Friday, October 31, 2008

A First Creepy Doll Story


As luck would have it, I just finished reading a book appropriate for Halloween posting.

The Red Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer is a Stepping Stones Book. "Build the bridge to chapter books...," the publisher says. So we're talking a book for young 'uns here.

Earlier this week, anonymous and I were talking about whether or not books for children and YA readers need truly new and unique story lines because much is new to less experienced readers, anyway. I understand that everything's new when you're too young to vote, but I find it difficult to judge how good a book for a younger audience is when its plot and/or characters and/or setting have been done to death.

The Red Ghost is an example of a book that is using a story line that's been done many times before but doesn't come across as the same old, same old. The Red Ghost is a creepy doll story, and, yes, indeed, a lot of us older folks have seen it before. But Dane Bauer manages to create a real sense of tension here that I don't usually see in books for kids this young. This is a short, complete mystery that the kid characters manage on their own. You've got what is really a simple plot, a limited number of characters, and a setting that is rooted in one place, all necessities, I think, for a book for kids in the lower grades.

Many books for this age group are just silly and pointless. The good ones tend to be very realistic, sometimes with adult characters helping child protagonists learn feel-good lessons. The Red Ghost is a genre novel for the very young. I don't think I've seen many of those, and I was quite taken with the novelty of it.

Like many early chapter books, this one has a number of illustrations. Peter Ferguson's black and white drawings definitely show the feelings of the characters portrayed. He created a great-looking main character, a neighbor who is a dignified, contemporary older woman, and a doll that looks as if she's got something on her mind.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Art And History In One Lovely Package


My impression of the nineteenth century is that it was a time when people had a big interest in things outside themselves—natural history, art, and philosophy, for instance. At the same time, you saw some remarkable bigotry. Susanna Reich's biography of George Catlin, Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin, confirms my feelings about that incredibly interesting century.

You may not be familiar with George Catlin's name, but you've probably seen his work, particularly The Cutting Scene. Catlin was a nineteenth century artist who made painting American Indians (the term Reich uses) his life's work, both in terms of art and business. Early in Painting the Wild Frontier, Reich says of him, "Would people pay to look at paintings of Indians, he wondered, the way they paid to look at the Greek statues and the paintings of Revolutionary War heroes in Peale's museums?"

He gambled that they would.

The first part of Painting the Wild Frontier deals with Catlin the artist and adventurer. He believed the Plains Indians were still relatively untouched by contact with Europeans and seemed sincerely interested in documenting them and their lives with his art. Except for a few unattractive incidents that indicate that he was, indeed, a nineteenth century man, (the buffalo he shot but didn't kill and allowed to struggle in pain so he could sketch it from better angles, for instance, and his insistence on visiting a quarry considered a sacred site, even going so far as to take a sample of the rock away with him) Catlin comes off well during his productive years.

Making a living from art is almost always a problem, and in Catlin's case, he appears to have been a better painter than businessman. Though he ran successful exhibits in the United States and London, he wasn't able to hold on to money. An argument could be made that he also exploited Indians who appeared in his exhibitions. In his later years, he could have been a model for the artist tragically fallen on hard times.

When literary agent Nathan Bransford described his fantasy MFA Program he said, "Good nonfiction has an underlying arc and a satisfying conclusion." Reich definitely finds an underlying arch in George Catlin's life story, and while its conclusion may not be satisfying in terms of happily ever after, it's satisfying in terms of being a conclusion that fits in with what came before. While I kept hoping he would redeem himself as I read the latter part of the book, I can't say I was surprised when he didn't.

The art of our past is important because before cameras it was the only way to preserve how people and things looked. Archaeologists sometimes use art to help them date items--if a cup is similar to one in a painting from the late eighteenth century, then it, too, may very well come from that period. Thus Catlin's art is important no matter what we may think of him. Painting the Wild Frontier includes enough of it to almost be considered an art book. Some of the illustrations are in black and white, some are in color, and all are beautiful. Captions not only discuss the work, but identify the individuals in the paintings, making them real people who lived on after they were painted, who had families and perhaps descendants walking among us today.

Pay particular attention to the timeline at the back of the book, in which Reich shows us what was going on in the U.S. at various points in Catlin's life. While reading Painting the Wild Frontier, you'll definitely get a feeling for the nineteenth century world, but it's here in the timeline that you really get hit with some of the inconsistencies of the period. In 1838, for instance, while Catlin's Indian Gallery exhibit is a big hit with the citizens of four eastern cities, 4,000 Cherokee Indians die on the Trail of Tears while being forcibly relocated by the federal government.

This is a piece of work that could really get young readers interested not only in the subject covered but in reading history, period.

Painting the Wild Frontier has been nominated for a Cybil.

You can read a lot more about Painting the Wild Frontier next week, when Susanna Reich will be doing a blog tour. She'll be getting started on Monday at Becky's Book Reviews and stopping here on Thursday when we'll be talking history.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Coraline Goes Graphic

Parenthetical.net reviews Coraline. I wasn't looking forward to reading the graphic version of Coraline because, like the reviewer at Parenthetical, I wasn't crazy about the original book. This review makes the graphic novel sound more enticing.

