March 30, 2005

The City of Ember and The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

It's not easy to write a middle grade/YA novel that has elements of allegory and cautionary tale without it ending up sounding preachy. Somehow, Jeanne DuPrau has done it. Twice.

Of course, it helps that both books are also good, fun, post-apocalyptic sci-fi. I'm not saying that the books' message is entirely invisible, or even subtle; but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the books, nor did I find it overpowering (though I suspect that might be a matter of taste). It also helps that I agree with her messages: be careful with this life, this world—it's the only one we've got. Be patient and loving with your fellow humans. Don't let anger, violence, and hate control you, because you might lose your life, world, and loved ones. Be courageous in the face of difficult choices, because the right decision isn't always the easy one. Most of all, keep hoping and striving.

I like these messages. But that's certainly not what drew me in and kept me reading. I am also a sucker for stories about young adults who save the world, or at least a small part of it. And DuPrau's world is one worth saving, despite the desolation of its implied nuclear holocaust. However, few events have concrete details attached to them; there is simply the Disaster in which the world's great cities were all destroyed (and this is one of the more overtly politicized messages in the book). The underground city of Ember, doomed though it may be, is equally compelling; and DuPrau absorbingly depicts the social and cultural differences between the refugees from Ember and the aboveground villagers with their hardscrabble lives. (There's another politicized message: what happens when immigrants and residents clash.)

Perhaps what I enjoyed most were the wonderful details of everyday life, so lovingly imagined by the author and set down in clear, simple, and vivid language. These details made it a world I could believe in; and that's what really drove the messages home. This could be our world, centuries from now, if we're not careful.

Agents, Agents, Agents...

A.fortis has shown so much chutzpah and moxie and a whole lot of other things with taking those wee rejection slips and making them into confetti that now I'm wondering why I've held off for so long on getting an agent. I've been reading my own notes on this from the SCBWI Conference talk with Writer's House agent Jodi Reamer last summer (you can check out the notes in our Files on Yahoo), and I've been going back and forth... Finally, I've decided that I have something to offer. So. Tomorrow, people. Going to contact Writer's House, since they have the largest children's list in the U.S., and see what their parameters are in accepting manuscripts, etc., and then go from there.

Check out Authors on the, which has a little Literary Agent's Rountable section, where they ask various questions of various agents from different houses. What galvanized me into action was the answer one woman had about what she looks for in a query letter. She said that what she wanted most to know is "What are you doing next?"

I'm only as good as the next word I type.
Something to consider.

Write away.

March 29, 2005

Ron Koertge's Stoner & Spaz

Another great book for people looking for less girly YA fiction is Stoner & Spaz, by Ron Koertge

Ben's a loner, a preppy, a movie freak. Oh yeah. And he's got CP. Not that it's affected his brain, no, he's in there all right, but cerebral palsy makes him a pretty obviously 'invisible guy' at school. He's his high school's resident spaz - sometimes his foot just drags, sometimes his leg doesn't hold him up. Sometimes his bad arm shakes a bit. And sometimes not.

Black humor is the best friend of a kid whose parent's bailed on him and left him with his rigid and humorless grandmother, a prisoner in a body which will not be bothered with listening to him. This guy is funny, but few people get close enough to know it. And he's not going to push open the walls of his life and get into anyone's face. He's disabled. He knows the score.

Enter Colleen, school stoner, who doesn't know any score because she's usually too spaced to be in the game. And she completely doesn't care. She runs roughshod all over Ben's walls, accuses him, insults him, and borrows money which she never pays back. She brings him out of himself, occasionally abandoning him when he's halfway out of his shell, but in her quirky way, lending him the strength to get himself the rest of the way out.

Any relationship between the two of them is a train wreck waiting to happen. Which is why they mess around with it. Colleen's a gambler, after all. And Ben is just ecstatic that someone is willing to touch him, in his self-perceived ugliness.

