Category Archives: Out of Left Field

Red Sox need no snow shovels in spring training

Vintage Fenway! By BPL [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Vintage Fenway Park By BPL [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Did I mention that there’s no snow in Fort Myers? We hope Fenway Park is clear of the white stuff when the season begins.

Are you following the news from spring training? You can bet Brandon (Out of Left Field) would be.

Red Sox fans rejoice over spring training at Florida’s version of Fenway Park

A Yankee-Red Sox spring training game at "Fenway Park South" in 2012. By NT1952 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A Yankee-Red Sox spring training game at “Fenway Park South” in 2012. By NT1952 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Right about now, Brandon (Out of Left Field) would be turning to thoughts of spring training.

Here are intriguing facts about JetBlue Park and the history of the Red Sox in Fort Myers, Florida:

A shout-out to my readers

“Where on earth did you come up for the idea for this story?” A friend posed this question at a recent book signing for my novel, Out of Left Field. I explained how the story grew from a visit, long ago, to the D-Day cemeteries in France. But after the event, I realized that this question—or a version of it—is the one I hear most from audiences, whether the questioner is an eager first grader, an aspiring adult writer, or a curious reader. Often, I answer in relation to the specific book at hand, telling about a trip I’ve taken, or something I read in the paper, or an incident I’ve witnessed.

But questions, comments, or criticisms from readers have inspired me most over the years. Readers’ queries have led me to revise stories, to write sequels, or to create a new novel from scratch.

Twelve Days in August by Liza KetchumMy young adult novel, Twelve Days in August, told the story of a high school soccer team and its struggles with homophobia and prejudice. The main character, Todd, finds himself in conflict with his peers and his own values; the book is really his story. Alex, a talented player (and secondary character) who is new in town, becomes the brunt of bullying and name-calling. Todd has to decide where he stands; his inner turmoil defines the novel. After the book was published, a number of readers wrote to me and asked: “What about Alex? Is he gay, or not?”

Blue Coyote by Liza KetchumI didn’t know. But Alex intrigued me as a character, and I was also fond of his twin sister Rita, who had a minor part in Twelve Days. Since I often write books to answer questions that puzzle me, I decided it was time to tell Alex’s story. The result was Blue Coyote. For those who haven’t read the book, I won’t give away what happens—except to say that the novel faced challenges for its content. Those readers who asked about Alex pushed me to take risks, and I’m glad they did.

A different example of interaction with readers occurred when my novel, Orphan Journey Home, was appearing in serial form in newspapers across the country.

The story ran in weekly installments in over a hundred cities and towns, and readers wrote with questions and comments. The serial form was challenging to write: each chapter could only be 750 words and ended with a cliffhanger designed to entice the reader to buy the paper the next week. While the story was running, I received a contract to expand the novel for publication as a book.

Orphan Journey Home

illustration © C.B. Mordan

This was a unique opportunity. Expanding the story would let me fill in missing gaps in the plot, deepen the characters, and answer readers’ questions.

Usually, when a book is bound and printed, it’s too late to respond to readers. But as schools and libraries invited me to talk about the serial version, I jotted down their comments and questions. Some were factual, such as “What caused milk fever, anyway?” (It took me many months of research, and a moment of serendipity, to find the answer. See the Author’s Note in the book for the answer to that one!) One child wondered how Moses, whose leg was injured on the journey, managed to get crutches in the middle of the wilderness. (Good question!) After a talk I gave in Kentucky where I was puzzled about the route the children might have followed, a local historian sent me a map of the buffalo traces that became rough wagon roads.

The children in this story faced the danger of being “bound out”—kept as servants until they reached adulthood. They were also traveling from a free state (Illinois) to Kentucky, still a slave state in 1828. At one point in their travels, a black boy named George—who is bound out himself—helps the children escape from a man who wants to keep them. When I spoke to students at a library in Dayton, Ohio, an African American boy came up to me, at the end of the program, concerned about George. “Why couldn’t the kids take George with them?” Before I could answer, he figured it out himself. “Oh. Kentucky was a slave state. I guess it wouldn’t be safe to take George there.”

“What else could the kids do?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “At least have them think about George again,” he said. “Maybe they could wish they had saved him.” What a great suggestion. Adding that emotional thread deepened the story.

Finally, one of the best questions I ever heard during a school visit came from a sixth grader. “What do you imagine you’ll be doing in ten years? What will you be writing?”

Out of Left FieldI was too surprised to come up with an answer. How could I predict the future? Now a decade has probably passed since he asked that question. I didn’t know then that I’d write two more historical novels before finishing a story about Red Sox baseball, the Vietnam War, and a boy in search of the truth about his family. (Out of Left Field). I wish I could thank that boy for his great question. I hope his own life has been full of adventure and promise.

Marsha Qualey’s Hometown explores when Americans didn’t forgive or forget Vietnam draft resisters

HometownBookCoverThe Iraq War wasn’t the first time personalities and patriotism clashed. Emotional wounds from past wars are slow to heal.

Friend Marsha Qualey authored an inspirational novel, Hometown. She crafted the tale of a Vietnam draft resister who stayed in Canada, but whose son faced a town’s long-simmering resentment over his father’s past choices during the eve of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

I liked Marsha’s book. I hope you will, too.


All in the Family Christmas episode
explored life as a ‘draft dodger’ in Canada

LK_AllInTheFamily_blog-graphicHow could a family celebrate Christmas when a son took refuge in another country, trying to avoid getting drafted? In Out of Left Field, Brandon’s father and grandfather held different views about Vietnam. Such opposing beliefs tore some families apart.

