Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'Twas the post before Christmas...

Parodies of songs and poems are a big part of my writing life. Since I mostly write them just for the heck of it, they don't run on any particular schedule, and sometimes months pass between one parody and the next. But in the weeks since Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincided, I've felt the urge to generate them constantly. Some have found their way onto Facebook or the store's blog; others haven't even been worth writing down (if you're going to sort a mountain of eight-by-eights, you might as well mumble-sing about them to the tune of whatever's been playing over the PA). It's always been like this. Holidays - my own and other people's - bring this out.

It's not just me, either. How many parodies do you hear on TV between, say, January and (early) October? And in the past two months, how many commercials have you heard that are based on "Jingle Bells," "Deck the Halls," or the especially ubiquitous "A Visit from St. Nicholas?" Look around. Scroll through your social media outlet of choice. How many altered lines from Christmas carols do you see?

Why do we have this tendency? I'm sure part of it is that evoking the night before Christmas is a great way to make the need for shopping seem urgent. But I think it's more than that. I know I'm a bigger parody nerd than most, but my sense is that in general, carol parodies get the public's attention. We hear the altered beginning of a holiday favorite, and we pay attention. We know we're about to hear a story, even if it's a story about some dude who rushed into a store at the last minute and found the perfect item with which to deck the halls.

When we hear a parody, and even more so when we write one, we feel like we're engaging with the original material. We're making it our own. We're creating this year's version. If it's a song we love, we're digging into it more deeply. If it's one we think is silly, we're subverting it. Sometimes, we're doing both at once.

Merry earworms to all, and to all a good-night.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Raves & Faves 2013, Part II: Middle-Grade and YA

 See also, Things That Are Not Easy to Narrow Down. And I thought picture books were hard.

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo. This book succeeds at being sophisticated enough for voracious readers and visually inviting enough for reluctant ones. It is hilarious. It includes a poetry-typing squirrel and phrases like "holy unanticipated occurrences!" It rocks on the diversity front without making a big deal about it. Holy bagumba.

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates 1: Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson. Full disclosure: the author is a friend. But even if she weren't, there'd still be a talking gargoyle. And a ridiculous charm school. And a girl who runs away from it to become a pirate. This one's been an easy handsell, and I imagine a lot of young readers here in Brookline are having a good laugh.

The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata. The thing about this year's National Book Award winner is its personality. While it shows a segment of society I hadn't known much about (I think the last book I read about migrant workers was The Grapes of Wrath), it also introduces a character who's pretty unusual, largely because of the unusual situations she's been through. How many contemporary kids have had malaria? But her struggles to get along with relatives in authority (I wanted to shake that grandmother) are pretty identifiable for many middle school-aged kids, and hey, the urge to shake a character is kind of the same thing as caring about a novel.

P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia. Though this novel does stand alone, I especially love how it works as a set with One Crazy Summer.  In Summer, we got to know Delphine's mother, and particularly got to know her flaws and how they impact her daughters. In P.S. Be Eleven, the same can be said about the girls' father and grandmother. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are caught between two sets of values, which leaves them to figure out what matters to them. Sounds like a pretty good metaphor for the '60s, from what I hear.

Counting by Sevens, by Holly Goldberg Sloan. There's a reason there are so many great novels narrated by characters with unusual minds, whether they have cognitive disorders or whether they're very structured geniuses - they have their own ways of seeing the world, and those ways can be funny even as they give us new insights into serious situations. Think Sheldon Cooper in need of a hug, surrounded by other characters in need of a friend. I loved this.

The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu. Speaking of characters who look at the world in unusual ways, Oscar understands the concrete details of the magician's shop where he works, but human interaction leaves him puzzled, and a magical mystery makes his world even more befuddling. There are enough twists and turns here that at one point, I really questioned what this novel was saying about kids with autism, but [spoiler, kind of] it ultimately affirms their humanity. This book is a prime example of how fantasy can be used to explore the real world.

Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle. I've often lamented what traditional middle-grade doesn't do for and about kids questioning their sexuality, but this year, those rants have required a significant footnote, and Better Nate deserves mention for being that footnote. (As I've also noted, there's been even further progress since this book came out.) With the exception of some fairly ugly name-calling, this is a pretty innocent story about a very naive kid, and most of the book is about his stupid but understandable decision to sneak off to New York and audition for a Broadway show. It's funny. You root for Nate even as you shake your head at him. You maybe once or twice call him a doofus.

Eleanor and Park and Fangirl, or The Arrival of Rainbow Rowell on the YA Scene. The first of these books takes difficult situations and tempers them with tenderness and humor. The second looks like a light story about fan fiction, but there's enough going on that I think it has just as much depth. Both books show young people who don't quite fit (in more creative ways than the traditional she-wears-glasses-and-reads-and-nobody-likes-her), and in both, the characters learn to forge connections during - and to some degree, because of - difficult times. We had Ms. Rowell and three rather like-minded YA authors at our store a few weeks ago, and the room was packed with fans. I've said it before and I'll say it again: YA is getting smarter.

Relatedly, If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan. This story could've rested entirely on its premise: though homosexual acts are illegal in Iran, sex reassignment surgery is not, and protagonist Sahar wants to use that to help her be with the girl she loves. What I love about this book is that its characters are so well-drawn, their personalities are as vivid a part of the story as the strange facts of its plot. Yes, I wanted to change things for Sahar and Nasrin, but there were times when I also wanted to shake each of them. And, as previously stated, that's a good thing.

That's probably enough raving for now. Happy reading!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Raves & Faves 2013 Part I: Picture Books

I didn't realize how many books I loved this year until I started trying to list them. And then I realized I needed at least two posts. Here's the first: a few of my favorite books this year that fit at least some definition of the term picture book; I'd call this my Best Illustrated list, but that would exclude at least one title that's going in Part II. We live in category-busting times, my friends.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown. I almost don't know why I love this book so much. The story is pretty simple: Mr. Tiger wants to stop being so prim, and he does, and then he makes it easier for others to do the same. Maybe it's partly that I'm really proud of Mr. Tiger; there are reasons, some of them straight out of crit class, that so many people embrace "be yourself" stories. Or maybe it's just that Peter Brown knows how to create really, really appealing illustrations.

Xander's Panda Party, by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Matt Phelan. I always find myself starting the pitch for this one with the fact that even though the text looks like prose, it's actually a great rhyming text, perfect for reading aloud. But there's so much more to  XPP. Kids love to categorize, and as Xander's birthday guest list grows from "bears" to "creatures," they get to become miniature taxonomists. Matt Phelan's animals of all phyla and classes are pretty darn huggable.

