Archive for October, 2008

I’d been meaning to do this for a couple years now, and this week I finally figured out how to make the scanner work, so…

When I was a kid my mom signed me up for the Weekly Reader Book club one summer.  I don’t remember how often them came but in between book shipments there were book club editions of books.  One of them freaked me the heck out at the time but I never said anything about it for fear that I would have the book club taken away from me.

I talked about this book when I was older, in college, and no one believed it existed.  My memory of the story was strong but I never remembered the author until one day in my 30’s when I caught a passing reference to it in some magazine.  It did exist.  But I still had to wait another six years or so for the internet to be invented before I could track down a replacement copy of my very own.

The Crows of Pearblossom was Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, perhaps for good reason.  He wrote originally for his niece in 1944 and a manuscript floated around until Random House and Weekly Reader hooked up with illustrator Barbara Cooney to create a book that creeped me out.

Over time I have come to recognize the value in telling stories that creep kids out.  I find the sanitized fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm that are constantly appropriated by Disney, or watered down to “modern sensibilities” to be highly distasteful. It’s as if picture books for children must be as sterile as anti-bacterial toys for children, raising a generation of readers so protected from the realities of the world that they don’t develop the appropriate immune systems for reading.  Could the first wave of these bubble-living readers be the adults looking to ban books for fear of infecting their children?

Anyway, it’s Halloween, so here’s the treat.  The Crows of Pearblossom, scanned and available for your reading pleasure over at my Flickr! account. Give it a gander and let me know what you think.

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The revision work is slow but steady.  But every once in a while I need a break and that means playing around, usually on the computer.  Playing around usually means unfocused wandering, clicking through from one site to another, opening new tabs and travelings down new electronic avenues that lead to new alleys, until thoroughly lost my trail home is all but lost.

Among my recent wanderings comes this, an article on how Japanese manga has become a global cultural phenomenon.  For me, what’s great about this it is from a French perspective, originally published in the magazine Esprit.  There’s a bit of a two-for-one as reporter Jean-Marie Boussou not only examines manga’s cultural rise in Japan, but firmly places it within the context of the post-war French cultural shift that took place in the 60’s and 70s, and why it has grown in popularity among 30-somethings in France.

Absolutely fascinating, and once again the internet lets me know how much we don’t really know in this country about anything non-American.  There are French cartoonists mentioned right and left that I feel I should probably know — that I’m sure every French man and women knows in passing if not from first-hand experience — that leaves me feeling ignorant.

In France, as my generation came of age, we had to make do with comics aimed solely at a particular subculture: elitist, male, at once intellectual, schoolboyish, and more or less rebellious. They were built on the zany absurdity of Concombre masqué, the frenzied wordplay of Achille Talon and the icy eroticism of Jodelle and Pravda – and were far too sophisticated for the mass market. Charlie Mensuel livened up this highbrow cocktail with a dash of Peanuts, Krazy Kat, and Andy Capp, and the work of Italian cartoonists like Buzzelli and Crepax. But if the French censors tolerated Charlie Mensuel with his cerebral, sophisticated eroticism for the offspring of the intellegentsia, they were merciless in their attacks on the popular fumetti of Elvipress, filled as they were with sultry creations that would have set a mass readership dreaming. Jungla, Jacula, Isabella, Jolanda de Almaviva, and their scantily-clad adventurer sisters were barred from display and condemned to under-the-counter obscurity.

Whew!  I’m scrambling for Google to help fill in the gaps in my sorry comic and graphic novel education. Who’s writing like this about American comics and world comic culture these days?  What are all these French comics, and are they available in translation here?

I grant you, I should be doing revisions on my essay — which, compared to all this, feels puny and insignificant and not at all as interesting.  But isn’t that the point of the internet, to have all this diversion at the ready for when you need to get pulled away from things you ought to be doing?

