Monday, December 27, 2010

Are you afraid of the dark?

There's an interesting discussion at The New York Times about the trend toward darkness in YA fiction. Why are teens so interested in civilizations gone horribly wrong, in the remnants of destroyed worlds? Why are they so fascinated by vampires as to make the creatures eye-rollingly ubiquitous lately?

Well, my first response is that many teens aren't. I see plenty of customers who want fiction that's more like their lives, or who want fantasy that's not quite so gloomy. One customer picked up Jennifer Donnelly's much-lauded time travel story Revolution and implored, "It doesn't have any vampires, does it?" Trends are trends, but for every Thing that's Everywhere, there are people in search of something different.

That said, the doom-and-gloom stuff is indisputably popular among teens, and that's hardly unique to the past few years. The Times discussion raised some good points about escapism and about working out things that are "dark" in the real world. But I think sometimes it's simpler than that. Sometimes, teens just really want to feel that they've moved beyond the elementary material. And when you get right down to it, reading is probably one of the better ways to feel badass.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

To do: 1) Shop 2) Wrap 3) Be awesome

A teenaged customer brings a copy of Paper Towns to the register.
Me: Ooooh, John Green!
Her: I know, I love him. I'm getting this for my friend.
Me: Do you watch the video blog he does with his brother?
Her: Yes!!
(Both of us: thinly veiled Nerdfighter squee.)
Me: Okay, if you could sign your receipt here... and, um, would it be really cheesy if I said, "Don't forget to be awesome?"
Her: No! ...You just kind of made my day.

The youth is out there.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

We walk the line.

How subtle is too subtle? "It's a hard line to walk," a writing friend said recently, "because it's all obvious to me."

I feel the same way. Though I don't write complex mysteries, at least not yet, there's virtually always something to figure out. Characters learn things about themselves and about their relationships with those around them, and I want readers to have the chance to say, "ahah! I knew Hortense had it coming!" or "Yes! Called it! Snydley is a good friend who should be treated better!" (No, I am not writing The Adventures of Snydley and Hortense, but I think I'll continue to pretend I am for the purpose of examples on this blog.)

Anyone who's watched a TV show with me knows that I'm a proponent of "show, don't tell" as a major rule of storytelling. I'd much rather have Snydley come unexpectedly to Hortense's defense than say, "No matter how many times Hortense left Snydley to make snow angels by himself, he was always there for her." But how strong or frequent do hints have to be for readers to pick up on them? Does the answer to that question change depending on the age of the intended reader?

What do you all think? Snydley is waiting patiently for your response. (Hortense is too busy obsessing over her Facebook status.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Early decision

Seventeen years ago today, I made a major life choice: I was going to be a writer. I'd been floating this career idea for a few years at that point; I liked books a whole lot, and loved the idea that books could be my job. The pencil-to-paper aspect had given me some doubts; readers who've seen my handwriting will not be surprised that learning to write was a struggle, and we didn't have a computer, so that option wasn't on the radar. But by this point, "write" had started to mean more than "form letters, and for Pete's sake, make them neater."

December 16, 1993 was the day everything clicked.

The assignment was to write a review of the stage version of Heidi we'd seen the day before. I started with a minor point (if I recall correctly, a graduate of our school had been in the play), and had a great time finding ways to connect it to other points until I'd said everything I wanted to say. It was like a game, and on that assignment, I felt like I was winning. Yes, I said to myself, This is something I can do. I think I will be a writer.

Yes, mathematicians, I was most definitely a kid, though I would've told you adamantly that I was a preteen. But only the details of my career plans have changed since then. Knowing I was going to be a writer affected the way I read, spoke, thought, joked, and played with words. It affected the way I listened to music and the way I interpreted the events around me.

I imagine I'd eventually have come to this decision with or without that one-paragraph assignment in Mrs. Anapolsky's class. But as it turned out, today is kind of the birthday of something I can't imagine my life without.

I celebrated by doing revisions.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Hunger Games and the teddy bear

Our kids' section contains a larger-than-toddler-life teddy bear, which for some of our youngest customers is the main attraction. It gets hugged, sat upon, rolled upon, and generally abused with the best of intentions. But this morning, it sat neatly on the rocking chair. (Thanks, closing staff!)

Enter a boy somewhere between ten and thirteen. He grabbed The Hunger Games off the shelf, looked around for a seat, and sat down on our ursine friend. "You can move the bear if you want," I told him. He shook his head and opened the book to the middle--where he'd left off last time, I guess--and continued reading until the end. He stayed with the book long enough that I'm convinced he wasn't just checking it out.

That right there, that's early adolescence. It's a time when you can feel compelled to finish a book about teens forced by the government to rip each other's throats out, while simultaneously feeling compelled to sit on a teddy bear.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wanna overanalyze?

At some point in the novel-writing process, I found myself staring at a line of dialogue, asking, "Should she say gonna or going to?" That led to more questions: Do all the characters say gonna or going to? What about the first-person narration? What about wanna and want to?

So I made a list. Under want to and going to, I listed most (but not all) of the adult characters, as well as a child character who's probably not up on the latest slang. Wanna and gonna were for everyone else.

This morning, my friend ctrl+f and I sought out all examples of such language with the intention of making them abide by these rules. And I found that they don't work. Emotions make a difference. Who the listener is and what the speaker thinks of the listener makes a difference. A character who gets excited easily is not going to slow down and say to a perceived new friend, "What are we going to do at recess?"

This novel is not gonna keep to the list.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thanks, Jeff Kinney. Thanks, Lauren Myracle. Thanks, Dav Pilkey.

