February 28, 2006
'What If' is the question at the heart of Margo Lanagan's 2006 Printz Honor Award book Black Juice. What if the world worked like this? What if there were transgressions for which death was immediate, and your whole family was meant to watch? What if we saw the world as elephants see it?
Things are turned upside down, as a loyal servant learns about grace and dignity from a mistress who would rather dance with the gypsies than reign on her throne. Clowns are not feared nor particularly funny, but in fear -- of their lives. Powerful, disturbing, mysterious and haunting, this book of short stories gives a markedly different worldview to teens and adults alike. There is no 'happily ever after' present in this book of tales, and the reader finds that each character is presented with the facts of dark vs. light, evil vs. good, man vs. beast. How will each react? There is 'black juice' which runs through every vein.
Winner of the Best Collection World Fantasy Award for 2005, this novel is full of ideas so expansive and lyrically expressed that the stories must be savored slowly, sometimes aloud, to absorb them. Everyday beliefs are confounded as readers savor these intelligent, skewed and fantastic worlds.
But, not in the way you think. See, there's this guy, Ed? He's... kind of a slacker. He drives a cab. He plays cards. He pines over this girl. That's pretty much Ed. Oh, and his mother hates him, but he does her heavy lifting anyway. All that changes when Ed steps into the limelight and stops a robbery. Suddenly people know his name. Someone knows where he lives, anyway... they keep delivering cards to his mailbox. No, not Hallmark, think more Bicycle cards, or something. Playing cards. Diamonds, Hearts, Spades, Clubs. The cards come with instructions... and Ed's playing the game of his life.
He gets beaten bloody. More than once. He finds tremendous joy. It's an amazingly twisted story that tilts your perceptions on characters, plot, fact and fantasy , and in doing so, moves from merely good to really great. There's a reason this is one of the 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Books.
I expect this will be on many high school Senior book lists. (And saying 'Senior' brings me reminds me... the protagonist is nineteen. Most librarians agree that the cut off for YA literature is a year before then, so this novel is arguably something other than YA fiction, especially since some of the things that happen in the book are pretty disturbing. At the end of the novel, this was brought home to me again - - in a way I won't elaborate upon in order to avoid spoiling it for you -- but I wondered 'why' about some of the incidents that are depicted. Enough said.) This was an exceptionally interesting book, one that made me glad to be a writer and a reader in a world where Markus Zusak lives. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.
February 27, 2006
Oh my goodness! She was only 58!!!! And I hadn't yet read all of her books!
The SF Chronicle Book Page had a great little review of Monkey Town by Ronald Kidd. It's a retelling of the 1925 Scopes trial during which the town of Dayton, Tennessee put science teacher John Scopes on trial for teaching evolution in their public school, as seen through the eyes of Frances, the 15-year-old who has a mad crush on him.
Wow. What a stroke of genius it was for Kidd to take on this topic. He claims to have gotten the idea from the son of a woman who lived in Dayton at the time. He took advantage of her memory and recreated a wonderfully imaginative yet historically accurate tale of the town, the time, the craziness of the religious fanatics and the breathless reporters. It evokes a sort of Southern coming-of-age feel that brings to life Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan and the irrepressible and often quoted H.L. Mencken.
It's a great time for the YA set to be reading about this as the debate over evolution continues, since many of them who actually notice there's a debate have no idea what all the fuss is about. The funny thing is, this novel is all about that -- the fuss. The whole thing was thought up as a publicity stunt. But what a great one! The words of the trial are still debated today.