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An original, though not really and not very.  What is it about the snap of cold weather that increases the hunger?  Are we really still just nature-attuned mammals, fattening ourselves up for the winter, hunkering down for the scarcity of food?  Anyway, in a fit of hunger I foraged the refrigerator yesterday and spied some mushrooms that would have gone bad had I not eaten them.  That is to say, no one else in the house would have looked at them and said “Say, I bet those would taste good for lunch.”

While I was at the table, with the musky steam of a buttery saute curling around my face, I was suddenly flushed with that old WCW poem about plums and dashed off this personal rejoinder.

Not That You Noticed

I have eaten
the mushrooms
that were in
the fridge

and which
your dad abandoned
when visiting.

Believe me
they were delicious
pan fried
and pasta-tossed.

So much for originality.  The round-up this week is over at Big A little a

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This was supposed to be where I talked about this process of writing and getting the MFA.  And what have I been doing?  Spouting off on politics and industry gossip and whatnot.  Time to get real.

Actually, things have been very real, I just haven’t blogged them.  Since the first draft of the middle grade, novel I’ve been approaching the revisions with a mixture of anticipation and dread.  I know it needs work, and I know a lot of the work it needs.  It’s where the rubber meets the road that’s been difficult.

I have this chapter.  It’s not really a chapter because it isn’t written yet, but it’s going to be a chapter.  It’s a new chapter, one that I’m hoping adds a new layer of information and resonance with the main character’s understanding and growth at the end of the story.  So it’s sort of important, but that’s the trick of it, because I don’t want it to read like it’s important.  It needs to feel as casual to the reader as to the main character so the dots all connect up in the end.

The scene is also transitional.  It bridges a gap in time that, on its own, would be fine; the gap would be accepted and the story could trundle on.  The problem is that inserting the scene in this gap forces an explanation for why it’s there and not somewhere else.

Why is it there?  Does it need to be there?

Well, to my thinking, yes.  It has to be fairly early on because that’s when a reader will accept a certain amount of incongruity in the story.  You’re still getting into the groove, still collecting information as a reader, your ideas about the character and the story are still in the gelatinous stage.  If it comes any later, once you’ve got some solidity to characters and setting, the scene would stick out like a giant piece of neon in the middle of the desert saying NOTE: AUTHOR AT WORK!  It needs to be up front where it can be a “Whatever” scene so that later (he hopes) it can be an “Oh, wait! Now I get it!” scene.

And it might not even work. That’s the thing.  I’m dropping this in because I feel this is the best way to show (and not tell) what it is I’m trying to convey about a particular character without dramatically altering what I already have.  The character in question is secondary and doesn’t require much more, but there had to be something that I could use later on to explain some things.

I hate talking about it like this.  It’s like one of those great anonymous pronoun conversations you sometimes hear kids have:

-Did you hear what he said about her?
-I thought they cleared all that up before she called him.
-That’s what I thought, until she called and said he’d told her that they weren’t, you know..
-She called him?
-No, she called me and told me what he said about her that caused the whole thing to fall apart between them.

I guess its because I’m a little superstitious that once I put elements of the story out there I’m going to start hearing “You know what this reminds me of…” followed by the titles of half a dozen books that my book is like (only not as good), which will leave me feeling like I should abandon the book.  I know that there are only 36 dramatic situations, and that nothing new has been written in centuries, but I need to hold onto that clear vision in my head of doing something new (or new-ish) to keep me going.

This one scene, that’s all I need.  Perhaps it’s because I’m trying too hard, because I know it needs to be there. Like zen enlightenment, once I stop looking for it I’ll find it.  So all I need to do is find something else to do to trick my mind into think about something else so it can relax enough to find the right solution.

I thought blogging about it would help.  Foolish cheese! I’ve done nothing BUT think about it!


Back to the salt mines.

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starting a magazine

Something positive for a change.

Not that I haven’t been thinking about this for some time, because I mentioned my intention to start up a magazine a few years back when I was interviewing for a editorial position. I’ve had this idea floating around for nearly a decade now.  But it’s still going to be a while before I can launch this thing.