Is that enough of a hook to keep you reading? It was for me, and I think Koertge does an incredible job with this book opening up topics like disability, class issues, and more. The issuesin the book are real; Colleen is indeed a 'stoner,' and drug addiction is rightly depicted as serious stuff. Koertge doesn't give in to the Disney vibe and make everything turn out all right (whatever 'right' may be). This book may not end the way you want it to, but it still will give you a little mental "high five" of at least someone getting out of high school with their head intact.

Read it? Loved it? Going to the library now so you'll have something to say about it? Good.

March 28, 2005

Another Monday quel FABULOSO

Is it just me, or does today already completely aggravate? Is it just a Monday writers thing???

Ah, Julie-the-Writer (see sidebar for her site) says it all:

I was reminded this weekend why I never took a creative writing class and never will. It would kill me. I was at a conference and during two workshop sessions the participants were required (required!) to engage in a writing exercise. The words “writing exercise” evoke panic in my heart. Immediately my brain freezes, my hand shakes, and I am irreversibly damaged by physical implosion. I cannot – I will not – write on demand. I resent being asked. It’s too personal. How many young people – real writers – feel that way? “How dare you force me to reveal myself to complete strangers? I’m not going to write in your presence. I’m not going to show you what that looks like.”
Maybe the more writing classes you take, the more discipline you develop, but I can’t conjure up my muse at will. I wouldn’t want to. She’s an evil creature and her breath stinks. Oh I could probably whip out a few meaningless paragraphs (like these two) and call it creative writing. But it’s not. It has no link to the creative synergy between body, mind, and soul. I think real writing comes from a deep, dark labyrinthe inside you and you don’t enter the maze unless you’re prepared to risk getting lost. For all eternity. Assuming a person can navigate blind alleys and reach a pool of understanding in the next twenty designated minutes is absurd. It makes me wonder how many real writers we turn off in school by forcing them to write between the hours of nine thirty-six and ten forty-two. How many young people are writing in stealth as a true form of self expression? A lot, I tell you. Oh how I wish they had writing groups who would nurture and share that passion, that love, that bliss. Young writers groups – this is my newest crusade.

Here's to nurturing, when the writing process is SUCKING DOWN YOUR VERY SOUL.
Or something like that.

March 22, 2005

Tidbits: Hans Christian Andersen, Paper Tigers, and More

Here are a handful of news bites culled from the last few SCBWI e-mail newsletters.

  • This year is the bicentennial of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. The Danish storyteller was born in 1805, died in 1875, and is well-known for fairy tales such as "The Little Mermaid" and "The Snow Queen." More than 3,000 celebrations have been scheduled around the world, including in his home country of Denmark. Goodwill ambassadors from many nations are promoting the celebrations, including Harry Belafonte, Suzanne Vega, Harvey Keitel, Connie Nielsen, Susan Sarandon, Brazilian soccer star Pele, Australian runner Cathy Freeman and Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, among others.

  • Pied Piper Publishing is actively looking for texts on children's literature history, pedagogy, theory, etc. and are willing to help convert your thesis for publication! (Anyone write any papers or MA theses about YA lit? Someone besides the prof. might want to read them...)

  • Cruise over to Paper Tigers, a website celebrating children's and YA lit from and about the Pacific Rim and South Asia. Don't miss the fabulous interviews with familiar and new authors.

  • The University of Newcastle in England will be opening Seven Stories in 2005, also known as the Centre for Children's Books. They plan to provide research opportunities in the field of Children's Literature, along with exhibitions, events, and a collection of original manuscripts and artwork.

March 21, 2005

Winning Guy Books: K.L. Going and More

It's a winner of epic proportions: Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going

I can't even begin to tell you how much I wanted to dislike this book. I have read enough stories about overweight kids to know that the author usually renders the self-mocking and horrible esteem issues all too accurately, yet injects some humor in, so that the idea of "jolly fat child" still exists. This book, however, is about the pain and down-to-the-bone, fall-to-the-bottom of a drug addict. Instead of being the fat kid who is the one who is down and out, he saves someone else. That's a nice twist.

