Archive for January, 2012

Actually, this is more of a question, a call to the universe if you will. What truly are the clichés that are specific to young adult fiction, and not those taken from other sources?

1. trite: stereotyped expression, sentence or phrase, usually expressing popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse; sadder but wiser, strong as an ox

2. trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.

3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

I think there are many clichés that appear all over the literary landscape, that the use of color or a musical reference isn’t purely a young adult thing, but I’m hard pressed to come up with anything truly YA.

Rebellion against authority?

Bully Boys and Queen Bees?

The nerdy kid who saves the day/wins the prize/is accepted by the crowd?

I know that for middle grade novels I have grown weary of the boy-girl friendship where the girl is a sidekick who is smarter than the boy but lets him think he’s figured things out for himself. This is generally coupled with the equally annoying mystery story where some plucky kids manage to solve some mystery no adult could.

This whole idea has been rolling around in my head since I saw the interview with Maurice Sendak by Stephen Colbert where the faux conservative attempted to reduce the basic idea behind picture books to a simple formula:

Sendak: You know the formula
Colbert: You just need an animal… and something they’ve lost
Sendak: Well, yes, most books for children are very bad
Colbert: A squirrel lost their mittens.
Sendak: There you go.
Colbert: The buffalo lost its gun
Sendak: You’ve just written two children’s books

Kidding aside, is the lost-and-found story in picture books fits the “trite or commonplace through overuse” definition of cliché, yet it seems to elemental at the same time. So, with YA, in the end when the boy gets the girl (or girl gets the boy, or boy-boy, girl-girl, &c.) are we looking at a cliché? When our heroic main character saves the day or conquers their fear or achieves their goal, cliché?

Is writing for children simply a question of cliché management?

No, really, I’m asking. What sort of clichés do you see? What are the things a YA story can’t seem to be successful without these days? All comments and answers appreciated.

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Having spent most of the month endlessly recovering from what my doctor called a “quiet” case of pneumonia (everyone’s a poet these days) I find myself longing for all the foods I am restricted from eating. That, in turn, makes me think about recipes which have a rhythm of their own at times. And then I stumble across an article in the newspaper featuring some nonsense recipes. And so, a tribute.

for Edward of Holloway

Find the circumference
Of one golden Kumquat
And tossed in a pot

An Anglerfish’s degree
Plucked fresh from the Sea
Sauted until hot

A measure of Music
Boiled up with a flourish
Performed at a trot

A quartful of quarters
Poached from Four-flushers
Set fire to the lot

Add the Palm of one Heart
Unbroken, unblue
And free of all clot

When you find your nerves shot
Once the mixture congeals
You’ll find it will yield
One Lear

Sort of a recipe, kind of an homage, at least the nonsense part makes, er, sense.

Poetry Friday, unlike any other friday because of its poetriness, this week being rounded up over at Hey, Jim Hill! If you haven’t come her from there, then go there from here!

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I am, again, a Cybils judge in the graphic novel category this year. As I write this my fellow judges and I are just finishing up with our reading and will shortly begin the process of choosing a winning title from among the finalists. In my experience reviewing graphic novels I have come across a number of people – smart people who are very good at analyzing literature, mind you – who wonder how I can tell a good graphic novel from a bad one. What makes a good graphic novel different, they might ask, than a comic? The assumption that comics are automatically of a lower quality I get, because it’s similar to the artificial classification between literature and what some call junk fiction (i.e. genre fiction).

I’m not looking to pick at the worry-wound that is the divide between high and low art, but I have been thinking about the choices I am about to make as a “judge” and feel like exploring this a bit.

I used to teach Art and English to middle school kids a few lifetimes ago. One of things people always asked (and sometimes still do) is “How can you grade Art? It’s such a subjective thing.” The fallacy of this line of thinking is that people confuse the mechanics of creating something with the arbitrary notion of “art.” In publishing this sometimes shows up as a question of whether or not something has “literary merit” as opposed to just being a good story. But these labels and qualifications have nothing to do with the creation and execution of these works. I don’t have to like every great work of art or literature, but I can still respect the quality of the effort that was put into them.

So getting back to grading middle school art students (and how this fits in with judging graphic novels) what I used to tell my students was that every blank sheet of paper, or canvas, or pile of ingredients had the potential to be anything, to be great. Because of this, every project had the potential to be an A, and that’s where every project grade began. From there each project had a set of criteria it had to meet, concrete deadlines or specific instructions to be followed, and how well those were addressed would whittle away or support that A grade. And because my students were often resistant to projects before they began them, I found it easier to make my criterium deceptively simple.

  • Was the work completed on time?
  • Did you use class time well?
  • Did you follow the directions I provided?
  • Is this honestly your best effort?
  • Did you sign your final project?