Parenthetical.net also reviewed Three Shadows.

Merchant of V.

Pink Me reviews Cybils nominee The Merchant of Venice. Gareth Hinds also did a graphic novel version of Beowulf, by the way.

Is It YA? Is It Adult?

J. L. Bell discusses the graphic novel Flight at Oz and Ends. What's particularly interesting about his post is his question regarding whether or not Flight is Young Adult and the ensuing discussion in the comments.

The Big Read IV

My faithful readers are probably aware that when I'm not obsessed with the Transcendentalists, I'm obsessed with Shirley Jackson. So imagine my delight when I learned that Leila at bookshelves of doom is doing another Big Read, this time on The Lottery and Other Stories. And I own all the stories!

November will be wonderful.

I've already told you the story about how I read The Lottery to my kids when they were little. Ah, memories like that make a person get all warm and fuzzy, don't they?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What? Bankruptcy Clauses?

Uh-oh. I didn't know this. Thank God for blogs, eh?

Some Thoughts On MFA Programs

Not my thoughts. Nathan Bransford's.

I read once that the thing MFA writing programs are really good at is turning out graduates who can then teach at other MFA writing programs. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Spending your life talking and thinking about writing... attending author talks...getting paid for it... You could do worse.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Graphic Reviews

The Excelsior File reviews a graphic biography of J. Edgar Hoover. Earlier in the month, it carried a review of Cybil nominee Prince of Persia.

Old Wine In A New Flask

I gave up reading a graphic novel a couple of days ago because the "episodes" were filled with old military/war stereotypes. A graphic novel format doesn't make old story lines and situations new again.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

My Transcendent Day

Well, yesterday I finally went walking around Concord, Massachusetts, presumably in the very spots many transcendentalists walked before me. There is so much transcendentalist stuff to do in Concord! We're going to have to go back.

We left the center of town and walked out to the home of Nathanial Hawthorne. We didn't have time to tour that spot, but will hit it another day because not only did Hawthorne (who, I must admit, I'm not wildly enthusiastic about) live there, but the sign out front says Margaret Sidney, who wrote The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew also put in some time there. On top of that, the place looks old and intriguing.

We did stop next door at Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her family. I had toured the place once before many years ago, but you can't tour Orchard House too many times. Our tour guide was fantastic, too.

We were meeting someone late in the day, so we had to hustle back to the center of town and drive to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery instead of walking. The cemetery contains an area called Authors Ridge where you can find a number of famous dead writers all in one place. It really is an impressive place, because it's both beautiful and modest.

Though I'm a big Alcott fan, the most thought-provoking spot at Authors Ridge yesterday was Ralph Waldo Emerson's grave, not because of the grave itself but because someone had left him a gift--a fresh rose was lying in front of the headstone. We wandered about a while and noticed another couple visiting the Emerson family plot. When we went back to get a picture, we found that in addition to the rose, there was now a small piece of paper with writing held down with a stone on top of the grave.

What an incredible tribute because the guy has been dead for something like a hundred and twenty-five years.

By the way Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

For more images on the Transcendentalists in Concord, check out my The Transcendental Writers of Concord Pinterest board

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Skeleton Buddy Book


The Bony One is back in a new adventure, Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire. (By Derek Landy.)

I liked the first book, and I liked this one, too. I had some trouble working out who the bad guys were and just what was going on at first. But with Skulduggery books, the main interest is the repartee between the buddy main characters, the ageless skeleton detective/sorcerer Skulduggery Pleasant and his apprentice, Stephanie Edgley, who has renamed herself Valkyrie Cain. (Sort of like Beyonce and Sasha Fierce.) Enjoying them carried me along until I was up to speed again.

Stephanie/Valkyrie is twelve (or maybe thirteen in this second book, I'm not sure), and that's a pivotal age in kid books. It's the youngest age at which authors can pull off having their child characters take part in adult-like adventures with any degree of believability. Valkyrie is more believable than many fantasy protagonists because author Landy came up with a duplicate to leave in her place at home, which explains why she's able to have adventures without her parents wrecking things by, say, having her locked up. She also learns that she's descended from magical folk, which lends some logic to her being able to do things like create fireballs. (Assuming you can accept the logic behind magical folk, themselves.)

Finding out you're special is common in kid fantasies. (You know, like Harry Potter.) Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm just saying.

Though Skulduggery is a marvelous, clever, anti-heroic hero, there's no doubt that Valkyrie is the main character in Playing with Fire. Which is exactly as it should be, because this is a kids' book!

The Skulduggery Pleasant website is one of the best book sites I've seen. Many of them are lame or at least tedious. And many of the sites for popular books (like this one) are filled with bells and whistles and not much else. This one actually has the things I want to know about easily accessible--The Books, The World, The Author. (Watch out for The Extras, though. I got caught in some kind of loop that kept my computer desperately opening pages while making a horrendous noise as if it were about to go into space.) In The World, you'll find a great interview with Skulduggery.

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire has been nominated for a Cybil.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

More Happenings At UConn

I just accidentally discovered that M.T. Anderson will be speaking at The University of Connecticut next week. This almost got by me because I'm on the University Libraries mailing list and none of the libraries is co-sponsoring this.

