Monday, July 30, 2007

Searching For Mysteries

I picked up a couple of mysteries for middle-grade readers about a month ago. One of them, Hannah West in the Belltown Towers by Linda Johns got a little buzz when it was published because the main character is homeless.

Well, that's true. But she's homeless in a very high-class way. She's the daughter of a single mom who loses her job and can't find a comparable one. Mom can't keep their home on her new income as a part-time waitress/freelance writer, so she hooks into her network of well-to-do friends and she and Hannah become housesitters. In The Belltown Towers they have a six-week stint in a classy highrise. This is the beginning of a series and, presumably, Hannah will have an adventure each time she moves.

I actually think this is a promising premise--a young person who has to keep moving and encountering new people. But the circumstances around the homelessness are not very well-developed here. Hannah's living situation is very quickly sketched, and the problems someone without a permanent address must face are only touched on. What's more, Hannah's encounters are going to involve mysteries.The mystery in Belltown Towers is very weak, and the bad guy is extremely obvious. Though I did have trouble at the end figuring out why the bad guy was stealing what she was stealing. But I have to admit that by that point I was only skimming.

However, I wasn't even able to get past the eighth page of the second middle-grade mystery I tried reading. It was also the first in a series.

Writers of mystery serials for kids face a major problem. They are writing about amateur detectives, so to some degree or another their plots are going to be forced and unnatural. Even adult amateur detectives require some suspension of disbelief on a reader's part, and with kid amateurs, the need to suspend is far greater.

I think this is why during the twentieth century, when everyone became interested in specialization and professionalism, anyway, the police procedural became so popular. We can believe a cop is going to run into any number of murderers and worse. But while your average person on the street might stumble into one mysterious situation in a lifetime, it's hard to swallow him or her doing it over and over again. And, as I said, with a child it's even harder to come up with something believable that can happen again and again.

The kid sleuths can't drive to get places. What adult is going to take a child detective seriously? How do these kids get their information? Since they are children, how much background knowledge do they have about anything in order to have a jumping off point for their investigations?

We're talking some big obstacles here.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

What's Happening To Me?

I gave up reading The New York Times Book Review several years ago when a family member gave up reading The Sunday New York Times and passing the Book Review on to me. I wasn't too cheap to buy the paper. Honestly. But the odds of my being able to read two Sunday newspapers were very, very low. I would fall months behind just reading the Book Review. In fact, I bought the Sunday Times, myself, back in May and just found the half-read Book Review in my laundry room. I can't begin to guess what it was doing there. Besides not being read, of course.

The end result of my not reading the Book Review is that I no longer have a very good grasp of what is going on in adult fiction. I find myself standing in front of the new fiction shelves at libraries going What do I do? What do I do? So many books. Which ones should I take off the shelves and look at?

This, people, is why we need book reviews--so that people like myself won't be overwhelmed in libraries and bookstores.

Anyway, I was in I'm a Reading Fool's library yesterday freaking out in front of its sizable new fiction section when I decided to go look at the new nonfiction. I went right to the essay shelf and thought, Why, that looks good and that looks good and that looks good. I took a number of things off the shelf and gave them the once over.

And what did I find but Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small, which I actually knew about because of a post at Chasing Ray.

How weird is that?

So even though I now have a stack of books next to my bed that is nearly a foot high, I read one of Fadiman's essays last night. I was afraid The Unfuzzy Lamb was going to be about nature or agriculture because the first essay in the collection appeared to be about collecting butterfies, which led me to skip it. But, no, The Unfuzzy Lamb is about Charles Lamb.

Now, I actually have a modest interest in Lamb. He was one of the more accessible writers in my Romantic Period class as an undergraduate. (Though I found myself strangely attracted to Thomas DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, too.) I have a vague recollection of beginning some kind of contemporary version of Lamb's Dream Children many years ago. God only knows what happened to that.

Anyway, Fadiman's essay on Lamb was very readable and interesting. But what I kept thinking as I read it was, Where do you publish an essay on Charles Lamb? And who the Hell is going to read it? Besides me, of course. It turns out Fadiman published her Lamb essay in The American Scholar, not a publication that I have a lot of familiarity with. Or, to be honest, had even heard of before last night. It may publish essays about Lamb all the time, and I'd never know.

I've read Fadiman's Ex Libris, though I can't say it made much of an impression on me. I know it is somewhere in this house, and I can even pinpoint the room. Beyond that, it will probably be a major effort to find it. But it might be worth taking another look.

Anyway, my post title is What's Happening To Me? so I should get around to saying something about that. What I'll say is I went into a library, was flummoxed in front of the fiction and happy in front of the essays. That's a shift, people. I'm shifting. That's what's happening to me.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Don't Kids Say The Darndest Things?

Since I've been reading and blogging about books for younger readers this summer, I've been interested in all the Internet responses to Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?.

I've only read a couple of the Junie B. books, and one of them actually made a good impression on me. My own complaint about them is not Junie's poor grasp of grammar but that her poor grasp of grammar makes her sound like an adult's idea of how little kids speak. The humor in the books I read seemed to be around the exasperating things children say and do. Isn't that Junie B. a little dickens?

