Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Yes, This is a Copout

Only one entry for the entire month of December. How lame.

I will soon have a lengthy entry with several links. Until I have time to write it, I am linking you to the Fairrosa Cyber Library of Children's Literature where you can take a Newbery Honors Book Survey. If you are like me, you will be humbled to find how little reading you've done. However, I did recognize a lot of the names!

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

A Book I Like

The ol' webmaster has been on my case because I haven't updated my weblog recently. He's been complaining that I haven't given him all the material for the slides I need for next month's presentation, too. Yeah, he complains all the time, but he's very handy.

I recently finished a book I actually sort of liked. I'm not going to rave about it, but I think it's worthy of a recommendation. Melonhead by Michael de Guzman is the story of Sidney T. Mellon, Jr. a twelve year old with a head too big for his body. Evidently, he is really odd looking because people are always staring at him. A great many of them are rude and unkind so they call him Melonhead.

Now Sidney is a child of divorce and shuttling back and forth between his father in Los Angeles and his mother, her second husband, and stepson in Seattle. He gets fed up and takes off on a cross country trip by bus. He gets away with it for quite a while because each of his parents believes he is with the other one. Each chapter involves his interaction with a new person, often a person who could end up injuring him in some way. Sidney provides each person he meets with a new, ridiculous story about who he is and where he's going and escapes nearly unscathed.

There are two really interesting things about this story. One, of course, is the stories Sidney makes up. The other is that many, if not most, of the adults in this book are probably stereotypes. But de Guzman made them so real again that I didn't care. Sidney's father is the classic good looking ne'er do well who can barely support himself, let alone a child. His mother has made a bad second marriage to a nasty guy who isn't good to her child. His grandmother is estranged from her adult child. I think the reason I bought into these characters is that they really do exist in nature (Maybe they are archetypes instead of stereotypes? I'll have to look archetype up.) More importantly, they really do care about Sidney.

Here's the drawback, though. (I know, there's always a drawback when I'm reading something.) What's the point of having the kid look so odd? I mean, he's adults staring odd. Wasn't the divorce problem enough? The divorce thing is a real problem that real kids face. And, yes, looking odd is a real problem that real kids face, but I think in this particular case the head thing is a distraction.

But, really, for the most part it was a good book.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Literary Journals

Last week I went to Borders where I inspected literary journals. I need to scope some out because I'm finishing up a graduate course on creative nonfiction (as my legion of regular readers are well aware), so now I want to try to publish some and literary journals publish that sort of thing. It's important to study the markets. A journal devoted to, say, the fiction of Afghanistan is not going to be interested in my essay on the joys of studying Taekwondo so I should save everyone a lot of time (and, on my part, embarrassment) and not submit it there.

I found maybe six to eight different publications, which was way too many for me. I was overwhelmed. What to buy, what to buy? I finally gave up and purchased Riverbank Review , which really won't help me much as far as my essays are concerned because it's a review of books for young readers. But, read what you know, right?

I wish I could report on what I've read in Riverbank Review . But, of course, I've only read part of the first article. However, it's about nature writing, and, interestingly enough, I've just read two books of nature writing in my class. Well, actually, I read only one of them because I'm a really lousy student. Still, isn't it strange that nature writing keeps turning up in my life?

Perhaps someone is trying to tell me something.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

But I Have Slides!

I am in the middle of at least four projects, not counting some correspondence I should be taking care of. One of these projects involves developing a new school presentation for two jobs I have lined up this winter.

This presentation is on the history behind Tess LeClerc's Ethan Allen report in The Hero of Ticonderoga. In addition to creating the text, I'm working on planning slides, which my webmaster (have I mentioned that he is a god?) will make in a PowerPoint program. I will then have to drive that program to a film developer about an hour from here where the PowerPoint slides will be made into traditional slides. (Because no matter what you've heard about the wonders of PowerPoint, most of the schools and libraries I deal with don't use it.) Then I'll have to drive back there the next day to pick everything up. Right now I'm just outlining the presentation so we can get the slides done before Christmas. My first presentation is in the middle of January, and I need lots of time to work on the text and practice because of this performance anxiety issue of mine.

Yeah, I know. You now know far more about me than you want to.

The point I'm getting to is that as fascinating as the history related to Ethan Allen is--I could just go on and on about it--I'm worried that kids won't find, say, the Puritans as interesting as I do. Even though I have a slide of Cotton Mather. I'm hopeful they'll like my material on smallpox in the Revolutionary era, though. Who wouldn't like smallpox? Why a professor named Elizabeth Fenn likes it so much she's written an entire book called Pox Americana on the subject of smallpox during the Revolutionary War. I haven't read that book and probably won't, but my point still stands--smallpox is interesting stuff. Ah, but the Enlightenment...My gut feeling is that without the Enlightenment those of us who are not descended from aristocrats would still be living in huts and turning in a percentage of what we make to the lord of the manor. Because of the Enlightenment, learning matters. (Unless I totally don't understand that period, which, of course, is possible.) But will kids, who are probably more than a little ticked off because they have to go to school and learn nearly every day of their lives going to see the value of that? Even though I have a color slide of John Locke to flash on a screen while I talk about his enlightened philosophy?

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Lack of Appreciation for a Beloved Author

I'm not talking about these young whippersnappers who don't appreciate good literature. I'm talking about my lack of appreciation for same. And the author involved is E. B. White.

I know I should be talking about Charlotte's Web or one of White's other books for children. (Stuart Little, for instance). But I've never read any of them. The rumors I've heard about kids crying over Charlotte's death (which also may be only a rumor because, remember, I've never actually read the book) were a serious turnoff. But White was an essayist before he was a children's author, and we've been reading his essay collection One Man's Meat in my graduate class. Actually, we've finished with the thing. Though, I have to admit, I stopped around the halfway point.

One Man's Meat is about White's experiences after he left New York City to live on a farm in Maine. Think Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence except in Maine instead of the south of France. And instead of renovating a house White raised chickens. And instead of writing about great food White wrote about Nazis.

Usually I like personal essays, but White's are often just a little too much like random thoughts for my taste. In his defense, he was writing these for a column in Harper's magazine so the original readers of these essays got them in much smaller, easier to take, doses. Nonetheless, it's not unusual for White to be writing about, say, helping a neighbor drag a sheep home, use a few asterisks, and start writing about something else. This suggests to me that he had a certain number of column inches he had to fill each issue. The essays are interesting historically because they were written in the late 1930s and 1940s about topics people are still writing about today--big agriculture and big education, for instance. One essay on children's literature sounds as if it could be published in The Horn Book today and fit right in. But there's also an aspect to some of his writing that suggests that any thought he had was worth expanding and publishing. Since this is E. B. White we're talking about I'm sure there are many readers who will say that any thought he had was worth expanding and publishing. I, personally, don't know if western literature would be any the worse if he hadn't told us about the farm publications he happened to be reading the day he wrote his column or the state of his hen house.

Okay. I'm an awful person. I just bashed E. B. White.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

What I Found on the Young Adult Shelf

I want to talk about the difference between a book for young people and a book with a young character. I believe I've done this before, but, well, I'm doing it again.

This line of thought was inspired by I Never Liked You by Chester Brown, which I found in the Young Adult section of my local library. I Never Liked You describes itself as a "Comic-Strip Narrative." It's very much a comic-strip memoir. (Does anyone else besides Chester Brown and myself remember that on the Daniel Boone television show Boone had a sidekick named Mingo?) I Never Liked You is a little disjointed and rambly, but the episodes it describes are very true to adolescent life.

Does that mean it's a book for adolescents? There are panels of full-frontal nudity as well as large sections involving very rough language. Both the nudity and the language are appropriate for the story line and true to life. Would I want to hand the book to my 12 to 15 year-old-child? Hmmm. Do I think it should be promoted as a YA book? Definitely not.

The adolescent experience is one that still interests many adult readers. It makes sense that books for them will be written with adolescent characters. I Never Liked You appears to be one of them. I can't find any information on Brown that suggests he thinks of himself as a Young Adult writer or that anyone knowledgeable about independent comics/graphic novels considers him to be one.

However, the adult comic is such a new genre in this country (actually, Brown is Canadian) that literary types are having trouble categorizing it. Yeah, I know, categorizing is bad, and I guess this is an example that illustrates why that's so. While I Never Liked You is sitting on the YA shelf where it may be picked up by a teenager whose parents may find it too mature for their offspring, adults who could really appreciate it don't know it exists.

