Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thoughts Provoked By Another's Blog

In his post Going down a dark hall at Read Roger, Roger Sutton asks "Is Du Maurier still doing things for teens?" (As in Daphne.) I asked a similar question back in April. Neither one of us got a big response.

Roger talked about reading more than one Du Maurier book in his earlier days, as did I. That little stroll down memory lane, combined with the responses of a couple of his commenters, got me thinking about the way I used to read book after book by the same author when I was young. Certainly nowadays you hear about kids reading every book in a particular series by one author or another. But how about going through all the work of a nonseries writer?

One commenter talked about reading Victoria Holt as a substitute for Du Maurier because she didn't know there were other Du Maurier books she could read. The idea that a reader can be so interested in a writer that she needs to find a substitute when no more of the original author's works are to be found is very intriguing. (That's not the word I'm looking for, but the only word I found.) Another commenter said she read Du Maurier's Rebecca when she was in high school because it was on a reading list. That made me wonder if reading lists encourage the same kind of faithfulness to an author that stumbling upon gems by wandering up and down the stacks in the high school library did in me?

Then I got to thinking about how I don't do that kind of reading any more, myself. I'll keep up with reading books in a children's series, but I can't seem to find time to even try more work by, say, Philip Reeve or Sarah Vowell, the way I wanted to after reading one of their books. Forget about reading everything they're written. (I have read a lot of Scott Westerfeld and M.T. Anderson, though. And David Sedaris.)

My inability to read my way right through an author's collected works these days is probably due to the fact that there are so very many books out there to read and so many authors I want to read. I can't stay with a particular author the way I used to because I am distracted by all the other authors I find when I walk through a library or bookstore. I don't think having a huge selection of anything to choose from is a bad thing. But my guess is that it has changed the way I, and maybe others, read.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My First Picture Book Of The Year


Children: A First Art Book by Lucy Micklethwait is a collection of works of art used to illustrate common childhood activities. I thought it was kind of interesting, a way of introducing children to the idea that looking at traditional art can be a pleasurable experience.

Micklethwait has a series of I Spy books that also serve as introductions to fine art.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

I Just Liked Her Because She Was Played By Hayley Mills

Sunday morning I caught the last few minutes of Pollyanna: Spirit of Optimism Born Out of War on National Public Radio. I've never read the book, and have fond memories of the Disney movie only because I was a big Hayley Mills fan and she played the the title character. In fact, Mills is interviewed as part of the NPR program. Doesn't her voice sound marvelous? And have I given away my age by droning on about her?

Interesting points in the NPR program:

NPR claims the Golden Age of Children's Literature came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century. Clearly, I need to read a book on kidlit history.

Pollyanna was hugely popular, though you'd never know that now. As someone who's interested in history, I'm fascinated when I hear about things--and books, in particular--that were highly regarded in their time but then pass from popular interest. Or, as in the case of Pollyanna, even become unpopular. It makes me wonder about what will happen to the things we love now.

Jerry Griswold, a professor of children's literature at San Diego State University, who was also interviewed as part of the NPR program, wrote about Pollyanna in The New York Times back in 1987.

A Bionic Jane Austen

I can't say I'm enjoying The Complete Jane Austen as much as I thought I would. I just finished Northanger Abbey and found it kind of anti-climactic. I remember reading it as a teenager and finding it disappointing after Pride and Prejudice.

This morning I started watching Mansfield Park. What did I see but the new (and, from what I've heard, already out of work) Bionic Woman playing an Austen woman (Maria Bertram).

I was standing there going, "Come on, Jaime! Kick that poser's butt!"

I don't think she's going to do that, though.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

And What About Sci-fi For Kids?

I wonder if Clive Thompson isn't lumping science fiction with fantasy in his Wired column Clive Thompson on Why Sci-Fi Is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing. He says, "Teenagers love to ponder such massive, brain-shaking concepts, which is precisely why they devour novels like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books, and Ender's Game. They know that big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge." I'm not going to dispute his basic argument, but "an embossed foil dragon" usually says fantasy to me, not science fiction.

Now, students, after you've read Mr. Thompson's column, think about how his theory that "Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas" applies to children's literature. Is there all that much science fiction being written for children these days? Or is it primarily fantasy? And should those two genres be lumped together?

