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Building a Book Festival

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Last weekend was the inaugural Great Carson City Lit Fest, a true celebration of the arts, with the focus on books, authors and literacy. My dream is to make this one of the premier book festivals in this country. It's going to take some time to accomplish that, but you have to start somewhere, and you start by going for it.

I've attended a lot of book festivals, from small local events to major festivals like Texas and Miami. While I enjoy the big ones, I prefer the more intimate feel of festivals built by librarians or bookstores, with the help of authors and publishers. Our first year was intimate, indeed. Okay, small. We had some 1500 visitors, spread out over two and a half days. And, while we would have preferred twice or three times that number, it didn't happen this year.

That definitely was not the fault of the authors who participated. When I reached out to my publishing community, several "name" authors jumped right in. Now, the goal is to sell books. And, while books were sold, they weren't sold in the quantities that any author would hope for. But you know what? Despite that, several of these huge names promised to come back next year because of the energy we share when we all get together, and also because they really, truly want this event to succeed because it is needed here, and because it benefits Ventana Sierra, our nonprofit helping at-risk youth into safe housing and college. (More on this soon!!)

I'm going to say something now that will probably piss off a few people, but I don't mean to be nasty. The few authors who came up to me, irritated about the turnout and promising "never to return" were all self-published, and hoping to sell dozens of copies of their books. I understand the need to market your books, however you're published. But the truth is, without graciousness and networking in a positive manner, that's not going to happen because the publishing community isn't about one person. It's about all of us, supporting each other.

When I invited authors to participate, I wanted this to be a venue for local authors, as well as names. I will continue to invite those authors, who must realize that a book festival isn't just about selling books. It's about networking. Making friends. Helping each other within our careers, as my amazing cadre of author pals has done for me, and I for them, in whatever ways we can.

This is how you build a book festival—one year at a time, learning as you go and making new connections, which we did. Many, many connections, from marketing people to local bookstores to teachers and librarians, eager to help us grow a community of readers here in northern Nevada, and build the Great Carson City Lit Fest into an event that will draw crowds from across the state and even from neighboring states.

Wait till you see what we've got in store for next year!!

On Finding Peace in Living

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I am the parent of an addict. I am also a bestselling author. The two have more in common than most people suppose. My readers know the Crank trilogy—Crank, Glass and Fallout—were inspired by my daughter's addiction to crystal meth, quicksand my family has treaded for eighteen years. I say my family because addiction doesn't just belong to the addict; it belongs to everyone who loves her, everyone whose life she touches.

It started when she was in high school. She's thirty-five today, and though she's had long periods of sobriety, she is unable to maneuver the combined burdens of work, parenthood and relationships without backsliding. A recent relapse resulted in my rescuing her children, ages 3, 5 and 9, from a horrific situation and taking permanent guardianship, at least until she finds a way to survive and thrive without succumbing to the lure of "the monster." (You can read more about that here: http://ellenhopkins.livejournal.com/21124.html)

On the flip side of the coin, I'll come straight out and say when I was younger I experimented with drugs. I was a teen in the 70s, and the substances were different—mostly marijuana and psychedelics. A brief flirtation with cocaine. Diet pill speed. But it was never a daily call, and for whatever reason (good genetics?) I was able to walk away without allowing a little weekend fun to overcome common sense and a strong desire to realize success.

I have accomplished that. I've published ten bestselling contemporary YA novels, two adult novels, and have more on the way. I've established a nonprofit to help youth-in-need realize their own career goals. I'm working to build an advanced writing workshop and a world-class book festival here in Carson City. I recently adapted Crank to the stage, and watching a brilliant young actress bring the character of Kristina to life was alternately immensely satisfying and completely heart wrenching because it made me relive a dark chapter of my life that I can never bring light to. And now, I'm doing my level best to restructure the lives of my three young grandchildren, and make them feel safe and loved.

I could not accomplish all I do if I was at the mercy of a personal demon. But there are days when an evening glass or two of good cabernet call strongly. I understand the stress of celebrity, and mine is small in comparison to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's. Add the pressures of marriage and parenting, of balancing professional demands with personal commitments, high expectations on every front, sometimes life feels like it's crushing you. I am blessed not to struggle with addiction. For someone who's battling the monster, surrendering would be easy in those times.

