September 30, 2006

Banned, Baby: So Long, Farewell, Keep Reading

Technically, this is the end of Banned Books Week, and you may wonder why such a big deal is made of the one week a year where everyone reminds us of that we should honor and strongly support our Constitutional right to read. I will egotistically state that the ALA does this week for me... because I wasn't allowed to read everything I wanted to read when I was growing up.

Not an unusual lament; parents are the gatekeepers of their children's reading habits, and my parents were all about nonfiction and "truth." National Geographic: fine. Amazing Stories: not fine. But, as a high school student (see how long I was obedient?) through my undergraduate years and later as an MFA, I learned over and over again that a.) unvarnished facts don't necessarily tell all the truth, and b.) fiction doesn't necessarily contain no element of "the true;" even fairytales have their own truths.

Truth: it's something we'd all like to think that we have, or know. The truth about everything. It's also something many parents believe that they must impart to their 'tweens and teens about the world around them, only young adults, in the way of things, think they know well enough what is true for them... and many years of their adolescence are spent being pulled one way, and pulling back the other. The problem with truth is, you don't tell it by not speaking it. You don't tell it by trying to force people to see only your truth. You don't tell it by squashing it, hiding it, and not trusting it to come to the light.

I don't want any of my books to be banned. Ever. I don't want to be a writer whom a parent sees as an enemy to their child, nor can I imagine any author courting the banned bandwagon, nor wanting to be labelled as having "a liberal agenda" -- or any agenda to peddle to children. It's not enjoyable to be put in the place of defending oneself in any case, but to a writer, our books are close to our hearts. It is wrenching to imagine that a parent will teach a child that you -- and your books -- are the enemy. Thoughts divergent from our own are not our enemies. FEAR -- fear of thinking, fear of listening, fear of trusting our kids to formulate their own thoughts and opinions, fear of a too-tolerant moral stance -- that's the enemy. And if parents are teaching kids to fear thoughts... how are they teaching them to listen to themselves and to learn to think?

A parent's, a school district's, a teacher's or a librarian's trusting a child to read intelligently, to be discerning and personally opinionated is a gift to that child. It teaches them that adults don't think they're so stupid that they must be protected, at all costs, from growing up. I know that's not the message my parents meant to send to me. They were, after all, trying to preserve my soul , and I thank them for the love. Perhaps someday I, too, will so deeply want to protect someone's mind. But I believe that there are other ways to go about it... ways that involve reading widely and discussing openly. Ways that involve parental bravery and hours of time, hours spent discussing what's right with something instead of what's wrong.

Idealistic? Probably. Well-meaning but frightened adults exist. But even they can learn and grow and change. It's still a dream worth keeping.

Call it a new American dream - freedom of mind for every mind.
Thanks for the reminder, Banned Book Week. See you again next year.

September 28, 2006

Banned, Baby: For God's Sake?

When a YA novel with religious content is accepted for publication, I believe that somewhere a bell rings in a tiny, stuffy office deep inside an undisclosed location, and the word goes out to undisclosed parties to keep a look out. They're not librarians... they're people who have Opinions. Now, people know I have Opinions. I have Opinions about everything, including God, in his or her many incarnations. But, the thing about religious Opinions is that some people's are set in cement. And if your opinions don't jibe with their opinions: woe.

Trinity High School (what an ironic name!) is a fictitious Catholic all-boys school where protagonist Jerry Renault of the The Chocolate War spends a miserable year, bucking the system by refusing to be a good boy and chocolate to raise money for some cause or other, like everyone else. He is harassed by sadistic administrators, verbally assaulted, hassled by bullies, and in the end, physically assaulted.

Welcome to the Christian community.

This was my introduction to Robert Cormier, and it was downright scary. As a student at a private Christian school myself, the story was, to me, mindblowing. I thought, Nobody would do that at MY school. And then I thought, Would they?

I can't say that I loved it. It bothered me. It haunted me. It taught me. And I think that's a lot more important than "loved."

First published in 1974, the Chocolate War still last topped the list of banned books in 2004. And though I read the book many, many years ago (in high school), what is burned into memory still is the horrific bullies and the apathetic teachers in that ostensibly Christian environment. Not the "swearing, masturbation, violence and a depressing, dismal ending" for which the book is continually challenged and banned.

I'm going to avoid making a bunch of huge statements and using titles like 'fundamentalist,' or 'conservative,' because I believe that there are people with Opinions of every stripe. They're not all from color-coded states, in other words. But as more and more YA people explore their cultural mores by writing novels which deal with theories and positions on religious themes, it's ironic that it's religious people who are showing their vocal, vehement intolerance - for the sake of God. So people don't mock Him/Her. So we can protect God.


(I know that's not the only reason, but it's one of them.)

When we religious types use vague, inflammatory rhetoric to promote a point, we miss the point. We cannot protect everybody from everything. No teacher I know (and I know plenty) would fault a parent for determining that they are uncomfortable with their child reading a certain book or novel in a class. A teacher would respond positively, even, to a well-reasoned and mature conversation with a student who preferred not to read something in his or her English class (and if the teacher did not respond positively, students have parents and school boards, etc. to back them up), as long as the student could give solid reasons and produce an alternative reading that is on the same topic and equally challenging. But for that parent to determine that every child in the classroom -- the school -- the district should also be raised according to their standard of ethics? Come on.

Another book that deals with religion as part of the scope of its storyline is Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it again and again as a sort of blueprint on how to deal with major subjects in YA literature, completely blown away by the sophisticated exploration of some really deep theories. And just this month, it was challenged again in Florida for profanity and graphic sexuality. The story deals with an 18-year-old who is flunking despite his astronomically high IQ and Honor Roll status the first two years of high school. The character, Steve, is in the process of writing an 100 page English paper in order to graduate high school, and is looking back over how he's dealt -- or not dealt -- with his parent's divorce. The subject matter in the story is immense. Thomas writes about God and Dadaism, divorce, siblings, and falling in love. The book goes through the entire scope of human emotions, and the character comes out on top. The author, in defending the book, says it's about "getting better."

It occurs to me that in my brief reviews of many of the books on the Banned list that the phrase "the character comes out on top" recurs. This isn't what makes a book a positive thing. I don't believe that a 'kernel of hope' is what's necessary to keep the books from the banned list, especially since specifically in the Chocolate War, that isn't the case. I'm just maybe more surprised when those books are banned. I keep wondering, "Did they read a different ending than the one I did?"

And then I realize I'm asking if they read the book.

Never mind.

In honor and celebration of e.lockhart's newest book, take the Boyfriend List Dating Destiny Quiz ! Bwa-ha-ha-ha to the Sex Kittens. Apparently, I will:
Live in a Apartment.
Drive a Green Rickshaw bicycle.
Marry Matthew Dwyer (Horn Dawg) and have 10 kid(s). (!!!!)
Be a English teacher at St. Sebastian's in Oxford.

What's your (dubious) dating destiny?

Also just found out the list of speakers for 2007 SCBWI Asilomar Conference next year. They are Linda Sue Park and Suzanne Guevara. Editorial speakers are Erin Clarke from Knopf
(Random House), Namrata Tripathi from Hyperion (Disney), and Kristen Pettit from Razorbill (Penguin). Nicole Geiger from Tricycle isn't speaking, but is coming to critique manuscripts. Many people want to go to these things, but just a head's up -- registration is opening probably the first week in October, so if you're even thinking of going, think fast! It's a gorgeous place, and plenty of people want to go. I'm also just jazzed about the number of mini-conferences happening in my area. SCBWI is always cool about putting quite a few together, but this year, they've been even better. Check out this quarter's Northern Cal Acorn to find out what else is going on.

September 27, 2006

Banned, Baby: Our Bodies, Our Strength

What happens when we're growing up, with our bodies, with our souls, and with our sexuality, can change the way we look at things and who we are, forever...

Especially if that something that happens is negative, bad, and sad.

Reality and survival, in YA literature is a serious thing to explore. The truth is, stuff... happens. It's important to know that others have survived. Period.

Many people prefer to pretend that stuff doesn't happen, so they cultivate a community of silence -- maybe in their homes, certainly in their schools, and it reflects on the bookshelves they want within their schools. Uncomfortable people trying to control reality...encouraging silence, figuring that some things are too horrible for YA readers to know about or to talk about... and so, we get true-to-reality stories being smushed away, hushed up, and put in a box.

No matter that this is important work, and that any work that says, "Hey, this happened to me, to someone I know, maybe to you. It was sucky/hard/weird/breathtaking. But I survived. So can you" is vital. It's important to tell truths, and let in the light about the real facts of life. Yet books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou and The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer by Gary Paulsen, have been challenged, taken off of reading lists, and banned.

Though it was first published in 1969, Maya Angelou's novel received its most recent challenge from an Annapolis, MD high school in 2006 when it was removed from the freshman English reading list. The challenges for this book are because of sexual exploration by teenagers, rape and homosexuality. In 2003 it was challenged in Fairfax (VA) school libraries by a group called Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (such a group, yes, Virginia, exists!) for "profanity and descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture."

"Bad." Such a thoroughly non-descriptive word. Bad books. Misbehaving storylines. Errant facts. I didn't find this 'badness' morally degenerating, when I read this book. I found what happened to Maya shocking, indeed. I read of a girl becoming a woman who faced enormous setbacks to becoming an adult, a sane person, an artist, yet who endured, came away strong, and better still, walked away with her scars to be an inspiration to others. Maya Angelou did more than merely survive. She kicked butt.

The troubled boy who wakes up with his mother in his bed and flees to become an agricultural laborer is based loosely on Paulsen himself. This book has been challenged because the narrator is a runaway, has disturbing thoughts about his mother's "wrong" need for him, graphic lustful thoughts about a sleazy carny dancer, and eventually describes intercourse with her. Though the phrase is tired, it is a coming of age novel, and is a realistic portrayal of a boy with few positive role models from which to choose. In a parallel with the first novel, this narrator, too, goes on from that precarious, hurtful time in his life to grow stronger in time. He stumbles, but he gets up and keeps on ticking. Those are the facts of life:

Stuff happens, but we can choose to survive.

To us, the YA Readers, Young, Adult, or Young Adult:
May the books you read add titanium steel to your backbone.
May they get you through a dark night.
May they let you know that someone else has been there, too.
May they tell you the whole truth when you're ready to read it.

Celebrate the freedom to read books about things so bad it's hard to talk about them... Celebrate being free to read!

A Few Thoughts on Writer's Block

During my disturbing conversation yesterday with a personal trainer at my gym, the fact that I am a writer somehow came up. As is often the case, the person I was speaking to said something along the lines of "Oh, I used to love writing." (Amazing how many people "used to be" would-be writers, or "have an idea for a novel," etc. etc....bringing to mind the truism that writers, well, write...).

Anyway, she went on to say that, although she enjoys writing, she never seems to have any ideas. "I guess I have writer's block," she joked. That got me thinking about this strange phenomenon of writer's block. And I realized that I almost never have writer's block in the fundamental sense of having no ideas to churn out onto the page. Ideas are rarely, if ever, a problem for me. I can get inspiration from nearly anything in the world around me--TV, photographs, artwork, random memories, things I've overheard, things that annoy me, things that interest me that I want to know more about, and on and on. Sometimes I experience the sensation of having too many ideas and no knowing what to focus on, but I almost never feel like I have no ideas.

Now, feeling like I have no good ideas--that sometimes happens. Feeling like what comes out of my brain and onto the page is utterly pointless, or poorly written, or unsalvageably crappy--that's my version of writer's block. I don't want to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, for fear of the utter dreck that is certain to spill out. I'm sure many writers have this feeling, and it can be paralyzing.

What do I do about it? That varies. Often I take a break from writing for a few days--working on other creative projects can be inspiring and rejuvenating, and letting the ideas percolate subconsciously can sometimes prompt a floodgate to open the next time I sit down at the computer. Sometimes I retreat into utter escapism--an absorbing book that can inspire me back into writing; or if even reading is causing feelings of inferiority, if I can't stop comparing myself to what I'm reading, I'll watch TV or movies, exercise, and catch up on housework. I'll pay some attention to neglected hobbies that fall by the wayside when I'm in a writing groove. I'll spend time with my husband and my cat. Working on a different writing project, in a totally different genre or area, can also help. I know I'm still writing, but instead of dwelling on that story or novel that's aggravating me, I work on a magazine article or do some blogging (like now). Or I'll spend time on that ever-irritating chore of researching potential writing markets and sending work out. And sometimes, when none of this works and I still feel like dreck is oozing from my pores, I remind myself that once upon a time I was employed writing dreck, and enjoyed it, and had readers who enjoyed it and found it amusing. Even dreck has its place in the universe.

This is probably all too familiar to you writers out there. Everyone, of course, has their own coping strategy for writing difficulties. The important part is to keep going and keep trying, no matter what. Even if you have to take a break, don't let it turn into a lengthy hiatus. If you have to, tell yourself you're only writing for YOU, and nobody else is going to ever see it, if that's what it takes to keep writing.

September 26, 2006

Banned, Baby: Explorations Into Dark Elsewhere

"Putting children in jeopardy." That was the topic of the conversation this morning between The Great Maurice Sendak and NPR affiliate Steve Inskeep on today's Morning Edition. The conversation is fascinating, as Sendak gives his opinions on childhood, on pop-up books, and the danger in our world as a byproduct of a chat about his first pop-up book of beautiful but spooky drawings entitled, Mommy? which is being released in bookstores this month.

When he was a younger artist, many adults were unhappy with Sendak for his dark worldview, where wild things and various "monsters" lurk in night kitchens and under the bed, yet he only responded from his own imagination, which is a theme in Sendak's work: a dark, shadowy world which children had to make it through. Fiction in the United States for children where the child was unsafe was taken poorly, as Americans were offended that their children could be unsafe in this great country. (Interestingly, Europeans seemed to have had a different worldview... The Brothers Grimm, anyone?) This was always a surprise to Sendak, but he maintains,

"All children are in jeopardy. It's unnatural to think of such a thing as a blue-skied, white-clouded, happy childhood. Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving."

And Sendak, with his newest book, is choosing again to deal with the darkness and the fearfulness of his childhood in his typically humorous and plucky way. ART ALERT! A little slideshow of Sendak's older and most recent work can be found right here -- and the show is narrated, and well worth checking out!

Darkness in children's fiction is a great theme for today's Banned Book rant!

I was just mentioning to Jen Robinson that I never understood why Lois Lowry's The Giver was a challenged and banned book. Described poorly in a USA today article in 2001 as a 'suicide book', the Giver has been maligned and misunderstood since its 1993 publication. In Denver, parents approached the school board to challenge the book because they claimed it showed " suicide, euthanasia and infanticide in a neutral to positive light." In that post-Columbine community, parents felt that discussing such things should be re-evaluated. The state of Colorado at that time had the fifth highest suicide rate, and angry parents demanded to know why they had not been notified that such a controversial book was being read to their children.

Yet, when I read it, I didn't see a suicide positive book, or a 'Release' positive book, in dealing with infanticide or euthanasia. If anything, I saw instead a mystical boy who had been given a huge task, which changed him, set him apart from his other peers in the Twelves, and really opened a door within him to something huge and weighty. I saw a boy whose reality changed before his eyes, who was weighed down and entrusted with so much that he had to act.

Ironically, in light of the banning, the sentences that stick out the most in my mind from Jonas are these:

"I thought there was only us! I thought there was only now!" and "We don't dare to let people make choices of their own. ... We really have to protect people from wrong choices."


Lowry was making a statement with this book -- a statement brought on by a childhood of knowing about people who are different, and knowing about shutting people and certain thoughts out, and thinking, believing, hoping you are safe. It's about learning that other people outside our charmed circles matter, it's about looking outward and acting to affect the good of all. It's a beautiful, meaningful and deep concept, and our young readers deserve to read and know and think about that. Are we coasting? Are we insulating ourselves at the expense of opening the gate to freedom and inquiry? If so, isn't it time to change?

Timely thoughts.

And so, I leave you with the closing statement from her Newbury speech and with a few sympathetic chills and sniffles:

The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.

It is very risky.