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Amazon Reader Reviews

In Reading the Book: A Novel Approach to Reviewing at Publishers Weekly's Beyond the Book blog, Barbara Vey talks about those Amazon Reader Reviews that can be so very, very...interesting. This is clearly a subject that hit a nerve with her readers, since she received 59 comments.

Vey directs readers to a very recent Slate article by Garth Risk Hallberg entitled Who Is Grady Harp? on the same subject. Hallberg describes a reviewer hierarchy at Amazon and how it can be manipulated. I had a little trouble following the whole social networking aspect of the review system, but, then, I have trouble with social networking, anyway. (Ask anyone who knows me socially.)

I believe some of my reader reviews began life as book reports.

Thanks to child_lit for the link to Publishers Weekly.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Serious Book For Younger Readers


My goodness! I've read another award winner! Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It by Sundee Frazier won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award last week.

The back of Brendan Buckley contains the following information: "In ten years, I'd never once met my grandpa. My mom didn't want to talk about him. Now suddenly I'd discovered him, and he was a scientist, just like me. Where had he been? Why couldn't we talk about him? This is what I found out..."

As God is my witness, I read that, and I looked at what I took to be a fun cover, and I thought, Oh, grandpa's going to be some kind of mad scientist or something! What fun!

Well, grandpa's not a mad scientist. Not even close. This isn't the first time I've made a mistake like this. I'll spare you the details.

I will tell you, though, that I enjoyed Brendan Buckley a lot more then you would think, given my embarrassing misunderstanding about what I was getting into.

First off, I have to say I think the book would have been better served with a third- person narrator rather than a first. Brendan doesn't have a particularly powerful or unique voice, anyway, and sometimes he sounds too cute. I think a third-person narrator would have helped avoid that.

And though I'm always happy to read about Tae Kwon Do, in this particular case, it seemed as if the TKD thread's only function was to teach ethics. I'm not faulting Frazier's knowledge of the subject, by any means, but I think the Tae Kwon Do material detracted from the story.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'll also point out that the story is Brendan Buckley's big strength. Young Brendan is a biracial child. He's got a great little life going. He's got wonderful parents, he's got friends, and school doesn't seem to present any big problems for him. His black grandparents are terrific. (Grandma is a pistol.) Though his father has tried to warn him of what he may confront in the future as a young black man, to date Brendan hasn't experienced a lot of racism. The worst thing that has happened to him so far in life is the death of his beloved grandfather a few months before our story begins.

When he accidentally meets his white grandfather for the first time and realizes gramps lives nearby even though the two of them have never laid eyes on one another before, he figures this is his chance for another grandpa. He picks up on the fact that there's something wrong within the family--no one wants to talk about this grandfather, who, at first, doesn't even know who Brendan is. So Brendan sets out on his own to approach the old man and try to develop a relationship with him.

Now, even though this adult reader easily figured out what the old guy's problem was, I wanted to keep reading because this is a compelling family story. Identity within family...connections across generations...I love that stuff. I wondered if kids would be as interested. I'm guessing they will. Again, identity and one's place within the family are supposed to be classic themes of children's literature. Plus, there is a mystery element here that kids may really enjoy.

In addition to having a good story, the second thing I think Brendan Buckley has going for it is that, while it may sound like one on paper, it isn't a problem book. Racism isn't a problem for Brendan at this point in his life. When ol' granddad comes out with the cliched argument against inter-racial marriage--"It's always the kids who suffer," Brendan replies, "I'm not suffering."

The third thing I think Brendan has going for it is that, though Amazon lists it as having a reading level of 9 to 12, I think it leans toward the lower end of that range. It's not an oppressively heavy book and could serve as an introduction to the world of more serious reading for, say, third or fourth graders.

I'd never heard of Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It before I stumbled upon it at my library. I hope the award it won last week brings the title more attention.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We Need Many, Many More Juvenilia Panels

For the last decade or more I've heard talk of kids "publishing" their writing. Sometimes that meant little books cranked out in grade school classrooms. Sometimes it meant school literary magazines. Sometimes it meant publications that existed for the sole purpose of publishing student writing. Sometimes it meant teenagers paying to have their work self-published hoping they would become the next Christopher Paolini. Sometimes it meant a reading teacher contacting me for advice on where one of her intermediate school students could get his work published.

