Category Archives: On the Bedside Table

Need Reader Feedback

Hi folks.

I am going to be closing down this blog in the next several weeks. There are many reasons for this, but I won’t get into them now.

What I would like to do, however, is compile the most useful posts into categories and bind them under an e-cover for download in case really, really interested folks still want to read them, or share them with others.

This is the compromise I’ve come to between just shutting down OR leaving the blog archives sitting here forever.

What I would love from you is some nominations for posts you’d like to see preserved in e-book form. I will try to edit and/or update any posts that go into that format, so if your favorite one is old and needs some revision that’s okay too.

I have in mind a total of say, 100 posts.

Help? (Please leave your suggestions in the comments so people can see each others’ okay?)


P.S. I’m also taking some of the posts from this blog (mostly since 2009) and backfilling Muse of Fire with them. So much of the more recent material will still be on a blog.

New Project

As most of you know, my debut novel, Jack will be coming out from Musa Publishing in September.

Of course, I would like roughly a gazillion copies to sell in the first month, so I can rocket to the top of novelist glory in record time. To that end, I have been reading all about book marketing.

Trouble is, I find it hard to believe that many of the things “They” say you should do to “promote” your book would actually amount to many sales. Book sales seem to me to be almost a matter of sheer luck. Being a best-selling writer strikes me as about as likely as winning the lottery. Like the lottery, you only hear news stories about the ones who make it, and not the (roughly gazillion) ones who flop.

So, what’s a debut novelist to do? Well…I asked myself, “why do YOU buy a book, Shannon?” To which I responded, “Well, Shannon, I buy a book because I’ve already read a book by the person who wrote it and I liked that previous book.”

That’s almost the only reason I ever buy a new novel. Very occasionally I take a plunge on a new writer, or I follow a recommendation from a friend. But I do not tend to buy a book because I like a person’s blog, her tweets, am her Facebook friend or saw an awesome “trailer” for her novel.

I blog, I tweet, I am on Facebook and I plan to make a book trailer. Because…why the heck not? But when it comes to the factor that leads me to buy a book, I’m at a loss. This will be my first book, so no one is going to be buying it based on having read and liked my others, right?

I hemmed and hawed about this conundrum for a while and finally decided, oh what the heck, give ‘em a book. You see, I wrote two books before selling my third one. So I picked the better of those two and am publishing it scene-by-scene via a new project I’m calling the “Story Sea.”

I am also hiring Astrid Lydia Johannsen to make fabulous avatars for some of the characters in the story, one at a time, as donations (yes! you can donate!) to the site trickle in.

Putting this up is a gamble of course. You might hate it and then NEVER buy one of my books in the future. But maybe you’ll love it and buy them all! Or you know, something in between. But at any rate, here it is, risk-free (to you):


EdenEden Smith was not a boy.  But anyone who happened past Harvard Square would not have known this to see her standing there in a boy’s suit, squinting at her watch and running a nervous hand through her neat, short hair.Sophia Since coming East, Eden had found that no one expected to see a girl in boys’ clothes, so no one really saw her when she wore them.  What they saw was just another Harvard student roaming Cambridge. MORE

Just Another Purim-Themed Picture Book about Gay Dads and Aliens

The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner
The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner

Because I am exceptionally lucky, I have known Els Kushner for several years, via the magic of the Internet. When I heard that her first picture book was finally released, I was eager to see the final results of something I got to watch happening behind the scenes. It was as terrific as I expected. Now I’m eager to share it with you.

I asked Els to tell Lesbian Family about herself and the book. Enjoy the results below. And be sure to order a copy of The Purim Superhero in e-format, paperback or hardcover. You have just enough time before Purim, on 25 February this year.

1. Tell us about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, how did you become interested in writing for children?

Oh, I’m just another Jewish lesbian librarian/writer/parent who plays the ukulele and periodically attempts to garden. I’m a kid person and a kids’ book person, so I guess it makes sense that I became a children’s librarian. I’m from New York and New Jersey and Seattle and, now, Vancouver, where I live with my spouse and our daughter and a lot of books and musical instruments and small plastic items. I’m addicted to text in all forms, from fiction to old New Yorkers to podcasts. I stay up too late on a regular basis.

