Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Before our traditional Chinese food...

If you're celebrating today, Merry Christmas.

I've been heartened again this year to see how many people, charged with the task of finding something to give someone, have chosen to seek books. For the past six weeks or so, our kids' section has been overstuffed with customers seeking childhood favorites, customers frantically texting to find out what the recipients have already read, and customers bringing their kids along to help choose gifts for themselves or for other kids in their lives. I imagine it was the same in all kinds of stores, but from my post, where shelves emptied so fast yesterday that I had to redefine "shelving" as "cascading," it looked like the bookstore was the place to be for the people of Brookline (and probably the people of Newton, the people of Boston, and the visiting relatives from all over).

I'm always especially impressed by the customers who are willing to commit to unfamiliar books based on our advice, especially when the gifts are gestures to kids they don't know well. These are the hardest questions, but they're also a chance to introduce new books, and my co-workers' and my favorites got handsold this season whenever appropriate questions came along. I hope that means a lot of kids are giving new authors a try this morning. (I suppose they can wait until tomorrow if today's a little busy.)

Have a wonderful day today, whatever that means for you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On needless words

Books and websites on writing tell you to cut, cut, cut. They tell you to ask yourself if each scene, each paragraph is necessary. Advice on writing for children warns against brick-sized manuscripts in tones implying that most writers are dying to indulge in thousands of words' worth of backstory and description. My sense from the above and from various conversations (most recently at a Kidlit Drink Night) is that it's a fairly common tendency, though the observation is obviously anecdotal.

I've never had this particular problem, and I have to admit, I find it a hard one to understand. Maybe it's because I've spent more time reading children's and YA books than adult books. Maybe its roots run deeper: my childhood difficulty with the motor skills involved in writing meant that my school compositions were short, sometimes too short. It's not that I've never written an extraneous sentence or started to explain something to the reader before I realized it was already obvious. But "writing too much" as a vice? That's a vice that takes a lot of work and a dedication that I can't help admiring, even as I value tight writing and showing over telling. Maybe, though, it's easier for some writers to get all their ideas out before they start chiseling; approaching writing that way could make it less intimidating. I imagine genre makes a difference, too. Fantasies, particularly those with extensive world-building, tend to be longer than realistic stories, and writers who are inclined to create whole worlds might also be inclined to spend a lot of words doing so.

Other writers (of fiction, nonfiction, or anything in between), I'm curious: Do you find it's easier to write too much or too little?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Guys, I think this stuff might be... literature

It's not news that adults are reading YA. It's not even news that YA has gotten huge, that certain novels have changed the landscape and climbed the bestseller lists and that those novels have plenty of adults searching the YA shelves for read-alikes. Until recently, though, this sort of crossover has had the air of a guilty pleasure. That was certainly the case with Twilight, and adult customers looking for The Hunger Games, or looking for something similar to The Hunger Games, often shrug apologetically and say something to the effect of, "I know it's YA, but... I don't know... I like it."

There's been a shift, and its name is John Green.

I don't think anyone's been surprised to see The Fault in Our Stars on best-YA-novels-of-the-year lists
- an honor in itself, and a well-deserved one. But besides that, the book keeps appearing on general best-of-the-year lists, and yesterday, Time Magazine named it the best fiction book of the year.

Ours is an industry whose writers and editors have been asked for generations when they were going  to work on "real books." Somewhere in there, it became fathomable to consider a book for and about young people among those "real books." It's easy to lump all teenagers together and assume that they and the stories that interest them are only concerned with things that are irrelevant to adults, or to put a finer point on it, things that are beneath adults. But not all teenagers are thinking about the same things. Hazel and Augustus, facing mortality far too closely for people of their age, are concerned with how to make a life meaningful. I don't know about you, but I sure don't think that question is beneath me. And I'm pretty sure I'm a real adult, 'cause I cleaned an oven today.

Congratulations, John. Thanks for signing my copy of the best real book of the year.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

It's tip-o'-the-hat season!

Some people trim trees in December. In the children's lit business, we make lists. (Sometimes, those lists overlap, but there are good reasons for it when they do.) Here are a few, though certainly not the only, 2012 titles I enthusiastically recommend, loosely in order of target audience age.

The picture book I've handsold most obsessively this year is not actually a 2012 title, but it's one that's become much more available since its illustrator's death this year: A Very Special House, by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. I've enthused about it before, so I'll leave it at that.

More freshly minted is Z is for Moose, by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. The alphabet is a pretty predictable story, and most English-speaking three-year-olds know how it ends. But what if it were made unpredictable? What if there were a mistake young readers could identify in the very title of an alphabet book, and what if that book featured a character who, three-year-old-like, could hardly wait for his turn? Ladies and gentlemen, recovered from their tumble out of the coconut tree, it's the cast of Z is for Moose!

On a very different note, Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad, is the best case I can make for the use of picture books with older readers, or for the potential for wordless picture books to engender discussion. Customers who are teachers are very excited about this one, and so am I.

It's not easy to pull off an animal's voice without sounding gimmicky. Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, illustrated by Patricia Castelao, adapts an ambitious true story with decades of backstory and pulls it off. The story has a happy ending but not a perfect one, and the real Ivan's death at age 50 a few months after the book's release underscores the story's appreciation of reality.

Prince Charming seems like a pretty flat character in  most fairy tales, but in Christopher Healy's The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, we learn that that title actually belongs to lots of different guys, who have lots of different personalities, as do their corresponding princesses. An excellent fairy tale de-flattening.

Jerry Spinelli is a master of using just enough magical realism to make his stories feel like they take place in a special world, while spending most of his focus on real people's feelings. In Jake and Lily, he uses dual point-of-view to showcase all the different kinds of feelings that come with being eleven.

A Wrinkle in Time is full of moments that take creativity just to visualize, right? Eisner winner Hope Larson does a great rendering of Madeline L'Engle's story, and makes Meg as awkward as she should be.

R.J. Palacio's Wonder would be a story worth reading even if it were just told from the point of view of the boy with a severe facial deformity attending a mainstream school for the first time. But just when we're lulled into thinking that will be the whole story, we start to get the points of view of others that Auggie's story affects. Yes, there are moments when the points of view become gimmicky, but overall, it's a powerful story, and I'm glad it's taken hold so strongly.

But even that isn't the best weepy of the year, not when there's See You at Harry's, by Jo Knowles, which is kind of about everything but mostly about lots of kinds of love. Come to think of it, I can say exactly the same thing about The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. Read them both, and then let John and Hank make you laugh until you feel better.

Or just distract yourself with Code Name Verity, which is not a happy book, but which will blow you away for reasons I will not spoil.

Raina Telgemeier's Drama is on my to-read shelf, and I'm on the hold list for Lemony Snicket's Who Could That Be at This Hour? I have a sneaking suspicion I'll be singing the praises of both. The year ain't over, folks. Happy December.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Avonlea, We Love Thee..."

I love musicals. As most reading this probably realize, I love Anne of Green Gables. There's an entity that combines these two elements, which I somehow hadn't seen until this weekend at the Wheelock Family Theatre.

Most of my curiosity rested on how the novel-to-musical adaptation would work. If the novel has a flaw, it's pacing, which makes some sense given its origin as a Sunday school serial. But would the play have time and scenery to include the novel's rushed-through Queen's College years? The answer was no, but the script conflates Queens and Redmond Colleges so as to include Anne and Gilbert's scholarship rivalry without leaving Avonlea. It has other little tricks as well to fit in as many of the memorable episodes as possible without being four hours long. Reactions to one incident become responses to another. Anne doesn't walk a ridgepole, but mentions in song that she fell off a roof over the summer. There's no Unfortunate Lily Maid scene, but that's quite understandable for reasons of staging, pacing, and context for an audience perhaps unfamiliar with Tennyson.

And what of the songs? They're joyful enough, and some are perfect; "Oh, Mrs. Lynde!" precisely captures Anne's overwrought apology. Others feel more arbitrary, chosen as song-worthy points only because a lot of the characters are onstage; a song seems to be the only way to signal a transition into or out of school. Overall, the dialogue is much more fun and much funnier, which makes sense since it's the closest to what's in the novel. The script wisely keeps L.M. Montgomery's characterization mostly intact in both the lifted and invented lines. My one quibble is that Matthew becomes comfortable with Anne too quickly, which takes something away from the deliciously awkward buggy scene; he should be mumbling "well now," while marveling at Anne's imagination, not crowing about it.

