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So I’m still thinking about last week’s #kidlitchat because it’s an interesting exercise, an alternate version of the question “your house is on fire and you have to evacuate — what would you grab in five minutes?” Growing up in California (and living a good chunk of my life there) earthquakes and wildfires happen and the question becomes less academic. Although I lived through the 1971 Sylmar and 1989 Loma Prieta quakes and was very near the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire I never really had to make those tough decisions.

The Desert Island question seems simple on the surface — what would you want to have with you? — but there are so many factors involved. It’s presumed you were traveling, but would you be traveling with your favorite books, or ones you wanted to read while traveling? If you being deliberately marooned and had the time, would you choose comfort books? Favorites that would help pass the time? Wouldn’t practical titles (plant guides, survival manuals) make more sense?

Am I over-thinking this?

Actually, no, but I’m not thinking very progressively, and neither were a lot of my fellow kidlit-chatters.

Of the twenty-one titles I listed for my desert island archipelago library I count only three women writers and no discernible minorities. Looking back at the titles other kidlit-chatters put down I see a few who made the effort to be inclusive, but that’s what it felt like, an effort to be inclusive and not necessarily and automatically obvious choice. This could be easily explained by the fact that until recently the children’s book world has been dominated by mostly white authors and, among “classics,” mostly male. Easily explained, but not happily. But we’re talking about this now, and we’re working on it, so no need to belabor the point.

When I think about what I didn’t include I realized two things: first, I had a larger number of books that stuck with me from childhood than I originally thought and second, fourth grade was a really good year.

After lunch in fourth grade Mrs. White would read to us from the middle grade books of the day. I date myself by saying most of these books were released within five years of my fourth grade year: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sounder, Harriet the Spy, and James and the Giant Peach. There was no attempt to use these books to teach concepts (that I remember), no summary essays to prove we were listening (except occasionally when we acted up), it was a time to settle in after being wild and to listen to a story for the joy of the story. Though many had those gold and silver medals on them we had no idea what that really meant, and no fear of their being over “message” stories, they were simply contemporary titles that spoke to our ten- and eleven-year-old hearts and souls. Fifty years on and they’re all classics, popping up on adults desert islands.

But I know not a single one of these would end up on my daughter’s version of this list.

Oh, they know the books, and even like some of my classics, but for Em her list would have to include Harry Potter, and Jules would need some Sharron Creech or Leap by Jane Breskin Zalben. Maybe when they’re adults and have a different sense of what makes a classic they’ll redefine their memories, but already I can see the changes in the generations: their favorites include more women writers than mine.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, of all people, once said “Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” Replace ‘people’ with ‘kids,’ ‘peace’ with ‘diversity,’ and ‘publishers’ with governments’ and…

Indeed, I think that kids want diversity so much that one of these days publishers had better get out of the way and let them have it.

Kidlitchat happens every Tuesday night on Twitter, and you never know how long a simple question and an hour-long conversation is going to sit with you and make you think.

9 to 10 PM EST, hashtag #kidlitchat. open to all. I consider it an important part of my continuing education.

It was pretty clear to me half way through last Tuesday’s #kidlitchat that many people found it hard to limit the number to five. I had already thrown down ten titles and felt I could do thirty or forty more, easily. But after a list of my cherished five, followed by a round of classic (and not at all kidlit) titles, I wanted to throw out something a little more challenging in terms of what might be overlooked.

I went with graphic novels. And if I had to pick five of those for another, different desert island…

Watchmen. The comic book that blew my mind and helped me get away from superheroes.

Zot! by Scott McCloud. Yes, the author of Understanding Comics wrote a comic book that smooshed superhero elements, a parallel universe, and manga style all together, with teen characters at the center. Good stuff, few people seem to know it, which is a crime.

Bone, complete. There are a number of epic-length, multi-volume stories that could learn a lot about pacing and storytelling from Jeff Smith’s masterpiece.

Sandman. This is a cheat because there’s no one single volume of all the Sandman tales, but it’s my island so there. This, coupled with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight and Watchmen pretty much changed the way I, and many other people, viewed comics.

The Airtight Garage by Moebius. Or Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius if you want to get all French and technical about it. French comic master Moebius (Jean Giraud) was the reason I started reading Heavy Metal magazine as a teen, and his science fiction visions and stories clearly influenced writers and filmmakers. He was Star Wars before Star Wars. He was Little Nemo for adults who liked aliens. Moebius wrote dozens of stories over the years and while it’s hard to single one out, this collection is the most complete for me.

