Friday, November 30, 2007

This Kind Of Thing Makes Me Anxious

This fall I gave up reading a book after page twenty-five. There was nothing wrong with the author's writing technically. No dangling modifiers. No overuse of adverbs. No run-on sentences. No sentence fragments. There were no paragraphs that went on for pages. The author had all that down.

So what's your problem, Gail? My problem was the book was loaded with stereotypical kid characters and situations. You had the middle grade girl whose best friend wants to run with the cool crowd. You had the brother who calls his sister all kinds of names. You had mother/daughter tension. It was all stuff I'd read before, written in ways I'd seen before.

What distresses me about this situation? What is it about this book that makes me, myself, feel anxious?

Well, as I said, there was nothing wrong with the sentence by sentence writiing. This author knew how to do that. What's more, I'm sure the author felt her work had something unique about it, something valuable. All of us writers think that.

If she could be wrong (as I think she was, though, of course, that's just me), isn't it possible that the rest of us are wrong, too? Or at least some of us are wrong? Me, for instance?

How can we be sure that what we've done is as good as we think it is?

I hope that I'm just being self-centered, that whatever I read I have to make about me. Yeah. That's it. This has nothing to do with realizing around 4:30 this afternoon that the chapter I was working on was just talk, talk, talk and nowhere near as good as I'd thought it was. I'm just self-involved. Whew.

It's good to be the queen!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Just What Is A Negative Review?

I'd hardly barely begun reading this month's Carnival of Children's Books over at MotherReader when I came upon Anne Boles Levy's excellent Presentation on Advanced Reviewing from Book Buds. Anne's post has so much serious information on reviewing that I made a hard copy to stash away to reread when I have more time.

But Anne said a couple of things that interest me beyond the technical aspects of reviewing. In her blog post, she refers to Steve Wasserman's article published in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year. In it, Wasserman describes the "news of books" as an "ongoing cultural conversation" and says that "reviews are an invaluable way of eavesdropping" on this conversation. Reading the reviews is a valuable form of eavesdropping on the conversation, but writing the reviews makes you a participant in the conversation.

So that was Interesting Thing Number One. Interesting Thing Number Two? Anne's presentation was given at the Kidlit Blogger's Conference held earlier this year. As part of her presentation, she asked participants to edit "a short, highly critical review" that had been sent to her by a writer looking for editing advice. She says, "I was surprised when many people (authors all) stalled on the idea that the writer would even bother with a negative review.

Many authors simply couldn't emotionally grapple with the reality of negative book reviews, of their being a vital part of that "cultural conversation."

This subject has been discussed in blogs before in the kidlitosphere, so it's something I've thought about and written about. More than once. But after reading Anne's post, I began to wonder just what people mean by a "negative review."

Are "negative reviews" a matter of tone? Are the reviewers showing off their snarky wit at the expense of a novelist, like the blogger I stumbled upon who said his gag reflex was activated at the ending of a particular book? Or are "negative reviews" merely "critical" in the sense of careful evaluation? I'm thinking here of a reviewer stating that an author sacrificed character development for plot, for instance, or a reviewer believing that the writer's pacing was uneven.

I'm with Anne in believing that reviews are part of a conversation about books. As with any conversation, snark gets old fast and doesn't add any depth to the talk. But careful evaluation is what gives the conversation value. Careful evaluation is what makes reviews useful to readers. It makes them useful to anyone who is interested in books.

It's difficult for writers to have to listen to talk of their work being less than brilliant. And, yes, such reviews do have the potential to have an impact on our careers and our pocketbooks. But isn't that true of people working in any art form? What other arts practitioner would even dream of suggesting that there is no place for "negative" or critical, evaluative reviews in their ongoing cultural conversations? Think of movies, theater, TV, art. Does anyone in any of those fields publish only "positive" reviews? And if they do, does anyone take them seriously?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Stages Of Life, Thematically

Over the years I've heard from people who made it clear that they defined Young Adult fiction as books that didn't include much sex or so-called mature subject matter. I heard of one writer whose publisher was going to market his genre book as a crossover to YA because it was "clean." These folks were living in a dreamworld, of course. In addition, they didn't know what YA was because they didn't understand that it's supposed to be about something, about something different from books that are for other readers.

I frequently find myself explaining that theme is important in YA, since theme, essentially, is what a book is about. A really good YA book includes classic YA themes, such as separating oneself from family, seeking a path in life. Usually the people I'm talking to don't read much YA, so they have no idea what I'm talking about. In fact, I know some of my family members think I'm making this stuff up as I go along.

Oddly enough, I'm clearest on my thinking about YA themes when I'm reading a M(iddle) A(ge) book, as I am right now. MA books deal with disappointment. They deal with coming to terms with what your life has been. That's a very strong contrast to YA books that deal with what your life is going to be.

Books directed to various stages of life address themes important to those stages.

Childhood: After having been the center of the universe in order to survive (cry-get fed, cry-get changed, cry-get attention),I find out that this behavior is no longer going to work for me. How will I get along with others at school, day care, Scouts, the world? How much am I willing to conform in order to get along with others?

Young Adult: Separation. How am I like/different from my family/peer group? What will I do with my life? What will become of me?

Twenty/Thirty Somethings: Life sucks. Shouldn't someone have told me? Now what?

Middle Age: Assessment. How have I spent my life? Did I do good? Is this what I wanted? Is it too late for me?

Older Age: I'm too old to give a damn. My last shot at happiness and fulfillment.

YA fiction isn't the only kind of literature that addresses concerns/themes of a specific age group. Every age has its themes. It's much easier to understand what YA literature is when you understand it in relation to these other types of literature.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Perhaps We Should Be Looking At This Differently.

Colleen over at Chasing Ray threw herself on a grenade for the rest of us and read the NEA report that states that Americans are reading less. Colleen and her commenters discuss the number crunching and what it all means, if it means anything at all.

