Monday, March 31, 2008

Loving The Gossip Girl

I finally caught up with the reading at the Adbooks listserv and discovered a link to a new article about the The Gossip Girl in The New Yorker.

In Advanced Placement, Janet Malcolm says early on of Gossip Girl author Cecily von Ziegesar, "Von Ziegesar pulls off the tour de force of wickedly satirizing the young while amusing them." Yes, Malcolm really, really likes The Gossip Girl series. Since she follows up her statement about Von Ziegesar amusing the young with the contradictory, "Her designated reader is an adolescent girl, but the reader she seems to have firmly in mind as she writes is a literate, even literary, adult", her delight may be understandable. She's read far more of the books than I have (I found the first one painful), so I'll have to take her word about how much fun the later entries in the series are. I do want to take issue with one of her generalizations about children's literature, though.

At the end of her article, Malcolm complains about The Gossip Girl TV series because of "its promotion of the books’ parents from their status as emblems of parental inadequacy to that of characters in their own right." She believes that characters who are merely "emblems" are actually a good thing--at least in children's literature. "What makes classic children’s literature so appealing (to all ages) is its undeviating loyalty to the world of the child. In the best children’s books, parents never share the limelight with their children; if they are not killed off on page 1, they are cast in the pitifully minor roles that actual parents play in their children’s imaginative lives. That von Ziegesar’s parent characters are ridiculous as well as insignificant in the eyes of their children only adds to the sly truthfulness of her comic fairy tale."

I totally agree that children should be the center of children's literature. It's also true that a lot of classic kidlit involves orphans because the authors needed to get the parents out of the way so the kids could have adventures. But that was then, and this is now. It's the twenty-first century, and we've moved past those cliches. It's not acceptable to create characters who are "emblems" in children's literature just because that's what they did in days of old. Adult fiction isn't mired in nineteenth and early twentieth century forms. Why should children's literature be stuck there?

There are many, many writers out there who are able to maintain loyalty to the world of the child without using shallow stereotypes. But I wonder how many of them Malcolm has read. Earlier in her article, she used the following quote as an example of Gossip Girl wit: "Auntie Lyn," some old lady who'd basically founded the Girl Scouts or something, was supposed to talk. Auntie Lynn was already leaning on her metal walker in the front row, wearing a poo-brown pantsuit and hearing aids in both ears, looking sleepy and bored. After she spoke—or keeled over and died, whichever came first—Mrs. McLean would hand out the diplomas.

"Only someone very hard-hearted wouldn't laugh at this," Malcolm insists.

Come on! If she hasn't read any YA or even books for younger kids she must have at least seen a couple of teen movies. That portrayal of elderly people is one of the oldest stereotypes in the book! Kids must have read or seen something similar a half dozen times by the time they reach their mid-teens. If they're serious readers, they've seen it more.

I certainly have no problem with people enjoying The Gossip Girl. I'd even be interested in hearing a positive argument for the series. I read this article, after all. But suggesting that it's good because it carries traditional kidlit cliches doesn't do it for me.

Advanced Placement seems to me to just be another one of those articles on children's/YA literature by someone who isn't very familiar with the field.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

You Mean You're Not Interested In Children's Book Editors?

If you were meaning to kick back and enjoy watching all the highjinks and shenanigans that go on in the editorial offices of a children's book publisher, well, sorry, but you missed your chance. The Return of Jezebel James has already been cancelled.

I think the show had a number of problems.

1. The kidlit publishing humor may have been too insider. For instance, in the last episode that I saw there was a running gag about what appeared to be a fundamentalist family from the mid-West whose homeschooled son (dressed as a Viking) is being courted by HarperCollins (the real publisher setting for the office-based portion of the show) because he's written a manuscript considered very desirable. Now, I may be wrong, but I'm assuming that this was some kind of reference to Christopher Paolini, who was homeschooled and has talked in interviews about dressing in costumes to promote his first book in schools after the family had it self-published. Was that too inside a joke? And too mean-spirited, since the family was portrayed as rubes and the boy as some kind of oddball savant?

2. We've seen the professional woman wanting a baby at all costs scenario before. Many times before. What little humor was to be had from that situation has already been done.

3. Convincing your sad, directionless sister who appears to have no means of support to bear your child just isn't funny.

4. The title of the show really had nothing to do with anything. The editor character had lifted the idea for a book called The True Adventures of Jezebel James from her sister, who had had an imaginary friend called Jezebel James when she was young. The editor had farmed out the idea to a writer, which is another insider joke, but only if you're familiar with book packagers. But Jezebel James really has nothing to do with what's going on in the lives of the characters in the show. It just left viewers sitting in front of their TVs going, "Wha?"

And then they must have turned the channel because, as I said, the show has already gone off the air.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

How Come I Haven't Heard Of Clemency Pogue?