It may not even be accurate to assume that graphic novels are a genre teens are particularly interested in. I Never Liked You has been in my town library for seven months. I was the first person to take it out.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

I'm Ba-a-ack

Miss me? Did you even notice I've been gone--due to software problems?

I've been working on a new presentation to use in schools, writing essays for that graduate class I keep telling everyone about, and reading essay collections. I've managed to read two kids' books. I've also managed to write a second chapter on the new, new book--not to be confused with the new book, which is coming out in June. Two chapters all fall is nothing to brag about. Actually, it's only one chapter this fall. I think I did the first one in August.

So, anyway, I should have some things to write about.

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

I Guess You'd Call This Thought Provoking

I did not expect to like "Kids Lit Grows Up" an article by Charles Taylor that appears in Salon.com. Children's writers are not very fond of celebrities who decide "Hey, I can write a children's book." Taylor's article isn't about celebrities writing children's books but about writers of adult fiction writing them. Which is a similar situation. Or at least I thought so until Taylor convinced me otherwise.

According to Taylor, a number of writers have children's books coming out soon or already out. He discusses Neil Gaiman's Coraline, which I've already gone on record as saying I didn't like (see September 9 entry), as well as books by Carl Hiaasen, Isabel Allende, and Michael Chabon. (Chabon wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I found too rambly and couldn't finish--This business of my never reading anything I like is really getting me down.) I assumed writers of adult fiction were moving in on kid turf because the Harry Potter thing suggested there was big money to be made by doing so. Taylor gives a more benign reason, and he makes a logical case.

Taylor's argument is that these authors are writing children's books because right now children's literature is an exciting field to be working in and who wouldn't want to be part of an exciting field? In addition, the impression that there's big money in kid lit (and, folks, it's only an impression--the people making big bucks are few and far between) is making it possible for these people to find publishers for their children's books. Under normal circumstances that might not happen.

It's a good article that's worth a look. Oh, my gosh! I think I just read something I liked!

Sunday, September 15, 2002

More on Gail's Graduate Class

Charles Lamb is one of the more readable late eighteenth/early nineteenth century essayists we've had to read in the creative non-fiction class I'm taking this fall. To give you some idea of how decent a writer Lamb is, I studied him as an undergraduate and actually remember!

Why bring him up in a Weblog devoted to children's and YA literature? Well, Charles had a sister named Mary. During some sort of episode of mental illness, Mary killed their mother. To keep her out of prison, Charles offered to become her guardian. (Evidently you could do that back then.) She got off, but it was a life sentence for him. Needless to say, they ended up spending a lot of time together. And the way this connects with kidlit is that the two of them wrote a book for children called Tales From Shakespeare. The book is essentially prose versiions of some of Shakespeare's best known plays.

As luck would have it, my family happens to own a 1956 edition of the Lambs' book that evidently belonged to my husband and brother-in-law. It looks as if they barely touched the thing. My own sons avoided it as well. However, Tales From Shakespeare is available in a contemporary edition, in the event anyone would like to expose a young child to the playwright.

Here's a possible connection between Charles Lamb and myself--I can remember reading prose versions of Shakespeare's plays when I was a child. My mother had a book of them that I was reading somewhere around the time I was in second grade. If memory serves me, my mother didn't think it was appropriate reading for me and deepsixed the book. She was probably right.

Monday, September 09, 2002


I looked forward to reading Coraline by Neil Gaiman because of some buzz it was generating early in the summer. This kids' book has been getting great reviews from both children's and adult sites. Even the mainstream Salon.com gave it a positive nod. Well, I'm uncomfortable saying this, but I found it a little over rated. Though it's a very creepy story full of atmosphere by an author who is evidently known for writing horror stories, its main character just doesn't work. So what I'm saying is the creepy part is just fine, the noncreepy part is the problem.

Coraline is too good to be true, not in the sense of being well-behaved, sweet, and icky but in the sense of always being able to confront every obstacle. And we never see how she works out these problems. She just does it. We never find out how she knows the things she knows. "'She has lied to you,'" a character tells Coraline. "The hairs on the back of Coraline's neck prickled, and Coraline knew that the girl's voice told the truth." Well, how did she know that?

She is also wise beyond her years, which I, personally, never particularly care for in a child perhaps because it makes me feel inadequate. But it's also not very realistic. "I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn't mean anything. What then?" I'm sorry. Not many kids feel that way, and that passage sounds just a little bit like a lesson--an odd thing coming in a horror story.

Another odd thing about this book is that there is something about the appearance of the scary characters that's similar to that of the family in The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh. (A series of books I loved. I mention that to prove that I do like some things I read, though it doesn't seem to have happened much lately.) The similarity is so striking that I found it distracting. Perhaps Gaiman meant to pay a little homage to Waugh. Or perhaps as a primarily adult author he hasn't read much children's and YA fiction.

Which would go a long way toward explaining the failings in his child character.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

Oh, Yeah. This is Going to be Great

I have finished the 100+ pages I had to read for next week's graduate class but not the book by the contemporary essayist.

Do you recall the poem The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson? (Stevenson wrote essays but so far I've been spared having to read them.) Late eighteenth, early nineteenth century essays are very much like The Swing except they don't rhyme. "I love to go up in a swing. I love to look around while I'm up there. I love to come back down."

I feel very badly for those poor souls who lived before the time of the novel and had nothing to read but essays. On the other hand, it's terrific that you could write this kind of stuff and get paid for it.

Thursday, August 29, 2002

This is a Fine Mess I've Gotten Myself Into

The school year has started, which means I should soon have more to write about--school presentations, conferences, etc. However, the question of how I'll find time to write about these things has come up. You see, I've been thinking about going to graduate school for, oh, say, twenty-five years and last night I actually started taking a graduate class. Not that that means I'm actually in graduate school. I'm a non-degree student, which helps to explain why it took all summer for me to get permission to attend this thing.

But whether I'm in graduate school or not, I'm taking this graduate class about essays. And today I started reading essays by a fellow named Montaigne who lived in the Sixteenth Century. In France. He is the father of the modern essay as we know it. (Did I ever hear Regis ask that question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) By the time I got to the end of the first page I was falling asleep, and after twenty minutes I was out cold. That was at ten to eleven this morning. I still have twenty pages left to read. Then I get to go on to the works of two Eighteenth Century British writers and finally an entire book by a contemporary writer. That's for next week.

I'm not worried about the reading keeping me from writing but the napping may cut into my work time significantly.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Oh! Now I Get It!

I finally read Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography . Snicket is, of course, the author of the fascinatingly tragic A Series of Unfortunate Events stories. (See 3/27/02 Weblog entry.)

An editor's note states that the book's thirteen chapters may be read in any order, which I definitely found to be the case. There really isn't what might be called a...hmmm...narrative thread? story line? logic of any kind?...to this poor man's life. Though I'm a sucker for photographs and unusual structure, I felt lost a lot of the time. Until, that is, I had almost finished the book and began to see references to Count Olaf (who appeared to have attracted a woman friend, which just goes to show that there really is someone from everyone) and those darling and desperate Baudelaire children. I was still lost, but I understood why. I've only read two of the eight (more or less) books in the series. The autobiography is for serious fans.

Fortunately, I have my own copy of the book, which I bought one day at the grocery store. Not the grocery store where I read The Gas We Pass (see 7/1/02 Weblog entry), but another one. Therefore, I'll be able to read it again when I've had an opportunity to study up.

Monday, August 12, 2002

Speaking of Teen Angst...

...as we were last week, you can check out teen angst books at The Grouchy Cafe's Favorite Teenage Angst Books. This site is maintained by Cathy Young, who recognizes that most writing about teenage books is directed to adults, such as librarians and teachers, instead of the people the books are actually written for. The same could be said about all books for young people.

I didn't notice any reviews of Catcher in the Rye at this site. Bless you, Cathy.

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Planet What?

Well, it's been a long time, but I have a twofer for you to try to make up for my lack of attention.

