Thursday, June 30, 2005

I Read Two Good Books! Two!

I am on a roll--one good book after another.

I finally read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeby Mark Haddon. This book has received lots and lots of buzz, deservedly so. The narrator is an autistic teenager who sets himself the task of learning who killed his neighbor's dog and learns a whole lot he wasn't expecting. His is a truly unique voice, and while I have no way of knowing whether or not the author has given us a true portrayal of an autistic person's world, the world he does give us is fascinating.

I've read that this book was originally published as YA and crossed-over to adult, that it was published as an adult book and crossed-over to YA, and that it was published for both audiences simultaneously. There's no reason why both groups shouldn't read and be intrigued by it, but I do wonder what the big attraction is for YAs. Sure there's a very sympathetic teen character, but...well, as I'm writing this all the arguments I was going to make don't seem to work, mainly because they would all pertain equally to adult readers.

Now, Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson seems to be another book that ought to cross-over with adult readers. Though I liked Anderson's earlier book, Speak, I would never have read Prom because of its title. I was not a prom type and I find it a somewhat creepy ritual. However, they were discussing it at one of my listservs so I made the effort.

I loved the book. I thought it was very well done. One of the things I liked best about this book was that Ashley was part of a working class family who was just fine with their lot. In many books, a working class family is something the main character wants to escape and the family is portrayed in such a way that readers agree--get the hell out of there. But Ashley's family, though they couldn't afford much and had a chaotic lifestyle,were loving and seemed happy with working a job that provided just enough to get by. Playing ball, taking care of their kids,
getting together with their family members--I loved spending time with
people who were not angst-ridden. Though Ashley had typical teen embarrassment regarding her family and desire to get away, she is definitely part of that family, too.

I must admit, I wasn't happy with the epilogue, but then I've never read an epilogue I liked. To me they seem as if the author got tired of writing and didn't want to do a real ending for the book.

Still, Prom is a book I think both adults and YAs can enjoy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Grown-ups Just Can't Get Enough of YA

The adult world loves to comment on YA lit. The Wall Street Journal
carries an article called You're Reading What?, that reports on the success of YA recently and reviews some titles. These folks aren't tsk-tsking, though. Simply reporting and reviewing. (They weren't crazy for Looking for Alaska, either.) Thanks to Blog of a B.S. for the link.

More on Jane Yolen and Me

My loyal fans know I have a little obsession with Jane Yolen's on-line journal. Rest assured, even if I'm not talking about it, I'm still reading it. Unfortunately, Jane reported recently that her husband appears to be suffering a recurrence of cancer. (I say "appears" because I am pathologically hopeful, and I'm thinking that at this early stage a mistake has been made and it's something else. No, I don't know what else.) The first time I heard Jane speak was at the University of Connecticut, and her husband was in the audience. They had a little charming repartee going. Later I heard her speak at the University of Massachusetts when her husband had just been diagnosed the first time. She apologized for not having spent as much time preparing for the talk as she usually does. Nonetheless, her presentation was great.

Jane and her husband definitely seem like a lovely couple with an interesting life together, and I sincerely hope they get through this health crisis.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Round-up of Recent Reads

No, I didn't disappear off the face of the earth. I actually had things to do in the late afternoon and evening last week. And yesterday.

But I don't today, so I'm back.

Okay, a few weeks ago I read The Wish List by everyone's favorite Eoin Colfer. This was a pleasant book, and, as the review I link to puts it, it has a redemption theme. I am totally into redemption themes, needing, as I do, redemption myself. I think I would have liked this book a great deal more, however, if I were a teenager and wasn't familiar with the "come back from the dead to earn your place in Paradise" storyline. The afterlife figures are funny, but I've read about funny afterlife folks before. So, as I said, the teens this book is written for should like it better than I did. Teen Gail would have loved it.

Now, this next part I jotted down in my little notebook while I was waiting for Batman Begins to begin. I wasn't being rude. The rest of my family was sitting in the next theater waiting for Star Wars to start. I find the Star Wars movies so tedious, I'm not even going to bother with a link.

Anyway, as I was writing while waiting for Batman Begins to begin: One day I was going through the notebook I carry in my purse looking for something I can no longer recall, when I stumbled upon a page with Midnight for Charlie Bone written at the top. Nothing else. Couldn't remember why I wrote it down in the first place. But I stopped at the library on my way home and picked it up.

Charlie Bone is part of a series called The Children of the Red King by Jenny Nimmo. It's often compared to the Harry P. books, though I actually think the basic premise for Charlie Bone is more interesting.

