Friday, March 31, 2006

Some Thoughts On Writing That I Can't Keep To Myself

I was just reading the most recent post at Storyglossia and Steven, who I think I will start referring to as The Storyglossia Guy because I don't actually know him, said something so interesting. Perhaps, like myself, you've always heard that writers should show and not tell? Well, The Storyglossia Guy explains why. It robs readers of the opportunity to interpret the story themselves. You're robbed of your Aha! Moment.

Perhaps, like myself, you have also always heard that stories have great significance for mankind. We're into stories. Well, Storyglossia Guy explains that, too. "In life we tell stories to make sense of and to cope with our experiences."

I suspect that this is one of those really obvious things I should have interpreted for myself but, instead, had to be told. I tend to be that way.

This totally explains some stuff Philip Pullman said in last year's New Yorker article about what can be learned from reading fiction. If fiction writers tell stories to make sense of and cope with experience, then, yes, we ought to be able to learn something from what they have to say. In theory, anyway.

Poetry Friday

Some of the other kidlit blogs are doing poetry Fridays. Though I have made some feeble attempts to read poetry and even to write it, my knowledge of it remains very limited. So today I will tell a poetry story instead of publishing a poem.

When I was in college, I worked three summers in the kitchen at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. (Forgive me if I've told this story before, by the way.) The kitchen staff could attend all the public events at the conference because once we were out of our uniforms and in our cutoffs and tee-shirts, it was hard to tell us from the younger writers. One night while dinner was being served, the waiters (who were writers on work/study, so to speak) came through the kitchen all excited. "Anne Sexton is here! Anne Sexton is here!" they kept saying. She had come to visit her friend, Maxine Kumin.

I would have been really excited about this, too, if I had a clue who either of these people were.

So, that evening, instead of going to hear Anne Sexton give a reading or a lecture or something in the lovely little theater on that mountain campus, I went to the pond to go skinnying with my girlfriends from the kitchen. Keep in mind, folks, at that point in my life, I didn't know how to swim. I was sort of skinnywading.

This was probably in the summer of '73. A little more than a year later, Anne Sexton would give her last reading.

This story must have some meaning, though I'm not sure what it is. Perhaps something about me never being quite in step with the rest of the literary world.

(Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for the link.)

One last poetry note: Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy posted two poems today that I absolutely loved when I was a teenager. I think I copied them over once. I don't know what the heck I thought I was going to do with them.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

What's Happening in the New Horn Book

The March/April The Horn Book carries a couple of articles on graphic novels. I particularly liked Graphic Novels 101 by Robin Brenner, who edits three websites that review graphic novels.

Judith Ridge from The Misrule Blog also has an article in this issue.

Here's something I found particularly interesting: The last issue carried of Louis Sachar's Small Steps. This issue carries a full-page ad for the book!

Let's look at reviews:

Cecil Castellucci (Boy Proof) has a new book, The Queen of Cool.

Someone from Readerville told me about Catherine Fisher, so I noticed the review of her fantasy Darkhenge.

I'd never heard of Simon Mason or The Quigleys but the review of his new book The Quigleys in a Spin sounds very good.

Megan Whalen Turner's The King of Attoila received a starred review. I loved the first book in this series and am looking forward to this one, the third.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Happy Birthday, Bev

Newsweek has a nice article this week on Beverly Cleary who will be turning 90 this month. I didn't discover Cleary's work until I was an adult, and I can't say it particularly grabbed me. I do have to hand it to her, though--I had young relatives who loved her Ramona books. And they were young male relatives. Conventional wisdom claims that boys won't read books about girls. Not so when Cleary wrote them.

I also respect that Cleary has no plans to do any more writing. She says it's important to know when to stop. I plan to write so long as I can sit up in front of a word processor. But I worry that she may very well be correct. I'd hate to be writing past the point where I have anything of value to say. Or anything entertaining to say. Or anything coherent to say.

Oh, what am I thinking? With the genes I've inherited, I'll be dead long before that happens.

Thanks to About Children's Books for the link.

This Doesn't Sound All That Bad To Me

I have a family member who reads U.S. News & World Report. He passed on to me the March 13 issue with a cover story called Books Gone Wild!!! Some points I found particularly interesting:

Remember the 2004 NEA report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America? The report said that fewer than half of American adults read "literature," meaning fiction or poetry? People 18 to 24 are down almost 30 percent in their literary reading over a twenty-year period? Is it coming back to you? Well, in the U.S. News article the president of the Association of American Publishers suggests that some of those readers have just shifted from literature to nonfiction. The NEA report is called "A Survey of Literary Reading in America" remember. Did it do any surveying of nonfiction reading?

And the vice president for new media at Random House says, "People are reading more than ever--screen-based reading, on mobile phone, BlackBerrys, computer screens, reading blogs, and gathering information on the Web. As a publishing industry we need to provide products that meet the needs of this digital, Internet-savvy generation."

Meaning that when it becomes easy read fiction in a screen-based manner, people may start reading it again.

The business about people not reading fiction is certainly bad news for people like myself who write it. But it clearly doesn't mean that people aren't reading at all. We're not talking about the fall of western civ. here.

Another interesting point:

That NEA report came out in 2004. Book sales actually went up in 2005. Okay, the top 200 bestsellers accounted for about ten percent of sales. And many of the other sales may have been due to nonfiction purchases. But even taking all that into consideration, I think it shows we're still a nation of readers.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

I Thought So, Too

Yesterday Camille at Book Moot began a "gotta have" list for what she calls her "virtual" school library. The list included The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, which I just happened to have read a week or so ago. As I was reading it, I kept thinking it belonged in classroom and school libraries, too.

The book might be considered a kid version of Neil Gaiman's American Gods in that it sets up a world in which the gods of the past are real and have a very definite presence here in the good old U.S. of A. It's also a buddy/journey story since our hero, a twelve-year-old boy of mysterious birth who learns he's the son of a god, has to make his way across the country on a quest. And then I'm sure there are those who are going to compare it to Harry Potter because of the summer camp for demi-gods that no one knows about and the two buddies, one of whom is a girl much feistier than poor Hermione ever dreamed of being.

