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Archive for July, 2013

Something I have learned to experience as a reviewer of books and movies is that the more you have to convince someone the less likely what you’re trying to get across is true.

I have learned, for example, that when a publicist sends me a synopsis of a book they’d like me to consider, and they tell me the plot is “wacky” or “outrageous” or “zany,” I know they are lying.  I know from way too much experience that if you have to convince me something is funny, it isn’t. If you can show me that something is funny, really show me, then the humor will be obvious and I won’t need so much convincing to check it out.

In my day job I make a presentation once a week of the new book titles that are released. Obviously I cannot (nor do I have the desire to) read upwards of a dozen books a week just to keep up with the publishing industry’s pulp factory. Sometimes I might do a little research about an author or a title, but more often I read and summarize the jacket copy.

Turgid, dull, and unoriginal don’t even begin to crack the surface of what I find there.

The problem is that they tell more than they show, they do the one thing authors are so painstakingly told to avoid in their own writing. How am I supposed to trust that the author can deliver what the jacket copy promises, especially if the jacket copy isn’t up to the job?  Am I supposed to believe that something is truly side-splittingly funny just because you say it is?

I can count on one hand the number of books that made me laugh out loud. They did not have to “sell” me on the humor, it was inherent in their title and plot. Captain Underpants, Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, Beat the Band to name three in the kidlit camp. Granted, mostly pre-pubescent boy humor, but none of these books had to sell me on the funny, they told me all I needed to know from the title and their premise. If you have to tell me these books are wacky, zany, or outrageous then I know they aren’t. Telling is like the canned laughter of sitcoms, there to convince you of an emotion you aren’t feeling.

But the world isn’t full of truly funny books. There are more than enough mildly amusing premises, boatloads of unoriginal slapstick, plenty of sarcastic stories out there, from picture books up through young adult, but these descriptions don’t make for good sales because, frankly, they’re too honest.

By telling a prospective reader what to think and feel about a book before they have read it is the laziest and most insulting form of salesmanship. It presumes a reader cannot come to these conclusions on their own in its weak attempt to shore up what is an inferior product. It is insulting to the intelligence of the readers, and readers aren’t stupid, especially the young ones. They know its adults out there lying to them and they’re extra wary of the anonymous book cover that is trying to win them over like a creeper offering candy in a van.

So all you publishing interns, book publicists, and junior editors out there writing jacket copy and press releases, take note: if you really want your books read and purchased and reviewed, show us its worth our time, don’t tell us why.

And authors, if your query letters read like bad jacket copy, and you’ve sold your book, please share the secret of your success.

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Recently, I read another author’s blog post about The Bechdel Test being applied to YA literature. I discussed the test, and my take on it, three years ago (twice, actually) when I first was thinking about its applications in my own writing. I was trying to make a conscious effort to not make the mistakes I saw repeatedly in middle grade and young adult fiction and was positing that, as writers, we perhaps had the greater burden of doing for children, in books, what Hollywood can’t bother to do in their movies.

A little less recently, but recently, another author brought up the dearth of African American boys in children’s literature, which naturally sparked an interesting discussion on his blog. At least in many books aimed at non-adult readers there’s a mix of both genders, but the lack of a multicultural diversity is appalling. Now, like the old Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial (“Hey, you’ve got diversity in my litmus test!” “You’ve got a litmus test in my diversity!”) I’m just going to throw it all out there and suggest that we need to have something similar to the Bechdel Test for multiculturalism in YA literature.

And, yeah, I named it after myself. Obviously I’m open to (better?) suggestions.

First, let me say, I did discover a Racial Bechdel Test out there, which follows along the same lines as the original (and why keeping Bechdel in the name made some sense) but for me the “test” doesn’t go far enough. Let’s take a look for a moment:

There must be more than one character of color
At least two characters of color must have a conversation
The conversation has to be about something other than a white person

That’s a pretty low bar, if you ask me. First, according to this test, the character of color doesn’t have to be a main character. That right there is open to stories where the main character has multicultural friends, and the friends can talk to one another, but then they don’t have to be as integrated (pardon the pun) into the plot as the story isn’t about them. Hello, Tonto! Hello Sidekicks-of-Color! A white main character with a rainbow coalition just ends up looking like a story with multiculturalism grafted into place. So we have out first real tenant of The Elzey Test, which is:

The main character must not be a white person, by default or design.

Sounds kinda harsh laid out like that, but you know, it has to be done. Better to take the medicine and move on. Also, by making the main character a person of color you pretty much guarantee they’ll also have name. Nameless women are an oft-cited limitation of The Bechdel Test, so I’m trying to avoid that here.

The fact that white is a default setting – characters aren’t described as white, but non-white characters are always defined against that default – is a very subtle problem that draws attention to itself once underscored. You might not even realize a character is white until they meet up with another character who isn’t, but it’s usually the non-white characters that get delineated. You know, just so you can see that they’re the ones who are “different” from the hero. Describe them all, I say, and let’s make it the white characters who are different from the main characters for a while.

