February 29, 2008

Poetry Friday: Stuff

Whew. Friday at last, and a not a moment too soon.

Happy Leap Year, everyone! The end of February is also here, and we'll all share in the relief (just as soon as the forty-five mph winds stop gusting and the lights quit blinking off and on) that Spring is definite, indisputably, can't-hold-it-back on its way. No matter what that groundhog said: it's almost over.

Don't forget to read down to 'Toon Thursday; it's still so great to be made into a cartoon; I'm so much thinner on paper...!

When I'm not obsessing over the whole thinness issue, I'm obsessing over my things. This poem struck me as a the beginning of an explanation for why we cherish stuff so much. It's ours... we've named it. It's our baby...


What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

"Things" by Liesel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University.

The poetry of possessions and other 'stuff' can be found today at Writing & Ruminating.

February 28, 2008

Toon Thursday: Happy 3rd Blogoversary to Us!

It's hard to believe, but the 24th of February--that's right, this past Sunday--marked THREE YEARS since the very first blog post on Finding Wonderland, entitled Just Who the Heck Are These People? And our sister blog, Readers' Rants, began exactly three years ago today, with a welcome post from TadMack and reviews of David Levithan and Richard Peck.

It's been a wild three years since our humble beginnings as a duo of blogs meant to help our writing group keep in touch, share links and post book recommendations. We'd finished graduate school in May of 2004, and nine months later (really!), Finding Wonderland was born. We had no idea there was such a thing as the kidlitosphere when we started out, but we're proud to consider ourselves a small corner of the kidlit blogging world. And we've done a lot--we've gotten to post some amazing interviews with wonderful authors; we've posted many a Toon Thursday and Poetry Friday; and we participated in a panel of bloggers at the 2007 summer SCBWI conference. We've read and written about acres of YA novels on Readers' Rants. And...drum roll...TadMack got not just one, but a second book contract!

We're both so happy to have gotten to know such fabulous--and varied and funny and informative and incisive--blogs and bloggers in the kidlitosphere. We've gotten to know many of our favorite authors via interviews and their own blogs. We've gotten to know each other so much better--our individual tastes and interests in the world of YA literature and writing. We've had each other's backs, when one of us is overwhelmingly busy (usually TadMack) or suffering from paralyzing what's-the-point-itis (usually a. fortis). And we're constantly learning from one another. Here's to another three years--or more! Cheers!

--a. fortis and TadMack

Oughta Be in Pictures

Via Suite101, comes the news that Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl has had movie rights picked up by Nickelodeon Pictures. No cast announced as of yet. Also, via the Powell's Blog, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the former web comic by Jeff Kinney has been picked up by Fox 2000. Meanwhile, via Ypulse, Lois Lowery's The Giver movie has been delayed because the director is also directing the final Potter film. From the sound of things, the film will be worth the wait, although the circumstances in which the announcement was made are pretty funny.

By now you've heard about the whole Mary-Kate & Ashley book thing... I love that the working title of the book they're collaborating on is Influence...

February 27, 2008

Five Questions for Ying Chang Compenstine

It's been a busy month at the Tree House, as we've celebrated the Lunar New Year and African American History Month. Verrrry busy author Ying Chang Compenstine has taken time out of her TV and book tours, cookbook writing, picture book crafting and YA novel creating to have a lightning round of a mini-interview, and answer five short questions from Finding Wonderland about her little red book Revolution is Not a Dinner Party. Finding Wonderland would like to congratulate Ying, as her novel has received a starred review from Publishers' Weekly as well as:
• 2008 Best Books For Young Adults (ALA)
• 2008 Notable Children's Books (ALA)
• 2007 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
• 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Best Children’s Fiction Book
• 2007 New York Public Library 100 Best Children’s Books
• 2007 Fall Book Sense Children's Picks
• 2007 Parent’s Choice Silver Honor
• 2007 Cybils Award Nomination for Young Adult Fiction
• 2008 Tayshas Reading List (Texas)
• 2007 Chicago Public Library Best of the Best
• 2007 Cleveland Public Library Celebrate With Books
• 2007 Cuyahoga County Public Library Great Books for Kids
• 2008 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the National Council for Social Studies!


You can find an excerpt of this fabulously well-received book here. We're so grateful that Ying took time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about her passions -- food and books.

Finding Wonderland: It was scary to discover that this book is somewhat biographical, and is based on your memories of growing up in Wuhan, China in the 60's and 70's. How alike are you and Ling, the novel’s main character? How are you and your character different?

Ling’s childhood experiences are similar to my own. I was about Ling’s age when my family got caught up in the events of the Cultural Revolution. For this reason, developing Ling’s character was the easiest part of writing this book.

Other similarities: My parents were doctors, and my father was a surgeon trained by American missionaries. I was very devoted to my father, but always had a somewhat strained relationship with my mother, so my father was the person to whom I felt closest. He understood me and accepted me for who I was. Like Ling’s father, my father was forced to work as a janitor in the hospital, and then imprisoned in the city jail. He treated all of his patients with compassion, even those who had persecuted him. Many characters and scenes in the book are inspired by people I knew and events I experienced and witnessed.

The differences: I have two elder brothers. The character Niu is based on of one of my brothers and a neighbor boy who lived upstairs. At the height of the Revolution, one of my brothers announced that he drew a class line between himself and my Father. I can still remember how confused and angry I was and how hurt my parents were.

FW: Where'd you get the title of your book?

"Revolution is not a dinner party," is a quotation from Chairman Mao. When I was young, I didn’t understand its true meaning. Only “Dinner party” stuck with me. I thought that a dinner party would be nice! We hadn’t had one in a long time.

It was only when I was older that I truly understood its meaning that a revolution is harsh and the people living through it endure suffering, cruelty and betrayal. Many lives are lost or ruined.

FW: We've read that food was scarce during parts of your childhood, and your father actually had to burn your books during your childhood in China. What made you write a book about food and literature, and how do the two go together in your novel?

Many of my childhood memories are associated with food and books, and both continue to play a very important role in my life. I love to cook, to host dinner parties, to write about food and to read.

Both food and literature play central roles in the book. Food is a featured part of the celebration of good times, as when Ling lingers over homemade ice cream at a neighbor’s home. During the bad times, its absence is a symbol of misery and suffering, as when the Chinese New Year feast is reduced to two pan-fried eggs. Ling’s family is a very intellectual family. Books and foreign magazines are prominent in their apartment, and her father struggles to continue Ling’s education in English even as it becomes dangerous to do so. There’s a direct, physical connection between food and literature in the book. Ling writes poetry on paper with rice water, so that the words can’t be seen by others.

FW: As an adult you’ve returned to China. How is it changed from the country you recall as a child?

During my trip I saw that Mao’s effect on China is still far-reaching and can’t be underestimated. You can easily find shops filled with Mao statues and buttons, and taxi drivers hang Mao’s portrait on their rear view mirrors. Yet life in China is steadily improving. The cities are filled with material goods and the pace of development is dizzying. I feel proud of today’s China and am happy to see it take on an important role in the world. China will always occupy a special place in my heart.

5. You're a very successful, busy author, we know, so what are you working on now?

A YA - collection of Chinese ghost stories, A Menu for Hungry Ghosts with each story ended with a recipe, published by Holt. A cookbook- Cooking with an Asian Accent - Eastern Recipes and Wisdom in a Western Kitchen by Harvard Common Press, coming Spring 2009, and two picture books by Dutton and Holiday House. All four books will come out next year!