I have a vague recollection of enjoying Greek mythology back when I was in junior high school, though I can't say it's a big interest now. I think this book would be a great supplement to an English curriculum that included mythology. It would be a treat for the kids who like the subject (as I used to) and would enjoy this fantasy about gods in their own time. It might also make mythology more palatable for kids who don't like the subject (closer to my feelings now).

I recognized a couple of the kids' stops on their cross-country trip as being updated scenes from The Odyssey. I suspect (though I may be wrong) that if I remembered more about that book, I would have recognized more.

I've noticed that a number of the adventure stories I've read these last few months involve kids right around twelve-years-old. I often have trouble believing twelve-year-olds can pull off the stunts these kids are asked to pull off in these books. Oddly enough, I didn't have any trouble believing Percy could fight gods and furies. He was the son of a god, after all. What I found difficult to buy was that these poor kids could manage traveling across country with so little money.

Rick Riordan taught middle school for fifteen years. A quick look at his blog Myth & Mystery suggests he's still interested in education.

More About Me, Me, Me

I received a very nice rejection e-mail today. I had sent an essay to a magazine directed toward writers. The essay was about my experiences with self-promotion and my gut feeling that I never know whether spending time on marketing does any good, that perhaps I'd be better off just doing more writing. (You guys have heard all this from me before.)

Well, the essay was turned down. But the editor said that given my background in children’s writing, he'd be willing to look at queries related to that area, especially on topics that could be discussed in a how-to format. And he also attached some guidelines.

Now, he's assuming I know "how-to" something, which is probably not the case. Nonetheless, I thought it was a painless rejection.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Did I Have A Good Day? I Can't Tell

Today was a mixed bag. I finished revising the talk I'm going to give this Saturday at an American Association of University Women luncheon. I worked on it at least a couple of days last week (not all day, of course, because there's absolutely nothing that I do for an entire day, and I like it much better than the script I used last year. Now I just have to practice reading it for the rest of the week. I read a short story that Stephen J. McDermott blogged about at Storyglossia. That blog is turning out to be fantastic. I also reread A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'Connor because we're doing this impromptu short story discussion at Readerville. And I caught up with A Novel in a Year and got a great idea for the setting of that book.

So that seems as if I had a good day. Even if I didn't accomplish a lot of writing, the reading ought to be improving in some way, right? It's important to study, isn't it?

Then I made two phone calls to bookstores I had already contacted to see if I could arrange author appearances to support Happy Kid! when it comes out in May. I hate doing store appearances, and I don't believe they do a whole lot of good. I just want to have a couple because I think an author has a better chance of getting newspaper coverage if she's making an appearance in the area. That sort of makes it news whereas evidently newspapers think the mere fact that you're having a book published is something else.

Well, neither store is ready to make a commitment. I think one of them isn't going to, and if the other store comes across I'll never contact the first one again. But in the meantime, I am not enjoying this.

But then my editor sent me a copy of the cover for Happy Kid!, so that was nice.

Fay Who?

I've been all excited for a week or two because Fay Weldon is supposed to be coming to UConn. I contacted my nephew about this because he attends the school and works in the Coop. Surely, I thought, I would need a ticket to get into a Fay Weldon event. My young relative said he'd heard nothing about Fay Weldon coming to campus and didn't think anyone knew who she was.

Because I'm a witch (or something that sounds like one), I feel a little better about my bookstore problems because of that story. And it suggests I shouldn't have any trouble getting in to see her.

Fay Weldon has written children's books, though I have yet to read any of them.

Reading Lists

In It's a Tale of Two Approaches, high school reading lists are hit by some for not being demanding enough. I assume by high school reading lists, they mean the pool of books that teachers choose from when planning what they'll cover for the year and not summer reading lists.

Man do I hate summer reading lists.

But, back to the article in question: Some of the people quoted felt a diet of demanding classics is necessary in order to teach students how to think and prepare them for college. Learning how to think is good, of course. And a knowledge of our our culture's literature enriches life. But beyond that I begin to feel a lot of ambiguity. Who decides what is a classic? Yesterday I called The Count of Monte Cristo a classic, but I've got a feeling it's just escapist fluff to some of the people who want kids to be reading Camus. While I'm a big fan of Jane Eyre and think it's worthy of study at some point in life because it was a model for so many books that followed it, it really is basically a romance. Is that a classic that kids absolutely need to be exposed to in order to move on in life?

It's also hard for me to get behind a steady diet of the classics because that means abandoning YA, and I think young people need YA. A steady diet of classics will pretty much mean reading about people who are not at all like the high school students doing the reading. I know I sure didn't feel a whole lot of connection with ol' Huck Finn when I read him in high school, even though he was my age or younger. And I got far, far more out of Romeo and Juliet when I reread it a few years ago than I ever did when I was a teenager.

What does being told year after year that great literature is literature that has nothing to do with you have to say about the status of the young?

Well, it probably says boat loads, actually.

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for that link.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

And Another Reason For The Young To Read Classics

I went to see V for Vendetta last night. Thank goodness I had the foresight to read The Count of Monte Cristo when I was a teenager, because there were many, many references to it in the movie. In fact, I think an argument could be made that V for Vendetta is a very violent, bloody updating of the story.

So young'uns, when you find yourselves with a lot of time on your hands because you can't get into R-rated movies, use some of it to educate yourself on the classics. Once you reach the age of seventeen, you'll enjoy sexy and/or violent movies so very much more because you'll understand all the literary references.

School Library Journal, by the way, described the original V for Vendetta graphic novel as being appropriate for grades 9 and up.

Oddly enough, I haven't seen any reviews that mention Monte Cristo. Does that mean absolutely no one else has read the book or noticed that aspect of the movie?

Friday, March 24, 2006

It's That Time Again

Yes, boys and girls, the first week of April is coming up soon, and that means Buy A Friend A Book Week is almost here.

I know I'm supposed to buy a friend a book for no good reason, but I'm using the next Buy a Friend a Book Week as an excuse to contact a friend I haven't seen much of lately. That's cheating, I suppose, but I'll still be buying a book.

I'm not sure, but it looks to me as if the Buy a Friend a Book site has yet to recommend a children's or YA book for purchase during BYAB. So I will recommend the books I've purchased for BYAB over the past half year: Whales on Stilts by M. T. Anderson and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.