Are the actions of an addict hurtful? Certainly. As I say in the Crank author note, it's hard to watch someone you love fall so deeply under the spell of a substance that turns him or her into a stranger. Someone you don't even want to know. Is addiction selfish? Yes. It's a monster, hungry for souls. But its victims aren't selfish; they're frail. In those moments when life closes in, squeezing, the call of the monster is stronger than the whimper of courage left inside. Tomorrow looks too far away. I hope Phillip Seymour Hoffman has found peace in death. And I pray every day my daughter can find peace in living.  
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This post is several days beyond part one, mostly because I needed time to put things in perspective. Before I do that for you, let's go back to where I left off, in a rental car with my younger daughter, Kelly, and three hungry, stinky grandchildren. The first thing we did was to feed them, of course, and while they ate I called their mother to let her know they were in my care. For once, she answered her phone. Shadowy Guy was in the background, urging her to listen.

I told her I was taking the kids to my house and asked if she wanted to say goodbye. I also wanted her to sign a paper, giving me permission to enroll them in school and seek medical care for them. It took four hours to convince her, but she finally agreed, and while the kids were happy enough to see her, they wanted to come home with Kelly and me. My daughter was thin, and her face was drawn, wrinkled beyond her age. She denied using again, but her condition said something else. We'd been there before.

Kelly and I finally started home around 3 p.m. We stopped to buy the kids clean clothes and Game Boys to entertain them on the eight-hour road trip. As we drove, the nine-year-old told us that had been the first time they'd seen their mom in days, "because she works three jobs." He also said they hadn't been out of that hotel room for "a week and a day," and all they'd done was watch TV.

Because it was so late by the time we left Vegas, we stopped for the night in Tonopah. Before dinner, we bathed the kids, carefully washing their matted hair, as the youngest two were afraid of having water poured over their heads. (After three weeks, we've convinced them it's not such a bad thing.) The little one was also terrified of the toilet. All three complained about their teeth. (A visit to the dentist confirmed the youngest has cavities in almost every tooth, and several are broken to the gum line. She has to go into the hospital so they can sedate her and fix them all at once.) We tossed their disgusting old clothes, dressed them in clean ones and went to dinner.

That night was a nightmare, at least for someone used to sleep. The children had obviously not had consistent bedtimes for quite a while, and their lack of exercise for those days was apparent. At midnight, they were bouncing off the walls. At 1:30 a.m., they were still awake. I was toast. Finally, around 2, they dozed off. The next day, before going home, we stopped by the park and watched them run, climb and slide nonstop for well over an hour.

The initial relief and excitement were soon swallowed up by the realization that this situation was very real. All our lives had changed, and there were so many details! Where would the kids sleep? How could we register the eldest for school (eight weeks late) without shot records? They needed clothes. Toys. The four-year-old was turning five in a few days. What about a birthday party? And around all that, how would I possibly continue my fall book promotion schedule?

The first few days were heavy with stress. Though everyone—my husband, our 16-year-old son, Kelly, and the friend who's living with us—pitched in to help, none was quite prepared for the adjustment period. Regular meals, baths, exercise and bedtimes proved harder to accomplish than we supposed. For the first week, the only way to get the three-year-old to sleep was to rock her. When I'd lay her down, she'd wake up and cry. So I'd rock her again. Generally, the second time worked.

Meals? Whoa. Our household eats a straightforward diet—protein, vegetables and fruits, whole grains, few carbs. For kids used to pizza, Lunchables and hotdogs, that took some getting used to. Our milk-loving little girl is lactose intolerant—something we found out the hard way! There were arguments. Meltdowns. Regular tantrums.

But then, small miracles. Boxes of clothes and toys and books began to arrive, sent by friends and total strangers. One of Kelly's acquaintances is a school nurse who could access shot records so the kids could start school and preschool. The expectations that were set began to be met. With love and guidance, meals, bath times and bedtimes have become regular. Though I've had to let some travel go, I've been able to fulfill most of my commitments, with the help of all involved.