It was while I was tossing out these titles that chat co-moderator Greg Pincus suggested I needed my own archipelago. Indeed! And why not? A small spit of connected islands, each with it’s own specialty lending library! TIme was running out on the chat, so I could probably get one more island’s worth of titles in.

Seeing a lot of the same shared titles come up I decided for the last round to come up with titles deliberately selected because they would be unlikely to be on anyone else’s list. But still kidlit.

Moon Have You Met My Mother? the collected poems of Karla Kuskin. This epic collection runs the gamut from serious to funny and is, in some ways, a nice counterpart to Shel Silverstien. Personally I give those two equal weight as kids poets and yet I rarely see anyone mention or feature Kuskin when talking about poetry for kids. Am I missing something?

Owls in the Family by the late Farley Mowat. Got a reluctant reader boy? Got a kid that likes rescuing animals? Got a hankering for the crazy interaction of humans and owls with very distinct personalities? Why have you not read this book yet?

 

Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater. Actually, I think Pinkwater deserves his own island, but push-to-shove it came down to this or The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Lizard Music won this time. It’s the most sincere of the two, in a Pinkwaterian sort of way.

The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll. Everyone else will have Alice’s Adventures, why not a nautical tale?

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. A quintessential mid-century boy’s boy, this collection of tales that weaved together to a final climax reads like William Saroyan for the middle grade set.

As time was winding down on the chat I realized there was one book that simply had to be added: Pippi Longstockings. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so since I started writing for kids that I’ve come to marvel at this brilliant, subversive, unusually structured masterpiece.

One person commented that they hadn’t heard of most of the titles I mentioned in the chat. Another insisted I was sitting in front of my library just writing things down. To the first, what a shame that more people don’t know these titles. I recognize that not everyone can have read everything, but I didn’t find these titles by chance; I actively sought out good, unusual, original stories both as a kid and as an adult. And I feel sometimes that adults devote their time reading and reviewing new titles when it should be fifty-fifty, old and new.

After the chat was over I looked back and felt I had made some omissions, that the collected titles represented an interesting cross-section of agreement with little dissent. Or diversity.

Next: Desert Island Omissions, Glaring and Otherwise.

Last night’s #kidlitchat on twitter was based on a suggestion I made a few weeks back during an open call for topics:

You’re gonna be stuck on a desert island and can have five children’s/YA books with you. Which five? And why?

I totally skipped the why part of the topic in favor of finding ways to subvert the five-book-limit. I mean, come one, if I was hauling favorite books and got stranded with them I was probably carting a good, important chunk of my library SOMEWHERE for a reason, so I probably would have ended up with more than five. But, if only five, of forced, I chose these.

The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (the Zipes translation for now, but ultimately including the ones they recently discovered as well. Enough stories for one-a-day.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Schindelman illustrated edition. This is pretty much the book that hooked me as an independent reader, and with these illustrations this is pretty much a comfort book.

The Complete Nonsense Verse of Edward Lear. Another comfort book, and if I were stuck on an island I’d want a big, fat collection of short verses that I could memorize over time. Plus, I’m stuck on an island, I’m going to want some fun diversions.

Dangerous Angels, the collected Weetzie Bat stories by Francesca Lia Block. So many comfort touchstones here, but as a former Angelino this one really hits some soft spots.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Huh, ya think I love me some nonsense?

I wasn’t content to stick with just five and I wanted to think about what my 16-year-old me could/would/should be stuck with on a desert island. I wanted a mix of serious and light and came up with this handful:

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I could have put The Count of Monte Cristo here as well. Or Hunchback of Notre Dame. I really like these sprawling epics, full of the whole range of the human condition.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Because.

Nation by Terry Pratchett. This might not stand the test of time, but when I read it a few years back it was the most modern book that felt like a classic to me. I kept feeling shades of Lord of the Flies and The Black Pearl and Treasure Island seeping through the pages.

The Collected Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Because.

Finally, any short story collection by Ray Bradbury. Though I grew up thinking of him as a sci-fi writer I’ve really come to see that his were always stories about people and ideas, and space was just a place to lay those elements out for observation.

At this point I was on a roll, and I felt like there were too many “friends” being left behind. But what else would I want to bring with me? And how to group them?

Under the gun of one hour, could you pick only five books of children’s literature to take with you on a desert island? And which ones?