I Blame The Puritans

I just got back from the Leonard Marcus lecture at UConn. He discussed the history of children's fantasy (meaning fairy tales/"make believe") literature vs. realistic literature in the United States. He said the first children's book published in North America was The New England Primer in 1690. This was the Puritan Era, and Marcus says that the Puritans were interested in children's books that prepared children for the afterlife.

Talk about the ultimate in improving children's books.

Personally, I'm thinking Puritan kiddielit was a precursor to the instructive message tales so many of us love to this very day.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What Other Authors Are Saying

I fell behind in reading my author blogs. I've just had to gorge. Some interesting bits I picked up:

I'm sure many people read Justine Larbalestier's blog for her Ozie voice. Voice gets old for me. I read her because she periodically has very true things to say about the writing life. For instance, her recent post Money, writers don't have none, Part the Millioneth. Read it and be assured, she's not exaggerating. I met a couple of writers last month who had been published with big-time publishers. One of them said she wanted to make sure that her writing career didn't end up costing her family money. The other said her goal was that her writing pay for itself.

Justine also had a post on YA celebrity fairies. I am not included in this list because 1. I am not a YA celebrity and 2. I hate fairies. Unless, of course, they are drunken, Scottish, punk rockers. If I ever had a fairy, it had better be a heavy drinking punk rocker. And I believe I would like to substitute French Canadian for Scottish, since I can actually understand a French Canadian accent more easily than a Scottish one, drunk or sober.

Mitali Perkins has a very interesting post called Should Authors Describe a Character's Race? This is something I've actually thought about. I imagine many writers have.

Becky Levine writes about something I struggle with regularly, First Drafts: Fantastic or Just Fast? I also struggle with fifth, sixth, and seventh drafts.

Sam Riddleburger talks about the misunderstanding relating to the phrase "write what you know" in Harry Potter and the Good/Bad Writing Advice.

And, finally, I'm afraid I understand all too well how Chris Barton's kids feel about book festivals. Yeah, guys, all too often I end up feeling I'd rather be home reading.

Notice My New Fan?

We were hit with a spammer in the comments' section last night. It appears to be from some kind of marketer, though what s/he was marketing was lost on me. The comment suddenly went up in many of my posts back until the beginning of September and in a few places before that.

We are considering our options.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Graphic Novel Nominees

The Cybils site has this year's graphic novel nominees nicely listed for you. They've broken them down into two categories: Elementary, Middle Grade and Young Adult.

Some Hannah And Brandon News


I just received word from the home office that the November issue of School Library Journal carries a review of A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers.

And what does the reviewer say? Among other good things, "Filled with comic moments and realistic escapades, this short chapter book is laugh-out-loud funny."

Getting Started On Graphic Novels


So I began my "study" of graphic novels with Buddha, Volume 1: Kapilavastu by Osamu Tezuka. Evidently Tezuka is a big name in manga.

I know very little about this Japanese genre and tend to think of it as being adult comics with a lot of characters with strange big eyes. (According to anime.com that's Tezuka's influence.) At this point, I'm not sure whether or not manga has influenced the interest in graphic novels over the last ten years or so here in America or what it's relationship is at all. This tribute site says Tezuka's artwork gives the illusion of movement, and my impression is that graphic novels do do that, so he may have had some kind of influence on graphic novels overall.

Or maybe not. Maybe graphic novels just coincidentally share that with Tezuka's work.

Buddha: Kapilavastu doesn't really have that much to do with Buddha. He's born in this book, but most of the story involves other characters, which the back cover says are Tezuka's original characters and not from Buddhist tradition. The two most major are a slave, Chapra, and a pariah Tatta. The question "Why do humans suffer?" does come up, and Chapra and Tatta do suffer. But their suffering is interesting and adventurous while most books about characters who suffer tend to be, at least in my experience, ah...well, not interesting and adventurous. Improving, maybe.

A couple of interesting notes about the artwork--the pariah boys are naked in most cases, and there's a reason I know they're boys, if you follow my drift. Almost all the women are naked from the waist up, and they are all attractively portrayed, even the Buddha's mother who is pregnant, though we would never know if the text didn't tell us.

I have no idea what to make of that.

You also see facial expressions that are unrealistic in an over-the-top humorous sort of way, even though what is happening to the characters isn't necessarily humorous.

Again, I'm not sure what to make of that. I got used to it, though.

I can't say that I loved Buddha Volume 1, but there's something about it that's so intriguing that I'm hoping to move on to Volume 2. Oddly enough, no library in our consortium owns it, though some libraries have Volumes 5, 6, and 7.

That's right. I don't know what to make of that.

I'm wondering if Osamu Tezuka the Akira Kurosawa of graphic novels. Which would be really interesting because I just saw Seven Samurai this past summer.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cybils Easy Readers

Nominations closed for the Cybils last week. A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers is one of the nominees in the new Easy Reader category. Anastasia Suen provided a list of all the Easy Reader Nominees as of last Tuesday.

