Archive for July, 2009

The kidlit blogosphere is aflame with this story.  If you are unfamiliar you can read about it here.

Or here.

Or here.

Or here.

Or even here.

I’ve already posted this idea in comments sections of blogs and on facebook but I thought I’d make the suggestion a little more formal by stating it here.

Whatever Bloomsbury’s reasons, they are a business and businesses tend to listen to one thing more than any other: money.  The bottom line is generally where a business is most vulnerable, and anything that affects the bottom line tends to be heard loud and clear.

Normally this would mean boycotting a business, hurt them financially in such a way that they take notice and, one hopes, corrective action.  All well and good, but there’s an additional aspect here that makes it difficult to do.  Refusing to buy Justine Larbalestier’s book to send a message has the unfortunate side effect of punishing the author for a decision she had no control over.  A boycott might send a message to the publisher but it would most definitely hurt the author in the process.

My proposal: support the author, protest the cover.

It’s that simple.  Purchase the book in support of the author, then mail back the dust jacket to the publisher, or more specifically, to the person responsible for making the decision on the cover image. My understanding is that person would be:

Melanie Cecka
Editorial Director
Bloomsbury Books
175 Fifth Avenue #300,
New York NY 10010

Simply mail the cover back to Bloomsbury requesting that they send you a “corrected” cover when it becomes available.

Now, I don’t believe for a moment that Bloomsbury is going to actually print new dust jackets for this book – I suspect they’ll make the correction when it goes to paperback – but imagine it; the mail flooded with returned covers, the voices of readers who support writers – Bloomsbury’s customer base – letting them know they did wrong.

Let’s do this.  Spread the word.

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Nicknames are usually one of those things kids do to each other as a way of “owning” another kid, either as a friend or an enemy.  Rarely do kids give themselves nicknames, and those that do self-name rarely stick unless they’re insistent to the point of violence.

I’m not talking about the difference between Dave and David, but those names that spring from a sort of familiarity that is earned over time.  A lot of times the nickname is a variant of a person’s name or some transmogrification thereof, but every once in a while a name is forced on a kid by a more powerful force that only time will reveal as a true insult.

I’m talking about those “nicknames” given by teachers (and authors) to students with “difficult” names.

What jumpstarted my memory was the middle grade book I’m currently reading.  I’m not done yet, so no review here, but I’m liking it so far.  But I got to this point where the main character is showing up for his first day of fourth grade and he’s noting all his friends.  One in particular (names changed to protect the story) is nicknamed Checkers, because he plays the game a lot, but his real name is from Central Asia.  So far none of the other characters has a nickname, and this one really struck me.

Why?  Because I don’t buy it.

Let’s be honest: in a middle grade book no author is ever going to give a character a nickname with the explanation that their family name is too foriegn sounding, but it happens.  It happened when I was in grade school when a boy with the name Morro – a diminutive Spanish word used to mean ‘pebble’ in the same way we might call something cute as a button – introduced himself on the first day of class.  Our kindly old teacher smiled and said “That might be hard for some children to say.  Let’s call you Mario from now on.”

And it stuck.

We were kids.  We didn’t think his name was hard to say.  We didn’t think we could tell the teacher she was wrong.  We didn’t know what to say.  And to this day I have no idea what Morro thought about the whole thing, except that he had a look of shock on his face at the time.

To be fair, kids can be cruel when it comes to unusual names.  When I was a teacher I heard many times a boy named Farhad called Forehead by muscle-headed louts in the hallways. Right or wrong, the name came about from fellow students, again as a means for controling the dialog.  Farhad, a wire of a boy, knew he couldn’t argue back and any teachers’ intervention on his behalf only made it worse for him.  Another boy in his situation might have taken on the nickname Fred and been done with it.

But when I read a middle grade book where kids are bestowing cute nicknames on each other and there are no mean nicknames to counter, then I know I’m in an author’s Wonderland.  Can’t a boy named Depak simply exist the way a James or a Melissa exists without having to resort to calling him a nickname clearly aimed at drawing attention away from his ethnic diversity? If his nickname and how he got it isn’t intergral to the story, then what’s the purpose?  If the point is ‘that’s how it is at that grade’ then why only acknowledge one side?  Better to give a kid a funny name and be done with it, ignoring the nickname and the explanation in the process.  The kid’s named Checkers, that’s good enough.

What’s in a nickname?  It depends on who bestows it, but I think authors have to pay close attention to how these nicknames feed into the reader’s culture and not forward subtle messages that some kids’ names are “different” and somehow deserving the disrespect given them.

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res/write 3

Another day in workshop, another writing exercise.  This is an oldie-but-goodie.  You get a random slip of paper with two characters and a subject and have to convey the information entirely in dialog.  Since the point was to read these aloud and let everyone guess who and what is going on I’ll let you read the dialog first and then tell you what my slips of paper said.

