Friday, September 29, 2006

An Interruption In Service

I'm off on vacation for a week, so I won't be posting until after October 6.

The audio book for this trip is Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. I only just recently heard of this book, so when I found it on the audio shelf at the library I, of course, assumed I was receiving some kind of message.

While I'm not crazy about journey-through-the-woods stories, the family member I'll be traveling with likes that sort of thing. I'm not allowed to listen to Jane Austen in the car anymore.

I also picked up Charles Frazier's new book for the trip. A number of years ago I had a wonderful experience reading Cold Mountain on a car trip to Florida. On the way down we happened to cross a river mentioned in the book. On the way back we stopped in Charleston and wandered through a market area the female main character (you know--Nicole Kidman) shopped in before she was confined to that farm because of the war. It was all so...mystical.

We're going to Cape Cod so I don't have much hope of any reading/life connections with this particular book this trip.

I also have picture books and magazines and articles on writing packed. I'm not going to get to most of that stuff. But vacation is about fantasy, right?

Here's hoping I come back fit for work. I've been sort of...drifting...this...past...month...sigh...yawn...

Can Bloggers Be Successful In Other Forms?

The Boston Herald reports that some of those publishing deals offered to bloggers have not resulted in big sales for their books at the cash register.

Shoot. I'd been encouraging young relatives to start blogs hoping they would turn into a way for these guys to make a living.

Not really. I know you can't make a living writing.

I think the disappointing book sales could be the result of two factors:

1. Great expectations. Notice that the article claims one blogger received a six-figure advance, which an unnamed agent said was $500,000. (There are six-figure advances, and then there are six-figure advances.) Here's the thing about advances. That money has to come from somewhere. Publishers expect it to come from the sales of your book. You have to sell a lot of books to equal that kind of advance. And, remember, it's only the author's, say, 15 percent of the cover price of the book that counts toward the payback of the advance. So if your percentage of the book is $3.00 and you sell 30,000 copies (which I'm told is the kind of figure you see for a lot of books), your share of the money coming in is $90,000. If your publisher has already given you a $500,000 advance...ouch. Someone is taking a bath.

However, say your advance was only $50,000. If you sell those same 30,000 copies, you'll still make $90,000, only $50,000 of which was advanced to you before the book was published. You've exceeded expectations! Happy, happy, joy, joy.

You, the author, are still making the same amount of money. People just perceive you as being successful instead of a failure.

So perhaps way too much was expected of these books.

2. The second reason some of these books may not have done well is that blogs may be a totally different type of writing. The kind of skills that can crank out a short, possibly topical piece nearly every day may not be the same kind of skills you need to create an extended piece of writing. Certainly people who maintain blogs on personal experience or about personal opinion are going to have to do some major shifting to turn around and write a novel. And they may not have enough material for a nonfiction book or know how to handle that amount of material.

So perhaps a good blogger isn't necessarily good at other types of writing.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Listen To This

I had a five-hour car trip a couple of weeks ago, so that meant it was time to listen to an audio book. I'd read some things about Garth Nix that I thought made him sound like a decent sort. So when I stumbled upon the audio version of his book Sabriel, I snatched it up, particularly because I really liked the cover illustration.

Sabriel involves a mystical land where Death is a place, and the dead don't want to stay there. They keep coming back to the land of the living where they wander around in various stages of decomposition or creepiness and suck life from any man, woman, or child they can get hold of. Sabriel and her father have the ability to make the dead stay dead. Her father becomes trapped in death, and Sabriel is on a quest to find him so he can save the kingdom from a particularly nasty dead creature that is running amok.

Sabriel is not a great book to be listening to when you're driving in heavy traffic. Or heavy rain. I had a hard time keeping track of the kind of magical mumbo jumbo I'm not too fond of in fantasy books, anyway. And I couldn't figure out if all dead people try to come back to do their nasty business.

However, the CD player on my new Tom Swiftmobile loads under the passenger seat, so there was no switching to Bon Jovi once I was underway. After five or six hours, I was getting interested. I've been listening to the thing on all my little trips around town ever since. I've been looking forward to running errands.

And once I finished the last CD this morning, I felt lost. What was I going to do? Listen to the radio?

Sabriel is the first book in a trilogy. The next book in the series I'll be reading.

Be warned, though: I've seen episodes of Bones that weren't as gruesome as some of the goings on in Sabriel. It's definitely not for younger kids or for young people who might be going through some kind of anxiety about death.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Queen Dork Speaks

I just finished reading King Dork, a very well-received book by Frank Portman. As Lewis Black might say, I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around this and feel as if my head might explode.

Tom, or Moe, or Chi Mo, the King Dork of King Dork is definitely a Holden Caulfield-type character though he claims to hate Catcher in the Rye by...well, you know. Tom/Holden is a type of character who turns up a lot in literature as well as in teen movies and television shows.

Why are so many people attracted to stories of sad, loner, outcast adolescents? My theory is that a big percentage of the adult population is carrying around baggage about their sad, loner, outcast adolescence. Books like King Dork validate their experience, providing "...a grand triumph of the underdog, a tribute to the noble spirit of the alienated and abused." (King Dork)

My question is: How many times do I need to be validated?

Like many YA books, King Dork is written in the first person. One of the pitfalls of using the first person is that it's easy to fall into a telling rather than showing mode. Lots of dramatic tension is undermined in Dork because the King is constantly telling us about things that happened rather than showing us a scene. Tom takes to carrying copies of Soldier of Fortune and wearing an army coat to put off his tormentors. I thought this was a very clever idea, myself. But having the character tell me about it was very much like my telling you about it now. The drama, humor, whatever of the situation just wasn't there.

The first-person narrator misses the climax of the book altogether. Storylines conclude without him and people tell him about what happened after the fact, giving the story a Sleeping Beauty aspect. (My original post discussed this aspect of the book more fully, but I decided I was giving away too much of the story and changed this paragraph for the benefit of people who haven't yet read the book.) The climax is all about talk.

Except for talking, Tom, himself, doesn't actually do a lot in the story. Even his band is primarily talk. Whatever changes come about in his character--and he does seem somewhat happier at the end of the book--are the result of things that are told to him or done to him. For instance, the sexual acts performed upon him by two different girls. I don't want to give too much away, but they are acts that require nothing of him, he does nothing for those girls. (Perhaps there's some kind of male fantasy thing going on here.)

While I was reading King Dork, I kept noticing references that seemed too dated for today's teen readers to get: Virginia Slims commercials, Jimmy Buffet, Carrie. And Tom is fan of 70s and 80s music, so there are lots of mentions of older groups. Evidently either the author or an editor had the same concern because the book includes a glossary a la Georgia Nicolson. Very, very Georgia Nicolson.

Tom is witty. He reads some deep books. He can make readers who identify with his suffering feel good about themselves.

Otherwise, I'm going to have to remain the lone outcast who doesn't get this book.

I sometimes wonder if I'm a nitpicky reader because I'm a writer. I'm always studying the books I read, looking for the authors' technique. I ran this theory past my computer guy who said, no, you're a nitpicky reader because you're you.

He didn't make that sound like a good thing.

NOTE: Tom talks about Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. I read it when I was in college. Don't remember caring much for that, either.

Monday, September 25, 2006

We've Got To Find Another Way To Bring Authors And Readers Together

I have been to plenty of booksignings at which no one bought a single book. Or at which one person bought one book. I've been the guest at teacher appreciation nights that were underattended. The organizer at one Barnes & Noble felt her store had been rejected by the schools in her community. The bookseller at the other store just didn't know what else she could do to get teachers to turn out. I met a writer last spring who did a signing at a store in his own town. Not a soul showed up, and he went home.

As a reader, I might know why those kinds of things happen.

Right now, as I'm writing these words, Stephenie Meyer is speaking at R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut. The family obligation I had this evening fell through so I could go. But then...

I was gone for 5 hours today accompanying an older relative for a medical test and running errands;

Tomorrow I'll be gone another 3 or 4 hours in the late afternoon and perhaps into the evening;

Another family member will be out both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings;

We're supposed to be leaving on Saturday for a vacation that hasn't been planned yet except for some motel reservations;

I would have had to drive an hour each way to get to the bookstore where Stephenie Meyer will be speaking.

So, I am home blogging instead.

When people have a lot of things to do, elective activities get cut. Movie attendance is down. Theaters and ballet companies are suffering. And authors sit by themselves in bookstores.

Authors only go to booksignings at stores in order to sell books. If readers don't have the time or the energy to get to the stores when the authors are there, then we just need to find some other way to get the books and the readers together.

I know. That's what everybody says.

By the way, I'm guessing Stephenie Meyer won't miss me. She ought to bring out a few people who didn't have to get up early to drive someone to a medical office.

Hmm. So Is Stealing A Good Thing?

Unshelved does The Thief.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Buy A Banned Book For Buy A Friend A Book Week?

Banned Books Week started yesterday. Buy A Friend A Book Week is the week after next.

Wouldn't a challenged book make a perfect gift?

My birthday falls during Banned Books Week. If I wasn't so old, I'd feel good.

Use This

I finished Word Court by Barbara Wallraff this past week.

Word Court is the best book on usage I've ever read. Why? Because it focuses on word problems your average person actually suffers with.*

I don't do well at just learning abstract information. I do better when I know I have problems with something and need to solve them. Grammar meant nothing to me until I realized how ungrammatical I was after I left school. Then I started learning. The same is true with sewing, gardening, cooking, working out, using the computer--you name it. I can't sit down and read about this stuff in general. I seek out information on what I need to know.

Barbara Wallraff edits a column called Word Court for The Atlantic Monthly. She answers questions about the English language for people who send them in to her. Her book, Word Court, is a collection of those letters and answers.

Thus she is responding to real questions from real people. Unlike whatever it is most other usage writers do.

Wallraff has a witty, down-to-earth style. She takes language seriously, but she's not over-the-top about it.

I was struck by two types of information in this book.

First: There are a number of word situations in which I know that I'm on shaky ground. So what I usually do is rephrase the sentence so I can eliminate the construction altogether. Wallraff discusses some of these and suggests...that we reword the sentence to eliminate the construction altogether.

I didn't know whether to pat myself on the back or get depressed because that's as good as it gets.

Second: Wallraff discusses all kinds of correct vs. incorrect wording that I've never known anything about. For instance, I wasn't aware that the is pronounced thee or thuh depending on whether the word that follows it begins with a consonant or a vowel. And I find the rules I just read for using the word reverend so confusing that I'm going to just call our minister Bob.

I don't know how much I've retained after reading Word Court. I hope that when certain words come up, I'll at least remember to look them up in Wallraff's book.

What really delights me about finishing Word Court is that I can now take it off my To Be Read shelf (where it languished for years) and move it to my reference shelf in the office. In fact, I took so long to get around to reading this book, that in the meantime Wallraff has written and published another, Word Fugitives.

*"...suffers from?" Barbara, help me with this.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

I Just Have To Wonder

"Now here's something I've noticed about girls, after years of careful observation. They tend to sort themselves into groups of three. There's the hottest one, who is the boss. She dominates and controls the second-hottest one, who is the sidekick and second-in-command, and she instructs her in the art of clothes and sexiness. Then there's a third one, usually chubby or freakishly tall and skinny or otherwise afflicted, whom #1 and #2 both boss around."
King Dork by Frank Portman

The "mean girl" and her posse have been documented as a real phenomena in the teenage world. This set-up, though, has also become a cliche in teen books and movies.

Does the overworked cliche undermine reality? Hmmm. But that's beside the point. I want to talk about something else.

I keep wondering how teenage girls feel when they see this stereotype in a book or movie. Do girls recognize themselves as the head harpy? As the social climber hoping to get the harpy's place? As the loser girl in the bunch? Do they see nothing wrong with this scenario? Do they just assume the author is talking about someone else? Or do they wonder who the heck these people are?

Girls are portrayed horribly in books like The A-List and The Gossip Girl. But those books aren't very well regarded, and there's a big question about how seriously readers take them. Books like King Dork, however, are well-reviewed and considered serious literature. Readers aren't reading them for laughs.

Boys take a beating in a lot of YA books, too, including King Dork. When, say, an adolescent athlete sees his kind described as tormenting and abusing weaker kids, what goes through his mind?

I'm not saying that no one should write about these kinds of characters because their real-life counterparts might be injured. I'm saying that I really can't imagine how kids feel about seeing themselves portrayed this way.

Friday, September 22, 2006

I'm Afraid I'm Going To Have To Read One Of These

I failed miserably at reading How to Read a Book--maybe because I didn't know enough about reading to get through it.

So imagine my horror when I saw Learning How to Read Slowly Again in The New York Times (by way of article discusses four articles on reading.

I may try Reading Like A Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them by Francine Prose. The New York Times' article says of her, "She also admits to a prejudice against using brand names in fiction. It’s the lazy writer’s way of placing a character or establishing a social setting."

Have I not said that here, probably a couple of times?

Selling to Teens and Kids

I am never going to be a wildly successful YA or kidlit author because I'm weirded out by marketing to my readers.

An article on reaching teen readers and another on children's departments in bookstores turned up on the New England Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators listserv this evening. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making bookstores desirable places so that customers will want to visit them, and there is nothing wrong with finding more efficient ways to sell books. It's a normal thing to do.

Nonetheless, I just feel so creepy about taking money from kids. When I'm at schools and students ask where they can buy my books, I tell them and then add, "But you can go to the town library and try to get the librarian to buy it."

I hope no one who works for my publisher reads this.

Stephenie Meyer in Connecticut!

I just this minute learned that Stephenie Meyer (New Moon) will be at R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut this coming Monday night.
I certainly liked her books well enough to go see her. And I've never been to R.J. Juila's, so I'd like to check that place out.

Except I'm supposed to go look at a house with a relative Monday night. I'm serious. This is not an "I have to wash my hair" excuse.

Well, fortunately I'm not fifteen-years-old, so I'll just suck this up and move on.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

So What’s In Your Library?

During my one foray into graduate school, my professor was always talking about his friend, Jay Parini. That’s the only reason I have a clue about the identity of the person who wrote Other People’s Books, which I found through Blog of a Bookslut.

Reading Other People’s Books made me think about my own library, of course. When I was young, I planned to have my own library some day, and I bought some Nancy Drew books to get it started. Now that I've been taking care of books for more than a few years, I’m not quite so serious a collector. I’ve noticed that books turn brown and start to smell of mildew after a while. At least mine do. I know someone who likes that smell, but, personally, I don't see the attraction.

Now I tend to worry about what my children will think of me if they find certain books among my possessions after I go on to that great reading room in the sky. That’s the reason I got rid of a paperback set of vampire books that I thought might be close to being soft-core porn. My heirs didn't need to see those things and start wondering about their mom.

What got me started on this? Oh, yeah. Jay Parini's description of his decent set of Kipling.

I'm Used To This

I am reading King Dork by Frank Portman. Unlike many of my fellow bloggers--and evidently most of the reviewing world--I am really disliking it.

You realize, of course, that this makes me Queen Dork. The outcast. The social misfit.

Fortunately, I'm not fifteen-years-old. So I will suck it up and move on.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Doesn't This Just Sound Like A Kids' Book?

Up until a couple of minutes ago, I had never heard of Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. But can't you just tell from this Unshelved strip that it's a book for kids?.

Seriously, it seems to have everything--a dead parent, a journey, a quest.

Celebrity Picture Books

Wednesday is circuit training day, which means I have a legitimate reason to watch TV--it's the sweetener that makes weight work very palatable. (The longer the workout, the longer I can keep the TV on. Think about it.)

This explains how I happened to see Joy Behar being interviewed on ABC about her picture book Sheetzucacapoopoo: My Kind of Dog. Just minutes later, I saw Jamie Lee Curtis being interviewed on CBS about her new book Is There Really a Human Race?

Now, so-called celebrity writers take a beating in kidlitland. They're able to get publishers when "real" writers can't, and talk about publicity! These woman both snagged face-time on national TV. How many writers are able to do that?

But I watched these interviews and I really felt that I couldn't complain about these authors simply because they'd achieved a level of success in another field. I haven't read the books. They may be awful or they may be fantastic. But they certainly sound well-intentioned (if maybe a little instructional). And both books come from the authors' life experiences. Behar's book was inspired when she tried to take her dog to a dog show, and he was turned away because he wasn't a purebred. (I didn't totally get this part of the interview. Had she bought the dog a ticket? Was he coming to the show as her date? Or did she try to enter him in a competition?) Curtis got the idea for her latest book when her son came home and asked, "Is there a human race?"

I have to respect the desire to create. I respected the guy at a craft fair in the Maritime Provinces who was selling things he'd created out of beer bottle caps. I didn't buy any of his stuff, but I respected his need to make it. I can't feel differently about a person who has a famous name.

After all, is it fundamentally wrong for a person in a non-literary field to want to write a book? Isn't that how many writers start out? Does Scott Turow get slammed because he's also an attorney?

We shouldn't be making an issue about the people who write the books. We should be making an issue about the books themselves. A book stinks or it doesn't. It doesn't matter who wrote it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Some Day My Vampire Will Come

Today I went to taekwondo and the library, and then spent the rest of the day reading. Oh, sure, I did a load of wash. But I didn't fold it. And I totally forgot to make dinner.

I hate myself.

Instead of working, I finished reading New Moon by Stephenie Meyer. The book wasn't great. Just very readable.

I was a fan of Meyer's first book, Twilight, because of the intense sexual frustration between the two main characters. I didn't hold out much hope for the sequel because I didn't think that frustration could be maintained. Plus, the author was confronted with a dilemma--her hero and heroine could only consumate their relationship if the heroine died and became a vampire. Consumated relationships usually become boring reading, anyway, and if your main character has just been offed--well.

New Moon starts out with our heroine, Bella, pushing her sweetie, Edward, to kill her and make her a vampire. That means she's suicidal...and that's just plain disturbing. I thought that was going to get old fast. Evidently, Meyer thought so, too, because she got rid of Edward for a long portion of the book. This took care of the obsession with suicide but it also eliminated the hot vampire so now no sexual tension/frustration.

Bella and Edward are definitely star-crossed lovers, and there are lots and lots of analogies to Romeo and Juliet in New Moon. Some readers may have found that a little obvious and heavy-handed, but I think it works because New Moon and Romeo and Juliet share the intense teenage over-the-top belief in cliched romantic love. And I don't mean that in a bad way. Young people often do think that heart-break cannot be survived, that death is better than the loss of love.

When I was a teenager and went to see Romeo and Juliet with my English class, the girls were crying on the bus on the way back to school, and I, myself, ran out and bought the soundtrack. (Which I still have.) I just thought it was incredible. I got to be in my twenties, though, and I thought, "Boy, those two were really stupid."

I guess as you get older, you develop a sense of self-preservation. Eighteen-year-old Bella in New Moon definitely doesn't have one. Neither, it turns out, does her main squeeze, Edward. And he's been around for over a hundred years so you'd think he'd have developed one. But I guess if your body is arrested at seventeen, you can't expect to move along too far emotionally.

A great deal of New Moon is taken up with Bella's suffering when Edward leaves town. Hey, man, this is real love! I was able to tolerate all that because of the development of a secondary character from Twilight. Jacob Black, a young Native American from a neighboring town turns into this wonderful dynamo, a definite contender for Bella's heart.

Yes, at the end of New Moon Bella has her choice of two guys--the good-looking, sweet-natured Jacob, who can fix things or the good-looking, smoldering Edward, who can play the piano. The adult Gail finds the two contenders for the heroine's heart scenario a terrible romantic cliche. But the teenaged Gail loved that kind of thing. Two guys for every girl. Yes!

New Moon reminds me of The King of Attolia. They are both parts of series that started out strong but became too focused on their characters' love lifes. But I keep reading because I'm committed to those characters who first appeared in earlier, better books.

Monday, September 18, 2006

This Works For Me

TadMack at Finding Wonderland asks, "Wouldn't you hate for someone to be digging through your computer files for all of the story fragments you've begun and abandoned, to be published posthumously?" The question refers to the announcement that J.R.R. Tolkien's son has completed one of his unfinished manuscripts.

Speaking as an author who has a son who could easily end up a writer, I would love to have him finish one of my works. It would be as if the two of us got to work on something together, if that's not too creepy for you. I wouldn't even object to his taking an unfinished piece or an idea and giving it a "next generation" treatment. He could go ahead and let the piece evolve so it fits the culture he was then living in, even though I wasn't. It would give my work a new life and bring it to new generations.

Go for it, sweetheart.

Of course, this is all assuming he would do a good job. Otherwise...

Bringing You The Past

I've been watching a blog called The Inter-Galactic Playground because it focuses on science fiction for children. I am not a serious reader of sci-fi, but I like to dip into a couple of books a year.

Unfortunately, my background isn't broad enough for me to recognize much that the Playground's blogger writes about. But today I noticed Saturday's post on Fireball by John Christopher. I didn't recognize the book, I recognized the author.

John Christopher wrote The Tripods Trilogy, which I guess you could call a classic. I wasn't particularly crazy about these books set in a dark future after alien invaders have taken over the Earth. Futuristic misery just doesn't grab me. And the tripod thing seemed a little too War of the Worldish to me.

No, the Christopher book I preferred, as I'm sure I've said here before, was When the Tripods Came, Christopher's prequel to the Tripod series. The prequel is set in the present day. I like my sci-fi and fantasy to be fixed in the mean streets I know, giving it a little pseudo-reality, I guess.

I hope that soon we'll be seeing more regular updates at The Inter-Galactic Playground.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Well, I Was Thrilled At Least

Once upon a time, there weren't a whole lot of children's books. In those days, many of the books that were written for youthful minds were about intrepid youngsters who had adventures. Tom Swift had scientific adventures. The Hardy Boys had mysterious adventures. Billy and Blaze had horsie adventures.

And then there was Cherry Ames and Trixie Belden and The Bobbsey Twins and many other characters whose novels didn't stand the test of time.

Thread-bare books were handed down from one generation to the next. Kids used their allowance to buy new ninety-nine cent copies at Grant's. Those books had hard pastel covers with drawings of girls wearing 1930's era clothing.

Then the kid readers grew up and went to college and started sneering at their old loves and referring to a favorite character as "Nancy Drew, Defective." And then they had kids of their own and wanted them to read new and better children's literature and...

Okay, that last paragraph was a little too autobiographical.

What I'm leading up to is that yesterday I finished reading The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen by M.T. Anderson, the second in his Thrilling Tales series. It's a very clever parody of many of those beloved old children's series. At the same time, the solution to the mystery set up in the book is really good. I never saw it coming, anyway.

It took me a while to warm to the first book in the Thrilling Tales series, Whales on Stilts. But with Ledherhosen, Anderson had me from '"Great Scott!" cried Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut. "Your mother just lost her hand in the rotating band saw!"'

In spite of all the jokes and satire and talk of one character drowning in his own snot in Lederhosen, the reader is left with the feeling that Anderson once read and loved the old books he's making fun of. That back in the day he got them and remembers.

Or maybe I'm just reading way too much into this thing because I started to cry when Eddie Wax was reunited with... Well, read the book. And be sure to notice that wonderfully Zenny paragraph toward the end about longing.

I still have one reservation about this series: Anderson likes to have what seems to be an omniscient narrator start speaking in the first person to the reader. I hate it when that happens. It destroys my illusion that I'm there, solving the crime with Nancy, George, and Bess...

Oops. Little time distortion there.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Two More Old Picture Books

I read two more older picture books yesterday. Though they were selected randomly, they both have connections to behavior.

Spinky Sulks (1988) by William Steig is a very intriguing book about a child who is seriously ticked off. We're never a hundred percent sure what it is his "stupid family" has done to set him off, but nothing they can do for a couple of days will bring him around.

Now, I assume that child readers identify with the child main character and recognize themselves in this boy who just can't get over whatever is bothering him. But as I read the book, I identified with all the family members because I've dealt with sulky adults who just couldn't be satisfied once they were in a snit. I found myself getting upset about how controlling and manipulative little Spinky was.

A very deep book.

The basic story behind The Two Bullies (1997) by Junko Morimoto comes from a Japanese folktale (according to the Internet). The self-proclaimed strongest man in Japan decides he will challenge the strongest man in China. In preparation, he visits the temple of Hachiman, a god of war and patron of warriors. (Though the book doesn't offer this information. It isn't necessary for the story. I have to look up things like that because I'm obsessive.)

He meets a priest at the temple who is actually Hachiman, and Hachiman gives him a gift, a file. Sidebar: gods in disguise and gifts received before going on a journey are both traditional elements of myth or folktales. The kids don't need to know this kind of thing, but I eat it up.

So our Japanese strongman goes off to meet his Chinese counterpart, but becomes so intimidated by what he learns about him that he heads off for home. The Chinese strongman learns he's been there and tries to catch him by thowing an anchor with a chain out to his boat and pulling him back. Ah, but our Japanese strong man has received a gift from a god and...

What I find so interesting about this book is that it's called The Two Bullies and yet the characters don't exhibit the kinds of behavior American readers traditionally associate with bullies. They don't attack the weak, they don't torment others, they're merely interested in testing themselves against other strongmen.

Another deep book.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Best Books?

A number of kidlit bloggers are creating lists of the best books they've read so far this year. While I enjoy such lists, especially if my books are on them (thank you, folks), I'm not even going to try to create such a list myself. Why? My readings habits are way too chaotic. I do a terrible job of keeping up to the minute with my reading.

I walk through a library and scoop up whatever pretty thing catches my eye, no matter when it was published or for whom. I just read two more older picture books today, and I'm working on a memoir (which I will be blogging about at some point) from the '80s. I think. Because I'm not careful about reading this season's books, I then have to spend time catching up on what I've missed, which makes it even harder for me to read new stuff.

That being said, I became very excited at the library today when I was able to score a copy of King Dork and New Moon. I went to check out with them and voiced my delight to the librarians there.

Neither one of them had heard of either book.

If I had more time, this could seque into another post on how we in kidlit live in a different world.

A Book Fan Event

I heard through the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators listserv that this weekend is the Second Annual Burlington Book Festival in Burlington, Vermont. I love Burlington. There's never anything going on there when I visit.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Junk Culture

Members of the child_lit listserv began a discussion of Experts: Junk Culture is Killing Childhood that petered out pretty quickly. I wonder if children's publishing contributes in any way to a so-called "junk culture." And one of the other posters questioned the definition of "junk culture." Just what is it?

After giving the matter a few moments of thought, I've decided that junk culture is probably anything I don't like.

School Visits

The school year is under way, and I've been thinking about whether there's anything more I should be doing to try to snag some school visits. Work has pretty much dried up since the spring of 2003, I think it was. Geez, it was the high-point of my career as a speaker, and I can't even remember when it happened.

Anyway, I was interested to read Cynthia Leitch Smith's two-part interview with Toni Buzzeo on that very subject. Toni Buzzeo has been known in the New England Society of Book Writers and Illustrators for her interest in school visits. In fact, I heard her speak at the only NESCBWI conference I ever attended. I also have her book Terrific Connections with Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers. Which I think I finished reading.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Thank Goodness I Listened To This Book Instead Of Reading It

I listened to the audio version of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulhane instead of reading it, so I missed most of the stuff the folks at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast had to say in Born-again Bunny. I was listening to it while driving on an interstate highway. My mind probably wasn't on what I was doing--listening or driving.

I don't usually comment much on new blogs like Seven Impossible Things. I like to wait for a while to make sure these new bloggers are actually going to keep posting. I do, however, like the layout for Seven Impossible Things.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Still Reading Picture Books

MotherReader has been reading new picture books. I've been reading some older ones.
I was attracted to Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg (published in 1993) because of the title. The book is illustrated by Stephen Gammell who also illustrated an old favorite, The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant.

Monster Mama required a little thinking on my part. Patrick Edward is a very normal looking boy whose mother is a monster. Really. She lives in a cave behind his house. She's wonderful to Patrick Edward but always hides herself from others. Until he has a run-in with bullies. She saves the day by acting a lot like...a mother. I can't tell whether this is supposed to be a message book or just fun. I guess it can be whatever you want.

Stephen Gammell's illustrations for Monster Mama might be described as a little abstract, unlike those by Ruth Brown for her own book, Copycat (published in 1994). Brown's very realistic artwork helps tell a simple story about a cat who imitates other creatures. The book is laid out in an interesting manner. Between many of the two-page spreads is an illustrated half-sheet. When the half-sheet lies one way, it completes the illustration on the right. When it lies the other, it completes the illustration on the left.

So these two books offer you a choice. Do you want to have to do some thinking when you read with your kids? Or are you in the mood for some beautiful pictures about a cat whose behavior will be easy to understand? Depending on the day, I could go either way.

