Saturday, August 28, 2010

What's Your Real Age?

Health magazines and websites try to figure this out for us all the time. Chronological age minus hours of exercise plus cigarettes smoked per week divided by frequency of seat belt use equals how old you really are.

For those of us who read or write books for other age groups, it's much less complicated. Many "YA people" I know have great high school stories that come up in present-day dinner conversations. Their memories of drama club and club drama remain vivid and still mean a lot to them. Somewhere within--and I mean this as a compliment--these people are still somewhere between fourteen and eighteen, and it shows in their reading and writing.

I enjoyed my high school years and remember them fondly, but they're not often on my mind. Elementary school, on the other hand, comes up all the time. I'll use a word and remember how I learned its meaning in first grade (Sarah in the All of a Kind Family books had a rival for the History Prize), or hear a mention of diabetes and remember my fourth grade science fair project on the subject. I remember my first reactions to many favorite middle-grade novels better than my responses to most YA books.

My YA years and my picture book years certainly mattered to me, and a Francisco Stork or Mo Willems book can still blow my mind (as can a Barbara Kingsolver; my actual current age does play a role in my reading choices when it gets a chance). But I suspect that Beverly Cleary, Sara Pennypacker, and I have the most in common: at least part of each of us is about eight years old.

 And how old are you?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Less-talked-about books

We all know what book everyone was talking about yesterday. But around the little table in the kids' section, no one said much.

Several families came in from the rain with their elementary aged kids. One girl, probably an early middle schooler, picked up Michael Buckley's new Nerds graphic novel. Another, slightly younger, grabbed what looked like an old-fashioned middle grade novel. I never saw the cover. Both girls' books stayed open in their laps and held their attention for about an hour. Nearby, a sixish-year-old looked silently at one Barbie book after another, deliberating carefully as she chose each.

"Is this okay? Can I leave them with you for a bit?" one adult member of the group asked another.
"Are you kidding?" was the reply. "This is a Bubbie's dream!"

It wasn't so bad for a bookseller, either.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010



"Mockingjay, for lack of a better phrase, is flying," a co-worker said around 10:30 this morning. All day, customers headed straight for the shiny blue covers. Several had taken the day off work for the sake of Finding Out What Happens.

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, I remember feeling like we'd discussed all the possibilities so thoroughly that J.K.R. was basically choosing from menu of options. There'd be some surprises, but in the end, each character would turn out to be a) good, b) evil, or c) somewhere in between, and a) alive, b) dead, or c) somewhere in between. To a lesser degree, the same is true of this conclusion. I expect to find Mockingjay (which I've just started) absorbing and probably praiseworthy in a lot of ways, and I hope it'll give us lots to talk about. But the surprises will only be so surprising.

That's only part of the point, though. To me, the rest of the point is that being part of a reading phenomenon is fun! It was fun to direct customers to the story they'd been anticipating for months. It was fun to hear people's reading strategies: early-morning bookstore jaunts, coffee-fueled all-nighters, delayed gratification for the sake of an uninterrupted weekend read. It was even fun to get extra work done over the weekend to free up some midweek reading time.

This sort of thing doesn't happen for every book, or even for every good book. There was no read-it-right-away frenzy over the latest Clementine, worthy as it is of literary love. But that just makes it exciting when it does happen. Something to talk about.

Meet you by the water cooler.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

To my mother, Angela's Ashes is about Ireland. Gone with the Wind is about Georgia. Where the Wild Things Are is about where the wild things are.

To me, Angela's Ashes is about Frank McCourt. Gone with the Wind is about Scarlett O'Hara. Where the Wild Things Are is about Max.

To a lot of people, all of the above are about what happens next.

It's an oversimplification to say that any of us is solely a character reader, a setting reader, a plot reader, or any other kind of reader. Even I admit that Make Way for Ducklings is more fun if you know your way around Boston, regardless of how cute those alphabetical ducklings are. But we all have things we tend to notice when we read, and my experience with a particular book is probably different from yours with the same book.

That's why I love selling books when the recipient is actually present. When I'm talking to the parent, I can get some helpful information from the answer to my first question: "What's another book (s)he really likes?" But when the reader is there, I can get much further with Question #2: "What do you like about it?"