“Let’s try a different approach, Kit.  We’re descending at a rate of two metres a minute…”

“Got it.  Two metres.”

“But we’ll need to fire retrorockets to slow our descent when we’re half a kilometre above the landing pad…”

“Fire rockets… one half kilometre…”

“So, since we’re currently twenty minutes from landing…”

“Wait.  Twenty minutes?  How far away is that, Mr. Teague?”

“Right.  That’s what I want you to calculate.”

“But that’s… six feet per minute, sixty seconds for every six feet, sixty seconds for every six feet, so, one foot every… ONE FOOT EVERY TEN SECONDS!”

“Calm down, Kit, calm down.”

“We have to fire retrorockets NOW!  We’re going to plow right into Mars at… wait… ten seconds times five thousand two hundred eighty feet… divide by–no!  Multiply by six.  But it’s approximately half that, so multiply by three…”

In kilometres, Kit.  Remember?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Teague, but we’re about to die and I just can’t think in metric conversions under those conditions.”

So, did you guess:

Kid and a math teacher
Going to Mars?

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res/write #2

Today was my day for workshop, and for the first time I wasn’t nervous about it.  They were a pair of short stories and I didn’t really feel I had a handle on the short story.  I still don’t, though I do feel a lot better about them after hearing everyone’s thoughts.

Today’s writing assignments in workshop didn’t exactly spring from anything specific in my stories, but they were a nice reminder about the idea of point-of-view.  The three connected exercises were adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. We were first asked to write a short first-person narrative describing an accident.  In the second, we were to tell the same story from the point-of-view of a friend of the narrator in the first exercise.  The third version was to be from the viewpoint of an outside witness.  It went something like this:

You know that crusty old fart next door, Mister Higgins?  Well, I broke his window.  We were out in the street playing baseball with Rudy and Mark and some little kids and I shot a line drive right into his living room window.  Only it didn’t go through the window because of the screen.  The ball just sort of hung there like a fly caught in a spider web while all the glass flew into his house.  I ran home to hide before he could see me – we all scattered – and I tripped on my front stairs, which was how I broke my arm.  Then Mom was crying and yelling at the same time for me not having my shoelaces tied, while Dad and Mister Higgins yelled at each other about who was gonna pay for his broken window ’cause Dad got Mister Higgins to admit that he didn’t actually see who did it…

So did you hear about Jake?  Yeah, he broke his arm, but did you hear how?  No, no, not just the fall, it was because he he’d just broke Old Man Higgins’ window with a baseball.  Or a softball, he didn’t say.  The thing is… the thing is, he didn’t get caught because his dad asked Old Man Higgins to say who he saw hit the ball into the window but he said he didn’t exactly see Jake hit it… Yeah, I know, his dad probably knew Jake did it but they had to take him to the hospital and there wasn’t anything Higgins could do about it.  He probably went home and cackled about the whole thing, like somehow Jake’s broken arm was worth a broken window…

I didn’t realize anything was going on until I heard the Melbak kid screaming bloody murder.  Before I could even get out of my La-Z-Boy to check out what was going on I head two kids running through the back alley like they were on fire.  I peeped out the bathroom window and saw that boy Jake was holding his arm close to his body and his forearm was practically purple from bruise.  I wasn’t surprised when he came home from the hospital later with his arm in a cast.  But that Sam Higgins, he was there when that boy was screaming, flapping his arms like a scrawny chicken, yelling something about some broken window.  I couldn’t make too much sense of it beyond Sam not looking so pleased that the Melbak’s were more interested in taking care of their kid than listen to anything he had to say.  That old man’s always making such a nuisence of himself, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t his fault that boy Jake got his arm broke…

It ain’t Updike, but then I’d be a little put-of if I could be compared to Updike.  Maybe.  Only a little.

The thing is, this sort of opened up a door to an older story I read at my first residency back in January of 2008, a three-part YA novel with three unreliable narrators.  I’d been stalled out because I didn’t feel like I knew enough to really capture three different voices and was sort of hoping that somewhere along the line while I was here at VCFA that I’d get a tool for my writer’s toolbox that would help me bring it in from its rough-hewn state.  These exercises gave me a finger plane, something to really hone it smooth.  That story isn’t on the horizon, but I’m happy to have a better idea about what to do with it once I get the chance.

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Today we had our first workshop meeting.  Ours is one of the small groups – six people and one advisor as opposed to ten or twelve people and two advisors.  Our faculty advisor is Tim Wynne-Jones.  And because it is a smaller group we have more time to spend not only discussing workshop pieces but also exploring specific craft issues.

Which means writing exercises.

I have this fear of in-class writing exercises because I immediately get my hackles raised at having to perform on cue.  Irrationally, perhaps – I am a writer after all, I should be able to write simple exercises, right? – I immediately fear I will get the assignment wrong.  Or worse, because I think while I write (and I write slowly) that I won’t finish in time and somehow be seen as less of a writer.  Plus everyone else in the group is brilliant and I’m a charlatan.  At least that’s how it feels.

But today after the discussion of one my fellow workshopper’s pieces we did a couple short exercises – Tim calls them writing games – that didn’t leave me feeling quite so dumbstruck.  I am not saying these are brilliant examples of writing in general, or of my own writing, but that I walked away feeling like maybe I can write on command without breaking out in a sweat and fearing my writer’s card will be taken away.

First we were asked to write a scene that contained a character named Teri, a kitchen, and dealing with aftermath of a date… without actually talking about the date directly.

Teri entered the kitchen without turning on the light.  She removed a glass from the cabinet – the old French tumbler with the chip at the base that she couldn’t help running her finger over.  She ran the tap a bit before filling the glass then turned and leaned against the sink while taking slow, deliberate sips.  She shifted her weight from hip to hip while kicking off her shoes.  Her eyes adjusted to the dark as shades of color began to appear around her.  The dishtowels looked dingy in the shadowy moonlight.  The loaf of bread she had hastily placed atop the refrigerator earlier leaned anxiously toward the edge, ready to fall.  The fruit in the bowl on the counter had somehow deflated while she was out.

Teri took one final sip and wiped away the evening from her lips.

The word anxious is highlighted because originally I had written eagerly, crossed it out, then added it back.  I like the idea that amid all this dour post-date imagery there was something threatening to take some sort of action.  Tim spotted it immediately and I held fast to it during the workshop but realized now that anxiety in a loaf of bread seemed better.  I could be wrong, I often am.

Students of Tim’s, or of VCFA in general, will probably recognize this as an objective correlative assignment.

Next, we looked at adjectives.  No, rather, we didn’t look at them.  It was a quicky, a scene set outside using no adjectives.  No other rules.  Go.

The crows dropped from the trees all at once and alighted on the playground.  They flapped and cawed and danced around the body lying face-down in the center of the basketball court.  First one, then several crows approached the body, tilting their heads for a better view.  A car backfired and the sound sent the crows back to the trees where they waited until it was once again safe to investigate what had happened to their friend.

Okay, I have no idea where the hell that came from.  I half thought I would make the body a fallen scarecrow, but then the basketball court didn’t make sense.  Then I started thinking about crows thinking of a human as a friend and what they expected of him.  Next thing I knew, I was thinking more than writing.  That happens.

So, again, not great writing, but some things I thought interesting.  Thought I’d share.

My piece gets workshopped on Tuesday.  I’m not nervous at all.  Not yet at least.

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The incoming class is already starting to filter in, their first official meeting is tonight.  The faculty is already there.  The rest of us will be filtering in as well, arriving in time for orientation just after lunch tomorrow. Time again for that thing we call “the res,” or simply “res,”

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults bi-annual residency!

So part of me wants to promise to keep regular updates, but I know that’s contingent on any number of factors.  Last time I managed to snag a solo room, so I was able to stay up late at night writing and blogging without worrying about keeping anyone else awake.  Single rooms are incredibly rare, but still, one can hope.

I suppose I could try and Tweet.  But that’s not what I feel like doing in the brief moments between faculty lectures and studetn lectures and all the other good stuff scheduled for the coming scant two weeks.  But all of that is still to come because, as of this moment, I am still maing lists of everything I need to do, and some last minute packing, and everything else I need to wedge into the day before a nice mellow pizza and movie night with my Suze before leaving early tomorrow morning.

It’s a little like camp, where you can’t wait to see the people you haven’t seen since the last time you were at camp.  It’s like summer camp but all the activities are indoor, because if we added outdoor activites we’d end up there for a month instead of two weeks.  It’s a summer camp with a graduation and a prom attached.  It’s a writer’s retreat, and a battery recharge, and a reunion with community, and dorms with cafeteria food.

And I am a little excited.  But not so you’d notice.

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For a century now we’ve been running this great experiment called adolescence.  With the rise of theories on social development, we’ve come to refine the compartmentalization of childhood into such neat little slices of experience and expectation that I’m wondering if maybe it isn’t time to step back and ask ourselves if we’re doing right by the adolescents in our midst or if we aren’t doing more damage than good.

And for once, instead of my usual rants against education, I’m going to pose this question to writers of Young Adult fiction.