It’s the economy, that’s part of it, but it’s also a question of research.  Of figuring out how to raise the funds and where to find a good printer and how to do this thing right.  I don’t want to open with a flimsy pamphlet and hope to move up to something with status, I want to come out of the gate with this thing being the best.  If it doesn’t fly it will at least live gloriously.

So I’m casually beginning my research.  There is much to learn about publishing, the business side of things, the raising of finances.  It may not pan out in the long run but it won’t be out of shear laziness.

I’m gonna do this.  Eventually.  And it’s gonna rock.

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How often is it that you finish a book, put it down, go to the computer to check on news of the world and find that the book you just put down was one that was nominated as a finalist for the National Book Award in young person’s literature?


Having not read them all, nor understanding how to handicap this award, I have no idea whether it was a mere coincidence or if somehow I was attuned to the celestial spheres of synchronicity and was reading the winning book.  But it’s an odd feeling, I’ll say that much.  Especially since the book was sent to me for review and I knew nothing abut it when I picked it up.

I’m not quite ready to review the book yet, and out of fairness to the other titles I’m not going to mention it by name here (email me if you really want to know which book it is), but I must say that I’m a little confused about how titles are chosen for this award.  Normally you don’t find a middle grade book with animals in the world up against a YA title about an unrepentant alcoholic up against a Revolutionary War slave narrative. I’m not saying these titles aren’t deserving, only that I find the selection odd.

And what a crazy panel of judges!  Daniel Handler (chair), Holly Black, Angela Johnson, Carolyn Mackler, Cynthia Voigt. I have to admit, I’m now sort of interested in reading them all before the awards are announced on November 19th.

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* a person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism.

* a person who terrorizes or frightens others.

* a radical who employs terror as a political weapon; usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorist activities

We call Osama Bin Laden a terrorist. We consider him responsible for those who act as his advocates. He doesn’t move about Iran or Iraq or Pakistan informing and instructing people in how to act, he merely inspires those around him to shout “Death to Infidels” and “Kill Americans!” and to set off car bombs in a campaign intended to undermine the efforts of others to maintain order.

We’ve seen less blatant but equally effective terrorism in the past. We’ve seen leaders use fear and terrorism as a political weapon. Despots and dictators, certainly, and those who hide behind the skirts of religion and power to engage in acts of violence, censorship and ethnic cleansing.

Currently we have a pair of terrorist operatives in this country inciting their small cells, their “base,” into a frothy fury of fear and hatred. They speak of the evils of other Americans and, like Bin Laden, are willing to let the individuals carry out their message. They even go around the country calling themselves radicals. And when their followers shout out words like “traitor!” and spit out “off with his head” at their rallies then there is no doubt who the real terrorists are.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are no less terrorists than Osama Bin Laden.

The campaign has gone beyond any previous level of partisan anything-to-get-elected tactics and has moved into the realm of the truly evil. To those who have never understood how a thing like Nazi Germany came about — remember, Hitler was elected Chancellor in a democratic election — I only need to point to the current phase of the McCain campaign as a living reminder. This isn’t a question of ideological differences, this is a campaign of terrorism, plain and simple, based on fear, anger and hatred.

No matter who wins the election, if anything happens to Barak Obama or his family — or any innocent American for that matter — as a result of the current campaign rhetoric I will personally hold John McCain and Sarah Palin responsible for the rest of their natural lives. They have done nothing to quell the rabble, to talk the villagers from gathering with their pitchforks and torches of hatred, and in doing so encourage those they consider their supporters, their base, to act on their behalf. These are the people McCain calls “my friends” and who Palin identifies with as “plain folks.” If they want to play a game of guilt by association by tying Obama to a former domestic terrorist like William Ayers then they better ready themselves for the inevitable. The first person who carries out an act of violence or terrorism on behalf of McCain or Palin, that blood will be entirely theirs.

Just like we do with Bin Laden.

We are standing at the brink of history. There is an opportunity for that history to fall to either side. We will either move forward or tumble backward. There are terrorists among us.

