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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nursery Rhyme Comics.

Huh?

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

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

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

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A little over two years ago I was flummoxed by someone’s attempt to indicate profanity using an odd string of substitute characters on the keyboard.  I decided to write a blog post about it, and about the “proper” ways one can use symbols to replace curse words in print.

It has, to date, been the most popular blog post I have ever written.  It still gets dozens of hits every day, even two years later.  And while it’s good for my overall stats, it’s a little depressing.

Recently I saw an upswing in visits and casually noted a number of them were redirects from another person’s blog (at this point, with my link back to his post that links back to mine we are in serious logrolling territory).  Curiosity sent me to fanboy.com and I’m glad I did because I got me some schooling in the process.

First, that chicken scratch that’s used to fill in for curse words, those are called grawlixes. And there’s quite a history of them stretching back to the early days of comic strips. I had assumed these symbols had a name but two years ago I was more interested in getting my complaints off my chest than doing the necessary research to find this out.  I also learned that the word for the beads of sweat that shoot away from a character in surprise or embarrassment are called plewds.   Or rather, I relearned this word, because I had come across it decades ago but in my mind it had mutated to the word ploids, which have been co-opted by the Frito-Lay people as their trademarked name for proof-0f-purchase tokens to be exchanged for worthless gifts.  I’m happy to be corrected, knowing that the proud plewd has not been subsumed by a corporate entity.

Interesting is how various strands of the universe intersect.  Okay, so maybe its the strands of the internet interconnecting, but same diff.  This morning my wife was reading a review of the new William Shatner TV show Stuff My Dad Says, based on the book Sh*t My Dad Says, which was based on the Tweets by Justin Halpern from an account called shitmydadsays.  You can spend days on the internet reading all the outrage over the numbing-down of the title, about people shocked by such profanity being “introduced” to mainstream culture, about how the entire concept jumped the shark before the book even came out, and yet another rasher of anger over censorship.  All this fuss and bother over a word. And to top it off, the critic gave the TV show a D- grade.

But what does it mean when we replace a profanity with symbols and scrawl?  When we make the choice to replace a word generally understood to be profane, are we not bowing just a little toward censorship?  It used to be such language, even symbolically, was seen as outrageous, a sign of bad character and questionable morals.  Now even the most genteel librarians unabashedly speak fluent potty mouth without once begging us to pardon their French.  If we read these grawlixes and can make out their true meaning, why do we continue to pretend that we are somehow keeping our language elevated from the vulgar and profane?

I will admit, the use of grawlixes is a more elegant solution than placing self-censored language on “word” lists.  You know, the n-word, the f-word, or like little kids on the playground who feel empowered doing so, the s-word.  As is “the s-word my dad says.”

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, this power we invest in certain words.  We elevate certain bits of our language by making them unspeakable, like the name of God, invest them with talismanic powers to shock, offend, represent darker ideas.  I suspect we prefer to limit their use in order to retain that power, to prevent the words from becoming commonplace.  If four-year-olds use and aren’t afraid to use certain words, then over time they cease to retain their power, and the power of their meaning is lost.

Form all this you might assume I’d support The Parents Television Council ( and their Orwellian “Because Our Children Are Watching”) and their pressuring CBS to change the title of their doomed sitcom to Stuff My Dad Says, but you’d be wrong.  Changing the title and toning down the father character removed the power and the humor inherent in the premise. Like watching Betty White on Saturday Night Live delivering sexual double entendres, the whole point of SMDS is that it’s outrageous. It’s about what Justin Halpern’s dad says and how he says it.  Take that away and you have nothing left. Take away the language and you have removed the power of the humor.

So let’s keep the grawlixes in place when their intent is humorous, but lets use the actual words themselves when they are culturally significant.  In a YA novel, let the profanity rip where it would be natural for teens exploring the limits of language (and sex and everything else) takes them into the territory of overuse.  Let’s remain sensitive to words that have been used historically – racial slurs and epithets – so that we don’t accidentally re-empower the hatreds that created them.  And lets not go around assuming that everything on television is meant for every member of the house.  The audience for shitmydadsays is/was mature adult children dealing with coming to terms with their elderly parents. The only way the TV show could have reflected that was to hold true to the Tweets that inspired it.

The sacred and the profane are the two sides to the same coin.  Like Yin and Yang, they require each other to maintain balance.  You need the one in equal measure to recognize the other.

H-e-double-toothpicks yeah!

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herky-jerky posting

Been a hairy semester.  Not getting time to blog.  Used to be more current.  Used to be able to stay on top of two blogs.  Can’t even speak complete sentences.

Also: Why does it always seem like no matter what book I’m reading everyone is reading something I feel like I should be reading instead?

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Hours from now I’ll be on a bus headed north for Montpelier.  From all over the world — literally — a small band of like-minded folks will be descending on the smallest state capital in the United States.  We’ll be there to reconnect, recharge, and retreat.  We’ll also be there to stay up way too late talking, eating cafeteria food made by culinary students, and frantically making decisions about how to spend our next semester actively pursuing a collective dream.