I have not been shy about voicing my dislike for fairies. (Gag.) So imagine the joy I felt when I stumbled upon Clemency Pogue: Fairy Killer by J.T. Petty. Yes! Fairies die! They're killed either accidentally or in self-defense, so I don't feel too evil for taking satisfaction in their demise. And they're killed in a really cool way.

Guess what you do with a dead fairy. You flush her! Come on! That's great!

Clemency Pogue is a young girl who has to save herself from one witchy little fairy. In doing so, she accidentally wipes out a half dozen of the little mites. She learns of her...I don't know...slip-up?...crime?...from a hobgoblin who becomes her sidekick as she tries to make things right again.

This is a very clever, witty book, the first in a series of three that have been published since 2005. How come I haven't heard about them?

I have to admit that the word play and humor is a bit sophisticated. For instance, younger kids might not get all the nuances in the scene with the Hooooope Lesssss boy trying to use the Song of Solomon as inspiration for the love poem he's writing. (Since I only know the Song of Solomon by reputation, perhaps I don't get all the nuances, either.) But surely there are widely read middle grade and middle school students who will enjoy the chapter about the kid who tries to frame his dog for peeing on the couch. I know I did.

The Clemency Pogue books are short, and they are fairy stories that boys ought to like as much as girls. We're talking a quick, fun read here. Maybe I'll feel differently after I finish the second one (I picked it up at the library on Thursday), but at this point I have to wonder why no one is talking about these books.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Could This Be Why We Chase After The Shiny And New?

For the last year or so, I've felt that book people always seem to be chasing after the next thing. No sooner is everyone all excited about a new book then they've moved on to the next season's catalog. As soon as the Newbery winners are announced, I see groups start talking about next year's contenders. One of my listservs started talking about this fall's books last month. I guess this spring's books are already yesterday's news.

I've also heard from my local librarian that once books in libraries move off the "New Book" shelves they stop circulating. She says libraries with spacious "New Book" shelves will keep volumes out there for months--even longer--to give them as long a life as possible. The "No Longer New" books make their way to the stacks, but library patrons don't follow them.

I was in a library yesterday doing research so I could update the What's Hannah Been Reading? page at The Hannah and Brandon Stories site. By research, I mean I was actually going through the catalog looking for, say, vampire books, taking down author names and titles, and hunting for them. That meant that I was in the stacks. I was wandering up and down in the aisles, feeling badly for all the books sitting on the shelves and not seeing much action.

I realized, though, that I'm as guilty as anyone of heading to the "New Book Shelf" first thing. And I realized that I do it because that's where I'll find books I've read about recently in reviews or blogs. That's where I'll find titles that I recognize because I've just heard about them.

There are thousands of books in the library. Tens of thousands. That's an overwhelming number, at least for me. The number of books on the "New Book Shelf" is far more manageable. I can look at far more of them. So can all the other library patrons who cluster there.

I'm guessing the same is true for followers of each season's new offerings. There are hundreds of thousands of books out in the world, hoping for attention. Who can begin to deal with that much reading? But maybe we can kid ourselves that we can get a handle on this season's books. Or next season's. Because a season's worth of books isn't that many, comparatively. And when the season's over, we can throw in the towel and move on, hoping that maybe next season we'll do all the reading we need to do.

Yeah, like that's going to happen.

Suzanne Collins Has Been Working

In catching up with my listserv reading, I just learned that Suzanne Collins (Gregor the Overlander) has a new book coming out this fall, The Hunger Games.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

So True, So True. And Yet...

John Freeman asks Has reading about books replaced the real thing? Hmmm. Well, maybe.

Juicy bits:

Flicking over to a website has become our mental fidget, a way to satisfy our constant desire to be "out there" when we can't be - whether it's because we're sitting at an office, or waiting for the potatoes to boil. Yes! Yes! I think I'll go to one right now!

But the accumulation of information takes a toll. Occasionally, a barrage of reviews of a new book just makes me weary - oh, you again, I think. Oh, yes, yes. Sometimes the lovefest every time John Greene publishes a book gets close to being overwhelming. Though I can't get enough of reading about M.T. Anderson.

By way of artsJournal.

The Way Things Are

As part of The Big Clean and a study month that I haven't quite named yet (the two events are sort of overlapping), I am trying to go through all the back messages in my listservs. I just found an e-mail at Adbooks with a link to Waiting for It, an essay that explains why there's such a long wait between a manuscript's acceptance and its publication as a book. In a word, it's all about marketing.

Waiting for It spells out what I think can only be described as the struggle to sell a book. It also explains what traditional publishers do for authors, or try to do for them.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

All Canada, All Day, With Kenneth Oppel

The Internet is celebrating literary Canada today. While I've written in the past about my obsession with Margaret Atwood, touched on my life-changing experience with Robertson Davies, and described Mordecai Richler (probably my favorite Canadian author) as a friend of my youth, I'm going to give today's post to Toronto resident Kenneth Oppel.

