About Me

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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Reflections on college admissions

In light of new questions being asked about the college admissions process (see this, for example) , and my own concern about the move to privilege specialization and science as admission criteria, I can't help but think of how at least one historical figure might have fared . . .


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Holidays: Read Don't Know Where for 99 cents. Yes, 99 cents.

I want to get The Snipesville Chronicles into the hands of every kid in America (and increase my adult readership, too.) So, I'm trying an experiment: You can now buy Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (The Snipesville Chronicles)for 99 cents on Kindle or Nook.

Yes, 99 cents.

I have a strong following in Georgia, but there are 49 other states, not to mention the U.K., Canada, and every other English-speaking country.

After four years, I know with absolute certainty that my books speak to people, both kids and adults. And now everyone can afford them. If you would like to give a Kindle book as a gift (think electronic stocking stuffer), there's a button for that on the Amazon page.

Please share on Facebook, tell your friends (or just send them a copy), and help me get non-boring history a larger audience than ever before.

Thanks, all, and have a great holiday season!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Puppets, Manga, and History

I had a couple of conversations last week that have stuck with me. One was with a fellow schools performer, an affable magician and puppeteer, who recalled a child in his audience who got malicious pleasure from pointing out--loudly and repeatedly-- that neither magic tricks nor puppets are real.
The other was with a fan (and teacher) at the Decatur Book Festival, who praised the historical settings of my Snipesville Chronicles books. "Kids need something more than manga," she said passionately.

These stories may seem only tangentially connected.  But they both led me to think about the many ways in which commercial media and modern school curricula crush children's imaginative capacities. Too much elementary education seems to me to be content-free, relying on worksheets to somehow teach kids to pass tests in math and reading. When social studies (that horrid phrase!) is taught, it is usually a mish-mash of facts that some pressure group or legislative body has determined that kids should "learn."

And manga? At least Sponge Bob has a keen eye for human foibles. What I have seen of manga has been so drop-dead banal, I reckon kids must be desperate to watch it, much less obsess on it.

History is so rich, so amazing, and so fascinating, but the amazing, rich, and fascinating bits seldom make it into American classrooms or children's programming of any kind. Far too many people think history is facts about presidents or battles, and too rarely do kids learn how life-enriching it can be to learn about the past.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Taking Imaginative Journeys

I have the best job(s) in the world: Sometimes I write, and sometimes I go to signings, and sometimes I get to talk to and have fun with kids. I just finished updating the website for my nonprofit, Imaginative Journeys. We bring non-boring history to kids, along with a bit of literature, drama, and all the other mind-expanding subjects that are vanishing from our schools. And we do it with humor and play.

Planning a kids' program is quite a bit like plotting out a book. And just as with a book, I can never be sure how the final draft will look. I'm really excited about our food camp, which is based on the premise that I'm the head chef who has just bought a truly dreadful restaurant. The kids are my apprentices, and they'll be helping me revise the menu throughout the week. During that time, we'll have guest chefs, learn a bit of food history, visit some local farms and maybe even a factory, and have a great deal of laughter (usually at my expense. Nothing entertains kids more than a goofy adult.)

We're also doing Camp Snipesville, which has time travel as its focus, and this time, we're off to the 20s and 30s. I see gangster battles and FDR in my future...

If this sounds intriguing, why not check us out? My trusty accomplices and I have portable programs that we take on the road. Lots more details at Imaginative Journeys.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hamlet and a Side of Macon

I enjoyed an amazing evening at the theatre in London last night, which isn’t all that remarkable, I suppose. Except that I’m still in Georgia.

Britain’s National Theatre is beaming selected plays to movie theatres around the globe, live. Well, sort of live: There’s a time delay, which was five hours in our case. Plenty of theatres in the United States are participating, in places like New York and Boston, but there’s only one in the whole southeast. Is it in Atlanta? Nope. Charleston? Nada. Savannah? Wrong.

It’s in Macon, the city whose name rhymes with bacon. Clearly, Macon’s more of a cultural hotbed than I’d assumed.

Sitting in the Douglas Theatre watching Hamlet felt almost like being in the Olivier auditorium itself. Perhaps because I know the National Theatre so well, I could mentally fill in the smells and the feel of the place. Before the play started, the cameras were trained on the London audience, and the sight of all those pasty faces filled me with a deep nostalgia.

Yet, I wasn’t there. The biggest problem wasn’t that I was watching the play on a screen, surprisingly enough. In fact, we who were seated three thousand miles away had a better view of the action than anyone who was actually there. At times, we felt like we were onstage with the actors.

The experience made me feel like an outsider in subtle ways. For one thing, while the London audience filled the theatre, we in Macon were just an enthusiastic twelve, scattered throughout the auditorium. We also lacked the proper refreshments: we watched the screen enviously as the Brits sipped wine or spooned ice cream in the auditorium, then we went to the lobby to chug cans of Coke forlornly in the lobby. The National Theatre allows you to bring in your refreshments; the Douglas, alas, does not.