The WFT did a really impressive, well-cast production. Child actors seemed professional (one well-handled giggle fit notwithstanding). Anne was spot-on, and managed to successfully kick off Slategate despite dropping the slate before it made contact with Gilbert's head. Mrs. Lynde was appropriately haughty. A few characters were played differently than I'd imagined them (beyond the colorblind casting), but that became an exercise in how lines I'd always pictured one way could work another way. Gilbert came off as smarmy at first, but that succeeded in emphasizing his teasing and make Anne's long-held grudge toward him more understandable. Marilla was warmer than the smile-rusty-from-long-disuse character I'd imagined, but every single line worked - she just seemed to be scolding Anne more knowingly rather than being thrown by her shenanigans.

I'm up to Anne's House of Dreams on the Librivox audio recordings. Let the renewed Anne kick continue!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what have you seen?

I don't have any childhood memories of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? That seemed strange to me given the 1967 book's current ubiquity, but apparently (thanks, Children's Book-A-Day Almanac!), it was originally published as part of a basal reader series, and gained much of its popularity when it became an individual book in 1991. By that time, I was more interested in what Kristy and Mary Anne were arguing about than in what a brown bear saw.

My first memory of encountering Brown Bear is from my high school babysitting years (see what Kristy and Mary Anne did?). I had a healthy appreciation for picture books then; those were the years when I developed the party trick of reciting The Cat in the Hat. But my initial response to Brown Bear  was, "What's the point?"

The point, I realize now, is that Bill Martin Junior's text is really for very young children. Oh, reading in sing-song with a responsive child can certainly be fun, and so can appreciating Eric Carle's illustrations. But the joy in the text is not in a plot arc or a big reveal. It's the repetition, the silliness of a blue horse, and the satisfaction of having the "seeing" turned on children who can stand in for the reader.

That combination has a near-magical way of reaching children. The book is a favorite with toddlers, and I remember a sitting charge who was really struggling to learn to talk pointing out the duck quite clearly, and repeatedly. The appealing animals and repetitious sentence structure makes it a great book for English language learners. We have a Chinese customer who sings it with her daughter, and the daughter keeps singing long after the book is closed. I've also recommended Brown Bear to customers shopping for children with special needs. One young customer who has autism, was drawn to the book because of her love of animals, and she's returned to it again and again.

I bet there are lots of good Brown Bear, Panda Bear, and Polar Bear stories out there. Sometimes, it's amazing what a simple book can do.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I vote

I vote because of people in stories who don't get to vote, who end up in unjust situations that have
 actually happened or that could happen (in some form).

I vote because of people in our world who don't get to vote, many of whom also don't get to read.

I vote because Americans under 18 can't. I vote because this is going to be stuck in my head all day.

I vote because I champion books that give everyone a voice, and voices are at their loudest on days like today.

I hope you vote, too.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading out the storm (and beyond)

First, there was a rush to get freelance work done in case the power went out. There was also some rushed checking of Facebook, which doesn't feel as frivolous when it's bringing news of friends and family in other affected areas.

But then, there was reading.

As the storm upended everything and made us feel that couldn't know what to expect, I read a volume of poetry that did the same in a more positive way. JonArno Lawson's Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, with papercut illustrations by Alec Dempster, turns words on their heads and uses them to reimagine familiar notions and stories, including Biblical incidents and fairy tales. I was especially pleased to see the collection open with "Our Imaginary Selves," about the fate of the gryphons, dwarves, and elves in the (apparently timely) Noah's Ark tale; JonArno had included that poem in an email several years ago when I queried him about a visual project for a children's poetry class, and it inspired the format for the whole project. (Thanks, Noah's Ark Colorforms!)

Then came a very different read: agent Mary Kole's Writing Irresistible Kidlit. I found myself nodding a lot at her advice, both about craft and about the market, but there's enough concrete, savvy information that I didn't feel like I was just reading a rehash of information I already knew. My litmus test for whether a writing guide is worth reading is this: Does it just tell me that plot and conflict are important, or does it actually help me create plot and conflict? Writing Irresistible Kidlit does the latter, and does the same for many other elements of novel-writing.

There was also Horn Book Guide reading, but I'll save thoughts on those books for my reviews except to say this: only a time travel novel that plays with history can make me hurtle through the story so I can get to the Author's Note.

I hope you and those you care about are safe. I hope you have power and aren't squinting to read this on a tiny mobile device. And I hope you have something good to read.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Do we Dewey or don't we?

According to a recent School Library Journal article, "a small but growing number of school and public libraries" have done away with the Dewey Decimal System. The article focuses on one school library, whose staff rearranged its collection according to categories devised with a lot of student input. There's a Making Stuff section, a Countries section, an Adventure section... The idea is that students should get to spend more time engaging with the books than they spend searching.

At first glance, my reaction was, "sounds like a bookstore." The fiction in our kids' section is mostly arranged by reading/listening level; the only exception that I would call strictly fiction is the Fairy Tales/Folk Tales/Mythology section. In particular, our kids' nonfiction section (smaller than that of most libraries, but certainly an active section) is categorized similarly to what the article describes. In fact, we recently rearranged it as a hazing for one of our new children's booksellers. Just as Dewey has logic that made a lot of sense when it was devised and still makes sense in many cases now, our kids' nonfiction section had a logical system, but it seemed wise to look at what books we had now, what requests we were getting now, and go from there. That led to the development of a "Series" subsection, which happened to be logical for us because we had enough Eyewitness and Basher books, and enough requests for them, to make them worth grouping. (Besides, a row of Basher books is a colorful wonder.) Near the end of the reorganization process, the newly devised "Educational Resources" section still had a "Misc" area, but an assessment of what was actually in there revealed that by creatively relocating two or three titles, we could call what was left "Trivia." You know, the "Impress Your Friends with the Weird Stuff You Know" section. It's great, and always has been, to be able to say to customers, "You like sports? Lots of books about them are over here." (We've wrestled with the same question the article mentions: should biographies of athletes go in Biography or Sports? I tend to agree that if a choice must be made, they're more valuable to sports browsers than biography browsers.)

Metis, the system described in the article, sounds wonderful for browsing--for finding the kind of book you want and then stumbling upon the perfect book plus two or three related ones. I wonder, though, if it's disconcerting for patrons who already have a specific book in mind. In fiction, particularly, readers are used to knowing exactly where to go once they know the author's name. But is Spaceheadz humor or sci-fi? Is Inside Out and Back Again historical fiction or poetry? Maybe, though, there's fun in those questions, or in finding new ways to describe your favorite book. I'll admit that I find that aspect of shelving satisfying.

There's also the question of whether the Dewey Decimal System is an important skill for school libraries to teach students so they can use libraries later in life. My tentative answer: maybe students don't need to learn Dewey specifically; what they do need to learn is how to search, how to figure out and navigate a system. (Lots of libraries use the Library of Congress system, anyway.) Maybe learning to search means figuring out the categories on their own. Maybe, and more likely in this day and age, it means using some form of online catalog based on whatever system is in use.

I don't think there are perfect answers (can we put that Jackie Robinson biography in two places)? But I'm very glad that, instead of adhering to a system out of habit, librarians are asking the questions.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Calling all nonfiction fans!

Much of the best nonfiction for kids is, in one way or another, interactive. It gives them a chance to do something: breeze past one spread, choose another spread to obsess over, explore this diagram, discover what's under this flap or that fold-out. Astound their friends and family with their ownership of topic-specific knowledge. Two people who realize this are author Richard Platt and illustrator Stephen Biesty, both of whom will be at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, MA (close to Boston's North End) this weekend.

Platt, author of books in the Incredible Cross-Section and Eyewitness series and most recently of Plague, Pox and Pestilence, will present "Finding a Voice: Writing Non-Fiction for Children" at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, with a meet-and-mingle reception preceding from 12:00 to 2:30.

 Biesty, illustrator of the Incredible Cross-Section books and other works including the very cool Into the Unknown: How Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air, will present "Illustrating History in Detail" at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, also preceded by a meet-and-mingle reception from 12:00 to 2:30.

