Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Slice Of Life

I became very excited reading the first chapter of The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. In 1943, Dewey Kerrigan is on her way to join her father at Los Alamos, New Mexico where, though she doesn't know it, he's helping to develop the atomic bomb. It's a top secret location for a top secret project. None of the children living there actually know what their parents are working on, just that it's part of the war effort.

The period detail in that first chapter was marvelous. I got a definite "You Are There" feeling regarding Dewey's train trip. And while on her journey she meets a historical figure whose name I recognized. He's described. He's named. He seems engaging.

Okay, I found Dewey, herself, a little flat but maybe she was just a bit depressed. Her grandmother had just had a stroke and she was being "shipped" west. I thought I could get used to this young girl geek with her interest in and gift for gadgets.

Well, the period detail remains rich and well done throughout The Green Glass Sea. But there didn't seem to me to be much of a story here to go along with it. Dewey is an odd duck who enjoys being among the great scientific minds who have gathered at her new home. That's great. But instead of developing that, a conflict is set up with another girl who also has trouble with the in-kids in town. The set-up takes a long time. The girls don't actually start butting heads until halfway through the book, and their problems are resolved with a minimum of fuss and bother.

There's not much of a plot. Things happen without much causal relationship--it's more a list of events. People are really upset when Roosevelt dies, which I'm sure is historically accurate. But since he never appeared in the story prior to the announcement of his death--we never so much as see people listening to a fireside chat--it's hard to feel their pain. Another death is totally meaningless. There's no reason why it had to happen, and it really doesn't change day-to-day events.

And that historical figure from the first chapter? He's only mentioned in passing two more times in the story. Quite a bit of time and energy was put into him early on, only to have him virtually disappear.

But the setting for The Green Glass Sea is still marvelous. Klages creates a lost world where children could be left alone all day and into the evening while their parents worked to save democracy. Moms could puff away on Chesterfields as if lung cancer hadn't been invented. (Which I guess you could say it hadn't.) Twenty cents could buy a kid a Coke and a candy bar, and nobody worried about the caffeine and calories she was consuming. "The slice of life" aspect of the book is very good.

The Green Glass Sea has won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. The book also began as a short story at Strange Horizons. (Don't read it until after you've read the book.)

I think it's only fair to mention, by the way, that I appear to be alone in my objections to Green Glass's plot. The book has been very well reviewed both in print and at blogs.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

An Hour Is A Lo-o-ong Time

I've been working away on preparing for my humor talk for New England Roundtable of Children and Young Adult Librarians. It's supposed to be an hour, but I can't seem to get past 37 minutes more or less.

It takes me a long time to prepare for speaking engagements because I suffer a bit from performance anxiety. I like to have the speech written out well in advance so I can rehearse like mad. Back when I still offered traditional slides as an option, I would rehearse with my own projector in the dining room every day leading up to the event.

I like to be performance ready. My fantasy is to be able to have a wide array of writerly things I can talk about on the drop of a dime.

Of course, there's a reason why I call that a fantasy.

Monday, February 26, 2007

"This Is What A Good Editor Can Do For A Text"

D.M. Cornish, author of Monster Blood Tattoo (in my TBR basket--I have so many TBR books the two shelves won't hold them all) is the Writer in Residence at Inside a Dog. He recently wrote about editing. It sounds as if he's in favor of it.

Thanks to educating alice for the link.

A Pan For Fathers

This weekend, as part of my Peter Pan binge (which is more of a long, dragged out obsession than a true binge), I saw Hook. It was very interesting seeing it so soon after having read the original book. I got a lot more references than I would have trying to recall the play from second grade.

While the original Peter Pan had a very definite mother obsession thing going on, this one is an Ode to Dad. It's a very painful story of Peter growing up to be a yuppie who hasn't got time for his kids. Peter ends up fighting Hook, not for anything so petty as life or death, but for the love of his son.

I've read that some think Peter Pan is actually about the fear of death. First you grow up, and then you die. (If you're lucky, it goes in that order.) This version definitely plays that up. The line about death being a great adventure is used three times, once by Peter and twice by the old man, Hook. And this version of the Pan story definitely made me think differently about the clock. Sure Hook was afraid of the sound because it meant the alligator that had swallowed it was coming to kill him. Death! But all clocks measure the passing of time, the dwindling away of our lives. Death!

Though it doesn't seem to have gone over very well with reviewers, Hook is interesting for people who are into Peter Pan. It's also very much a movie for adults, with some pretty heavy (and not very subtle) messages. Don't ignore your kids. Growing up is awful. Being an adult stinks. Being elderly means loosing your marbles like Tootles.

I imagine that back in 1991 there were theaters full of mystified kids sitting next to parents who were sobbing through most of the picture.

Something I Missed

I was just cleaning out the in-box for one of my listservs when I found a link to a blog called Three Silly Chicks. The significance? Three Silly Chicks focuses on humorous books for kids.

Laurie Halse Anderson Had My Beautiful Room

Laurie Halse Anderson was the featured writer at the Whispering Pines Writers' Retreat this past weekend. She's posted pictures and a description of the event at her livejournal.

I was there last year, sleeping in the same bedroom. It really is a great bedroom.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Maybe I Should Read This

I didn't have good luck reading a book on how to read books. Perhaps I should try this one--How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard.

Actually, Bayard sounds very interesting. He says that many people (at least in France) "see culture as a huge wall, as a terrifying specter of 'knowledge'...But we intellectuals, who are avid readers, know there are many ways of reading a book. You can skim it, you can start and not finish it, you can look at the index. You learn to live with a book."

I think they may throw the word "intellectual" around more freely in France than we do here. I mean, the only time I hear it, it's being used as a slur. (As in, "Why, thank you, intellectuals, for telling us we don't know how to read.") But once I got past my first knee-jerk response, I read that quote of Bayard's and went, "Mais oui!"

Thanks to artsJournal for the link.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


I haven't been reading Jane Yolen's journal the way I used to. In the past, I found her impressive work ethic and output inspiring. Now reading about what she's doing just makes me feel like a layabout. A lazy, disorganized, self-centered, kept woman.

