in MEREDITH and you can see it shift from blue (a boy's name) to pink (the #153 in popularity in girl name in the 1980s).

Wattenberg (Laura -- #21 in 1880s; #16 in the 1960s; #129 in 2004) also has a blog that examines names as cultural indicators. Her latest posting analyzes name popularity according to red-blue states. For example, you'd be more likely to meet little Hannahs, Annas and Abigails populating the pre-schools in red states; at the birthday parties in coastal urban centers, guests would be Ashley, Sarah and Caroline.

As Laura explains, the strength of tradition seems to be biggest theme. Red staters are more prone to neologize--to create new names from surnames (Tanner), place names (Brooklyn), or simply appealing sounds (Kaden). Blue staters are more likely to stick to traditional naming stock. "In other words, the political conservatives turn out to be the naming activists, and the political progressives are the naming conservatives."

So, if you're naming a baby -- or a character in a novel -- make sure to check it out here first.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Website for Word Lovers

I love words, looking them up in dictionaries, moving them around in a sentence just to see what happens. In the writing class I teach at juvenile hall, I frequently challenge the kids to open a book at random, pick a half dozen words and make a poem out of it. Try it yourself sometime when you need inspiration.

Knowing about my word fixation, my friend Susie told me about this great web site that takes "found poetry" to a new level.

Now I'm addicted; it's better than computer Solitaire for avoiding getting down to real work. Wordcount ( is described as an "interactive presentation of the 86,800 most frequently used English words."

In case you're wondering, THE is #1 and CONQUISTADOR ("a leader in the Spanish conquest of America and esp. of Mexico and Peru in the 16th century") is #86,800. Those are the guys with the weird hats.

Go to the site, launch Wordcount, and start by filling in the word of your choice. What you get is your chosen word with its ranking, followed by the four or five next in order. When I plugged in my name -- Jill -- it came up at the 8,335 spot. The words around it created a mysterious poem with a definite religious flavor.


(I imagine my personal warning angel looking like actress Emma Thompson in "Angels in America.")


Try it yourself and then post your findings here. I'd love to see the results of your random poetry.

A warning to parents: Yes, pretty much any off-color word that you can imagine is included on Wordcount. We English-speakers definitely use them a lot. For example, the SH** word (#4499) follows right after TAXI.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

October author events

Here’s where and when I’ll be reading and signing books.

Sunday, October 2 at 2:30pm
Capitola Book Café
1475 41st Avenue, Capitola, CA 95010831-462-4415
Join me for a family event celebrating the complexities and blessings of the foster care system. I’ll be reading from my new middle reader novel, featuring Cal, an eleven-year-old who finds herself in a group home with four other girls and being watched over by a strange old woman everyone refers to as the Knitting Lady. This event is supported by and in appreciation of CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates, who are dedicated to provide a voice for abused and neglected children in the juvenile court process. Treats are provided and conversation is encouraged during this important and fun event.

Saturday, October 8, 12:30
Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Trade show
Oakland Convention Center
Look for me at the Henry Holt exhibit

A rave from the staff at Hicklebees

Check out what the staff at Hicklebee's -- the great children's book store in San Jose -- has to say:

The Mercury News review

Kim Boatman of the San Jose Mercury News wrote an especially perceptive review of What I Call Life

A sensitive portrait of children's life in foster care
By Kim Boatman
Mercury News
A novel for young readers about a child cast adrift in the foster-care system could take plenty of wrong turns. There's potential here for maudlin hand-wringing and the sort of angst that typifies too much young adult fiction. But Santa Cruz author Jill Wolfson deftly negotiates all these potential pitfalls in delivering a warm and genuine first novel, ``What I Call Life.''

Through the person of one Carolina Agnes London Indiana Florence Ohio Renee Naomi Ida Alabama Lavender, or Cal Lavender for short, Wolfson offers insights about foster care, the resiliency of the human spirit and how, in times of need, families are sometimes stitched together under the most unlikely circumstances.

Wolfson, a former Mercury News writer and editor, has written extensively about the juvenile justice and family court systems. But her story this time is wisely personal and intimate, told by Cal, a young girl whose world comes unraveled when her unstable mother loses control in a public place and the authorities move in to protect Cal. Her disbelief at finding herself in a foster home neatly captures how not just children but plenty of adults feel about their lives.

``Everyone is always living her story.

``When I first heard this, I thought: What kind of nutty philosophy is that? Who would buy it? Everyone. Always?