We said she was a busy woman, didn't we?

DON'T miss the fabulous he Children's Book Council/American Association of School Librarians joint "Meet the Author/Illustrator" column for the AASL journal Knowledge Quest, which contains an interview with Ying. She talks about her hunger for good books and food during the years of Chairman Mao's revolutionist regime in China, and how she came to be an author and foodie. Almost all of Ying's books for children and adults have something to do with food and words, from The Story of Noodles to The Story of Chopsticks to Ying's three cookbooks - Secrets of Fat-Free Chinese Cooking, Cooking With Green Tea, and Secrets from a Healthy Asian Kitchen, so if you're a foodie like us or enjoy reading to an aspiring chef, you'll want to check out this author's work!

February 26, 2008

A Not-So-Little Red Book...

Ling is nine years old and has a rather idyllic life. She likes school. Her parents are doctors, so they live in a nice apartment next to the hospital. Her father is kind and loving and teaches her English every day using magazines, songs, and the Voice of America radio program. She dreams of one day going to the United States and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. Her upstairs neighbors, the Wongs, are like family.

But life in Wuhan--and all over China--has been changing, and soon change comes to their very own building in the form of Comrade Li. Comrade Li works for Chairman Mao's government, and his job is to make sure everybody adheres to the policies of the Cultural Revolution...by any means necessary.

Comrade Li is truly frightening. Oh, at first he's nice, even though he insists on making his apartment out of their former study, which is now walled off except for a new front door and a tiny sliding window into their apartment. At first, he plays games with Ling, trading her origami animals and toys for a few eggs here, a few green onions there. But then, one day, Ling discovers her father burning all of his Western books and papers. Later, the upstairs neighbor Dr. Wong disappears, and it's rumored he was taken away by the government. Not long after that, Comrade Li's cronies ransack their neighbors' apartment and destroy or confiscate many of their possessions.

Food becomes scarce, and even ration tickets don't guarantee that Ling's family won't be hungry at night. Her father is forced to give up practicing as a doctor and instead become a hospital janitor. And school has gone from a joy to a nightmare. Skipped up to fifth grade, Ling discovers that she's forced to share lessons with a classful of bullies, all aspiring Young Pioneers for the Red Guard who accuse her of being a bourgeois. At home in their apartment building, residents are forced to practice revolutionary songs and dances in honor of Chairman Mao, morning and evening. If they do anything that's considered antirevolutionary, they are humiliated publicly in the courtyard, or even physically abused by the Red Guard. Unfortunately, even Ling's family isn't safe from the oppressive tactics of the omnipresent Red Guard.

It's frightening to realize that this book--Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, by Ying Chang Compestine--is based on the experiences of the author herself as a child in 1970s China. It sounds like any number of scary cautionary dystopian novels--The Silenced, the Shadow Children series, Fahrenheit 451--except that these events really happened. Luckily, the Cultural Revolution did not last forever, and in the end, Ling and her family were luckier than many. Though her innocence suffers, the novel ends with the possibility still intact that Ling--like the author--would one day realize her dream of seeing the Golden Gate.

One quick caveat: Although in the book, the character starts at age 9 and the story follows her for a couple of years, I would hesitate to give this to young MG readers. Some of the scenes were quite shocking and even brutal. Of course, that reflects reality, but it's not a very happy reality, and few readers would be able to remain unaffected by the story.

On the Road to Crazy...

Hey, Kids! I do still exist! I'm just finding that having a house guest is a lot of running around and at the end of the day... I kind of fall down.

...and then get up again and do some more line edits on my manuscript! Today we went to the Botanic Gardens (apparently they're not 'botanical' here) and tonight I finally -- FINALLY did the last of the line edits I felt I could do and sent that puppy off to my editor. Here's hoping that the second time's the charm, although my life rarely goes like that!

I just popped by because I just heard the news: THE QUILLS ARE O-VAH. No, seriously. Via The Powell's Blog, I read that Reed Publishing is suspending the Quill Awards. Oooh, WOW. That was a short-lived little episode! I wonder if people think the Cybils are going to disappear now, too???

For those writers who have heard me going on about digital rights, Random House -- my parent publisher -- has some news: After conducting their own tests (using Amazon, Walmart.com etc.), they've reached the conclusion that MP3 distribution does not in itself lead to increased piracy. Via Smart B's/Trashy B's. My concern for this is that it makes kind of a gray area for the consumer. If something has no file protection, how will you know if you're violating someone's copyrighting? Or, maybe this just puts the pressure on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, instead of the consumer. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out.

"YA authors never swear." Ladies and Gentlemen, you've heard it here first! Don't miss Sherri L. Smith's other wry comments at the great Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast interview. Sherri's Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet Blogtour concludes February 28, 2008 @ The Brown Bookshelf.

We've got ONE LAST guest blogger on tap for this month. Stay tuned for the FABULOUS Ying Chang Compestine and Revolution is Not A Dinner Party! Coming Soon!

February 25, 2008

Cool Stuff for Monday--Take Kidlit to the Gym With You

Can I just tell you how much I'm coveting ShelfTalker's Kidslit Nalgene bottle, courtesy of Powell's Books? My birthday is March 24th, ahem ahem... :)

I've been a naughty girl and I haven't cruised by Fuse #8 in a bit, but I'm glad I've been trying to get caught up because I found this great post about a worthy literacy cause that Class of 2k7 author G. Neri recently assisted with--getting great books to teens in juvenile detention centers around New York. Kudos to Greg and everyone involved with the effort.

Lastly, I was so tickled to find an interview with Cybil-award-winning GN author/illustrator Emmanuel Guibert (The Professor's Daughter) over on Cynsations. Then I read the interview. Soon, a short giggle escaped me. Then a larger one. Then, more like a series of guffaws. It is seriously a great interview, because he's so obviously a smart-ass about the whole process, but he has this sense of humor that's somehow very...French. A few examples:

How has your childhood influenced your illustrations and writing?
EG: I'll let you know when my childhood is over.

Do you work with the television, radio, or stereo on? In cafés, nursing a half-cup of lukewarm tea, or in isolation?
EG: Yes, all of that at the same time. And even asleep.

Don't miss it--it's good for a laugh. And we could all use more laughter at the beginning of the week.

February 24, 2008

A Little Work, A Little Amusement

Some time ago I got an announcement about the SCBWI North Central California Spring Spirit Conference, to be held in Davis, CA, on April 5. The lovely, funny, and talented Kirby Larson will be a keynote speaker, as well as editors from Chronicle Books, Delacorte Press, and Random House Children's Books. I've gone to a couple of these one-day deals, and they're especially great if you're just starting out in the field or if you're looking for professional feedback on your first chapters (and choose to get the optional manuscript critique). It's also a nice way to talk to authors, illustrators, and editors one-on-one, as it's not NEARLY as ginormous as the big SCBWI conferences. I haven't decided yet if I'm going to this one--I'm saving up for a Seattle trip this summer--but I thought I'd spread the word.

On a less serious note comes a news brief from Reuters entitled "Are Women Human? And other publishing highlights". Yes, in the midst of children's book awards season, UK-based trade publication The Bookseller has a shortlist of its own--six finalists for the prize of oddest book title. I haven't voted in the poll yet--I'm torn between "I was Tortured by the Pygmy Love Queen" and "Cheese Problems Solved." In certain ways this is much scarier than Children's Books that Never Were--it's Adult Books that Should Never Have Been, maybe...

