Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Let's do the time warp again!

I'm a sucker for time travel stories. Generally, I gravitate more toward realistic fiction than toward science fiction and fantasy, and that's been true since childhood. But for just as long, I've been fascinated by stories that put any sort of quirk in the space-time continuum, whether the characters are Locked in Time, reliving Groundhog Day, or just trying to get Back to the Future.

For me, the human stories trump the flux capacitors. Time travelers are classic fish out of water, and they're also magnets for deep, dark secrets about their own families. Even better, since the traveler's point of origin or destination is usually somewhere around the book or film's release date, a time travel story is a great way to look at ourselves through unconditioned eyes; we can be amazed at our horseless carriages or proud of ourselves for living without jet packs.

Other time-based premises also give us a chance to think differently about ourselves. What would we do if we experienced the same day over and over? What if we were--ugh--trapped at age 13 forever?

And how many of you wish you could go back to the moment before I got "The Time Warp" stuck in your heads?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

When customers help me do my job

I'd just finished guiding a middle school girl, a self-proclaimed Nicholas Sparks fan, through the Summer Reading shelves when a man in his forties asked for help around the First Chapter Books. He needed a book for a six-year-old girl and wanted to get it right, but this section of the store was completely new territory for him. I started making suggestions, and as soon as I mentioned Judy Moody, the Nicholas Sparks fan's voice piped up from several shelves away.

"I love Judy Moody!" she cried.

"Great!" said the man. "What do you love about her?"

I hope both of them come back.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toy stories

Like most of you, I just saw and loved Toy Story 3. And as I've mentioned before, I recently read and loved Knuffle Bunny Free.

Vague spoilers ahead.

It's certainly possible to tug at people's heartstrings without impressing them critically, but these trilogies manage both, especially in their endings. Why is it so impressive to show children outgrowing toys? I think it's largely that these stories pose problems without easy answers. As we read and watch them, we don't automatically know what the inevitable endings will be. Will Andy and Trixie lose their beloved toys to unknown or horrible (if you go with TS3's portrayal of toddlers) fates? That wouldn't be right. Will everything go back to the way it was? That wouldn't be quite right either.

These stories are honest with us. Relationships between loving children and beloved toys are precious; there's a reason we've followed these narratives from their beginnings. But those relationships don't last to infinity and beyond. The two trilogies found similar answers, and they're good answers.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Revising as I go

Every writer I know has a different process. There are those who have long periods of time when they are Writing and then months and months when they are Revising. I go back and forth between the two. Unless I'm really caught up in one plot point, scene rewrite, et cetera, odd-numbered days are revision days and even-numbered days are "writing forward" days. Whenever I think of a change I want to make or a potential discrepancy I want to resolve, I put it on a revision list so I can focus on it when its turn comes.

I have several reasons for working this way:
-I prefer to jump from one task to another in real life as well as in writing.
-My first two novels were mentorship projects with deadlines, and I had to make sure those revisions got done.
-Changes I make early in the manuscript are likely to affect what I write later.
-Visiting earlier chapters while I work on later ones keeps me aware of what happens everywhere in the manuscript and helps me keep the voice and characterization consistent.

But the main reason is that coming up with the original story is fun and I want to make it last. There will be plenty more revisions to make after I type the triumphant last line, and I'll enjoy them in their own way, but this method cuts down on the number of days in a row I'll end up reading the same chapters.

How about you? Whether you write novels, essays, emails, or anything else, when does revision happen?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Just Me and My Dad

Before I could read, my dad turned books into performances. I still hear Go, Dog. Go! read in the rhythm he gave it, and in my head, It's Not Easy Being a Bunny will always begin, "P.J. FUNNYBUNNY! P.J FUNNYBUNNY! was very sad."

When I was in elementary school, my dad read me a few chapters every Friday night. I got to choose the book, which often meant a Baby-sitters Club book (in part because he was easier to convince than my mom). My dad drew on the oldies to make the reading his own, setting Mary Anne's and Dawn's names to song.

In 2008, when I had a poem published for Anne of Green Gables' centennial, my dad asked me to bring the book home so he could read it and understand the poem better. Not especially into novels, and certainly not normally inclined to read about an eleven-year-old girl's yearning for puffed sleeves, he made his way gamely through, occasionally commenting, "That Anne is a chatterbox."

Happy Father's Day, Abba. Meet you at the bookstore tomorrow!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Interview: JonArno Lawson

I got to know JonArno Lawson through his children's collections, The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask and Black Stars in a White Night Sky. Then I got to know him better when I emailed him questions for a project I was doing in Poetry for Children class. He's a particularly thoughtful emailer, so I was delighted when he agreed to a blog interview. I knew his responses would be worth reading, and they are!

