May 31, 2009

Shhh....But W00T!

It's been quiet for a couple of days here around the Wonderland treehouse. I of course have reviews and links I'm meaning to get to, but the best intentions of mice and men fall by the wayside of the long and winding road (untangle THAT one! HA!) when life gets busy.

Fortunately, there are positive reasons why I've not been posting. But in lieu of going into detail here, I'll just direct you to this blog post on my personal blog, and then this one, as part deux of the story.

Once you read those, you might feel like telling me, "and you think you'll be LESS busy now??" Well,'s going to be a couple of months of serious buckling down. But I promise I won't disappear.

May 27, 2009

Great Graphic Novels Roundup

Mostly we read YA-oriented fiction and graphic novels around here, but every so often I get tempted into a few graphic novels for kids, mainly because the books released by companies like Toon Books and First Second are so appealing, of such high quality, and so nicely produced that I can't resist giving them a mention. Today I've got a few from First Second, and then a quick revisit of a YA graphic novel that was a Cybils nominee a couple of years ago.

I was not at all surprised to find out that the authors of Adventures in Cartooning gave major props to Ed Emberley, who produced many a kid-friendly volume on how to draw all sorts of things from animals to vehicles to people. (I myself spent many hours obsessively drawing according to Ed Emberley's step-by-step instructions, when I was little. Um, littlER.) This step-by-step guide to the fundamentals of cartooning and comics introduces kids (and adults) to the language of comics as a medium, using basic and non-intimidating building blocks. All of it is couched within a story that demonstrates as it entertains—the story of a princess who wants to make comics, and the Magic Cartooning Elf who helps her along the way. Much, much fun.

Also from First Second comes Joey Fly: Private Eye in Creepy Crawly Crime. It's just what it sounds like from the title: you've got your noir detective, your over-eager assistant, and your dame in trouble who turns out to BE trouble. And, of course, there's a mystery to solve. With bugs. Because, of course, Joey Fly is, well, a fly, his assistant's a young scorpion, and the sexy dame is, as you might expect, a butterfly. There's a lot here to entertain older readers as well as kids—the puns and turns of phrase are particularly rewarding if you have any familiarity at all with traditional detective fiction, and I can absolutely see this being a fun one for parents to read aloud to (or with) kids. The illustration is reminiscent of old-school funny pages—simple but expressive—and there are a lot of entertaining visual details to reward repeated readings. Bonus: Fans of funny pages and quaint classic cartoons might also enjoy Tiny Tyrant, Volume One: The Ethelbertosaurus, chronicling the continuing misadventures of a six-year-old king who's constantly getting into trouble.

Now, for older readers, a butt-kicking, girl-power, martial arts mini-epic from Minx that I only recently was able to get hold of from my library: Re-Gifters by Mike Carey, Sonny Liew, and Marc Hempel. Dik Seong, aka Dixie, lives in L.A.'s Koreatown in a bit of a tough neighborhood, but luckily for her, she's into the martial art hapkido, so she can defend herself physically. And she's GOOD—really good. Too bad she can't defend herself against the charms of Adam, a fellow talented hapkido student. He's cute, great at hapkido...and she has to fight against him in an upcoming tournament. Although this one nods a few times in the direction of manga (or manhwa), it has a deeper appeal that lies in the sympathetic narrator Dixie and the strength of the story itself. I was definitely cheering for her the whole time, and since I did a little hapkido ages ago, I enjoyed the choice of that somewhat lesser-known martial art as the focus of Dixie's interest. I think this would potentially have appeal for male readers as well, because of the martial arts element and because Dixie's not a girly-girl. Very strong all around—I hope to see future work by this creative trio, even though DC sadly put the kibosh on Minx.

May 23, 2009

SBBT Winds Down, 48-Hour Book Challenge Winds Up

In case you missed yesterday's Summer Blog Blast Tour stops, like (ahem) somebody who is trying to hide a sheepish and embarrassed expression as she types, please go check out the final day of fabulous interviews:

Jenny Davidson at Chasing Ray
Rebecca Stead at Fuse #8
Ryan Mecum at Writing and Ruminating
Lauren Myracle at Bildungsroman
Kristin Cashore at HipWriterMama
Rachel Caine at The YA YA YAs

Also, the Book Fair for Boys over at Guys Lit Wire is winding down, but it's up through Memorial Day, so if you haven't contributed yet, please consider making a donation (full instructions here). It's been an incredible success thanks to donors from all across North America and even across the Pond. Not only that, Powell's Books themselves made a contribution tot he cause. It's the kind of thing that makes me so proud to be part of the kidlitosphere.

Once these great events wind down, you might be looking for something to do with your time. Though I never seem to have that problem these days, I still might take the plunge and participate in MotherReader's Fourth Annual 48-Hour Book Challenge, just for the fun of it.

Lastly, check out the great podcast on Advice for Aspiring Readers that's part of Just One More Book!'s Rock Stars of Reading series--there are some awesome literary folks taking part, including Norton Juster, Mo Willems, Jane Yolen, and tons more.

Happy gorgeous weekend!

May 21, 2009

Summer Blog Blast Tour: Alma Alexander

Readers of adult speculative fiction will have long known about the talents of writer Alma Alexander, but we first encountered her more recently. Our introduction came during the 2007 Cybils, when her first young adult novel, Worldweavers: Gift of the Unmage, was nominated for the Science Fiction and Fantasy category. Later, Aquafortis had the privilege of meeting her in person at the 2008 Kidlitosphere Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Warm and friendly and definitely a woman unafraid to travel, Ms. Alexander was born in Yugoslavia and has lived in parts of Africa, the U.K. and New Zealand. An unusual start to her writing began with graduation from the University of Cape Town with an MSc in Microbiology. Ms. Alexander spent several years running a scientific journal for the Allergy Society of South Africa before moving on. She now lives with her husband in the Pacific Northwest.

Ms. Alexander's writing travels have taken her to the intersection between fantasy and cyberspace, to create a unique space in speculative fiction, as seen in her Worldweavers trilogy. Naturally, we had a lot of questions about everything from Ms. Alexander's writing process to her opinions about YA fantasy in general — we hope you enjoy her answers as much as we did.

