Archive for February, 2012

I haven’t been writing much poetry for kids lately. Well, not for public consumption at least. I have a couple projects I’m poking and prodding and I don’t know what their final shape will take. For the time being though I’ve been generally happy to just play around on these Fridays. And I thank you your kind indulgence and wonderful comments.

This week I found an old notebook I used to keep. I used to always walk around with a notebook and jot down snippets and crazy ideas. Why don’t I do that anymore? No matter, there was a couple of lines and possible rhyme pairs and for whatever reason it didn’t happen a few years ago, the following poem presented itself.


if I had just one final wish,
noodles, heaping, on a dish.

if it was meat-filled ravioli
I’d fork it fast but chew it slowli.

the way that I prefer spaghetti
is al dente, almost readi.

with melted cheese and macaroni
the only choice could be elboni.

when looking at a fluted ziti
the word that comes to mind is pretti.

a cream sauce tossed with steamed zuchinni
is how my parents eat linguine.

and how could I ever forgette
those little saucers, orecchiette?

the rule of thumb when serving pasta
is get it to me molto fasta!

this orzo here, it’s rather nice
but… what the heck is this?

it’s rice?!


this rice now puts me in a lurch,
I’ll need to eat some more research.

Hidden in this wordplay I can’t ignore how, growing up, my mom had all sorts of names for dinner dishes that were really just variations of pasta. We were poor and rather than saying “pasta” three or four nights a week it would be “elbows” and “spaghetti” and, most inappropriately, “goulash” which was simply shells (or conchiglie) with a chunkier ragu. It wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast a few years ago that I learned the regional term for one of my mom’s goulashes is called “American Chop Suey,” a problematic name on so many levels.

Now I’m hungry. And I just ate!

Poetry Friday, it’s a thing. Gathering Books has the rundown this week. You ought to go check it out, see what else people have posted this week. And for you commenters (always welcome!) the question is: what’s your favorite type of pasta dish?

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In case you’ve forgotten your middle grade math, the headline translates to Valentine’s Day plus Graphic Novels equals True Love Always. Admittedly a little silly, but this was the year the graphic novel panel essentially agreed on the winners out the gate. That can either be viewed as a unified affirmation of what was good or, more cynically, that there was only one clear choice in each category surrounded by fluff that made the decision inevitable. The truth is probably located somewhere in between.

But first, a little business. If you haven’t done so already, got check out the winners of this year’s Cybils Awards.

Now, there’s plenty I can say about some of the choices in the other categories, most of it surprise about the number of books that weren’t on my radar, but I was on the Graphic Novel panel this year and will contain my comments, briefly, to our selections.

In the elaborate (not) process I use to determine my rankings, I actually had a tie between Anya’s Ghost and Level Up. I would have been happy to have either book as the winner, but here’s the thing about Anya’s Ghost that gives it the edge for me: I had a hard time articulating what it was about it that made me like it so damn much. I understand the mechanics of storytelling, sequential narrative, illustration, and the sort of stories that I like but in the end I was at a loss to articulate it. I felt bad for the publisher, First Second, who sent me an advance copy of the book practically a year ago because I felt like I owed them a review on my blog. I still do, as far as I’m concerned, and maybe I can finally do that. Not today, not here, but soon.

In short, Anya’s Ghost felt like the most complete graphic novel, most satisfying in terms of narrative arc, balance of humor and seriousness, light and dark, and was the most novel-like of the entries.

In the middle grade category things were a little more interesting. For me, mind you. Two of the books I felt sort of disqualified themselves because they didn’t belong in the graphic novel category at all – Wonderstruck is very clearly a middle grade book and should not have even made it to the first round judges, similarly Nursery Rhyme Comics was an anthology and a picture book for older readers, but not a middle grade graphic novel. These personal disqualifications should not be taken as a knock against their quality – indeed, I would have loved to see Nursery Rhyme Comics considered in the picture book category as a finalist – but it did not belong, thus narrowing the field.