February 22, 2008

Something Quick

In theory, a good hostess would be turning down sheets and plumping pillows for her tired guests. I, however, am on the computer, and via Ali and Anastasia @ Ypulse, I've found these interesting nuggets:

There's a Phillip Pullman comic strip, to be included in a new Random House magazine, which looks SOcool -- "Only completely original material will be published in the DFC. No advertising, just 100% storytelling delight. Joy in an envelope," David Fickling comments. A story magazine for kids? With a weekly strip by Phillip Pullman!? BLISS!

Nancy Yi Fan, together with her family emigrated to the U.S., just before the attacks in New York in 2001. What an awful time of confusion it was. Nancy had a strange dream about birds -- one she turned into a story. Hoping to receive writing tips, she sent it to publishing houses. HarperCollins gave her more than writing tips -- they gave her a contract. "Nancy's first book, Swordbird, is a fantasy about warring birds. Nancy Yi Fan was 12 years old when Swordbird was published last year. Within weeks, it reached the top of the New York Times list of best-selling Children's Chapter Books." Visit VOA News for the rest of the story. Has anyone of you read Nancy's book? They're calling her a prodigy, and talking about her next one!

PW has a heartfelt piece on everybody's favorite girl-next-door author, Sarah Dessen. Why do we (and teen readers) all love her? 'Cause her heart is still in high school. Go, Sarah!

Do you swear as a conversational filler? How about the characters in your stories? Do they? Some interesting thoughts on YA's and profanity. Should parents, as is suggested in this article in the Sacramento Bee teach their kids swearing 'etiquette?' What would you consider etiquette? I am honestly asking this question 'cause I think of weird stuff like this when I'm writing. When do your characters swear? Or do they?

All righty. Off to pretend I'm a good hostess.

Poetry Friday: Sleepy, Sleepy, Sleepy...

One terrible weekend when I was nine, I met a strange boy at the beach who walked up to me, said hello, and proceeded to make bad jokes. He was eleven, and today (a few years past eleven), he's our first house guest since we moved to the UK.

Sometimes old friends are the ones who make you the most anxious. I am just shattered I'm so tired. I haven't been sleeping -- because I've been cleaning the house in my dreams. Stupid, no? But that's the way my mind unhinges at times. And so, a bit of Shel Silverstein for me.

Whatif by Shel Silverstein

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I'm dumb in school?
Whatif they've closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there's poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don't grow talle?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won't bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don't grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!

The rest of the poetry pals are over at Kelly's. Wishing y'all a blissfully peaceful completely unexceptional weekend of relaxation.

February 21, 2008

Toon Thursday: Sherri L. Smith Contest Winner!

Yes, that's right, we're about to announce the official winner of our contest, which was announced in honor of the fabulous guest blog post from author Sherri L. Smith. We were so excited to be able to kick off her blog tour, and we're just as tickled to be able to give away an advance reading copy of her latest novel, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. So, without further ado, the winner of the random drawing, the lucky person who will now be able to procrastinate in comfort on their couch with a great book and a cup of tea/coffee/hot chocolate/red wine, is...

...drum roll...

...Liz Garton Scanlon of Liz In Ink!!! Congratulations, Liz! We're glad you cruised by and left your name in the comments. We'll be getting in touch with you via e-mail to arrange sending you your prize.

And, in case anyone was curious about my random drawing methodology, you might be interested to know that there was no picking names out of a hat. This was a hat-free endeavor. I scattered all the little folded pieces of paper in front of me on the floor of our home office and rummaged through them with my eyes firmly shut, sifting through until I felt I'd looked silly for long enough and just picked one. At first, I was tempted to summon our kitten into the room and have the winner be whichever piece of paper she batted around first, but then I figured it might set a bad precedent...she already likes to retrieve random bits of paper from the bathroom trash...

Congrats to Liz In Ink, and thanks again to everyone who contributed to the wonderful discussion!

February 20, 2008

Things I Learned from Kids' Books

If you're like me--and you probably are, if you read our blog regularly--you're flummoxed by the more-than-occasional lofty attitudes of those who see children's and YA books as easy-to-write, easy-to-digest pabulum for people who haven't quite graduated to the level of reading or writing grown-up books.

So I made this list. It's by no means exhaustive, but I couldn't stop thinking about all the memorable words and ideas and history and everything else that I encountered for the first time in kids' books and teen books--and not just when I was young, either. And just to put this out there, I do read grown-up books, and I do write grown-up short stories. So there.

As a kid, without those kids' books I wouldn't have learned about dodecahedrons or tesseracts. Those books taught me what a veruca was, and what makes somebody a twit. I learned the words of Waltzing Matilda and what to do with the rocks in my head. I learned that I can't catch diabetes from a friend. I learned about the legend of Welsh Prince Madog.

As a teen, I learned more about Wales, its legends, and what the Welsh language looks like. I learned that guys name their guy-parts. I learned that the slender beauty ideal was 5'6" and size 6 (as opposed to size 0). And I learned that, yes, you can get tired of puns.

As an adult, I've learned even more. I've gotten glimpses into others' lives, imaginary and somehow truer than fiction. I've learned what it's like to live on an Alaskan crab boat, or in a 1960s Malaysian town, or in early Britain, or in a rich girl's snowboarding shoes. I've learned about fairy tales I never read as a child.

(And here, in case you're interested, is a list of the books I made reference to: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Twits by Roald Dahl; an unknown book about Waltzing Matilda which I can't track down; What to Do with the Rocks in Your Head by Michael Scheier; You Can't Catch Diabetes from a Friend by Lynne Kipnis; A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle; Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence; Forever by Judy Blume; the Sweet Valley High books by Francine Pascal; the Xanth books by Piers Anthony; Lucy the Giant by Sherri Smith; Town Boy by Lat; The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer and Warriors of Camlann by N.M. Browne; Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley; and Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale.

What have you learned from children's books?

Writers, Sisters & Product Placement

(I can't apologize for broaching this subject again because it's on my mind, but this should be the last I say about it for awhile. Bear with me.)

The other day I commented about product placement from the point of view of a sibling. My little sister just turned twelve last week, and I find myself cringing as I watch her so long for some of the things her classmates and friends have. It really can make you sick, wishing and wanting -- and it's unnecessary, from that view, for anyone to encourage the natural longing of a child to have what others have, with actual product names in their literature.

My niece went through a phase like that. I remember her sitting in front of the TV one Christmas season when she was about four and complaining that she wanted EVERYTHING she saw on every commercial. She concluded with, and I kid you not, "I want to 'Safeguard the ones you love.'" Yes. She was quoting a ANTIBACTERIAL SOAP commercial. My sister laughed... and then turned off the tv for a week or so.

I batted this topic around with my writing group and came up with a surprisingly reply. A dear friend and former marketing professional challenged the idea that product placement is all bad. She remarked,

"Kids are inundated with marketing and product placement left and right. It's our culture and our political make-up. We are a material, consumeristic [sic] society, thanks to the machine we call American capitalism. If people don't consume, the economy sours. The big push in both business and politics is to keep people consuming so our economy will stay strong.