FW: What was the biggest challenge in going from writing fantasy for an adult audience to writing fantasy for a YA audience? After your success with your adult series, what inspired you to try your hand at writing for young adults? What is the difference, for you, in writing for one group or the other?

AA: I do not, never have done, never will, write "down" to a level considered appropriate for "children". When I myself was one of those children, authors being patronizing and assuming I was ignorant or lazy was one of the top reasons why I would toss a book aside without finishing it. If the author cannot respect me, the reader, then I didn't see why I should reciprocate. Now, I fully realise that I am probably one of a subset of humankind that is defined by being precocious, hungry, and responding positively to being challenged - but I honestly do believe that many young readers today would welcome more of a challenge than they are getting these days. As a reader - and then as a writer - I was never afraid of using a "long" word if that was the perfect word for what I needed to say; when I was growing up I often needed no more than a context in order to be able to figure out what an unfamiliar word meant - and if not, there was always the dictionary. So in answer to the first part of that multi-part question - the biggest challenge from going to one audience to another has not and never will be the tone of the books or the language in which they are written. I have had to bow to certain aspects of the culture in which and for which I write - the second book in the Worldweavers saga, "Spellspam", involves spam emails... and I don't suppose I have to tell you what kind of common spam I definitely could NOT use in a YA book of this nature... - but that was more or less the only concession. I do not believe for a moment that the troubles and trials of someone who happens to be fourteen or fifteen are any less valid or important than a mid-life crisis, and indeed are frequently far MORE important and life-changing than the latter, and my teen characters have choices to make and decisions to wrestle with that are every bit as complex as those that would face - and probably faze - an "adult" character.

As for what inspired me to YA, the short answer to that lies in my having attended - completely arbitrarily - a panel on writing YA at the 2002 World Fantasy which panel YA doyenne Jane Yolen made a throwaway comment that she did not like the way that some of the Harry Potter books treated girls. That really was all it took - I was off with Thea Winthrop in her own world before the panel came to an end. Before that moment I had no intention of writing YA, no story, no inspiration. But writing moves in mysterious ways sometimes, and seven years down the line, here I am, a YA trilogy under my belt. You just never know.

As for the difference - I've *LOVED* having a young audience. I've loved interacting with teens who have read the books, I've loved listening to their praise and their concerns, I've loved the pure unadulterated honesty and straightforward responses that I get from the teen readers of these books. I've loved the language that I've had to learn to understand my readers (I get the general gist of "you PWN all other writers" but it's different when it's aimed at you personally in an email from a fourteen-year-old...) If I can, I fully intend to write more for this audience. Never having had kids of my own, I was a little afraid of my first school visits - but it turns out that not only do I enjoy them, I'm also apparently surprisingly adept at managing a teen audience. Who knew...

FW:"You pwn all other writers!" Okay, that's something I'd want tattoeed somewhere!

You utilize a great deal of Native American mythology in your Worldweavers books—the idea of a spirit journey, the character of Grandmother Spider. What sort of research did you undertake to incorporate these themes? What made you decide to use this lore in your series?

AA: I read a lot of background for that particular aspect of the stories, and the more I read the more I realised how rich and beautiful and amazing that mythology is. And how fundamentally UNKNOWN in the mainstream literature and media it is. Sure, there are touches of it here and there, but quite often they come in the guise of the "magical Native American" character, the wise old shaman whose role in the story is to be a Yoda who speaks in more grammatical sentences and has better hair.

One of the things I wanted to do with these books was provide an American counterbalance for the heavily English Harry Potter books - so English, so British, that even the title of an early book had to be "Translated" into American in order for American audiences to make sense of it. I grew up with the English cultural ethos; I am familiar at first hand with English boarding schools (although they NEVER had the sort of food provided by Hogwarts, trust me), the House systems and the prefects, tea and scones, all that stuff - but much of that is as alien to an American kid as though it was all set in a real Fairyland, or on Mars. So I wanted to provide the sort of setting that was closer to home for those American readers. And once I was headed in that direction... the New World mythology was a natural road by which to travel there.

FW: Well, definitely need more mythic traditions within young adult literature, and the Anasazi are certainly a new twist. So, where did the idea for the Worldweavers series come from? What was the germ of the idea that led to Thea's character and the idea of the Wandless Academy?

AA: Kind of went over that territory already a little (see part of the answer to Question 1 and most of the answer for Question 2). But essentially what I wanted to do can be boiled down into a a few fairly specific bullet points -

* I wanted to create an American magic, an American adventure, in order to balance out the preponderance of the British influence in the YA genre as exemplified by the seven-book phenomenon that is Harry Potter. For a long time YA fantasy appeared to BE Harry Potter... and very little, if anything at all, else. So I wanted to take the adventure back West, to the New World, to show that there was magic here, too, to tell the kids whose roots were on THESE shores that they too had something that they could call their own (and understand without the need for the across-the-pond translation).

* I wanted to create a set of adventures where the GIRL gets to go and have them... and show that she's capable, and strong, and willing to take risks and make hard decisions.

* I wanted to create a story where the protagonist was not a lost orphan, but to show that protagonist in the midst of a busy family with all the attendant family troubles and dramas.

* I wanted to create a story of a protagonist who gets to grapple with her own problems - hence, instead of the Boy Who Lived, I have the Girl Who Couldn't... until she figured out, and chose to grasp, the fact that she could... only not in the ways that everyone else expected her to.

I wanted a character who grew and changed and was fundamentally transformed by the decisions that she was called on to make – a character who learns that it is not strength to obstinately go it alone, and not weakness to know that she can rely on her family and her friends to support her when she needs them. I wanted to write a fantasy which would be no less enchanting and engaging for having a "real" teen as a protagonist, someone who had to deal (on top of the requirements of her adventure storyline) with many of the "real" problems that affect real kids in America today.

As far as the Wandless Academy was concerned, it grew out of the "Girl Who Couldn't" trope - there had to be a way to cope with these people in the kind of world which runs on magic in which the rest of the culture is rooted - and so I had to create a sort of anti-Hogwarts, the school where magic is not only not taught, it is actively forbidden...

FW: And you were really successful in creating a story that has a lot of the same elements as the Potter books - the same possibilities in magic - but arriving a similar conclusions from a thoroughly different angle.

You've had a unique and diverse upbringing in a number of different countries. Has this affected your writing in any way, or even your choice of writing as a career? If so, how?

