Friday, December 31, 2010

Some Talk About One Of My Least Favorite Genres

The New York Times has a neat piece on YA dystopian literature's popularity. The layout of the material is interesting because there's no interaction at all among the authors discussing the subject, no give and take with an interviewer. You just click on the author photos, and you are directed to their spin on the subject.

I met Lisa Rowe Fraustino earlier this month. I was excited to see someone I kind of know in The New York Times.

My favorite contributor contribution came from Jay Parini, who described teenagers as feeling gamed by the system. He seems to be expressing an adolescent feeling of "I'm mad as hell, and reading about civilization falling will make me feel better." It's odd that I liked Parini's piece best, because his is not a name I associate with YA or kidlit.

Link from Cynsations.

Still More On Steampunk

Steampunk: Full Steam Ahead at School Library Journal. With suggestions for how teachers and librarians can use the genre.

From Cynsations.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My 2010 In Books

Last year I did a post on my year in books. I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to do it again this year.

By midnight tomorrow night I should have read 91 books. Usually I get a little closer to 100. Though I enjoy obsessing as a general rule, those 9 books just aren't bothering me.

One of the big events of my reading year was learning the satisfaction of book series as an escape from hard times. In addition to polishing off all the Chrestomanci books, later in the year I read all nineteen of the Amelia Peabody mysteries. When I was much, much younger I was big on reading all the books in a mystery series, but then it was a matter of feeding compulsion and not getting away from suffering or--in the case of Amelia, whose adventures vary in quality--worry. Books can function like medication.

My nonfiction reading this year was nowhere near as successful as last year's. I read America, A History in Art but found it a bit disappointing. I ordered it through a book club and expected it to really be history told through a series of art work. There's much more traditional text than I expected with the art work functioning as illustrations.

I had to give up on reading Emerson's essays. Waldo is beyond me.

I'm about to finish Amelia Peabody's Egypt, a beautiful book that I received as a birthday gift. It's a series of essays on the various historical aspects of the Amelia Peabody novels. We're talking two levels of history here because the Peabody books are about Egyptologists working at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. So there are chapters on the "discovery" of ancient Egypt by Europeans and the history of the British in Egypt along with chapters on Edwardian fashion, popular literature, and childrearing--every historical element you can imagine, if you've read the books. What makes this collection particularly intriguing is that the authors of the essays maintain the fiction that Peabody and her husband Emerson ("the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age") as well as the rest of their family and friends, were real people who knew real Egyptologists. Since some of these real Egyptologists (as well as other historical figures) also appear in the novels, you can find this whole mashup of fact and fiction either fascinating or frustrating.

If I read any other nonfiction, I'm afraid it didn't make much of an impression. But I have plans for next year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December Carnival Of Children's Literature

I couldn't pull my mind off Christmas prep long enough to submit to this month's Carnival of Children's Literature, but check it out, anyway. Lori Calabrese made it very festive.

Note the cover image for Jean Craighead George's Dear Rebecca, Winter is Here. I stood in line at a book fair years ago so George could sign a copy of that book for my niece, Rebecca, in honor of her first winter.

Monday, December 27, 2010

YA Vs. Adult Themes

I've written before about the Holmes on the Range books by Steve Hockensmith, because I felt that, thematically, they'd be of interest to older YA readers. You know, the YAs old enough to tolerate plenty of foul language and dead bodies in sad states.

The first three books, I thought, dealt with twenty-something young men (one all the way to twenty-seven) who were seeking a place in the world, deciding who they wanted to be. The whole Who am I? thing works for YA readers.

I just finished the fourth book, The Crack in the Lens. It's still fine reading (Hockensmith does some great work with the word "fudge."), but thematically it's different from the earlier books. Old Red, who still hasn't reached his thirtieth birthday, is no longer intent on becoming a deducifier like his hero Sherlock Holmes. Now he's wondering if he made the right choice in turning his back on cowpunching in order to become a detective. Do Holmes' methods even work? Yeah, there's plenty of whore talk in this volume, but it's the looking back and worrying about regret that make this book more adult than the earlier ones.

What am I going to be?/looking forward--YA

Did I make the right life choices?/looking backward--Adult

Hot damn. There's a new Holmes on the Range story coming out next month.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

New Work From Pamela F. Service

Stinker From Space by Pamela F. Service (who really ought to consider getting herself a website) is remembered fondly here at Chez Gauthier. More recently Service has been writing a series called Alien Agent. I found one of the latest volumes on the new book shelf at one of my local libraries and sought out the first book in the series, My Cousin the Alien.

My Cousin the Alien is about a young boy whose cousin believes he's been placed on this planet by aliens. It sort of plays with the old situation of children who can't believe they're actually a true member of the family they find themselves in. (I used to fantasize about being, in reality, a Mafia princess.) Because of a parallel storyline involving a definite alien, we know that there is, indeed, an alien placed in a family on Earth and that he is in danger.

Some of the writing here is a little awkward, and the parents are definitely cliches. I figured out the twist in this story early on, but in this case, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Readers can enjoy feeling they know something the characters don't. This book (and presumably the series) is marketed toward middle grade readers, but I think it is most appropriate for kids on the young end of that range. It's well done for that age group because it has a real story line and doesn't lean on pointless, silly jokes. I'm surprised I haven't heard more about it.

Plot Project: I wouldn't say that this plot is built around giving its protagonist something to want and then throwing in obstacles to his getting it. It's more likely that the author had an end point in mind--the big reveal, say--and created what might be called some flashpoint scenes for the characters to experience before getting to it. That's all speculation, of course.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some Down And Dirty Talk About Harry P.

Check out Harry Potter and the Incredibly Conservative Aristocratic Children's Club at The Awl. The author, Maria Bustillos', thesis statement is "The multitude of sins committed in Rowling’s imaginative but horrible story can be roughly divided into three classes: ethical or pedagogical, literary and political." She makes some good points. For instance, I, too, find Dumbledore to be an odd figure who is always saving the day and ignoring a great deal. But she undermines her arguments with her tone and her personal attacks on Rowling.

Check out the comments, which end up veering off into discussions of His Dark Materials and C.S. Lewis and probably many more things. (I had to give up. There are a lot of them.)

J.L. Bell responds to the article at Oz and Ends. A discussion follows in his comments, too.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Last week was Alternate History and Steampunk Week in some parts of the kidlitosphere. Another thing I missed while I was doing God knows what. Though on Friday night I did end up throwing together what I thought was a steampunkish outfit for a company Christmas party. I thought I looked as if I'd just stepped out of a dirigible, though a family member objected because I wasn't wearing any leather or metal.

Anyway, back to last week's goings on: Charlotte's Library offered up six steampunky books, including Behemoth, which just happens to be upstairs waiting for me.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Little Christmas Present For Me

I have mentioned before that I cannot abide the word "suffragette." It doesn't enrage me quite as much as hearing adult women referring to themselves as "girls," because I understand that discussions of suffrage are few and far between these days and not everyone is familiar with the correct terminology, whereas adult women sure as hell ought to know better than to demean themselves by labeling themselves as children. Nonetheless, why would people talk about suffragists if they didn't have some modest knowledge of the subject? And knowing the correct term is a really modest knowledge of the subject.

Anyway, today a family member who has been going through his late father's professional and personal papers came upon a pamphlet called Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes in McGraw-Hill Book Company Publications. I can't find a publication date in the pamphlet, but it was stamped as received in my father-in-law's office on Dec. 7, 1974. (Our papa held on to everything, bless him.) On page 8 there are two columns headed "No" and "Yes." One of the items under "No" is "female-gender or diminutive word forms, such as suffragette, usherette, aviatrix. In the "Yes" column you'll find "suffragist, usher, aviator (or pilot)."

