Monday, April 26, 2010

Literary Love: Captain Underpants

Do I eagerly await each new installment in Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series? I do not. But if the image of me snort-laughing at scatological reference after scatological reference makes this post more fun for you, then go ahead and imagine it.

That disclaimed, I did read the first book in the series when I TAed a children's lit class, and it made a favorable impression, even more so than I expected. I tend to fall into the camp that believes virtually anything that will help kids enjoy reading has value, even if some gatekeeper somewhere thinks it's not "quality literature." (There are exceptions, and my exceptions might be different from your exceptions, but isn't that sort of debate what makes this field so much fun?) Even before I picked up this tale of the toilet, I knew I liked the idea (perhaps more novel at The First Epic Novel's 1997 publication than it is in this era of Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger) that a mainstream book for kids would appeal to this most basic part of their developing senses of humor. I knew I was glad to see it legitimize something that kids liked even if their parents didn't want them to like it, and that it sent the message that they could find this sort of thing in books.

The happy surprise when I read the first book is that the series goes farther than I realized in that granting of legitimacy. Captain Underpants' adventures don't happen in the books' "reality." Instead, they are the stuff of a comic created by young George and Harold. In other words, something the kid characters write and draw gets to be the most important part of the book.

"Your ideas matter," the books tell young readers. "What you create matters. Even if it's about underpants."

Friday, April 23, 2010

Freewriting and encumbered reading

No one will ever see your freewriting unless you want it seen. That makes it okay to be really inane, which cuts down on time spent sitting and tapping the pen you're not actually using. This freedom to write (see how that works?) often leads to breakthroughs, and I highly recommend it.

My freewriting mostly falls into two categories:

a) writing through a particular problem in the manuscript or question about what will happen next. (Often begins, "Hokay. So.")
b) having a character answer a writing prompt about anything so I can get to know the character and the novel's world a little better.

Today was a Category B day, since I wasn't trying to figure out anything in particular. I snagged a Monday Morning Warm-Up (Friday, Schmiday) (prompts are at the end of each post) and set out to complete the sentence, "I love my library because..." from my main character's point of view.

This particular prompt put my bookselling brain to work as well. What has my main character read lately? This information will probably never appear in the text, but it turns out she just finished James and the Giant Peach, and she loved it while she was reading it. That part was easy. The hard part was imagining how she feels about the book now; her current conflicts cast a few of my most beloved poems/songs from the novel in a completely new light. That taught me a bit about reader response and a lot about how the things my MC is going through affect the way she sees everything.

So what are your characters reading, and how do they feel about it? (By "your characters," I mean characters you've created, and I also mean characters you've read about and made your own. You don't have to be writing a novel to play this game.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A place for preaching?

Please don't take away my writer's license for saying this: some kids like preaching.

Don't get me wrong. My manuscripts are not going to start saying, "Now, children, remember, lying is a really bad idea." My characters will not begin making observations like "You know, I think the real drug-free zone is in our hearts and minds." (The second example is an actual quote, to the best of my recollection, from a book that shall remain nameless.)

It's just that when I was a kid, preaching and predictability in general were kind of a guilty pleasure (and if that means I was an innocent child, well, I could've told you that). I'm certainly not the first to observe that kids find comfort in predictability. It's a major reason series are so popular, after all, and with a quick explanation of who all the characters are, an author can easily bring latecomers up to speed and get them hooked. I wonder, though, if those little explanations aren't just there for new readers. Confession: as a kid, I enjoyed Chapter 2 of every Baby-Sitters' Club novel, the chapter that informed us in slightly different words each time, "Kristy is our leader. Claudia is the artistic one..."

Why? Because when I read that chapter, I got to say to myself, "I know that already." I knew the author was talking to the kids out there who didn't know, and I knew that if called upon, I could've helped the author show the other readers around. That was an empowering feeling.

The same goes for books that teach lessons. There's comfort in knowing what's going to happen and what the book is going to say. Kids spend a lot of time feeling like they know less than other people, and it's nice to have a chance to know that already.

What about the rest of you? Did you feel this way when you were younger?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Girl power, boy power, kid power, story power

The adorable Kidsmomo recently did a podcast on "girl power" in honor of Women's History Month. The follow-up theme: books with boys' names in the titles. That got me thinking about the strange looks, at least, that they would've gotten if they'd done a podcast on "boy power."

