August 31, 2005

Odds 'n' Ends

As well as being astringent pundits of popular culture, my girlz at Mean & Catty are also on the look-out for the odd fifteen seconds of fame in the YA business... - and yes, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak as immortalized on the Estrogen Channel, aka Lifetime is a definitely an odd sort of fame. If Anderson is lucky, it'll be painless enough that the endless reruns won't leave her suicidal... If she's very lucky indeed, it'll be a really wonderful portrayal of her work. Of course, for those of us still reeling from the Rings movies (or am I the only nerd still bemoaning plot additions and distortions?) maybe not so hopeful, eh?

Today's been a busy day at the post office... A. Fortis has inspired, so I have launched forth book proposals and an entire manuscript to some lucky people to peruse. 51 Days and A La Carte are winging their way toward Mei Mei's state. Crossed fingers that all editors are in a receptive mood during the fall reading period!!

Meanwhile, D's lay-off took effect today, so for awhile I'm going to have lots of company around the office. Does that mean more writing gets done, or less? Does anyone else share work space? How do you do it?

If we save all of our pennies now, can we go here in February?


Back to work. For some reason, my failure with Glimmer Train prods me to try my luck with short stories...Again.


August 29, 2005

Strange Worlds with N.M. Browne

Welsh author N.M. Browne writes novels of alternate worlds, and is all about fantasy. I read her book Warriors of Alavna, and its sequel, Warriors of Camlann, in which two school children, on a field trip, are suddenly flung back thousands of years into King Arthur's time. It's a strange world in which they find themselves, and they possess the most amazing powers - one becomes a beserker, the other a sort of warrior woman. I enjoyed these books well enough, but neither of them was the measure of her book, Basilisk.

Imagine a world in which people are divided by caste. They are the Abovers, and the Combers, the poor who make a world in the cold and darkness of the underground catacombs. Above ground are the workers, bound by creed and law, each in their place. They can own nothing, and even possessing one's self is a crime. Below in the catacombs, nothing is sure except death. The world is the way it is... Greed, power plays and deception abound, and one day, a Comber, Rej, discovers an Abover in one of his hideaways. Swearing vengeance for the life of the murdered man, Rej takes a greater risk in going Above. The worlds of Abover and Comber draw irrevocably closer, as Rej meets Donna, a worker who is trapped in her life as a scribe, where food and clothing are rationed, workers live in crowded communal quarters, and war with other nations goes on and on. Stranger than the life of Above and Comber is the world of dreams... Rej and Donna are having the same dream, over and over. Stranger still, the dreams are of dragons in flight. But, everyone knows there are no dragons, right? So why does Rej dream of a sky he's never seen? And why is Donna waking up with sore arms?

The ruler of the city, Arkel, is determined that he have these dreams... Because the population is out of control. If he could just dream dragons, he could scare the catacombers -- and other of his enemies -- to death. Literally. Donna and Rej have to figure out their power, and understand the basilisk, before it's too late.

This is a richly imaginative tale, and one that will make you sort of have to drop everything until you get through it. Check it out -- it's the type of book that spurs on your imagination. Maybe it'll prompt you to come up with something!

Happy reading!

August 28, 2005

The Rainbow Party's End Leads to a Slag Heap

Some thought-provoking stuff shared by a.fortis with our writing circle:

I got this item in an SCBWI newsletter some time ago and just rediscovered it--still timely, apparently, since there were a few references to Rainbow Party at the recent conference. -a.fortis
5. NY TIMES covers Rainbow Party

The NEW YORK TIMES today [July 1] has a story about Paul Ruditis's RAINBOW PARTY, a new YA novel from the Simon Pulse imprint that revolves around the idea of an oral sex party:

Reporter Tamar Lewin starts with parents, as well as "bloggers and conservative columnists," being shocked by this book. Which is, of course, part of its appeal. The article then goes on to reveal:

a) No oral sex party ever actually takes place in the novel, despite many pages of talk about it. That may be one of its realistic aspects because...

b) None of the sex-ed and adolescent-psych experts interviewed for the article said they know teens who have actually participated in oral sex parties as described in the book. For example, Dr. Deborah Tolman, director of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State, says, "girls, particularly early adolescents, are still getting labeled as sluts and suffering painful consequences. The double standard is remarkably intact. So what could be girls' motivations for participating in such parties? And I can't quite imagine, even for a moment, teenage boys comparing their lipstick rings." There's a lot of talk, but the rumors of "rainbow parties" seem to be distorting what most adolescents' true sexual activity.

c) This book was actually commissioned by Simon Pulse Editorial Director Bethany Buck after hearing the phrase "rainbow party" on an OPRAH episode. She took the idea to Ruditis, author of other YA novels and such pop fare as THE BRADY BUNCH GUIDE TO LIFE. Together they developed a spectrum of characters to cover a range of situations, attitudes, and/or recognizable types. So we're not talking about a book arising from an author's personal or parental experience, but one step in a spiral of media attention: OPRAH begets RAINBOW PARTY, which begets newspaper columns, which begets this message...

