Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Misunderstood Phrase

Justine Larbalestier has a post up called Write What You Know, NOT! in which she claims that the old adage "write what you know" is "rubbish."

I don't think the phrase "write what you know" is rubbish, at all. It's misunderstood, is what it is.

When I was a teenager, I hated being told to write what I knew. It made me incredibly angry. I lived on a small, rural farm, and I most definitely did not want to have to write about cleaning the barn or feeding the heifers or whatever the hell my father had out in the second barn at any particular time. I felt the teachers were trying to control me when they told me to write what I knew. They were keeping me from writing the mysteries, spy stories, and comedies I liked to read. My mother always told us, "The whole world can't be wrong and you right." I can distinctly remember thinking that I would show everyone that they were wrong and I was right and that I could be a writer without having to write what I knew.

Fast forward twenty freaking years, by which point I had published two short stories and one essay. I caught the attention of an editor at G.P. Putnam's Sons and began working on a book of short stories about aliens. The basic premise of the collection involved aliens dropping in on two suburban brothers who were left to deal with them on their own because their mother was too busy to notice there was anything unusual going on.

I had to come up with material for these stories. I had given my older son a birthday party with an Olympic Games theme. So I did a short story about a birthday party with an Olympic Games theme and had an alien crash it. He was wearing an outfit based on one my younger son wore when he was a toddler. The older boy did a science fair project on pulleys, so pulleys figured prominently in another story about an alien. I did a story about a dinosaur and an alien because the younger boy had a pair of shorts with dinosaurs printed on them that I just loved. (I did have a thing for his clothes, didn't I?) I used the neighbor's dog in a story. We had friends who were musicians, so I made the parents musicians. My husband plays the guitar, so that was their instrument.

After the book was published, an acquaintance said to me, "Loved the book. It was so real. It was about things that really happen." A lightbulb literally went off over my head. I didn't think the poor woman believed in aliens. I knew that she was talking about all the details that came from my life as a suburban mom. I thought, Oh. That's what they meant.

I realized in a blinding flash of light that writing what you know means writers have the option of turning to their lives for the details they need to describe characters and settings and to come up with plot points. That's dramatically different from having to write only about what has actually happened to you. Writers' lives aren't strait jackets. Nobody is holding a gun to their heads forcing them to write about that babysitting experience in 1986, or their grandmother's wake (though I do have a pretty good wake story) in '91, or every up and down in their marriage.

But when you need a town for a setting, being able to use one you know sure beats having to come up with one from scratch. And it can end up sounding a lot more realistic, too, because it's based on something real. A school building you remember, the camp your uncle owned, the house you lived in when you were in first and second grade, jobs your family members have held, the vicious dog that used to live next door, the food you ate on vacation...the barn those heifers you had to feed were kept in...all these things are things you know and can use. Any way you want.

Larbalestier talks about doing research for books. When you do research, that becomes something you know. You are then writing what you know.

My life is so intricately woven into my books that someone reading them could end up knowing so much about me it's frightening. And, yet, I've written two books about aliens and am working on a third. I've written about people who have lived a life dedicated to environmentalism to a degree I can only imagine. I've written about a lot of boys. The books aren't about me.

Because I still hate the expression "write what you know" I prefer to think of what I do as writing who I am. Whatever you want to call it, it has never kept me from writing about anything I wanted to write about. On the contrary, it has made all my writing possible.

A Little Late For Me

a.fortis at Finding Wonderland directed me to something called One-Pass Manuscript Revision at HollyLisle.com. Now, once (or if) I ever get back to work, I'll be slogging through...ah...the nineth...draft of a manuscript. (I am not bragging.) Now is not the time to tell me I could have done it all at once.

However, what I find particularly interesting about Holly Lisle's revision process is that it begins with theme. I've been thinking about theme and its significance a lot this fall and winter, and it makes a great deal of sense to me right now to begin with that.

Maybe next time.

Monday, December 29, 2008

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Thrilling

I am definitely a Suzanne Collins fan. I liked all but the last of her Underland books. And I found the actual game portion of her The Hunger Games exciting, an excellent thriller.

However, this book has been discussed on listservs all year. It's being talked about as having award potential. I just don't see it.

In The Hunger Games a ruling elite suppresses twelve districts it defeated in war by selecting two teenagers from each one (in a scene very reminiscent of The Lottery) and forcing them to fight to the death in a televised reality show. Seeing their kids murdering each other on television is supposed to show these folks that they have no hope. At the same time, the ruling class in the capitol city finds the games wildly entertaining.

I find this premise very...random. There just doesn't seem to be any compelling reason for anyone to have hit upon this particular device for breaking the will of an opponent.

I think I have trouble accepting the premise because I don't find the world of the book very well defined. The story takes place in North America sometime so far in the future and after so horrendous a war that the United States no longer exists or even seems to be remembered. People no longer use recognizable names. In fact, some names sound very Roman, as if the culture has been thrown into the past.

And yet they still have reality television?

A lot of things in this book just didn't work for me. The government of this society can create entire little worlds for the games to take place in and then turn them into theme parks for the wealthy instead of reusing them for the next games. It can control the weather, for crying out loud. It needs the Hunger Games to control a downtrodden population? I don't think so. The games appear to have been going on for seventy-four years. That's at least three generations. In that time the society hasn't changed in any way? How big are these districts that need to be controlled? What's going on in the rest of the world? What's with the girl who is introduced but never dealt with?

I'm guessing we'll see her in book two of what I've heard is going to be a trilogy.
In spite of all my reservations about the world building in this book, I am more than willing to admit that once the games in The Hunger Games begin, readers are in for a thrill ride. That's plenty of reason to read it.

The Hunger Games has been nominated for a Cybil in the Fantasy and Science Fiction YA category.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


I have to admit, my interest in Tintin is limited to the fact that a young relative was a big fan a few years back. In fact, he learned the splendors of interlibrary loan because of his love of Tintin. I, myself, am not a tintinologist.
Nonetheless, I read all of A Very European Hero in The Economist.

Link from the child_lit listserv.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Early Christmas morning I had two dreams totally unrelated to the day. In one either I'd written a play based on one of my books or someone else had. It got terrible reviews. In the other, someone wrote one of those memoir/something else books that was totally about what a poor job I'd done writing The Hero of Ticonderoga.

I am desperate to get back to work tomorrow.

In more upbeat Christmas news, I received a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, a copy of E. B. White's Writings From The New Yorker 1925-1976, and a gift card to an independent bookstore.

I thought I bought and gave enough books as gifts to keep the publishing world afloat for another year. But maybe not.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Books Have After Lives

Sometimes when you have books out in the world they live their own little lives even when you're not being particularly literary because you've been making candy for days.

This week I learned that Saving the Planet & Stuff received a mention in an article called The Text Generation: Fiction That Incorporates Digital Communication by Melanie D. Koss, which was published in the September issue of Book Links. The article was about books that "include...tools of communication, both as snippets embedded within or completely replacing a conventional narrative structure." Planet was included because the main character uses e-mails and Instant Messenger. It was categorized with Books for Older Readers, which is exactly how I see it. It was published for ten year olds and up, though.