But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom.
Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."

Free people read freely.
Now, wipe your nose and go celebrate the freedom to read any old book you choose!

September 25, 2006

She Lurks in the Waves

I'm always happy to discover a new author I like, especially one who can weave together various genres to create a fully realized story about that time period where "coming of age" is the last thing you want to hear but the first thing you want to do. It was the combination of suspense/supernatural with the more realistic themes of simply growing up that first made me pull Carol Plum-Ucci's books off the shelf at my library. (It was actually the amazing author photo in her first novel, The Body of Christopher Creed, that convinced me to pick it up. Really. Cup of coffee, cranky expression, lounging on the stairs--that, people, is what it's like to be a writer.)

However, I found that the books I'd borrowed were much more than simply "something weird happened here" stories. In a more recent novel, The She, Evan Barrett not only has to deal with his parents' disappearance at sea when he was a child, but also with the possibility that they may have committed fraud and faked their deaths. But Evan still believes that, the night they disappeared, he heard an unearthly shrieking from out to sea--could it have been the legendary She-Devil of the Hole? To find out, he has to risk alienating his brilliant older brother and make friends with an unlikely girl from school who witnessed a mysterious drowning. But he also has to learn to believe in his own interpretations of things, and that sometimes mysteries don't get solved. It's really a remarkable book--very well-written and suspenseful without being gratuitously scary. I was pleasantly surprised.

Takin' Down the Tiara

Libby Brin is so bored with her life that it's scaring her. She's bored into shaking. She's bored into weeping. She's bored into viciousness, and her friends -- talking, drinking, flirting and partying -- aren't even smart enough to know that their meaningless little lives are boring. Perla is boring. Yeah, yeah, she's drop-dead beautiful, but her brain's as empty as a bubble. Mike Dutko is a dumb jock, and Perla's always messing with him. Sid isn't exactly boring, but he's always got his hood up, cranked into his music, and he's been the silent partner in too many embarrassing moments with Libby for her to notice him. And Kenji -- hot, hot, hot, but nobody who Libby really wants to be with long term. They have an "understanding" that includes Kenji playing the field until Libby wants him.

Libby is smart, but smart's not cool, so she's boring and bored, and is, frighteningly, the most popular girl in her entire school. Libby's is danger of becoming self-destructive. Nothing in her life feels real, and she feels... nothing. Nothing for Perla. Nothing for Kenji. Nothing. Taking a shot in the dark one day when she's barely holding it together, Libby signs up for a zoo internship, and wham! -- everything changes.

For one thing: Zoo Internships? Not for the cool. Decidedly not. Her friends can't figure out what's up with her, except for Sid, but he's borderline not-cool anyway, since his band is kind of 'faggy,' according to her Kenji. For another thing, one of the most repellent people in the whole school is doing the Zoo thing -- and she's a dwarf Libby's always called Tiny. Her real name is Tina. Along with Sheldon, this complete nerd-brained science geek, they make up the Blue Team, who observe the animals and shovel the elephant crap.

And what's really weird?
Libby's not bored anymore.
But, is she still The Queen of Cool?

Cecil Castelucci has pulled another awesome book out of her brain - check it out, and enjoy!

Two of Hearts

It's not that there's anything wrong with Eli. He's sweet. He's nice. But Chloe's ready for something more. She's a maybe musician, a senior... looking at colleges, deciding on a where she wants to go and who she wants to be. And then, when she meets Julian... and suddenly everything gels.

In a series of funny and poignant emails, instant messages, postcards and letters, Chloe and Julian fall in love. Or, fall into something, anyway. Whatever it is, it's not exactly honest. Chloe doesn't want to tell anyone, but she's done with Eli. Her best friend, Kate, says they can never break up. Julian tells his sister, but doesn't want to admit it to his best friend, and he kind of hangs out with another girl, but he doesn't.

But, for Chloe, all there is, is Julian. And he's ...amazing. He's nothing like anyone Chloe's known before. His heart and soul come out in his letters to her, and all Chloe wants to do is get out of the dragging world of high school, go on to college, and Julian. She emails her sister frantically, only to find that her sister isn't the rock she's expected her to be. In fact, suddenly Chloe isn't sure she knows her sister at all.

Chloe's world is starting to feel dislocated. School is boring. Her summer job at camp isn't exactly what she thought it would be. And her friends are horrified that she's broken up with Eli, and then, at camp, she has a little fling with someone else. Who IS she, all of a sudden? Who is her sister? Who are her PARENTS!?

Readers with siblings will really resonate with Chloe's struggle to find her place with her older sister, away at college. When you've been two-against-the-parents, finding out that you and your sister aren't exactly alike can be crushing, frightening and alienating. Nothing ends up as you expect in this epistolary novel; Heart on my Sleeve is quick and unpredictable, kind of like life.

Banned, Baby! What Are You Reading Today?

My Challenged Book of the Day is cute and funny Sex Kittens & Horn Dawgs Fall in Love, by Maryrose Wood; my Banned Book for today is Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher. Check out the American Library Association's website this week to learn the difference between banned and challenged, and find out what this book-banning, book-burning thing is all about. Speak, think and read freely!

The ALA lists the ten most challenged YA books as:

  • Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

  • The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

  • Deenie, by Judy Blume

  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

  • Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

  • Forever, by Judy Blume

  • The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

  • The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton

  • The Pigman, by Paul Zindel

  • Lord of the Flies, by Wiliam Golding

  • Running Loose by Chris Crutcher

I am proud to say that I have read all of these books! Go, rebel readers!

A very cool opportunity for those who are great reviewers (and you know I mean YOU!): not only is the newest Edge of the Forest up and running (and do drop in to peruse the interview with the fabulous Rick Riordan as well as the other great pieces by the very talented writers and reviewers in the blogosphere), our Kid Lit Kelly is looking for reviewers for October. Give her a holler if you're interested!

Another great list over at Bildungsroman: Sassy Sidekicks of Children's Literature. Who's the best Hermione to your favorite Harry or the helpful Diana Barry to your Anne? Add to the list, keep the ball rolling. And I'm late with this, but the Seventh Carnival of Children's Literature is up, which is a great round-up of book reviews, as well as bloggings on topics from the troubles of to writing an algebra comic book (yikes!) to racism in literature, and more. Give yourself a few hours, and read through! You'll be glad you did, and you'll discover new bloggers whose musings you won't want to miss. Meanwhile, heads up: next month's book carnival is Halloween themed, and Scholar's Blog says submissions are due October 15th.

And finally, via e. lockhart's site, The YA Writer's Cafe is back, Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. Pacific, 8:30 p.m. EST! It's a chance to hang out with YA authors and listen and ask questions as they talk shop. The list of featured guests will knock your socks off. You don't have to register, or be an actual author to hang out, listen and learn. Check it out!

It Was Banned, Baby: Sex Kittens & Horn Dawgs

Felicia and her best friends are students at The Manhattan Free Children's School. It's not your typical school. First, there's no pressure. You're just free to figure out stuff, on your own. You can climb the fence to Gramercy Park (or use your pass, if you're actually supposed to be there) or come up with a project, or do all of your math, once a week, with your math tutor -- while eating Krispy Kremes. The Sex Kittens, Felicia's 'posse' of girlfriends, came up with that name from a deck of adorable kitten tarot cards (insert head scratching here) that Felicia found in her mother's bookstore. The males of interest at their school they have dubbed The Horn Dawgs. New York City is a very cool place, if you happen to be a Sex Kitten or a Horn Dawg at "The Pound" (aka, the Free Children's School). It can also be a kind of confusing place, particularly if you can't stop writing love poetry about your current crush.

Okay, so there's a crush. But lest you think that these Kittens have nothing do to at The Pound all day but be silly and dream of Dawgs, one of Felicia's buddies is a world-class violinist, while the other tutors disadvantaged girls at another high school. And Felicia? She's the poet. Um, mostly. Right now, she's a poet in a rut.

Felicia is in heavy, huge "like" with a Dawg named Matthew, who pays her basically no attention whatsoever. And she can't shake it -- she likes him, but he doesn't like her. She obsesses over him, and he doesn't notice her. She goes off on ten minute day dreams about him, and by the time she wakes up, he's miles away. What does that?! What makes some people SO attractive, and others not? Matthew's a scientist, and Felicia's brilliant and hysterical plan is to become one too. They set out to find Factor X: What is love?