Is it right? That's debatable. Is it good? Would it be better if everyone saved instead of spending all that they make, living paycheck to paycheck so they can drive fancy cars, own the latest gadgets, and wear designer duds? Absolutely, but many economists think our economy would literally tank as a result.

I believe kids are smart and marketing-savvy. I don't think they feel the need to drink a Coke every time they watch American Idol. At the same time, I think they are suckers for name brands the way I am, and most of my friends are. We are all marketing victims. I'd love to hear from anyone in our group who thinks they aren't to some degree."

I'm really glad someone is willing to articulate their viewpoint that this practice just might be defensible. I tried to sit and really think about what my friend said. Don't I have particular brands of even computers or ink pens that I prefer? Aren't PC people all into Windows (Um, no.)? Maybe I'm just not opinionated enough with regard to things; I can't even think of a fabric I prefer (Cotton? Or wool. Or linen! It's just so hard!).

What I do know is this: I'm unprepared to even discuss the economy as compared to the wellbeing of my sister or any child. They spout that tripe periodically to keep people buying, but even if we all had to give up our Beamer’s and townhouses by the sea and go back to buttons and shells for bartering, the economy will be fine. It's the little sisters whose strengths and needs and minds need to be paramount. Not to put too fine a point on it, or venture deeply into what is political ideology, less than 2% of the country lives at the level that these economists trumpet as being so crucial to the much-vaunted American Way of Life which we must at all costs protect. I can't go with that big a picture. I, like you, can only concentrate on the little girl I know.

And I think this little girl is potentially savvy enough to know when she's being marketed to, but only if she is told. My mother never allowed us to wear someone else’s brand name on our bums, and I never wore one thread of clothing that proclaimed its name – or the name of any band or cartoon or anything. Mom said if they weren’t paying me, I wasn’t wearing it, and if I had kids of my own I think I’d lean the same direction. My mother cut out all of our tags (including taking embroidery scissors and snipping embroidered names from denim) and left in washing instructions covered by our initials (three girls, laundry squabbles halved when clothes are identified. Plus: bonus clothing I.D. for school!). She had an opinion on this in terms of class and money, and she was pretty hardcore about it when I was younger. (My younger sibs might get away with the occasional Muppet on their shirts, but even now, not often.)

This is not to say that I didn’t want the Pottery Barn Kids or Benetton sweaters I saw people wearing. I wanted a t-shirt that said J Crew right across the chest, but I never wore one, and wouldn’t wear one now. I know what it says: I have enough money to patronize these stores. That still isn't true, and I don’t know what their company policies are, if they use sweatshop labor or whatever, and they’re not paying me to wear their name which is not the point, but it reminds me: I have a name. And an identity. And it isn't J Crew. I don’t do walking advertisements. (I mean, how can I? I read Jennifer Government and Feed.)

My marketing friend points out,
"So books have been free of this product placement? I actually don't think this is necessarily true. Many of the books I read are laced with brand names. And even of us in our group have incorporated brands into our work. Innocently, of course. We're not getting paid to do so. But why not? It will happen anyway if the book is ever made into a movie or a tv show. Why can't I get a bit of the pop too? Especially if I was planning to name drop anyway for free?"

Now, here is where I can feel I can respond to my friend with a solid point: Describing characters in terms of things they own and use tells me nothing about the character. Nothing. It tells me about the AUTHOR. And all the work we constantly put in to keep authorial interference OUT of our YA novels – realizing that we as the adult ARE NOT IMPORTANT to the story - it is really bizarre to me that someone would willingly insert themselves in that way. Product placement might tell me a bit about the character’s attitude or social class ("Gossip Girl," with that series' constant references to Prada and Burberry infers that people who use those products are... gossipy?), but only in the most shallow and negligible way.

Further, as a writing idea, product placement is a BAD one. My editor mentioned to me that she appreciates the lack of slang in a book, because slang dates writing. I remember reading a story or novel that referenced Seven Jeans and not knowing what the heck they were – thus pulling me out of the narrative, which is NOT a positive, in terms of craft. Marketing people know, in their own field that brands and jingles have a shelf life of -- maybe -- five years, if not fewer. Sure, trends come back, but if you're trying to write a work with a little endurance, throwing in the name of a label or a fragrance, celebrity or item popular this year is potentially fatal at worst, and shallow at best. If authors are going to pepper their work with self-referential, idiosyncratic details, where is there room for me as a reader who isn’t into that? (And I can see the disbelief now: “Everybody knows” what Seven Jeans are. “Everybody” cool, anyway, is what the magazines would have you believe. That’s a fairly fifth grade idea, and I don’t buy it.)

Maybe what bothers me most is that a.) HarperCollins is aiming this new series of product-larded books at 8-to-12-year-old girls and b.) the head exec of their marketing group will write the books. Why girls? Theoretically males have the buying power in American society, right? Still pulling in those larger salaries, right? Yet it's important to further entangle girls in the cycle of want, and start it even earlier? Because advertisers KNOW little girls are already susceptible to the shopping thing and grown up girls spend more money? Wow. Talk about taking advantage.

Do you see where this takes us? Into books not written by AUTHORS. Not by people trying to break into print, or who are already there, proven on their ability to write well. Now we have a marketing honcho. Pushing product. Onto girl children.

Actually embroidering mere fiction on top of all of this seems beside the point, doesn't it?! The purpose of story is NOT to sell crap. NOT to shove morals down my throat. NOT to be pushing an agenda. HarperCollins has got to be kidding themselves if they think that selling people an advertisement makes sense. (Of course, I don't think they're counting on it making sense. They're just counting on the fact that they think tween readers are suckers.)

Okay. Down off the soapbox. Loving the world again.

You May Already Be A Winner!

...but are you already a CON?

I am.

I'm a runner up at Lisa Graff's Bernetta Wallflower Con Artist Giveaway! My prize -- and also the prize of the other runner up, this brilliant guy named Hector who did something diabolically cool with pneumatic tubes -- is a copy of The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower.

"Oh, boy, was this book fun," chuckles Miss Erin.

Eisha says, "At heart, this is a story about friendship, trust, and finding one’s own identity and the limits of one’s own conscience. But told in the framework of a con job, complete with preteen con artists, magicians, and extortionists…"

MotherReader thinks, "The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower would be great for a book club because there is so much left open for discussion in the character and the plot." (Listen to your Mother, book club people! Calling all librarians -- go forth and read ForeWord and comment about your own librarian experiences. MotherReader thanks you.)

Now I don't have to listen to any of these people and can read the book for myself. Thanks, Lisa! And I have to give props to my sister, whose six stitches and massive headache when I was about nine and she was eleven... gave me the story I told for the contest. (Sorry, Tree.)

And now for a little PSA.

Awhile back I read something about Reading Is Fundamental first on Jen's site, then Susan's, and then Andi's, and it nagged at me. The president's budget was calling for the elimination of Reading Is Fundamental’s (RIF) Inexpensive Book Distribution program. I kept thinking, "that can't be right," because RIF has been a fixture since I was a kid. But it's true -- 4.6 million kids may have the free book rug pulled out from under them.

You might think this is just a sad story for elementary kids, but I got access to those books until Junior High. The ALA has a book list of suggested books for the program, and includes Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time, E.L. Konigsburg's The View from Saturday and plenty more that I would consider great books. Sure, kids can go to the library, but if you live in a home that has few or no books -- and you own a few, you, by yourself? You feel so rich.