A third book, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, wasn’t even mentioned as a possible finalist in the category by any of the other panelists. I can’t speak for the others, but I found elements of this book troubling at the content level. Throughout the process I have deliberately kept myself from seeking out other reviews so as not to pollute my opinions, but I hope to work this all out in a review and then see what others have said.

With three titles eliminated all that was left was to decide between was Zita the Spacegirl and Sidekicks. The short answer here is that Zita had a lot more going for it in terms of humor and adventure, and by comparison Sidekicks felt slight. The best I can articulate, it was a little like putting any generic comic book adaptation of a Cartoon Network show up against Jeff Smith’s Bone books. With that in mind it wasn’t hard to decide that my first pick was…

Nursery Rhyme Comics.


Yes, despite the fact that I don’t think anthology comic collections should be considered graphic novels (any more than a short story anthology should be considered a novel) it was, by far, a much better quality product. But in the end I had no desire to defend or attempt to justify a variance in my own personal criteria when I was going to vote strongly against Wonderstruck if necessary. And as an aside, even if I did consider Wonderstruck a graphic novel I don’t think it had a solid enough word-image connection, as emotionally compelling, or a strong enough sequential narrative to put it above Anya’s Ghost. I know people think Selznick has invented this great hybrid of storytelling but, really, those of us who have studied film know a storyboard when we see one.

And there you have it, my brief explanation of how the Cybils Graphic Novel Awards shook out from my personal perspective. I don’t know if any of my fellow judges have any plans to discuss their view of the process but if so I’ll happily update this post with links to their examinations. I will say, this was the most unanimous, least contentious judging panel I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.

Andrea, John, Sarah, Emily, (and fearless leader Liz) it was a pleasure and an honor working (briefly) with you all!

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I have an internet search agent for old photographs from my home town. Occasionally something pops up in the weekly email I get that opens up a whole new world for me, something I’ve never known or imagined about the place I grew up. Recently a photo came up of two servicemen and their dates from a nightclub I’d never heard of. The building is long gone, but a little digging revealed that the club was originally built as the West Coast home of The Cotton Club. Further internet time-suck opened another world of live recordings made during the 30s and 40s at the club, many from radio broadcasts, including a bunch from Louis Armstrong who actually lived near (and got busted for marijuana at) this club, not far from my old high school! It’s crazy what a little tidbit of info can lead to.

The photo itself has very little information beyond the club name and the date the photo was taken. I made up a storypoem to go along with it.

two servicemen and their dates
frozen in 1943

the captain, all of 24 years old
promises to marry the redhead on his lap
after the war

his buddy, the lieutenant
a year younger but battle-wise
in the fields of love
makes no such promise to his brunette date
but will write her daily
until VE day

they met that night at Casa Mañana
all of them looking
for a few hours respite
from the war
from the fighting
from the rationing
from the loneliness
of a nation’s sacrifices

the brunette, a seamstress
could fashion dresses
from the humblest of draperies
specialized in children’s clothes
and knitted sweaters for the boys
on the front in winter

her roommate, the redhead
worked a switchboard downtown
plugging the incoming with the black cables
connecting to outgoing with the red
(occasionally listening in
when the supervisor wasn’t near)

the women admitted
they’d flipped a coin earlier that night
heads they’d see a movie
tails they’d go to the club
the servicemen laughed
they, too, almost went to the pictures
“Heaven Can Wait” they all said
and laughed
and ordered another round
and danced to swing music

at the end of the night
the women suggested a nightcap
at their Venice apartment
the servicemen were game
as much for the soft beds
as the promise of liquor
a good time
and a farewell breakfast

before hailing a cab
the redhead collected the photo sets
of the foursome at their table
taken by the house photographer
developed on site
and presented in a paper folder
a souvenir
of a night on the town
at the Casa Mañana

By the way, as far as I know, The Tonga Room at The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco still has a photographer who goes around to all the tables and will take your party’s photo and deliver it by the end of your evening with your check. It’s a very classy old school thing that I wish more places did. Granted, everyone’s got their cell phone cameras and can upload a picture instantly during the party, but it’s not the same. We’re all so busy recording our lives these days rather than living them. But I digress.