I’ve written lots of things, for years, short stories and blog posts and bits of novels and what have you. I think people tend to write about they’re interested in, what their thoughts and feelings revolve around, even if their writing isn’t directly autobiographical. And for me, the experience of childhood and adolescence is endlessly fascinating: life is so vivid when you’re a kid, so many things are new, and you’re also so powerless and subject to the whims of the adult world. I also really like stories about community, and when writing about kids there’s a sort of automatic community a lot of the time, as they’re often in school or other groups.
2. This book began as a contest. Tell us a bit about that. What were the perimeters of the competition and what was the process like?

In early 2011, Keshet sponsored a contest for an 800-to-1000-word picture book manuscript with both Jewish and GLBT content. The contest description specified that the storyline shouldn’t be primarily didactic, and that it should have “clear, clever and interesting narrative plot with universal themes and Jewish content.”

The process of writing the manuscript had in some ways started years before I saw that contest announcement, when I was a librarian at a Jewish day school, and was looking for books to read to my students for Purim. Purim is a Jewish holiday that takes place in February or March; its customs include reading the Book of Esther aloud, dressing in costume, eating cookies called Hamentaschen, and generally being silly. It’s a very kid-friendly holiday, but–maybe because, unlike Chanukah or Passover, it doesn’t correspond with any major Christian holidays that take place at the same time of year –I couldn’t find any good read-alouds at that time that told the story of a contemporary kid celebrating Purim. (There are a few more now, but there weren’t then.)

After a few years of thinking, “sheesh, someone should write a good Purim picture book,” I thought, “maybe I should write a Purim picture book.” I noodled around with that idea a little, but I couldn’t really figure out what the driving conflict would be. Then, a few years later, I saw the Keshet contest and thought that a kid with same-sex parents would be a great protagonist for a Purim story.

The final part of the equation came when I had a writing date with a couple of friends one day while I was working on the manuscript, and one of them brought her 8-year-old son along. I was grousing to my friends about how stuck I was, and how I couldn’t figure out what kind of a problem my protagonist should have, and my friend’s son got very caught up in this question and started giving me these amazing suggestions about how aliens and monkeys should come take over the “Jewish church” and have a big fight…he got really into it and was drawing pictures of the great alien-vs.-monkey battle while we were writing. I was struck by how original and quirky his imagination was, and how a kid like him, with strong and individual interests, might have a problem fitting in with his peers, but how that kind of difference, like gayness, or Judaism, could also be a source of strength. Nate’s interest in aliens is inspired by, and a tribute to, him.

After that, my biggest problem was getting the manuscript down to the requisite 1,000 words; I think I went through six or seven drafts. I’m pretty verbose normally (as you can probably tell by my answers to these questions!), so that was tough.

3. You are a lesbian parent. Does Nate’s experience with peer pressure to fit in come from your own experience as a mom in a same-sex headed family?

My experience as a mom in a same-sex-headed family has mostly been pretty undramatic. We’ve been lucky enough to live in communities where being a lesbian parent is accepted as a pretty ordinary thing 99% of the time, and the few times it hasn’t been, well, I’ve experienced that as the other person’s problem, not mine.

I’d say Nate’s experience with peer pressure comes more from my own childhood as a sort of nerdy, bookish kid who had different interests from most kids my age. I had a lot less confidence than Nate, so I dealt with that experience by being pretty shy and withdrawn. I think it takes a very solid sense of yourself to do what Nate does and maintain your individuality while acknowledging and honoring that deep desire to be part of a group.

I also wanted to explore, a little bit, the way that gender expectations for boys of Nate’s age—about 4 or 5—are in many ways so much narrower than for girls. My experience from working with preschool and elementary-school aged kids, and from being a parent, is that there’s more tolerance for girls rejecting traditionally “girly” things than for boys who aren’t deemed sufficiently interested in things that mainstream boys are supposed to like. And a lot of the time, it’s other kids who are doing the gender policing. So a story about a girl who, say, didn’t want to dress up as a princess would’ve had a very different feeling and, I think, might not have been as dramatic.

4. I loved the connection the book makes between Esther coming out of the “closet” of Jewishness and Nate’s anxiety about expressing who he really is. That’s quite a sophisticated connection and a wonderful theological point. Do you find overlaps in your own life between voicing your Jewishness and your lesbianism?

Both Jewishness and queerness are identities where you sometimes have to “come out”—they’re not so immediately apparent, in general, as race or gender, so there’s an element of choice in whether to identify publicly as part of that particular group. In my life, right now, they’re both identities where a lot of the time I’m part of a small minority: the neighborhood where I live, for example, doesn’t have either a large Jewish or GLBT community, and many of the friends and co-workers I see on a regular basis are neither queer nor Jewish. I guess, like Nate, these are aspects of my identity that in many ways aren’t the driving forces in my daily life right now—I spend a lot more time and energy actively thinking about being a parent, or a librarian, or a writer, than I do about being a lesbian. But at the same time, my lesbianism and my Jewishness are so central to who I am.