I am always intrigued by the length and breadth of the stories we have in our country, and by the stories that we choose to tell. NPR has a little story spot in their Morning Edition on Fridays, and it's a treat to hear the stories people record for them - really, give them, using the medium of sound to offer the public a piece of their lives. StoryCorps is a national project to instruct and inspire people to record each others' stories in sound, and if you've got a minute, or an hour, sit and listen. The stories always strike such a chord in me -- hearing the voices of the lives of others gets the writing juices flowing. They are multi-ethnic, multicultural, they are stories of the past, of the present, and dreams for the future. They're just little squares in the quilt of the world, told sometimes through tears, or in disjointed conversation... but the story's the thing, people. Some amazing stuff that reminds me of the projects done in the 1960's by college-aged historians trying to make sure the tales of slavery, and the Appalachian and Dust Bowl stories didn't get lost from our history forever.
Another great public venue for books - not YA, but just for hearing excerpts of stories - is Writer's Block, the Bay Area public television podcast space for local writing.
February 22, 2006
Children's books are still needed. SCBWI primarily concentrated their 'Comfort Kits' (which included books, a soft toy, toothbrush and flashlight) on the outlying states who needed hurricane assistance, like Mississippi or Alabama, but the Louisiana Department of Education has information to help you find out how to help New Orleans schools and kids too.
Meanwhile, HarperCollins has a new YA lit newsletter as of January. At least I think it's YA lit... it looks like it's Chick Lit Lite, since it's a.) pink and b.) doesn't seem to have too much for the guys... but anyway, it's HipLit, the latest offerings that people are talking about, so check it out.
A fun and funny theme for the Fourth Annual Arne Nixon Children's Center Secret Garden Party -- cats. They're even celebrating bad kitties (as found in Nick Bruel's picture book of the same title) and the fact that their comparative literature collection has just been gifted with hundreds of children's books about cats. No one knows what else is going on (thus the 'secret' part of the "secret garden" title), but you can find out if you go. It's a fundraiser - so the starving artist thing doesn't quite work, but if you love children's books (not YA, but children's), this is the gig for you.
February 21, 2006
February 17, 2006
I do think we get conditioned to move. Or to run. Or to turn the page to a blank sheet if we don't like the story we're writing on this page. The only problem with that fresh start/fresh sheet is that we never finish the story we're on. In writing, that sucks - we miss writing our way out of potentially difficult passages to see how the complexity and beauty of the finished product hinges on those chapters we rewrote and tightened up umpteen times. We miss knowing that we can, when we must, face deleting entire sections of the work and reworking it again. And again. And again. In life... well, there's no delete button, but I do wonder sometimes if some mental files don't get lost, like our inevitably mislaid box of knives, if we never allow ourselves to get past a certain point where we are.
Wow, I scare me.
But then I thought, SERIOUSLY. This is true. How much have I grown as a writer, just in the last two months, from editing and re-editing the veriest piece of crap ever written that I used to call my novel? How good was it for me, back in undergrad days to lose entire papers, and be forced to replace said essays from memory, assignments that were always even better the second time around? While I wouldn't advise this for anyone - our blood vessels can only take so much pressure before the inevitable Jake Morgendorffer style eruptions - it does go to show that tight spots can sometimes be good for you. Tremendously good.
Typical, huh? What doesn't kill us makes us heck of good at ad libbing.
My two cents before the long weekend.
February 16, 2006
On multiple other occasions, M (who unfortunately sat right behind me) would chant mildly obscene rap songs right in my ear, with my name inserted at crucial junctures. He would also, once in a while, pinch me on the arm. I (who unfortunately had been given a seating assignment right at the front of the classroom) couldn't do anything about this mild harassment. If I chose to respond, the teacher would usually notice and direct a shushing in our direction. And teachers usually have little sympathy for explanations once you have been shushed.
The really funny (in hindsight) part about this is that, the previous year in Algebra II, I sat directly in front of M's older brother T, who did the exact same thing. I wonder--now--if they colluded on this. The incidents didn't seem related at the time, especially since T pushed me to the breaking point one day during P.E. and I had to tell him to Eff Off (as Lynne Truss puts it in her new book, Talk to the Hand) right there on the volleyball court. That was a major moment in my life, as I had never said that to anyone before. The main reason I said it was that "damn you" seemed only to goad him further.
After I told him what he could go do, he left me alone for the rest of that semester. I kind of felt bad, and then after the summer went by we were on perfectly civil terms. Of course, then the bit with the younger brother started. This all seems pretty hilarious to me now, but it was rather annoying at the time. I'll have to mine these sorts of incidents for inspiration, I guess.
February 15, 2006
Startup children's magazine is looking for writers and illustrators - A Michigan based publishing company, in business for over 20 years, is launching a magazine for children.
We are looking for regular contributors to develop mysteries with recurring characters - think Scooby Doo, Boxcar Children or Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but for a magazine. Please send a pitch with your characters and three sample outlines or mysteries you may solve. Articles will be varying lengths to meet the needs of 8-13 year olds, but generally between 400-1000 words. Payment will be $20 upon publication.
We also need stand alone mystery stories for various issues. These mysteries may be simple, such as how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, why a waterfall seems to move upwards and so forth. Please submit full manuscript for consideration. Length is 300-800 words. Payment will be $15 upon publication.
Lastly, we need illustrators for the above works. We need media forms that can be reproduced or are made in black and white and that will fit the text submitted by writers. Payment would be $20 per illustration upon publication or a flat rate given if one illustrator can provide all of the illustrations.
Please submit pitches, samples and/or portfolios by February 10th to: firstname.lastname@example.org with MYSTERY in the subject line or Editor PO Box 20 Lupton, MI 48635. We hope to have the premiere issue out for May 1st. (And we really hope to pay more in future issues!) Please email to the above address if you have further questions. Thank you.
I realize there's that Feb. 10 deadline up there, and here it is the 15th already. But it's always worth knowing something about a brand-new market, and you can always e-mail to find out when the next deadline is...
February 14, 2006
And yes, this is a very intense book, and very saddening. At the same time, though, it's achingly hopeful. I was amazed at the level of realism, of sensitivity, that this social worker-author achieved in giving this all-too-familiar story life and individuality. She's given a name and face to a problem we'd often prefer to remain faceless and nameless, and that name is painfully symbolic.
The writing and the narrator's use of language are frank and raw, and the story is at times distressing and upsetting. I definitely recommend this for older YA readers. However, the character isn't as old as you would think, and this is one of those books that might save lives if if falls into the hands of those that need it. America's story is difficult to bear, but crucially important, because it reveals that even the most painful of stories can have a hopeful ending, and that sometimes there are people worth trusting in this world.
February 13, 2006
Meanwhile does anyone know if Michelle Tea's latest is supposed to be a YA novel? The Chronicle review of Rose of No Man's Land talks about a 14-year-old narrator, and gives it really positive reviews for a "singular voice in a coming-of-age novel." Hmm.
All right. Back to the grind.
February 10, 2006
Science fiction magazines have never entirely lost their readership, but as writing and publishing have become more commercialized, the link between the magazine and novel market has weakened. Formerly a refuge for new writers, with the decline in story magazines as a whole, now only the best and most well-known novelists can break in. Science fiction and fantasy novels, once inexpensive, are growing pricier as the genre morphs and grows into something more mainstream.
Enter Baen Books. One of the most cheerfully prolific science fiction and fantasy pulp fiction publishers around, they've decided that it's time to resurrect an aging genre. In June of 2006, they are launching a new science fiction magazine called Jim Baen's UNIVERSE and they're asking for writers. Two story slots per issue are being reserved for newcomers. If you're a science fiction fan and dabble in the genre, you simply cannot beat that.
They post their rates, and give you space to discuss your work, and edit work in progress. Check out their submission guidelines and welcome to the Universe. Hope you like it there. It sounds promising -- if you visit or write for them, let us know how it goes!
February 08, 2006
Obviously I owe the Post Office a little love after badmouthing them over the rate hike... I mean, yeah, rate hikes are not so good for the writer, yeah, and the notorious slowness of the postal service when you're waiting for a reply from a publishing company or agent has to be seen to be believed, and yeah, they're closed too many days, and they have too long of lines, and there are just too many with belltowers and people with weapons, but here, at least, they're staffed by nice people who do their best for me, so I need to stop the hating. So, here goes: are these stamps not the cutest things ever?
The Writer magazine is pleased to begin what we hope will be a long partnership with the Santa Barbara Writers Conference as its sponsor. In 2006 the SBWC celebrates its 34th year of giving writers the opportunity to improve their craft, associate with highly credentialed professionals and mingle with other writers. From June 23-30, writers from all over the country will gather in Santa Barbara, California, where they can choose among 30 different instructional workshops on everything from fiction to non-fiction, to screenwriting, poetry, biography, autobiography and memoir, travel writing, children's lit and young adult, humor, marketing and ways to get your creative juices flowing. The Writer will sponsor a panel of agents and editors to answer participants questions about publishing and writing. Every afternoon there will be special speakers and panels and each evening a major author will speak. One day will be dedicated to letting attendees pitch ideas to agents and editors from around the country. This summer SBWC launches its Master Classes for experienced writers and a Young Writers Program for 14- to 18-year-olds. Our special guest speakers include Ray Bradbury, Erica Jong, T.C. Boyle, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, Gayle Lynds, Catherine Ryan Hyde and more. Come join us!
February 07, 2006
It's good to know that the same concept exists in the realms of other writers such as the talented Sid Fleischman. This nifty quote is on his biography page.
This latest book of Mr. Fleischman's was a National Book Award finalist in 2003, and there must have been something else fabulous out that year to bump it from the winner in the Young People's category. It's an amazing novel that is part spoken word performance, part novel and all about an amazing girl name Del.
At 17, Del is sick to death of being bounced around in foster homes. An observant smart mouth and a relentless mimic, Del knows L.A. 'types' inside and out, and knows when it's time to blow out of town and start over. In a terrifyingly gutsy move, Del fakes her own death, blows off the last of the dippy foster parents and heads South to Arizona... before being stopped cold by the mother of all traffic jams on the L.A. Freeway.
Now reel the tape forward eight years. It's opening night at a one woman play written by and starring a woman named Elena. The show is called Breakout, and it's all about... an L.A. traffic jam. The novel bounces back and forth between the 17-year old Del, who renamed herself Elena and Elena as an adult. Teen Del is scared and improvising. Adult Elena has learned that improv is a valuable life skill.
In Breakout, Fleischman has created a multiracial character, unattractive and bounced from pillar to post, who takes on multiple personalities in an attempt to camouflage herself into some identity group. In the end, though we don't see the stages or the steps it takes, she emerges as more than a character just to be taken on as a mask, but as unique in her own right. A deftly written and subtle piece that is really fun to read aloud -- and it's not often that this can be said about a YA novel. The spoken word element shines through this remarkable novel eloquently, and once again I'd recommend it to teachers trying to find books to entice reluctant readers -- teens this time -- to read.
That's what's cool about Paul Fleischman. He's got something for everyone.
I read cover copy fairly often when picking up a book in the library. I scrutinize the covers and glance through the first chapter before chucking it into my book bag. However, for YA books, I usually have 'quick picks' -- ten random books that I simply pick up without examination. It doesn't always work out, but every once in awhile I find some amazing books serendipitously.
That happened last week. I picked up Nikki Grimes' Dark Sons, and found a wealth of emotional complexity and depth in prose poem form. This YA novel is about two boys, Sam and Ishmael, whose fathers have abandoned them. Sam, in the modern world, is aching as his father leaves he and his mother for a younger blonde Caucasian woman. Ishmael, a desert boy in biblical times, is devastated by the tension between his mother Hagar, a second wife, and his father's first wife, Sarah, who loves him yet persecutes him for not being a child of her own flesh, though he is his father Abraham's heir. And then, for both boys, the worst happens -- another child, a son is born. Both boys wonder who their fathers will love more now.
The chapters dealing with Ishmael include selections from Hammurabi's Code to give them more context. Ishmael and his mother are slaves in Biblical times. Ishmael's sections are especially poignant, as his father Abraham's descendents have been promised to him by his father's God. What does that promise mean when it becomes clear that he may not be the 'promised' descendant? Ishmael's poems express his pain, confusion, and love: "Half Chaldean./Half Egyptian./Half slave./Half free./Half loved./Half hated./Half blessed./All me." His story is set against the background of nomadic desert life, always in the context of his father, and his father's God's plans for, him.
Book Two gives modern-day Sam from Brooklyn his say: "black man breaks/black woman's heart/to marry white witch." He's betrayed by his father, frustrated by what he sees as passivity in his mother, and infuriated by his stepmother's friendly advances. Yet each boy finds their feet; Sam, in his band and with friends at church, Ishmael, in the desert at last when he and his mother leave Abraham and Sarah for good. Both boys fall in love with their little brothers, even though they both see their fathers taking hold of tiny hands and leaving them behind.
The roots of three world religions come from Abraham's complex descendents, so this story has reverberations far beyond the average in a YA book. The poetry is lyrical and the emotions are direct. That both boys mature so much in a sort of spiritual way despite betrayal makes this a powerful both yet hopeful book, and well worth a serendipitous toss into the book stack.
February 05, 2006
An interesting side note: some of my writing group is privy to the strange conversations I have with Secret Agent Man about race and writing, and some of the strange and upsetting conversations I had at grad school about "representing" and how I wasn't doing it, by creating characters belonging to the dominant culture. It seems that the difficulty isn't new, Gene Andrew Jarrett, adjunct professor of English at the University of Maryland writes in the SF Chronicle Insight section:
Usually, readers assume that a book written by a black author is a story about black people. This definition is everywhere. It has determined the way authors think about and write African American literature, the way publishers classify and distribute it, the way bookstores receive and sell it, the way libraries catalog and shelve it, the way readers locate and retrieve it, the way teachers, the way scholars, and anthologists use it, and the way students learn from it.The fact is, sometimes writers just want to write about the commonality of human experience, instead of about race. However, it just comes across as weird to some people, and a minority writer can find themselves defensive. It's heartening to know that authors like Toni Morrison and others actually wrote "out of character" pieces in which it's almost impossible to determine the race of the characters in the work. It certainly changes the conversation when the color of the speakers is not at issue... it tends to perhaps centralize the focus on the facts, whether emotional or literal, and create a new angle on literature. A very enlightened idea, that.
February 03, 2006
Meanwhile, the Newbery was another surprise for some, including Secret Agent Man, because few people expected the winning novel, Criss Cross to succeed. The Newbery Medal is administered by the American Library Association, and in awarding the prize to Lynne Rae Perkins, award committee chair Barbara Barstow praised Criss Cross as "an orderly, innovative, and risk-taking book in which nothing happens and everything happens." This sounds much like this year's National Book Award for Young People's winning novel, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, in which much of the book is spent in what I've heard described as a 'Little Women type of quaint nostalgia,' though Publishers Weekly was actually kind, using the word 'charming' quite a bit. Criss Cross is set in the 60's...
I find myself wondering if judges these days have succumbed to nostalgia as well. We're told at Conferences that editors aren't looking for 'quiet books;' Gossip Girls and The A- List (not to mention the others like Rainbow Party, LBD, etc.) are being push marketed with the pastel Chick Lit covers, but the awards are going to stories from the past that are long on charm and short on chaos. What gives? Editors, the public and the awards people are never on the same page.
Stopped by the cheerfully hokey W.I.N. competition page, and for all of its fun factor in having a "But wait! There's more!" factor in the contest description, I was annoyed that I couldn't quite find the contest deadline... Until I clicked 'register now,' that is, and found out that everything must be postmarked by March 15th. It's actually a semi-nifty thing; you can upload your same story repeatedly if you want to a.) change it, b.) submit another section c.) just are as neurotically obsessive as most of us writer types are and need to go over and over it typos and 'no I didn't mean thats.'
No, I haven't actually submitted anything yet, but I might. This is for novel excerpts instead of short stories... and we all have one or two of those sitting around, don't we? My writing girlz, especially some of us who placed for a short story in the last contest should check it out. Hint?
You can enter as many works in as many categories as you wish, in these categories:
* Young Adult: Novel excerpt to 1,000 words + one page synopsis.
* Midgrade: Novel excerpt to 1,000 words + one page synopsis.
* Chapter Book: Novel excerpt to 1,000 words + one page synopsis.
* Non-fiction: Book excerpt to 1,000 words + one page synopsis
Plus poetry, picture book, and illustration, too, of which some of us should take note.
Okay, I know I haven't done it yet. That's not the point. I'm picking on someone else today.
February 02, 2006
And no, none of you will ever see those horrific hack jobs from when I was thirteen, but the Spy High series from A.J. Butcher, a British English teacher once saved from a playground pounding pounded because he could tell good stories, reminds me a little of my own peculiar genius.
Six unique individuals make up Bond Team, one of six training groups at Deveraux Academy, fondly called 'Spy High' by all of its students. Each of them have talents that the team can use, and should, but each of them have hang ups -- too proud, too shy, too much of a follower, and too angry. A unique mission gives them a real-life chance to iron out their differences, and the wildly adventurous storyline is well grounded in characters who are different enough to remain real, but 'average teen' enough to not make the spy thing too big a deal. There are four books in this series so far, two team stories, and two stand-alones, and I look forward to recommending them to any YA adventure readers, boys or girls. I read the first one in a short sitting over dinner, completely ignoring everyone else in the room. Good times.
February 01, 2006
Children of the Great Depression by Russell Freedman (Clarion Books)
ER Vets: Life in an Animal Emergency Room by Donna Jackson (Houghton Mifflin); Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students by Suzanne Jurmain (Houghton Mifflin); Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein by Marfe Ferguson Delano (National Geographic); Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Scholastic); and Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy and Dennis Kunkel (Charlesbridge Publishing).
There were also a number of recommended titles. For more information, click here.
To be honest, I haven't been able to bring myself to read any of the Gossip Girl books yet, and after reading the excerpt that began this article, I'm even less inclined to now. Silly old (and getting older) me--I thought that Gossip Girl would vaguely resemble the upper-middle-class trashy fun of something like Sweet Valley High, or that private-school series, The Girls of Canby Hall. But no. Apparently Gossip Girl makes Sweet Valley High look like well-written, meaningful literature.
But regardless of your opinion of series novels, it's an interesting article. One high school teacher simply sees them as a sign of the times: "Look what's popular in adult entertainment. 'Desperate Housewives.' 'Sex and the City.' Do people really think this isn't going to carry down to their children?" Of course, now he's making the Gossip Girls sound like a gateway drug. Another analogy brought up in the article was junk food--it may be a fun, guilty pleasure, but better when moderated with healthy consumption.
The most interesting part to me was at the end of the article, which reprinted a review of Gossip Girl posted by a 12-year-old on Amazon. If all 12-year-olds were this level-headed, there probably wouldn't be this much controversy in the first place.
Pretty soon you might not even have to take out your earbuds to enjoy great YA lit--according to this NPR segment I heard today, the popularity of amateur audiobooks is exploding. Volunteers and fans, instead of professionals, are recording their voices for web downloads and podcasts. Some, like LibriVox, aim to record and make available books in the public domain, while PodioBooks provides serialized podcasts of original books--including Young Adult. LibriVox is looking for volunteers, if you'd rather participate than absorb.