Poetry Friday is congregating over at Laura Purdie Salas‘ place, and while you’re there, why not check out (and try) her 15 Words or Less Challenge from yesterday.

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I review books. I get books sent to me. Sometimes people ask if they can send me books, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes I ask for them.

I review books for two reasons: one, because I am on an endless quest to discover and understand the process of storytelling and enjoy the possibilities of a public platform (blogging) for discussion; and two, because I like discovering things and sharing those discoveries. After five years or so of doing this I probably could (or should) turn this reviewing into a revenue-generating enterprise. Unfortunately I have those artistic genes that don’t seem to understand commerce.

But in the end, for all my reviewing, I someday want to publish my own books. I want, like many other authors, to see my name on the cover of a book. Not because I’m egotistical but because there’s a certain sense of acknowledgement involved. When you can point to a book with your name on the cover there’s a certain level of validation of all the unseen hard work that’s gone into getting it there. I’ve talked to many authors, published and aspiring, and I know how long that journey can be, and how satisfying the end of that journey can feel when it shows up in a bookstore.

Today my name appeared on the cover of a book. The back cover of a book, but it’s still there!

I was blurbed. A quote from one of my reviews appeared among the four blurbs on the back of the book. Along with Maurice Sendak.

I’m published! Sort of!

It’s a small thing, a little goofy to be giddy about, but it came at just the right time for me. Some days it feels like everything is in a great holding pattern, that wheels are spinning but the vehicle isn’t moving, and then you get a little nudge that says “Look at that! You aren’t just talking to yourself!” (Although, technically, if the voice inside your head says that you are talking to yourself, but you get the idea.)

Alright, so another item checked off the list – see my name on the cover of a published book. Now I need to add a new one: See my name on the front cover of a published book.

Specificity, that’s the ticket.

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I started the year off with a cento based on the lyrics of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle” due, in part, to the fact that its original lyrics made no sense; I was curious to see if there was something of worth buried within that refrain of “Dit dot dit doot-doot-doot-oo.” I was kind of pleased with the results because, indeed, playing around with the phrases I was able to detect some thread of the revolution Miller alluded to. Maybe. I could be reading too much into my own work now.

But what other songs have lyrics that, outside their musical accompaniment, drew the giant question mark above my head? Two came to mind instantly, one of them being Neil Diamond’s “I Am I Cried.” It’s the chair. The guy is talking about how he declares his existence to an empty room and seems surprised that the chair doesn’t respond. Fine, it’s a cry of desperation about a life in flux, but… that. damn. chair. And the phrasing of that chorus. And what’s this whole thing with Neil Diamond anyway? Yeah, he wrote some hits, but they always sounded like they were just barely one rung above Rod McKuen. “Seasons in the Sun” anyone?

So let’s see what we can pull out of Mr. Diamond’s… lyrics.

born and raised
between two shores
I’m lost
between two shores

thinking about
laid back palm trees
the sun and the rents grow
laid back palm trees

but it ain’t mine no more

I am I
no one
not even the chair
can say why
I am lost

deep inside emptiness
won’t let me go
a man who likes to swear
won’t let me go

a frog changes a king
who dreamed of being
and then became a frog
who dreamed of being

but I’ve never cared for being

I am I
no one
not even the chair
can say why
I am lost

I said I
can’t say I’ve tried
and no one there
can’t say I’ve tried

and I’m not alone

Ah, Camus couldn’t have said it better! The full existential angst of the modern man writ large, full of despair, madness, and fairy tale allusions. It’s all there, if only Neil could have tapped into it the way I can!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go deflate my ego. Why not go to The Iris Chronicles and check out what else is happening in the world of Poetry Friday.

