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Archive for May, 2009

Our brains are great.  They’re complex, elastic, they do so many things simultaneously that breaking down something as simple as the brain activity involved in the mechanics of a sneeze into its component parts would probably fry Deep Blue in a nanosecond.

But but mine has had enough.

There’s so much to read, so many websites and blogs, so many Tweets and status updates, so many books piled around the house, unread magazines and newspapers.  Everywhere I turn there’s more content to filter through, and it keeps piling up.

All of this information is intoxicating, these connections and networks, all this faux social contact, it’s like a crazed addiction, like an allergy whose reaction is a craving for more of the same.  There will never be enough to satisfy the desire for more.

Second to the day I realized what an infinite universe felt like – that hollowness of space going on beyond my imagination, expanding in my brain until I became dizzy – was the day I realized that if i did nothing but sleep and read the published materials (and by that I mean books) available to me at this moment, and did nothing more, I wouldn’t even make a dent in that reading in my lifetime.  That doesn’t include all the books yet to be published.  It doesn’t include all the other print media, or the internet, or all the incidental research reading spurred on by questions raised in the reading I want to do, or might want to read once I discover what I don’t know is out there.

The world is drowning in content, and we keep chasing it like we can ever catch up with it.

Why?

What is gained?

It’s like we have this idea in our heads that if we chase down all these threads of content we’ll achieve something greater, faster, than if we’d just take life as it comes.

We’ve found ourselves in an accelerated cultural miasma, with subsequent generations jettisoned faster and faster into the maelstrom, believing this is a good thing.

We come into the world unburdened by all this content, and as hungry as we are to learn, we are never as happy as we were when we were innocent of it all.

I spent over five hours of my day staring at a computer screen today, reading and writing words, but I can’t decide is the best moment of my day came from staring down a goose at the reservoir during a morning run or the simple enjoyment of a spicy meal I made for the family.  And now here I am attempting to hold onto those moments by converting them into some form of content, sharing them in the hope that they will last, give the whole of my day some meaning, some purpose.

Could we, I wonder, collectively, go a day without all this extraneous content?  Could we set aside one day and create a mass moment of clear consciousness, a day where everyone agreed to go without the artificial stimulation, just to cleanse the palate?  No blogging, no facebook, no surfing the web at all, no books, no television or radio or magazines… one day.  Is it possible, or would it require a planet-wide, life-threatening solar flare?

Could it be done?

Have we gone too far?

Would it even make a difference?

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There’s about a month left in a school, which means the summer reading lists are coming home.

Joy.

What came home in my going-into-sixth-grade daughter’s weekly notices was a 12 page booklet of suggested titles – over 100 in all – broken down by genre and category, each titles annotated as either “challenging,” “more challenging,” and “most challenging.”

As if an emerging sixth grader isn’t going to see Jumanji on the list marked as a “challenging” title and not say “baby book.”  Taking into account that there are ids whose reading levels might not be as strong as their classmates, except in instances where a child has a true disability (in which case I would expect to see an entirely different list), acknowledgement of the “chore” of summer reading and the inclusion of a picture book on this list is an admission of failure on many levels.

Kids should want to read.

Kids shouldn’t have to be coaxed into reading by providing them “easy” books to meet a quota.

Summer reading should have a clear-cut purpose, with measurable goals, if it is to be assigned.

I recognize how lucky I am to have daughters who don’t have to be forced to read.  They are constantly asking me for new books.  I feel like a failure sometimes when I do not have a book at the ready, or cannot rush out that moment and go and buy them a handful.  My girls will use the town and school library to fill their needs willingly.  As a testament to their voracious reading habits, the challenge of the annual reading list is to find interesting titles they haven’t already read.

But worse, it’s finding titles they haven’t already read that are at their reading level.

There’s a lot of concern about literacy, and a lot of well-intentioned programs like summer reading to try and help pick up the slack, but in the end the system fails because it turns reading into a chore, allows lazy students to accept that they will be catered to, and offers no consequences for lack of participation.