You've written quite a few collections primarily for children and several adult collections, but your latest, Think Again, is for young adults. Why YA? Why now?

It's a long story, but I'll try to encapsulate it as much as I can.
Just for fun (in the summer of 2006) I started making up short little rhymes for (and with) my kids. I realized I needed to use a form that would allow me to be a happy father and a happy writer at the same time - quatrains fit the bill - I could remember them easily, and I could work on them while I was with my kids in a way that let them participate with suggestions and instant critiques.

After 5 or 6 months I had a big pile of them - some were silly, some were serious - they were all over the place in terms of subject matter - what held them together was their brevity.
I sent them to a press I'd never worked with before (Kids Can), and was lucky they crossed the desk of Sheila Barry (she's Chief Editor there). She was very enthusiastic - but the marketing people had reservations because the book lacked a theme. Sheila and I both kept trying to figure out how to make it work, and then another editor at Kids Can, Karen Li, pointed out there were many love and relationship poems - she wondered if there might be something there. . .so Sheila and I went back and looked it all over again, found a sequence, and there it was!
What I found so interesting about this was that the poems in this "hidden sequence" were nearly all to do with my high school girlfriend, and our relationship - we had a very hard break-up. We lost touch for years. Then, about 15 years ago, we met up again and got married. Now we have three kids. . .anyway, it's interesting that this was all about us at a much earlier time.
I took the rest of the poems and submitted them to Porcupine's Quill - they'll be published next year - which is sort of nice. The big manuscript separated itself fairly naturally into two different books.
To make a long story short, the book (as a YA book - really as a book at all) emerged in a haphazard way. It's definitely a YA book, though my kids object to the designation (being 6 and 9 - our 2 year old, however, doesn't care yet). They say that younger children can appreciate the poems too.
I hadn't thought about it before, but I realized as I answered your question that I really work with conscious intent on poems, but only with half-conscious ideas about how they might later turn into a book. I do think in terms of doing books (not just fugitive poems), but what a book will or might be isn't clear till I have a pile of poems to sort through and work with.

A lot of your poems are based very much on sound. What tends to come first: an appealing phrase, or a concept you want to express somehow? Does it vary depending on the age you write for?

Usually a phrase comes first, it's true. I'm drawn to funny sound coincidences in and between words. They make a puzzle that the mind (or my mind) feels compelled to sort out. But now and then I have an idea that I want to work on. This is less common though. I can only think of three of my poems where the idea came first.

You've said that your children were a major source of ideas. As they get older, how do the ideas you get from them change, or isn't there much change at all?

The biggest change now is that they can write their own poems, so I can't really use their ideas anymore. I've been writing a musical with my daughter for the past few months - she'll write a line, I'll write a line, back and forth - that's a great deal of fun. Hopefully we'll be able to keep working collaboratively - with my middle son it's more a matter of me acting as recorder - I jot down his ideas as he has them. The littlest might still give me ideas I can work on - a few months ago he was saying "minna minna minna minnamum" all the time, as some kind of personal practice sound, so I made up a little rhyme for him using the words "minimum" "mum" "minimal" "subliminal" "criminal" "sum" etc. - it's just silly, but I'm sure I'll do more of those as his language develops.

Did you like to write poetry, or to play with words, as a child? What brought you to poetry, whenever you reached it?

I always liked playing with words - to say them backwards, and to split them up, and sometimes I wrote new lyrics to old tunes. I'm sure good songs - songs with good lyrics - are what brought me to poetry. I really think if you want to engage kids with poetry a good place to start is The Wizard of Oz, or The Court Jester, or The Sound of Music - and then read the lyrics to them as well, or let them read them themselves if they can read. Christmas Carols like "Good King Wenceslas" are quite beautiful to read and sing as well. The lyrics to the "Spiderman" television show theme song are also excellent. Singing helps kids remember the lyrics, and that gives them a sense of mastery - if they're told what they're singing are poems, they can never feel they can't remember or appreciate poetry.
A lot of kids also find lipograms fascinating. What seems too hard or experimental often isn't at all - kids are far more open to experimenting than adults realize, I think. My kids are much better at picking out funny coincidences between words than I am - I think because it's fresher to them, they're not ignoring things I've learned to ignore.

What advice would you give people who want to write poetry?

Enjoy doing it! But be hard on yourself. At the same time, don't take the opinions of other people more seriously than you need to. It's hard (especially early on) not be discouraged, but remember - there's only one you, and only you can speak for yourself, so persist. Don't give up. Keep track of the poems you love - make your own anthology - keep track of lines, words, lyrics, and keep going back to them - relish them, don't forget them. They're keeping something important in you alive, and they're letting you grow. It's important work, never assume otherwise.