This is rather brassy of me, given that I've only read two of his books, Airborn and Skywalker. But they were very good.

Plus, I don't see Oppel being referred to often as a "Canadian writer." Sure bios will say he's won this Canadian award or other, but I don't think he's identified as a Canadian writer the way some of the Canadian writers I've known since college are Canadian writers. Many of those writers' books are set in Canada, and their experiences as Canadians inform their writing. Richler, for instance, is associated with Montreal, and in his later years he wrote about the Quebecois movement. Atwood's Amazing Grace was inspired by a Canadian murder in the nineteenth century.

Based on what I've read about Oppel, I'm guessing that he's more influenced by the time he lives in than the place. He describes himself as being influenced by Star Wars and videogames, which certainly are not limited to any one country, and Roald Dahl, who was from Wales. Airborn and Skybreaker are two well-done thrillers set in an alternative early twentieth century. Perhaps they are close to steampunk, a fantasy subgenre that, like Star Wars, videogames, and Roald Dahl, has an international following.

Now that we have so much "world culture"--all kinds of international media--we may see more and more artists who are products of their time rather than of their place.

Wow. R.L. Stine As Underdog

Back at the end of the last century, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series was looked down upon by librarians and parents who had been English majors. Yes, series fiction wasn't embraced with open arms back then, even when it sold very well, as Goosebumps did. Maybe particularly when it sold very well as Goosebumps did.

I read a couple of Goosebumps stories back in the nineties, and while they didn't grab me, I didn't see where they were all that bad. At the time, I found it interesting that they were published in paperback and therefore were cheap. That meant that kids could afford to buy them themselves. While moms may have wanted their potentially gifted ones to read Out of the Dust, the kids themselves were forking over their ill-gotten gains for Goosebumps. I respected that young readers were choosing their own reading.

‘Goosebumps’ Rises From the Literary Grave appeared in Sunday's New York Times Book Review, and it explains how Goosebumps fell on hard times. Hard times is defined here as selling only two million copies a year instead of four million a month. R. L. Stine, who has always seemed like a modest and decent man in any article I've ever read about him, and Scholastic, his long-time publisher, are getting ready to produce new titles set in an evil amusement park. (Is there any other kind?)

The article includes this interesting line: "Stephen King, writing in Entertainment Weekly, has suggested that Mr. Stine’s success helped persuade Scholastic to pursue J. K. Rowling’s boy wizard."

I have no idea whether or not that's true, but I can see the logic behind King's thinking. As I said earlier, series' fiction was considered a little bit low on the foodchain back before Harry Potter. The money Scholastic made from Goosebumps could very well have convinced it that a series was a good financial risk.

Will Goosebumps rise from the dead and walk again among the living, scattering all other books before it? Could it become--gasp!--the next Harry Potter in terms of sales for Scholastic?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Interview With Cecilia Yung

I wish I had time to read all the interviews at Cynsations. In fact, I'm hoping to go back and read some of them during my reading month. (Which should be coming up soon because I'm almost finished cleaning my desk!) But today I made time to read Cynthia Leitich Smith's interview with Cecilia Yung because I heard Yung speak at an event at UConn quite a few years ago. She was speaking about picture books, and it was at that point that I realized that they aren't easy to write.

In the interview, Yung says: "I look at websites regularly (at least a few times a week) to find artists, to keep tabs on the competition, and even to look at other work by artists I am currently working with to find solutions to problems."

I found this interesting because I've seen some illustrator websites that I thought were surprisingly weak. They have pages with nothing but "Work in Progress" in them--and for a long, long time. Or it's clear that the sites aren't updated regularly. Or some illustrators don't have sites at all, just a few images up at their agent's site or at an on-line gallery. I'm always surprised when people who are clearly into visuals don't take advantage of the visual opportunities on the Internet.

Bloomer Books

I feel a moral responsibility to support the Amelia Bloomer Project even though I find the descriptions of the books on this year's list a little on the dry and preachy side. I'm not feeling an overwhelming compulsion to run out and read these books based on those write-ups.

On the other hand, none of the titles appear to be about dating or shopping for designer crap, which could make them compelling reading for that reason alone.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will mention that I know both Pegi Deitz Shea and Mitali Perkins, who have books on the list.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Speaking Of The Hannah And Brandon Stories

I have a limited number of arcs for the second volume in The Hannah and Brandon Stories series, A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers, which will be published in July. I've already given out a few, so if you're interested in a copy get in touch with me soon, either through the comments here or e-mail.

Announcing The Hannah And Brandon Stories' Home On The Web

Last week we launched The Hannah and Brandon Stories mini-site and did a little shakedown. It's now ready for you.

I wanted a site specifically for The Hannah and Brandon Stories because it's a series, even if there are only two books in it right now. Well, only one book, because the second one won't be published until summer. I felt Hannah and Brandon needed a little different kind of promotional effort.