However! I went over there today and saw that she just gave a revision talk at the SCBWI midwinter conference. Revision means editing. If you're lucky, it means working with an editor. I was talking about editors who don't edit just last weekend. Go to Jane's Feb. 7 to 12 journal entry and scroll down to "Here are some of the things I said about revision in my speech:" to get some info on working with editors who do edit. She has some more good info in the Feb. 13 to 14 entry.

I think Jane's definitely right about reading an editor's response letter, putting it down, and picking it up the next day. Or even later. I usually decide which portions of the letter I think are particularly important for the next draft and highlight them, too, for what that's worth.

I have never revised a manuscript with a book editor that didn't result in a better draft than the one before. In fact, by the time I'm through with a book, I am often quite embarrassed about the first draft I submitted.

I Can't Possibly Do This

Little Willow has a shelving meme up. While I think I completed a meme about shelving sometime in the past, I took one look at this one and was instantly overwhelmed.

While I do make attempts at organizing, the organizing is done, I guess you'd say, in bits--there are bits of this kind of book here and bits of that kind of book there. And what is the first and last titles on my bookshelves? Which is the beginning and which is the end?

We have beautiful built-in bookshelves in our living room. Quite honestly, an awful lot of their shelf space goes to videos and CDs along with the equipment to play same, and we have two shelves of photo albums and scrapbooks. (A sign, of course, that we are very old, since it takes a while to acquire that many.) We have an entire shelf dedicated to freeweights, stretchy bands, and other such exercise equipment. And I have a half a shelf of walking journals.

We figure we've got a couple of thousand books somewhere in the house, are they shelved? And, even, what do we have?

Owning books, I've found, is one hell of a lot of work. Last summer I spent a significant amount of time removing books from shelves, dusting, and trying to prune the collection. How long had it been since I'd done this? Well, let's just say that the dust was so thick that we discovered that the young relative who was helping me has some kind of contact allergy to it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Speaking Of Listservs

Someone at the child_lit listserv linked to an amusing response to Scrotumgate.

People! We've got to get over this and move on! The Canadians are laughing at us!

It's Official

I've joined The Association of Booksellers for Children. What does this mean? I'm on another listserv! This makes five. I can't wait until my computer guy finds out I need another folder for my mailbox.

Quite honestly, one of the listservs I hardly ever hear from. But things can get very exciting with some of the others.

"I Just Like To Think About What I'm Reading. Don't You?"

The line above is from Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I finally took the book off my TBR shelf earlier this week and am about halfway through it. It's a book for people who like to think about what they're reading.

Wicked's subtitle is "The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West." It is most definitely an adult spin and variation on The Wizard of Oz. And not just because there are sex scenes.

Wicked deals with the nature of good and evil, the nature of the soul. Just for a couple of things. The book has its own theology, created for the land of Oz, but with winks to our contemporary world. A pleasure faith? And of early adherents to a more austere religion, Elphaba (the wicked witch) says, "Some said the original evil was the vacuum caused by the Fairy Queen Lurline leaving us alone here. When goodness removes itself, the space it occupies corrodes and becomes evil, and maybe splits apart and multiplies. So every evil thing is a sign of the absence of deity."

I mention that because I've read a Christian description of sin as being the absence of God, a concept, I must admit, that pretty much shoots over my head. But it did seem similar to what Elphaba had been reading.

Our wicked witch, by the way, is the daughter of a minister. How cool is that? She also, at mid-point, is a revolutionary. Maguire's Oz isn't all sunshine and lollipops.

My only knowledge of The Wizard of Oz is the movie, so I don't know how much this book refers to the original series of Oz books. As far as I'm concerned, I don't need to know the references. Wicked is a complex, well-done world without my knowing much of the background at all.

It also has a map.

And don't think it's all dry theology and politics.

"I don't read very well. So I don't think I think very well either." Galinda smiled. "I dress to kill, though."

I do love this kind of revisionist literature.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

I Love The Internet

I was reading through my blogs over at JacketFlap, when what do I come upon but my own name over at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy. Thank you to Liz for those very kind words.

I just e-mailed that link to a bunch of my relatives. And my editor.

Using Happy Kid! In The Classroom

Back before Christmas I heard from a teacher who used Happy Kid! in her classroom. (I think her students were 7th graders. If not, they weren't too much younger.) Each student chose two of the self-help excerpts Kyle reads in the book. Then they discussed whether or not the advice was good and drew or wrote about an example of a related experience. The class then made its own smiley face book. (Round with a happy face on the front in yellow and black.)

Then--and I think this is the neatest part--one of the students gave the class's copy of Happy Kid! to another team teacher with the suggestion that he read it to his students, just as Kyle gives his copy of Happy Kid!: A Young Person's Guide to Satisfying Relationships and a Happy and Meaning-filled Life to...

Well, I don't want to give anything away. But I was delighted to hear about this class.

I've been invited to their Literary Luau in May. I'm going, of course.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Giving New Life To The Search For Identity

I said yesterday that I had a mixed reaction to Undine by Penni Russon. The up part of the mix? I particularly liked the parts of the book where Undine starts questioning her father, whom she has only just met. "What am I? The things I can do? What are you?"

Later she asks again, "What am I?" In the course of the conversation with her father she asks things like, "Am I a witch?" "A sorcerer? A magician?" "Are there others like us?" "And...and...what do we do?"

I found this very moving, a twist on the traditional adolescent concerns with identity, who they are now, who and what they are going to be. Okay, sure, you're not going to find too many real adolescents wondering if they're witches or sorcerers. But I can still see why fantasies like Undine appeal to a teenage readership.

Undine and the Magic or Madness trilogy by Justine Larbalestier both involve teenage girls suddenly discovering that they have magical, even dangerous powers. (Hmmm. Metaphor for teen sexuality? Especially in the case of Undine who inadvertently attracts young men to herself?) These powers come down to them through family members, some of whom they don't know.

Really. Isn't this a magical twist on adolescence?

In Pucker by Melanie Gideon a teenage boy doesn't discover he has magical powers. And he's always aware that he's not from these parts. What he discovers when he goes back to the alternative world he and his mother left when he was a child is that there is a place where he could have fit in. It's not accessible to him now, in part because of the decision his parents made long ago and never told him about. That decision changed him into someone else, changed his identity and changed who he was going to be.

