Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The English language, 1993: A snapshot

Someone gave me a gift certificate to a bookstore when I was nine or ten, and what I wanted was a dictionary of my own. Maybe my teachers had impressed dictionaries' importance upon me; maybe I wanted to be able to look up words without walking across the house and waking my parents. Whatever the details, I remember feeling like if I had a dictionary right in my own room, the possibilities would be endless. I also remember thinking it was cool that my dictionary had words in it that hadn't existed when my parents' impressive-looking one was published.

Well, my 1993 acquisition has followed me from home to home, but I'll admit it: if I'm already at the computer, I usually look up the word online. Last night, though, I needed a word after I'd turned my laptop off (no, this was not during our Irene blackout, though that might've made a better story). Before I opened the dictionary, I glanced at the back.

"New entries such as AIDS, African American, fax, fungible, gridlock, and many more," it said.

Love it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reading out the storm

My best memory of reading during noteworthy weather involves a thunderstorm, a candlelit kitchen table, Harry Potter, and a goblet of fire. Hogwarts was so removed from flash-flooded Albany that reading about it in an atypical setting (with fire in it! like the goblet!) really did make me feel transported. For the duration of the book, getting the electricity back didn't seem to matter.

I just read Trapped, by Michael Northrop. It's an interesting elevator-play sort of scenario, and I was glad to read it, but my timing probably could have been better. Reading a story about people stranded in an epic snowstorm, especially a story that immediately announced it would not end well, made me feel a bit skittish. For one thing, I was honestly a little worried that I would get the teens' snow survival strategies confused with tips I've read on preparing for Irene.

Reading, for me, is not usually about escapism; many of my favorites are realistic stories that could happen to me or to someone I know. But when there's something to escape, particularly something that may keep me in one place for a while, then give me a story that takes place, in some sense, far away.

Eager as I am to read The Other Side of Dark, which is next in the pile, I think a creepy tale set here in Brookline is better suited for later in the week. The Notorious Benedict Arnold it is!

Hope this weekend finds you safely curled up with a good book.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"It's always been this way... Back and back and back."

Step 1: Anticipation of rite of passage related to the protagonist's identity and future, in which we learn how things have been for as long as the protagonist can remember.

Step 2: Rite of passage in which something goes awry for the protagonist, suggesting that the protagonist is special, perhaps suspiciously special.

Step 3: Shock among all those who witness the rite of passage, because such an aberration has never happened before, or at least not for a long, long time...

There's a definite pattern to the dystopian novels I've read lately (with some variations, of course; The Hunger Games, for one, has some similarities but doesn't quite fit the formula. But then, Panem is a little different because it never claims to be Utopian). I think the general formula is an effective one, one that quickly shows us a society's conventions and how ingrained they are and gives the protagonist a good reason to start questioning them.

But I'm pretty sure this particular incarnation of the Hero's Journey (Call to Adventure, anyone?) has only been popular in recent years; The Giver is the earliest example that comes to mind. (Feel free to show me up with Biblical, Shakespearean, or otherwise older examples.) There are plenty of earlier dystopias, of course, but we don't observe Winston Smith or Guy Montag in identity-forming rituals gone wrong. The above isn't so much a formula for dystopian fiction as one for dystopian YA fiction, because like much of YA, Matched Delirium Divergent Enclave is about figuring out who you are and how you differ from those who've taught you and protected you.

Only when you figure that out can you set out for the Wilds, for Topside, for Elsewhere.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

New Voices. (Okay, some familiar voices.)

Mentorship presentations are among the highlights of a children's lit student's year at Simmons. Students present the novels, picture books, and other projects that have consumed them for months. For audience members, it's a time to learn more about classmates and get some ideas and (honestly, if cornily) inspiration. For presenters, it's a chance to share work with an audience that cares, an audience that remembers the projects and brings them up in conversation long after the semester ends.

Kind of like the Brookline Public Library's new series, "New Voices in Y.A. and Children's Literature."
I attended the second installment last night, and got to hear everything from the quasi-post-apocalyptic to the humorously fairy tale-centric to the locally historical with a creepy twist. A panel discussion got the writers talking about why they write what they write and for whom (and, in many cases, how much coffee is involved). As an audience member, I once again came away with inspiration.