For Adult Readers Looking For YA Titles

School Library Journal carries an article called 35 Going on 13: Teen Books for Adults in which the article discusses...ah...teen books for adults.

I've read three of the titles author Angelina Beneditti mentions and agree grown-up readers would be interested. I wondered if The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs shouldn't have been published for adults in the first place. Yes, Skullduggery Pleasant does have a very sophisticated adult--in a mannner of speaking--for mature readers to relate to. As far as Coraline is concerned, I wasn't crazy about it, myself, but its author, Neil Gaiman, has an enormous fan base that loves anything he does (while I just love some of what he does), so, yes, Gaiman's adult fans will want to read this book.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Just Who Is Our Innocent Little Man?


Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish is the second volume in his Monster Blood Tattoo serial. And make no mistake, this is a serial. Though the main character reaches the end of his journey in the first book, The Foundling, it's clear that the book is not a completed story. The second book has a climactic event, but no resolution. Plus a lot of characters are introduced in Lamplighter who don't do a great deal, which suggests to me that we'll be seeing them in the next book. Lady Dolours, for instance, is featured on the cover but plays virtually no role in this book. And, finally, the lengthy Explicarium/Glossary at the end of the book includes many entries referring readers back to Book One.

To enjoy these books, you need to accept the fact that this is a serial and not fight it. So go read the first book before you start this one.

Monster Blood Tattoo takes place in a world perhaps comparable to 17th/18th century Europe, though a 17th/18th century Europe overrun with monsters with whom humans are in constant conflict. A whole array of different types of human monster fighters exist, many of them having subjected themselves to surgical procedures that will give them inhuman powers. A human who has killed a monster gets tattooed with the monster's blood.

The Foundling was a journey story in which our main character, the orphan Rossamund, travels to Wintersmill where he is to train as a lamplighter, one of the people who light lamps along the highway late in the day and then put them out early in the morning. A journey story has a built-in narrative drive, you could say. Plus The Foundling had a marvelous character in the monster fighter for hire, Europe, with whom Rossamund falls in.

Lamplighter is about identity. Rossamund is becoming a lamplighter. Is he also a monster lover and thus a criminal? Why is he so strong? Who is he? That's interesting, but not necessarily something that moves a story along. His lamplighter training is very military in nature and takes place in a military-type fortress. Military training doesn't have the built-in narrative drive of a journey story. What we get here is not very exciting training broken up with fantastic monster attacks. (From what I've heard, that's similar to real military life--unexciting preparation broken up by all-too-exciting engagements.) I mean, really fantastic monster attacks. The last one was especially good, and I didn't see it coming.

The plot for the entire series does thicken in this volume. Someone within the military is creating monsters, though we don't know why. The bad guys appear to be...bureaucrats. Though we don't know, yet, what they have to gain.

The world of Monster Blood Tattoo is very elaborate, with creatures and all kinds of invented job categories among the humans as well as an invented culture within which they live. I found the reading this time around a little more complex. I had to use the glossary quite frequently. I don't think I even knew there was one in the first book until I finished. The backflap says Cornish worked fifteen years creating Half-Continent in which the story takes place. I can believe it.

As I was reading the book, I couldn't help but think how difficult it must have been to edit. Part of an editor's job is to look for inconsistencies and to make sure the world the author has created--whether it's an elaborate new one as in Monster Blood Tattoo or a grade school world we might know today--is believable. In addition to all the different types of monsters and monster fighters (some of whom are called different things within the military), this book uses invented countries, roads, weapons, holidays, days of the week and months of the year. Someone had to keep track of all that and make sure it made sense within the context of the book. I hope he wasn't trying to work on any other books at the same time.

One other interesting point about this book--the women. The world of Monster Blood Tattoo seems to be male dominated. All but one of the lamplighters is a man. Women appear as nurses and cooks and innkeepers. And yet you also have these incredibly powerful women monster fighters. Killers. The men in the story respect and fear them. Personally, I love women who kick ass, and the women who do so in this serial are a big draw for me.

While I can't say I was as big a fan of Lamplighter as I was of The Foundling, I did find myself missing the world within this book when I'd finished it. I suffered a little withdrawal.

By the way, Lamplighter has been nominated for a Cybil.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Graphic Novel Basics

You can read Graphic Novel 101:FAQ by Robin Brenner at The Horn Book website. Just to get you started on your graphic novel education.

Reading About Marketing Depletes My Energy

I've been feeling much more on top of things since I've moved to Google Reader and can categorize my blogs. I read one category of blogs one day, another category another...You get the system.

Nonetheless, I did fall behind recently, and I just spent a nice chunk of time wading through the category I call "Editors and Agents." My Editors and Agents category has only three blogs in it, and still by the time I finished reading all the back posts about selling yourself to an agent--searching for agents, what agents are looking for in first chapters, cover letters, and on and on and on I felt my blood slowing in my veins.