Back in 2005, though, I thought Junie B. was "so much better than almost anyone else out there" for that age group. I'm still not finding a lot of good stuff out there for younger readers. So while I'd prefer not to read her, myself, I certainly don't object to anyone else doing so.

Well, Yes, A Lot Of Them Were Depressing

I read many of the essays in The Best American Essays 2006 and liked what I read. Lauren Slater was the guest editor who had the task of making the final cut from around one hundred essays that had been screened for her. She admits she was dwelling on death a bit, and a lot of the essays at least flirted with that subject. One of my favorites, Grammar Lessons by Michele Morano, deals with a depressing romance, which isn't death but still a downer. (The author now has a book of essays out called Grammar Lessons.)

Oddly enough, I happen to own a copy of The Best American Essays of 1996, which I never read much of because I didn't care for it. I'm going to take another look. Perhaps my tastes have matured in the last ten years. Or at least changed.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

M.T. Anderson Month, Part II

As a result of the Adbooks discussion of M. T. Anderson this month, I finally read The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. I am going to have to struggle to control myself, because I'm afraid I'm going to start gushing. The book, itself, is pretty astonishing.

Octavian Nothing is the son of an African princess who is being educated by a group of American Enlightenment philosophers who might be described as having gone slightly round the bend. Octavian and his mother live among them, and he is being given a classical education. As a child, he is totally unaware that he is part of an Enlightenment research project. He is totally unaware that he is, in fact, a slave.

But he becomes enlightened on those points.

The book is written in the style of an eighteenth century collection of memoirs and letters. Three portions of the book are told in Octavian's first person voice, from his "Manuscript Testimony." He appears to be recalling his childhood and adolescence from an adult (though not aged) viewpoint. (I was under the impression that this was the mark of an adult book rather than YA, but that's just a trivial point.) One part is told from the viewpoint of a young New Hampshire soldier through his letters to his sister. (Though this young man is charming and I did enjoy this portion of the book, I wonder whether or not it was necessary to switch points of view. Once again, this is a trivial point.)

The writing style is demanding, but the character is so engaging and the story so compelling that I got used to it. Fast. In fact, I read books of this type as a teenager because I was a teenager so very long ago that there weren't a lot of YA books around. So I did dip into older books. It doesn't seem alien to me for teenagers to be reading something this outside their world. I'm sure that many are reading things just as demanding in their English classes, especially if they're doing Advanced Placement.

Perhaps I took to the book because I've done some research on the period and am still psyched about the Enlightenment and smallpox, for instance. Octavian Nothing makes clear that the American Revolution was a revolution that wasn't for everybody. It certainly wasn't for the American slaves, but it also wasn't for many small farmers living in wilderness areas. The Revolutionary Generation was very much into the status quo. They just wanted their status quo to be American, not British.

Excuse me for getting all rebellious, but as I've said before, I suspect I had ancestors running through the streets of Paris in the 1790s screaming "Off with their heads" in some kind of farm French. (Coupez les tetes?)

Anyway, loved this book. It's described as Volume 1, and Anderson is working on a sequel. Just before reading it I was thinking about the whole series/serial thing that is so popular now, and wondering if it appeared anywhere but in fantasy. Well, here we have at least a two-part series in a historical novel. We'll have to see how far it goes. Though, really, in a way the ending to the first volume is satisfying.

I hope my local bookstore has an Octavian party when the next book comes out. I'd go.

If you read the book and are curious about pox parties, read more. Thanks to Adbooks for the link. Also, M.T. Anderson was interviewed on NPR back in January. Listen for the interviewer's question about whether teen readers will be enlightened or frightened by the book. I thought that question suggested a lack of knowledge of YA, myself.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

M. T. Anderson Month, Part I

The Adbooks listserv is discussing M.T. Anderson this month, which is how I came to discover his lovely picture book, Me, All Alone, at the End of the World (illustrated by Kevin Hawkes). Me, All Alone is beautiful looking and elegant sounding, but probably falls into that category that I think of as picture books for adults.

On a superficial level, there's a lot of text in this picture book, and some lengthy sentences. "I liked to lie cozy near the brass-bellied stove, and hear the rain and the thunder fall, and the chuckling beasts with long tails or five legs or big kissing mouths squirm over the edge to go snapping at lightning." That's quite a mouthful for a preschooler or early reader, who might also want to know what "chuckling beasts?" Even a short sentence like "I ate hardtack and gristle" includes some vocabulary that the average kid probably isn't familiar with.

On a less superficial level, while I liked the book very much, I'm an adult that didn't quite get it. I thought it was kind of an anti-development story about an idyllic spot that became a tourist attraction. Sort of like Niagara Falls. It was only through the listserv discussion and after reading reviews that I realized that a more accurate reading relates to the attractions of solitude versus the attractions of, say, the developed Niagara Falls.

I liked that, once I got it. While I have no problem accepting that there are probably grade schoolers out there who would get this book faster than I did, I'd still suggest reading it with children to help them out.

Or just read it yourself.

A Great Interview You May Have Missed

I did. I didn't know who Alan Gratz was back in January, so I skipped this truly excellent interview with him at The Edge of the Forest. He had lots of interesting things to say about writing process and blogging. Believe me, I couldn't have come up with half that stuff after publishing my first book.

The interview was both inspiring and made me feel inadequate at the same time.