(Imagine the world where feeling wealthy is having books. Who needs product placement then?)

The Reading Is Fundamental people have made it easy to take action by contacting your Congressional representative and voicing your concern. I'd much rather be taxed for books than bombs, as the saying goes.

Thanks for hearing -- and doing.

February 19, 2008

I wasn't posting today, but...

...Sometimes, the world just MAKES YOU post.

Okay: via Robin's blog? The cast photos of the Cullens on Stephanie Meyer's site -- ARE WRONG. First, they look more anorexic and cold than gloriously beautiful and freeze-glowing. Second, it's just... Twilight, okay? That whole Edward-and-Bella thing that gives me hives. 'Nough said. And can someone tell me why Edward looks so darned annoyed? We're the ones who are supposed to be annoyed. They're supposed to be perfect and inhumanly beautiful. They just look hipshot, cold and pissed.

Speaking of pissed, I think this goes way beyond it, into Herr Horn Book's list of "You Are SO Going to Hell:" The NY Times ran a piece about Cathy's Book: If Found Call (650)266-8233, the YA mysteryesque novel we ranted about quite a while back, which dropped more brand names than a mall storefront. This article also discusses a new book series aimed at the marketing demographic of "tween" (which is a neologism for between and preteen, and covers the span between ages eight and twelve), which will contain massive product placement on various levels. The article quotes a head of children's publishing at HarperCollins who claims "corporate sponsorship or some sort of advertising is totally embedded in the world that tweens live in. It gives us another opportunity for authenticity.”


Adults in the United States are going bankrupt by the thousands per year and people, striving to find and have the best of the best of the best are going nuts trying to keep up with the newest techie gadget and living WELL beyond their means, but that's simply not enough, apparently. Let's roll with giving our readers aged 8-12 more authenticity. Every tween must self-identify as a consumer.... starting... NOW!

As one of the myriad kids with parents who didn't have the money to keep me in Gap and Guess? this makes me sick -- with fear, actually. Does anyone really need to encourage a generation of self-loathing tweens? Why push kids faster down the slope toward being unhappy with what they have?

Oh, wait. I remember. Money.

I'm with Roger. I'm smelling sulphur.

Finally, via Anastasia@Ypulse, employers in Oz are SERIOUSLY seeing graduating teens using text-slang and gamer-speak in their job applications. I'd laugh -- this wud b such a gud joke ...u kno whut? its 2 sad 2b funny.


Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet : The Blogtour Continues...

"New Orleans has such a deep history—from the food to the architecture, it is unique in all the world. That's one of the reasons I set Sparrow in New Orleans—it's a city everyone should experience at least once. After the initial outpouring of aid, the country seems to have forgotten the Gulf Coast, but they are at least ten years away from being "okay" again. I will return New Orleans again, in person and in my books, in hopes of keeping the city alive in people's thoughts."

Sherri's Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet Blogtour continues today at Bildungsroman. Keep your eyes peeled for the results of our book drawing, and don't miss the rest of Sherri's tour:

February 21, 2008 @ The YA YA YAs
February 26, 2008 @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
February 28, 2008 @ The Brown Bookshelf.

A Slice of Life, Malaysian Style

This book was a 2007 Graphic Novel Cybils Award Nominee.

Mat's family just moved from the country to town, which means change in every aspect of his life, from the blocky little house he now lives in to his classroom full of boys from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Mat lives in the Malaysia of the 1960s--as did the author of Town Boy, the popular and prolific Malaysian cartoonist known as Lat.

It's probably safe to assume that Lat's own childhood and teenage years served as inspiration for this funny, expressive sequel to Kampung Boy. With artwork that's just a bit reminiscent of R. Crumb, Lat portrays the day-to-day adventures of Mat in an expressionistic and distinct style. From making friends in his new school, to getting to know the prettiest girl in his class, to dancing to loud American rock music, the everyday realities of Mat's life are easy to relate to.

At the same time, Lat's very individual artistic style nicely depicts the feeling of being in Malaysia--the foliage, the architecture, the atmosphere of the town as Mat bikes and runs along its streets. The reader really feels like they're getting a glimpse of what life was like growing up in the Malaysia of the '60s. Though, from time to time, the characters were drawn in a sort of caricatured style, Lat's equal-opportunity sense of humor makes it clear that he is not mocking any particular ethnic group. Rather, he's portraying a specific place and time through his own unique cartoonist's lens. This is a rather quiet, though quirky, title suffused with warmth and humor, but it's an eye-opener for anyone unfamiliar with the setting.

February 17, 2008

And on TOP of this, Spiderwick isn't yet showing in the UK.

Okay, kids: teensy, teensy, tiny rant.
Via SF Signal, I came across a post by SF/F author Nancy Kress. Kress is a SF/F writer of some renown (her Hugo and Nebula Awarded Beggars in Spain landed highly recommended in my TBR pile), who a.] admittedly hadn't read any YA since she was "about ll," (since according to Wikipedia, she was born in 1948, was some time ago) and, b.] is "supposed to be thinking about a proposal for a YA SF novel."

Okay. She's an adult SF/F writer crossing over into YA, and is now going to read YA lit to find out what it's about... so she can write it. Okay. She's doing her homework. Everyone has to start somewhere.

She picks up Black Holly's Valiant...

"Now, I was not expecting Nancy Drew. But... surely this sort of behavior isn't very common? Is it something you'd want your ten-year-old reading? (YA is supposedly for 12-15-year-olds, but in fact younger kids who are good readers consume most of it.) Yes, fiction is about stuff that isn't necessarily common, but is this level of brutality and the number of "unhealthy relationships" (to resort to psychobabble for a moment) typical of all YA fiction?"

I felt the need to respond, absolutely. And though I am a Black Holly fangirl to the bone, I tried to be mature and respectful and answer objectively. I encouraged her in her first impulse to read more to see what YA is actually all about. I respectfully hope she does.

The thing is, there seemed to be... an attitude of disdain and some sort of moral... somethingitude in that post that set me on edge. (Contempt? Contempt prior to investigation?) Upon what does she base her assertion about good middle grade readers "consuming most of it," especially as she's not been into the genre for over forty years? I am not yet sure if the author was even asking a genuine question; there was a mincing superiority in the tone, as if she examined the distastefully unhealthy YA genre from a distance. She said nothing about the plot, characterization or story arc. She said nothing about Holly Black's writing. I got a big feeling of "eew!" from the whole post, and thought, "Why, then, does she even want to take on this project?"

And so, my tiny rant: when so many people want to get into YA lit, or break into print in SF/F, to hear a writer who is having an opportunity handed to her read one book and then turn up her nose -- at all of YA?!?! Annoys me.

It just does.

February 16, 2008

Born To Set Margins

natalie deenataliedee.com

Happy Weekend!
Just a few dispatches from booknerd central:

Via SF Signal, those who review SF/F books will want to take note of a writer's project. S.M. Duke requests: What I'm asking is this: For every book you read in the SF or F genre, take a note of which ethnic, religious, social groups are present within a work in a significant way. What this means is if the main character or a significant character is White, Black, or Asian, then write that down. The same applies to religions and significant social groups (feminists, ACLU types, etc.). They must be significant presences, not just a mention. If there is a strong Catholic presence, say so. If you don't know what religion is present, but there is one, just say unknown...I'd like to address gender too. Mention main characters that are male or female and secondary, but significant characters that are male or female (make them separate to differentiate). This will allow me to gather as much data as I can on this.