The topic today, folks, is Angst! which carries the subtitle Teen Verses From The Edge. It's a collection of poetry originally published at a Web site called PlanetKiki, which is specifically for teenage girls. PlanetKiki is pretty much your general girl Web site--teens can write in with problems and post messages on forums. (Crankygirl deals with teenage PMS.) The unique aspect of the site is the section called Angst where girls can post poetry. It appeared that they could get feedback from readers, too.

That's the Web site. Now the book. There's an awful lot of stuff that seems similar here. The section called Crushed suggests an awful lot of girls have boyfriends who walk out on them. The best poems are those dealing with something other than boys. The Whinings of a Lower-middle Class White Girl by Amber Nicole Lupin was a personal favorite. Ode to a Narcissist by Jessikah Dragon is about a guy, but it has a sense of humor.

One of the things I think teenagers will like about this book is the strong language. This is realistic poetry expresed with words people actually use when they're ticked off.

Angst! ends with a series of poetry writing exercises and explanations of different poetic forms. Readers are directed to poems in the book that represent the various types of forms. I could use something like that whenever I read a volume of poetry.

Thursday, July 25, 2002

Until I Can Write a Real Entry

I'm not doing a terrific job of keeping up with this thing. I mention that to make clear that I notice, too. Some up coming entries will be about a book of teen poetry I hope to read soon and an authorized autobiography of Lemony Snicket I bought at the grocery store and haven't opened. Until I can get around to those, why not go visit Salon.com's new Weblog?

Need I point out that I was doing it first?

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

A Site to Visit This Summer

Presumably we all have less to do in the summer, which means we have more time to read. I haven't ever actually found that to be the case, but let's pretend you do. Where might you get some ideas for something new and different to read?

At BookSense.com, a Web site that functions as part of a marketing campaign for independent booksellers. There's plenty of information on books there. You can also order books at this site. If I understand the system correctly, the orders will be filled by an independent bookstore near you.

BookSense.com maintains a bi-monthly selection of new kids books chosen by independent booksellers, the most recent being called the Spring/Summer 2002 Children's Book Sense. Check it out for something new to read these next few weeks.

Monday, July 01, 2002

Things are Kind of Slow Right Now

It's summer so I'm not doing any school presentations, and kidlit conference season appears to be over. So I don't have much to write about these days. That's how I'm explaining and excusing this entry.

You see, yesterday I was at the grocery store, one of those big ones with a book section. It had been recently renovated and as grocery store book sections go, it was quite nice. Anyway, there, on an end display of picture books, what did I see but The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts by Shinta Cho. Oh, how I wish we knew how to insert graphics into this blog so I could show you the elephant butt on the cover!

The title is both lyrical and descriptive. The book is exactly what it says it is...The Story of Farts. I stood there next to my shopping cart with my mouth open and read the whole thing. As a mom, I would have been hesitant to make this book available to my kids because once I had they would have taken it as absolute permission to talk the talk and...uh, walk the walk, so to speak. As a reader, I have to say I know plenty of adults who would love this book. Yeah, for its factual information. That's right.

Friday, June 28, 2002

And Just What is a "Quasi-autobiography?"

In addition to reading more short stories, I believe the young should be reading more essays. (And eating more raw vegetables, getting more exercise, and being more attentive to their mothers.) So when I stumbled upon Teen Angst? Nah... by Ned Vizzini, which was described on the cover as a "quasi-autobiography" and whose author included the word "essay" in his introduction, I snatched it up off the library shelf.

Teen Angst? Nah... is more of a memoir than an autobiography, which I guess explains the "quasi." It's about Vizzini's experiences in high school (a high school for the mathematically gifted in New York City) and was written when he was between the ages of 15 and 18. He has written for New York Press, an alternative newspaper, and wrote an article that was published in The New York Times Magazine. He's an experienced writer and something like 21 years old now.

I'm having trouble getting to the point because I'm hesitant to say that I wasn't all that crazy about a book written by such a young person. (Let me admit at this point that I gave up reading when I was about two-thirds of the way through the book.) Vizzini has nothing to be embarrassed about. The book isn't bad and neither is his writing. It's just that it reads like the work of a smart, young person who hasn't decided what he wants to do with his writing. Some reviewers call Teen Angst? a book of short stories, some a collection of essays or even a collection of vignettes, which sort of reinforces my point. What is he trying to do here? There's not much in the way of theme or characterization in each chapter so they don't really work as short stories. And when read as essays this reader, at least, kept wondering, "What's the point?"

When I've worked with very young writers I found that they often would use this kind of structure for their writing: this happened and then this happened and then this happened and that's all. A lot of these chapters read like that. They're not bad, they're just somewhat immature.

This is another one of those books that Gail wasn't fond of but many others were. It's worth giving it a try. Though I don't think the writing here is anything anyone would want to use as a model, certainly young people might be interested in reading about a young man who is doing something unusual with his time.

You can read an interview with Ned Vizzini at Teen Advice.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

The Webbies and Me

I see I was passed over for a Webby Award...AGAIN. They must not have a category for me. So MAKE ONE, PEOPLE!

They do, however, have a category called Kids. Here's a rundown on this year's nominees. See if you can call the winner.

ChannelOne.com appears to be a teen service site, sort of an adolescent and Internet version of Good Housekeeping. The day I visited "Sobriety Test" was a big headline. Under cool links I found "Skin Cancer: Are You At Risk?" and "Zap Your Zits." (When I followed that link I found the actual title was "Do It Yourself: Zap Your Zits." Readers were able to respond to that article, which was kind of interesting.) ChannelOne.com publishes reader poetry, and today they had a great one called Waffle House by Anna W., who is 13.

Ology is a site maintained by the American Museum of Natural History. It's beautiful, but I'm sorry...it screams EDUCATIONAL.

Pinhole Spy Camera requires special equipment to view. I hate those kinds of sites. I'll check this one out another time.

SFS Kids is the San Francisco Symphony Kids' Site. See Ology above.

teenwire.com is a product of Planned Parenthood. My first thought was, YIKES! HEALTH CLASS! And there is a certain amount of that. Actually, there's a lot of that. But the site also has stuff on interviewing skills and netiquette. Since I'm one of those people who is always looking for health information on the Internet, I suspect that if I were a teen I'd be at teenwire.com all the time.

And the Webby winner was: Ology. However, the People's Voice Winner (and I have no idea how this is selected) was ChannelOne.com. Personally, I would have gone with the people. I really liked that poem ChannelOne.com ran today.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

More From That Elementary School Library

The second book I noticed last week was a little on the disappointing side. I picked up Luke's Way of Looking by Nadia Wheatley (with illustrations by Matt Ottley ) because it appeared to be about art. I get a lot of my knowledge of art from kids' books on the subject, especially if they have lots of pictures and aren't trying to tell me a whole lot, like Linnea in Monet's Garden. I took one look at Luke's Way of Looking and thought ol' Luke was going to do for some aspect of modern art what Linnea did for Impressionism.

Not so. The book isn't about art, but Luke's problems fitting in as an artist, which is a different thing altogether. He's a modern art kind of guy trapped in a rigid, color inside the lines kind of world. The book is described as "a story of empowerment" by the publisher because Luke goes to a museum where he sees works of art he can identify with. But then he returns to the same old school situation where nothing has changed, though for some unexplained reason his teacher is no longer on him for his antics with his paintbrush.

I don't really see how the book does what it sets out to do and wish the author and illustrator had bagged the lesson and just exposed readers to a type of art we might have been unfamiliar with.

Thursday, June 13, 2002

Scoping Out a School Library

I put in my last day of author talks for this academic year at an elementary school today. During the lunch period I wandered around the school library looking for picture books, something I haven't talked about much (if at all) in Original Content.

The Ant Bully by John Nickle first caught my eye because of the illustrations. They have a very clean, retro look that I always like. I enjoyed the story, too. It's about Lucas who, sad to say, is just a little bit nerdy. So it's no surprise that he's bullied by Sid the Bully. In an interesting twist Lucas, in turn, becomes a bully. He attacks the only things he can--a colony of ants--which he sprays with his water pistol just as Sid sprays him with his garden hose.

The ants, working as a team, haul Lucas down into their colony where he has to live as a drone. He becomes such a part of the community that he takes a risk to save two ant partners who had been sent on a mission with him to bring back a Swell Jell for the queen. When he is returned to normal boy life, his ant buddies give him a hand with his bully problem.

