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So I’m still thinking about last week’s #kidlitchat because it’s an interesting exercise, an alternate version of the question “your house is on fire and you have to evacuate — what would you grab in five minutes?” Growing up in California (and living a good chunk of my life there) earthquakes and wildfires happen and the question becomes less academic. Although I lived through the 1971 Sylmar and 1989 Loma Prieta quakes and was very near the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire I never really had to make those tough decisions.

The Desert Island question seems simple on the surface — what would you want to have with you? — but there are so many factors involved. It’s presumed you were traveling, but would you be traveling with your favorite books, or ones you wanted to read while traveling? If you being deliberately marooned and had the time, would you choose comfort books? Favorites that would help pass the time? Wouldn’t practical titles (plant guides, survival manuals) make more sense?

Am I over-thinking this?

Actually, no, but I’m not thinking very progressively, and neither were a lot of my fellow kidlit-chatters.

Of the twenty-one titles I listed for my desert island archipelago library I count only three women writers and no discernible minorities. Looking back at the titles other kidlit-chatters put down I see a few who made the effort to be inclusive, but that’s what it felt like, an effort to be inclusive and not necessarily and automatically obvious choice. This could be easily explained by the fact that until recently the children’s book world has been dominated by mostly white authors and, among “classics,” mostly male. Easily explained, but not happily. But we’re talking about this now, and we’re working on it, so no need to belabor the point.

When I think about what I didn’t include I realized two things: first, I had a larger number of books that stuck with me from childhood than I originally thought and second, fourth grade was a really good year.

After lunch in fourth grade Mrs. White would read to us from the middle grade books of the day. I date myself by saying most of these books were released within five years of my fourth grade year: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sounder, Harriet the Spy, and James and the Giant Peach. There was no attempt to use these books to teach concepts (that I remember), no summary essays to prove we were listening (except occasionally when we acted up), it was a time to settle in after being wild and to listen to a story for the joy of the story. Though many had those gold and silver medals on them we had no idea what that really meant, and no fear of their being over “message” stories, they were simply contemporary titles that spoke to our ten- and eleven-year-old hearts and souls. Fifty years on and they’re all classics, popping up on adults desert islands.

But I know not a single one of these would end up on my daughter’s version of this list.

Oh, they know the books, and even like some of my classics, but for Em her list would have to include Harry Potter, and Jules would need some Sharron Creech or Leap by Jane Breskin Zalben. Maybe when they’re adults and have a different sense of what makes a classic they’ll redefine their memories, but already I can see the changes in the generations: their favorites include more women writers than mine.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, of all people, once said “Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” Replace ‘people’ with ‘kids,’ ‘peace’ with ‘diversity,’ and ‘publishers’ with governments’ and…

Indeed, I think that kids want diversity so much that one of these days publishers had better get out of the way and let them have it.

Kidlitchat happens every Tuesday night on Twitter, and you never know how long a simple question and an hour-long conversation is going to sit with you and make you think.

9 to 10 PM EST, hashtag #kidlitchat. open to all. I consider it an important part of my continuing education.

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It was pretty clear to me half way through last Tuesday’s #kidlitchat that many people found it hard to limit the number to five. I had already thrown down ten titles and felt I could do thirty or forty more, easily. But after a list of my cherished five, followed by a round of classic (and not at all kidlit) titles, I wanted to throw out something a little more challenging in terms of what might be overlooked.

I went with graphic novels. And if I had to pick five of those for another, different desert island…

Watchmen. The comic book that blew my mind and helped me get away from superheroes.

Zot! by Scott McCloud. Yes, the author of Understanding Comics wrote a comic book that smooshed superhero elements, a parallel universe, and manga style all together, with teen characters at the center. Good stuff, few people seem to know it, which is a crime.

Bone, complete. There are a number of epic-length, multi-volume stories that could learn a lot about pacing and storytelling from Jeff Smith’s masterpiece.

Sandman. This is a cheat because there’s no one single volume of all the Sandman tales, but it’s my island so there. This, coupled with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight and Watchmen pretty much changed the way I, and many other people, viewed comics.