The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. This longer picture book's popularity is a mini-phenomenon. Duncan's crayons are fed up, all for wholly original reasons that made perfect sense to my inner six-year-old. Yes, yellow and orange would fight about who should draw the sun. Yes, black would be sick of making outlines. Yes, if crayons wrote angry letters, they would look just like that.

Battle Bunny, by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matthew Myers. A syrupy story about a birthday bunny might be right for some readers, but not for Alex. He scribbles all over the book - it's his book, after all - and turns it into a much higher-octane story. I am all about books that show kids that reading - and writing! - can be about anything they want, and I have visions of reading this aloud in tandem, with one reader reading the "original" story and the other grabbing the book and roaring the changes. (The book is probably too small for this to work for large groups.)

Nelson Mandela, by Kadir Nelson. It's been pretty comforting to have Mandela's face watching us from displays throughout the year. And the poetic language inside feels reassuring, too, even as it deals with the difficult parts of Mandela's life. This sort of book is why we have picture book biographies.

Coming soon: middle-grade and YA!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Barbara Park was here

I just saw that Barbara Park passed away on Friday at age 66. Most of the memories this news brings up are a little vague because they reside deep in childhood, but I have a clear memory of the unathletic narrator of Skinnybones (Alex, Google reminds me) realizing that the Most Improved Player Award wasn't much of a compliment. That combination of a character's self-awareness and his willingness to call adults on their BS, at least privately for the reader's benefit, stuck with me. I love first-person novels, especially the kind about underdogs, especially the kind with a good bit of snark. Skinnybones was a second-grade read, before I encountered Peter Hatcher or Kristy Thomas and friends or many of the other narrators who would make me laugh while making me feel trusted. Now that I think about it, it may have been my first extended experience with first-person narration. In any case, I'm still hooked.

By the time I saw Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus in the library, I was just about aged out of its target audience, but that never stopped me, especially if I recognized the name of an author I liked. I have a clear memory of raising my hand to make a point in class; I don't remember what that point was, but I remember it started, "I just read a book called Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, and..." My venerable fourth-grade teacher thought that was pretty funny, and so did my classmates. I'd sort of forgotten how silly the title sounded, though, because I'd just read the book and I was completely with Junie B., even at the parts where I felt smarter than her (I was, after all, four years older).

Mick Harte Was Here, a few years after that, was not what I expected. Again, I'd picked the book up because it was by an author whose work had made me laugh. It turned out that Mick was the brother of narrator Phoebe, and he had just died in a bike accident. There were still plenty of funny moments, mostly involving Phoebe's memories of Mick, but I found that the sadness didn't bother me once I'd gotten used to the idea that this was a sad book (with a wear-your-helmet message). Like the snark in Skinnybones, the tougher topics in Mick Harte made me feel trusted.

Barbara Park wasn't a flashy author. She didn't come up much in grad school, and in bookselling she mostly comes up in debates about whether ungrammatical Junie B. should be unleashed upon impressionable young minds. But I suspect Barbara quietly had more influence than I realized. I'm glad she was here.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

In which I get really excited about something being kinda no big deal

I haven't read House of Hades,









I learned last night from Twitter that Nico, a boy character in the Heroes of Olympus series, is revealed to have a crush on Percy Jackson. The book has been out since October 8th, and it's been very much on the radar as the latest in what's arguably the most popular middle-grade series out there (not that Wimpy Kid's having terribly hard luck). I've now seen several online references to this particular plot point, but I've seen them all in the past twenty-four hours. I don't claim to have seen every response out there, but my sense is that this very mainstream book has been out there for a month without becoming known as a "gay book." As an astute commenter said on my last post, "we should be normalizing queerness so that it's not 'inappropriate' for younger readers." That's exactly what Rick Riordan has done here. A boy has a crush on another boy just as he might on a girl, and he's understandably conflicted about it (the world doesn't necessarily make it easy), but there's nothing graphic or "dirty" about it.

With previous middle-grade titles, I've felt some need to mention the presence of homosexuality to parents shopping for particularly young readers, simply because that presence has been somewhat unusual and unexpected, and it's reasonable for parents to want to be prepared if questions come up. But I feel this book may be a turning point. Nico's existence makes the presence of gay characters in middle-grade much less unusual, much less noteworthy.

Thank you, Rick Riordan.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Let's hear it for the boys!

Spunky girl books are nothing new. Readers (and other selectors of books) in search of a strong fantasy heroine, an everygirl who know her own mind and isn't afraid to speak it, or a princess who hates tiaras needn't look far. There are also plenty of books and other media projecting the opposite image of femininity. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it sure as heck would be wrong if that were the only way fiction portrayed girls. I love me some anti-princess books. But I don't think they're the whole answer.

What about the boys?

We've started to see some books over the past few years about boys with nontraditionally male interests. There's Will Grayson, Will Grayson and My Most Excellent Year and Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy and Better Nate Than Ever. Great books, and I'm very glad to see them being published and succeeding. But these examples have a little too much in common. Three of the four are YA (Better Nate Than Ever is upper-middle-grade), and in all four, the characters who love musicals or makeup are gay or very probably gay.

Again, there's very much a place for these books (though, much as I enjoy reading about musicals, it's a pretty worn-out stereotype). But why must the male equivalent of an anti-princess book always be about sexuality? Apparently, a girl can shoot a basketball or rescue a kingdom without outing herself as a lesbian, so books about girls who break the now-oft-broken mold are appropriate for any age. But it seems that boys who are into the arts must also be into other boys, so books about them become sensitive material, appropriate only for older readers. (There are precious few exceptions among picture books; William's Doll comes to mind, as does The Art Lesson.)

Yes, males have been socially dominant for a very, very long time, and yes, girls have needed role models who break free of established gender roles. But it can't be easy to be a boy, straight or gay or in between or too young to know, who would rather knit or sing than play soccer. We need books that normalize boys with all sorts of interests and personalities, and we need them in sections of the library that boys will visit long before they're reading YA. The world may well be telling them by kindergarten that there's something wrong with them. Let's tell them there's something right.

Edited to add: I just want to make sure it's really, really clear that I'm not saying queerness is a bad thing, or that it's terrible to be "accused" of being queer. I'm just saying that interests are a separate thing from sexuality. Many books about girls seem to understand that, and books about boys need to catch up.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hades in the house

Most of you reading this remember what Harry Potter releases were like. As the series got more popular and the story stakes got higher, midnight on the appointed date became a bigger and bigger event. (Come to think of it, it's surprising that the release dates were generally in the summer. Is that a British publishing thing, or was Harry just big enough to make his own scheduling rules?) Thousands of people lined up to read the same thing at the same time, there was talk of people in one time zone spoiling people in another, and I was reminded of the American Dickens fans who stopped Brits at the docks to ask, "Is Little Nell dead?"