Note: Thirty-six years ago, a major publisher referred to "suffragette" as an unacceptable diminutive. Thirty-six years ago! It's time to get with the program.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Reading Challenges

If you like to push yourself with your reading (yeah, and who doesn't, right?), check out A Novel Challenge-The Place to Find Your Next Reading Challenge. It's a blog that lists all kinds of challenges being hosted/organized by bloggers.

Check out the sidebar so you can search for, say, pending challenges for 2011. I have one picked out, which I will be announcing New Year's Day, along with some other reading plans for next year.

What You May Have Missed

Yes, I am always behind on my blog reading. While I'm trying to catch up on all I've missed, I can help you do the same.

What I missed and you may have, too:

Some talk about what used to be called Monster Blood Tattoo at Oz and Ends.

Laura Hillenbrand isn't a children's writer, but what she has to overcome in order to write makes my whining about work seem like, well, whining. Whenever I read about her (and she had a very good essay a few years ago describing her early years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), I'm able to buck up and get on with it for a while. Link by way of Chasing Ray.

A Holiday Readathon was held earlier this month. Link from The Children's War.

The entire Winter Blog Blast Tour happened without me.

I came really late to a discussion of skimming at Read Roger. (Should one either bother commenting at a nearly two-week old post? Is it too much like trying to prolong a conversation at a party that everyone else has lost interest in?)

This list brings me up to December 8 in my blog reader--for the lit blog category. I'm still in November for two of the others.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Like A Documentary With Talking Dogs

Marlo Garnsworthy has a great cartoon up at Wordy Birdie. It's called So You Want to Make Children's Books. I kid you not, I have heard or read every word that comes out of the blonde bear's mouth.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Went To The Movies

An Old-Fashioned Girl and life got in the way of my writing about Library of the Early Mind, a documentary on children's literature that I saw nearly two weeks ago. Early Mind is a collection of interviews with a huge number of children's writers and illustrators. If you've attended book festivals or writers' conferences, you'll probably have seen some of these people. You may have followed some of them on blogs or on listservs. Watching them speak on the big screen is like watching someone you know.

I'm making a list of books to read in 2011, and three of them are there because of this movie.

The Next Time Your Kids Tell You They Can't Find Anything To Read, Tell Them About This

Number of Children's Books Published. These figures are for 2009. This particular article doesn't state whether these figures include self-published books. I'm going to guess, yes, they do.

Happy Birthday, Shirley

Today is Shirley Jackson's birthday. If any of my regular readers are out there, you know I have a long-term relationship with Shirl. I believe I've done fourteen posts in which she's mentioned.

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for letting me know about this.

Monday, December 13, 2010

How Did I Miss This On NaNoWriMo?

I'm 175 posts behind on my blog reader, and close to a month behind on the "Writers" category. That means I'm still reading about National Novel Writing Month, even though this year's event has been over for nearly two weeks. Thus I was fortunate to learn at an old Spectacle post about Laura Miller's Salon column, Better yet, DON'T write that novel, relating to NaNoWriMo. I can't believe I missed it. I go to Salon nearly every day, and I love Laura Miller. Plus I did NaNoWriMo one year. How did this get by me?

Everything Miller says about NaNoWriMo is true. But, you know, it's harmless. When writers are sitting at word processors cranking out the 1500 words or so a day that they have to produce to meet the 50,000 word deadline for the month, they aren't getting into trouble. If lots of them are submitting unrevised crap to publishers and agents, well, I feel for those publishers and agents. But let's face it, having to read a crappy submission letter or the first three pages of a crap-filled manuscript is probably not the worst thing that's going to happen to them.

I also agree with Miller about promoting readers instead of writers. We should have a National Novel Reading Month.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The End Of My Own Cybilizing This Year

I happened to have a couple of Cybil nominees in my TBR pile, and I've finally finished them. Which is a good thing because they're due at the library tomorrow.

Binky to the Rescue by Ashley Spires is a very clever and charming graphic novel for younger readers. The basic premise is that Binky, an indoor cat, believes that the outdoors is outer space. Insects that come into the house from outside are aliens. When Binky accidentally goes through a window, he's truly out in the great unknown. He manages to survive the ordeal, but his dear friend, Ted, has been stranded out there. Thus, Binky to the rescue.

A marvelous little book.

Marcus Sedgwick began his review of Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones with the line "It's always the sign of a truly accomplished writer when their book holds you, despite the fact that not awfully much happens." That's exactly how I felt about Enchanted Glass. I enjoyed reading it, liked slipping into that world, but when I finished it, I thought...Did much happen here?

Enchanted Glass is one of those books in which a character finds out something about himself. In this case, it's not that he can perform magic. Lots of people can perform magic in the world of Enchanted Glass. Young Aidan Cain knows about the magic. Learning who his family is is the surprise here.

In an interesting twist, there is also an adult character who is learning things about himself in this book. Adult Andrew Hope and young Aidan Cain are almost co-protagonists.

Wynne Jones is very good at dealing with powerful adult characters in children's books. They don't take over the story or overwhelm the kids. That's true here, too.

Enchanted Glass's ending reminded me of The Pinhoe Egg's in that both books are wrapped up with what I can only describe as a bizarre twist relating to what some people would call morality. In the case of Enchanted Glass, the ending also seemed to be essentially saying that the action of the book had all been a big mistake.

I had the feeling that this book could be the jumping off point to a series. I'd be happy to see that happen, and if that's the plan, I hope Wynne Jones gets the opportunity to do it.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

There Are Two Of Us, Anyway

Sundee T. Frazier, who wrote Brendan Buckley's Universe And Everything In It a while back, did a guest post at Cynsations last month. In it she sounds a bit like an organic writer, which makes us writing partners or members of the same tribe or some such thing.

When she talked about, "The nights I spent crying to my husband that we were going to have to send back the advance money for my second book..." I almost shouted, "I did that, too!" at my computer monitor. Except that I didn't actually cry. I grabbed my husband by the front of his shirt, shook him, and wailed, "You don't understand! We may have to send the money back!"

My sister, Sundee, has a new book out this year, The Other Half of My Heart.

Round 'Em Up

In my fantasy life, I keep up each week with the Sunday Round-up of Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction at Charlotte's Library and the monthly I Can Read Carnival, which I believe moves from blog to blog, though I'm not sure of that.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Girl: And In Conclusion

Today is December 7th. In addition to being the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it's the last day of the Cuci Mata discussion of An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. Fortunately, I am just about out of thoughts on this subject and ready to put it to rest. The bottom line is we're supposed to decide if we think this book stands the so-called test of time when it comes to race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Does it deserve classic status?

An Old-Fashioned Girl deals much more with gender and class than it does with race and ethnicity. The little it has to say about race is not positive. Early on, Polly, the protagonist whose values and behavior are superior to that of almost all the other characters, objects to a play she's been invited to for a number of reasons, one of them being that the players, whom she originally thought were supposed to be "sparkling creatures" from "fairy-land," "sang negro melodies, talked slang, and were a disgrace to the good old-fashioned elves whom she knew and loved so well." Of course, given that Alcott had that Transcendentalist thing going and the Transcendentalists were pro-abolition, maybe she really is just talking musical taste. I guess you can believe a people shouldn't be enslaved without loving their music. Today's young readers, however, living in a twenty-first century world where African American musicians are highly regarded and popular, may be mystified by the comment. The same is true of Alcott's depictions of Irish women servants. Most child readers will never have seen a servant, anyway, forget about one who arrived from Ireland so recently that she still speaks with a heavy accent.