Removing the stress of whether or not I would think their work was “good” from the grading equation allowed them to focus on the more important aspect of the project: paying attention to the details and putting forth a best effort to come to a creative solution to the problem. Remove good and bad and that internal voice of judgment gave them the confidence to be creative without worrying what anyone else thought. And when the projects were finished and we held in-class critiques the kids would call each other out on the criteria and not based on whether or not they liked the finished project. When you hear one student tell another “Oh, no, you did not put your best effort into this, because I saw you goofing off!” even the issue of grading becomes secondary.

This applies to any creative endeavor, writing certainly can be appreciated for its quality even when the subject or style bores or distracts, and with graphic novels it comes in handy when deciding between two different titles with different styles and subjects. Story quality counts, certainly, but with sequential storytelling the visual elements also have to be taken into account. Like a picture book the word and images need to work together, and by working together I don’t mean that the style of the art must reflect the nature of the story, though this can’t hurt. In the end it might seem like my criteria is arbitrary, but all judgments are personal so these criteria exist as a way of establishing a set of groundings beyond the old “gut feeling.”  These are some of the things I look for in a graphic novel

  • Is there a satisfying narrative arc from beginning to end?
  • Does the art contribute meaning to the story that is not otherwise expressed in the words?
  • Is there imagery or symbolism  incorporated, and if so, is it unique or relevant?
  • Could this story have only been told in this format?
  • Would this story be as interesting if it were told as a traditional fiction narrative?

With the idea that every unread book has the potential to be great, after reading a graphic novel I find that I can better understand what did or didn’t “work” for me by using the criteria above. It isn’t an absolute guide, but in cases where I am having a difficult time articulating whether I liked a graphic novel, or why I liked it, these can be helpful.

The quality of the art isn’t mentioned above but that’s because it’s a secondary or parallel issue for me. I don’t care how beautiful the artwork for a graphic novel is, if the story is boring or weak or reprehensibly clichéd, then the book is a failure for me. Gild a turd any way you want, it’s still a turd. Tell me a story I’ve read a thousand before, but give me a unique visual or some clever symbolism to hold onto, and you’ve got my attention. I’ve read mini comix that employed stick figures with more humor and insight than all the Hollywood comedies put out last year. The rudimentary art didn’t bring down the quality of the comic any more than a huge Hollywood budget is a guarantee of art.

If past is prologue, I predict that somewhere in the midst of Cybils judging I’m going to have to compromise. It never fails, my first choice picks almost never get chosen by the group as a winner. That’s okay because the process is a little more like the Supreme Court laying down a ruling rather than a jury delivering a unanimous decision. There will always be splits and divides, and that’s okay because in the end, no matter what committee confers whatever award, or what one critic or reviewer says about any particular books, one simple rule should take precedent over all others for readers:

Read everything and judge for yourself.

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Oh, I’m so going to get in trouble for this post title, but here’s the thing: why doesn’t the ALA provide shortlists for the Caldecott, Newbery, and all the other awards they dish out at their annual midwinter conference?

Obviously, I’m writing about this because the awards were announced this morning, but not because I had any particular dog in this race. Do I have friends who are writers, people whose book I feel deserve some recognition? Sure, but I’m not writing because they didn’t get a mention either as Winner or as Honor books, I’m writing because the question came up in Twitter buzz about this being a “strong” year with fewer than “expected” Honors given. Then I shot my mouth off about a particular book  not getting attention, calling the award committee “chicken” for not wanting to take a stand on deciding who the books true author was, and the next thing I know I’m back in the mire of my problem with the ALA awards.

Unlike other awards, like the National Book Awards, or the Carnegie or Greenway medals, the American Library Association’s awards for children’s books are announced without a prior shortlist being made public. When the ALA awards are announced (as they were this morning) the public first learns of the Honor books in the category and then the winner of the award in question. The number of Honor books varies as each award committee selects and awards books in secret up until the awarding of the titles (with the exception of the authors who are called early in the morning before their names are announced). This means that until the books titles are named there is no way of knowing which of the 24,000 children’s books published annually will be mentioned during the award ceremony.

Watching the announcements via a live webcast, each of the titles mentioned get cheers and applauds from the ALA members in attendance at the conference, but what goes on with the public (as witnessed on a live Twitter feed) is a collection of individual responses varying from cheers to confusion. Everyone has personal favorites they’re rooting for, and when little-known titles pop up the initial confusion is “Huh, I wonder if that title is truly better than the ones I’ve read.” So the public (or at least the public concerned with children’s books) collectively look at the honor book, then the winner, and they think From this pool of great books a winner was chosen.