(Thanks to John Bell, RA Central New England, MA. Email:

I was...confused by this. Okay, no, not all YA fiction is going to come from an entirely personal place -- it's not called 'fiction' for nothing. But this seemed a very wag-the-dog type of marketing ploy, and dishonest manipulation. This piece prompted a mini-rant from fellow-writer Jennifer S:

Oh Oprah, how will you next enlighten us with the dastardly ways of the world according to the latest suburban myth?

I have a bunch of preconceived notions about this book, having read the Ann Brashares NY Times Op-Ed piece as well as several reviews, but I suppose I should read the actual book before I pass judgment. It sounds like yet another overly moralistic, don't-do-it, look-what-could-happen-to-you-a-la-Go-Ask-Alice, a-very-important-after-school-special piece that puts down girls and their budding sexuality, lumping them either into the virgin camp or the slut camp, implying there is no other alternative. In fact, I've been surprised with some of the recently published teen lit books I've read this summer that still offer up these two camps as the only perceptions of female sexuality. Perhaps the one exception is "Looking for Alaska," (c. 2005, Dutton) which is--ironically (or not, when I really think about it)--written by a man.

Are we still really doomed to be either a virgin or a slut? How about neither? Haven't we progressed beyond Madonna/Whore in the 21st Century?

Okay, okay, I'll crawl back down from my podium and read the book before I say more.

Has anyone else read it yet?

I haven't- and whomever gets to it first, please review on our sister site! Meanwhile, I'm not sure the blame rests solely with Oprah for the furor over a *perceived trend in teen sexuality. First and foremost, she's a talk show hostess, not a psychologist, not a teacher, not anyone who gets anywhere near children unless it's for a photo op. How is she really going to know anything? A talk show hostess' main job is to... talk. And give others something to talk about. Does being a multi-millionaire automatically beget talking about things that make sense? Obviously no. To me this is another example of the public's gullibility, and of an omnipresent media ever ready to swoop in and manipulate and capitalize on people's ever multiplying fears. Need we be surprised that this time the media outlet is the book publishing industry?

Until people insist on thinking for themselves, especially in the formation of issues close to their hearts (and if they're parents, that means their kids), this is what we end up with -- hysteria over imaginary sexual trends in order to manufacture A Solemn Warning about sex - for no real reason at all.

I have to admit that I'm disappointed that it's an STD Story - I read Melvin Burgess' Doing It and saw how a frank discussion of sexuality could happen without all the panic. However, as this book was debuted in the U.S., I'm not sure (until I read it) if it could have been broached any other way and gotten published. Are people more conservative in truth in this country than they like to say? I'd certainly like to revisit this once I read the book...

*And you notice no one ever names the 'guests' on the Oprah show who came up with this? Ostensibly the show's Michelle Burford found her "facts" from interviewing parents and their teens. Which parents? Which teens? I think THAT bears more research.

Impervious: Female Characters Who Don't Care What Anybody Thinks

According to the 1991 study "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," released by the American Association of University Women (and reviewed in this morning's Chronicle by Chron staff writer Reyhan Harmanci), girls seem to lose their confidence, headstrong individuality and verve - scholastically and socially - by high school. It's a lemming mentality gone wildly askew: girls dying for individuality in a cookie-cutter world have their wild hares subdued by every fashion magazine, every loudly hawked trend, every Tiger Beat "you-must-want-THIS-hunk-or-else-what-do-YOU-know-about-cute-guys;" the phrase 'dare to be different' takes on a reality previously unforeseen in every air-brushed, perfected glossy cinematic paen to the Teen American Dream.

Even literary girls don't seem to go the distance to high school. Harmanci brings up Anne of Green Gables, who goes from being an engagingly flight girl to a staid miss of Avonlea in one short book. I also think of the Tommie books of my childhood, where a young girl goes from trying to concoct freckle juice and hanging upside down from a corral fence for hours to becoming a nurse and imagining herself ministering selflessly to the poor and unwashed of every land. Though the Little House t.v. series depicts a still startlingly abrasive Laura, the novels show a far different girl. Of course, using these books as examples, one must consider the time period; nowadays there are fewer bildungsromans, the German term for novels which track the growth and formation of a characters. The aim of many of these stories was some kind of moral strengthening - and apparently it's morally strengthening to no longer be irrepressible, madcap and charming. (In theory that's called 'maturity.') In that light, one ever tells the story of the grown-up Eloise at the Plaza Hotel. Would she still be defying her elders and insouciantly observing the life all around her? Would she still think she was the smartest girl, ever? Would that be believable, or even readable? Unlike Harmanci, I wish there had been a Ramona Quimby, Age 18. Maybe she would have had a better idea on how to take a college by storm.

