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Archive for July, 2012

Those early months when i was just beginning to read independently, those were heady days. After years of decoding the meaning of language, facial expressions, cartoon narratives on television, finally the written world was made visible to me and it was magic. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the reason children believe in magic is because they are still so close to the days when their literacy revealed itself as if through a secret portal.

Among the strong memories I have about those days was the summer Weekly Reader program. For some small fee that my parents paid through another of those childhood mysteries, the mystery of money, I received the occasional (I don’t think they were actually weekly) folded sheet of stories and puzzles that not only reinforced the magic of reading but added the gift of mail. These things simply came to our house with my name on them! Magic!

Then there were the books.

Oh, the books!

Once a month during the summer the Weekly Reader program sent an actual, real book to me in the mail! I later understood these to be similar to book club editions, hardbound with printed covers like a library edition only less expensive, with the Weekly Reader logo on the back. Every once in a while I see the Weekly Reader logo on the back of a used book, but one book truly stood out among them all: The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley. I have already discussed this book twice, and even linked scans of the entirety of it to my flickr account for all to see. The recent rerelease doesn’t do the boo justice, but I digress.

Among days of swim lessons and water fights in the neighborhood, hanging out at the local park making lanyards and collecting returnable soda bottles for enough change to buy candy, the afternoons that seem most golden were those where I was sprawled on the living room floor reading the Weekly Reader over and over. It could not have taken me more than twenty minutes to read it but it felt like hours, and I would revisit each copy several times until the next one came.

In time came bigger books, and regular trips to the library to bring home a haul of books, and the Weekly Reader faded away. I was years out of college when I remembered those summers fondly and held idle thoughts about creating an adult version of the Weekly Reader. By then I’d assumed the Weekly Reader was a thing of the past, no longer around, and how sad for kids that they couldn’t have the same experience I had.

And then I got the news this week: the Weekly Reader had been alive the whole time, only now it was being shuttered by its new owners.

I don’t care how plugged in and tech savvy kids are these days, it’s still fun to get things sent in the mail, and a magazine dedicated to fiction and word fun… how is this a bad thing? Perhaps the Weekly Reader struggled in recent years because parents assumed (as I did) that it no longer existed, or that they didn’t feel their children would be satisfied with so meager an offering as few short pages of throwaway material. And if the program no longer offered Club Editions of books sent periodically to kids, perhaps that’s part of the problem.

They say that kids who grow up with books in the home – books that are theirs, that they own – do better in school than kids who don’t, and this has long been one of the problems I’ve had with the forced march of summer reading: kids check the books out of the library, and the lack of ownership makes that reading feel throwaway, an obstacle to overcome. I didn’t have many books at home growing up because we were sorta poor, but the ones I had I treasured and reread like crazy. I wish I knew what other books I received via the Weekly Reader summer program, but the fact that The Crows of Pearblossom stuck with me for over forty years is a pretty strong testament to the power of books on impressionable young minds.

While I may have been premature with my thinking some years back, the sentiment stands: how sad for kids today that they cannot have that same experience.

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Yeah, I know, that’s a loaded subject line.

I don’t know how many times in the past dozen years or so I’ve heard these questions, but lets just say that since working as a bookseller I’ve heard thousands of these variations on a theme. It goes like this: a parent enters, well-intentioned and polite, asking us for a book about a particular topic. The question is never about whether such books exist for the issue at hand, because the assumption is there, but whether or not we can recommend a “good one” from the many we surely must have on hand. Examples include:

“Can you point me to the books on…

“…a child dealing with the death of a pet (insert animal here, everything from gerbils to spiders to larger farm animals)?”

“…dealing with the loss of an older sibling to gang violence?”

“…dealing with being adopted from another culture, specifically (insert name of emerging country here)?”

“…contracting an infectious disease?”

“…jealousy among friends (mainly girls)?”

“…parents suddenly dying?”

“…fear of flying?”

“…anxiety over (insert a specific food item here, my favorite was ‘dairy products)?”