Are there enough race and ethnicity problems to deny An Old Fashioned Girl classic status? Probably not.

I have to say that the same is true for gender and class. An Old-Fashioned Girl is all about gender and class. While I don't like the stereotypes here and would even go so far as to say that I find most of them uninteresting, I have to say that a lot of them appear in contemporary fiction. Maybe stereotypical, uninteresting teenage behavior makes a book timeless.

I would argue that An Old-Fashioned Girl isn't a timeless work of children's literature for other reasons--its awkward structure connecting what is essentially an adult book with an older children's story, its extremely judgmental and instructive attitude, and its romanticizing of poverty and women as wives and mothers. But that's not what we were asked to consider in making our judgment.

An Old-Fashioned Girl is a marvelous piece for an adult reader interested in children's fiction and women's history, though. It's been a fun blogging week.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Women Of An Old-Fashioned Girl

You guessed it, followers. Today we are considering gender in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Louisa May Alcott covers a wide array of women in An OFG. Are they classic types? Are they stereotypes? In addition to Polly, whose perfection stems from her adherence to old-fashioned values, we have her friend, Fanny, who might be the only character with any real depth and certainly the only character who is at all dynamic, since she changes. 

She begins as a shallow rich girl, interested only in being with her friends and fashion. This is a character we see a great deal of in YA today. Even in books that are not of the teen-girl-gone-bad variety, adolescent young women are often portrayed as being fixated on friends, clothing, and boys. Personally, I have no idea whether or not they are or the adult publishing world simply believes they are. With Fanny, there is a sense that she, unlike most of the other shallow rich girls she knows, is just a bit troubled. Particularly after she reaches adulthood, she appears to be looking around with a "Now what?" attitude. (I see this as a twenty-something scenario, by the way, not YA.) Oddly enough, Fanny has what might be described as a posse, like the ones you see in many YA books today. The members of it are pretty much interchangable, which you often see today, also. In fact, you could probably switch some of Fanny's posse members with some from a contemporary posse without a lot of effort. A timeless element. Also, that's an idea for a book! I've got to remember to write that in my journal. 

Grandma Shaw is a revered elder woman. At the beginning of the book she is neglected and unappreciated by the young until Polly teaches everyone that she has much to offer them. Elderly people are often portrayed this way in all kinds of literature today, suggesting that writers are terrified of growing old.

Mrs. Shaw, Fanny's mother, is a minor but fascinating character if you know anything about late nineteenth century women's history. Lucky for you guys, I do. Mrs. Shaw is a sickly woman. The infirm woman is a late nineteenth century phenomena, of which much has been written. She appears in adult fiction in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. (I am sure all you former women's studies students remember that fondly.) What is so intriguing about Mrs. Shaw is that the third-person narrator really, really dislikes her. Both the narrator (who occasionally breaks out of omniscient mode to address readers as "I") and Polly have absolutely no sympathy for Mrs. Shaw, who they portray as not pulling her weight as either a mother or a wife. I'm not an expert on nineteenth century fiction and can't recall reading many other fictional portrayals of invalid women from that period. I'd be interested to know whether or not this is a common attitude toward them or if Alcott is doing something unique here.

When Polly moves to Boston to work as a music teacher, she rents a room with a spinster (a word that appears to have no negative connotations for Alcott--maybe it didn't in her day), Miss Mills, who could easily end up being Polly's future if she remains unmarried. Miss Mills, maybe even more so than Polly, is a saintly character. She's poor enough to have to rent out rooms in her house but not so poor as to have to wait on others like the Irish women servants. Thus she is the right kind of poor. And being ennobled by poverty, she spends her time doing good works for others. 

So we have a lot of very traditional portrayals of women here--very good girl, shallow adolescent, revered grandmother, bad mom, and saintly caretaker. And then, out of nowhere, in a chapter called "The Sunny Side," we get something entirely different.

Polly takes Fanny, who, remember, is sort of at a loss as to what to do with her adult self, particularly since she hasn't been able to catch the attention of the guy she's interested in, to visit some friends we didn't know she had. They never appeared in the story before, and they never appear again. Becky and Bess are artists. I'm not sure what Bess does (except that she does it with a block and some tools), but Becky is a sculptor who is working on a woman's figure. It's supposed to be her "idea of the coming woman," and Polly, who, remember, is an old-fashioned girl with values rooted in the traditional past, finds it "bigger, lovelier, and more imposing than any we see nowadays; and at the same time, she is a true woman." These women then get into a discussion of what item to put in the sculpture's hand, an item that would define her. Becky, the sculptor, objects to the suggestion of a man's hand because her woman can stand alone; she says no to a child because her woman is going to be more than a nurse.

All of a sudden, in a very positive portrayal, we've got 1860s era bohemian women discussing the status of women. And then they're gone. How out of place is that scene and those women in this story? Go back to the Preface and look at Alcott's statement of her intentions for the book: "The 'Old-Fashioned Girl' is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be,--a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another." In that statement Alcott is using a romantic view of women to keep them narrowly confined as wives and mothers. What were the bohemian women doing discussing women's status and work and living on their own and travel in a book that states straight out that it's about women in the home? Polly says at the end of the chapter that she and her friends will be showing Fanny "the sunny side of poverty and work," but they never appear again.

And just what is this sunny side of poverty and work that Polly is talking about? Intellectual stimulation? Independence? Art? I know I overthink things. Actually, I don't know that. I've been told that. But what I'm overthinking here is that Louisa May Alcott never lived as a wife and mother. She was a writer who needed to generate income to support herself, her parents, and maybe her sisters early on. She went off to nurse soldiers during the Civil War. In Minders of Make Believe, Leonard Marcus says she worked as a magazine editor for a while. Did she believe any of the "good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be" stuff? Were those women artists the real Alcott leaking into this book? 

Does it matter what was going on with Alcott since what we're supposed to be talking about this week is whether or not her portrayal of gender is timeless, the kind of thing that makes a book a classic? Only to the extent that those women artists types/stereotypes butting up against the very traditional female types/stereotypes make for a little confusion.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Girl: Poverty Is Ennobling--So Long As You're Not Irish

Today we will consider class and, to a much lesser extent, ethnicity.

In An Old-Fashioned Girl Alcott romanticizes what used to be known as genteel poverty--your better-quality people who have fallen on hard times or perhaps have just never had much in the way of disposable income. Polly Milton comes from just that sort of background. She hasn't been exposed to wealthy adults who encourage materialism in their young and who enjoy seeing children imitating adult behavior. (Something that many would argue hasn't changed since Alcott's time.) Whether fourteen or twenty, Polly is full of so many good qualities that seem to be a product of her poorer upbringing--She knows how to have good, clean fun making candy, how to empathize with those who are even poorer than herself, how to get over her envy of others who have more, how to remake last season's clothes, how to respect and admire her elders, how to play in the snow, how to make others feel good. These things either come naturally to her or are taught to her by her poor but noble mother "whose dress never was too fine for little wet cheeks to lie against, or loving little arms to press." Polly's fine manners don't come naturally to the wealthy Shaw children, whose own mother, Polly believes, doesn't have a "right motherly heart" and didn't teach her young to stand when Grandma enters the room or to show proper sibling love toward one another.

The Shaw children's father is a man of business who worked his way up from humble beginnings to an upper-class New England life. He is a very sympathetic character; his early poverty is a big plus and, presumably, is the reason he recognizes Polly's sterling qualities and hopes they will rub off on his own daughter.