The clock is ticking!

Next: The Desert Island Archipelago!

Back in my relative youth when I was learning to write screenplays I came across a fascinating tidbit. What it came down to was that on a deep thematic level, everything a writer writes is about what is currently gnawing away at them in the moment. It didn’t matter what the plot or the story was about, deep down all the character issues and concerns were the manifestation of the bubbling subconscious fears and anxieties of the moment.

If that were true, a story written five or ten or twenty years ago would have characters behaving one way, while if that story were being written today they would behave differently. And it wouldn’t be that one version of those characters was more “true” than the other, or that I had learned more about them, but that the things that concerned twenty-something me were different than fifty-something me. The characters — if this line of thinking is to be believed — were mere reflections of my state of mind.

But then, what of these stories? Do their themes not change with the desires of the characters? Aren’t those old plots with current characters like an old man trying to put on the clothes of his youth?

Earlier this week I had a little down time and no access to my current larger WIP so I doodled around with a short story idea. Three pages into the idea I found myself writing a variation of a scene from a project I started working on over 20 years ago. The characters were different, their motivation and reasons totally unlike the older piece, and the eventual outcome would be… similar?

Both stories are about a group of boys who create a club on campus, both clubs are mere shells designed to allow the boys to act outrageous with some semblance of school authority, both ending in a sort of disaster that would raw national scrutiny. The moment I realized the new story was on the same path I stopped and took stock. Who the heck were these two boys, and more importantly, what did their appearance say about where my head is currently at?

Originally, 22 years ago, I had finally come up with a story I thought was a perfect encapsulation of high school. I was planned as an epic tale, with so many subplot and character arcs, that I jokingly referred to it as The Great American Young Adult Novel. In truth, that original story contained over a dozen plots worthy of their own books, some I’ve attempted, some I realized were a bit goofy. At the heart of them all was a story about a club of mostly boys who ventured out through three years of adventures that eventually lead to a cataclysmic ending that garnered national attention.

And my main character was some kid trapped in the now yearning for the future away from the madness.

All those years ago I didn’t know what I was doing, what I wanted, what I’d hoped to achieve. Today I do, and the fact that those old feelings are manifesting themselves again in stories is an equal combination of alarming, reassuring, and frustrating. It’s not the same story, it’s a better story, this time with a character who knows where he stands and is clear about what comes next.

So I’m really writing two stories now, one on the page and one in my life. I have a good feeling about both of them.

Things don’t always go the way you plan when you’re a creative type. I happen to be of the writerly-variety, but I’m fairly sure this happens to other stripes as well.

Last year was terrible, but this year is going to be different. I know I thought last year was when things were going to happen, but they didn’t, and after a while I realized I needed to set my sights on this year.

The year before that things seemed like they might have worked out, but then half way through the year things got tricky and I had to shift priorities. Just the nature of living in the real world, I knew there’d have to be some sort of give-and-take along the way.

Before that? Promise and potential. Not wasted, mind you, but explored. I dove in, delved deep, accomplished only some of what I set out to do knowing full well that you can’t always force things to happen on your preferred timeline. Hey, wouldn’t we all rather be instantly successful and retired already?!

And in those dark moments, echoing from the back of a cave, that dark place the inner critic-cynic likes to call home, that shaky voice of doubt saying

“I just want a sign, something to let me know its worth putting up with all this crap.”

At what point do you truly hear that voice? At what point do you turn and decide that you have been given a sign, and that sign has been there all along. They were there in the couched doubts when I declared myself a writer. The signs were lurking between every line of dialog I gave my confused and befuddled characters. The signs were there in every rejected-if-you-don’t-hear-from-us query. Days and weeks and months and years worth of signs, piling up like debris at a narrow in a river, waiting to be acknowledged and either blown to smithereens or come crashing down in a flood of soul-crushing truth.

When does that truth finally sink in and become the sign you were waiting for – not the one you were hoping for, but it’s opposite, the sign of giving up? When do you finally give in to that doubt?

Never.

This past year I felt there was a shift, but it was more a slip into neutral than a full-on slide into reverse. Things weren’t working out on a lot of fronts, not just the writing, and I was too close to get any sort of perspective on things. It wasn’t an intentional move, and there can be benefits to downsides and laying fallow, but it would have been nice to know up front that it was going to be one of those years.

You know, like if I’d had some sort of sign or something.

mi pueblo fantasma

Facebook is an amazing sea of nostalgia, nestled in a never-ending cocktail party.