This was great recognition for Planet. Unfortunately, it's...out of print! This is a case of a book living it's own little after life.

I had planned to try to find a paperback publisher for it this year. I didn't even get started on that, though I did get the rights to the book reverted to me, which is actually as close to being on top of a situation as I ever get.

I am enjoying the recognition Planet received because I'm not attached to any concept of in print...out of print...print this...print that...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Turning To Children's Books For...Comfort?

I don't know what it is about well-known children's titles that seems to beg for this kind of treatment. But, you know, they do.

My favorites were the old-time classics, Lassie Can't Come Home and The Pauper and the Other Pauper.

Thanks to the child_lit listserv for this one.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

No Matter What I'm Doing, I Can't Wait Until I Can Do Something Else

Christmas seems like such a good idea at the end of October and beginning of November when it is still in the future. But when I have to spend a lot of time (I'm a slow writer because I'm just plain slow) shopping for presents and then wrapping them and then making candy and cookies and pet de soeur and tourtiere, even though everyone here hates the latter and I don't actually like it but damn it once a year I'm going to feel as if I have some kind of cultural identity...

Where was I going with this? I remember.

When I've been deeply involved in a writing project, so much so that maybe we've been eating hot dogs a couple of times a week as well as store bought cookies, I feel very excited as I approach the end because I think that means I'll be able to take a break and maybe buy us some real food and clean that nasty stuff out of the shower stall. Now I've been treating Christmas like a job this past week because I couldn't stand having it hang over my head anymore. I've been deeply involved in that. As I approach the end of the holiday marathon, I'm longing to get back to real work. I'm getting all kinds of ideas for projects I've been thinking about for years and haven't been able to get to. The various word processors I've been working on this fall look very good to me right now.

I can't wait for Christmas to come and go.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Is It Magical Realism? Is It A Graphic Novel?

I have been a bad Cybilista, not keeping up with graphic novel posts the way I'd planned to. So today I am doing penance by discussing The Savage by David Almond, which has been nominated for a Cybil in the YA Graphic Novel category.

The Savage is the story of a boy whose age I'm not sure about, though he seems a little on the young side for a YA to me. Soon after his father dies, he starts writing a story about a savage kid who appears to come to life so that he can deal with a bully who has been tormenting his creator.

Does he really come to life? Did his author commit the acts in the night instead of the savage?

While this story seems a little familiar to me, it is very well done. Child readers may very well find this storyline very intriguing. What's more, the book is relatively short. The draw of the story combined with the unintimidating length of the text could make this book a real draw, particularly for less enthusiastic readers.

I first became acquainted with David Almond's work when I read Skellig while doing a little magical realism study. Just as The Savage involves a child who has experienced the trauma of a parent's death, Skellig involved a child who was experiencing the trauma of a sick younger sibling and a move to a new home.

One day after doing my magical realism reading, I was supposedly doing a bookstore appearance but really just hanging out with the bookseller because she had very few customers and didn't make a single sale the two hours I was there. The bookseller had a background in some kind of therapy. She said that when books involved "magical elements" with a character who had experienced some kind of trauma, said books were not considered examples of magical realism. The magical elements had to exist with no possibilty of them being explained as an emotional response to a traumatic event.

I don't know if she was right, but it was an interesting point.

Anyway, getting back specifically to the book at hand, The Savage is heavily illustrated by Dave McKean, who also illustrated The Graveyard Book. While there are more illustrations than I'd expect to see in a regular novel here and some of the pages could be described as being broken into panels, I really don't see this as a graphic novel. There's way too much text and the illustrations illustrate. I don't think they carry any of the story.

Fuse #8 did a lengthy review of this book earlier this month, complete with many links to other reviews and miscellaneous information.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Newbery Wars?

I've been chatting, so to speak with a couple of people about the interest general papers have been showing in Anita Silvey's School Library Journal essay on the Newbery Award. Yesterday I realized these "Is the Newbery doing its job?" articles remind me of the Mommy War pieces you used to see in the '90s. They were feature articles that were designed to be divisive and polarize women into two camps--working versus so-called nonworking mothers. The Newbery articles seem similar to me, an attempt to set up Newbery detractors and supporters who can then gather into opposing camps. Conflict is newsworthy and presumably sells magazines and papers.

I can't see this going very far, though. For one thing, though children's literature does inspire volatile feelings (children's titles make up a big part of banned book lists), those feelings are nowhere near as personal as those enflamed when a person thinks her parenting skills are under fire. Whether or not I'm a good mother will determine how successful I am at getting and keeping my genes in the gene pool. We're talking primal here! Whether or not I think last year's Newbery winner was any good? Eh.

In addition, we're told over and over again that people aren't reading. The number of people who know what the Newbery is and which book won it last year (ah...ah...Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!) is nowhere near as great as the number of people who have given birth.

So, really, I think this is a conflict that's going to sputter along but never erupt into a real war.

In Case You Want To Know...

...how to blog, check out How To Blog at Slate. Pay particular attention to "Add something new" and the bit under "Write casually but clearly" about not going on too long.

I was going to go on about that for a while, but it doesn't seem appropriate now, does it?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm Still Interested In One Of These Subjects

This fall I mentioned here that I can still recall a book I read when I was young about a woman who disguised herself as a man so she could fight in the Civil War. Well, I'll Pass for Your Comrade by Anita Silvey is a nonfiction book on the subject. With pictures! Check out an interview with the author at cynsations.

By the way, The Washington Post recently carried an article about Silvey's article in School Library Journal about the Newbery medal has lost its luster. I hope no one does an article on the Washington Post article about the School Library Journal article because, really, I think this topic has been wrung pretty dry.

Getting Ready For Valentine's Day

Christmas tends to be an endurance test for me. Looking forward to January is what gets me through it.

This year looking forward to Valentine's Day helps, too. Here in New England Kids Hearts Authors Day will be held on February 14th. Authors and illustrators will be making appearances across the region in independent bookstores that morning.

Authors and illustrators and independent booksellers still have time to sign up.

Planning for the new year is the best way to avoid a post-Christmas letdown.

By the way, Kids Heart Authors Day is the brainchild of Mitali Perkins.

Pick A Topic And Stick With It, Gail

Today I did a writing process talk for two fifth grade classes, using The Hero of Ticonderoga, which some of the students are reading as part of a history unit, to illustrate points. I usually talk about using personal experience in writing when I visit schools, so this was all new material for me. My talk was a rough draft, as I explained to the class.

The teacher who contacted me had requested that I speak about journals and revision, which I did. The talk went well enough, with lots of questions and teachers sounding appreciative. However, I had overplanned for the time allowed and had to hurry to end so that the kids could have a few minutes to ask questions before they had to get on their buses.

I was dissatisfied, though I don't think anyone else was.

As I was driving away, I decided that the mistake I made was trying to cover more than one topic at a time. I should have done only one thing, expanded on it some more, and finished early.

So now I have what we could still call a rough draft as well as a plan for two new presentations. Whether or not I ever get around to completing them remains to be seen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I Was Tricked

I've got books overdue at the library so it's time to stop talking about me and start talking about some reading.

Have you ever read one of those incredibly unbelievable books about a newly orphaned kid who has to go live with horrible relatives? The aunt and uncle are cartoons and the cousins are nasty? Well, when you start reading 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, you might think you've stumbled into one of those horror stories, except the aunt and uncle are lovely people and the cousins are right out of The Penderwicks.

And you know how sometimes kids' books will have an adult character, usually a man, who's wise and experienced and gives advice and kind of makes you want to heave? 100 Cupboards has a character who you might think is going to turn out that way, except that he's kind of a misfit and not at all who he seems to be. (I never saw that coming.)

And, finally, don't you find it totally fake the way kids in books do stupid and dangerous things as if they have absolutely no sense of self-preservation at all? 100 Cupboards has a girl character who is so foolhardy--in a well-developed way--that you'll believe that she'd follow someone through a hole in the wall even though she doesn't know what's on the other side. Her little sister becomes quite feisty toward the end, too.

100 Cupboards is about a boy whose parents have disappeared while traveling so he has to go stay with relatives he doesn't know. In his attic bedroom he finds 99 doors that lead into different places, which his just-plain-folks Kansas relatives didn't know were there. Or did they?

I'm not a fan of high fantasy. Witches from alternative worlds leave me cold as a general rule. But Wilson sort of led me into that by starting his story in the very real here and now. So I was committed to the "real" characters by the time the witch appeared.

An interesting point about this book: It has one of those cardboardy kinds of covers with the cover illustration printed upon it so there are no front and back flaps. There's no flap copy to give you an idea of what the book is about.

Every now and then I like to read a book I know nothing about. And in this case, if I'd known the book included a witch, I would probably have put it back on the shelf.

100 Cupboards is the first book in a series. The second book, Dandelion Fire, will be published in February.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Life Imitating Art

I've been reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Basically, it's the story of a teenage girl in a dystopian future North America who is taking part in a reality TV show in which 24 teenagers have to kill each other off until the show is left with a winner.

I'd been finding the book somewhat disappointing because people have been raving about it all year, even though it wasn't published until this past September. The premise is random and weak for me, the world isn't very well developed, and the first third of the book is all preamble to the thriller/adventure.

But, finally, after around 148 pages, I've gotten into the thriller/adventure part. The book has finally taken off. There's all kinds of strategizing going on. It has become very involving.

How involving?

Well, tonight I was at my taekwondo class. A couple of black belts were testing for rank advancement. When we have students who are testing, our master will often, at the end of one of the classes, tell everyone to jump them. It's all good clean fun.

So three of us women were told to attack this teenage black belt. The other two women were a few ranks below me. In fact, I was the same rank as the young girl who was testing. I should have been the dominate force in the group. (The dominatrix?) But I hung back. In truth, I'm not much of a sparrer, anyway. But in this case, I was thinking, Let this lively little black belt trash these two. That will thin the pack, and her energy will be depleted while I'll still be fresh.

Then the whole class was told to attack the guy black belt. I really hung back then. There were a lot of teenage boys in the class. Let that higher ranked black belt deal with these kids, I told myself. This crowd needs to be cut down to size by a lot.

The black belt student is always supposed to be on the side of righteousness and help others in need. Doesn't sound as if that would last long for me if I found myself in a dystopia.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Keeping A Journal

This week I'm going to be speaking in a friend's classroom about writing process. One of the things she was particularly interested in having me discuss was using journals. I've been keeping what I've called an idea journal, a writer's journal, and a writer's workbook for decades now. However, I've never spoken on the subject. So when I was in Reading Fool's library last week and saw Note to Self: On Keeping A Journal And Other Dangerous Pursuits by Samara O'Shea, I took it home as a little prep.

I ended up just skimming Note to Self because it's about those personal, intense journals that Note's publisher describes as "life-altering," "soul-enlightening," and "transformative." I had a life-altering experience in a parking lot once, but not so much with journals.

When I was in high school, I kept reading about writers who kept journals. Since I believed writing was my career path, I decided I should keep a journal, too. I wrote one sentence one evening. I was underwhelmed. I may have even been bored.

At any rate, I thought that was the end of keeping a journal for me.

Then when I was a sophomore in college I took an expository writing class. I didn't learn much in it but the instructor made us all keep idea journals. All we had to do was write down one idea for a piece of writing each day. I was off and running.

I think the pour-your-heart-onto-the-page kind of journal didn't work for me when I was young and doesn't attract me now because I'm not terribly interested in raw experience. What interests me is what I can do with that experience. What does it make me think of? Can I see a dramatic situation in it? If not, can I impose one on it? Can I combine that experience with something else to create a totally new situation?

Raw experience is sort of static, I think. Just writing down what happened to me today reminds me of a family member who got a video recorder back in the 80s and drove us nuts with it. He'd record us at some family event and then make us all stop what we were doing to go into the living room and watch what he'd just taped. He was, essentially, bringing our lives to a stop so we could relive the last few minutes through the miracle of technology. We'd live, and then he'd rewind.

A journal in which I'm just writing about getting up, working out, eating a sandwich at my mother's apartment, going grocery shopping, coming home to put up the Christmas tree, vacuuming, and making dinner is just rewinding and reliving a day that is already over.

But a journal in which I start playing with ideas for a Christmas essay in which various family members announce while trimming their tree that they hate particular ornaments, they've always hated them, they think the ornaments look like mutants, and they want to use them for target practice isn't rewinding but living a whole new moment. It's a moment in which something new is happening--an idea is being expressed. It's a forward-looking moment instead of a backward-looking moment because the idea has potential to become something even if nothing ever comes of it.

I don't think I'll talk to the fifth-graders about any of that.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The More Things Change, They More They Stay The Same

"Back in the mid-19th century, literary magazines promoted themselves by putting the nastiest reviews they could get on their covers. Both the targets' friends and their enemies rushed to buy them, to pore over every word in Village saloons and coffeehouses. A century later, there was Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman battling it out on Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson. Now that the novel is, in Strauss's words, "a much diminished thing," the Internet might just have to take up this promotional slack."

Ah, those were the days.

That's probably my favorite paragraph in Bloggers Vs. an Author: No One Wins , by Kevin Baker, in The Village Voice. The article describes the "Net reaction" to author Darin Strauss's description of his experience on a 22-city book tour, which he, himself, blogged about.

People really don't like to hear writers say anything negative about the writing life. A few years ago, a young woman wrote an anonymous article in Salon about her disappointment because her very well-received book didn't sell better than it did. She took a bit of a beating on the Internet, too.

I think many people, whether they hope to become writers themselves or not, have a fantasy about writers--a fantasy that involves fame and fortune. They just do not want to hear that the general public barely knows who the vast majority of writers are and that most writers can't support themselves with their writing, forget about taking care of a family. Those are facts of life, but to voice them is viewed as complaining because, damn it, J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer are rich and famous so why don't you other writers stop whining?