Time was, we used to have a ceremony for children as they reached puberty and called them adults.  We’d send them on walkabouts, or give them bar (or bat) mitzvahs, administer confirmations, hold sunrise ceremonies… whatever name they are given, many cultures seemed to have in place a ritual recognition separating childhood from adulthood with nothing in between.

And for many decades we did not have a Young Adult fiction category for the same reason.  At one point a child was no longer expected to need coddling literature and it was time for them to venture out into the world and learn from the “adult” side of the library.

Since then it seems we’ve created a sort of limbo where people we call teenagers or “young adults” are permitted to exist in a protective cocoon that, presumably, exists to allow for a smoother transition into adulthood.  In this protective envelope we find teens yearning for the experiences of adulthood but disinterested in the responsibilities of same.  We let them drive cars, but they are still carried under an adult’s insurance coverage and responsibility.  We let them have jobs but don’t require they share any of the expenses that adult wage earners are beholden to.

And come graduation from high school there is another four years for them to remain fully out of adulthood, and even then we find many returning home to the roost.

My charge today is to ask: how much does YA literature foster a retardation of maturity?

I know there is the thorny issue of deciding whether fiction reflects or mirrors a culture, and whether it should.  This is the uneasy territory  find myself considering over and over.  Should my stories mirror those experiences most teens are having, or should they, somehow, suggest that there is more to life than grades and proms and dating and shopping and dueling with adults?  I look at the teen characters I create, and their stories, and I wonder “Are you nothing more than the result of too many freedoms and not enough responsibilities?”

I wonder if adolescences has created a class of entitlement.

And I wonder if YA literature can do anything about it.

In prepping for my pending residency at school (this weekend!) I am finding I wish I had more time to read.  I want more time not only to digest the required reading but to delve further into the issues these books bring up.  I want to brush up on my Bettleheim and explore Erik Erikson.  I want to read and know more about why we think, as a culture, adolescence as a classification is such a good thing.

I have a full six months between now and graduation from school, between this moment and the one where I have to lecture on something substantive within the field of children’s literature.  I have more ideas and more questions than can be answered, much less expounded on, in a half year’s time.  I feel like I’m about to be told I can go into the world and build jet planes having only worked on plastic models.

This is it.  There is no “adolescence” for me as a writer.  My ritual is on the horizon.

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fire works

Had a nice, casual 4th of July.  The less said about the 3rd of July’s tequila the better, but the day was very mellow.  After a casual dinner Suze and I sauntered casually down to the Charles River for the fireworks.  Boston sure does love its fireworks.  Standing among half a million people on a breezy cool July evening, watching colorful explosions in a clear sky, what’s not to like?

I had paused for half a moment wondering whether to bring a camera, wishing I could know for certain the lugging of it would be worthwhile.  Every once in a while I get these moods where I am antsy about taking pictures; I don’t want to take them unless they will be perfect or stunning.  It isn’t enough to capture a moment but to find the perfect moment, or a series of them, and wring from them a truth of some kind that is, pretentious as it sounds, art.  I looked at my various cameras and weighed their benefits and disadvantages for the situation and decided I’d rather be care-free.

Later, while watching the fireworks, Suze pulled out her iPhone and decided to take some pictures.  I encouraged her, a little jealously.  But then she decided she’d rather just watch the fireworks and I thought that was a good idea as well.

There were many out to capture the fireworks, some with tiny digital cameras, some with semi-professional rigs on tripods.  But watching the fine mulit-layered chrysanthemums and exploding poms of color in the sky I realized a certain foolishness in trying to capture a fireworks display.  There isn’t anything static about a fireworks display because it is forever in motion.  There is a lot that can be seen by freezing action with a camera, things that would go unseen otherwise: an athlete’s expression at a moment of triumph, or the stamen-like waves emanating from a drop of water hitting the surface.  There is something in these otherwise unseen moments that fascinates in he way they capture time.

But fireworks are a light show whose beauty exists in its motion.  They explode and evolve and then fade into the same blackness from which they came.  We can know of an talk about the chemistry involved, and the craft of construction, the science of coordination when it comes to a fireworks display, but in the end what we get is something brief, fleeting, ephemeral.

I thought about theatre, and how an audience views a performance and walks away the memory of it.  The words are there, somewhere, on paper, and perhaps it has been films for posterity, but that isn’t what the play was about.  It was about bringing together people to witness a shared moment, and for them to carry that moment with them internally.  Drama comes from storytelling, and storytelling is that verbal equivalent of a fireworks display, placing a series of images before the mind and asking the reader to witness these moments and carry them forward. All writing, all art, is it nothing more than an attempt to make another feel this same sense of awe we get while watching the night sky bloom with fire?

I was right not to bring the camera.  I would never have seen as much if I were too busy trying to capture the fireworks.

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