There are so many great girl power moments in children's lit, of course. Jo March flouts convention and we cheer. Stargirl flouts convention and we cheer. Both are expected by some to fit into a fairly narrow model of what a female should be, and both make us proud by doing more than others expect of them.

But are girls the only ones with that power? I just picked up The Whipping Boy in Sid Fleischman's honor, and found myself cheering for Jemmy just as I did for Jo. Like so many literary ladies, Jemmy belies others' expectations. Expected to stand and wait during the Prince's lessons, Jemmy instead pays attention and learns to read, write, and do sums, and I don't know about you, but I'm darn proud of him. Class and position do for Jemmy what gender does for so many female characters, making us want to see him empowered because he isn't born with power.

Even the simple fact being a child can have that effect. Incantations and intrigue notwithstanding, kid power is a big part of the Harry Potter books' appeal. Harry and his contemporaries do more than wizards their age are expected (or, in many cases, allowed) to do. And we cheer.

How about you? What makes you root for a character?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Library Appreciation Day

It's Library Appreciation Day here in the children's lit blogosphere, and that's definitely worth a second post today. My to-read shelf at home is pretty full, and I work in a bookstore. Logically, I shouldn't need to go to the library very often, unless I'm looking for something specific, right? Yeah, right.

I actually keep a steady stream of library books going. There's something empowering about selecting books to bring home and read, and it sure is nice to know that it doesn't really matter if I choose wrong. All I have to to do is bring the books back on time--and I can even renew them if I don't get through them fast enough. Talk about forgiving!

If I were a little newer to reading and a little more apprehensive about it, I know that freedom would make me feel better about trying it. No one bugs you in a library. You can take yourself on "reading retreats" or stare indecisively at the same stack for ridiculous periods of time. You can check out material at any reading level and on any subject without having to explain yourself.

I, for one, want to live in a community whose members can access books as easily as they can access television shows. Libraries, you have earned my appreciation and then some.

Literary Love: The Alice books

There comes a time in a young reader's life when she* wants her reading material to acknowledge that the world has Mature Content. Perhaps she wants to prove she can handle it, or wants a private space to learn about and think about things she could never, ever ask her dad. Of course, there's no shortage of books (or movies or TV shows) whose teenage characters engage in activities that would make her dad faint. But jumping straight out of bedtime stories and into, well, bed with such characters can leave a reader pretty confused. Is this what I'm supposed to do in high school? she might wonder. Why doesn't my life look like these girls' lives? What's wrong with me?

Enter Alice McKinley, star of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's The Agony of Alice and its many sequels and prequels (she's eleven when we meet her and ages through the series). Alice lives in a real world located somewhere between the sanitized one of many middle-grade novels and the fast-paced one of much YA. She's funny and flawed and full of embarrassing questions. Alice often feels like she missed a day or two thousand in how-to-be-a-woman school, and attributes that deficiency to the fact that she's grown up without a mother. But I suspect millions of readers with and without mothers breathe sighs of relief as they learn things from Alice that they thought everyone else already knew. And in between all that learning, they get to know characters who are both lovable and real.

The Alice books are my wholehearted recommendation of the day. There will be more, particularly of books that might be either overlooked or maligned. 'Cause sometimes in our routine booklust, we forget the books that just need some literary love.

*"she" for the purposes of this post, but boys can certainly enjoy and learn from these books. I would have a lot of respect for any boy open-minded enough to check them out.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"I don't really, um, like poetry."

I hear the above confession a lot, often from people with a really healthy love of literature. It's often a sheepish admission, but it needn't be. Really.

Personally, I've spent a lot of time celebrating poetry and making it part of my everyday life. My thoughts tend to get set to whatever meter I've heard recently. When I hear a good rhyme in a song, I point it out. I've driven others a little crazy with my observations on what songs' lyrics fit to other songs' melodies. ("Mary Had a Little Lamb" to "Go Down, Moses," anyone?)

See a pattern here, though? A lot of my interest in poetry is related to rhyme and meter. That's not to say I don't like any unrhymed poetry; I do, and that includes both children's and adult poetry. But I know I'm unlikely to rush out to read oblique (or bleak) postmodern free verse.