I was as eager as anyone. (Well, maybe not as anyone, but pretty eager.) But I was also self-aware enough to join in the joy over the fact that we were all this excited over a book.

I don't think we've seen that phenomenon's equal. We have seen quite a few other book phenomena that Harry made possible by expanding the scale of the children's and YA book world and making it okay for adults to read both. These are all fairly cliche observations by now. But I bring them up because House of Hades has brought them to mind.

Like many or most books, the penultimate volume in Rick Riordan's Heroes of Olympus trilogy was released on a Tuesday. We sold dozens the first day and lots more throughout the week. Mr. Riordan himself signed 140 of them so they'd be ready for release day; more than half of those were gone by the end of the weekend. The weekend sales didn't surprise me; plenty of people, often families with kids, wander into bookstores on the weekend, especially bookstores surrounded by restaurants and coffee shops. And while they're there, they often do pick up the latest from a favorite author. But very few people just wander into a bookstore on a Tuesday. I suspect that the vast majority of those early sales were to people who made a trip out to the bookstore because this book was coming out. Either the kids or their parents (this series has some crossover appeal, but not at the same level as a Harry Potter or a Hunger Games or a Divergent) took note of the release date and arranged a weekday accordingly. (The store did put the word out that we had signed copies, and that may have played some role; I'd be curious to hear how the book has done at other stores like ours. Honestly, it's not a big time of year for gifts, and I suspect the major factor was simply kids wanting to know what happened next.)

A hardcover middle-grade novel flew off the shelves of a midsize indie bookstore on a Tuesday in October. (And a Wednesday, a Thursday, and a Friday.) Holy Hades, that's awesome.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Characterizing "Building"

As always, the Boston Globe-Horn Book winners and honorees were a diverse bunch of books, and the organizers had to find a theme that fit them all. They did, and it was a theme dear to my heart: "Building Character." In my own writing, character is my strength, plot my weakness, so I usually try to focus on plot first. This works because plot is things going wrong, and when things go wrong, it builds character.

As I said to a writing friend last night, the speeches at these events often get me itching to go home and write. Somewhere between Jonathan Bean's speech about working his work around medical obstacles and Rainbow Rowell's about letting a novel come out of sensitive emotional places in herself, that itch began. When I got home, I started trying out a new opening for my middle-grade WIP, one that starts earlier in the timeline instead of having a flashback later. This effort at bringing forth the protagonist's voice in a strong, first-page kind of way at a new moment reinforced for me what a tough school year I've given him. When he gets to this summer in a few pages, it's going to be different from last summer, and working with him last night reminded me that he's also going to be a different person. His year has built character.

Vague as I'm being at this stage, I will say this: if anyone dares to insinuate that my artistic male protagonist is a wuss, I have a list ready of examples of his bravery. It's similar to Eleanor's bravery, and Park's bravery, and the bravery of lots of characters who deal with tough things but aren't defined by them. (Don't worry, Rainbow; Afterschool Special has become such a buzzword for the inverse that those of us who didn't grow up with them still got the reference.)

I highly recommend writing right after a good children's lit event, and this was one. I also recommend writing tired if you need to get past overthinking. Besides, it probably builds character.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Ending of Alice

In some ways, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books strike me as the Maisy books for teenagers. When you go to preschool like Maisy, you will have naptime, and you'll put on your coat to go outside, and you'll go to the bathroom with your class, and don't forget to wash your hands! When you go through adolescence like Alice, you'll have a whole list of new experiences, and don't forget to be careful! The Maisy books are most noteworthy for the comforting way they use appealing characters to talk children through what life is going to be like. They're exactly what very young children need sometimes, especially when they don't quite have the words to ask about what they don't understand.

Whether or not they have the words, adolescents don't necessarily feel equipped to ask their questions. Much like Maisy, Alice serves as a comforting and informative presence and, as is appropriate for her readers, often does her learning through hilarious stories, or at least ridiculously awkward conversations with her older brother. (Naylor says that of all the major characters, Lester is the one who comes most from her imagination, and I think he's one of the strongest characters.) This isn't the first time I've read an Alice book in (early) honor of Banned Books Week, and these books are a perfect demonstration of how books can responsibly show things that might make parents nervous. These books show the full spectrum, from characters who want all the sex and drugs and rock and roll they can get to characters who would rather run and hide from all of the above, and everyone's personal speed is normal. Sometimes the books get preachy. Sometimes they get downright Afterschool Special-y. But there's always something funny enough or tender enough coming up to make it worth reading to the next chapter.









(There was Alice-level agony in resisting a comma after below in that sentence.)

The good: It's no particular surprise that Alice marries Patrick, whether or not it's realistic, but I'm very glad it doesn't happen in a fairytale way. Both have other relationships beforehand, and Alice even breaks an engagement with someone else. Even better, though their marriage is mostly happy, the wedding doesn't constitute a "happily ever after" ending. They have another thirty-plus years of the book to get through, and we see arguments and even moments when infidelity is a possibility. Naylor talks readers through birth control, sex, and labor the same way she talked them through periods and bras, but she keeps the narrative moving. (She has to. She has decades to cover.) I also really like that Alice becomes a school counselor. It gives some believability to her level of investment in everyone else's life, which otherwise one might write off as a necessary stretch in a first-person series that tells lots of people's stories.

The questionable: Throughout the series, there are times when Alice's voice seems to give way to the author's, and that happens more here. The last third of the book covers what's probably the bulk of Alice's married life, which means picking a very few memories to represent a long period of time. (Facebook is a constant presence over those years, which would make the timeline feel more like a treadmill even if there weren't eighties references in the time capsule Alice and her seventh-grade classmates open at age sixty.) Many of the choices work - exchanges with Alice's daughter Patricia, in particular, mirror the earlier books well, and I could practically hear Patricia's eyes rolling when appropriate. But much of the book is necessarily episodic, and that only works if the episode is interesting enough to relate. Little Tyler spitting in his urine sample and making everyone think he's seriously ill? Worth including. Alice fainting on the family trip to London? That's more the sort of story one tells at a dinner party than the sort one includes in a novel, unless there are larger health implications that have later bearing (there aren't).