By the way, Gratz talks about how only friends and relatives were reading his blog in the past. My relatives and carbon-based friends are the people who don't read mine.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Kind Word For Editors

Somewhere this summer I saw a blog post about writers' reactions to editorial comments. (I thought it was at A Fuse #8 Production, but I can't find it now so I may be wrong.) It was an amusing account of over-the-top editorial responses.

Funny though it was, I felt, gee, should I put in a good word for editors? Nah, I guess not.

Fortunately, Gary Kamiya decided to do it with Let Us Now Praise Unsung Editors at Salon.

It's very difficult to describe the editor/author relationship. It can be very intense, "an intimate and gratifying experience," as Kamiya says in his article. I think many nonwriters assume it is adversarial. I once read an interview with a self-published writer who said she went the self-publishing route because she didn't want anyone changing her writing. Personally, I would never want to work without an editor.

Once I started publishing books, I worked with the same editor for eight or nine years. At one point, I was considering donating my "papers" (meaning the foot or two of drafts that accumulate for each of my books) to a library. The main reason for doing so, would be to get all that crap out of my house. But to do so would mean that I was deciding to donate Kathy's work, too--her sticky notes, her pages of suggestions, her letters. It didn't seem right to expose her to strangers like that. I wouldn't do that to a family member, and I wouldn't do it to my editor.

When I heard she was leaving Putnam, I didn't sleep for a couple of nights. What did it all mean? What should I do? Losing your editor is serious. Serious. I may have mentioned this when it happened a couple of years ago. I apologize if I'm repeating myself. But though I'm happy with my new editor, I still haven't gotten over the shock of losing the old one. That's how big a deal an editor is.

So, yeah, I like to hear a kind word for editors.

Monday, July 23, 2007

My Potter Weekend

My theory that everyone would be home this weekend reading the latest Harry Potter was disproved by the time we reached the Massachusetts Turnpike. I followed a family into the first rest area and heard the son telling his father that he had read over 400 pages of 700 some odd. Of course, he was talking about Harry P. His mom told me they'd bought the book at 12:01 that morning. Our next coffee stop was off the highway. A woman was sitting out in front of a store with the book. After dinner that night, I saw a copy of the new book at the checkout counter at a giftshop. The young woman reading it also worked at a library and had been part of a reading party that had begun at midnight and gone on until 7 Saturday morning.

I belong to The Association of Booksellers for Children listserv and have been reading accounts of some incredible bookstore events here in New England. Of course, the closest store event I heard of before I left town was at a Stop & Shop.

So it sounds as if it was a great weekend for you Potterites. I'm curious now to see if the world shifts in some way now that there are no more books to wait for.

An Addition: Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld have some footage of the scene in New York City on Potter release night at Writer in Residence/Inside A Dog. Which isn't my Potter Weekend, of course, but interesting (though dark) nonetheless. Because I find that sometimes things that aren't related to me are interesting. Who knew?

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Positive Potter Post

It really wears a woman down to have written nearly 40,000 words on a book and realize she's going to have to do some revising before she moves on. The Durand Cousins came to a screeching halt over a week ago, and while I have some work in mind for it, I haven't been able bring myself to do much beyond opening a new file and starting a new spreadsheet.

I'm going to have to go away for a few days to get over this.

Actually, the trip was already planned. Serendipitously, as it turns out, since I'm feeling frazzled and this is Harry Potter Weekend and probably a good time to travel. It's probably a good time to go to the movies and the mall, too. Millions of people are going to be indoors reading.

In honor of the event, I'm going to say something good about Harry. Okay. Here goes.

A couple of weeks ago, a bookseller at one of my listservs told a story about a woman who came into his store looking for a book for her 6- or 7-year-old grandchild. When he brought her a book appropriate for that age, the woman said, oh, no, that wouldn't do. Too many pictures. Her grandchild was reading Harry Potter. By herself. She needed something like that. And thus this child was being hurried out of the early reading experience. It wasn't a real positive story.

Here's the thing, though. Adults were hurrying kids out of the early reading experience long before Harry Potter was even a gleam in J.K. Rowling's eye. Back when the Gauthier boys were little darlings, it wasn't uncommon for the mothers of their classmates to talk about their second grade child who was reading Jurassic Park or to explain that their gifted one (meoooow) didn't read children's books. I knew one kid back then who started reading Star Trek novels when he was in second grade. It was cool to have a fifth or sixth grade child who read John Grisham.

I have no problem with any of those books or authors. And I am aware that children are supposed to grow up and into adult books. But, as I keep saying, I believe very strongly that we all read looking for communion or connection with others, particularly with others like ourselves. When young children are hurried out of children's books, they miss out on reading about people their age who face experiences they, themselves, face, in order to read adult books about grown-ups who face experiences the child reader won't be encountering for years. (Or maybe ever in the case of Star Trek novels.) I'm not suggesting kids should never read an adult book. I just think kids' books are important for kids. It's good for them to read them.

Which brings us to Harry P. Because adults read Harry Potter, because adults like him and approve of him, they think it's just fine for their kids and grandkids to read him and other kids' books like his.

To make a long story short (yeah, I know, it's too late for that), Harry Potter has made it okay for kids to read kids' books.

And now I must go pack for my trip. Happy reading, everybody.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Are Reading Age Levels Like Women's Dress Sizes?