While you're there, check out the museum's All Hands on Deck: A Sailor's Life in 1812 exhibit. What was that about nonfiction being interactive?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Lessons from a ten-year-old girl

A mother approached me in the store earlier this week, looking a little confused. Her ten-year-old daughter had read and loved See You at Harry's, by Jo Knowles, which they both viewed as intermediate, but we had her other books shelved in Young Adult, and they had age guidelines on them. In particular, she was asking about Lessons from a Dead Girl, which is recommended for ages 14 and up. Before launching into a discussion of Lessons, I mentioned that Harry's has some mature and serious themes, too, so I would guess that her daughter is a fairly mature reader; the mother agreed that her daughter really liked a good "weepy" story. Then, I explained that Lessons is about a controlling friendship between two girls that becomes sexually abusive. The mother's eyes got a bit wide. Still, she didn't immediately write it off; instead, she asked, "Would you say it's too old for a ten-year-old?" I told her, "I would pause. Every reader is different, and it's definitely a very good book, but it might be one to keep in mind and read in a few years."

At this point, the mom called the daughter over. She repeated my explanation of what Lessons is about. (I don't think she used my exact words, but she did use "friendship," "controlling," and "sexual," and acknowledged that the friendship themes, at least, were something her daughter understood.) The mom made it clear she was hesitant, and the daughter agreed: "I'm ten, mom. I don't want to read about sexual... stuff." I agreed that if the reader herself was saying that, it was worth waiting, and repeated my suggestion that they keep the book in mind for a few years down the road. In the meantime, I suggested Wonder, which they were excited about.

In all the Banned Books Week talking we do about letting people make decisions within their own families, it was a perfect example of how well communication can work. A ten-year-old who knows she doesn't want to read something racy is probably a ten-year-old whose family trusts her enough not to constantly try to hide things from her.

Still, before posting about this encounter, I thought I should check with Jo, who was my writing professor at Simmons. After all, the story didn't end with the sale of one of her books. Here's an excerpt from her response, which came in minutes:

"That is a PERFECT example of individual choice, not censorship. Love it! I can't imagine recommending Lessons to any ten year olds I know. I'm so glad they chose something else. I think 14 is the appropriate age recommendation. Same for [Jumping Off] Swings. She might be ready for Pearl, which is 12 and up. But again, the mom should read it first to make sure...

"So often parents are like, 'My kid reads above her level' or whatever, and they don't get that it's about content, not advanced vocabulary. I've convinced many parents not to buy my books, too, for the same reason you outline... Right book right kid right time. It's an important formula."

Jo says she has two more YA novels in the pipeline, and then a middle grade. I can't wait to help them find the right readers.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The cantaloupe in the bushes (and other thoughts from the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards)

The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were this past weekend, and as usual, we were treated to the sorts of speeches that make one want to run and add to one's current manuscript. There was Julie Fogliano's earnest story of a musing-for-the-day that turned into And Then It's Spring, Mal Peet's rant to the choir about writing "against the grain," and Jon Klassen's reminiscences about imagination taking over when stories know where to stop. The speech that stands out to me most, though, was Mac Barnett's, and not just for its hilarity. Barnett talked about that phase in childhood when kids are able to understand when stories aren't true, but at the same time, believe that they are. He used examples from his time as a camp counselor, when he had campers convinced that he used to be a spy, and even got one girl to believe she had grown a cantaloupe by tossing her daily melon chunks into the bushes.

Camp Givah, the day camp I attended for seven years and staffed for six, has had a monster-in-residence for much of its fifty-plus-year history. The leaves in the lake are the Givah Monster's hair, which is why wise campers should keep their hands in the boat. Clothes that are left out will be eaten by the Givah Monster, and he's to blame for any and all missing items. He has sharp teeth and green fur, or maybe orange or purple. I can recall only one instance in all my years there of a child being scared of the Givah Monster. Mostly, what I remember is eager camper participation in the legend. The kids might not have fully acknowledged that the monster wasn't real, but they knew that they could make up details about him, as evidenced by the many camper-penned articles about him and interviews with him that appeared in the camp newsletter. (I will neither confirm nor deny that I threatened other counselors with Givah Monster consumption if they were late with their articles.)

Once you know deep down what's not real, you can have fun with it. You can try to badger your counselor into telling you whether the Givah Monster really exists without actually thinking he'll bite off your fingers. You can believe in a place of escape and Wild Things, a fairy who comes into your room and takes your teeth, or a guy who uses your chimney as an entry point, and it's all safe.

I suspect Mr. Barnett was a great counselor.

Friday, September 28, 2012

As Banned Books Week approaches...

...I give you the ALA's list of the most frequently challenged books last year.

A few observations:

It's not an entirely comfortable list. It's easy to expect that books only get challenged for being too progressive, too sexy, too full of bad words, and in those cases, the counterarguments flow smoothly. Kids (and adults) have the right to think for themselves and to explore new ideas in a safe environment, they're seeing it all on the Internet anyway, et cetera, et cetera. But three books in the top ten were challenged for racism. A book in question may aim to show that racism is wrong, but who am I to say that no one should feel uncomfortable with the way a race is discussed or portrayed, for any purpose?

But that's sort of the point of Banned Books Week and the movement against censorship. Books get to be here even if someone doesn't like them, no matter who that someone is. Censorship is not always a neat liberal/conservative issue, and defending the right to write and to read can mean defending books we don't agree with. Yes, this might mean defending Gossip Girl or something like it. (Defending does not necessarily mean praising.)

Item 3, the Hunger Games trilogy, highlights for me how individual these cases are, and how silly it is to ask whether a book is appropriate for an audience at large. I've been asked pretty frequently whether these books are appropriate for a(n) [eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen]-year-old, and my response is to explain the premise and then say, "You probably know better than I do whether that's something (s)he can handle." (Interestingly, when I add, "There is a lot of violence, but there's no sexual content," a lot of these parents seem reassured enough to seriously consider the books.)

I haven't read any of the ttyl books, but now I want to. In the meantime, Alice in the Know has been on my to-read shelf for a good while; thanks, would-be censors, for the excuse to read it between September 30 and October 6.


I'll be at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, still blown away by Code Name Verity. Hope I'll see some of you there!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An informal poll

For any of you who tend to read while surrounded by strangers, i.e. on public transportation:

A) How often, if ever, do you get comments or questions from strangers about what you're reading?

B) Would most of your reading material generally be categorized as adult, or as children's and/or young adult? (Bonus question: Are you generally categorized as an adult, an adolescent, or a child?)

C) Do you have an e-reader?

I ask because it's been brought to my attention that A is more dependent on B than I thought. (I've added C because I'm sure it plays a role, though I personally find that seeing an e-reader makes me curious about what someone's reading.) In a bookstore and in many of the other book-centric environments where I've spent time, it's not terribly unusual to jump into someone's conversation about a book. So I didn't think it was that strange when the passenger next to me remarked, in an ostensibly friendly way, on how few words The One and Only Ivan had per page.  Another non-cover-based conversation about the open copy of Jake and Lily on my lap ended nonsensically with, "At least it's not a bad Shakespeare novel" (huh?), but still, friendly. The guy who wondered if I thought the war-centered Dear Blue Sky was "too jejune" clearly had a chip on his shoulder, so I shrugged him off mine. There was also a Fourth of July encounter based more on the fact that I was reading, but even I'll admit that that was a little unusual amidst that evening's revelry. And The Diviners is noticeably huge.

But I mentioned one or two of these stories to a few friends--also very frequent readers, also women around my age--and the response was that they've never had a similar encounter, or that it's happened once in five years in Boston. The above list of my own encounters comes from about the past six months. The only first-glance difference between the friends I questioned and myself? They primarily read adult books, and I'd say about eighty percent of my reading is kids' and YA books.

I'm not sure what to take from this obviously anecdotal observation. Are people just reacting to the incongruity of an adult reading children's books? Does my reading material make me seem more approachable? "Too jejune" guy aside, it hasn't seemed like my fellow passengers were trying to make themselves feel superior, but were they?

In any case, I'd be curious to hear what others have experienced.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Reading Ramona en Espanol

Ramona la chinche, the 1984 Spanish translation of Ramona the Pest, made a good novelty gift for a children's lit geek who studied and enjoyed Spanish through high school and slightly into college. I probably wouldn't have sought it out, but since I had it in hand, I read it out of curiosity. What would it be like to read a familiar text in a language that's mostly been dormant in my head for about a decade? How would a story whose most memorable parts in my mind had to do with misunderstanding of language handle translation?