Plus, I wanted to try to create a brand for the books. We never actually named the series anything. One book is called A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat and the other A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers. (That link is new, too, by the way.) But how would someone talk about the books together? My editor and I sometimes called them the girl/boy books. That was lacking something, so I gave them their own name.

I didn't want to just throw out an entirely new website onto the Internet because I try to avoid clutter. Making this site part of my main site is an attempt to remain organized. So my homepage directs readers to two different ways to read about the books--the original, more traditional material at my main site and a fun take-off of book marketing at the Hannah and Brandon Stories mini-site.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

February's Carnival

Yeah, you read that headline correctly. I'm just getting around to visiting the February Carnival of Children's Literature at Picture Book of the Day, and I'm already hearing rumblings about a March Carnival going up soon.

February's carnival seemed notable to me because of the big chunk of writery posts. There were also a lot of blogs represented that were new to me. I particularly liked LizJonesBooks' contribution on graphic novels.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Oh, Dear

I wasn't happy when I heard a brief mention of Borders' money problems on the radio yesterday, and even less so when I read about them in more depth today. True, I know Borders rarely carries my books or the books of many other writers. But struggling bookstores of any kind aren't good for writers. And probably not for readers, either.

Yes, I know it's ironic that one of the big box bookstores is ailing financially after they helped push many indies out of business.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Old Time California

I was looking for what you might call a traditional pirate book for younger kids when I picked up The Giant Rat of Sumatra or Pirates Galore by Sid Fleischman. It didn't serve my purposes, since the pirates were pretty much landlocked from the get-go. But it was a very decent historical novel that I think would be accessible for kids as young as say, third or fourth grade.

Our twelve-year-old narrator, known as Shipwreck, was saved by Captain Gallows and his pirate crew on the Giant Rat of Sumatra after the ship upon which he and his not very warm and fuzzy stepfather were traveling went down. Captain Gallows only preyed on other pirates and now that he has made his bundle, he's giving up the sea to go back to Spanish California in the 1840s and live as Don Alejandro. My knowledge of this period is pretty much limited to Zorro. But, I have to admit, The Rats of Sumatra has aroused a little curiousity in me for the era.

Gallows/Alejandro only dresses up in the good quality clothes of a Spanish landowner and not a black mask. But he has some of the same heroic attitude of the Z Man. He's seeking a sort of personal revenge--sans blood--against the wealthy landowner who had treated him and others like him badly when he was a child. If he can help a few others while he's at it, so much the better.

Notice I'm talking an awful lot about an adult character. In this book, the interesting, heroic figure is an adult, not the child. As a general rule, I'm opposed to that sort of thing. Kids' books are supposed to be about kids. But I've read a few books where this arrangement works. (The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle, for instance.)

I think when a children's book with a dominant adult character works, it's because that character is an outsider in society. In the case of Gallows/Alejandro, he started out as an outsider child. He became a pirate, certainly living outside society's laws. But as a pirate who stole from other pirates, he was even outside whatever pirate society may have existed.

Gallows/Alejandro isn't assimilated into his society, just as the children who will read this book are not yet assimilated into adult society. Shipwreck, the child character, doesn't have a place anywhere, either. His mother, an actress (she must have been an outsider in 1840's Boston), may have been glad to see him get on the ship that took him away from her. We're not sure. And then he finds himself in a Mexican controlled land that is at war with his own country. Yes, a lovely narrative complication, but one that makes our child character an outsider in that time and place.

So there are logical reasons why this light, engaging historical novel works for younger readers.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More Than A Diagnosis

In addition to cleaning my desk, I'm trying to reorganize the blogs I follow, using a blogreader as Kelly suggested last week. (I am trainable.) As a result, I visited Finding Wonderland and was referred to a great article about Terry Pratchett.

Note that while he talks about his recent Alzheimer's diagnosis, he also talks about his past as a journalist. The material about his illness sounds mildly hopeful to this Pollyanna, and the stuff about his work as a journalist is both fascinating and heartbreaking.

While we're on the subject of Terry Pratchett, Michelle at Scholar's Blog reports on a Match It For Pratchett: Fandom Contributes To Alzheimer's Research campaign. Pratchett fans are trying to raise enough money in donations to Alzheimer's research to match the half a million pound donation Pratchett, himself, recently made. I found many, many references to this on-line, including a website, but nothing in the mainstream press.

It looks as if the Match It For Pratchett website has only been up since Saturday. A post dated yesterday reported that 824 donations worth over 32,000 pounds had already been made to the Alzheimer's Research Trust in England. Presumably donations are being made to Alzheimer's organizations in other countries.

Relics From The Desk

The desk, itself, doesn't seem as if it will be that bad to clean this time, though this is my third partial day working on it, which certainly makes it sound like quite a job, doesn't it? I'm not including the stuff on the floor or the various in-baskets and vertical files in my assessment.