While reading how Strauss found himself getting drawn into a pissing match with other bloggers, I kept thinking about all the advice that moms have been giving out for centuries. Mainly, "Ignore them, and they'll go away."

They may have been on to something.

On the other hand, as the article's author suggested in the paragraph quoted above, these days an Internet pissing match may pass for book promotion.

Nature Books For Kids

I spent a chunk of my afternoon sitting in the waiting room of a very green ear, nose, and throat specialist who was checking out a family member's hearing. I'd brought a library book but left it at someone's home. So I spent my time reading the office magazines.

In addition to learning natural ways to keep mold from growing in my bathroom, I discovered that Audubon Magazine carries book reviews, including book reviews of children's titles.

One Day Left...

...to bid on the Hunger Mountain Holiday Fundraising Auction. "All purchases are charitable in support of Hunger Mountain's non-profit mission to bring readers outstanding creative work by both established and emerging writers and artists from around the world." (Hunger Mountain press release.)

In addition to manuscript critiques, limited edition letterpress broadsides are also available. Bidding on those begins at just $19.99.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I'm Getting Into The Concept Of Work For The Sake Of Work

It's a damn good thing I've been getting into this mental state of working for the sake of working rather than for whatever other reasons people work because who knows when I'll publish anything again?

Link via Children's Writing Web Journal.

It Did Grow On Me

This fall I've been hearing quite a lot about Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. When I finally got hold of a copy, myself, I felt a little let down.

Skim is a goth girl Wicca wannabe in a private girls' school. She and her best friend are those outsider girls you always see in teen movies and, well, teen books. Skim and her best friend get on each other's nerves and grow apart. Skim falls in love with a teacher. Someone commits suicide. A popular girl is also depressed. Skim and the popular girl have something in common.

I felt that this wasn't a particularly original situation or storyline. However, I will admit that I finally got drawn in to the story. I just can't say I was bowled over by it.

I wonder if this is a YA book that really is best appreciated by YAs. I certainly believe that depression and misery are part of adolescence, but now that I'm no longer an adolescent, myself, I tend to find that scenario trite. A teenage reader of this graphic novel may very well feel that she's stumbled onto Truth. I found the teacher/love interest, Ms. Archer, who kisses Skim and then abandons her, damn close to a predator, and at the very least creepy. I had a feeling, though, that she was meant to be more benign than that. My jaded grown-up eye may have just perceived her differently.

Skim is nominated for a Cybil in the YA graphic novel category.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Here's What Caught My Eye

A couple of things that caught my eye while I was catching up on blog reading:

the excelsior file has a really interesting post on a children's picture book version of an adult book about homelessness by Paul Auster. Doesn't the idea of picture book versions of adult novels sound promising? I mean, you could go anywhere with this.

Colleen at Chasing Ray did an all things Alice post. I now know the sequel to Frank Beddor's Looking Glass Wars is out. I seem to have missed that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

And You Think Things Are Bad Now. It Could Be A Whole Lot Worse.

I'm going to say right up front that as a general rule, I'm not terribly fond of apocalyptic novels. They tend to be very similar, I think. Everything's dreadful. People are suffering. Humankind usually brings the whole thing down on itself through messing with nature, religion, war, science, global markets. Somehow it's my fault.

In the graphic novelIn the Small by Michael Hague we're brought down by a mysterious blue light. After the light is gone, all of humanity (or so it appears) has shrunk. How will people survive when almost every creature on the planet is larger than they are and evidently carnivorous? Personally, I was impressed by how many family pets had been waiting their chance to turn on their human masters.

The survival aspect of the story is interesting and moves along quickly. However, the main character, Mouse (that's got to have some kind of meaningful significance) Willow, has premonitions or visions that make it possible for him to know just what needs to be done. What's more, as he's leading a group of co-workers from his father's office out to the 'burbs, he runs into one of those stereotypical street people who also has visions. Street guy's visions mesh very nicely with Mouse's.

The whole vision thing seemed out of place to me. It seemed like a quick and dirty way of giving a teenage boy a leadership position. His sister back home is quite a mighty sprite, and she doesn't need any visions.

Though some of the human figures in the panels seem a little roughly drawn, I don't think that's unusual in graphic novels. This is a color novel with glossy pages.

In the Small has been nominated for a Cybil in the Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novel category, though the publisher describes the book as young adult. Since the main character and his sister, the other big figure in the story, are teenagers and there are no major child characters in the book, young adult seems a more appropriate classification to me.

Parenthetical.net reviewed this book back in October.

Michael Hague was interviewed on In the Small at Newsarama.

Monday, December 08, 2008

You Can Ask Santa For A Manuscript Critique

Hunger Mountain, Vermont College's literary journal, is conducting its fundraising auction. Steve Almond, Louella Bryant, Norma Fox Mazer, Carolyn Koman, Kathi Appelt, and Louise Hawes are all offering critiques of YA fiction. (Number of pages varies.) Kathi Appelt is also offering a picture book critique.

You may remember Kathi Appelt. She was a finalist for the National Book Award just a few months ago.

I'll also mention Thomas Christopher Greene's crique offer because I know his sister-in-law and nephews. Hey, it pays to have connections with me.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Plan! I Have A Plan!

The end of last week I finished what was going to be the third to the last chapter of the eighth draft of the book I've been working on for just about two years now. I was ready to get started on the next to the last chapter. I had material to revise, but I couldn't seem to do anything with it. I finally realized that that was because the ending was rushed. The thing just wasn't coming together properly. My old enemy, plot, was getting the best of me again.

That was Friday. I wasn't happy, but I've been writing long enough now to know that at some point, something would come to me. I would have a breakout experience, and it would probably come over the weekend when I wasn't struggling in front of a computer screen. I wasn't filled with joy over the prospect of being up in the air like that because something was very wrong with the manuscript, but I wasn't filled with despair, either.

Well, sure enough, it happened. It didn't come in a flash of light. The idea sort of evolved. But what finally came to me was that I could change one minor character and that would change the plot. I would have to change things all the way back to chapter one, and I'd have to bring this guy in earlier. I might have to bring his big scene in much earlier, which would mean some restructuring.

And that, folks, means another draft. Yup. A ninth draft.

It's a great relief to know what I'm going to do. I so love having a plan.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Not What I Expected From Shirley

Shirley Jackson's main connection to YA literature is probably through the short story The Lottery, which many students read in high school. I think it's considered attractive to kids because it's scary and surprising. So a lot of readers think, "Oh, Shirley Jackson. Creepy." As Jonathan Lethem said in the Salon article Monstrous Acts, "An unfortunate impression persists (one Jackson encouraged, for complicated reasons) that her work is full of ghosts and witches. In truth, few of her greatest stories and just one of her novels, "The Haunting of Hill House," contain a suggestion of genuinely supernatural events". That is definitely the case with the short story collection The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover. (This is the original title of the 1949 book and it appears that way on my old paperback published in 1969.)