It turned out to be a lot of fun. If I hadn't already known the story, it would've been much harder to get my bearings, but as it was, I only turned to the dictionary a few times, and most of those times were more out of curiosity than out of a sense that I was lost. At the beginning, I found myself saying the English meaning of each sentence in my head, but once I got into the flow of reading in Spanish, I rarely did that. The reading obviously took much longer than it would've taken to read a similar book in English, but every time the meaning of a funny line became clear, I had a visceral laugh reaction, I guess because I had to work harder to get to the joke. It's been a long time since I was a new reader, but this experience reminded me a bit of that one. Being fairly sure but not certain that conejo means rabbit, and then turning the page and seeing one pictured, lends a satisfaction similar to what many new readers must experience as they tentatively sound out words.

The translation follows the original almost completely, at least as far as I could tell. The only story difference I noticed, beyond changes in example words Srta. Binney uses to teach phonics, was that the tooth fairy became "el ratoncito que se lleva los dientes" (the mouse who takes the teeth). Some small moments in the story felt slightly old-fashioned to me (the original was first published in 1968), and I'm sure there are bits that might seem strange to someone from a different culture, but basically, starting school is starting school.

And in answer to my biggest questions, "Sit here for the present" translates directly. "Dawnzer lee light" does not, obviously, but footnotes can do anything.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I must, I must...

...support Ms. Blume or bust!

Judy Blume posted yesterday about her experience with breast cancer. Her post handles this very adult subject, this sensitive and scary subject, the same way  her books have always handled subjects that were sensitive and possibly scary for kids and teens. She's open. She's funny. She conveys that the disease, not the body, is the frightening part.

Judy also emphasizes that her responses and decisions thus far were right for her. The role she's played in so many people's understanding of their physicality doesn't make her own any less personal or individual. I'm impressed to realize that her diagnosis was fairly fresh news when I heard her joyful Clemens Lecture; I, at least, saw nary a sign that anything was wrong.

Unsurprising statement 1: Cancer sucks.

Unsurprising statement 2: Judy Blume rocks.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My little bookworms

Today I wrapped up a longtime babysitting gig, at least as a regular thing. (They're moving; I'm going full-time at the bookstore.) When I first inherited the family from a Simmons classmate, S was three and a half.  She was a Frog and Toad fan with a hard-working imagination, fond of making up stories. One of my first memories of her involves carefully crossing "the deep... old... cold river," a puddle whose name I suspect was inspired by We're Going on a Bear Hunt.

A was eight months old. We read a lot of Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle board books, and she did a lot of playing with the pages and not much letting me finish them. In those early months, she started crawling unprompted into the rocking chair we used for reading, books in hand, and while she was learning to talk, we developed a routine of pointing out anything in the illustrations that she could name. "Moooooon" was a favorite.

Three years and a zillion games of "I'm thinking of a character" later, S is still reading Frog and Toad. But now she's the one reading it aloud. She still makes up stories, but now when there's writing to be done, she does much of it herself. She takes the big parts in staged readings of Elephant and Piggie books and does a mean analysis of the themes in Yertle the Turtle. In short, S is going to knock the socks off of first grade.

A, too, is complexly into stories. Like S around her age (almost 4), she's discovered that books can deliver a safe thrill, so she's been on the lookout for "scary" books. We spent much of the past two mornings in the fairy tale section of the library, reading and rereading version after version of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Once she was familiar with the latter. she started skipping ahead: "I want to get to the witch part." It took convincing to get her to spend any of our four hours together at the playground while there were books to read.

And K, who was born this June? He's already got S reading to him.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A cornucopia of dystopia?

The word dystopia has been thrown around a lot lately. It's a useful term to refer to novels that take place in a world where there's been a big change in the way society runs things. I've used it myself to refer to, say, The Hunger Games. But a discussion of how exactly to define dystopia has made the Internet rounds lately, and this flowchart in particular got me thinking. (Click to embiggen, as they say.)

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, and in the novels that I think perfectly fit the designation, those in power have tried to create one. In The Giver, the community has eliminated pain and suffering by eliminating emotion. Ditto, basically, for Delirium. In Divergent, the "solution" to humanity's problems is to isolate and strengthen each of five dominant human characteristics, and in Uglies, it's to make everyone look and think the same way. There's some overlap, certainly, among the solutions in many of the above and others like them (to mention both The Giver and Delirium is to think of Matched). Most of them involve some degree of removing difference and emotion in an effort to remove the problems that surround them, and I think we keep exploring that idea because it seems tempting. But then, of course, the dys comes in; the "solution" turns out not to be worthwhile.

I'm loathe to, ahem, let go of my beloved Knife of Never Letting Go as a dystopia, and one might argue that the decision to start a society on New World counts as an attempt at a utopia, though it's much clearer from the outset how wrong things have gone. But there's little if any pretense that the Capitol in The Hunger Games is making its decisions for the good of the community.

In any case, we've had a spate of novels lately that show ways our society could change dramatically, complete with characters who deal with it in interesting and often inspiring ways. Not bad for a follow-up to the vampire trend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Patient is a useful way to be when you're an ape."

In an odd intersection of life and story, the hero of a novel published in January passed away this week.

Ivan really was a western lowland gorilla born in about 1962 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He really spent twenty-seven years on display in a shopping mall without seeing another gorilla. There really was public pressure to move him to an environment better suited to his needs, and it really did work; he was donated to the Woodland Park Zoo in Tacoma, WA in 1994 and was soon transferred to Zoo Atlanta. He really did love to paint.

The rest of The One and Only Ivan is Katherine Applegate's story. She created relationships for him within the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, and created a voice for him that's so believably simple yet so poignant, it's hard to say whether or not the book is a verse novel. Whatever it is, I loved it, and I appreciated the author's note that explained clearly how much of the story was real.

It didn't mention that Ivan had his own Facebook page, but he did. And no wonder: just look at that face.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Wait Wait can wait

I'd never been a big audiobook person. Oh, I saw their merit. When you listen to a story, after all, you engage in every aspect of reading except decoding. Comprehension, critical thinking, and enjoyment don't always require words on a page or screen. Besides, audiobooks don't necessarily have to exist by themselves. Looking at a book while hearing it read is great for developing reading skills; there's a reason so many picture books and early readers are sold together with CDs.

But for a long time, audiobooks weren't for me.

I've always had headphones in on my "commute" (a short walk), but I mostly listened to music or podcasts, where information came in fairly short bursts. My mind likes to wander a bit on the way to and from work, and the few times I'd tried audiobooks, that meant I'd miss some important information that I'd have found easier to catch on the page, and then the story would make little sense. And a story that doesn't make sense isn't very interesting. Zone out for a second on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! and at worst, you're lost for half a "Bluff the Listener" game.

So when friends started liveblogging their audioreadings of the Anne books, I was happy for them, but figured I'd remain vicariously so. It took one friend's tweeting the link to Anne of the Island on Librivox directly at me to convince me that audiobooks were worth another try. You can probably guess where this is going.

A familiar text eliminates the issue of paying attention; if I do miss a bit, I still know what's going on. And I find that most of the time, I am listening closely. Reader Karen Savage clearly appreciates a good book, and does an excellent job of conveying the import of whatever matters to the characters without overdoing it, putting to shame the way I used to read young Davy's lines aloud to my poor sister. The funny parts are as funny as they should be. The bits about Anne and Gilbert are as unsubtle as they should be. I'm as enthralled as I should be.

And I'm just kidding about Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me; it's getting frequent turns. As it should be.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A "different" Jack and the Beanstalk

Almost-four-year-old sitting charge A and I spent this morning at the theatre. Puppet Showplace Theatre has seen its share of kid audiences, and that was clear in everything from the seating configuration to the participatory discussion of how to be a good audience member. (The kids knew exactly what the grown-ups in the audience should do with their ringing, beeping "toys.")

While we were making plans to go, A noticed that Jack on the theater's website wasn't wearing the hat he wears in the version she has at home, and the discrepancy led to a fairly long discussion: "Maybe he only wears his hat sometimes. Maybe he wears it in the house and not outside the house." I was glad she raised the question because it reminded me that kids can get attached to familiar versions of stories and might need some warning that there's more than one way to tell a tale. I have vague memories of my parents telling my sister and me that, for instance, we'd be seeing "a different Cinderella"--one with Rodgers and Hammerstein lyrics but no Disney mice.