Lately, I'm noticing a lot of parents and other gift-givers looking for something light and enjoyable to give to the young readers in their lives. Take today:

-A set of parents unaccompanied by their children asked me to direct them toward Captain Underpants.
-An aunt who seemed to know her nieces and nephews well was delighted to find The Fashion Disaster That Changed My Life for a fashion-oriented preteen.
-Two parents of normally-somewhat-reluctant readers--one an elementary-aged girl, one a preteen boy--came with a question that's gotten super-common: "What would you recommend for someone who loved Diary of a Wimpy Kid?" One walked away with The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, the other with Big Nate: In a Class by Himself. (The fact that it's not obvious which was which says something to me about the wide appeal of semi-graphic novels.)

And you know what? I wouldn't call any of the above books cringe-worthy, junk, or teeny-trash. There's a place for that kind of book, too, but isn't it nice that so many books with plot and character development, books that don't treat anyone as an idiot or a sex object, have found ways to appeal to kids who just want something fun to read?

I guess I'm still Thanksblogging a bit, December or not. So sue me.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksblogging IX: I'm thankful for variety.

In trying to sum up what makes me thankful about the children's lit world, I keep coming back to this. Yes, I sure am thankful for my own favorites: for poetry, for middle grade books, for realistic fiction, for humor. But I'm also thankful for fantasy high and low, for YA, for graphica, for nonfiction... and it's not just because I'm glad there's something out there to satisfy people with favorites different from mine. It's that I'm glad those people exist, and they're reading and writing and keeping my own reading list interesting and challenging. It's why I have a job, and it gives us something to talk about--and I'm thankful the other readers and writers, young and old, who are part of this conversation aren't all clones. We'd all be competing in the same markets. We'd be reading the same picture books over and over to identical children.

The landscape of children's literature has changed so much even in the past few years. A brick won the Caldecott. Kids' books are starting to have online components. I never know what surprises are coming. And as long as I can keep talking about them on a blog named after a 1908 classic, I'm thankful for that.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksblogging VIII: I'm thankful for goats.

A friend read my last post as "I'm thankful for goats," rather than "goals," and it was funny. In fact, pretty much any mention of goats, outside the most prosaic agricultural discussion, is funny. Maybe it's because goats seem to appear more in children's stories than in most adults' everyday conversation, so their mention brings us unexpectedly back to basics. Maybe it's because they chew hay and make comical noises. Maybe it's just their incongruity. Maybe I'm overanalyzing the reason some words are inherently funny. Like "chicken." Or "cheese." Or "pickles."

Whatever the reason, I'm thankful for anything that brings on giggles.

* * * *

In addition to this blog, I'll be making occasional posts, hopefully more coherent ones than the above, at Brookline Blogsmith. Come visit!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksblogging VII: I'm thankful for goals.

Since I finished the first draft a few months ago, I've had fun meandering through my novel, tweaking this, adjusting that. But the revision list stayed about the same length. Bullet points grew notes like "have checked for this through Chapter 7."

A few weeks ago, I set a goal. This novel will be submission-ready by February 1, or my name isn't That Blogger Who's Been Saying Thankful Stuff All Month.

What a difference! I'm spending about the same amount of time on the novel, but somehow, more is getting done. Items are getting knocked off the revision list almost daily.

I'm thankful for the time I've spent with these characters, and for the lots more time that I know lies ahead. But perhaps others will get to spend time with them in the reasonably near future, and I'm thankful for that, too.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thanksblogging VI: I'm thankful for mush.

A, age 2, handed me an imaginary handful of food. "What's this?" I asked.
I didn't have to ask why mush was in her frame of reference, but I did anyway. "Like 'a comb, and a brush, and a bowl full of mush?'"
"Yes." Vigorous nod. Big grin.

When A reads Goodnight Moon, she doesn't just remember that she's read a soothing, atmospheric book about bedtime. She remembers the moon and the mouse and the mush. When she and S, age 5, read Maisy Goes to the Fair, they don't just observe that Maisy and her friends are having a fun day; they choose (and sometimes argue over) which seats they personally want on the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round.

Details stay with us. There are words in my vocabulary that I clearly remember learning because I first encountered them in books as a kid. There are icons on Livejournal that say, "Sheep are in."

It's enough to make me want every line I write to be good, and I'm thankful for that.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thanksblogging V: I'm thankful for enthusiasm.

Maud Hart Lovelace has a cult following.

I was only vaguely aware of the intensity of that following until I staffed a discussion, led by author Mitali Perkins, of MHL's Emily of Deep Valley. Being more familiar with MP's work than with MHL's, I knew at least that the discussion would be a thoughtful one, and it was. But I didn't know how happy the thirty or so people in attendance would be. I heard an "I'm so happy!" from an attendee purchasing new editions of the Betsy-Tacy books, and the same phrase from another attendee who was just glad to be in a room with people who wanted to have a conversation about a beloved author's work.

I had no idea what they were talking about, and at the same time, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Replace a few details, and their discussions of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib could be mine about Anne, Diana, and Gilbert. They analyzed their favorite characters, wondered about their motivations, and learned about life from them, and it all sounded very familiar.

Less than an hour earlier, my co-worker and I did some comparing of our favorite children's books as we set up for the event. Anne of Green Gables was one of the first titles she mentioned, and I exclaimed almost automatically, "Okay, we're friends now!" I'm thankful that books eliciting that sort of reaction are pretty common. So common, in fact, that that doesn't make me weird.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thanksblogging IV: I'm thankful for the children's lit glow.

I've heard it said that horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow.

Well, writers and children's lit students and booksellers and critics and editors do sweat. We do perspire. But we also glow. Male, female, and equine alike, I assume.

You know the glow I'm talking about, or at least, I hope you do. I felt it in my ed major days when we'd occasionally examine a picture book and get to feel like we were little again. I felt it when I discovered Clementine, Black Stars in a White Night Sky, and Marcelo in the Real World, and when I realized that the character who'd come to mind in one of my first Writing I prompts would be the main character of my novel. I felt it when I saw the number of books lining the shelves at The Horn Book and when I got to edit and write flap copy for old and new favorite authors at Houghton Mifflin. I feel it now when I realize a connection I need to make in my current novel was there all along, or when the book I suggest projects the glow onto a customer.