Reviewing her favorite impervious heroine, Harmanci brings out Richard Peck's Blossom Culp series. Now, we all know my weakness for that particular old gentleman, (he spoke to me twice at a Conference, so I think he walks on water even more now), so I am ready to concede that yes, Peck is the author of all things genius. While I love Blossom's ready wit and unquenchable penchant for nonsense and mayhem (how many other 14-year-old psychics - who've missed the gift of Second Sight but can spot it in others does one run across??), it struck me as somewhat ironic that a male writer writing was the one to write the ultimately unflappable YA heroine. I think at least few women have penned some memorable characters - such as:

Ginny Weasley. I can't hope to figure out the intricacies of the British school system, but I think this girl is in high school now, and she's getting smarter and stronger. Well done, J.K. Of course, the whole book series is not entitled Ginny Weasley...but... maybe next round?

Now, here's one for whom there's not only a single book but... um, seventeen, by last count: the Alice books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, win my overwhelming applause. Readers have experienced Alice since the sixth grade (including two or three prequel Alice novels, now), and as a high school student, she is dating, observing homosexuality, weighing in on the question of oral sex, and still her usual weird self, for the most part. She's growing, and changing, and still...Alice.

It bugs me, a little, that I can't think of a few more strong female characters transitioning positively from elementary school to junior high, or from junior high to high school off the cuff. Can you? The AAUW study told us that subtle things undermined girls' belief in themselves, including things like teachers calling on them more in class, etc. Maybe one of the contributing factors is that there aren't more books about consistently headstrong successful girls becoming women? What do you think?

August 26, 2005

Please Be Warned...

Dear children, I am on pg. 316 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Yes, I know I told you that I was going to read it in November, after the next movie came out. I know, I know. I was giving you time to get yours read, so we could talk about it sensibly, as adults. Or close to it, anyway. And no, I wasn't going to bring up any spoilers -- by November, you should've had ample time to read, right?, just so you know? Page 316. And coming down the last turn.
Pick up the pace, dears. School starting is no excuse.


A Mini Challenge

The great folks at have come up with a YA shorts contest that will maybe help get some of the cobwebs out of your brain. Stuck on your current character's current dilemma? How about backing up to another point in their lives and writing out a scene? The ensuing short story will be much richer because you have the background of really knowing the character, and can fill in enough detail to flesh out even the shortest piece.

Getting short stories for kids and young adults can be really difficult, especially if you're not lucky enough to get into a literary-type magazine, or an anthology. This contest is a great chance to get some exposure -- as well as cash prizes, the writers who place first in this contest in all three categories will be included in an anthology! Check out the Write It Now: Shorts page at SmartWriters. And get busy already! You've only got 'til Halloween!

August 23, 2005

Major Linkage

Have I got some links for you. Mainly you can thank my mom, who inundated my mailbox this week with lit-related linkage.

Firstly, here's a standby for anyone who's done web research in children's and YA lit: Vandergrift's Children's Literature Page. I found this when researching an essay for my Craft of the Young Adult Novel class during grad school, and it contains a veritable plethora of information, bibliographies, web links and scholarly resources. Topics are discussed in a very socially and educationally relevant manner--a great resource.

Pining away with Potter-mania? If you can't find enough little secrets and fun tidbits to keep you busy on J.K. Rowling's personal webpage--I was fascinated by her biography--you'll just about get lost in the Harry Potter Lexicon. It's like Cliff Notes for Harry Potter. There's enough stuff here to fill, like, six volumes. Oh, wait...

The YA Librarians' Homepage is meant to help librarians put together resources for young adults at their libraries, but it contains a lot of great links of general interest, on everything from publishers to journals to graphic novels.

Something I never knew: The song "Cover of the Rolling Stone" was written by Shel Silverstein, much-beloved children's poet. Recently, reports NPR, a new CD was released with some of his most popular songs and poems, plus a new book of previously unpublished poems. If you've never had the privilege of hearing a recording of him reading his poetry, you're missing out--go to the NPR page and click the links under "Hear Silverstein's Works." (A parenthetical story--in fifth grade we had to memorize a poem every few weeks or so and recite it in front of the class, and I managed to slip a whole bunch of Shel Silverstein poems in there. I'm not sure anyone appreciated it but me...)

Lastly, there's a brief review of the recent SCBWI Los Angeles conference posted on the main SCBWI site. Members can view some session notes by logging in, clicking on "Events," then "Annual Summer Conference," then "Members: Click here for Conference Notes." I will also be posting some more thoughts on the conference in coming weeks. (Yeah, I know, I promised that a while ago...what can I say, I'm really behind!)

Deeply Disturbing Food

When I'm completely slacking off, I find the oddest web pages to amuse myself. This one is called The Gallery of Regrettable Foods. I'll be tracking down the book by the same title shortly. It's hysterical, and another site I advise you not to peruse in a library... hyena laughs and spontaneous wetting have been known to get people banned from public places.

Hope your writing is progressing! If not, why not treat yourself to some light reading? Call it 'inspiration...'