The popular TV show All in the Family aired such a story about a young man who fled to Canada to avoid the war. “The Draft Dodger” first aired Christmas night, Dec. 25, 1976.

How did it feel to recreate such politically-charged drama? Relive the moment with insights from the performers supplying that Emmy Award-winning episode. 

‘Young Adult’? ‘Adult’? Or, does it matter?

Out of Left FieldOver the past year, as books for young readers have attracted a wide audience, a spirited and sometimes heated discussion has taken place in blogs and other media, focused on who should read what. (The word “should” in relation to any book makes me queasy.) But I’ve thought about this issue a lot during readings and signings for my new novel, Out of Left Field. According to my publisher, it’s a book for young adult readers.

Or is it?

Soon after Out of Left Field was published, a friend approached me, book in hand. She had read the novel and enjoyed it, but wondered if the novel would be appropriate for her granddaughter. “How old is she?” I asked—assuming the child must be young.

“Thirteen,” she told me. She then added, sotto voce, “The book deals with some dark subjects. It seems very adult.”

Dark subjects? Okay: War and death; family secrets and the meaning of family—issues familiar to many young readers. Other themes include baseball, politics, and the importance of friendship. “Has your granddaughter read The Hunger Games or seen the movies?” I asked.

My friend admitted, with some embarrassment, that the child had, in fact, read the series and seen the film, so perhaps she could also handle my book. What I didn’t tell her was that, while writing the novel, I didn’t think about my audience. When I heard Brandon’s voice in my head and began to write his story, I knew he was about to turn eighteen. If this meant the book would be categorized as YA, fine.

But after it was published, I wondered if it would also appeal to a younger age group. In November, I spoke to a group of kids who were part of a parent/child book group at the Cambridge Public Library. Thanks to James Paterson’s grant to one of my favorite bookstores (Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass.) each family in the book group received a free copy of the novel a month in advance of our discussion.


I was touched and thrilled that the bookstore would use part of their grant this way. As the group assembled in a comfortable room decorated with images of Curious George, the librarian, Evan Sipe, passed out slices of pizza. Since younger siblings also attended, the group ranged in age from 9 to 13. Adults and children settled in to eat and talk.

Instead of the typical questions that come up on an author visit (Where do you get your ideas? How much money do you make?), these kids surprised me with the depth and breadth of their comments. After a few smart questions about the way I handled different points of view in the story, they launched into an energetic discussion about war and peace. They talked about whether we should reinstitute the draft and, if so, what would happen. “We wouldn’t have the war in Iraq,” one boy said. They argued about whether community service should be mandatory, and about our responsibilities overseas. “We shouldn’t have to fight someone else’s war for them,” another child said.

Though their parents had also read the book, their children initiated and maintained the discussion. Parents and children alike spoke of our current conflicts and the fact that tens of thousands of children across the country have faced loss or disruption due to our ongoing wars. The young readers were more than ready to take on the issues raised in the novel. Their insights were quite profound.

At the other end of the age spectrum, I spoke recently at a daylong conference on “What’s New in Children’s Books” put on by Wondermore (formerly The Foundation for Children’s Books) Participants included a number of librarians as well as other children’s book authors and illustrators. I gave them some background on my novel, including my own experiences with loss and political activity during the Vietnam War era and in the years that followed.

Afterward, many members of the audience—especially those who had lived through this era—came up to share private stories from that time period. I heard about husbands who managed to avoid the draft, about boyfriends who had left the country. One man admitted that he had lucked out in the lottery while his friend did not—with fatal consequences.

Just last week, a reading at a bookstore in Vermont prompted similar comments from adult friends who had vivid memories of that time. “This is really a novel for adults,” one man announced.

Yes—and no. I wish I had said then what I’m thinking now: there are no rules about who should read what. Is it time to throw away the labels on book jackets (YA, MG, etc.) that limit readership? Since we can’t predict how or why a story may capture a reader, no matter the age, we can only write the stories we need to tell.

(For further reading: See Anne Ursu’s insightful post, and Elizabeth Minkel’s “Read Whatever the Hell You Want” among others.)

Pete Seeger sang “Bring ‘Em Home,” a patriotic, soldier-honoring Vietnam War protest

Seeger died in January, 2014, at age 94. He loved adding a banjo sketch to his autograph!

Seeger died in January, 2014, at age 94. He loved adding a banjo sketch to his autograph!

If you were near my office when this clip is playing, you would hear me singing along with the great departed Pete Seeger.  I love the way he honors the troops even as he asks us to “Bring ‘Em Home.”

It’s actually a very patriotic song.  But it brings tears, as the concert was recorded in 1970, just a year after I lost my cousin, who lived next door to me when I was growing up, and a dear friend.

The woman behind The Wall: Maya Lin never forgot Vietnam’s names

VietnamWallStampA 21-year-old college student’s anonymous entry won a national competition. Her design, later known simply as “The Wall,” would create a lasting memorial to the Americans who died in the Vietnam War. 

Nevertheless, Maya Lin faced years of criticism, beginning with a “B” grade in her college class. Not until a 1994 documentary did the world fully know her side of the story.


Muhammad Ali fought the Vietnam war draft

muhammad (2)No one protested the Vietnam War era military draft louder than boxer Muhammad Ali.

Why wouldn’t he serve? How did Americans, and the government, react?  

Those favorite Fenway Park Pesky Pole seats might put the squeeze on Brandon in 2015

greenmonsterseats (2)If Brandon wanted his same right field seats in Fenway Park (section 93) for a 2015 game as a Christmas present, the holiday gift would cost anywhere from $35 to $75 – depending on date and visiting team. See what the Red Sox will charge for the best seats in the coming season: