Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Does Anyone Ask These Kinds of Questions in the U.S.?

The Royal Society of Literature asked British authors to come up with lists oftop ten books for school children. In a Guardian article in which Andrew Motion (Britain's poet laureate), J. K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman are all quoted, the word "children" seems to be defined very loosely, since Where the Wild Things Are and Portrait of a Lady were both included.

Motion made an interesting point about difficult works being considered elitist. Nonetheless, I wonder if his list, which included Paradise Lost and Ulysses wouldn't be inaccessible to many college graduates, forget about "children."

Now, I know I'm nitpicky, but if I were asked to nominate ten books for such a list, I'd want to know what I should use for criteria. What's the point? What do we want to achieve with this list? Cultural literacy? Should we include The Bible so people will get the Biblical references in the first Matrix? (I have young relatives who say I ruined that movie for them by pointing out Biblical references. Heh, heh, heh.) Do we want to create a nation of readers? Do we want to include books just because educated people ought to know this stuff? (Says who?)

I feel we have a real problem with people not wanting to read, and I don't think television is entirely to blame. I know this is anecdotal, but I know plenty of intelligent, well-educated people who don't enjoy reading. I'm talking honors course, AP people here, even AP English people. So, if I were going to create a list of books people should read before leaving public school, one of my criteria would be that the books should do no harm. Meaning, they wouldn't send readers running out of the room.

Another criteria would be to choose books that had some kind of impact on literature in general or on popular culture. I think being able to see those kinds of connections would help readers feel the books had some value for them.

And, finally, since this is the United States, I'd like to see books that reflected different regions of the country or different periods of history.

So, some books I might choose for every American to read before finishing public school:

The Odyssey. It's the first journey story, and to this day books and movies use it as a model.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. It's theme, that man should not mess with God's business or, put another way, science has run amuck, is timeless. Every child should be able to recognize a "Frankenstein Story" when she sees one. And for a nineteenth century book, this is very readable.

Little Women or Little Men by Louisa May Alcott. These books reflect Alcott's Transcendentalist upbringing. Transcendentalism is unbelievably complicated, but it had an impact on many aspects of life including religion, philosophy, and certainly literature. It was also the first philosophy to start here in America. Little Women touches on the Civil War, though some might find Little Men more readable.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Though I recall being bored while we were discussing this in high school English, Huckleberry Finn brought regional dialect to the novel. It's also a variation on The Odyssey--a journey story but with buddies. Personally, I agree that race is a touchy issue in this book. The Tom Sawyer escapade at the end is a jaw dropper. So discuss it.

The Story of David and Goliath, and The Prodigal Son as picture books. Come on. These basic story lines have been used over and over again.

I know I need five more books, but I'm running out of time. Over the next few days I'll try to come up with regional books.

Monday, January 30, 2006

What a Disappointment

I wanted to try reading an older kids' book by Tim Wynne-Jones because I loved his Zoom picture books. (See my November 25, 2005 post.) I stumbled upon The Boy in the Burning House, and what can I say? Not much except that I found the plot jumbled and the writing flat.

I wish I could find a better way to describe what I mean by flat writing.

As usual, if you do an Internet search on The Boy in the Burning House, you'll find that a lot of people liked it.

Late as Usual

About a month ago, a number of people blogged about Far From Narnia an article about Philip Pullman in the Dec. 26/Jan. 2 issue of The New Yorker. Well, I finally got around to reading it. Lucky you, I'm going to share a couple of interesting parts relating to stories

First off, though, I'd like to point out that journalists writing about Philip Pullman just can't seem to get past the fact that he's an atheist. Yes, it's pertinent because religion plays a part in his most famous works, the trilogy known as His Dark Materials. Still, articles about him have become just a little bit predictable.

On the subject of his religious belief, he is quoted by Laura Miller, the article's author, as saying "...we can learn what's good and what's bad, what's generous and unselfish, what's cruel and mean, from fiction..."

I think by "fiction" he means stories. My impression from the article is that Pullman holds the idea of story in very high regard. He refers to himself as "the servant of the story." When The Golden Compass won the Carnegie Medal, he said in his acceptance speech, "In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness..."

I think there are probably many contemporary readers who would agree with him there.

He also said, "We need stories so much that we're even willing to read bad books to get them..."

Pullman is also described as "a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator"--the classic way to tell a story. The storyteller doesn't enter into the story himself, the reader forgets he's there.

So all this talk about stories is what interested me most in the article.

However, there was one last bit that I'm sure grabbed other readers. Pullman has become quite well-known for disliking Narnia. What he really comes across as disliking in this article is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Preserved for Posterity

I may not be terribly fond of Looking for Alaska, this year's Printz Award winner, but the author, John Green, has an adorable photo essay up at his website about how he learned he'd won. The essay is so funny, touching, etc., etc., etc., that I have decided right here on the spot to take a shot at reading his next book. Whatever it may be. Whenever it may show up.

Thanks to A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy for the link.

Dealing With Library Books

I had to pay a six dollar and forty cent fine at the library yesterday, so I took some couch time this afternoon to polish off the stack of books involved--all by Jon Scieszka. His last name rhymes with Fresca! Now I can talk about him!

I wasn't a huge Scieszka fan, but decided to give him another chance because he had a great article a while back in The Horn Book. I thought I blogged about it, but I can't find it now, which suggests I spelled his last name wrong. Oh, well, one more humiliation to accept.

Anyway, in the past I felt that Scieszka's humor was strained. I took a stack of his picture books out of the library, and here is what I've discovered about them: to get Scieszka, you've got to understand that his humor isn't about the punchline, it's about the set-up. At least, that's my view.

In his Horn Book article, Scieszka wrote about his experience as an elementary school teacher trying to teach a unit on jokes. He told this one great story about a kid getting up to tell a joke that clearly had an off-color punchline, but when the boy got to that point in his story, he'd forgotten it and just ended the story with something somewhat unrelated to what he'd been talking about.

Back in the day when I was a mom-volunteer in a grade school, helping younger kids with their writing, I often saw that kind of thing. Kids would work on a story and just get tired and stop or just sort of ramble off into something unrelated.

I think Scieszka's book Squids Will Be Squids, in particular, reflects that kind of kid sensibility. In the review I linked to, from CM Magazine: Canadian Review of Materials, Valerie Nielsen said, "...this latest collaboration between Scieszka and Lane may not turn out to be a winner. Many of the morals following the fables miss the mark. For the most part, they elicit a puzzled frown rather than a giggle."

That's true. I was reading these things, enjoying the fables, and then getting to the morals and going, "What?"

But kids may not have the same response because kids frequently write and tell stories the same way.

I read Baloney (Henry P.) totally oblivious to the fact that the main character was an alien. (This makes sense. I wrote an entire book about kids whose mom was totally oblivious to the aliens in her yard.) I found all the strange words in the text annoying. Then I got to the end of the book, learned that the words weren't strange, they were... Well, I don't want to give anything away.

While I was reading Math Curse, I kept thinking, Well, I find this humorous, but I'm an adult. Will kids get this? Is there too much text? I like the incongruous options in the muliple choice questions, but what is the real answer? Do readers have to figure out the real answer?

Give it a rest, Ms. Gauthier. This book is for a child who feels overwhelmed--maybe hammered?--by all the math that's thrown at her at school. She wants to be able to laugh about that feeling. Forget about the real answers.

I think many of Scieszka's picture books are not for the traditional picture book audience, preschoolers, but for older children, who we don't necessarily associate with picture books. There's nothing wrong with that, it expands the definition of picture book. I also think Scieszka is definitely a writer who writes who he is--a former grade school teacher.

So, here's an example of Gail giving an author another chance as a result of reading his nonfiction and definitely changing her mind about him. Tomorrow, class, we'll discuss another case, which did not turn out so well.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

It's Like Some Kind of Chain Reaction

Absolutely everyone is talking about snakes today. Big A little a started it, Book Moot picked up on it, and then the subject moved on to Chicken Spaghetti.

I'd just like to point out that this is the kind of information that is worth its weight in gold for a children's writer. I don't mean because it indicates that now would be a good time to write a snake book. (I suspect any time is a good time to write a snake book.) No, I mean that if snakes are hot with the little nippers, then that could be a good detail to use when creating a young character.

My Name is Gail, and I am a Screen Sucker

The January 16th issue of Timehas an article on ineffecient use of time due to multi-tasking (I wish) or becoming distracted. In it, the authors (Claudia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe) define screen sucking as "Wasting time online long after you have finished what you signed on to do."

What do you call it when you sign on specifically to waste time online?

I am constantly interrupting my work to check my e-mail (I don't have a little pinger telling me when some arrives, which means I can check it over and over and over again), check the news, go to Readerville and, now, play Bookworm. (I have made it to Level 7, by the way.) The Time article said that an average of 2 hours a day are lost to such activities and the "recovery time associated with getting back on task." Assuming that happens.

I definitely believe I'm losing two hours a day, because my plan in life is to knock off work around 3 so that I can get some life maintenance work done. Yet I fall so far behind because of all the garbage I do that I often am trying to finish up when I should be starting dinner, forget about doing something else. Then I feel overwhelmed because I haven't folded last week's clean laundry (and, yes, my husband does fold laundry--he folds his as well as all the towels and bedding, which, yes, doesn't leave me with much), I haven't ironed in weeks, the floors are crunchy, and I can write my name on almost every surface in the house.

And that overwhelmed feeling is not good for my work.

This particular issue of Time has pages and pages of stuff on the mind, including a two page spread on the best use of time if you're a morning person or a night person. And, yeah, you guessed it. To the best of my knowledge, I'm neither.

I'm not wandering off the subject of writing here, by the way. I think learning to organize your time is a huge part of being a writer. I'm going to use some of mine to finish reading this magazine, hoping it will give me a clue.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

This Could Be The Start Of Something Big

Two people in Seattle are suing James Frey and his publisher seeking damages for the the time they "lost" (meaning, I guess, wasted) reading his book A Million Little Pieces.

Seriously, if we all started suing authors because reading their books was a waste of our time, we'd all be in court all the time.

Thanks to ArtsJournal.com for that one.

Worth Every Minute I Spent Reading It

I fell behind reading Louise Doughty's A Novel in a Year column because I was too dimwitted to figure out how to find the new columns without someone else linking to them. But I've got it worked out now.

This project is great. Doughty's second week assignment was "Read." And the really neat thing about the assignment is that she explained why writers should read. "Aspiring writers should read" is one of those bits of advice like "Write what you know" that everyone throws around but no one explains.

"[Reading]Bad writing can be an incredibly positive influence if you learn to analyse why it is bad and resolve not to do the same."

Yes! Yes! Exactly!

Doughty also advices aspiring writers to read contemporary authors.

"...if, as is almost certainly the case, your time is precious and you are trying to focus intently on your own work, you will get more practical help from reading Hilary Mantel or Graham Swift than you will from George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy.

"All writers are products of their own era, however timeless the themes of their writing or the excellence of their prose. If all you read is Dostoevsky, then however much you enjoy his work as a reader, as a writer you will simply get depressed because you will never be Dostoevsky."

I don't know about the getting depressed part, and I have to admit I've never heard of Hilary Mantel, but Yes! Yes! We are all products of our own era!

I've got to go out and find one of this woman's books.

And here's my first sentence from Week One's assignment to write one sentence, beginning with the words, "The day after my eighth birthday, my father told me...":

The day after my eighth birthday, my father told me, "You're a fine son. I love you dearly. But you're not like the rest of us."

Okay, it's not just one sentence. But it's close.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I Knew Someone Would Be Able To Tell Me This

Suzi from Words, words, words wrote to offer some advice on which Terry Pratchett books to read next. (See my Jan. 22 post.) She also sent me a link to The Terry Pratchett Read Order, which is actually way too complex for me.

More Travels With Gail

A week ago this past Sunday, I was in the car for twelve hours--twelve hours!--time enough to listen to all of The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau. Sparks is the sequel to The City of Ember, which my husband was so taken with when we listened to it on CD on our last trip, that he made a trip to the library to find this next book.

There are spoilers coming up, in case anyone cares.

Okay, so the folks from The City of Ember have escaped from their underground spideyhole. I think it's unfortunate that we don't see that happen. At the beginning of The People of Sparks we are told about it. Big no-no. But, moving on, the Emberites come uptop only to learn that the Earth has suffered a few wars and maybe a plague or two a couple of centuries back and society has been thrown back a bit. No power sources, no communication, you know the drill.

My objection to that storyline is the same objection I have to most post-apocalyptic stories. Some people survive the apocalypse, but not a single scientist makes it. Not a science teacher, line repairperson, power plant operator...not a soul who at least knows that energy can be made and that maybe they can figure out a way to make it, too. I believe two centuries had passed in the book since all Hell broke loose. I mean, in two centuries mankind won't move on at all?

Other than that, though, I actually liked Sparks better than Ember. It was deeper and more sophisticated, a parable, one might say, about how wars happen. I don't usually care for instructive stories, but I felt interested rather than preached to.

I hear a lot about teachers favoring "problem books" in the classroom, and that boys don't care for such things and are thus turned off from reading. I think The People of Sparks would make a good classroom read aloud for, say, 4th through 6th graders. There's action, things to talk about, and a main character of each gender.

Something for everyone.

The Last Item I Picked Up In Vermont

When I was in Vermont the second week of January, I read about The Young Writers Project, a "partnership of Vermont students, teachers, professional writers and journalists that aims to encourage and improve writing in Vermont elementary, middle and high schools." The professional writers offer advice along with samples of their work. Student writing is published at a website.

An ambitious effort.

Monday, January 23, 2006

I'm Talking About This Because I Have To

I've been avoiding discussing book awards because it seems to me there are a huge number of them--not that that's a bad thing, by any means. But everybody is talking about them, so I figure I should talk about something else. Especially since lots of times I haven't read the books involved.

But today was Newbery,Caldecott, and Printz Day. I am a children's writer and blogger, so...

This year I've actually read a few of the books involved. I didn't read the Newbery Winner, but one of the honor books, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. Now, if my legions of loyal fans remember, I wasn't crazy about Princess Academy, liked The Goose Girl much better, thought Princess Academy covered a lot of the same ground and was just old wine in a new flask.

However, in discussing Princess Academy and the Newbery today at Readerville, someone made the point that Princess Academy is for a younger age group than The Goose Girl. That person believed that it wasn't inappropriate to rework material when you are providing a new setting and presentation for a group that wouldn't read the first book. The woman who made this argument is a teacher, and she said Princess Academy had made its way around her fourth grade class.

Well, I have an open mind and that discussion has made me rethink Princess Academy. The book has moved up in my estimation. What's more, I'm delighted to hear that a Newbery Book is being read by kids. Because with some of the choices some years, you've got to wonder.

You can go to Shannon Hale's Activity Log to read an account of how she received the news about the Newbery. She had it posted early today. She's right on top of things.

By the way, I read years ago that the Newbery Honor Books are not runners up for the Medal. They are selected with a different set of criteria. I don't know if that's true, because you'll hear other people telling you otherwise. It's all very mysterious.

Regarding one of the other awards, namely, the Printz: I cannot believe Looking for Alaska, another story about the sad lives led by prep school students (though with lots of sex and smoking), won while a unique story like A Certain Slant of Light didn't get so much as a nod for honor book. Don't people read my blog? I'm fine with I am the Messenger getting honor book, though it did have an awful ending.

And then there is the Alex Award, which is given to "adult books that will appeal to teen readers." Included in this year's list of ten is Never Let Me Go. It is fantastic. An incredible book. And, yes, as I was reading it, I did wonder if this disturbing, sad book would be of interest to teens.

The presence of that one book makes me feel that the other books on the list should be worth a look.

Now, see, I had a lot of things I wanted to talk about today, and I spent all my time on awards. #@!!!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Fantasy Novel For Those Of Us Who Don't Like Fantasy Novels

In my last post, I bashed the fantasy genre. In my humble and narrow-minded opinion, the average fantasy novel has way, way too much talk about made-up scenery, religions, species, cusine, weapons, and body parts. I just don't need to get that far outside my comfort zone.

Having said that, I feel that it is only fair to give some attention to a fantasy novel I did enjoy. I finally broke down and read one of the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. I had read Good Omens, which Pratchett co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, and liked it a lot. So when I heard about Discworld, probably through the one of the YA Forums at Readerville, I thought I'd give it a shot.

What held me up was that Pratchett has written a lot of books, and a lot of them are Discworld books. I didn't have a clue where to begin.

However, while I was standing in the sci-fi shelf at the Borders in Burlington, Vermont, I saw a woman fingering a few of the Pratchett titles. Since she was holding quite a stack of books, I took a chance that she'd know whereof she spoke. Sure enough, she was a Discworld fan and told me to start with The Color of Magic.

I have to say, the book had plenty of strange names, strange geographical details, and strange stuff in general. But Pratchett doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. I suspect he knows his stuff fantasywise, but he makes his fantasy wry and twisted, not deadly and heavy with meaning. In fact, I'm not sure The Color of Magic has much in the way of heavy meaning. It's a very enjoyable road story. It reminded me of Douglas Adams' books in that the main characters aren't traditionally heroic, and there's plenty of humorous twists. Personally, though, I liked it better than Adams' books, which are just a little bit too odd-English-humor, if you ask me.

The Color of Magic is entertaining reading for readers who like their entertainment demanding. The writing is complex as is the world portrayed in the book. Pratchet is unbelievably inventive.

Douglas Adams was extremely popular with teen readers a few years back and may still be. I suspect the Discworld books will be enjoyed by the same young'uns. Pratchet also writes books that are geared specifically to YA readers as well as children's books.

I will be going back to Discworld. Though I may have to wait until I can find someone in the sci-fi section of a bookstore who can tell me what to read next.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Post- Holes

Slate calls Louis Sachar a Hot novelist of the sandbox set. The article has plenty of good things to say about Sachar's last book Holes, but isn't as positive about his new one, Small Steps.

The author of the article, Bryan Curtis, says Holes has "touches of magical realism," which I found interesting because I've never been clear on what magical realism is. He also says that "Children's novels often depend in some part on the confinement of their protagonists—whether in algebra class or a dusty old country house..." I found that interesting, too. I'd never heard that before or made the connection, myself, but, yeah, I guess I'd go along with that.

I'd Go Along With This, Too

The Guardian has a wonderful article called Cultureshock in which a children's author named Francesca Simon (I'm not sure if I've heard of her books) makes a deal with her son. She'll read a fantasy novel if he'll read one by Anthony Trollope.

Mom says: "All right, I admit it, I'm biased. I hate fantasy. All those adjectives and elves and weird names. The moment someone says fantasy, I know I'm in for "The three blood-red moons rose over the dusty sand plains of Ut-Tajik as the bald jackal priest of Sidt placed the sacred silver urn of Caldon on the broken altar of the blind god Fifff.""

That is exactly...exactly...what I think of when I think of fantasy.

Sixteen-year-old son says of Barchester Towers (which I believe I read when I was a teenager): "...all characters are introduced by means of lengthy and irrelevant description. The basic doctrine of "show, don't tell" was obviously not around in the 19th century, nor the notion that character and plot work best in tandem, rather than in isolation."

Now, I don't remember much about the book so I have no idea whether or not the kid's argument is accurate. But he states it so clearly and seems so knowledgable that...hey, I was impressed.

I mean, it certainly beat that famous literary appraisal "That sucks" and was even a little more sophisticated than "I don't know why I didn't like it. Does there have to be a reason for everything?"

There usually is, whether we realize it or not.

Thanks to Big A little a for the link.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Mission for Litbloggers

Yes, linking to Confessions of a Bibliovore's January 17th post is shameless self-promotion. But it also illustrates what I think of as one of my missions as a litblogger.

We should be bringing older books to the attention of readers.

Review publications limit themselves to the newest releases. I can understand that. There are hundreds of thousands of books out there and these publications can't possibly give space to all of them. They can't even cover all the newest books, let alone the books piling up from years past. There's only so much time to read books and only so much ink to write about them.

General publications look for something "newsworthy" and when it comes to books, in their minds that means new. Or controversial. Or meeting some bizarre standard relating to human interest. A lot of good books will never be mentioned in your average newspaper or magazine.

But is the good book that is published this season going to be any less good next season when no one wants to talk about it? Or next year? Or eight years from now? The book doesn't change.

Bloggers can expand the window of opportunity for book promotion from a few months to...forever. We can bring older books to new readers. We can remind readers of books they were interested in but missed in all the pandemonium of new releases. We can expose them to books they would have never considered reading without us.

We're like every other reader. We're going to want to read what's new, too. But litbloggers read, period. We're writers, librarians, teachers, booksellers, and rabid readers. We read all kinds of things, and we can be talking about them in this forum to communicate our thoughts to others who might just be intrigued enough by them to pick up an older book they hadn't thought of before.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

There are Hundreds of Stories in the Book Jungle

Yesterday I wrote about Teach Me by R. A. Nelson. Teach Me was discussed as part of The Great Blog Experiment. Nadia Cornier, the person behind the experiment, wanted to see if bloggers blogging about a specific title could increase sales.

I'm having trouble telling if The Great Blog Experiment site saw any action after the end of December or what the results of the experiment were.

Anyway, Teach Me was published by The Penguin Group (My publisher, G. P. Putnam's Sons is part of The Penguin Group.) and was reviewed in at least a couple of the usual places. It also got a review at teenreads.com. It's had some blog attention and maybe other attention, too. That's just the stuff that was easy to find.

In my limited experience, that's normal press. Maybe better than normal press. I have no idea what kind of sales that normal press generated.

Let's consider another book now, Broken Beaks by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. I haven't read Broken Beaks, but it's publishing history interests me.

Nathaniel Lachenmeyer is a U.S. writer who published an adult book, The Outsider, in this country. With Random House, in case you didn't follow the link. He, himself, sold the Australian rights to The Outsider to Michelle Anderson Publishing. Agents or, as in my case, publishers usually sell foreign rights to books.

Once he was connected with Michelle Anderson Publishing, he noticed that they'd done some picture books with an Australian illustrator named Robert Ingpen. He decided to do a piciture book on themes related to The Outsider and submit it to Michelle Anderson Publishing with Ingpen in mind to illustrate.

Everything worked. Anderson accepted the book and Ingpen illustrated it. Foreign rights were sold to Korea and Brazil.

Then they start looking for an American publisher so they can sell American rights. Though they received complimentary comments from editors and publishers, this isn't a great time for the picture book market (I've mentioned that here before) and the subject matter (homelessness) wasn't considered an easy sell.

So, the Australian publisher decides to look for someone to distribute the book here, while it remained the publisher. It found a Canadian distributor to distribute an Australian book written by an American writer in the U.S.

Are you following this?

The Australian publisher doesn't have the means to easily contact U.S. reviewers from Australia. So reviewers may not know about the book in order to review it. The distributor is contacing booksellers, not reviewers. Therefore, booksellers may not have heard of the book through the usual review publications.

So while Broken Beaks' author has a history with good publishers, his book may not get the normal attention that R. A. Nelson's debut book received. And we don't even know what kinds of results "normal attention" gets a book.

This is why books that sell a lot of copies get so much attention from the press.
It's just so very difficult to sell books that people are stunned when it happens.

A February Update: Reviews for Broken Beaks have started making their way into general publications.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What Should a Blogger Do?

Last week I mentioned the litblog co-op, a group of literary weblogs that try to draw attention to "contemporary fiction, authors and presses that are struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace." A few days later, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators: New England's newsletter came with a notice about The Great Blog Experiment, in which agent Nadia Cornier (that's agent as in literary agent, not Jack Bauer-type agent) is encouraging bloggers and readers to promote a book (Teach Me by R. A. Nelson) in order to see if blogging can have an impact on sales.

I don't know how I feel about all this. Certainly bloggers pass info around through whatever community they are part of--in our case, kidlit, but there are also on-line communities for every kind of interest. Part of the point of blogging is to give a voice to everyone, to those who are outside traditional power structures who wouldn't normally be heard. Sometimes we're just giving a voice to ourselves. Sometimes we're giving voices to the people we're writing about. And I think we should be giving a voice to books and authors the mainstream press doesn't cover because what's the point in just repeating what can be read in a newspaper or magazine?

But if bloggers are uniting, aren't they creating another power structure that's going to speak with just one voice--or at least on a limited number of topics? The litblog co-op describes itself as "uniting the leading literary litblogs," suggesting a little elitism that's going to elbow out litblogs that aren't "leading." I know they're looking for power in support of a good cause. Many good books are ignored because there just aren't enough venues to promote them. But maybe creating a hierarchy on the democratic Internet is going to limit the venues, too.

"Word of mouth" promotion for books is real. But it's word of mouth, enthusiasm for a book that spreads because, well, individual readers were enthusiastic and spread the word. We're talking power to individual readers here, not organized ones.

Oh, jeez. I'm afraid I'm turning into some kind of anarchist.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Not Wild About Harry

Okay, I will not keep you in suspense any longer. The article I read in the November/December issue of Pages that set me off was "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" by Ellen Kanner. And it was about Harold Bloom, who gets an enormous amount of press for an academic and literary critic who has never made a movie or dated a starlet.

I am going to be up front with the information that I have never read anything by Bloom (though I may take a stab at How to Read and Why, since I've been reading How to Read a Book for six months now and would like to have something to look forward to when I finally finish it). I've only read about him. And I do wonder if the guy doesn't spout off the way he does just to get attention. If he does, it's working. I wrote about him twice back in 2003.

Nonetheless, whenever I see him quoted, all I can think is "Who died and left you boss?"

Kanner quotes him as saying "If you've read Shakespeare and Milton and so on, then you'll be able to think, but we are no longer a nation that reads...We read Harry Potter, if you call that reading, Stephen King, if you call that reading."

To the general public, Bloom is more well-known for hating Harry Potter and Stephen King than he is for anything else he's done.

Reading is an individual, personal, and highly democratic activity. I, for one, don't appreciate Professor High and Mighty telling me what I should and should not read. I don't even like Harry Potter. This crank makes me want to go out and reread the whole series.

"The deepest motive for reading has to be the quest for wisdom," he is quoted as having said in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?. I totally disagree. The motive for reading doesn't have to be anything. Personally, I think we read because we are all looking for a feeling of community, we want to feel connected to others, authors who share our world views or address our problems and interests in some way. Wisdom might come, but as a result of having lived through the experience of reading, not because it was spoonfed to us by the Book Police who make sure we're reading the right books.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Break From Vacation Talk

Though I am sure everyone is sitting on pins and needles to hear what I'm going to complain about (see end of yesterday's post), I've decided to put it off until Monday because I'm tired of talking about myself.

Not really.

If you scroll down to the January 13 The Doctor Is In post at Buzz, Balls & Hype, you can read about a writing problem I suffer from. (See, I am still talking about me.) I didn't read every word of this entry, but I should.

Fortunately, I was reminded of this year's Bloggies after the nominations closed, so I don't have to worry about humiliating myself by begging people to nominate me. After Friday, January 20th we can all see if anyone we know is up for an award.

Creative Non-What?

I wasn't going to mention the whole Million Little Pieces mess because what can I possibly have to say about this that someone hasn't already said? Particularly since I haven't read the book? And what does it have to do with kidlit?

However, I saw this article on memoirs and creative non-fiction, and all of a sudden I got interested. Because I've always wondered what creative non-fiction is and how you write it. I took a graduate-level essay course. I grilled a young relative who took an undergraduate personal essay course. I've never been able to get much in the way of answers.

You may have noticed that I am sometimes sensitive about being nit-picky, wanting things defined, etc. But, people! Look what happens when terms aren't clearly defined! Everything goes to pieces. A million of them.

(Thanks to ArtsJournal.com for the link.)

And now, for the first time in perhaps 5 or 6 months, I must make an effort to clean my desk. Yes, that means that sometime next week you'll probably be reading about what I find there.

Friday, January 13, 2006

My Favorite Pages

While on vacation I managed to read the two magazines I received for Christmas. (The giftgiver wasn't cheap--I asked for them in order to try them out.) My favorite of the two was Pages. I got the November/December issue, in which I read one fascinating article after another.

For instance, the article about The Lit Blog Co-Op, which is a group of lit-bloggers that bands together to help promote four books a year that they feel aren't getting enough attention, was thought provoking. The thought it provoked in me was, "Hey, there are more and more kidlit blogs being created all the time. Maybe some of us could get together and do something like this."

Then I remembered that I don't liked maybe 75 to 80 percent of what I read, so I decided that probably wasn't one of my better ideas.

Attention, Please by Jennifer Nelson involved kids with ADD/ADHD and reading. Kids with ADD/ADHD often have trouble learning to read. They mature like any other kid and are ready to learn about more sophisticated concepts, but they can't learn about them through reading the way other kids can. The author suggested that parents continue reading to these children so that they don't fall behind in learning concepts or vocabulary just because they can't read the words themselves.

I thought that article was so good that I'm planning to make copies for a couple of relatives studying education.

Another article I liked was about The Jungle Law by Victoria Vinton, a novel about Rudyard Kipling's life while he was living in Vermont. I'm not a particular Kipling fan, but I have always been interested in what the heck he was doing in Brattleboro, which I've driven past a few hundred times.

One last article in the magazine, ticked me off the way articles about its subject always tick me off. You'll have to read tomorrow's post to hear about it.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Escaping From Ember

So here's some more about my trip:

Since I can't read and drive at the same time, I decided to bring an audio version of a kids' book so I could multi-task. I chose The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau because I've heard about it on-line, and because I probably wouldn't have read it myself because I thought it was about a dystopian fantasy world. I've already read a couple of those in the last year, and I figure that's about as much as I can take for a while.

Well, I was right. The City of Ember is about one of those societies that's controlled and no one in it knows what end is up. I find those cultures very stagnant and noncreative. Come on. In a couple of hundred years no one thought of trying to create a flashlight or a match? The best form of communication they could come up with was hiring people to run from one end of the city to the other with messages? And accepting twelve-year-old main characters required a suspension of disbelief that I wasn't entirely willing to buy into.

I did think the book was well-written, though, and DuPrau does something interesting with point-of-view. I didn't notice it until toward the end of the book. (Remember, I was listening to it, not reading it.) The book was written in the third person with the point-of-view switching between the two main characters. Every time the point-of-view switched, the author backtracked a little bit so that we saw what had been happening recently with the other character. I'm very self-conscious about point-of-view problems, and I thought that was a neat device.

The book also involves a mystery of sorts and a puzzle that these two kids have to work out. As far as that aspect of the story is concerned, it was far, far superior to, say, Chasing Vermeer, which also involved two kids who had to work out a puzzle to solve a mystery.

Nonetheless, I wasn't crazy about the book, but I wasn't the only person in the car. After the first CD, I was willing to turn it off for a while because I didn't want to force the book on the other traveler. Not to worry. He was very taken with the story, and fed CDs into the player as fast as it would take them.

Now, he's an engineer and the City of Ember involves engineering problems--a generator that keeps failing and pipes that keep springing leaks. (Not my idea of compelling subject matter, but this guy ate it up.) He's so involved with the story that he's going to look for the audio version of the sequel, The People of Sparks, for a daytrip we're taking this weekend.

My fellow traveler had a terrific insight about this book. He said, "You know, this book didn't have to be about twelve-year-olds. The main characters could just as easily have been recent college graduates instead of just getting out of (what we would call) sixth grade and that would have made the story more believable."

He was right. The book could easily have worked as an adult novel, an adult movie script.

This raises a question for me: What is a children's book? Is it merely a book with child protagonists? Does there have to be something else that makes the book a children's book?

Really, I just had an incredibly terrific trip this past weekend.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I'm Baaaack

I've returned from a great short trip, and I'm full of all kinds of book thoughts that I feel compelled to share.

First off, I visited a number of bookstores while I was in Vermont this past weekend. And I mean I truly visited them because that's the kind of thing I do while I'm on vacation. I wasn't there to make appearances.

My first stop was the Briggs Carriage Book Store in Brandon. Let me give you a little background on Brandon and myself. I almost grew up there. I actually lived in Sudbury, which is maybe 9 or 10 minutes from Brandon, from third grade until after I graduated from college. But Sudbury was so tiny that Brandon was where Sudburyites went for groceries, library books, and to attend high school. In fact, for many years Sudbury didn't maintain any kind of schools and sent its offspring to Brandon's.

Up until six or seven years ago, I was up in Brandon 3 to 5 times a year because my mother was still living there. She had moved even closer to the town. So I felt I had a relationship with the place.

The Briggs Carriage Book Store opened about 9 years ago. It's an attractive shop, and I've always liked what I've seen of it.

Okay, so I go in there last Saturday, and my husband, as he always does, goes right to the children's department to see if they have any of my books. They do. Two of my books that are now out of print, as a matter of fact. How interesting, I thought. Then I noticed that I'd signed them. This would be lovely, except...I signed them the last time I was up there for my high school reunion, four and a half years ago!!!

Do you get it? The bookstore in my own almost hometown couldn't sell my signed books in four and a half years!!!

I've got to hand it to them, though. The store used to be located on the other side of town. Bless their hearts, when the owners relocated, they brought my books with them.

Well, why was I upset about this? Only because I was so attached to my perception of how sales should go for a hometown girl. That's all about ego. I can give that up.

Yeah. Sure, I can.

So, we continued up Rte. 7 to Charlotte, hoping to stop at Flying Pig, but it was closed. Believe it or not, I tried to go there once before a few years ago, and it was closed then, too.

It is a really tiny place.

A few days later we went into Burlington, where we stopped at two lovely used bookstores, Crow Bookshop and North Country Books. (I can't believe that second place doesn't have a website.) I have a family member who loves used bookstores so I've been in more than a few, but I'm not a big fan because...well...a lot of them are, uh, kind of crowded...dusty...mildewy. But both these places were very attractive. They definitely looked as if their buyers were discerning, not bringing just anything into the shops.

We then went across the street to...Borders!...because I had a gift card I wanted to use on vacation. This time I went to the children's department to see if they had any of my books. Sure enough, they had two copies of The Hero of Ticonderoga. For the second time in my life I offered to sign stock, and for the second time the offer was accepted.

Finally, I went to Bear Pond Books in Stowe. They had two copies of Hero at the front of the store. Lo and behold, they seemed happy to have me sign them, too.

So, really, I am over that first unhappy experience with the unsold books in my hometown.

And did I spend all my time in bookstores stalking myself? No, I bought my first Terry Pratchett novel. After discussing my first foray in Discworld with another shopper in the sci-fi section at Borders, I settled upon The Color of Magic.

I also discovered Sabra Field at a gallery in Burlington and picked up a package of her notecards (utilitarian art) at Bear Pond Books.

Oh, I have so much more to talk about. But another day.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Author I've Never Heard of Starts Column I'm Going to Read

Louise Doughty, who I'm sure is a very fine writer even though I only heard of her two or three minutes ago, is starting a column called Write a Novel in a Year. She estimates it takes three years to write a novel and that the material her readers will have after following her advice for a year will be just the beginning.

Hey, I'm going to read it. I hope it's not a daily column.

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for the link.

By the way, Blog of a Bookslut is a great blog. I've never actually used the term "Bookslut" in this blog, because this blog is part of my website which is directed to readers of all ages. In the unlikely event that kids read this blog, I felt I should protect them from the word "slut." I'm not protecting anybody anymore! Oh, wait. Yes, I am. Because I'm not linking to Blog of a Bookslut. The content there is mature, and in the unlikely event that kids read this blog, they'll just have to find Bookslut on their own.

A Holiday I'd Like To Celebrate

Years back when I was a Sunday school teacher, I finally learned what Epiphany is. In the Christian calendar it's the observance of the day the Three Wise Men or Three Kings found the Christ child. In Hispanic cultures it's known as Three Kings' Day and is celebrated to a greater extent than in other parts of the world.

In my neighborhood it isn't celebrated at all. I really got into it for a while, though. One year when we were celebrating a particularly late Christmas get together with family members, I had an Epiphany tea complete with Wise Men candles and a Three King Bread. I wasn't watching the candles, they melted all over my Christmas table cloth, and burned a hole in it.

Great times, great times.

Anyway, when I saw Hurray for Three Kings' Day by Lori Marie Carlson at my local library, I had to snatch it up. I definitely was left feeling that I was right all those years ago. This is a holiday I could really enjoy.

I'm Traveling

I'm leaving tomorrow for five days. This, of course, means that I'll be able to read in the car. I should have much to report on my return.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

It Wouldn't Take Much For Me To Be Overwhelmed

My fellow kidlit bloggers are full of news about more kidlit blogs and websites. Big A little a directed me to the Planet Esme Reading Room (which I don't totally understand)and I also discovered Planet Esme. From there I found Jim Trelease's website. Jim Trelease was speaking and writing about children and reading a good two decades ago.

As I've whined about before and will probably whine about again, there is now just so much about kidlit on the web. I'm thinking about dropping a couple of blogs that aren't updated very frequently from my list of daily reads. When that happens, I can add another.

"Our Dominant Culture Is Visual, Not Literary..."