Polly's kind of poverty is placed on a pedestal. Another figure in the book suffers from much more serious want. Jane Bryant (whose name, I think, is sometimes Jenny) is a seventeen-year-old girl who is alone in the world and unable to make enough money to live. She finds her situation so dire that she tries killing herself. But even here we have a romanticized ending when she is saved by the "old and homely, and good and happy" Miss Mills and befriended by "dear, kind" Polly.

Polly's kind of poverty is good. Jane's kind of poverty is bad. But the very poor can benefit from Polly's attentions just as the very rich can.

How good is Polly's kind of poverty? There is only one path to nobility for the Shaw family. They must become poor like Polly. In fact, you could argue that Polly's eventual mate only becomes good enough for her when he loses his money and becomes noble and poor like she is.

Except for Jane/Jenny, we don't see a lot of truly poor characters. The few servants who appear are Irish women who are portrayed as weak or even cowardly. In a warm-hearted intergenerational scene, Grandma Shaw, who is everything you could ever ask of a grandmother (though I don't think she bakes) tells the children a story from her childhood in which she refers to her family's servant as "our own stupid Biddy" and then goes on to make fun of her, including an imitation of her brogue. Neither Polly, nor the third-person narrator, object to this.

Legend has it that Alcott and her family nearly starved one winter when her father made his ill-fated attempt at communal living. She also served as a nurse during the Civil War. She was the main source of support for her parents as well as herself. This is a woman who experienced real poverty and saw real suffering. So what's going on with the glow she throws around Polly? (And, to my recollection now, the March family in Little Women?) Is it a coping mechanism to make her own past more acceptable? She also romanticizes the elderly (Grandma Shaw) and the West (Tom goes out there to make his fortune and comes back so brown, healthy, and manly). Is this some kind of Victorian thing? She grew up in a Transcendental culture. Does romanticizing the common person in the form of the poor (but not too poor) have something to do with that philosophy? Or was Alcott a shrewd marketer who was writing to an audience?

You still see elements romanticized in children's books today, particularly eccentric small town characters and the elderly. Not so much poverty, though. I think that with the advent of photography and film and mass journalism, the realities of poverty are all too well known, even to children. Today's child readers might have a very hard time accepting An Old-Fashioned Girl because they know too much to buy into the joys of being poor.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Girl: What Is It?

We're in the midst of the Cuchi Mata discussion period for Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl. We're going to be considering how race, ethnicity, gender, and class are treated and whether or not those treatments stand the test of time.

I am so overwhelmed with thoughts about this book that it's going to take more than one post to contain them.

First off, what is this thing about? According to the author's own Preface, An Old-Fashioned Girl is really two books. The first book is about Polly Milton, a poor, old-fashioned girl who comes to Boston to visit her much better off friend Fanny Shaw and her family. Polly, I believe, is around fourteen and Fanny a year or two older. A visit back then means two months. (It's an accepted fact in my family that I can only tolerate being with other people for three hours. I can double that for a holiday, but I will need to rest most of the next day. I found the idea of a two-month visit both fascinating and horrifying.)

This portion of the book reminded me a lot of Best Friends for Never, the one volume of The Clique series that I've read. You've got the same outsider less-well-off girl circling the group of wealthy girls. In that way, you do seem to have a timeless situation here. The big difference is that Alcott provides an extremely judgmental third-person narrator. There is absolutely no doubt that Polly is Polly Perfect, that old-fashioned country values are far preferable to nineteenth century Boston's big city ways.

Evidently that first half of the book about fourteen-year-old Polly was the original book. The second half takes place six years later and appears to have been written because Alcott received requests for a sequel. Polly has been visiting the Shaws regularly over the years and now comes to Boston to work, while Fanny is sort of struggling with ennui and her brother, good-natured Tom, is living the good life at college. This second half would probably not be published as a children's book or even a YA today. While the characters are determining what kind of people they are going to be (good old-fashioned sorts or bad modern types), a theme that I associate with YA, they are also all in their twenties and sorting out work and settling into marriages, not a YA situation. The third-person narration makes it clear that Polly's work ethic and values are still to be preferred over all but those of an older spinster who has committed her life to serving others.

This is hardcore nineteenth century instructive, improving literature for the young. In her Preface, Alcott is very clear that this is no accident. She knows exactly what she's doing:

"The 'Old-Fashioned Girl' is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions..."

"If the history of Polly's girlish experiences suggests a hint or insinuates a lesson, I shall feel that, in spite of many obstacles, I have not entirely neglected my duty toward the little men and women..."

Speaking of little men and women, I suspect that there was a lot of this same type of instruction in those two works I loved so when I was young. This makes me wonder if children can tolerate preaching a lot better than adults can.

Okay. The stage has been set.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November Carnival Of Children's Literature

The November Carnival of Children's Literature is up at Wendy Wax's blog. I've heard that the blog illustration is Wendy's original artwork created specifically for this month's carnival.

One of my favorite carnival stops: Alex Bough's The Children's War, a blog/journal "about books written for children and young adults about World War II." I found this interesting because one of the Gauthier boys was into reading children's books set in World War II during his late elementary/early middle school years. Bough's Carnival post deals with a Cherry Ames novel.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Are There Any Other Choices?

Slate is running an excerpt from a n+1 article called MFA vs. NYC. The author, Chad Harbach (one of n+1's editors) argues that America has two literary cultures, one around MFA programs and one around the publishing world of New York.

So meaty.

Now I knew that the number of MFA writing programs have skyrocketed in recent years, and I also knew that many MFA graduates are employed teaching in MFA programs. I just hadn't realized the magnitude of the numbers we're talking here. I was only aware of one MFA in writing back in my youth, which just goes to show how ignorant I was. According to Harbach, in 1975 there were 79. Now he says there are 854. My thought in the past regarding the explosion in graduate writing programs was, How irresponsible to be training large numbers of people to do something that so few of them will be able to support themselves doing since writing pays so badly. Foolish me. There appears to be a whole industry around studying for a MFA and then teaching others who are studying for a MFA. In the MFA culture the point of publishing a book isn't so much to make a living but to earn your credentials so you can get a job at a college and make a living.

Oh, and a lot of MFA writing deals with short stories. This, I believe, helps to explain why I've had so little success publishing short stories. My writing may not actually be too dreadful to give away to an on-line publication. The competition from all those students in and graduates of those 854 writing programs may just be too great. Plus, you know, they've actually studied how to write a short story, which may bring us back to the argument that my writing may actually be too dreadful to give away.

Harbach also says that NYC publishing is moving toward a Hollywood model, something I've believed for years.

This is definitely a fascinating article that leads me to wonder which group children's writers fall into. Personally, I think I'm groupless, but what about children's writers in general? Do either of these models work for most or do we have another?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Cybils YA Books

I am finishing off my not very restful Thanksgiving weekend with links to my posts on YA Cybils nominees.

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins.

Fat Vampire by Adam Rex.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett.

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater.

The Cardturner by Louis Sachar.

As luck would have it, I have two more Cybils nominees upstairs in my To Be Read pile. I just happened to pick them off the new book shelf at the library over the last month. I'll post about them when I've finished them.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Middle Grade Cybils Books

Well, unfortunately I planned to organize my Cybil posts by age. I say unfortunately because it looks to me as if I only happened to read two nominees that fall into the middle grade category.

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Cybils Picture Books

Well, Thanksgiving is over at Chez Gauthier, for which I am very grateful. Not that I didn't enjoy it. But the three plus days of preparation spread over a couple of weeks, as well as the six hours of socializing has left me exhausted in a satisfying sort of way.

Fortunately, I planned to be tired this weekend. Over the next few days I'm going to be posting links to the Cybil nominees I happen to have read this year. I'm starting with picture books and working my way up in age because I am extremely linear, and this was the line I could most easily find.