It is possible to feel burnt out on anything, even children's books. A certain legendary project at Simmons involving the analysis of a large number of illustrators made a lot of us at least come close to feeling that way. But any time that's started to happen, something has materialized to bring back the glow. That time, it was picking up The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the first time in a while. It's always something.

I'm thankful for that.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Thanksblogging III: I'm thankful for old favorites.

My "to-read" shelf is more of an I Love Lucy-style conveyor belt, consisting of books in genres I write or might like to write, books that are popular, books on topics that interest me, books getting critical attention, books by authors I like, books by authors I haven't checked out yet, books in genres or on topics I don't know enough about, innovative books, friend-recommended books, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Goodnight Moon. A Little Princess. All-of-a-Kind Family. Cheaper by the Dozen. 

Did your breath just slow down a little? Mine did.

Maybe it's because all of the above were written and/or take place in times that we perceive as slower and simpler, but at least in my case, I think it's more about when I first encountered them. When I read the words "all-of-a-kind family," I hear them pronounced in my mother's voice.

Old favorites aren't necessarily entirely quiet and peaceful. Amy March throws Jo's manuscript into the fire. Anne of Green Gables walks a ridgepole, and it doesn't end well.

But they make me feel quiet and peaceful, and I'm thankful for that.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thanksblogging II: I'm thankful for progress.

This isn't to say that old stuff isn't good stuff, because quite a lot of it is. But I'm thankful for many important changes, and I'm thankful when the children's literature world recognizes and takes part in them.

I was reminded of this reason to Thanksblog by the announcement this week that ALA is adding the Stonewall Children's and Young Adult Literature Award to its Youth Media Awards. ALA says the award will honor "English-language works for children and teens of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered experience." (Thanks, Shelf Awareness.)

The award joins the ranks of the Coretta Scott King Award, the Pura Belpre Award, the Schneider Family Book Award, and others in honoring good books that don't pretend this is completely a straight, white, typically abled world. When that happens so naturally that it doesn't stand out, that'll be a good thing, and to some degree, it has been happening for a while. There's not much focus on Lisa's race in Corduroy, but it's there. There's little ink spent on the sexuality of Gianna's briefly appearing neighbors in The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, but it's there. Just like it is in the world.

But we sure need more books that highlight the fact that it's not an all-white, all-straight, all-typically abled world, both for the kids who already know that and for the ones who don't. I'm thankful we have the ones we have, and I'm thankful we're honoring them and giving them a place on the Award Winners shelf, where it's easy to find them.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Because "Shoshana is a Sap Who Needs a Whole Month to Express Gratitude" would get annoying to type after a while, welcome to Thanksblogging, a series that's like Thankful Thursday except that it's going to last through November.

I'll start with a basic one: I'm thankful for the children's lit community in all its forms.

Before I'd heard of Simmons College and its Writing for Children program, a group of my Goucher College friends started a Children's Literature Circle. It remained pretty informal, but we did wax nostalgic about our childhood favorites and foster love-ridicule relationships with some children's series. At the time, it seemed like an obscure, quirky focus for a group of college students.(Of course, the publishing industry hadn't told us yet that we were "New Adults.")

Since then, I've learned that while children's literature can indeed be quirky, it isn't obscure, nor should it be. Lots of smart adults take seriously the importance of creating good books for kids and helping kids find them. I'm thankful that I've found a heck of a lot of those people and that that community extends far beyond Simmons. I get to spend a lot of time exchanging opinions with friends about books for kids and young adults, and at the risk of preaching to the choir, I've got to say that it's a lot of fun.

Happy November! Feel free to chime in with your own expressions of thankfulness, literature/writing-related or not.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Laurie Halse Anderson is too cool.

Laurie Halse Anderson spoke at the Brookline Public Library this evening, and she is one of those writers who are good at speaking. Actually, she's good at a lot of things. Like being open and hilarious, even when she's being serious. Like finding the human truth in history, even if it means walking barefoot in the snow to learn what Valley Forge was really like. Like being angry with conviction, and turning that anger into books that make readers of varying ages and genders hug her when she signs their books.

My writing is in many ways different from LHA's, but I did attack a bottle of hand soap once to see what would happen when a character did it... Seriously, I think one of my major goals in writing is to create characters who, through their flaws and perceived flaws, tell readers, "It's okay that you're who you are." Obviously, LHA manages to do that all the time.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I am woman.

My favorite customer so far this week: a three-ish-year-old girl who, whenever she thought of a type of book she'd like to see, would tell her dad, "I'm gonna ask the woman."

She "asked the woman" for Curious George books.

She "asked the woman" for Spanish books, out of what I'm pretty sure was Dora-inspired curiosity.

She reshelved Leslie Patricelli's Potty in exactly the right spot when she was done with it, further endearing herself to "the woman."

When it was time to go, she paused in the aisle, unsure how to phrase her farewell. Finally, she came up with, "Thank you for the.... woman."

You're welcome, kid.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"A one-year-old will cry twenty times a day."

The new documentary Library of the Early Mind and the panel discussion that followed its screening at Harvard's Askwith forum covered all sorts of ground. That's what happens when you sit a bunch of people down and say, "Talk to me about children's literature." But one idea I kept hearing was that books help children make sense of the world.
As adults or even as older children, we may turn to our old literary favorites for comfort and think they're reminding us of a happier time when we felt safe and cared-for. To some degree, they probably are. But as Lemony Snicket Daniel Handler points out in the film, there's a reason that one-year-olds cry so much. The world is big and doesn't make much sense.