Corbenic by Catherine Fisher also involves a young person with a troubled relationship with a parent. Are the fantasy elements in the story fantasy? Or are they signs that, like his mother, he's mentally ill? Who and what is he?

All these books are examples of traditional teenage themes being given new life with a fantasy element.

I Don't Quite Understand This

An on-line publication called CJR Daily: Real-time Media Criticism from the Columbia Journalism Review comments on TheNew York Times article about The Higher Power of Lucky.

Let's try to forget about the whole scrotum issue for a moment and focus on a couple of paragraphs toward the end of the CJR piece:

"Some librarians obviously disagree, countering that the book is simply inappropriate for children in the 3rd grade. "We don't include middle and high school level books because the content is inappropriate for the age level," writes one anonymous blogger in New York. "Is that censorship?"

Yep, that's the definition: Anytime material is kept away from eyes or ears because of its content, it is censorship. But is that censorship warranted?"

School libraries can't make purchasing decisions based on the age of their student population? Forget about sexual content and anatomically correct terminology. If school librarians decide that, say, 1776 is over the heads of most of their student population and pass on buying it, that's censorship? (I haven't read 1776, by the way. For all I know it's not over anyone's head. But pretend it is.) And what about high school librarians? If they decide not to buy Junie B. Jones because they work in a high school, is that censorship?

If they can't make decisions around the needs of their student population, just how are they supposed to make decisions?

And what about the line "But is that censorship warranted?" Does that suggest to anyone else that sometimes censorship is okay?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Mixed Reaction

Undine,by Penni Russon is the story of an Australian teenager who discovers she has some unusual, even dangerous, powers. Though it's a well-written book with some marvelous boy characters, I couldn't figure out exactly what Undine's power was about or where it came from, which I found frustrating. Though what I found as vagueness and lack of closure may have been intentional. Undine is the first in a trilogy, with Breathe being the second book. I haven't been able to find the name of the third book, but it's supposed to be coming out this year.

You know me. I like to see a storyline wrapped up in each book.

Undine includes a lot of references to The Tempest that I found a little awkward and distracting. They didn't seem to fit into the book in a very natural way. However, when I was doing a search for the title Undine, I learned that the word undine has a meaning within mythology that fits in extremely well with this book. I think it's pretty clear that Russon drew upon this element. I would have liked to have seen some kind of reference to it in the book the way Catherine Fisher makes clear reference to the Parzival story in Corbenic.

I may be showing my ignorance of The Tempest, though. At her blog, Russon has a recent post in which she discusses and links to an academic paper on Shakespearean children's texts that includes a section on her own book, Undine. (It must have been a bizarre experience reading that.) In the event that I get an opportunity to read all this material, the water nymph/Tempest/Undine connection may seem stronger to me.

Monday, February 19, 2007

"Scrotalicious Books"

Youth Literature is Filled with Scrotums. Most of them seem to relate to farming, a subject that must be of huge interest to the young.

Thank you to, who else?, Blog of a Bookslut.

A New Beowulf

I just discovered the blog AmoxCalli through one of its contributors,Gina MarySol Ruiz. (A member of the Cybil's nominating panel for graphic novels, by the way.) Sol has posted a review of Beowulf, a graphic novel by Gareth Hinds. You can check out the book's publishing history at The Comic.Com.

I was interested in a graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf not because I'm a major fan of the story but because I keep going back to it. I read it in college (Classic and Folk Epic class) and later read Grendel by John Gardner. (Hmmm. Do I still have that somewhere?) Like Sol, I also read Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. I found that version quite readable and, for what it's worth, a relative who might have been around middle school age at the time read it, too.

I don't know what it means when you're drawn to something you can't actually claim to love or to be terribly knowledgable about. Well, for one thing, it means I'm going to notice a graphic novel version. But beyond that I'm at a bit of a loss.

Listen To The Patersons Talk About Terabithia

I just stumbled upon Katherine and David Paterson's NPR interview related to the movie The Bridge to Terabithia, which opened this weekend. The interview aired yesterday but you can hear it now.

What's particularly interesting about the interview is not just what the Patersons have to say about the movie, but what Katherine has to say about writing in general. For instance, she says that people expect her to be "nice" in her books, which doesn't necessarily make for good writing, and that she respects the intensity of children's feelings and tries to portray it in her books. That, of course, means she can't always be what adults think of as nice.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

As Long As I'm Ticked Off, Anyway...

I wasn't going to discuss the whole Scrotum Issue because it's so clearly a matter of people having nothing else to complain about. Clearly the school librarians who object to the use of the word in The Higher Power of Lucky haven't done much reading in their own collections. An incredible array of material is covered in children's literature, some of it involving violence, crime, and, of course, the ever-popular child as victim of one sort or another. And I'm supposed to get hot and bothered about a dog being bitten in the crotch by a rattlesnake?

I wasn't even going to object to all the outrageous quotes from The New York Times article on the subject that have been surfacing on blogs and listservs. The New York Times has a history of publishing articles on kidlit that suggest a lack of knowledge of the subject and an attempt to rabblerouse. I wasn't even going to read the article for those reasons.

But I gave in, I read it, and this rabble has been roused.

I still don't care about the freaking Scrotum Issue! But what the hell is this supposed to mean?

"Authors of children’s books sometimes sneak in a single touchy word or paragraph, leaving librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book over one offending phrase."

Is it some kind of snide, superior accusation that authors "sneak in a single touchy word or paragraph" for the purpose of tormenting librarians? Or do they do it for some other reason? And where does the writer of this article get her information? Does she know about some kind of survey? Did some Ph.D. candidate do a research paper on the subject? What is she suggesting that we gain by "sneak[ing] in a single touchy word or paragraph"?

How did that sentence address the subject of her article, unless it was meant as a slam at the author of Lucky? The word "scrotum" was on the first page! How is that sneaking?

I wish I had a subscription to The New York Times so I could cancel it.

How Does Something Like This Happen?