Thanks so much, JonArno! I'll keep recommending your collections to customers.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Literary Love: Knuffle Bunny Free

I thought the poster and print, both signed with exclamation points and rapidly drawn bunnies, were a wealth of Mo Willems swag in themselves. But as I stepped away from his line at BEA, a member of his entourage said, "Don't forget your F & G." (That's "folded and gathered," for the uninitiated. In other words, it's a galley of a picture book.) Like many of the authors present, Willems had written a trilogy, and my hands held a copy of Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion.

It's wonderful.

Everything that made the first two books wonderful is there, of course. The digital collage illustrations are there; I'm currently staring at a scene in which full-color Trixie and her grandmother sit in "how did he do that?" three-dimensional black-and-white chairs. The humor and "you know what I mean" tone is there, and as usual, Willems gives readers credit for understanding how both kids and adults feel.

But there's more. [Deliberately vague spoilers ahead.] This time, stuff of global proportions happens, and anyone who's followed Trixie or who has been a kid will know that the events in this book are cataclysmic. Against all odds, disaster is averted, and Trixie gets to make a choice. Her decision is an emotionally surprising one, one that makes me want to hug her. And that's what literary love is all about.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Interview with Jo Knowles

In the Fall of 2007, my Writing for Children I classmates and I got to witness our professor's transformation from pre-published to published author. Lessons from a Dead Girl was released halfway through the semester, serving as reassurance to us all that real, live humans - Simmons grads, at that - could write actual books.

Since then, Jo Knowles has grown into an author total strangers have heard of. Jumping Off Swings came out last summer, and there's more on the way! Jo graciously agreed to let me interview her about what's happened and what she's learned since her first Publication Day.

How was the release of your second book, Jumping Off Swings, different for you from the release of Lessons from a Dead Girl?

Well, I knew a little bit more about what to expect in terms of the sad truth that a parade was not going to run through town announcing the book’s arrival. :-) But seriously, it was just as exciting to have a second book hit the shelves. A dream come true is a dream come true and it’s just as special the second time as the first.

What do you know now that you wish you knew two and a half years ago?

Stop eating so much chocolate, it’s going to go right to your hips.

That mean VOYA review isn’t going to kill you or the book.

Getting your book banned from a school really does improve sales, even if it sucks.

You can survive public speaking, but it’s still a good idea not to eat anything that day.

Your son is growing up too fast, spend more time with him.

Don’t waste time fretting while you wait, just keep writing.

Rejections still happen. But so do sales. Again, just keep writing.

What's been the most pleasant surprise?

Hearing from teen readers who connected with the books. That never gets old. Never.

Where do your ideas tend to come from these days?

I wish I knew! They just pop into my brain, I guess. I hope they keep coming. :-)

Are you generating new ideas, or working on projects that have been percolating since pre-pub days?

There’s one project I’ve wanted to write for many years but just wasn’t ready and now I think I am. But I get new ideas, too.

Do your experiences with your first books help drive your ideas for your new ones?

Not really, though I’m working on a manuscript now that features a character from Jumping Off Swings. Mainly, I always like trying new things. But in this case, I couldn’t get this one character out of my mind. After getting several e-mails from readers asking about him, I decided maybe it wasn’t so crazy to explore the next stage of his journey after all.

Writing has been described as isolating work, and I know you have a lot of writing friends. When you sit down to write, do you hear their voices in your head, or does it still feel solitary? Does the answer to that question change at different stages in the process?

Writing at home does feel pretty solitary, but that’s OK. A lot of times I’ll write “virtually” with friends on my blog or on Twitter, which is fun and makes the day less lonely. We check in from time to time and let each other know how we’re doing. I don’t really feel as though that changes for me at any stage, though sometimes when I’m in the zone I lose all track of time and realize I haven’t checked in with my writing partner for over an hour. I think having friends to write with is one of the most enjoyable parts of this process. I don’t know how I’d survive any of it without the love and support of my friends.

Thanks so much, Jo! I, for one, can't wait to see the next book.

Why are all these books written by writers?

Ever notice how many main characters are shy? How many find solace in reading? How many want to be writers?

Writers aren't all the same, obviously, but many of us have certain qualities, particularly that last one. And it seems many of us tend to stick our own traits into stories, either deliberately or by default. As a young reader, I enjoyed being able to relate to so many characters; a lot of my own favorites have these quasi-Mary Sue tendencies. But somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, I picked up a now-forgotten book whose main character mentions that she'd rather watch TV than read, and I thought, "Wait, that's wrong... but why should it be wrong?" Suddenly, it seemed unfair that only frequent readers got to see themselves in books.