But a book is small and can quickly become familiar. A, age 2, will point out anything she recognizes in an illustration, often with quickly mounting urgency if I don't immediately acknowledge that she's right. "Moon. Moon! MOOOOON!!"

"Yes, that's the moon," I'll say, and then everything's okay. The thing she thought was a moon is in fact a moon. She's on the right track in this figuring-out-the-world thing.

Methinks being a librarian of the early mind (and I mean "librarian" in a broad sense) is a powerful thing,

Monday, October 18, 2010

What's Hot/What's Not, or How to Do the Boston Book Festival Efficiently

Doing the Boston Book Festival efficiently meant spending my available hour or so at a four-author event, the one at which, according to the schedule, Noni Carter, Kathryn Lasky, Francisco Stork, and Kristin Cashore would discuss what's hot and what's not.

I don't envy the speakers their subject. Their selection as participants pretty much implied that their work is hot, and it is. (To be honest, I hadn't been very familiar with NC's work, but I'm very happy to have learned enough to help it on its way to well-deserved "hot" status. I'm also in awe of the nineteen-year-old author's presence.) There wasn't much they were in a position to add. Fictional slave narratives are hot? Series about owl kingdoms are hot? Novels from the point of view of teenagers with unusual cognitive functioning are hot? Fantasies with strong female characters are hot?

There are some yeses there, but the superfluity of the question is really the point. As the authors discussed, each of them wrote stories they considered worth telling--worth spending lots and lots of effort on telling--rather than trying to follow a trend. Their work became "hot" because people saw that it was good, which it probably wouldn't have been if they'd been less invested in the work.

It's good to follow a trend if it fascinates you, and if it will still fascinate you when its popularity declines. But if a fad leaves you cold, it's not worth following.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Not the whole picture

I've been hesitant to join in the raging discussion of this article because any observations I can offer are purely anecdotal. But with that disclaimer, here I am. For those who haven't read it, the article examines the decline in picture book sales and attributes it to a number of factors, but focuses mostly on parents' drive to push their children toward more advanced reading material.

Have I seen parents worry that a book's too easy for their young masterminds? Sure, but I've also seen plenty of parents who know that their kids will get more out of a book that's accessible. I've also seen four- and five-year-olds who love listening to and following along with easy readers and picture books alike. (Okay, so I'm talking about one particular just-turned-five-year-old. I told you my evidence was anecdotal.)

Do I think the economy is a factor? Heck yes. Maybe it's time for a rise in paperback picture books. As long as the hardcovers dominate, though, it's hard to keep the skinny paperbacks from getting lost on the shelves.

Publicity and lack thereof probably also play a role. Picture book releases get some attention, sure, but I can't recall a picture book equivalent of a Deathly Hallows or Mockingjay release. I wouldn't want to staff that midnight party, either.

Whatever the reason, parents, if you're out there, I hope you're letting and/or helping your kids find picture books. Illustrations are a great way to level the literacy playing field. I've had preliterate and semi-literate kids notice visual clues I'd missed. Picture books let kids interact with stories, feel smart, and maybe, just maybe, start believing the crazy notion that reading is fun.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Naked rabbit dreams and other revelations from Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo lives far, far away. Although I've been lucky enough to meet a lot of the children's authors I admire over the past few years, KD remained one I knew only on paper (you know, the kind with really well-told stories written on it). But this weekend, I was part of an all-ages group at the Somerville Theatre that got to meet her, ask her questions, and see the film of Because of Winn-Dixie.

The Q&A was a definite highlight of the event, partly because of the audience members' eager questions and partly because of KD's panache in answering them. Much of that was in the delivery, so I won't try to reproduce it all here. But we learned that Winn-Dixie came about because of how badly she missed her dog, and that The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane started with... well, I must direct you to the title of this post. (Not that most rabbits are fully clothed, but Edward Tulane was by the time we knew him.)

I hadn't seen the Winn-Dixie movie before. It's a really great adaptation and reminded me of all the wonderful, heartwarming things about the book. Then the masses lined up (sort of) for book signing. When I told KD the title I was considering for this blog post, she laughed and said she'd probably have psychiatrists wanting to examine her.

I'm more worried about the hits I'm going to get.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The smallest one and Madeline

When you've just turned two, Madeline is a pretty long book. But A has embraced this tale of a Parisian appendectomy since she was one and a half.

At first, the brightly colored illustrations were the main attraction. "Ssssun," she would point out as she lingered on the endpapers. "SUN!" Meanwhile, I read as much of the rhythmic text as she would let me, hoping she enjoyed whatever she understood.

Last night, the first evidence came that A had some awareness of the plot. We were on the next-to-last page, the one that shows Madeline's eleven roommates crying, "We want to have our appendix out, too!" A zeroed in on Madeline's empty bed. "UH-OH!" she said urgently as she pointed. Like Miss Clavell, she realized that something was not right.

A and those twelve little girls in two straight lines have two skills essential for readers:
1) Smile at the good.
2) Frown at the bad.

Monday, October 4, 2010

When worlds high-five: The Horn Book at Simmons

It's hard to say that worlds collided this weekend, since collision implies some initial distance, at least in connotation. But two institutions to which I feel connected, and which are connected to each other to an almost freakish degree, hung out this weekend and talked about kids' books.

The festivities began with the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, which are always a treat. We heard from some writers and illustrators who were new to this award-winning business and some for whom it's old hat. We heard speeches about things that meant a lot to the speakers, including one who was moved to tears by her subject matter, even after months or years of working with it. It's good to see people care.

The Colloquium's very appropriate theme was collaboration, and the first presentation was on the collaboration between editor and author--in this case, editor Wendy Lamb and author Rebecca Stead. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who found both sides of that story practically informative. Elizabeth Partridge demonstrated how she uses Google Lit Trips to let readers interact with Marching for Freedom. Martha Parravano and Julie Just's breakout session about judging the awards turned into the kind of great discussion of current trends in reading that happens when a lot of very invested people get together.