Hey, check out the flag button. You can now officially sanction me if you don't like what I say. Yeah, both of you. Heh.

August 21, 2005

Post MFA Let-down?

"We live in an exceedingly crass, stupid, vulgar culture," said [David]Fenza, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and author of "The Interlude," a book- length poem. "To devote two years of your life to writing, books, studying authors, that is a wonderful oasis in anyone's life. You take that study of literature with you through the rest of your life."

81% of all Americans say that they have a book in them. I read this wee factlet in this morning's Chronicle, in an article written from the perspective of one who has gone the MFA route. What does this prove? Not much - except that there are more of us with something to say (and sometimes no real skill to say it) than we'd maybe assumed. Can everyone write the book that is within them? Should they? Will an MFA really help?

In the past few years, more and more people have gotten involved with MFA programs, which should be a positive thing, yet the tone of this article was fairly depressing for me. Not because there are so many would-be writers in the U.S., or even so many degreed writers, but because, even while I was in grad school, I heard this stuff. I heard about MFA programs churning out cookie-cutter authors who depleted the very quality of the literary offerings in the world. I heard that only certain types of work got published, and if my name wasn't something cool like Michelene, Ayelet, or I if I didn't have some kind of unexplored ethnic angle to work with, or I wasn't up to putting out an Astonishing Work of Languishing Genius or something, I wasn't going to make the cut.

Workshops, I read, are worthless. They're boring. They slice and dice the work of others as if critical interpretation and criticism was all that made a mature writer. Workshops create writers who pander to their readers, I learned. Not good. Not workable. Not promising. Much better are the writers who organically ply their craft, right out of their wee heads. Those are the writers who will uphold the invisible Canon Nouveau, and make sure that everything we read is intelligent and worthy.

Good thing I only really want to write for children and young adults, I thought. That field is always open. Or not. When everyone from
Toni Morrison to Madonna to John Lithgow and everybody else hit the shelves with their celebrity children's stories, I... um, rethought. It wasn't going to be that easy to do the kind of writing I wanted and get published. Not by a long shot. Like everyone has to sometime, I faced the fact that there are tons of people who are better connected, better equipped, and just downright luckier than I am. And I thought, dear God, what money and time have I just wasted!?

Truth: We spent a lot of money for our degrees. $37K down, and we've got not a lot to show for it except a few letters to put after our names, which, even then, doesn't guarantee that our work will get any higher in the slush piles of publishing houses. We have a lot of faith, and a lot of great expectations, but what else?

Truth: We have allowed our work and our style of writing to be observed, commented upon, molded and shaped. In all likelihood, some of us have learned to care too much about what others say about our work. Some of us have begun to consider the reader. Does this mean our writing is doomed?

I left my MFA program at
Mills with nothing but great expectations. They made me no promises, and I was well aware that they couldn't make me anything I wasn't before I got there. But... in order to have gotten to there, I had to have had great expectations already. If I take that faith (and those school loans) and turn it upon myself, I might yet have a chance to stand out - if merely by sheer dint of perseverance. I know an MFA program can't produce a writer, yet I also realize that giving myself over to the process of observing and immersing myself in writing and reading gives me an edge. I know a lot more stuff than the average writer at a Conference like A. Fortis attended - how to use networking, how to listen to what editors really want, how to sense the patterns created and skill used in what I read. I've put in the time, in a wildly busy and rushed world, to polish my craft into something I can honestly be proud of (okay, on those good days when I'm not sucking down my Zoloft and staring moodily into my coffee cup), if I can stick out the hard work it takes to get it noticed. I can take a breath and accept that I put in a big investment in myself, and it already has paid off - the dividends being my writing group, the person I become in an educational environment, and the objective eye that I can turn on my own work.

Success will come in a more tangible form, someday. And, lest these ramblings sound too painfully Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm saccharine, I do have to lie down and scream sometimes; I often wish for something stronger than caffeine on those many bad days; I awaken some mornings and think the whole publishing racket just sucks, and that I hate everyone in New York who works in publishing and wish it was all so much more straightforward -- and for goodness sakes, faster at least, and less elitist and snotty. But, like A.F., I'm going to let this hone my competitive edge. I'm going to have to succeed. Because otherwise I'll never know. What that book within me is, I mean. Maybe not everyone can or should write their dream story, but I can, and I'm going to. I mean to find out if the book within me is
The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Once and Future King. It's why I went to graduate school...

August 18, 2005

Gregory Maguire, con't

(sorry about this - this post was too long for just one session!)