Or: A winner was chosen from this pool?

But this year there were only two Honor books for the Newbery Award, which caught a number of people off guard. Normally there are three or four honor books, rounding out the general pool of consensus about which books were considered “the best,” which is what the award looks to celebrate. The problem with only two Honor book is the suggestion that, along with the winner, there were only three books considered good enough for the award. I think everyone in the kidlit community could draft a shortlist of TEN books that would be honor-worthy, and to see only two books honored feel like something is wrong.

What’s wrong is that the process really only looks to award ONE book and Honor books are a bi-product of the committee’s process, not a true designation of all that could be considered contenders for “the best” in that category. Or, as one author suggested, when there is more consensus on the award winner and less dissention within the committee, there are fewer honors. Which if true suggests that if the entire committee agreed on the winner there could be NO Honor Awards that year, not unless they manufactured a list of also-rans.

This is the problem I have with the secrecy of the selection process, it just isn’t transparent.

But should it be?

It’s the ALA awards and they can run the show any way they like. The way they run it now, each award category has its own committee and those committees select and vote on titles in seclusion from the rest of the ALA until the midwinter conference. I have heard tales of books being put forth to the rest of the committee at the conference itself, forcing the members to read and evaluate this last-minute nominee and depriving them of sleep (and consensus) in the process. One could argue that this suggests an openness to be as inclusive as possible in the efforts to find and put forth the best books possible… or that the nature of the process is flawed that the committees are not forced to agree on a shortlist in advance of the award.

Here’s why I think not having and announcing a shortlist in advance is a mistake: it removes the discussion of books from the public, which fails to engage a wider audience to actually care about the awards.

Once an award has been delivered, it’s a done deal. When you announce awards without any lead-up (like the public discussion that proceeds almost every other award) you fail to build an audience who cares. A year ago when the TODAY show decided to bump a segment on the ALA awards in favor of a visit by Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi to promote her new book the only people who cared were people in the kidlit community. The general public? Eh. They weren’t following the awards prior to the announcement, so they probably didn’t even know the winners were announced. They certainly hadn’t had a chance to review a shortlist of possible winner to factually know whether or not Snooki’s book might have merited more attention than the Printz or Newbery winners – it didn’t, but who knew? And that’s the point. You can’t care about an award you don’t know about, and you can’t build excitement or anticipation over an award whose judging criterium is a mystery beyond simply a group-think definition of “the best.”

While working on my MFA in creative writing our instructors (many Caldecott and Newbery Award winners in the bunch) warned us that you cannot write with the intention of winning awards, that you have to write the book that wants to come out. This is true of any art, really. But what was unsaid was that there was no way in hell you could possibly write toward winning a children’s book award from the ALA because the reality is that the criterium are a mystery. The selection committee changes from year to year, and the decision-making process and awarding of winners and honors is subject to a secrecy elevate to the art of whim.

Given how these award winners are held aloft and foisted onto kids by parents and teachers you’d think the awards were etched in stone from an omniscient god whose decisions are unerring. Instead, we get a tin-can-and-string announcement from a cargo cult committee of self-appointed elders.

And, damn it, I still hope to win one of these awards some day.

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Another cross-out poem, this one found in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. This one had a bit of an e.e.cummings feel to it, so I tried treating it accordingly.

an ailing     Greenhouse
wearing an elegant bathrobe     attached to oxygen, was
wheeled in the living room of his Cape Cod home
festooned with paper cutouts of

a beloved teacher.
Greenhouse indulged in a
martini and a plate of oysters. Thus fortified,

though a bit wobbly,

he laid down
and praised

his lifelong companion and the darling of his
the Countess.

Greenhouse asked his nurses to lay
next to him in bed
that day on Cape Cod.

On a cold day last winter

Some pages of print, when you see them, they just scream to be played with. It helps when there is already some level of poetry in the prose to begin with, but even when the text is cold or harsh there are sometimes surprises to be found. Here’s what the altered source looks like.

Bonus Time!

On the back page of the same magazine I saw an ad and, don’t ask me what was going on inside my head, but I looked at this ad and the word “eating” just stuck out.

Okay, yeah, so I think about eating hearts and immediately jump to a chupacabra. Doesn’t everyone?  Anyway, there you go, two for the price of one (and, uh, free!) this Poetry Friday. Head on over to Wild Rose Reader where Elaine has the complete roundup this week.