And many others I have long forgotten. I should probably note, almost without exception these are adults asking for books on these subjects intended for small children, many of whom have not learned to read yet. They are looking for picture books that (they hope) will explain these difficult topics for them.  While I can sympathize with the problem of explaining difficult topics in simple terms to small children, most of the reactions we booksellers receive when we explain that lack of books suggests disinterested parenting.

“What do you mean there isn’t a picture book about surviving a land mine? How am I suppose to explain this to a child?” (A true response, said with a level of incredulity so piercing that I winced.)

The fact is, there are probably more books not written about specific issues then there are books written for them. The major topics – adoption, sibling rivalry, bullying, first-day-of-school-anxiety, &c. – are all represented, and in many cases there is more than one good title to suggest. For the topics not generally considered common there are usually two good reasons, both of which equally sound, neither of which is acceptable to the adults who hear them.

First, the topic isn’t popular enough to warrant a publisher dedicating resources to a title that won’t turn a profit. The idea that profit is even part of the equation so incenses some adults that they practically yell at us booksellers as if it is our fault, some conspiracy to keep kids from getting the books they need or deserve. In some adult minds books for children should be free, a public service, in which everyone from the writer and illustrator to the publisher and printer gladly and lovingly devotes their time and energy. The most withering response I could levy in the regard is “This is a business, and without profits you don’t even have the opportunity to talk to me about it.”

The second reason is that there are many topics that cannot be easily explained to everyone’s satisfaction and should be dealt with by the adults in charge of their wards. Yes, this is about parental laziness. And, yes, when Fifi is old and near the end, it can be difficult to explain to a child that she’s lived good and hard in her 105 dog years and that her time has come. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it should be avoided, or worse, explained away with the aid of a book specifically designed to the situation at hand. I have seriously had adults reject a book on the death of a pet because the type of animal in the book was wrong. I’ve had adults reject a book on dealing with grandparents with dementia because the grandparent in question was the wrong gender. And when it comes to adoption, if the kid and their adoptive family doesn’t look like the ones in the book, well, forget it, because “That isn’t the same thing.”

Many of these conversations finally come around to a half-hearted thanks for my efforts to help them and begrudging acknowledgment that it isn’t my fault. That’s very big of them, and I usually offer up a cheery suggestion:

“You know, maybe you should think about writing that book!”

The only thing perhaps more shocking than a lack of books that enable this unwillingness to interact with their children is the suggestion that they should be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

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At least I don’t think I did. Maybe I picked one up, struggled through it, and never went back. I can’t be sure, but I suspect I did because I’ve had a life-long dislike of detective stories that had to come from an early age.

Because those stories made me feel stupid.

Whether or not it was Encyclopedia Brown or the Hardy Boys or some generic detective stories I always felt cheated at the end. Either there was a key piece of information that I somehow glossed over early on, or the main character possessed the ability to wring out a logical connection between different clues that never would have occurred to me. Instead of a feeling of pleasant surprise and marvel I felt like the author was laughing at me for not figuring it out.

But I get it. There are people who love the thrill of following the clues, ruling out the red herrings, second-guessing motives. There is a secret delight in not knowing, a build-up of tension as the detective gets closer to finding out the truth at their own peril, and the release when it all comes together in the end. I simply found the exercise as excruciating as watching reruns of I Love Lucy.

Later, in college, I fell into the writings of Chandler and Cain and other hardboiled detective fiction because of the style. The mysteries themselves were incidental to the wise-cracking dialog and twisted metaphors the narrators used. In the end the mystery of who or why didn’t matter because the surprise of the double-cross was almost always a pretext for underscoring the main character’s folly. It was the detective who missed the key clues or trusted the wrong person and was made the fool.