Though these books were compelling reads, Maguire's skill in narrative really shines in his YA novels. Missing Sisters, is the story of two girls in 1968 and the strange parallels of their lives. In one short year, 12-year-old Alice, partially deaf, and with a speech impediment, raised in a Catholic group home, loses her beloved Sister Vincent De Paul in a fire, and turns down a chance to be adopted. Not knowing if the Sister is dead or alive, and being protected from the truth by well-meaning but confused nuns, Alice finds it difficult to move forward. She refuses to practice working through her speech impediment, until a chance to play Eliza Dolittle in a school play of My Fair Lady and a chance meeting with a girl named Miami gives her a bit more courage to move out of herself. She's confused and worried, trying to figure out how to keep promises to all she knows of her family. In the end, Alice finds that family ties what you make of them, and are less fragile than we think. This is a surprisingly touching book, not because of the inclusion of motherless children and nuns, but because Maguire infuses Alice with a fierce spirit that allows her to carry on through hurdles with surprising grace.

Oasis continues this compassionate treatment of confused and thought-provoking characters, and allows Maguire to utilize a radically different voice. Hand Gunther(short for Mohandas Gandhi Gunther, to be precise) comes home from track and finds his activist father dead of a heart attack. His mother, who left he and his father and older sister Vida three years before, is suddenly back and on scene, bossy, acerbic and in charge. Hand is both enraged and anguished, wondering if it is somehow his fault - that his mother went away, that he didn't call and say he'd be late, that his father died alone. Grimly quit, Hand bucks all of the changes going on in his life, and resists overtures from his mother, and his ambivalent-but-trying-to-connect Uncle Wolfgang, his college-girl sister, and an overly helpful teacher, Ms. Fernald. Arriving late to accept his father's hospitality, a father and son fleeing Iran become a part of the extended family in the run-down motel Hand and his father managed. Though he's going along and trying to live life like before, Hand is stuck trying to find someone to blame for everything that's going on. Maybe his mother. Maybe his Uncle Wolfgang. Maybe it's even him. Somebody has to pay.

Each chapter begins with a Dickinson poem, brief and ephemeral, an observation on the sweetness and the brevity of life, or the busywork of death. This novel deals gently with the discovery that life sometimes is just stuff that happens, the best we can do is hang on to the hands around us, and keep on going with it.

Gregory Maguire is a very agile writer, twisting between a seamlessly refined voice that details scenery and atmosphere with a camera's dispassionate eye to a more intimate and personal narrative, closely twined with the emotional errata sheathing the hearts of his characters. None of the stories are action packed, but they scrutinize a progression of soul in each character that makes for a satisfying read.

August 17, 2005

Making Fantasy Real

I've been a fan of Charles de Lint since I was in high school. Last year, in preparation for a trip to his hometown of Ottawa, Ontario for a conference, I re-read several of my favorites--Trader, Memory and Dream--and gobbled down a newer release, The Onion Girl. Though they're set in a fictional location, I wanted to immerse myself in his world and then visit the real-life city that seemed to serve as his inspiration. To me, it wasn't just about the conference being held in Ottawa. It was also about getting some perspective on the work of a writer I admired.

So, although I knew from his website he'd be out of town the week I was visiting, I decided to make my first conscious "writing pilgrimage." My last evening in Ottawa, I made a point of visiting the Irish pub where I knew he and his wife were regular customers and musical performers. Though I knew they wouldn't be there, I could see the chalkboard listing upcoming performances, their names included, and I got a little thrill from it. I sat there for over an hour, nursing a pint and working on notes for my own novel, feeling like maybe I'd absorb just a little of the magic de Lint puts into his own work.

His books were probably my first encounter with the subgenre of urban fantasy—in my quick and dirty definition, urban fantasy comprises books that have fantasy elements or characters but take place in a modern setting (I've also seen it called contemporary fantasy). In de Lint's case, this means that he creates characters with a special connection to the more magical, unseen aspects of the world, which still exist today but only manifest for a special few. Nature spirits, tricksters, fairies, and more—they all enrich and complicate the lives of human characters who, in one way or another, live their lives on the borders of what is "normal."

Many of his books and short stories take place in a fictional North American city called Newford, with characters whose lives intertwine to a greater or lesser degree from book to book. I was thrilled to learn he'd written another book in this setting, one that was specifically considered to be YA. The Blue Girl again concerns characters that live on the edges of normal, this time two teenage girls and the ghost of a teenage boy. Mischievous, rebellious Imogene goes to a new high school and befriends intelligent but outcast Maxine, and together they get caught up in a strange underworld of fairies and ghosts in their midst—some well-meaning and some...not.

Having read and enjoyed de Lint's adult books, I was interested to see what would happen when he wrote something specifically aimed at young adults. And I enjoyed it almost as much as his other works. The main difference I could see was that it was faster-paced—though he exhibited the same love for sensory detail and the same talent for creepy, edgy atmosphere, the story was a bit less intricate. However, that's an observation rather than a criticism.