I told A the same thing about this JATB, and we talked a little about how stories can have different versions because people can tell them in different ways. She enjoyed the Crabtree Puppet Theatre performance troupe's funny and very age-appropriate way of telling this one as well as the demonstration at the end of how the puppets worked.

And then, of course, we went to the library.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The NPR listeners have spoken. (So has the Internet.)

The results are in for NPR's poll on the "100 Best-Ever Teen Novels."

While the poll was in progress, I saw some speculation that the vast majority of voters would be adults. Teens don't listen to NPR, right? That may or may not be mostly true, but many teens do get involved with the YA books they love and the online communities that surround them. John Green, co-leader of what's probably the most active YA-related, teen-populated chunk of the Internet, is all over the list. So are a lot of recent books and authors that teens are asking for themselves. Cassandra Clare. Sarah Dessen. And there are plenty of crossovers between actual teens and adults who stay current in the YA world. :cough: I'm sure Divergent and Graceling and their sequels, for instance, had support from both.

But it's a varied list, which makes it even better. It's a list that acknowledges that good books for teens have been published all along, both before we started calling it YA and since. I don't doubt that some teens voted for the Anne of Green Gables books, but, well, so did I. I kind of do doubt that many teens voted for the Betsy-Tacy books, but they've meant something to teens, if not many current teens. To Kill a Mockingbird is there, and so is Speak, which to me is the touchstone YA realistic novel. The list also reflects quite a few books that changed YA's place in the industry (and, in some cases, did so for older and/or younger reading audiences as well). Publishing and bookselling would be different places today without the Harry Potter books, the Twilight books, and the Hunger Games books.

Of course, the books available in the original poll matter in the results. By and large, the logic used to choose these makes sense to me. Seriously, though, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is "too mature" to be YA?

But that kind of discussion is part of the fun. In the meantime, I'm glad that we seem to have heard from a lot of current and former teens, and I'm glad that both NPR and a whole lot of voters thought YA books worthy of such a poll.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Keep talking, books. Keep talking.

One thing I love about working with books is that it can mean working with just about any idea in the world. Right now, I'm reading a middle-grade novel that takes place in an underground fantasy world and a YA novel set in eighteenth-century France. In the past month or so, I've read about mental illness, a town full of unusual families and magical realism, an siege in ancient Rome, time travel, superhero sidekicks, word origins, ghosts with gruesome designs on 1926 New York, the writing experience of our current Ambassador for Young People's Literature, hobbits on a journey, a third grader's quest for a halo, and an airport caper involving a stolen Star-Spangled Banner. (Two points if you can guess which two of the above were classified as adult literature.)

I've grown to think of the bookstore as a commons for the exchange of ideas. It's a place where I might find myself politely defending the presence of a book that I personally dislike. It's a place where I might quietly read a particularly adult title over the phone one minute, and the next minute joyfully reassure a customer that yes, of course we have board books featuring children of color.

The staff reading this weekend made it clear how comfortable we all are exchanging ideas of all kinds. Held in honor of assistant manager Kate Robinson's new book of poetry (psssst... she's really talented), the event gave a bunch of us a chance to share our "works in print and in progress," as the events calendar put it. If I worried that my selection from a middle-grade novel wouldn't fit in, I needn't have. Yes, many of the other readings covered very different ground. But just as the evening's atmosphere created a safe space for those who read dirty ghazals and free verse about bodily functions in front of a sizeable crowd that included their coworkers, it was also safe to read about a character who's the only boy over eight at an arts and crafts camp.

Keep talking, books. And keep talking books.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Giver keeps on giving

(Spoilers within for The Giver and its companion novels, including Son.)

Son, the upcoming companion novel to The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger, has been on my mind since I read it a month or so ago, and since the ARC was just returned to me by a coworker who "can't bring [her]self to read it," I think it's time to get some of those thoughts out.

To start, I both love The Giver and respect it highly. Many novels published since owe it a major debt for the blueprint it furthered for dystopia as coming-of-age story. It was one of the first novels that made me ask really big questions: What does equality mean in a world where people have different needs? What would I be willing to give up to end the problems our world has?

Another notable aspect of The Giver, particularly for a novel aimed at about upper middle-grade/early YA readers, was the ambiguity of its ending. Maybe the Elsewhere Jonas saw at the end was a new place where people could experience life more fully, but in a story where "release" to "Elsewhere" meant euthanasia, it was just as likely that we were seeing Jonas's (and maybe Gabriel's) death. I wanted to believe the former; I had a feeling the latter was true. There was an exquisite anguish in not knowing for sure. I understood why standing alone was good for this particularly novel, but I remember hoping guiltily for a sequel, and I remember my reason: I wanted to know what happened in the community when Jonas released the memories.

Then came Gathering Blue and Messenger. Gathering Blue didn't give us much concrete information about The Giver's characters, but Messenger told us that Jonas and Gabriel were alive and well. There was some uneasy relief there; I cared about these two characters. But honestly, I cared more about the community; that was what I wanted to know more about.

Well, this October, Son comes out. The first third of the novel takes place back in the community during years when Jonas is there, and it sheds light on one of that society's most mysterious roles: that of Birthmother. If you left The Giver feeling curious about what you weren't seeing, that first third is very worth a read. The other two thirds are a good story, but what they show is mostly that the societies in this world are isolated and very different from each other. That's interesting and raises questions about how that came to pass. But I still want to know what happened in the freaking community when Jonas released the freaking memories.

It is a sign of The Giver's strength that I care this much some sixteen or seventeen years after my first reading. Sigh. I suppose there's value in not giving everything away.

Monday, July 16, 2012

More sad news

When you're a very new reader, sounding words out and recognizing familiar ones is an achievement. When they form a story that lets you figure things out for yourself - like whether Little Bear is just pretending this time - then you can really feel accomplished.

When you're just a slightly less new reader, past the point where words are mysteries, the next challenge might be to think like a detective about the events in a story. When the author trusts you to solve the mystery on your own before turning to the back for Encyclopedia Brown's solution, that's a heady feeling.

Several days ago, we lost Little Bear's creator, Else Holmelund Minarik, and today, we lost Donald J. Sobol, creator of Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown. Both authors' work is still popular; there's not much that's dated about learning to read.

Children's lit news has felt like an obituary round-up of late. It's worth remembering, though, that if we've lost quite a few great people, it's because we've always had a lot of great people.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What if all books began with e-?

Recently, I got an inquiry from a mother and son about the latest in a popular series that we consistently carry. They sounded sure of the release date, and for a moment, I was stymied. I hadn't seen a new installment, which I would have expected to arrive in large quantities, and the book wasn't listed in our database. A few minutes' research provided the explanation: The new book, as well as several after it, would only be available in e-book form.

I won't single out this series because I don't know all the factors that went into the decision, and because I suspect it's not an isolated case. But I will say this: In my view, e-books are an option. For some people, they're a great option, and if this technology makes reading more fun or more convenient or more private or sexier, then they serve a worthwhile purpose. But at least at this juncture, I don't think they should be the only option.

That's not just because I work for a brick-and-mortar bookstore. My store does sell e-books through its website, as do many stores like it, and a fair number of customers have been excited to hear that buying e-books and supporting us don't have to be mutually exclusive. Nor is my view based purely in physical-book sentimentality. I do personally love the smell of old books and the fact that my copy of Little Men bears an inscription to my grandmother on her seventh birthday, but in most cases, the words (and sometimes the pictures) are what I'm sentimental about. They're certainly what I'm most eager to pass along to other readers.

When a book is available only as an e-book, we severely limit who gets to read it, and to my mind, that's the real problem. Maybe e-reading devices will be affordable for everybody someday, but right now, they're not. Some libraries lend out e-readers; many don't, and though I don't have the statistics, I would wager a guess that it's happening less in economically disadvantaged areas. The series in question is popular with reluctant readers, which often translates to struggling readers. Shouldn't we make it as easy as possible for these kids to read these stories?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Isn't reading supposed to be fun?

A post over at Book Riot got me thinking. The gist of the post, titled "The Gender of Reading Shame" (I'll give you a moment to be shocked that this interested me), is that reading genre fiction can be a source of shame, but women are more likely than men to be embarrassed to read the kinds of genre fiction commonly associated with their genders. I think this probably says as much about how the literature itself is viewed as it does about readers or how they're viewed; the term "chick lit" spells it out pretty clearly. Women reading sci-fi in public might get an occasional sniff from the narrowest-minded literature snobs, but how many men can feel safe reading a pink-covered paperback on the subway?