Usually when I read a book that I don't think is very good, I feel sad. Authors don't set out to write bad books. We all think we've created something wonderful. We're like parents so in love with our children that we can't see their faults. Someone loved that bad book. Someone sent it out into the world hoping it would have a wonderful life, find love, etc. etc.

A very few times I've read a book that was so bad that I became angry. I can't remember why that happened the earlier times, but this past week when I was reading a book that was stunningly awful, I suddenly thought, "Hey, it took more than one person to make a book this bad. An editor and a publisher had a hand in this, too." That's what got me going.

I'm sure many readers are shaking their heads and thinking, "But, Gail, editors don't edit these days." I've been hearing that for quite some time now. Though it hasn't been my experience, personally, I have to admit that some of the books I've read the last couple of years have led me to believe it may be true.

But even if editors aren't editing, they are still acquiring books. They're still reading manuscripts and deciding what to buy. And if other publishing houses are like mine, those editors are passing those manuscripts around to a few other people, possibly the publishers above them, before making an offer.

Which leads me to a question: If editors and their publishers know their house does minimal if any editing before publication, why do they buy manuscripts that require a great deal of work?

Before the book I read this week was purchased by its publisher, a few people read it in manuscript form. No one noticed that on the fourth page a first-person narrator suddenly appeared even though the preceding material appeared to have been written in the third-person, complete with the earlier characters' thoughts? No one noticed that there were quite a few characters who did very little? No one noticed that characters were always pulling conclusions out of thin air? No one noticed that two of the three storylines had antagonists who just sort of disappear? That the third storyline was a pointless cliche?

No one noticed that this pseudo-thriller had no climax?

At least some of these problems are major flaws and not just Gail being a judgmental witch. (I know you're thinking it. I also know you're not thinking "witch.") The book editors I've worked with would certainly have suggested correcting most of them.

But if it's true that there are publishers who don't have their editors do much in the way of editing, what does that mean? Do they accept absolutely anything? Does absolutely anything go?

Of course, that would be a bad situation for readers. But it would be a far, far worse situation for writers.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

March Events In New England

A number of things are happening in Connecticut and Massachusetts at the end of March.

The Connecticticut Writing Project (at the University of Connecticut) will be conducting its Fifth Student and Teacher Writer Conference (follow the hyperlink to the brochure) at the RHAM Middle School in Hebron, Connecticut on March 27th.

The School of Education at The University of Massachusetts will hold its 37th Perspectives in Children's Literature Conference on March 31st on the Amherst Campus.

And, as I've mentioned before, The New England Roundtable of Teen and Children's Librarians will be conducting a program entitled Leave 'em Laughin'- Humor in Children's and Teen Literature on March 23 at Worcester State College. I am one of the speakers at that one, and I am busily working away at my speech. Which may be accompanied by slides. I haven't decided.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Hurry Over There!

Get over to the YA Authors Cafe right away. They've posted an interview with Cynthia Leitch Smith who has a new book out, Tantalize. A vampire story! With a restaurant!

If you get over to the YA Cafe in the next week, you can leave questions for Cynthia, who will answer as many as she can.

This is a sophisticated interview in which Cynthia discusses her research for the book. My favorite quote: " write in a literary tradition, you must know it. There's a difference between being derivative and making a contribution to a long conversation of books."

not your mother's bookclub also has an inteview with Cynthia. This is another good interview and has a fascinating section on revision.

The Other Side Of Peter Pan

A person could argue that in spite of its romanticizing of childhood, Peter Pan does recognize that children can be self-centered, thoughtless, and quite impressively awful. Especially toward people like the Darlings who desperately love them.

So there is that, I suppose.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Oh, Grow Up!

If you belong to the child_lit listserv, be sure to check out this past week's discussion of Peter Pan. It was initiated by moi after having been weirded out by the book by J. M. Barrie.

As I've confided here before, when I was in second grade I fell desperately in love with Peter Pan after reading the play. I must have talked about it because the girl next door started sending me love notes from Peter, leading me to believe he lived in the woods behind our house. (The neighbor became some kind of minister, probably out of guilt over what she did to me.) I don't know how I found out the truth, but I was devastated. I remember my mother telling me to remember how I felt so I would never do to anyone else what my neighbor, Debbie, did to me.

And sure enough, I have never sent anyone love notes claiming they were from Peter Pan.

Anyway, I can recall seeing the Mary Martin version of the play on television when I was much older. After I had children, the ending would reduce me to tears. (Of course, at that time a Kodak commercial or an episode of The Twilight Zone could reduce me to tears. I was suffering from sleep deprivation, because I didn't sleep through the night for nearly ten years after my first child was born.)

Then last fall I read Peter Pan in Scarlet, a Cybils nominee, and thought it was just marvelous. So I decided I would go on a Peter Pan binge, and I've just recently finished reading the 100th Anniversary Edition.

Oh, dear God, this book is so creepy.

Is it a children's book that today's children probably can't read? (A 2004 New Yorker article called Lost Boys describes Peter Pan as "close to unreadable—sometimes because it is sappy with sentiment but mostly because it is just too gnarled and knotted for current taste...let alone for that of our children.") Was it meant as a book for adults as some of my colleagues on the listserv contend?

There's much in the story that I find witty, perhaps even satirical. But I wonder if it was meant that way or if I'm just reading something into it. For instance, when Wendy tells the pirates who have captured her that she's speaking for all the boys' mothers when she says, "We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen," is that for real? Or is it a joke?

This is a bloody and violent story in which children, pirates, and Indians are all killing one another--presumably for real. Not that violence has no place in children's literature. But this is bizarre stuff that results in no serious grief. It's all part of the adventure. Peter says, in fact, that death will be an adventure.

Another Cybils nominee, Larklight plays on some of the same British imperial attitudes we see in Peter Pan. In Larklight, though, we know it's all a joke. I'm just not sure in Peter Pan.

Oh, and the book is racist, too. And it's got a mother obsession thing going that probably went over much better back at the turn of the last century than it does now.

Peter is one strange fellow, by the way--self-centered and insensitive and yet the object of all the ladies' affection. Including mine back in the day. What the hell was I thinking?

