Archive for August, 2010

I’m going to try desperately to stay as on-topic and positive as I can here.

This past weekend I had to do some research that required visiting my local independent bookseller.  I was doing some recon on a couple of areas, to see what was out there and available.  My local store has a decent (not stellar) children’s department and you can learn as much about sales and trends by what isn’t on the shelves as much as what is there.

You know what’s not there?  Poetry.

One shelf for poetry, shared with nursery rhyme collections.  Half of that shelf was Shel Silverstein, with a face out of Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Two Jack Prelutsky’s, one recent collection edited by Mary Ann Hoberman, a Douglas Florian, a Patricia Boynton, and an Edna St. Vincent Millay collection.  I think any adult with a passing familiarity with children’s literature could name at least one book or author not represented, if not a dozen.  Put all of us together and we could fill a store with what wasn’t on the shelves.

I’m pretty sure I saw this question come up recently.  Kids love poetry, they love wordplay and the fun of what poetry can do, so where are all the poetry books?  Is it simply a question of shelf space in a store, of low sales demand?  Have the children’s poets exhausted all possible subjects?  I’m so full of thoughts and ideas I can barely think straight.  Here’s some of what’s in that jumble of a head of mine.

Poetry books are too expensive to produce, or purchase. When the children’s book market shifted its focus from institutional sales (libraries, schools) to retail, few consumers (parents) saw the value in a book that would be read while waiting in line to purchase it or might not be reread.  Hardcover poetry in particular has the feel of a “gift book” in the children’s market, and unless each poem is accompanied by full color illustrations the perceived value of words-to-page versus cost is too dear.

Let’s set aside the fact that a poem shouldn’t require an illustration at all if done correctly.  I mean, talk about painting mental pictures, poems should produce whole galleries of images to the reader.  Why can’t these be simple line illustrations on the page?  That takes care of production costs right there.  Ditch the hardcover until a book has proven itself worthy of “gift editions,” and make them portable enough to be carried everywhere.  If a mass market paperback can hold 200+ pages and come in under $10 there’s no reason a 48-page chapbook of poems with line illustrations can’t be sold at less than half that.

Think about all those series books kids gobble down (and parents purchase) like Magic Tree House and the like.  You expect me to believe a series of poetry chapbooks the same size and cost as those books can’t be as successful, given the same marketing emphasis?

Editors and agents actively discourage children’s poets. I think there is a fear, perhaps rightly so, that there is a lot of bad poetry in the world, and editors and agents already have a tough enough time with lackluster submissions as it is.  Fair enough.  It would be nice to go back to the golden days when Ursula Nordstrom and William Cole would put together showcase collections of poets that could serve as trial balloons for what readers respond to, but those days are behind us.

Or are they?

Recently I came across an interview with an editor who suggested that poetry collections should be pitched as picture books.  This seemed like a novel solution for the serious poet looking for a way past the “no poetry” edicts handed down: if you could sell the theme of the collection as a picture book then clearly you’ve considered the market and understood what is and isn’t saleable.  The problem with this line of thinking is that a picture book is an expensive undertaking – color pages and all – and poems on a particular theme don’t have as wide appeal as omnibus collections.

The solution: bring back the poetry collections.  Let the houses put out trade paper editions twice a year – fall and spring – edited in-house from submissions taken during limited windows.  Put some interns to work sorting, discover some new voices, encourage children’s poetry. Something akin to the way the Evergreen Review used to be, with an editor at the helm.

Poetry is marginalized and destroyed in schools. First, it’s segregated late in the school year during National Poetry Month, and after third grade poetry is “taught” to the extent that the joy is removed from it.  Once reading moves from pleasure to purposed – around the fourth grade – poems (and fiction for that matter become object lessons in simile and metaphor and theme and structure.  This is where the joy of wordplay is beaten out of kids, and right about the time kids start to lose their interest in poetry.

So first thing we need to do is turn National Poetry Month into National Poem of the Week.  I think Robert Pinsey tried to do this when he was poet laureate, with a weekly syndicated column in the national newspapers.  Maybe one of the duties of the Library of Congresses Children’s Poet Laureate would be to select the weekly poems to be featured and sent to educators so that there’s a national dialog about poetry going on, in addition to filling in those lessons with poems selected and shared by kids.  Yes, meter and structure and the finer points of poetry should be taught and discussed, but more time should be spent in reading and sharing in the schools.