This time around I think I might buy A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb.

Yes, I Did It

This morning I did three repetitions of circuit training while listening to The Guardian's conversation with Kazuro Ishiguro, author of the Alex Award winning Never Let Me Go.

For those of you who aren't up to lifting weights for thirty-nine minutes while listening to this interview, here are a few interesting points:

1. Ishiguro made three attempts to write the book over a period of nine years. That was music to this writer's ears.

2. Many readers feel the book has a mystery element. The author finds this surprising.

3. Many readers wonder why the characters in the book didn't make an effort to avoid their fate. I wondered about that, too. Especially since we see the characters grow through adolescence, a period when people reject a whole lot less benign things. Ishiguro said he didn't want to write a book that was a metaphor for slavery, which he was afraid would be the result of a revolt on the part of his characters. In addition, the characters' fate is a fate that comes to everyone at some point. Everyone else accepts it. (More or less, actually.) And, finally, Ishiguro said he doesn't think an author needs to explain why to everything. Some situations can just be presented as accepted by the characters in the world the author has created.

Myself, I'm a big why person. I have to address why in any book I write. However, Never Let Me Go is so good, I was able to accept the situation as the author presented it.

A Bog is Not a Web Site

The most recent SCBWI Bulletin includes an article called Blogging: What, Why & How For Writers by Michele Regenold. While Ms. Regenold is right that blogs are great places for unpublished writers to actually do some writing, she also suggests that published writers can use them to tell visitors about "a writer's work, upcoming events, a writer's thoughts on his or her own work, etc."

I've noticed some writers using blogs or livejournals instead of web sites recently, so Regenold is reporting on something that is actually happening. I think using a blog in that way, though, is a major mistake. A traditional web site communicates that kind of information much, much better and faster than a blog.

The reason an author wants a presence on the web is to do just what Regenold talks about in her article. Visitors to author web sites are looking for information. Is this the Gail Gauthier who wrote Saving the Planet & Stuff or some other Gail Gauthier? What's the book about? Has she written anything else I'd be interested in? Has she written anything that's available on the Internet, and are there links to it here?

Assuming any of that information were available in my blog, a reader would have to hunt through hundreds of posts looking for it. And no reader would do that. If the visitor leaves without getting the information she was looking for, I may have very well lost a reader for my book(s).

At a web site, however, (at least at a good one) that information should be laid out in an orderly way so that readers can find what they're looking for quickly. There are masses of things competing for their attention. If they can't find what they need right away, they are completely justified in giving up and doing something else.

It's all about communication. If you have information you really need to get out to people, you want to present the information in such a way that they actually can get it. If I tell you guys about something here in my blog that I really need people to hear about, I repeat it on the homepage to my web site where they can find it immediately.

One way to keep clear the difference between and functions of web sites and blogs: A web site is about fact. A web log is about opinion.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

I Wish I Could Find Time For This

You can listen to a live discussion with Kazuo Ishiguro thanks to the English publication The Guardian. Ishiguro's marvelous book Never Let Me Go was one of this year's Alex Award winners. The Alex Awards are given each year to ten adult books that appeal to teen readers.

Unfortunately, the conversation is thirty-nine minutes long, and that's a long time to sit next to my computer staring into space. Unless, of course, I were to take up knitting or rocking small children while sitting here in the office. No! Wait! I just had a brilliant idea! I'll listen to it tomorrow morning while I'm doing weight work!

Ha! Now you know what I'll be writing about tomorrow.

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for that link.

I Missed This The First Time Around

Tiff at BSC Headquarters is rereading The Baby-sitters Club series, which she says she loved growing up. No info on how old she is now.

I'm wondering if, after I read The Gossip Clique or The Gossip List or The A-Clique or whatever those books are I have waiting for me upstairs, I should read a volume from Baby-sitters Club? Maybe one series led to another? Maybe there's some connection beyond the fact that they are girl-oriented books that Gail has never read?

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for that link, too.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Now I Wish I Knew More About Fantasy

While I was traveling last week, I listened to the audio version of Septimus Heap: Magyk by Angie Sage. I enjoyed the experience a great deal, even though the book had a number of similiarities to that other book series about a boy wizard.

This wizard child, too, has been separated from his family. His family is a lot like the Weasleys, large with nice parents who aren't terribly successful. There's also an older uber-wizard like whatzzisname in Potter.

However, he's a ghost in Magyk. That really limits his ability to save the day. In fact, at an important point the main characters ignore his instructions (for a logical reason) and a climactic scene takes place without his influence.

This wizard world is also complete all by itself. There's no contemporary human world in this book, the way there is in Harry Potter. It's all wizard, all the time. The adult characters are much more sophisticated here, too. Septimus' family is not at all dysfunctional, either, even though they did lose him for a while. Ten years, in fact. And the characters don't lie in order to move the plot along.

Though I don't read a lot of fantasy, I've always felt the Potter books weren't particularly unique. The wizard school thing seemed familiar, and certainly the three friends on an adventure wasn't anything new. I don't know whether Magyk has been created in Harry's image or if both books are part of some fantasy genre I'm not familiar with.

Magyk, like Golden & Grey, which I talked about yesterday, is also filled with the marvelous detail we see in J. K. Rowling. I thought innovative detail was something unique to Rowling, but now that I've read Angie Sage, Louise Arnold, and, a few months back, Terry Pratchett, I see that a lot of writers are able to do this complete fantasy world thing and do it very well.

Which just leaves me wondering how Harry Potter fits into the fantasy world.

Look What I Found

This has absolutely nothing to do with children's literature, but today while I was wandering around on-line, instead of working, I found the Storyglossia weblog, which is connected to the Storyglossia Literary Journal. What's interesting about this weblog is that the blogger, Steven J. McDermott, does "book and short story reviews with a particular emphasis on the craft of short story writing." He links to stories published on-line and then discusses them.

Now, I don't know how good his commentary is, having just found the blog a few hours ago, but I'll be checking him out for a while. It seems like a good opportunity for someone interested in reading short stories and/or writing them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Edge of the Forest

The new issue of The Edge of the Forest is up and features an interview with yours truly.