One of the things that's particularly freaking me out about this whole episode is that I have a book coming out in June that deals with fantasy play. I just today mailed out a draft of a second book in the same series. The children in my book create elaborate games and want to be vampires and hunt for clues involving bullet holes and blood and want to play with guns and handcuffs. In the first book they play pirates!

I am up to my eyebrows in Peter Pan-like fantasy. How weird is that?

The Ultimate Celebrity Children's Book?

And a celebrity princess, too!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

And The SciFi/Fantasy Winner? Ptolemy's Gate!

Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud has won the first Cybil for science fiction and fantasy! I was happy with our short list, but I am absolutely delighted with this choice for winner. I thought this book was a "nearly perfect balance of character, plot, situation, voice, and just about everything." I cannot say enough about how good this book is.

And you know I don't love just any book that's published.

One of the things I learned on the nominating panel is that to be a successful fantasy (by successful I mean successful as a work, not in the marketplace) the fantasy world has to be very unique and very detailed. The world of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, (Ptolemy's Gate is the final book) is all that.

And Bartimaeus--what a great character.

And Ptolemy's Gate is a complete work, all by itself. It doesn't need its predecessors.

Hey, I am just thrilled about this.

Check out the Cybils site for the winners in the other categories. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist won, too!

Wow. This is the most excited I've ever been about an awards announcement.

Ethnic Issues And Science Fiction/Fantasy

Colleen at Chasing Ray recently did a post about an organization called Books2Prisoners that is trying to build libraries at some New Orleans juvenile facilities and needs book donations. (Middle-grade level and up, dealing with multi-cultural issues and characters.)

Colleen said, "I wanted to ask the Sci Fi and Fantasy reviewers in particular to dig deep on this effort - I think SFF titles are often overlooked for teen readers but can resonate the deepest, as many fans of the genre will attest. Ethnic issues are dealt with differently in SFF titles (when you are dealing with aliens or faeries, humans are just one more part of the mix, not the whole deal), and because of that, it is often SFF authors that children will remember the deepest and return to throughout their lives."

This got me thinking about the books I read as a Cybils scifi/fantasy nominating panelist. We received mostly fantasy nominations, and at first, I had trouble recalling any fantasy titles that I thought were particularly multi-cultural. Then I saw Sheila's post at Wands and Wizards on Avielle of Rhia and remembered that, yeah, that definitely involved a main character who is the product of two cultures. That reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin's Voices, which involves one ethnic group invading another's country or kingdom. The Softwire, which was probably the only hard-core science fiction book nominated, was the story of humans interacting with aliens. Can an argument be made that many books involving humans interacting with alien races are multi-cultural? That they often are dealing metaphorically with human race issues? (Recall some of those heavy-handed episodes from classic Star Trek*)

I think Larklight by Philip Reeve does some take-offs on British imperialism, but you have to be familiar with nineteenth and early twentieth century British history to get them.

Can others think of science fiction and fantasy titles--Cybils nominees or not--that would fit Books2Prisoners criteria of dealing with multi-cultural themes and characters?

*I know. This is my second Star Trek reference in less than a week. I'm not making fun. I respect its place in popular culture. Plus, as I've mentioned before, I work with close to two hundred Star Trek novels shelved right behind me. It's not as if I can forget about it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

How To Be A Cartoonist

Before all the hoopla starts tomorrow (I don't mean Valentine's Day, I mean the Cybils announcements) I wanted to mention some news regarding the illustrator of one of the "long-list" nominees, Travels of Thelonious. Jon Buller has put up a cartooning tutorial at the website he shares with Susan Schade, Thelonious' author.

Jon says, "When I was a 4th grade cartoonist I used to love to pore over books
that shared the secrets of that craft. Recently it occurred to me that a short course in cartooning on the web might be a useful resource for librarians and teachers who encounter kids who are interested in cartooning. So I did a short introductory course on our website."

A few years back I used to draw with some of my younger relatives. We all had drawing journals. (One youngster didn't actually understand the concept of a journal and just sat down and drew a little picture on the center of every page. Then he was done.) Not being as creative as the other family members, I used to go to the library to get cartoon books for my journal work and try copying cartoons from newspaper illustrations.

If I had been in 4th grade when I was doing this maybe I could have gone somewhere with it. Unfortunately, I was older than that. A lot older.

Anyway, I don't think you need to be a kid to take advantage of Jon's short course.

A New Format For YA Authors Cafe

YA Authors Cafe has a new format that looks a lot like a blog to me. That's great. I was interested in the idea behind the Authors Cafe--live chats with authors--but they never seemed to work for me. The one time I managed to go on-line at the correct time, I just didn't click with the live part. I had trouble following what was going on.

Now it appears that they'll be posting interviews and for a week after readers will be able to ask questions and have them answered by the interviewee. I'll be watching the site to see what happens.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Getting Into Work Again

When I wasn't getting all choked up today about the Terabithia story in the Burlington Free Press, I managed to finished the next draft of the second A Girl, a Boy book. I need to go over it carefully, come up with some chapter titles, and probably read it out loud, since it's short enough to do that. I hope to be able to mail it out on Wednesday.

The revision will only have taken about two and a half weeks once I finally got started, but it was horrible getting back to work after spending a month reading for Cybils in December and then having holidays and family around for a big chunk of January. I can barely write if there's someone home on the street, so you can imagine what it's like when there are people in the house.

I could tell that I was finally getting into a writing mode when I started remembering to freewrite whenever I got stuck. I know I talk about freewriting a lot, but what often happens is that I forget to do it. I get stuck and just drift off to check my e-mail or see what's going on on the news sites. I'm feeling incredibly close to Anna Nicole Smith right now. I spent a lot of time reading about her the end of last week.

I felt I was making real progress toward the end of this revision, not just with the revision, itself, but in learning how to write with better use of freewriting.

Now what I'm hoping to do is try to start a schedule for my weeks--a few hours reading professional material, a few hours working on essays, a few hours working on projects A, B, C.

Yeah, I know that will never work. But what I'm hoping will happen is that spending a few weeks doing that will get me involved enough in one of those projects to start running with it.

Yeah, I know that will never work, either. But there's a reason so many of my family members hate me for my optimism.

Art And Life And Creativity

I've never read A Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson but Bridge to the Past, an article from The Burlington Free Press (which I read when I'm in northern Vermont), is just a marvelous account of how it came to be written. (There are spoilers, by the way.) It's all about how art comes from life, if I'm not reading things into it.

Any writers who have ever been influenced by their children will go to pieces over this thing. Oh, almost anyone will be affected.

I've read some criticisms of Terabithia because some adult readers found the ending too difficult. I have to wonder if they would rethink their response if they were aware of how the book came to be.

Thanks to a member of the child_lit listserv for the link.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A New Endeavor

We did a long overdue update of my website's homepage. You've already heard about most of what's posted there, except for the news that I am going to be writing reviews of children's books written by Connecticut authors for a local publication called The Connecticut Muse.

I have some anxiety about this endeavor and not just because it involves four deadlines a year. The Connecticut Muse is about promoting state authors rather than publishing traditional criticism, and it has a policy of publishing only positive reviews. Since I don't exactly love everything I read, this could be a problem.

But I understand the point of the publication. Also, the editor has assured me that I will never be handed a book with the expectation that I'll come up with selling points. That will be the end of my reviewing career and not just because I don't want to compromise my scruples. Let's face it, there are some things I'm just not capable of doing, and coming on all warm and fuzzy about a book I don't like is one of them.

I know my deadlines, and I've been told I can seek out books by Connecticut children's authors myself. I just have to turn in a review of any book I liked.

Surely I should be able to find one a quarter. Shouldn't I?

The benefit to me is that I may get a little more name recognition within my own state. The benefit to humanity is that each issue of The Connecticut Muse will include a review of a children's or YA book, which hasn't happened prior to this. So I'll be doing a little something to promote my field.

Actually, I'm wondering if this fall I'll be able to do a column on the finalists for the Connecticut Book Award. I would love to see that get some more attention.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Revisiting Hellbent With BDT

I read Cybils' nominee Hellbent by Anthony McGowan back at the beginning of December. I felt McGowan went a little over the top with all the excrement talk in the book, but otherwise I found the book witty and thought provoking with an extremely likeable main character. I also liked the ending.

My young relative BDT, our newly minted fifth-grade teacher, was attracted to Hellbent early on. He picked it out of the stash of Cybils books I gave him Christmas Day and had it read by New Year's Eve. His take on the book:

"Hellbent was written very well; I found myself drawn to the style and means of writing. The story was good, and I enjoyed it, but I found myself skimming through the second half, tired of the tangents that I enjoyed at first and just wishing to find out the results and move on. I would definitely not read that book with students until college, though I think it would make a fine philosophy text. Brings the age-old discussion of good and evil, Heaven and Hell into a new context."

I agree with BDT that Hellbent seems more appropriate for that seventeen- to twenty-one-year-old age group that I've heard publishers are interested in marketing to. I wish I knew of a name for these people. Young adult seems perfect, but it's already been used for teenagers and nobody's going to shift definitions just because I'd like to. I also thought of transitional readers, on the theory that these people are transitioning from teenager/pseudochildhood to adulthood. But that's taken also, being used for readers making the move from picture books to chapter books.

Someone should run a "Name That Reading Group" contest.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Larbalestier Interview

Justine Larbalestier (Magic Lessons) is interviewed in this month's Bookslut. Among other things, she talks about making the move from nonfiction to YA.

Thanks to Confessions of a Bibliovore for the link.

"A Revolution In Reading"

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article called Time for Reading, Lindsay Waters suggests we're reading too fast and that this is a factor in present day reading problems. "Unless one can digest the letters on the page fast enough, one cannot comprehend what one is reading," he says. "But once one learns how to read, there is a speed beyond which one stops reading in a truly effective way."

I was immediately attracted to this article because I'm so often frustrated because I can't read more and more and more. The article doesn't tell me how to deal with that problem, but suggests that maybe I don't have a problem at all.

One of the things I liked about the article is that it deals with reading at both the college and grade school levels. Though it did bring back college anxiety about getting through all those books every semester.

The link came from artsJournal.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What About This Chrestomanci Guy?

Prior to reading The Pinhoe Egg, which I just sort of trashed in the previous post, the only book I'd read by Diana Wynne Jones was Howl's Moving Castle, which I did enjoy. So I was interested in the character Chrestomanci in The Pinhoe Egg because I found him to be a Howl-like figure--if you can imagine Howl as a lord-of-the-castle type with a wife and a bunch of kids.

Well, it appears from my minimal reading about the Chrestomanci series that "Chrestomanci" is a title, and I'm guessing that the Chrestomanci of The Pinhoe Egg appears in earlier books in the series as a young person, particularly The Lives of Christopher Chant. (In The Pinhoe Egg Chrestomanci's wife is once referred to as "Lady Chant.") He's a major character in The Pinhoe Egg, but still secondary, if you can follow that. He's not one of the main characters, though he does step forward and solve everything at the end.

I would have liked to have seen more of him and all his various dressing robes, which is what he appears to prefer for daytime wear. (Who can blame him?) So at some point in the future, I'll be looking for a Chrestomanci book that features this particular Chrestomanci.

I Could Have Enjoyed This A Lot More

Right around the time I started reading ThePinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones, J.L. Bell mentioned it at Oz and Ends in a post on "fat fantasies." He contends that the text of The Pinhoe Egg is laid out in such a way that it ends up being a bigger book than it needs to be.

I'd argue that in addition the book is bigger than it needs to be because the writing could have been a whole lot tighter. The book includes sections on say, grandma's mental state or whether or not a kid is going to get a horse, that go on and on. All the extra material doesn't serve the story.

And the story is interesting. The Pinhoe Egg is part of the Chrestomanci Series, though I didn't have any trouble reading it as a stand alone. At least, I don't think I did. Evidently in the Chrestomanci universe there are a number of worlds, and in the one that appears in this book everyone is capable of magic. It's part of the characters' every day lives.

I had the feeling this world was similar to that of an early twentieth century novel with a couple of the large eccentric families you see in English novels from that period. One of these families, the Pinhoes, is very extended and is made up of every day folks in the village. The other family seems a little more aristocratic--Chrestomanci's family, the people in the castle.