This is a really intelligent novel, and takes the chance that girl's will be interested enough in the fact of love to get down to the science of what makes it tick. And despite the title, it's not so much about sex! It's about SCIENCE... and life. In trying to find X, that elusive thing that causes attraction and love, the scientific method is rigorously followed. Sometimes mixing science with love works... and sometimes it blows back in Felicia's face like a chemical reaction gone horribly wrong Before it's all over, she's gotten confused -- Matthew's gotten confused -- and all the Sex Kittens end up with ... black eyes. The drama! The scandal! You know you want to read it!

This book was challenged by school districts whose board members hadn't read it, and objected to it based only on its title. Don't judge a book by its cover, its title, or its author! Read Sex Kittens & Horn Dawgs Fall in Love, and enjoy a smart book about a savvy girl who does a lot of self-examination, listens to her mother (sometimes!), and is word-addicted, funny, and fun.

September 22, 2006

Bad Beginnings & Banned Books!

Via Big A little A, the UK Guardian blog Culture Vulture is publishing the blog diary of their theater critic and first time children's novelist, Lyn Gardener. She describes publication, so far, as like ' having been pregnant for a monstrously long time' and that the whole thing has 'crept out to resounding silence.' Members of her own family haven't even called. Oy, people. OY.
She goes on to say,

"I know that I am not young enough, pretty enough or well enough connected to attract media attention. What's more, Into the Woods isn't a roman a clef or a chick lit bonk-buster. It is a novel for children. When you tell people that you've just had a novel published they beam "congratulations." When you inform them that it's for 8-12 year olds their eyes glaze over and they say brightly: "So you're the next JK Rowling." Probably not, as I have no desire to write a seven novel series or ever holiday in the Hamptons."
Part of me knows I don't have the looks, the style, or the verve to be a Celebrated Children's Author, and you have to admit that there is a certain type of cachet that some writers seem to sport. (However, they mostly hobnob in New York. Hmm!) Frankly, I don't care. I'm not cool, and never have been, so being a Celebrated YA Author is not high on my list. Just being a Published YA Author would be good. Yet, though I know how Gardner feels, she does have a book out (and her fellow Brits certainly give her no pity! Those who have commented on her blogging have been... well, sort of nasty, in that crisply spoken, don't-let's-pity-ourselves British way), and though it isn't being celebrated with parades, I can imagine the silence is eerie and foretells bad things to come.

On the other hand, it's kind of a way of life for some of us. The looks you get when you finally, reluctantly tell people you're a writer? The responses range from saying "it must be nice not to have to work," to telling you their sad tale of not getting published to asking you to look at something of theirs, to asking, facetiously, where they can find your book. "Amazon?" is my least-favorite query in that line. (I mean, come on. If they have to mock me, could they at least mock me with the name of an independent bookseller?)

At any rate, I look forward to reading more of this blog diary (and then lying down and sobbing quietly as I take it all in). The Guardian makes it a pain in the butt to sign up, but you'll want to stop by and read, if not post your two cents to give the lady some encouragement.

Party list: Banned Book Bracelets? Check. Dish of spicy sweet apple sauce? Check. Library stack? Check. Then it's time for the big bash to begin! I know -- nobody has a party by themselves with a stack of books and some applesauce, but you celebrate Banned Books Week, September 23-30 your way, and I'll celebrate mine!

The ALA wants to know: What's your favorite book? Was it banned? Vote for your favorite banned books, and tell the ALA why it was a great find for you!

Happy Weekend! Celebrate~!

September 20, 2006

Midweek Randomness

Celebrity, shmebrity. Okay, OKAY, Jamie Lee Curtis writes some decent children's books. However, I still maintain that celebrity authors suck up all the air in the room. Book number seven's probably great. Probably fabulous. Look how quickly she heard from her editor. Look how fast the newest one hit the bookstores. It's probably wonderful, marvelous. But still. Okay, I just read The Jealousy Book last night. I'm over it. Ignore the green eyes.

Sister Mary Wookie Explains It All. Via Bookshelves of Doom, author Maureen Johnson, author of the upcoming YA novel, Devilish, has an hysterical piece on her blog that ties in to the book. From her Protestant-in-a-Catholic-school upbringing, Maureen Johnson learned so much. About wasps. About... the solar system... About life. Or some facsimile thereof. I imagine Sister Mary Wookie has a new illustration, now that Pluto isn't even a planet anymore...

Um, what, Chris? From the cover blurbs from author Laura Ruby's newly released novel Good Girls, a quote: "You can't write an authentic book about adolescence without including sex and sexuality, and Laura Ruby does a masterful job." —Chris Crutcher, author of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Um. Really? You can't write an authentic book about adolescence without including sex and sexuality? Honestly? I appreciate the sentiment praising the book, but is the rest of that statement really true? As I tend to be at this point, waiting to hear something from S.A.M. or the editor we're working with, I am questioning the nature of the world and the unfolding of the universe... and I want to ask, "Oh, is that what's wrong with my book? I just need to include sexuality and sex, and it'll be authentic? Then editors will knock on my door and actually return my agent's phone calls? Hm??? Forgive me, Mr. Crutcher. I'm being snarky. But if I include sex/sexuality in my work, my books will be awkward, hackneyed and awful...much like the adolescent me, I'm afraid! Maybe I'm just not comfortable enough with my sexuality to be authentic. I admire authors like you and e. lockhart, Nick Earles, Tanya Lee Stone, and even Meg Cabot who can effortlessly segue first kisses and first flirts and first... other stuff into their work, but that's just not me. Am I then doomed to a life of inauthenticity? Or, maybe, can I just be authentic for ME!? Can we agree that not everyone's adolescence includes acknowledging sexuality? Maybe if we had a definition of the sexuality in adolescence with which we're supposed to be conversant?
Speaking of my books, I'm hoping that a friend won't have the same J.K. Rowling experience... he's printed out one of my manuscripts and is bringing it with him to read on a plane. As he has been bugging me and bugging me to read one of my novels, it would serve him right to be stopped by airport security! However, even if he is flying out of SFO... on the way to Nebraska? This is not going to happen. But still.

All right, to work.
Happy Wednesday, people.

September 19, 2006

Not Like I'm JEALOUS or Anything. Nope. Not me.

It's NOT like it's not brilliant, or whatever. It's not like it doesn't catch you off-guard, make you a bit teary-eyed, or make you laugh out loud. It's Not Like I'm Jealous or Anything: The Jealousy Book is an excellent book about that lurking, skulking emotion that haunts us all: jealousy. And it'll piss you off: you'll be jealous you didn't write it yourself!! A collection of short stories, essays, a quiz and one poem, The Jealousy Book explores the worst bits of ourselves, -- and sometimes teaches us a bit more about ourselves than we'd realized. What makes this collection of shorts especially great is the inclusion of an original, you-can-only-find-it-here Ruby Oliver story, from e. lockhart's The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book, a story by Ned Vizzini and the friend who is jealous of him (and vice versa!) Marty Beckerman; a story from the very funny Susan Juby, a piece on sisters named Timidity and Jealousy by Jaclyn Moriarty (yay!!!!) and for me, the discovery of a new and exciting writer, Siobahn Adcock, whose story really touched a nerve, and whose new novel, Hipster Haiku comes with its own conforming against conformity contest! Do check it out. All the smart people are doing it... and you know you're jealous of smart people!

If I Could Change the World...

It is NOT easy being the daughter of the Chairwoman of Amalgamated Witchcraft Corporation. Anatopsis has a lot demanded of her, including, well basically... perfection. Her father, a half-mortal knight-errant, tries to help her out. He gives her a gift in the form of Clarissa, a fully mortal girl who is to be her chambermaid and friend (but Clarissa doesn't "do" chambermaiding. She'd rather read... and despite the trouble the two of them get into, Ana would rather let her.), but he's gone. A lot. And kind of self-absorbed, too.The world in which Ana lives is different from Clarissa's world. Ana's a witch, not human, and her world is protected. Clarissa is from the Earth slum, where athen, the fragments of slag that appear after magic, are deposited. Everything is black and stinking there. Queen Solomon says it's too expensive to extend environmental protection everywhere. And besides, it's just the mortals who are suffering...