A Good Job Done. Now What?

Yesterday I finished cleaning my desk/office. It only took me the better part of 5 or 6 weeks. And I had someone helping me part of that time.

Okay, so I finished cleaning. That meant I could spend some time yesterday afternoon on the stack of short story manuscripts I've been interested in trying to find markets for since last summer. By last summer, I mean the summer of 2005, not the summer of 2006, which is more properly described as this past summer. Or even this summer. (I'm still reading Word Court.)

Some of these stories are old and will have to be reworked. A few of them are ready to go. I just have to decide where to send them. Many have already been rejected at their fair share of places.

So I spent some time yesterday visiting on-line literary journals and websites for print journals. Literary journals seem to me to be the main market for nongenre short stories. Most general interest magazines don't carry them anymore.

Whenever I start doing short story research I get a little down because, while I do believe I enjoy reading short stories, I don't really enjoy reading literary journals very much. Over the years I've tried. I've bought journals. I subscribed to one for two years. (I still haven't read the last two issues I received.) I often finish reading the stories in literary journals and find myself going...what?

I've read that modern short stories are influenced by James Joyce, who is supposed to have introduced the idea of epiphanies into writing. Okay. But if a short story includes an epiphany for the main character, shouldn't the reader experience the epiphany as well? Shouldn't I get it?

My point here is that I really don't think I should be submitting short stories to publications that carry short stories I either don't enjoy reading or can't even get through. It doesn't really seem as if we'd be a good fit.

On the other hand, I did finish an essay this past week and submitted it to a journal.

And I've been making a little progress on my Novel in a Year project. (Which is not going to happen in a year or anywhere close to it, by the way.) Last week I decided to add a sibling to the story, and then I decided to make both the child characters girls instead of boys.

If anyone's interested in taking part in Novel in a Year, The Telegraph brought back the first half year's exercises to its website. So you can make your way through the whole mess.

I got to "Week 30" this past week. On the main page under "Week 30" it says, "Now turn your attention to the body of work you've created. How does it all fit together?"

Body of work? Fit together? Other people must have been working much harder than I have.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Product Placement--A Question About Craft

Yesterday the folks at child-lit were discussing Cathy's Book and product placement. That's how I found out that an organization called Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is urging "concerned parents and book-lovers to send letters to Running Press demanding that the product placement be removed before Cathy’s Book is published." According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood's press release, the Association of Booksellers for Children is making petitions available at its member bookstores requesting the same.

Now I have reservations about product placement in any kind of literature. But to ask a publisher to remove something from one of its books...isn't that censorship? Or something very close to it?

Oh, my. This is getting complicated.

I'm about to make it more complicated because I'm going to suggest that there's a craft issue involved with using product placement in novels as well as an ethical issue.

I've always understood that using products as description is poor writing because the author is merely telling the readers that a character is wearing a certain brand of clothing or a certain brand of make-up rather than showing them what the character looks like by describing their clothing or make-up. That's meaningless if the reader is unfamiliar with the brand. Okay, it may tell us that the character is wealthy or poor, but, again, only if the reader recognizes the brand name as being expensive or inexpensive. It's a lazy way of writing.

In addition, if authors accept product placement at some point in their writing process, isn't that, itself, going to have an impact on what they write? If I accept product placement from, say, a clothing company before I start the writing project, then I have to create a character who wears those clothes. That seems like a small thing but what I'd be doing is creating a character to support detail instead of using detail to support a character.

Even if they accept product placement after the book is written, as I believe was the case with Cathy's Book, authors are still having to tweak their work to support a detail when they ought to be tweaking details to support character, setting, plot, etc.

We're talking about reversing the traditional writing process. The world's not going to end if that happens, of course. But I do wonder if we won't see some impact on writing--or the teaching of writing--if this becomes common practice. Though I'm not going to try to guess what that impact will be.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Inside A Dog With Garth Nix

I'm embarrassed to say that while I've heard of Insideadog, a website created by The Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria in Australia, I've never spent much time there. The website "promotes young adult literature, highlighting Australian writers and their work, and includes the best of the international scene."

Well, I received an e-mail today from the web project manager about an interesting aspect of the site. It maintains a blog with posts from writers-in-residence. Right now the writer-in-residence is Garth Nix. In today's post, Nix tries his hand at a "Viking poem" for Steve Irwin.

Since I took a course called "Classic and Folk Epic" when I was in college, the form of his poem looks familiar to me, the break being called, I think, a caesura. I can't comment one way or the other about the quality of Nix's poem, but what he's trying to do seems very appropriate.

My Mail

Teachers in Connecticut: Check out The Connecticut Writing Project website.

I received their schedule for the year yesterday. They included a very classy poster with the slogan "Center for Excellence...where teachers at all levels come to better their writing in order to better teach their students to write." A very nice sentiment.