The series will continue in October; more details to come. In the meantime, I'll be working on that speaking-slowly thing.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

It's a (different) Book

Remember last year's It's a Book? The ever-clever Lane Smith's send-up of our obsession with technology features a frustrated monkey trying to make a donkey understand that no, you don't need a password, and no, you don't need to scroll down, because it's a book, jackass. It's more overt in its back-to-basics message than, say, Press Here, and it's funny. Every adult I've talked to thinks so. I've never actually seen a child's response to it, and indeed, our store displayed it much more prominently in adult-land than in the kids' section. I don't think that's just because of the "jackass" punchline, either. Two- and three-year-olds today have varying awareness of computers, but the concept that passwords and scroll bars are obliterating a simpler time is a pretty adult one.

Well, this week, the board book version arrived, complete with diapered baby animals. It's a Little Book replaces the donkey's technobabble with questions like, "Is it for wearing?" and "Is it for chewing?" I doubt this one will get as much notice from adult readers, but I think it succeeds better as a children's book. It's easy to imagine toddlers answering each question with a giggling "noooooooo." In this case, they're in on the joke.

The ending? "It's a book, silly."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Historical fiction has AOL now

The few times I've started to describe The Future of Us (on sale three months from now), I've gotten stopped in the middle. "It's about these teens in 1996--"

 "Whoa, 1996?"

"Yup! They somehow get access to their Facebook profiles and find out what their lives are like in 2011, and that affects all their decisions."

It's sci-fi with a cool, if unexplained, time paradox. It's a commentary about social networking and how we use it. It has the feel of a contemporary YA novel. But it also crosses into the same genre as, say, Fever 1793. It's historical fiction, my friends, and though adult readers may get a kick out of how recent and yet distant the year seems, the target audience was born right around then.

 I read this right after The Help, which is set in the early '60s (a time my parents couldn't believe I was learning about in history class). Though not a comedy (was the ad I half-watched this morning trying to market the film as such?), The Help does have its funny moments. “There is a skirmish in Vietnam," one character notes. “The reporter seems to think it'll be solved without much fuss." That kind of dramatic irony seems to be a trope of historical fiction, one that's fun to pick out. Knowing more than the characters--knowing more than anyone in the world of the book--is a great way to feel in on the joke.

"I don't know what Harry Potter and The Help are, but Josh gave me Tuck Everlasting for my eleventh birthday," Emma comments on the list of favorite books on her future Facebook page. Being incredulous at what a character doesn't know is one thing. It's a whole different thing to realize you remember a time when you didn't know it yourself.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The body wiggly, or why Clementine matters

It's not quite feasible to post in-depth about all the speakers and sessions at the Simmons Summer Institute (though if you'd like to hear or talk more about any of them, feel free to leave a comment). I think it's clear how much I appreciated all aspects of the conference. But I want to focus a bit more on one presentation that stood out to me (unsurprisingly, given my own reading and writing interests): Sara Pennypacker's.

Sara put a new spin on the now-familiar phrase "writing for children." That for, she pointed out, doesn't just mean that kids are the intended audience. It can also mean writing for them because they, to varying extents, can't write for themselves. I've realized in recent years that giving everyone a voice and a chance to see him- or herself reflected is one of my overriding values, and Sara echoed that value. There are lots of kids (with or without ADD or ADHD) who are more interested in what's happening in their heads than in what their teachers are saying, and I suspect it's helpful to see a character - a widely beloved character, at that - who has the same problem but is not dumb, lazy, or bad. Sara also pointed out a reason she thinks so many people compare Clementine to Ramona: both exist in "functional" families and school systems. Kids in other situations need their stories told, of course, but so do kids with lives like Clementine's and Ramona's. Sometimes they have not so good of a week, and their stories are worth telling.

It's considered a truism in this field that girls will read about boys, but boys won't read about girls, so I had to ask: "Was there any pressure to make Clementine a boy?" Surprisingly and cheeringly, Sara said that there wasn't. She pointed out that Clementine herself is as gender-neutral as she can be; she hates it when Margaret gets into makeup, but also finds some traditional "boy" activities too gross or messy. She's good at art, but also at math. Sara even mentioned a theory that creative people are often less gendered. I don't know whether that's true in every case (and would need really good definitions of both "creative" and "gendered" to even begin really analyzing it), but I can see why the tendency might exist. Maybe creativity allows people to consider roles for themselves beyond polarized ideas of male and female. The good news is that, at least in my experience, parents of boys are creative enough to imagine their sons enjoying Clementine.

This post came out a lot more serious-sounding than I expected, but maybe that's apt. Funny little books about wiggly little girls have serious value, after all. It's worth paying attention.