The definite: These books have been in and out of my life for two thirds of it, and I'm glad of that. I still remember that after I read one in third grade, my mother asked me - asked, not told - to hold off on reading more until I was a bit older, and I set and stuck to my own plan: "I'll wait until fifth grade." That felt very grown-up, and though it's no more exciting than, say, fainting on a trip to London, it's a memory I come back to whenever the subject of censorship comes up. As the novel's original title puts it, always Alice.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Seeing Red, Alice, Sean Rosen, Better Nate Than Ever, and first award prediction of the year

Another round-up of good recent reads:

Seeing Red, by Katherine Erskine. I'm surprised I haven't heard more about this one, out in October. Katherine Erskine's writing process seems to involve putting a character in a tough situation, finding several ways to make the situation tougher, and then challenging the character to do the right thing. In this case, Red, who lives in 1972 Virginia, has just lost his father and is desperately against his mother's plan to take the family back to her home state of Ohio. That desperation makes him willing to do anything (he thinks) to prevent the sale of their land, but that "anything" turns out to include using race. Red gets caught up in things he doesn't believe in, and ends up a reluctant participant in a scene that amounts to kids playing at KKK-type activities. There's no permanent physical damage, but the images are frightening nonetheless, and I admire Erskine's willingness to show how a generally sympathetic character can be driven to do something evil, and then to stick with that character through the fallout. This is upper-middle-grade, and I think I would've been ready for it around 11 or 12.

On a very different note, several omnibuses of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books have recently come my way, so I've been catching up on my Alice in preparation for upcoming series finale. I'm sure I'll have more to say once I've finished the series, but oh, Alice, I'm glad you're there in all your sometimes ridiculous and didactic glory.

I Represent Sean Rosen is a fun and silly middle-grade novel about a kid who has a cool idea for Hollywood, but no idea how Hollywood works. Think of him as a slightly more successful Timmy Failure, and though it's not quite semi-graphic, parts of it are written in screenplay form, which breaks up the text. Between that, the humor, and the Hollywood connection, this could be a great light read for readers on the reluctant side. I'll very likely recommend it the next time a parent begs me for "something that isn't Wimpy Kid" (while I praise Wimpy Kid as a gateway series).

Better Nate Than Ever is another story about a kid with grand showbiz dreams, one who sneaks off to New York to try out for a Broadway musical. I did a lot of you're thirteen and innocent and practically penniless and alone in New York, you brave idiot panicking for the poor kid, but I also did a lot of nodding. Because this is a middle-grade novel about a boy who's getting teased about maybe being gay, and who isn't quite sure whether he is or not, but who is reassured to see same-sex couples walking around openly in New York. With the exception of the graphic novel Drama, I haven't seen this topic covered at length for an audience younger than YA. (Books showing gay parents and other adults are a valuable thing, but they're a different thing from this.) I have thoughts, lots of them, about how children's lit as a whole portrays boys with nontraditionally male interests, but that's a topic for another post (probably in the near future). For now, I'll just say that this is one of the types, though not the only type, of book I'd like to see more of.

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata shows a family of Japanese-American migrant workers. Summer, age 12, has a lot to put up with, beginning with a prickly grandmother whom I kept wanting to shake. There's a lot of humor and a lot of originality in this one - how many novels have main characters obsessed with bug spray because they've just recovered from malaria? A great glimpse into the modern migrant working culture, which I hadn't known much about, and also a great story.

Finally, if Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane doesn't win an Alex Award, I'll eat a bug. (There are, like, chocolate grasshoppers or something to get me out of this if I need it, right?)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fasten your Backseatbelts...

NPR released its "Ultimate Backseat Bookshelf" this week - its recommendations of "books that every 9- to 14-year-old should read," in the words of the call for listener suggestions. That phrasing sticks in my craw; I'm sure the intent was to highlight the awesomeness of the books, but it comes off as prescriptive, and if there's one thing I'd love all whatever-to-whatever-year-olds to learn, it's that they can make reading into whatever kind of experience they want by choosing their own reading material.

And once you get rid of that "should" business, it's a great list that sends exactly that message. Like the extensive summer reading list from our local schools, this list is broken into categories that practically scream, "You get to spend your reading life on whatever kinds of books you want!" You like magic? The NPR list has a "Fantasy Worlds" category. Prefer a cozier read? Try something from the "Family Life" list. Graphic novels count. So does nonfiction, with or without lots of pictures (or adolescent snark from a certain young diarist). You can read about kids whose backgrounds are like your own or different from your own, whoever you are. You can read a book that says "ages 9 to 12" when you're 8 or 13, and you can skip a book that doesn't look interesting and, if you want, come back to it when you're 29 or 92.

"Must-read" in the sense that we might call a summer blockbuster a "must-see?" Heck yes. I just hope no one's looking at that list as "must-read" in the homework sense.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Preview time!

Is it just me, or are there a lot of cool projects on the horizon?

Here's one: Laurie Halse Anderson and artist Emily Carroll are adapting Speak into a graphic novel. There's so much that's visual about this story, and I imagine the new format will highlight the contrast between Melinda's silence and everyone else's chatter. Just look at that piece of sample art in the article linked above. I really think this has the potential to be something special. Tentatively Fall 2016 (which makes me think they're putting a lot into it.)

So does the Hallmark Channel's upcoming film of The Watsons Go to Birmingham -1963 (film title simply The Watsons Go to Birmingham). What I love about Christopher Paul Curtis, especially in this book, is his power to create absolutely hilarious characters who are loveable in completely three-dimensional ways. When history happens in his books, we care that it's happening because we care about the people it's impacting. My sense from this featurette is that the movie remembers to emphasize all that; I see loving family scenes, I see Byron's tongue frozen to a car window, and I see the serious aspects of the book, too. (September 20) (Fear not, fellow lackers of cable - it looks like there will be a DVD.)

And then there's Dear Mr. Watterson. The first person who says anything in the trailer talks about how Calvin and Hobbes got him to read. Sounds like a movie after my own heart. (November 15)

I'm not saying the summer should end any faster. I'm just saying good stuff is coming afterwards.

Friday, August 2, 2013

And what would *you" steal from a children's book?

This week, I've been getting my background noise from the Kidlit Red Carpet. Interviewers Jim Averbeck, Betsy Bird, and Kristin Clark spend blessedly little time grilling Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet attendees about their outfits, instead getting actual interesting information out of them. Many of the authors and illustrators revealed their upcoming projects, some of which were new to me. For instance, did you know Brian Selznick is working on another book in the style of The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck? The word "trilogy" came up (in terms of "structure" and "theme"), and if this one has another one-eyed spine, the S-shelf is going to look a little creepy... but seriously, I can't wait. (And yes, that's what face-outs are for.)

