Monday, September 26, 2011

The Night Kitchen in the light of day: Happy Banned Books Week

A child in the target age group for most picture books puts beloved Where the Wild Things Are back on the library shelf and picks the book next to it: In the Night Kitchen. I read it to her and she's not especially into it, which is her prerogative, but she enjoys Mickey's similarity to Max. At one point in the reading, she giggles a little. "He's dirty," she says. On the page in question, Mickey is covered in cake batter.

The full-frontal male nudity gets no reaction.

There's plenty to say about censorship of young people's reading material, and it's a discussion worth having. But often, I think the debate can be more about adult politics than about the children and teens both sides are trying or ostensibly trying to defend. The human body is old news to kids who've had help getting dressed, and I suspect that many of the other issues that come up in censorship debates are fairly dull to kids (though in some cases, that may be less true as they get older). Arguments often arise over one potentially objectionable scene, one image, even one word. It takes more ink than that to make a story, and it takes a good story to hold a reader's interest. "Once upon a time there was a scandal" may not cut it.

Happy Banned Books Week. Go read what you feel like reading.

ETA: But first, learn to protect yourself! Thanks to Fuse #8 for the link.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

This just in: Parents don't (and shouldn't) know everything

Republic High School, which made news earlier this year over challenges to Slaughterhouse-Five and Twenty Boy Summer, has reached a compromise: a restricted section of the library accessible only to parents. In effect, students can read these books if their parents say it's okay (and are willing and able to make the trip to the library).

I've heard many basically anti-censorship people argue that decisions over what young people may read should be between them and their parents (rather than involving school administration or other institutions). In an ideal world, this makes some sense. Many parents do know what their kids can handle, what they've already been exposed to, and what they need to know. Awareness of what their kids are reading can give parents a chance to mediate, to explain or discuss concepts that may be difficult for their children, and to make it known that they're available to answer questions.

We don't live in an ideal world, though, and not all parents know best about all subjects. Not all parents want their kids reading about, say, people who live differently in one way or another, and that doesn't mean the kids shouldn't. And even when parents are fairly open-minded, there are plenty of books that kids and teens might not feel comfortable asking for.



I'm feeling

(idly curious about)
(compassionate toward people experiencing)
(morbidly fascinated by)
(ashamed of how little I know about)
(personally invested in)

matters of

(rock and roll)
(mental illness)
(cultures different from ours)
(values different from yours).

May I read

(a book that I know exists even though I'm not allowed in the section that contains it?)
(a book you will select for me in your infinite wisdom?)

Pretty please?"

Reading is supposed to be a really easy way to rebel a little and learn a lot. Adults, let's keep looking the other way.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

No mistakes in it yet: The prevision of an empty novel

“Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” -Anne of Green Gables

I'm in the early stages of a new novel. The very early stages. That means that although I have four pages of notes (single-spaced, thank you very much), I haven't yet written a word that will be part of the manuscript itself.

The first few days of this were on the scary side. I had a setting idea, a few character ideas, and even a subplot or two, but, um, no main plot. But now that I think I know what big, bad thing is going to happen and part of why it's going to matter, I get to work on details of this (realistic) world. I get to plan, and I get to consider, and I get to try to do right what I've thought some writing (my own and others') has done wrong. I haven't yet gotten mired in or attached to ideas that will end up needing changing, and for now, it's all about possibilities.

Don't worry, I'll get past this. Next stop: Draftland. Stop after that: Revisionville.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

People. It's 2011.

When co-authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith submitted their post-apocalyptic YA novel to an agent, they were offered representation... on the condition that they make a gay character straight. They refused. And then they told the Internet.

First of all, don't agents realize that controversy equals attention equals sales?

That aside, though, ew.  As I've said before, the industry is rapidly getting much, much better about representing characters who aren't all the same and don't all want to be with the same people. But just as books like The Snowy Day helped normalize kids of color by featuring one without focusing on his race, a book like the one Brown and Sherwood submitted would be good for readers of all orientations. If there's one way to show that gay kids are normal, it's to let them be part of the apocalypse just like everyone else.

There are great (and not-so-great) works of "LGBT fiction" out there, and that's awesome. But the mainstream needs to work on letting everybody in. YA needs more non-straight and not-sure-they're-straight teens slaying dragons and worrying about their SATs. More kids in middle grade need to get grounded by their two moms, and yes, even kids in picture books need their wild flights of fancy to end in the comforting arms of both their dads. Whether you're gay or straight, life is not all about sex, folks. It's not even all about dating. Life is about all the things it's about, and that's true no matter whom you love, where you're from, what you look like, whom you worship, what your abilities are, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I hope Brown and Sherwood's novel gets picked up by a smarter agent and published. I hope the flap copy and the reviews mention the same-sex relationship if it's important to the story, and don't if it's not. I hope this industry, which has so much influence on the images humans see at the beginning of their lives, starts sending the message that people are people are people. It's 2011.