There's more to this story, but I'll post this much for now. The next part will take some time to write. For all that we've accomplished, there's still a long way to go to put this fractured family back together.
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Since recent events are directly linked to a very public plea for help I made a few days ago, I think you all should know the details about how I located my missing grandchildren. I'm not at liberty to discuss the finer points of my daughter's slide, but I will say we started hearing rumors as long as a month ago. As people can have ulterior motives, we were willing to give her the benefit of doubt, but eventually we heard similar stories from a wide range of people, including family members and her boss of over a decade, and his was the message that initiated action. Except we couldn't get in touch with her, and neither could people who had always been able to in the past.

Certain themes were common: alleged criminal activity, the strong possibility of drug use, and the neglect of her kids, ages three, almost five, and nine. The eldest, we discovered, had not been enrolled in school for his fourth grade year (we are two months into the school year). We got in touch with the Las Vegas Police Department and Child Protective Services. But when they went to investigate, my daughter's mobile home was no longer even in the park where she'd lived for the past several years.

I was aware that she'd recently broken up with her latest. She alleges abuse, but we're never sure how much to believe. When she went silent, we contacted some family members who lived near her and eventually they convinced her to call with news: some guy "who cared the world for her" had promised a big job and a house back east, and she was on the road with her children. This start up company (no sign of it anywhere through Internet searches) had sent three vans for her and her stuff. She was driving one. Her kids were in another, with some company person at the wheel. She was headed for Maine and a new life.

Except she called from Georgia (she said). Except, after Georgia, she called from Colorado (she said). Where were the kids? We never heard them in the background. Somewhere nearby (she said). Nearby?

She was in deep trouble. That much was obvious. Our first thought was that whoever this shadowy new guy was, the goal just might be trafficking those three children, or holding them as ransom. We had no idea where they were or IF they were anymore. The police had done all they could up to that point. I wasn't about to sit around waiting to hear bad news. That's when I posted a plea on Facebook to please, please help us find my family.

My reach is long, and the Internet is fast. Within a couple of hours, information started coming in. It all pointed to Vegas, and the probability they were still in the area. Late that night, I got a call from my daughter, who in slurred, angry words, demanded I remove all those photos circulating on the Internet. My first question, of course, was where were her children? Somewhere nearby (she said). My plea, as she ranted, was to for the love of God let me come take them away from danger and to a secure place. Please remember that my daughter has three older children, all of whom went to relatives the last time she was sent to prison, and there they remain. In her mind, "losing" her children signifies the ultimate failure. She was not about to let me "make her lose" the other three.

Except a little later I got a call from Shadowy Guy, who told me I needed to come get them. They were in a seedy casino hotel, in the care of another guy who was strung out on ecstasy. The kids hadn't seen their mother in days. Shadowy Guy provided money every so often to pay for the room and feed them. Oh, and I'd better get on a plane right now because checkout was at eleven the next morning—warning they probably wouldn't be there after that.

I found a flight that would get us in at ten a.m. Arranged for a Gold Member rental car, to avoid the busy counter. My daughter Kelly and I flew down, having no real clue what to expect, but we went on faith, powered by the love and support that had rained down on us from family, friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers. We knocked on that door at 11:02 a.m.

Inside: Five-year-old still asleep. The other two watching TV, while the scruffy guy who was watching them slept. No sheets on the beds. Room filthy. The kids had the clothes on their backs, which were filthy. (We tossed them after immediately buying new ones.) The three-year-old was still in Pull-ups, and Scruffy Guy said she hadn't had a clean one for a couple of days. Obviously, the children were also dirty, hair matted, and smelly. Only one had real shoes, and their stench made us gag. The littlest had rubber sandals, way too big. The oldest had broken down slippers.

Scruffy Guy (who turned out to be the brother of my daughter's last, maybe abusive boyfriend) understood our concerns (he said). According to him, he hadn't seen Shadowy Guy or my daughter in days, and he was out of money, no way to pay for another day in the room, let alone feed the children. To his credit, he did seem to care about them, and they weren't afraid to be with him. In fact, though they'd only known him for a couple of months, they called him "Dad." But they were so happy to see us and wanted to go to Grandma's, so we loaded them into the rental car…

More to come.