Oh, and if you have any nominations for nonsense lyrics (I am fond of the 70s and 80s, but will consider all eras) feel free to nominate candidates for future centos in the comments.

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Every once in a while I find myself writing a short story. It starts as a lark, a seed of an idea that suddenly sprouts and FOOM! there it is. I have a stable of characters I like to write about which allows for this sort of thing to happen, and they’re a lot of fun to write because the seem to come from that part of my brain that still remembers how writing is supposed to be fun. Supposed to be, as opposed to writing novel-length stories that require plotting and thinking about craft and a time commitment. I find these short stories, when they come, are over before my brain has finished sharpening the pencils and filling out the forms necessary for a larger undertaking.

Okay, so the story is done, and I read it over. They tend to be humorous stories, so I laugh, which is a good thing. Not laughing at my own jokes, but still liking what I’ve written enough to be amused. Then I frown. I’ve just written another humorous story with solid boy appeal and don’t have anything I can do with it.

And I’m left wondering: where do boys go to find stories?

I start thinking, What sort of stories are like the one I just wrote? The first thing that came to mind is the story Gordie tells in Stephen King’s novella The Body about the kid Lard Ass and the pie eating contest. It’s a revenge story, simply put like a campfire tale, and the type of story boys like. But suddenly it occurs to me that even the mighty Stephen King knows that the only way he’s going to get a story like that published is by including it within the context of another, more traditional story.

Because you just know there isn’t a magazine alive aimed at a kid audience that would touch that story with a ten foot pole.

Anthologies exist that cater to humorous boy stories – the Guys Read series of course, and the David Luber Campfire Weenies books – but when a boy is in the mood for some light reading (okay, let’s be honest, bathroom reading) where does he go?

Where did I go?

Eventually I ended up reading National Lampoon, which might not have been the best literature around, but it feed my hunger for funny stories. Occasionally, rarely, I would come across some humorous fiction in The New Yorker, but when it came to finding something short to read I was at a loss. There had to be something more sophisticated than Boy’s Life, less obnoxious than National Lampoon, and not as stiff as The New Yorker, but if there was, I couldn’t find it.

Last fall I was riding public transit and there were three high school boys talking. One of them was telling the other two about this “wicked, sick” story he’d read, and as he went on I realized he was recounting a story by George Saunders from the recent issue of The New Yorker. His friends were attentive, but I could see in their eyes that once they’d heard the story from their friend they wouldn’t hunt it down and read it. It might have been the story itself, or the way the boy told it, but what I think really dulled the fire in the listening-boy’s eyes was when the teller admitted where it came from. Unspoken in those looks was the fact that the story had come from a magazine lying around the house that his parents subscribed to. Very uncool. If he’d lied and said he read the story in FHM or Details it’d be a different story, but then the conversation would veer into fashion or the latest tech gadget or, most likely, the cover model.

Because I thought I was missing something obvious I went to the library to check out the various writer’s market books. One of them (which I won’t name) had a subject index in back and under ‘humor’ there were a couple dozen magazines listed. When I went to check them out almost without exception they stated ‘no juvenile’ in their listings; the exceptions, and there were four listings with this problem, explicitly stated ‘no humor’ which doesn’t speak so well of the copyediting or indexing skills for that title. Almost all of the juvie titles listed were for younger ages than I write for, whose idea of humor most decidedly wouldn’t include pranks, bodily functions, or subversive behavior.

I’ll keep looking for the perfect home for these stories, but I suspect they’re just going to collect over the years until I’ve published several other “real” books and a publisher is willing to humor me by putting out a collection. Perhaps this is one of those “if I won the lottery” situations where I say that if I had the money I’d start a new digital and in-print magazine of humor. Old school thinking, I know, but a boy can still dream, can’t he?

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