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the sanctuary

the old man
raked the thick quilt
of maple and oak leaves, and pine needles
from trees he’d planted seventy years earlier
as a boy
in hopes of turning the yard
into a raccoon sanctuary

the raccoons
never came but the old man
raked away for most of october
preparing the yard for
another winter of hope

winter snows came hard that year
it made the old man smile to think
that beneath it all he’d prepared
the soil
to quickly absorb the snowmelt forcing
the trees
to bloom before all the others

that spring
sitting on his porch
while watching the sun melt
the wind crystallizing the snow banks
the old man
remembered the first time
he watched spring bat down winter
and he smiled
because it was as good a memory
as the first time he thought it

and then he died

while the old man’s
grandchildren argued over his estate
drove off with furniture and knickknacks
bickered with real estate developers
the yard
the maple and oak leaves and pine needles
produced their annual blanket
only to be neglected the entire winter

no one sat on the porch in the spring
no one witnessed the snowmelt
repelled by a brown mulch jacket
water streaming down paths and sidewalks
into the streets
instead of the ground
no one noticed how
one by one
the trees all died that spring
until a windstorm knocked many of them

the arborists
hired to fell the lot
were unable to explain
how several dozen trees
vibrant and alive in the fall
had simply withered and died
so quickly


when the night air is cold and still
the neighborhood awakens to the commotion
of garbage cans strewn across
the old man’s
barren yard and the explanation
by police
of a sudden infestation of local

On the corner of our block is a big, old, green house. We call it The Green House. A very old man lived there. He lived in the house until he died, just last year. On a block full of modest yards full of bushes and the occasional tree his was unusual in the dozens of maples, oaks, and pines he had planted there as a young boy. He’d always hoped to make it an urban sanctuary for raccoons.

The man is gone, the trees aren’t in very good shape, no one has seen any raccoons recently.

Poetry Friday Number Two for 2012! And a Friday the 13th at that! Tara over at A Teaching Life has the roundup this week, and I’ll bet there are at least 13 great posts there, if not more.

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A New Year’s Eve cold and a truckload of graphic novel reading has kept me quiet lately. Well, it’s kept me from blogging and talking with a normal voice around the house at least.

A good deal of the things I’ve been reading have been as a Cybils Graphic Novel finalist judge and I really cannot talk about those books because them’s the rules. I have been keeping a sort of “diary of a judge” post running as I go so that on the 15th of February I can let the world know what was going on during the process. Not me giving away secrets about the other judges or gossip like that (like I’m clued in enough for gossip) but the process of how I came to the decisions I made. Or am making at the time. It’s weird to talk about the future in the past tense when it’s happening in the moment.

But to be fair, I have been reading a lot of other things as well, I just haven’t had a chance to write or review them. Which means that down the road there’s going to be a flood of catching up I’m going to have to do. That said, there are still some general things I can say about all the reading I’ve been doing lately. Hopefully it won’t sound too vague.

One thing I’d like to see less of are graphic novels about characters with powers or who fight crime. If there’s one thing that makes the graphic novel novel is how it differentiates itself from comic books. It’s just too easy to use the inherent action of superhero comics to give a story a false sense of plot and character development. Far too often the main character’s growth is patently shallow, and if you removed the action sequences (which more often than not have little to do with any inner character growth at all) what you have left is a laughable pamphlet that reads like a 1950s sitcom plot synopsis. “When the Beaver attempts to tackle a problem on his own he quickly discovers there is strength in numbers.”

What are monsters? What do they stand for? Aside from scaring us, or our hero, there has to be a reason they are there. Either they represent a surrogate for a tangible fear or they express a larger concept or idea. If they are merely obstacles to drive a plot or provide a character something to defeat, if they aren’t organic to the story, what’s the point? And if they are symbolic of the main character’s struggle, is it perhaps too much to ask that they be incorporated into the story in a way that they aren’t so heavy-handed, leaden, or obvious?

Fight scenes. They make for good action scenes, especially in a visual medium like graphic novels, but can’t we do something more creative in conveying struggles? A battle of wits, a battle of logic, I’d even take a bake-off as a climax provided it was chemistry that ruled the day. Honestly, sometimes when I’m reading a graphic novel and a fight scene is ramping up I feel as if I’m watching a Chuck Norris movie… which is fine if I’m reading a Chuck Norris graphic novel. Sadly, I haven’t come across a Chuck Norris graphic novel yet.

Finally, I understand – honestly, I do – that a writer or artist can only tell the stories that drive them. But there’s a line between the universal story told personally and what is so personal that reads like therapy. I acknowledge that there can be some great literature and art from pain and grief, that deep emotions can be mined to stunning effect, but no one wants to feel as if they’re going through grief counseling and psychoanalysis as a bystander. Maybe that’s just me.

So aside from my weekly Poetry Friday posts and the occasional check-in I hope to be back to the Grimmoire and delve into some new territory here in the coming weeks.

For you regulars, I thank you for your patience, and or you occasionals, for your kind attentions.

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