The criticism I do have concerns the dialogue, specifically where the main characters' voices are concerned. The impression I was left with—from a writer's perspective—is that he tried a bit too hard to give the characters these wisecracking teenage voices, so that I was left feeling unconvinced of the dialogue from time to time. And, of course, that took me out of the story. I don't remember that happening in his adult books, even with younger characters. The characters' voices in The Blue Girl would have been more convincing without that sensation of having been consciously tweaked to sound "younger." Of course, I could be missing the mark as to what actually happened during the writing process. Moreover, this is a minor criticism and did not affect either the quality of the story or my overall enjoyment of it. In fact—as occasionally happens when I'm reading a de Lint novel—I was so convinced by the story that I was too creeped out to get to sleep one night. So I still do recommend it to those who enjoy contemporary fantasy related in a vivid but also down-to-earth and believable writing style. However, I'd also suggest that if you enjoy this one, you'll really devour his other Newford books.

August 16, 2005

Agile Shifting: The Work of Gregory Maguire

I am on a Gregory Maguire kick. Ever since the triumphant West Coast opening of Wicked, the Broadway musical based on his novel, I've wanted to find out all I can about this New Yorker who was raised by nuns, founded Children's Literature New England, Inc. and has zipped all over the world, ingraining his soul with the patina of cultures that enrich his work. I've got Wicked on hold from the library (-- seems like everyone had the same idea I did of reading it before seeing the musical) -- but I've gathered a few of Maguire's other available books.

Though he is a big player on the East Coast within children's lit, I've found that many of Maguire's books aren't really kidlit or YA. He's written quite a few board books for small children, middle grade rhyming stories, and moody coming-of-age adolescent pieces, but he also writes fairytales. Essentially, fairytale expansions are associated with children's work, but the Benicia Public Library shelves Maguire's work as adult reading, and with the depths and complexities of the characters, this is exactly, I believe, what the author intended: fairytales as adult fare. I found
Mirror, Mirror to be a provocative and deeply psychological novel more about familial dysfunction than anything the Grimms may have intended, and definitely not kid stuff.

The premise of this novel is, of course, a retooling of the Snow White classic. The addition of lush Italian countryside, a 16th century cast including a lascivious cook and a shambling, gluttonous priest give depth to Bianca De Nevada, a protected child, who is never allowed the boundaries of her family's property. A well connected acquaintance of her father's, Cesare Borgia is the son of a Spanish pope is one of the most powerful and ruthless mercenaries of the 16th century. His sister, Lucrezia is a decadent creature, and travels with her brother in order to assist him in persuading Bianca's father to fulfill his greatest wish, to obtain for him "a sprig of the Tree of Knowledge, out of the very orchard from which our kind has sprung." The branch is housed in a faraway monastery, and Vicente De Nevada is to steal it, while leaving his daughter, house and lands in the care of Lucrezia, who agrees to stand as guardian.

Stealing from a monastery means death... but refusing a warlord his whim is death of a more instantaneous kind. Vicente De Nevada reluctantly agrees, and thus we rediscover the familiar tenents of the original Grimm narrative - the absent father, depraved female caretaker, the magicked mirror, the poisoned apple, the helpless hunter, and the crew of dwarves. The basics of the story are unchanged, but Maguire interweaves his own meanings.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is written tightly and with attention to detail. The tale of Cinderella is recast in 17th century Holland, with tulips and windmills. The theme of extreme beauty begetting extreme privation unfolds with an Englishwoman and her two children, one plain and one retarded, fleeing their home and a debtors prison, and going to Holland for succor. With her mother playing a sob story to attract the attention of every merchant in Haarlem with the intent of either selling her plain daughter, Iris, or begging them a subsistence on her own skills, Iris catches the fancy of an artist, then the attention of a wealthy man who secures Iris a position in his family teaching English to his daughter, Clara. Iris' clever and ambitious mother takes over as chatelaine of the household. A change in fortune makes Iris and Clara stepsisters, and the darkness Iris finds in her mother disturbs her. Are the memories she has of her mother being driven out of England true? Why does it so disturb her when the Master's apprentice calls her a witch? Are only the beautiful guaranteed a 'happily ever after?'

...more on Maguire's YA stuff in a bit...

August 15, 2005

A Strange Tale of Adolescence and Pesto

"There's so much to learn, isn't there? A million things of different sizes that I don't know."

Australian writer Nick Earls has a wit that is dry and wry, and a knack for creating strikingly strange characters. His latest YA novel hero is named Dan (called 'Banger'), a boy who is a bedeviled mix of hormone-flushed angst and engaging neuroses. Producing both grins and groans, Dan's year of obsession with ichthyology in Romeo and Juliet (a fish tank scene! Who knew?) and honing in on the best way to get a girl (interest her in ornithology -- of course. Every girl likes guys who memorize facts on birds) is a good for a few hours of snickers, and makes me want to find and read the rest of Earls' books.