Ultimately, I think the real solution will come from e-readers.  Once they become cheap enough that kids are downloading books, the e-book market will be ripe for consumers of poetry (like kids) hungry for poems. Publishers could hardly claim that poetry collections are too expensive to produce as e-books, but by then they might have totally alienated the poetry market altogether; it’s already easy enough to upload chapbooks to Scribd or as Kindle original books.  And it isn’t like it’s hard to break into the kidlit poetry market when it hardly seems to exist as it is.

Personally I would much rather see dozens of new poetry books published for children every month, simple books with nice line drawings, designed with care by inexpensive, given the same marketing as other books.  I’d like to walk into a book store in my home town and find dozens of titles and hundreds of poets crammed into that one shelf of space.

As long as we marginalize poetry, give it short shrift on the shelves, and provide no incentives for reading or owning poetry, how can we ever expect children to accept, much less enjoy, poetry?

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I came to an odd conclusion a little over a week or so ago about stars.  I was in the Berkshire Mountains late at light staring up at the sky while the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower trail across the sky.   I’ll admit that it’s fun to watch lights streak across the sky, but I eventually found the experience rather hollow.

Why the stargazing left me feeling so empty had been rolling around in my head until today.  As far as watching natural phenomena are concerned I’d much rather watch waves on a beach, with the shifting tidal rhythms and salty spray, or the patterns of rain tapping out a score on a glassy puddle.  You would think – or I did at least – that the more rare event would hold more sway, and that I’d be excited by the meteor shower that comes for a few days annually over things I could say practically a dozen times a year. That’s when I made a realization:

I could care less about space.

Growing up in the 1960s, I remember when TVs were rolled into classrooms (a novelty then) so that we could watch the original moon landing in stunning black and white.  The president had made a pledge that we would go to the moon, and we did.  At night we were reminded that when we looked int he sky at the moon, all those impossible miles away, that there was a human being up there.  Dutifully I looked, and considered it, and occasionally still do think about that fact, but it has never inspired me to consider the vastness of space.

I knew kids who wanted to grow up to be astronauts and not a one of them did.  Heck, I don’t think any of those wannabe astronauts I knew still wanted to go to space by the time they reached junior high school.  Some of them wanted to send things into space, but go there themselves?  Never.

It’s taken until now to get a handle on why, and I think it can be easily summed up by the thought that there’s nothing out there.  Space has held many hopes and dreams for people of exploration and perhaps connection with other life forms, but that yearning leaves me cold.  We haven’t fully come to understand our own planet, our neighbors, our own DNA, and yet the skies are supposed to hold the answer to the riddles we seek.  We don’t even know a fraction of what goes on in the oceans, something we can physically explore right now, and yet people keep looking to the skies for answers to the mystery of life in the solar system.

Heck, we don’t even fully understand how aspirin works.

I admit, NASA and other space exploration programs have managed some pretty nifty things.  The Voyager spacecrafts have left the solar system and are still sending back data.  We’ve found ice on Mars.  Very cool, but I’d rather we understood dolphins brains, or why humans are predisposed toward war and what we can do to stop it.  I prefer things a little closer at hand, more personal, more terrestrial.

I know the stars will always stand as a place of hope and wonder.  Sometimes, however, I wonder what would happen if humans focused that same hope and wonder more locally.

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Apparently, if I want to be published and appeal to boy audiences, my main character either needs to be a pumped-up superhero who is sarcastic and aggressive, or he needs to be a slacker who doesn’t like school and shirks responsibility.

From a study out of UMass (less than a mile from where I live, yet strangely I have to read about it from the BBC) it appears the aggressive superhero and the apathetic slacker are the two primary “role models” boys are presented with in popular culture.

Really, it took a university study to learn this?

Those of you who have read my book reviews already know that I find the superhero in fiction, particularly in middle grade and YA, to be the most turgid of premises. No matter how you dress it up, the fantasy of human with extraordinary abilities coming to terms the awesome responsibility they have to protect the world has moved into the realm of the obscene through overuse. And I still maintain that there are few boys who go to the library (and fewer who go to bookstores) requesting a superhero narrative; they may spot one on the shelf while browsing, and cannot resist its candy-colored allure, but it’s still a stand-in for the patriarchy and moral superiority that is a particular American disease, and it is not a story they go seeking out.  I have yet to hear of a kid ask for a recommendation for a superhero novel.

The flip side of the hero coin is the loser.  The slacker has grown from its humble roots as a counter-culture figure, evolved from beatniks and hippies, into an arrogant and sarcastic cynic with few redeeming qualities and dialog that real slackers wish they were quick enough to come up with.  These cultural wastrels have the outward appearance of personality coming from the deliberately studied position of the outsider.  There is little the modern slacker in literature can achieve that hasn’t already been played sixty-plus years ago, though they do make better comic foils. I suspect the appeal in these characters is that readers can take heart that, by comparison, they aren’t so cynical or apathetic after all.  Or maybe these stories are primers for how to grow your own slacker personality.

So what’s wrong with stories about kids who aren’t slackers or don’t have superpowers?  I posed a version of this question over the weekend, to adults, and was given the stock answer “Who’d want to read about that?”  Within that question-that-answers-the-question is the key to the problem: it is the failure of the imagination to see that satisfying stories can told without having to rely on these false cultural polarities.  If adults (and particularly adult writers) cannot see the possibilities or value in stories about real people, then that cultural bankruptcy is passed down to younger generation who, in turn, see only two possibilities for their future, the two role models that have come to dominate popular culture.

Ladies, what does it look like over on the pink side of the fence?  I haven’t run across a similar story concerning the predominant role models for girls out there, but I’m assuming the virgin-whore axis has been replaced.

Or has it?

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In high school there was an English teacher a bunch of us called Mom.  We also called her Goldie, an affectionate name that was always said with a certain Yiddish intonation.  It would have sounded weird to call any other teacher Mom, but Goldie had a son who was our age, and for all the helpful nagging and advise she gave us the name fit.

Goldie was always imploring us to “make nice.”  The context shifted from situation to situation, but generally it meant there’s no cause for meanness or quit being a ridiculous sullen teen and be a mensch.  If we were truly not owning up to our potential and responsibilities she’d tell us flat-out to mensch up, bit for the most part make nice was her little reminder that there were other ways to express ourselves that didn’t require our being gratuitously sour.

This distinction is important because lately I’ve been seeing the word nice pop up in ways that worries me.  The context is in chats and online forums where the notion is floated out there that the kidlit community is small, that we should be bolstering one another, supporting each other, and therefore its imperative that we all be nice.  While a part of me hears echoes of Goldie in the admonition, there’s something darker beneath this nice surface.

  • We’re not supposed to write negative reviews of books, because that doesn’t support the community.
  • We shouldn’t be negative on our blogs, because it could lead to agents and editors not wanting to work with us.
  • Our opinions should only be constructive, otherwise we will be shunned and not allowed into the secret clubhouse where the cookies are kept.

Okay, I made that last one up.

But what’s sort of scary is how seriously nice everyone is expected to be.  Publicly.  This idea that the internet and social networking exists to bring communities together only works if everyone is in lockstep?  That engaged conversations cannot be had unless everyone agrees with everyone else?  That somehow having a contrary opinion, no matter how well-reasoned, is akin to badmouthing others and that it’s worthy of blackball?

I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it.

Right now I hear Goldie’s voice in the back of my head cautioning me that I might want to consider making nice.  I understand what she means, but I also know full well that as my former journalism teacher she wouldn’t have agreed that public forums should conform to groupthink.

But where does this notion of nice come from in the first place?

Is this the same thinking that says one should never criticize books aimed at a juvenile market out of some form of protection of the innocent?  It’s as if discussing the merits of a particular title is like kicking puppies, where in the “adult world” of literature it’s a knock-down, drag-out brawl, and we wouldn’t want to bring THAT sort of element into the community.  As if speaking negatively about a title will be seen by a child and will scar them for life.

After all, all children’s books will be a treasure for someone, right?  And who are we to have an opinion about someone else’s treasured childhood book?

But the bottom line with all this nicething boils down to this: unless and until you are published, keep your mouth shut.  That’s the message I’m sensing here.  Once you’re in the world, once you’ve got a book published, then you can talk, but you’ll still need be gracious about it because, after all, this is a close community.

Basically, stop talking, make nice, shuddup and write.

I’m working on it.

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I have tried for three days now to plow through this essay from the NYT, and for three days I have found myself upset with the… what is this feeling?  Is it condescension?  Arrogance? What is that feeling you get when you hear someone talking about something as if they’d discovered it before anyone else, and then relays that discovery in a way that makes you embarrassed for them?