I was attracted to this story because when I ask kids in schools to come up with events in their lives that they could use in their writing, dealing with bullies always comes up. The Ant Bully recognizes something that has only recently been made common knowledge--that being bullied can create bullies. And it does it without preaching. (You'd think a former Sunday school teacher, such as myself, wouldn't mind being preached to, but it really sets my teeth on edge.) The Ant Bully won't give anyone tools to deal with bullies but this comic, whimsical tale could help their victims feel less alone and help the bad guys recognize themselves as, well, bad guys.

Monday, June 10, 2002

The Mystery of Nancy Drew

Somewhere around the time I was in college, or soon thereafter, I learned that the Nancy Drew books of which I had been so fond were not written by a woman named Carolyn Keene, but by a group of faceless writers who worked for a syndicate that published the Nancy Drew books as well as others such as The Hardy Boys. I became quite jaded, thought I understood the ways of the world, and began referring to dear Nancy as Nancy Drew, Defective.

Then I started reading about an elderly woman named Harriet S. Adams, daughter of Edward Stratemeyer who founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate that published the Nancy Drew books. She was credited with writing many of the books in the Nancy Drew series and received a lot of press at the time of her death in 1982 for having done so.

Now another, even more elderly, woman has died and the press write-ups are giving her credit for having been the writer who actually created Nancy Drew. Mildred Wirt Benson is said to have written the earliest, and some say the best, Nancy Drew stories. Though she is now credited with writing twenty-three of the books, a confidentiality agreement she was required to sign by her employer kept her from receiving credit for it. After a 1980 court case the truth could be told, though I've only just heard it.

Am I the only one who's wondering if this is the end? Are there still more spunky old ladies out there who spent their youths cranking out tales about a girl who solved mysteries, had a dad with money, friends, a boyfriend, and a car? (My dream life when I was a teenager. Except for the solving mysteries part, it still is.)

You can check out the Nancy Drew tale at these two sites:
Nancy Through the Decades
The Hindu

Friday, June 07, 2002

A Good Short Story is Hard to Find: Part III--Stories for Your More Mature Readers

It's your lucky day, folks! I finished a book...That's reading a book, not writing one.

All the Old Haunts is a book of short stories by Chris Lynch the author of Slot Machine, a personal favorite that I recommend to kids, say, thirteen and up, whenever the opportunity presents itself. (There are some aspects of Slot Machine--and All the Old Haunts--that are on the mature side.) The stories in Old Haunts are well-written--moody, with some variety as far as style goes, and a definite narrative line. Most of them actually end. Unlike Slot Machine, there's very little dark humor (or any humor) at work in this volume. But that's okay. Even I don't think everything needs to be funny.

Some of the stories seem like tradtional "teen problem" tales. Teens dealing with death, teens dealing with abortion, teens dealing with sexuality, teens dealing with murderous tendencies. Okay, so the last one isn't all that traditional. Still.

The best stories, however, are the ones about more mundane adolescent heartache. In The Hobbyist a very tall young man's life is blighted by his need to feel part of the athletic scene in spite of his lack of athletic skill. In Horror Vacui the third member of a group of young friends is left alone with his empty life when the other two become romantically involved. And in Womb to Tomb a boy has a twin so monstrous that one by one their family members are forced to abandon them. Okay, so the last one isn't all that mundane. Still--it was good. And the opening and ending stories--Foghorn and Pissin' and Moanin'--are intricate pieces involving young men's relationships with fathers they want to separate from and cling to.

I've yet to read a book of short stories in which every selection is a winner. All the Old Haunts has more than its share.

You can read an interview with Chris Lynch at teenreads.com

Monday, June 03, 2002

Advanced Readers

It's been over a week since I've written in this thing! Way over a week! I totally forgot about it. Maybe it's a good thing I don't have pets. (Of course, I may have one and have forgotten about it. If so, I hope it was a dog.)

Anyway, here's something interesting I saw, well, just about a week and a half ago, as a matter of fact. I was in a fifth grade classroom and happened to look under an unoccupied desk where I saw a copy of Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. In case you were taking a break from life when Morrie was all the news a few years back, it's the story of an elderly professor (Morrie) who is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease and has weekly meetings (on Tuesdays) with a former student (Mitch) who learns all this meaningful stuff about life. (If I knew what that meaningful stuff was, I'd tell you but I didn't read the book.) It's not a book I'd expect to see on a lot of elementary school reading lists. But the really interesting thing about this situation was that the child who was reading the book had marked her or his place with a troll bookmark.

I've told this story to several people, only one of whom thought it was at all amusing or interesting. You see, the book is a very heavy, adult story and the person reading the said heavy, adult story is so young and nonadult that she or he is into trolls. Get it? No? Oh. Okay. Just forget I mentioned it then.

Thursday, May 23, 2002

My Two Cents on Audiobooks

The May/June issue of The Horn Book Magazine (which I have actually started reading already!) includes an article by Pamela Varley entitled As Good as Reading? Kids and the Audiobook Revolution. (It's the first article, which means I haven't read much.) It's a well-balanced discussion of a subject you wouldn't believe could inspire much passion. However, audiobooks--like television--are often attacked as being devices that will destroy reading skills and once we can no longer read it's only a small step to the end of life as we know it. (You know, there are probably people who would be happy to see that happen.)

So what's my take on this important issue? First off, I think it says something good about us that reading has such a central position in our culture that groups of people worry that other activities will undermine it. I also think that audiobooks aren't going to do it. Listening to a book is not worse or better than reading one. It's just different.

My own experience with audiobooks and children is that they expose kids to authors they might not otherwise have had an opportunity to know about. That is, of course, assuming an adult knows a child's tastes and what he or she has been reading and uses that knowledge to make a selection. Our own family started reading Roald Dahl because we listened to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the car on the way to New Hampshire. Though not a fan of Jack London, myself, Call of the Wild seemed like a good pick for the family to listen to on another trip. (It's grim, but that's us.) Notice I used the word family in each of the last two sentences. Though we all read, this is not the Nineteenth Century, and we don't sit next to the fire in the evening reading aloud to each other. Audiobooks in the car gave us an opportunity to hear a book together that we wouldn't otherwise have had. And audiobooks also introduced one young reader in our family to adult mystery novels--he would listen to one on tape and then read through all the author's works. He did this a number of times.

If the adults in our family had been purists and said they'd allow only traditional books in our home, a lot less reading would have been done. So in case I haven't made my point, I'll put it bluntly--I'm a fan of audiobooks.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Doing the Coffee House Thing

My latest excursion into polite society involved serving as the guest writer at a teen coffee house held at our high school. This was an extremely interesting experience for a number of reasons, only a few of which I'll inflict upon you.

I've never been one to attend a lot of public readings because I don't really enjoy being read to all that much. I'm one of those learners who needs to read rather than just listen. (If I'm at a real lecture I have to take notes. Listening truly isn't enough for me.) I also often find readings a little embarrassing and awkward. Often the audience is packed with friends of the readers/writers, and there's a little lovefest going that I get to witness but not be part of. The last time I attended one was maybe three or four years ago. I hadn't been there fifteen minutes when I thought, "Oh, I remember why it's been so long since I've been to one of these things. I don't like them."

But the coffee house I was part of Friday evening (I believe it was called "Generations," but I've lost my program) was a cut above what I've been used to, and I've spent a lot of time wondering why. Most of the readings involved poetry, though there were three musicians and a monologist. So there was variety. The audience was made up of friends and family (mostly friends--evidently parents of poets don't turn out for readings the way parents of athletes do for games). Yet there was no gushing. Instead, the audience treated the readers as if they were serious poets and performers, which, of course, they were. The ratio of good readings and performances to so-so was high.

All that was enough to make for the interesting experience I mentioned in my first paragraph. But what really made Friday evening different--and better--than other such events I've attended? I think it was the content of the material. These young poets (and that really fine monologist--I swear, that's a real word) were using writing to explore the world. They wrote about the differences between men and women, the existence of heaven and hell, war, and bigotry. Because their writing touched upon the world all of us in the audience live in, we could all take something from it. The so-called adult writers at the last few readings I've been to used writing to explore themselves. They wrote about dealing with estranged husbands and the deaths of relatives. Some of them cried through their readings. Their writing was a sort of therapy and was so personal that listeners couldn't take anything from it.

The kids were able to write of something beyond themselves. The adults weren't.

Friday night I listened to those young people talk about how they came to write what they were about to read, and I thought, "Wow. There are people in the world who write poetry in response to things they've experienced." Usually at those kinds of things I'm thinking, "I wonder when I can leave?"

Oh, and the high school students remembered to bring food, too.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

A Neat Idea for Teachers

Here's something I'm dropping from my Web site, but I think it deserves to be preserved so I'm posting it here. (Yeah, that's right. I don't have anything to write about.)

I was just contacted by a first grade class at Queen of Peace School in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. The students in Mrs. Major's class read 100 books and e-mailed (and received e-mails from) 100 authors by the 100th day of school. Now they're working their way to 200.

This great project got the kids reading books, using computers/the Internet, and researching writers by way of their Web sites. On top of all that, they wrote a story about their experience. You can read it here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

A Good Short Story is Hard to Find: Part II

I just finished reading Lord of the Fries and Other Stories (a title I love) by Tim Wynne-Jones. This collection was classified as YA in the library where I found it, though a review I saw described it as being for 10 to 14 year olds, which might be a better fit. These are stories that have a lot to recommend them--well-defined characters and a strong sense of place, for instance. Wynne-Jones is Canadian, and his stories have Canadian settings. That makes them similiar enough to the world Canada's neighbors to the south inhabit for American readers to feel comfortable but unique enough for them to feel they're being exposed to something different. They are comfortably different stories, you might say. One involves young people singing in a church choir who think that Lucifer may be trying to join their group. Another involves a girl obsessed with Anne of Green Gables. Many of the stories are a little predictable, however, ending in ways that teach a moral. Others don't seem to end at all, as in the afore mentioned Lucifer story. (I must admit, I am often dissatisfied with the endings of short stories so you might want to take that into consideration.) The most successful story is the last, "The Chinese Babies." It could be argued that it, too, ends predictably with a positive lesson for young readers. But because of the unique setting--the border between Ontario and Quebec--the bigotry involved is addressed toward French-Canadians, making the story fresh for American readers. On top of that, it deals with real family issues--conflict between fathers and teenage sons that other family members have to stand by helplessly and watch and a failing grandfather who needs his family's care but also earns their contempt because of his narrow-minded attitudes. There's a lot going on and everything is drawn together by the end.

Lord of the Fries is a good collection to have on hand in a classroom or library and certainly a number of these stories would make a good selection for reading in an upper grade or middle school class.

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

An Enriching Experience

For three years now I've been involved in an enrichment cluster program at our local elementary school. An enrichment cluster is a group of students and adults who have gathered together to study some aspect of a "real" problem or to learn about something members of the community actually do. The adults in the clusters act as facilitators, not teachers, and ideally the members of the cluster will plan their activities together. One of the goals for enrichment clusters (and there are many goals) is to provide a more natural learning experience. To some extent everyone in the work world learns what they need to learn. (For adults reading this, think back to your first two or three years at a job. I think you'll see what I mean.) Enrichment clusters try to reproduce that natural method of learning.

You often hear the term high-end learning in relation to enrichment clusters. Unfortunately, I find most of the writing on that topic almost impossible to comprehend. (Perhaps I have a high-end learning deficiency?) But, basically, what we're trying to do with enrichment clusters is get away from the traditional teaching model of adult spitting out information and kids understanding and memorizing it and move on to more sophisticated stuff. In enrichment clusters kids get opportunties to plan, analyze, make decisions, organize time, and try out many of the other skills actually used in the real world.

So far I've facilitated clusters on using journals twice, and this year I'm the facilitator for a writers' group for 4th through 6th graders. At our school the clusters are held one hour a week for six weeks. It's an opportunity for adults to do sophisticated--but short-term--volunteer work.

Visit a real school's description of its cluster program.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

A Good Short Story is Hard to Find: Part I

I have a morbid fascination with short stories. If I'm looking at the offerings on a library's 'New Book' shelf, I recoil in horror when I stumble upon a volume of short fiction. Once a year I skim through a "Best Short Stories" collection of some sort or another because, gosh, I don't want to read any bad ones. As my cousin, Bobby, once observed, it takes as much commitment to get involved with a short story as it does with a novel but by the time you're committed, it's over. Bobby and I are only interested in long relationships. On the other hand, because I write short stories, I have to think about them a lot, even if I don't read as many as I should.

Don't panic. I'm not going to give you the benefit of my random thoughts on short story writing. Instead, I'd like to point out that though I don't read them often, myself, I think the young should read them just as they should learn advanced math and how to conjugate foreign verbs--two other things I don't do. Now, I have a good reason for this. It's all very nice that children in the upper elementary grades and middle school read novels in class, but when was the last time they were asked to write one? Kids that age are asked to write short stories. And it's been my experience that they have little knowledge of this literary form that they're asked to write. So what do they have to model their work on? If they were in an art class and told to draw a pear, their instructor would make sure they knew what a pear looked like. Shouldn't they read and discuss short stories so they know what they "look" like?

This is all a lead-in to a discussion of a book of teen short stories I'm reading. But I haven't finished it yet, so I'll have to save the review for another day. You've been warned.

In the meantime, Amazon lists over 300 books as being collections of short stories for children.

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Two Great Days In School

I recently finished two great days visiting in a couple of Connecticut elementary schools. I've never had a bad experience in a school, but there have been times when, let's say, the enthusiasm level of the teachers and students wasn't everything it might have been. At my two most recent "day jobs" it was everything a visiting author could hope for. There were signs made up in the media center to let students know I was coming, and teachers had obviously spent time reading my books with their students. Why does this make a difference? Kids who've read a visiting author's books ask more detailed questions and have more of them. They want to know where specific ideas came from, and they talk about characters. The experience is more pleasurable for the author (for this author, anyway), and the kids seem to get more out of it.

Teachers who prep the kids are able to use author books to generate writing, too. One teacher read her class the first chapter of My Life Among the Aliens and then had them write their own chapter. They included a book cover for their stories. At least three other classes did Alien illustrations.

PTO/PTA representatives, media specialists or anyone else preparing for an author visit to a school or library (as well as authors preparing for such a visit) should take a look at Terrific Connections With Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers by Toni Buzzeo and Jane Kurtz. I attended one of their workshops at a New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrator's Conference a while back and hope some day to finish reading their book. Not that their book is difficult to read or anything. I'm just years and years behind in my reading.

Friday, April 26, 2002

The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups

I wanted to come up with a clever headline for this entry, but nothing beat the title of the book I'm going to write about--The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups by David Wisniewski. Wisniewski is a Caldecott winner who wrote as well as illustrated this clever top secret and confidential file of random information collected with what appears to have been great risk by his unnamed narrator. The basic premise of the book is that there are reasons for all the rules imposed by grown-ups. They just are very secretive about letting anyone know what those reasons are. For instance, the real reason we're not supposed to pick our noses is that it will make our brains deflate.

This book is so inviting that I caught an eighteen-year-old boy reading it in my living room.

Wisniewski has a follow-up book--The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups: The Second File. You can read an interview with him as well as a write-up explaining how he creates his art.

Monday, April 22, 2002

And, Yes, Still More on Perspectives in Children's Literature

Last week I took you through lunch. That brings us to, yup, the afternoon when I went to see and hear Norton Juster, who was a big draw for the Conference as far as I'm concerned because I really did love The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster was everything you'd expect the author of that book to be--very witty, clever, and well-spoken. ("Well-spoken?" Is that a word?) As a young man, he shared an apartment with Jules Feiffer, Tollbooth's illustrator. Oh, I thought. Norton Juster lived with a Pulitzer Prize winner. Who did I live with when I was young? My sister. How lame is that.

Juster's day job for much of his life was as an architect, which I found interesting, though I can't say why. He loves the idea of math, he said, because there's so much humor in it. He mentioned the concept of negative numbers as being particularly funny. He believes humor is a way of liberating the mind, a notion I particularly liked.