Even later when I studied various forms of narrative storytelling I learned the structural underpinnings and the formula for the mystery became clear as day. TV shows are the most transparent when it comes to formula, telegraphing their plot developments in neat little packages. Movies, too. But as I became more adept at seeing the solution within the structure many people around me continue to marvel, as if the solution could only be gleaned through some supernatural power. I remember good friends who were willing to put down money (the cost of my movie ticket, plus snacks) that I couldn’t guess the twist in the movie “The Sixth Sense” because they, as wise and experienced as they were, were unable to see it coming. I remember leaning over in the first five minutes and guessing the movie’s big reveal a full two hours in advance. I didn’t do it to be obnoxious, but I also didn’t understand how they could have missed it. Structurally, it was pretty freakin’ obvious.

I suppose if I hadn’t been so easily frustrated with detective stories at a young age I might have developed a better sense of plot structure at an earlier on. It would have been nice to not feel like stories and storytelling was such a mystery for most of my school years, or that I was somehow stupid for not being able to guess a whodunnit.

Donald J. Sobel, the creator of the Encyclopedia Brown series of books, died this past week at the age of 87. The 56 books in the series have never been out of print and have been instrumental in helping generations of fledgling readers achieve a mastery of reading. I would personally be proud of that as an accomplishment, though it would have to be some other genre than detective stories.

Because I would hate to make some young reader feel the way I did when I was young.

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Every couple months or so I get the urge to tinker with writing a musical. Theatre isn’t in my background, though storytelling is, and this urge isn’t so strong that I feel this is what I was truly meant to do. I would be happy to realize this one story idea as a musical (and hopefully have it be mildly successful) and leave it at that.

It’s most likely a certain lack of “true” conviction that prevents me from realizing this project. In short, the need to do isn’t as compelling as my other writing projects.

This idea of the compelling need is fairly crucial to the idea of modern Western narratives. We want to read about and follow main characters with a compelling need that will, ultimately, drive the story and the character’s development though the story in a way that we cannot put it down. In short, the reader must be equally compelled to want to find out how it ends.

It was while I was tinkering with this compelling need for the main character in my musical – sometimes also called a controlling desire – that I realized how important it was to instill this sense of compulsion within the reader/audience. This idea of building a character whose desire lines are strongly etched that in turn cause the reader to become invested in that character’s needs that the, the reader/audience, adopts those desires themselves. It isn’t simply a question of manipulation, it’s a form of narrative alchemy that (when done correctly) subtly eases the reader into a position where they care about how and whether a character realizes their desires.

But then I thought: whose desires are really being actualized here, whose wants and needs?

Like a Möbius strip my thoughts circle around and I find myself wondering about the artist, the writer, the musician who feels compelled to create. We talk about the creative act as something the creative person cannot help but chase down. Like mountain climbers, creative people do what they do because they must. It is their controlling desire, their compelling need.

Or is it a want?

No one can be said to actually need to create. We need to eat, and breathe, and fulfill social and moral obligations, but the act of creation… can that really be something the individual needs? And this want (or need) in the writer, its to create a character with desires of their own, designed to compel a reader to care about those fictitious needs to the point where all three – writer, character, reader – come to a satisfactory meeting place where all needs are fulfilled.

Suddenly I understand what is wrong with a lot of the fiction that I find wanting. It is easy to say that the story didn’t interest, or that the plot was unbelievable, or that the characters were simply flat and two-dimensional, but the real problem is that I simply didn’t feel the writer’s compelling need to tell the story at hand. It may have lacked conviction, or somehow been muddled, but in the end no matter how sincerely the author may believe in their story and characters, they have failed in the same way a person fails to be funny at a party when they cannot retell a joke correctly. The parts may all be there, and in the correct order, but without the conviction to deliver the lines with care and precision – what is sometimes called comic timing – the punchline comes with tepid and polite laughter. Worse if the joke has to be explained.

I have been reading graphic novels lately, and though I am not ready to discuss them by name – they aren’t released for a few months yet, and I’d like to digest them a bit more – I am finding the ones that have been falling flat for me fail to convince me of their authorial need to tell the story. Naturally, those that I enjoy deliver so completely that I don’t even notice at first how well they are conveying their author’s urgency.