But what about kids? Gendered reading shame is a factor for some of them, and boys who want to read "girl books" bear the brunt of it. But I've never heard of a kid equivalent of genre fiction shame. (Book length shame, yes.) Kids, in general, love their series - their Warriors, their Alex Rider, their Emily Windsnap, their Harry Potter, their Percy Jackson, their Pretty Little Liars - and love to talk about them. When I do see embarrassment about what kids are reading, it tends to be on the part of the parents. Parent: "We're having a hard time getting Little Legacy into reading." Me: "Have you looked at the Wimpy Kid or Big Nate books? They're more visual, which can make it easier to--" Parent: "Oh, we've done those. We're looking for something beyond those."

The idea that there are things you're supposed to be reading and things you're not supposed to be reading? It comes from somewhere.

Friday, June 22, 2012

When Judy Blume kissed Mark Twain

A picture of Mark Twain at the peak of his eyebrow-intensive Twaininess graced the Clemens Lecture stage before the lecturer or her interviewer entered. "I think I'd be intimidated by that," I said to my friends. "Even if I were Judy Blume." But when Judy came onstage, the first thing she did was plant one on him. He has the lipstick stain to prove it.

Judy talked a lot about telling the truth, and the truth was that she felt a literary affection for Mark Twain. Intimidating or not, she expressed that. The truth is that kids wonder how babies end up inside their mothers, that girls get their periods, that boys have wet dreams. Those things are part of real kids' stories, so they're part of hers. Many of those real kids have written to her about their questions and their experiences, because as she said, it's easier to discuss certain things with a stranger you don't have to face at the breakfast table. Being that (near) stranger has put her in the position of "supportive friend" in many cases, and in a few, she and her assistant have stepped in and called social services for a letter writer's benefit. Which is a pretty amazing example of taking kids seriously.

The audience was an amazing mix. The oldest men and women there could easily have read Judy's earliest books to their children (or over their shoulders) when those books were new. The youngest person I spotted was a boy around three whose mom  had to repeat his question: "Did you ever have a bat mitzvah?" (No; very few girls did when Judy was twelve or thirteen.)

There were lots of chances to awwwwww, starting when a boy around six came in wearing a sign on which he'd hand-written, "I am a fan of Fudge Hatcher." Just as she does with her readers and correspondents, Judy took every one of her questioners seriously. My favorite set of questions came from a girl around eight: "Are you going to write any more books about Fudge?... Did you ever read The Hunger Games?"

The answers: a) Probably not, but her grandson convinced her to write Double Fudge, so I say there's hope. b) Yes, via audiobook. And yes, the girl who asked the question has also read The Hunger Games. "Two of my favorite authors," she told me in the signing line.

Now that's a discerning reader.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A sample of ChLa

The Children's Literature Association's 39th Annual Conference is conveniently located at Simmons, so I was able to put in an appearance today. Which means I got to hear about fifteen speakers from all over the English-speaking world. The topics I learned more about included but were not limited to...

-conceptions of girlhood in German- and English-language novels (including good old Anne of Green Gables, which was an excellent way to start the day)
-whitewashing and white default both in and on YA novels
-adolescent realism and its consumption here and in Australia and New Zealand
-balance in the writing life and the writing-and-teaching life
-Sendak and Steig, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Pullman and Milton

While I was at each of those panel discussions, there were six others going on. As far as I noticed, none of the sessions were repeated. And that's one day of a three-day conference. There are a lot of smart people out there.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A fine ridgepole to walk

So this is happening.

In general, I look forward to new interpretations of favorites. I enjoy highlighting what the new versions get right in my view, and when they get something wrong, it brings new understanding to what makes that story what it is. Case in point: the Where the Wild Things Are movie a few years ago did a lot of things well, but I sorely missed the disappearance of Max's bedroom walls. Though I hadn't articulated it before, Wild Things to me was largely about the transformation of the familiar.

The 1980s Anne adaptation felt like a love letter to the book, which is exactly what you want if you love the book. (I was surprised and a little disappointed that Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel focused so much on the events of Book 4, Anne of Windy Poplars, to the exclusion of other episodes that meant more to me, but that opinion is my equivalent of a love letter to Anne of Avonlea.) This new series may be wonderful in its own way, but I'm a bit skeptical because the focus of so many of the quotes in the article is on making changes. I expect changes; they're part of what "adaptation" means. But to go into the project saying, “I always like to know it’s based on the stories but understand sometimes the material is a little dry and so you have to embellish a little bit?” My mind is open, but my eyebrows are raised pretty high. The Anne books began life with a serial. They are by nature episodic. You know, like TV shows have episodes?

And Anne, my Anne, is anything but dry.

Okay, I admit it: however this series turns out, I'm going to have fun with it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

When reluctant readers grow up

I've just returned from a family wedding that also served as a long-overdue reunion. As always, there were connections over books; one person at my far-from-Brookline table remembered when my place of employment was known as Paperback Booksmith.

But the literary connections didn't start there. On the first leg of the trip, the passenger behind me noticed that I was reading - not so much what I was reading (a middle-grade novel I'm reviewing), but just the fact that I'd gotten somewhere in a book in the time we'd been sitting there. I explained in response to his questions that I was reviewing the book in hand, that I work in the kids' section of a bookstore, and that books are a pretty huge part of my life. He seemed both interested in hearing about engaging with books and eager to talk about how he rarely has, how he used to write book reports based on the flap copy and how a book really has to hook him to make him keep reading. I threw out a few suggestions and compared the fun of caring too much about whether a movie will get the book right to rooting for a sports team.

Not everyone has to enjoy reading, but he seemed interested, at least in the idea of reading. I don't often get to make suggestions for reluctant or hesitant adult readers (the whys and wheres of who chooses books for whom being a subject for another post), but I found myself going down paths similar to those I take for kids and teens who haven't found the right book. What kinds of movies does the person like? He or she might like books in the same genre. In fact, if a movie the reader likes came from a book, that might make it easier to visualize the story. And speaking of visualizing, have you thought about graphic novels?...

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why stories buzz in people's ears

It's been a big month for endings in children's literature. Illustrator Leo Dillon and author Ellen Levine both passed away on May 26. I don't know if they knew each other, but I suspect they would have gotten along.

Leo and his wife/collaborator Diane were probably best known for their 1976 Caldecott-winning Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears. According to Leo's obituary in Publishers Weekly, Diane once told a group of students, "We are interracial and we decided early in our career that we wanted to represent all races and to show people that were rarely seen in children’s books at that time." I clearly remember seeing and hearing Why Mosquitoes in kindergarten in the late 1980s. A lengthy picture book needs enticing illustrations to maintain the attention of a young audience, especially an audience unfamiliar with its setting. Well, what five-year-old could look away from the nearly glowing animals the Dillons created? I was engrossed, and the cause-and-effect story about why lying is a bad idea and why mosquitoes... well, you get the idea... made enough sense to me that I remember the encounter decades later.

What I remember most about my first encounter with Ellen Levine's work is a title: I Hate English! I was seven or eight by this point, and decidedly did not hate English. It seemed strange that someone could feel this way, and even stranger that adults would allow this sentiment to be proclaimed on the cover of a book for kids, a book that was being displayed in my school. I read the immigration story curiously, and learned for the first time that some languages have characters for each word rather than letters that make sounds. Imagine trying to read English when you'd never heard of an alphabet!

Years later, at a Simmons Summer Institute, I was impressed at the passion with which Ellen spoke about her controversial In Trouble, and now, I sit here impressed with both these figures' work. They fulfilled the Dillons' goal of introducing many of us to new people and concepts, and I hope their stories will keep buzzing in our ears.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Where are the gay parents in YA lit? On another planet.

This week, fellow bloggers Kristine Asselin and Jonathon Arnston are conducting a series called "Where are the Gay Parents in YA Lit?" The series, which follows a similar one on works for younger readers last year, highlights novels portraying a demographic that's present in many young readers' lives, and that YA readers in particular might see themselves becoming part of: LGBT parents and guardians.

This post contains mild, early-chapter spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first installment of Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy.