Pub Rants linked to a post in Ally's Diary in which author Ally Carter talks about being asked The Wrong Questions at a couple of writers' conferences she attended this summer. It seems to me that a lot of the questions she was asked related, one way or another, to...marketing!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Few Words With M.T. Anderson

You can catch what might be called a mini-interview with M.T. Anderson at Blog of a Bookslut. Seriously, there are two question about Octavion No and one about the coming election.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bookspotting--A Great Word

Susan at Chicken Spaghetti has a neat post, Bookspotting, 4th Grade.

I definitely like to see what people are reading. In fact, it's all I can do to keep myself from going up to strangers and just taking their books out of their hands so I can look at the titles.

One of my sisters has sometimes talked about going to the mall to "people watch." I really don't care about watching strangers unless they're holding a book.

An Educational Experience, Though Not A Pleasant One

Nearly a month and a half ago I decided it had been a while since I'd read a book for younger readers, so I picked one up at the library. It just happened to be a graphic novel. I found out later that I'd be one of the judges for the Graphic Novel Division of the Cybils, which made reading the book I'd already picked up a little more interesting.

The book was interesting in a truly dreadful way. It was one of those degrading younger kid books that relies on what passes for wordplay and stupid humor. It was combined here with gimmicky images that appeared to be there to make kids' eyes pop.

I think that in a graphic novel the images should not just be illustrating scenes. The images should actually take the place of narrative. They should show true action, as in movement of plot.

Take The Invention of Hugo Cabret, for instance. Hugo Cabret isn't a graphic novel, but I think it could be said to have graphic elements. Sections of the story are told through pictures. Those pictures don't just illustrate some text the reader reads. They actually show us what is happening without words. Many of the scenes I recall involve movement. Our hero runs through a train station, under a clock, and up some stairs, while being chased by a guard. None of that is written down anywhere. We see it happen in the images and understand what has happened when the story picks up with text again.

I think that's what's supposed to be going on with a graphic novel. The images aren't supposed to be redundant. They aren't supposed to repeat what we read in a panel. They're supposed to replace the narrative that would occur around dialogue.

All the images did in this book I'm taking about was illustrate. They didn't make the story clearer. In fact, they made the story more confusing. I had trouble telling what had happened at one point.

In addition, what minimal plot exists in this book includes a hefty hole because it's the second book in some kind of series. All of a sudden the main character starts talking about someone from the first book and takes off to see him.

Poor plot, images that don't do what they're supposed to, and lack of respect for readers all work together to create a chaotic piece of writing for an age group that has only recently learned to read.

Why am I not mentioning the title? Because I can't balance the negative with positives here, because I can't think of any. So why I am writing about it at all? Because what I think of as this book's problems as a graphic novel have helped me clarify my thinking about graphic novels in general.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Doesn't This Mean I Should Go Hiking On Wednesday?

Today I was out hiking, when, after several hours, I had an idea for revising an essay I finished last Monday. The idea involved reworking the material for use as a presentation for teenagers or as an article for an educational publication for high school teachers.

Or maybe both!

I got the idea for the essay I was considering revising on September 28th, when I spent a big part of the day (a Sunday) reading. I finished a book called Chi Walking. I kid you not, it helped me formalize some thoughts about kids trying to publish their writing, which related back to the day last spring when a teacher at an elementary school asked if I had any advice for kids wanting to do just that. I had to tell her I didn't believe kids should be publishing their work.

Awkward moment.

One of the ways I justify all the time I spend doing non-work related stuff is that I try to convince myself that I could very well come up with some fine ideas by doing so. And on September 28th, and then again this afternoon, I think I did.

So wouldn't I be a fool to stay home and work on Wednesday when I could be hiking and, perhaps, coming up with a seriously important writing idea?

Of course, ideas are all well and good. You have to do something with them, though. So unfair.

Friday, October 10, 2008

You Know Any Fake Readers?

The Book Whisperer in Teacher Magazine talks about "fake readers" in her post Fake It 'Til You Make It. She talks about fake reading as a coping skill used by students who have trouble with reading comprehension.

However, I've known excellent readers who did the first type of fake reading she talks about while in college. We're talking Dean's List students.

Not that I read every word of every assigned text while I was a student. I just wasn't that good at covering up.

Maybe I Should Seek Therapy

I had a pretty decent day of work today, rewriting work I'd done earlier in the week and getting a little further, though not as far as I'd hoped. I realized that one reason I may have such difficulty sticking with work and keep escaping to play games of solitaire or to see what Sarah Palin is doing or to check to make sure we still have a stock market is that every single word matters.

I thought I was getting bogged down because I knew that I was going to do draft after draft and just knowing that the draft I was doing was not going to be the last sapped my strength. But it's more than that. Finding the exact word and creating the perfect moment in a storyline is a major responsibility. Talk about a load on your shoulders. Just a line can make all the difference in whether I can move on or not.

I keep looking for various methods to make the work easier. I've hoped that my martial arts training would somehow transfer to writing, but it's been six years so I don't think I should expect much to come from that. Plus, let's face it, I'm not that great a martial arts student so even if something did transfer how much good would it do me? A number of years back I had a six-week period when I thought that writing in a journal each morning was going to turn my life around. I was wrong. Then this past summer I read that meditation can improve concentration. So I tried that a few times. I thought it helped once, but then I couldn't remember to meditate each day. So, so much for that.