And that's what's great about poetry. It's lots of things. I've found the things I like, so I'm able to declare that I love poetry even if I don't love every poem out there. If a young reader says he or she doesn't like poetry, it might be worth asking, "Have you read anything by Douglas Florian? Joyce Sidman? JonArno Lawson? Helen Frost? Marilyn Singer? Read any haiku, any verse novels, any dirty limericks?" (I'd save that last one for not-too-young readers, of course.)

Poetry isn't supposed to be stressful, and I think it is for many people. Here's hoping you can find what you, yes, you love about it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

February *Isn't* National Poetry Month

Months that lack for scented air,
for blossomed and contented air,
have pleasures of their own with their
bright ice, red leaves, and grilling-ware.
The scent is just a bonus
for the soul and for the nose.

Words that aren't poetry--
no language lavished lyrically--
give readers a variety
of plot and thought and inquiry.
But poetry's a bonus,
like an Aprilling of prose.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Confessions of a chunk reader

My "currently reading" pile includes:
  • one ARC from the bookstore
  • one book to review
  • one book borrowed from a friend
  • two library books, both by authors I'll hear at the New England SCBWI conference next month (one started before my Passover trip but not brought with me, the other started on the trip)
I was a strict one-book-at-a-time reader as a kid, but now that my reading has lots of practical purposes attached, this kind of pile is typical. Yes, enjoyment is virtually always one of the purposes, but so is reviewing, so is recommending books to customers, so is keeping up on the genres in which I write, so is returning library books on time, etc., etc. By reading lots of books at once, I make sure none of these purposes falls by the wayside. I also make sure I always have a book in the pile to suit my needs when I go out; if I'm going to be walking around a lot, I choose a book that's easy to carry, and if I know I'll have lots of time to read, I choose one I'm far from finishing.

I prioritize, of course, at least when I'm at home and have access to the whole stack. If a book has no deadline, I might read 20 pages at a time. I'm reading 100 pages at a time in the book I'm reviewing for promptness' sake, and I just upped the chunk size for the borrowed book from 30 to 40 pages because hey, it's Catching Fire.

In fact, I've even cheated by a page or two at Catching Fire, which is something I rarely let myself do. I question my oh-so-scientific reading system every once in a while, and CF is making me revisit those questions. My system does mean that I have to abandon books as I'm getting into them, though when I like some books in the stack better than others, it distributes the favorites nicely. Reading so many books at once also means I take quite a while to finish anything. It's not that a 100-page early chapter book takes me a week to read, it's just that I have to read 200 pages of other material between the first half and the second half...

I don't know if I'll change anything. Just musing. Are all your reading lives this complicated, or am I just weird?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

School visits and "visits"

Kids don't care if you're what we SCBWI members call "pre-published," which is how I've twice landed the role of "visiting children's poet" in elementary classrooms in New York's Capital Region. It also helps that my sister Leora was student teaching in both the classrooms.

Since I am Boston-based, the first visit took place over Skype. The connection wasn't perfect and Leora had to do some translating, but having a teacher on a giant screen was a novelty for her second graders (and I resisted the temptation to boom out, "I am the great and powerful Oz!") I read a hyperbolic poem about cold weather and a descriptive poem about thunderstorms, and we talked about using the five senses in descriptions, which the students then did ably in a class poem about oceans. We also had a Q&A session about writing, poetry, and whatever else was on the students' minds, complete with debate on whether or not Leora and I look alike. (The question has never been settled.)

Today, since I'm in Albany for Passover, I got to kick off National Poetry Month with an in-person visit to Leora's new student teaching placement. After her kindergarteners came in from recess and sang some songs, we discussed what they already knew about what poems are. Since I'd been thinking during the songs about how songs are a kind of poetry, I was delighted that one of the students made that connection, too. We read a poem about spring with lots of personification, and the students pointed out things in the poem that couldn't really happen and also highlighted their sight words (and these kids have a lot of sight words!). We also read a poem about animal and human movements, which the students acted out, adding suggestions of their own. Afterwards, they illustrated both poems; hopping bunnies were a common motif.

Writers, if you can do a school visit, I highly recommend it. There's nothing like kids to make me feel like a real, live poet!