Intriguing things I've found so far:

The most recent issue of The Horn Book. It looks totally alien to me. Don't think I've looked at it, can't even remember it coming into the house.

A back issue of The Horn Book. Looks familiar.

A reprint of Techniques for Understanding Literature: A Handbook for Writers by Professor John Reynolds, which I bought while I was all excited about visiting The UConn Co-op in January. I thought I'd read it during that fantasy study month I imagine I'm going to have sometime in my lifetime. Totally forgotten about this thing. It was still in the bag. On the desk. Under some other stuff.

The U.F.O. Hunter's Handbook . I bought this on-line a while back because in a section called 10 Essential UFO Books, the authors include My Life Among the Aliens. I think that was a very legitimate reason for buying the book, but what am I supposed to do with it now? I could put it up in the attic with whatever Aliens materials I have stored up there for my offspring to dispose of after they dispose of me, but that would mean going up to the attic and finding the correct box. And who has time for that?

Though if I did go up in the attic and find the correct box, I could also put the Teaching Genre: Science Fiction unit up there. I bought it several years ago because it, too, mentions My Life Among the Aliens. It's been on the floor near the office door for a couple of years, so it would be handy just in case I left the office and was going directly to the attic.

The American Boy Visits the Orient by Sydney Greenbie, published in 1946. This is on loan from the co-worker of a family member. I was going to read it as research for an old-time boys' adventure story. I've had it since last summer. I've decided to just return it.

Two books on off-color French phrases. There's a perfectly logical reason for me owning them, but it's boring.

Some more receipts to apply to last year's taxes.

Sometimes when I clean things I find money--rolled up dollar bills, even a five or, very rarely, something bigger. But that's usually in pockets of last season's clothes or in beach bags or backpacks or things like that. I shouldn't get my hopes up about finding much cash on this desk.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Life Stories

A little discussion has been going on over at Big A little a among readers who dislike The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I can't describe myself as a fan of the book, I'm more of a Saint-Exupery groupy. His story is what grabs me. Whatever possessed a man who led a life of danger to write what he felt was a children's book even if some would argue that kids can't make heads nor tails of it? Then he died young and mysteriously, which is a plot twist few can resist.

The discussion at Big A, little a was inspired when Kelly brought up a news story about a former German fighter pilot who might have shot Saint-Exupery's plane down. The eighty-eight-year-old man was a fan of the author, who had written books on flying in addition to his cult classic Prince, and says, "If I had known, I wouldn't have fired - not on him." "In our youth, we had all read him; we loved his books...He could deftly describe the sky, the thoughts and feelings of pilots. His work inspired our vocation for many of us. I liked the man."

The article continues, "Mr. Rippert said he suspected within days that he had shot down the famous writer. But he kept quiet, keeping the secret for more than six decades.

"You can imagine what would have happened to my career if people had known what I had done during the war," he said."

Think about what this poor man has been carrying around for decades. All soldiers carry burdens. But to believe that you didn't kill a faceless enemy, you killed a beloved figure, a figure you, yourself, found inspiring?

I feel like a blood-sucking witch for saying this, but that's a life story with narrative possibilities. Or maybe I just think so because I'm a Saint-Exupery groupy.

Santa Meets Space Dudes

I love the idea of combining Santa with aliens and did a chapter doing that very thing in my first book. Gregory Maguire did an entire novel on the subject.

In Five Alien Elves, a group of space travelers crash land in Hamlet, Vermont on Christmas Eve. After picking up a bit of a Christmas movie on their spaceship's monitor, they decide that the evil Santa Claws must be enslaving elves who turn out evil soldiers and dolls that the old man in red plants in homes after he breaks in and steals family members' milk and cookies. Since the head alien is out to earn herself some kind of merit badge for liberating a planet, she decides to save humanity by capturing Santa and freeing his workers.

I was looking for an alien book for younger kids, and this one definitely does the trick. The aliens capture the local mayor, who's sweet on a teacher in town, while he's done up as Santa. The teacher's students step up to the plate, hunt for the guy, and take on the aliens. The aliens are misguided and funny, and the kids are a bit over the top in a humorous way.

The only drawback to this book is that the characters make it pretty clear that Santa isn't real. That's the kind of mature content that some parents find disturbing. So you've been warned.

Five Alien Elves is part of seven-book series called The Hamlet Chronicles.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Big Clean

Last Friday I started cleaning my desk. I know I said I was going to do it back in November, but I didn't get far. I didn't get far on Friday, either. In fact, I think I made things worse.

I believe that sometime last year Justine Larbalestier cleaned her desk, and it took her twelve days. I think that sounds very reasonable.

What does this have to do with you? Well, whenever I clean my desk, I find treasure. And when I find treasure, I tell you about it.

Stay tuned.


I wasn't at all fond of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, but this past weekend, The New York Times Book Review gave author Barry Lyga's new book Boy Toy quite a good review.