Edited to add: Hmmm. An agent has responded to the original post, stating that she believes the post is about her and that her editorial comments were significantly misinterpreted or misrepresented. It's hard to know for sure what happened here, so I won't make any accusations against either side. But whatever happened in this particular case, we as an industry do need to get better about letting young readers of all backgrounds, orientations, etc. see themselves and the people around them represented in normalizing contexts.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"There are no bad guys in Brookline."

"Let's put this here so people won't have to use their keys," said the almost-six-year-old in my care, trying to prop the door to her apartment building.
"That's a nice idea," I told her, "but we need to lock it for safety."
"From bad guys?"
"Kind of, yeah. It would probably be okay, but we have to be careful just in case, so only people who are supposed to come in will come in."
"But there are no bad guys in Brookline."

To some kids, though certainly not all, bad guys are the stuff of story. In that conversation, I'm not sure whether "Brookline" really meant "Brookline," which is considered a relatively safe area, or whether it meant "real life." Many kids are accustomed to monsters threatening to eat good characters all up, but it's okay, because monsters aren't real.

So how do we--individual adults, and media like kids' books--handle things like 9/11? Do we focus on the victims and hope kids don't wonder too hard about the perpetrators? Do we discuss motive and explain the difference between violent extremism and normal disagreement? Or do we start with the idea that the particular people involved were "bad guys," and that yes, sometimes bad guys are real?

The answers should vary, of course, by child, age, and situation, and I doubt that easy or definite answers exist at all. For now, I'll just feel grateful that today, we have the luxury of taking the time to think about it.

Wishing you peace.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Putting the gal in Dorothy Gale, or taking it out

Quick: Is The (Wonderful) Wizard of Oz a "boy book" or a "girl book?"

The holiday season is close enough that the store is making floor plans, and visions of gift-buyers dance in my head. Well-meaning friends and relatives approach this process with a variety of ideas about a) kids and b) books, but as I've lamented mentioned before, one very common notion is that some books are for boys and some are for girls. Factors involved in the distinction involve everything from cover color to princess presence to weapon count, but the most common one seems to be the gender of the most visible character(s). Case in point: The Seven Chinese Sisters seems to be girls-only no matter how much dragon butt gets kicked.

Dorothy is a girl. She's played in the movie by Judy Garland in a pinafore. But she's not in the title. The titular Wizard is male, and so are quite a few major characters, and there's a whole hero(ine)'s journey full of adventure. L. Frank Baum himself says in his 1900 introduction, "...The story of 'The Wizard of Oz' was written solely to please children of today." (The "solely" refers to the lack of intended moralizing.) Does this mean someone wrote a popular children's book 111 years ago with the expectation that children as a whole would enjoy the same type of story?

I think this will be a frequent handsell this year. If you spot me tallying how many are going to boys and how many to girls, pay no attention to the lady behind the curtain.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The boom has lowered.

Remember when YA was it? When the word "buzz" pretty much only applied to YA, and usually to YA fantasy? When that seemed to be all that editors and therefore agents were interested in?

YA is doing fine. It has cross-overs. It has controversy. I love it dearly, and I weep for it not.

But I love middle-grade even more dearly, and I'm really excited about what seems to be a major middle-grade boom.

What I think makes this boom so huge is variety. There are two major trends, and those trends are pretty different from each other. Trend one: adventure, often but not always set in fantasy. Trend two: semi-graphica, often but not always humorous. Lots and lots of kids like both, but it's possible to completely spurn one and still have plenty of new reading material. And though the Big Daddies of both types of books have male main characters (I speak here of Greg Heffley and Percy Jackson - Harry Potter, at this point, is the Bad Granddad of the latter), these genres have their share of female characters, and they definitely have readers across the gender spectrum. I just had an affecting conversation in Spanglish in which I disappointed a tween girl with the news that The Lost Hero wouldn't be in paperback before her return to Spain.

Those aren't the only flavors of MG flying off the shelves, either. Don't forget the traditionally realistic Penderwicks or the sporty success stories by Tim Green or Mike Lupica.

It's a good time to be a middle-grade( write)r.