Daisy of Chris Raschka's A Ball for Daisy is getting another book, and Patricia Polacco has a new companion coming out to the 25-year-old The Keeping Quilt. Katherine Paterson and her Brother Son, Sister Moon collaborator Pamela Dalton have a beautiful-sounding new book about how people give thanks around the world. Sheila Turnage says her protagonist keeps giving her sequels; we'll see Three Times Lucky heroine Mo LoBeau at least three times. And Leonard Marcus has a new biography of Randolph Caldecott, who sounds like he was quite a character himself.

In honor of the high-profile theft in current winner This Is Not My Hat, the interviewers asked the passing luminaries what object they would most like to steal from a Caldecott winner/any picture book/any work of children's literature; the parameters changed a few times. If the answer is limited just to Caldecott winners, I think I'd have to go for Sylvester's magic pebble and just use it very, very carefully. If the pilfered item can come from anywhere in kidlt (and not necessarily American kidlit), then the real question is which magical gadget I would steal from Harry Potter and friends. Hermione's time-turner, I think. Of course, there are other magical worlds full of goodies, and Lyra does have an alethiometer, though I might first have to steal Will's knife to get to it... Maybe I should just keep it simple and, in the tradition of a Klassen character, steal a snazzy hat.

If you need me, I'll be sneaking through the pages of Go, Dog, Go.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Catching Fire trailer!

The Hunger Games movie franchise could easily rest on its popcorn potential. These are suspenseful stories featuring hot young movie stars whose characters' fates hang constantly in the action-packed balance. What I love about these movies is that they play up their serious side even though they don't have to. The books were written largely to make us think by making us feel something more than just our pulses pounding. The tone set in the first movie, particularly during the Reaping, did the same thing, and this trailer takes that same tone. Yes, Katniss Barbie exists, but you don't have to have read the books first to realize why that's funny. (If you read them afterwards, as so many people did when the first movie came out, so much the better.)

I'm sure I'll have more to say once I've seen more than two and half minutes of the movie. But given the trailer's emphasis, I'm inclined to thank Lionsgate for trusting our intelligence.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A thought for publishers

Dumps are often a great idea, at least to this bookseller's mind. (For the uninitiated, a dump in this context is a cardboard floor display designed to hold lots of copies of a particular book or sometimes a series.) They make a new book visible, which obviously makes a huge difference in sales. They tell customers (and us booksellers) that a book is kind of a big deal. They save us from finding space for huge amounts of overstock - not the basis for display decisions, but a nice perk. But they only work when we can use them.

We're a midsize indie, and nearly every square foot is accounted for, either by merchandise or by a thoroughfare. On a sunny Sunday when everyone's picking up summer reading for camp, our aisles can get pretty crowded. I can only imagine how precious space is for smaller stores than ours, of which there are many.

I'm much more likely to put up a dump if it's relatively small, and I bet I'm not the only one. A display with one column of slots for books and a topper with the title and an image will still get much more attention than a faceout on the shelf, and it's much easier to use than one that's two or three feet wide. (Having the book's title on the top piece is a simple thing that can help; if I'm not able to use the dump, I do try to hang the top piece as a poster.)

Every store's space has its quirks. Our kids' section's layout is such that there are several nooks and crannies for dumps around Intermediate Fiction, but not many around other sections, and that's probably different in other stores. And of course, some stores are bigger than we are, and their booksellers might be more eager for a giant display to draw attention to a big new book. I wonder if it would be feasible for publishers to provide dump options in different sizes and let buyers choose, if that isn't happening already.

You want customers to notice your big titles, and we want the same thing. The easier it is to display them prominently, the better for both of us.

I'll be away next week, and probably playing catch-up when I first get back. If this blog is quiet for a bit, rest assured I haven't abandoned it!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Best. Word Book. Ever.

I've had some variation on this conversation quite a few times, almost always about the same author:

Customer: Can you help me? I need to buy a gift for a four-year-old, and I don't know much about kids' books. I don't even really remember what I read as a kid. Is there something with trucks, maybe?
Me: Sure, of course. How about Cars and Trucks and Things That Go?
Customer: Oh, right! I remember Richard Scarry!

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever turns fifty this year, and Random House is marking the occasion with a new edition, which will kick off a rebranding of much of Scarry's backlist. The changes sound fairly minor (new covers, but Scarry's original artwork will be scanned), and I say more power to a Scarry push. In many ways, Scarry does for the picture book set what a lot of nonfiction does for older kids who might find themselves reluctant readers of more linear text. Scarry's busy, busy pages tell kids that they don't have to read or sit through a story from cover to cover. They can "dip in." They can interact with each page, discovering new details every time or developing their own custom routines of elements to point out every time they share the books.

Maybe that's why Scarry has such an ability to jog the memories of adults who as a whole don't have strong memories of childhood reading. I can see why his books might leave an impression on kids who otherwise didn't enjoy reading. Scarry's work broadens the definition of what reading can be like for early readers, and if those reluctant readers who found his books forty or fifty years ago had then found lots more books like them, I wonder if they would've had a more natural progression into reading. These days, with so many kids' books using more visual formats (I'm looking at you, nonfiction and graphica and semigraphica), I wonder if Scarry's books are better positioned to serve as gateway books.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Head-over-heels literary love

It's been a while since I've had a strong experience of couldn't-put-it-down, wanted-to-share-it-with-everyone literary love. That just happened with David Levithan's Every Day. The premise: each day, A inhabits a different person's body. The major (though not only) conflict is that A falls in love but is not in a great position to establish a long-term relationship; I don't always find romance plots very compelling, but the circumstances of this one made it worth following. To me, though, the most interesting aspect of the novel was A's day-to-day (see what I did there?) life. A embodies the close friends and family members of countless people, and thus learns all about human nature and relationships. I could've done without the occasional preachiness, but was in constant awe of A's primary goal for the vast majority of A's life: to make things as easy as possible for the owner of each inherited body. I actually spent the first few chapters wishing this were a middle-grade novel; I'd love to see how a younger A would grow to understand that kind of existence, and I was very glad Every Day eventually addressed A's childhood pretty thoroughly. In any case, wow. This is the kind of mind-bending fantasy that's so closely tied with reality, it makes me see life differently, and looking at life through its lens was so interesting that I didn't really mind the lack of an explanation for A's situation. (Side note: did anyone else mentally assign a gender to A? I think I tend to project the author's gender onto the protagonist, especially in a first-person novel, if the gender isn't immediately apparent. Or maybe I was just influenced by the first form in which we meet A.)

Spoiler alert: Every Day will probably be my next staff rec at the store, and that's saying something, because I've had a great reading streak overall lately. A few other good reads of late:

Absolutely Normal Chaos, by Sharon Creech. The lady is good at voice. And thirteen-year-olds. And hilariously blossoming understanding of adult matters.

