Archive for October, 2009


I was thinking last night that maybe the girls were ready to see the recent movie Troy, the version of the Greek story starring Brad Pitt.  We’re at this weird stage in the house where the new teen is thirsting for things well beyond her years and the tween is sort of squeamish (often needlessly so) over certain elements in movies.  The girls (all of them) are deep into Buffy the Vampire Slayer right now, but the word “violence” in a PG-13 rating will cause the tween to reel in horror at the thought of watching for fear it may contain “blood and guts” (her words).

But as I was pondering Troy‘s merits – action, spectacle, eye candy – I suddenly wondered if I wanted this to be the way the girls should first learn about the battle of Troy.  It’s pretty clear-cut that when it comes to movie adaptations of recent books, and some classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, we insist on reading the book first, but Troy makes me think this doesn’t always have to be the case.

First, there’s the whole question of which version they should read.  Should we say they have to read Homer, or Adele Geras recent version, or one the dozens of others in between?  I try to think back, to when I first heard the story of the Trojan horse when I was young and I can’t place that first exposure.  Was it in a Bugs Bunny cartoon?  An anonymous collection of Greek myths and legends?  In school?  I certainly knew the story well enough to get the joke when I was fifteen when Monty Python spoofed it with their giant Trojan Rabbit, and the girls already get the joke, so is a cultural awareness enough?

Certainly nothing prevents younger readers from exploring the story on their own after seeing a movie,  and in this case there are many versions to choose from.  With an adaptation of something more recent, like Coraline I think the book is much darker because of how Gaiman’s scenes play out in our own minds, where the movie adaptation plays with 3-D visuals that gives it a different sort of appeal.  I’d still say it is better to read the book (and not the graphic novel version, which I found ugly) before seeing the movie.

And with The Wizard of Oz I’m torn because I would say that there are pre-reading lap-sitters who would enjoy hearing Baum’s original story long before they could handle the creepiness of those flying monkeys in the movie, but I don’t think I’d insist that they read the book before seeing the movie.

And there are other mixed quandaries: Romeo and Juliet before West Side Story?  Patricia Highsmith’s novel before Hitchcock’s filming of Strangers on a Train?  I’m pretty sure I heard of Orson Welles’ version of War of the Worlds before I ever read (if ever?) H.G. Wells’ classic.  Does anyone read Burroughs anymore, or do they just learn about Tarzan from Disney?

So I find myself softening on the book-before-the-movie maxim.  Partly because I think it really does come down to a case-by-case basis, partly because I’d like to hope this film version inspires the girls to maybe check back into some classics, but mostly because I think it would be fun to watch together.

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I have a hard time articulating these things sometimes, but there are moments when it becomes clear to me that I’ve run into an inauthentic boy voice when I’m reading.

It’s a YA novel, beginning of chapter two, and I’m already feeling like this narrator sounds wrong.  Very wrong.  The previous scene where he’s having a bonding conversation with his brother in the car, it sounds as forced as quarter in a dime slot.  He says he wants to be a comedian but he isn’t funny. Or rather, he doesn’t seem to have any sense that his humor is so pedestrian that the laughing of his classmates is polite at best.

Anyway, his girlfriend seems to be upset with him (unbelievably so, but I suspect there’s more to it I haven’t seen) and he goes up to her at school to try and figure things out.

“I fondle her perfect shoulders.”

That’s it.  That tells me everything right there.

That tells me the author is female.  Or the most clueless male on the face of the earth.  No boy would think that, use the words “fondle” and “shoulders” in the same sentence.  Not even an unusual kid.  Not unless he had a history of using inappropriate words before.  Fondle?  And those perfect shoulders?  Girls might like to have their shoulders caressed, but boys don’t know it and they don’t know how to do it.  Not in high school.  And they can barely find the words for their own predilections even when they do realize them.

This also tells me the editor is female.  It tells me someone read and approved this manuscript for publication without the slightest idea of how a boy thinks.  The forced banter, the false humor… it’s so not boy.

Please, I know it is possible for authors to write across gender, and do it well, so what is going on here?

If I had to guess, this is a male protagonist written for a female audience, another variant of the “perfect boyfriend” (or perhaps the imperfect boyfriend) that is better placed in a romance novel and not YA.  If you’re going to write romance for teens, fine, don’t go first person into the boy’s head.  Don’t pretend to try and unearth the psyche of boys for the benefit of the female readers that the book is obviously aimed at.  Deliver the story, be honest, and let the readers decide whether he’s a cad or good guy.