Just in time for her Bacchanalian tests, everything's about to change for Ana. First, In the kingdom across the way, Prince Barnaby Georges, the son of King Georges, the Queen's main competitor is coming of age and he needs to take his Bacchanalian tests, too. Only, tradition has it that he and Ana have to have the same tutor. So, her worst enemy is coming to live with them. Next, Ana's mother, Queen Solomon, has found the world's WORST teacher for them... Mr. Pound. Mr. Pound, Ana's pretty sure, is at least half-dead. He's... cold. And his voice makes you listen. And he's searching for something, too. People in the castle are being found -- cut in ...half. Clarissa's been looking, and she can't find anything in the history books about a Mr. Pound ever educating members of Barnaby or Ana's families. Who is he? What does he want? And what does it have to do with Anatopsis, and her power? Because now, Ana is powerful. Really powerful. And she has to decide if she's going to keep that power for herself - or change the world.

This is a novel about individual choices, power and responsibility -- topics unusual for a middle grade novel, but which work together to create an interesting and unique novel.

Small-Town Secrets

It's not easy to review a book by someone you know, it turns out. I was looking forward to reading the latest YA novel by a former professor, Kathryn Reiss--Blackthorn Winter, a murder mystery that takes place in a small English village. It turns out that when you've studied writing with someone, you get attuned to things like voice, stylistic choices, and thematic tendencies, because you've listened to them talk about these very topics in an educational setting; you've listened to their advice and heard how they would attack a particular writing quandary or formulate a plot.

That's what kept happening to me as I read Blackthorn Winter. I kept thinking to myself, yes, this is a classic example of Kathryn Reiss's writing. A mystery in the present whose solution depends on clues from the past, a past that may be painful or half-forgotten but whose discovery is necessary for the mystery in the present to be solved. It's a classic and dependable plot structure, and certainly one that has worked for Reiss numerous times as well as for other mystery authors.

And the setting—a slightly odd, artsy English village, with many a hidden secret—that's a recipe for strange doings and colorful characters. When Juliana moves to Blackthorn from the U.S. with her mother and younger siblings, she discovers, of course, that not all is as it seems. When a school friend of her mother's is found murdered in the stream, the local troublemaking lout is blamed by one and all…but Juliana thinks there's something fishy about that. Only by coming to terms with troubling incidents in her own past, before she was adopted by her current family, can she gather the necessary clues to who the real murderer is. In the meantime, she gets to know a cast of characters with quaint names like Duncan, Celia, and Quent; follows various red herrings; and risks her new friendships in her quest for the truth.

This was an appealing mystery, with the exception of a few stylistic sour notes that stopped me in my tracks now and then. Most notably, I was distracted by the repetitive parenthetical explanations of the various "British-isms" used in the book. To me, these could have been inserted less conspicuously and profusely, or, preferably, just left out. But despite the minor issues I had with the writing, the pace picked up as the mystery unfolded, and the climax and ending were both satisfying. I ended up cheering for Juliana as she overcame internal and external obstacles to solve the puzzle of her own life story as well as the murder mystery.

September 18, 2006

Scattershot Thoughts on a Frantic Monday

Though it was written in 1963, years before I was born, one of my favorite Beverly Cleary novels has always been Sister of the Bride. I related to it very much, as the youngest of three sisters. And now I'm making frantic phone calls and arranging menus, and trying to get my sister to speak English, I realize that only twenty or so years later, I'm living my favorite Cleary novel... the arguments, the drama, the sneaking thoughts that my sister would be better off single... Two more weeks. Yes. This is going to be fun. Let's all say it together: FUN!

More fun -- real fun, this time -- to be found at Book Divas. From Sept 27 to October 11, you can leave any question you want for e. lockhart, and she'll actually answer! How rad is that!? Check out the dates for other YA authors with whom you might want to chat. What a neat and fun opportunity! Also via e. lockhart's blog I've just found out that there's a NEW JACLYN MORIARTY NOVEL due out October 1st. If you've never read Feeling Sorry for Celia or The Year of Secret Assignments, now is the time to check those out. Though the new novel is a stand-alone, it takes place at the same school. I am hoping this newest novel involves letters as well! And speaking of great Aussie writers, Nick Earls, with whom you may not be familiar, is highlighted in an interview. If you haven't read any of his books, you'll find them funny and heartening; stories about flawed young men and their truly good hearts, despite their truly odd behavior.

I don't usually write about the non-fiction I read, but since my undergrad degree is in 19th century British and American literature... I had to give a shout-out to old William Blake. A sort of crazy, maybe sane, possibly delusional poet and visionary, Blake's life and poetry is highlighted in a nonfiction book for Young Adults that actually sounds like it'd be great reading for adults, too. Beyond "Tiger, tiger, burning bright," there was a bit more to the man. Check it out.

And, to my mind, this is both exciting and worrisome: There's a new Tolkien book in town. CNN reports that Tolkien's son has finished a book his father began and abandoned in 1918, and it will come out next Spring through Houghton Mifflin.

Wouldn't you hate for someone to be digging through your computer files for all of the story fragments you've begun and abandoned, to be published posthumously? What kind of critical reading could anyone give these works? Will readers be mostly reading Tolkien senior, whose work we know and love, or Tolkien Junior, trying to guess what his father intended, and to imitate that voice? And one wonders if, like in the case of C.S. Lewis, specific injunctions against certain usages, and making the estate and the private writings of this author were given, and are being ignored. ... I cringe when I recall that Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson destroyed many of their letters and early manuscripts, firmly, decisively wanting no one to take that part of their private lives and make them public. We have lost a lot with their decisions... but maybe what is gone was never ours to lose.

Happy International Literacy Day!

September 15, 2006

Weekend Wrap-up

Happy Constitution Day! Somehow Constitution Day goes through to the 19th, but it's a fun jump-off for Banned Books Week the week after. Today's Constitutional Quote:
"you don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." - Ray Bradbury

This almost happened to the last volume of Potter-isms, that is, we almost didn't get to read it. The Guardian reports that airport security is so tight in New York that JK Rowling was asked to pack her manuscript and not have it as a carry-on. Paper ...has now become dangerous? Or was it was the heft of the paper? Please tell me the seventh novel in the series is not the longest yet? What else could have made airport security suspicious of a woman with a few reams of paper?! Was she swinging it at people? Who can tell... Also, via the Guardian Culture Vulture Blog, adults post the sulk-buster books that lifted them out of the blues during their childhood years. We all know that Roald Dahl cheered us up quite a bit. Take the Quiz and find out how much you know about him.

A head-start for the holidays, Publishers' Weekly interviews a UC Berkeley student who has taken five years to produce a guide to kids' giving. Written by then 14-year-old Fredi Zeiler, this book takes philanthropy down to kid-sized bites, and may help kids start positive lifetime habits.

Via A Fuse #8: It's not enough that Bilbo's house was overrun by orcs and ruffians. Now it's got real estate agents. It's the American version of the cute-little-English-cottage. Terrifying.

Wands & Worlds reminds us that today is the deadline for contributions to the Blog Carnival of Children's Lit, which takes place the 23rd. Now, carnivals are just blog round-ups, I'm told, so sorry, no carousels unless you bring your own. Either way, they make good reading, and I always find a blog or two I've missed.

Children's Book Council Magazine has posted a nifty piece on book promotion during Children's Book Week in November, and they also have a very sweet, very hope-provoking series of letters between author Rita-Williams Garcia and her editor, Rosemary Brosnan of HarperCollins, that shows that 20-year friendships and growth are possible between writers and their editors, and that there's hope for all of us! And you only thought it was possible to be friends with your writing group!

I have to admit that I struggle with her books. EVERYBODY loves Meg Cabot... but I am the one holdout who hates happy endings. Bah! For good or for ill, the Philly Inquirer has a short piece on how the Great MC writes. She's prolific, and sets herself targets... and completely blows them off and fools around until she's down to the wire. Sound familiar?