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bamboo People and Book People

Last night, I attended a book launch for Mitali Perkins' new YA novel, Bamboo People. The novel sheds light on the current situation in Burma, which has the most child soldiers in the world. (Not the most per capita. The most.) Obviously, it's a political novel, but it rarely feels like one. Instead, it simply reminded me that the people caught up in any war are humans with human concerns.

Told first from the point of view of Chiko, a Burmese teen, and then from that of Tu Reh, a Karenni teen, Bamboo People made me care that the conflict was turning these kids' lives upside-down. It was a wise choice to introduce us to Chiko first; like most likely readers, he's new to fighting, so we get to see the situation through eyes fairly similar to our own. Besides, the guy basically just wants to get home and read a book. I get that.

Mitali is great at writing the kind of book the children's lit world needs, and she's great at holding the kind of event that world needs as well (with the help of Porter Square Books, in this case). We wrote our connections to Mitali on our name tags; the room contained her critique group buddies, her publishers, fellow SCBWI members, and just plain friends and fans young and old. My favorite, though? The young girl across the aisle from me whose nametag read, Writer-to-Be.

Keep making connections, Mitali. Congratulations.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Fezzik, you did something right!"

The Princess Bride was on a few nights ago. Both the book and the movie are more like familiar, beloved songs than surprising storybook stories at this point, but on this in-the-background viewing, I found myself focusing on a new aspect: the Westley-Buttercup and Inigo-Fezzik relationships. In some ways, the two pairs' dynamics are remarkably similar. All involved accept that Westley and Inigo are the smarter ones, the ones better suited to make plans; Inigo may doubt that he can do as well as Vizzini, but no one ever questions his intellectual superiority to Fezzik.

[Spoilers below if PB is not like a familiar song to you.]

Buttercup and Fezzik seem fine with being the comically dumb members of their respective pairs. Both remain devoted and make contributions in their own ways, Fezzik through his strength and Buttercup through the beauty that gives her a chance to become powerful. Each does something to prove his or her growth by the end, Buttercup more so in the book than in the movie. But ultimately, I think Fezzik is a stronger character, figuratively as well as literally. Just moments after Buttercup stands calmly at the altar, assuming Westley will come for her, Fezzik makes a decision and takes an action to help Inigo, who needs a door broken down in order to continue chasing Count Rugen. Fezzik leaves the weak Westley for a moment, "because there were some things you did, no matter what, and when a friend needed help, you helped him."

Fezzik, I think you're my favorite character. And when a story features Miracle Max, that's saying something.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Scene surveys and string cheese

I'm about halfway through a scene-by-scene survey that's the first step of this novel revision. Does every scene move the plot forward? Does it have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is there conflict? A lot of the ideas for this process come from here; though I don't plan to make this a one-pass revision, I'm finding many of the points useful. I'm also finding that most of my scenes are on the right track, which is a nice surprise since I'm naturally more of a character and voice kind of gal. So far, I've only had to go in and Give the Scene More Conflict once; apparently, plotting and pacing aren't the stumbling blocks they used to be. Thanks, Simmons!

Though most other revisions will happen after this pass, I am fixing minor issues as I notice them. I've repaired the continuity of a scene involving food sharing, and can sleep better knowing it's now clear which character originally owned the string cheese. I'm also trying to question every line's purpose, even (or especially) lines that have been in the draft for months and months. Sometimes, it's hardest to convince these lines to move out of the way. But once I reassure them that they'll live on in the drafts I have backed up, they listen to reason.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On the diversity of Team Katniss

It's a tale of brutal violence, calculating strategy, and political evil. It's about a girl.

In posting about the admittedly broad topic of gender and kids' books, I realized there was a lot to contemplate about The Hunger Games and its sequel(s!). From what I've seen, the young and not-so-young adults excited about this series are a pretty equal mix of Janes and Johns, Katnisses and Peetas. Even if you go with the stereotypes of what readers want, there's something for everyone. [Mild spoilers for the first two books follow.] There are weapons, force fields, and mutants that rip throats out, but there's also a young girl willing to suffer and face death to save people she cares about. There are even rivals for Katniss's affection, and those rivals are both pretty worthy. I imagine that choosing between Team Gale and Team Peeta takes some thought.