Every summer, kids put off their summer reading until late August, scramble to get titles read and summaries written, and hand in their “proof” of participation at the beginning of school.  In addition to the four book minimum there is a grade-wide required book that is used by teachers at the beginning of the year as a point of discussion in class.  Having worked a bookstore I know for a fact there are a lot of kids (and their parents, mostly) scrambling to find copies of the required book that first week of school because then, and only then, are kids frantic enough to care about reading it.

Unless someone can enlighten me to the contrary, summer reading evolved from private schools looking to give their students an educational edge over their public counterparts.  It began in the high schools and trickled down (thank you Ronald Reagan) through the middle schools and into elementary schools.  It also spread out beyond private and into public school.  What began as a w/edge for the elite became “sound” educational practice.

Are their studies that show a child is better prepared for the coming school year as a result of summer reading?  Studies that show children becoming more fluent readers, more engaged readers, more willing readers?  We have this notion that kids are vessels, that the more we can pour into them, the better they’ll be.  Build a better sixth grader in just five extra books a year!  Ask me how! But what do they really learn from the experience?

We are learning, in our over-programmed world, that there is value in play, and that kids aren’t getting enough of it.  We give them a summer’s worth of opportunity and then attempt to structure it with a solitary, generally indoor activity.  It is a noble thing to want to promote literacy, and year-round learning, and to keep those minds limber.  We want children to be well-rounded and we want them to love reading and to love learning.

There has to be a better solution than summer reading.

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Uh, it sucks.

They seriously cannot have focus-grouped this thing on people who read magazines regularly.  The font, the layout, the tracking – everything about the new redesign makes every page and every article look EXACTLY like those “Special Advertising Sections” that are really paid ad supplements meant to look like the magazine, but never do.  Now Newsweek looks like a giant ad supplement.  I flipped through the pages waiting for content before I realized I’d passed several pages of this stuff.

Aren’t newspapers, magazines, and other peridoicals already in a enough trouble fiscally without losing audience?  I seriously could not read this thing.  And I wanted to.  Way to go, Newsweek, alienate your subscribers.

Just to be clear, I’m not one of these people who thinks change is bad, or that redesign automatically equals a bad thing.

But this redesign isn’t a fear of change, it was a visceral response.  You go to an art gallery and there are some paintings you just cannot look at, for whatever reason.  And with music, some sounds just grate.  I opened up this magazine and my eyes did not want to spend any time with it.  I tried to focus on a single article, and in the end I quit reading because it made my eyes tired.

It shouldn’t be a challenge or a chore to read.  I can’t be the only one who feels this way.

So, bravo, Newsweek.  You may have just redesigned yourself into obsolescence.  Not that anyone cares.

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got you covered

Over at Oz and Ends J.L. Bell has a pretty funny (to me) story about some wrong-headed research, and it concerns a book whose cover is all wrong.

It’s the cover that has me thinking.  Why do books, especially in YA, feature photo representations of the main character?  Why are we being shown a person selected by an art department’s interpretation of the author’s description?  I mean, why bother describing a character at all in a book if someone down the line is going to find a face (or in some cases just a torso) that they feel embodies the mood and tone of the book?

I had a chance last week to sit in on a book group that included some 12 year old boy sand found them to be very astute readers.  Not just in content but in marketing.  They admitted that they do judge a book by its cover, and that they felt most covers we deceptive (they actually said “lied to them”), and that because all they normally see is a photo of a person on the cover they can’t tell what it’s about and might just ignore it.

Huh.  All this talk about what makes a “boy book” get’s totally thrown out the window if you don’t know how to appeal to boys on the visual level.  Seems to me like half the fight in making books appealing to teen boys requires making them look more interesting.  Maybe some graffiti artists could help, or the designers of Urban Outfitters catalogs.

Or movie posters.  Hollywood has some pretty tried and true ways to sell a movie based on posters.  Sure, they almost always have people on them, but rarely is it just a moody head shot; there’s usually something to clue you in to what the movie is about.  You could put three posters side by side – even in a foreign language – and still be able to pick out the horror film from the comedy from the spy movie. Aside from period-set books, put three titles side by side and it’s doubtful you could guess anything about the content.

So why do all the YA books look like they were conceived in the 1980s, but with modern production values?

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Part of growing up and growing old is having to shed some of the dreams and desires that are just flat out unattainable.  There just comes a point where you realize that going to art school was not the proper choice for becoming the first astronaut on Mars, or when the people you looked up to and admired passed on before you had your opportunity to have a nice little private cafe sit.