HarperCollins describes Otto Undercover Born to Drive as being for ages 7 to 11. The cover of the far more sophisticated Shredderman Secret Identity says its reading level is 3.1, meaning, I'm guessing kids around 7 to 8 years old. And the lovely Ivy and Bean is supposed to be for ages 6 to 10.

Assigning age and grade levels is an imprecise science. You're going to find some wide variation in materials directed toward the same pool of kids.

Shredderman Secret Identity by Wendelin Van Draanen is a better quality book for younger readers than some of the others I've sampled this summer. Shredderman is the secret identity taken on by geeky Nolan Byrd in his campaign against bully Bubba Bixby. One could argue that we're dealing with a number of stereotypical characters here--the nerd, the bully, the hippy teacher. Or are they archetypes? I'll have to do some study on that subject. Kids, who haven't read as much as I have and may not yet be aware of stereotypes, probably won't care one way or the other. The bully really is unpleasant and Nolan really does try to do something about him in a real story.

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows is a charming and witty tale about two kids meeting. Is this a stereotypical situation or archetypical? Again, I must think about this. But, either way, Ivy and Bean is about two kids who are perfect for each other even though they, themselves, have to be convinced.

Both Shredderman Secret Identity and Ivy and Bean are the first books in series.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I've Always Wondered About The Dursleys

I wasn't going to do any Potter Posts until Friday because there are quite enough of them out here in the blogosphere, and the world doesn't need any more from me. But Chris Bohjalian's alternate Harry Potter ending in The Boston Globe was so marvelous, I couldn't ignore it. Some of the other authors didn't seem to take the assignment as seriously, and Bohjalian dealt with a portion of the book that has always bothered me, the Dursleys.

The Dursleys have always seemed like cartoon characters, and Harry's human nature has never been addressed from the human side, only in terms of his being a mixed blood as far as the wizards are concerned. In all the frenzy over whom Rowling is going to off, no one has considered whether or not she might do something more with the Dursleys in this last book.

Now that would be interesting.

Oh! Oh! If Rowling does another book in the Potterverse, it could be about Dudley seeking the cousin he'd done badly by when they were children! He could be seeking redemption.

Unless...Dudley is one of the characters who buys the farm in this book. It could happen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lemonade Mouth Continues To Make Its Way Across America

Mark Peter Hughes is continuing his roadtrip across America. If his blog is to be believed, he knows people everywhere. Right now he appears to be partying his way into the western sunset.

His NPR commentaries about his roadtrip, however, were cancelled by the network. The producer involved was going on leave for a month. Really, I would have enjoyed listening to those.

On the other hand, his book Lemonade Mouth was included in Colleen Mondor's July column at Bookslut.

You'd think from the amount of space I'm giving Hughes' trip at this blog that I absolutely loved his book. I've never even read it. I just love what he's doing this summer.

Not that I'd consider doing it, myself. I'm somewhat anti-social. Something very ugly would happen if I stayed on the road as long as he has. And he isn't even done yet. But I'm perfectly happy to read about someone else doing it.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Now This Is A Historical Novel

According to legend, I had an ancestor of some sort who played professional ice hockey back in Canuckistan. He died young, however, under mysterious circumstances, and we Gauthiers learned our lesson. To my knowledge, no one in my family has been involved with a team sport past the kiddie leagues since that time. We had two competitive high school wrestlers and three martial arts students, two of whom made black belt level, suggesting that while we're not team players, we're very scrappy. But I don't have many relatives who even watch sports on TV, and if anyone knows what the heck the Super Bowl is about it's because he or she married into the family.

My point is that I can't help my lack of interest in baseball. I totally don't understand the romance of the game or why it has cult status. Putting the word "shortstop" in the title of a book is not going to be a draw for me. The word "samurai," on the other hand, might pique my interest.

And thus I recently finished reading the really fine historical novel Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz. I knew I wasn't going to be killing time reading a cookie cutter teen novel after I finished the first chapter, in which the main character's uncle commits ritual suicide and his father indicates that he'll be following him sometime soon.

Samurai Shortstop is a historical novel that is as strong on novel as it is on history. Gratz has a good story and well-developed characters to go along with his research. To me, this is what a historical novel should be.

One of the things that I think makes the book so good is that it deals with culture clash. According to the Author's Notes at the end of the book, Japan didn't open up to Western culture until the 1850's. By 1890, the time in which Samurai Shortstop takes place, the old Japanese ways were being displaced by all things western. Among those things was baseball.

Will young American readers get the zenny aspects of this book and "the way of the warrior?" Or will they find old Japanese culture too remote to be of interest to them? I don't think so because a great deal of what's going on in Samurai Shortstop deals with school life. Even though we're talking about a boarding school with a code of behavior unheard of in our time, it's still school. I also think young people understand the attraction of the new, and the young people in Samurai Shortstop are seriously attracted to the new sport of baseball.

At the same time, though, there is no doubt that these young people are from another time.

By the way, did any other readers catch the references to the original Iron Chef? In a chapter in which the Ichiko students have to start running their dining room's kitchen themselves, one character, while talking about miso soup (an Iron Chef staple), says, "If memory serves--" Every episode of Iron Chef opens with the Chairman using that phrase. Later, another character says, "Allez cuisine!" Again, a favorite expression of the Chairman's.