The Edge of the Forest is going to include a feature called Kid Picks, which I appreciate. I'm always droning on about how kids don't often get an opportunity to have any say in kid literature--they don't write it, edit it, or review it, and have no part in making library and classroom selections. It looks as if once a month a group of kids will get a chance to be heard at The Edge of the Forest, at least.

Readerville Authors

I've got a little news about two authors from the Readerville community. I just learned that YA author Rosemary Graham has started a blog. And Anne Ursu received a very good review for The Shadow Thieves in the new Horn Book.

Has Gail Been Reading Anything Lately?

Yes, she has. Not too long ago I read
Golden & Grey by Louise Arnold.

I number of years back I read a ghost story to some young relatives. I swear, I thought it was going to be a neat, fun experience. However, the child ghost involved had died some kind of horrible death, and there was lots of talk about decomposition.

One of the kids I was reading to has never recovered.

If only Golden & Grey had been around back then. This ghost story brings fun back to the idea of ghosts, in large part because ghosts aren't spirits of the dead. They are just...ghosts. So there's absolutely no boo-hoo factor at all. At least as part as the dead are concerned.

Tom Golden is a very unhappy child who seemed to have had a good life going for him until his family moved, and he started being tormented at his new school. Grey Arthur is a ghost with no job description. All the other ghosts have specific jobs, like poltergeist, for instance. Grey Arthur doesn't have much in the way of skills. He's kind of depressed and directionless.

Unhappy child. Unhappy ghost. They were made for each other. Grey Arthur creates a job for himself--invisible friend to Tom Golden. When Tom is the victim of an accident that leaves him able to see Arthur, things get even better. Or worse, depending on how you look at it.

This book has the wonderful detail that I've always thought is J. K. Rowling's greatest strength. And lo and behold, Arnold was discovered in a BBC contest looking for the next J. K. Rowling. (Though Arnold says she's never read any of the Potter books--she's seen the movies.)

Instead of murky plots involving good and evil, though, Golden & Grey focuses very intently on a child-centered situation. Tom is miserable at school. Hey, lots of kids are miserable at school. Lots of kids would love an invisible friend to help them get through their days.

I thought the book slowed down when an adult bad-guy entered the picture, though I don't know if child readers would be bothered. Otherwise, this was a very enjoyable read. And I'm not even bothered much by school these days.

If you go to and check out the reviews for Golden & Grey, you'll see that School Library Journal really did not care for it at all. At last! A book I liked that other reviewers didn't!

Monday, March 20, 2006


Back on March 5 I talked about Defining Dulcie, which still won't be out until next month. I wasn't exactly overwhelmed by the book, but I predicted that other reviewers would be. I was right with that prediction. You can check out the reviews at author Paul Acampora's website. You will notice that Kirkus Reviews and I were the only hold-outs. With three starred reviews, Acampora doesn't have to worry about what Kirkus Reviews or I think.

Then on March 13th, I, like three-quarters of the kidlitbloggers in the U.S., weighed in on Naomi Wolf's article on YA series books for girls. (The Gossip Girls, The A-List, and The Clique) Roger Sutton ended up holding a sort of discussion group on the subject at his blog that same day. Scott Westerfield's blog became a gathering place for younger people to discuss the Wolf article and the books involved.

What was particularly interesting about the discussion at westerblog was that many of the young women commenting there hadn't read the books involved because they weren't interested, had read them but hadn't liked them, or had read them and liked them but outgrown them. One reader said she found the books funny, though she didn't believe they were intended to be.

The books are big sellers so someone is reading them. Westerfield's fans (he writes science fiction) just may not be into this particular teen girl...thing?...genre?

I picked up a couple of these books last week, so I'll be reading them soon. I hope to try some of Westerfield's work, too.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Self-Publishing Success Story

I enjoy stories about writers who manage to by-pass the traditional publishing gatekeepers and still achieve some level of success. I heard a good one this past week while at the New York teachers' conference I've been droning on and on about.

On Wednesday I met Gary VanRiper who, with his son Justin, has written a series of books called The Adirondack Kids. They approached a regional publisher after writing the first book. This publisher suggested they go the self-publishing route. The books have done well enough that the VanRipers have written six different titles, and, I believe, have more in the planning stages.

How did they manage to do this well? First, though they do sell the book directly, they also have a distributor. That means that some of the chain bookstores that won't touch self-published books will sometimes carry theirs because they can order it through the distributor. Second, the books are set in real places in the Adirondacks, which interested schools in New York. The books are used in a number of schools at the grade levels when students study their state.

I don't know exactly how successful they are, but get a load of the appearances they have scheduled for the next few months. They get enough requests for appearances during the school year that Gary has to make a lot of them by himself because Justin can't miss that much of his own schooling.

The VanRiper's story is interesting, but I don't know if it's typical. Not many self-published authors are going to find themselves with a distributor and an audience the way the they have. Every self-publishing success story I've heard involves a great amount of effort and a fortunate combination of circumstances.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Like Stand-up Comics But Different

Bruce Hiscock, an author and illustrator of nature books, appeared at the teachers' conference with me earlier this week. I didn't meet him until the end of the day. The very end of the day. We were unlocking our cars, which were parked next to each other in the parking lot, and started talking.

When I commented on the low turn-out for the conference (see yesterday's post), Bruce said, "It's entertainment. Sometimes the audience is there, sometimes it's not."

Oddly enough, Gary VanRiper, the third author at the conference, and I had just been speaking about how our experiences speaking before groups are very similar to the experiences of entertainers we've read about. Live performers--theater people and stand-up comics--will sometimes talk about the importance of an audience. Each group and how it responds to you is different. And when an audience responds to you, you are different. When people don't respond, oh, you are different then, too. Different in really painful ways.

I've been at schools giving my presentation at 10 in the morning, and it's clear that everyone loves me. Every joke gets a laugh. The kids have their hands up in the air because they want to talk to me. The teachers are on the edges of their seats.

At 1 that afternoon I'm using the very same material, the same slides, and my audience is patiently waiting for me to finish so they can get out of there.

Authors are often uncomfortable speaking in public. I think that's because we're controllers. We control the universe we create on paper. But even if we can get ourselves under control when we're standing in front of a group--even if we have a good act and great timing--we can't control the audience. We can't control how they perceive us. We can't make them get us.