I've probably mentioned before that I really can't get behind the child publishing thing. School publications are one thing, but anything beyond that is probably gilding the lily at best. Writing prodigies are few and far between. Few writers, of any age, perfect their craft without years of study and work. Suggesting to kids that they can take short cuts to publication is doing them a serious disservice.

So I was delighted to see at Justine Larbalestier's blog a post called The Juvenilia Panel. It seems Ms. Justine was part of a panel whose members read aloud their early writing. Their very early writing.

She says a couple of the panelists read "teenage monstrosities so bad that we wept on account of laughing so hard. WEPT!"

She also says, "Sharing our crappy writing from when we were beginning writers has the salutary effect of making it clear to those what aspire to be published writers but arenít there yet that we published folk didnít step fully formed from Zeusís head. There was lots and lots and lots of bad words and phrases and sentences and stories and novels written before we were good enough to be read by anyone other than our doting parents."

Exactly.

There's a great deal very young writers can be doing and should be doing as part of their training. Reading, for instance. Reading about writing. Taking writing classes. Going to writing workshops. Going to hear writers speak. Forming writing groups. And writing, of course. That goes without saying. All of this kind of effort will go a long way to making young writers forays into the real writing world less painful.

My own juvenilia? I do have a few pieces from grade school that are notable, no matter what their quality, because they indicate my interests haven't changed much. But as a teenager, I didn't finish much writing. I liked to think about being a writer, but at that point I wasn't too keen on sitting down and doing the work. If I were on a juvenilia panel, I might have to read work from my twenties, which would be seriously humiliating.

Nonetheless, I really think juvenilia panels are a marvelous idea.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Beloved Book Earns Newbery Honor


I had the good luck to read The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt just before the ALA announced it had been named one of this year's honor books. I wasn't surprised. The Wednesday Wars is adored on my listservs and there was Newbery talk regarding it way back in April.

Personally, I didn't think there was a whole lot of story to Wednesday Wars. It's more just charming episodes from the life of seventh grader Holling Hoodhood. I think the title "Wednesday Wars" refers to conflict between Holling and his teacher who are alone together every Wednesday afternoon when, back in 1968 when our story takes place, all the Jewish and Catholic kids (Holling is neither) in the classroom are released early from school to attend religious classes. However, this aspect of the plot is dropped pretty early on. His teacher, Mrs. Baker, remains an imposing character, but after the first few chapters Holling no longer talks of her hating him. We get a lot of history lessons by way of Holling's family who represent, in rather superficial ways, various aspects of 1960's life. His sister is a big Bobby Kennedy fan. (I wondered how many kids would know who Bobby Kennedy was.) Dad is a conservative supporter of the Vietnam War. Mom desperately needs to read The Feminine Mystique.

But while I found the book only so-so, I understand that Newbery books tend to be books (other) adults like. I'm okay with that. I can see what those other adult readers found so very attractive about The Wednesday Wars. Holling and his teacher end up (probably? improbably?) reading Shakespeare together and that gives the book a very literary tone. The book is also improving. In addition to the instruction relating to literature, readers also get lessons on tolerance and, to a lesser extent, good parenting.

Many adults in kidlit do believe children's books should be instructive, and this is an attitude toward literature for the young that goes back for generations, if not centuries, according to my sources on my listservs. While overt lessons are not something I look for in any of my reading, I understand that the adults in kidlit who do want it have tradition to justify their position.

For all the flaws I find in The Wednesday Wars, it may be a Newbery book that child readers can actually enjoy. Some kids may find the 1960's world portrayed here far less disturbing than the one they live in in the twenty-first century. The bad dad in The Wednesday Wars is merely narrow-minded, demanding, and focused on his work rather than his family. He's absolutely quaint compared to the bad dads we see in the news now who molest and murder their children. The bully in Wednesday Wars is kind of sweet. He just roughs up kids on the playground or on their way home. No knives are pulled. No one is beaten to death just for the hell of it. He is a traditional, card-carrying bully, who we know isn't going far in life. He's not a kid from the top of the social hierarchy taking pleasure in tormenting those less fortunate than himself.