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I see teens and hipster kids wearing the various Hargreaves characters all the time.  You know, the Mr. Men and Little Miss booklets that showcased a variety of moods and behaviors?  No?  Go here for a refresher, then continue.

Okay, so it’s no secret that I wanted to be an animator when I grew up.  Grow up.  When I was eleven I announced that’s what I would be.  I wasn’t going to let a little thing like a lack of drawing talent get in the way.  I share the same birthday as some famous animator dude, so why couldn’t that just sort of, you know, rub off?

That I didn’t become an animator, and how I didn’t, is a much longer story for another time.  But I love keeping tabs on animators and visit about as many animator’s blogs as I do kidlit writer’s blogs.  I can’t help it.  It’s just never going to go away.  One of those bloggers is Nate Wragg.  I love this thing he has for yeti.  His style speaks to my love of mid-century modern, the 1950s visual style of Disney’s Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom.  One day (when I win the lottery or a MacArthur Foundation grant) I will buy some of his work.

Right now, though, he’s done a brilliant thing and created, for fun, Roger Hargreaves-type characters to match the current American political race.  If someone were to make a t-shirt with these two side by side I think I could afford that.  Do, go check it out.

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So the first draft of the middle grade novel is done and the results are back: it needs work.  Well, duh.  No, that isn’t what my advisor said.  She didn’t say it needed work either.  What she did was give me a very thorough rundown of where she saw problems and some general reactions to things.

Like the fact that all the girl characters are mean.  Oops.  That wasn’t my intention.  Even since finishing this draft I’ve learned a few things about writing mean characters (make them likable, or nice, so their acts of badness are really striking; make nice characters capable of irrational acts of meanness) so I know I have some work to do there.  And even this one character who I conceived of as the main catalyst for a lot of trouble has rendered herself unnecessary, so out she goes.

Which means some heavy rewrites.  But, like I said, I consider that part of the process. I co-opted an old quote (by Edison?  Huh.  Deja vu, I feel like I’ve blogged about this already) and said that writing is 10% vision and 90% revision. So as good as it feels to be done with the draft — just to have a completed draft at all! — I know I’m in for the hard work.  I’ve gone down the mine shaft, it’s time to work the seam.

Which is why I did nothing this weekend.  Hey, it’s a holiday weekend.  Except for that wicked virus that took me out of commission a while back  I had been writing seven days a week.  If ever there was a time to recharge for the next phase, this weekend was perfectly timed.

So I made apple butter.

I found this wickedly easy and awesome recipe for pear butter and was going to make it, but we didn’t have the pears.  What we did have was a lot of apples.  A lot of bruised apples.  My youngest went apple picking with some friends last weekend with the hope that they would make caramel apples but that plan fizzled.  And since the apples were picked and lugged by girls they took a bit of bruising.

As an adult, as most adults do I suspect, I don’t see a bruised piece of produce as an untouchable.  Granted, if I’m shopping for it in the store I’d rather buy unblemished – it doesn’t cost any different.  But once it’s home, it’s mine.  The girls will look askance at a banana that has some minor dark spots on it, even if you open it up and show a perfectly edible, creamy banana inside. They react to such offerings as if being fed live insects.  Kids.

But cored, sliced and tossed into a crock pot for 24 hours, smoothed out with an immersion blender, and spread on a bagel with cream cheese and those left-for-dead apples are suddenly manna from heaven.

As I was cleaning up the crock this morning I told Suze that if I had known it was this easy to make apple butter I would have been making it for years. It even has me temporarily inspired to rethink canning (that and the economy turning us all into homesteaders within the next couple of months) so the diversion from the writing wasn’t a loss of any kind.  Not that I needed any excuses; I can always find an excuse.

Technical details:  So the recipe above is for pear butter, but it was similar to other recipes for apple butter, so I followed it.  I didn’t have mace, it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.  I used agave syrup instead of sugar because it’s a natural sweetener with the lowest glicemic index of any sweetener, and I just don’t want to be feeding kids lots of extra sugar.  I ended up with a nice, dark brown apple butter that tastes great.  I think I’m going to hit the farmers market this week (last week of the season!) and see about getting me some pears.  And maybe some glass jars with clamp-down lids.