Once, generations ago,there was a red king who was a magician. He had ten chilren who had each inherited some aspect of his talents. Five of them were good and five of them were bad. And to this day the descendants of the Red King are "endowed" with magical talents, and some of them are good and some of them are evil. A bunch of them end up at a boarding school where the good students hope to provide balance against the evil students.

I like this jumping off point, but I didn't think the book was all that well done. The first half reminded me of Chasing Vermeer in that there was no causal relationship between the plot elements. The plot was more a list of things that happened rather than one thing leading to another. The bad-guy student is a stereotypical Malfoy-type. And we know barely anything about the students who come through for Charlie in a clinch.

And yet...and yet...I became quite interested in the second half of the book. This particular volume ended up reading very much like an intro. Okay, not the world's greatest intro, either. But I became interested enough that if I have time and the second book drops into my lap, I just may read it.

I know that's not a rave, but remember where it's coming from.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Roundup of Links

I'm trying to spellcheck, wordcount, hunt for a specific error that may or may not exist, and print the eighth draft of the book that's supposed to come out next week. So I'm going to try to do a roundup of some links I've found recently.

First off, check out ACHOCKABLOG's favorable comments about The Problem with "Problem" Young-adult Fiction, which I discussed yesterday. (A June 18th post.)

This article about Louise Rennison is far more interesting. (Thanks to ACHOCKABLOG for the link.

The Washington Post carried a review of the animated version ofHowl's Moving Castle. Not a rave. I know other reviews have been positive, I just haven't read them. Though I enjoyed the book, I can't see myself going to the movie. It just looks too cute. (Thanks to Blog of a B.S.)

The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards have been announced. Notice that Kalpana'sDream by Judith Clarke won a little something? I haven't read it, but I'm a big fan of one of her earlier books--The Heroic Life of Al Capsella.

Well, that manuscript isn't printing itself, which means I have to go.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Strike a Blow Against the Establishment! Read a YA Novel!

They're still talking at my usual on-line hang-outs about The Problem with "Problem" Young-Adult Fiction by Ann Hulbert in Slate. In her essay, Hulbert objects to the use of "problem novels" in high school classes where she claims they are used to initiate discussion of issues rather than discussion of literature. A good thing, too, because according to her the themes are superficial, the symbols trite, and the characters are two-dimensional.

Now, remember, I'm not too fond of so-called problem novels, myself. However, just like Barbara Feinberg's Lizard Motel, which I discussed to death earlier, Hulbert's essay isn't particularly well written. It drifts from problem books, to teacher guides, to a couple who have written a book that Hulbert describes a "cure," though she's not real clear as to what this cure is for--problem books, which is what the essay is supposed to be about? Teaching English? Encouraging reading?

Why is it that the people who want to write on this issue can't seem to pull their acts together?

What I'm finding incredibly interesting about this is that at one of the on-line forums I visit there is a lot of talk supporting getting YA books out of the classrooms because kids need time to study classics. These people are writers and readers, and they are actually disparaging an established genre. What bothers me about this attitude (besides the elitism) is that while classics can be enjoyable to read, many of them don't exactly speak to twenty-first century teenagers. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know classic, great literature is timeless. Go tell a seventeen-year-old who's just been handed a copy of Moby Dick.

My feeling about reading (and I suspect I'm alone on this) is that we read to connect with others like ourselves--authors, their characters--or even a situation. We want to connect with someone like ourselves or someone we want to be like. And when young adult literature is never promoted to teenagers, when it is actively looked down upon, a very clear message is being sent to those young readers. They and their interests have no value.

Hmmm. Could this be why reading is plunging as an activity for the young?

And while we're at it, there's another aspect about this that bothers me. I was told by a college professor a few years ago (who may or may not have known what he was talking about) that before the end of the nineteenth century literature wasn't taught in schools. "English literature" was brought in to the public schools to help assimilate the children of immigrants, to teach them to value what the WASP power structure valued--the anglo-American way of life and literature.

Now, I'm only two generations removed from immigrants. My father, uncle, and aunts couldn't speak English when they started grade school. This indoctrination was aimed at my kind. And that's how I see this whole "teach the classics" feeling--it's a movement to indoctrinate the young, this time into the adult, narrow, college-educated world.

