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Archive for August, 2009

Time-wise, it was a short trip north, to the edge of Maine where the sun strikes the Unitied States before anywhere else.  Just under four days of hiking and kayaking and the soaking-in of nature, enough to feel refreshed and at the same time not enough to lose too much traction.

Because I do have a middle grade novel to finish within the next week.

Despite that looming deadline I am also wrestling with a fairly large set of questions concerning the lecture I’ll have to give in January as part of my graduation from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  For many students the choice of subject is simply a question of modifying their critical thesis into a presentation format.  But where many chose a thesis subject close to their hearts I chose my thesis topic more as a point of personal exploration; I wanted to write (and still do) a picture book biography and wanted better to understand the history and conventions.  While I now know a great deal about the current trends in picture book biographies (and the abuses of accuracy therein) I find the topic less exciting to present as a lecture to fellow students and faculty.

Because it’s not close enough to my heart.

This question of heart came up in a private forum discussion among my classmates and it struck a nerve.  I had some ideas about boys and boy books coming into the program and I find the subject a minefield that is difficult to traverse in the space of a program designed to teach creative writing.  There are issues of gender differences, cognitive differences, issues that I think run deep at the heart of boys failing and flailing when it comes to literacy and reading fluency, with no easy answers and a can of worms at every turn.  It’s the kind of thing a social scientist could spend a lifetime exploring, and not generally the province of authors looking to write fiction.

I want to open that can of worms and see if I can’t provide some easy answers at the same time.

Yes, I like tearing into things and biting off more than I can chew.

In actuality, for the past two weeks that I have been mulling this over, I have become more confident that the act of opening the can of worms is one radical enough that the answers won’t need to be definitive.  Like the conversation America desperately needs concerning race (though somewhat less important) the need to discuss boys, literacy, fluency, and boy books is one we need to have and keep having until we do have some answers.

I anticipate pissing some people off.  I suspect I may even get some things wrong.  I’m going to have to step up with both guns blaring and perhaps shock some folks into some uncomfortable thoughts.  It won’t be anywhere near as comprehensive as I would like – I’ll be grateful to be coherent for 45 minutes – but it’ll be a start.

Seven days.  Forty pages or so to go on the middle grade book, and then some sort of outline about the territory of my lecture, fingers crossed that Mr. Advisor will accept my intentions.  I’m rested and ready.  I’m anxious and nervous.  And for a few brief moments in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep because the brain is fired up and the darkness makes everything seem possible, I feel…

Close.

There’s no other word for it.  The home stretch, the goal creeping up over the horizon, a glint from the headlights in the distance.  I can’t see it but I can feel it.

Closer.

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small is the new big

I met my wife for lunch in the heart of downtown and afterward decided to treat myself to a visit to a bookstore.  Most of my reading in the past year and a half has been specifically for school and, as a result, constantly checking out books from the library.

But I love bookstores.  I boasted at lunch that if money were no object I could probably drop $1000 in an hour.  I could probably spend $500 a day for a month in bookstores.  My eyes are bigger than my reading stomach in that sense; I long ago realized that if I did nothing but read for 18 hours every day for the rest of my life I’d never get through everything I wanted to read.  And that’s just books published as of right now.

So it’s probably been years since I was in a large chain store.  I’d been away long enough to not only have forgotten what they were like,but since the collapse of the economy and the rampant fear that Kindle is killing the book industry I was able to walk into the store with fresh eyes.  The problem with the publishing industry is the same thing that’s wrong with the book retail business.

Volume.

There was a time when bigger was better, when being able to cater to the largest number of people was the desired effect.  Billions served.  Hundreds of channels.  One on every corner.  The problem is that saturation dulls the senses.  There is nothing special about being everywhere, nothing noteworthy about being general interest.

This Borders I went into was a pit.  Being large makes it a focal point for a large number of people, but that means nice table displays are constantly in disarray.  Tables of books collected by themes that only vaguely connect titles.  Workers running around with headsets on asking me every two minutes if I need any help, but when they are asked they have to walk across the floor to a console to look up the book’s location only to walk back to the exact spot where they first met you to find the book you were looking for face-out on the shelf.  It has the appearance of customer service, but the appearance of service wasn’t why I was there, and the end result was I left without spending a dime.

