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!