Good discussions continued into lunchtime; it's wonderful when lines disappear between "hanging out" and "talking shop," between professors and former and current students, between the rock stars of the writing world and their admirers, and everyone just chats.

A panel on Discussing Picturebooks was peopled with great characters. Peter Sis is a funny guy, and editor David Lloyd made a hilarious cameo. In Kelly Hager's breakout session, we discussed, among other things, how hard it is to categorize When You Reach Me; for one thing, it's tough to say what kind of novel something is when one of the major things it's about is a spoiler. Megan Whalen Turner's presentation revealed that some authors, at least, do lurk on their fans' online communities and take their feedback seriously.

That was a major theme throughout the weekend: writers taking their readers seriously, editors taking their writers seriously, speakers taking their listeners seriously.

And seriously, folks, do any of you have a use for some duplicate Horn Book posters? I hate to see my extras go to waste.

Monday, September 27, 2010

When booksellers read

This past weekend, our store held a "bookseller showcase" event in honor of a co-worker's recent publication. Unsurprisingly, the staff is peopled with writers, and I've definitely got some talented co-workers. There were poems and stories, kids' pieces and really-not-for-kids pieces. The audience wasn't huge, but it was the kind of crowd that shows up ready to be supportive. A group that laughed and applauded in all the right places for adult pieces could have decided to be too cool for my middle grade piece, but nope. The two of us who read children's pieces were welcomed and made to feel our writing was as "real" as everyone else's.

I don't know how much of the audience was comprised of readers' friends and family--probably a significant portion. But the first person who showed up was pure customer. Asked if she was there for one of us in particular, she replied, "All of you! I've been shopping at the store for years, and when I saw this event on the calendar, I thought, 'It's about time.'"

As someone who now knows the people she works with just a bit better, I agree.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Funny Business: None of my business?

Guys Read: Funny Business arrived at the store yesterday, and I jumped at the chance to festoon the display with my staff rec. There are parts of this book that I just appreciate on behalf of the intended audience, but there are also parts that I personally found hilarious.

The shelf tag says, Bookseller Shoshana recommends Guys Read: Funny Business. See? You don't even have to be a guy.

I hope it helps sell some copies to readers of both sexes. Part of me wonders, though, if young male customers will see my recommendation and think, Oh, goodie, some lady thinks I should like this.

During the same register shift, I also wrote a staff rec for Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, a beautifully layered historical fiction novel that's in large part about the Jewish experience. Again, I wonder what the effect will be if customers happen to notice my name and realize it's a Hebrew one (not unlikely in this community). Will Jewish customers think I'm in the know? Will non-Jewish customers assume the novel's not for them?

Well, customers and others, I'm here to tell you that they're both good books, whoever you are. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

That's horrible!... That's horrible.

So I'm reading The Onion's Our Dumb World, a fairly comprehensive world atlas that just happens to be one big joke. Like most Onion material, it's very clever and very willing to make fun of pretty much anything. When you're looking for jokes to make about all the countries in the world, you end up with a lot of dark humor. In between the amusing little jabs at regional quirks, there are jokes, and plenty of them, about starvation, violence, disease, and any number of calamities that the sufferers themselves may not find very funny.

But here's the thing: although I'm certainly not reading for accuracy of information, the atlas is serving as a reminder that a heck of a lot of things are wrong with our world. I knew that already, of course, but seeing all at once how much fodder our sometimes-wonderful, sometimes-dumb world provides for tasteless humor makes now seem like a good time to help.

Humor works, is what I'm saying.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

When things heat up

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Girl Who Played with Fire. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Graceling. Fire. Bitterblue.

The Hunger Games. Catching Fire. Mockingjay.

Notice a pattern? (Or two or three?)

Fire keeps ending up in the second titles of trilogies, and it makes sense that it does. To me, at least, a "fire" title says that the first book may have started things off, but now, now, they're going to get intense. Cool-colored covers are for conclusions. The middle of the story is red-hot, or at least, it should be if it's to attract readers and keep the trilogy going.

Still, the trend makes me glad The Giving Tree never became a trilogy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nano? No. Jono.

NaNoWriMo is a heck of a thing, and I have loads of admiration for people who do it. For the unhazed, Na(tional)No(vel)Wri(ting)Mo(nth) participants commit to writing a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. That's a thirty-day month, people. With Thanksgiving in it. For most people, the idea is to get it all down without stressing about the details and with the support of other participants, and then revise in December and beyond, presumably with lots of hot cocoa.

Setting a writing goal and meeting it with lots of people's support has appeal even if one doesn't have the speed-typing skills necessary for NaNo. That's the idea behind JoNoWriMo+1.5, a LiveJournal community founded by YA author Jo Knowles. Participants set a goal to meet between September 16 and December 1. The goal can be anything, from "finish my novel" to "write every day" to "figure out what the heck this novel's about." There are four check-in dates and plenty of posts to the community in between.

I've joined once again, and this year, my goal is to get through all the high-level revisions currently on my revision list. Cutting down on my overuse of the word look can wait; turning a flat character into a round one cannot. New concerns will probably arise as I tackle the current ones, but this goal will ensure that I spend lots of time really thinking about and improving my manuscript.

Jooooooooin us. (If you want to.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Chapter 1 all over again

I'm back from celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The holiday puts a lot of emphasis on reflection. What was important this year, and what do we hope will happen in the coming year? What was a blessing, what are we proud of, what did we overcome, and what do we want to handle better the next time it comes around?

We could call it a new year at any point. (In fact, we'll do it again in January, though let's be honest: more things begin in September than in January.) But I tend to see everything as a story, which means I buy into this stuff. Think about it--if the characters in a book spent two days singing about the year to come and eating apples and honey in hopes for metaphorical sweetness, wouldn't that mean something?