It’s taken me a number of decades to understand what it is I (think I) should be doing, and it gets more confusing when it is bound up in childhood memories that are difficult to limn.

Okay, here’s what I’m dancing around.  I don’t consider myself a poet, or at least not a serious one, which you can take any way and would probably be correct.  While I enjoy all sorts of poetry, it’s the humorous and nonsensical poetry of my childhood that I am drawn to.  Every once in a while a thought flits through my brain like a passing butterfly that somewhere amid all this other writing I’m doing, just once, I think I’d fancy putting out a book of poetry like those I grew up on.

Mind you, it isn’t just poems, its the poems we don’t tend to see as much of anymore.  I’m talking subversive poetry, and semi violent poetry, the kind of stuff Shel Slverstien wrote in his salad days while he was still on staff at Playboy.  Not only poems, but those whose illustrations are no less controversial.  I have an image in mind of a particular poem in a collection edited by William Cole that is illustrated by Tomi Ungerer that shows a very Victorian-looking gentleman about to whip a small girl with a cat-o-nine-tails while she grins slyly.  There is an odd danger in that illustration that caught my attention when I was 10 that holds it to this day.

But the poetry I see today for children, while much of it is very, very good, all feels a bit too… safe?  Humorous, yes, playfully illustrated, of course, but lacking that edge that, that devilishness that gave me as a young reader the feeling I was looking into the forbidden world of grown-ups.  I knew the poets weren’t children, nor were the illustrators, and in writing and illustrating these books I had the sense of not being treated as a child but as someone who could handle realities (albeit humorous and twisted ones) of the world as seen in verse.

But who is doing anything like that today?  Who are the dangerous and subversive writers and artists working today?  Has it all just gone out of style, am I horribly living in a false memory?  I fear (or worry, perhaps) that were I to set out to write a book of poetry, aside from falling far from the mark, that there would be no one to illustrate it, no publisher willing to touch it.

I want to see these books of poetry that are as dangerous as they are vital, to see a generation grow up as I did, finding playful peeks into the world through wordplay.  Am I wrong in this?  Where did this idea come from that everything written and produced for children should be safe?  Is Disney to blame?  Is this just another piece of childhood killed off by the realities of getting older?

Who are the dangerous-in-a-good-way writers, illustrators, and poets today?  I’m seriously asking.  I’m drawing a blank.

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Last night I went to a school-wide book group with my older daughter.  Twice a year the school holds these groups for the upper graders, reading grade-level books on a particular theme and then having kids and parents come in, break into small groups, and discuss the book.  I think it’s a great idea and the turnout is fairly good.  It has it’s problems (books tend to be better suited for girls’ interests, for example) but on the whole a really great school community event.

But what was interesting from my point of view was how hard I find myself biting my tongue at these events.  Not because I disagree with what is generally being discussed, but because my studies give me a wildly different perspective on literature intended for children.  This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this problem.

My undergrad degree was in film and I have to be careful in general discussions about movies because I know too damn much.  If I’m watching a film and suddenly find a scene that has been stolen from another movie (as might happen in, say, Quinten Tarnantino films), or someplace where a director has repetedly used the same sort of plot devices or themes (hello Spielberg), these moments pull me out of the film and ruin my enjoyment; I cannot see the movie for the flaws, as it were.  But most people don’t notice or care about the minutia of these experiences – American movie audiences on the whole tend to prefer to be uncritical beyond “things blew up, that was fun” – and so my part of any discussion is muted.

So last night while I was sitting in our group I didn’t really care that much about the story as much as I did about how the group reacted to mechanics of the book.  What did they like about the character?  What did they think of the setting and the plot?  What was realistic and what felt forced?  Naturally there were differences between what the parents saw and felt and what the kids saw.  And all of it was incredibly illuminating.

I was with a group of seventh graders, five boys and two girls, and all the parents women.  Think what you will of those numbers and you’re probably right.  The kids were candid and articulate, they knew what they did and didn’t like, and based on their ability to analyze the mechanics of a novel their teachers have done a damn good job teaching them critical reading.  More than I ever got when I was their age.  Hell, yes, I’m jealous.