AA: Living in, and absorbing, so many different cultures and points of view has inevitably made my own broader and deeper than some of my peers who have never left the town where they were born. I have seen a lot of the world and I am in awe of it, of its many changing faces, of its beauty and its cruelty, of its power. I've used SOME of that multifarious background in my writing, sure - there's an (still unpublished) fantasy that I have somewhere that's based on Maori and Pacific Island mythologies - legacy of my six years' sojourn in New Zealand; I haven't woven Africa into a fantasy yet, but I'm sure that'll come someday.

Part of the gift of this life that I've lived is a double-edged sword of being able to understand completely two utterly opposing points of view and make a good case myself for arguing either of them - I think they might be reduced to recruiting people like me if First Contact ever happened with a truly alien race, because it's people like me who have learned to come to terms with what is alien between individual representatives of widely-divergent representatives of fundamentally incompatible and yet parallel-evolved cultural communities on our own world right here and now.

This comes in useful in a writing career. One's characters kind of cease to be cardboard once you learn to look behind their eyes and start figuring out what's going on inside their heads. It's the iceberg school of writing - you wind up knowing MUCH more about a character, ANY character, than will ever show in any given story – but the things you don't show, you don't talk about, are what gives depth and personality to the face that your character DOES show to his or her world.

I'm fundamentally very grateful for all the opportunities that I've had to see, to learn, to travel, to grow. I have no doubt that these opportunities have fundamentally affected what I chose to do for a living, and the manner in which I have pursued that dream.

FW: In both your YA and adult fantasy series, you include a diverse crop of strong female heroines, such as the quiet but clever Thea in Worldweavers. Do you think that fantasy as a genre still needs to fill a gender gap in terms of strong women as protagonists? Is there still a noticeable gender gap with respect to the writers of fantasy as well? What has your experience been?

AA: I think there are actually far more strong and competent women out there in the genre than they are being given credit for. I was on a panel that discussed this at a recent convention, and I'll say here
and now what I said then - I did not set out to write "strong female characters". I set out to write GOOD STORIES, and the characters who stepped up to take on the protagonist role in those stories...happened to be of the female persuasion. I firmly believe that what readers are looking for are strong protagonists in strong stories - and while there is some truth in the saying that males (boys) will not read about female heroines while females (girls) can and will get immersed in stories with a male hero, that isn't the final word. I think that this is a chasm that CAN be bridged.

Having said that, there does seem to be a preponderance of female writers in the fantasy genre these days, and many of those are choosing to tackle the "urban fantasy" kind of story where the action takes place within or underneath what is recognisably our own world - and often with kick-ass heroines often depicted on those book covers as headless women whose most visible attributes appear to be a trim
rear upholstered in poured-on black leather. The "strength" in these heroines is often measured by their ability to literally – and physically - overcome their adversaries by dint of actual dirty hand to hand combat. That's a kind of strength, sure. I HAVE written warrior-heroines (Xaforn in "The Secrets of Jin Shei" comes to mind) - as you say, I tend to like the quiet but clever characters like Thea, people who figure things out with brain rather than brawn. I do think that there is a gender gap in that THAT kind of protagonist tends to be female - because of an erroneous assumption that a male hero who will not fight is by definition a wimp and therefore not worthy of further consideration. Girls are given a little more leeway on this.

But I do think there's more of them out there than we know – the strong, quiet kind. And they're making their presence felt.

FW: The idea of a school of "misfits," of kids who are told they're nothing special but who, as it turns out, are actually quite special and indeed powerful in their own ways, ways previously unimaginable to those around them - it's a powerful metaphor for adolescents coming of age and learning their own strengths and talents. What drew you to the fantasy genre to address the issues and tribulations of growing up? What draws you to fantasy in general?

AA: In all honesty, one of the most powerful - and most widespread – kinds of magic there is or has ever been is the simple process of GROWING UP. Much of the time it's a quiet magic which bubbles under the surface and is rarely glimpsed out in the open except at milestone moments when someone suddenly realises that though the power of some magic spell they are no longer a toddler, or a "kid", or even that they are not young any more.

The "coming of age" stories shine a light on that magic, however briefly, and in that light the readers of those stories can recognise and/or remember those moments in their own lives when the growing-up magic showed through. And this is not a pretty, vapid magic, either - there are no cute fairies fluttering past on dragonfly wings or rainbow castles on clouds, this is REAL magic, the kind that transforms and transforms permanently at that, and that has a definite and often heavy cost associated with it. Dealing with that, in real life, can often be hard - and this is the true raw power of fantasy, that it can take a tough subject like this and distill it into story so sweet, so pure, that you drink it down without realising that you've done it until the bitter aftertaste of it kicks in sometimes, just to remind you. The power of fantasy is to leave lasting impressions and to teach about difficult things in a way that makes those lessons easier to take, and to absorb, and to internalise, and then to perhaps put into practice. That pretty much answers both parts of your question, because what I am drawn to in fantasy is the pure power of transformation - the manner in which you are drawn into a world where it isn't so much that anything is possible but that certain things are possible under different rules that you might be used to... but there are ALWAYS laws, and there are ALWAYS consequences.

Fantasy is, I believe, one of the most fundamental achievements of the human creative spirit.

FW: Here's where we ask for helpful hints! As writers ourselves, both interested in someday publishing fantasy, what can you tell us about the challenges of writing fantasy, developing a world and its rules and characters? What is the most challenging thing about it, and what is the most rewarding? What was your road to publication?

AA: I myself started writing when I was - to coin a cliche - knee-high to a grasshopper. I wrote my first full-length novel (yes, fantasy!) at 11, and thankfully it does not survive - as I recall it was heavily derivative and positively overflowing with tropes which were long since worn into threadbare shabby ghosts of their former selves. But I kind of KNEW that, and I didn't stop there. I continued to write, and my next novel (completed at about 14) DOES survive, and the bones of that thing are still good despite being clothed in the flesh of what was still very much adolescent and beginner writing style. There were other stories, and at least one other novel, interspersed in there somewhere - but it was the fantasy novel which I wrote in the lab, as it were, while pursuing my MSc degree in Molecular Biology that was published - first in New Zealand (2001/2002) and then in the USA (2005) as the Changer of Days duology (In America, "The Hidden Queen" and "Changer of Days") - written as one book, the 250,000 word MS was split by the publishers into two parts because of its mammoth size which means that - completely inadvertently - "The Hidden Queen" now ends on a complete cliffhanger... it isn't my fault, honest...