Perhaps the NEA should be looking at reading from a different angle. Instead of counting readers and nonreaders and adding them up and dividing the sum by something or other and then taking it to another power, maybe it would be more useful to give some thought to why those who read choose to do so.

The New York Times just ran an article called A Good Mystery: Why We Read. "...what is it, exactly, that turns someone into a book lover who keeps coming back for more?" the author, Motoko Rich asks. "There is no empirical answer...The gestation of a true, committed reader is in some ways a magical process, shaped in part by external forces but also by a spark within the imagination."

Well, that there is no empirical answer business may be disappointing, but I think the question is a good one. The NEA studies aren't going to do much to create readers. But if we could figure out why readers read, we'd have a model to work with.

That, at least, would be progress.


Slate has a marvelous slide show/essay called Where The Wild Things Came From on the evolution of children's illustration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It's based on the book Drawn to Enchant by Timothy Young, which was just published in October.

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for the link.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Gilda Rises Above Everything

I was first exposed to Gilda Joyce last year during the Cybils reading period, when I read The Ladies of the Lake and liked it a lot.

I liked the newest Gilda Joyce book by Jennifer Allison, too, though I'm not quite so enthusiastic as I was about the book I read last year. For one thing, I don't remember Gilda being quite so over the top as she is in The Ghost Sonata. She's still funny, smart, and unique, but transporting a number of bizarre costumes to Oxford, England and then wearing them (a 60s mod outfit, a sequined gown to accompany a tiara) seemed to make her a little laughable. Though this book, like its predecessor, functions pretty well as a stand alone book, I do think readers who aren't familiar with the earlier works might be thrown when, well into the story, Gilda starts writing a letter to her dead father. I don't have a problem with Gilda writing to her dead dad, I just think it's not set up particularly well in this volume.

The Ghost Sonata involves Gilda accompanying her friend Wendy to Oxford where Wendy will take part in an international piano competition. I've never been to Oxford, but the setting certainly seemed realistic to me. I've never taken part in any kind of international competition, either, but, once again, that aspect of the book was great. The ghosty stuff was good, too. I looked forward to getting back to the book, plus I didn't quite foresee the ending. I expected a slightly different explanation.

I did find the point of view switches awkward, though. The Ghost Sonata is written in the third person, with a point of view character who changes. Usually Gilda is the p.o.v. character, but sometimes it's her friend Wendy. A few times it switches to other, more secondary characters.

The writing done from these other characters' minds is good. Wendy, in particular, is a good character. But the switches seemed abrupt, and they came irregularly. It made the storyline seem as if it was broken into chunks. It's one of those things, like footnotes, that pulls a reader away from a story.

Now, this may not be the result of poor work on the author's part. It may be that I so rarely see books written this way anymore that I no longer can move along with the narrator. The omniscient point of view--a third person narrator that shifts from character to character--isn't very popular these days. A third person point of view with a point of view character who remains the same through the entire work is more common, when third person is used at all. Particularly in children's books and YA, first person is king.

I don't think Allison used this kind of shift in The Ladies of the Lake. Whether or not what she does her with point of view in The Ghost Sonata is one hundred percent successful, I think she deserves some credit for doing something different with one of her series' books.

Gilda Joyce is still a great series. A popular one, too. I just tried to renew my copy at the library and found there was a hold on it.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Are You A Tripods Fan?

Sam Riddleburger is doing a John Christopher Week at his blog.

You know John Christopher, of course. The Tripods Trilogy? Post-apocalyptic books about life on Earth after it has been invaded and overrun by aliens? The museum scene may stick out in your mind, as it does in mine. That and the escape from a tripod city.

And I read the books as an adult.

Somebody's With Me On Beowulf

I'm not the only person who has a thing for Beowulf. Camille at Book Moot has actually seen and heard part of it performed by a bard speaking in Old English.

I was more than willing to go watch a movie that included both male and female cartoon nudity, but I don't know if I would have gone out for a clothed bard speaking in Old English. I think Camille has me beat.

All Things Sparrow

School Library Journal has an interview up with Mitali Perkins. The interview focuses on Mitali's Sparrowblog, which focuses on the 2008 presidential campaign by way of news relating to the children of the candidates. Many of of those children also have blogs, it seems, just as the main character in Mitali's book, First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I Just Can't Keep Up

Today I received some promotional material from what looks to be a very nice literary magazine. It made me feel guilty because I don't subscribe to one. A number of years ago, I read that we all have a responsibility to help support literary magazines, and to do so we should all subscribe to at least one journal.

Well, I thought that made a great deal of sense, so I did subscribe to one. It didn't even cost me any money, because the subscription was given to me for Christmas. Two years in a row, in fact.

That had to have been four or five years ago. I still haven't read the second year's issues. That's why I gave up on asking Santa for subscriptions. I knew I couldn't do the reading and having the journals stacked up around the house or on my To Be Read wears on me.

Kelly at Big A, little a has been doing posts on Making Space for Writing. This sound counterproductive, but one of the things I try to do is be realistic about what I can read. I limit the number of magazine subscriptions coming into the house. I've also learned that a lot of the single issues that I bring home carry pretty much the same articles month after month. I try to be selective. I try to accept that I'm never going to do anything with those glittery, pretty journals and leave them be instead of hoarding them somewhere and letting them grow stiff and mildewy.

I feel like a Philistine, but loading up my time caring for publications I have no hope of reading really does cut into my writing time, which is cut into plenty with all the reading I do do.

Friday, November 23, 2007

You Thought I Was Getting Off Topic With All That Beowulf Stuff, Didn't You?

Wednesday morning, I heard from BDT. He had just finished reading Beowulf with his sixth grade class, and, he said, the kids really liked it. I found this very interesting because just the night before I'd had a revelation about Beowulf while brushing my teeth.

