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.


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.


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

What do you think?

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?

i wish i invented…

As a writer, a creator, an artistic fellow, I admire those creative and inventive things others do as I imagine most people do. A smile, a shake of the head, a chortle, a sigh. Could be in a book or a museum, a movie or some roadside attraction, anything that I stumble onto that makes me see something – no, someone – out there in the world trying to connect and idea with others.

Maybe it’s a sign of weakness, this idea of wishing I had created this or that, rather than using the energy for my own purposes, but the things that get me are the ones that have no creator readily attached to them. Sometimes those things are the ones I really wish I could figure out how to invent.

Like playing cards. Four suits, two colors, face cards representing royalty. I sometimes like to reimagine new suits, a new “standard” that would last hundreds of years, available in every stinking drugstore across the country, with no creator name attached to them. We see them all the time, buy them, use them for games, build houses out of them, use the in magic tricks. They are familiar and accepted and universal. Four strangers with no shared language can break out a deck of cards and have a pretty good time of it. That’s an amazing thing to me.

Then there’s chess. Another royal game with plenty of antecedents. A game with so many possibilities, so simple and yet so intricate, clean and geometric. I really don’t have the fine analytical mind for the game itself, so wishing I’d invented it sort of feels a little false. But what a thing, to come up with a board that can be found all over the world, to create a set of pieces that represent specific moves, a game that stands as a measure for intellect. That would have been cool to have invented.

Or the limerick. Not just any form or poetry, but one with so strong a pull it is instantly recognized both by its meter and its humor. You don’t see much serious limerickry going on, and for good reason” it’s unnatural! A serious limerick is like a knock-knock joke that ends with tears. No, how wonderful it would have been to have devised not only the phrasing but the content for the first limerick so that moving forward only humor would suit the form.

There’s this notion that the creative person is moved by this sense of creating something immortal, something that will outlast them, that will claim their moment in time like a flag planted on the moon. It’s true, there are some people out for the fame and recognition in their lifetimes, but I don’t think that’s the driving force of a true creative. These things I wish I’d invented don’t have names attached to their everyday use, and I wouldn’t want mine attached to them as well. I’d simply like to have had the satisfaction of creating them.

It’s the old “would you rather” question, I guess: notoriety or anonymity, fame or fortune.

How about you? What do you wish you’d invented, or created?

Sometimes, as a writer, I feel so lost.

That feeling is a type of insecurity borne from trying to speak in one’s true voice while trying to capture the voices of one’s inspirations.

Learning to read, that was a rush like the opening of a door to another land, but once I started to create my own sentences, my own stories, that was the universe opened up. But it was between the ages of eleven and sixteen that I found the books that would, for better or worse, define what appealed to me as a reader and a writer.

Five years of books read with no discernible pattern or goal that shaped, molded, teased and taunted, stretched, delighted, confused, numbed, and ultimately built the foundation of the person in me that I call the Writer.

But what was it about those books? What did I respond so strongly to that I was inspired to imitate their styles or themes?

More importantly, how long has it been since I read them? In some cases, its in the vicinity of forty years ago.

Perhaps its time for a refresher, a reboot of the drive, a chance look back at point A from point B and see what really happened on that journey.

And so, an answer to a question I’d posed for myself over what to read this summer. While I have plenty of new things to read I want to root out some of those old books, the familiar and the obscure, and see what I learn about myself.

I know this is going to have to include the Jerome Beatty kid-from-the-moon Matthew Looney series, and a thorough re-read of Lear’s Complete Book of Nonsense. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Welcome to the Monkey House along with Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles will be in order. For a variety of reasons best saved for another day, I was traumatized by Saroyan’s My Name is Aram back in seventh grade and feel I need to give it a fair chance. And if — and this is a big if — if I can find the EXACT oversized collection of Little Nemo in Slumberland and the right Whole Earth Catalog then i think I’ll have all the proper ur-texts at hand for deciphering who I am now.

No less important are a handful of books that brought me back to life after some very dark times when I forgot who I was and what I wanted. Pinkwater’s Young Adult Novel is certainly due for a reread probably sooner than the others, and I need to touch down with Block’s Weetzie Bat again. And some books I once was impressed by and have now totally forgotten might be due for resurrection: Maguane’s Panama, Auster’s City of Glass trilogy, and perhaps if I’m really finally serious, I’ve been meaning to finish Zola’s Therese Raquin since 1983.

Equally important, but less so for rereading would be the Amphigorey books and the Kliban cat cartoon collections.

I’ll check back in one month from now (or so, vacation and all might make it more like five weeks) and then a month after than, and we’ll see what’s what. I suspect even just a handful of these books will be more than enough to show me the after-image of the lightning that supercharged my writerly stirring all those years ago.

Growing up we had one camera in our family, a Kodak Brownie Starmite, a blue and white piece of molded plastic with a silver disk for the flash bulb. Whenever there was a social occasion the camera would be dug out of the closet, a few pictures would be taken, and the camera put away. It could be MONTHS before the roll of 24 snapshots would be ready to be removed and developed, and a returned envelope of prints was like a mini time capsule of events full of surprise images – some flawed, some sad, some goofy, some tragic – but all of them undeniably historical for the memories they rekindled and the stories they told.

Eventually newer cameras and easier-to-load film formats emerged and suddenly we had multiple cameras in the house. I don’t remember whether we got the Polaroid Instamatic or the Kodak 110 Pocket Instamatic, or where the X-15 Instamatic fell in among these, but with cartridge loading and instant imagery came the idea that photos could be both easier to take and provide more instant gratification. The film cameras still needed to be taken in for developing but the cartridges were easy and guaranteed fewer lost and fogged rolls. But the Polaroid, that was a game changer.