The Airtight Garage by Moebius. Or Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius if you want to get all French and technical about it. French comic master Moebius (Jean Giraud) was the reason I started reading Heavy Metal magazine as a teen, and his science fiction visions and stories clearly influenced writers and filmmakers. He was Star Wars before Star Wars. He was Little Nemo for adults who liked aliens. Moebius wrote dozens of stories over the years and while it’s hard to single one out, this collection is the most complete for me.

It was while I was tossing out these titles that chat co-moderator Greg Pincus suggested I needed my own archipelago. Indeed! And why not? A small spit of connected islands, each with it’s own specialty lending library! TIme was running out on the chat, so I could probably get one more island’s worth of titles in.

Seeing a lot of the same shared titles come up I decided for the last round to come up with titles deliberately selected because they would be unlikely to be on anyone else’s list. But still kidlit.

Moon Have You Met My Mother? the collected poems of Karla Kuskin. This epic collection runs the gamut from serious to funny and is, in some ways, a nice counterpart to Shel Silverstien. Personally I give those two equal weight as kids poets and yet I rarely see anyone mention or feature Kuskin when talking about poetry for kids. Am I missing something?

Owls in the Family by the late Farley Mowat. Got a reluctant reader boy? Got a kid that likes rescuing animals? Got a hankering for the crazy interaction of humans and owls with very distinct personalities? Why have you not read this book yet?


Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater. Actually, I think Pinkwater deserves his own island, but push-to-shove it came down to this or The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Lizard Music won this time. It’s the most sincere of the two, in a Pinkwaterian sort of way.

The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll. Everyone else will have Alice’s Adventures, why not a nautical tale?

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. A quintessential mid-century boy’s boy, this collection of tales that weaved together to a final climax reads like William Saroyan for the middle grade set.

As time was winding down on the chat I realized there was one book that simply had to be added: Pippi Longstockings. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so since I started writing for kids that I’ve come to marvel at this brilliant, subversive, unusually structured masterpiece.

One person commented that they hadn’t heard of most of the titles I mentioned in the chat. Another insisted I was sitting in front of my library just writing things down. To the first, what a shame that more people don’t know these titles. I recognize that not everyone can have read everything, but I didn’t find these titles by chance; I actively sought out good, unusual, original stories both as a kid and as an adult. And I feel sometimes that adults devote their time reading and reviewing new titles when it should be fifty-fifty, old and new.

After the chat was over I looked back and felt I had made some omissions, that the collected titles represented an interesting cross-section of agreement with little dissent. Or diversity.

Next: Desert Island Omissions, Glaring and Otherwise.

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The second half of the year sort caught me off guard and off-balance. I’m looking to right my ship and get back into the swing of things this coming year, both new and old. But for tonight, the last day in the Julian calendar year, I’m reaching back in time for a tune to replace Auld Lang Syne. It’s called a hymn but it’s a bit of blues rolled into jazz, majestic and hopeful, reaching across time from one turbulent time into another.

Happy year’s end to all.

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In articles on writing, in agents calls to prospective authors, in creative writing courses everyone talks about characters needing a strong voice. You really want to see the characters in the way they talk, you want hear a voice you’ve never heard before. I get it, because when you read a strong voice it really sounds like you’ve captured something unique.

But I’m beginning to wonder if these strong character voices in literature are little more than the gilt edging on a book made from cheap materials. Oh, sure, it looks pretty, but how long is it going to last?

Can I blame our current trends in pop music for lowering our expectations? The radio (however you conceive it today) is full of a lot of hit songs that are catchy and bouncy and full of strong voices but musically they’re about as unique as a cheap ballpoint pen; they’re functional, disposable, interchangeable, and forgettable.