Even so, 48 Shades of Brown is not an easy book to read. It begins slowly - there's an almost dreamlike quality to the narrator detachment, in part because the narrator is so introverted, and partially because of the protagonist's preference to ignore certain truths about himself. Almost seventeen, living with his 22-year-old, bass playing aunt and her attractive blonde housemate, Naomi, for a year while his parents are in Geneva for a year, Dan slowly realizes that any suaveness he thought he might be growing into is a ways off. He has no grown-up skills -- he can't cook, do his own wash, or even put in a hand around the house doing anything other than sweeping. Even something as simple as staying out of the way is fraught with danger. The rooms in the house are thin, and Naomi and her boyfriend, Jason, are... noisy.

Dan's mother, the faithful 'Madge,' (or, when she's being pretentious, 'Margot') and her penchant for the safe realm of the beige suburban landscape have made Dan unfit for the sophisticated world his aunt Jacq and her university friends inhabit. He's desperate to make her understand that he's different than her beloved but annoying sister, to make Naomi look at him and see more than just a dorky little boy. But Jacq laughs at him. A lot. She knows the kind of kid her sister raised. And Naomi is a second year university student, and likes stuff that he knows nothing about, such as the scientific names of birds and trees...growing herbs...Making fresh pesto without dirt. This is enough to make Dan feel like he's drowning. He is not a convincing 'cool guy.' Then, there's aunt Jacq, falling in love with someone a little too close to home... Suddenly Dan realizes that there's a lot he doesn't know - more than he ever dreamed. And none of it travels well on the baby mammals postcards he sends to his mother each week.

The universally common theme of helpless attraction and the eternal fantasies of wanting to obtain a life out of reach are two factors that will make this an easy novel for any teen to appreciate. The fact that there are vocabulary and references in it that will only make sense to people with an understanding of Australian slang might turn a few less motivated readers away. The humor is subtle at times, but the writing is strong and this is well worth checking out on a quiet afternoon.

August 14, 2005

Post-Conference Letdown?

You'd think that I'd be buzzing with new ideas, filled with creative fodder, bursting with energy upon returning from a writing conference, ready to inflict my joy on the unsuspecting people around me. Instead, this week I've been attempting to hide from the outside world, as evidenced by my failure to post a conference report thus far.

I actually had a very nice time at the conference, but in some ways, felt a little let down at the same time that I felt encouraged. After all, there were 700+ other people who were either already writing for children/young adults, or trying to. Instead of feeling buoyed by the thought that many of them know exactly what I'm going through, I felt this strange cutthroat demon of professional jealousy peek its horned little head from somewhere in my brain. I got this competitive impulse that I have very rarely felt in my life—usually I'm in a strict competition with myself, and if I fail, I have only myself to blame. But when I saw those editors and agents up there on stage, inviting would-be authors to send in manuscripts, all I could think was, Great, now I have to compete with all these people, too. And even though I felt like I'm much further along than a lot of other writers, having a completed manuscript ready to go, I still felt this sense of futility, knowing that might not be enough.

I guess I'm just having one of my less confident days, but sometimes the enormity of what I'm trying to do really gets to me. At least, it seems enormous. Speaking of which, I will be breaking down the voluminous notes I took at the conference and relating the pre-digested highlights over the next week or two, along with some other news and links I've been saving up. More anon--

August 09, 2005

I HAVE been! Honest!

As a matter of fact, yes I have been reading. And reading. And reading, and reading and READING.

Short story collections, sci-fi, fantasy series, general fiction, you name it. I've even strayed into adult books... And I still haven't found much of anything lately to recommend to you, which sort of paralyzes me with horror, and gives me angst simultaneously. Do you ever have days when you're reading when you wonder HOW certain people get published?? They must know someone, or something sinister like that. Well. Just so you know I've not been doing slacking on the job, here are my hopeful-but-ambivalent ratings (books that are fair for entertainment purposes, but not stand-alone-smashingly-wonderful):

Phillip Reeve's
Mortal Engines, the first in the Hungry City Chronicles, rated a 'Hmm, Pretty Good' rating from me. The idea of moving cities is innovative and completely off the wall, I liked the characters and the action. There are some very Jules Verne-esque scenes of industry and commerce that really attracted me. I was disappointed that it ended so quickly-- with the characters flying off into the sunset. You just know they're going to have other adventures which may or may not include you. I love series books, but sometimes I wish people would finish the entire series before publishing ANY of them. (AHEM, Ms. J. K. Rowling!!!) But, that's just my reader greed talking.

Although some people don't consider the work of
Anne McCaffery as science fiction, even her flying dragons have basis in hard science -- genetic modification in the days before people really knew what was up with that. In more recent writing, she's started pairing her prodigious skills with other authors, and in the early 90's started publishing some great adventure reads -- with female protagonists! Yay! The first in the Planet Pirate Series, Sassinak, published by Baen Books paired McCaffrey's romantic bent with writer Elizabeth Moon's space exploration tales. Sass is a smart-mouthed twelve-year old when the story begins. Taken by pirates for a slave, Sassinak endures horrible treatment, but imagines she's Carin Coldae, Adventurer Extraordinary, a character from the vids who never gives in. Sass is gutsy. When she meets a Fleet operative, he teaches her all he can to help her survive. She escapes, contacts the Fleet-- and then makes it her life's work to give merry hell to the pirates for the rest of forever. Adventure, romance, and a swashbuckling space opera -- this book has the elements of a fun pass-the-time-in-an-airport novel - nothing too deep, but lots of fun. There are sequels, too, if your flight's delayed.