A lot of time is spent talking about racial disparities in literature, especially SF/F. Could it be that someone now is going to do something about it? Hmmm!

Meanwhile, Jen Robinson now has eyes!

February 15, 2008

Poetry Friday: Love...Word

"To His Lover, That She Be Not Overdressed"

And why take ye thought for raiment?
—Matthew 6:28

The lilies of the field
That neither toil nor spin
Stand dazzlingly revealed
In not a thing but skin

And in that radiant state
Sheer essences they wear.
Take heed, my fashion plate.
Be so arrayed. Go bare.

© X.J. Kennedy, The Lords of Misrule: Poems 1992-2002
(Johns Hopkins University Press).

There probably isn't a better gift for a logophile or linguist than witticisms and wordplay - the clever kind or the chocolate version of such. Verbal calisthenics are usually more fun than the physical kind, and poet X.J. Kennedy's wry disingenuity makes me chuckle. How can I not like a guy who published his own science fiction magazine, Terrifying Test-Tube Tales, at age twelve?

Eat. Words. Love. Yum. Found the cool chocolate at Fritinancy. More mouth-watering poetry to be found at Hip Writer Mama's. Have a great weekend and enjoy ferreting out the last of the chocolate hearts... you must eat them all before it's time to hide the chocolate eggs, after all. (!)

February 14, 2008

Toon Thursday: You All Inspire Me

I have to thank everyone who commented on our Sherri Smith guest blog post for helping to inspire this cartoon with their lively discussion! Also, any resemblance to any existing writers (or any existing people in general) is entirely coincidental.

Anyway, besides working on Toon Thursday, I've been cruising around the blogosphere just a little bit, and I finally got caught up (via Chasing Ray and bookshelves of doom) on the YA Kerfluffle. I'm glad it came to a peaceful and civil resolution. I was starting to be really sad that it seemed like the kidlitosphere was dividing into cliques. I really liked Greg Fishbone's response to the situation, and I'm breathing a sigh of relief that (hopefully) we here in the kidlit world are not going to devolve into a cacophony of sniping C-rate bloggers flooding the internet-tubes with our "personal minutiae" (as an NPR commentator described it today).

On a much more pleasant note, I was excited to find this interview on Cynsations with Rosemary Clement-Moore, whose Cybils-nominated title Prom Dates From Hell I highly enjoyed. Consider that link your valentine - Happy V-Day! In our house, we celebrated by going out for a sushi lunch, and after Rob gets back from work, we'll eat more food and watch an episode of Doctor Who. That's how we like to celebrate holidays in our house--eating and sitting on the couch...

Slings 'n' Arrows

You know, I love the blogosphere because it provides the belief that there's someone else out there who is cranky like me. Big A little a had to fortify herself with espresso whilst wearing all black in order to review the floridly floral looking Bloom, which, as Jules assured us yesterday, is delightful. On this day of ultimate goopiness, I, too, take refuge in an all-black wardrobe, lots of coffee, and, well, you know, sarcasm. The only BitterSweet "conversational" candies I've approved of come in flavors such as Banana Chalk, Pink Sand and Fossilized Antacid (because isn't that what all of those nasty candies taste like anyway?). I'm just not in love with love, Hallmark-style, y'know? But that's okay.

'Cause I AM in love with a good story. And have been waiting eagerly to see the results of the 2007 Cybils Awards, which have been announced. The people who were on the SF/F panel suffered through all of this in December -- but CONGRATULATIONS Shannon Hale and Adam Rex, from all of us on SF/F Nominating Panel! It was SO hard for us to choose -- Judges, you did the REALLY hard work, and you rock, hard.

By way of one of Miss Erin's great lists of "things making me happy right now," I stumbled across crazycool author Lisa Graff beauty experiment, and have watched in amused horror as treats her acne with... eyedrops? and soaks her feet in ...soymilk? and other bizarre things. She dropped by Miss Erin's on Tuesday, and don't miss her at MotherReader's on Wednesday and continues to chat about her new book and other random stuff (including The BERNETTA WALLFLOWER Con Artist Giveaway) today at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Via Jen Robinson's Book Page I've found a great podcast with Mark at Just One More Book! - he's interviewing the author of the Anne prequel. Ach, the sacrilege! Oh, okay, fine, maybe it's not quite sacrilege per se, but I'm making a whole bunch of you read the prequel before I do. (I'm looking at you, Little Willow. You too, Jen.) If the new book ruins everything, I don't want to look.

This is surprisingly happy news indeed: Black Holly and Tony DiTerlizzi are HAPPY WITH THE WAY SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES CAME TO FILM. Could this be a first!?!? There's hope, then, for the rest of great kid's books turned into film, then. Maybe. According to Sci-Fi Wire, Holly believes they got the family dynamics right, and added, "We actually did get to see all the scripts and give our feedback and give our thoughts, and they listened to us. And when they agreed with us, hopefully we were in some ways useful." The film opens, for you lucky ducks in the U.S., today. No spoilers 'til I've seen it, 'kay? (Via ReadersRead Blog.)

If you love, love, LOVE Meg Cabot (and okay, in your secret romanticizing heart of hearts -- you know you do), run on over to the Three Librarians - she's in the hot seat over at the YA YA YAs.

And, via SF Signal, if you love your comic and graphic icons, check out SF Universe's list of 10 Greatest Black Superheroes. Yay, Green Lantern! Whoo!

Literaticat is in need of ...affirmations. Send them, won't you please? (Try and spell them correctly, though.)

FRIDAY IS THE DAY we close the comments for our Tuesday book giveaway. Drop by our conversation with author Sherri L. Smith, and be sure to put in your thoughts. We've had some really interesting dialogue on the topic of race and ethnicity in writing, about "representing" and being genuine. What say you?

And speaking of affirmations, we're really lucky to be in the middle of the cool, bright, opinionated, talented people like yourselves, people, who like a. fortis and me, are accomplished at making stuff up. So, go on and give yourself one of those nasty chalky hearts, from us. Make one here (oh, stop bellyaching, they DO have them in nausea-inducing pastels, too) or pulverize a few and see if they aren't more useful for drawing stick figures on the sidewalk.

February 13, 2008

Beware Hollywood Cheetah-ing...

Today's L.A. times contains a sad story about one author who thought she saw a good thing, but it turned out to bite her in the bum. Deborah Gregory, author of the 16 book Cheetah Girls series tells the story of why she's still living in a cramped Manhattan apartment she calls a "dump." The moral of the story seems to be, if you deal with the devil, have an entertainment lawyer on hand. Ouch.

Oh... dear. Via the ever-newhoundy Ali @ Ypulse, we find ...Jesus. Coming soon as a samurai near... you. Y'know... I'm going to just reserve judgment on this, but... first instincts? Say, "No."

Meanwhile, via Miss I-have-a-Snow-Day-tra-la-la, I've enjoyed Sarah Beth Durst's random collection of Obscure Fairy Tales -- way more fun of a I-should-be-working time-waster than they should be!

If you hadn't seen Book Moot's Author's Name Pronunciation link, then go thou thither. Find out how to say GAIMAN... and it's not GUY Man, note to self. (A. Fortis, who's met him, already KNEW that.)