Then today I was wondering about some kind of word anxiety therapy. I was thinking that the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators could run some kind of therapy salon.

I'd pay to go to that if it included lunch.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Now Everyone Is Going To Want To Shop In Ireland

In case you think of bookselling as a job in a big box and not an exciting international profession that will make you loved in foreign corners of the world, check out The Adventures of an International Bookseller at Shelftalker.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Three Reasons To Get Excited For Cybil Season

You have one week left to nominate a favorite book for a Cybil. Here are three reasons why you should.

Reason 3: It's Free

No, I'm not making some kind of joke. Some book awards require a nomination fee. The National Book Award for instance, requires a $125 entry fee as well as a contribution of $1,000 from the publisher toward a promotion campaign if the book becomes a finalist. Some state awards (I'm not talking about the state readers' choice awards for children's books) also require a nomination fee.

I don't mean to suggest that there's anything wrong in requiring a nomination fee. There are expenses involved with running an award program, and, since many thousands of books are published every year, the fee probably helps keep the number of books in contention at a manageable level. Or nearly so. But I do think that the fee has an impact on awards. Of course a publisher that has to come up with $125 for every book it nominates for the National Book Award isn't going to nominate every book it published. Anyone can nominate a title for the Connecticut Book Award, but I don't think I have any fans who are so enthusiastic that they'd want to come up with $50 or $75 to do so. (There was a sliding fee determined by the number of copies published, two years ago, anyway.). So I'm guessing that people who want to use their money wisely, look at their books and decide what has the best shot of winning. That decision may be made on the basis of the book's quality or it may be made on the basis of the book's quality and its similarity to books that won the award in the past.

That's what I'd do, anyway.

So for a lot of book awards, the winner is not necessarily the best book of the year, but the best book that was nominated.

Reason 2: It's Your Chance To Influence An Award

You know all that talk about mavericks and outsiders we've been hearing lately? Well, that's sort of what the Cybils are because readers--any readers--have a hand in the decision making. Remember Reason 3, which you should have just read. Any book award is given to the best book of those nominated. You have a chance to nominate a brilliant book that the professionals haven't noticed.

Reason 1: It Gets Book Titles Out In Front Of Readers

Books disappear very rapidly from the public consciousness. Even award winning books. Within a month or two of the Newbery and Caldecott announcements, I see people on listservs starting to speculate about the next year's winners. This year's winner is so yesterday. It's time to go on to the next big thing.

Bloggers are the judges who make decisions about your nominations. And what do bloggers do? They blog. Unlike other book awards where decisions are made behind closed doors (not that there's anything wrong with that), the Cybils panelists and judges are allowed to talk about what they're reading. That means that nominated titles from back as far as January can get some attention again. The attention is good for the books, and it's good for you readers.

While only one book can win, there are thousands of good books out there. During Cybil Season, you'll get a chance to read about them. And one of the books you--and thousands of others--read about could be a book you nominated.

Parents And Teachers: Tell Your Students To Use E-mail

Last week I received a letter by way of my publisher from a seventh grader who had written the letter in December of 2007 and mailed it in January of this year. Today I received another letter, this one from a seventh grader who had written his letter in 2005.

The lesson here is that publishers don't always foreward mail in a timely fashion. I'm not complaining, I'm just stating a fact. E-mail, on the other hand, is amazingly fast, as a general rule. I think it's a much better way for students to reach authors and suggest that teachers encourage their students to check to see if the authors they want to write to have websites, which often include a way to e-mail them.

Some authors (I'm thinking people like Rick Riordan, for instance) probably receive more e-mail than they can possibly respond to. But they probably also receive more traditional fan mail than they can possibly respond to, also. At the present time, I'm not one of those authors. If that changes, I'll be sure to let you know.

I suspect from things I've read that there are also authors who might get a little snitty over receiving e-mail because they don't believe it is a true correspondence. I'm not one of those authors, either.

I'll tell you what else I'm not--I'm not an author who would ever, ever not respond to a child who wrote her a well-mannered letter as both these young men did. The guy from 2005 even included a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

Yes, I will be writing back to him. I hope he'll be pleasantly surprised. Good heavens, he should be in tenth grade now.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Graphic Novel Imprint Stops Publication

No sooner do I develop a new interest in graphic novels, then I learn that a graphic novel company publishing YA no less has ceased publication. Why a US alternative to manga failed in The Guardian suggests the problem was that "the quality wasn't actually very high." He singles out The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci, Minx's first novel, as an example.

The Comics Reporter has a more sophisticated account of Minx's demise. The author, Tom Spurgeon does say, "...it could simply be the books just weren't doing it for their intended audience. They were books you could convince yourself might be successful, not books that you were stunned to find out weren't." (The intended audience, by the way, was teenage girls.) But he also quotes a former inventory manager at Borders as saying the bookstores didn't shelf the books in the right place and that DC didn't ask them to. I'm not a hundred percent clear on where the right place was, though, and why a bookstore needed to be told by a publisher where to shelf books.

Link from Blog of a Bookslut.