What struck me about these stories when I reread them last month is that many, if not most, of them are about women. Specifically, they're about women's lives. I'm not talking about a writer making some kind of feminist statement with her writing. (Though her story Elizabeth might be of particular interest to feminists.) I'm talking about a writer showing us women's experience during a particular point in time and in a particular place--mid-twentieth century America. The women in Jackson's stories live extremely claustraphobic, narrow lives. They are almost always referred to as Mrs. Something or Another or Miss Something or Another. They are thus defined in terms of their relationships--or lack thereof--with men. How often do we see Mrs. or Miss or even Ms. used these days the way Jackson uses those honorifics? She creates a very definite feeling of oppression with them.

Jackson's female main characters in these short stories are almost always alone. They are also often trapped emotionally in some way. And many of the stories involve a city woman who has moved to the country, where she is, once again, isolated and trapped.

The Lottery appears at the end of this collection, which is a very good place for it. After having read the other stories, The Lottery doesn't seem all that surprising. Instead, it fits in rather well with Jackson's other stories of women trapped in worlds from which they cannot escape.

It's still scary, though.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Shirley Jackson Broke Us

The Lottery Big Read at bookshelves of doom petered out short of completion earlier this week. I think the problem was two-fold:

1. Short story collections don't generate a lot of narrative drive that makes readers want to move on and see what happens next because what happens next has already happened, and then you have to start over. As my cousin Bobby once said, you have to commit the same amount of energy to getting to know characters, setting, and situation whether you're reading a short story or a novel except that with a short story, by the time you're up to speed, you're done. It hardly seems worth it.

2. These particular short stories were originally published in the 1940s, and, personally, I find work from the forties and fifties dated in a bizarre way. I say bizarre because I've read short stories from even earlier periods that didn't bother me at all. For instance, I read Daisy Miller (set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century--I can't remember which) a couple of years ago and felt it connected very nicely with some contemporary YA novels I'd been reading. The Hunger Artist, published in the 1920s, didn't bother me, either.

But forties and fifties fiction seems so close to our own time but wrong somehow, as if we're talking about an alternative reality of some kind.

I did finish the book, though. More about that another time.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

For Those Of You Who Still Haven't Had Enough Of Twilight

A couple of interesting Twilight pieces:

No Twilight for Reading at The Book Whisperer. Donalyn Miller says, "If we want to encourage students to read, we must validate some of their less-than highbrow reading choices when they do. Hopefully, due to the popularity of event-books like Harry Potter and Twilight, this generation sees reading as part of their culture—right alongside Guitar Hero and Facebook."

I thought the "event-book" comment was particularly thought provoking.

What Girls Want by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. I can't say I read all this one. This is one of those "reading and me" kinds of personal essays, in which the essayist brings in all kinds of material about herself while discussing her reading. If David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell had written it, maybe I'd have been more interested. The essay's main claim to fame on my listserv is this line: "I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me." But all essays about and reviews of YA in mainstream, what you might call popular adult magazines include some variation on that.

The author, Caitlin Flanagan, has a bit of a reputation for being outrageous, anyway. Metaphorically speaking, she's kind of like Ann Coulter's more coherent sister, the one who got married and had kids after college instead of going on to law school and hanging out making jokes about politics with the guys.

Student Writing

I'm going to be giving a talk on writing process to some fifth graders later this month. The teacher I've been working with mentioned an author named Ralph Fletcher who writes books for teachers on writing. It turns out he also writes both picture books and chapter books.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Possible Christmas Present

Last week we were talking about Christmas purchases of overlooked books published pre-2008. Yesterday I bought three of the books I mentioned and added a fourth. This book wasn't overlooked when it was published in 2006, but, boy, are its handlers making things difficult for it now.

Back when this clever combination historical novel, scifi time traveler story, and English procedural mystery by Linda Buckley-Archer was originally published in hardcover, it was called Gideon the Cutpurse with a marvelous two-piece cover. I'm sure there's a technical term to describe it, but the best I can say is that the top, hard cover had a jagged hole with an eye on the page beneath so that it appeared that someone was looking through a hole in a board. The title and cover were both very striking.

Unfortunately, the character Gideon the Cutpurse wasn't the protagonist. He was also an adult. He was also a nice guy, but not particularly charismatic, which is what you want in an adult character in a children's book if you're going to name the thing for him. And while I loved the cover, I can't recall any scene in the book that it illustrated. It may not have had anything to do with anything.

So I can see why the publishing powers behind this first in a trilogy thought it might be a good idea to make some changes with the paperback.

However, they changed the name to the generic and forgettable The Time Travelers: Book One In The Gideon Trilogy. And the cover...seriously underwhelming. Okay, now we know there are kids in the book, which we didn't before. Still, it just looks like another time traveling story for kids, while before it looked like something special, though probably no one knew what.

This paperback also carries a blurb: "For kids who love Harry Potter." What? I guess if you take the attitude that Harry Potter is fantasy and if you think that The Gideon Trilogy is fantasy instead of science fiction and if you believe that all fantasy is alike, then maybe...No. No. It just doesn't work. And it does such a disservice to this novel. Harry Potter fans are going to feel misled and people who've had all they can take of Harry are going to avoid The Time Travelers unnecessarily.

Now, note that they're calling this series The Gideon Trilogy. I'm guessing that's to maintain some kind of connection to the original title of the original book. However, Gideon isn't even mentioned in the publisher's description of the second book, The Time Thief. (Which, by the way, has just come out in paper.) Does he have a big enough part in the books to warrant having the series named for him? (I plan to keep reading them, so I'll let you know. Get back to ya on that.)

The first book definitely was good. The second has been nominated for a Carnegie Medal. It would be a shame if this series gets lost in the confusion of name and cover changes and over-the-top blurbs.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Trying To Mix Old And New

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah is an ambitious book that I think would have been better served with a third-person narrator.

Amal is a stereotypical teenage girl protagonist in a contemporary teen school story. She and her two school friends (one of Japanese descent, the other a voluptuous young woman who believes she's overweight) are a traditional slightly outsider (but not so outcast readers won't want to identify with them) trio. They suffer at the hands of the school mean girl and her posse, obsess about boys, complain about teachers and preparing for standardized tests. You've read all this before.

What makes the book different is that Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian who has just decided to start wearing a hijab, or head scarf. Her personal story is interesting. The story of her second set of sidekicks from her old Islamic school is interesting.

The problem, I think, is that in trying to show that Amal can be Muslim and just like everybody else, we have to read a lot of the same old, same old in which she does, indeed, seem just like everybody else. I think getting rid of the first-person narrator could have helped eliminate that. Sure Amal's voice is often witty, but she's witty just like all those other teen girl main characters hoping to become the next Georgia Nicolson. I started skipping the school girl stuff very early on.

Though the material about Amal's Muslim family and their extended connections was far more interesting, Amal the first-person narrator sometimes told us factual information about her life as if she were part of a documentary. A couple of times while I was reading this book I thought that the material I was reading would have made a great Newsweek article. Again, I think that might have been avoided with a third-person narrator.

Does My Head Look Big In This? has a great concept and some interesting material. I just felt the book would have worked better if the concept and material had been handled differently.

Friday, November 28, 2008

It's Never Too Early To Be Thinking About Next Year

I love the feeling of a new year and am already looking forward to the next one.

Children's writers in New England can look forward to the Whispering Pines Retreat on March 27th and 29th. Note that you have to get your application in by December 31st (that's New Year's Eve) and that they only accept 24 full-time students.

I Just Don't Understand How They Do It

I've talked here before about plowing right through drafts. I'm always reading that that's what you should do. Just work straight through without worrying about quality, letting the chips fall where they may, yada yada. And I'm sure I've mentioned that while I think that sounds like a stellar idea, I couldn't do it if I had a gun to my head. I get to chapter fourteen and have to go back and do some work on chapters four and seven so that what I want to do in fourteen can happen.

I'm working on a book I've written over and over again these past two years, and today, for the second time in a week or so, I had to spend a lot of time going back and creating a thread so it will be available for me to pull in another couple of chapters. If you suddenly start writing something in chapter seventeen without having provided the lead-in for it to happen in the earlier chapters, don't you feel as if you're standing on the seventeenth story of a building that has, shall we say, no structural integrity? What are the chances that you'll be able to patch things up properly down the road?

Unless, of course, all those other writers get the job done correctly the first time. That's a possibility, I suppose.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm Done With Thanksgiving. It's Time To Shop

Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy suggests that we reach back in our memories and give books published prior to 2008 for Christmas this year. And let's make the books titles that were overlooked. An excellent idea, and I'm not just saying that because she mentions me in her post.

Pre-2008 books I'm considering giving this year:

Charley's War, a graphic novel about a British soldier during World War I by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. The book is the story of a sixteen-year-old boy who lies about his age in order to join the army. Though not kidlit, this 2005 book originally appeared as some sort of serial in the 1970s in a comic book called Battle or Battle Picture Weekly (it seems to have changed over the years), which may have been marketed to boys. Charley's War may be a big deal within the graphic novel world, but I only just discovered it, myself, while reading Graphic Novels. I'm considering it for a family member who is into comics and has recently discovered the First World War.

The Penderwicks (2005) and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (2008) both by Jeanne Birdsall. Okay, the second book isn't pre-2008, but I'm thinking about doing a set. And, okay, The Penderwicks can hardly be described as overlooked since it won the National Book Award. But award-winning books are not necessarily widely known outside that circle of people who pay attention to that sort of thing. According to some of my on-line sources, these aren't books that circulate a lot in libraries, so the young girl I'm definitely getting them for might not find them on her own.

The first volume of Octavian Nothing (2006) by M. T. Anderson. For a similiar reason I'm planning to buy this one for a hostess gift. I know, I know, Octavian Nothing I was another National Book Award winner. How much support does it need? However, the question of whether or not this book should have been published as YA has been raised a couple of times at my listservs. And there are some doubts as to how readable YAs find it. I'm one of those who think there's a good argument for it as an adult novel, and I wonder if it's really finding its readership sitting neglected in the YA department (as it is at my local library). So I'm buying it for the couple who are hosting a Christmas party I'm attending next month. I like this book as a gift idea for a couple because I think it will go over well with either sex.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

What's With Her Eye?

As part of my crash course on graphic novels, I read Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life by Paul Gravett. The book covers scads of graphic novels with excerpts from each and an analysis. Plus the graphic novels are organized into topics, such as "The Long Shadow: Surviving war and its aftermath" and "The Undiscovered Country: Childhood's happy days or painful memories."

So now I've read about a great many (adult) graphic novels. Which means that I should be able to talk about books I haven't read!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Micro-blogging? Slow Blogging?

Nathan Bransford has a guest blogger writing about 21 Things an Author Can Do With Twitter. In the post, she refers to Twitter as a micro-blogging site.

Twitter has been discussed a great deal recently at one of my listservs. It's supposed to help people stay connected by answering the question What are you doing? Over and over again, I guess. I haven't given my cell phone number to most of my relatives because I don't want people bothering me when I'm away from home. I don't use an answering machine hoping that if people can't reach me, they won't call back. Someone wants to know what I'm doing? All day long? That's stalking!!!

On a related subject, I just got through reading an article on slow blogging (thank you, Susan), which appears to be just the opposite of micro-blogging. In fact, the author of the slow blogging article talks about a professor who gave up his blog because it was exhausting. He now "fires off short, pithy comments on Twitter." (Isn't exhausting to be doing that all day long?) He has another blog for "in-depth thought."

The idea being, I guess, that a blog appears in-depth compared to a micro-blog.

The so-called slow blogging movement appears to be about using blog technology to publish anything at all whenever the urge strikes. It sounds as if some people are using blogs as writers' journals.

Though, really, haven't people been maintaining personal blogs under those kinds of conditions right along? Is there really any new movement here?

I don't feel that I'm a slow blogger. I won't read long blog posts, and I don't expect anyone to read one of mine. On the other hand, I've heard that with Twitter you're supposed to be limited to messages of 140 characters. Come on! My grocery lists are longer than that.

Yeah, If There's One Thing I Need, It's More Categories

Children's Writing Web Journal has a post up on different categories of children's books. Does anyone else think they're multiplying?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Friday, November 21, 2008

Some Graphic Links

Parenthetical.net has a few more posts up on Cybils nominess in the graphic novel category:

Little Vampire by Joann Sfar Oops. Dans Anglais

Johnny Boo by James Kochalka From Burlington! I love Seven Days!

Knights of the Lunch Table by James Cammuso.

under the covers has a post up on How to Write Comics, which both Bibliovore and I think ought to have some relation to writing graphic novels.

And, finally, Oz and Ends writes about
Sons of Liberty , a historical fiction graphic novel.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

But Seriously, Folks...

Joe Queenan (I read his book My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood but remember just about nothing about it) had an essay in last weekend's New York Times Sunday Book Review called Enough With the Sweet Talk. It was an amusing piece about the abundance of "unjustifiably enthusiastic" book reviews. Queenan's angle involved the response of authors who have received such reviews, and he quotes a number of them on the subject. Dave Barry was once called the funniest man in America in a review. In an e-mail message to Queenan he said, "This is a ridiculous assertion; I am not the funniest man in my neighborhood."

As I said, the essay was clever and witty and all that. But, you know, Queenan is touching on something more serious. You do see an awful lot of positive reviews, so much so that I've sometimes wondered if reviewers at print journals get more work if they're careful to only say nice things. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to pick up on the fact that perhaps not everything is as glorious as it may seem. Is "Will call to mind Holden Caulfield" really praise or a warning that this book has been done before? Is "filled with southern eccentrics" code for run for your life?

When I was a senior in college about to apply for teaching jobs, I was told that school superintendents in Vermont were insisting on written assessments for student teaching for UVM grads because everyone was receiving A's. In a pool of candidates that are all excellent, excellent doesn't mean much.

When all books are wonderful, don't we lose touch with what wonderful means?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Very Classy Frankenstein Story

A Frankenstein story is one in which scientists play God, messing with nature to create life. The end result is rarely good. (Think Jurassic Park. Or Alex Award winner Never Let Me Go.)

Like Never Let Me Go, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson is a very high quality Frankenstein story. Its characterization equals its plotting, and it's very elegantly written. The outcome for The Adoration of Jenna Fox is far different than the outcome in Never Let Me Go, though. It's not your run-of-the-mill Frankenstein story ending.

Jenna Fox has just come out of a lengthy coma at the beginning of her story, which is set in a future United States that has suffered your usual futuristic disasters involving disease, earthquake, and economic breakdown. She seems in remarkably good shape, though, and the only medical person she sees is her father, the head of some kind of biotech firm. She has survived a horrendous accident that she can't recall. Things come back to her slowly. Things come to the reader slowly.

Slowly, in this case, is not a bad thing.

This book deals with some big issues, such as what it means to be human (I'm sorry, I kept thinking of Data on STTNG--not that there's anything wrong with that), parental love, rationing health care, and identity. But it doesn't do it in a pretentious, heavy-handed way. The Adoration of Jenna Fox has a scifi/thriller aspect that keeps it from feeling like too much of a problem book and a teen angst problem aspect that keeps it from falling into scifi/thriller cliches.

Personally, I could have done without the epilogue, but I never like epilogues.

I think some might argue that The Adoration of Jenna Fox ends the way it does because it's YA and YA must be hopeful. But I think that doesn't give it credit for asking an interesting question about the traditonal Frankenstein scenario--Is it really wrong to do this?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a Cybils nominee in the Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction category.

They Did It Again

Finding Wonderland has another great interview up, this time with M.T. Anderson.

M.T. Anderson struggles with plot! I struggle with plot!

I think what makes this interview, as well as the one Finding Wonderland did with D. M. Cornish, so good is that both authors only use their first two initials.

Sorry. I couldn't resist pointing out the obvious.

No, what I think makes these interviews so good is that both authors write books that require intense world building and both authors seem to have a pretty good understanding of their process in doing that. I was just explaining to someone this evening that when I first started publishing, I didn't know what the heck process was. These guys really have a good grasp of what they do and how they do it.

In addition, the interviewers are writers who also are well informed about their subjects' work. They have a good grasp of what writers do and how they do it and can apply that knowledge to specific books.

The end result is good reading.

This interview is part of the 2008 Winter Blog Blast Tour, which is enormous and impressive and far more than I can hope to read.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

This Is Fantastic!

Finding Wonderland has a terrific interview with D. M. Cornish, author of Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling and Monster Blood Tattoo: Lamplighter. Read the interview to see why I'm careful to write out the complete title of both books.

This interview is so marvelous because Cornish talks about his various inspirations, how he got started creating the MBT world (which doesn't appear in either book), his women characters, and some behind-the-scenes business related to that title. Oh, and his notebooks. I have a number of different kinds of journals and workbooks. Now I'm feeling inspired to go write in them.

Of course, Cornish might not have gotten into any of that stuff without the interviewers' sophisticated questions.

Right now I'm feeling that I'd like to see the Half-Continent become a world like Discworld, supporting a whole array of different story cycles. That's how pumped I am from this interview! Of course, it's easy for me to be pumped because I wouldn't have to write the books. Cornish would.

This interview is part of the 2008 Winter Blog Blast Tour.

Some Alcott Info You Won't See At Just Any Litblog

When I was at Orchard House last month (Orchard House being the Concord home of the Alcotts, of course), my traveling companion noticed the property survey hanging on a wall. Being someone who is in to surveys, site plans, etc., he noticed the surveyor's signature.

Well, now you can see said survey, too. Click on the plan, scroll down to the bottom, and you'll see that the surveyor was Henry D. Thoreau.

The Concord Free Public Library has a whole array of Thoreau's surveys available on-line.

I'd gotten the impression that he didn't do a whole lot. I've just started rereading Walden (because you just can't be reading too many books at once), and in that first essay I feel (as I did when I first read it, according to my notations) that he doesn't hold working folks in much esteem. Seeing that he really did meaningful work--that could come into play in twenty-first century title searches--may have an impact on my reading of his book.

But is that a good thing? Shouldn't the meaning and significance of his work be right there on the page in front of me regardless of what I know about him?

Ah, a question I struggle with frequently.

Nonetheless, surveyors are cool.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Maybe Graphic Nonfiction

I remember enjoying a book when I was young about a girl who disguised herself as a man so she could fight in the Civil War. So the premise behind No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure by Susan Hughes and Willow Dawson certainly appeals to me.

I have to say, though, that I didn't find this graphic presentation of short pieces on seven different women particularly successful. A lot of the panels required those little narrative boxes to explain what was going on, and I still sometimes found myself confused. The snakes that appear in the story of Alfhild, a Viking princess, threw me, for example. A prince arriving to see her kills two snakes that appear out of nowhere. The princess then says, "Sir, you have killed my vipers." He apologizes and says, "It was the only way for me to win your hand in marriage!" The next page includes a confusing panel that suggests the king had set up the kill-the-vipers-marry-my-daughter scenario. The scene appears to show Alfhild discussing the marriage proposal with her family. In fact, we're told in a box that that is what she's doing. But at the bottom of the panel, another box of text appears in which we're told that her father delayed consulting her. The graphics and text actually appear to contradict one another.

Some of the women's motivation for taking on the life they do isn't very clear, either. That's particularly the case for Alfhild and Esther Brandeau.

The accounts of nineteenth century women work better, probably because there looks to be more documentary evidence and more for the writer and illustrator to work with.

Another confusing aspect of the book: Some of the stories are based on historical fact, while others are based on legend. I think that makes the overall project less focused than it could have been.

So I didn't feel the book worked all that well, either graphically or as nonfiction. The subject matter may be of high interest to young readers, but I'm not sure if twenty-first century children feel the narrowness of women's lot in life the way children of earlier generations did.

For a different reaction and an interview with the author see Big A, little a's New Voices Blog Tour: No Girls Allowed.

No Girls Allowed is a Cybils nominee in the graphic novels category. (Though it definitely isn't a novel.)

What? Buffy Doesn't Matter?

Actually, nowhere in this Salon interview with the director of Twilight does anyone say that Buffy doesn't matter. The tease under the title is totally misleading, trying to drag in readers who are Buffistas and probably not too into the Twilight take on women as being so weak and inept they can't sleep through the night without a male vampire watching over them.

Twilight anticipation is reaching a frenzy right now. I hope the movie does spectacularly well. Whenever the grown-ups can make big bucks off from kidlit, it's good for our field. They'll come looking around for more pots of gold.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

This Is Actually A Good Thing

A review of Paper Towns in The Ithacan Online (the Ithaca College paper) has received some attention in the kidlitosphere. Our young reviewer praises John Green by burying an entire genre. "The young-adult genre has been riddled with uninspiring novels that lack any kind of creativity or originality...John Green is one of the few young-adult authors who has the ability to really tell a story and captivate the reader."

Well, student writers often over generalize. I can tolerate it from them far more easily than I can from their experienced elders. ("...a nimble, undidactic antidote to all the dubious clichés of the genre. Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans? Miéville dares to insist that nerve, heart and determination is all a hero(ine) really needs." That sounds like spunk. I hate spunk.)