Oh, I had the most wonderful dining experience the other day.  I discovered ethnic food from a cart on the street.  Can you imagine?  And it was every bit as delicious as food you would find uptown at Hoyton’s La Bistro at a fraction of the cost.  You know, I even practiced a little of my Spanish with the help there as well.  Utterly charming…

Replace dining with reading, ethnic food with a book, cart on the street with YA section of the book store, the fancy bistro with a known literary name, and as for practicing Spanish with the help, well, that would be author Pamela Paul sharing her marvelous experience discussing YA with the dear readers of the NYT.  Charmed, I’m sure.

As a fellow blogger noted when I mentioned this essay, it seemed to be more about name dropping. Toss in a smattering of statistics (which were hardly enough to merit their own story) and with some padding…. voila! Superficially erudite NYT essay about something seemingly hot and trendy!

I’m of two minds about this flocking of adult readers to YA.  One, people have been trained to be lazy.  Blame the media or the internet, the fact remains that people see reading as a larger time commitment and they’d rather not have to work so hard at it.  Literature feels like more work, whether it is or not, and YA offers a perceived respite from that.

Second, people view the literary novel as a piece of affectation.  For the last twenty-plus years we’ve seen writing programs bloom like radioactive dandelions near Three Mile Island and the market no longer wants that.  They want what YA delivers, which is essentially a compelling story, with interesting characters, told as cleanly as possible.

Yes, I will allow there are literary books in YA (and middle grade as well) and that I know many people who craft their stories with the same care as a fine litterateur, but when the audience to be captured is less forgiving, stories need to be taut, issues and themes recognizable, if not simpler.  They don’t want long meditations from a narrator about the essence and the meaning of things, they want the primal, the emotional, the visceral truth that they find in YA books.

And yes, sometimes they just want empty word candy, and with a sizable portion of YA reading like romance lite (i.e. Twilight), they can find that as well.

Please, Ms. Paul, drop the faux embarrassment, shut up, and enjoy what you’re reading without trying to impress the rest of us.  We get it: you like to read good books, some of which were intended for a younger audience.

Some of us have been doing this for decades.

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A while back I wrote a little thing about applying the Bechdel Test to YA and whether it was something that should be addressed, but a couple things have tripped my wires that have caused me to revisit the question.

I won’t recap what the Bechdel Test is here – there are plenty of places that do – except to say that I think it’s a good method of examining gender relations in popular culture and could lead to more balanced and entertaining storytelling if applied carefully.

The brain switch was flipped when a Tweet sent me to film critic John Scalzi’s examination of the Bechdel Test in recent(ish) sci-fi and fantasy films.  Of the fourteen films he looked at that came out between 2005 and 2009 he found only one that truly passed the test and three “technical passes” where the films only barely scraped by, but not entirely in the spirit of the goal.

The second jolt came just a few weeks ago when a list surfaced of the top 100 sci-fi books everyone should read.  Without looking at the list, how many were written by women?  How many do you think would pass the Bechdel Test?

11 women represented. Technically one YA and two middle grade books on that list. I can’t even guess about the list’s Bechdel ratings.

To cut to the chase, we have sci-fi movies written by men, directed by men, who as boys probably read a lot of sci-fi written by men, books that most likely failed the Bechdel Test.

It’s like a cycle of abuse.  It goes unnoticed, unbroken, and it starts young.

One of the things I learned as a bookseller was that there is an incredible interest in sci-fi among middle grade readers and not a lot of books for that market.  And when I say middle grade sci-fi I don’t mean books about aliens who take over as school teachers, there’s a lot of that. I mean actual science-based speculative work, the kind of mind-probing, thought-bending examinations of all that exists within the adult sci-fi genre.  Kids are hungry for that stuff, and when they need to feed that hunger they usually get shuttled to the usual suspects: The Giver, or A Wrinkle in Time, or maybe Enders Game.  Beyond that, when they go further afield, they land squarely in the adult sci-fi, in the classics, among the 100 everyone “should” read.

Schools and religions know full well that if you’re going to make any headway you have to reach your audience while they’re young, and I propose that the only way future generations of screenwriters and sci-fi novelists are ever going to tilt toward more gender-balanced stories is if we show them alternative narratives and lots of them.  We need to reach them before they’ve assimilated the “norm” of a future full of same-as-it-ever-was gender biases.

Now I don’t believe one can truly predict a next big trend, or tailor ones writing to meet potential audience demand, but if I had the kind of mind that could write sci-fi – the kind with girls who talk about things other than boys, aren’t competitive with one another, and were partners with and not sidekicks to boys – I would do it in a heartbeat.

The future is wide open.

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