The Author's Notes I mentioned before are excellent, and Gratz includes a list of sources.

How Weird Is This?

Last night I read Sam Pickering's essay, George, in The Best American Essays 2006. This morning, I skimmed an interview with Anne Fadiman that I heard about through Chasing Ray. In the interview, Fadiman discusses "familiar essays."

My first thought was, Dear God, I just can't keep up. "Familiar essays?" Fadiman describes them as being a subset of the personal essay. " is about the author, so it is a subset of the personal essay, but it is also about a subject." Hmmm. I thought the personal essay was about something related to the author that had universal significance. Wouldn't that "something related to the author" be "a subject?" Do we really need two terms?

Then I started thinking about Pickering's essay, George. Wouldn't that be called a familiar essay?

The thing is, though, Pickering was the teacher for the only graduate course I've ever attended, and I don't recall him using the term "familiar essay." Unless, of course, he used it during the first two or three class sessions when I had trouble understanding him because he speaks with a heavy southern accent.

So, anyway, I started hunting for George on-line because it was originally published in a journal and journals sometimes post content on-line. I didn't find it, but I did find Sam Pickering's curriculum vitae, and on it he divides his writings under various categories. Lo and behold, one of them is "Familiar Essays." And toward the end of the nearly seven pages of titles, you'll find George.

How bizarre is that? I've never heard of the term "familiar essay" until this morning, at which point I realize I'd just read one last night.

I'm thinking of writing a familiar essay about having my ceilings painted.

By the way, BDT is very fond of Pickering's book, Letters to a Teacher.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Weekend Full Of Literary Moments

I've just finished a stimulating weekend that began with a trip to the movies Friday night where I saw the preview for Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Personally, I thought the book had some moments but was overall kind of ho-hum. But I thought the trailer looked good. I might give the movie a shot.

Then Saturday morning a horde of Gauthiers went into New York to visit the Paley Center for Media. On my way into the city, while separated from my party (which is the only way to travel, is it not?), I read a chunk of Rear View, a collection of really fine short stories by Pete Duval. I wouldn't mention this, because the stories, many of which are about working class French Canadians in the U.S., are most definitely not kids' stories or YA stories or even of much interest to that mystery group of college aged people. But I met Duval at a function at which we were both speakers, he's a fellow Connecticut resident and, as I said, the book, so far, is really good. You can sample one of the lighter stories, Fun With Mammals.

Now, while I was using up my hour in the library of the Paley Center, I stumbled upon an episode of Wishbone that deals with The Monkey King who figures in American Born Chinese. By the way, Wishbone is a lot better when viewed with a child rather than a cranky adult family member, as I was doing on Saturday.

On the way home, I spent some time on the train with BDT, my young family member who teaches elementary school. He had recently read The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau and had some interesting observations. The book reminded him very much of The Giver by Lois Lowry. Both books involve a futuristic society in which jobs are assigned to the young. Both involve a young character (or two, in the case of Ember) escaping that society with the ending left up in the air as to what happens to them after they leave.

I hadn't made the connection, myself, but once BDT pointed it out, not only did I agree with him but realized the futuristic society with assigned jobs is a common scifi set-up.

BDT had one more interesting observation about Ember. He felt that the jobs assigned to the young main characters followed traditional gender stereotypes. The boy was assigned work that involved maintaining and repairing machinery, and the girl was assigned a job in communication (a messenger), something women are considered to be better at then men. I don't know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing or a thing at all, but it does make you think.

After getting home, I stayed up until twenty after twelve this morning finishing a book I'll save for another post.

And, finally, while walking this morning, I may have worked out a problem that had pretty much stopped work on The Durand Cousins last week.

Quite a decent weekend.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Books To Dreams Receives Well Deserved Attention

My own favorite literacy program Books To Dreams was profiled recently as part of the Everyday Heroes segment on Connecticut TV station WFSB. Books to Dreams distributes books to children in homeless shelters and to over 130 organizations that provide services to children in need. Some of my Cybils books found homes through Books to Dreams, and I've got another stack sitting on my desk just waiting for me to package them up and mail them off.

If you're a Connecticut resident (or any other resident) interested in making a book donation, keep in mind that they are looking for new or like new books. From the organization's website:

"We would like to let you know that quality is more important than quantity regarding donated books at this time. When a child in need receives a NEW book, that child feels special. When a child in need receives a NEW book, that child understands that reading and books must be important. Most of the time, these children receive used, old, discarded and sometimes broken things."

Some of these kids may not have had many opportunities to read, and their interest in reading may not be that great. Owning a new book could be the first step toward drawing them into the reading experience and making a difference in their lives.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sexual Politics For The Very Young

Last Saturday I happened to read two books for younger kids that dealt with sex role stereotyping. Both could be said to deal with cliched situations. One just did it much better than the other.

The first book was part of the Black Lagoon Adventures I mentioned earlier this week. Like the other Black Lagoon book I read, it has very little plot. The book is primarily a list of jokes.

In The Class Election From The Black Lagoon Hubie,the male main character, is running against Doris for president of their class. Hubie is extremely concerned about the consequences of losing to a girl. He goes on for three pages about letting down every boy in the school, sounding very much like a mid-twentieth century sitcom. A joke from the '70s about long-suffering men sounds very adult:

"We shake hands and she goes first. She says that she's for women's rights and total equality. I ask her why she gets to go first.