Both are also communities or groups that have been historically oppressed but that I experience as a gift—I’ve always loved being Jewish, and as an adult, I’ve found a lot of strength and creativity and just general wonderfulness in the lesbian community and in claiming a lesbian identity.

5. The illustrations for the book are just the best. Can you tell us what it’s like to work with an illustrator for your words? It seems like a relationship requiring a lot of trust.

I love the illustrations too! Mike Byrne has really captured Nate’s sweetness and individuality.  One little-known fact about picture books is that usually the author has little or nothing to do with the illustration process; generally the publisher selects the illustrator, and they and the illustrator work together to determine the visual component of the book. That was the case with The Purim Superhero: I was sent some early drafts of the drawings, but mostly I didn’t know what the art would be like until I saw the finished book. It was a little bit like meeting someone in person for the first time who you’ve only known through emails and blogging—even though I’d created these characters, I felt like I understood them on a whole other level when I saw the finished illustrations.

6. What’s next for you? Do you have any more picture books up your sleeve? What about other writing you are working on?

I’ve been working on a picture book set during another Jewish holiday, Shavuot. One of the customs of Shavuot is to stay up all through the night and study, and another is to eat dairy foods like blintzes and cheesecake, and I think the combination of staying up late and eating cheesecake could be really appealing to a kid.

And when I entered the manuscript for The Purim Superhero to the Keshet contest in 2011, I’d just finished a very rough first draft for a young adult novel that’s sort of a sequel to a short story I wrote a long time ago. The story was published in an anthology called The Essential Bordertown, which is part of a shared-world series about a city between the human world and Faerie. The story, and the novel I started, are both about a girl who runs away to Bordertown after she’s been involuntarily outed at school, and falls in love with another girl there. I was having a hard time revising the draft, and then I found out that I’d won the Keshet contest, and what with one thing and another that rough novel draft is still sitting on the side of my desk, with more and more files and books and bits of random detritus piled on top of it. I give it sort of a look every once in a while and promise the characters I’ll get back to them and work on their story and make everything better, if they’ll please, please just be patient a little longer.

Cross-posted at

Repost for Women’s History Month

For Women’s History Month, here’s a reminder that Adoption is a Feminist issue.

When you are watching the news on the birth control bruhaha, don’t forget the Girls Who Went Away.

Need a Book Recommendation

I am looking for a nonfiction book that will tell me all about Parisian lesbian subculture in the late 19th century–preferably related to women's higher education in some way.

I am embarrassed to tell you why, but here goes.  I have been working on the plot of a silly romance novel and a piece of it turns on the existence of such a subculture.  It doesn't take place there throughout most of the story, but there's a scene or two requiring it.  In fact, the whole drama really depends on the fact of such a subculture's existence.

It can be anywhere from, oh, 1875-1900.  That's in my period, but my expertise is in the U.S., not France!  Help?  Thank you in advance!

If I can get a bit of "research" done by November, I'm thinking of doing NaNoWriMo.


To be fair, I thought I'd share a few books with you that are in the background of my thinking on this reproductive ethics stuff.  I know there are piles of terrific books about these things, but mostly these three are lurking behind my recent writing on the issue (from my strollerderby Suleman posts to this recent one about PGD):

Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies by Charis Thompson

This one is mostly about assisted reproductive technologies and the problem of not regulating them in the United States.  The author is a mother via IVF.

Making Babies, Making Families: What Matters Most in an Age of Reproductive Technologies, Surrogacy, Adoption and Same-Sex and Unwed Parents by Mary Lyndon Shanley

I love this book.  Shanley shifts the bottom line from "best interest of the child" to the rights of the child.  Sound like the same thing?  Not remotely.  Everybody should read this book.  Right now.  Immediately.  Go on, click, buy, read.

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank by David Plotz

This one is a less academic choice than the other two.  It's a highly readable account of the Nobel Sperm Bank written by a Slate contributor.  It gives a great overview of sperm banking (history of to current practices) and will demystify the notions they try to sell you at the big sperm bank websites.

I also read a fascinating, 85-page academic article about Indian surrogacy and its ethical tangles last week.  You can download it too from Ethica.