Scarlet, by A.C. Gaughen. I am a sucker for a good reimagining of an old story. I'm only passingly familiar with the Robin Hood tales (and by passingly, I mean my frame of reference is almost entirely Men-in-Tights-based), but all the same, I loved the new elements introduced to deepen Will Scarlet's backstory.

A Family of Poems, by Caroline Kennedy. I'd flipped through this and her newer collection, Poems to Learn by Heart, but I took a closer look while staffing a book fair last week. Kennedy's done a great job of gathering a variety of poems in a way that encourages making them a part of daily life, and there's nothing like a Jon J. Muth illustration to make an old favorite new again.

Borrowed Names, by Jeannine Atkins. Have I mentioned I love new perspectives on familiar stories? Atkins realized that Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madame C.J. Walker, and Marie Curie were all born in 1867, and drew more connections among them, which resulted in a verse novel focusing on their daughters. I have to admire the publisher that was willing to take on an idea like this, and I'm glad one did.

If you've tried to talk to me in the past few weeks and just gotten a "hmmmm?", one of these books was probably why.


The children's lit community suffered a sad loss last week. I only knew Kristin Sinclair briefly through a few classes at Simmons, but I remember her as constantly enthusiastic, equally so for books and ideas and for the people she encountered. My heart goes out to those who were close to her.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Honey, I blew up the story

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is on right now. This, in my childhood, was the sort of movie that I wouldn't just tell you was funny. I would recite a scene and make sure you understood the logic behind why that scene was funny. Then I would go back to counting how many times each member of the Baby-sitters Club moved within the series. (They moved a lot.)

Today, a customer of about seven was trying to make the case for purchasing the third Wimpy Kid book, The Last Straw, better known to many of us as "the green one." Her caregiver assured her that the library would have it, but the girl knew otherwise (or at least, knew what was on the shelf on her last visit or two): "The library doesn't have it. They only have The Ugly Truth, and Rodrick Rules, and The Third Wheel, and Dog Days, and Cabin Fever. They don't have The Last Straw."

There's a reason we teach kids to summarize. But while they're learning, being obsessed with something down to the tiny details is a lot of fun.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The whirlwind children's lit life

It's been a busy week or so in the Boston children's lit world, partly because of Children's Book Week and partly just because. Last Tuesday saw a mini-reunion of NESCBWI conference attendees at a YA panel at the Newton Free Library featuring Erin Dionne, Jo Knowles, and Gina Rosati. What struck me most besides the friendly atmosphere was how involved Newton-area teens seem to be in reading. They comprised a significant percentage of the audience, they'd read some of the authors' books for their book club, and it sounded like quite a few of them were aspiring writers. Cue the awwwwwws.

The next night, Charlesbridge and the Children's Book Council held a discussion entitled "Diversity on the Page, Behind the Pencil, and in the Office." I thought the event started a number of great discussion threads, and I mentioned to one of the organizers I'd love to see the discussion continue online, so I'll start here with one point that came to mind. One of the panelists pointed out that book purchases often depend on how we present the books - a book about runaway slaves can be presented as a story of courage, for instance, instead of as a story about the experience of an "other" group. I agree that this is the ideal, and in many cases, it does work well. For instance, we've had great success selling Anna Hibiscus as a funny chapter book about a girl's adventures with her big family, which by the way lives in "Africa, Amazing Africa." But what about a book like Drama? It's not immediately clear from the cover or the what-it's-about pitch (middle school stage crew! What's not to love?) that homosexuality plays a significant role in the plot, and we live in a world where some people are afraid of certain kinds of otherness. If the potential reader is young enough (say, under ten) that the book's innocent portrayal of gay preteens might raise questions, I feel I have to be honest about that with the customer; it doesn't help anything if he or she finds out later and thinks that liberal lady in the bookstore is trying to trick people into giving children books with an agenda. (To be fair, quite a few of our customers are absolutely fine and then some with giving their children books that have gay characters. But one can't assume, and I know there are parts of the country where it's a much bigger problem.) In any case, the event was well-attended by people from all facets of the industry, and it was great to see that so many people care about this issue or series of issues.

The PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Night was this past weekend; congratulations to winners Anna J. Boll and Katherine T. Quimby! Both are Vermont College grads, and it was sweet to see classmates standing up there together. Katherine's manuscript, in particular, tied in with points raised in Wednesday's diversity discussion. I hope both stories go far.

And last night was Kidlit Drink Night, where we talked about all of the above and more (over music that was too darn loud). A raffle of signed books raised over $150 for violence prevention with Boston teens, with the promise of further fundraising with the remaining books. Cool!

No wonder I'm behind on my reading.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Back from NESCBWI

Hundreds of business-casual shoes padded against the thickly carpeted floors of the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place, carrying the scent of coffee and the sound of tweeting fingers from the King George Room to the Ballroom.

(Several workshops and a critique reminded me I need to use more sensory details.)

The New England conference for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators was this weekend, and as always, it was a great place to see old friends and look at writing in new ways. I started off in Jeannine Atkins' workshop on using setting to structure fiction; hence the sudden focus on sensory details. (I promise to make those in my fiction sound more natural than the above.) Next was a workshop on managing life and writing, which provided a needed reminder after a busy week to relax a bit. After a dinner spent catching up with friends from Simmons, we attended a panel on "edgy" YA. I'd be curious to know what sort of content genuinely shocks teen readers these days; I remember giggling in amazement when a Writer's Digest guide I received for my bat mitzvah said writers needed a "built-in shit detector" (apparently a reference to a Hemingway quote), but I'd be surprised if most thirteen-year-olds would react the same way now.

I loved Sharon Creech's keynote, particularly her interpretation of "You come too" in Robert Frost's "The Pasture" as a beckoning to the reader. After a critique that gave me some ideas for playing with my novel's beginning, I attended Kate Messner's revision workshop, which was full as always of good ideas (and of attendees!) and which proved to me that my career does not lie in wordlessly acting out emotions. Grace Lin's after-lunch keynote about her career journey was a reminder of how recently the term "multicultural" has been used to mean "acknowledging the existence of a non-dominant culture in a book that automatically gets pigeonholed." Chris Eboch's workshop on theme was a good exercise in using plot to help a book say what you mean for it to say. Getting off campus that evening and exploring Northampton was another kind of good exercise, and we got to do some more catching up with friends when we got back, including the perpetual Crystal Kite winner. Congratulations, Jo!