The CWP is going to be running a program this month that will be conducted by someone who is a workshop leader for The Amherst Writers and Artists Methodology, which sounds like a type of writing workshop. I think I heard about this several years ago, probably through the Connecticut Writing Project, meant to look into it, and forgot the whole thing.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Elegant Looking, But Not My Favorite

I'm still going through the picture books I picked up last week.

I was drawn to Jungle Drums by Graeme Base because I was such a fan of one of his earlier books, The Eleventh Hour. Seriously, I once gave a birthday party with an Eleventh Hour theme, right down to the three layer cake. Which probably explains why I don't bake much anymore.

Jungle Drums was lovely, and the story was okay. But I can't see myself giving a Jungle Drum party.

Check out Graeme Base's art work.

What's A Writer To Do?

I happen to know that I'm going to receive an invitation to a reception for authors and illustrators sponsored by a librarians' organization. It sounds like a meet-and- greet thing for authors/illustrators and school librarians.

Now we are all offered the opportunity to sell and sign our books at this event. We provide our own books and, I assume, take care of all the selling, etc. It's not a requirement.

I'm definitely going to go to this event, but I'm not sure about selling books. I've never done the selling myself before, and I'm not totally comfortable about it.

What do you suppose the other guests at this reception would prefer? Would they like to have books available for sale and signing? Or would they feel they were being pressured to buy? Would they rather I just show up with postcards, bookmarks, and brochures relating to my school visits?

Any thoughts?

I'm thinking about contacting the sponsors and asking, "What are the other kids going to do?"

Sunday, September 03, 2006


I recently experienced an awkward moment. One of the listservs I belong to (which shall remain nameless) was engaging in a formal discussion of a novel (which will remain nameless). Not too many people took part in the discussion, which made what I said stand out even more.

As you may have guessed, I was the only commentor who wasn't wildly enthusiastic about the book. I wasn't witchie or anything. I just said that I found the book disappointing and felt it had two good storylines that were not well integrated.

Needless to say, no one agreed with me.

About a week later, the author of the book posted a message thanking everyone for their comments. It turns out she had joined the listserv around six months ago, and I missed it!!!

When I was younger, this kind of thing would have left me overwhelmed with regret and mortification. Now I just figure that there are so many, many lessons for me in this incident. Learn and move on.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Mr. Kowsz Makes A List

Mr. Kowsz from Happy Kid! has made A Year of Reading's list of 100 Cool Teachers thanks to Jen Robinson at Jen Robinson's Book Page.

Dipping Into Picture Books

I picked up a stack of picture books at the library this past week. The first two I read were definitely hits--with me, anyway.

I've never read a great deal of nonfiction for kids, and I don't know how to judge it. I may just really like Aliens Are Coming! by Meghan McCarthy because I've always been interested in the panic around Orson Welles'1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which I think I heard about when I was a teenager. I really can't tell if kids will get this the way I did.

I'm mystified about the expected audience for some picture books, and this is one of them. Some reviewers describe it as being for grades 1-3 or 3-6, which seems like quite a spread. And Amazon says ages 4-8, which would mean preschoolers. I just don't have enough experience with those age groups to be able to guess if younger kids will get it or if older kids, who might be more likely to get it) will be willing to read a picture book.

I loved Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth. (I can't find much on-line about this guy, though he appears to have been an illustrator for one of the Sandman books.) It's about three siblings who meet a panda bear who's into Zen. I just happened to have recently read another version of the last story the bear tells.

Is someone trying to tell me something?

Zen Shorts is a really great book. But, again, will kids get it? Will they need an adult to read it with them? I just don't know. If I had young kids, though, I would definitely take a chance on this book.

The Vatican Has A Chief Exorcist? Meaning It Has More Than One?

While I'm not a big fan of the Harry Potter books, myself, I have a hard time seeing this.

Why I Never Give Anyone My Editors' Names

I don't have to deal with this kind of thing often. I think people take one look at me and realize I'm not capable of helping anyone with anything.

I have had requests for the name of my agent or editor, though. I don't have an agent, and if I gave my editor's name out I wouldn't have one of those, either.

I once had an acquaintance call me to explain that she had a friend who was interested in writing and that she'd told him I'd be happy to talk to him. And my computer guy was once approached by a guy who developed commercial property who wanted him to have me read a manuscript. Computer Guy took care of that situation for me. I shudder to think how.

I want to be generous and help others. But very new writers can be fragile, and it's hard to give honest--and helpful--feedback without discouraging them or seeming harsh. So a number of years back, I wrote up a couple of page guide explaining how I went about contacting publishers back when I was struggling more than I am now. It might have included some websites or directories to use.

I haven't had to offer it to anyone in years. I don't even know where it is, anymore. But I do think something like that could help people who are approached for advice and actually be of assistance for the people who are doing the approaching.

The people in the article I sent you to (by way of A Fuse #8 Production) could carry it with them to give out at funerals and hospitals! Or they could create a website with this information and just give out business cards with the url. Yes, a business card would be much easier to distribute in your doctor's office than 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper.