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. 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.) 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 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. 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 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 Personally, I would have gone with the people. I really liked that poem 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

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.