"'Because I'm a girl, of course,' she sneers."

Will a child even get that?

Hubie manages to win, though I don't know how since Doris had clearly bought the election. Hubie says of her, "I want her in my cabinet, or even better--I'll make her my first lady."

I was quite horrified by that suggestion, though after a few days of thinking about it, I'm willing to concede that perhaps it was supposed to be a sign of romance blooming between the two characters. Nonetheless, while I know that children go through a stage when they prefer the company of their own kind, things have deteriorated at the elementary school level since I was a room mom if this book reflects reality.

Rufus the Scrub Does Not Wear A Tutu by Jamie McEwan also deals with a cliched situation, that of the male athlete who chooses to try an activity not traditionally associated with men. What Rufus has going for it is a real story, even if it is one that will be familiar to adult readers, and the recognition that its audience is living in the twenty-first century.

Thus when the coach gives Rufus a hard time for leaving football practice early to go to the ballet class he's attending to help with his clumsiness, Coach's main gripe is that the kid isn't putting football first in his life and not that he's behaving in an effeminate manner. Rufus's own friends don't want him to quit ballet. Ballet isn't as wimpy as quitting it because some of the players give him a hard time. And Rufus has a logical reason for liking the ballet class--the younger, smaller girls he takes it with like having the older, bigger boy there so he can lift them. It makes sense that that would appeal to Rufus's self-esteem.

I thought there were a few too many similar, undeveloped characters in Rufus, and evidently it's being marketed as a middle-grade book, though it seemed much younger to me. Still, it's a complete story that deals with gender issues that young kids actually face--namely, what are boys supposed to do and what are girls supposed to do and are we all just stuck with that situation?

The answer in Rufus the Scrub Does Not Wear A Tutu is no.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Is It Worse To Be Obscene Or Profane?

Or should I say, Is it better to be obscene or profane?

One of my listservs has been having a discussion of "cursing and YA books." This began with a question about whether cursing among teenagers is common everywhere. I think that's a legitimate and interesting question. The language in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which is always brought up when cursin' and cussin' are discussed) reflects a certain sophisticated urban lifestyle. But will kids all over the country recognize it as their own? In spite of the way TV, movies, advertising, and books tend to create a uniform culture, this is still a big country. Buy a local newspaper when you're traveling, and you'll see that people in different parts of the U.S. have different concerns. Are we all the same?

Well, to get on with the subject at hand, only recently in the listserv's discussion has anyone brought up the point that obscenity and profanity are different things. Obscenity is, for example, that word both Nick and Norah used nearly every sentence. Profanity is breaking the...uh...uh...oh, the third commandment--"Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain."

Which is more acceptable? In particular, which is more acceptable in a children's book?

This question is weighing on my mind right now, because I've realized that the adults in The Durand Cousins are not the types to say, "Oh, fudge" when they need to unburden themselves of angst or frustration. And they have plenty to be angsty and frustrated about. Would they lean toward expressing themselves with vulgarities or with rants to God?

In my own experience as a child and teenager, the adults in my family used just the most basic garden variety obscenities. Many of them, though,"spoke" with Jesus requently. In fact, they were on such close terms that they knew that his middle name began with H. My cousin used to say that he wasn't swearing, he was asking the Lord for help. And when I was growing up in Vermont, we all said Jeezum Crow. (You really need to draw out the vowels in that expression.) I was in college or older before I found out what that was a stand-in for.

I had to deal with the profanity issue once before while writing The Hero of Ticonderoga. Ethan Allen figured prominently in that book. His use of profanity was (and is) legendary and well documented. Before I began writing the book, I e-mailed my editor and asked, "Just how many times can you use 'god damn' in a kids' book?" (Three times in my case.)

Determining whether to go with obscenity or profanity--jeezum crow, what a thing to be spending my time on, eh?

Why I'll Never Go Far

I just can't stay on task with promotion. It's not just that I'm not that great at forcing myself out there. Almost everyone has trouble with that. No, I can't seem to make any kind of organized marketing effort. If I get some promotional ideas, I don't move on them fast enough or never bother carrying through with them at all. If I do carry through, I forget about them afterward.

A case in point: While looking up another author, I just now stumbled upon an interview with myself at Young Adult (& Kids) Books Central. I remember answering these questions now but I'd forgotten about the whole thing up until about ten minutes ago. I probably forgot about the interview as soon as I'd submitted the answers.

And, yes, I forget about short story submissions after I make them, too.

Really, it's a miracle that I've gotten as far as I have.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Books For The Younger Ones--Part III
As part of my early reading mission, I picked up a couple of Black Lagoon Adventures by Mike Thaler and Jared Lee. This series is part of what seems to be a pattern--books that depend heavily on word play.

The Black Lagoon Adventures seem to be more sophisticated than the other books of this type I've read. There's less reliance on funny-sounding words or toilet humor. In fact, the jokes are directed to your more literate third graders. For instance, you have to know who the Wright Brothers were in order to get a Wrong Brothers joke and "closet-ra-phobia" is going to be lost on a child who isn't familiar with the word claustrophobia.