There was a time — pull up a rocker, the cranky old man is about to come out — when popular music moved from manufactured hits to artists looking to be more creative. Bands evolved into creative units looking to expand their musical vocabularies, a path blazed by the Beatles and followed by many. And when the Beatles broke up and become solo artists the era of the singer-songwriter blossomed. There are many things to be said — good and bad — about the music that came out of the “classic” era of classic rock, but for a period of time what’s clear is that music was a marriage of vocal, lyrical, AND musical ideas. True, Led Zeppelin was simply amplified blues and Jethro Tull towed old English folk sensibilities into their songs, but there were ideas that went beyond their singer’s voices. Crosby, Stills, Nash and (occasionally) Young didn’t invent vocal harmony, but they didn’t rest entirely on that magical melding of sounds; listen to the structure of their songs, their free-form progressions, and you realize that much of what they did would have been unique even without their stellar vocal approach.

The point is, there was more to pop music than a voice.

But today we have reality TV shows that celebrate the cult of voice as being above all things in music, throwing out the notion of original music by having people sing known songs and not dealing with anything more daring that a slightly different arrangement. As TV goes it’s cheap to produce, and besides a back-up band all you really need is a microphone for the singer, no messy band gear to set up. It is, in a sense, all surface with little substance.

And this is where I’m starting to have problems with this idea of voice.

In the Cult of Voice in pop culture an action hero with a reliable catch phrase is more memorable than a well-crafted monologue. Wise-cracking teens (who are much more articulate and quick-witted than real teens) dance their way through epically-told tales of romance and death fetish (zombies, vampires, etc.). But the author with a unique narrative approach, a story with three-dimensional characters with baroque dialogue, those are not the voices the gatekeepers are looking for, move along.

In a recent #kidlitchat on twitter a question was raised: in today’s climate would Shel Silverstein be published today? I immediately said ‘no.’ I wonder if many of the no-considered classics in children’s literature, or classic rock for that matter, would have survived our contemporary need for strong voices above unique ideas or a bold authorial style. If Vonnegut were just starting out, would he make it? Could Anais Nin unseat “Fifty Shades of Grey” on style alone? Is it possible that Roald Dahl could only have existed in his time?

I know I’ve garbled this subject, with music and TV and book references, but all the same I cannot help feeling like so much of what is published is voice-over-storytelling.

A correction is in order, a new balance. Writers need to dig deep down and let their freak flag fly. Hopefully the business side of the storytelling factory can hear the story above the din of empty voices.

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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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I know, a couple extra days worth of twitku after the most recent Poetry Friday… how sad.  These are what I had as I stumbled across the thrice-daily haiku marathon finish line.  Oh, also: I was truly whacked out of my mind all of yesterday due to allergy medicine (there’s a twitku about it).  The stuff worked, but it’s a good thing I wasn’t operating heavy machinery.

29 April 2011
In the cyclone’s wake
stonemasons grinding away
at new grave markers

best party ever
one everyone talks about
is the one you missed

can we retire
euphemisms for AIDS deaths
“from complications?”

30 April 2011
crowded shopping mall
signs of a recovery
underwear sales

lawn torn up by dogs
gardening secrets exposed
artificial turf

deadline poet sighs
last haiku, no ideas
it was all a dream?

As I was going along this month I would come up with some lines of haiku that I couldn’t quite finish.  Sometimes the wording was off (sometimes I went ahead and posted those anyway) and other times I’d have a solid beginning or ending but nowhere to go.  I’d set those aside and would come back and toy with them now and again, keeping them in reserve in case I found myself stumped.  The hardest day was actually April 9th — those ku just had to pulled like bad teeth – but I didn’t really need to dip into the reserves that often.

What follows are the leftovers, the twitku that either didn’t fit that day’s theme or for whatever reason just didn’t strike my fancy at the time.