Favorite comment of the night came from a boy who found several points of contention, but summed up his experience with the book this way:

“I was okay with the first two chapters because it was interesting. Then plot happened.”

And we laughed.  But he was onto something, and so was I at that moment.  This boy is no fool.  He could see that the story was designed to lull him in and then wallop him with the message story.  He was fine going along with the action but then felt a noticeable shift in the writing and felt betrayed.  He used to word “promise” to describe the story and felt it “didn’t deliver” on that promise in the end.  Others agreed and expanded on these comments.  Debates over which parts they felt were “real” and which parts felt “like fiction” were had.  There was even a discussion about the image on the cover, and how misleading it was, and how it didn’t accurately portray the main character (the girl on the cover was “too pretty” and didn’t match the description in the book).  Discussion about the book’s theme – immigration and the role of immigrants in the wake of 9/11 – were glossed over as the group’s focus delved into what was wrong with the way the author delivered the message.

And I couldn’t help but think that more writers and editors need to hear these conversations.

It’s one thing for bloggers and critics and other reviewers to say these things, but it’s an entirely different kettle of fish when you hear it from the target market, the intended audience, kids.  It made me realize the depth of the vacuum writers have to work in because the critique groups and agents and editors they have to get their stories past are adults and never the people the book is written for.  Flip this idea on its head for a moment. What if the agents and editors were peer-aged with the audience; how many of the books that are currently published would get the green light?

No, we cannot accept that children would possess the critical facilities necessary to judge if a book should be published, yet we expect them to take what they are given without question?  What I saw was something I think I want to see more of as a writer.  I think once I get this writing thing down I want to spend some regular time around my target audience so that I can hear from them directly what works and what doesn’t.  It would be a lot more helpful to me to hear what that 12 year old boy said above than to have an editor say “I need to see more conflict with the main character by the third chapter.”

I don’t know how I would have felt if I were the author of the book in that room last night, listening like a fly on the wall.  I do know that as harsh as it may have been, I would have wanted to hear that before I published the book.

So here’s my idea of the day.  I think it might be important for authors of books for children and young adults to spend time with children and young adults on a regular basis.  I know there’s a creepiness factor to overcome – especially for male authors – but perhaps if authors helped establish and co-facilitate a regular book club at the schools in their area they’d have access to unfiltered opinions and gain a greater sense of what does and doesn’t work in the field.

And publishers and editors?  Here’s one for you.  Ask your authors if they’d be willing to help establish a book group at their local schools.  Be willing to provide the group with galleys and ARCs of titles to be released and have the authors collect that feedback.  The authors get an opportunity to work with the audience and you get fabulous raw data from the front lines about the market and what isn’t working.

And once again, my mini rant for those out there who haven’t heard: middle grade students want more mystery and they want more speculative fiction.  They don’t want cute super-sleuth kids and they don’t want aliens and they don’t want secret agents or super-evil bad guys.  They want human mysteries, they want science fiction that engages their heart and their mind, they want to see stories of kids facing the very real perils they face, and they want to see how others solve their problems.  The want a message but not message-only books.

Oh, and they’d like realistic fiction to be set during a period of time that they were alive.  They complain about having to read stories set in “ancient times” like the 40s and 50s.  Last night these kids, who were in kindergarten during 9/11, expressed a fascination with what was going on in this country immediately following.  They get the horror and they understand the war (to the extent that any of us can) but they don’t understand the smaller stories, about the personal effect on the curtailment of rights and freedoms; they don’t understand the situation in Sudan and Darfur and how the US responded (or failed to respond); they don’t know the stories of hate crimes in this country and abroad; they don’t understand fears or the basis of those fears over illegal immigration or the need for homeland security.  And they want to know these things, they just don’t want to have to wade through crappy fiction to learn it.

That’s what I learned last night.

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This is neither about the legality of former slaves or about the senior President Bush.  This is about deadlines, and re-envisioning the middle grade book, and the panic of feeling like I cannot write.

Third semester in a row now on this middle grade novel and fourth entirely different approach.  The more I revisit this story, the more I whittle away at it, the less I know it.  Perhaps there’s a wisdom in there somewhere, about having to forget everything I know (or think I know) in order to regain what is lost, or to find the true heart of the story, but for the life of me all it makes me feel like is failure.