Writing?  Revisions?  Huh?

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First, this isn’t about the current economic meltdown.  Unless you consider a patty melt gone bad a crisis.

No, it occured to me that we have this problem where it seems like good, wholesome food is more expensive than crap.  And as I was looking at a band of chunky high school kids rolling out of the CVS with large bags of chips, sodas and cookies I actually stopped and wondered why, if they were hungry, they didn’t go across the street and get a couple slices of pizza or a burrito.

Because they couldn’t.  Because it’s cheaper to fill up on junk than on something more substantial.

So I was thinking about this and wondering what it would take to affect a shift in the way people eat.


People don’t think about the calories they consume because they’ve been trained to obey their whims and their wallets before considering whether the choice is a good one.  But what if cost was keyed to the number of calories you were consuming, say a penny a calorie?  That magnum of Arizona iced tea that’s currently 99 cents, that would be 80 cents.  That’s a fair price.  That 12 oz. can of coke would be $1.55.  That would make someone think twice (except in movie theatres, but that’s a whole different rant).  That Snickers bar?  $2.70  Those Doritos – $1.40.

Imagine fast food chains.  That McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with cheese: $7.40!  Interesting how those “$5 Foot Long” sandwiches that Subway is pushing would come out to around $2.75 each.  That sounds about right for both of them.

Okay, so what’s the calorie count on that pizza or burrito?  Well, pizza slices depend on size and what’s on them, but a lot of the ones I did a quick search for came out to around $2.75 each, which is a bit high but essentially reasonable.  When you think about kids getting into good eating habits (and we’ve just entered the eating phase with our eldest) I guess I’d rather it were on solid food regardless of the calories, because the empty calories in most snack foods aren’t helpful in satisfying hunger or keeping the body healthy.  And maybe a 1100 calorie burrito would be better than craving four or five granola bars over the course of an afternoon.

I was thinking: what did teens do back in the 1930s and 1940s when they didn’t have stores bursting with snack foods?  Did they eat more fruit?  Did they stop by the local bakery and pick up a fresh pastry?  Or did people just not constantly need to snack all the time?

I think that if prices were set to calories (a monetary unit against a unit of energy) people would become more aware of what they were eating and perhaps make wiser choices.  Or maybe we can just wait for the economic meltdown to deflate the value of the dollar so that it takes a wheelbarrow full of cash just to buy a soda.

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Huh, where did I go? Must have had a packet of writing due for school or something…

So, I like to think I’m pretty good with titles.  A lot of time, a story doesn’t click for me until I really feel I’ve got the title.  Since I have yet to have anything published, and there is always the chance that my titles secretly suck, it would be nice to have some concrete way to measure how good a title really was.  Would it be nice if somewhere out there on various tubes and wires of the Internet if someone could figure out a scientific way to measure how good a title really…

What? Such a place does exist?


Yes, Lulu’s Titlescorer will take your title and measure it against 50 years worth of bestsellers, analyize it, crunch some numbers, and in the blink of an eye lay out for you what percent of a chance your title has of becoming a bestseller.

And if a bestseller title is anything to guage by, then this is foolproof!

Actually, every title I enter scores under 20%, which I consider a good thing.  When I think of the titles that stick out in my mind it isn’t always bestsellers that pop up.  In fact, I was having a hard time coming up with anything that hadn’t been made into Major Motion Pictures.  Snow Falling on Cedars rated a 39.5% chance of success, Blindness came up 35.9%.  Ooo, wait!  Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist garnered… 14.6%.  Say, that’s in the realm of one of my titles.  Let’s try An Abundance of Katherines: 26.3%.

Look!  You can have titles battle it out! Oh, no, wait, that feature doesn’t seem to work.  It would have been fun to pit a Harry Potter book against A Clockwork Orange to see what would happen.

I wonder what a low-scoring (like under 5%) title looks like.

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