When I left I felt I’d wasted my time.  I didn’t want a store where someone could find a title I requested, who wanted to talk to me not because it’s their job to speak to every customer they see, I wanted someone who could hold a conversation with me – without some dumbass headset on to distract them – and suggest a title I was unaware of based on my interests.  None of these people knew books any more than a burger flipper at a fast food joint knows the country of origin of the meat they’re flipping.  It’s all units per hour, making the most efficient turnaround between consumer and their money.  I wished I’d spent my time in a smaller store, a specialized store, one where a person who reads books could actually hold a conversation with me.

Walking the street afterward was when I realized that if bookstores and publishing are to survive they need to revisit their purpose and downsize.  Dramatically.

I counted more than fifteen employees in the Borders.  That wasn’t including the cafe or the music section.  That’s enough staff to run five smaller stores, five stores that could specialize in subject, five boutique stores that could cater their stock, sales, and energies on those people who are there specifically for them.  I would have rather visited two or three smaller stores and divided my time that way.  Without the distraction of things I have no need for I might have better found what I never knew I wanted.  Chances are I would have bought something at one of those boutiques.

Likewise, publishing’s future probably rests in the boutique house.  The industry lost its way during the go-go days of mega-mergers and media conglomeration.  The business was built on something much smaller and more personal.  Houses were built on editors and the relationships they built with writers.  No one buys books by brand, and so a large publishing house and its name means nothing to the consumer who still buys one book at a time.  They buy for content, and for author, and no one checks the spine for the publisher and says “Ooo!  Random House!  Yum!”

Bigger is not always better, and right now big is what’s toppling top-heavy corporate thinking in the book industry.  The future of books, and bookstores, is small.  Smaller.  Boutique.  Not elitist, but specialty.  Targeted.  Niche.  Modern marketing and networking will get the word out just as effectively, no need to rely on large chains to guarantee saturation and maximum market coverage. In fact, there is nothing about chain retailing of books that guarantees anything.

Small is the next big thing.  It has to be, or the next big thing in the publishing industry is no publishing industry.

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I’ve been debating for some time about whether (and how much) of my Critical Thesis to blog about.  I can’t imagine a large enough segment of the world to be as interested in my exploration concerning picture book biographies, but at the same time I recognized some areas where current trends indicate a need to examine them further.

So instead I think I’ll pull out specific sections that might be of interest and treat them a little less clinically than I did in my thesis.  Today, let’s take a look at the clunky word storyography.

The term storyography came up early in my research and it seemed to explain a certain phenomena specific to picture book biographies.  In a 1998 article for School Library Journal Julie Cummins proposes the word storyography as a way of differentiating whole-life biographies from those that choose to focus only on a section of the subject’s life.  More specifically, the storyography builds a narrative around an incident in a subject’s life that is story first, biography second, and not merely a simplified biography.

The important distinction between the storyographies and traditional biographies is summed up in this idea of “story first.”  This notion that the narrative arc supersedes the older thinking that a subject’s greatness comes from an accumulation of life events. Which is not to say that earlier events in a subject’s life don’t shape the individual, but their relevance to the story at hand is paramount.  In the Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature the elements of storyography are refined further as being:

in picture book format
incident-focused
possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective
is not part of a series
shaped by traditional story components

A book that fits the definition is Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian.  The focus of the story is on a period of Bentley’s life when he came to record snowflakes, we do not learn anything about his life that doesn’t in some way feed into the story-focused narrative.  Similarly, Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum by author and illustrator Robert Andrew Parker covers Tatum’s life experiences from birth to young adulthood, and only those elements that pertain to Tatum’s development as a musician.

The idea of zooming in on a particular time in a subject’s life in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem.  This notion that a person’s achievements are somehow the culmination of a life’s work and growth appears to have come into vogue in the early part of the 20th century with the help of Freud.  Rather than saying “this is a life” biographies had evolved into “these are the underlying events that shaped this life” which, in the end, put the biographer into the role of analyst as opposed to simply a biographer.