I'm not saying I know what it means. But whether or not it's a new year for you, this seems a good time to wish you a near future full of good friends and good family, good work and good fun, good present and good prospects, good reading and good writing.

Have a happy next chapter.

Monday, September 6, 2010

My (al)most excellent encounter

I had just ascended a ladder to the YA overstock shelf yesterday when a customer took My Most Excellent Year, by Steve Kluger, off the shelf. He declined my standard offer of help and chuckled at my staff rec, which says something like, If you like theater, the Red Sox, Julie Andrews, or a little town called Brookline, check this one out. (Seriously, do.) Usually, when I see a customer looking at that book, I say, "That's a really good one." But this customer had obviously seen my staff rec and it seemed like overkill to also recommend it verbally, so I continued my intrepid search for whichever book I needed at the time and didn't notice that the customer had taken all three copies of MMEY from the shelf.

A few minutes later, a co-worker arrived in search of the remaining copies, which were in - you guessed it - overstock. Why the need for all the copies? So the author could sign them, of course.

Mr. Kluger, I wish I had said so while you were standing there, but My Most Excellent Year is a really good book. Nice to almost meet you.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

It's possible I need to get out more.

I dreamed last night that Go! Go! Go!, the pop-up book by Roxie Munro, was in my to-read pile, making all the books on top of it fall over. In the dream, the book made fire truck noises every time I opened it, which was a problem because I wanted to read it around three in the morning. It was very important that I spend my imaginary insomniac time (which followed a bit of actual insomniac time) getting this important reading done, but the dream didn't last long enough for me to resolve the dilemma.

This may be the result of eating Mexican chocolate ice cream before bed.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Literary Love: "Will," by Adam Rex

My T reading this morning was the first half of the Guys Read: Funny Business ARC I recently yoinked from a friend. All signs point toward its being creative, hilarious, and appealing even to girly old me, but I've known that since hearing most of its authors speak on a BEA panel. Six stories later (well, five stories and a note about why one author's story wasn't ready for the ARC), I have lots of good things to say about the collection as a whole, but "Will," by Adam Rex, stands out.

Will goes to THAT school, the one people keep writing books about. The one where kids keep finding out they're wizards, demigods, or other fantastical protagonists. His class keeps shrinking, and the crucial years of early adolescence are passing rapidly for Will with nary an owl in sight. It's becoming clear that Will is nothing inherently special. But (spoiler) when danger strikes him and his remaining classmates, he manages to save the day--not by winning the magic-powers lottery, but rather of his own free... well, you get the idea.

The story does a great job of showing the power of personal choice and the ability of mortals to make their own destiny and all, but it does more than that. It lets kids in on the joke. It says to them, "Hey, you know this reading world we belong to? Well, you and I both know it's got a crazy number of magical kids in it. Let's make fun of that--affectionately, of course."

As far as I'm concerned, that's one of the best things humor can do.

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.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Easing back in

My draft and I are nearing the end of our self-imposed separation. We've missed each other's company, but this time has been good for us, I think.

The past few days' writing time has been devoted to prep work for diving back into revision. I've read revision tips, added to my list of things I plan to consider about the novel, and played with the chart I use as a calendar and chapter tracker for the plot's events.

Yes, this is a dragged-out process, perhaps unnecessarily so for a novel that's going to end up fairly short (rather like its intended readers). But I think that's wise. By the time I finish, I'll probably be a different person from when I started; I'll certainly be a different writer. If you want to serve as a beta reader for your own work, you'd best do some growing during the process.

I'll be away until Tuesday, enjoying my family's company and celebrating my grandparents' sixtieth (yeah, sixtieth!) anniversary. My writing for those days will consist of personal journaling and probably lots of unbidden thoughts about my WIP. When I get back, it's revision time!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Interview with poet Marilyn Singer

One of my happy surprises at BEA two months ago was to find myself in front of poet Marilyn Singer in a signing line (for James Howe's wonderful Brontorina). Marilyn is a prolific writer of varied children's poetry, and I'd already posted here about how impressed I was at her work with reversos, or poems that say one thing when read forwards and another when read backwards, in Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse. I was delighted to strike up a conversation with her, and even more delighted when she agreed to an interview.

What came first, the idea of reversible verse or the idea to write a poetry collection about fairy tales? Is there something about fairy tales that makes them lend themselves to reversible verse for you? Do you think it would work for all stories? For topics other than stories?
The idea for MIRROR, MIRROR started with the reversos.  I wrote a poem about my cat, which is in the back matter of the book, and then I wondered if I could do more reversible verse.  I wrote a bunch of poems.  Not all of them were based on fairy tales, but quite a few were.  An editor who saw the poems suggested that I do a whole book of fairy tale reversos.  I thought that was a great idea because of the there is generally more than one POV in a fairy tale and also because these stories are known and loved by lots of people.  I also thought that the book would encourage folks to read the original tales and maybe come up their unique ways of interpreting them.
I think that many fairy tales, fables, myths, novels, plays, etc. are good fodder for reversos, and, yes, I think that other topics as well can also work.  The trick is that when you reverse the verse, the second poem has to say something different.  I've read some very good attempts at reversos, but many fail to have say something in that second poem which is different from the first. 
Your bibliography includes poetry on a pretty wide range of topics, from a contemporary school year to various elements of nature. What makes you decide to write about a particular topic?
I'm interested in a lot of stuff, so if I get REALLY , REALLY interested, then I often want to write about that topic.  It's pretty much as simple--or as complicated--as that.  I especially love animals and nature, so I write about those things a lot.  But people and their foibles also interest me, as do monsters, school, travel, dancing, the moon, and a host of other things. 
When you write a collection of poems, how detailed are your plans for the collection before you get started? Do you know everything it will include, or do ideas develop as you go along? (Or is it some combination?)
Oh, my!  I NEVER know everything a collection will include.  These days, it's hard to sell a poetry manuscript that's not thematic.  Sometimes I come up with the theme first.  Other times, I start writing poems and see if a theme emerges.  I don't feel comfortable believing that I have the makings of a collection unless I've written a minimum of five or six poems.  Once I do come up with a theme, I write poems on it.  Then once the collection has been accepted for publication, I write MORE poems (usually to replace ones that don't really work).  So, by that time, I do know what the book is about, but I still don't necessarily know all the poems that will make the final cut or that have yet to be written. 