In an article in the Oct. 24 issue of The New Yorker (I'm still slowly making my way through the back issues), Penn Gillette of Penn and Teller said, "All standup acts are a riddle: Who am I?" I think writers speaking in public are a lot like a stand-up act. The riddle for us, though, is: "What do I know? Do I know something you don't know? Do I know something you want to know? Do I know something that's worth forty minutes to an hour of your life and whatever you or your school paid so you could listen to me?"

When you're standing up in front of a group of strangers, there's a lot riding on the answers to those questions.

For Those Who Can't Get Enough About Gail

VerbSap, which published my essay, A Night at the Dojang, has also published an interview with me. Needless to say, I think VerbSap is a wonderful journal.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I Can't Say I Saw This Coming

So I'm back from my first speaking engagement at a teachers' conference. I don't want to keep everyone in suspense so I'll just say that the trip went well, and I had an excellent time. The food was good, too. And in addition to my fee, I came away with a cool notepad, a pen, and a coffee mug, all stamped with the sponsoring organization's logo.

I drove up to Cortland, New York the day before the conference. The six-hour trip went so incredibly well and the motel was so satisfactory that I began to have a bad feeling about how things would go the next day. What could go wrong? Would people hate me? Would the college's PowerPoint equipment seize up and leave me alone at the front of a room? Worse yet, would I have to speak four times in front of auditoriums full of people? Who would hate me and my PowerPoint presentation, too?

What I never foresaw was a really low turnout for the conference. This had absolutely nothing to do with me, of course. Really. It didn't. This was a regional conference, and I have it on good authority that the state conference, which usually brings in two or three hundred people had only seventy-five, and I wasn't there, now, was I?

We had only forty people at this thing. There were four sessions during the course of the day, and each time a session met there were three authors talking in three different rooms as well as three other events going on. So that means six venues, so to speak, with only forty people spread amongst them.

I had only three people at my first session. Only one at my last one. She said, "Gee, I hate to make you do this for only one person." To which I said, "Oh, no, you don't. I've gotta stay, so you've gotta stay. Park it, honey."

No, of course I didn't say that. I did, however, make her listen to my entire presentation and look at all my slides.

I am slowly making my way toward a point. A couple of them, in fact. Why was turnout so low? I had to leave the discussion in the hallway on this subject, but the general feeling seemed to be that schools are having budget problems and cutting back on funding for teachers to attend these kinds of events. And I know that in my own school district, professional days have been cut back. Teachers can't take as many paid days off from school to attend professional conferences while their classes are covered by subsitutes. There's less money to pay for conference fees or to pay for teachers' time at conferences.

Times are hard, difficult decisions have to be made, and I'm not going to criticize the people who have to make them. I will say, though, that I think conferences can be valuable for teachers. (They're probably valuable for people in any profession, for that matter.) At this particular conference teachers had an opportunity to meet and speak with vendors from educational publishers. Even I was interested in that because I saw a book on 6 + 1 Traits of Writing something I've only just heard about. Teachers also got to hear a presentation from a teacher who had received grant money to develop a "math backpack" project. Her presentation gave me all kinds of ideas, and I'm not even a teacher. And I don't like math.

And, finally, these teachers had an opportunity to listen to and talk with three writers whose books are available for use in their classrooms.

I think this kind of thing can make teachers more excited about their work. It can give them new ideas. It can, in the long run, end up being a really good thing for kids.

Every time I go on a trip, I end up talking about it here for days. My trip to this conference is no different. In the next couple of days you can expect to be reading about people I met or books I read.

I Assume That, Too

Chris Barton at Bartography quotes Terry Pratchett in a book called The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy. Pratchett was asked if he had a daily routine. His response: "I assume that what I'm doing is writing all the time--even though I'm actually doing something else."

I'm doing something else a lot of the time.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Reading and the Sexes

The Little Men Who Love Little House by Emily Bazelon includes the subtitle "Why boys like girls books," but it seems to me to be about why they don't.

Bazelon quotes Eden Ross Lipson as saying that boys "...don't set out looking for story and relationship. They set out looking for information." This quote, combined with the anecdotal stories Bazelon tells about boys who like books with diagrams on how to do things, suggests that boys do have different reading interests than girls. Or at least girls like Bazelon, who worries her own sons won't enjoy the "girl" books she favored when she was young.

One of the most interesting things Bazelon has to say involves librarians. "Why then do a lot of boys get turned off from reading sometime in elementary or middle school? The blame partly lies with librarians. They are mostly women, they tend to love stories, and they also have a thing for books that teach moral lessons."


I don't think the fact that little boys like books with pictures and diagrams necessarily means they don't like "stories" or won't want to read them down the line. I think that's being way too simplistic. I think an argument could be made, though, that the whole children's literature and children's publishing world tends to be made up of women and that a lot of them love a particular kind of story and have a thing for books that teach moral lessons. Librarians shouldn't be singled out.

I don't think these people are heavies in the 'boys and reading story,' either. I think they're just publishing and promoting books they themselves like. If they were publishing and promoting adult books for adults that wouldn't be much of a problem. In all likelihood, there would be plenty of adults in the reading audience that would agree with them. Like attracts like, as they say.

But I think that little boys, and for that matter, little girls, are not small adults. Their interests and reading needs are always going to be different from those of the adult women (and sometimes men) who are publishing and promoting what they, themselves, enjoy. You can have the best intentions in the world, but what are the chances of a forty-five year old woman sharing the interests of a ten-year-old boy?

The real reason boys--and many girls--get turned off from reading is this gap between adult and child in book publishing.

While Emily Bazelon was worried about boys and reading, Naomi Wolf is concerned about teenage girls and reading. Her essay in The New York Times called Young Adult Fiction: Wild Things is a scorcher.

She talks about the Gossip Girl, A-List, and Clique series, none of which I've read because I always assumed they were romances, a genre I don't find terribly compelling, anyway. I couldn't even sit through Sleepless in Seattle. I find it particularly difficult to care whether or not teen characters hook up.

As it turns out, though, these books may be about something else--materialism, status, and sex rather than romance. Wolf describes them as having a "value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers." The books, she says, "package corruption with a cute overlay."