I really don't care about using literature as a pulpit. But if some young readers can find escape in The Wednesday Wars, I'm all for it.

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"I Realized That That Was The Beginning Of A Story."

It's a Picture Book, a Novel, a Movie in Book Form... is another one of those how-they-done-it articles that I like so much. This one is about Brian Selznick and Hugo Cabret.

By the way, I've been seeing questions raised about Hugo getting the Caldecott this year because of the whole question of what is it? A picture book or a novel? Fortunately, I'm pretty ignorant about picture books, and I don't have strong feelings one way or the other on the subject.

Thanks to child_lit for the link.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Deep Details From Persuasion

We're all watching The Complete Jane Austen, right? The classics are totally YA.

I didn't see last week's Persuasion until Friday. While I enjoyed it while I was watching it (I had listened to the book on CD a number of years ago), soon afterwards I was left thinking, "Ah...that was kind of light." There wasn't a whole lot of story there. I don't think I would have been interested without the period setting.

However, there were some extremely interesting technical details in the film.

For instance, I'm sure all Buffistas recognized Anthony Head (Buffy's Giles) who played the pompous ass Sir Walter Elliot. But how many of you noticed Alice Krige as Lady Russell? She was the Borg Queen!!!

You don't get this level of depth at just any litblog, folks.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Travel Reading, Part II

The Horn Book was particularly juicy this month. In addition to the acceptance speeches I gave you rundowns on yesterday, two other articles stand out in my mind.

Fueling the Dream Spirit by Elizabeth Partridge. In trying to describe how writers get their ideas, Partridge, a doctor of Oriental medicine and children's author, writes about concepts from Chinese medicine--Hun (dream spirit) and Po (animal spirit). I think she was saying that the Hun is the concept and the Po is the physical medium (word processor, musical instrument, crayon) used to interpret the concept. The fact that I'm vague about this doesn't lessen the fact this was a good article. My favorite line: "We've just trained ourselves to pay attention to what the Hun is whispering to us." I think that's very true. The more you work with ideas, the more come to you. Or perhaps the more you listen to the Hun, the more it will talk to you.

Finally, Why Gossip Girl Matters by Philip Charles Crawford is a plea to respect all student reading, not just that done by AP students. (I think you could carry this a step further and ask for respect for all reading, period.) One very interesting point: Crawford talks about a "low-level reader" who was a manga fan. According to one of his teachers, the boy's reading scores improved as a result of his librarian respecting his interest and helping him feed it.

You don't have to be reading the unabridged War and Peace to improve your life with books.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Travel Reading, Part I


I returned home yesterday from my frolic/read/eat retreat. I noticed on the ride home that I was feeling very relaxed. I remembered feeling the same way when I got home from this thing last January. By February I'd forgotten what feeling relaxed felt like, and by December I didn't know anything remotely like relaxation existed.

I hope this mellowing out thing lasts more than a few weeks this year.

In the car yesterday I read a taekwondo magazine and the new issue of The Horn Book. I've read better taekwondo material, but there was some good stuff in The Horn Book.

First off, the issue included the acceptance speeches for the 2007 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. I particularly liked Nicolas Debon's speech for The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr. (Which I haven't read.) I know author talks about how I got my idea, how I did my research, how I decided to approach the work the way I did have been done before, but I love this stuff. Maybe it's because it's what I do.

M. T. Anderson's speech for Octavian Nothing was about Anderson's world view and, I think, why he writes historical fiction. It was elegant and beautiful, like Octavian Nothing (which I have read), but it seemed to me to have a tinge of nostalgia, of romanticizing the past, two attitudes I'm not particularly fond of. And, yet, I love Anderson's work.

I fond that a little disturbing. Fortunately, I think it's good to be disturbed.

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Not The Kind Of List I Usually See

Though I can't make any claims to being a science-oriented person, in a past-life (or while living in an alternative timeline, either way you want to think of it), I was a PTO Science Fair chairperson for two years. What I lacked in technical knowledge I tried to make up for with administrative enthusiasm.

