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Archive for July, 2010

Susan Orlean has a blog post up at the New Yorker where she solicited recommendations for books via Twitter with the tag #booksthatchangedkidsworlds.  Her explanation was that she essentially wanted the hive mind of her followers to nominate books to help her refresh her bookshelves for her and her five year old son.

On its own it’s not a bad, if passive, way for a parent to gather suggestions via a social network without constantly burdening librarians and booksellers, though I couldn’t help but instantly ask: whose world got changed by some of these books?  Children certainly weren’t the majority of suggesters – kids and teen are barely active on Twitter at all – so these would have to be books put forth either by parents or adults.

As expected, the list includes generally-considered classics and a good smattering of newer titles, and Orelan freely noted in a follow-up Tweet that the list was not final and could be adjusted over time.

This list will never be finished to everyone’s satisfaction, I can tell you that.

But I was thinking about the books that have changed my own girl’s world, as recently as this past month, and those books do not appear on the list.  My older daughter’s fondness for dystopias was sparked with Susan Beth Pfeifer’s Life As We Knew It, then onto Neal Shusterman’s Unwind and continued through Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games series. Her world has been forever changed by the way these books have forced her to view any number of issues, from abortion to ethics of survival to human rights.  These books have changed her view of the world immeasurably.  None of them on the list.

My younger daughter elected to be a vegetarian five years ago for personal reason (she doesn’t like the taste or texture of meat) but had her decision solidified when she read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (not the version that came out kids later called Chew On This, though she read that as well).  In fiction The London Eye Mystery fascinated her with its mystery solved by a main character with Aspergers, and word came while I was away a few weeks back that her new favorite book is The Book Thief.  I have yet to talk to her about that book, but I can tell from early reports that this is a book that will change her world going forward.  Again, none of these titles are on the list as well.

These are contemporary titles, though my contemporary girls have also read a fair number of the books on the list Orlean has compiled; but few, if any, of those books changed their world the way these newer books have.  To be fair, a number of the books that did make the list are books that changed my world, when I was a kid, and I suspect that is how those titles made the list with multiple nominations – as books put forth by adults who remember their own world-changers.

But Orlean set out to build a library for her son, of books to read to and with him, and while it’s always good to have the foundation of the past to work on I think a more fitting list would be those books that kids today found world-changing.  If they happened to find Go Ask Alice or Lord of the Flies to be particularly brain shattering, so be it.  But a list like the one Orlean put together seems little more than a popularity contest among adults divided between their own cherished childhood memories and titles they believe move worlds. Books like Platt’s The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear or DiCamilo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

As raw data, the lists does say quite a bit about the generally accepted canon of children’s literature, a sort of parallel course to American Literature and one full of titles that are not read or studied in school.  They have been assumed into the cultural literacy of childhood, the foundation of reading we come to expect most children to be aware of, if not know first hand.

I know, I know, it’s picking nits to accept one definition of the list over another. But I really would love to see a list made by kids of the books they felt changed their worlds.  I think we’d see some overlap, but otherwise it’d be quite a different list.

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Just over a week ago (only a week?) as the July residency at VCFA was winding down, I sat in on an informal “professional development” session headed by Kathi Appelt and Franny Billingsley. I won’t be delving into specifics, as it was part of the MFA program and as such is meant only for students, but there was a moment where my blogging came into the conversation, accompanied by a caution that came back to haunt me last night.

The reference was to blogging reviews, and about how the community is small and that we kidlit writers shouldn’t generally write negative reviews of each others work.  This triggered a response in me that I tried to sit on, but couldn’t.  I don’t happen to feel that you can really know the value of a reviewer or critic’s abilities if you cannot see the full spectrum of their opinion.  If the only reviews Roger Ebert published of movies were glowing ones, would you assume he was following “if you have nothing nice to say…” rule or simply that he wouldn’t know a bad film if it bit him?

I tried, I really tried, not to speak up but I couldn’t help it.  Since my blogs were pointed out I felt the need to explain that when I do post negative reviews it’s because the book has moved me to stop and examine what bothered me about a book.  My review blog is a public record of my exploration into the craft, and not simply a platform for showing off or a ploy to get free books from publishers. I comment on what works and what doesn’t, for me, and why it didn’t work to the best of my ability.  Maybe that sounds a little defensive, but that was the reason I started the blog in the first place.

Okay, so that was last week.  Last night I was hanging out with the weekly #kidlitchat on Twitter and things sort of meandered (as they do) into some of us longing for agents and editors and mentors and whatnot.  Toward the end a side chat took place between me and a published author and, casually, she brought up a certain review I once wrote about one of her books.

Uh oh.

Kathi’s caution raced through my head as I dug through the digital archives and discovered the review in question. I referred to the narrative voice as condescending. I compared the prologue to “party appetizers made from leftovers and canned cheese, heated to a greasy sheen.”

Oi.  I was really having a difficult time articulating what I felt there, wasn’t I?

Let’s just say the author in question was all class.  She hadn’t meant to call me out in public (something I didn’t feel) and we did a little private back-and-forth to make sure it was all good.  The book was well-received critically, and I admitted to just not feeling it in the review, and she could live with that.  One day down the road, when I’m published, I’d actually look forward to running into her at a conference and have her give me a dose of my own medicine.  Really, she seems like an awesome person.

Even before all this happened I had been questioning the point and purpose of the review blog.  I know agents and editors scope out a writer’s web presence when considering them, and the warnings have been there for some time that negative reviews could come back to haunt me professionally.  I also don’t happen to believe that.  Here’s why: agents and editors don’t seem like the sort of people who would actively punish people for vocalizing their opinions.  They would seem to be the people least concerned about what a writer thinks publicly so long as they aren’t malicious, libelous, or just plain mean about it.  I’ll grant, I can get harsh (c.f. above) but I write about the book, and my experience with it, and not for some sort of arrogant holier-than-thou stance.

But this idea is out there that writing negative about children’s books is akin to murdering puppies or stealing toys from toddlers.  In a totally separate Twitter chat a few weeks back (the YA chat) the vibe was very much negative reviewer = baby eater and people reTweeted the comment someone made that negative reviews would create a serious career backlash for new authors.  That YA community seemed to have some pretty rabid rose-colored glasses attitude, where the notion of self-censorship was the goal and the ideal, and I haven’t gone back since.  There’s probably a connection to be made about that attitude and some of the problems of mediocrity that I see in YA, but that’s for another day.

Suffice to say, when asked if anyone had heard directly from an agent or editor that they should stop blogging negative reviews, Twitter was all crickets.  You want to know what I think is more detrimental to the kidlit community?  Rumor and wild speculation and people repeating what they think they know, not honest opinions.

Anyway, I’ve been away from reviewing for the last six weeks and I’m feeling like it’s time to get back into it.  I can say I’m going to watch that I don’t go cutthroat and that I lean toward more concrete reviews, but in the end the blog reviews are what its like for me as a reader to experience a particular book.  It’s a gut response with a little brain action thrown in, just so I can understand the gut response better.

Hopefully the authors, and agents, and editors can see that.

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I’m back from a near two-week retreat (okay, so I was a graduate assistant at VCFA, but that was kinda like a retreat, right?) and over and over (and over) I kept running into the same barrier about the definition of “boy books.”  For some reason I’ve become some sort of go-to guy for these things (could be my lecture on the topic back in January?) and lately I’m sensing a bit of backlash about the notion that there are plenty of books out there for boys; the argument being that boys just don’t read what’s out there.

So I’ve found myself repeating a pair of postulates designed to create a sort of cognitive dissonance, forcing people to rethink what they believe as truth:

  • the gender of the main character does not define a boy book and
  • easily half of the books out there aimed at boy readers fail because they do not know what boys want from fictive narratives

Previously I have outlined the elements of a book that boys are drawn to and nowhere does gender play a role in the decision.  Perhaps the unspoken element is that we as a society have fixed ideas of how genders are portrayed and as a result character behaviors are defined by actions and vice versa, but that’s a much larger issue.  The bottom line is that if a boy does not like a particular book it will rarely be because the protagonist is female, and if they do make that claim it is because they cannot articulate otherwise what is missing (for them) from the book.

Similarly what boys want from books are stories that evolve, not characters that grow.  Yes, yes, the main character has to have an arc that defines them and the story, but the action within that arc must expand exponentially outside of the character.  Character growth is revealed over time, but the action of the story that boys crave is like a series of explosions that detonate one after the other until the building of the story collapses on itself in a way that satisfies long after the dust has settled. Aristotle is only half the picture, and it’s too bad his treatise on comedy didn’t survive the ages because then we’d at least have some choice in the matter.