I think the canon as a whole has gotten better at depicting kids who have other interests, but it's still something we as writers need to keep in mind. Of course we should show some shy kids, and it's hard to resist giving one's main character a favorite book. But if I were a kid who felt iffy about reading, and all the main characters I encountered insisted that reading and writing were the Best Things Ever, I imagine I'd feel that I didn't belong in this book world.

I have no interest in keeping this club exclusive, and I doubt anyone else does, either.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Judging a cover

I'm not a cover-art-is-sacred person. As long as the text inside is the same, I'm generally fine with whatever appearance a new edition takes. But when a book close to my heart shows up with movie tie-in covers, I do have a negative reaction. It's like the movie is encroaching on the book, even negating the experience of those of us who loved the book on its own long before the movie came along. (I won't single out the movie that inspired this post, but it wasn't Eclipse.)

But then, as I often do, I find myself turning to the argument that anything that gets kids reading is a good thing. A book pimped out (metaphorically speaking) with images of a movie kids have seen, regardless of how faithful to the story, is pretty likely to catch those kids' eyes. If it gets them reading the book, then if it happens to be a really good book, so much the better, right?

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

More congratulations!

The Boston Public Library's next Children's Writer-in-Residence will be fellow Simmons alum Elaine Dimopoulos. I can only advise the Associates of the Boston Public Library to beg her to read her work aloud; when she has her vivid, brilliantly voiced writing in front of her, Elaine is a one-woman show.

Congratulations, Elaine! I can't wait to read Eco-Chic, or maybe even hear it read.


The 2010 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award recipients were announced today. I'm looking forward to some good speeches!


Fiction and Poetry: When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

Nonfiction: Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don't You Grow Weary, by Elizabeth Partridge

Picture Book: I Know Here, by Laurel Croza, illustrated by Matt James

Honor Books:

Fiction and Poetry: The Dreamer, by Paula Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sis; A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whelan Turner

Nonfiction: Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures, by Menno Metsellar and Ruud van der Rol; Smile, by Raina Telgemeier

Picture Book: It's a Secret! by John Burningham; The Lion & the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney

Monday, June 7, 2010

Wanna fight? Come on, do ya?

Sara Crewe: whiny or wonderful?
Sequels to The Giver: valuable developments of Jonas's extended world or destroyers of the best ambiguous ending ever?
Dickens/Faulkner/Melville/insert name here: thoughtful or long-winded?

The best arguments are literary arguments. Do you have a favorite, a topic that gets you shaking your fist or waving underlined passages in people's faces? Post it here!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Arguing with myself

Having extolled the virtues of reading experiences that include no one but the reader, the author, and the characters, I can't let the subject pass without giving some time to the opposite kind of reading, the kind you share with real, live people. What this kind of reading loses in autonomy, it makes up in bonding opportunities. When I visited Louisa May Alcott's house in Concord a few years ago, a preteen and her mother who had just read Little Women together delighted in pointing out details from the novel to each other. You might even bond a bit with (ew) a teacher who assigns you just the right book, particularly if he or she takes you on just the right field trip afterwards.

A community of readers doesn't always have to include an authority figure, of course. Book clubs know this, and so did my friends and I in elementary school when passed around the series books our parents barely tolerated and played that we were Kristy, Claudia, and Mary Anne. Finding a movie or TV show in common saves many an awkward dinner; the same goes for shared books, and maybe more so, since there's more of an element of surprise. It's not hard to find someone else who saw Betty White on SNL, but buddies willing to discuss the finer points of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse are a little harder to come by, at least outside of Simmons College. And when a good, pen-shaking literary argument arises, even better!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Feed 'em, love 'em and leave 'em alone."

So said Dr. Spock, and though he was addressing child-rearing in general, the point applies to the niche of raising readers. I picked up the ARC of A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature, by Horn Book Magazine editors Roger Sutton and Martha Parravano, at BEA, and noticed this theme throughout. Telling kids what they should read and when they should read it is a great way for adults to help kids hate reading. Though it wouldn't be fair for a Horn Book Guide reviewer's blog to review this book, I think it's safe to give that point a "hear, hear!" Even if an adult's recommendation would be perfect for the young reader in question, turning that recommendation into a demand won't do anyone any favors. Suggestions can be great when they're posed as just suggestions, but there's something special about a book the reader finds and chooses for him- or herself.

I might even take it one step further and suggest that kids, like adults, can really benefit from reading books their peers aren't reading. Don't get me wrong; everyone should also have the chance to be part of a community of readers, as it were. But just as the experience of selecting one's own books is special, it's special to feel like you're the only one who's read them, the only one who knows what's in them. It's wonderful to feel that a character you've chosen to read about has chosen you as his or her only best friend.

What do you think?