All He Had To Do Was Stay In His Car

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The George Zimmerman verdict upsets me, yes. I won’t argue points of law or reasonable doubt. Maybe the jury had no choice, and that’s frustrating. But condoning vigilantism, as too many are, well that is horrifying, as is the idea that it was okay this time because it was “that kid.” That’s pretty much the same mindset that hears about an inner city toddler caught by a drive-by bullet and says, “Oh well. One less future gangbanger, and one less kid on the welfare rolls.”

Every child has worth. Inner city or southern bayou or suburban privilege, it doesn’t matter. Inside every young person is a wealth of potential. When we lose a child, whether to violence or abuse or accident or illness, we lose a piece of the future. And no single piece can be dismissed as less worthy or important than the next. Who knows which child might have invented a viable solar car or envisioned an answer to the Middle East conflict or written a bestselling novel, or captivated the world with his violin?

No baby is born a gangbanger. Circumstance creates gangs. Kids join because that’s what they know, and where they feel safe and acknowledged. There are no easy answers to this problem, or the violence associated with it. But without hope for something better, and a real chance out of poverty and crime, it will only perpetuate itself. There must be solutions, but who cares enough to look for them? Dismissing an entire segment of our society as worthy of bullets accomplishes nothing. Just as a Harvard education can’t guarantee a stellar career, being born the ‘hood doesn’t necessarily deny one.

There is no place in a civilized society for vigilantism. It’s a byproduct of fear and anger, and neither emotion is conducive to rational thought. Zimmerman’s actions that night were irrational, and caused the death of “that kid,” who didn’t deserve to die. Maybe Trayvon Martin would have ended up a weed dealer. Or maybe he would have been a physicist or an engineer or a dancer or a dog whisperer. We’ll never know, will we? But he deserved the chance to find out. And so, maybe, did the rest of the world.

Addendum: I first posted the above on Facebook yesterday. Beyond the awful names people called me, I was forced to defend my use of the word "vigilante." According to Merriam-Webster, a vigilante is a "self-appointed doer of justice." Another definition says "operating outside of the law." The National Neighborhood Watch Institute handbook and website say
, "Always remember that your responsibility is to report crime. Do not take any risks to prevent a crime or try to make an arrest. The responsibility for apprehending criminals belongs to the police/sheriff. Neighborhood Watch participants act as additional eyes and ears for law enforcement. They do not take the law into their own hands."

A Line in the Sand

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I’m writing this blog, not to defend myself, or my opinions, but rather to explain exactly how I feel about the gun conversation. First, I believe it must be a conversation. To say there are two sides would be inaccurate. There are many shades of gray between the black (yes, I’m using the “negative” color purposely) of everyone being allowed (or even required) to own any kind of gun and as big a stash of bullets as they choose, and the off-white of zero gun ownership.

I can’t in good conscience say that’s completely white, as I do believe in the Constitution and have no desire to water it down or take it apart. However, if we’re going to discuss the Second Amendment, the intent of the forefathers is paramount. You really must understand the language to come close to their intent. Others have done it more eloquently than I could, but there is no provision for owning assault weapons, nor for arming schools. Even Justice Scalia, who can barely even squeak out the word “liberal,” agrees some regulation on guns is constitutional.

I’ve been very vocal about my belief that assault-type rifles are only useful for taking out as many PEOPLE as possible in the least amount of time. Using them for hunting is hardly sporting, so let’s remove that from the conversation. Personally (which means this is my opinion, and I’m entitled to have one, even if it’s different than yours, and you’re entitle to have one different from mine, too), I don’t think people should own them, and I think a large majority of people who do should probably be on a watch list somewhere. I personally know a few who do. None are 100% stable.

I still believe, however, that this can remain as part of the conversation, as long as Gun Industry rhetoric doesn’t influence the dialogue. Who stands to reap the benefits of the current hysteria to own arsenals? Duh! The people selling weapons and ammunition, and so they continue to fuel the hysteria. I mean, come on. Every time I voice an anti-gun stance, someone goes off about banning guns. No one has proposed that. Not the President. Not Congress. It’s not going to happen. So excise that from the conversation.

I do have to take a stand where I feel it’s necessary, however. This conversation will continue, and I have no problem with the dialogue. But it is my firm, heartfelt belief that arming school teachers, principals, librarians, playground aids and janitors is folly. Please consider for just one moment what happens when an armed thug bursts through a classroom door and an armed teacher pulls his gun and they start firing at each other with children in between them.  Or when a trigger-happy teacher mistakenly fires at a parent bursting through that door for some reason. Or when a disturbed child gets hold of that gun. The odds of any of those things happening are far greater than a teacher being a hero and saving the lives of twenty kids in his classroom.