But the word games are pretty much all that you get in the Black Lagoon. You'll see some names but no real characters attached to them. And you'll get a situation--a field trip or a class election in the books I read--but not much of a story. The Class Trip From The Black Lagoon has a lot of buildup with rambling incidents and The Class Election From The Black Lagoon has an extremely dated and predictable plot.

And I have no idea why "Black Lagoon" appears in the title. It was never mentioned in the two books I read.

After dipping into the kiddie pool at a couple of local libraries and coming up with four books on the new shelves all pushing gimmicks and jokes, I'm wondering what's going on. Did I just have bad luck? Four, after all, isn't a statistically significant number. Or is there some reason why puns, idioms, and palindromes are so important for child development that they trump the basic elements of fiction?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Maybe I'm Just Easily Annoyed

I sometimes feel as if I'm missing the boat and being a bit of a wet blanket because I'm not a Harry Potter fan. Really, I wish I could be part of the whole experience. I don't think J.K. Rowling is a bad writer, and her work has brought a lot of attention to children's writing, which is good.

But it really ticks me off when she starts teasing between books. The-guess-who-I'm-killing-off-this-time? schtick was pulled out before the last three new books for what purpose other than keeping the fans riled and interested? And now she's toying with readers by suggesting she might write another book about Harry Potter's world.

This kind of thing isn't about writing. It's about marketing. While I know writers need to do it (this is what this blog is about, after all), traditionally a writer markets her writing. She doesn't manipulate her readers. There's something distasteful about the way she twists the process, as if she's using her readers instead of writing for them.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Coming Late To The Carnival
As usual, I didn't get to the most recent Carnival of Children's Literature at A Year of Reading until after it had been up for a few weeks. My favorite articles:

Fair Weather and The Devil in the White City: Book Review at the imponderabilia of actual life. Sandy D. discusses The Devil in the White City, a piece of adult nonfiction by Eric Larson about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and Fair Weather a children's novel by Richard Peck also about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

I haven't read either book, though I did give The Devil in the White City to a family member for Christmas a few years back. But I love the idea of approaching the same material in different ways. I will be much more likely to pick up these books as a result of reading this post.

Through imponderabilia I discovered The Newbery Project, a blog in which a group of people are reading all the Newbery winning books. It's a fascinating idea, and I'll be visiting the site.

These carnivals are well worth a look.

Friday, July 06, 2007

It's Almost Like Traveling Myself

Having made a road trip into the south a number of years back, I particularly enjoyed catching up on Mark Peter Hughes' Lemonade Mouth Across America as he made his way as far as Atlanta and then headed west. The mere mention of South of the Border made me crave a pecan log, which, of course, comes from Stuckey's but those southern roadside stops are all glorious to me.

Blogger is refusing to let me make titles this evening, so I had to rig up a fakie.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

And Some Of Those Canadians Have A Way With Words, Too

Blow off all your blog reading for today, and maybe tomorrow, so you can read Adventures in the Reviewing Trade: A Cultural Primer by Alex Good. This is a very, very long piece, but Good has lots and lots of interesting (note I didn't say "good," though I thought of it) things to say about book reviewing. And I'm not just saying that because he agrees with me that a bad review is better than no review. Though he does come right out and say it: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bad review is better than no review at all."

Among the things he discusses:

How books get selected for review at newspapers

The promotional aspect of reviews vs. the critical aspect

How easy it is for reviewers to fall behind with their reviewing given the limited number of reviews they can publish, they huge number of books to review and the short shelf-life for new books

"Positive" reviews or "Making Nice"

Why readers prefer to read reviews of nonfiction to reviews of fiction

And, of course, the Internet

Something I found particularly interesting: "None of the print reviews that I’m aware of runs more reviews, or longer reviews, on their websites than they do in print. They have all the free space in the world – indeed an almost infinite amount –but we’re not seeing any explosion in reviewing. The Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail could double their number of book reviews online just for the cost of paying someone to write them. But they’re not. And there’s nothing stopping the CBC from running book reviews on their web-page. But it’s not very often they do."

I don't know if space on websites is free. Mine isn't. But it is interesting to consider whether or not the print reviews that are cutting back or shutting down couldn't move their operations to the Internet more economically and thus preserve review space.

Those Brits Don't Mince Words

From a Telegraph review of the new Harry Potter movie:

"The fifth volume of the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was by common consent the worst book to emerge from the pen of J K Rowling.

There were too many sub-plots, it was relentlessly miserable and the first character who really mattered both to the reader and to the hero was killed off."

The Potter books tend to all blur together in my mind. I do believe, though, that The Order of the Phoenix also included long episodes of magical housecleaning at the beginning of the book, which were pointless, though I rather liked them. And there was a page that introduced at least three new characters who weren't used very much, which an editor probably would have done something about if s/he'd been working with anyone other than J.K. Rowling. And then there was a final, very powerful image, of Dumbledore carrying a character out of the woods. Except that the book isn't called Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix, you may recall.

I agree that the only character who mattered to me in the whole series was killed off in The Order of the Phoenix, pretty much just to make me miserable. I mean, I don't even care about Harry. You won't see me shedding any tears if Rowling sends him to wizard heaven.