And hey, speaking of the man himself, did you know he's giving away a downloadable book? Go, choose your favorite title and wish him Happy 7th Blogoversary!

Thanks to EVERYONE who participated in our chat with Sherri Smith! Comments will be closing on Friday, so if you'd like to be eligible to win a copy of her book, please drop by with your two cents!

Weird Tales

This book was a 2007 Science Fiction & Fantasy Cybils Award Nominee.

A young boy witnesses the birth of a changeling baby. A monkey king is brutally conquered by a simian foe. A schoolboy learns what it means to truly be a hero, and a young girl learns what it means to commune with a god. The diverse set of short stories in Margo Lanagan's latest collection, Red Spikes, has this in common: Lanagan's astonishing ability to create vivid but also very dark and atmospheric worlds.

Sometimes these worlds might resemble our own; sometimes we're in the head of some other creature. Sometimes the reader is left disturbed, on edge; other times, hopeful and light. But mostly the former. This is definitely a collection of dark fantasy tales, and it should appeal to adult readers just as much as to YA readers.

The variety is amazing, but I noticed that if there's one theme that runs from beginning to end, it's the idea of change--coming of age, changelings, the downfall of the proud and the uplifting of the humble. Like the truly old fairy tales, these stories do not pull punches, but they do open your eyes wide to life and its inexorability--whether you want them to or not.

February 12, 2008

Guest Blogger: Sherri L. Smith!!

We're so VERY excited to introduce YA author Sherri L. Smith!

Sherri is the author of Lucy the Giant, a novel about a tall girl from the immense state of Alaska who tries to lose herself and her past in the wilds -- and finds out what it means to have someone care enough to find you. Lucy's story was Sherri's first novel, and one of our all-time favorite Under Radar Recommendations from last summer.

Sherri's other novels include the 2009 Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Award nominee, Sparrow, a novel about a young woman coming to terms with losing her "real" family and taking the risk to create her own. Sherri's most recent novel is today's highlighted middle grade title, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. Ana Shen's incredibly stressful, terrible, horribly funny 8th grade graduation day is filled with too much family, too little time, grudges, grumpiness, growth and acceptance -- and a little bit of romance, too. Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet lands in bookstores today!

Sherri has graciously agreed to be our guest blogger today, and A. Fortis and I are happy to join the conversation. We encourage you to join in, too, as Sherri has graciously provided us a copy of her book to give away in a random drawing! We'll be choosing one name at random from all those who comment, so don't forget to take your chance!

And now for the good part!

Black and White and Read All Over by Sherri L. Smith

Last fall, I taught my first writing class at a local university extension program. Several of my students asked me if it was okay to write outside of their ethnicity. Could a white woman write a convincing Latina pre-teen? Should an African-American woman write about a white girl, or for that matter, a white boy? As an African-American woman about to publish a novel about a Chinese-/African-American girl, my answer on all counts was "Yes, yes, yes!" This class of mine witnessed the birth of several young adult novels that will no doubt one day be sold as "multicultural." But, let's get one thing straight—multicultural is a made-up word. The proverbial "Great American Novel" by its very name is a multicultural novel—America is made up of too many different peoples for it to be otherwise.

A.F.: This is definitely something that comes up in writing classes—and I'm so pleased that your answer was "Yes!"—when usually, imagination seems to be discouraged in favor of "write what you know," and, in extreme cases, even knowledge is discouraged in favor of "write what you are."

It's something that really hits home for me, too, as someone of (VERY) mixed ethnicity. I sometimes feel self-doubt about what sort of characters I "can" or "should" be writing about. And if I'm only "allowed" to write what I know, is it really authentic for me to write about either white European-American culture OR Pakistani-American culture when I never quite felt entirely at home in either? Can I write about Costa Rican families because of my stepfather? Aussie families because of my half-sister, or Chinese-American families like my husband's?

Tad: If you start pruning down your options from that point, it can go even further. Maybe I can only write characters with certain religious ideologies, and you can only write atheists. Maybe I can only write characters who have lived in certain places, have only a specific social or economic class, and on and on and on, until what we allow ourselves to write and vicariously experience is very narrow indeed. That can't be right...

It's a mixed blessing that "multicultural" has become a buzz word in kid lit in the past few years, as if suddenly (suddenly!) the cleanly segregated masses started interbreeding and now we have to contend with this new species called "other people." What will "they" read? How will "they" relate to society? Who will write for "them"? The fact is the faces of young adult readers have always come in many colors, even if the protagonists have not. The multi-ethnic audience is nothing new. It is a shame that the industry pretends otherwise. While racial bias has always existed in Western literature (ever notice how ethnicity is often only a descriptor if a character is not Caucasian, making White Anglo Saxon the default for most characters?), at least there is now a forum for discussing it and a movement toward more diversity.

Tad: Hah. I love that "Suddenly." Suddenly we're left with, oh dear, the faceless "them." It really is ironic that suddenly multiculturalism is popular, even as it's also "othered" to the extent where it seems to merely underscore that "multicultural" means "not like me." It's almost just an additional minority group.

AF: It's certainly not a bad thing to move towards more diversity in literature, and there is a place—an important one—for writing that discusses these topics themselves and lets readers know that it's okay and normal and even good, sometimes, to worry about racial and ethnic and cultural stuff.

So, if the publishing industry has been ignoring the diverse make-up of readers until now, how is it that people from all over the world have been enjoying the exact same books for years? I'm not talking about today's heavily-marketed, printed-in-30-languages blockbusters that are specifically created to pre-sell worldwide. I mean the longstanding, tried and true novels written when the world was a bit smaller, certainly less accessible, and nowhere near as ethnically-blended as it is today. Books like J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan or, Jane Austen's Persuasion, or my personal childhood favorite, E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Answer this question, and you have the secret to writing for a multicultural audience.

Need a hint?

Okay, I'll give you the answer—don't write for race, write for people. My favorite definition in the world is for the word "humanities." You know, the classes in high school and college that cover literature, art, music, history and dance? The definition is "that which makes us human." That's as multicultural as you can get, and as expressive. My novel, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet is about a girl who is both Chinese- and African-American, but first and foremost it is about a 14-year-old girl with a crush and a family that drives her bonkers. Sound familiar? Even if you aren't biracial?

AF: I just love this, and it's so tellingly sad that the humanities are often the first to go when there are budget cuts in education…what then happens to our perception of ourselves as human? Of others? Of what it means to be human?

Tad: And even as I agree SO wholeheartedly with this (and YAY, Persuasion!), I find that it's very tricky. Maybe I've never had to "deal" with race and ethnicity within myself -- accepting my own hybridized African- and - Greek and Choctaw American has left me more open to the idea that even if it isn't readily apparent, we're all made up of more than one race or culture. Since my work is now scrutinized by more eyes than my own, though, I find that I get... nervous about how the race of my characters is perceived. I'll never forget being asked by another student during my MFA program why I wasn't "representing." Seriously, someone wanted to know why my characters weren't "more African American." Who knew there was a gradient scale!

One of the reason that YA literature has had such a great appeal for me is that it uncovered the commonality of the human experience. It reminded me that everybody is ashamed, giddy, looks foolish, feels stupid, can't sleep, gets acne or burps at inopportune times, or is so happy they feel like they can't contain it -- sometimes. We are all siblings under the skin at least once or twice a day, because humanity has some common denominators, despite its various outer wrappings.