The Pinhoes don't want Chrestomanci and his family intruding in their lives. In addition, the Pinhoes are feuding with the Farleighs, mainly due to their matriarch's mental incapacity, which appears to have been caused by a Fairleigh.

Now, I like all this. I think this whole situation and the many charming characters Wynne Jones creates could have made a really fine book. But things just take so-o-o-o long here. The magical creatures who become important later in the story (the Pinhoe's egg among them) don't seem very well integrated. The climax is undermined by a deus ex machina device in which Chrestomanci just sits down and explains everything to everyone. And then the resolution of the grandmother problem is seriously disturbing and totally brushed off.

It has occurred to me that since this is a series, these characters may be beloved by readers who are happy to read anything about them at all. I understand that. And I also wondered if some Chrestomanci series readers would tell me that if I'd read Book 2, Chapter 5, I would see everything differently. However, some of the books in this series go back to the 1970s and '80s. I certainly admire continuing to write about this world over that period of time, but it seems unreasonable to expect readers to retain material over twenty to thirty years.

I mean, it's not like we're talking Star Trek here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

It's No Jane Eyre

I'm having to grit my teeth to sit through The Ruby in the Smoke, which was shown on PBS this past weekend. I agree with Michelle at Scholar's Blog that the period detail seems great, but the story, itself, isn't exactly grabbing me.

I think I was put off right from the start when a voiceover started to introduce the story. I was worried about having to listen to a narrator, though he doesn't seem to show up very often, if at all, after the beginning. (To give you some idea of how closely I'm paying attention.) I think that the voice belongs to one of the characters, which is also distracting for me. Why? Who? What's going on?

And it also seems to me that Sally is overwhelmed by almost every other character. The Ruby in the Smoke is filled with what might be described as Dickens-like figures. Even characters who appear only briefly before dying seem riveting. But Sally just sort of slogs along without a lot of expression.

Of course, The Ruby in the Smoke probably suffers from coming on the heels of a great production of Jane Eyre. A very hard act to follow.

Update: TadMack has finished watching the movie and written a response at Finding Wonderland.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Book For Young Women?

I've only been vaguely aware of Kiki Strike but Overdue Media makes the second book in the series sound interesting.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Award For Howl's Moving Castle

Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace, And A Tea Cozy reports that the Children's Literature Association gives an award to books of "high literary merit." Called The Phoenix Award, it is given to older books. Right up my alley.

This year's winner is Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, originally published in 1986.

As luck would have it, I'm reading Wynne Jones' 2006 book The Pinhoe Egg.

Admit It. You Go Right To The Curse Word Question

I must confess that at first I was not at all taken with the Pivot Questionnaire the folks at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast use for their interviews. Certainly, I thought, this questionnaire is the real reason the French are the butt of so many jokes. It explains everything! (I assume, of course, that Pivot is pronounced Pivoh, the way Report is pronounced Repor in Colbert Report.)

However, after having read a few of the reviews because they were with people I kind of know in a never-having-met-them-in-the-flesh sort of way, I have to say that the curse word question, at least, has grown on me. I skim right to it first thing.

Today you can read about Pamela Coughlin's (MotherReader's) favorite curse word.

Once Again, I Must Catch Up

Hypothetically Speaking, a blog I've recently started visiting, has a post on newly acquired books at the blogger's library. Among them, The Cartoon History of the Modern World by Larry Gonick. I'm glad to hear Gonick has a new book out because I've read his The Cartoon History of the Universe and The Cartoon History of the Universe II. Unfortunately, his The Cartoon History of the Universe III has been on my To Be Read Shelf for a couple of years now. I just can't get to it. I feel I ought to before moving onto the modern world.

I was a history minor in college, and as an undergraduate I had a desire to study every period of history right up to the present. Yeah, I got over that. But this Cartoon History series makes me feel as if maybe I still can go for it.

"There is a stereotype of Jane as a spinster obsessed with manners."

What? Says who?

Thanks to Finding Wonderland for the link.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Power To The Reader

I spent part of my Sunday afternoon reading Zadie Smith's Guardian article, Fail Better, which was mentioned other places a few times last week. According to Smith's website, she was working on a nonfiction book on writing called Fail Better that was supposed to have been published last year, though I can't find any evidence of that actually happening.

I hate to sound shallow, but the article is long and densely packed with thought- provoking material. She referred to Kierkegaard, which is always the equivalent of a "Warning: Deep Water" sign for me. I feel as if I should receive college credit for having read this thing.

Which is not to say it was bad.

Smith's article was published in two parts, the first dealing primarily with writing failure and the second with reading failure. Writing failure occurs because books rarely come out the way authors intend because authors, themselves, intrude. Smith describes writing as a "craft that defies craftsmanship." "...craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great." "A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere--for convenience's sake we'll call it the self..."

I don't agree that skilled writers rarely write good books. But I certainly understand and agree with what she means by a rogue element. You can have all kinds of literary skills, you can have a marvelous idea, you can have a plan...but there's that rogue element that makes it so very difficult to bring everything together and make the finished product the gem you envisioned.

I also wonder if cabinetmakers wouldn't say the same thing.

Then it came time to talk about reading failure. A paragraph on whether or not writers have duties ends with "In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable--anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers." And in a section on reading Smith says, "This state of affairs might explain some of the present animosity the experimentalist feels for the realist or the cult writer or the bestseller--it's annoying and demoralising to feel that readers are being trained to read only a limited variety of fiction and to recognize as literature only those employing linguistic codes for which they already have the key."

Everything she says is true, of course. I also agree that "if you read with [the] wideness and flexibility..., with as little personal fantasy and delusion as possible, you will find fiction opening up before you."

Nonetheless, I felt there was a judgmental tone to Smith's piece, especially regarding readers. This is the kind of thing that makes readers of, say, genre fiction feel looked down upon. Yes, it is too bad that some people limit themselves only to certain kinds of reading, including literature with a big L, for that matter. They are missing out on a lot of experience.

But we're all free to enjoy reading any way we want. Reading really is a democratic activity. Power to the people and all that.

Check out Monica's post on this article at Educating Alice. She had a much more positive take on it.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Just What Is A Coming-Of-Age Book?