The historical fiction panel the next morning impressed me with the amount of historical fiction that's written in verse novel form; even small, necessary info-dumps must be a challenge. Karen Day's tips for finishing a novel were practical and realistic, and Kellie Celia's workshop on reaching book bloggers, though not immediately applicable in my pre-published state, was illuminating on the blogging end; the lady knows her stuff (and if I ever want to grow this into a more influential blog, I know exactly who I'll pump for tips). AC Gaughen and Hilary Weisman Graham's gave us great examples of how word choice affects voice; largely through their own banter.

Rooming with the co-registrar gave me a glimpse of the work the goes into the conference. Thanks, everyone who created places for our business-casual shoes, our coffee, and our tweeting fingers to go!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

To E.L. Konigsburg, with love and pluses

E. L. Konigsburg, who passed away today at age 83, wrote a lot of books with long titles. T-Backs, T-Shirts, COAT, and Suit. Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. The names were long enough, obscure enough, that I felt I had to read the books to find out what all the parts meant. The stories went in directions I never would've predicted, like down into Jericho Tel, where dwelt the late Tallulah Bankhead, an actress I knew about only from an episode of I Love Lucy. I loved her books because I never knew what I'd find in them, and it would probably be something new.

But, probably like most of us, I loved her best for her 1967 novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. When you're ten, and you're starting to wonder just what you could manage if adults weren't there at every step, a story of two kids (spoiler alert) successfully running away and managing to be fairly comfortable feels very worth reading. When they're normal kids who argue deliciously over grammar, who want their situation to be dramatic but also want clean underwear, who get an A and wonder where are the pluses, that's even better. Every line of the book is infused with personality, with observations on life that have stayed in my consciousness for the (wow) twenty years since I first read the book.

I reread it for the zillionth time this evening, and the view from this particular Saturday is different from the one my younger self saw. What innocent characters, not to realize how frightened their parents are. But also, what an innocent book, one in which two actively sought children can hide in a public place. Mrs. Frankweiler (just slightly younger than Mrs. Konigsburg was at her passing) seems prouder of the two runaways than she is worried for them. As a child reader, though I had no intention of emulating Claudia and Jamie (I lived in northern New Jersey, but it would never have occurred to me to hop a train to Manhattan by myself), I enjoyed indulging in a story that told me it was possible.

Claudia wanted to "come back different" from her adventure. She did, and so did I.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The ducklings have made way for me

There's a lot going on right now, and there's been a lot going on this week. I can't make much sense of it all, beyond the renewed realization that I'm part of a great community, both within Boston and within the larger world. The degree to which people who have their own concerns are checking up on each other is pretty amazing.

But this is a children's lit blog, and Boston is a children's lit town. If there's one thing I can make sense of on this stir-crazy afternoon, it's my own experience with Boston in a children's lit context.

When I first learned that there was such a thing as a graduate program in Writing for Children and decided for a variety of reasons that the full-time program at Simmons was the best option, I had one significant reservation: I would have to live in a big city. That thought had me pretty intimidated... until I'd lived here about three days. This place turned out to be pretty small. The public transit surpassed that of any other places I'd lived, and nearly anything was walkable in the right shoes.

And in between classes that examined children's books from every angle, there were places to go! There were author talks! Children's lit panels! Workshops! Summer Institutes! I started a list of cool authors and other children's lit professionals I had the chance to meet or hear speak, and before I hit the end of my two years in the Simmons program, I'd abandoned the list as too unwieldy to maintain. I did internships here with two children's publishers and a review magazine. I've shared my own writing with small groups and large ones. I became a children's bookseller here, a vantage point from which I've seen and embraced both figurative and physical changes in the landscape of the children's section (middle-grade's gotten huge!). Here, I've come to forget that it's weird when most of my reading pile is intended for readers years younger than I.

Marathon Monday has always felt a little surreal as routine acts like crossing Beacon Street become challenges. It's also become a day when I realize how comfortable I've become with the Boston area. I know where the runners are running, and I know how to find alternate routes. (I took the E-Line home and walked to avoid the crowds early Monday afternoon. Six years ago, that option would've meant nothing to me.) This year, things have stayed surreal.

I've always said that Bostonians are obsessed with Boston; Make Way for Ducklings flies off our shelves. This week, that's been even truer, and this week, I feel like we're all Bostonians.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Liberty and justice for all, including chickens"

I just put down Clementine and the Spring Trip, the sixth installment in Sara Pennypacker's series. I love the Clementine books enough, and find them similar enough to the writing I'm inclined to do, that I've kept reading beyond what's strictly necessary in order to recommend them. What I remember from book to book is that Clementine's hilarious, that she's creative, and that many readers may be able to relate to her difficulty in sitting still. But revisiting the series today reminded me of another thing about Clementine that gives her depth and makes her stand out from other funny chapter book heroines: her truly independent way of thinking constantly leads her to conclusions that show her empathetic heart.

Clementine wisely thinks of herself as having sections like the fruit that's her namesake, and even while she's having fun on a trip to Plimouth Plantation, some of those sections are thinking about what's right and what's wrong. If the Pilgrims left England because of rules they found unfair, should the third graders let the fourth graders make rules about noisy eating? And what of the chicken destined for the soup pot?

The decisions Clementine makes might not be the ones every kid makes, but I love (and I suspect kids love) the way she arrives at them on her own, often through very funny logic. That's what has me sighing spontaneously after every few pages, "I love Clementine."

Saturday, April 6, 2013

with apologies to e.e. cummings

june and september, october and may
have poetry too (or so they say)
but time to discover a line that sings
and remember to look beyond prosy things
is easier found in a chosen month, fillable
best when obsessives consider each syllable
not just for meaning, but also for feel
for when words have a peal, they can move you to peel
and you may come home with a smooth round sound
as small or as big as a thought you've found.
For whatever we read (be we you, you, or me)
there's often a self that's inside poetry.

maggie and milly and molly and may went down to the beach(to play one day) and maggie discovered a shell that sang so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and milly befriended a stranded star whose rays five languid fingers were; and molly was chased by a horrible thing which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and may came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone. For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) it's always ourselves we find in the sea - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15406#sthash.5jV6BCEx.dpuf
maggie and milly and molly and may went down to the beach(to play one day) and maggie discovered a shell that sang so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and milly befriended a stranded star whose rays five languid fingers were; and molly was chased by a horrible thing which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and may came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone. For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) it's always ourselves we find in the sea - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15406#sthash.5jV6BCEx.dpuf
maggie and milly and molly and may went down to the beach(to play one day) and maggie discovered a shell that sang so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and milly befriended a stranded star whose rays five languid fingers were; and molly was chased by a horrible thing which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and may came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone. For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) it's always ourselves we find in the sea - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15406#sthash.5jV6BCEx.dpuf

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The puppy-sized elephant in the room

Friends, I know you've been questioning whether you can trust me. I know I've presented you with information whose truth is questionable, and even included unverifiable quotes. I know it's easy to wonder whether you can ever believe anything again, and that's too big a question for me to answer for you. But I can answer the original question. Yes, you can trust me.