If you write true emotions, all readers will be able to relate to them. Will you have critics? Undoubtedly. But don't let that stop you. If the community you write about takes issue with your work, the challenge is for them to write their own stories. Encourage your critics to tell their own truths, and help you to develop a better understanding of their world. Do your research, be truthful, insightful and as accurate as you can be when writing another culture, and undoubtedly the strength of the story will shine through. Don't let the color of your skin, or the pronunciation of your last name, keep you from writing outside the "Check one" racial identity box. We are human. We are multifaceted, and that is all the "multi"culture you need.

Copyright © 2008, by Sherri L. Smith

AF: There's so much strength in this idea. What better way to learn about others than to teach each other, to go out there and read and research and learn? Someone's got to be doing that research and writing, helping others learn—and the more, the merrier. Sherri, I'm so glad that you communicate such positive and constructive messages to your writing classes. It's much more conducive to creativity and learning than insisting people stay within that "check one" box.

Tad: Exactly. I can only hope to encourage other people through my own work to step out there and find out about their own and other cultures and groups and open up dialogue about their discoveries. It really opens up worlds of potential to think that you have the right to write well any story that you choose. That's awesome.

Sherri, thank you for stopping by. We're feeling inspired by our conversation about ethnicity, race and writing, and we're grateful you agreed to chat with us today!

The book is Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, a tasty title found at a bookstore near you as of this Tuesday! This funny - excruciating - horrible and wonderful account of Ana Shen's 8th grade graduation dinner will appeal to everyone who's ever been the member of a loving family -- and would (sometimes) like to be (FAR far away), um, elsewhere...

Sherri's Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet Blogtour continues! Celebrate the Lunar New Year and African American History Month with Ana Shen and her Chinese and African American families at:

February 18, 2008 @ Bildungsroman
February 21, 2008 @ The YA YA YAs
February 26, 2008 @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
February 28, 2008 @ The Brown Bookshelf.

Don't forget to join the conversation! Jump in with your thoughts and become eligible to win a copy of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. And don't miss these other thoughtful reviews of Sherri's work.

New Year's Rat courtesy of A. Fortis.

February 11, 2008

It Has Its Ups and Downs...

...does that rickety elevator we call life. Not much in the way of down time right now--I'm woefully behind on visiting all of your lovely blogs, but I thought I'd grab a few minutes to post in between grading essay paragraphs and spiffing up my website and gearing up for the big Cybils announcement.

So, writers: we spend a lot of time working on those little details of characters to make them fully come alive. One of those many details--one which I don't consider often enough--is laughter. How do your characters laugh? I don't mean a mere giggle vs. a guffaw. Do they wheeze? Squeal? Snort? Do they sound like they're on the verge of hysteria? Today on my local NPR station I heard a segment from Radiolab's most recent program on laughter. The part I caught included a group of "professional laughers" who, essentially, have found themselves increasingly out of work because of the decline of the sitcom in favor of the rise of reality television. There's something very sad about that; the end of an era.

Then I went into the grocery store. When I came out again and got back into my car, the Laughter program had gone on to a new segment, about a mysterious epidemic of contagious laughter that afflicted a community in Tanzania in 1962. The story was fascinating, and not, as it turned out, particularly funny, but it reminded me of another great component of laughter--its ability to spread, to make us silly, to remind us of childhood and of good times. Maybe, next time you've got writer's block, try laughter?

It's a good thing I listened to this wonderful program, because in a way it fortified me for the "down" part of today's ups and downs...today I got my "Dear Writer" letter from the Delacorte Press Contest for a first YA novel. I wasn't as sad as I sometimes am when I get a rejection letter; I honestly didn't expect to win this time. But I did start asking myself uncomfortable questions, and I wonder if other writers have struggled with these: How many rejections should one accumulate for a novel before calling it quits and shoving it in a drawer? Or, at that point, should one consider more revision, even if you've done all the revision you feel you can do without turning the piece into something entirely different? Is there ever a good time to decide that a piece should be entirely different?

That's one I struggle with a lot. I find it difficult to judge how far to take revisions before the story I have isn't the same story any more--and whether that's a bad thing. Or whether it's better to start afresh. I don't know. There's probably no one answer to that question, and for me, every project is different so I can't imagine there's a magic formula. Doesn't stop me wishing for one, though...

Don't forget to tune in tomorrow for a special Sherri L. Smith guest post, kicking off her blog tour for Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet!

February 10, 2008

Biracial: Containing or concerning two racial groups

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No matter if you're talking about readers in your library, students in your classroom, or presidential candidates, it's fairly apparent that multiculturalism is nowadays a BIG topic. It's a buzz-word, and people like to toss it around, some to give themselves the idea that they are ticking off all of the boxes, "identifying" all of the "groups" who have needs that need to be "met." Instead of thinking of "multi" cultures, this week we're thinking about... races. Being biracial isn't something that gets a lot of ink. Under the homogenizing umbrella of multiculturalism, there are very few venues for people who identify as biracial to have a voice.

What does it mean to be biracial? What are you if your "other" race doesn't show? Does choosing one race over the other mean that you're "selling out" or "siding" with one or the other? Is there a way to not choose, to avoid classification, to identify with both?

Or is there a way to disassociate with both sides, and come up with something totally new?

Questions of identity and invisibility come up over and over again for people whose single body embraces two races or many. Do you have answers to those questions? Would you dare to write about them?

Sherri L. Smith did.
And that's why she's our guest blogger THIS TUESDAY.

Don't miss Sherri L. Smith's mini-blog tour for Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet!

February 12, 2008 @ HERE, Finding Wonderland
February 18, 2008 @ Bildungsroman
February 21, 2008 @ The YA YA YAs
February 26, 2008 @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
February 28, 2008 @ The Brown Bookshelf - Sherri is the final featured author in the "28 Days Later" Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature.

February 09, 2008

The War at Ana's

Hostilities are resuming. Which war is it? Well... pick one.

It could be WWII, in which Ana Shen's Chinese grandfather fought against Japan, the war he won't talk about. It could be the Korean War, which Ana White's African American grandfather fought alongside Caucasian men for the first time in American history.

It could be a continuation of the war to be Ana Shen-White's Top Grandmother, the one between Ana's Chinese and African American grandmothers. That war's been declared all over again.

It was supposed to be Ana's 8th grade graduation dinner, to make up for missing the chance to dance with Jamie Tabata, the gorgeous Japanese boy she's had a crush on since the 2nd grade. Instead, it's definitely war -- Ana's fighting with her hair, her nerves and her outfit. Her parents are trying hard not to fight with anybody, and her guests -- even the Tabata's are fighting.

It's a war over dinner.
Dumplings are thrown. Words are said. Tears are shed.
Will there be any survivors?

This novel could have been a series of stereotypes exploited into comedy. Instead, it is a rich cultural stew, served with generous helpings of anxiety, nerves, anger and finally -- humor, which is the glue that holds families of all kinds together. The war at Ana's is, on the surface, between cuisines and cultures, but it's more than that. It's between what Ana hopes for, and what actually is. It's about reality -- and acceptance.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet -- these are the various flavors that make up a good meal, and make up a "marvelously biracial, multicultural family." Love 'em or hate 'em, a good meal -- and a real family -- is made up of ALL four tastes. Don't miss this amazing book.