You are welcome to disagree. You are welcome to believe your children are safer on armed campuses. But my children and grandchildren will not attend those schools. And I have just informed my publisher that I will not make appearances on armed campuses, or in libraries with armed guards. I sincerely would rather chance some random lunatic wandering in with a gun than sanction arming schools. This is a line I’ve drawn, and I won’t cross it.

I drew that line over the weekend. And when I did, I had people jump on me in a couple of ways. There were the ones who now not only refuse to buy my books, but also want to encourage others to boycott my work, apparently because we have differing opinions. Conversations demand differing opinions. I’ve also had people complain that by not appearing in armed schools I’m punishing the students who attend them, even though they have nothing to say about guns on campus. But my decision isn’t punitive. It’s standing up for my beliefs. And beliefs are part of the conversation. Overall, I am not anti-gun, and not anti-you, if you have different beliefs.

So to decide I’m ignorant, or a communist, or just an a$$hole, while that is obviously your right, adds nothing to the conversation. I know when I post this, someone new will come screaming at me about the Second Amendment, or how a gun is the only way to fend off a rapist, or how assault rifles are so much fun to shoot. And I would ask them to please read this article about how the Gun Industry spins the conversation. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-gun-industrys-deadly-addiction-20130228 It is relevant and a huge part of the conversation.
 

About T-shirts and Teens Helping Teens

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A few words of explanation about our Teens Helping Teens crowdfunding drive, over at www.ventanasierra.org. Seems there’s been a little confusion, especially since we started posting pics of the IMPULSE and PERFECT t-shirts we created as premiums for a $50 donation amount.

Yes, $50 is a lot for a t-shirt. But we aren’t selling the tees, we’re asking you to help us help teens in need. Imagine living on the street because you’ve been kicked out by a caregiver, or transitioned out of foster care, or have lost your home for whatever reason. If you’re lucky, you can crash a night or two at a friend’s before you have to sleep in a car or Laundromat, or maybe out behind a dumpster.

In NYC alone, some 3800 young people are living in the streets, with only 200 beds available for them to rotate through. Here in Nevada, there are over 600 in need of safe housing and a path toward college or vocational training, something that will allow them to become self-sufficient and more. We’re working hard to change that, but we do need financial help to make a difference in this state and beyond.

Teens Helping Teens is sort of like a Kickstarter drive, only through Razoo.com, which does crowdfunding for nonprofit organizations. Ventana Sierra is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so your donations are tax deductible. The premiums for each level allow us to give you a little something back for helping us make a difference in the lives of teens just like you, only with fewer advantages, perhaps.

I’m not taking a single dollar of these donations! Every penny goes to Ventana Sierra. As for the school visit level of $2000, my regular honorarium, even without travel costs involved, is twice that. So, your school might be happy to send in that amount for a visit, or you could do a drive of your own, asking everyone in your school who can afford it to donate $1 or $5. You could even have a couple of schools pool their dollars. I’m happy to visit two schools in one day.

Teens Helping Teens will allow us to open our first independent living house before summer, and hopefully a second house before the end of the year. Eventually, we plan to have many houses, and to help many, many young people toward their dreams. Everyone deserves a chance for a good education and well-paying occupation. One life at a time, we can change the world for the better, especially if we do it together.

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Today is my son’s sixteenth birthday. (Happiest birthday, amazing Orion!) As most of you likely know, O inspired the character of Hunter in the Crank trilogy. He is, biologically speaking, our grandson, who we adopted when my daughter’s life (and so, ours, too) spun totally out of control. But we’ve had him since he was a baby, and consider him solidly our son. He was the candle, the one flicker of hope, in that dark, dark time of my life. And though he is growing into a man, he will always remain a source of light for me.

In the wake of the last few days, I worry about his future, and the future of all our children. Theirs is a world torn apart by war and senseless violence. Of fiscal uncertainty. Of a growing dependence on technology, at the expense, perhaps, of self-reliance and personal interconnection. Here in America, they witness the power of money and the celebration of possessions. Athleticism is prized, genius bullied. The generations before them have allowed greed to destroy reason. Natural resources have been pillaged. The planet is warming. This is a time of doubt.