Okay, here is the basic Beowulf story. Beowulf, while at the height of his strength and power, kills a couple of monsters and saves the day for Hrothgar, the king of a foreign country. Then Beowulf goes home where he is a king to his own people. Time passes. A new monster or dragon or something comes and poses a threat to Beowulf's kingdom. The old hero battles the monster to save his people. But not being at the height of his strength and power, he doesn't survive the experience.

I think this story basically tells the story of human life. We make our greatest achievements while at our physical and mental peak. Then time passes, we grow old, and can't do what we were able to do before. Or, at least, not as well. The people who created and first told Beowulf were expressing this fact of life that no one can get past. The story has endured, not because people loved it but because they recognized that it truly was making a statement about the human condition.

Not exactly a story I would have thought sixth graders would appreciate, though. It's not a story I would think teenagers would care for much, either, but there were a number of them in the theater this afternoon for the showing of the new Beowulf movie. I'm guessing they liked it well enough because the movie has been juiced up quite a bit with sex. In it, Grendel's Mom is a hotty who seduces men, who are then corrupt and lost because they did the deed with her. They also provide her with sons who years later seek their fathers out and wreak havoc upon them.

True, the movie version has a peppier story line than the true Beowulf. It also has a story that's easier to take. We don't want to believe that monsters will just randomly attack people. Random things could happen to us, too, after all. We want to believe that victims do something to bring their fates upon themselves. Beowulf didn't just grow older and weaker the way we all will. He got what was coming to him because of what he did with the Angelina Jolie cartoon.

Actually, that storyline probably is better for kids. There's a moral there for them. With the true Beowulf they're just told a fact of life. With the movie, they're told not to have sex with beautiful monster women who live in caves.

It is good advice.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Picture Books Are Not Just For Preschoolers Anymore

I have been saying for years that the publishing world should create a category of picture books for adults. Well, to my knowledge, no one has done it yet. But I am seeing some movement upwards in the age range for picture books.

A couple of weeks ago when I was looking for Kevin O'Malley books at my local library, I found his very clever Mount Olympus Basketball. It's a beautiful and witty picturebook in which a team of Greek gods take on a team of Greek heroes at basketball, complete with twenty-first century commentators and an "up close and personal" type half-time feature on ancient Greece. ("Thanks, Chet. That was fascinating.") This thing reads as if someone went to O'Malley and asked him to do an educational picture book on mythology, and he said, "You've got to be kidding." You get your info on the gods, alright, but in a satirical, twisted way.

As I was reading Mount Olympus Basketball, I kept thinking that all this was great. Greater than great. But only if the reader already knew quite a bit about mythology. You had to have some base knowledge to get the joke. Would the picture book crowd have that base knowledge?

I took a look at the publisher's suggested age group for the book. It was 6 to 11. This was a picture book for middle grade students. They really should enjoy it.

Now, Mount Olympus Basketball was published back in 2003. Perhaps picture books have been being published for older kids for a while, and I just missed it. If you take a look at the most recent issure of The Horn Book, you'll find reviews in the Picture Book category for even older readers. Margaret Wild's Woolvs in the Sitee (illustrated by Anne Spudvilas) is described as being for Intermediate and Middle School students. And Shaun Tan's The Arrival is listed as being for Middle School and High School students.

That's darn close to adults. I'm hopeful that it will only be a matter of time before we have picture books marketed to them, too. Of course, some would say that all picture books are marketed to adults, since preschoolers don't do their own shopping. Still, I'm talking about picture books marketed to adults for adults.

Final note: I can't help noticing that The Arrival and Woolvs in the Sitee are written and illustrated by Australians. You think maybe those folks are a little more interested in picture books for older people?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I Don't Care. I Still Want To See It.

Salon slams the movie Beowulf big time, comparing it very unfavorably to The Lord of the Rings movies.

Fortunately, I've never read any of the Rings books, and I've never seen any of the movies. Tolkien Shmokien.

I can't even say I like Beowulf all that much. I can't say I really understand it or get the point. In the Salon essay, Gary Kamiya says Beowulf is "unfathomable." "The inscrutability of "Beowulf" has made it contested ground for scholars for over a century...even experts cannot agree on what it means..."

That intrigues me. Beowulf is "the earliest piece of vernacular European literature," according to Kamiya. Why? Why did this story engage early Anglo-Saxon people? Why has it survived all these centuries?

Oh! Oh! I'm getting a story idea here, folks! What about the epics that got away? The ones people loved back then that disappeared? What do you suppose those were like?

Oops. Sorry, sorry. What was I talking about? Yes. Beowulf. It intrigues me, whatever to hell it means. And every few years it turns up again in my life in some form or another.

So, I'm hoping to get out to see it this holiday weekend. The question is, do I bite the bullet and drive all the way to the IMAX theater or just dart down to the local spot where I can see it for nothing because I have gift certificates? I'm too lazy and cheap to go far and spend much. But, on the other hand, what if IMAX is the way to see it, and I ruin the experience by being lazy and cheap?

Only One More Day

You have only one more day to try to to win a copy of Club Earth.

Both Club Earth and the earlier My Life Among the Aliens are among my suburban books, as I might have said here earlier. (You can't possibly expect me to remember everything I've said here. We're talking over 1,300 posts.) All my work draws heavily on who I am, and these books draw on Gail the suburban mother.

Thus in Club Earth you'll find a chapter about an alien arriving on earth thinking he's going to summer camp, because my kids did summer camp. An alien gets hauled along to a father/child campout that is modeled on Indian Guides, as it was called when my family took part for around six years. (The pig roast in that chapter is pretty much what I was told happened.) There's a chapter on alien traveling salespeople helping kids out with school fundraisers because my kids once took part in five fundraisers in a two-month period. The kids in Club Earth have hamsters because the Gauthier boys, being allergic to cats and dogs, had a hamster and an Egyptian spiny mouse. In fact, most of this book was written on a computer set up next to their cages.

So, one more day, folks, to have a chance at winning stories of all that domestic bliss.

Monday, November 19, 2007

To Read Or Not To Read


I'm hoping that some math geek will do an interview giving these figures a more positive spin. It could happen.

Or maybe only an English major would think that.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Could This Be The End Of Captain Raptor?

I was browsing near the new children's book shelf at my local library when a book called Captain Raptor and the Space Pirates by Kevin O'Malley and Patrick O'Brien caught my eye. "Another Captain Raptor Adventure!" was printed above the title, so I went over to the stacks to see if we had the first one. Sure enough, we also had Captain Raptor and the Moon Mystery. (According to the cover, this one was written by O'Malley with O'Brien illustrating. Both of them are listed as authors on the second book with O'Brien still illustrating.)

And that's how I discovered these clever, shall we say, graphic picture books.

You know how there are some young kids who are into space travel while there are other young kids who are into dinosaurs? Well, these books are for kids who are into either or both because Captain Raptor and his brave crew are dinosaur space heroes, traveling in their ship on missions to save their planet, Jurassica. Their adventures are both thrilling and tongue-in-cheek. Whenever the going gets rough, the question "Could this be the end of Captain Raptor?" arises. That's always a sure sign that we'll turn the page and see him pull his tough hide out of another tight spot.

Lovely to look at and delightful to know. I hope that Captain Raptor and the Space Pirates will not be the end of Captain Raptor.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Looking Forward To A Retreat Could Get You Through The Holidays

I like to have something to look forward to at the beginning of the year to help get me through the ordeal of the holidays. If you're a member of the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, looking forward to the 2008 Whispering Pines Writers' Retreat on Feb. 29 through March 2 could be what you need to make the month of December bearable.

The author mentor at the 2008 event will be Mark Peter Hughes. You remember Mark Peter Hughes. I was obsessed with him this summer, not because I'm a fan of his books (I've never read any) but because he quit his job this year to focus on writing full time and then took off on a cross-country promotional tour with his family. I was expecting trauma, if not on the trip, then when he got home and had to face writing full-time without a visible means of regular support. If that's the case, he's been keeping it to himself. No sobbing or chest pounding at his website. Maybe he'll talk about it at Whispering Pines.

Ilene Richard will serve as the illustrator mentor. Kaylan Adair of Candlewick Press and Emily Mitchell of Charlesbridge Publishing will attend as editor mentors.

Another Thing That Could Make December Bearable
: The prospect of winning a book. Forget about finding jewelry, stock, iPods, or computer innards under your tree. You could find an e-mail from me on Christmas Day telling you you've won My Life Among the Aliens.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Gaiman And Beowulf

Neil Gaiman was one of the screenwriters for Beowulf. My young family member BDT is teaching sixth grade this year, and he and his colleagues were reading a version of the epic-that-just-won't-go-away to their classes.

According to Salon, maybe they shouldn't be planning any field trips to see the movie. I was thinking of going, though. It's playing on IMAX nearby.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Robert's Snow Interview

Check out Wild Rose Reader's interview with Mary Newell DePalma, one of the artists involved with Robert's Snow: For Cancer's Cure. I just met Mary this past Sunday.

But The Movie Looks Good

I read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke more than three years ago. My main recollection is that I thought it would never end. When the main character escaped the bad guys and then turned around and went back to their lair, I wanted to wring her little neck.

But Book Moot posted a link to a trailer for the movie, and it doesn't look half bad. I know you can't trust trailers, but this one almost looks as if it focuses more on Mo, the father, than on...ah...ah...whatever-her-name-was, the daughter. If that's the case, some fans might be disappointed (it's supposed to be a kids' book, after all), but I won't mind.

I don't mind Helen Mirren as the freaky aunt, either.

Why Not A Little Healthy Competition?

You've got less than a week to enter the Club Earth Thanksgiving Giveaway but more than a month to take your shot at winning a copy of My Life Among the Aliens for Christmas.

Anyone can enter, of course, but if you teachers and librarians want to have some fun, you can encourage your students to enter to win the book for your library or classroom collections. The more kids who enter on your behalf, the better your chances of winning. Why not start a little competition with that third grade teacher down the hall who you've never really cared for?

Today I heard from an education major looking to start her personal classroom library.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How To Live A Good Life

I am a member of the very, very small group of readers who were not bowled over by Looking for Alaska by John Green. In fact, I may be the only reader who wasn't bowled over by it.

But it wasn't because Green is a bad writer. He is a decent writer who wrote a book I didn't care for. That is perfectly acceptable. So I decided to give his second novel, An Abundance of Katherines, a shot.

Okay, first I'm going to talk about a negative so I can end on a positive note, which will be a novelty for me.

I found the book a little gimmicky. For instance, our main character is always creating anagrams out of names. Plus, the book uses footnotes, a great many of them particularly early in the book. I will admit I've read a few novels with footnotes that I enjoyed. But here they are distracting. A little of the material in the footnotes does pertain to the main story. It could easily have been included in the text. But a lot of it is merely fun, clever stuff that pulls the reader away from the story. Green has a good story here, much more original than in Looking for Alaska, and it's entertaining. But for a long time I didn't feel any compelling need to go back to the book because I couldn't stay in the story. I was always being pulled out of it by footnotes, anagrams, or subtitles warning us that a flashback is coming.

Of course, given that mathematics has such an important place in this story, perhaps Green was trying to make his piece of fiction look like a scholarly work, complete with diagrams, subtitles, and footnotes. That is a neat idea, but it sure wreaked havoc with the narrative flow.

On the other hand, I think Green had some great material here. Colin Singleton is a former child prodigy trying to come to terms with the fact that he may not do anything particularly significant with his life. (He also wants a relationship, but who doesn't?) We're coming off a couple of decades during which many, many kids were identified not as prodigies, perhaps, but as gifted. And what does become of them when they grow up? After having been singled out throughout their schooling and working their butts off (Colin worked many hours a day from the time he was three.), are they left scratching their heads and wondering what they're supposed to do with themselves that's all that different from what their classmates who were merely smart or even average are doing? We're talking a story for our time, wouldn't you say?

In addition, the whole how am I going to live my life? thing is one of my favorite themes, and it's the major question that drives An Abundance of Katherines. The three teen characters--Colin, his best friend, the marvelous Hassan, and the girl who is not named Katherine who they meet in a general store--are concerned with how to live a good life. A good life, not the good life. Work, relationships (of varying kinds), and faith are all issues they deal with.

Whatever flaws An Abundance of Katherines may have, it is thought provoking and witty. I guess I'll be reading John Green's next book, too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Loss Of Contact

On Monday night, the company that provides our Internet service suffered some sort of massive power outage. They got their power back relatively quickly, but they then had a huge problem rebuilding their data. We had general Internet access and personal e-mail yesterday, but the status of my website, blog, and professional e-mail was a mystery. They were some of the things the techies were still trying to rebuild.

I am not at all sure of the connection between loosing your power and having to rebuild your data. I'm just repeating what I was told when I called them yesterday.

My computer guy assured me this would work out. "These people better have had backup somewhere offsite." Well, yeah. If days passed with no improvement, he could have republished my website, and we hoped that Blogger had my five and a half years of blog posts stored somewhere. I will spare you the details of my angst over losing all that. Let's just say I was feeling very Gail Who? without being sexy and fun.

If you entered our Books For The Holidays contest yesterday, please enter again since we may have lost e-mail while all this was going on.

UPDATE: I just noticed that in all the rebuilding data trauma (And I'm talking trauma. My computer guy had to throw cold water on me to calm me down.) one of my Monday night posts didn't make it onto the Internet. So go back a bit to read all about the writers and illustrators I met this past Sunday.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Carbon-based Vs. On-line Book Discussions

Leila at bookshelves of doom is running a discussion of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier at her website. She's calling it The Big Read.

I am so excited.

Years ago--and I mean years ago--a friend and I started a book club at our local library. Forgive me if I'm repeating myself, but we're not exactly a big reading town. As a result, most months we had three to five people show up. Five, in fact, was a crowd.

During the first few years, it didn't matter what we read, we always ended up talking about religion and sex. But after that, we deteriorated into the stereotypical joke book club. After a usually pretty weak ten or fifteen minute discussion of the book, the next hour and a half was spent talking about our kids and the awful things that were going on at the schools in town. Frequently only one or two people would have read the whole book. We'd often select some heavy titles-- nineteenth century novels, for instance--that took a lot of time to read, then we'd get to the meeting and find that only one other person had bothered.

The group meets to this day. You've got to hand it to the people who stuck with it. As I said, they don't get a lot of support. But I'm not there. The separation wasn't ugly, though. I managed to do one of those "It's not you, it's me" things. And, actually, it was.

After that I attached myself to a few on-line book discussions. Many were jut as bad as the real world book groups. But when you get a good on-line discussion, it is fantastic.

The first time it was good for me with an on-line group was at Readerville where the YA Forum discussed Jane Eyre. I had read Jane Eyre as a teenager and really wasn't all that impressed. But the discussion at Readerville made me a Jane fan. Some of the posters were graduate students who had studied the book and they brought wonderful stuff to the table.

The beauty of an on-line discussion, I found, was that you could mull over what others said and respond at your leisure. An extended book discussion allows for thought. Thinking adds a great dimension to talking.

Later, another group did a discussion of a Chuck Palahniuk book that was led by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. The discussion was supposed to last a month, and she kept it going until the very last day. It was great.

Those were peak experiences, of course. Not all discussions will be that great. Even the citizens of Readerville couldn't pull off a good conversation every time. And listserv discussions, in particular, tend to peter out fast.

But when an on-line discussion is good, it is very good. I have great hopes for the Big Read of Rebecca. If you have any interest in that bizarre little classic, head over to bookshelves of doom and check out what's happening.

A Meet And Greet

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Massachusetts School Library Association Author Fest, which was part of the organization's conference. We were in the vendor's hall, which was like a trade show for librarians. In addition to a cash bar, which is always greatly appreciated, this group also had a live band. A good time was had by all.

I learned that The Hero of Ticonderoga has been on some reading lists in Massachusetts, which was very good news, and that A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat is making its way into a number of libraries. Happy Kid! is also known by Massachusetts librarians. So I am a happy author today.

I also met a bunch of people. Many librarians, of course, but some writers, too.

First and foremost (and first, really, because she was the first person to greet me when I arrived--we both still had our coats on), was the kidlitosphere's own Mitali Perkins. Mitali and I kind of know each other in that weird way we have here on the Internet of knowing people we've never actually met in the flesh. But it turns out that knowing someone in cyberspace really is knowing someone because Mitali and I were just off and running as if we talk together all the time.

Seated in front of me at the cute little author tables was Beatrice Gormley who does a lot of nonfiction but also has a new historical novel out. I also met Marcella Pixley who has just published her first book, Freak.

At dinner I sat next to the very neat author/illustrators Mary Newell DePalma and Anna Alter. As it turns out, Anna is one of the Blue Rose Girls. She has also designed a snowflake for Robert's Snow: For Cancer's Cure that was featured at The Longstockings on November 3. Mary has also done a Robert's Snowflake, and, as luck would have it, it will be featured at Wild Rose Reader this Thursday.

These women were great to eat dinner with. Illustration is a really interesting topic for dinner conversation. I'll be repeating a lot of what they had to say to my sister-in-law during Thanksgiving dinner.

Actually, my entire MSLA experience will probably be my subject for social conversation right through the holidays. Thank God I was invited.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Perhaps This Is Some Kind Of Tribute

Last weekend, Liz at A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy did a post on the similarities between the covers for An Abundance of Katherines by John Green and the The Attraction Equation by Charlie Eppes who isn't a real person but a character on the TV show NUMB3RS. Notice that both covers include not only a group of people but mathematical thingies around the titles.

I was forwarding a link to Liz's post to a family member when I realized that the similarities between these books are not limited to the covers.

John Green, a real person, wrote a real book called An Abundance of Katherines about a former child prodigy who is working on a theorem relating to those who are dumped versus those who do the dumping with the intention that somehow this theorem will predict relationships. Charlie Eppes, an imaginary former child prodigy, wrote an imaginary book about his own equation that has something to do with attraction among people, which would also have something to do with relationships. I can't say exactly what because I understand very little of what Charlie Eppes says, I only watch the show because the actor who plays him looks like the family member I was e-mailing today. IMHO, though no one else seems to have noticed.

Anyway, I know I recently said that sometimes two books on the same subject come out at the same time. And, of course, a book and a TV show could appear with similar material at the same time. Except that An Abundance of Katherines came out in September, 2006, while the fake Charlie Eppes wrote his fake book last spring and the fake cover appeared on TV screens this fall. So that's not exactly simultaneous.

Here's what I think should happen: the people behind NUMB3RS should say, "Gee, we don't know how this happened. Perhaps Fate has pulled all this together for its own mysterious purposes. For whatever reason, this has happened, and we're going to put John Greene's book cover up at our website so everyone knows about him and he can sell a million more books."

Or--and this may be even better--the real John Green can sue the pretend Charlie Eppes as part of a NUMB3RS episode. It could even be part of a two- or three-part story arc. And John and Charlie can come up with some kind of mathematical thingie that explains how this whole thing happened. It doesn't even have to be a real mathematical thingie because even though the producers of the show say the math is real, nobody who watches the program has a clue what Charlie's talking about, so it really doesn't matter.

Of course, none of this can happen until after the writers' strike is over.

Books For The Holidays

We're doing a couple more book giveaways here, this time in honor of the upcoming holidays. You can take a chance at winning my first book My Life Among the Aliens, which includes a Christmas chapter, and its sequel, Club Earth, which includes a Thanksgiving chapter. You can enter any time between now and the night before Thanksgiving for Club Earth and any time between now and Christmas Eve for My Life Among the Aliens.

These are what I call the "Will and Robby books." They're collections of short stories about two brothers whose home is visited regularly by aliens. They are two of my suburban books, set in a nameless suburban world and drawing upon my adult life as a suburban mother. (I also have Vermont books set in a named, fictional town in Vermont and drawing upon my life growing up in that state.)

The cover art, as well as the small drawings at the beginning of each of the chapters, were done by Santiago Cohen. If you watch Comedy Central, you're familiar with his work because he designed its logo. His interior artwork didn't appear in the paperback versions of my books (I don't recall what that was about), so if you have those, this giveaway could be your chance to get a "complete" edition.

These books are no longer in print, though there has been talk of rereleasing My Life Among the Aliens in paperback. In addition to its hardcover G.P. Putnam edition, it was released in paper by both PaperStar and Scholastic.

Check out the details for entering again.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ah...Isn't This Just Junie B. Jones With Good Grammar?

Get ready, people. This is going to be one of those Gail-doesn't-like-a-beloved-book posts. I haven't done one of those in a while. Five weeks, I think.

I don't hate The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. It is well-written. It has a real story, and it doesn't have any cartoon bad guys. Pennypacker treats her readers with respect. But I've been hearing things about Clementine for a while now, including comments like, "Everyone says they want more books like Clementine." So I was expecting something very different, not just different from what I found but different in terms of other books.

By the time I got to the third or fourth page, and I was reading this first-person account of a young girl with an unusual name in an elementary school classroom who says the darndest, cutest things to adults, I started thinking, Hey! Isn't this just like Junie B. Jones who is also a young girl with an unusual name in an elementary school classroom who says the darndest, cutest things to adults? Except that Clementine uses good grammar?

I've only read a couple of Junie B. Jones books, so I'm no authority on the subject. But these two series seem amazingly alike to me, right down to these kids being cute the way adults like kids to be cute. They're cute like the youngest kid in a sitcom family--not the older wiseass kid, but the one who says oddly adorable things that have some kind of significance. And both kids interact with adults a lot, which isn't a bad thing. It just sort of gives the book more of an adult interest to me.

I know kids are supposed to love Junie B. Jones, and I imagine they must love Clementine, too, since she's so much like her. How intriguing since both characters seem like an adult's idea of the model nonconforming child--cute and nonthreatening. Kids like that kind of nonconformist, too.

I realized recently that I haven't been posting links to positive reviews/material to give readers an opposing viewpoint the way I used to. So check out the awards and positive reviews the first book in the Clementine series received.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Some Great Reading This Evening

Trouble keeping up with all the reading on the Winter Blog Blast Tour? Don't just throw in the towel. Read what you can. Read without guilt.

A couple of suggestions:

The Sherman Alexie interview at Finding Wonderland. Fantastic. Be sure not to miss what he has to say about tribal affiliation and subculture.

The Maureen Johnson interview at bildungsroman. "I wrote two books for practice. One was for a friend. The other lives in a drawer. They aren't for publication. They really were just exercises for me to try things out. I put myself through a kind of self-imposed writing boot camp when I graduated college, writing four to ten hours a day..." Yeah, that's pretty much what you have to do. Not everyone realizes that going in, though.

Then, if you want a break from questions and answers, you can go over to The Edge of the Forest and read Pam Coughlan's article Can a Funny Book Be Taken Seriously? I just happen to be reading An Abundance of Katherines right now, but even if you aren't, the article raises interesting questions about how humor is perceived in our culture.

If you have any strength left, you can check out some Cybils reviews. (Sheila links to some toward the end of her post at Wands and Worlds.) The Cybils is a valuable award not because it singles out one book to bring to the public's attention, but because it brings so very many books to the public's attention. Many more reviews are available at the Cybils website.

Desk Excavation

Work has come to a grinding halt on The Durand Cousins just two chapters before the end. I have only a vague idea what's going to happen. I'm at a loss. So I'm taking the week off now that I was planning to take off between drafts, hoping something will come to me.

Great week off. I'm cleaning my desk. I know there are some writing books somewhere here, and if I find them they might tell me how to write an ending. So far, I've found a few business cards that I can take to the MSLA Author Fest on Sunday.

I've also come upon Squiggles by Taro Gomi, which was sent to me by Chronicle Books a few weeks ago. Squiggles is an enormous drawing book. It's filled with drawings that have only been started so that kids can finish them.

Drawing books are definitely not my area of expertise. (That's even assuming I have an area of expertise.) But this is the kind of book I was a sucker for when I was a professional mom, something a parent could feel good about giving her kids to encourage their creativity. (Because creativity is good, right?) Squiggles reminds me of the Anti-coloring Books, which were all over the place back in the day, but much simpler and with far less text.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

More Discussion Of Just How Dangerous Dangerous Is

J.L. Bell and some of his readers discuss The Dangerous Book for Boys at Oz and Ends.

Crissa-Jean Talks About How She Did It

Crissa-Jean Chappell talks about her book Total Constant Order at Alice's CWIM Blog.

Thanks to cynsations for the link.

Maybe The Fun Is Gone From Science Fiction

Sam Riddleburger and I have been having a private exchange regarding The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. Sam wrote me to say he recalled liking the book when he was a kid. He also said,

"I just wanted to point out that the great Stanislaw Lem, who wrote an extremely detailed "realistic" account of space travel in "Fiasco," frequently used the "jump out of a rocket and meet an alien" technique for other books. And they're a lot more fun than Fiasco." (Links added by me.)

Sam's mention of fun got me thinking. Last year while I was on the Cybils scifi/fantasy panel, we didn't get a lot of science fiction books. Maybe only one. I've also read that true science fiction isn't very popular with kids these days. Maybe now that we are so science literate (I'm sure scientists would say we're not) that even young children have some basic knowledge of the reality of conditions in space, computers, gene therapy, artificial intelligence, and God knows what all, science fiction no longer has enough fun to attract young readers.

Or certainly it can't have much magic when it's loaded down with reality. Now, I know a lot of science fiction readers like and want reality. But I'm guessing most of those readers are over the age ten. It may be a lot harder for today's eight-year-olds to imagine themselves loaded for bear with space travel equipment than it was for eight-year-olds of old to imagine themselves dropping down onto the moon with nothing more than a couple of sandwiches to hold them over until tea.

I'm not saying that that is the case. I'm just raising it as a possibility.

By the way, Stanislaw Lem also wrote Solaris, which, when I saw it as a movie, I did not understand at all. Perhaps I'll try again now.

Monday, November 05, 2007

And In This Corner...

Back in October, Roger Sutton over at Read Roger posted a link to what he called a "legendary battle" between Camille Paglia and Julie Burchill. One of his commenters asked, "What are the great literary feuds of our field?"

Well, I don't know if this is legendary, or even great, but thirty-five years ago, long before Roger had probably even heard of The Horn Book, a juicy mud-slinging match took place within the covers of that hallowed publication. As I mentioned yesterday, Eleanor Cameron wrote an article for The Horn Book back in 1972. It was a three-part article, actually, called McLuhan, Youth, and Literature Parts I, II, and III. In it, Cameron shreds McLuhan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the YA lit of her day.

This woman wasn't crazy for Marshall McLuhan, and she felt writers for youth, seemed "to be incapable of complexity of characterization and meaning, but of subtlety and wit and individuality of style as well." But what she really, really didn't like was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

An Eleanor Cameron vs. Roald Dahl slugfest followed, complete with commentary from the audience, including a letter from Cameron supporter Ursula K. Le Guin. What with the publication of the first portion of the article and all the letters to the editor this went on for a year.

Back in the day they knew how to get down and ugly. It all makes what goes on in kidlit blogs now look tame.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Time Will Always Work Against Me

I was very ambitious back when I was a teenager. In those days, I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to be immortal. I can remember thinking about it during study hall. Traipsing off to that great high school cafeteria in the sky would be okay because long after I was dust people yet unborn would be taking my books off shelves, and thus I would live on. It never entered my mind that people yet unborn might look at my work and say, "When did this woman live? In the Dark Ages?"

But in all likelihood, they will.

I found The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron on the new book shelf at my local library. The two boys in the space ship suggested to me that this might be one of those books for younger kids that I've been hunting for these last few months, so I took it home.

I started to read and thought, How retro. I read a little more and thought, How very retro. Before long I was thinking, How very, very retro.

Well, the book isn't retro at all. It probably fits very much into the period in which it was written, since it was originally published in 1954. It was probably very contemporary then.

I don't know what to make of Flight to the Mushroom Planet, at least in terms of being a book for early twenty-first century kids. Though the writing is sophisticated as far as vocabulary and writing skill is concerned, it has a "Hey! Let's build a space ship and go to another planet" aura about it that definitely comes from another time. Like some of Ray Bradbury's work, it's a product of a time when people could still believe humans could land on another planet and walk around and talk with the folks there. It also has a Bradbury-like romance with boyhood, a fantasy boyhood, perhaps, during which young fellows built things and had adventures and adults respected that. I also thought it had a Twilight Zone feel. (Rod Serling was seriously into the romance of childhood and treated it nostalgically, in my humble opinion.) When David is telling his mother about his adventure on the mushroom planet and he, and we, aren't sure whether she believes him or just loves talking to him, I could easily imagine her in a shirtwaist and pearls, a black-and-white mom on the TV.

None of this is to say The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is a bad book. It's just very, very rooted in its time. I don't know how it will go over with the kids of our time, who probably all know by the time they hit kindergarten that no human being is going to be hopping out of a spaceship onto another planet without millions of dollars of hardware to keep her alive.

I think this is probably the fate of a great many books, not just works of science fiction. We are all residents of our time period. That's the way it should be. Our work, no matter what it is, is a product of the time in which it was produced. Some products will be appreciated decades later. Some won't.

Oddly enough, Eleanor Cameron wrote an article for The Horn Book back in 1972 in which she said something similar. "When in any age of the world's history has much of any art lasted? Out of the thousands upon thousands of works constantly being produced, most sink away and are forgotten." In a later paragraph she says, "Will any of the children's books written in the past thirty years be alive and beloved one hundred years from now?"

In her article, she raises that question in relation to the quality of the work. But I think there's more at work in keeping a title current than the quality of the writing. The passage of time is important, too. The children of 2007 aren't the children of 1972 or the children of 1954. They are products of the times they live in. Books are products of the times they were written in. Some of the works from the early '70s that Cameron spoke highly of in The Horn Book probably were very well done. How widely known are they now?

I should be sad that I'm not going to be immortal. But I do believe that those people yet unborn I was expecting to read my decades old books have a right to be people of their era, just as I am of mine.

Younger children who can still get into the idea of a nontechnical space adventure and who also have good reading skills may enjoy The Wonderful Flight of the Mushroom Planet.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A William Steig Celebration

The Jewish Museum in New York City will be celebrating William Steig this month. As part of this event, the Museum will be offering an Educator Workshop on November 29th, and and a Family Day on November 11th.

The exhibit From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig will continue into March. If, like me, you only get into NYC a few times a decade, there is a wonderful On-line Feature. (I've had trouble accessing it through the icon and had to ago up to the menu bar.) A favorite line of mine from this material: (Steig's) "parents encouraged their sons to choose the arts over other professions to avoid having them exploited as laborers and to prevent them from exploiting others."

Man, do I wish I'd thought of that.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Another Author Appearance

Laini Taylor has an excellent post on an appearance by Markus Zusak at a high school in her area. Among the juiciest bits:

Zusak says that there were many writing students who were better than he was when he was in college, but he doesn't think any of them are still writing. Laini says she's had a similar experience as an art student. I've often wondered, myself, if perhaps the finest, most talented writers in the world were never published simply because they gave up. Laini describes the perseverance that keeps some people going while others quit as motivation or vocation. I've always liked the expression fire in the belly.

Zusak also described how many times he rewrote the first 90 pages of The Book Thief and how at the 250 page point he realized something was wrong, fixed it, and rewrote the whole thing again. For those of us who have trouble getting through a first draft without all kinds of stops and starts, reading that was very comforting.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Gail Leaves The Office, Part III

Sorry, folks, but I'm not quite finished purging my file on Rabbit Hill. This post ought to do it.

In addition to the morning panel, I attended two afternoon programs conducted by individual authors.

Rick Riordan is a superstar in kidlit. He's not quite a phenomenon like You Know Who, just a superstar who has a few million books in print. I suspect he was the big draw for the kids in Saturday morning's audience. A number of them were at his presentation in the afternoon. In fact, it appeared that a lot of unregistered walk-ins showed up because one of the Festival administrators tried to thin out the crowd before the show got underway. Nonetheless, people ended up sitting on the floor and some of us stood for the whole thing.

Riordan's presentation was all questions and answers. What was particularly interesting about it was the amount of meaty information the questions generated. For instance, from his answers, you could definitely see how Riordan's life as a teacher has had an impact on his work. He also explained that he only writes about three hours a day. I was delighted to hear that because that's usually the case for me, too. Of course, the rest of the day, Riordan spends doing things like talking to his publisher and arranging speaking engagements while I spend the rest of my day surfing the net and checking my e-mail. But other than that, I can believe I work like a superstar.

Gail Carson Levine's afternoon session of questions and answers revealed that she spent ten years writing before she could get anything published. During that time, she took writing courses, which I believe she only recently stopped doing (Some of the people I had lunch with know her either through a class where they too were students.), and formed critique groups. I've run into a lot of people over the years who wanted to write, but prior to this past weekend I've only known a couple who were willing to work that hard in order to do so. I suspect a lot of them may not have even realized that they needed to be studying or critiquing in order to write and get published.

Levine is also a star in kidlit, yet she volunteers every summer teaching writing to kids in her town. I came away a bit chagrined because I'm not doing more right now.

Final thoughts on the whole thing. The press loves stories of early success, which, I think, gives many of us the impression that it should come early and fast. High school students are shepherded into writing conferences and encouraged to enter writing contests. Elementary students "publish" their work. People barely out of college teach workshops on how to get a novel published. Yet here are the kinds of things I was hearing Saturday from very, very highly regarded and popular writers:

"I wasn't a good student."

"I couldn't finish anything I wrote."

"I wanted to write, but I didn't really have anything to write about."

"I read below grade level."

"I submitted to everyone."

I'm thinking these writers' experiences say something about the value of perseverance.

Related To Reviewing, Not Kidlit

If you're at all interested in book reviewing, no matter what the age-range or genre, you ought to love Blunder at the Book Review, a post at Critical Mass. It's an excerpt from Susan Shapiro's book Only as Good as Your Word.

I found it both illuminating and touching, what with the father/daughter butt-smoking scene and all.