With all the sex these books are supposed to contain, it's hard to believe that sluttiness is still a problem. But Wolf says, "Unfortunately for girls, these novels reproduce the dilemma they experience all the time: they are expected to compete with pornography, but can still be labeled sluts."


This is a really well-written essay, by the way. I'm always complaining about essayists who ramble or contradict the argument they're trying to make, so I thought I should mention that. My problem with Naomi Wolf, though, is that over the years she's seemed to be an authority on everything. As a card-carrying feminist I guess she can go to work on any issue that relates to women. But that seems like a very broad field.

Nonetheless, she's convinced me that I should take a look at some of these books. Whether or not I'll be able to read any of them remains to be seen.

Thanks to Big A little a for the link.

And I'm Off

I'm leaving tomorrow for SUNY Cortland where I will be speaking on Wednesday. I'm getting really excited about this, not because I'm looking forward to Wednesday's conference but because I'm looking forward to coming home Wednesday night knowing that I don't have to prepare for any more presentations for a while. I'm not a natural speaker and I've had to put an awful lot of effort into the talks at last month's writers' retreat and this conference on Wednesday.

On Wednesday I'll be giving my presentation four times. That means that if I find out between 9 and 10 in the morning that I'm horrible, I'm going to have to be horrible three more times. And then sit through a book signing that should be pretty grim. And then spend six hours driving home.

But that's only one possibility.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

I Was Just Thinking About This, Too

In yesterday's Read Roger Roger Sutton said that he was "interested in how children's book people negotiate differences in taste--not just with their loved ones, but with their colleagues and with the young people they serve, either as individuals or in the aggregate, in a day to day situation or in the abstract or at a remove."

This struck home because just yesterday one of my relatives accused me of being high-brow. I know, I know. If only he read this blog, he would never dream of suggesting such a thing.

Professionally, though, I'd have to say there is no negotiating taste. I just have to accept that I will never get Ida B. and all her many sisters and brothers, which appear to be so dearly loved by my kidlit colleagues. Really, those things are a total mystery to me.

How I Spent My Saturday

Working! I spent most of January and February preparing presentations for the writers' retreat at Whispering Pines and a teachers' conference this coming Wednesday. I thought the presentation for the teachers' conference was in pretty good shape, so the week before last I got started on a new writing project and did a few other things. Then I realized that the presentation was too long. I spent all last week cutting and cutting. Then today I did a big revision. I did it by hand, which is unlike me, but we're having word processor problems of various types. The original on the hard drive needs to have the changes typed in, and I need to practice the thing like mad. All in the next forty-eight hours or so because Tuesday is a travel day.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Are You Character Driven Or Plot Driven?

Yesterday a college-aged relative and I got into a big discussion of character- vs. plot-driven stories. He had an assignment involving character-driven narratives and felt the professor hadn't done a very good job of explaining what she wanted. (They never do.)

I've always thought I preferred character-driven to plot-driven stories, and I've always thought (probably since the day I read about them in a book review somewhere) that I understood what they were. So I explained to young college boy that a character-driven story is one in which character is more important and that a plot-driven story was one in which the plot is more important.

It made sense to me.

But C(ollege)B(oy) said, "Nonsense. Character and plot should be equal."

Well, how was I supposed to argue with that? Of course character and plot should be equal. But in reality, they often aren't.

So I went on to say that I've always thought the Sherlock Holmes stories were character driven. The plots were impossible to follow and involved great leaps. The stories were all about Sherlock.

"Nonsense," CB replied. "Of course the plots were important."

(I'm paraphrasing College Boy, by the way.)

As we got further and further into the conversation, I discovered we'd both read Edith Wharton's short story Roman Fever. "Okay," I said. "Roman Fever is character driven. It's all about the two mothers."

"No, no, no!" CB cried. "It's about the plot that's revealed in flashback!"

Could this mean that whether a story is character or plot driven is all in the mind of the beholder?

We didn't actually start shouting and throwing things, but the conversation did get heated. So I went on-line to try to find some assistance. I found a lot of stuff, but nothing definitive.

Isn't that just like the Internet?

So I had to think about this whole situation. And what I came up with was that I was forgetting the word driven in character driven and plot driven. It's not so much that character is more important in the character- driven story or that plot is more important in the plot-driven story. It's that the character drives the story in a character-driven story. What happens happens because of who the character is. A character changing in a character-driven story is part of what happens.

Remember last summer when I read Rust Hills' Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular? He said that in a story something happens to someone. Perhaps short stories are character driven, what with the focus on the character?

Back to my theorizing. Perhaps what happens in a character-driven story has to happen the way it does because of who the character is. While in a plot-driven story what happens happens and it just doesn't matter who the characters are.

So I'm going to suggest that the Joey Pigza books by Jack Gantos are character driven. What happens happens because of who Joey is. Perhaps more traditional series books that rely on similar plots are plot driven. The characters could be replaced without the plot having to change.

All speculation here, folks.

An interesting note: When I was looking for character- and plot-driven info on-line, I found a lot of sites related to writing for television. This was thought provoking, of course. One thought I had was that what I think I've seen referred to as visual literacy really is becoming more and more important in our culture. Another thought I had is that sitcoms may be character driven. That thought sort of comes out of nowhere, but I did have it sometime yesterday afternoon.

A less interesting note: In some places above I hyphenated character and plot driven and in some places I didn't. I'm aware of that. I wasn't just being sloppy. I tried to hyphenated them when they were followed by a noun. As in plot-driven stories. But not in cases where they were note. As in that story isn't character driven. I learned that rule from one of my publsher's copyeditors. It just doesn't seem right to me to go both ways, but copyeditors rule.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

This Woman Is Stalking Me

When I was nineteen, Joyce Maynard published her article An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life. In The New York Times Magazine. It was a cover story.

I was pretty broken up about it. Even a nineteen-year-old redneck like myself knew what a New York Times Magazine cover story meant. This was during a period of my life when I wrote maybe a sentence over an entire three-month school vacation. What was wrong with me?

Plus Maynard was as cute as the dickens.

While I was working at my kitchen job one summer, I met a girl from Maynard's home town, who told me some really intriguing gossip about her. Which didn't make one bit of difference in my life, though the gossip turned out to be true.