There are two problems, however, that manifest in storyographies in ways that often go unnoticed.  The first comes from the necessity of omission; it simply isn’t possible to tell a person’s entire life story in the space of a picture book and so some material must be excluded.  The second problem, which may or may not be the result of the first, is accuracy.  Nowhere in the definition of storyography is there any mention of the accuracy of the details.  I don’t believe this is simply a case of assumption because the idea that the storyography is shaped by traditional story elements implies a conscious effort to mold the material to fit a purpose.  Accuracy, it appears, would tend to get in the way.

The bete noire here would be Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick.  Ryan has chosen to tell of a visit Amelia Earhart made to the White House in 1934 where, at a dinner party, Earhart discusses the beauty of flying a plane at night.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, an amateur pilot, is so taken with this that she immediately decides they must take a flight over the capitol.  And they do, with the two women as pilot and co-pilot taking in the National Mall from above.  Back on the ground the two women slip away so that Roosevelt can return the favor by driving Earhart around the capitol streets at high speeds, something she was known to do.

The story here is of two head-strong women, fearless and daring, who in a single evening share each other’s passions for adventure.  If only it were true.  Or rather, if only if weren’t partially true.

In shaping the story elements Ryan omits some details that change the story radically.  While Ryan mentions that the Secret Service objected to an unscheduled flight she neglects to point out that the women actually weren’t permitted to pilot the plane.  Ryan does make note of this in the end notes but not in the text itself.  Worse, there is an illustration showing the two women in the cockpit which would lead a reader to believe they were flying the plane rather than inspecting the controls pre-flight.  Additionally, there is some question as to the veracity of the late-night drive through the capitol ever taking place at all.  In focusing on the intersection of these two lives (which Ryan admits in the end notes to having based on a photo she saw of the two women in a plane together… as passengers) Ryan has concocted a storyography that sounds good but isn’t accurate.

This idea of omitting details or reshaping the story makes it easier for the picture book biographer to approach a subject as entertainment, as a story to be told, and to the reader it takes on the veracity of truth because (as the subtitle for Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride attests on its title page) it is “Based on a True Story.” We have come to view that phrase as a stand-in for the word “accurate” in movies and television, and with the caveat “based on” we assume the liberties taken are minor and don’t affect the overall outcome of the story at hand.

This is dangerous territory for books aimed at children, especially younger children whose first exposure to a subject may be through a picture book.

Storyographies are everywhere these days.  And despite their bibliographies and the clarification of facts in the author’s notes at the end of the book, I am noticing that many either contain minor  inaccuracies or omissions that would seem crucial to understanding the subject’s lives.

Though the term storeography is clunky it does accurately convey the essence of these books, a hybrid of a story book and a biography.  In the past (and in my thesis) I thought of storyographies as a subset of biography but on further reflection I’m going to have to come down on the side of calling them a subset of fiction.  Because they are story first I think they should be treated as stories first and foremost and shelved accordingly.  If that sounds harsh consider that I have found Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride shelved in children’s libraries among the biographies when the crucial, central, and titular event of the book did not happen as it is depicted.

Look for yourself.  Go to a bookstore or library and check out some recent picture book biographies.  While reading these titles study the text carefully and ask what’s being left out, where did this conclusion come from, what is the source?  It is far too easy to get caught up in the story than to question it, which is what’s most troubling.

Biographies are nonfiction.  Storyographies are semi-nonfiction.  And since there’s no limbo section in the library, and because we teach children that books fall either into these two categories of either fiction or nonfiction, there is no room among the “true life” stories for those books that may be “mostly true.”

Until we can find a word that differentiates between those picture books that accurately tell a slice-of-life narrative of a subject’s life and those that are not entirely accurate, I think we need to vet these books carefully and not automatically shelve them among the biographies unless we can be certain they do not mislead the reader, intentionally or otherwise.  Simply telling the story of a real person does not and should not  automatically bestow a book with an unimpeachable air of truth.

_________________________

sources cited:

Cummins, Julie. “Storyographies: A New Genre.” School Library Journal August (1998): 42-3.

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs, illustrated by Mary Azarian . Snowflake Bentley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Parker, Robert Andrew.  Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum. New York City: Schwartz & Wade, 2008.

Ryan, Pam Munoz, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Amelia And Eleanor Go For A Ride. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.