I'll be p.o.ed if she offs Ron or one of his siblings, but only because of what it will do to his parents. Though, here is my prediction--that brother of his who is a priggish bureaucrat and some kind of baddish guy (though I can't recall exactly how) will buy the farm redeeming himself. I've been saying that for years, so forgive me if I'm repeating myself.

Anyway, I wasn't planning to go to the new movie, and recalling the book hasn't done anything to change my mind.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What's Happening Down Under

Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld will both be the writer in residence at Inside a Dog for the month of July. They'll be starting later this week.

4th Of July Holiday Post--Working All The Time

I think it was Terry Pratchett who said in some interview that a big chunk his work is done when he isn't actually writing. I understand exactly what he means. When immersed properly in a project, you could find yourself "working" at odd times, off and on all the time.

For instance, I woke up late this morning because it's the 4th of July and realized that soon I'll be starting the thriller aspect of The Durand Cousins. And then, while still in bed, I realized that a book really shouldn't become a thriller at the halfway point. If there is a "thriller aspect" I need a thriller thread all the way through the thing.

We no longer spend our 4ths at parades. Today we spent two and a half hours of it biking. Perfect time for work. I came home with some thread ideas, though without a complete thread.

But, remember, last night when I went to bed I wasn't even thinking in terms of a thread. So, actually, I did quite a bit today.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Managing Misery

You often read about authors working along on a new project and suddenly realizing that everything they've done to date stinks. They are inept, the whole concept was lame to begin with, etc. Oh, yes. It happens. Regularly.

I haven't experienced too much of it with The Durand Cousins, possibly because the last couple of weeks I've been working much faster than I usually do. (Yesterday I actually did 2,700 words, which is unheard of for me, though some of it was from some freewriting I did on Sunday.) But this morning I could feel doubt seeping in like a gas that comes curling under a door in a horror movie. I am probably reacting to some anxiety over the Girl/Boy Books rather than the new project, but misery definitely has a snowball effect.

Then I did a fifty minute workout, sixty crunches of various types, and some stretching, and now I'm feeling wonderful.

Speaking of working out, did anyone else see Mitali Perkins' video of her launch party? What do you think? Could someone develop a cool workout video around this kind of dance? They had some intervals of serious lower body work going there, including one move I think Kathy Smith calls "around the world."

Laughing, are you? Aerobic videos designed around dance are hard.

Analyzing Nancy

Slate has an interesting article on up-dating Nancy Drew. One of the tidbits that popped out at me: In a new Nancy Drew series that began in 2004, Nancy Drew books have been written in the first person.

Is anyone else freaked out by the way first-person narrators monopolize kids' books, YA in particular? And I ask this having written six first-person books, myself.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Welcome To My Nightmare

I have to knock this off in a hurry because I have an evening class today. Let's see what kind of godawful editing error I can make and have to correct first thing tomorrow morning.

I finished The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, which I did like. Love them wee free men. But I did think that without the wee free men the book would be...kind of run-of-the-mill.

I'm a Reading Fool said in a comment that her reading group felt the last third of the book took a strange turn. I think what she might have meant is that at that point The Wee Free Men turns into one of those alternate world books with hidden doorways and people passing back and forth. Dreams and controlling dreams begin to figure prominently in the mix. It's sort of formula stuff.

Except for the wee free men.

I'm not a fan of the alternate world scenario. For one thing, I always get confused. For instance, in The Wee Free Men when Tiffany makes Granny turn up in a shepherdess outfit--what was that about? Granny didn't seem to do anything. And the doorways between worlds always seem a little mumbo jumboish to me.

But the wee free men saved the book for me.

I do have a question about the audience for the Tiffany Aching Adventures. In this first book, she's only nine years old. But, come on. She doesn't act nine by a long shot. Do nine-year-olds get this? Will teenagers read it when the main character is only nine years old?

I'll certainly continue reading, for the sake of those wee free men. But I do wonder how kids respond to these books.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

They May Have A Point

One complaint regarding bloggers that I've heard from writers of print reviews is that bloggers don't have editors going over their work before it's tossed up on the Internet for all the world to see. Is this really such a problem?

For some of us, yes.

Yesterday morning I woke up around 6:20 (on a Saturday, mind you) and thought that while I don't usually work on weekends, I might just run downstairs and write a few paragraphs on The Durand Cousins so I could stay emerged in my work. Work goes so much better when I'm emerged in it. I'd get up to speed faster on Monday if I could do some emergion over the weekend.

I didn't get any further in my thinking than that because I was, as they say, struck by lightening. I had been awake a minute, maybe two--three tops--when I realized that one cannot be emerged in one's work. One can emerge from it, perhaps, but only awkwardly. One can only become immersed in one's work.

I got up, hurried downstairs, and changed two posts in which I'd used the word emerge for immerse.

Cindy, my favorite copy editor, would have spared me the humiliation of making such a glaring usage error. And since she already knows I'm an idiot who, among other things, uses commas randomly, no harm would have been done. It's not as if I can go down any lower in her esteem.

Lack of precision in language impairs communication. It's also careless. If you're careless with your use of language, readers have a right to suspect that you're also careless in your thinking.

Print reviewers may also be imprecise and careless with their language. But they do have the benefit of editors who, one hopes, will catch them and set them straight. There is, I'm sorry to say, a great deal to be said for that.