I mentioned awhile back that Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels were being animated under the name Gedo Senki by Studio Ghibli. Sigh. Poor LeGuin's novel has been made incoherent all over again. She has posted briefly to her blog about her response to the film, and says we must never blame the novelist for these things. So, I vote we find the screenwriter! I would ask questions about a possible cultural disconnect in misinterpreting the scope and sequence of the plot, except that we have the less-than-stellar American interpretation with which to grapple - and no excuses there. Anyway, the anime won't be released in the U.S. until 2009, so there's lots of time to pick up the original books and enjoy them all over again.

Listening gives you an advantage in writing dialogue. I spend time listening to my siblings and my niece and her friends, as well as watching The N, Disney Channel, and indulging all of my other juvenile preferences with a perfectly clear conscience in the name of my Art. (Ahem.) Today, NPR has some really great listener response to Nelly Furtado's Promiscuous... Now, granted, I had to look up the song and all, but once I read the lyrics (!), I was intrigued by what some of the teens interviewed thought. Take a listen: "Chivalry is dead!" one girl argues. "Nobody's going to have sex just from this song, that's too corny," insists a boy. The debate continues: are you what you listen to at that age? Does it warp your mind as some studies and adults seem to think? Intriguing conversations and some knowledge into the minds of potential characters!

Via e. lockhart, I'm excited to find Living Writers, a very cool public radio thing from Ann Arbor, MI, with super cool YA author interviews. This week it's E. Lockhart, and she worries she sounds like a weenie. She so does not. This month's radio interview gives some heads up about The Boy Book, and lets us know that Noel will be back! Yay! Be prepared for a long listen - but it's well worth it to hear authors in a relaxed and thoughtful frame of mind. Look through the archives for other of your favorite authors.

Enjoy the weekend before you!

September 14, 2006

Cloudy With a Chance of Coffee!

As it was a cloudy and cool 40 degrees when I awakened this fine morning, I thought it fitting that my AuthorTracker email contained an interview with Terry Pratchett on Wintersmith, since I've been longing for cooler weather. Since I can't find it printed elsewhere ( and forwarding you my email would be pointless), I include the interview here:

Talking with Terry Pratchett
(AuthorTracker News from HarperCollins)

Tiffany Aching has decided she wants to be a witch when she grows up. What did you want to be when you were Tiffany’s age?

When I was Tiffany’s age, I wanted to be an astronomer. I never succeeded in my ambition, because astronomers have to be good at math, and I’ve never been very good at math. I thought astronomy was a really cool job, because you got to stay up late at night. But I have to say I’m very pleased that now, because of the success of my writing, I’ve built my own observatory.

Tiffany read the dictionary straight through because no one had told her she wasn’t supposed to. Did you ever read the dictionary straight through?

Ha! Yes, I did it when I was a kid. I read dictionaries all the way through: dictionaries, thesauruses, dictionaries of slang, all that sort of thing, for the sheer fun of doing it. I think I was a rather weird kid, to be frank.

Tiffany is also an expert cheesemaker. Have you ever made cheese?

Yep. Goat’s cheese. We used to keep goats, which are really just like sheep, but a lot more intelligent and much, much more bad-tempered. I was pretty good at goat cheese, I have to say. I could make goat cheese again if someone wanted me to.

The landscape Tiffany grew up in is clearly based on the English chalk country—you’ve said there is amazingly little you had to make up about her home. What can you tell us about this part of England?

A large area of southern England is on the chalk; in fact, the White Cliffs of Dover are chalk. I live on the chalk, about twelve miles from Stonehenge. I even own about forty acres of the chalk. You always get to see sheep on the chalk, it tends to be very high country, and you don’t see too many trees. It’s really the center of all our mythologies in England. There’s Stonehenge there, and strange ancient carvings, and the burial mounds of dead chieftains. Back in the days when the valleys were just all flooded and swampy, the chalk uplands were how people moved around, and, in the heart of it all, was Stonehenge.

Is Tiffany’s family in any way based on your own?

Well, I grew up on the chalk. I was born in the Chiltern Hills, which is another chalk outcrop. And a lot of the things that Tiffany thinks and sees, in fact, I thought and saw when I was her age; a lot of the way Tiffany comprehends the landscape is based on my own experiences. I don’t come from a farming family, but I spent a lot of time among farmers and their families when I was a kid. I’m the actual archetypal example of an only child, so I had plenty of time to myself. My paternal grandmother has a very special place in my heart, just as Tiffany’s grandmother, does, because when I was a kid I was allowed to read from her bookshelf. It was a very short bookshelf, but it contained every book you really ought to read, like the complete short stories of H. G. Wells, and the complete short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I just worked my way along my granny’s bookshelf and didn’t realize that I was getting an education.

In Tiffany’s world, being a witch means, in part, to have certain duties and responsibilities. How did you decide to include these obligations as part of your definition of witchcraft?

Certainly witchcraft for Tiffany has very little to do with magic as people generally understand it. It has an awful lot to do with taking responsibility for yourself and taking responsibility also for the less able people and, up to a certain point, guarding your society. This is based on how witchcraft really was, I suspect. The witch was the village herbalist, the midwife, the person who knew things. She would sit up with the dying, lay out the corpses, deliver the newborn. Witches tended to be needed when human beings were meeting the dangerous edges of their lives, the places where there is no map. They don’t mess around with tinkly spells; they get their hands dirty.

And then there are the Nac Mac Feegle. They’re the most feared of all the fairy races, and yet they’re also loyal, strong, and very funny. How did you come up with the Nac Mac Feegle?

I thought it very strange, and very sad that the fairy kingdom largely appears to be English. I thought it was time for some regional representation. And the Nac Mac Feegle are, well, they’re like tiny little Scottish Smurfs who have seen Braveheart altogether too many times. They speak a mixture of Gaelic, Old Scots, Glaswegian and gibberish. And they’re extremely brave, and they’re extremely small, and extremely strong, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of them, and they just are automatically funny. You can’t help but love them, at a distance.

What happens to get you to sit down your desk and write the opening words of a new novel?

I’m not sure. I start with a handful of semiformed ideas and play around with them until they seem to make some sense. Actually typing is important to me—it kind of tricks my brain into gear. I’ve got a pack-rat mind, like most writers, and once I starting thinking hard about a new project all kinds of odd facts and recollections shuffle forward to get a place on the bus.

Do you know where a story is going when you start writing, or do you let the story take control and see where it takes you?

This answer deserves one sentence or an essay! I’ll try to summarize it like this: writing, for me, is a little like wood carving. You find the lump of tree (the big central theme that gets you started) and you start cutting the shape that you think you want it to be. But you find, if you do it right, that the wood has a grain of its own (characters develop and present new insights, concentrated thinking about the story opens new avenues). If you’re sensible, you work with the grain and, if you come across a knot hole, you incorporate that into the design. This is not the same as “making it up as you go along”; it’s a very careful process of control.

The fantasy genre is often thought of as escapism, but is it escapism with a firm root in reality?

Fantasy IS escapism, but wait...why is this wrong? What are you escaping from, and where are you escaping to? Is the story opening windows or slamming doors? The British author G. K. Chesterton summarized the role of fantasy very well. He said its purpose was to take the everyday, commonplace world and lift it up and turn it around and show it to us from a different perspective, so that once again we see it for the first time and realize how marvelous it is. Fantasy—the ability to envisage this world in many different ways—is one of the skills that makes us human.

Your Discworld novels are fantastically successful. Now you’re writing Discworld novels specifically for younger readers. Why?

I think my heart has always been in writing for children. My first book was written for children, and a few years ago I realized that if I wrote a few books for younger readers I could approach Discworld in a different way. There’s a lot of difference between writing for children and writing for adults, and it’s almost impossible to tell you what it is, but I know it when I’m doing it. You have more fun, and I have to say, it’s a little bit harder, especially if you do it right.

Mr. Pratchett's newest Discworld adventure, which is due out this month, has a sample chapter posted! And for those who can't get enough Pratchett, his only California stop on his book tour (so far) will be on Sunday, October 15th at 3 pm at COPPERFIELD'S Books Petaluma store, but he'll be elsewhere in the U.S. in the next months. Enjoy!