It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, by accident, or without support.  Though these dates have been in place for over six months, this residency is turning out to be a real household wrecker.  While I’m up north Suze is working frantically on a case that may send her south for a few days at the same time.  I know Suze has kept the details from me to avoid making me feel bad about leaving — to keep from feeling I’m abandoning everyone and everything — and to be honest, I don’t know what I could contribute as a solution even if I were up on everything.  She’s got her mother coming for a few days, she’s working the connections of friends in town to keep an eye on the girls in the afternoons before she gets home from work.  Even though lectures and workshops are going to be fully engaging, it’s going to be hard not to wonder (and worry) about things at the homestead when my attention drifts.

Then there’s the pending CT, the critical thesis.  This is the semester I’m charged with pouring some great bit of wisdom at length into something graduate-worthy. This has been freaking me out almost since the beginning and it’s hard to imagine it’s going to go as smoothly as people tell me it will. The CT, this residency, it all reminds me of when I was a Boy Sprout and we’d stand at the trail head at the beginning of a backpacking trip.  We’d know how many miles we were headed, where camp was, starting and ending elevation, but that first step seemed so impossibly far away from the last.  And when it was over it semed as if the first step was so insignificant compared to some of the others along the way. It also seemed a lot shorter than the actual time spent, like somehow time fluctuates to make the monumental insignificant, magnifies the minute into momentous, and makes the whole process strange and horrible and wonderful and new and old all at once.

I’ve got ten days ahead of me that are both familiar and unknown to me.  When it’s over I’ll come home and all of this stress and anxiety will evaporate, replaced by stories and the comfort of order.

*     *     *

One part of me wants to keep up with what’s going on here in blog land, to keep a running diary of rez and all that happens, and the reality is that if I have any spare moments I’m going to want to check in at home or keep up with emails and whatnot.  So if I go dark for a few weeks, trust that somewhere else everything is much brighter.

Much love and public appreciation to Suze who is making this possible, despite some incredible obstacles on all fronts.  I owe you some Oreo truffles, among many other things, sweeite.

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I posted a comment on Facebook, witch was followed up by a note including a recipe, which reminded me of an old blog I once knew.

My second attempt at blogging, many (three?) years ago, was a personal journey into the world of food.  What I thought I could add to the din of semi-professional home chefs and true gourmands, I couldn’t say.  I think I was still very unsettled about my place in the kidlit world and was feeling like I needed to start closer to home before I started spouting off about books and things.

I didn’t really have much use for the old blog once I dumped it back in June of 07 and nearly wped it from the face of the earth.  I decided to see what would happen if I left it there, how soon it would be before it didn’t get any visits and I’m still waiting.  Sure, maybe it gets only four hits a day on average, but what they say about things being forever on the internet is true!

Anyway, last December (that would December 07) I landed a new computer (thanks, Suze!) and transfered my life from one drive to the other.  Only in the process I managed to totally erase all my recipes and a good deal of my reviews for The Horn Book Guide to date.  The reviews I could live with because I had printed copies, but the recipes, the recipes…

Every once in a while I’ll go “You know what I haven’t made in a long time?”  and then I’ll go looking for the recipe and realize it was among the lost.  Lost and gone forever.

Bu a small fraction of them survived… on the internet!  Yup, occasionally I would crow about a particular recipe that worked out well, among all sorts of food related nonsense and musings, on the old blog.  As a result about once a month I go back to the old site just to make sure I didn’t miss a recipe, or to find the details of a particular dish I once memorized and suddenly doubted.  Since the thing won’t die, and is still somewhat useful (and occasioanlly amusing) I decided today rather than keep it hidden that I might as well own up and include the link.  It’s just to the left, under “windows” where I link to my book review blog.

And about the title.  The correct assumption is the refernece to Paul Simon’s song of the same name.  My feeling was that cooking was one of those subjective arts where what one person considers food of the gods (like toasty dogs) might, to another, seem very low rent. Fancy restaurants don’t impress me because they are spending a lot of energy (and my money) drawing attention to the food in a way that makes it seem like magic when it isn’t.  You want to see magic?  Watch me make chocolate disappear.

Like it says, it’s just another window into my world. Feel free to poke around.

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to vote

It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.
~ Tom Stoppard

I was eighteen when I was able to vote in my first national election. It was 1980 and my brain was swimming with a first semester in college and my first time living away from my family. Selective Service had been reinstated and I registered at the same time that I registered to vote. After years of complaining about not having a say in our national politics I finally felt I would be able to make my voice heard. I was young and fired up. I was also politically cynical and understood nothing about the political process. But I voted, because it was not only my right as a citizen, I felt it was my duty.

Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.
~ George Jean Nathan

I had a government teacher in high school who had worked for Voice of America during World War II. He had worked under a number of administrations before retiring from government service to become a teacher. His love of democracy was so great, it was infectious. Once he said “Who would willingly throw away their right to vote, in this or any country, for the people who would represent them?” Even when I wasn’t enthusiastic about my choices, or confused about ballot measures, I always voted. Except the one time when I didn’t.

When you blame others you give up your power to change.
~ Douglas Noel Adams

I don’t remember why, but once I failed to vote. It was an off-cycle local election, not a national one, but it came and went and for whatever reason I let it slip by. I remember the day after reading about the results in the newspaper, following which candidates won (or didn’t) and which ballot measures passed (or didn’t) and was struck with an awkward horror. I wanted to complain about some of the results but didn’t feel I’d earned the right because I hadn’t participated. In an election where nearly 60% of the state’s population hadn’t turned out I became a statistic, a group labeled politically apathetic. I hadn’t found the time to make the effort and suddenly realized that I had no right whatsoever to complain about the results. I had surrendered my rights, and I felt it as acutely as if they had been taken from me by force. I vowed never to let that happen again.

What you don’t do can be a destructive force.
~ Eleanor Roosevelt

I have two girls who are more politically aware at the ages of 10 and 12 than I was even in my mid 20s. They understand a variety of complex issues, and better, they can reason and argue their own political points of view. They cannot wait to vote and are looking forward to the opportunity. For the first time in a national election they are aware that, whoever wins, the outcome is going to have an effect on their lives and futures. The first chance they will get to vote in a national election is eight years from now. It seems so short to me, it feels like forever to them. They understand what it means to participate in a democracy and are eager to do so. I’m looking forward to asking them how it feels the first time they get to vote.

Democracy belongs to those who exercise it.
~ Bill Moyers

**********

These are my views, but there are many more over at Blog The Vote. Check them out and add to the chorus. Oh, and don’t forget to exercise your franchise rights!

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This was supposed to be where I talked about this process of writing and getting the MFA.  And what have I been doing?  Spouting off on politics and industry gossip and whatnot.  Time to get real.

Actually, things have been very real, I just haven’t blogged them.  Since the first draft of the middle grade, novel I’ve been approaching the revisions with a mixture of anticipation and dread.  I know it needs work, and I know a lot of the work it needs.  It’s where the rubber meets the road that’s been difficult.

I have this chapter.  It’s not really a chapter because it isn’t written yet, but it’s going to be a chapter.  It’s a new chapter, one that I’m hoping adds a new layer of information and resonance with the main character’s understanding and growth at the end of the story.  So it’s sort of important, but that’s the trick of it, because I don’t want it to read like it’s important.  It needs to feel as casual to the reader as to the main character so the dots all connect up in the end.

The scene is also transitional.  It bridges a gap in time that, on its own, would be fine; the gap would be accepted and the story could trundle on.  The problem is that inserting the scene in this gap forces an explanation for why it’s there and not somewhere else.

Why is it there?  Does it need to be there?

Well, to my thinking, yes.  It has to be fairly early on because that’s when a reader will accept a certain amount of incongruity in the story.  You’re still getting into the groove, still collecting information as a reader, your ideas about the character and the story are still in the gelatinous stage.  If it comes any later, once you’ve got some solidity to characters and setting, the scene would stick out like a giant piece of neon in the middle of the desert saying NOTE: AUTHOR AT WORK!  It needs to be up front where it can be a “Whatever” scene so that later (he hopes) it can be an “Oh, wait! Now I get it!” scene.

And it might not even work. That’s the thing.  I’m dropping this in because I feel this is the best way to show (and not tell) what it is I’m trying to convey about a particular character without dramatically altering what I already have.  The character in question is secondary and doesn’t require much more, but there had to be something that I could use later on to explain some things.

I hate talking about it like this.  It’s like one of those great anonymous pronoun conversations you sometimes hear kids have:

-Did you hear what he said about her?
-I thought they cleared all that up before she called him.
-That’s what I thought, until she called and said he’d told her that they weren’t, you know..
-She called him?
-No, she called me and told me what he said about her that caused the whole thing to fall apart between them.

I guess its because I’m a little superstitious that once I put elements of the story out there I’m going to start hearing “You know what this reminds me of…” followed by the titles of half a dozen books that my book is like (only not as good), which will leave me feeling like I should abandon the book.  I know that there are only 36 dramatic situations, and that nothing new has been written in centuries, but I need to hold onto that clear vision in my head of doing something new (or new-ish) to keep me going.

This one scene, that’s all I need.  Perhaps it’s because I’m trying too hard, because I know it needs to be there. Like zen enlightenment, once I stop looking for it I’ll find it.  So all I need to do is find something else to do to trick my mind into think about something else so it can relax enough to find the right solution.

I thought blogging about it would help.  Foolish cheese! I’ve done nothing BUT think about it!

*sigh*

Back to the salt mines.

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