In the end what I’ve finally understood (because I can’t believe I haven’t been taught this in dozens of ways) is that the difference between “good” and “bad” writing is the difference between the way a small child wants and needs. The want is cloying, whining, and churlish while the need is essential, enthusiastic, and inclusive.

So my question to all my writer friends, real and virtual, is this: Are your stories telegraphing your wants or your needs?

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Many a moon ago when I was an aspiring writer with a self-published book, I collected some new material and decided to try to get published with a legitimate magazine. My book had been well-received by my peers and it seemed the next logical step was to broaden my horizons.

This was back in 1975. I was 13 years old and the book I’d published was a collection of illustrated puns that had been run off on an old mimeograph machine and handed out to classmates.

I’d actually co-authored the book with my best friend at the time, Marc Gartenberg, and we really thought we were all that and a bag of chips, although back then we would have said we were probably the bossest (or most boss) of anyone else. Slang has a funny way of slipping in and out of use, don’t it? Anyway, our heads were swollen with success and we decided we were going to conquer the world and gather more personal work and send it away to be published. Marc wrote a short story (illustrated by me) about his obsession of the time, Corvette’s, entitled “The Very Fast Car” while I put together a nonsensical collection of comics including one about a car tire that rolls around on an adventure called (and why I remember this I don’t know) “Zotimums.” We made a fateful decision to send our stuff together in one envelope with an SASE and mailed it off to a relatively young magazines aimed at a young audience called Kid’s magazine.

Outside of Highlights magazine, which we were too old for, Kids was the only magazine at the time we knew of that accepted contributions from kids. In fact, the entire contents of the magazine was kid-produced and it eventually had a 15-year-old managing editor. Better still, the paid their contributors $5 for each accepted piece plus the obligatory three copies of the issue they appeared in. Truly, this was the path for us budding young authors and illustrators, our chance to show the world with the kids at El Marino Elementary School already knew: that we were creative geniuses.

But did you catch the fatal flaw in all this?

Marc and I decided to send our contributions together more out of insecurity than anything else. In our crazy, kookoo, mixed-up minds we assumed the editors would be bowled over by our work and take us as a package. To our thinking, one nervous genius didn’t have the same chance as two nervous ones combined, so once we’d obtained the necessary postage for our envelope stuffed with papers we walked to the corner mailbox and together, each holding once side of the envelope, dropped it into the box together. All there was left to do was wait for inevitable SASE to return with our checks included.

We talked about it for days, for weeks, and then finally we talked about it less and less. After three months having heard nothing it might have lingered in the back of our minds in that same place where forgotten TV show episodes live, that mental basement where things that cannot be thrown out are left to be forgotten.

The one day I came home from school and found the SASE among the mail. It seemed pretty full of paper, which didn’t bode well. I was afraid to open it by myself so I hopped on my bike and rode to Marc’s place were we could open it as a team just as we’d mailed it. We gave the letter a glance, looked at the attached pages, then reread the letter again.

They’d only returned Marc’s story; they’d accepted all my cartoon randomness.

We’d never actually considered that we’d be rejected, and certainly never what to do in case only one of us was accepted. My memory is that we were bummed into silence. I think I might have said something about them being stupid for not taking Marc’s work. I don’t remember Marc saying anything at all, but I do sort of remember Marc telling me to go away. I took the envelope and his story home with me. For weeks Marc was cold and distant – as if it were somehow my fault – and one day he asked for his story back. That was the last we ever mentioned the situation. Eventually we ended the school year on friendly terms, though I was a year older and headed off to junior high where our friendships diverged further and further apart.

But what of my publishing career?

Ah, yes, well now we come to the first part of the post title. Kids magazine sent me not one but two letters begging my patience and indulgence while they were working behind the scene to put out their next issue. Already it seemed like they had gone from a quarterly to annual to sporadic publication schedule and I had read the handful of issues my library had so many times I had them memorized. Having already strained a friendship, I wasn’t really in the market to tout my pending credentials as a published author and risk the ridicule of fellow classmates until I had an issue in-hand as proof. If it thought the wait to hear back about my submissions was long, the period following my acceptance was an eternity.