Colleen at Chasing Ray is doing a You Should Read This Award. She's accepting nominations from any year of publication on the theme "Coming of Age." She says, "Essentially (to me anyway), a coming-of-age book is when the protagonist makes a fundamental shift from allowing events or other people to determine who they are and how they will live, to taking the reins and carving out a life of their own."

I thought this was interesting because I realized reading it that I'd never heard a real definition of the term "coming-of-age book." It's one of those things I thought I knew, much as I think I know the meaning of many words from having heard them in context over and over again. (How wrong I've learned I often am.)

I always thought of coming-of-age books as being about that point in a character's existence when she learns that life ain't going to be a bowl of cherries. That's the big passage into adulthood--the knowledge that takes you out of paradise. Surprise! You can't really grow up to be president some day! We were just kidding! We aren't even going to have enough money saved up for you to go to college. And you know how Grandma grew old and then died? Well, guess what. That's going to happen to you, too!

But Colleen's definition involves a character actually doing something with that knowledge. It's a dynamic definition. While my so-called definition is just depressing.

Which probably explains why I've never been all that crazy about coming-of-age books.

Friday, February 02, 2007

How Much Editing Do These Books Receive?

I don't do a lot of posting about pre-publication Harry Potter excitement because mostly what I feel is dread--I'm not crazy about the books but feel I have to read them. I can't recall reading any other books that make me think so much about how heavy they are, and the prospect of having to hold up another one of these things with my arthritic limbs while reading on and on and on does not hold a lot of joy for me. But I saw this today at, and it did raise a question or two in my mind.

Rowling says she finished writing Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows on January 11th, which has been confirmed by her spokeswoman. What exactly does that mean? Did she finish the first draft? Did she finish a later draft after working with an editor on some earlier ones?

At her website she has a journal entry for December 19th that says, "I'm now writing scenes that have been planned, in some cases, for a dozen years or even more." That sounds to me as if she was working on an original draft only a few weeks before the date she finished writing the book.

My point is, the book is coming out in July. What with everything that goes into publishing a book, that's not a lot of lead-in time. What kind of editorial work will be done on this book? I'm sure Bloomsbury will put all its resources behind this thing, that no one will be working on anything else. But, still, it would be interesting to hear about the editing process for the last Harry Potter.

Or any of them, for that matter.

Slogging Through The Next Draft

Here is a small example of why it takes me so incredibly long to write almost anything:

Last summer I was writing the first draft of the second Hannah and Brandon book. I wanted to do a section relating to puppets, so, of course, I had to drop everything and read Pinocchio. Now I'm working on another draft of that book and I want to make extensive changes to the Pinocchio section. But I need a little something to stimulate me. Since I no longer have the library's copy of Pinocchio and thought I saw the whole thing on-line last summer, I went looking for it this afternoon.

That is how I came upon The Persistent Puppet: Pinocchio's Heirs in Contemporary Fiction and Film. It appears to be a lecture or essay or portions of a course that is archived at The University of Chicago Library's Digital Collections. It's a real gem, so I spent a big chunk of time reading it.

I did come up with some new ideas for my revision. But I didn't actually finish the revision. Or even get halfway through the puppet section.

So work just drags on.

At Last, I Am Cool

I took a Which Science Fiction Writer Are You? quiz, and I'm William Gibson! Young! Hip! Cutting edge!

Oh, wait. That was back in the 80s.

I feel I should warn you that one question in the quiz could be considered offensive by some readers. Well, it probably will be considered offensive by most readers. Now you've gotta look, don't you?

I found this quiz while looking for sites on Pinocchio. Really.

I am:
William Gibson
The chief instigator of the "cyberpunk" wave of the 1980s, his razzle-dazzle futuristic intrigues were, for a while, the most imitated work in science fiction.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Regarding Wintersmith

Swarm of Beasts has a review of Wintersmith, which was a Cybils nominee. I particularly liked the way she differentiated between funny writers and good writers who happen to be funny.

And Miss Erin has read The Wee Free Men, which is the first book in the Tiffany Aching trilogy, of which Wintersmith is the final part.

Celebrity Children's Authors

I tried to respond to MotherReader's post on Bloggers Against Celebrity Authors, couldn't get the response to load, and then lost the whole thing. Life has become so difficult--and slow--since I moved over to the New Blogger that I decided that responding here would be more energy effecient. I know I can get this thing to work. (She says now, anyway.)

MotherReader says in her post "...for every book deal these celebrities strike, that’s less of the kid-lit pie for another author trying to get a break." I don't know that that's the case. I don't know that it's a sure thing that fewer noncelebrity authors are published because of celebrity authors. A lot of noncelebrity books get published every year.

Presumably celebrity authors get better deals than the rest of us, but it's not like we'd get those deals if the celebrities weren't there. Established "big name" children's authors don't get those kinds of deals, forget about new authors. Only someone like, say, J.K. Rowling gets those kinds of deals and that's because she's a celebrity author.

The kind of publicity celebrity authors get doesn't take away from our publicity, either, because we'd never be offered that kind of publicity. The Today Show is never going to call most of us. That's not a complaint, it's the way things are.

Celebrity authors don't cut into our pie. They have their own pie.

Do celebrity authors write a lot of crap? Very possibly. But go into any bookstore or library. Sad to say, celebrity authors do not have a corner on the crap market by a longshot.

Are celebrity authors exploiting the children's market, which has become much desirable in recent years? Maybe. But what about authors of adult literature who move into the children's market? Aren't they exploiting it, too? Should we unite against people like Joyce Carol Oates, also?

If you don't want to go nuts in the book business, you have to accept that it is a business that maintains itself by sales of books. Some authors are going to sell more books than others. Lots of times that has nothing to do with the quality of the books. Lots of times it has to do with the public and what it wants to buy. Sometimes the public wants to buy books written by someone whose name it recognizes, who has accomplished something it likes in some other field. The public has the right to do that.

You can't move the river, folks. Getting upset about celebrity authors is like getting upset because it's hot in the summer or cold in the winter. What's more, most celebrity authors don't last much longer than the seasons. Which, actually, makes them like many real authors.

NOTE: This post was revised, mainly for style.