Fight it, kiddos! Read a YA novel! Read a couple! It's a new genre, only thirty some-odd years old. It hasn't been accepted by the grown-ups yet. It's new, and it's yours. Sure, some of it stinks. But, you know what? Some adult literature stinks, too. So do some of the classics. Don't let that bother you. Seek out the best of your genre and enjoy it. Don't let the man tell you what to read.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

I'm Seriously Underwhelmed

I've seen the first two episodes of Veronica Mars, and I must ask, "Just what is the big deal?" Kristen Bell is marvelous in the title role, and I'm definitely a fan of Enrico Colantoni. Jason Dohring is really creepy as the creepy kid. But the characters are all so...well, typical high school story characters. Except for Weevil, a skin-head motorcyle type who seems a little over the top.

By the way, I'm talking about this here because the creator of the show is Rob Thomas, who has written a a few YA novels.

I think the problem with Veronica is the similar to the problem I found with Looking for Alaska--just another high school story. Perhaps that's the problem with writing about high school. High school never changes. So many generations have lived through it that it just seems like a real-life cliche.

Veronica has frequently been compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Can you believe I can't find an official site for that show? Though you can buy all kinds of Buffy junk at Joss Whedon's weblog. I think Veronica is more like a twenty-first century angst-ridden Nancy Drew.

I think Buffy worked well because the show took all the high school cliches--popular girl, nerdy girl, jerky guy, mean girl--and combined them with vampires. You have to take cliches and shake them up with something different to make them tolerable. Perhaps a high school story in outer space would work. You have to do something different with it so viewers won't feel that they've seen all this before.

For me, Veronica Mars doesn't do it.

In all fairness, here is another opinion. You'll find it in the June 15 post in the blog A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy. This is a new blog, only three months old, on books with a lot of Buffy thrown in.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Great Interview

Blog of a Bookslut (or is it the Bookslut Blog?) is one of my favorite literary blogs. I've never linked to it before because it has a lot of mature content. Since my blog is connected to a children's author's website, and I encourage kids to come to it, it seemed inappropriate to link to a blog that is clearly written for adults.

Well, Blog of a B.S., as I often refer to it here, is connected to a site called Bookslut. This month Bookslut has a great interview with Jon Scieszka who is so well-known I'm not going to bother listing all his books. (Okay, he's done 15 Time Warp Trios).

The interview is all about Scieszka's project to encourage boys to read.

Jon Scieszka and I both read at the same Author's Tea once. I don't remember much about him because I was so busy being nervous about my own presentation and discovering that I like smoked salmon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Give it a Rest, Gail

I feel compelled to mention that How I Live Now was shortlisted (which I think is how the British say "nominated") for The 2005 Orange Award for New Writers. If only I had posted this when it first happened. I was so slow that now I must tell you that the book didn't win. 26a did. The Orange people described How I Live Now as "a novel for all ages."

It has also been shortlisted (nominated) for the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2005. So the book is a novel for all ages, but also for teenagers. Thanks to KidLit for the link.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Reader Response II

Reader Response is wonderful because it means I have readers.

Soon after I announced here that I was joining adbooks someone from said listserv who reads my blog wrote to respond to my post on How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. This reader hadn't liked How I Live Now anywhere near as much as I did for a few reasons. The one that really struck me was that when we get to the end of the book we learn that the main character is now a few years older than she was at the time the story takes place and is, presumably, telling the story from that more adult vantage. At the end of the book, she uses a more adult voice. So, my reader asked, if she is an adult recounting her younger experience, why the young voice in the earlier part of the book? Why isn't she using an adult voice, since she is an adult? The situation is vaguely similar to that of Kathy in Never Let Me Go, who uses the same voice throughout.

I thought this was a good question for two reasons: 1. The ending to How I Live Now wasn't my favorite part of the book, anyway; and 2. I think it touches on a point-of-view problem. Point of view is some kind of mystical, long-term problem for me.

If I understand point-of-view correctly, and, yes, that is a big if, it involves to a number of things. It's not just a matter of who is talking but when that person is talking. Is it a first- or third-person narrator? Is the story being told as if it is unfolding before us or is it being told as if it happened well in the past? A bunch of other things fall under the umbrella of point-of-view, but I don't remember them right now.

The whole question of point of view inspired me to read ahead in Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills, which I have been slogging through for several months. I say slogging because though I like the book and am getting a lot out of it, I don't feel it's very well organized, which hinders my ability to retain information. Plus it's a book on writing. I don't exactly go running to pick it up. But I read ahead on the point-of-view section to see if I could do a little study that would help me with the How I Live Now question.