Researching history feels much the same way as sitting in the Douglas Theatre did last night. It’s very much like viewing the past through cameras (which is what primary sources are), trying to experience the whole by looking through a select few viewpoints. I will never know how it really feels to be there, but I am grateful to see what I can, and I thoroughly enjoy the show.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Midway to the Twenty-First Century

My first visit to Midway, Georgia, was about fourteen years ago, and it was accidental. We were driving the sleepy backroads south of Savannah when suddenly I screeched, "Whoa, what's THAT?"

What had caught my eye was a Congregationalist church. In Georgia, the label is enough to define it as unusual: Congregationalism is the direct descendant of New England Puritanism, and so it's not something one expects in heavily Baptist/Methodist rural Georgia. But what really stunned me was that the church was 18th century, complete with shutters on the windows.

The church has gotten a fair amount of press since that day, but at the time, it would have been news to most colonial historians, and it certainly was to me. I managed to get the story on the place's origins. A group of Puritans had departed Dorchester, England, in the 1620s, and founded Dorchester, Massachusetts. When they ran short of land, by the late 17th century, they were looking to colonize further afield, and a party of Dorchesterites settled in (you guessed it) Dorchester, South Carolina. In search of somewhere a bit less mosquito-ridden, they abandoned the town in 1751, and trekked to Georgia  (not known as a mosquito-free zone, alas), where they founded... Dorchester.

The Brits burned down the original meetinghouse during the Revolution, but its replacement, built in 1792, is the church you can see today, along with the wonderfully creepy graveyard with its New England-style gravestones.

What's especially striking is that these Puritans had no problem with slavery, because they were making money hand over fist from African labor in their rice fields. Only in New England, where large-scale slavery was impossible thanks to the crummy soil, did Puritans seldom own slaves. It was all about profit, not principle.

Okay, back to 2010...Dorchester (now known as Midway) is still a surprisingly sleepy place, but I had a lovely time there last week at Midway Middle School and Liberty Elementary, talking to hundreds of kids .  But since the town is now on the edge of massive Fort Stewart, many of the kids belong to Army families. How strange then, to speak to this cosmopolitan group, including descendents of both English Puritans and African slaves, of another time, another place, and another war, as I explored children's lives in World War II England with them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Seeing Invisible History

So there I was, sitting comfortably in a comfy chair at Starbucks, amply supplied with caffeine, and working away happily on the third book. Everything was going swimmingly. I had a great set of plot twists, interesting new characters to work with, and a story set in the historical period I know best, the 18th century. Finally, I could use that PhD in early American history writing something people would want to read!  But I digress...

Out of the blue, the book went wrong. I finished a chapter, only to realize that I had already used up the plot points for several chapters ahead, leaving Hannah sitting outside in the piney woods of rural southeastern Georgia in 1752, waiting for a pot of water to boil over an outdoor fire. What was she thinking? I didn't know. Was she bored? If not, what was she thinking about? No clue. All she could see and all I could see were pine trees.

I packed up and went home, deciding it was time to put the writing on hold, and take to reading for inspiration. First, I tried more history. It didn't help. The history of Georgia in that period is a bit thin, so I cheated and started revisiting South Carolina history, hoping for ideas from the state next door. Thinking again about the frontier helped a little, but it wasn't that thrilling. And I really couldn't shake the strong feeling that  I was missing something big...

All at once, it came to me.

You know, for someone who claims to be an historian of religion, I can be pretty oblivious. In planning and writing Book 3, I had ignored invisible history. What I mean by that is the religious beliefs and the folklore  that livened up what to modern outsiders might just seem like a tedious landscape. The people of the past populated those spaces with ghosts, spirits, miracles, and mysteries; with tall tales and sad stories.

Native Americans would surely have had the best-developed  folklore of any group in the rural South in the mid-18th century, but they were being chased from their lands. Meanwhile, Africans and Europeans had begun weaving their own stories and beliefs around their new American homes, often drawing on the traditions of their Indian neighbors, friends, and family members. There was, of course, much exchanging of stories among these ethnic groups.  

Meanwhile, wealthier and educated settlers (who were the smallest group, but the best represented in history) were abandoning many of their supernatural beliefs. Instead, they developed a keen interest in buying and owning stuff: Houses, clothes, china, carriages, and so on. Boy, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?

My modern time travelers, however, mix with poor people in my story, and the trick now is to get them not only to witness folklore, but to believe in it.  First, I need some folklore for them to hear. So I'm reading again, and planning a trip to the Okefenokee Swamp, a rich source of spooky atmosphere and home of some of the best storytelling tradition in Georgia...

Wish me luck as I hunt ghosts and seek out tall tales. And if any of you have some cool stories from your own families, pass them along. I can borrow them outright if we both like, or rewrite them to suit!