Over the years I would see Maynard's essays here and there. I couldn't publish squat and major publications were taking her work on subjects like having her haircut and going to the store with her kids.

Then after I saw To Die For with Nicole Kidman, I found out Maynard wrote the book.

Well, I can be mature. Really. She has her little career going for her. And now I've got my little career going for me. The past is the past, right?

Wrong!!!! She's publishing YA, which is very nearly kids' books!

I can't get away from her.

But why should I think I should? Perhaps I'm just making an unreasonable demand.

She's still cute as the dickens, too,

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Some Writer Stuff

Yesterday I was talking about Tanya Lee Stone's article in VOYA. Stone included a paragraph on theme that caught my eye because I happened to be thinking about theme, anyway.

"I also toned down two of Nicolette's scenes," Stone said, "in instances where my editor and I eventually agreed that the explicitness might 'distract the reader from my weightier themes,' as she put it. It is important to note, however, that it was only well after the characters' stories had been written and I was into the revision process that I allowed myself the objectivity to look at my themes in the first place. If I had done so from the outset of writing, I believe that it would have been detrimental to the book."

I'm pretty sure I don't spend much time thinking about themes when I'm writing, either. I notice it with great satisfaction somewhere down the line--well down the line. But I wonder if maybe I should be thinking about theme from the outset. Maybe being conscious of a bigger plan from the getgo would help to keep the story on-task.

Over the last couple of years I've noticed YA books that seem to try to merge two different stories--a story of grief mixed with a story about abuse, a story about a kid no one notices mixed with another family's generational story. Were the authors aware of what theme or themes they were working with? If not, would they have been able to develop more of a story from their original situation if they had considered theme?

Am I thinking too much?

I've talked about how I often wonder if I should go to graduate school. I also often wonder if I should get an agent. This interview with agent Erin Murphy is one of the most informative pieces I can recall reading on the subject. I usually find reading about agents dull. Years ago I bought a book on the subject. I don't think I ever opened it.

Murphy mentioned that when writers contact her, they should let her know if they are members of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. For years I heard that being a member of the SCBWI would help writers get editors' attention. But I thought, nah, that can't be true.

However, when I was at the Whispering Pines retreat last month, the editors speaking there said that writers who are members of SCBWI should put that on the outside of their submissions. Evidently the feeling is that writers who make the effort to join a writers' organization have a little higher level of commitment and perhaps have attended conferences and workshops that may have had a positive impact on their writing. They aren't just jotting down the first thing that comes into their heads and sending it off to an editor.

I didn't join the SCBWI until after I'd had a couple of books published. I always do things backwards. Always.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Today We Will Concentrate On YA

Wikipedia's Young Adult Literature entry has the following posted along the top: "To meet Wikipedia's quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup."

That is so YA, isn't it?

Thanks to Finding Wonderland: The Writing YA Weblog for the link.

The Feb. VOYA has an article by Tanya Lee Stone called Now and Forever: The Power of Sex in Young Adult Literature. I felt the article rambled a bit, but I tend to feel that way about a lot of articles, anyway. Evidently I need a tightly written essay that sort of leads me to the points the author is trying to make. I think in this case, though, Stone was burdened by a big subject. Sex in Young Adult literature could be approached from a number of angles. The readers' and writers' angles, of course, but then you also have the whole social responsibility thing because Young Adults are...young, often underaged...and sex Disturbing. Especially to people who aren't young and underaged.

At one point Stone talks about "the role or responsibility of the author." I don't think this is a major issue when you're talking about authors of works directed toward adults. But Stone is right in considering this. Even if YA authors don't spend a lot of time wondering about their responsibility, there are plenty of people out in the general public who will wonder about it for them. In order for an author writing for adults to get comparable scrutiny, he'd have to be caught lying about his memoirs. He can say pretty much what he wants to about sex, so long as he's not lying about it.

Stone also asks why sex seems so prevalent in fiction lately. She suggests that it's partly in response to the visual media "pelt[ing] teens with overt sexualty." Maybe. Except that the media has been doing that for years. Years. I
think there's been plenty of sex in your more sophisticated YA books for years, too. It's only getting noticed now because of the popularity of the genre. With all the new interest we now have more writers, more readers, and more commentary.

Stone concludes with this: "Sexuality is part of growing up and our readers are not children--they are adults--young adults. They must be able to seek out the characters and situations that reflect the world in which they live, and resonate with them."

That's true. I would suggest, though, that if there were no sex in YA fiction, young adults would still be reading about sexuality as they probably have for generations. They'd just get it from adult books. You don't have to show your ID to purchase books or borrow them from the library.

Wouldn't that be one messy road to have to go down?

Thanks to Adbooks for the link.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Carnival Time

Chicken Spaghetti has Carnival of Children's Literature 2 up. I wondered if doing another one so soon after the first was a good idea--you know how the second time is never quite like the first? But Susan got a lot of bloggers I haven't heard of before, and I love the way she arranged them.

Among the links posted at Chicken Spaghetti:

Words by Paul a new live journal from Paul Acampora, whom I blogged about yesterday. I didn't find this when I googled him for my post.

Ruth McNally Barshaw has a wonderful site called SKETCHES of FAMOUS AUTHORS and famous illustrators OF CHILDREN'S BOOKS . Barshaw attends author/illustrator talks and does sketches while she's sitting in the audience. She's posted the sketches as well as her notes. The site is fantastic.

I think I'm going to keep an eye on Bartography for a while because Chris Barton appears to write historical biography. I am afraid to write nonfiction, myself, but I'm interested in history.

I spent a big chunk of my blogging time visiting sites at the carnival. The next carnival will be held at Semicolon. In the meantime, my computer guy is frantically working away trying to solve our permalink problem. He thinks the problem is related to the fact that this blog is four years old and that Blogger has changed things since I've started. We have to somehow catch up with the technology. I feel old.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Where's the Angst?

I just finished reading Defining Dulcie by Paul Acampora, which won't be released until next month.