In a slide-show essay on how Pixar's animated films became the best literature around, Lee Siegel Slate's art critic says that sophisticated animated films are filling a literary void. Siegel claims American novelists often write contrived stories with cartoon-like characters. Pixar's cartoon characters have more depth.

Siegel is talking about adult fiction, not kidlit. He's also talking about writers I haven't read so I can't agree or disagree with his argument. Nonetheless, as a serious reader who has many family members who have rejected the activity, I found the essay thought provoking. Are young people turning to visual "literature" because of some kind of failing in the written kind? Maybe TV isn't the bad guy in our culture's turn away from reading. Maybe it's us. Maybe we're not creating a written word that's compelling enough to keep readers.

And if you start thinking of film, which does have story lines, characters, settings, themes, etc., as a sort of literature, is the moving away from the written word to the "visual word" are a major tragedy? Maybe we're just talking about evolution.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I Almost Made It

Tomorrow night is Twelfth Night, if I've counted correctly, so I almost made it through Advent and the Christmas season without mentioning a Christmas book. However, on New Year's Day the family got into a discussion of the story line for The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. After I checked at the library today, I discovered that the others at the table were right, and I was totally wrong in my recollection of the book. Why am I bothering to blog about my own inept memory?

Because I was recalling a totally different book, one I love and want to direct some attention to.

Santa Calls by William Joyce is not your traditional Christmas tale in which a passive child protagonist experiences the North Pole or Santa or the mysterious spirit of Christmas through the intervention of adult characters. No way, Jose. Santa Calls is a Tom Swift type adventure in which the action is initiated by a child (though we don't know that right away) and undertaken by children. Yes, Santa and his very nonstereotypical assistants are there watching over everyone. But it's a kid who comes up with the candy bomb! The kids resolve the action. The story is about the kids, not the adults.

That's what kids' books are supposed to be, by the way.

Santa Calls doesn't trot out that tired old Christmas theme about childhood being a magical time that is lost when the child grows up, either. Instead, Joyce suggests that real relationships and real happiness in this moment right now are gifts, too.

Why am I now able to recall so much about Santa Calls when just a few days ago I had it confused with The Polar Express? Because while I had to go to the library to refresh my memory on The Polar Express, I was able to just pull my copy of Santa Calls off my bookshelf. Rereading it on the Eleventh Day of Christmas was a real treat.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I Still Don't Have a Chance of Getting My Own Stamp

According to Book Kitten, we can soon buy Favorite Children's Book Animal Stamps. I think Curious George should get his own plate block with stamps of him in different poses.

But I Do Have a Chance of Going to This Conference

I just received a brochure for the Perspectives in Children's Literature conference at the University of Massachusetts. If I ever get my new three calendar system going so I can figure out what I'm doing in the next few months, I'll check to see if I can go to this thing.

Monday, January 02, 2006

How I Spent New Year's Day

We did another Christmas yesterday. This involved driving to a relative's home in another state. I was able to hole up in the back seat and read a big chunk of Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers by Louise Rennison. Marvie, fab, fab!

As I started reading this book, I felt the same way I felt as I started reading the last Georgia Nicholson book. I thought that maybe Georgia's confessions and adventures had gone on a little too long and ol' Louise was going a little over the toposity in the weirdie vocabulariosity. But, after a while, I was sucked right into Georgia's world again.

I was reminded of reading Billy Shakespeare when I was in high school. I'd start reading a new play and think "Now, is this written in French or Russian?" and "What the heck is this about?" Then after a few pages, I'd get the hang of the language and could follow it just fine--so long as the info in the first few pages wasn't necessary to the play because it was pretty much lost to me.

That's how I've felt reading the last couple of Georgia Nicholson books. It takes a while to get into Georgia's mindset, but once I do, I enjoy being there very much. (Much more than I ever enjoyed a Shakespearean play, to be honest.)

I don't know if I could stand Georgia in the flesh, though. She makes me most grateful I didn't have daughters.

More Thoughts on How I Live Now

Chris Barton got in touch with me after my last posting on how i live now. To refresh everyone's memory, I liked the book very much, but felt that a relationship that young readers are said to find objectionable was unnecessary. Chris said that he was aware of the relationship before reading the book (same here) and found it a reason to dislike the main character, Daisy, who he loathed in the early chapters, anyway.

"But," Chris said, "I came around to liking her quite a bit, and I don't know that her transformation would have happened without the relationship... Entering that
relationship was the selfish, unconscionable act of a highly messed-up person...However, I bought the notion that during a war, in a war zone, the usual rules of civilization don't apply, and that the relationship was no less appropriate
than war itself."

Chris also thinks that Daisy's finding the resources to save herself and a young cousin came about because Daisy had already had this intense relationship with someone else. The deadened Daisy of the opening pages of the novel couldn't have done it.

I can't remember whether the relationship occurs before or after the war started so I can't fully buy into the "rules of civilization don't apply" argument. Certainly I agree that what was going on during the war chapters was far worse than what went on between Daisy and...well, I don't want to ruin the story for anyone.

In fact, as I'm writing this I'm wondering if that's the point. The "shocking" relationship occurs in the early part of the book and then is pretty much over. What shocked us is pretty much blown away by unrelated shocking things that happen later.

On the other hand, I'm told that people outside the U.S. don't finding the "shocking" relationship all that shocking. For them I guess it's just a romantic interlude that's sadly broken off by war.

Which leaves me wondering now, which is better? To be shocked or not to be shocked? Right now I'm thinking I might prefer the shock to just another little war romance.