On the other hand,I liked Neal Shusterman's Everlost a lot. The same issue of The New York Times Book Review, carried a review of Shusterman's new book, Unwind, which was more positive than negative but still a little mixed.

I know I'm biased, but I'll still probably read Unwind first.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Paying Attention To Books For Younger Readers

Two blogs recently carried posts on books for younger readers.

Chicken Spaghetti shared a list of 50 nonfiction books for first and second graders that was compiled by Candace Herbst of the Westport, Connecticut Public Library.

And Big A, little a linked to a Telegraph column of reviews of "first readers." The writer, Tom Payne, describes first readers as books that don't have good pictures and says they "...could be a child's first encounter with anything that looks or feels like a novel. They wean people off bold illustrations..."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

All About Spies

Last weekend there was a conversation going on over at Read Roger about the difference between "an adult reading a children's book recreationally and reading it professionally." It was very timely for me, because I was finishing up reading Dawn Undercover by Anna Dale, and I was definitely having a little problem trying to determine how kids would feel about this book versus how I felt about it.

I felt this book was very well-written, by the way. I was in the market for a spy book for younger kids, and this one is well-done. Dawn Buckle is a bland, nondescript English child who people don't notice. She has to attach herself to other kids in order to cross the street because the crossing-guard would never bother with her otherwise. A recruiter for a spy agency thinks this would make her a gifted spy and signs her up.

Great idea. I loved the set-up, though Dawn has one of those Roald Dahl-type over-the-top and negligent (though in this case only mildly so) families that are common in British books and that I find annoying. But a lot of people don't find them annoying, and I was able to put that aside because they disappear early on.

Dawn then spends nearly half the book being trained as a spy by a lot of adult characters. Her spy story doesn't start until halfway through the book. I think some trimming could have been done there.

Here's the part that bothered me, personally, though--Once Dawn has finished her training and is out on her case, she is no longer the nondescript child I loved at the beginning of the book. That whole aspect of the story seems to just be dropped. Okay, toward the end Dawn realizes that she's changed, and I know change is good, but I liked Dawn the way she was. I would have liked to have seen her use who she was in her adventure. I was disappointed. To me she seemed to have just turned into another run-of-the-mill kid adventure character.

But would a child reader react that way? A child reader, who hasn't read a lot of spunky girl books, might very well appreciate that a friendless, bland little girl could change and become spunky. A child reader might very well want to identify with a character who does that rather than a character who uses her blandness to fight evil.

When I stopped being an adult reading a children's book recreationally and forced myself to be an adult reading a children's book professionally, I decided Dawn Undercover is probably a good child spy story for younger kids.

Friday, March 14, 2008

I Am So Overwhelmed And This Isn't Helping

I've been having trouble keeping up with my blog reading for a long, long time now. For a while there I was trying to monitor maybe around 40 blogs, some daily, some weekly. Since before Christmas I've barely been skimming just a few of them.

Just now as I was barely skimming Bookmoot, I learned about the Pulse Blogfest. Simon & Shuster is doing a two-week blog-o-rama featuring a long, long list of its authors responding in a blog-like way to specific questions. There's a part of me that feels that this is just a company taking a method bloggers created to market its own product. There's also a part of me that wants to see what the questions will be and what the various authors will have to say.

Realistically speaking, I don't have much hope of doing that.

Here's An Award I'm Very Happy To Hear About

I just learned this afternoon that A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat has been nominated for the Kansas Reading Circle Award. And look what the folks in Kansas say about it in their catalogue: "riotous, imaginative"..."Funny and fast-paced."

That's the second time in just over a week that one of my books has been nominated for a state award. I am feeling rather special right now.

UPDATE: This isn't actually an award nomination. The Reading Circle Catalogue is a reading list circulated throughout the state of Kansas. I was so delighted to hear that I was on it that I felt as if I'd been nominated for an award. It's fine to congratulate me on having made the list, though.

Here's An Award I Don't Hear Much About

Sonja Hartnett (whose presence on the 'net is a little spotty, when you consider what she's done) has won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Literature.

I've only been vaguely aware of this award, even though it's supposed to be the largest (I guess they mean in terms of money) children's award in the world. Probably this is because it's only been around six years.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My Competition

Years ago I was told by more experienced writers not to bother sending any kind of publicity mailings to booksellers because they're overwhelmed with marketing materials. They have too much to contend with and any kind of postcard or brochure I would send them would hardly be noticed.

In case I didn't believe it, Alison Morris at Shelftalker posted photos of just the arcs/galleys her bookstore has received for books coming out in the months March through August of this year.

Remember, the new Hannah and Brandon book comes out in July.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Dinosaur Book For Nonfiction Monday

I can take dinosaurs or leave them, myself. What I really like reading about are the dinosaur hunters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins wasn't a paleontologist, but a sculptor. In the 1850s, he created sculptures of dinosaurs using information from paleontologist Richard Owen. The dinner party given inside one of his sculptures is the stuff of legend. Seriously, I heard about it years ago back in the day when I used to read dinosaur books aloud to a young relative.