The contest over at Journey-Woman is still going! Put your mind to the madmen (and women), because EACH YA or children's lit antagonist you submit gets you one entry into the drawing for the coffee gift cert. Submissions are due by 9PM, Eastern, September 19, 2006. The winner will be randomly selected from all entries on September 20, 2006. Think of it: COFFEE. Antagonists. Antagonistic coffee. It's an important contest!

September 13, 2006

Deliciously Dahl on a Whacked-out Wednesday

OH! Oh! Oh!
I've been very, very good, and haven't spat or swore or cursed Secret Agent Man's name (in the last hour) so I want one of THESE!! Isn't my half birthday coming up soon!? The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom is selling these to raise awareness of frequently 'challenged' books. Imagine sporting a bracelet covered with YA and kidlit titles and starting some deep conversations with strangers! Sweet! We READ banned books! And we're proud of it!(Via A Fuse #8.)

Also, via Big A little a - and cheers to Seren for the reminder - it's Roald Dahl Day! I am, of course, going to recite Revolting Rhymes aloud all day:

The animal I really dig,
Above all others is the pig.
Pigs are noble. Pigs are clever,
Pigs are courteous. However,
Now and then, to break this rule,
One meets a pig who is a fool...

Man, is this the day for fun stuff, or what? Thankfully, the Universe is making up for it having been a rough week thus far. Via Big A little a, over at Journey-Woman, you're invited to name your #1 fave antagonist in the kidlitosphere HERE. Check out all the others -- from The Grinch to Count Olaf, there are myriad 'evildoers' we love to hate. And hey -- there's maybe some coffee in it for you. A $25 gift certificate! Now you know you need to join.

Those who are super-jazzed about Stephanie Meyer's vampire trilogy (and you know who you are, Benicia! I'm number SIXTEEN on the holds list at the library, thank-you) will want to head on over to YA Books Central for the Meyer INTERVIEW! Whoo! Everything you wanted to know about Meyer as a writer, and maybe even some hints about Book 3!

Wear your clothes backwards all day, levitate your enemies, speak unintelligibly, and generally have a great Dahl day. It's Wednesday! Things can only get better. Theoretically.

September 12, 2006

Notes from the Desk of a Pseudo-Writer

Sorry I haven't had much of a presence lately. I've been suffering from a serious case of "I'm not a real writer and I therefore have nothing interesting to say" -itis. Reading new books I love but just ending up feeling like I'll never be able to write as well; getting a postcard back acknowledging receipt of a contest entry and knowing it only means several more months to wait for that rejection letter; never feeling like I'm going to finish my stupid novel revision.

I decided I was going about my revision all wrong, doing the chapter-by-chapter edit thing. My plot, I realized, probably needed some major help on the larger scale as well, even if I wasn't going to change the overarching themes/plotlines. So I'm just finishing up a series of notes outlining the entire novel, chapter by chapter and scene by scene. It will be about 14 pages single-spaced.

Then I will look at those notes and decide if I really need all that crap in there (probably not) and whether some things could be changed to make the plot more exciting (most definitely). I've already decided my characters could be less smarmy, and have taken steps to rectify that situation.

But now I'm starting to feel like it's never going to be done, and I'm worrying it's a hopeless endeavor. What if I can't be as good a writer as I want to be? What if I'm placing my hopes too high? I want to end up with something really meaningful, something that people will read and think about a little bit and maybe remember. I want readers to get the same feeling from my book that I get from reading books I think are outstanding. I'm ambitious but I don't have a sense of how that translates into my actual work. What revisions should I do? When should I stop? Assuming that, if anyone wants to publish this novel, they'll ask for yet more revisions, what is the point of torturing myself with endless edits now?


A Disappointing Conclusion to the Trilogy

Listening at the Gate, by Betsy James, is the last novel in a trilogy.

Ever since she was young, Kat's life has been divided. She and her family are Leaguemen from Upslope; Downshore people, she is told, are wild natives with whom she must not mix, and Hill people are even less decent. Rigi are an ancient people who are part-seal, and are the stuff of both legend and nightmare. Kat's mother is a hill woman, and all her life, Leagueman's child Kat is ostracized and punished for this, and for the distinctive red hair that marks her Hill heritage.

Her father is cold to Kat and her brother, Dai, and when one fateful night, Kat rescues a Rigi boy from Downshore, his anger knows no bounds. Kat and Dai run away Downslope, where they find warmth and humanity from the native people, whose lives are really not so much different than their own. Kat discovers that the Rigi boy she sang out of the waves, Nall, is an outcast in his own village. He was "killed" by his father and his tribe, he has no identity because his sealskin was destroyed as part of his exile. He takes the name Nall, and chooses to live Downslope, in part, because he seems bound to Kat.

In the second novel, Kat realizes that she is so drawn to Nall, that she must get away. She fears depending on him, and he does not want her to. Instead, she goes to the Hill people, where she learns their ways. She is learning to "swim," as Nall would put it. But as a child of water, she is not at home in the Hills. She fails at one of their initiation tests, and realizes that all that matters to her is home, and Nall.

Finally, Kat returns to home, but changes have come. The Leaguemen have an undeclared war with the Downslope people, and she is rumored to have been kidnapped away from the headman, who has gone mad with power and brutality. People are dying. When Dai is kidnapped as a blackmail plot to return Kat to the headman's son to marry, she realizes that the Downslope people need help. She travels helplessly with Nall to listen at the gate of the world, to try and find sense and meaning in what is going on. They find instead that the Rigi are preparing to launch an all-out offensive against the people of Downslope and the Leaguemen. Kat finds out that Nall is both not whom she thought he was, and more than she ever knew.

This was a difficult novel to read. The first two books in the series told a story that was approachable, but the element of fantasy and heroism injected into the third made Nall bigger than life, aloof and frustrating. As a reader, I felt frustrated for Kat -- she gives herself to Nall only to find that he is not really a man, but a hero, someone unconcerned with little people or specifics. The war rages on around them, and Nall's heroism seems empty... He 'listens,' at the and hears nothing at the Gate of the World. He thought himself to be some sort of shaman, and now, finding that he may just be a mortal, he goes into a catatonia which causes Kat to drag him around and protect him in a way that sets her up as maternal. There is a predictable struggle between herself and another woman, which further eroded my respect for the characters.

I was not sure at times what the point of the novel or of the epic nature of their journey -- Nall had demanded initially that Kat learn to stand for herself, and not lean on him, yet he not only leans on her, he collapses, and then sort of hides out inside of himself in silence, and denial; lying by omission about not only his past relationship, but what he sees, hears and knows. The end of the novel resolves triumphantly, as the impending conflicts are resolved, and leaders emerge, but it's hard to trace how the novel arrives at its conclusion, or why the people choose Nall and Kat to lead them. As a stand-alone, this novel might actually fare better, since much of the storyline of the first two books is included synoptically, and the reader does not have the same sympathetic relationship with Kat as the lead character. The scope of the novel intended to be vast and deep, imparting some deeper lesson to its readers, but for me, it fell short. Still, I had to read it after reading the first two in the series, and felt some satisfaction with the story's ending. And, the cover art, as always, is truly beautiful!

Running Away With a Goose and a Liar: Fly By Night

What if you'd been taught to read, but had nothing to read? In your world, books are banned, as is literature, which can be inflamnatory, and cause people to THINK THOUGHTS. -- Even seeing print is punishable with terrible punishments, and sometimes death.

12-year-old Mosca, (whose name means she's named for a god who keeps away flies) and her really educated father, Quillam Nye, used to live tucked away in a waterlogged little city, but then... Quillam dies. Unfortunately, he's taught his daughter to -- gasp! -- read, which inflames her active little mind. The town is enflamed, too, but with suspicion, and soon her father's books are in flames, and Mosca has nobody and nothing, and ends up the untrusted little drudge of her aunt and uncle. They're ever so glad for her to keep their accounts, but they lock her up at night in a mill. Her only friend in town is a goose... and a vicious MEAN goose at that.