Still, when readers recommend these novels, I doubt many of them say, "Here's a great book about how characters and relationships develop in a desperate situation!" The books sell primarily on the basis of their main premise and plot. Maybe, shockingly enough, readers of both genders are interested in suspenseful, action-packed stories.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

This post is for girls and boys

Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised by how many requests I get from customers for books "for a boy" or "for a girl." It's one thing if the mention of gender is just incidental, as it often is: "I need a book for a six-year-old boy who's just starting to read on his own." But often, the gender seems to be a huge part of how the customer decides what the child needs or should want. One customer held up a coloring book featuring characters from what I'd say is a gender-neutral movie, told me that the young recipient had seen the movie and that the book fit all her other criteria (which were really well thought-out, involving the child's reading level and dexterity), but concluded, "I want something girlier."

In some cases, I get it. If the child is someone the customer only sees once a year, it's understandable to grasp at whatever information is available. Ten-year-old. Girl. If the customer knows the child well, on the other hand, "boy" might be shorthand for "kid who's really into cars and trucks and things that go." (No points for guessing the first book I'd recommend.)

But if you have to ask whether a book is "for boys" or "for girls," as many customers do, isn't it possible it's for both? I know it's a rare boy in our overconditioned world who will go for Felicity the Dazzling, Dancing Fairy Princess Saves LavenderLand, but I bet many a boy has enjoyed When You Reach Me, even if the main character's name is Miranda. And I've seen plenty of girls get excited about adventure, sci-fi, and plain-old dark stories. (Excited about Mockingjay, anyone?... Actually, The Hunger Games and gender may have to be a whole 'nother post.)

Gift-giving is hard. I just hope that when these kids choose their own books, no one tells them, "those books aren't for you."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I don't really hate 8-by-8 books

Sometimes, I complain about 8-by-8 books.

You know the ones. They're floppy, stapled in the middle, and usually emblazoned with the faces of popular TV or movie characters. We keep them in a spinner, where they don't stay very long. Organizing them is a long and tedious task, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I sometimes grumble a bit as I pile princesses with princesses and superheroes with superheroes. Why should we booksellers spend so much time on characters kids can see on television when there is Literature to arrange and sell?

But I don't really hate them.

Reason One is the same reason that wins me over to a lot of not-so-critically-acclaimed books: they appeal to kids. Kids rush to the spinner when they see their favorite characters. The books make them want to read.

But these books have something even bigger going for them: affordability. There are plenty of parents out there who can't (or won't) often spend the better part of twenty dollars on a picture book. For these parents, 8-by-8s offer the option to tell their kids, "Yes, when we go to the bookstore for Aunt Mildred's birthday gift, you can get a book, too." For these kids, 8-by-8s are a way to say, "This is my book."

I'll try to remember that next time I'm ankle-deep in cartoon characters.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Cinderella, I can't hear you when you use your whiny voice!"

Poll: what did your relatives do to fairy tales or other classic stories?

Happily ever afternoon

My grandfather's stories usually begin, "Twice upon a time," and end, "and they lived happily ever afternoon."

My grandmother's stories usually start, "When x was younger," or something to that effect. I'll let you know how they end if that ever happens.

They've been telling stories together for sixty years now, and this week, many of us gathered to celebrate their anniversary. And now that the gifts have been opened, I can talk here about my recent project, which was to compile some of my grandparents' stories in a book called Twice Upon a Time: Stories Worth Repeating. Writing down everything from "Citronella, The Bug-Off Girl" to "Uncle David and the Bell" was an exercise in memory. I'd forgotten plenty, but details and oh, yeah! moments came back as I wrote. My mother and my cousin were invaluable memory-joggers; I'm glad someone else was listening! (It helps, of course, that my mother was present for many of the true anecdotes.)

Brief though the book is, working on it taught me a lot about what makes a story a story and what makes it matter to the people who hear it. It's often in the very small things; the plot of "Citronella" may have changed with each telling, but Citronella was always found "bemoaning her fate: bemoan, bemoan, bemoan." As long as I tell the story, she'll continue to do so.

Happy anniversary, Saba and Savta.