What's next? You've mentioned a second Mirror, Mirror-style volume using more fairy tales. How's that going, and have you come up with a second title as perfect as Mirror, Mirror? (I'm really curious!) Any other projects in the works?
Yes, I'm hard at work on another collection of reversos based on more fairy tales.  I think it's going well.  I hope my editor agrees.  ;-)  No title yet.  The title MIRROR, MIRROR was the very last thing that we came up with (I say "we" because titles are generally agreed on by author, editor, marketing, and other folks), after all the poems were finished.  The title is often the last thing that the author and publisher come up with.
I am working on many other projects, including more poetry, nonfiction, and picture books.  In the next few years, I have a slew of coming out, including three picture books about Tallulah, a little girl in ballet class; another picture book called WHAT IS YOUR DOG DOING?; a nonfiction book, CATERPILLARS; and several more poetry books, such as TWOSOMES:  Love Poems from the Animal Kingdom;  A FULL MOON IS RISING (a lyrical trip around the world following the full moon);  A STICK IS AN EXCELLENT THING (poems about everyday play); THE BOY WHO CRIED ALIEN (a science fiction story in poems); HOLIDAYS FOR DOGS (real and made-up holidays that dogs celebrate); THE SUPERHEROES EMPLOYMENT AGENCY (made-up superheroes).  Time to take a vacation!

Thanks, Marilyn! I can't wait to read your upcoming works, titled and untitled alike.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

When I don't scratch

I always forget about this phenomenon in between instances. But when I have a brief period with less creative work than usual, the writing itch really does get stronger.

I'm leaving the draft of my novel alone for a week or so, and I finished another creative project the same night as that draft (details after that project is revealed to its intended audience). I'm doing other types of writing, but nothing that involves creating characters or telling stories. In the past hour, I have done the following:

-read the name Abby in a book and started imagining what type of character I would create if I ever created an Abby
-overheard a conversation between strangers and started wondering what kind of voice one of the participants would have in a novel

I've thought that way before, of course, but to have it happen constantly and unconsciously tells me that my brain is in a fertile mood. When I get back to my own characters in a few days, I'll be super-prepared to imagine new things about them.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Draft in the drawer

I've heard wise writers say that after they finish a draft, they put it in a drawer for a month to separate themselves from it before they start revisions. The deadlines on my last two projects ruled out such a hiatus, and I was relieved not to have to decide whether to take one. I've mentioned before that keeping my head in my novel's world is an important part of my writing process, enough so that even on super-busy days, I try to freewrite or edit a page or something. There's a little part of me that worries I'll forget the particulars of the story if I step away from it. What if I forget what happens? What if I forget the main character's middle name and give her a new one?

But still, I stepped away yesterday, and I'm considering staying away for a week or so. There are plenty of opportunities for writing in the meantime. I don't think it would make sense to start a new novel at this point, but there's freelance work, and there are friends who challenge me out of the blue to write fairy tales about sisters named Anhedonia, Euthymia, and Euphoria. (This should tell you something about my friends.) But am I allowed to read articles about revision and Making Your Manuscript Better? Or am I supposed to turn off all WIP-related thoughts? (I know, I know, I make the rules.)

At least if I only give myself a week, then if Laurie Halse Anderson gives us an August challenge like last year, I can still potentially do it. LHA, you are the Oprah of the writing-for-children-and-young-adults world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Getting kids hooked

Making reading attractive to all kids, whatever their interests, has always been important to me, and I know I'm far from alone. You like pictures better than words? Here, have a graphic novel. Your favorite characters are the ones you know from TV and movies? Here are some books about them. Potty humor is what gets your attention? That's cool, too. Here's Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger. Maybe if this one hooks you, you'll find yourself pulling more books off the shelf.

This is a basic question, but why? Why is it so important to hook kids, practically even trick them, into reading? Why is reading so great that I want everyone to do it? There are practical reasons, of course; I'm a children's bookseller and a writer, after all. But I wouldn't be in this business if it weren't genuinely important to me to help kids want to read, and I don't think my passion stems entirely from a hope that they'll be able to read textbooks and then road signs (though both are unquestionably important).

I interrogated myself about this. I asked myself what picture is in the back of my mind as the ultimate goal. To my relief, I found that the picture was of a kid having the same kind of reading experience I have with the best of books: that personal experience where it feels like I'm the only one being let into the characters' world.

If it takes a little potty humor to get kids there, then bring on the poopoo jokes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I have a draft!

I just typed the last line, or at least the first last line, of my early chapter book. This is my first post-Simmons novel, and it was nice to take what I learned in the Writing for Children program and use it to write a novel in more than a semester. I even had the luxury of deliberately slowing production at one point. I've gotten to savor the composing phase on this one for about a year, and these characters have been great company for that year.

They will continue to entertain me for a while. I did some revising as I went along, but the list of things to change or check is currently more than three pages long, and I'll keep finding new considerations. I'll probably do some asking for feedback soon, and that'll make me see new possibilities. In other words, this isn't an ending; it's a Phase II.

Still, arriving at and then constructing the last page feels good, even though I suspect it's cheesy and will need changes. So this is what one does with an MFA. One writes novels.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Great A, little a, bouncing B...