The whole Hawkins' story is told in TheDinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley. The book covers the famous dinner party and the Waterhouse dinosaur exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1854. In addition, Kerley tells me some things I didn't know. It turns out Hawkins tried to do for dinosaurs in the U.S. what he did for them in England.

The lengthy Author's and Illustrator's Notes at the end of the book make good reading, too.

And who illustrated this lovely book that Blogger won't let me show you this evening? Why Brian Selznick, of Hugo Cabret fame.

In her Author's Note, Barbara Kerley says that what drew her to Waterhouse Hawkins was the dinner party given in one of his dinosaurs. What draws me to his story is that he and Owen were wrong in their depiction of dinosaurs. This is not to belittle the two men. On the contrary, what fascinates me about this whole situation is that knowledge changes as we discover more of it. It can happen to anybody, even the greatest talents of any particular age.

Talk about something that's hard to accept.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

An Anniversary Gift

I wasn't expecting any gifts for Original Content's anniversary because a blog anniversary isn't a big deal like International Women's Day. (I just heard last night about a guy from a former Soviet bloc country who buys his wife a gift each year for International Women's Day, which just happens to be today in case anyone in our capitalist stronghold would like to start observing the event.) However, I received an e-mail Thursday afternoon from the home office informing me that Happy Kid! has been nominated for the Georgia Children's Book Award.

I like the folks in Georgia. They nominated Butch and Spike for the same award a few years back.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Sixth Anniversary For O.C.

I'm having quite a stimulating week here at Chez Gauthier. I've done school presentations, I've started getting ready for next month's on-line chat with a library in Maine, and I've been fielding inquiries for more author visits. And then today I celebrate (well, let's say I notice) the sixth anniversary of Original Content.

This blog is one of the few techie things that I grasped before my computer guy did. When I asked him to take a look at Blogger to see how I'd go about starting a blog, he didn't know why I wanted to bother when he had already made me a website. Blogs weren't anywhere near as common as they are now. In fact, before I started mine, I googled "children's literature" and "weblog" and found somewhere between four and six sites. TodayJacketFlap's main page says it includes more than 650 children's book-related blogs. I guess a lot can happen in six years. Still, I find that number staggering.

This blog has changed over time. I didn't post every day for several years, but had a goal of generating new material two or three times a week. (I didn't always meet it.) I didn't have a method for readers to comment for many years. I didn't have my covers up here for a long time. I didn't know what a blog roll was until I started noticing them on other kidlit blogs.

I cannot recall at what point I started noticing that there were other kidlit blogs. Maybe in 2005? Though I have found a link to Kids Lit from back in 2004. Also, I was obsessed with Jane Yolen's On-line Journal (like a blog but different) from the end of July, 2004 until the beginning of April, 2007.

In spite of the changes, I remain amazingly consistent. Or, perhaps, I am not capable of evolving and changing. My purpose for blogging remains the same as it was the day of my first post--to bring original content to my website on a frequent basis. I am still intrigued by the line between YA and A literature, just as I was in my third post. And I was writing about Beowulf back in March, 2002 just as I was last fall.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mystery Reader

Yesterday, I was a Mystery Reader in a fourth-grade classroom at an elementary school in the next town. Mystery Reader Programs are used in a lot of elementary schools. Adults from many different fields are invited into classrooms to just read a story to kids and talk for a while. This class was doing Mystery Readers as part of its observance of Dr. Seuss's Birthday, which is tied to Read Across America Day.

I brought in one of the arcs for A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers and read a story from it, so these kids were hearing work from a book that won't be published until this summer. I also explained to them what an advance readers' copy is, showing them a manuscript from my printer and explaining that between the time a story looks like that and looks like a completed book, it goes through a galley stage. (I also had a stack of those.) And, of course, it's galleys that are bound and mailed out to review journals, distributed at professional conferences, yada, yada, yada.

This was the first time I'd done any kind of presentation related to the Hannah and Brandon Stories. As I was reading out loud, I was thinking, Don't they like it? What if they don't like it? What if we're on the second book in this series, and kids don't like them? Maybe I should have stayed home. Did I spend more time putting on makeup and clean clothes than I'm going to spend here in this classroom?

But as soon as I finished, the kids were very vocal about liking what I'd read. They wanted to know if the first book was at their library, and then they wanted to know if I'd read this book or that book that they'd really liked.

I particularly enjoyed that part of the visit, because I don't know a lot of adults who read children's books. I don't have a lot of people I can talk to about the things I read. Talking about books with kids really is an enjoyable experience for me.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Stellar Day

Read Across America events were held yesterday in classrooms all, well, across America. And I was a guest for one of them. I did a day of I Don't Want To Write About That presentations for third and fourth graders at an elementary school here in Connecticut. I presented to five groups and ate lunch in the cafeteria where green eggs and ham was served. (I passed on that and ate a ham and cheese sandwich.)

It had been a while since I'd worked in a school, so I was anxious the week before until I'd rehearsed my presentation maybe four or five times and e-mailed my PowerPoint slides to the school's media specialist who assured me that he'd been able to load it and all was fine. The day ended up going very, very well. One group of fourth graders asked questions of such sophistication that I felt as if I was at a writers' conference. We talked about what publishers look for (one child clearly is interested in writing a fantasy novel), point of view, and magical realism.

I like to move around to different tables at lunch (sometimes I worry that I'm annoying the lunch monitors, but they were cool yesterday), and at one point I was sitting across from the Led Zeppelin kid. He was wearing quite a cute little Zeppelin shirt, and when I asked him about it, he and his buddy started raving about how much they loved the group. It does not appear that Led Zeppelin has a big following with grade schoolers, however. I suspect that at least one of those boys came from a Zeppelin fan family.

A third or fourth grader who loves Led Zeppelin--If I read that in a kids' book, I'd say, "That is so incredibly fake." But there you go. Nothing beats reality.

It was a great day, but it was a lot like honest work, which I don't do very often. I was dragging by the time I got home.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Now This Is What A Historical Novel Should Be

When I was a young 'un back during the last ice age, we didn't read cliche-ridden, didactic historical novels designed to forcefeed us facts about significant events or teach us meaningful lessons about man's inhumanity to man. No, indeedy, my little lads. We read historical fiction for the thrills! Ah, how many dateless Friday nights we spent as teenagers reading about spunky, if not outright outcast, girls racing across war-torn Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Or girls fending for themselves during almost any period of English history. Or generation after generation of young people dealing with the disasters of one historical period after another in family novels that covered a century or more of time.

If we were able to bowl over our eighth grade social studies teachers with our knowledge of British monarchs, that was just the icing on the cake. But getting educated wasn't the point. We were feral readers! We weren't reading off any official book list! Book lists hadn't been invented!

By the time I got to page two of How the Hangman Lost His Heart by K.M. Grant, I knew that at last I had found the kind of historical novel that had led me to take all those college history courses. Hangman is a very wry and wonderful twist on those books I devoted so much of my adolescence to reading.

For instance, it has a traditional heroic leading man in Colonel Francis Towneley. He's a handsome, aristocratic soldier who has supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in his attempt to take the English thrown from George II. (This is the George II who you may have been reading about this weekend in accounts of British royalty in the military because George II was the last British monarch to lead troops in battle.) Colonel Towneley is everything a historical romance leading man should be. Unfortunately, he is hanged, drawn, and quartered in the first chapter. His niece Alice possesses loads of spunk, and she meets the very hangman who did Uncle Frank in when she collects his body. She can't get his head, though, because it has been cut from his body and needs to be exposed on a pike for a while as a lesson to other Catholics who think they'd rather not have a Protestant king.

But that night Alice decides she just can't leave good Uncle Frank's head bodyless and exposed to the elements, and she sets off to save him. Er, it. She runs into trouble and throws in her lot with the hangman, who may be missing some teeth, is definitely married and illiterate, and doesn't know how to ride a horse. They are being pursued by (among others) a handsome young soldier who is poor, afraid of heights, and brow-beaten by his major.

This is a wonderfully balanced book. It is not a historical novel that has only a setting. It does have a detailed setting in time and place. But it also has a great story. It has wonderful, developed characters. It has a traditional theme of man (and woman) against society. And this third-person narrative has plenty of subtle, dark humor.

If you really, really must have a lesson of some kind with your historical fiction, there's a lovely one here about the difference between unconditional and romantic love.

K.M. Grant totally lucked out because the real Colonel Francis Towneley, the last man hanged, drawn, and quartered in England, was her ancestor. In fact, you can read a very nice account at her blog of her family gathering at the chapel at Towneley Hall on All Soul's Day to pray for the Towneley dead, including Uncle Frank.

How the Hangman Lost His Heart received a starred review from The Horn Book in its January/February issue. Otherwise, I'm not hearing as much about it as I would expect to.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Singing His Praises

I'm very happy with my computer guy this week. We're working on a mini-site within my website forThe Hannah and Brandon Stories. Computer Guy is picking up and running with all my ideas. He's improving on my ideas. He even likes my ideas.

The next volume of Hannah and Brandon Stories comes out in July. I suspect marketing people would say, therefore, that I'm late getting this website going. I try not to let things like my own ineptitude get me down.

No, if I want to get down, I'm going to do it over things like a website I found called Juvenile Series and Sequels. The number of series and sequels is far, far beyond my wildest imaginings. It sort of makes whether or not I'm late with my website a moot point because the chances of all of us getting attention for our books is pretty remote.

But my computer guy might get some for me. Not that I want to make him feel pressured or anything.