It far too easy to get sucked into any number of vast rabbit holes into the past, but the one that hold my fascination most is the private group for my old stomping grounds. These private groups (there are several) with insider photos, names, dates, places, and random reminiscences have had the double-edged distinction of helping me relive so much lost history while making me saddened by so much that has been lost over time.

When did we decide new was better, that reinvention was better than renovation? Things change, life moves forward, and yet as we look back through the prism of the past it can’t simply be a delusion that we find a happiness in longing for the long-forgotten.

It doesn’t help that I grew up in a town that was built on illusion. It isn’t hyperbole to say that Culver City was more Hollywood than Hollywood, because it simply was. My home town was the home to MGM who helped perpetrate the myth of Hollywood on its own back lots. As a kid I had no idea that the run-down looking properties that occupied pockets of my town where know the world over as the town of Mayberry, Tara Plantation, Stalag 13, as well as sections of New York, St. Louis, and the Wild West. But as these imaginary places disappeared with the encroachment of civic development in post-war America so did the rest of my home town. Most of the bungalows and tract homes remain, but the rest of it is nearly unrecognizable. In half a century’s time the place I grew up became a shadow of its former self, a ghost town razed and graded into its current shape.

Old memories are replaced by new. the kids who hung out at the mall remember it as fondly as the older kids who remembered the horse farm and go-kart track that the mall replaced. The famous jazz club that hosted some of the greats in its time, forgotten even when I was growing up, is now an even more anonymous office supply store. The mighty Helms bakery, with its boxy trucks that delivered fresh bread and donuts and made-to-order cakes to our neighborhoods, its building has been redeveloped and its trucks retired to a local museum.

These things, they disappeared, they gave up their ghosts, they haunt our memories. They may have earned the sentimentality of our collective nostalgia simply by having been taken away from us, but we’d rather have them back than have the memories.

Sadly, all that remains are the ephemeral artifacts of memory gathered by a virtual community on social media. One day we may even long for this much connection to the past.

Okay, this isn’t me lecturing you, it’s me convincing myself.

Because rejection is hard, and I need to suck it up if I’m going to keep doing this writer thing for real.

To be fair, some rejections hurt more than others, and I’ve discovered that the more I invest emotionally in a particular submission the bigger the hurt. Or actually, the less I thought in advance about what I was doing the more surprised I was when something good came from it.

It’s that fine line between caring deeply for something you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into, and not really giving a crap about what happens to it (while secretly caring a lot).

Everything I’ve read and been told about the process of becoming a writer points out that rejection is part of the process, perhaps more of the process than any other part of it. I know that, and I get that, intellectually, but how do you shut off the emotional stuff? That sensitivity is the font of all that creative joy after all.

Or is it?

I long ago learned that creativity could be taught and learned; heck, I used to teach art to kids who protested they didn’t have the talent they assumed you had to be born with to execute. The difference between kids and adults in these matters is that kids are more flexible in their thinking, more willing to give things a try and shrug them off, and less experienced in their failure. They can still be taught to build on failure because they’re more vested in gaining the experience than they are in preconceived expectations. Sure, if their first drawing doesn’t look like the work of a master artist they are disappointed, but over time they can and will improve and in the end are easily convinced that creativity is a question of persistence.

I hear that rejection isn’t personal, that it’s merely a question of timing, finding a champion, reaching that one person who sees the way you see. It’s not about you, it’s about the work, I’ve been told.

Bull.

Rejection is personal, just as it’s an individual’s personal tastes that rejects something. Agents, editors, anyone with the power to say no (if they bother to say anything at all, which is just rude beyond rejection) is making a personal decision. They may hide behind market forces or some other polite excuse, because this is what we’ve become as a society: Nobody wants to get hurt, nobody wants to hurt anybody.

Rejection is not only personal, it’s a challenge, a dare if you will. Rejection asks How much do you believe in this project, in yourself? Do you believe enough to try again? Do you believe enough to take another hard look at what you’ve done and critically decide if it’s your best work? Rejection is the heckler in the audience trying to throw you, the comedian, off balance, the guy in the stands shouting accusations that you, the ref, are blind, the surly kid in the back row unimpressed by anything you, the teacher, has to offer.

Ultimately, rejection stands as a sort of proof-of-effort, tangible markers on the journey that proves, in the end, you’ve earned every right to be accepted in the first place.

It still stings like hell along the way.

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