Everything I read suggests my problems come from a lack of conflict, that instead of my main character wanting something the story is, as one person described it, One Damn Thing After Another.  But the models don’t fit the story I want to tell, the story isn’t about a character who knows what he wants.  In fact, it’s precisely because he doesn’t know what he wants that he figures it out in the end.

It’s always bothered me when character set out on their journeys with so clear a desire.  As humans, we do that for the big picture, but so much of our lives are shaped by the little picture, the things that happen along the way that add up down the road.  We’ll cut some slack on an adventure story, or a mystery, because we know that the pieces will be filled in along the way.  But when it comes to a string of unintended consequences adding up to a true-but-unsuspecting sum of the parts, boy, we don’t like to talk about those plot structures because they don’t work.

Except I don’t believe that.

When I was training to be an art teacher I had so many adults wish me luck because they felt art wasn’t teachable, it was some mystical talent you were born with, and good luck.  I’m not going to lay out how incredibly false this notion is except that I understand how people could come to that conclusion.  Tweens and teens are fond of expressing how impossible their homework is, how their soccer coaches demand the impossible, how no matter what they do the just don’t get it and never will.  It is a simple but no less true fact that the only thing we are born knowing how to do is laugh and everything else along the way must be learned.  There may be any variety of impediments along the way that prevent one from becoming, say, an Olympian athlete or a nuclear physicist, but no one is born a natural archaeologist or a natural gardener, and really, everything must be learned.

Along the way we gather bits and peices of those things that will make us the people we are, except those pieces don’t control us; we chose those things that define us and we combine them into our personal narratives.  So as we read those narratives – in real life and in books – we tend to believe in those stories that resonate with our experience.  If our experience is limited to several hundred years’ worth of unrealistic goal-centered journeys where every action is in support of the main character’s prime objective, then any story that falls outside of that track is foreign territory, it’s off the map, and as a consequence, we see it as ‘wrong.’

I recall being in sixth grade and thinking I wanted to be an animator for Disney when I grew up.  Knowing and vocalizing that didn’t send me on a journey to meet a famous animator, or spend my days obsessively drawing flip books, or get me in trouble at school for handing in book reports that were really summaries of Disney cartoons.  In sixth grade I was busy writing and illustrating puns and puzzle books, modifying my Stingray into a low-rider bike, reading books on magic, and spending my summers taking oil painting and ceramics classes.  Perhaps if I had been more obsessed I would have ended up an animator for Disney, but clearly that wasn’t my destiny, and so any story of my life written as a middle grade novel wouldn’t work.

But here I am, and things happened during these years in between, and it seems sometimes that maybe life really is about the random elements that add up to something you couldn’t see from the beginning.

I know this story backwards and forwards.  I know these boys and how they think, how their field of vision is blinkered to the point they can barely see their own feet, and I know the trouble they get into because of it.  I know what they’re up against, and what they think they’re up against, and all the key players.  I know all these things and yet I cannot seem to express them in a way that makes narrative sense in any traditional format.

I wrote a solid new opening.  Then a second chapter came slower.  I’m weeding elements from previous drafts and making it breezier, but now it feels artificial.  I found the inciting incident and wrote four more chapters and then, just an hour ago while lying in bed unable to sleep, realized I didn’t need it.  I thought I had to give these boys I’m writing about a reason to spin off and make these mini comics that piss people off – but they don’t need a reason.  They’re boys, this is what boys do.  They become the inciting incident.  Fellow students react to them, they in turn react to the reaction, chain reaction sends everything spinning off into space, story ends when everything comes crashing back to earth and the boys are left with a bunch of smashed pieces to deal with.  They don’t want any of what happens to them, their desires are almost selfish, and if there can be said to be anything resembling rising tension and set-backs they aren’t object based.

I’ve been having to fight this Aristotelian view of the craft for some time and haven’t really found anything that makes me feel comfortable with my writing.  It may simply be I have become much too stubborn to see that the story is impossible because I will not (or cannot) cram the story into the mold.

It’s not supposed to be easy, I know that.  Does it have to feel so impossible?

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