Now let’s look at the conversation aspect. Two characters of color having a conversation, I don’t know how important that is compared with the simple fact that there should be multiple characters of color of non-token status within the story. Again, the point isn’t to build a model UN but to tell stories that include the various races and ethnicities of the readership. Yes, there are monochromatic schools and neighborhoods with all-black and all-white kids, but a book is a window into a world where kids can see that characters of ALL colors have issues and commonalities, and we should be telling more of those stories in a non-divisive way.

But there has to be more than conversation, it has to be natural to be the character and the story, integral without calling attention to itself or the character’s race. This sounds a little more convoluted than it needs to, all I’m really saying is

Characters should sound realistic when speaking to one another without becoming stereotypical.

That is, not every conversation is a cultural clash between races. There’s some great territory to be mined in having characters misunderstanding each other, but there’s a lot more value in finding the things they share. And I don’t mean appropriating or mimicing a subculture. There are billions of stories to be told out there, and aside from those that center around race, the majority of those stories are about people who happen to look different from one another. So for our final point here

Conversations should be about anything but racial differences.

Which is not to say that dialog should be neutral or “whitewashed” but that those differences are undertones, or if necessary contextual, but not the topic. Kids from poor neighborhoods will talk differently than kids from gated communities, but let’s get away from that being what the story is about. Let’s see some poor white kids and some middle class minorities and just have them deal with the reality of their narrative situations, not what makes them different by appearance.

To writers who might be afraid that they cannot write “outside the lines” in terms of their own experience, or that swapping out white characters for people of color is a band-aid to the issue, let me suggest the following exercise. Take a beloved classic in children’s literature, swap out the white characters, then ask yourself: does this make a significant change to the story? I’m not suggesting that all one needs to do is write a story and swap out the white characters, I’m saying that in a lot of cases there really is no need for the “white default” that is prevalent in YA literature, so let’s change it. Or challenge it at the very least.

Oh, and while we’re correcting these defaults, let’s keep in mind that upwards of 10% of these characters are gay, too. Not to put any sort of quota on things, or that the fact that they may be gay AND of color automatically changes the narrative significantly, but let’s throw that possibility into the mix.

So, let’s see what this looks like all put together.

The main character must not be a white person, by default or design.
Characters should sound realistic when speaking to one another without becoming stereotypical.
Conversations should be about anything but racial differences.

Okay, now let’s fine tune this. I’d be willing to concede that the second and third points should go without saying, but there really has to be more to correcting the issue of color in YA than simply changing out the main character.

Right?

If we’re living in a post-racial America we should start providing literature for teens that reflects that world.

What do you think?

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I’m back, I’m tanned (okay, burned in splotchy areas), rested, shaking the sand out of my clothes, and ready to get back into things.

Or rather, I’m ready to see what new things I can get into, because the old things made me want this vacation so badly that clearly there is something wrong with what I’ve been doing.

There are no promises to make here, no resolutions, no grand agenda, but there is an enormous desire to undo what I’ve been doing which isn’t hard, because lately it’s it felt like I’ve been doing nothing.

I have not been reading. For months now. I have picked up books here and there and never got into them then let life get in the way. That’s just stupid. The “life” I let get in the way had to do with things I’d rather not be doing, i.e. a job for money, where the reading constitutes the necessary manna required for the thing I love, which is writing.

So I’m back to reading.

I have not been writing. Not seriously. I have squeezed in 20 minutes here and an hour there but I’ve also only been toying with things until I could find the time to do the “real” writing. Wrong. That’s just flawed thinking. Back-burnering larger projects because I don’t have time for them? No, I MAKE time for them and stop giving myself these little outs of being busy. Busy doing what? Things I hate, things I don’t want to do?

So I’m back to writing.

And the book reviews, my poor sad book review blog. While I have been reading for some reason I have fallen out of the habit of writing about those titles. In the past I have tinkered with the point and purpose of those reviews – initially they were part of my personal exploration and education, then they were an offshoot of both grad school and the reviewing I did for The Horn Book – but I’ve had a sort of crisis-of-faith that reviewing on a blog was somehow pointless. But I was able to do some quality reading while on vacation – my one and only goal for vacation was to read, which I did – and that reading kicked up some spark that makes me want to rethink and revisit the notion of writing about what I read. Hang the purpose and the style, if it isn’t for me first and foremost then it won’t matter to anyone else anyway.

So I’m back to blogging.

I guess there really is a list there, a plan, a scheme. Basics, I’m back to basics. It isn’t hardcore, planned on a calendar and scheduled to the minute, but the desire is there and I think, ultimately, its important for my soul that I get these parts of my house in order. Of those thing the blogging might lag behind the others, as I have recently been reading non-children’s books which don’t fit within the scope of that blog. I see this occasional gorging on “adult” literature as a sort of palette cleansing but also as a way of refreshing my critical reading skills. How much different is reading Don Delillo from a graphic novel? How are short stories for adults different or the same as those for teens? Whole new topics seemed to materialize out of the salty beach air. Cobwebs of the brain, be gone! I have things to think about and discuss!

So now we’ll see.

How is your summer shaping up, world? Any brain-clearing vacations on your horizon, any grand plans for these next couple of months?

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