``All I had to do was look at my own personal situation to see how wrongheaded this kind of thinking happened to be. I looked around at where I was living at the time and with whom I was living and shook my head. No, sir. This isn't my story. This is nothing like my life.''

So begins ``What I Call Life,'' and Wolfson proceeds to neatly intertwine Cal's story with a back story involving the orphan trains of the late 19th and early 20th century that brought children to the Midwest and West from Eastern cities.

Just how the girls cope is part of the story, too. Cal works furiously to control the environment around her, presenting a facade to the world that includes ``My Face for Unbearably Unpleasant and Embarrassing Situations.'' Another girl doesn't talk. A third invents a sister with whom she plans to reunite. Together, under the wily, subtle guidance of a foster mother known simply as the Knitting Lady, they and other girls in the home learn to live their own stories.

There is wisdom to be found here, but Wolfson doesn't smack her young readers over the head with newfound knowledge. Instead, she delivers believable dialogue in a nicely paced, sensitive book.
By Jill Wolfson
Henry Holt, 272 pp., $16.95
Ages 10 and up

Great Reviews for What I Call Life

I'm getting some great feedback on my new novel for middle-readers.

*Starred review from Booklist Nov. 2005

"After her mother has a breakdown in the middle of the public library, Cal is taken to live in a group home, which houses five other girls from troubled families. The young residents of the orange-colored Pumpkin House wear their wounds inside and out: Whitney is brash, bubbly, and determined to find her long-separated sister; timid Monica is whiny and full of complaints; Fern is an incessant giggler who sports a black eye; quiet, intelligent Amber has pulled every hair from her head, eyebrows, and lashes. Cal feels different. She's sure she is not a whiner, not a fusser; she shows no emotion and she's very organized. After all, she's held herself and her mother together for all of her eleven years. The Knitting Lady, the girls' tiny, elderly guardian, slowly begins the girls' healing process by sharing her love for knitting and storytelling. As the girls experience quiet time, reflection, and bonding with each other and their guardian, the Knitting Lady helps the girls recognize their own goodness and worth.Wolfson paints her characters with delightful authenticity. Her novel is a treasure of quiet good humor and skillful storytelling that conveys subtle messages about kindness, compassion, and the gift of family regardless of its configuration."--Frances Bradburn

One of the hot new kids’ books at the 2005 Book Expo AmericaPublisher’s Weekly

A Junior Library Guild selection. Check it out at

Gr 5-8-When her unstable mother has a psychotic episode, Cal is placed in a group home run by an elderly woman called "The Knitting Lady." The 11-year-old's new roommates are four girls, all in different stages of denial about their own situations. Cal, who prides herself on her independence and is fiercely protective of her mother, insists that she'll be going home any day and that what is happening is not at all part of her real life. Meanwhile, time passes, the girls learn to knit, and the Knitting Lady tells stories about two girls from long ago: one who was abandoned at an orphanage by her own mother, and another who was sent west on an orphan train. Set against these narratives, the present-day story involves shifting alliances, a search for a younger sister who may or may not exist, and a clear-eyed view of life in a group home and/or with "fosters" (regarding placements, one girl tells Cal, "Everything gets decided behind your back"). The author has a knack for vivid descriptions, suspenseful plotting, and a clear telling of the stories-within-the-story. A thoughtful and ultimately hopeful book, this novel has flashes of humor that lighten the sometimes painful events. Not all readers will take to it, but those who do will find it resonant and absorbing.-Lauralyn Persson, Wilmette Public Library, IL

August 15 Kirkus Reviews: Cal Lavender (11) has perfected what she calls "My Face for Unbearably Unpleasant and Embarrassing Situations," which unfortunately is coming in handy following her mother's latest public outburst. While the story never gives Betty, Cal's mother, a specific diagnosis, her mental health causes Cal to be taken into protective custody until such time as Betty is deemed a functioning parent. Assuming that her stay at the group home, dubbed the Pumpkin House, is simply a detour from her real life, Cal initially resists getting to know the other girls. These include Whitney, a girl with an imaginary sister and a motor mouth; Amber, who can't stop pulling out all of her hair; and Monica, who jumps at her own shadow. The head of the group home, simply known as The Knitting Lady, offers pearls of wisdom in the form of stories, offering the girls a glimpse into each other's lives. While the odd characters are interesting, it's the smart and unique voice that makes this story shine. (Fiction. 10-14)