First off we have three nonfiction nominees:

Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow--A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio with illustrations by Javaka Steptoe.

Lincoln Tells a Joke by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer with illustrations by Stacy Innerst.

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Suzy) by Barbara Kerley with illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham.

And my one fiction nominee:

Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton with illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld.

Now I have to find a vacant spot on which to collapse.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Crivens! I Love Them Wee Free Men!

I don't usually do one reader response right after another, but yesterday I noticed that I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett has been nominated for a Cybil, and since I'm going to be blogging about my Cybil reading over the Thanksgiving weekend, I thought I'd get something up about this book first.

I Shall Wear Midnight is the finale to the Discworld novels about Tiffany Aching who starts out as a nine-year-old in her first book and is, I believe, around fourteen or fifteen in this one. Tiffany is a witch, for sure, but in Discworld witches do a lot more than fly around on broomsticks (though they do that) and scare people. They pretty much devote their lives to traveling around their neighborhoods as a sort of one woman Visiting Nurse Association. They tend wounds, help the sick, deliver babies, all your traditional manner. Additonally they do nontraditional things like removing pain from the suffering. They can remove physical pain, but not the psychic kind that comes from, say, grief. It's not a particularly easy life, and Tiffany is young to be shouldering all this responsibility.

She has some folks watching out for her, though--a clan of six-inch high blue beings, the Nac Mac Feegle, also known as Feegles, also known as the Wee Free Men, also known as drunks, liars, brawlers, liars, and thieves. They are most endearing.

Now, I have read the first book in the series, The Wee Free Men, and I have read the third book in the series, Wintersmith. I thought I'd read the second one, but I can't find any record of it. My point being, I Shall Wear Midnight makes references to those earlier books, especially Wintersmith. I, of course, remember little about them. Even though the crisis Midnight deals with came about because of something Tiffany did in Wintersmith, not recalling it didn't really bother me. I was able to brush off what I didn't know and move on, probably in part because I've read enough Discworld books now that I know I want to be there in the world of those stories, and I'm willing to ignore anything that bothers me in order to get there.

And, of course, when there are Wee Free Men in the mix, it's easy to ignore all kinds of things.

I Shall Wear Midnight has some allegorical elements. It involves someone called the Cunning Man who appears to be the personification of evil. He is able to spread hate among people, making them turn on others. Witches, for instance. He comes, spreads his evil, is defeated for a while, and years later comes again. I think we're talking ugly mob mentality in many places, the kind of thing that has cropped up over and over again throughout history.

As a general rule, I don't care for allegory because it strikes me as being very holier than thou. However, there are Wee Free Men in this allegory. I'll put up with a lot of holier than thou for their sake.

This book includes a fascinating Author's Note in which Pratchett writes about a story from his childhood that inspired one element of this book. It's an interesting piece about how long something can sit in writers' minds before they finally are able to use it.

I've mentioned before that I've read two series this past year, one of which included eighteen or nineteen books. Maybe twenty. The author hasn't been updating her website, and I lost the sheet on which I was keeping track. I Shall Wear Midnight has a very nice list of all the Discworld books, and I'm considering reading all of them now. Perhaps I'll wait until January. Yeah. That's the ticket. I'm going to wait until January, and then start reading Discworld.

Plot Project: Yes, this plot could be one in which the protagonist wanted something--to destroy the Cunning Man--and the author kept giving her obstacles to getting it. But first the author had to come up with the Cunning Man. This is what is so simplistic about this whole give characters something they want and then throw obstacles in their way scenario. How do you come up with what they want in the first place?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Fun With A Skeleton

The Faceless Ones, the third in the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy, makes a number of references to earlier Skulduggery Pleasant books. I've read both the first and second installments, and I liked them. But as I was reading the early parts of The Faceless Ones, I kept thinking, gee, I don't remember much from the other books.

It didn't matter. I moved on with the story with no problem.

This is a Skulduggery Pleasant book, so, basically, what it's about is Stephanie/Valkyrie and her skeletonized mentor, Skulduggery, saving the world from magical evil. What distinguishes it from a few thousand other books about a kid and a magical mentor saving the world from evil is the witty repartee. Many writers think they're writing witty repartee, but merely thinking it doesn't make it so. Landy is actually able to pull it off.

This time around there's a suggestion that Skulduggery may not be some kind of hero on a white horse (metaphorically speaking, since he drives a Bentley). Maybe it was in the other books, and I just don't recall. I don't recall as much of a cliffhanger ending in the other books, either, though there definitely is a serial thing going on.

The Faceless Ones brings up a couple of interesting questions about this kind of kids' magical thriller:

1. Several adult characters point out that Stephanie/Valkyrie, our protagonist, is only fourteen years old, and, really, should she be out fighting evil? What an excellent point. How many of these books hinge on a child saving a civilization even though the child is only, say, eleven and there are plenty of adults who ought to be shouldering the task? No one notices that? Where's the Department of Children and Youth Services in these stories?

I know, I know. Willing suspension of disbelief.

2. Aren't people with magical powers just a bit superior to people without them? When you are going "Oh, I must use my magical powers to save the world...again," aren't you implying that you are just better than all those people who can't save the world...again...because they don't have magical powers like yours? Didn't those wizards and their special train that took them to their special school that only they knew about because they were so special really get on your nerves after a while? Oops. Another series.

Yes, Landy was setting something up when he brought up the aren't-you-guys-a-little-full-of-yourselves thing, but, still, it's an interesting question.

Plot Project: This could very possibly be the kind of story in which the plot was developed around the main character wanting something--to stop the Faceless Ones--and then having stumbling blocks thrown in front of her over and over.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Literary Events Coming Up In Connecticut

Wednesday, December 1, is a big lit day in eastern Connecticut.

Bank Square Books in Mystic will be hosting an in-store luncheon with Susan Cheever at noon. Cheever will be discussing her new book Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography. She wrote American Bloomsbury a few years ago, so she's spent some time in the Transcendentalist world in which Alcott lived.

Then at 6:30 that evening the documentary Library of the Early Mind will be shown at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

Friday, November 19, 2010

So Just How Meaningful Are These Things?

The National Book Awards were announced very recently. I don't know. Yesterday? The day before? Blog of a Bookslut linked to a NBA page with a video of the ceremony.

I haven't watched the ceremony, but I did get kind of blown away by the Stats list on this page. I was aware that only publishers nominated books, that they had to pay a fee to do so, and that they had to agree to pay $1,000 toward a promotional campaign if the book they nominated made the short list. Under those circumstances, I assumed that publishers didn't nominate everything on their lists by a long shot. I'm also assuming publishers try to guess what kinds of books usually win and then try to nominate something similar from their list. I'm not being critical when I say that, by the way. We can't any of us throw money away.

What totally stunned me, though, was how few books are nominated for these awards. We've been told that around a million books were published last year. Of those, 1,115 were submitted for consideration over four categories? Even when you consider that a lot of crap is published every year, some of it by traditional publishers, that is still a very, very small portion of the whole to be considered worthy of consideration.

I know that my thoughts are easily provoked, but, come on...Last year the publishing industry only published that many books that publishers, themselves, felt were award worthy? Does anyone else find that odd? Are these awards really given for the best of a year's publishing or for the best of the few hundred books the judges are able to consider?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Am Such A Sucker For Historical Bits And Pieces

On Beyond Words & Pictures is taking part in a blog tour for Grandma's Chocolate. For the OBW&P stop, author Mara Price did a nice little piece on the importance of chocolate in Mesoamerica.