And yet, every child is a candle of hope. Inside each is limitless potential, waiting to be tapped into. The solution to every problem is locked inside at least one of them. Someone just has to give them the key. That may be a parent. A teacher. A clergyman. A librarian. A mentor. A stranger. People are not meant to walk through life alone. But too many children are forced to, or at least believe that is true. Too many feel isolated or singled out for derision. Too many are hurt, often by those who should love them the most. Sometimes abused. Sometimes cut to the bone by words.

I worry about the future, yes. But I am determined to be an instrument of change. Despite the difficult times in my life, I have been blessed. My family continues to grow, to heal, to love. I am surrounded by a brilliant circle of friends and peers. I have tapped into my own personal potential, built it into a fantastic career, with an ever-expanding cadre of readers. Not only do my books entertain them, but they have helped more than a few through their own dark times, given hope and understanding that no one is truly alone.

Now, with Ventana Sierra, I will be helping young people in a most tangible way, fanning candles of hope into flames. When I finally leave this earth (no worries, I plan on sticking around for a very long time!), I will continue to make a difference and, with luck and a lot of help, positively influence the future. Worrying about it is fine. Giving up on it is unthinkable.

Today, family and friends are coming over to celebrate the holidays and my son’s sixteenth birthday. What a party it will be, filled with joy, and cheer, and love. I’m sending a little of all three out to every one of you today. And every day.

12 Days of Christmas Contest

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First off, I celebrate Christmas. Please don't be offended by that. I love my Jewish friends and my Muslim friends and my Buddist, Wiccan, Hindu, other, questioning and non-believer friends, alike! But I like the idea of the 12 Days of Christmas, and this is my contest, so there it is. Here's how it will work. For the next 12 days, I'll post a Hopkins' books trivia question. You'll have 24 hours to answer it, and those who do correctly will go into a random drawing for books, CRANK t-shirts, posters, pictures and other Hopkins swag (YES I SAID SWAG!). 

The questions will get harder each day, so we'll go backward. Day one, 12 winners. Day two, eleven winners. Etc. Doesn't this sound fun? I'll post the first question tomorrow (Monday, 12/10) morning, no later than 8 a.m. Pacific. Time's up for answers when I post question two. I need from you, on every entry: Your name, email, and mailing address. Plus the correct answer, of course. In the subject line of your email, I need the Question #. So "Day One Question" or "Day Two Question." Please email to ellen_hopkins2@yahoo.com

Best of luck. I promise to be creative!
Ellen 

Our New Nonprofit, Ventana Sierra

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You may have seen mentions somewhere of a new nonprofit, Ventana Sierra. This is my vision, my way of helping young people in need well into the future. My books may have helped them emotionally, but now I want to help in an even more substantial way.We hope to have the pilot program in place by January 1, 2013, and we're working hard to get there. So what is Ventana Sierra?

The program will focus on young people, 18-25, who have big dreams but no way to realize them. Ventana Sierra will provide housing, transportation, meals, life skills classes and education, including GED and community college programs, and trade training--apprenticeships under professional electricians, plumbers, landscapers, roofers, etc. Our goal is to guide our clients onto solid career paths that will allow them to become productive members of their communities.

We foresee serving youth transitioned out of foster care, or turned out on their own by caregivers unwilling or unable to continue care, as well as those who simply can't make it on their own. The desire to succeed must be there. Applicants will be screened, and priority give to determined individuals with career goals in mind. Those accepted must agree to live substance-free in shared family-style housing for the duration of the two-year program, and maintain successful evaluations throughout. As a way of giving back to the program, clients will help refurbish properties for those who will follow them, creating dynamic forward movement into the future.

We are in the process of acquiring our first house, and hope to have it in place by the turn of the New Year. Our website is under construction, but will soon have applications available. As this is our first year, and we're still seeking funding, one house serving up to six clients may be all we can offer, but we're hoping to double that within eighteen months. 

More to come very soon. I promise to keep you informed of our progress and will let you know as soon as the application process begins. I'm so excited!