You can read an interview with Norton Juster in Salon

Thursday, April 18, 2002

And Still More on Perspectives in Children's Literature

Now, authors and illustrators who attended this conference were given celebrity status, and their books were sold at the book sale. It is very interesting to be considered a celebrity by people who have never heard of you. There was assigned seating at lunch (which I absolutely love, by the way, but I won't go into that), and a celebrity was assigned to most of the tables. This immediately raised a question in my mind: How do you know if you are the celebrity at your table? What if you think you're the celebrity but then a really famous person comes down and sits next to you? Fortunately, there were only three of us at my table and we mostly talked about our kids so nothing embarrassing happened.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Still More on Perspectives in Children's Literature

After hearing Eric Carle, I went off to listen to Jane Yolen give a talk on the importance of mythology. Ms. Yolen began by apologizing for not having prepared better because of an illness in her family. She then proceeded to give what I thought was a good, college-quality lecture. This is a compliment, since I like a good lecture.

There are so many things I could be reporting on here relating to her talk, but a blog should be brief, so I'll just tell you about a project she is working on with Robert Harris. They are writing what is known as the Young Heroes Series--novels on the teenage years of characters from Greek mythology. The first book was Odysseus in the Serpent Maze and the most recent is Hippolyta and the Curse of the Amazons. There are also plans for stories about Atalantis and Jason. There are two goals for the series: They will be historically accurate (as far as clothing, weapons, etc. are concerned; no traveling to countries that no one knew existed at the time) and the main characters will be developed in such a way that they can logically become the adult mythic figures we know of.

The publisher is HarperCollins and Ms. Yolen estimates the reading audience as starting at fourth or fifth grade (good readers) but no higher than eighth grade.

While crusing the Internet for info for this blurb I learned that Ms. Yolen's husband maintains her Web site. So does mine! I truly believe that computer skills are very important in a spouse.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

More on Perspectives in Children's Literature

Okay, the first keynote speaker at the Perspectives in Children's Literature Conference was Eric Carle, who is famous for a little something called The Very Hungry Caterpiller, though, personally, I prefer Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, a book by Bill Martin, Jr. that Carle illustrated. He gave a fantastic talk on design, looking at art, and his mentors and how they influenced him. What I really loved about this guy was that he said right up front that he was a kid who didn't like school and wasn't a great student. Though he always had a passion for art and a talent that was recognized at an early age, he wasn't a child genius or prodigy, something I, for one, am seeing an awful lot of in fiction, movies, TV, etc. What about the rest of us who have trouble getting with the program before the age of 10? 16? 20? Is there no hope for us? Carle's speech was a message of hope for all the kids who are like young Eric.

Carle also spoke about something I knew nothing about, which is probably easy to do since there are so many things I know nothing about. In this case I mean The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. This museum is the work of Carle and his wife, whose name, I'm sorry to say, I've forgotten. After seven years of effort, it's expected to open in November, 2002 near Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Except for a gallery in Texas that sells picture book art, this museum is believed to be the first of its kind in this country. (There are supposed to be around 20, of various sizes, in Japan.) Carle envisions it as being a place where children can have their first experience visiting an art museum. It will have three galleries, an auditorium, a studio where kids can try their hand at art work, a gift shop, a library, and a cafe--an absolute must for kids. Oh, well, a must for me, too.

Monday, April 08, 2002

Doesn't This Woman Ever Stay Home?

At this time of year it seems as if anyone interested in children's literature can find a kidlit event to attend nearly every weekend, and I found one this past Saturday at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The Perspectives in Children's Literature Conference was cofounded by Jane Yolen thirty-two years ago. She served as co-director for eight years with Professor Marsha Rudman, who has been directing it ever since. (Kidlit people have incredible staying power.)

Over 450 people attended this conference, mainly teachers and librarians. I have never been to a children's literature event that was not well attended (well, there was one, but you get my point), which is extremely interesting to me since in my daily life within the general population not only do I not find that much interest in children's books among adults, kids' books are often looked down upon by anyone much over the age of fifteen. But within the subgroup of humanity that does have an interest, the interest is huge. Professor Rudman and her staff understand that interest and provided something to nurture every aspect of it.

A freebie table (I'm mentioning that first because isn't it the best part of every conference?) was overflowing with publishers' catalogs, cartons of beautiful book posters, illustrated postcards, bookmarks, and informative brochures. And new stuff kept coming out all day. Usually at these things books written and illustrated by the presenters are offered for sale. This conference offered a book sale that covered three rooms--one room for the presenters and authors/illustrators who were attending the conference and two other rooms of books covering all genres. College conference book sales are sometimes a little on the "improving" side--lots of non-fiction and beautiful books with multi-cultural themes, folktales, award-winners, etc. The Perspectives sale included books for all tastes. There was also a publishers' room, in which maybe fifteen or sixteen publishers had sent copies of books for inspection. Then I stumbled onto a room offering original illustrations for sale.

This was all in addition to the authors who spoke.

In case you haven't picked up on it, I'll be blunt--I had a great time. And for those of you who couldn't be there, I'll give you a report on the speakers I heard over the next week or so.

Thursday, April 04, 2002

What it's Like to be a Girl--I Mean a Writer

A friend from Illinois contacted me by e-mail a few weeks ago to say she was working on a "Books" badge for Girl Scouts and needed to ask an author what it is like to be a writer. Since I responded by e-mail and had my answer in writing and since I didn't have anything else to write about this week...Isn't it interesting how Weblog entries come about?

Anyway, for all you Girl Scouts who need to know what it's like to be a writer:

Writing is a job. It's my work. It surprises a lot of people to hear that. They always think it's exciting to have books published. Well, it's certainly more exciting to have them published than not to have them published, but by the time a book comes out in the stores, we should be working on another one or on some other writing project. Like any other job, we always have to be working. And no matter how much you like your work, it is work.

Doctors, police officers, engineers, and, I'm sure, many other kinds of people have the regular work they do (taking care of the sick, fighting crime, designing things, whatever) and then another aspect of their jobs that is different and is usually referred to as paperwork. Doctors have insurance paperwork, police officers have reports, engineers have to apply for permits from state agencies for their projects. Authors, especially authors who aren't famous, have to publicize their work. For me that means planning author presentations for schools, creating materials to send to schools to let them know I'm available, talking with school representatives, and going to the schools. I also have a Web site that needs to be updated regularly. All these sorts of things take up time that I could use writing.

One of the good things about being a writer (besides being able to eat while you work and work in your night clothes) is that everything you do or read or see or experience can give you an idea or be used some way in your writing. So, in a way, we're working all the time. Another good thing is that we don't have bosses telling us what we should be doing all day every day. Unfortunately, that's also a bad thing, because it's a lot easier to concentrate and stick to your work when someone makes you do it.

Many writers only work part time because writing doesn't provide a very steady source of income. (You only get paychecks from your publisher a couple of times a year, and you never know when you'll make a sale to a magazine.) So they're holding down another job that may be full-time in business, education, medicine, law, or almost anything. A lot of writers are working extremely hard in order to be writers.

Now, I know that I haven't made writing sound like a whole lot of fun (except for the part about being able to eat while you work and work in your nightclothes). I'd just like to finish by saying that if you are a person who loves books and reading, who looks forward to going to libraries and bookstores, and who enjoys planning out the lives of imaginary people, writing is a way to live your life surrounded by and doing the things you love.

Monday, April 01, 2002

Just What are the Perks of Being a Wallflower?

I took on the task of reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky because I'd seen it on a number of teen favorite lists. So, here it is in a nutshell: Charlie, who has more than your average teen problems (he sees a psychiatrist instead of a dermatologist), tells his story through letters to an unnamed person. He is considered a wallflower in the sense of being a passive observer of life instead of the more traditional meaning of being on the outside of real social activities. As far as real social activities are concerned, Charlie really gets around. He falls in with a group of older students (seniors in high school--Charlie is just old enough to get his license) who are kind to him though they introduce him to a number of what are usually considered adult interests. Several times in the course of the story, Charlie asks "What's wrong with me?" I wondered what was wrong with him, too. At the end of the book, I found out.

Now, I know this is an old coot reaction, but all I could think while I read the last third of this book was, "Where are these kids' parents?" Not a single teenager in this story had parents who ever noticed that their kids had brought friends home while the house was empty or asked where they were going and if an adult would be there or objected because their kids were spending so much time in the apartments of college age kids who lived alone? Over the course of an entire school year no parents noticed anything, not even that their brandy was disappearing faster than it should have been? Charlie has a history of mental illness and ends up seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication. He also has caring parents. They had a child that fragile and never noticed that he'd started drinking and doing drugs? They never even smelled cigarettes on him and realized he was smoking?