Get this, Mayan nobles were buried with jars of chocolate. Well, there are a lot of people these days who would like to take it with them, too.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Another Guitarist's Bio

After spending some time recently with Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow-A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio, I was interested to stumble upon another picture book biography of a guitarist. The musician involved this time is Django (Jean) Reinhardt, a mid-twentieth century French jazz guitarist. The story of his childhood and adolescence is told in Django: World's Greatest Jazz Guitarist by Bonnie Christensen.

I think it's safe to say that Reinhardt will be even less well-known to young picture book readers than Hendrix. To today's young readers, I think Hendrix's story will seem the more traditional, because while he was an innovative rock guitarist as an adult, his youth, as portrayed in Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, is the familiar poor child follows his bliss and becomes successful.

Reinhardt's story involves a poor child who goes the bliss route and becomes successful, too. But it will be more exotic to U.S. readers because instead of being born into a poor black family, a very American scenario, he was born into a poor Roma family, something we don't hear so much about in this country. He was already making a name for himself as a jazz musician when, at the age of eighteen, he was so badly burned in a caravan fire, particularly his left hand, that the doctors didn't believe he'd be able to play the guitar again. But within a couple of years, he'd found a way to compensate and play using primarily just two fingers for the fretwork.

This is the basic story in Django. Got some drama there, eh? The author's note at the back of the book picks up on the rest of his life. This guy was in England when WWII broke out and went back to Paris for the duration. I've got to wonder if there wasn't a story there, too, because Hitler sure wasn't a friend of the Roma. Christensen says the Nazis may have killed close to one and a half million of them. How did Reinhardt manage?

Like Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, this is a book that could be used for a number of things, combined with both music and history.

In Memory of the Genius Django Reinhardt is a YouTube tribute that provides both images and music.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Little Plot Talk

I've been obsessing about plot these last couple of years. You can catch a brief plot talk at Mitali Perkin's blog post Virtual Author Visit. She says she begins with a character, which is what I've done with a couple of manuscripts recently. Developing character seems like a good way to back into plot. Note also that she knows what's going to change for the character. That's an extremely helpful idea.

I read somewhere that it's a good idea to know the mid-point of your plot. I liked that, but knowing about a change seems even better.

Notice that Mitali doesn't say anything about conflict, nor does she say anything about giving her character something to want and then putting up roadblocks to getting it. She talks about change. That is so...dynamic.

Speaking of Mitali, I'll just mention here that I had a nightmare about her a few days ago. I was going to give a presentation at her house. (Which I've never seen, but who needs to actually see things in order to dream about them? Not me!) I hadn't given a presentation in years, this one was brand new, and I just did not know the material. Evidently I had to spend the night before the presentation at her house. When I got up the next morning, there were too many people there, and I couldn't get into the bathroom to get dressed before the audience started arriving for the presentation. Also, Mitali had a dog that got sick all over the place.

That is obviously a brand speaking new variation on two classic performance anxiety nightmares: 1. Caught at school in your pjs and 2. Exam morning and you haven't opened your textbook all semester.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Day At The Fair

Well, I walked over to the Connecticut Children's Book Fair today where I attended a talk given by Jon Muth, whom I like to think of as the Zen bear guy. He inspired me to do some sketching for my work in progress. I'm not talking about creating illustrations here, folks. Don't panic. I'm talking about laying out the street the kids live on, doing a site plan for one spot, and planning a couple of cemeteries that will figure into the story. I've had to do floor plans of houses for books I've been working on before, but Muth made me feel that maybe starting my day with that on Monday might be a more creative jumpstart than, say, yakking with my friends on the kidlitosphere listserv, or slipping back into my old pre-writing ritual/transitional activities of checking news sites and playing solitaire.

I also bought a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, which Norton Juster signed for me.

While I had my wallet out, I bought Tales From Shakespeare, a book of prose versions of ten of Shakespeare's plays by Tina Packer. I was able to have it signed by both Muth, who illustrated the introduction, and Barbara McClintock, who illustrated As You Like It.

So, you may ask, Gail? You and Shakespeare? Since when? Okay, this is why I bought the book. You know Charles Lamb, right? The late eighteenth/early nineteenth century essayist? Of course, you do. Well, Chuck and his sister Mary (yeah, that Mary Lamb) wrote a book called Tales From Shakespeare in, oh, I don't know, 1807, I think.

Stay with me.

In 1956 Grosset & Dunlap published Favorite Tales From Shakespeare (Donald Lynch, illustrator), which was, you guess it, Charles and Mary Lamb's works "edited for modern readers by Morris Schreiber." At some point, someone calling themselves "Aunt Agnes and Uncle Gus" gave a copy of this book to a member of my family. To be honest, it was a member of my husband's family. No Gauthier would ever buy anything with the name Shakespeare on it for a gift or anything else. And to be perfectly honest, the book was given to my husband.

I now own that book. It's in beautiful shape, probably because my husband swears he never so much as cracked it open. So I thought it would be really cool to own another prose version of Shakespearean plays for children and, perhaps, to compare them.

I know. Hahahahahah. Like that will ever happen! But I'm loving owning this beautiful book.

I saw people I knew today. I met some new people. I talked with another writer who said she hasn't made any sales in quite a while, either. I did about fifty minutes to an hour of walking going back and forth across the UConn campus. And I now own a book that I'd never even heard of eight hours ago. Really, you can't ask for much better from a fair.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Two Stories For The Price Of One

I loved Corbenic by Catherine Fisher when I read it four years ago, I believe for the Cybils. I wasn't quite so taken by Incarceron, though I did get to a class a little late so I could finish it.

Corbenic had a real world, contemporary setting with a possible fantasy/possible madness element. I do prefer my fantasy with a real world connection. Incarceron also has a dual world thing going on, though the "real" world is a fantasy world and the second one is definitely real but in a fantasy way, if you follow that.

The real world involves another post apocalyptic dystopia. In this one, a king from the past made the decision that this world would give up its technologically advanced present to live in a romanticized past because that would make everyone happier. So while these people had all kinds of technology, they had to live in a kind of late eighteenth/early nineteenth century world, right down to the point of living with antiquated health care. Some of this fake world they lived in was created with their technology.

Incarceron, in the meantime, is a prison that is some kind of living system. It was created as a humane way of dealing with criminals. It is a closed world, no one gets out or in (presumably), and the living system has become nasty and destructive.

So what we've got here are two very traditional YA fantasy schemes. We've got a dystopian story and a Frankenstein tale of mankind messing with a lifeform and that never ends well. Each tale has its own protagonist. They've never met, but they are still connected. And each protagonist has identity issues. Who are these people?

I think the familiarity of these stories disappointed me a bit because I found Corbenic so unique. However, Fisher is a marvelous writer so familiar or not, Incarceron is still a fine book.

Incarceron is the first in a series, and while the story's finale is a little open-ended, there is better closure than you often get in series books. The second book, Sapphique, will be published in this country next month.

The Plot Project: Incarceron's plot could definitely have been created with the give a character something to want and then put up roadblocks to getting it scheme. However, this book illustrates the risk authors take if they use that method. Finn wants to get out of Incarceron, and he's on a sort of journey/quest to do so. One thing after another stops him. It's a little harder to tell what Claudia wants. To avoid marrying Caspar? To tick off her father? At any rate, they both, particularly Finn, just keep running up against one obstacle after another. Personally, I think that can get a little frustrating for a reader.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Do We Think Of Them Now?

Mitali Perkins is doing what she calls a Cuci Mata project over at the Fire Escape. Once a month she's leading a discussion of a children's classic focusing on race, ethnicity, gender, and class. She and her followers will be looking for what qualifies the book as a classic, but also looking to see if the attitudes in the book are dated in terms of how we feel about race, ethnicity, gender, and class now.