What struck me as positive about this whole thing was that a college paper was reviewing a YA book. That's terrific! You know who you find in colleges? That's right...YAs. Okay, they won't be YA for long, but tell that to all those moms who were reading Twilight.

By the way, I read The Ithacan pretty regularly for four years. Very nice college paper.

Link from Jen Robinson.

Basic Black And White

A commentor on yesterday's post noted that you don't see a lot of black and white picture books even though black and white is good for you. While checking to see if yesterday's book Cat and Fish by Curtis and Grant had received much Internet buzz when it was published in '05, I found a pixie stix post on "books that do awesome things with black and white illustration." Included is the sequel to Cat and Fish, Cat and Fish Go To See.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Black And White And Read All Over

I was attracted to Cat and Fish because it is so incredibly black and white. The illustrations are riveting. So much so, in fact, that the illustrator, Neil Curtis gets first billing on the cover over author Joan Grant. Since the illustrations came before and inspired the text, that certainly seems legitimate.

Cat and Fish is a slight, charming tale of two creatures who meet and choose to stay together despite some extreme differences in background. It reminded me of The Owl and the Pussycat, which I was very fond of when I was a...a...okay...I was a teenager.

Curtis and Grant produced a sequel Cat and Fish Go to See.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Graphic Novel Problems Up North

Cybils nominee Skim has been nominated for Canada's Governor-General's Award for children's literature, but only for the author, not the illustrator.

Sacre bleu!

Link from Blog of a Bookslut.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

My Mail

I've spent a chunk of my evening trying (and not succeeding) to catch up on the back reading in just one of my listservs. I've found a couple of juicie things to share, though.

A discussion of graphic novel picture books led me to the title Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age. What struck me as particularly interesting about this is that the author, Raymond Briggs, also wrote the graphic novel When the Wind Blows, which I had never heard of until this very afternoon. How weird is that?

Then I found out about another one of those terrific Slate slideshows. This one is on Books to read to your children during a financial crisis. It's from back at the beginning of October, so I'm kind of late with that. But the financial crisis is still here, so it's all good.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thinking About How To Spend Our Cold, Hard Cash

My last post linked to a blogger suggesting that buying books will help sustain the publishing industry during hard times. Pull for the Underdog, from Good/Blog, goes further and suggests that shoppers should think about buying books by lesser known authors and/or from small presses. Those kinds of purchases "can have a small impact...on the life of an author, the sustainability of a press, and the direction of literary fiction."

Notice how few books have to sell for an author to be considered successful enough for a publisher to take a chance on a second book.

There Was A Publishing Crisis Last Month And I Missed It

Editorial Ass reports that October was a particularly rough month in publishing. Lots and lots of books returned to publishers, meaning they had to return lots and lots of money.

The link came by way of Nathan Bransford, who discusses a publishing stimulus package we can all be part of.

Does This Sound Deep Or What?

Another graphic novel post at Oz and Ends. This one is about 2007 Cybils nominee Robot Dreams.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It's Not Just For Treating Your Bad Joints!

Remember that post on yoga and writing I did recently? Of course, you do. Well, WordCount has a post from back in March on yoga and writing, too.

I'm going to be watching for this kind of thing now.

More On Graphic Novels

Parenthetical.net has a few reviews of Cybils nominees:

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes

Babymouse Monster Mash by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

Nightmare on Zombie Island by Paul D. Storrie

The New York Times reviewed Cybils nominee Skim by Mariko Tamaki with illustrations by Jillian Tamaki

Then J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends talks about how graphic novels are treated in Great Divides in the Comics World. Included in the post is a link to a Christian Science Monitor article, Graphic novels, all grown up, which includes a definition for graphic novels: "...extended-length illustrated books with mature literary themes..."

Of course, mature means different things when you're talking YA versus adult graphic novels and something else entirely when you're talking graphic novels for kids. But for those of us who are educating ourselves on the subject, it's a start.

Possession For Kids?

The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett is the first in a series called The Sherlock Files because the two main characters, Xena and Xander Holmes, learn they are descendants of Sherlock Holmes and set to work solving one of his unsolved cases.

I found the Sherlock Holmes connection problematic. Anyone familiar with Sherlock Holmes will doubt he had any descendants because, 1. he was fictional, and 2. in the stories he doesn't come close to having any kind of relationship that would produce offspring. (That includes Irene Adler.) So for the basic premise of The Sherlock Files to work, some kind of alternative history needs to be provided in which Sherlock Holmes is real and did, indeed, produce heirs. Nothing like that appears in the first volume. There are references to some Holmes' stories--a pub is named The Dancing Men, for instance, (The Adventure of the Dancing Men ) and Dr. Watson's young descendant has red hair (The Red-Headed League), but beyond that, I didn't see any what you'd call world building.

Now, an argument could be made that young readers won't be familiar with Sherlock Holmes, anyway, so they won't have any problems with the lack of logic behind the story. But if they aren't familiar with Sherlock Holmes, why does the whole Holmes' business need to be there?

Putting the Holmes' set-up aside, I actually liked the art history mystery in The 100-Year-Old Secret. The kids hunt for a portrait missing for a hundred years. The art talk is interesting. And the minor, nonrecurring characters who provide information about the long-dead artist are far more realistic and able to hold this reader's attention than the members of the Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives, who I suspect are going to turn up in later adventures. A story about contemporary characters solving a mystery about a historical arty figure--with kids--has real potential, I think.

I picked up The 100-Year-Old Secret because I thought it looked like a mystery for younger readers. Though Amazon describes it as being for 9 to 12 year olds, I think kids on the younger end of that range will appreciate it best.

The second book in the series will be published next May.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Graphic Novel Column Covers Cybils Nominees

Colleen Mondor has a Graphic Tales column up at Bookslut that includes a number of Cybils nominees:

Skim and Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki,working with Jillian Tamaki and Steve Rolston, respectively;

Coraline by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell;

The Good Neighbors: Kim by Holly Black with Ted Naifeh.

The Painting The Wild Frontier Conclusion

The Painting the Wild Frontier blog tour concludes today at Chicken Spaghetti. In case you missed Friday's stop, it was at One Book Two Book.

This Is What I Have To Put Up With At Dinner

So dinner table conversation this evening focused on how I'd blown it with the name of yesterday's post. I was told that starting with a conclusion and writing backward is just writing backward and not reverse engineering at all.

"Reverse engineering," one dinner companion said, "would be if there had been an alien space craft in Hangar 51, and we'd taken it apart to see how it works and were then able to rebuild it using our own materials." Which seems very unlikely to me.

"Or," the other companion went on, "an example of reverse engineering occurred after World War II when the Russians were able to get hold of our Blah Blah Blah, which included technology they didn't have and took it apart so the Blahbity Blah Blah." This must be why it's so important that Alaskans keep their eyes on the Russians near them.

"There really is no analogy for books," second companion said.

"You need an entire item, not just one piece like an ending," first companion explained.

This is why I really don't mind eating by myself.