Now when you took a picture you could peel off the backing paper to expose the chemical to the air for development (before you simply shook it until the image emerged) and if for some reason it didn’t look right, someone blinked or the lighting was bad, you could “correct” the memory on the spot. Instead of reliving a moment from the past we now gathered around and shared a moment from a few moments earlier. It was a sweet novelty but the cost of instant film was prohibitive enough that it, too, would only be trotted out to perform on special occasions. For really important moments both a film camera and the Polaroid would be pressed into service, just to make sure the event was well-preserved.

Jump ahead. Jump beyond the camcorder revolution, beyond the point-and-shoots, beyond early digital cameras of 2 megapixel, 4 megapixel, 10 megapixel, into the lap of the smartphone with its built-in digital camera. it’s an old story now, even now, that we have these cameras with us all the time and we can take a picture or video at a moment’s notice. We no longer wait for the special occasion, we capture every moment no matter how small. We review it instantly and decide whether to keep it store in memory or dump it to the digital netherworld. We no longer capture representations of moments for the future we capture the now, send it out to the world in the now, and move one to the next.

We no longer look at photos as moments in a memory, we remember the moments we recorded. The document has replaced the memory.

But a funny thing happened. For her fifteenth birthday J wanted to go out for a “tradition” of taking her elementary school friends out to ice cream. I brought a camera, my little Canon Powershot digital, and dashed off some candids while the kids ate and goofed around outside afterward. Then at home I hooked up the camera to the computer and realized that since I got my new laptop at the beginning of the year I hadn’t bothered setting up any of my photo uploading, editing, or sharing apps. And because the old computer was wonky and out-of-sorts I hadn’t dared load any pictures for some time. Almost ten months in fact, and it was as if I had just developed a roll of film from the old Brownie camera.

There was a combined birthday back in September that included a pig roast, a bouncy house for kids (and some grandparents), first-day-of-school pictures of the girls, a Thanksgiving trip to Chicago, Christmas with the in-laws and extended family, and finally this birthday trip. Other events during that time had been captured via the phone, given various processing and treatments and posted via social media or sent instantly via wi-fi networks to recipients. The photos in the camera, taken as a whole, were like an envelope of mystery snaps fresh from the drugstore. Having not seen some of them since they were taken, I was suddenly awash in memories and stories. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps, but also absence makes the memory grow stronger.

While uploading these “lost” photos I came across a handful that I decided I wanted to have printed. Such a quaint old notion, to actually make prints of photos that I can always access via a phone or a computer, but with an entirely different message. To record a moment is to say “this happened” but to move beyond that, beyond adding the photo to social media or texting them to friends and family, to print a photo says “this is important, this moment in time, and it deserves more than a digital flit.”

I wonder sometimes, will this younger generation be satisfied to live in a world without these physically printed totems?  Has the 20th century’s reign of photographic memory-keeping come to an end in favor of the instant-constant documentation of daily life?

And does it make me a nostalgic old man for even caring?

Looking back, the one thing everyone could agree on was how normal a day it had been.

In same way that people don’t notice their health until the get sick, no one could remember what it was like when there were shelves of Young Adult novels in the libraries and bookstores. Everyone could clearly visualize the sections as they once were – thick spines of glossy covers, tantalizing one-word titles with the promise of romance or dystopia or both! – outgrowing their allotted shelves and threatening to take over neighboring shelves. The Young Adult books even began to subdivide beneath genre headings never before seen in the world of “adult” fiction. And as they began to take over slots on the various Bestseller’s Lists, forcing the New York Times to consider a separate Book Review section devoted strictly to Young Adults books, something strange happened.

Quietly, the way the light changes when a thin cloud passes briefly, the way you suddenly notice the gradual aging in a loved one’s face, the Rapture came to Young Adult books and they simply disappeared.

Though not entirely.

As with any great societal change, the writers and artists saw it coming and prepared. Those with the most vested in the genre, the writer’s themselves, stopped identifying themselves and their writing as anything other than “fiction.” When called on the change, some even being accused of abandoning the category or of trying to distance themselves from “genre writers” in general, stood their ground with the oldest explanation in the book: they wrote what they wrote, it was up to marketing departments to determine where their books belonged. But in secret they eyed the territories of Middle Grade and Literary Fiction and pivoted their attentions.

Artists, in particular the photographers who filled countless stock photo sites with typical Young Adult images suitable for multiple use on covers, began replacing their old work with new. Topless torsos were supplanted with silhouettes free of distinct racial identifiers, or iconic images of places and things evocative of various moods, replacing figurative images altogether. Designers began cultivating styles reminiscent of eras before they were born, creating books covers with modern versions of retro graphics that lent an air of literary respectability to otherwise cringe-worthy titles. It became difficult to tell whether a book was newly published or a reprint of a contemporary of classic 20th century authors. The resulting confusion deliberately set the stage for the disappearance of Young Adult books as those that were published were confused for adult titles and “mis-shelved” accordingly.

Finally, with the price break in tablet computers making them as affordable as a cell phone, digital book sales by teen readers soared and, while reviving the few remaining old guard publishers, gutted the need for Young Adult print books altogether.

Then one day – an everyday normal day, on that everyone agrees – everyone was suddenly struck with the realization that Young Adult books had vanished overnight. They had a sudden curiosity to scan the shelves and see if there was perhaps something new to discover, only to find empty shelves and reapportioned sections where Young Adult books had been. Even the “classics” in the genre had vacated their roosts. Some were later discovered among the fiction and literature, others had gained new covers and were among those books aimed at the Middle Grade reader, and some (thankfully in far too many cases) apparently disappeared as if they had never been. Rumors that some titles were found hiding in other genres could not be verified, and in the end it was agreed, the Rapture had come to Young Adult fiction.

And the world continued on without incident. Some even said it was a better world than before.