There's no statement in the Chaos Walking series that Ben and Cillian are a couple. They live in a dystopia where all the women are long gone, as is protagonist Todd's father. So it's not as telling as you might think that these two men, who were close friends with Todd's parents, have raised him together in a house they all share. But the degree of their attachment and their personal, profound understanding of each other seem to point toward couplehood, and there are little hints. "Ma convinced Pa and Ben convinced Cillian" to leave Earth for New World. In a moment of danger, the two men "clasp hands for a long minute."

It's not stated because it's not worth stating. Maybe these guys are just really close friends. It doesn't matter.

I've praised this trilogy, particularly the first book, before on this blog for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with this particular relationship. Because that's all it is: one of the many well-drawn relationships in this universe. If the story were the same except that women were present and Todd's guardians were a heterosexual couple, he wouldn't pause in his narration to say, "By the way, Ben and Celina share a room."

One more spoiler: Todd's pretty well-adjusted. For a kid who's grown up in an isolated and in many ways disastrous community, I mean.

Monday, May 21, 2012

This post rated C for content

A recent article in U.S. News and World Report proposes ratings for books. The suggestion seems to come from a place of compromise, a place that says something like, "Don't want to ban books? All right, let's give parents some information to help them be involved in their kids' and teens' reading decisions."

I've previously expressed my reasons for thinking that parents' influence over their kids' reading shouldn't be absolute. Parents do get involved, though, for all kinds of reasons. And that's why I really don't like the idea of reducing a book's "mature content" to a letter or two. Who would get to make that decision, and what would the criteria be?

The article seems largely focused on profanity, which is easily quantifiable (if a bit futile; I'm sorry, parents, but your kids probably do know those words). In fact, a researcher did quantify it: according to the article, she  "checked for profanity in five different categories: George Carlin's 'Seven Dirty Words,' sexual words, excretory words, 'strong others' (bastard, bitch) and 'mild others' (hell, damn)." But what about context? Does an F-bomb become more okay if there's, say, an actual bomb? Who decides?

And what about all those other "mature" topics? Do drugs mean a higher rating, and if so, which drugs?  Does it make a difference if the tale turns out to be cautionary? What about violence? What about sexual violence? What about sex? Does it matter if it's casual or committed, protected or unprotected, gay or straight? Again, who decides?

Once a label is on a book (or a movie, or anything else), it's very hard to see past it, even if you're not entirely sure how it got there. Well-intentioned though the suggestion might be, I'm going to make another, borrowing a phrase heard most recently from John Green: use your words. Talk to your kids about what they're reading. Talk to a librarian or a bookseller, who may also suggest that you talk to your kids. Their brains probably have more mature content than you think.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Scarred? Nah, just needed tissues.

My first thought on reading Flavorwire's 10 YA Books That Scarred Us for Life was, "When did YA become the buzzword for everything between picture books and adult books?" My second thought was, "This list feels very pre-Hunger Games."

Pre-Twilight, even. It's a varied list, with both realistic fiction and fantasy on it, but it lies outside the most recent discussions of "dark" themes in YA (and seems aimed more at my own generation than at YA's current primary target audience). And it's interesting to see what constitutes scarringly scary to someone who presumably hasn't been mired in debates about what YA is supposedly doing to its impressionable readers.

A few items on the list are pretty clear precursors to works that would later be controversial. Quite a few recent dystopias owe a lot to The Giver, and The Golden Compass, like many more recent works, is a fantasy in which lots of scary stuff is going on. (To some degree, so are the Narnia books, and I think it's interesting that they're on the same list as The Golden Compass for unrelated reasons, but that's neither here nor there.)

But it's the realistic fiction that stood out to me. Realistic YA does get called out for "dark" content, usually in the form of teens engaging in unwise behavior or suffering from unsavory conditions. But when was the last time you heard controversy about a book because a dog dies? Or even because a human dies (in a manner that doesn't involve alcohol, violence, or vampires)?

That's the thing. Yes, these stories can have an effect on us and stay with us, and we might even have fun with, or write funny articles about, the idea that they've "scarred us for life." But that doesn't mean they shouldn't exist. Dogs really do die, and so do humans, and reading about these truths might help us prepare for or deal with them. And even if societies don't go wrong precisely as it's portrayed in books, societies do go wrong, and it's good for us to prepare for that, too.

We saw what happened to Babar's mother and to Bambi's. We joked, and will probably continue to joke, that it scarred us for life. But we turned out okay.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"What would you do if your mother asked you?"

I just read over this blog's first Mother's Day post, and this paragraph caught my eye:

The read-alouds petered out, but during my high school years, my mother and I came full circle, becoming volunteer readers in the waiting room of a local health clinic. We developed a Where the Wild Things Are routine that involved the roaring of terrible roars and the gnashing of terrible teeth. Children's books became our thing, a thing it was our job to share with the world. "Oh, yeah, children's books," I said to myself. "You know, I really like these."

Not surprisingly, I'd already been thinking about Max and Mother's Day. Max's mother has an enormous amount of power over the way he views his position in the world. As the text implies in a few places, she's usually his source of comfort and belonging. When she tells him he's a wild thing, there's nothing to do but become one for a while.

Mom (or Dad, but that's a subject for next month) very often directly creates the circumstances of a child's world. Mom can say no to buying that bear in the corduroy overalls who doesn't look new. She can leave the house, presumably with the family car, and force you to sit, sit, sit, sit and stare at the rain. Speaking of making way, she can take you safely through Boston and help you find a home at the Public Garden.

Growing up often means doing the things Mom might have done before. It might mean emptying your piggy bank and bringing Corduroy home. It might mean making your own fun with a cat in a hat--and trying, mom-like, to control the situation. It might mean one day leading your own flock of ducklings. It might mean stepping into your private boat and deciding for yourself to come home.

Or it might mean reading stories with a mom who's become a friend.

Happy Mother's Day.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Amid the gnashing of terrible teeth

Maurice Sendak passed away today.

Sendak, a deity of children's literature if there've been any, was known for text and illustration that was honest about topics some children or adults might be afraid of. Nightmares. The Great Unknown. Human anatomy, even. This was a guy who said he wouldn't write a sequel to his most popular work because he was "not a whore." This was not a guy you went to for feelings of predictability, safety, or comfort.

Except... I think many kids did and do. Sendak was a master of the classic "home-away-home" pattern. That "away" part might get darker than you'd expect from some children's books. It might involve your mother sending you to bed without your supper, or a long journey on your own, or creatures with terrible roars and claws. It might show you things you'd never seen before and change the way you viewed the world. But you could still choose to step into your private boat and wave goodbye. Even after you'd seen terrible things, the world could still offer the comfort of a supper that was still hot.

I'm fairly certain Mr. Sendak would roll his terrible eyes if I took the metaphor any further, so I won't. I'll just say that his passing, age or not, feels like a blow, and he'll be sorely missed.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Magic Marks the Spot: An interview with new author Caroline Carlson

Caroline Carlson just added another book to my to-read list. Three books, actually.

Magic Marks the Spot (working title), the first book in her middle-grade adventure trilogy, will be published by HarperCollins (in the US) and by Simon & Schuster (in the UK) on their Summer 2013 lists. There are pirates. There's a main character who really doesn't want to be in finishing school. 

Caroline was kind enough to indulge this former co-worker's questions with great, insightful answers. Looking for more? Caroline's website is here, and she can also be found here and here.
What should we know about Magic Marks the Spot? What will booksellers everywhere be telling their customers about it?

Magic Marks the Spot is about Hilary Westfield, who has always dreamed of being a pirate and sailing the High Seas in search of magic treasure. But girls aren’t allowed to be pirates—the thought is too shocking to contemplate!—so Hilary is shipped off to finishing school instead. With the help of her beloved gargoyle, Hilary decides to escape from finishing school and prove her talent for piracy by digging up the kingdom’s most valuable treasure: a stockpile of hidden magic. Unfortunately, however, Hilary isn’t the only scallywag on the High Seas who’s after that treasure….

The story is told partially through letters, forms and newspaper clippings, and it will be illustrated, though I’m still waiting to find out who the illustrators will be.
Where did the idea for the novel come from? How has the manuscript changed since the original idea?

I’ve always loved pirates, and I’ve known for a while that I wanted to write a book about a treasure hunt. (Treasure-hunt books like Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish and Spiderweb for Two by Elizabeth Enright were some of my favorites growing up.) Then, on our honeymoon, my husband and I visited an island called Gotland, which is off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. In a museum there, I learned that Gotland—and its beautiful walled medieval town, Visby—had once been a pirate stronghold, and I knew I’d found the perfect setting for a book about pirates. The pirate stronghold in my book, Gunpowder Island, is very loosely based on Visby, although I’m not sure anyone would recognize it!

That was in 2008, but I didn’t actually start writing the book until a few years later, when I was a student at Vermont College. I was working on another project at the time, but I had to submit 20 pages of new material to school for our summer workshop, and I decided to play with the pirate idea that had been poking around in my brain for a while. I’d been rereading Jaclyn Moriarty’s brilliant book Feeling Sorry for Celia, and I wanted to experiment with Moriarty’s technique of using letters and documents to tell a story, so the first page of the book became a letter to my main character, Hilary, from the Membership Coordinator of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates. (I have to admit that part of my motivation for writing those first few pages in documents was that they filled the page quickly, and I had to have 20 pages written for workshop in less than a week!)

While I knew from the start that I wanted to write a funny pirate fantasy for middle grade readers, most of the story’s world (and many of its plot twists) grew as I wrote the first draft and talked about it with other writers. For example, in that first draft, I didn’t expect that Hilary would actually attend Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies; I thought she would escape to become a pirate before she ever reached the school. But my brilliant workshop colleagues read my first 20 pages and told me they couldn’t wait for Hilary to get to Miss Pimm’s. Once I began to think about the events that might take place at finishing school—and what those events might have to do with piracy—the story took off in a new and exciting direction, and I never looked back.

You've mentioned that this will be published as the first in a trilogy (woohoo!). Did you have that in mind early on, or did the idea come with the contract? If you didn't know ahead of time that it would be a trilogy, how has that affected your revisions of the first book?

I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but as I was writing the first draft, I realized that the world and the characters I’d created had lots of possibilities—more than I could hope to explore in a single book. (I think this is what publishers mean when they say a book has “series potential.”) The manuscript I worked on before Magic Marks the Spot always felt like a stand-alone story to me—the characters didn’t have anything more to say at the end of the book, and I wasn’t all that interested in learning more about them, either—but Magic Marks the Spot felt different, and I was aware of that almost from the beginning.

I certainly never expected that I’d actually end up writing more than one book in the series, though, so I gave my pirates a nice, tidy ending and pitched the story to my agent as a stand-alone novel. She asked if I could see myself writing a sequel, and I said yes, so she had me write up a very brief synopsis for a second book. When MMtS was on submission, my agent let editors know that I’d be open to writing more than one book in the series, and she sent the synopsis for the second book to anyone who requested it. I was blown away when HarperCollins asked for three pirate books! It was a little terrifying—I barely had any idea of what would happen in the second book, let alone the third!—but I felt confident that my characters and plot could support two additional books, and I was excited to have a chance to jump back into my pirates’ world.

The end of the first book is still neat and tidy—I’m not crazy about books that end on cliffhangers—but during revision, I added a few more loose ends and planted a couple of hints about what might happen in the next two books. I’m outlining the second book right now, and I have a very general idea of how the whole series will end, but I suspect I’ll discover most of the details as I write.

What was your path to finding a publisher? How did Vermont College fit in?

Attending Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children was one of the best things I did for my writing, both creatively and professionally. The program at Vermont is very focused on craft—in my two years there, I wrote and revised something like 800 pages of fiction and 100 pages of critical work, and I read almost 200 books—so there’s hardly any time to think about things like finding an agent or landing a book deal. I decided that I wouldn’t worry about the publishing industry during my time in the program, and that decision gave me the freedom I needed to play around, make plenty of mistakes, and learn as much as I could about how to tell a good story. Magic Marks the Spot was actually my graduate thesis, and it’s where everything I learned during my MFA finally came together in the space of one story.

The Vermont College community is filled with people—students, faculty, and alums—who are smart and knowledgeable about the publishing industry, and talking to those people helped me get a better idea of what I could expect as I went out on submission. Vermont alums read my manuscript for me, gave me great feedback, and told me what they loved about their agents. An MFA is no guarantee of a book deal, of course, but my MFA experience certainly made my path to publication much smoother than it might have been otherwise.

After graduation, I took a few weeks off to catch up on two years’ worth of sleep. Then I revised my manuscript, sent it to readers, and revised some more. I only queried three agents—I’d done a fair amount of research and had a good idea of who my top choices were—and a week later, I signed with Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse Literary Agency. About a week after that, Sarah sent the manuscript out to editors, and a week after that—when I had bitten all my fingernails to stubs—we had a pre-empt from HarperCollins. The whole thing was a bit of a whirlwind, and my fingernails still haven’t quite recovered.

Now that you've been through one round of revisions with your editor, what can you tell us about that part of the process? What's been the biggest surprise so far?

My editor at HarperCollins, Toni Markiet, is wise and encouraging and all-around fantastic, but my favorite thing about her is that she really gets my book. Right before Christmas, she sent me a four-page letter filled with her questions and suggestions, and while some of those questions were tough to answer, I knew immediately that her vision for my book was the same as my own. I took a couple of weeks to work out how I’d address her comments, and then I put my revision plan into action. I started on page 1 and worked straight through to the end, revising about five pages a day. Some scenes only required minor tweaks; others had to be rewritten entirely. I turned a minor character into a major character, and I did a ton of world-building, which I hadn’t had time to do when I wrote the draft of the book in school. I loved the book before, but now it’s becoming the story I always wanted to tell, and that’s incredibly exciting.

The biggest surprise might be that having a book published does not magically transform you a flawless writer and exquisitely perfect person. I’ve learned a lot about writing, but I still have so much more to learn. Some days I wake up, sit down at my desk, and write five pages of shimmering prose, but a hundred times more often, I procrastinate, whine, and delete three words for every one I type. I knew intellectually that this would be true, but there was a part of me that didn’t quite believe it. That part of me, the part that believed writing would always be easy and fun and glamorous once I became a Published Author, is currently sulking in the corner and looking embarrassed. Soon enough, though, it’ll stand up, sit down at the desk, put its fingers grudgingly on the keyboard, and start to figure out what happens next.

Monday, April 30, 2012

They'd like to thank the Society...

SCBWI just announced the winners of the 2012 Crystal Kite Awards. These awards are chosen by the authors' peers in the form of SCBWI members, and if I may say so, we've got good taste.

I'm particularly proud of my former writing professor and recent Writing Camp counselor Jo Knowles, whose Pearl got some well-deserved love. I was also excited to see store favorites Won Ton and Between Shades of Gray on the list. Congratulations to all!

Friday, April 27, 2012

A few things that made me happy this week

Thing 1: Stephen Colbert continues to demonstrate his respect for the children's book world by acting in character like he doesn't get it at all. His picture book I am a Pole and So Can You comes out May 8. Colbert celebrated by interviewing the embodiment of joy that is (the apparently potty-mouthed) Julie Andrews. There is discourse. There is singing. There is delight. (See if you can spot the one throwaway line that made me less than happy. Et tu, Julie?)

Thing 2: Charlie Kaufman, best-known for writing in a quirky manner about book-to-film adaptations and about people going  inside each other's heads, is going to write the film version of the Chaos Walking trilogy. It's a match made in Haven. (Sorry.)

Thing 3: Dr. Seuss. In space.

Thing 4: Fresh off the NESCBWI conference, I've done some examining of a character who had me perplexed, and I'm pleased to find that she's turned out more assertive than I might consciously have made her, and I think it works, at least for this draft. You go, girl! Now to stick you in some awkward situations...

Hope you've all had happy weeks!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Springfield: An excuse for Seuss

The Sheraton filled with the six hundred voices
of tellers of stories concerned with their choices
in structure and balance, description and theme,
decisions enough to make anyone scream!
Instead, though, we listened, and richer we are
for hearing from Bliss, Yolen, Messner, and Zarr,
from agents and editors. Friends. Volunteers.
From newbies and those who've been published for years.
We pondered why characters feel what they feel,
and how we can tell if they're keeping it real.
Critiquers critiqued and academies met,
and books were re-outlined and new goals were set.
Now everyone's talking of writing tricks learned,
of questions well-answered and power-naps earned.
The weekend's appearing in tweet after tweet.
And to think that we saw it near Mulberry Street!


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