I then wrote and published "The Secrets of Jin Shei", written as historical fantasy or alternate history but frequently marketed as "mainstream"... and currently out in 13 languages worldwide. That was followed by "Embers of Heaven", a sort of follow-up to "Jin Shei" but also a stand-alone book by itself, also currently in multiple foreign language editions (six at last count) but not, alas, published in the United States. My next project was the YA Worldweavers trilogy – "Gift of the Unmage", "Spellspam" and "Cybermage". Counting in here my early published work - a book of fantasy stories/ dark fairy tales published under an educational imprint by Longmans UK, an autobiographical non-fiction volume about my growing up in Africa called "Houses in Africa" and a mainstream email epistolary novel written with coauthor Robert Deckert (the man I eventually married), the third Worldweavers book, "Cybermage", is actually my tenth published book. Which is a bit of a milestone.

As for general advice... Read. A *lot*. I read everything. I am still reading, and learning my craft from other people's brilliance (or, sometimes, lack of it). You cannot be a writer - leastways not a good writer - without having been a reader first.

You need to know early on that "writing" and "being a writer" are two different things. Writing is what you do because you love it and because it gives you a reason to get up in the morning. "Being a writer" is often the description used by people who don't really want to write, but who would very much like "having written" - as in, gather in the laurels without actually doing the necessary work. To become a published author you need a large dose of obstinacy, a dollop of perseverance, a refusal to give up, and a huge, huge helping of luck. And oh yes, a smattering of talent. But just talent without the ability or the determination to stick it out through the lean not going to get anyone anywhere. You need to know where you want to go, and you need to be absolutely determined to get there. If you see opportunities, make sure you are in their path so that they can trip over you. Get to know people. Tell your stories. Never give up your dream.

Beyond that... there is no secret, no elixir, no magic spell, no shortcut, no secret handshake. It's all you, and what you are willing to put in as equity. It's your dream. You may have to work for it - harder than you believed it was possible to work for anything. But you gotta want it first.

It can all be summed up in a single sentence - DON'T GIVE UP ON YOUR DREAM. If you have it, hang on to it. If you lean against any brick wall long enough... it WILL fall down. It's up to you to decide just how hard, and how long, you can handle leaning on that wall. But if you want to see what's on the other side... don't give up. And the other side is a country that is sometimes hard going, that has harsh winters and often bad roads... but that is beautiful beyond compare, and that will fill your soul to overflowing all the days of your life.

FW: Thank you -- for the encouragement not to give up, especially. It's good to know that all kinds of minds and backgrounds are needed to produce good YA fiction.

What are you working on currently? Do you have any upcoming or future projects in the pipeline that you can tell our readers about?

AA: A new novel is already with my agent in New York, and we are working on it prior to presenting the MS to publishers - which is due to happen very shortly. It's not YA, it's a "grown up" book more along the lines of "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Currently working on something that's a little more closely related to magical realism than to pure high fantasy - but I have other YA ideas ready to pursue, too. The next few years are shaping to be busy.

FW: In this economy, as all writers know, publishing houses are folding, and writers are feeling as tense as anyone. What, if anything, do you want to say to writers about the value of writing or the creative life in this era?

AA: You may not get to PUBLISH a great deal - but this is the perfect time to build inventory. At some point in the future there will be a need for new stories - and having them on hand will give you a leg-up on that ladder right from the word go. Keep writing. Don't stop just because everything else appears to be grinding to a screaming halt around you. In fact, USE the fact that everything appears to be grinding to a screaming halt around you. In the words of an apt quotation, nothing bad can ever really happen to a writer. It's all material...

FW: Is there anything interviewers never ask that you’d like to tell your readers?

AA: "How do you reach back out to a writer of a book that has affected you?" - I myself have answered that question, frequently, by writing to the writers of the books which I have loved , to tell them so. So here I am, telling you - if you loved a book, take a little bit of time and find a way to tell the writer about it. Trust me, it's the best thing that can possibly happen to a writer - finding a note from a reader in their inbox, telling them that some child of their mind has found a friend, and a home.

It's what keeps us writing.

Tremendous thanks to Alma Alexander for taking the time to answer our questions, and with such depth and attentiveness. Be sure to check out Ms. Alexander's short fiction at Book View Cafe, or drop by her website, or blog. And, don't forget today's other stops on the Summer Blog Blast Tour:

Siobhan Vivian at Miss Erin
Laurel Snyder at Shaken & Stirred
Cindy Pon at The YA YA YAs
Thalia Chaltas at Bildungsroman

May 19, 2009

The Summer Blog Blast Tour: Grrrl Power!

"No way do I see you doing this, Kayla."

Then the two of us stared at each other. See, here was the thing about my father. He hated the fact that I was such a loser. His favorite story to tell is about an incident that happened when I was like five or six. Some boy pushed me off the swing set, so I went to play on the slide. The same boy came over and pushed me again. He says I got up and slugged the boy. He says this with pride.

He says, to his knowledge, that was probably the last time I stood up for myself.

He says I need to stand up for myself more.

He says my friendship with "a dominant personality like Rosalie" is the worst thing ever to happen to me. No doubt he feels that my life would drastically improve if I let a dominant personality like him push me around!

- from The Kayla Chronicles, by Sherri Winston

Smart, self-conscious Kayla has a problem. Her father has bet her five hundred dollars that she won't have the courage to go through with an audition to the Lady Lions, the cheer group at her high school. She's already being pushed into auditioning by her best friend, Rosalie, who is positive a girl like Kayla will never make the cut, but she needs her to try and fail big, so they can take the Lady Lions down for discrimination. Kayla's best friend thinks she's going to fail. Kayla's father thinks she's too scared to try. And Kayla's too timid to step up, speak out, and claim what she wants.

