July 27, 2005

A Cinderella Story

I was really looking forward to Laurie Halse Anderson's newest release, Prom; I loved Speak so much, and I enjoyed Catalyst, though it didn't hit me quite as hard. Admittedly, I wasn't quite as interested in the premise of Prom to begin with. Though I did attend my senior year, the prom was not the biggest event in my high school life, nor was I involved in its planning, so I wouldn't necessarily even have picked up a novel about the prom if not for the fact that Anderson had written it.

Of course, it's about more than the prom, and I'd expect nothing less from Anderson. And it's much more than your typical modern Cinderella story--though I did enjoy the occasional fairy-tale asides by the narrator, Ashley: "Once upon a time there was a girl who served pizza in a rat costume." The random chapter lengths lend the whole piece a sort of choppy quality, which does a good job of portraying what Ashley's life is like--more than a little random and chaotic.

Things really get crazy when, added to the usual family, work, school, and boyfriend chaos, Ashley's best friend ropes her into helping organize the prom. Unfortunately, a dishonest teacher has absconded with the prom money and they have to figure out how to do it on a shoestring budget. At first, Ashley doesn't much care. She's not a prom type. But after her best friend breaks her ankle, Ashley is put in the position of pulling it all together somehow. Unfortunately, due to her uneven attendance at school, there aren't any teachers willing to cut her any slack. So finding the time and means to accomplish everything is a much bigger job than she anticipated.

This is a realistic and gritty portrayal of life for a student who is pretty much the opposite of the one in Catalyst--focused more on getting through life than on academics. She has a job to deal with, an unreliable boyfriend, and a big family that's soon to have a new addition. Her family isn't rich or fancy, and Ashley herself is plain-spoken and down-to-earth. Life isn't simple for her to begin with, and when the prom makes things even more complicated, she has to really take a hard look at all the different aspects of the whole balancing act.

Of course, it's a Cinderella story, and accordingly, things stay more or less in balance--but not without a few tough realizations. I had some difficulty identifying with this particular narrator, since her experiences in high school were nothing like mine, and I have to admit that I was a little put off. I don't think everyone will be able to identify with her. But Anderson does bring her to life through a quirky and different style of narration and a clear voice.

I couldn't help thinking that this one might well appeal to that group of readers who don't read because they don't feel like there are books written for them, books whose characters they can identify with. This is an important point, because there are as many different high school experiences as there are people who went to high school. I know TadaMack has talked about books like Stoner and Spaz, and I think this one also falls into that category of honest, no-holds-barred stories about people who sometimes get overlooked, marginalized, or stereotyped by mainstream fiction. A good read if you're looking for something a little different.

July 21, 2005

The Game of a Lifetime

I was reading this MIT paper on construction and reconstruction of the self in virtual reality and I kind of realized that, in a way, that's a lot of what writing is for a lot of us -- a chance to reinvent ourselves endlessly and sometimes repetitively in the wider boundaries of another realm. On paper, we give ourselves a chance to encounter the decisions we could not make in our present realities, we force ourselves to confront the villain, the bully, the snob, the jock, the fathers, our alters, and replay scenarios where we end up better off, worse than, different. We race down the hallways of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, make tracks through our heads, and rattle every doorknob to see how things will end.

I've always had the idea that it would be an even better game to make up clue cards listing made-up towns, include a sketched map of the city centers of these towns, including public schools, private schools, churches, malls and hospitals, add a couple of random families listed by street, and then put them all in a box, and have a group of YA writers blindly choose a town, then from another box a topic (for instance race, gender, family structure, marriage, etc. - really broad topics), and then roll a die to a gender identity - GLBT - or a race - or a sex. Then, each writer would have a weekend to come up with a short story based on the town selected. In the end, the best stories could be polished up and pulled together to form some kind of linked cycle.

That would be so way cooler than role playing. I'll reconstruct my identity on paper anyday.

Great stuff from an Aussie: Melina Marchetta

"What a dream come true, right? Seven hundred and fifty boys, and thirty girls? But the reality is that it's either like living in a fishbowl or like you don't exist."