In short, I didn't get a lot of help from Hills' book. I do know now that in the nineteenth century authors wrote "big" books with point-of-view that moved around frequently and that Henry James is responsible for popularizing the "point-of-view character"--meaning that even in a third-person book, the story focuses on one character. Now I feel I really ought to reread Turn of the Screw. Under no circumstances will I try again to read Portrait of a Lady.

Wait! What was I talking about? Oh, yes. How I Live Now and Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. The big thing that I've learned, so far, from Writing in General is that the main character in a piece of writing should change, should move, should be dynamic. Daisy in How I Live Now definitely changes. Perhaps the change in her voice signals that change. Perhaps it's appropriate for her to have two voices since time and experience have changed her.

Now, the question remains...does changing the voice work? Who gets to decide?

I desperately need to find a monastery in the mountains where I can go and study point-of-view with a point-of-view master.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Reader Response

My regular readership has jumped from two people to five. Oh, yes!

One of my readers wrote me today about yesterday's post regarding Never Let Me Go. She brought up the very interesting point that House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer also deals with clones who exist to provide others with spare parts. I was so fixated yesterday on Never Let Me Go boarding school aspects that I totally forgot that it is also a dystopian novel and, of course, will have similarities to other dystopian novels. The House of the Scorpion--also a good book, by the way.

I will have another reader response in my next post. And I haven't forgotten my promise to provide a summer reading list. So much to do, so little time in which to do it.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

And Now for a Totally Different Boarding School Book

It's probably wrong to call Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro a boarding school book. But since I read it just before reading Looking for Alaska, I couldn't help comparing them.

In Never Let Me Go, thirty-one-year-old Kathy H. recalls her childhood and adolescence at a boarding school called Hailsham. (Note: when adolescence is recalled by an adult narrator, the book is almost always an adult book; when adolescence is being described while it's being lived by an adolescent narrator, the book is usually a YA novel.) This is not a run-of-the-mill teen-angst story, though Kathy and her friends certainly have something to angst about. They are clones. Got that? Clones! Now that's something you don't see every day in boarding school stories. What's more, these clones were created for one reason and one reason alone--to donate their vital organs to others.

Kathy's narration is a little slow and plodding, but that's her. She is a fully realized character and part of her personality is her need to recall every little detail of her life. Because she and her kind have no families, no future, and not much of a present, going over and over their past at school is an important part of all their lives. Boarding school isn't just a setting for this book. Boarding school is hugely significant because it was the happiest time of these characters' lives.

There are none of the stereotypes of teen boarding school books in Never Let Me Go. No drinking or smoking or drugs to mark characters as dangerous or cool. No teens dying to give young readers lessons about death. No discussion of great works of literature or philosophy to indicate how intelligent the characters are. No talk of religion so that we know this is a really deep book. What is happening to these people is so huge and intense that none of those plot devices are necessary.

When I finished Never Let Me Go I didn't feel that I just finished a book I'd already read a half a dozen times before. And I'll admit that the last few sentences brought forth a tear or two for these characters who were almost totally accepting of their places in the world. (Can you believe it?)

Now I've spent a lot of time talking about an adult book at a blog that's dedicated to kids' literature. However, we're still living in a technically free country and at most libraries you can still read what you want. That means serious teen readers can consider skipping the same-old, same-old private school stories shelved in the YA section and giving Never Let Me Go a shot.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Teen Angel Woooooo...oooo

So is anybody wondering about the book I was reading on the train into New York on Monday? The book I didn't care for very much and couldn't mention at lunch because it was published by a division of my publisher? Yeah, I thought you probably were.

Well, it's called Looking for Alaska by John Green. Green is, from everything I've read, a witty and charming young man. I really, really wanted to like his book.

Looking for Alaska might be described as a teen death book. Set in a private boarding school. Sort of like Dead Poets Society. (I didn't read the book, saw the movie. However, I did take a graduate class with Sam Pickering who is supposed to have inspired the John Keating character. Who I think may die in the book. Hmmm.)

So you may, as I did, get the feeling you've read or seen this story before. You've got your self-destructive smart kids, your outsider poor kids, your rich kids who are disliked. Your beloved teacher. Your BIG important topics and themes. Looking for Alaska has a lot more sex and smoking than some of the other books, but otherwise it feels like a remix.

Now, as I've said before, I understand that young people haven't been reading for decades the way I have. Therefore this book may seem more original to them. I know I have to keep that in mind. Still, doesn't there come a point when we just don't need another book that's the same as so many others of its kind?

"Well, no, Gail," you may say. "Just because you don't like a book doesn't mean nobody else will. In fact, you're not liking it may be a very good recommendation. And you did say this book has a lot of sex and smoking."

Still, I think that upon entering boarding school every new student should have to sign a waiver promising that he or she will never, ever write about their experience. This is one horse that I think has just been ridden right into the ground.

Except for...the book I will write about tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What's Going on in the Big City

Here I am, back from my trip to New York. Here's a fun moment I experienced: I was reading this book on the train that I really didn't care for much. (Which is the case with most of the books I read, right?) While I'm waiting for my publisher to come out to the reception area, I'm looking at these display cases of their recent books. It turns out, the very book I was reading is published by one of PenguinPutnam's imprints. Oops! There was a subject I then knew not to bring up at lunch.

A subject that did come up while we were eating was Book Expo America, which had ended the day before. I'm sure you all remember that I was whining last week because I wasn't going. Well, both the people I had lunch with went, and they were working there. They were representing their publisher's new books, presenting them to booksellers and librarians. Well, one person told about doing a presentation to a small group of people that included two authors--two authors were there, while booksellers had to be turned away. Get it--the event is supposed to be for booksellers, librarians, people who sell books or purchase them for institutions?

I feel much better about not being able to go. In fact, I fell all virtuous and holier than thou because I wasn't there taking a spot away from a bookseller. Virtuous and holier than thou--the next best thing to being there.

Author/blogger M.J. Rose has an idea for a Reader's Expo America.

Okay, enough about BEA. More about my trip to New York. I have a new editor. We both graduated from The University of Vermont! We were both education majors! She actually taught school for four years, and I like to play teacher. I think all this bodes very well for our relationship.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Plans--I Do Have Them...Sometimes

You haven't heard me mention one of my old obsessions,Jane Yolen's On-line Journal, for a while. But that doesn't mean I'm not still reading it...every single day, or at least every time she does an update. She's going to Book Expo America! And I'm not! She hadn't mentioned it, so I thought, See, Gail, not everyone is going. Cool your jets. And then just now I found yesterday's entry. She's going. I am the only writer home alone this week.

However, I spent today preparing for a meeting with my publisher and a new editor on Monday. So I am going to New York. Just after everyone else has left. What I'm really looking forward to is the train trip in and out of the city. Reading time!

Another plan--Soon I will be posting my own Summer Reading List. Look for it here.

In the meantime, enjoy Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. How many have you read? Myself, just one The Feminine Mystique, which I think did me no harm. But perhaps I'm wrong. Other dangerous writers: John Dewey, Margaret Mead, and Ralph Nader. I get including Adolf Hitler, but John Dewey?

By the way, I would like to lodge a complaint about the judges. Only one was a woman, Phyllis Schlafly, who has scared me most of my adult life.

Thanks for the link Suzi.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

One Job Done

Okay, I finished the young readers' series book I mentioned yesterday, which just happened to be the twenty-fourth in the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park. As fiction for the early grades goes, Junie B. Jones has to be close to the gold standard. At least for adult readers. It's far more engaging for us, deeper, smarter. Boo...And I Mean It!, the most recent Junie B. book, deals with Junie B.'s fear of Halloween and her attempts to deal with it. It's a neat idea. Kids who aren't afraid of Halloween ought to be intrigued by a child who is. And kids who are afraid of Halloween ought to be happy to find a kindred spirit. And it's great that Junie B. made a plan to deal with her fear. But, then, I'm very goal oriented and like to see it in fictional characters.

My only complaint about Junie B. (and I've said this before somewhere in this blog) is that I find her just a little too wise. Though she is definitely funny, the humor to me seems adult. I don't think she talks like a true funny first grader, she talks like an adult's idea of a funny first grader. She's a little over the top.

Nonetheless, she's so much better than almost anyone else out there. Except for maybe Marvin Redpost who might be for a slightly older reader.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, My Priorities Stink

I wanted to write a little more about series books, but I haven't finished reading the series book I wanted to write about. I also wanted to write some more about a book I wrote about earlier, but I haven't finished reading some material I wanted to include.

Today hundreds, many thousands, of writers are descending on New York City for Book Expo America, known to literary insiders as BEA. I went hiking.

Could have been reading, could have tried to get my publisher to slip me a ticket to BEA, could have been writing, and I went hiking.

This explains why my career is in the state you find it.

Even the people who write my favorite blog are at Book Expo and won't be blogging for the next few days. Talk about having it rubbed in your face.

I'm going to go stretch for a while. I went hiking today, remember?