I'm planning to take part in next month's discussion of An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. I guess I'd better start looking for a copy. Believe it or not, I might have one.

I Am Humbled

Meet Some of the Thousands of Kids Doing NaNoWriMo.

At The Millions.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

We're Talking Some Serious Gambling Here

I found Lisa Rowe Fraustino's post at Cynsations on The Benefits of Keeping Your Day Job particularly interesting because recently I read an article about a writer who quit hers after publishing her first book. She has a three-book deal and quit her job to write full time.

The article said her first title was published "to acclaim," but it isn't a title that's getting the buzz of, say, a Twilight or a Hunger Games. I wonder if this writer realizes what she might end up with for income these next few years.

I'm guessing not.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Connecticut Children's Book Fair Is Next Weekend

All you southern New Englanders: The Connecticut Children's Book Fair is next weekend, and the schedule is up. I believe I should be able to go see Jon Muth's presentation.

I've heard Iris Van Rynbach speak in the past--at a Connecticut Children's Book Fair, in fact. I've also heard Jarrett Krosoczka. We both presented at the same event a few years back. I also sort of know Kathleen Kudlinski through Facebook. She's a fellow Connecticut authors, so there's always a possibility that we've met, too.

Lots of writers and illustrators are going to be at UConn next weekend. Though the campus has a reputation for poor parking, I can guarantee you that there is a good-sized parking lot next to the Rome Commons where the book fair is held.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Excellent Kiddie Noir

For a long time I've been interested in writing what I think of as kiddie noir--a kid-level version of the dark, hardboiled, mystery stories made popular in the 1930s by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Well, I don't need to feel any rush to do that because Jack D. Ferraiolo has done it with The Big Splash.

Matt Stevens is most definitely the classic, outsider noir hero with a personal code that he must adhere to. In the slightly twisted middle school world in which he lives, a young crime boss rules the cafeteria and hallways, aided by his personal bodyguards. He controls the sale of sweets in school, as well as the sale of test answers and fake hall passes. There is law at Franklin Middle School. It takes the form of hall monitors, led by one tough customer named Katie Condor. What is Matt's place in this scheme of things? He is neither criminal nor lawman, but something separate, a private detective who students hire for various tasks.

The adults at the school are pretty much invisible. The student subculture is the one kids really live in. Unless, of course, they are humiliated by being shot in the crotch with water pistols usually filled with cat urine. No one survives that. The humiliated spend the rest of their student lives in the Outs. Moving on to high school is no escape. Once in the Outs, always in the Outs.

Yes, it's an over-the-top premise but it's laid out on the page as given by first-person narrator Matt who speaks in classic noir simili. Of Joey Renoni, also known as the Hyena, Matt says on the very first two pages, "He scanned the crowd constantly as we walked, his head swiveling back and forth in a herky-jerky motion, like a lawn sprinker with the hiccups." Just a few pages later, he says of himself, "Apparently, I wore my thoughts like makeup on a little girl: all over my face." The noir style is so well done that it would be very difficult not to accept the world it describes.

The Big Splash is filled with goons and heavies and femme fatales and damselles in distress. The young women in this book are fantastic. They may wear ponytails and, in at least one case, carry binders with horse stickers pasted all over them, but they are tough and powerful. And while all the characters are clever takeoffs on their adult counterparts in adult noir stories, many of them also have some serious depth going for them, too. Nikki Fingers--there's a heart-breaking bad girl.

This is a two-year-old book that seems to have been well-reviewed when it was published, but I missed it until a local librarian bought it a few months ago. It really deserves a wide readership.

Plot Project: This is an idea/concept plot rather than a give-a-character-something-to-want-and-keep-it-from-him plot. The Big Sleep clearly provided some inspiration for The Big Splash, though it's been years since I've read it so I don't know if the plots are at all similar.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

I Have A Question: Why Teach English Literature?

A few years back, I learned that in the nineteenth century American schools made the switch from teaching rhetoric to teaching English literature in order to deal with Anglo-Americans' fears regarding large numbers of recent immigrants. Instead of teaching the children of immigrants how to use the English language, America would teach them to be Anglo-American by forcefeeding them reverance for Anglo-American (mainly anglo) literature. I know that sounds a bit hostile, but I heard it from an Italian-American English professor who was nowhere near old enough to have lived through that period but was definitely bitter nonetheless.

I must admit, I was shaken to think that I had spent my college years majoring in a field that was created to control my grandparents and my father and his siblings. But, hey, Dad, Uncle Isidore, and all but one of my aunts beat the system! They all dropped out of the American school system before high school! There was no controlling them! Booyah!

My question is, why do we teach English literature, particularly on the high school level, these days? Are we still trying to teach respect for the "correct" literature? Maintain and improve reading skills to prepare literate citizens who can read about and comprehend issues and thus make educated, informed choices at the voting booth? Encourage life-long reading for both personal and professional enrichment?

Think about this and get back to me.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

So, To Make A Long Story Short, An Author Shouldn't Be Obligated To Say Anything Because Whatever She Says Doesn't Matter

I didn't blog last night because I was so busy reading How Much is an Author Obligated to Say? at A Fuse #8 Production. Don't miss the discussion after the post.

My feeling about this issue is that a fiction writer's statement is supposed to be on the page, within the story. Research is supposed to support that story by providing the writer with details for creating characters, setting, plot, point of view, voice...the elements of fiction. The piece of writing is what it is. It's on the page, it's done. Sympathy or respect for the author because of her experience with a subject can't change what's on the page.

If it changes readers' impression of what's on the page, that has nothing to do with the quality of what the writer did with her work. It shouldn't have any impact on the assessment of the writing. The writing has to stand on its own.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bad Books Have Value

This past month I've read two quite dreadful books. They were what I describe as skimmers because I wanted to get through them, but I'm just not such a good person that I can bring myself to read every word of stuff like this. Why did I bother reading them at all? Well, I think it's important for writers to read books they believe are bad. It's what they used to call a learning experience.

Book Number One was an adult mystery, English, a series from a few years back that I'd never heard of before. What did this book in, as far as I'm concerned, was the third person omniscient narrator. The book illustrated the problem my editor brought up when I was trying to use that sort of narrator for my second book. Unless the author is very skilled, jumping from one character's mind to another can be very off-putting.

In this case, the book was described as "A Joe Blow Mystery." However, we are in Joe Blow's mind for, I'm guessing, less than half the book. Well less than half the book. We jump from Guy B to Guy C and we even get into the head of a guy who turns up about the mid-point for the sole purpose of being killed. If the book hadn't said "A Joe Blow Mystery" on the cover, quite honestly, I wouldn't have known who the main character was because he often isn't even on stage. The constant movement meant we never knew anyone very well, never had anyone whose thinking we could follow. It also meant we weren't getting a smooth story.

The second book was YA. It probably wasn't a very unique story to begin with, and I got the feeling the author was trying to be instructive, both in terms of life lessons and history lessons.

Plot Project: I forgot about my plot project, in which I try to determine if the plots of books I've read could have been built around giving protagonists something to want and then dropping roadblocks in the way of them getting it. There's no time like the present for picking it up again.

With the Joe Blow Mystery I'd say yes. Joe Blow wants to find out who has been killing young girls. The obstacles to him finding the murderer are so big as to make the story unbelievable. With the second book, I'm guessing we could say yes, too. However, it wasn't something she was aware of wanting or working toward. It was something instructive that a writer might have wanted her protagonist to want in order to write a problemish book.

So I need to try not to do any of those things.