Books on African American History for Kids

I am doing a little book reviewing for Strollerderby for Black History Month.  Some of these are books I've mentioned before on this blog, but a couple are new.  I'll keep you posted when I publish part two with elementary-level books.

Long Time no Write

Sorry to be so quiet over here!

News Round Up:

- We close on the new place, Friday and the movers come as soon as we get the key. Everybody is very excited. I told Nat she’d get her own (well, shared with Selina) bathroom in our new house and she said, “with soap?!” I told her, sure, she could have soap in her bathroom. Since then she’s been telling people that in her new house, she will have soap. make of that what you will.

- A visit from my BFF and her nursing toddler made a HUGE impression on Nat. Now she carries her little stuffed dog around under her shirt, telling anyone who’ll listen that she’s feeding the dog milk from her body, which comes out of her nipples.

- Many human reproduction conversations before and following the nursing mom visit. We’ve been fleshing out a few more details of Nat’s (and Selina’s) birth and adoption stories. I picked up a copy of It’s Not the Stork and brought it home for her. She read the cover thusly:

Nat: It’s not the st–st–what’s that?
Shannon: “stork” it’s this white bird (pointing to picture on the cover)
Nat: Stork. A book about girls, boys, babies, b–b–babies?
Shannon: “bodies” see the o and the d? “bodies.”
Nat: bodies. families, and friends

The thing is, I don’t really ask Nat to read much, so I don’t quite keep up with exactly what she can read and so every time she reads something like that, I get all shocked and impressed. Mostly, she’d still prefer to be read to, to recite a book from memory (a big favorite she knows perfectly by heart is The Gruffalo) or to pretend to read, by telling a story while turning pages. So I let her do whatever she wants in the reading department, seeing as I’d estimate that she is reading roughly at a mid-year kindergarten level at age 3.5 with no particular “pushing.”

As for the contents of the book, so far the thing that interests her most is the picture of a little girl pulling another little girl’s hair. She’s very concerned about the whole scenario. Why did she pull her hair? Why did she say “yeow!?” Why did she say sorry? No doubt this is right out of a growing big sister psyche.

- Selina is blossoming intellectually herself. She is just as interested in letters as Nat was at her age. Nat reads books to Selina now and then and that makes more of an impression than anything else ever could. Selina is still Nat’s biggest fan.

Selin’a hair is now officially as long as Nat’s. Her curls are looser and softer. In four poofs it’s comically adorable. Not sure what we’ll end up doing with it in the long-run. I think I’m just going to have to comb it every day when she’s older. Right now she HATES a comb touching her head under any and all circumstances. She tosses her head violently side-to-side, Snoopy-dance-style and screams at the top of her lungs if she just sees the comb in my hand. I have found that four braids will last about three days without looking horrible, so I’ve mostly been doing that to minimize hair styling time.

- Speaking of hair, here’s a short answer to recent requests for tips on styling toddler/preschooler hair:

With Nat, she has become more and more willing to sit and let me work on her hair as she has gotten older. When she was Selina’s age, I used to do her hair on the run, following her around as she tried to run away from me. I often made parts while walking and bending over her little head. They weren’t perfect, but they were adequate. These days (since she was about 2 and a half) I plop her in her high chair (buckled in!) let her choose a video and sometimes a snack and get to work. She is usually reasonably cooperative for about 45 minutes. It usually takes about one hour to an hour and a half to get finished. When she causes me too much trouble–complaining, jerking er head around or whatever–I turn off the video, leave her view and ask her to let me know when she’s ready to finish. When she’s ready, I turn the video back on and get back to work.

This gets the job done and Nat’s hair styles tend to last between 7-12 days, so we don’t have to revisit it daily.

When we finish hair, I make a big, gushing deal out of how gorgeous it is and we visit the mirror together to admire it. Nat likes to put butterfly clips and things in her hair, and that helps encourage and bribe her during the process, but she also pulls the butterflies out and fiddles with them until they break, so I actually don’t let her put them in very often.

When Nat was little, many Black mothers, grandmothers, aunties and baby sitters told me to do her hair while she was asleep. If you want to, go for it! I didn’t want to waste precious nap time doing hair! But considering how much more violently Selina objects to hair care, I suppose there are kids out there whose hair just wouldn’t get done any other way. And it does have to get done. That’s non-negotiable. That’s another aspect of teaching my kids to put up with it–the idea that it just has to be done, like we have to put on our seat belts in the car.

