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.