The lack of parental interest was convenient for the story line but not very realistic. It gets back (see March 18th entry) to how to get parents out of the way so young characters can, in this case, do everything. In Wallflower the parents aren't eliminated in a logical way. The parent issue just isn't addressed at all. Their absence leaves a gaping hole in the story.

Now, after saying that I found the book unbelievable, it's only fair to add that teens really like this book. There are on-line fan sites and discussion groups in which teenagers talk about reading Wallflower in seven hours and reading it several times. I suspect that what they are attracted to is not the activity engaged in but...the lack of adults. Though Chbosky has created a world that is unrealistic and doesn't deal with one of teenagers' greatest problems--their parents--it's a world in which adolescents are autonomous in a way that they can only dream about in real life. It's a fantasy world for kids who are too old for Harry Potter.

Read a transcript of an online chat with Stephen Chbosky at LiveWorld, Inc.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I finished reading The Wide Window, the third book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Snicket's books often take up a few slots on the New York Times Children's Bestseller List. When I read the first one, The Bad Beginning, I must admit I didn't really see what all the fuss was about. It was okay, but... I missed the second one altogether and picked up the third one to give the guy a second chance. It was worth my effort. The Unfortunate Events books are takeoffs of Nineteenth Century novels in which nice children from good homes fall on hard times. The three young Baudelaires are always falling on hard times. And that's the joke. One disaster after another befalls them. The only adult they can turn to is the family solicitor, Mr. Poe (as in Edgar Allen?), who is honest and all that but doesn't really care for kids and is always hopeful that the next living situation he finds for the orphans will be the one that takes them off his hands.

The unknown narrator, who is relating the sad history of the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans, injects his two cents into the story quite often, which is either annoying or brilliant, depending on your point of view. My own feeling is that it can go both ways. A page long aside on the meaning of the expression "hook, line, and sinker" got old fast. On the other hand a page long paragraph describing the children's feelings while watching their aunt's home slide down a hill into a lake includes the lines "I have seen many amazing things in my long and troubled life history...I have seen a woman I loved picked up by an enormous eagle and flown to its high mountain nest." Works for me.

Actually, it is this unknown narrator--presumably Lemony Snicket, whoever he is supposed to be--who gives the stories their unique edge. Though he is not a character in the story, it's his voice we listen for and his thoughts we wait for. He stops the story every now and then to define a word, definitions that are sometimes only vaguely accurate but fit the situation. He interprets for the youngest Baudelaire child, who is still an infant and can't speak. He keeps pointing out to the readers that the events he's describing are sad and tragic. Unfortunate, indeed.

But the Baudelaires survive and move on, using their own wits to save themselves--even though, as Mr. Snicket points out, children are not supposed to be left "all by themselves in great danger." The books have clever mind games for those who like that kind of thing, and dark humor for another sort of reader. And perhaps former English majors who have a little knowledge of Nineteenth Century literature will get a kick out of some of the goings on.

Monday, March 25, 2002

Another Day, Another Conference

On Saturday I attended the Rabbit Hill Festival of Literature in Westport, Connecticut. The festival, in its second year, was named for the home of Robert Lawson. Now, if you're like me, you've never heard of Robert Lawson. However, like me, you've probably heard of some of his books--The Story of Ferdinand, Mr. Popper's Penguins, and Ben and Me. He's the only author/illustrator to win both the Caldecott and Newbery Medals. He lived in the first half of the last century, back in the days when people (at least people in Westport) named their homes. (For years I've been trying to think of a name for my raised ranch. They only things I can come up with wouldn't look very nice engraved on stationery.)

Anyway, the festival's theme was "Authors of Historical Fiction." The festival began on Thursday night with an opening address, which I missed. On Friday the guest authors visited public schools in Westport. There was a dinner with the authors on Friday night, which I didn't manage to get to. On Sunday there was a puppet show. I think I was visiting relatives that day. However, on Saturday morning the Festival organizers held a symposium on writing historical fiction for young people, and that's what drew me to Paul Newman's home town. Joseph Bruchac spoke on turning to oral tradition for inspiration in writing history and talked about 'lost history' of such people as his own Abenaki ancestors. Patricia MacLachlan explained that the story behind Sarah, Plain and Tall came from her great-grandmother's experience and her own early life living on the prairie. Richard Peck suggested curriculum changes for public schools. The keynote address was given by Katherine Paterson. She explained that, though she writes historical fiction, current events have an impact on her choice of time periods to write about.

In the afternoon, the authors led workshops. I attended one led by
Patricia Reilly Giff, whose advice to writers was to take a character, put him in a situation, and give him a problem.

The really interesting thing about this symposium was that the authors were all really fine speakers. Some of them even had marvelous sounding voices.

I stumbled upon a Web site called All About Patricia Reilly Giff by "Amanda." She says that Ms. Giff's hobbies are "sitting on the beach, wearing her bathrobe, and reading in the bathtub." Those are my hobbies, too! Except for sitting on the beach.

Friday, March 22, 2002

Another Student Writing Conference

Since I was talking about a student writing conference yesterday, I'll continue on that subject today and let you all know about the New England Young Writers' Conference, which is held on the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College. Yes, that is the same Bread Loaf Campus where the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference has been held for, oh, decades (I think it celebrated a 75th anniversary a couple of years ago), and the same Bread Loaf Campus where I spent so many happy hours of my wasted youth working in the kitchen. Which is neither here nor there.

Anyway, the New England Young Writers' Conference is held for a weekend in the spring for high school juniors or "outstanding sophomore writers." (And just what is an "outstanding sophomore writer?" Who gets to decide?) Applicants have to submit writing in order to be considered for the program. The Web site describes the sessions that will be offered and this year's sound great. There will be one on writing about real situations from the point of view of a nursery rhyme or fairy tale character. In another, students will create characters by pretending they, themselves, are writers preparing for a role. There will be workshops on dialogue, sense of place, popular culture, fantasy, the Beats...

You must understand, when I go to a writers' conference (an old writers' conference), the workshops are on topics like "Marketing Your Book" and people spend a lot of time talking about the sorry state of publishing. Which is all just fascinating, of course, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. But that young writers' conference sounds a whole lot better.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

What Did You Do Yesterday, Gail?

I was a workshop leader at the Statewide Student and Teacher Writing Conference at the University of Connecticut, if you really want to know. And I had a pretty good day, considering it was snowing and I'd forgotten what it's like to drag myself around a college campus in bad weather. The Conference was sponsored by the Connecticut Writing Project , an organization that promotes writing in schools.

Sara Holbrook, who is described as a performance poet, gave the opening address in a ballroom filled with five hundred sixth through twelth graders and teachers. (They had to turn away another two hundred people.) I had never heard of a performance poet before but I'll never forget the term because Holbrook's performance was fantastic. She spoke about her life as a poet and effortlessly slipped in poems in appropriate places. She writes poetry for children and young adults. (Actually, she has a couple of books out for adults, too.) Her work really illustrates how poetry can address emotions.

Last night I discussed her writing with a teenager. His reaction was that adults can't write about adolescent experience because they aren't adolescents. They no longer know what adolescent experience is. They aren't living it. I think he has a point. The whole issue of one group of people writing for another group they don't belong to does strike me as bizarre. I could go on and on about it. In fact, I did go on and on about it in an essay that will be published in English Journal. However, Holbrook's poetry in her book I Never Said I Wasn't Difficult addresses experiences I see teenagers I know living through. And certainly her work is proof that poetry can be about anything. Kids who love poetry and adults who love kids really ought to check her out.

Monday, March 18, 2002

The Answer to a Question You Didn't Ask

I was reading one of the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket this weekend. Tragically, I haven't finished it yet. But the miserable, hopeless lives of the Baudelaire orphans who are the main characters in those wretched books did make me think of a question I've heard raised a few times in the past. And since I happen to know the answer--Voila! A blog posting is born!

Why are there so many orphans in late 19th and early 20th Century children's stories?

The Secret Garden, The Boxcar Children, and Understood Betsy come quickly to my mind. Tom Sawyer was an orphan, too. Makes you wonder how much children really enjoyed reading back in the good old days.