A New Volume Of YA Short Stories

In the Boston Phoenix article Ghost Writer, author Nina MacLaughlin says of Kelly Link's new YA short story collection, Pretty Monsters, "It’s amusing and perfectly captures high school, but is also smarter and funnier than any 11th-grader could articulate."

That struck me as an interesting observation. If it's smarter and funnier than eleventh graders can articulate, will they like it? Or will they be glad that the book is able to articulate the smart, funny things that they can't? I expect to read Pretty Monsters at some point, because I liked Link's earlier book of short stories Magic for Beginners. But I'm not an eleventh grader, so I don't imagine I'll be able to make a decison about the articulation question.

Pretty Monsters has received three starred reviews.

Link also has a short story in the science fiction anthology The Starry Rift.

Link from Blog of a Bookslut.

Monday, October 06, 2008

At Last It Can Be Told

I'm going to be a judge again for the Cybils! I'll be a Round II judge for the graphic novel category. Graphic novels--very hip and happenin' as one of my cousins likes to say. (Of other things.)

I think I've been very plain here that I can become obsessive when I get interested in something. I've felt obsession coming on ever since Kelly asked me back in September if I'd throw my lot in with the graphic novel folks. I don't believe my work for the Cybils will actually begin until after Christmas. But this fall I plan to be reading graphic novels and reading about graphic novels to get myself prepared for the rigors of judging.

You'll be hearing more about this, believe me.

Spread The Love Around


You still have nine days to nominate your favorite books of 2008 for a Cybil award, the children's and young adult bloggers' literary award.

I was just over at the nominting site to see how things are going. The Fantasy and Science Fiction category already has more nominations than we dealt with when I was on the panel during the first year. YA and middle grade fiction already have serious numbers of nominations, too.

But I'm surprised to see that Graphic Novels is a little slow collecting titles. Some of the nominations are duplicates or for books published in 2007, so ineligible this year. This is a genre that I thought had really taken off in recent years, so I expected to see a lot more nominations.

And what about Easy Readers? This is a new category for the Cybils. We need to support the Cybilistas' willingness to promote books for this age group by nominating titles.

Here's the thing about nominating books in a category that doesn't have a lot of titles--your nomination won't have a lot of competition. The chances of your title winning are better with fewer titles to compete with.

So if you've been thinking that nominating a book wasn't worth the effort because nothing you like ever wins, you need to think again. Get over to the Cybils' site and throw your favorite title in the ring.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Ethan Allen On My Mind

Next month I'll be taking part in a blog tour for Susanna Reich's nonfiction book, Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin. I started reading the book and was soon reminded of my favorite nineteenth century guy,Ethan Allen.

Reich reports that George Catlin's father, Putnam, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut as was Ethan Allen. (Allen would have been around twenty-five when Putnam was born.) Putnam (a significant name in Connecticut) Catlin is described as having been descended from Puritans, and there's an implication that the strict way in which he ran his family may may have been the result of Puritan influence. That he could have been influenced by Puritan thinking makes sense to me because Puritans dominated Connecticut in the sixteenth century and experienced a resurgence (the Great Awakening) in the mid-seventeenth.

The seventeenth century Puritan mindset and world figures in Ethan Allen's life story, too, though he could be described as the anti-Puritan. He rejected all things Puritan.

So, that's why I had Ethan on my mind last week. Then I found that J. L. Bell at Oz and Ends wrote a post about my book relating to Ethan Allen, The Hero of Ticonderoga. And then he wrote another.

But that's not all!

Yesterday I was visitng a family member who had recently returned from Ireland where he had been in some coastal city where...the prison ship on which Ethan Allen was held after being captured by the British during the Revolution made port!

What are the chances that Ethan Allen would come up (okay, only sort of come up as far as the George Catlin book is concerned) three times in a week? Come on! The guy's been dead nearly 220 years.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Booky Events In Southern New England This Month

Some members of the Class of 2k8 will be presenting a panel discussion called Networking for Writers and Readers, or How Many People Does It Take to Get a Book Written and Sold? at Barnes & Noble Bookstores in Massachusetts and Connecticut this month. The stores involved are the B&Ns in Enfield, Connecticut (Thursday, October 16, at 4 p.m.); Holyoke, Massachusetts (Friday, October 17, at 4 p.m); and Worcester, Massachusetts (Saturday, October 18, at 2 p.m.) All events are free and open to the public. (Info by way of the NESCBWI listserv)

On Wednesday, October 22 Leonard S. Marcus will deliver a talk called Wonder in the Wake of War: The Fantasy Tradition in American Children's Literature from 4 to 5:30 in the Konover Auditorium of the Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Marcus is the author of Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepeneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature. It's also free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception and book signing. (Info from University of Connecticut Libraries)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Facebook--Another Marketing Tool Or A Quick Way To Make A Fool Of Myself?

Getting back to my day out with the writers, which I found so incredibly stimulating:

I got into a brief discussion of Facebook with a writer who had just joined a month or so back. She said she was connecting with librarians. I wondered if joining Facebook wouldn't be an easier marketing effort than, say, driving around the state to visit booksellers who might not be that eager to see me. I was concerned about having to maintain another site, since I'm already blogging nearly daily and updating a website every few months, but she said I could just flip my blog posts over there. So I thought about it.

I've had two reservations about Facebook in the past:

1. I first heard about writers joining Facebook a few years back. Some close to middle-aged women YA writers were joining Facebook to try to connect with their teen readers. I found that mildly disturbing. You know, adults going where the kids are...marketing to young souls...kids figuring out you're old enough to be their mother and telling you to get lost...

In the intervening years, adults have been moving into Facebook in significant numbers (or so I understand), so I don't feel that kind of concern anymore. As my friend said (and I call her a friend because she said that if I join Facebook I can invite her to be a friend) on Saturday, she's connecting with other adults, not kids.

2. I don't like the way any of those social networking pages look. I'm all about communication. And I want quick communication. I don't even like those high-class websites with arty intros that take a long time to load. I don't have time to sit around waiting for that garbage. I want to see author websites with a coherent homepage that tells me who the author is right away and then clearly directs me directly to specific categories of information.

I don't see that happening at the social networking sites I've visited. I find them incredibly chaotic. I want to know what authors have written, when the next book is coming out, what led them to write what they wrote, how they got where they are. I find the social network sites' user interface, as my computer guy would call it, disorderly. What does the term "Posted Items" mean? And "The Wall?" What's that supposed to be?

Forgive me for being misanthropic but, quite honestly, I don't care who their friends are!

So, as you can probably tell, the beginning of this week, I was still on the fence about joining Facebook. Then I stumbled upon Old People Facebook Disasters at Salon, and the contest was over.

I'm not saying I'll never join FaceBook. But I'm definitely not joining it right now.

Understanding The Newbery

School Library Journal carries a response to Has the Newbery Lost Its Way? called The Newbery Remembers its Way, or "Gee, thanks Mr. Sachar." The point of this second article is that the Newbery is awarded for literary quality. That isn't necessarily the same as readability, though it certainly can be.

Unfortunately, a lot of people outside the library and literary world aren't aware of what the Newbery is supposed to reward. Thus the disappointment when it goes to books that are well written but not necessarily of a type that will draw in crowds of readers. (Whatever that "type" is.)

Personally, I can accept that the award is for writing and not, shall we say, the kid appeal of the content. But I think the Newberyites need to also accept that some years there's going to be a gulf between their choices and readers.

That's not a bad thing or a good thing. It's just a thing.

The original article is being discussed at one of my listservs as well as at Read Roger.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Three Robbers Nominated For A Cybil!

I was getting ready to send an e-mail to a bunch of relatives to try to hit someone up to nominate A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers for a Cybil. But someone already nominated it! And on the first day! And I didn't have to ask her to do it!

Seriously, all I needed was the nomination to make me happy. I'm very low maintenance.

Newbery Winners Aren't Big Draws

I've been hearing rumblings about the Newbery for years. Others are beginning to hear them, too. Has the Newbery Lost Its Way, in School Library Journal, argues that kids, librarians, and booksellers have all found recent winners disappointing.

The link comes from cynsations.

This seems like a good time to remind you that you can nominate titles for the Cybils.

Science Fiction Short Stories For YA Readers


I haven't responded to any books here in a while because I've been reading The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, a rather hefty volume of short stories edited by Jonathan Strahan. The Starry Rift is one of those themed YA anthologies that are often very uneven in the quality of its offerings. I think this one is better than average.

A couple of the stories are a little preachy. And some might not technically be YA. For instance, is a consciousness that's been alive for hundreds of years but inhabits a body that looks to be in its late teens a YA character or something else? (Infestation by Garth Nix) One story that I liked a lot, The Star Surgeon's Apprentice by Alaistair Reynolds, takes your classic tale of the cabin boy forced onto a pirate ship and moves it into space. The protagonist, though, seems as if he doesn't need to be a teenager.

One of the big pluses with this book is that the stories really are science fiction, something that I think hasn't been getting a lot of attention in young people's fiction since fantasy became king of the hill. In fact, the Nix story I mentioned in the preceding paragraph involves vampires, which usually fall into the fantasy category. But he gives them a nice science fiction twist here. Strahan's introduction provideds a history of science fiction, particularly in the twentieth century, that I think new, young science fiction readers should be able to get a lot out of.

I also like the way some of the authors took classic situations from other genres--or from the headlines--and used them in science fiction scenarios. In addition to the pirate story, we have a story here about kids thinking they've found a spy and spying on him themselves, something that might be described as a whaling story (Whales in Space!), and a tale of illegal immigrants coming from the past.

Then there was the story set in a future, high-tech India. India was ruined as a setting for me after having to read A Passage to India twice when I was in school. The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald may have opened a new world to me.

Really, reading this book was an experience. I only skipped two stories.

For a much more serious critique of The Starry Rift, check out this post from The Inter-Galactic Playground. The post's author, Farah Mendlesohn, is the author of Rhetorics of Fantasy.

Cybil Nominations Now Open


The fifteen-day nomination period for the Cybils starts today. I'll be judging one category, but the announcement hasn't been made at their site yet, so I'll just sit on that news for a bit. Sort of.