- Why I like white male baby sitters:

I like white male baby sitters, because there are no white males in our immediate family (though we’ve got uncles and grandfathers and all that) and I love that what my girls are learning about the species is that it is a species of caregiving, nurturing, child-centered kindness. That’s not really the dominant idea of what white men are. But it’s what I want my girls-and the women they grow into–to expect from the white men they meet in life. I want them to be shocked and horrified when they encounter anything less and to hold those people accountable to humane expectations.

- How Strollerderby is going:

It’s going pretty well. Its nice to have this job, because it’s an all new type of writing for me to learn and an all new audience (well, a mixed audience, some new, some I’m used to) to learn to write to. It’s a good exercise in maintaining my own voice in different kinds of contexts. Here’s what I think might interest my readers here the most lately:

The Trouble with Safe Haven Laws: Some Thoughts for National Adoption Month

As always, see my bio page for my most recent writing.

Focus Group

So, let’s say there was a website where we might all do some reading, thinking, questioning and discussing together on topics specifically of African American history/culture/literature, geared toward the better raising of Black children by white people, but welcoming anyone interested in the topic for whatever reason.

You know, sort of a la this post.

Would you be in?

MotherTalk Book Tour: Mama PhD


I have been browsing Mama PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life with interest, and a little bitterness since getting my review copy in the mail last week. My interest is obvious enough: I’m a Mama PhD myself, after all. My bitterness is ironic, perfect fodder for the book itself: I received a call for submissions to this book, put it on my “to write” list and never got around to it. Because, you know, I have two small children. And the many mothers of one, two or more smalls who found the time (the motivation? the discipline? the work-ethic?) to contribute leave me feeling like a failure.

Why didn’t I prioritize this to-write item? Why don’t I prioritize a dozen others on the same list? Because as a primary parent who contributes very little income to the family coffers, I find it difficult to justify paying a baby sitter while I do a more or less unpaid job. So I paid for the baby-sitting to cover my big freelance job last spring. I paid for coverage while I taught last semester (not while I prepped classes or graded papers mind you–only the hours I was on campus teaching) but not for this project.

And I feel torn about it. I would have felt guilty doing the writing and now I feel guilty because I didn’t.

Enter the book that speaks to all of that and more.

If I can’t join them, I can at least nod frantically in agreement and sympathy as I read about mothers who feel they have to keep pregnancies a secret and pretend their children don’t exist to maintain the respect of their colleagues. I can cringe at my own memories of crazy things academics have said to me about the unreasonableness of prioritizing my family over an academic career.

I found myself first drawn, naturally, to the section titled “Recovering Academic” and the stories of women who left the academy, moving on to other careers, paid or unpaid, much like I have done. Many of them, especially the one by Rebecca Steinitz, are so familiar as to almost be my own story (except Steinitz is a much more accomplished academic andpost-academic than I!). Others rang a bit self-righteous and preachy, like the bit in “Nontraditional Academics” that suggests mothers who choose to drop out of the academy and do full-time, unpaid family work are “more committed” to parenting than those who use daycare. Let’s leave those trumped-up “mommy wars” to the NY Times magazine, shall we?

But it’s not all about the choice between dropping out or suffering, Mama PhD also tells more than one tale of a mother at the end of her rope who was thrown a fresh one by an enlightened advisor, mentor or department chair. There are a few corners of academe that have put all the feminist theory of the past thirty years into some kind of practice and support actual women (and their children). There are small institutions that place a community value on families and children and the well-rounded well being of professors.

Those places are still too few and far between, however. It is still not as easy as those outside academic life assume it would be to have kids and a job with “summers off.” (I am always having to correct people about that. “Summers unscheduled” is a better way to think about it, but there is always work and always pressure, in academe.) How could this be?

Lisa Harper’s essay “In Theory/In Practice” explains that she found the academic community not to value pregnancy or parenting and asks why: “Is it because academics tend to deny the life of the body for the life of the mind? Or because we often seek a rarified community, one unsullied by the practical concerns that can muddy daily life? Or because parenting is not considered a rigorous (enough) intellectual activity?” Well, yes to all of these, I think. But also, I think it is obvious that the academy is still the domain of men and still runs more like a corporation (in fact, more and more so, these days) than a “community” of any kind. “Parenting” is still women’s work, even if we must use the p.c. gender-neutral term as our academic training has taught us. Women’s work is still not considered intellectual or rigorous or valuable in much of any way besides to reproduce the very structures that keep it devalued.

But there’s the Marxist theorist coming out in me. Once an academic, always an academic, I suppose.