Maybe it's because I went to a religious boarding school, but I love school stories, and I don't think I've read a more intense novel that did not involve a relationship or sex or death in a long time (and when I say relationship, I mean a capital 'R' relationship, a 'we're going out, going steady, we've defined this' kind of thing. There are little 'r' relationships in here that are twice as intense as anything settled and defined. Trust me, chickens.) This book brought to life so many things for me. I laughed out loud, and sniffled through pages and pages, and felt the vivid, claustrophobic, overbearing, garish, depressing, horrifying, gratifying and stultifying world of high school come to life all over again in the pages of Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca. If you haven't ever read this book, run-run-run out and pick it up from the library or bookstore now.

I've just finished my first read through, and I'm not sure what exactly Marchetta did to immerse me in high school emotions again, but I think I loved the central character because she, like me, spends a lot of time muttering under her breath and never really living loudly -- until she does (unlike me, sadly!). There's such a scope of character development as she hits walls, and comes up against obstacles, and she just stumbles on, struggling further and further until she finally realizes she's learning about hope. It's a really beautifully written book, about difficult subjects - clinical depression, fragmenting parents, about family relationships, about resentments and finally, self definition -- loving yourself enough to do the dirt and digging it takes to find out who you are; to see how difficult that is, and to keep going.

There's also the Italian-Australian aspect of the story which was intriguing. Americans are so busy defining our 'African-American,' 'Asian-American,' 'South-Asian-American'-ness that it's hard for us to fathom that Other People Over There are experiencing their own cultural mishmashes presently too, outside of the famed melting pot, and people are thinking new thoughts about where and how they belong, and with whom. It makes for really fascinating reading.

One of Marchetta's gifts is that she's a teacher at a Catholic boy's school much like the one depicted in her novel, so "write what you know" is really resonating with her. Francesca is her second novel, written after an eleven year hiatus, but her first novel, Looking for Alibrandi took the Australian publishing world by storm, (and was published in the U.S. in 1999), winning the Children's Book Council award, and being made into a movie last year (that has sadly yet to make its way over the Pacific! Although I'm going to check the video store). I'm really impressed with Marchetta's style, and hope her audience (Aussies and Americans alike) hear more from her before the next decade!

Check it out, people. And happy writing. May you find such vividness leaping from your pens, bringing all of your characters to irrepressible, rebellious, unprecedented life.

July 18, 2005

Magic of All Kinds

Yes, I know it's the big weekend for Harry Potter fans, but before we get to that, first I have to say that the NPR "All Things Considered" update of the story of Owen and Mzee, the baby hippo tsunami refugee who became the foster child of a giant tortoise, is a kind of magic all its own. Of course there's a children's book in the works! Props to NPR for the sneak peek.

Meanwhile, we're still wild about Harry! A few cities actually proclaimed an All Potters Eve, and I'm glad to see it wasn't just the adults having fun. I sincerely hope this next book is worth the wait, worth the hype, though I have my doubts about that, from the sort of whinging and hand-wringing that went on in the last episode. I do, however, send good wishes to JK Rowling... and I really hope she's well on her way to fabricating another universe, and another set of lovable characters, because boy this series is going to be a hard act to follow! On the other hand, she certainly will have an eager (to make more cash) agent and loyal readers waiting to pick up whatever falls from her pen...

So, good reading to those of you who went right out and got Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, camped out for the midnight book release, dressed in your Hogwart's Academy best, and partied like it was ...Book VI. I was with you in spirit, though I was far too lazy to get out of bed and ride my broom. However, for my next 'pay it forward' mitzvah activity of the year, the plan is to buy a couple of books, read them, and donate them to the public library in the next few weeks - so no spoilers, people.

In many ways, the Harry Hype is overrated, overdone, commercial, Madison Avenue derived crap, and is not even about the book, (or at least not about the writing or the storyline) anymore at all. On the other hand, when was the last time people got this excited about reading -- even reading an imperfect series of books? Back when Tolkien was writing, or when The Narnia Chronicles came out, I hear. So, it's been awhile... Even though I think sometimes the storyline is plodding, and that editing these tomes might do them (and us!) a world of good, I love the excitement of a new link in the saga. It's so cool to read. And to all the people who bought me books that fed my imagination when I was a kid - then or now, "I can no other answer make, but thanks, and thanks, and ever, thanks."

July 17, 2005

Writing with an IQ

"Geeky people often have that which is most valuable in this life . . . A mind with its own heartbeat."