And stop having them fondle shoulders in public.  Sheesh!

Alright, let’s see how this story ends…


This narrator says “ohmygod” at least once in every chapter.  Like a Valley Girl.  Sorry, but boys would use “dude” or something less… girlie?

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I was on the sidelines with the soccer dads Saturday talking about the future of various digital media.  Since we don’t live far from MIT, Harvard and about a gross of other colleges and universities it isn’t unusual to have wildly informed discussions about media that are still in development.  The the one thing I was able to say that pretty much everyone else agreed with was that books aren’t going anywhere, they’re here for the long haul.  What happens with publishing and storytelling, that’s a whole different kettle of chips.

Basically, my argument is that television was heralded as the death of movies, but fifty years on we are still enjoying both as similar but different visual storytelling media.   Granted, where television picked up in quality, movies have dropped a bit, but both are thriving, popular, financially viable, and equally accepted without any of the rancor one would have anticipated back when Hollywood was quaking in its boots over the upstart.

What’s really interesting to me is that radio never really died either.  Because much of the serialized radio programs migrated to television and are the basis for the way shows are programmed and sold to viewers.  With the rise of television, radio became more of a music entertainment (and selling) platform, but technologically radios continued to grow and develop – or rather shrink in development – so that by the time television was putting a serious dent in movie attendance in the 60’s transistor radios had become as ubiquitous as iPods today.

And if I really wanted to get everything-old-is-new-again I could draw a line from modern sitcoms back through radio comedy, through vaudeville, all the way back to the comedia delle arte of 17th century Italy.  The way in which stories get told changes, but the need for these stories, and the stories themselves, keep finding ways of getting told and retold with each evolution.

All of this come about with my discovery of a new app for the iPhone called R.L. Stine’s Haunted House of Sound.  Originally mentioned over at Wired Magazine’s GeekDad blog, what we have is, I believe, a new wrinkle in the same old evolution of storytelling entertainment.  A mash-up of a radio drama and a MadLib, on a device smaller than a transistor radio you can select a collection of sounds and then play back one of five stories written by the author of a bajillion horror books for kids with your selected sounds dropped in at the appropriate moment.  The stories themselves don’t change, only the sounds that the characters react to do, and there are plenty of opportunities for juvenile humor in the mix.

I’ve seen improv theatre do similar things with audience participation, and, of course, MadLibs are nothing new to anyone born after 1960.  So really, as far as technological advances, we’re just looking at a new design for the wheel.  It’s not unwelcome, and I can see where this kind of application could be expanded and developed to work down the road with, say, an e-reader that allowed for personalization.  It could only be a mater of time before someone cracks the 36 dramatic situations in Western storytelling and finds a way to allow “readers” to customize full novels for themselves, as rich as anything currently available.

But I doubt it.  It is something deep within us that craves stories and storytelling.  We want the unexpected and we want the magic and we want the surprise and all the emotions we can stand.  We want Punch battling with Old Scratch, and the Hero on a Quest in new forms, delivered any and every way possible.  Artists will always put paint to canvas, whether it’s a cave wall or a LCD screen, and storytellers will always find their audience hungry for their words.

Words.  The magic of deciphering, the code of language.  The power of containing the key to understanding what these symbols mean, all in our heads, waiting for us to decrypt the message.  Our brains and bodies reject the passive, we desire the active engagement that words bring.  Like a djinn released from its bottle, the book will always be with us.

“Make it new,” Ezra Pound said.  I don’t think he was talking about the delivery device.

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now it can be told

Once again I am participating in the Cybils Awards as a judge.  I’ve broken from graphic novels this year to participate in the Middle Grade fiction panel.  My reasons are varied, but I was torn between the two and really felt more… invested, for lack of a better explanation.

What I mean is, I’ve just spent the better part of two years writing, rewriting, and learning how to write a middle grade novel.  That deep exposure, coupled with the fact that I will have graduated from my MFA program at Vermont College right when I would need to hunker down with the finalists gives me something to fill the postpartum of being out of school in a sucky economy.  I’ll be able to focus all my attentions on the finalists and pretend like the outside world doesn’t exist.  I’ll miss the graphic novels (I already do!) but I’m feeling more Middle Grade this year.

What are the Cybils?  Go here.

Who else is down with the Middle Grade books?  Here you go.

Want to nominate books?  First, check out what’s already been nominated (the links for lists are further down the post).
Then fill out the form.

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