Time is like that when you really want something as a kid.

Sometime in the course of the following year I’d more of less given up, and Kids confirmed they were no longer continuing as a publication. I’m pretty sure I got that notice with a return of my original comics, long since lost to history. Later, when I learned about the cosmos and its sense of humor, I chalked the whole thing up to my comics being the thing that “killed” Kids magazine, the low-quality straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was thinking about this only recently as an online magazine recently accepted one of my poems for inclusion in its “Spring” issue which was supposed to come out in the first week of June. Or so. Maybe it’ll be the Summer issue. There’s even less money involved than with Kids, and certainly no contributor’s copies in a digital space, and I’m only half wondering if, somehow, I haven’t once again brought a publication to its knees.

But if my 12-year-old self can wait in hope for over a year for publication of sub-par drawings I supposed I can give an online journal a few more months. In the meantime, I’d do anything to see those old Kids magazines again. In a pinch I suppose I could hunt down some early issues of Scholastic’s Dynamite! magazine; they were both created by the same person and were very similar in tone, though Kids was less commercial in tone, which may have been what really killed it in the end.

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* To be clear, the Kids magazine of yore is not to be confused with the glossy magazine of the same name on the stands these days. Totally different, in a funky 70s kid sort of way.

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First, apologies to those who might believe the title of this post has anything to do with Douglas Adams. Though I’d do anything to possess his wit and literary note, I do not and I try not to think about it very often.

For several months now I’ve been pulling back at various aspects of my online presence, from my twitter feed to my blogging to even merely zooming around and seeing what the rest of the world has been up to. The reason has been external and not entirely planned, but absolutely necessary: I was hunting down some gainful employment. And now I am, gainfully employed full-time, and for the first time since 2008.

Yeah, the economy sucks.

To be fair, I’d only been job hunting seriously for seven months, and a great number of ideal positions I was seeking were clearly inundated with applicants. I’ve worked in HR for a spell and was well aware of the “negatives” that I couldn’t hide – gaps in employment, indirect career paths, and the biggies that no one could legally ever admit to, my age and my abundance of experience – so a good deal of my hunting involved reframing my personal narrative. Add to that my willingness to start from the bottom in a career shift where “entry-level” now means “at least two years unpaid internships with prior experience and a willingness to work 80 hour weeks” and I was really up against the wall. I landed in familiar territory – retail management, bookstore variety – but I really thought I had so much more to offer in other fields. Sadly, hundreds of employers did no agree with me.

The job hunt itself pulled my internet tendencies away from blogging and took up valuable time I would normally have assigned to my creative work. Then, just before a long-planned family vacation, and I thought I’d have plenty of time to do a little catching up before the nine-to-five grind caught hold of me.

Yeah, I honestly thought I’d be chillin’ online instead of enjoying a fine week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in late June.

And while I was on vacation, I caught a cold.

So here I am using a holiday to recoup and see if I can’t get a sense of what the future looks like.

When I was last employed full-time I had just begun the process of earning an MFA with an eye toward becoming (finally) published in the area of children’s and young adult literature. That work, that road, has been steady but bumpy. I think everyone has a hope of what they think will happen, and then adjusts as reality sets in. The hope is the goal, the distance keeps shifting, the way a place on the distant horizon always looks closer that it really is when you’re driving straight toward it. While many (or most) of my fellow MFA-ers worked parallel to their employed lives, I am just now making the adjustment back into the stream. I don’t imagine it’s going to be easy at first, but I also don’t think it’ll be impossible. Once I get the rhythms of the new job (and commuting, and home duties) in place, I’ll know how and when to establish writing time, better manage my online presence, and find that new balance between all the things I want and need and hope to get done.

I have much deck-clearing to get done on this Independence Day, with more to do in the days and weeks ahead, looking forward to the equilibrium that is the next stage in this crazy life of mine.

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