Going's book isn't without humor - most of the statements in the book read like funny headlines, including the title, and it's how the main character thinks. He titles everything in his world, and looks at his life through a very jaded and narrow focus. He's a failure. His brother's a god. His father's a Marine. And his mother... well, there his focus gets a little fuzzy. When she died, he turned into the eating machine he is now. And there's nothing that can save him, he thinks. Nothing but seeing someone else in such dire straits that he realizes that he can't afford to be sucked into his own losses anymore. Nothing but finding that place inside of himself, with music, to live the moments that other people are afraid to feel, and often hide. Without giving anything of the plot away, this is an amazing book - another in a great line of books for guys.

I actually checked out this book because I'm getting tired of hearing people complain about there being no books for YA men. They're there! We just have to look for them. Maybe that's the point -- guys have a hard enough time with wanting to read -- there's got to be a way to make locating something good easier! And there is! Check out Jon Scieszka's Guy's Read for more really excellent ideas on what guy books are great. On their suggestion, I got my little brother The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. I haven't read it in ages, but I remember it was a good adventure.

Here's to guys -- reading!

Warm in the Dark: Robin McKinley's 'Sunshine'

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. Have a long flight coming up? It's 389 pages.

Reluctant Buffy, the Vampire Slayer fans will find themselves amused and bemused by this unusual and unique book from Newbery Medal Winner McKinley, who is famous for her tales of heroines and dragons. This book has something in common with that, for as we discovered in McKinley's earlier Newbery Award winner,
The Hero and the Crown, heroines can be found anywhere -- even in bakers with only a high-school education.

This book is beautifully described, tautly written, and a gift for those suffering either from Buffy withdrawal, or from the idea of the Buffy show not really making much sense. This "universe" is a familiar one -- Earth, sometime, but the rules governing it are spelled out clearly, the 'whys' of vampires casually roaming the world tacks the books down more into reality. That's helpful, because bouncing between reality and 'elsewhere' is how this book spends most of its time.

Rae "Sunshine" Seddon is a baker who just made it out of high school by the skin-of-her-teeth, who just moved out of her mother's house, and who just wants to get away, for awhile, from the overwhelming, overweeningly large and loving family she's inherited from being the best baker at Charlie's, the coffeehouse her stepdad owns. She just needs a breather... but it almost costs her her life. In truth, it does cost her her life -- at least the life she thought she was supposed to live -- and catapults her into a new life altogether, complete with blood, gore, and a really, REALLY cold Byronic-ly handsome vampire, the antithesis of her very warm and human boyfriend. Oh, the symbolism.

The question many YA readers will have is, despite its YA author, is this really a YA book? Discussion always rages about sex and sexuality in YA books. There are sexual situations in this book. McKinley briefly feeds that vampire-attack, completely-helpless-take-me-now obsession. However, the sensuality works. It's not forced or shoehorned in for effect, it's just that this girl's life is different from many eighteen-year-olds. She's on her own, the society in which she lives is decidedly dangerous, and she makes the choices she makes and takes the partner she takes ...naturally. From a reader who always scrutinizes sexuality in YA novels, I guess this is a grudging nod that McKinley got it right.

It's difficult for me to effectively critique fantasy novels. Is the story plausible? Well, no... it's fantasy. However, the characters are accurately drawn, I'm able to suspend disbelief long enough to get into the tale, and the end, though unsatisfying, is only so because I want a sequel. It's a compelling world - McKinley is excellent at creating universes in which the reader wants to live (and did you EVER want to live near Buffy? I don't THINK so...).

Fantasy/horror/sci-fi fans - you'll like this. I think. Buffy fans in recovery -- it may just send you into relapse. Be warned.

March 15, 2005

Andre Norton SF/Fantasy Award for YA Novels

I rarely talk about my great love of fantasy and science fiction, because it's true Geekdom, and I try to avoid the appearance of that whenever possible. HOWEVER, I have to give credit and respect to the 93-year-old Grand Dame of Science Fiction and Fantasy, because they've named an award after her. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has created a new literary award to recognize outstanding science fiction and fantasy novels that are written for the young adult market. The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Fiction is going to be paired up with the Nebula Awards, and the Bradbury Award, and will start being issued in 2006.

For those of us who want to write science fiction and fantasy, the field has already been open, and is certainly opening further. Norton is 93 and her health is failing, Madeleine L'Engle is 87, and Anne McCaffrey is 79. Ursula K. LeGuin is now 76. While there are younger women in science fiction and fantasy who have been writing successfully for years, these women challenged and changed the male-dominated science fiction and fantasy world and when they go, the genre will change yet again. Which is reasonable, I suppose. After all, science fiction is supposed to be the literature of "what if?" and if not uncertainties, of what else is a new world made?

Weetzie Bat Lives

Okay, so you know I'm not a fan. And no, it's not that it's that bad of a book. It's just a rather pretentious author... In my less than humble opinion, anyway. Francesca Lia Block, of Weetzie Bat fame, is talking up her game again. Check out the NY Times comments here. (Sorry -- it requires that free registration thingie -- but hey, you only have to do it once.)

The Times ran this piece because in January, the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association gave Block the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, sponsored by School Library Journal. The awards web site says it "recognizes an author's work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role" in society.

I don't recall learning much about anyone's role in society with ol'Weetzie, but I certainly remember having more awareness of sparkles, smog, stereotypically kind old ladies and oleander. And matching bookend gay guys like Dirk and Duck, of course. Everyone simply must have the quintessential pair of fun and well-dressed homosexuals to make their lives sitcom perfect.

Weetzie Bat is beautifully written with some truly evocative passages about a Los Angeles that used to be, and the plot is ingeniously surreal. I was nonetheless disappointed with the slippery grasp Block has on some of the incidents in the book. Um, Weetzie was tied up and essentially raped on a date, and it was like, "Oh well." Her father dies of AIDS -- not usually something that happens on a good day, but it was all turned into this blissed out movie set: hero-rides-off-into-the-sunset sort of thing. Childbirth, drug use, things that normally cause the average person at least a moment's pause are all sort of blunted, like everybody's snorting that good old L.A. stardust, and in love with just being near the beach, the beautiful people, and Hollywood. I don't quite understand that. (I'm pretty sure it's a So.Cal. thing.)

I found myself more bewildered than anything about the popularity of this book, even as I found the quirky characters engaging, and even as I appreciated the less judgmental aspect of a late 80's book depicting divorced families without turning the plot into some hideous Terms of Endearment emo-fest. I enjoyed Weetzie Bat and its sequels well enough, but a lifetime achievement award? I comfort myself with the thought that AT LEAST THERE'S NO MOVIE!!!


Beware the Ides of March.

Weetzie Bat Has Company

Aaah! Francesca Lia Block, being praised for being "edgy" has an AWARD now...for lifetime achievement!!!!! The NY Times comments here. (Requires free registration!)

I want to know, dear people, your thoughts on this one. Block's first book was in 1989 (-- wasn't her first book Weetzie Bat? How come I can't get a Lifetime Achievement Award for my first book!?) and already she's getting a LIFETIME achievement award from the ALA when the National Book Award people just NOW awarded Judy Blume for the very first time? Something's certainly odd about that. I mean, I assume that Blume got recognition from the ALA sooner than her recent NBA award this past year, but it just seems like much ado about nothing to be awarding Block. She simply rewrites the same book over and over. Or is it just me?

That's this hour's writing gripe... back to work.

March 10, 2005

BookCrossing Some Kind of Napster thing? Are they kidding?

No, apparently 'they' are not. The Guardian U.K., reported on HarperPress publisher Caroline Michel's speech for the Guardian World Book Day Forum last Thursday, and noted that publishing, as a traditional business, is changing. With resale bookstores online like Amazon and happy people 'releasing' books for free through the BookCrossings program, the publishing world could be heading toward crisis.

Michel raises some salient points, such as the fact that agents have taken the place of what editors used to do, that neither authors nor publishers make any money from resales of books, and that BookCrossings sort of subverts the intention of selling books by paying their list price only once and then giving the book away to whomever. But for some, a new way of relating to literature is vital. Books are not only dollars and cents, but the backbone of thoughts and ideas which are meant to be shared, and to echo much further than the time it takes for a book to printed in paperback and be stripped of its cover. Shouldn't books be more than a group of words owned by a company? It's a little bit of a vicious cycle; taking Michel's view, books will soon become something like those disposable DVD's, and if you don't read them fast enough, the words will fade from the page and they'll have to be thrown away. And we all so need yet another item for the landfills.

Take a gander at this article, and see what you think.

March 09, 2005

Barbara Seuling 2005 Manuscript Workshop

Hey, happy news for those who write for smaller kids - the phrase 'young adult' covers so much - prolific K-6 children's author Barbara Seuling is giving a workshop in Vermont, and she is offering a scholarship to SCBWI members. Check out the details here.

March 08, 2005

BookSense, Coming Soon!

We've been invited to be BookSense affiliates! Soon, the BookSense logo will be on site, and if you purchase a book through a BookSense web bookstore, you make our YA group a tiny little bit of money! Eventually it'll add up, and we'll all hop on a plane and go to Writer's Conference! Whoo hoo!

March 07, 2005

Mondays are Mondays, Even for Writers... here's a little entertainment to spice it up. Without further ado, here (in no particular order) are

The WritingYA Top Five Ways to Procrastinate about Writing:

  1. Housework. "I can't possibly concentrate on writing unless I Swiffer this cat hair off the kitchen floor...and do the laundry...and reorganize my CDs."

  2. Food. "I think I'm hungry...kinda...maybe. Is that my stomach growling? I'm just going to go into the kitchen and maybe fix myself a little 5-course meal..."

  3. Reading YA Books. "It's research...really!"

  4. Watching TV. "The Gilmore Girls/Simpsons/Fresh Prince reruns give me insight into the interests of young, really!"

  5. Blogging. "I wasn't going to write anything in the last ten minutes anyway."

Clever Maids, Those Grimm Girls...

College was such an eye-opener. We discovered that some of the men who paraded as the Vast Intellect of the Literary Canon were actually hiding behind the skirts (and, more importantly, the brains) of women. My mind goes first to Dorothy Wordsworth, who was never named as the more-than-a-Muse of her famous brother, William, but whom literary critics will tell you was responsible for, at the very least, the well-loved poem Daffodils. It must be intriguing study, digging out works previously believed to have been written by men and revealing them as the clever treatises of women. Suddenly, the words hold different meanings.

NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday reports on the revelation of another alleged literary theft, this one in the world of children's literature. Valerie Paradiz's new book on the Brother's Grimm challenges the old understanding of how the brothers got their best work. Check out Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. Lots of research, and plenty of new thoughts on what folk and fairytales, so deeply embedded into our collective psyche, really mean, coming as they may from a woman's point of view. Was Snow White's story a warning? Was Cinderella's story really meant to be seen as a 'happily ever after?' And what was all that noise about Rumplestiltskin? Sounds like something worth exploring.

Happy Women's History Month.

March 06, 2005

Three years, five months...

When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

"So go ahead, and lock me up. Take my children. Take my wife. Freeze my assets. Seize my crops. Search my office. Ransack my house. Cancel my insurance. Auction off my business. Hand over my lease. Assign me a number. Inform me of my crime. Too short, too dark, too ugly, too proud."

The world of Berkeley, California, 1942, is painted with an alarming placidity. Julie Otsuka's liquid prose gives the first scenes of her book the amber-suspended timelessness of a heat-stunned Sunday afternoon. The air is thick with silence as faceless beings go about their business. An unnamed woman in glasses reacts to a sign she sees at the Post Office, jots down a few things, and goes home to pack up her house. The woman is faceless, and mostly silenced, but we see jagged glimpses of her appearance, through the eyes of others - her children, her fellow sufferers, her memory.

The emotionally devoid narrative voice parallels the lean and barren landscape of the Utah desert at which eventually the woman, her son, and daughter arrive. Topaz interment Camp, the temporary resting place for those disenfranchised by Evacuation Order Number 19, is a dried out lake bed populated with tarpaper shacks and white alkaline dust, a place filled with nothing but absence, nothing but loss. The sometimes startling shifts of Otsuka's sentence length seem like the regular irregularity of the days she describes; three years and five months governed by bells, filled with an extraordinary sameness, while at the same time jarringly, blindingly wrong.

This book is being read by some high school freshman in Hayward, California, and though the protagonist in this book is a 41 - year-old mother of two, the bleakness seeping from the thoughts of the ten-year-old daughter, who is herself an adolescent by the end of the interment, recommend it as an important read for young adults. While the more typically assigned Farewell to Manzanar in listed as a young adult book exploring the themes of the Japanese interment, Otsuka's book describes a camp where much less went on in terms of cheerleading, youth culture, and fun. Contrasted with Yoshiko Uchida's Journey to Topaz which is intended for much younger readers, Otsuka's terse descriptions of the necessary heartlessness of the mother, the sense of betrayal, the confusion and withdrawal of the children, together with their empty homecoming to a racist neighborhood, create a darkly empathetic novel, showcasing the casualties of war, which include loss of civility, integrity, and Constitutional rights.

"Too short, too dark, too ugly, too proud," reads Otsuka's indictment of those of Japanese ancestry by their American counterparts. A bitter legacy of a prejudiced nation, Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel of eloquent relevance today.

March 03, 2005

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

In response to T's question below about Mark Haddon's exquisite book, I'd just like to say: so long, Flowers for Algernon. I couldn't help thinking that this surprisingly absorbing and inspiring work written from the viewpoint of an autistic teenager should perhaps be considered for high school curriculum (if it hasn't been already).

There is such a sense of unabashed honesty, of real empathy, in the writing and in the writer. Christopher's very real, poignant strivings for independence and understanding make him just as memorable a character as Charley Gordon, if not more so. The book doesn't indulge in sentimentality, which is a real plus in my mind for something that could well be required reading in high schools someday.

Moreover, when I was finished with the book I felt like I had so much greater understanding of the subjective experience of autism. I remembered reading case studies in an abnormal psychology class about autism, and I was shocked at Haddon's skill at making something that is so difficult to clinically pinpoint, so real and vivid to the reader.

There are a number of socially-conscious, p.c. reasons to read this book, but the most compelling reason for me to recommend it is simply that it is fascinating, touching, and difficult to put down. The author truly pulls off a major feat in enabling us to see the world through the eyes of an autistic young man whose understanding of emotions is detached and limited, yet who is affected by them just the same. If you don't read this one, you're really missing out.

March 01, 2005

Mean girls... really REALLY mean girls

Man. It's those girls again. SF Chronicle's C.W. Nevius writes about 'em here.

So, the Queen Bees and Wanna-bes thing was just the beginning, spawning, as it did, yet another movie (which I haven't seen, and since the book was non-fiction, I won't skip off into another rant, I promise), and a whole spate of talk-show visits on the topic of mean ...girls. And part of me is just bewildered. I'm like, What, did someone actually believe the whole sugar and spice schtick?! and the other part of me is a bit relieved... maybe if people keep talking about this suddenly exciting phenom of adolescent girls being snarky, some kid might be saved feeling like their whole life is going to end because Karin and Stephanie have made sure no one talks to them this week.

On the other hand, maybe not.

This is a valuable read to me, because it helps freshen the sting of junior high, and makes my emotional connection in writing for younger readers more realistic. I aspire to BE a mean girl, at least in print... because for the life of me, I never did figure out what made Karin tick...