Thus, I was attracted to Open Wide, Look Inside's Outstanding Science Books Published in 2007. As an administrative-type, I was interested to see that the list is broken down into categories.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Golden Compass And Paradise Lost

While other women gave up clubbing and going to spas when they became mothers, I gave up reading the Sunday New York Times. Reading was my luxury and my vice, and the Gauthier boys would have no part of Mom sitting with stacks of newsprint piled up around her when she could, say, be reading to them. (Truly, I can remember hiding in one of the bedrooms behind part of a newspaper and a kid coming up and smacking it with his own book that he wanted me to read to him. That's cute, isn't it?)

I'm on vacation this week, and the only kids I see are in restaurants and thus someone else's problem. So I spent a big chunk of Sunday afternoon reading two hefty Sunday papers next to a fire.

"Why should I care?" you may ask.

Well, the Book Review carried an essay by Sophie Gee called Great Adaptations in which she discusses the recent movie adaptation of Beowulf and Philip Pullman's adaptation of John Milton's Paradise Lost.

I've heard of The Golden Compass's connection to Paradise Lost before, of course. But since reading an excerpt from Paradise Lost in one of my British Lit survey courses isn't one of my finer college memories, I can't say that knowing Compass is a reworking of Paradise means a whole lot to me. If anything, I've always felt the Paradise Lost thing explains why I found the Compass sequels so incomprehensible.

I can't say that Gee's essay helped a whole lot, but I certainly know more about Milton now than I did before I read it.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

What Do Writers Do On Vacation?

Last summer in her column for The Telegraph, Louise Doughty wrote about coming up with an idea for a children's book while vacationing in Spain, though she didn't know how she would find time to write about it.

I'm afraid that kind of thing happens all the time.

While on vacation down south, I purchased a book on some state's (I don't even remember which one) local folklore because I thought I might use that in a book some day. After visiting the Hagley Museum in Delaware, a restored village where the duPont family got its start in this country making explosives, I bought some materials on the duPonts because I thought nineteenth century explosives was a subject that cried out for a children's book.

I don't know where any of that stuff is now.

However, I do know where I put the stack of junk I kept related to a pretty mind-numbing cruise I took a number of years ago. I held on to that because I thought a mind-numbing cruise sounded like a good idea for a children's book, too.

And then one year we went to Myrtle Beach with another family. The crowd included two teenagers of opposite sexes who were dating. By which I mean dating each other. I didn't bring home much from that vacation (maybe a pecan roll), but I was sure the experience would make a great YA book.

This vacation (all two days of it) I've been collecting ideas for a new project I'm considering. With any luck, this won't involve buying anything I have to take home and lose. I often write more in my journal when I'm on vacation, anyway, and being more careful about using the journal was my New Year's resolution, and I do have these ideas I have to collect because for this particular project I will need a great many of them. So, like Doughty, I am getting ideas, but I am also writing them down.

Oh, I'm getting the hang of using the laptop, too.

So, that's the kind of thing we do on vacation--come up with writing ideas, write in our journals, and practice using new computers. When I was considering writing as a profession, I was hoping for vacations spent running with bulls, drinking on beaches with colleagues, deepsea fishing, reading newspapers in foreign bars, maybe a little hunting for elk or something. I definitely feel cheated.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Greetings From My Retreat

No, I am not on a writing retreat like the one Mitali Perkins went on last month. I'm on a frolic in the snow/hit the fitness center/eat out in restaurants/read adult fiction retreat. Someone who got (himself) a laptop for Christmas insisted on bringing it so I have glacial Internet access. I may try to catch up on some blog reading I fell behind on in December. And I did bring that flash fiction collection I was going to try to find and even started reading it on this fantastic exercise bicycle. And I brought a collection of essays because I'm hoping to work on some this spring. But, otherwise, this is not a writers' retreat at all.

Though it is this writer's retreat.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Fantasy For Readers Who Don't Care For Fantasies


Once Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy was brought to my attention by the Cybils folks, I started hearing good things about it from others, too. For good reason.

Skulduggery Pleasant is one of those books in which a young person teams up with an over-the-top in the best possible way adult character. In some of those books, the adult character overwhelms the child. One of the beauties of Skulduggery Pleasant is that the child character is easily able to hold her own with the adult. Or we should say, the sort-of adult. Maybe, former adult.