If you haven't had the chance to read anything from Garret Freymann-Weyr, you've missed the chance to read some remarkably smart YA novels. They're not easy reads necessarily, but they're well worth the effort of thought.

Garret Freymann-Weyr's
My Heartbeat, is easily one of the most complex novels written on teen relations, ever. Narrator Ellen, who idolizes her brother Link and has a mad crush on her brother's best friend James finds herself in the uncomfortable position of still loving both when their friendship explodes. She tries to hold her brother's place in the relationship with James, but she's never quite outgrown that crush, and the lines of friendship blur. Are James and Link gay? Does it matter? Can Ellen stretch herself out far enough to hold both of them together without splitting down the middle herself?

Freymann-Weyr's books have the most intelligent, articulate characters. Her girls are well-read, her boys are thoughtful and have emotions. Even the parents she depicts, though often flawed, are seen with a depth and sensitivity that is often lacking in YA novels, or indeed, in the impatient and hurt eyes of most teens. This is especially the case in Freymann-Weyr's
When I Was Older

Protagonist Sophie had great plans for when she was older, but the dreams she had came crashing around her in seventh grade. That's the year her brother died of acute leukemia, and the same year her mother kicked her father out of the house, since her father was having an affair while her brother was in the hospital. Now fifteen, Sophie's still struggling to come to grips with the losses in her family, and the way things have changed.

It seems that time should have stopped when her brother died, but Sophie's older sister, Freddie, is dating a graduate student, and is all wrapped up him. Does she even remember anymore? Their father, more concerned with his new girlfriends, his business contacts, and his cell phone, is too busy to keep appointments, never comes to go through her brother's clothes, and spends more money breaking up with his girlfriends than he does on keeping them. He certainly hasn't let time slow him down.

Doing well in school, sticking with the rigid swim team schedule, staying focused and wanting to go to medical school are Sophie's plans for now, but even her plans to slow time are not really working. She's alienating herself from her friends by being violently opposed to the things they're all about, namely, boys. The only boy she wants to remember is Erhart, who died. Not even her father, with his sporadic visits and anxious gifts, rates much consideration from the determined Sophie. But when her mom starts dating, and introduces Sophie to her date's fifteen year old son... then Sophie's plans get shaken up again.

Garret Freymann-Weyr (don't you love that name?) writes intelligently paced, insightful YA novels. The memorable characters, beautiful descriptions of New York neighborhoods and thoughtful themes will resonate with you long after you've set them down.

July 05, 2005

The 4th of July (also known as Chinese Pyrotechnology Appreciation Day) is over, and now we're sitting down all too early with afterimages of fireworks burned on our retinas. Well, the happy consolations for the writer are thus: SmartWriter's 2005 Write It Now Contest has announced its winners -- and, in a burst of ubercool, has announced a short story contest as well. The rules are posted on the SmartWriters website, and read them carefully, possums.

The Writer's Digest is pulling out a new short story contest, the WD Popular Fiction Awards. Um, so "popular fiction." The antithesis, I guess, of literary fiction? Anyway, they're looking at five categories: Romance, Mystery/Crime Fiction, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Thriller/Suspense and Horror. The Grand-Prize Winner will receive $2,500 clams, $100 worth of Writer's Digest books and paraphenalia, plus a manuscript critique and marketing advice from a Writer's Digest editor or advisory board member. Everyone who places gets a mention in Writer's Digest magazine, which is a good way to get your name out there to sharp editorial assistants. The deadline is a reasonable distance away, and the fee isn't expensive, either, which is always good to hear.

Meanwhile, the Fiction Open at our dearly beloved Glimmer Train Press has a July 15 deadline, so there's still time to enter that fabulous story you know is within you. Courage, dear ones. Crank up the a/c, and once more into the breach!

July 02, 2005

Readers' Right to Privacy

A recent SCBWI newsletter contained heartening news for readers, libraries, and booksellers: the House of Representatives voted to cut funding for that part of the Patriot Act that allows the FBI to subpoena library and bookseller records. The American Library Association has a lot of great information and articleson the issue. Booksellers, of course, were pleased. According to the newsletter, the executive branch claims it has never used the Patriot Act to obtain library records, but the ALA reports over 200 instances since 2001 of federal agents asking librarians for information about patrons. However, since the Patriot Act's subpoenas are secret, it's impossible to know how many of these instances were related to the Patriot Act.