“Storyographies: Picture-Book Biographies.” Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. London: Continuum, 2005.

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Score one for the blogosphere.

Publisher’s Weekly reported yesterday that Bloomsbury has decided to release Justine Larbalestier’s Liar with a different cover than the one originally planned.

“We regret that our original creative direction for Liar—which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup—has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity,” Bloomsbury officials said in a statement to PW. “In response to this concern, and in support of the author’s vision for the novel, Bloomsbury has decided to re-jacket the hardcover edition with a new look in time for its publication in October. It is our hope that the important discussions about race and its representation in teen literature continue. As the publisher of Liar, we also hope that nothing further distracts from the quality of the author’s nuanced and accomplished story, and that a new cover will allow this novel’s many advocates to celebrate its U.S. publication without reservation.”

So Bloomsbury decided to do the right thing in advance.  Now we don’t have to buy the book and mail back the dust jacket in protest as I suggested last week.

But we do need to buy the book.

Because while I don’t think Bloomsbury would necessarily punish an author for the additional costs incurred addressing the controversy, you just know they’re going to study the sales figures carefully to see how much a difference it really makes.  These businesses have people who study sales and trends, and when they prepare to publish a book they set print runs according to their best guess for a given period of time.  If sales are week then they’ll go looking for reasons, so if Liar doesn’t perform as well as expected with it’s new cover they may just as well blame that as anything.

In that light I propose that people do what I suggested before, but with a slight twist.  I urge those of you who considered the “whitewashed” cover outrageous to purchase the book and, instead of mailing the cover back in protest, sending a letter praising the decision change. I’d go with the same person as last time:

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

What you say is entirely up to you, but I would hope that you keep it positive.  And I think it’s best if it came in the form of an actual letter as opposed to an email because there is something decidedly weightier about a letter.  A stack of letters still feels more impressive than a crowded email inbox. True,  they can be tossed out or put through the shredder, but they aren’t as easily dismissed the way a delete button or spam filter can make email disappear.  A letter you still have to open, because there’s that mystery of not knowing what’s inside.  Email you can bulk delete without ever opening, and people do it so often these days without a shred of guilt.  And rarely does the subject line of an email hold the promise of mystery that an envelope does.

So buy the book, write up a quick letter, and lets keep our guard up for “whitewashed” covers down the road.

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I read a fair amount of books for children and young adults.  In the course of my reading I write reviews.  I do it for my MFA program, I do it for professional journals, and I do it for my other blog.  For the MFA program I have had to analyze these books for elements of craft and storytelling, sometimes for essays and sometimes just to understand what was going on beneath the surface.  The reviews I write for the journals are cursory at best, little more than a short summary of the plot and a hint at the quality of the writing.

But when I blog a book usually it is because I feel like there’s something I want to say, something about the experience of reading the book has compelled me to not only try and articulate it but to do so in a public way.  When I blog for Guys Lit Wire, where I am one of many, I am sharing a title I think would be of specific interest to a teen boy and am hoping to draw attention to a worthy (and perhaps overlooked) title.  Those reviews are site specific and, by nature of the enterprise, always positive.

Over at the excelsior file I write for myself.  This means occasionally I write negative reviews, because not everything written for children is stellar in my opinion.  And that’s what it is, my opinion.  It was the the response I had upon finishing the book and the review is my documentary record of that response.  Because I am sharing that response publicly I also do so with an eye that there are others who might, for any number of reasons, be interested in knowing what another person thought about that book I read.  Teachers, parents, librarians, authors, friends, the curious, any number of people of the years have commented and let me know that I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness.

Now occasionally I do something goofy.  Sometimes I take my reviews and repost them elsewhere.  LibraryThing gets my reviews because it permits me to be part of a program their Early Reader program where advance copies of new titles are made available to members.  I also contribute to a wiki specifically for children’s book reviews, a sort of clearinghouse for people to see what others are saying about specific titles.  And then there’s Amazon.

Amazon likes to give its customers the opportunity to voice their opinions about products they sell as a way of building a community.  They do not do this for alturistic reasons but because making people feel like they belong helps build a psychological sense of comfort into what is basically a cold, impersonal business.  Giving customers a chance to rate and write reviews about purchases provides the false sense of being part of something larger.  But for Amazon, customer reviews serve as salespeople, subtle persuaders that could tip a customer toward making a purchase they may have been on the fence about.