There is one exception and that has to do with the cover.  Put a girl on the cover (alone) or use the color pink and it’s like boy kryptonite.  We can talk all we want about how books shouldn’t be judged by their covers but the reality is that they are, and as long as that’s the case those two elements alone will prejudice a boy against a book before they even give the content a chance.  The cover should serve as a promise to a boy that the book is worth their time.

Until we can get on the same page about what constitutes a boy book and what boys look for in their books I think we will continue to see a division between what gets published and what gets read.  I honestly believe the boy market in books hasn’t been adequately tapped ~ not in fiction at least ~ and we might seriously benefit from reexamining the structure of narrative from the ground up and decide if, perhaps, there isn’t a different way we should be looking at all this.

In the end, it’s not about the boy, it’s about the book.

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the blue in the corner

The VCFA residency officially began today and here I am already writing poetry.  Okay, not “real” poetry, more like thoughts collected in lines and grouped on the fly, resembling poetry.

The opening lecture was by Louise Hawes entitled “Wabi Sabi: the Extraordinary Power of the Ordinary.”  Beyond that I will (can?) say little else; you had to be there.  But for those of us who were there we engaged in a little exercise where we focused on a neglected object and wrote from the object’s perspective.  Again, this just sort of tumbled out.

the blue in the corner

the broad springs that once crossed my belly
have each lost their mooring
unable to redistribute the weight
you placed upon me

you sat in my lap
heard me strain, the pop
surely i should have served you better
lasted longer
or at least through the first year of the warranty

but you would not return me
not to the store
you made excuses that i was too cumbersome to move
that you lost the receipt

and then your attempts to fix me
make me whole
return me to some approximation of what i once was

but i am what i have become~
a broken arm chair with a sunken seat

while you submerge yourself, deeper, lower
without complaint

i refuse to support you
while you refuse to abandon me
which of us is more stubborn?

Yes, I fully intend to fix this chair when I get home. I do have a plan.

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The iPod is a funny thing.  In shuffle mode during a walk today the ‘Pod gave me a pair of songs back-to-back that got snagged in my brain.  Why did it go from Paul Simon’s “Learn How To Fall” to The Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road?”  It took a second before I remembered that The Pretenders album the song came off of was called Learning to Crawl.

My iPod was once again whispering things to me.

The Simon song itself was as much of a reminder about how much time and effort – and rejection and failure – go into creative successes.

You got to learn how to fall
Before you learn to fly
And mama, mama it ain’t no lie
Before you learn to fly
Learn how to fall…

Oh and it’s the same old story
Ever since the world began
Everybody got the runs for glory
Nobody stop and scrutinize the plan
Nobody stop and scrutinize the plan

No kidding. We’re all looking down the road at where we want to be and failing to pay attention to the potholes and detours and pit stops that are necessary along the way. And it isn’t a matter of avoiding those falls, it’s that you have to fall in order to learn how not to. It’s true for martial arts and stuntmen, it’s true for ice skaters and surfers, and no less true for artists and writers.

The Pretenders lyrics don’t fit, but the album title does in an odd way. When you consider that you have to crawl before you can walk, learning to crawl is the next logical step after learning to fall.

I read recently of someone who went through over 500 rejections before getting a yes on one of their manuscripts. Man, that’s a lot of falling and crawling. I’m hoping it doesn’t take that long, I’m hoping I’m at least crawling by now.

Maybe time to stop scrutinize the plan.

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limbo days

A solid week’s worth of staycation behind me, a full twelve days of residency before me, and in between some down time while we let our sunburns heal.

It’s not so hard to abandon routines when you’re busy, and no fun dealing with heat advisories in the process, but I find myself slowly being able to accept this time for what it is; an easing transition.

Heading back to school as a graduate assistant for the coming residency I’m looking forward to a creative battery recharge.  I know my point and purpose is to be there to help the incoming class and the faculty, that I’ll be schlepping and working, but I will be able to sit in on lectures and I know how many idea sparks come from hearing people talk craft.  It’s impossible to surround yourself with creative people for nearly two weeks, three meals a day, and not walk away fired up.  And right now I feel like I could use that gravitational force to hurl me back into my writerly orbit.

Limbo days, full of laundry and packing and last-minute details.

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