For months now, I've been reading from this Mother Goose collection with S, now aged four and three quarters (and five days!). When we started, I wasn't sure how much she was getting out of it, besides appealing animal illustrations and fun rhythms. "Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle?" What could these words mean to an American child born in 2005? But she kept listening, so I kept reading.

She still doesn't understand every word, and occasionally she stops me with a question, but it's definitely been a worthwhile reading venture. S now has favorite rhymes that she recites herself, often in abridged versions that include the lines she understands and therefore remembers. Quotes from the rhymes appear in conversation; she loves the idea of "a secret never to be told" from "One for Sorrow, Two for Joy."

Better yet, she's learning to search for her favorites, and we spent one morning looking together for their first letters in the index. Even better, she started this week to use what she remembered of the rhymes to point to the words and "read" them.

But really, nothing beats her giggles at "From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is Fifteen Miles." Except maybe her singing along to the last line of that "Half a pound of tuppenny rice" business, which happens to be "POP! goes the weasel."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Just the beginning. See, it even sounds hopeful.

Kristin Cashore said it at the Simmons College Summer Institute last year, in a speech later adapted for The Horn Book:

Those little things [decisions about characters' quirks and backstories] are essential to every action, every interaction, every line — and you can’t proceed without them. When you start a book, you’re trying to make something out of nothing, and you need it to grow fast. And so, at the beginning of a book, practically every word can cause the writer growing pains.

At the time, I'd just started my current WIP, and though my realistic early chapter book looks and sounds nothing like Graceling, I knew exactly what Kristin was talking about. Getting the first few scenes down meant constantly stopping and asking myself, "Who should talk first? Which of these characters is the type to start the conversation? Would she start with 'hi,' 'hey,' or 'hello,' or just jump right in? Should she pause to take a bite of her sandwich? What kind of sandwich should it be?" (Food plays a major role in my WIP, so that last one was more important than it sounds.) I kept having to wonder, "Should I figure this out now? Or should I just go and fix it later?"

That's what having a new computer feels like. For the past couple of days, every quick task has meant thinking about registering this and installing that. Do I want Firefox to remember this password? Do I want AIM to sign me on whenever Windows opens? (That one's a no.)

There's no official End of the Beginning moment, but there will come a point when I realize the computer doesn't feel new anymore, when opening a document just means opening a document. I know it's coming... at least if real life is anything like writing a novel.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The end is near. See, it even sounds dramatic.

There's something almost ceremonial about the last chapter of a draft, isn't there? The first of the hundred or so times you write the beginning, everything's experimental. You try it this way, you try it that way, you make the main character older, you give her a wacky classmate-who-might-just-become-a-friend. You know that everything you know right now may change.

What you write when you write the ending may also change, of course. But it's a lot more planned. Chances are, you've had some of the lines in your head since the novel's early stages. Finally reaching the point when you get to type them (if you're a linear writer... and a typer...) feels like an achievement.

I'm not at that last line yet, and I'm enjoying this part enough to drag it out and do some revision in between. But I'm getting there, and the frenetic nights of freewriting before I knew the characters' names feels like a long time ago.

Monday, July 12, 2010

You can always find a different way to say it

My soon-to-be-replaced-for-many-reasons computer lost an important ability last week. A certain letter, existing between G and I, stopped working on my keyboard. I can still type said letter by copying and pasting, of course, and since I didn't foresee my current deficiency in naming my novel's personages, I often need to do so. But in informal correspondence, it's more fun to tell people to 'ave a 'appy b-- I mean, a 'appy anniversary of entrance into our world. Or I can say I'm going sopping, and immediately wonder if I've cursed (or blessed) us all to endure a rainstorm. (If yesterday's "sopping trip" is any indication, you'll be relieved to know I lack sufficient power to control our climate.)

I've also found myself marveling at our language's varied offerings. I can begin emails "Dear" instead of using less formal greetings requiring Letter #8 (and if you've received an overly formal-looking missive from me, now you understand). Words almost always possess synonyms, and one can even manage to avoid an article one generally uses in almost every sentence.

I suddenly crave a game of Taboo.

And a new computer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A zine for Diana Wynne Jones

To know my friend Penina is to witness a sincere, lifelong love for the work of author Diana Wynne Jones. The recent news that Diana is seriously ill has prompted Penina to start a zine with the goal of letting her know what she's meant to her fans. Penina is asking for tributes, essays, drawings, personal stories, or pretty much anything else related to Diana and her work (other than fanfic, for copyright reasons).

If you're interested in contributing to the project or know anyone who might be, this is the place to go.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Move over, Mysterious Benedicts. There's a new St author on the shelves.

I learned a lot about writing from Anna Staniszewski when I took a workshop with her at Simmons. I learned a lot about teaching from her as the teaching assistant in her children's literature survey course. And when Sourcebooks Jabberwocky releases My Un-Fairy Tale Life, I'll get to learn a lot from her about bloodthirsty unicorns, manic clowns, and useless gnome sidekicks.

Congratulations, Anna!! You can expect to see me at a future children's lit event with the book in one hand and a pen in the other.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Let's start at the very beginning. Again.

Lately, I've been revising the first page or two of my novel. The main character's voice needs to come through hrough earlier, but too much exposition on the first page would slow things down, but this main character isn't a big talker, and certain information needs to be explained early on to avoid confusion among the fairly early readers who are its intended audience. You know, the usual balancing act.

I've read my beginning many, many times. That makes it easy to look at a sentence and think it is the only way it can be. A realization that there's a quicker, clearer, or more interesting way to say something that page has been saying for months feels like a whoa sort of discovery. Of course, if I move sentence A, I have to remember that readers no longer know the necessary background information for sentence B, even though they do in the parallel universe where that page reads the way it used to.

It's a fun game. I just can't do what I did while playing Anomia by the river last night and keep getting distracted by the sunset.

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.