1 May 2011
drifting through twilight
whacked out on allergy meds
thoughts dance with the breeze

cloudy horizon
blues come rainin’ into town
no point shelterin’

singin’ out the pain
‘cause despite how it feels
it ain’t in the blood

it never fails
if you can smell the dog poop
then you stepped in it

you appreciate
the most valuable things
once you have lost them

dining conundrum
once you’ve discovered the mold
do you keep eating?

trying on new clothes
sizes shrink, waistlines expand
one of us is wrong

for fake soothsayers
no sense making predictions
there’s no future there

true insomnia
means knowing the exact time
via street cleaners

Wait!  30 days, three times a day, that’s 90 haiku.  Plus nine that didn’t fit until the end… I can’t quit at 99 haiku!  So I’m thinking and I’m thinking, and finally I dip into an old notebook to see if I’ve scrawled something inspirational.  Old grocery shopping lists, measurements for furniture, fake band names, nothing is doing it.  Then I hit a page that has a partial sentence on it.  “Surrealism means.”  Means what?  Why did I write that?  When did I write that?  What the heck was going through my mind that felt that fragment was so important that it was best left unfinished.

Clearly it was my future self who needed that fragment.  My past self just didn’t realize it.

Here’s the thing, I was working through the second line and I realized that the most surreal answer wouldn’t be anything I came up with.  In true surrealist spirit, the final line would be whatever made the least sense to the individual reader.  Suddenly the missing element is actually the thing that makes it work. For my last twitku of national poetry month I provide you good, loyal, most-inspirational  readers with a choose-your-own-ending haiku.

Seriously, what should the last line be?  Feel free to propose your own ending in the comments. I wish I had a prize for this, beyond the fame and honor of providing the most surreal ending to a haiku.

And the 100th monkey is…

Means never having to say
(”                                      “)

And for the record, “refrigerator” has already been taken.

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I’m in the last act of my current work-in-progress, making a crazy-mad dash to the finish.  It’s a first draft and it’s ugly and beautiful and will probably bear no resemblance to the final draft after revisions.  Still, knowing that revisions are coming, I’m planning ahead and outlining my next project.

I know the benefit of letting a draft “rest” before taking it on in revision, but once I get to the end I usually have a better sense of the beginning and want to rework it some.  That causes a ripple effect down the line and I’ll end up trying to rework the entire manuscript.  This is wrong, bad-wrong, and crazy-making wrong because I don’t have the perspective to see it with fresh eyes.  The only way around this is to try and force a rest period by having something else lined up and waiting for me to work on.

So in those moments when the Muse refuses to sing these final pages to me, I’m outlining.

Boy, am I outlining.

I have a rough three-act outline for the story, breaking the main and sub-plots into large general chunks.  I have another outline I call The Haiku with has the three acts broken into thirteen chapters – three for act one, five for act two, three for act three, with a prologue and epilogue chapter on either side.  I have a five-act outline modified from screenplay structure, an original idea I came up with years ago that’s more satisfying to me than a three act model. And somewhere around here I have a folder with all the key story points written down on small sticky notes to be shuffled and rearranged into a proper order according to how I see the story unfolding on any given day.

At this point I have the story so over-plotted that when I finally sit down to write I shouldn’t have to review the outlines at all, which is the point. I have heard and know of writers who finish their first drafts and then delete them, an extreme version of pre-writing designed for them to get a sense of the story before settling in and writing the “real” draft.  If I’m being honest, that’s probably what I’m doing in the long run between my “first” and “second” drafts, because they are often so radically different that the first draft probably holds the same purpose as those “vomit drafts” that others throw away.

But if I really thought that draft was disposable, I’d never be motivated enough to finish it.

So this new project with all its outlining, it’s less about locking myself into the story and more about pre-visioning a first draft so that when I start writing I’m actually on the second draft.  Each of those outlines contains god bits not found on the others.  In some, the plot points are different, though they exist on all the drafts.  The sub-plot weaves a different pattern into the tapestry of each one, but the through-line is the same. The unnoticed holes in one are filled by the details in another. I’m so ready to write this thing after all the outlining that I’ll probably never look at the outlines once I start.  Which is the point.

Am I playing games with myself?  Yes. I’m overlapping my involvement with the stories so that when I finish the current WIP and need to let it settle I can start up with the new one immediately. It’s said that to be successful you have to show up for the job, every day, Butt In Chair.  Agreed, but there also needs to be something going down, and I call that Always Be Writing. And if it takes outlining myself to the point of distraction, so be it.

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