One night, Mosca changes her life. She climbs out of that Mill. She burns it down (oops!), steals the goose, and casts her lot with the most smooth-tongued liar she's ever met: Eponymous Clent. She rescues him from the stocks, and together, they make a break for the city of Mandelion, where rival guilds are plotting to take power from the Duke and his sister, where good people appear to be the bad guys, where every decision might be the wrong one, but where there's more excitement and danger than Mosca has ever experienced in her entire life.

Mosca wants a story -- and Mosca gets one. Her ability to read in this strange new world is a gift that changes her life.

This is an enormously enjoyable story with multiple plot elements. Mosca tries to judge right from wrong and take appropriate action, but there are so many pieces of the puzzle that she doesn't see -- that sometimes even the reader doesn't see at first -- that it's hard to know what she should do. Politics, religion, and history all tangle up to present a colorful, vibrant and lively sense of place, and Mosca is a bright, ferocious, intelligent little personage, who is fun to join on her adventures. It's hard to believe that this is British author France Hardinge’s first novel.

Fly By Night is a hugely complicated, hugely readable epic novel, and it's amazing to think that with Hardinge's three-book deal, we not only get MORE of Mosca's story, but we also get books that can only get better and better! Cheers!


A round-up of positive things to think about after yesterday:

From Mitali's Fire Escape, a list of children's and YA books to talk about and think about yesterday's anniversary, and the deaths in 2001, and Chicken Spaghetti answers the question of how art has helped her make sense of the worst of it. Via Book Moot, we're pointed, by way of a fabulous quote, to the New York Times interview with Katherine Paterson, who discusses the characters she writes. Characters with difficult lives, Paterson notes, are more the norm than not. Somebody has to write about them. Hear, hear! Read the first chapter. (My apologies for the NY Times membership thing, but you only have to register once.)

Via Not Your Mother's Bookclub, more entertaining novel stupidity: Name Your Very Own Bestselling YA Novel! The first lines say, "Need some extra cash? Why not write a Young Adult novel? They're so easy, why, they practically write themselves! All you need is a title, and you can watch the money roll in... "Um, yeah. My title is The Not-So-Terrible life of a Braless Vampire. Ummm... don't ask.

Those of us who were sad when Cody's in Berkeley closed down can have a little happy moment: Cody's can now be found at the Oakland airport. It's not perfect, but decent books from an independent source at an airport? Sweet.

A not-so-positive note I meant to mention earlier: what is with this James Frey thing? People who bought his book before he told the truth about its fabrications are now eligible for refunds? If everyone who lied had to pay people in cash, we'd have no poverty, and the presidents would be broke. Is this overkill? The power of Oprah? A one-man example? What? Does anyone else think this is a bit much?

September 08, 2006

Friday -- FINALLY!!!!!

Ooh - Bookslut heads up: new post for Booksluts in Training! This month it's adventure novels, and Colleen reviews several, including Secret Under My Skin, which I recently enjoyed. There's also an interview with Marisha Pessl of "Nabokovian in scope and style" review fame. Interesting stuff.

Via BookMoot, author Garth Nix has written a farewell poem for Steve Irwin that found me briefly surprised with tears. As one friend has lamented, yet another awful thing about Irwin's death is that his was the only voice imitation people could do that everyone would recognize. Now every Australian voice Americans hear will remind them of him. Which will actually bring a smile.

Happy Weekend, everybody!

September 06, 2006

England, Autumn, and Girls Raised by Wolves,

Via Jen Robinson's Book Page, the webpage Storybook England is an amazing site that gives you all the settings for tales which take place in England. A quiet little site, it's well-organized and nicely put together, and includes a little write-up on each book -- not a review, note, but map information about where things in the book took place, and great places to see there, should you happen to be going. Apparently, one day I should really go to Oxford, as so many of my favorite stories are centered there. This is such a nice site because it's decommercialized... I imagine if Harry Potter were written in England, there'd be a theme park or something already in the works near the town where he was ostensibly born. (Dollywood, anyone?)

I just love autumn. I'm going to pretend the dog-days of summer are nonexistent. I am roasting vegetables and baking bread, and looking forward to all the autumn releases. Bliss. Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer wrote a funny and strange epistolary novel called Sorcery and Cecelia that I reviewed awhile back. I didn't enjoy the sequel as much, but look forward to checking out The Mislaid Magician, which is being released November 1. Also, the Pratchett Countdown has begun... The UK release of Wintersmith is September 28.

The Philadelphia Inquirer knows that kids choose books their covers. And the favorite covers now? Pink, or monsters. You've got to admit, there's something exciting about monsters on a cover... or a pink cheetah skin pattern. Another round up of some great new releases for the middle grade/YA and a few pop-up books, too. If you can't judge a book by its cover, how about by it's title? New today is St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which sounds like a funny one. It's narrated mostly by children, but it's not necessarily written for them, according to author Karen Russell. Do take a moment and read her most excellent interview -- listening to a new writer talk about her book gives me a lot of smiles!

History is now being used (gasp!) to "shed light on a baffling present." The NY Times this morning suggests that history is now being taught differently in schools around the nation, and American history is no longer being looked at as a simple package deal: the story of a country. Instead, the country is being looked at within the context of a larger world. Well... from a mind-numbing tragedy finally comes the tiniest seeds of something positive...

September 05, 2006

The Quick and the Light

I never know exactly what to expect when I see on a book's cover that it's the author's first novel. I don't know whether I unconsciously read them with a more forgiving eye, but it seems like I've encountered quite a few excellent first novels lately. One of these is Laura Whitcomb's unusual and suspenseful romance, A Certain Slant of Light.

The most captivating thing about this book was its treatment of the "rules" of being dead, and the rules of being a ghost--being "Light." And the author very thoughtfully challenges the tenets of religious belief about death at the same time that she introduces and integrates the rules of being Light. Helen, the narrator, has no memory of what she might have done to end up in her personal hell, generations ago, but she has discovered that there are things the Light can and cannot do. The Light cannot stray far from the host they are haunting, lest they be plunged back into their hell. And the Light cannot be seen by the Quick.

Except that someone has seen Helen. A previously unremarkable boy in the English class of Mr. Brown, Helen's host, looks right at her one day, and he knows she is there, standing in the classroom. They are drawn to one another, and she discovers the secret reason why he alone is able to see her, to see those who are Light.

The writing is very sensitive, very tactile--Helen is keenly aware of those aspects of Quick life she will never be able to regain. Though she can see and hear the living, feelings, smells, tastes are all inaccessible to her. Until her new friend lets her in on a valuable secret--a way for her to once again experience living, and for them to be together in the physical world. Is it worth the cost? If you enjoy romance and/or ghost stories, read it and find out!

Small Town Bovine

"When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not being said."

It might seem obvious to you, but to D.J. Schwenk of Red Bend, Wisconsin, it's not that obvious. The truth is, people in D.J.'s life don't seem to know how to talk. Not her parents, both of whom are struggling with their own particular issues, not her football-star brothers, who have left the farm without saying a word except to ask D.J. whose side she's on; not her little brother, who barely talks at all, nor D.J. herself, who, when she finds out her best friend Amber thought the two of them were dating can't even bring herself to talk that out.

There's a whole lot of silence going on in Dairy Queen, and sometimes silence leads to miscommunication to readers. After reading this book, I found myself with a lot of questions that aren't answered. For instance, why does D.J.'s mother, who is named as the family peace-keeper, say there isn't much for her at home anymore? Does she mean that now that her quarreling sons are gone, she can immerse herself in her work? And why is only one brother mentioned, Bill? Does no one mind that there is no reunion with the other one? When Amber introduces her new friend, is D.J. correct in assuming that the now-happy Amber found herself a girlfriend, or just a new friend who was better at communication? Also, some of the psychology seems a bit convenient, as it's from a handy boy-interest whose mother is a psychologist; I find myself wishing that D.J. had figured out some of her own issues without the second-hand source, or else that she had actively sought some solution to her family's issues instead of having a bystander just feed her lines.

At any rate, this novel has a lot about football, and a lot about small Midwestern towns, both of which may connect better with some people than others. It's a quick moving story that tells about silent resentment building up, a fear of doing what's expected of you, and one girl's unexpected breakout, and her determination to learn to communicate, 'Oprah-like.'