In one of my YA Lit courses at
Mills, I read the beginning of a story much like T.A. Barron's The Ancient One, which takes place in Oregon, among the huge old redwoods. I only hope my girl Dorothy finishes her book, because her storyline already gives this one a run for its money. The protagonist, Kate, spends her summer in rainy Blade, Oregon, with her Aunt Mel, and finds that Aunt Mel's hometown is the place of the magical Lost Crater, an old volcano with mystical powers that has been lost in a giant grove of redwoods. Of course, once it is rediscovered, the loggers want to cut it down. Kate and her aunt go to the woods to protect (with their bodies?) the trees, and through an accident Kate and a young logger are thrown backwards in time a thousand years... and magical battles with bird people and dark spirits ensue in order to protect the Ancient One, the oldest, largest redwood tree in the grove. Even in the past, the tree, and the way of life of the Native peoples surrounding it, are threatened by evil, with a bewildering penchant for animating stones and poisoning water and doing other environmental damage that previously was believed done only by modern mankind. The tree's protectors are owl-like beings with a strange affinity for oysters and peppermint candy. Don't...ask.

At any rate, eventually, Kate is tossed back to her place in the world... but the tree she fought so hard to save is cut down anyway. The environmental message, if there is one, is a muddy compromise between trying to understand that logging supports a way of life, but the ancient spirits in the trees should be protected. The book ends abruptly, with the tantalizing connections between Aunt Mel and the ancient Halamis Peoples only hinted at, but unexplored, the time lapse between disappearing from flaming woods in the 21st century and spending a few months a thousand years back, the oddly developing relationship between Kate and the relentlessly angry logger kid, and a bunch of other random details trailing about untied.

As I said, Dorothy, finish your book! Please!

So, now you know I haven't been slacking... Hope you've been reading too!
Lazy Days of August to you.

Summer Reads: Summer Jobs

NPR's had a piece this weekend on the great books of summer leading teen girls to believe in the great JOBS of summer. Good old Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and most daring of all Vicki Barr, Flight Stewardess (boy, I must've missed that one) had the best darned jobs of any young women of the era between 1947-1964... They had glamour, great uniforms, sassy flips in their hair, and no flack from their bosses. These days, the best teen readers can do for a summer job is something like M.T. Anderson's Burger Wuss, an affectionate and sardonic tribute to the reality of the scorching summer days of doing mindless dead end work so you could buy a few things from the Gap. (Someday, there's going to be a novel on the people who did filing for Traveler's Insurance as a summer job... I'm sure I'll be somewhere on Chapter 2, sneaking out to make phone calls and loitering around the snack machine...)

Meanwhile, we await with baited breath the news from the L.A. Conference, and our intrepid attendees who will give us all the lowdown hopefully soon. Enjoy the last few days of low-traffic summer days... happy August.

August 01, 2005

Thoughts on Ideas

I had this little mini-epiphany in the car the other day. (I often have mini-epiphanies in the car. I'm not sure why that is.) Anyway, I was thinking about another bit of advice I received as a beginning fiction writer, which was to NOT look to others' work for your ideas, or model something after an existing book or movie or TV show.

I think this is actually very good advice. At first, though, it irritated me. Why should I constrain any potential sources of inspiration? Surely, if I chose to model something after an existing work I really admired, I wouldn't really be copying what they did so much as "emulating," right? Isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Can't a lot be learned from trying to emulate somebody's style or themes?

I still think these are good points. But during my little automobile moment, everything fell into perspective. There is a time and place for both points of view. In my opinion (which is not humble whatsoever), the strongest ideas come from something in your own life--something you personally experienced, or something a friend told you about, or even something you overheard that was really intriguing. These are the little nuggets that continually prod at your brain like a grain of sand inside an oyster, until a pearl of story forms around them and you're ready to write. They have the solidity to inspire a really strong story.

But once you've got that core idea, frankly, the details that flesh it out can come from anywhere and everywhere. Because that initial inspiration was your own, any details you add should mold themselves to the original idea like the layers of oyster secretions that eventually become that pearl. Only not as icky, probably. The result is a weird and wonderful hybrid whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There isn't anything new under the sun, but there are new ways of looking at things.

The other useful aspect of examining previously published works is to remind yourself what has already been done--you wouldn't want to find yourself reproducing something that's already out there, or inadvertently creating something that closely resembles another work. Looking at what's out there can not only help rekindle your inspiration, but it can help you make your work distinctive.

Okay, those are my thoughts for the day. I apologize for having been on a long hiatus, and I promise to come back with a full report after the upcoming SCBWI conference.