In a Dear Reader letter at the front of the advanced readers copy, the book's editor said that readers would find in Defining Dulcie "...a likable character, a strong family, adults who treat teens as people, and teens who respect adults as people." She was absolutely right. I thought, though, that the teen characters didn't sound at all like teens. Their dialogue (and that of many of the adults) seemed heavy with meaning. Yes, there was wit, but I often had the feeling that I was supposed to be getting something profound from what was being said. For the most part, it shot right over my head. (Yeah, I know. That kind of thing often happens to me.)

Dulcie's father has just died in a tragic (really) accident. In spite of all the meaningful dialogue and wise introspection on Dulcie's part, I just didn't feel the gut-wrenching shock and the sense that nothing will be normal again that those kinds of life-changing events cause in young and old alike. And this girl is a teenager. Every emotion should have been heightened.

Okay, you may say, "Come on, Gail. When Dulcie's mother moved her across the country, she stole the family truck and drove back home. How much more angst do you want?" Well, we didn't see very much of that trip. And when we did, it was in flashbacks that were...meaningful.

I could have really gotten into a teen roadtrip, by the way.

This is another one of those books that seems to have two not terribly well-integrated stories in it. About a quarter of the way through the novel, Roxanne, another teenager appears. Roxanne is being abused by her mother. Oddly enough, she has that same meaningful way of talking.

Roxanne's storyline is tied up a little too easily. Dulcie's storyline...well, I didn't really see how things had changed much for her by the end of the book. In fact, I can foresee poor old Dulcie having a major meltdown in the future. She works as a janitor at her own high school, after all, which can't make her the coolest kid in class. Her mom has pretty much replaced her with another teenage girl. She lives with her grandfather who is also her boss at school and who has the meaningful talk thing down to an art form. Plus her dad is still dead.

Reviews for this book aren't readily available yet because, as I said before, it won't be released until next month. So this is the rare case in which I can't find out that I am all alone in my take on this title. But I'm guessing I'm going to be. I'm guessing this book will be popular with the people who made Each Little Bird That Sings a hit. Already Childlren's Bookshelf at Publishers Weekly has a write-up tht ends with "Readers will be taken right away with Dulcie's voice and experiences."

Well, the book was written for a YA audience, not for me. Let's wait and see what happens.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A New On-line Publication

Kelly Herold of Big A little a has started an on-line journal called The Edge of the Forest that is devoted to children's literature. Kelly says the new journal will provide more reviews and interviews than you'd expect from a blog, with longer, more complex material.

This is exciting. You never know where a new publication will go.

The Second Carnival of Blogs

Susan at Chicken Spaghetti is hosting the second Carnival of Children's Literature Blogs. Deadline for submissions is tomorrow at noon. It doesn't look as if I'm going to be able to submit this time because we're having trouble figuring out how to add those kinds of links that allow others to link to only one post. Whatever those are called.

Speaking of Spaghetti

I learned about the Spaghetti Book Club in my local newspaper because a school in the next town is taking part. (One of only two schools in the entire state, by the way.) You can read about the whole program yourself, but as I understand it, this isn't just a review site. Classes or reading groups take part in the program, during which students:

read books
engage in book talks
discuss the elements of a book review
read and discuss reviews from the Spaghetti Book Club web site
write group reviews to practice writing summaries,
opinions and recommendations
work on their own reviews
read their reviews for feedback from their peers
publish their reviews on the Spaghetti Book Club website
(From the Spaghetti Book Club site)

The Spaghetti Book Club program isn't free. But it appears that classes or groups that buy a membership are provided with a curriculum and on-line training for adult leaders as well as home pages at the Chicken Spaghetti site. Libraries and after-school programs as well as schools might be interested in checking it out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Does America Get Nannies?

I still have back issues of The New Yorker floating around in my living room. Yesterday I found a great article in the Dec. 19th magazine (I did say back issues, remember)called Becoming Mary Poppins, written by Caitlin Flanagan.

Becoming Mary Poppins is about how P. L. Travers' first book in a series about Mary Poppins became the Disney movie, Mary Poppins. Flanagan describes the original books as "transfixing and original, trading sharp drawing-room comedy with fantastical adventures and carefully rendered scenes of servant life." The first book, published in 1934, is supposed to have beenwell regarded by people like T.S. Eliot and later Sylvia Plath is said to have loved it.

When Disney came to make the movie in the '60s, the question arose over whether or not middle America would know or care about nannies. He's supposed to have asked the writers involved with the movie, "Do you boys know what a nanny is?" One of them replied, "Yeah. It's a goat." It was a joke, but it kind of represents their concern--would America get a movie about a family who hires someone to take care of the kids?

Thus, in the movie, Mary Poppins teachers the parents how to be traditional American parents who raise their own kids. (That also fits my recollection of the movie, which I saw only once.) I'm not sure exactly how different the movie is from the book, but Flanagan indicates the difference is great enough that Travers cried at the premiere and not from joy.

I'm definitely going to look for that book.

An interesting sidenote--when I googled the author of the article, Caitlin Flanagan, I found a lot of blog references to her. Evidently she is quite a controversial figure. According to Ms. Magazine, just before moving to The New Yorker, Flanagan published one last article with her old employer, The Atlantic. The article was called How Serfdom Saved The Women's Movement: Dispatches From The Nanny Wars.

Perhaps the nanny connection is how she scored the job of writing about the most famous nanny of them all.

Reasons Why The Young Should Read Literature directed me to an essay by Joseph Epstein, in which he writes about being plagiarized. At the end he writes about the possibility of turning the case over to a lawyer and watching it go through the court system, "which is likely to produce a story that would make Bleak House look like Goodnight Moon."

I get that reference because I have read both Bleak House and Goodnight Moon. Actually, I've only seen Bleak House on TV. But I have read Goodnight Moon. Many times.

I was also able to figure out what Roger Sutton was talking about in his Feb. 27th and 28th posts at Read Roger because just a couple of weeks ago I read a book that was described as metafiction and looked it up. Though I can't actually remember the definition now.

And, finally, this past weekend I was talking with a young woman who worked at the conference center where I was staying about a secret drawer I'd helped find in my room. She said she'd worked there five years and never been able to find it. I told her that it wasn't that hard if you'd read Nancy Drew. She said she never had. I felt a responsibility to point out to her that she was going to struggle all her adult life because of that lapse in her education.