Kayla's lost in a family with her military dad - whom she calls The Great Oppressor -- and her fake helpless grandmother, whom she privately nicknames Demolition Diva. She feels like she has NOTHING whatsoever in common with her mother, who is a passive female who gave up her career to cater to her father and have kids, and the self-satisfied little termite who is her sister, whose empty head is only filled with drama and divahood. Until she passed away, Kayla was raised by a Real Woman, her grandmother Jojo, whose strong example of fulfilled womanhood is something Kayla had always hoped to follow.

Problem is, though she shops thrift stores, Kayla loves shoes. And clothes. And cheerleading. And when she makes the Lady Lions, Kayla is both overjoyed, horrified, and thoroughly conflicted.

Is life wide enough to encompass more than one ideology? Or, to break it down: is it possible to be jonesing for shoes and still waving the banner for feminism, too?

Sherri Winston graduated from Michigan State University with a major in journalism and a minor in history. She works in the field of journalism, at present, a columnist for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and in her copious free time (as much as is left after being a mom to two girls), she's writing novels. Her first, Acting was published in 2004, and is the story of twins who could not be more different. Said Kirkus, "Full of yo-yoing emotions many teens will recognize, this is a forthright examination of sex that makes plain how hard it is to keep the hormones from raging."

Her most recent novel, The Kayla Chronicles garnered positive comment from Booklist, whose starred review asserted, "few recent novels for younger YAs mesh levity and substance this successfully," while blogger Jia at Dear Author agreed that it was "told with the right amount of attitude and sass."

We were curious about the author of two such vivid and insightful books about young adult women, and tracked her down. We're excited that Sherri's found time to talk with us.

Finding Wonderland: First of all, thank you for coming! We just wanted to say how much we love the cover and theme of The Kayla Chronicles, and want to pass on our kudos to designer Alison Impey (who also designed Ghost Girl and Every Soul A Star.) To get to our questions -- in The Kayla Chronicles, you depict feminist characters of a number of different types—the militant, the word-warrior, the old-school activist. Do you see yourself in any of the characters in your novel? Were any of their experiences informed by real-life events?

Sherri Winston: Kayla was a vehicle for me to examine some "what ifs" from my life. What if I'd let it be known how much I loved dancing? What if I'd had the courage to step out from my "brainiac" image? The strong personal influences, such as her grandmother and Dr. X were both influenced by my own grandmother... a woman who never learned to hold her tongue, God bless her and rest her soul.

FW: Hah. Pretty much every family has a relative or two like that!

Every novel also has that element of "what if," in a way. Your first novel, Acting, features a set of identical twins whose lives and attitudes are vastly different, much like Kayla's and her sister, Amira's. What made you decide to feature twins as a focus for a YA story? A more traditional problem novel would have featured the narrator as the one to become pregnant. Did you ever consider writing the novel in this way? Why or why not?

SDW: I have had a life-long fascination with twindom. And, too, a life-long fascination with examining how life looks through the eyes of the sibling who is not the focus of the crisis.

FW: Those two points certainly came through successfully in Acting. It's really unusual to have the "bad girl" be the one a.) not pregnant, and b.) telling the tale.

Certain topics in young adult fiction are described as “edgy;” Acting has what can be considered an “edgy” topic, as it pertains to the drama surrounding a teen pregnancy, yet librarians report that your books are often stolen from the library, so definitely, teens want to read about “edgy.” What’s your take on the trends in young adult fiction for teens of color? What was your experience interacting with publishing professionals on these touchy topics? Did you have to change any details you would have preferred to leave in? What would you do the same in dealing with these topics, and what would you do differently now?

SDW: Acting was my baby; I felt very connected to the two "Eves" in the story. Edgy storylines are only edgy because they deal with what teens know to be true and adults wish was untrue!

I was lucky with Acting. The publisher (Marshall Cavendish) embraced the topic and very little was reworked. If anything, I was allowed to flesh out some challenging aspects of the story. I can't think of much I'd do differently with Acting. I loved the characters, the imagery and the immediacy of the story. This wasn't a story about girls of color. This was a story about girls of any color who struggle with the power of their sexuality and the power to shape their own identities. That's good stuff.

FW: Now, The Kayla Chronicles uses a fast pace and humor (love those Kayla-isms!) to get across the important ideas of being true to oneself as well as being open to others. What is your background in humor writing? What were some of the challenges of writing a novel that was both serious and hilarious?

SDW: Believe it or not, Kayla came about as a sort of antidote to Acting. Acting was so serious and encouraged me to reach into dark, hidden feelings. As a way to lift my spirits, Kayla became the funny, self-effacing character in my head. The biggest challenge with writing her was trying to make sure she wasn't too snarky. Oh, we of the acerbic wit set are oft misunderstood! :-)

FW: Oh, we feel you on that one!
It can be argued that the reading public as well as the publishing world is slow to change when it comes to new ideas and new ways of looking at race and ethnicity. Yet your main characters all, in one way or another, flout convention and challenge the mainstream depictions of young women of color. What's the reception of your characters been like? Have you encountered any challenges from readers or anyone else about your very individual, very non-stereotypical protagonists?

SDW: Not at all. While living in Fort Lauderdale, I routinely visited schools with large populations of color and found that the girls who read never batted an eye. They know, like I know, that the public perception is often influenced by media. The truth is, black girls tend not to be nearly as hip, street, gangsta, ghetto, recalcitrant or cynical as media would have us believe. We read, we laugh, we fear, we love, we seek joy and so on...we just do it with our own flair.

FW: Too true.
Along the same lines, do you see it as one of the duties of the writer to help change minds? To educate, inform, or enlighten as well as entertain? Do you consider yourself to be, as a non-stereotype embracing writer, an activist writer as well?

SDW: I think the opportunity to educate, inform, enlighten and entertain are the province of every author. If I did not feel a project would allow me to do all those things, I would find it a project not worth doing.

FW: So, how did you get started writing fiction? What was your path to publication? Was it always your goal to write fiction for young adults? Would you consider writing fiction for adults?

SDW: I started writing fiction when I was seven. I love the genre totally and completely. As a kid, my goal was to grow up and create the first African American Nancy Drew character. That dream still drives me. I have some ideas for an adult series, but right now YA and middle readers have my heart. The only non-fiction I've ever considered is history. And as of yet, I'm not quite smart enough to make that work.

FW: We're not buying the "not smart" bit, but we are cheering the African American Nancy Drew! YA lit needs more smart mysteries, and we're looking forward to seeing what you do in that vein!

Now, do you find that your journalistic writing informs your fiction writing, or vice-versa? If so, how? Is it a positive influence or a challenge?

SDW: The two forms feed of one another. My journalism became stronger and more accessible because of use of fiction-stylization. My fiction is stronger because of how journalism brings structure and immediacy to my writing. Both demonstrate that good writing is good writing and the laws of good writing can only make you stronger.

FW: Ah. But sometimes, you've got to pick the career that pays, right? In this economy, as all writers know, publishing houses are folding, and writers are feeling the pinch as much as anyone. What, if anything, do you want to say to writers about the value of writing or the creative life in this era? What can you say to young people who want to write, but can’t see their parents looking at that as a way to pay their bills?

SDW: Writing is a tough business. But whether you go to law school or become an accountant to pay the bills, if you are a writer, then eventually you will -- you must -- write. Writers find a way no matter the economy.

FW: What are you currently working on? What can you tell us about it?

SDW: I am working on an adorable middle-grade book about 10-year-old entrepreneur who wants to become president of her school. It's funny and heartwarming and I've really come to love the character and can't wait for the book to come out.

FW: Sounds great! Now, you're a somewhat elusive character, so we want to give our readers a little insight into the essential YOU. What’s a question you’ve not been asked, but would like your readers to know about you?

SDW: I'm a very audio-driven person. So if you'd asked me how, if at all, do audio books affect my writing, I'd probably say, immensely. When you listen to audio books, you become aware of how your characters sound. I often cannot write a character until I can hear them in my head. Once they have a voice, a cadence, a tonal quality, then they come alive. But I have to be able to hear them before they can become real.

FW: Voices bring characters alive. That's cool. We really "heard" Kayla in her various funny asides, her running commentary on her whacked out family, and her various Kayla-isms, which kept us smiling. We've so enjoyed having you visit us, and we look forward to -- no, expect, my dear, to see that Nancy Drew character coming at us soon!

Thank you for being here!!

SDW:You're so very welcome! Thanks so much for including me!

Aside from our exceptional contribution, there's a lot of good stuff going on with the Summer Blog Blast Tour today. Here's the skinny on what's going on with the rest of the blogosphere:

And JUST SO YOU KNOW: the Guys Lit Wire Book Fair for Boys continues through Friday. We're supporting the guys incarcerated in L.A. County whose lives are going to be better with books to read. In partnership with InsideOut, this Book Fair is full of awesome: an opportunity to read, an opportunity to write, an opportunity to think. Do, get involved, and thanks.

May 18, 2009

Summer Blog Blast Tour 2009 Kicks Off!

There's a crop of excellent interviews kicking off this year's Summer Blog Blast Tour--tune in here tomorrow for our conversation with Sherri Winston, author of the funny, feminist, and fun novel The Kayla Chronicles. Int he meantime, check out today's bunch:

Andrew Mueller at Chasing Ray
Kekla Magoon at Fuse #8
Carrie Jones at Writing & Ruminating
Amber Benson at Bildungsroman
Greg van Eekhout at Shaken & Stirred

And now, for the links. Firstly, I heard a really interesting piece today on NPR's Marketplace about a company called Scribd, which is aiming to start selling e-books at a price set by writers and publishers--who then get to keep 80% of the profits. Go check it out. It made me stop and consider--both as a writer and as a reader--what this might mean for the future of books, the future of reading and of writing careers. As long as people keep reading, I'd say that's great, but I think writers need to make a living too...

Secondly, a couple of great articles about writing I encountered over the past, oh, month or so (YES, I'm behind on posting links. Doh!). Both of these come via our good blog bud Robin Brande. Some time ago she twittered an article about knowing when to quit as a writer--when you're questioning your dream, and you don't know if you should try to keep going or just give up and become, say, a happy-go-lucky forklift operator. Assuming you've decided to stay the course, you might want to check out this piece about How to Survive Your Publishing Career, complete with brutal wake-up calls and, yes, that ubiquitous kernel of hope they taught us about repeatedly in our YA writing classes.

Though I have more stuff to post, I'll leave it at that for now, and just ask you all to stop by for our SBBT interview tomorrow, and to go check out the other fabulous interviews.

May 17, 2009

This Week in Booklit News

There's something amazing about getting books to be a part of the collective national conversation. Far from being something that only so-called "intellectuals" can get into, books are a gateway into all kinds of topics and places for anyone, and suddenly, they're being mentioned everywhere. It's kind of cool that books -- and reading -- are fast becoming "cool" again. (Of course, for some it's not as if they were ever uncool to begin with!)

Two fun bookish things have been happening in the blogosphere this week: one, Guys Lit Wire's Book Fair for Boys, in partnership with InsideOut, has been opening the door for generous people to donate books to incarcerated guys. What began as a wish to more fully commit ourselves to our intention to promote reading for guys turned into a project that has given us faith in people and hope for a small corner of light in a dark world. The opportunity to donate books continues all through next week.

The second fun thing is that MotherReader has announced the dates for the 48 Hour Reading Challenge, and is talking about prizes and other fun stuff.

Finally, the Summer Blog Blast Tour might have sneaked up on you, but not Chasing Ray. Find the full week's schedule here.

May 15, 2009

Ooh - new nonfiction:

Yanked directly from Cynsations:

Congratulations to Nancy Thalia Reynolds on the release of Mixed Heritage in Young Adult Literature (Scarecrow, 2009)! From the promotional copy: "Mixed-heritage people are one of the fastest-growing groups in the United States, yet culturally they have been largely invisible, especially in young adult literature. Mixed Heritage in Young Adult Literature is a critical exploration of how mixed-heritage characters (those of mixed race, ethnicity, religion, and/or adoption) and real-life people have been portrayed in young adult fiction and nonfiction."

Hello, new book I dearly want to read.
Check out the rest of Cynthia's post to find out how to win a copy of The Chosen One. (Thanks, Cyn.)

May 14, 2009

Reviews Roundup (aka My Library Books Are Due TODAY)

I did the Bad Thing of devouring a whole load of books without doing writeups in between like I should, so here I am left with a short stack (mmm....short stack) that I really need to deal with before I take them back to their rightful home. So, without further ado, here are some quick capsule reviews for you.

E. Lockhart is a definite favorite after The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, one of my favorite YA books of last year. Her Ruby Oliver books are great fun, too, though perhaps not quite as epic or quite as brilliantly clever as the inimitable Frankie. The Boy Book--sequel to The Boyfriend List--continues the traumas and dramas of Roo, her ex-friends, current friends, potential romances, life at a tiny Seattle prep school, and adventures in therapy. Her neuroses are described with a lot of humor, but there's a serious side to the story, too. It strikes me that this would be a great set of books to hand to readers who are looking to branch out from series fiction but enjoy school/friendship/romance themes.

Buy The Boy Book from an independent bookstore near you!

I know you've probably heard just about all you can stand about The Graveyard Book, but Neil Gaiman's latest deserves every award and accolade it's been given, in my opinion. His brain must be specially jacked into the source of good stories. Anyway, the story of Bod—Nobody Owens—is an unconventional coming-of-age tale with a lot of classic story and folk tale elements that avid readers will recognize and enjoy. Most of all, though, it was the characters I fell in love with—characters who, for the most part, are no longer even among the living, but nonetheless fully realized, varied individuals. I adored just about every one of the "good guys," was creeped out by the bad guys, and was even thrown for a loop a few times as far as motives were concerned—but in every way I was convinced and willingly enthralled. And, of course, I loved the illustrations by Dave McKean, who's quite a visual storyteller in his own right.

Buy The Graveyard Book from an independent bookstore near you!

Can I just tell you how relieved I was when, at the end of Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, I learned that there's going to be a sequel? The year is 1776, and the seeds of the American Revolution are already beginning to stir and sprout. Isabel is thirteen years old and her sister Ruth just a child when their owner dies, leaving the two of them free. The only hitch is their owner's cruel nephew, who refuses to recognize their freedom and instead sells them to equally cruel Loyalists in New York City. Isabel learns, among other things, where her loyalties truly lie and what "freedom for all men" really means for a slave girl. She's a compelling character—loyal and brave, plucky and smart, but sensitive enough to retain her humanity and sense of what's right through some truly traumatic experiences. I enjoyed this portrait of the conflicted beginnings of our country, too—similar to M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing books, Chains shows the multifaceted complexity of a subject that tends to be taught rather one-sidedly in schools.

Buy Chains from an independent bookstore near you!

Lastly, an author I've been meaning to check out for a couple of years is Shaun Tan, and I finally ran across his collection Tales from Outer Suburbia at the library. I was not disappointed—if you're a Neil Gaiman fan, or a fan of Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine stories, you might enjoy this set of not-quite-graphic-stories, not-quite-simply-illustrated-tales. In some, like "Eric" and "Distant Rain," the imagery forms an integral part of the story and lends a dimension or adds information that the text alone does not provide. With other stories in the set, the illustrations are simply that—gorgeous, atmospheric, and stylistically varied accompaniments to the written text. The stories themselves are surreal, strange, and often inspire more questions than they answer. They're much more than vignettes about life in the suburbs—the phrase "outer suburbia" is a great one, reminding me of the TV show "Outer Limits" and the idea that the odd and unexplained might be right under our feet—or in our suburban backyard. Tan has a unique vision, and I look forward to more from him.

Buy Tales from Outer Suburbia from an independent bookstore near you!

May 13, 2009

Heart of Fire: Melting Stones by Tamora Pierce

When I caught sight of Melting Stones on my library's shelf, I was startled—I was expecting to find Tamora Pierce's newest Beka Cooper epic, but instead I found this companion volume to her Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens quartets. This side story about Evvy the stone mage was originally conceived as an audiobook, recorded with Bruce Coville and Full Cast Audio, but of course it's just as enthralling in written form as any of Pierce's other work.

In the world of Melting Stones, Evvy—once Briar's friend, now assisting Rosethorn the green mage—is fourteen years old and reluctantly accompanying her mentor to the island of Starns to investigate some unexplained deaths of plants and animals. The voyage across water is almost painful to her, so by the time she can magically feel earth and stone again on the island, it's a huge relief.

But the relief doesn't last long. Evvy can tell that something is wrong, very wrong, and it might be an important clue to why the plants and animals are dying. Although she's been told to keep out of the way, she's stubborn and bored and can't help but investigate on her own, with the help of her friend Luvo, who just happens to be the living heart of a mountain. Her affinity for stone leads her to discover something truly frightening...but can she move far enough beyond her antipathy for people to enable her to truly help? And how many lives besides her own will she risk in the process?

As always, Tamora Pierce writes a rollicking and absorbing fantasy tale without sacrificing the humanity and realism of the characters. Evvy rings true as a young woman struggling to leave behind the traumas of her past and make something of herself for the future, and there's a whole cast of intriguing side characters, both human and non-human, to liven things up. Another good one—and I'm planning to check out the audiobook when I have a chance, too.

Buy Melting Stones from an independent bookstore near you!

Be Here Now. Please.

"We are moving today into the second phase of GLW, where we put our money where our mouth is and physically act on getting books into the hands of boys that otherwise have none. Today we start the first two week Guys Lit Wire Book Fair for Boys to help the teens incarcerated in the LA County Juvenile Justice System. They have no books - at all - and they need them; they need them desperately."

Have you heard about the GUYS LIT WIRE Book Fair for boys?
Go. Read. Thank you.

May 12, 2009

Out There: The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm really not a fan of the zombie genre, for a variety of reasons. However, I AM a fan of post-apocalyptic stories, which is why I picked up Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth in the first place. And I have to say that ultimately, this is less a novel about zombies than it is about faith—and learning to tell the difference between mindless and unquestioning belief imposed from outside, and faith in what one knows to be right.

Mary lives in one of the few villages now left—the only village left, according to the Sisterhood and Guardians that keep order. The village is surrounded by wire fencing to keep the Unconsecrated out. If an Unconsecrated infects you—by bite or scratch—you're doomed to become one of them. It happens now and again, and it happened to Mary's father, who used to be a Guardian patrolling the fences for breaches. According to the rules, he was put outside the fences and now he's a slavering, undead animal just like the rest, always hungering for human flesh.

But all of that is really just setup for the real story. When tragedy strikes again and Mary and her brother are left orphaned, in her heart of hearts Mary starts to question everything she's been taught about the way her world works. And when she learns there may be a world outside her village, somewhere, and that the Sisterhood and the Guardians aren't necessarily telling the whole story, she must figure out how far she is willing to go--both mentally and physically--to discover the truth.

This book is well written and far more complex than it appears on the surface, with themes of adventure, romance, and self-discovery that are heightened by the somewhat dark and monochromatic world that Mary inhabits. Then, when color bursts in, it's all the more striking. Pretty darn good for a zombie novel. And cripes, what a great title.

Buy The Forest of Hands and Teeth from an independent bookstore near you!

May 09, 2009

The Meaning of Honor: The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

You all know how I love a good dystopian novel (and if you didn't know that, you do now!). When I read Jen Robinson's review of The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman, I knew I had to put it on my TBR list. And I wasn't disappointed. If you liked Julie Bertagna's Exodus (review here), you'll probably want to pick this one up, too.

Some unspecified time in Earth's future, much of the land has been flooded, leaving only a slew of inhabited islands. The Earth Mother corporation has established a pseudo-environmentalist, Chairman-Mao-style domination of what's left of humanity, creating Enclosures with self-contained, controlled New Weather for the good of mankind. Also for the good of mankind, you'd better toe the line, or else you might just disappear.

Unfortunately, Honor's parents don't toe the line. After her family moves to Island 365, she learns in school that her parents' behavior is dangerous and subversive. She doesn't fit in, because what her parents taught her doesn't jive with what Earth Mother teaches. As she grows older, emerging from childhood, she wants more and more to fit in, and doesn't want her parents to get into trouble. Meanwhile, her friend Helix is becoming more and more of a misfit. What he has to tell her, she doesn't really want to hear.

It's not always easy to watch Honor's story unfold in this novel. She's very human and flawed, and doesn't always make wise choices--just like most of us. But it's what she ultimately learns from those choices, her willingness to learn, that matters, as well as her ability to regain faith in herself and those she loves even if she sometimes falters. She goes through a period of wanting to be like everyone else, but it is her individuality that saves her--a bit of wisdom we could all stand to absorb, I would say.

Buy The Other Side of the Island from an independent bookstore near you!

May 08, 2009

On the Inside: Slob by Ellen Potter

Owen Birnbaum is twelve years old. He's smart--super smart--and has a weird but cool friend who sells Tibetan dumplings from a cart. But he's also really overweight, he has a younger sister who has changed her name to Jeremy and joined the Girls Who Are Boys club, and he's tormented on a daily basis by his sadistic gym teacher.

Life didn't used to be so hard, but after tragedy struck his family, things just kind of spiraled downward. And now, on top of it all, somebody at school keeps stealing his Oreos. The prime suspect seems to be new kid Mason Ragg, who has a scary scar and an even scarier reputation. But the more Owen tries to find out who's stealing his cookies, trying to set traps for the thief and enlist help from his friends, the more he finds out that the people around him aren't quite who he thought they were. Even scary, scar-faced Mason Ragg.

There's a fun mystery angle to this book, a lot of humor, and a lot of depth. Owen is a likable, very human narrator whose rather pathetic situation sparks the reader's sympathy right away, but whose inner strength shines through more and more as the story goes on. But more than anything else, Slob by Ellen Potter is a story about the myriad and complex ways that who you are on the outside is not necessarily reflective of who you are on the inside.

Buy Slob from an independent bookstore near you!

Two Words For You, Peeps:




Oh, my, my.

Coming October 6th.

May 01, 2009

Asian Pacific Heritage Celebration,"Do."

"Do," in case that was perplexing, means "two" in Urdu--which is one of my dad's native languages, the native language of Pakistan. Pakistan, of course, is part of South Asia--the Indian subcontinent--and May just happens to be Asian Pacific Heritage Month. Like Tanita, I thought that Color Online's idea for celebrating Asian Heritage Month was unique and fun. I also thought it would be a great opportunity for me to appreciate a part of my own heritage: half of it, to be exact.

After all, that side of me needs some appreciation. My Urdu skills are at about the level of a small child. I still haven't been to Karachi (see photo above) to visit relatives, nor have I yet visited the family's pre-Partition city of origin, Delhi. I'd like to one day. In the meantime, I'll appreciate my heritage in a bit more literary fashion, by answering some of the questions from Color Online.

Favorite Asian/Asian-American Writers and Their Works: Well, as Tanita already pointed out, Jhumpa Lahiri is fabulous, especially her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Another South Asian writer I really admire--one whom not many people know is South Asian--is Michael Ondaatje, who is from Sri Lanka. His novels The English Patient and Anil's Ghost are excellent, as is his memoir Running in the Family. I like some of Salman Rushdie's work, especially Midnight's Children. Last but not least, don't miss the work of poet Rabindranath Tagore. For more suggestions, see Tanita's post.

Share Some History or Geography: My husband and I both have some awareness of the history of our Asian heritage, at least on a personal level. I'm always a little amazed when I think about the fact that my father was born in India a handful of years prior to its Partition into India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan, and much of the family fled on the train from Delhi into Pakistan. We still have some relatives in Delhi and Bombay (HUGE extended family--don't get me started), but the majority are in Karachi, with a few here in the U.S. and a couple in the U.K.

Meanwhile, my husband's Cantonese side of the family has been in the United States for a few generations, so he doesn't know of any family still in China. His forebears came over to California during or even before the railroads, and his great-grandfather was a paper son who arrived via Angel Island. My mother-in-law and much of her family grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown, though most of the family is now scattered around the Bay Area.

We cover a lot of ground between the two of us--not even counting the various European countries represented. And there are times when mixed heritage leads to mixed feelings, confusion, or even awkwardness--people say things that are potentially offensive, not realizing that they're speaking to someone with Muslim relatives, or Chinese ancestry. But that's another story!

Nonfiction? I'll just go straight to cookbooks. (You know we're obsessed with food here around FW.) I really like the Indian cookbook I have--Madhur Jaffrey's Quick and Easy Indian Cooking. There are a number of other Indian cookbooks by the same author. We also own a REALLY comprehensive tome of a Chinese cookbook called The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook by Gloria Bley Miller, which my mother-in-law gave us.

Be Creative--Share a Quote or Passage. I'll leave you with this excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.