Yes, There Is A Kidlit Connection Here

Yesterday we had the day off from eldercare, so we went to The New Britain Museum of American Art to see the M.C. Escher exhibit, which is closing up shop in just a couple of weeks. Great exhibit, which I probably enjoyed more because I was with a long-time Escher fan, and a great museum. It's not so large that you can't take the whole thing in, but it it's large enough and sophisticated enough to have some good pieces.

Here's the kidlit connection--among its holdings are two works by George Catlin whose life was covered in Susannah Reich's Painting the Wild Frontier.

There's a great cafe there, btw, far better than you usually see at museums. And there's no admission from 10 to 2 on Saturdays.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Ah, yeah, those first three chapters. I just realized that I need to tinker with them again. Maybe another draft from Chapters Two through Five now. I need to simplify. You don't want to get bogged down in too much stuff. In fact, that's what a lot of my Chapter One through Three revisions (eight so far) have been about.

Simplify. Stay on task.

My theory is that if I can get the beginning of this book right, the rest of it will write itself. I just don't know who will be president by the time that happens.

I'm feeling much better about these rewrites since discovering that I am an organic writer. I no longer feel inept, I feel organic. (Though from the little I've read on this subject, plotters think organic writers are inept.) Anyway, now I feel that I am hunting for story architecture and that makes me feel as if I'm doing something specific rather than just thrasing about.

I know what I will be doing next week. It is so good to have plans.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I've Been Meaning To Mention...

...that the first episode of Sherlock, an up-date on you-know-who, was fantastic. Among its wonderful elements:

Dr. Watson isn't treated like a buffoon the way he often is in Holmes' movies.

Holmes is not adored by one and all, but addressed as "Weirdo" by at least one character and viewed as same by many more. He refers to himself as a "high-functioning sociopath." One who is really into technology. I don't know if I'll ever by able to watch another version of Sherlock Holmes.

Detective Inspector Lestrade is played by Rupert Graves, who was Young Jolyon in The Forsyte Saga. Loved the book series when I was in college, loved this film version years later.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fate Of Chapter Four

Okay, so I revised Chapter Four again today, after having revised it yesterday, too. I'm feeling much better about it today than I was yesterday.

However, last night/early this morning I planned how I was going to revise Chapter Four and start Five. I don't believe any of it went into Chapter Four, and, in fact, some brand new previously unthought of material went into it this afternoon. What I had planned to be Chapter Five is now Chapter Six. Chapter Five is a chapter from an earlier draft with some brand new material at the beginning--material I only thought of this afternoon.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. Really, it makes me wonder why I try to plan at all.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Homer Price In Space?

I didn't read Homer Price until I was an adult. J.L. Bell's post on the book at Oz and Ends reminded me that at the time I read it I thought that a Homer Price-type book set on a space station or an Earth colony on another planet would be a cool idea.

And that's as far as I got with that.

Exactly What I Was Talking About

This is exactly the kind of agent story I was talking about in Burned. Fears of saddling myself with someone like Agent 1 was a big reason why I didn't seek out an agent.

Link from Cynsations.

Monday, October 25, 2010

An Excellent Question Regarding Readiness

No, not school readiness. Readiness for publication.

Almost every time writers submit another draft of a manuscript, they believe they're done. They're good to go. But an editorial eye takes a look and sees they're not. In my experience, this is a good thing. It makes me wonder what many of us would publish without editors.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Now There's A Subject For An Author Talk

I find coming up with material for school presentations difficult, particularly since as soon as I'm comfortable with the talk I've prepared for blah-blah-blah book, it goes out of print. Then I also like to do something other authors aren't doing. And I like to something interesting. And it's all another ordeal for me to whine about here.

Camille at BookMoot recently did a post on a Scott Westerfeld appearance during which he talked about something that I can't recall hearing other authors talk about and that sounded very interesting. And it was related to his new books, which most definitely are not out of print.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Story Of The Young Jimi Hendrix

Gary Golio is both a child therapist and a fine artist, and you can see his interests in children and the arts merging in his new book, Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow - A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix. It’s the first of three picture book biographies he has coming out in the next two years. Golio has said that as a child he enjoyed reading about the lives of artists because he wanted to know how to become one and how other people did it. We corresponded recently about how Jimi Hendrix did it for Day 4 of the blog tour for Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow.

Hendrix’s Historical Significance

Jimi Hendrix is an iconic figure of the 1960s. According to his official website, his "innovative style of combining fuzz, feedback and controlled distortion created a new musical form." Golio’s take on Hendrix is that the musician "thought of the guitar as more of a sound machine than a traditional instrument." "Hip-hop artists, classical musicians, jazz and pop players have all been influenced by Jimi’s approach to his instrument," he says, "as well as his boundary-less take on music and creativity in general."

That mix of innovation and influence means that Jimi Hendrix has historic or at least cultural significance, making him an attractive subject for a biographer. But why a biography for children?

A Child’s Creative Process

Javaka Steptoe, Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow’s illustrator, describes the book as being "about the creative process of an artist." More specifically, it’s about the creative process of a particular child becoming an artist. This child didn’t have the benefit of the traditional music training so many of us provide for our young today with private lessons, music in the schools, etc. The boy portrayed in the book wears worn-out clothes and moves frequently because his father is often out of work. He begins his music training strumming on an old broom before moving up to a five-dollar guitar.

Golio describes the young Hendrix as having "a serious sense of determination and commitment in regard to his music," something he believes child readers will understand. "In fact, the yearning to play music can drive a kid to practice and improve regardless of the equipment. I’m also a big believer in the 'competency model' of human development, which places emphasis on how wanting to be good at something can motivate a person to grow, make changes, and accomplish personal goals. It’s a model kids relate to, because it’s ego-enhancing and suits those who are more independently-minded."

An Element Of Mystery In The Hendrix Story

In Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow, Golio uses a lot of imagery related to color. He describes colors connected with natural sounds and says that the young Jimi wondered if someone could paint pictures with sound. "With every sound, a color glowed in Jimmy’s mind." When questioned about the significance of color for Hendrix, Golio said that he had "a very deep and personal connection with color and sound that influenced his thinking, his perception of the world, his experience of life, and his music-making. Many of his songs focus on the interplay between color and sound (Bold As Love, One Rainy Wish, May This Be Love…), and Jimi himself told friends and associates that he played colors—not notes—to evoke emotions and paint pictures in people’s minds."

Hendrix sometimes appears on lists of musicians who experienced synesthesia, a condition in which one type of sensory stimulation is paired with another, unrelated sense. Golio is careful not to diagnose or label him, saying only that he believes Hendrix was gifted. "In truth, whatever forms the totality of any person—particularly a creative one—is a mystery…"

A Hendrix Story For Everybody

The basic story told in Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow is about a determined and committed child sticking with one thing until he could not only do it, but transform it. It’s the kind of book the young Golio used to look for himself—a story of how one person became an artist. The author doesn’t see children as being the book’s only audience, though. "… a picture book is a work of art, to be read and enjoyed by anybody and everybody, regardless of age," he says. "Jimi is for everybody, and I picture the Seattle Guitarmaster sitting in Music Heaven, reading a copy with a broad grin gracing his lovely face."

Gary Golio did an excellent guest post at Mitali's Fire Escape on how race and racism affected Hendrix. You can also listen to a very fine interview he did with Jordan Rich of WBZ AM in Boston.

The Sounds Like A Rainbow blog tour continues with the following stops:

Day 5 - Friday 10/22, Tales from the Rushmore Kid

Day 6 - Monday 10/25, The Fourth Musketeer

Day 7 -Tuesday 10/26, Great Kid Books