Just not on April Fools' Day.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Another celebrity picture book, sort of

John Green, dad to now-three-year-old Henry and future dad to Eleanor-or-Alice, is moving into the sort of books his own kids can understand this decade. Dutton just announced a three-picture-book deal with Green and Jon Klassen, who will illustrate the (purportedly hat-free) trio. The first book, due out in Spring 2014, will star a puppy-sized elephant who frets whenever his mother, a potbellied pig-sized elephant, leaves the room. Green says the idea came to him during a game of peek-a-boo with Henry. “I realized that the first step to imagining people complexly is to understand object permanence,” he explains.

Green hints that the picture book will contain a few nods to Nerdfighter parents. “I can neither confirm nor deny that the puppy-sized protagonist will shout ‘French the Llama’ when his mom comes back,” he says. “This is first and foremost a picture book for young children, though. If there’s one thing I can promise, it’s no one will use French as a verb.”

It’s so easy for celebrities outside of the picture book world (and yes, Green’s writing is very much outside the picture book world) to write one as a novelty, but I don’t think that’s what this will be. It seems like he respects picture books and understands that they take more than five minutes and a vague sense that childhood is charming. Green has a long track record of taking on widely varied projects and approaching them thoughtfully, and I trust him to do the same with this.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Of Goodreads, Amazon, and book talk

So Amazon bought Goodreads, and I found myself with a dilemma. It's a good dilemma, one where my life is intertwined with a pretty awesome bookstore and, coincidentally, I'm in the habit of talking and posting about books.

I don't equate Amazon with evil; there are so many problems in the world, and a website that's one of the many options out there for obtaining books just doesn't rank that high among them. I've had some issues with their tactics over the years, but what it boils down to for me is this: there are many cooler options for finding books, and there are also many other ways to record and discuss them in spaces that I personally feel better about than I now feel about Goodreads.

This announcement got me thinking about how I've found Goodreads most useful since I joined a few years ago. I have posted reviews there and occasionally commented on other people's reviews, but really, I mostly use it as a listing device. It's a great place to go when staff rec time rolls around at the bookstore to remind myself of what I've read lately. But Goodreads isn't the only place I can do that. If I find myself craving the nonstop action of a website, I can always revive my old LibraryThing profile. But I think I'm going to try migrating all the way off the Internet for my personal record-keeping needs. Thanks, friend who gave me a Reading Journal for Book Lovers!

I'll sure as heck still engage with others about books both on and offline, in spaces where I've been doing so already. Like right here, and wherever else such discussions spring up. You'll all be spared my agony at the lack of an option to give three and a half stars. Sputters are still fair game, but next time, they'll be at books, not websites.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Very Unfairy Tale Interview with Anna Staniszewski

Anna Staniszewski's My Epic Fairy Tale Fail, sequel to the hilarious My Very UnFairy Tale Life, has just hit shelves, and she has several other projects in the works. I sent her a few questions about all of the above.

How is marketing a sequel different from marketing the first book in a series? From what you can observe, has the release of My Epic Fairy Tale Fail brought new readers to the series, or are you mostly finding readers who've already read My Very UnFairy Tale Life and are looking for the next installment?

Marketing a sequel is definitely a tricky business. For a debut, there tends to be a lot of built-in excitement because of the newness of the book. For a sequel, luckily there are readers who enjoyed the first book and are looking forward to the second installment, but you also have to find new ways to reach people who haven't read (or heard of) the first one. I've found that interviews, events, and word-of-mouth go a long way in helping to spread the word.

I've been pleasantly surprised, though, to hear from readers who started with the second book and are now going back to read the first. I guess that's proof that the second book works independently of the first, which is exactly what I'd been hoping for!

I'd love to know more about The Dirt Diary. You've said that the protagonist learns "dirt" about her classmates when she helps her mother clean their houses, and I'm curious about the tone of the book and series. Are we talking juicy gossip? More serious secrets? Bed-wetting? All of the above?

The tone of the book is very light and funny, so the gossip that Rachel discovers is pretty G-rated. I wanted the "dirt" to be mortifying in that middle-school sort of way. The inspiration behind the story was a piece I heard on NPR that mentioned a girl who cleaned houses with her mom and wound up cleaning the homes of some of the most popular kids in school. The idea really stuck with me, and I thought: What kinds of secrets could she discover that would not only mortify the popular kids but also make her feel utterly embarrassed?
A lot of authors seem to stick with just realism or just fantasy, but you seem comfortable jumping between the two, and your fantasies are very accessible to readers who don't necessarily dive into every fantasy world out there. Do you feel more connected to one genre or the other? What were your reading tendencies when you were in elementary school?

I've been drawn to fantasy since I can remember, but when I think about the books I loved when I was young--The Secret Garden, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, A Wrinkle in Time--it wasn't so much the fantasy that drew me in but the appeal of a different time or place. It's so fun to get lost in a different time period or setting, but I think it's equally intriguing to contrast it with your own life. I guess that's why even my fantastical stories tend to be grounded in the regular world. 

I must say, though, that THE DIRT DIARY was a big change of pace for me. Whenever I'd tried to write realistic fiction in the past, it always morphed into fantasy. This story, however, seemed content to stay realistic.
You also have a picture book, Dogosaurus Rex, coming out from Henry HoltHow has that publication process been different? Do you have an illustrator?

I'm so excited about my first picture book, though I don't have a lot of details to share yet. The process of publishing a novel is slooow, but the process of publishing a picture book is downright glacial. I've really just had to trust my publisher and remind myself that even if it feels like I'm twiddling my thumbs, there's a lot of work happening behind the scenes. Hopefully, I'll be able to reveal more info soon!

What's one question you wish more people would ask about your books or your writing life? And of course, what's your answer?
This is actually a question that I would love to hear other authors answers: How do you balance it all?

The issue of balance is always on my mind these days, particularly as I juggle two series. Writing on deadline and having multiple projects going at once has been thrilling but also daunting at times. It feels like I'm in the midst of an intricate dance, and I just keep flailing around and hoping I'm getting the steps right. I keep wondering how other authors balance different aspects of their lives. Maybe--like me--they're just pretending to say on top of everything!

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Currently, Anna lives outside of Boston, Mass. with her husband and their adopted black Labrador, Emma. When she's not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can visit her at www.annastan.com.

Here's the book trailer for My Epic Fairy Tale Fail: