April 27, 2006

Momentum, after a long hiatus.

I was looking at the list of postings and realized that, jeez Louise, I haven't posted in a really long time. What a slacker I am! Sometimes life, work, sleep, etc. just seem to get in the way, repeatedly and with a vengeance. I've been meaning to post something for ages--ironically, about how important it is to keep working on your craft in order to maintain momentum--but I've been a blog absentee.

So anyway, there's no time like the present, while I'm waiting for a cup of tea to steep, and while I'm between two of the many busy little tasks that seem to breed like dust bunnies in my house.

I've been thinking a bit about momentum lately, both on a project level and on the larger scale of writing or art in general. It can be surprisingly easy to lose momentum, even for something you love. It causes me sincere heartbreak to admit this, but because I decided to change focus for grad school and study creative writing, I lost my momentum with visual art. I had to devote all of my time and energy to writing (and commuting).

When I got out of school, I was too burned out to do either for a while. Then, I was obsessed with having to earn some sort of income. Now, despite having spent four undergraduate years and one post-baccalaureate year studying visual art--two to three more years than I spent studying writing--I do about a tenth as much visual art as I do writing. If I'm lucky. And I'm sorry to have to say it, but that pretty much relegates it to hobby status. I'm not satisfied with that state of affairs. Even though I'm still pursuing some kind of creative endeavor, it's not quite the same.

It's very hard to maintain momentum as a fine artist, regardless of whether your pencil creates words or images. I don't know how exactly I'm going to manage to regain momentum with visual art while also maintaining a grip on writing, without somehow adding more hours in the day (or managing to make a living at one or the other).

But I have had some luck, at least, in maintaining momentum with my writing. I've discovered that sometimes a sudden standstill in one project means that I have to put it aside for a bit. However, it's important not to stop writing altogether. I switch to another project, maybe a short story that can be used as a pleasant diversion, something I can have fun with or that's been in the back of my mind for a while. Then I find my motivation and inspiration are both revitalized for the first project. If they aren't, then maybe it has to be set aside for a longer period of time.

I don't want to advocate abandoning anything, because frankly, as an artist, you should always save everything you ever did that has any potential in case you regain interest in it later. I firmly believe this. If you stole it from yourself, and it hasn't been published already, then it's not plagiarism, it's revision.

The ultimate message I want to convey here is that it's important just to keep going, no matter what. If you've stopped, then either something has superseded your art in importance and it has ceased to become a priority, or maybe you need to start a completely different project in order to keep writing/painting/whatever. Maybe what you were last working on isn't where your head is right now.

And as for me, maybe my head hasn't been in a visual place for a while. But it will be. I already have some ideas, and my sketchbook has seen some activity lately. Now if I could only find the time...

April 24, 2006

Kaavya Viswanathan: Too Good To Be True?

Eeeeouch! Last April I mentioned the story of a very lucky girl who got into Harvard just about the time she got a very lucrative two book deal. At the time, I was a bit scared for her -- only 17, and already -- wow. I spoke at my undergrad alma mater about this 17-year-old girl who had gotten a $500K book deal based on a couple of chapters she'd written and told them that no, they'd have to work a bit harder, this kind of stuff never happens. It seems I may have been more right than I knew...

Like many other writers, I was a bit green with envy over this young woman's succeess -- but now I'm a bit nervous for Kaavya Viswanathan, now 19. Recent allegations claim that entire phrases from her book
How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, are taken from Megan F. McCafferty 2001 novel "Sloppy Firsts" and the 2003 sequel "Second Helpings." There is, in fact, a full 14 word paragraph that is all McCafferty with only the names changed.

My stomach just
knots as I read the comments from the Harvard newspaper, where Viswanathan is a student. Much has been made of this obviously bright girl, but it does seem that her fairy-tale beginning was just too good to be true, and that sharp readers are already joining the fray to make sure and pick out every single incidence where she could have taken her pieces of work from somewhere else.

Viswanathan is the youngest author signed by Little, Brown in decades, and the movie rights for the novel have already been sold to DreamWorks.


April 22, 2006

A shameless plug for a favorite author, and a great teen book club

Happy Weekend! Here's a fabulous little event for YA writers brought to my attention by a fellow SCBWI-er :Not Your Mother's Book Club a Laurel Village, SF club of the incredibly hip, is throwing a party. This YA literature community for people grades 7-12 welcomes Sarah Dessen to cafe Lo Cubano, she of the myriad sensitive and intelligent books reviewed on our sister site. This shindig is on the 25th, so you'll need to move quickly to get your tickets online from Books, Inc., drop by their Laurel Village store, or give them a call at (415) 221-3666. Don't wait - it's not a big place, and once the tix are gone, they're history, and this will be just another great event that you missed! Ticket price includes Dessen's newest book for all the lucky teens, tapas, prizes and more -- take notes, writers. What a fabulous idea for doing your own PR!! And check out their blog. Man, if I ever am forced to reincarnate I'll make sure I come back somewhere near the Laurel Village Books Inc., thanks. What cool folks.


April 20, 2006

Adventures Afloat: Bloody Jack

A summer plague changes the fate of an English girl in 1798. Mary Farber is orphaned, dumped curbside on her eight-year-old rump with only the clothes on her back, wailing, as first her father, then her sister and mother are carted away in a wheelbarrow, the child to be sold to a doctor who buys the dead from a scrounger, the adults to be burned or buried in quicklime so their disease won't spread to others. When poor Mary can't cry any more, she finds herself alone in the dark, terrified, cornered and stripped of her belongings. She falls in with the gang of children who have stolen from her, and runs the streets pickpocketing and begging for a few shillings and a crust of bread, which is shared out evenly among the urchins who are now all the family she knows.

It's a hard life, truly, for the gang loses members almost daily - whether they are run down by horses, kidnapped, knifed, hung for stealing or simply die during the night. Ultimately, tragedy strikes the leader of the gang, and Mary knows there must be something better. Donning the clothes from the dead body of her beloved gang leader, Red Charlie, Mary renames herself Jack - and her adventure truly begins. She finds her way onto a ship and begins her life with the Royal British Navy as Jack Faber, Ship's Boy -- and soon enough she is known as 'Bloody Jack.'

Bloody Jack, by Louis A. Meyer, and its sequels Curse of the Blue Tattoo and Under the Jolly Roger are classic adventure tales with a huge following that give a fairly accurate version of life in England and Boston in the early 18th century for ship boys and women -- few rights and a whole lot of people to whom they must say "Yes, Sir." I applaud Meyers for reminding readers of what life was really like back then, in the U.S. and the U.K. - lest historians get overly caught up on "the good old days."

Mary/Jack is quite a good sailor, and once she's figured out how to further her Great Deception, as she calls her continuing struggle to be a boy, she does just fine. Once she gets a few good meals under her belt, however, problems arise. Her body changes and she begins to panic. Further trouble follows. There are men who prey on little boys on her ship, the Dolphin; and wouldn't you know it, one of them seems to have taken to following Jack around...

There is an almost Dickensonian melodrama to the novels, as one terrible dilemma after another befalls the hapless hero/ine, but s/he rises to the occasion, and meets all challenges with a glint in her eye. The characterizations of drunks and whores are pretty well over the top; you expect Little Nell one moment and a capital 'V' villian twirling his moustaches the next. When, in the second novel, Mary re-emerges and is sent to a girl's school, even the toffs and the privileged are either very lovely, or dreadful. This adds a color and life to the narrative in keeping with the times of broadsheets and 'penny dreadfuls.' The first person story narration gives readers even more depth, and the likable Mary/Jack drives the pacing well, though sometimes she is not quite so likeable. She is far from perfect, and continually finds herself in stupid scrapes that may try a reader's patience. She is forever whining, "I says I was sorry," and being unhappy when "I'm sorry" doesn't mend the damage she's done.

For all that she is canny and self-reliant, quick to spring to her own defense, and to help out others in need, Meyers seems to paint Mary/Jack as a rather simple character -- when Mary/Jack cries, it is mouth open, bawling, dripping snot. When she dances, she capers, and kicks up her heels. Meyer seems to find in this character the dictionary definition of "saucy," which is wearing after awhile; and Mary/Jack flirts, winks, nudges and is fairly loose for a girl of the 18th century, even a girl who is poor and destitute (does that mean she's easy because she's poor?). I fail to see that she could have picked up all of the affectations and flirtations she displays at times as an educated girl - even an eight-year old in England at that time would have already been well versed in prayers and known about chastity and meekness and quietness, and not have forgotten it all -- but if the reader doesn't peer too closely at historical accuracy in minutiae, the storylines of these novels are engaging and quick paced and enjoyable on a Spring afternoon.

April 17, 2006

Odds and Ends on a Sunny Monday

Carpe Diem, Memento Mori: Muriel Sparks, born 2.1.1906, and best known for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, died April 15th. Not at all a YA novel, Brodie still captured in essence the cutthroat competitiveness, petty triumphs and mobster-style clannishness of high school girls. I best loved Sparks' book Memento Mori despite Brodie being more remembered for its cinematic adaptation of sinister plotting in a girl's school. I preferred Memento because of its unusual villains; I rather like the idea of sinister plotting amongst the elderly; the disembodied phone calls and shadowy voices were hysterical, as were her descriptions of the foibles and fetishes of certain portions of our population (and now you know what happens to dirty young men - they just get old). Now I shall go onto the porch and open my happy tale of death in the geriatric years as a salute to the grand old dame of sinister. Goodbye, Ms. Muriel. Memento mori, on this sunny day: remember that you must die.


This summer, if you're not up to the spendy trip to L.A. for the SCBWI conference, if you want something more specifically geared to writers of literature for older children, or you just want somewhere new to go, here's a conference that's a little closer to the Coast, and a bit smaller:


A Team-Taught Seminar for Middle Grade & Young Adult Novelists
Specializing in Character-Driven, Realistic Fiction

August 11-13, 2006 * Theme: Crafting Savory Scenes
At the Best Western Seacliff Inn * Aptos, CA (near central coast Santa Cruz)

* Joy Neaves: Senior Editor, Front Street Books * Deborah Noyes Wayshak: Senior Editor;
Candlewick Press.(Deborah is also a fiction and nonfiction author of adults and kids books.)
* Jennifer Jaeger: Associate Agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
* Martha Alderson: Author of Blockbuster Plots, Pure and Simple

THREE FOCUS SESSIONS: How to Craft Scenes Integrating Character, Plot, and Theme

PRE-WORKSHOP APPETIZERS: Personalized exercises, peer-manuscript critiques, readings

*Basic (Fri.-Sat.): Friday: Dinner with editors; Martha Alderson's hands-on session tailored to our group. Saturday: 9.5 hours of master-class clinics, keynotes, Q-A; gourmet lunch. Manuscript critiques (written or in-person) by 1-2 editors; Query/Synopsis & First Pages critiques. $149-339.

* Add-on (Sun.): Garden-patio champagne brunch with faculty. Jennifer Jaeger and Martha Alderson will each do a focus session. Brunch/talks: $39. Also, for added fee: morning critique or consultation with Jennifer/Martha (choose private or semi-private; 15-55 minute sessions).

There are only 40 spots for this conference, so if you're interested, get cracking! Email conference director Nancy Sondel * go to www.childrenswritersworkshop.com * or call 831- 684-2042

April 14, 2006

In passing...

As an addendum to my earlier post on copywriting, I did a little more research and found a website called Creative Commons. It is a non-profit company that creates licensing agreements for those whose creative work is posted via the Web, or found on blogs; whose work is shared, passed around, and eventually published. These licenses protect some rights while providing unlimited use of others, and, unlike that sealed-envelope trick, are viewed respectfully by actual judges. Professors who have written web-based texts for their students, bloggers, photographers and others have found these useful - and they're worth checking out for writer's purposes.

A concept equally intriging is copyleft! If you're interested in your art never being copyrighted, and forever belonging to the public domain, freely passed around, added onto, changed, built from and morphed, this is for you.

Q Bon weekend, writers!b

The Will to Survive

Gary Paulsen is well-known for his novels of the outdoors and for being a groundbreaking writer of "guy books," but somehow—perhaps because I'm not a guy—I hadn't read any of his writing until now. And, as usual, I'm sorry I hadn't. His writing is deceptively simple and literary and gemlike, intense nuggets of clear, concrete imagery that bring the reader right into the environment of the main character—in this case, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson, marooned in the wilderness after the crash of a small plane into a lake.

In Hatchet, we're introduced to Brian as he finds himself bruised, concussed, but miraculously alive after the pilot of the small plane he's riding in dies of a heart attack. Brian barely manages to steer the plane to its crash landing site in a forest lake, but then he's left with the knowledge that he has no idea where he is or how he is going to survive. The plane has sunk to the bottom of the lake--pilot, emergency pack, and all. He's only left with the clothes on his back, which aren't much, and a hatchet that his mother had given him.

Little by little, though, Brian figures out how to find food, shelter, and fire; and, against the odds, living from day to day, he does survive. It's a gripping tale, one of those stories that invites you to imagine what you'd do in a similar situation. A sequel, Brian's Winter, follows Brian's story into the harsh, deadly northeastern winter, raising the stakes for his survival, and is just as exciting. However, neither book is one-sided, glamorizing the struggle for life like so many TV series and movies do. It isn't easy, there are plenty of setbacks and failures, and Brian learns a new respect for nature and wildlife as he finds his place within it. One of the hardest lessons he learns is that the price for his own survival is often measured in the lives of other living creatures.

These are very quick and satisfying reads. There are a few more books in the series, too, catching up with Brian a few years later—I definitely plan to read them when I need another dose of adventure.

April 12, 2006

Cracking the World YA Writing Markets

My *S.A.M. is back from the Bologna Book fair and is feeling quite happy to be back in the U.S. with his proper pillows (apparently all of Italy is pillow-deficient). He did have a good time, and had some interesting things to say on international markets and what sells to them -- generally things with universal subjects and themes. He adds, "The Europeans are a fickle bunch and they aren't interested in issue novels in the way American houses still are--and of course, books that are too American in feeling and subject, like the Vietnam War or slavery, just won't travel over the Atlantic. Fantasy is still of great interest, but so are mysteries, thrillers and just plain wonderful books. Anything unusual, whether historical or whimsical, also seems to have caught their attention..."

From my own tentative research into the topic, I have realized that selling something to both American and international audiences concurrently is a big challenge. I recall being disgusted with J.K. Rowlings' publishers for leaching the British-isms out of the Americanized Potter epics, but that's what most non-American publishers seem to feel the need to do in order to attract American audiences. And what do we do to work more equitably with the rest of the world? Not much, unfortunately. Last June's Library Journal noted that the 2005 Bologna conference had quite a few Canadian books, however, which garnered interest in international houses. These books, the author says firmly, did not water down their Canadian content.

Many international writers are writing work that is more "gritty" (there's that strangely definition-free word again) than their American counterparts. American writers of YA fiction don't often come from a political point of view, because for all of our democratic status, writing about our political system is, in a word, difficult. (I take that back -- writing is easy, as many a rabid blogger can attest, it's that pesky "getting published" thing...) A writer chronicling the cultural revolution in China, the horrors of the Holocaust or the deprivations of any nation's war in a sort of fictionalized non-fiction style has been popular at past Conferences. Fiction which embraces a culture is also well received - for instance, just writing about what it is to be Fijian in Fiji, and in the world away. For more American works to receive wider readership, perhaps the focus of the YA international literature must be more about internal validation and personal goals that are germane to everyone's growing up, and less about cultural divides like a first cars and huge Proms or experiences which involve something uniquely American - like lots of material possessions, disrespect of adults, and money for individual use. American publishing houses are going to have to take risks, too, and present readers with longer, more challenging fiction that seems to be more the norm in the UK and other places. (Places like Bloomsbury Press seem to have that idea well in hand.)

It's a difficult question, how to write to be acceptable all over the world... You can't, not really. We can hardly write to be acceptable to everyone in our writing group, much less the State or the Nation or the larger planet. The best thing you can do, I guess, is hone your voice. Be unique. Then, begin with a really good book...

*secret agent man

April 10, 2006

Monday Musings

I've discovered a new site, thanks to the heads up of some cool people at SCBWI. Since Autumn 2005, the website Children's Media Professionals Forum, brought together by April Sayres, the phenomenally gifted and prolific picture book and middle grade nature author, has quietly flourished and given the people who work with and for children a place to meet.

I like to think of myself as a 'professional,' but I merely lurk on the site as of yet. I get a little thrill reading how one of my very favorite authors, Jane Yolen, works on projects and sees the world. It's a free registration, but you can lurk without signing up (just don't expect to be able to comment on threads or post your thoughts). Do check it out!

Kentucky author Marcia Thornton Jones tells a funny story that has the best punchline ever. Her first book, Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots (published in 1990), was written to amuse herself when she was having a cruddy day. Before this, Marcia was a teacher and a struggling author, having never published anything major, but always hoping, and checking and double checking her work, and struggling to get the words just right. The one piece she wrote with a fellow teacher as a joke...shone. So, there's something to be said for lightening up and letting your work sing. Here's another bit of proof that writing what you love - in Thornton Jones' case, silliness -- always beats trying to write how you think publishers want you to. Forty middle grade books later, you'd better believe Marcia Thornon Jones believes that!
Finally, the very best story of the day -- favorite children's author Beverly Cleary turns 90 this week. Yay! Another long-lived California writer! To celebrate this week, pick up a Cleary book. (My choice will be Dear Mr. Henshaw, a book my fifth graders requested to read over and over.)
Ms. Cleary talks to NPR's Debbie Eliott about the manically magically memorable Ramona Quimby, the brightest, peskiest character in the neighborhood of Beezus and Ramona, Henry Huggins, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tibbets and all the others on Klickitat Street. Did you know there's actually a group called "Ramona the Pest," in Oakland?! People are scandalized, but they mean it as a tribute...I think. Another tribute is found on Recess: the World of Children's Culture Every Day. (This is a cool site, too, on its own.)

April 06, 2006

Writing/Publishing Bits and Bobs

Listen:Quirky Australian author Markus Zusak is interviewed on NPR about his newest novel, The Book Thief. Death narrates the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, who steals books in her working class town in Germany and tries to rebuild a world that Hitler's rhetoric in World War II steals away. Some people are surprised that such a darkly haunting book is marketed to YA readers, but Zusak says he feels that writers all too often underestimate YAers, and that if we give them something to step up to, they'll surprise us every time.
Ours is a strange world indeed, wherein the world of entertainment goes hand in hand with our ...coffee? Yeah, Starbucks, that mecca of, um, dubious taste, is in the movie business. Because children and young adults simply do not have enough marketing shoved down their throats, the chain coffee store is joining the fray and aggressively promoting their spelling bee movie Akeela & the Bee. On the up side, millions of coffee drinkers will be expanding their vocabularies and their spelling skills, according to the company, by learning to spell and define such words as pulchritude and prestidigitation. On the down side, well... it's still Starbucks.
Coming soon to a theater near you!The Penguin Young Readers Group has just made a lucrative contract with Walden Media LLC. (Walden Media was the company which put The Chronicles of Narnia together with Disney, which was the top grossing domestic film release of the 2005 holiday season.) This deal is intended to get more children's books to theater, television and to enable older books to be mined for stories suitable for 'family' type films. Should be an interesting venture, and hopefully beneficial to writers.
Bet you didn't know that Communists are to be both unseen and unheard, even outside the U.S.! A Dade County (Florida) school district is yanking books that show Cuban children in Communist youth club uniforms from the library shelves of 33 schools. The book, entitled Vamos a Cuba (A Visit to Cuba) is deemed as offensive... of course, the fact that Cuba itself is a communist country seems to have escaped the notice of those who are offended...
Religious publishing just went really mainstream. Massive publishing conglomerate Penguin Group USA, Inc. (which includes numerous imprints) has just launched Penguin Praise in an effort to capitalize on the trend of blockbuster religious books, movies and music. High on their list of new authors are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, whose fictional Left Behind series sold a baffling 62 million copies. A first book of LaHaye and Jenkins' new series will be available in November 2006 from Putnum/Praise, and you can look it up and find out all the buzz about it yourself, if you're interested. Now, what I'm wondering is how this will mix and meld with the Walden deal. Hmmm...
Anybody who grew up loving the work and busy worlds of Richard Scarry might get a smile out of the fact that, before his death in 1994, he got... a little PC. Check out the differences between his very first book in 1963, and the 1991 update.
And finally, the SCBWI is making some changes to its Golden Kite Awards, to be announced on April 15th. They promise that the award will be increased in visibility and will "rock the publishing world." We await the reverberations.

April 05, 2006

Ah, Irony

point d'acclamation
Cool, huh?

As reported by WriteGrrrl by way of the dubious compiler of information (or is that the compiler of dubious information?) Wikipedia, there has, for some time, been a such thing as... an irony mark.

Now, we know the evils of ALL CAPS and exclamation point abuse (many ranting web posts later), but we have to definitely leave it to the French to come up with a fabulous system of cues to make sure that everyone gets the wryly wrinkled brow, the ever-so-slightly sneering lips, the deadpanned expression, or the rolling eyes that make up our friend irony both here and abroad. Oh, why don't they teach this stuff in school?! Why isn't an irony symbol on everyone's keyboard?

Apparently, French novelist Hervé Bazin came up with quite a few more symbols, including one for certainty, one for authority, and one that looks remarkably Spanish in origin for indignation. Now if only we can figure out how to make irony easier to explain...

™, © and More Ways to Protect Yourself

There are all kinds of, well, urban legends about copyright law. I know I've heard more than once that you can mail yourself a letter -- unopened -- with a copy of your work in it, and voila, you're protected. Unfortunately, that, and a bunch of other copyright promises that I've run across on the Web, aren't true. There IS such a thing as implied copyright under the "medium of protection" law, but people who use cyberspace as an arena for their workshopping and critiquing open themselves up to court fees and headaches since one has to file for infringement rights within three months of the first time something is copied and stolen. It's also very difficult to prove that elusive "significant harm" thing, so it's not as expensive as you might think to have your work of art copyrighted. It sure beats paying lawyers...

How safe are you from copyright issues? Are your readers people you know and trust? Is your Wireless network encrypted and do you have firewalls in place on your computer system? Read more about copyrighting from a Bay Area legal expert, and be careful - writers tend to borrow storylines without meaning to. Protect yourself from intentional threat and only work with people you know you can trust.

Earth Day... and Stuff

There's a good chance that nobody takes the environment as seriously as they should, not even serious environmentalists. It's hard to know what to worry about and how to save what is left on the earth, and how to encourage others to get serious about keeping the air and water clean. YA author Gail Gauthier introduces us to a character who doesn't even know he's supposed to try to do all that stuff in Saving the Planet & Stuff.

Michael Peter Racine the Third (MP3 to his friends) is having a bad summer. The job he had lined up with his uncle's landscaping service has folded, and his uncle is in trouble for passing bad checks. Michael isn't particularly driven to find something else to do -- his best skills involve email and Instant Messaging -- but he's bored, he's broke, and worst of all, everyone around him is doing something great -- and thinks he got fired. His best friend Jonathan is interning as a paleontologist on a dig, while his other friend, Chris, is a counselor at a swanky East Coast art camp - with girls! Michael is desperate to do anything -- anything -- to keep from being seen as a humiliated, summer-job-losing doofus. When opportunity knocks, Michael is ready.

Earth's Wife is a magazine that Michael has seen (but never read!) around the house for years. His grandparent's college friends, Walt and Nora, started the environmentalism paper in the turbulent 60's, and the magazine -- and its editors -- are something of a family joke. Poppy, MP3's grandpa said they used newsprint in their magazine so that avid recyclers could use the pages as toilet paper. Gram says the Earth's Wife people only eat vegetables, and think eating animals is immoral. None of this fazes Michael as he leaps at the chance to intern at The Earth's Wife magazine for the summer. Composting toilets? No problem. Meatless meals? You can make vegetables taste like chicken, right? But solar showers and soy meat turn out to be the least of Michael's worries, however. There's something going on at the magazine. Politics, infighting and backstabbing are the game of the day, and Michael worries that nice Nora and cranky Walt are from too far in the past, and don't have any idea how to relate to the real world in the 21st century.

It's up to Michael to save the day.

Environmentally sensitive YA readers may not like this book, as Gauthier kind of makes fun of we earnest, non-leather wearing, tofu-eating types, but this is a fast paced, humorous look at a first summer internship position for college-bound teens, and all the drama that goes with it.

April 03, 2006

Sarah Byrnes: The Movie?

Have you read Chris Crutcher's epic novel Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes? Do you think it would make a great movie? Are you puzzled, like I am, that so many mediocre YA books get made into films, and so many flashy, thinly plotted hackfests are marketed for YA viewers, but nothing really deep - as if someone on Madison Avenue thinks YA's are stupid? Well, then, here's your chance to help make the movie idea a reality...

April 02, 2006


In 1996, the Delacorte Prize for debuting YA and children's fiction was given to A.M. Jenkins, the Texas writer who has now become well known for her finely drawn portraits of the emotions and inner lives of guys. Breaking Boxes is an astute novel about sophomore Charlie Calmont who, on the surface, is pretty easy-going. He listens to country (loudly), he gets good grades and jogs a lot. He's kind of a loner, and he survives so tightly reined that he doesn't really realize how he's put himself into a box. He survives school -- he beats people up when they get too annoying, he goes out with girls and really does fine until they expect a piece of his heart. He lives with his brother Trent; his mother drank herself to death, but he's fine with that, it's fine, fine. Life is fine. Everything is fine. There are just some things he doesn't think about, right? You can't function if you keep all that crap on your mind. It just doesn't pay to care -- that kind of stuff will get you into trouble. So Charlie's coping mechanism is all about mental compartments and categories. He doesn't give them much thought -- they just work for him. He turns up the country music and just gets by.

In most things, Charlie seems balanced. He knows drinking and partying is stupid -- he drinks a little but doesn't care if people see him not drinking. He doesn't seem to care about what people think, about what people say -- he's cool. He makes excellent grades, keeps the house decent - who cares that he and his brother live alone? There's no call to live like an animal. Of course, he only has a little room in his life for friends. Any girl who wants more than his body is out of luck.

Like a weed poking through cement is Charlie's friendship with rich kid Brandon Chase. Brandon was an enemy, but what they fought about doesn't matter enough to remember. Brandon has a Corvette, Brandon has a huge house and he's head of all kinds of committees. On the outside, Brandon has it all, though Charlie learns he doesn't. But when Brandon learns a little more about Charlie life, he's not sure their friendship can survive it. Charlie doesn't want to care about it -- it's just one more friend, right? But then he does... and all the boxes collapse.

Enjoyable and believable, this is a compelling story about the strength it takes to care.

Feeling Blue? Join the family.

"Indigo awoke with a strange feeling of doom hanging over him. It was a minute or two before he realized what it was. Monday."

There are some UK authors who have just the right touch in writing middle grade novels. The kids aren't too old, they manage to have fun where no one has to get hurt, and they're still young enough and not too cool to love their weird and slightly annoying families. There is a charming eccentricity, an endearing skewed-ness that causes you to want to read more. Indigo's Star is a novel like that. It's sweet and memorable but not screamingly "hilarious" as the book jacket promises. It's better than that. It's a good book and thus doesn't need all of the hype.

It's a book where nothing really happens.
Well, nothing except for ...life.

The Cassons are an artsy family with unusual names - Indigo, Cadmium, Permanent Rose, and Saffron. Their slightly mad parents, Eve and Bill, are loving but ever so distracted. Thirteen-year-old Indigo has missed an entire semester of school, since he's had mono, and his mother is just now realizing that he's been better for quite awhile. But Indigo has been home long enough to realize that he's enjoyed being home. It's peaceful, for one thing. There are no head-flushings in the toilet by the bullies in his class, and it's been nice having his little sister come and talk to him, and nice to simply lie in bed and count the ceiling cracks. But those sorts of interludes never last. Indigo gets up, and the bullies start in again, only this time things are different. He's taller and thinner, yes, and Saffron has gotten wind of his beatings and is wading in to help out, but there's also a new boy in school named Tom. He's an American, and it's harder to bully him. He actually manages to hurt himself more than that bullies can. Indigo wonders what's wrong with him. Tom wonders what's wrong with Indigo.

The tale of Tom and Indigo's friendship is interwoven with the issues in the Casson family. The Casson parents are separated, only they don't announce it, not really. Mom is at home, but she sleeps a lot, and only barely keeps things together, painting awful pictures of spaniels on pastel clouds that sell and keep the family afloat, even though Dad says they're "not really Art, are they?" Caddy is nineteen, and she pops in between beaus and college courses to see about keeping the family pulled together while Dad's in London in his art studio, creating Art, and attending gallery functions and jetting off to Paris. Saffron, their adopted sister and her best friend Sarah, both fourteen, are still keen to be sure that nothing bad happens to Indigo. Between the lot of them, the family keeps afloat, but Rose still worries that they'll all sink. Troubled by her father's absence, she creates crisis after crisis in a series of funny but poignant letters in repeated bids for him to come home. In the end, it is his love for her, not his fear that the family is falling apart without him, that brings him back. He is who he is, the family realizes, and without him, they won't drown.

This book is the companion volume to Saffy's Angel, Permanent Rose, and Caddy Ever After, to be released this summer. Author Hilary McKay has struck gold with the Casson family, as she has been connected twice with Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Awards - one in 2002 for Saffy's Angel, and a shortlisting in 2005 for Permanent Rose. Kudos aside, these novels are tender and generous, stuffed with characters and minor crises; the Cassons are honest and loyal and fiercely loving (and sometimes just fierce) and make you want to join the family yourself.

Religion, Part II

"...there are something like ten thousand religions in the world. What makes them think that they happen to have been born into the right one? ...Better to start your own religion, I think."
Apparently it was a grab bag of religion day, since the next book I picked up is Godless, by Pete Hautman. A National Book Award for Young People's Literature award winner, this novel seemed to be less about religion and more about the rebellion of those forced into it. It is about the nature of belief, the difficulty of finding and remaining a true believer, and the longing of the world to find something real in which to believe.

One lazy summer, Jason Bock decides to dream up a religion in contrast to his parent's Catholicism -- which he doesn't believe they get much out of anyway. His mother is a hypochondriac, always fearfully imagining a new disease for Jason to contract, and his father's god is the law, where he always has all the answers and can make them up during his court summations. In Jason's pure and idealistic (and arrogant and immature) opinion, if they really were good Catholics they'd have faith, they'd be nicer, and... well, a lot of things would be different. Jason's pretty sure that religion is such a load that he could do better. So, he makes up a religion - the Chutengodians, who are the Church of the Ten-Legged God. They worship... the town water tower.

The biggest problem with the Church of the Ten-legged God is its believers... Shin, Jason's best friend, is a tiny bit obsessive. They've been buddies for years, and Jason knows that -- they made comic books together that Shin detailed with tiny see-it-in-a-microscope details. Shin has studied gastropods like a biologist, and now he's working on writing a bible for the religion. He is skinny and nerdy, and though fifteen still cries easily. Jason really likes him, but now, he's socially embarrassing, especially now.

Henry Stagg, the town bully, is suddenly interested in being Jason's friend. Henry gives the Chutengodians an exciting edge, since he's given to bouts of frequent and unexplained violence, and he and his group of moronic friends go around beating people up. But since Magda Price, the cute object of Jason's overgrown affection may have only joined the group to get next to Henry, things quickly get out of control in the competition department. Henry takes over the Chutengodians and the harmless fun of a randomly new religion is twisted, then blown far beyond the proportions Jason had imagined. People take risks and get hurt and friendships get left behind. When Jason finds himself in the middle of a thunderstorm, the new religion is not just a matter of something to annoy his parents with one summer, not anymore. "They listen to you," his mother accuses him, and Jason finally begins to understand. But how much of what happens is his fault?

This is a compelling look at the power of religion over belief, and an exploration of faith vs. religion. The author draws no conclusions and makes no judgments, but leaves them to the reader.

Soul Asylum

Fourteen year old Zimmerman has a strangely mature take on the world in which he lives. He is comfortable with being one-of-a kind. He is comfortable with being alienated and strangely out of sync with his parents. He is comfortable with God, but not in a way that makes him weird or eager to proselytize. He is not comfortable with churches. He is comfortable with the idea that most people aren't actually really into God, but are into religion -- which is way different. Religions are preachy and opinionated and most religious people think God is about a list of answers instead of wondering and questions with the possibility of cooler wonderings and wanderings and questions still just around the corner. Zimmerman is interested in science and nature and human sociology, he revels in the complexity of the world around him, but he is not interested in his upwardly mobile parent's lifestyle of heavy drinking and recreational drug use. His parents resent that they have such a "squeaky clean" son; sometimes their resentment takes the form of them putting a little vodka into his Gatorade, sometimes it's worse. "Loosen up!" they cry. "Love us more than God," his father requests wistfully. The harder they push, the deeper Zimmerman goes inside. It's not that he doesn't love his parents... it's just that they just don't have all that much in common.

When his parents meet a strange minister and get involved in a bizarre religion they find on their Caribbean holiday, they feel that at last they and their son are on the same page. Except... they're not. Under increasing pressure, Zimmerman takes a disturbing final step to distance himself from his parent's insanity.

Asylum for Nightface can be a challenging read, and might be preferred by readers who are able to dig a little deeper. It is a collection of disparate chapters describing various classroom and parental encounters by Zimmerman, and various secondary characters including his best friend - now in prison - and the maker of Nightface, the comic book character whom he admires. Unfortunately, some promising characters are never fully developed, and only mid-novel do all the pieces fall of the storyline fall with a disturbing clarity. There is foreshadowing, but it isn't obvious until the last chapters, and then the reader feels as if they are screaming behind a wall for Zimmerman to choose another way to save himself, to come out from behind his sophisticated brain and his deep thoughts on God and to connect with another human being who was possibly put on earth to help him. An excellent book, not immediately appealing to everyone, but truly worth the work -- and the disturbing thoughts of "what would you do?" afterwards.