Well, there was a logical reason for the high parental death rate in those books. In order to focus the stories on kids, the authors had to get rid of the adults. Adult characters tend to take over a story, just as adults take over everything they can in real life. It's something children's authors have to guard against all the time. If you end up writing about the adult characters, you're no longer writing a children's book--you're writing an adult book. In addition, in our culture we expect parents to protect their children and keep them from doing dangerous things. A book with parents who let their kids live in boxcars and have dangerous adventures becomes somewhat grim because the parents can be viewed as neglectful. So in days of old authors used to just kill off the parents. It provided a big plot complication/conflict for the kid main characters to deal with and removed those interfering adults.

Nowadays authors have more options. The parents can be divorced, which will get one parent out of the house right away. And mothers can be sent to work, which gets them out of everyone's hair. I once sent a mother off to jury duty to get rid of her for a couple of days.

Now you know.

Friday, March 15, 2002

The YA/A Thing Again--In Science Fiction

I am somewhat obsessive and dwell on things so this post deals with young adult versus adult books, which I talked about earlier. Penguin Putnam has started a new science fiction imprint, Firebird, that publishes paperback editions of titles that are supposed to appeal to both teens and adults. Which avoids the whole problem of whether a book is for young adults or adults.

Thursday, March 14, 2002

One of Those Improving Web Sites

While preparing for a workshop, I stumbled upon one of those Web sites that are helpful rather than fun. What Makes a Good Short Story can be found at a site maintained by the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It discusses the 'elements of fiction'--plot, point of view, character, setting, and theme.

What Makes a Good Short Story includes a short story (which I'll admit I didn't actually read, but it seems like a good idea to have it there) that is referred to in the sections on plot, point of view, etc. So students, parents, teachers, this could be some study help for you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Beowulf Again??

What are the chances of seeing a reference to a 10th Century literary work that hardly anyone reads within 24 hours of referring to it myself? Not great, I would hope.

However, yesterday I was reading the most recent issue of The Horn Book, which includes an article on J.R.R. Tolkien by Susan Cooper (whose fantasy books are all over YA shelves). In it she says that Tolkien always began his lectures at Oxford by reciting the first lines of Beowulf--in Anglo-Saxon. Having read only The Hobbit (I read it aloud to my kids--a couple of the longest weeks of my life), I can't address whether or not the old hero seems much of an influence on Middle-earth. Though I do recall that the Anglo-Saxons were always giving each other rings, and I believe a ring is supposed to figure prominently in the famous Tolkien trilogy.

I've often wondered if the whole Beowulf/Anglo-Saxon thing about warfare being the highest form of manly endeavor and straightest path to honor didn't influence the Klingons in Star Trek. I also wonder if English majors don't read too much into things.

Monday, March 11, 2002

"You just never know when fake doggy doo-doo is going to come in handy!"

Well, I haven't even been doing this a week, and I've already missed a day. Fortunately, I don't believe in dwelling on my failings.

If you don't recognize the quote in today's headline, than you haven't read The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. Don't feel badly. It was published in 1997, and I just got around to reading it a week or so ago. It's been getting a lot of attention (until now, from everyone but me), and deservedly so.

Personally, I think the title is self-explanatory. I will just say that though there is an adult in the story, kids are in control, which is exactly how things should be in a good kids' book. The plot doesn't drag at all and had a couple of twists that took this reader totally by surprise. There should be plenty here for an independent reader of elementary school age (and older) to enjoy. Adults reading it to younger kids should have a good time, too.

Warning: Some grown-ups may think there's too much toilet humor in this book. I don't happen to be one of them. All I can say to those who take offense is--there's a picture of a guy in his underpants on the cover. What did you expect?

Visit a great Web site: Pilkey's Web Site O' Fun! Be sure to stop by "Stuff for Boring Teachers."

Saturday, March 09, 2002

Feeling Guilty About Yesterday

I'm feeling badly about trashing Kate Chopin's The Awakening yesterday. If you're a person old enough to date, try reading her short story The Story of an Hour. It was my first exposure to her back while I was in college, and I've never forgotten it. It's really, really short.

Also relating to yesterday's post: If you're a young person who would like to try an Old English epic (or an older person who thinks it would be very improving to make a young person read one), Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf is far more readable than the one I struggled through in college. I know a fourteen year old boy who actually read it during summer vacation. It didn't change his life or anything, but it didn't scar him the way Romeo and Juliet and A Tale of Two Cities appear to have.

Friday, March 08, 2002

The Difference Between YA And A

The answer to yesterday's question is, "I don't know." I only brought it up because I've seen some unusual titles on YA shelves.

When you get right down to it, this is still a free country and people can read pretty much whatever they want. (We have "challenged" books here. We don't actually ban them from every single library, bookstore, etc.) So how books are categorized shouldn't really matter all that much. Categorizing books as middle-grade, YA, or adult, simply helps readers to select titles that might interest them. There are 40,000 books published every year. (That's an old figure. The number may be higher.) If we had to go into Borders and wade through thousands of uncategorized books, many of us would just start watching a lot more television.

Categorization is good for us.

That being said, who decides these things? Do YA and younger books have kid main characters? What about Snow in August by Pete Hamil? Except for a kind of long middle section, it sure read like a kids' book to me. But evidently not to its publisher. I had a friend who refused to read To Kill A Mockingbird in her book group because she said it was a YA book. That would come as a surprise to more than a few people. In bookstores sometimes Brian Jacques' Redwall books are stashed in the YA section, sometimes they're in with adult science fiction and fantasy. I've also seen Grendel by John Gardner and The Awakening by Kate Chopin in the YA section. Now, though I doubt Gardner had the young in mind when he wrote Grendel (which has a really impressive Web presence), it is the Beowulf story from the monster's point of view and it's not unheard of for adolescent readers to enjoy epics. But The Awakening? Essentially, it's one of those unhappy woman stories. A Nineteenth Century unhappy woman story. What is there about it that would engage the interest of someone who isn't an unhappy woman? I know it is supposed to have been scandalous back in its day, but its day was a long time ago. I've read it twice (never as a young adult), and I still couldn't tell you more about it than that I think it's set in New Orleans. I admire the young person who could get through it.

The difference between YA and A books is another one of those things I don't know.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Speaking of Bridget Jones...

...as we were yesterday, gives me an opportunity to bring up two Bridgetish YA books I'm fond of.
Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison was compared to Bridget at the time it came out because, well, it's the funny diary of a British female. The big difference is that Georgia, the main character, is a teenager. Thus, being self-absorbed is much more normal for her than it is for Bridget, who is thirty if she's a day. Boyfriend and clothing problems get old fast with adults. Get a life, Bridget. But boyfriends and clothes are a more significant part of a teenager's world. Georgia never wears out her welcome, the way Bridget does.
The Adrian Mole Diaries by Sue Townsend contains two books originally published in the late 1980s/early 90s. The first book begins on New Year's Day with a list. Sound familiar? So does Bridget. The books are supposed to have been wildly popular in England. Sound familiar? So was Bridget. But, remember, Adrian was first. Hmmm. In addition to having a teenage main character, the Adrian Mole books are also deeper than Bridget. Adrian comments on what was going on in England at the time. High unemployment and immigration, for instance. That's social commentary, which holds a reader's interest a whole lot better than "Oh, how many cigarettes have I had today? That can't be good."
A question: Were the Adrian Mole books originally published as children's books?

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Not Another Self-involved Weblog?!

That's not the plan. After all, I have an entire Web site all about me, so I don't need a blog in order to talk about myself. What I do need is a way to bring original content to this site. Let's face it, author Web sites are all about self-promotion so they end up including a lot of book reviews, interviews, and other warmed over material. I want to do something more. In the past I've posted selections of works in progress, and I considered posting some "out-takes" from A Year with Butch and Spike. But who has time to read all that? So I'm trying a blog devoted to children's books, writing, maybe some stuff about writers in schools, and attending writer events. Whatever your age group, I'm directing this to you.
I promise not to write about my weight problems or hair issues because Bridget has already done that, and, of course, I don't have weight problems or hair issues. None worth mentioning anyway. Nor will I write odes to my dead pets, though those are the only kinds of pets I have. And I'll keep things short and to the point.

Blogging links:
A List Apart
A Favorite Blog:
Jan's Weblog :This is short and to the point and the point is something I'm interested in.