Oddly enough, this is not what a true review is about.  No film reviewer or book or theater critic is trying to sell a consumer on making a purchase, they are bringing their personal (and occasionally trained) eye to the subject.  What a reviewer does, ideally, is a sort of cultural reportage, presenting the material at hand and saying “Here, this is what I saw, this is what I got from the material.”  To a lot of people, reviewing and criticism is gatekeeping, or snobbery.  And true, some critics do appoint themselves as bastions of taste and are snobs.  But in the end it is only one voice, one collection of thoughts, one opinion.

However Amazon customers seem to approach their reviewing task with a different eye, one of exuberant zeal, where quantity wins over quality of thought, with exclamation points and democracy for all!!!  A book is scarcely released and already there are half a dozen fans extolling the joys of the author’s latest work, often repeating the same plot summaries and noting the same quptes as those who came before them.  It is occasionally difficult to believe these reviewers aren’t paid to write these five-star reviews. And what does one make of a person with over 10,000 ranked reviews on Amazon in the last four years?  Aside from the time taken to write so many reviews (6.8 reviews per day, every day, for four years) how many of those were actual purchases?

Of course people post reviews of things they haven’t purchased at Amazon.  I do it, and when I do it is because I want to add something to the dialog, to add a different voice to one that has already been heard.  If I didn’t enjoy a book, and reviewed it accordingly, and then happen to see the book has twenty-five five-star reviews and nothing else, then I will repost my dissenting opinions in the off chance that someone would appreciate it.  You see, my review has always been “see/read/hear everything and judge for yourself.”  Don’t let a couple of chuckleheads give a movie two thumbs down determine that your won’t go see a film you were interested in before you heard their take.  Go in with an open mind and decide whether or not you agree with them.

Yes, obviously, something prompted all this.  A couple months back I wrote a review and cross-posted it to Amazon.   Yeah, it’s a little snarky and, okay, perhaps I give away a bit too much of the plot.  The point at the time was that there were nothing but five-star reviews and I thought it deserved a two.  I put the review out there and thought nothing more of it.  Except that today I got my second “scolding” for not warning people about spoilers.

Okay, let me get this out of the way:  If you don’t want to have the book/movie/theatre experience “spoiled” for you, don’t read reviews in advance.  Ever. Because what is a spoiler to one person, isn’t to another.  It isn’t the reviewer or critic or ANYONE’S responsibility to protect you from the rest of the world.

Now I’ll back down, but only slightly.  No critic or reviewer should go about deliberately giving away the ending or key plot points to a story just to ruin the experience for a reader of that review.  However, where those elements are key for discussing what is wrong with article under review, it is imperative for the reviewer to cite specifics so that the reader can better understand the point in question.  One cannot discuss a revival of a work of Shakespeare without noting key differences between previous productions, and unless they were radical departures from the original (Hamlet lives!) they cannot be said to be spoilers because the audience is at least familiar with the work.

Ah, yes, for the familiar, it is okay, but what about new works?  In my case the book under review felt so derivative of of not only a specific comic book series but a particular set of movies made from comic book series that I felt it would be irresponsible not to call the emperor naked.   In doing so I gave away some character and plot points that bolstered my claim, and I tried to do so in an offhand way that didn’t draw too much attention to the fact that I was giving away too much.  A couple of Amazon customers thought I’d given away too much.  Oh well.

I’ll loop back around now and point out that I read and review children’s books, but… who is the audience for my reviews?  I write as an adult, primarily for an adult audience, because I presume kids either don’t read reviews or they at least don’t read reviews from adults.  Kids have their own peer groups and can find lots of ready reviews aimed specifically for them.  To that end, I suppose Amazon is an entirely different audience as well, and perhaps my reviews aren’t one-size-fits-all.  Based on the anecdotal evidence it would appear that book reviewers (and their readers) on Amazon prefer lots of gushing, little to no analysis, and basically only want to hear good things in this world.

In a democracy a citizen cannot afford to live sheltered.

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