Young Stephanie Edgley runs into the very odd Skulduggery Pleasant after her uncle and his friend dies suddenly. After Skulduggery saves her from an attack by a mystery man, she learns that he is a walking, talking skeleton. He more than walks and talks. He's magical. Well, okay. I guess that goes without saying since we're talking a skeleton that gets around so well. It's the talking that's the best part about Skullduggery, anyway. He's very witty, very laid back, very smart. He's very all the good things you want to see in a heroic figure. Or all the good things I want to see in one.

Stephanie, of course, ends up drawn into Skulduggery's detective work. Fortunately, both for her and for her readers, she has a gift for it.

Two particularly interesting points about this book:

1. There are masses of fantasy writers out there and they all have to come up with a fantasy world for their fantasies. Personally, I find that kind of trying. It took me a while to work out just what kind of world Skulduggery was part of. But I must say, this particular story had a very good and logical climax.

2. This is a book with characters both girls and boys can identify with. Though the child main character is a girl, Skulduggery, back in his living days, was a man. The fact that he was an adult back then doesn't matter much because now he's a skeleton, a hip, clever male skeleton, which transcends age groups, in my humble opinion. So there's definitely somebody here for everybody.

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More Copyright Talk, This Time Related To Kidlit

Slate is carrying an article called J.K. Rowling's Dark Mark by Tim Wu in which the author discusses Rowling's copyright suit against a Potter fan website that plans to publish a print version of its content.

Interesting point: the difference between an adaptation of a work and a discussion of a work. One is covered by copyright and one isn't.

Live and learn. Or, I should say, read and learn.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Discussion Of Plagiarism And Cauliflower Puree

Plagiarism has been a subject of particular interest to me ever since Mr. Gale, my eleventh grade history teacher, gave the class a talk on plagiarism that scared the bejesus out of me. If you've read My Life Among the Aliens and Club Earth, you know that I also have turned my eye to the subject of feeding kids once or twice.

So perhaps you'll understand why the plagiarism complaint and now lawsuit relating to Jessica Seinfeld's book draws me like a magnet.

Slate has reprinted an article from last October called Not That There's Anything Wrong With That discussing copyright infringement and plagiarism, particularly as it pertains to cookbooks and this case. The author, Steven A. Shaw, agrees with me that neither book was very original. (I would think any mom with kids more than a year old would realize that.) He also makes the case that Seinfeld didn't plagiarize anything. But, of course, now I guess that's up to a court to decide.

Perhaps I'm being an alarmist here or ignorant of the law or ignorant about publishing or all of the above. Nonetheless, I wonder if this case could end up having a chilling effect on writing and publishing because it's not all that unusual for more than one writer to write about a subject even in the same calendar year. It takes so long to write a book and go through the publishing process that many writers (and their publishers) may not even know they have some competition for the same turf. This whole thing is causing me to suffer flashbacks to that eleventh grade plagiarism talk.

Fortunately, this case has a high enough profile that we can probably look forward to hearing all about what happens with it.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Seeing Stories Everywhere

One of my family members complains that I think everything could become a story. (Yeah, my response to this is, that's all you can find about me to complain about? Aren't you trying?) But, it's true. I really got into the life experience and writing thing more than ten years ago, and maybe now it has just become a bad habit. Or maybe my brain was always wired that way and with practice the wire is now white out.

I was at a Christmas party last month and a guy was talking about going to Chile to visit his wife's family. Someone made a joke about driving there. I gasped and said, "Steve! You could drive there and write a book about the trip!" He didn't think so, but, come on! I mean, depending on what happened and all, it has potential.

Today our minister was telling me about how he found out he could sing when he and a buddy tried out for their college choir because the choir was going to Florida and was short of male singers, so... The guy only wanted a free trip to Florida but found out he could hit notes that a lot of men can't and it changed the course of his life. Well, only partially, because he still became a minister, but now he's a minister who can sing and read music. I said to him, "That's a story." He said, "It was a life changing event. I went from being a campus nobody to becoming someone the college president waved to when he passed me on the sidewalk." (Which isn't a lot, but it's something.) I said, "That's a YA story."

Then just now I saw The Baby Primary by Darren Garnick at Slate. Garnick set out on a quest to have his baby held by all the presidential candidates campaigning in New Hampshire and did a photo essay about the experience. Now, I'm sure there are some people who cringe just at the concept. What? Was he using his child? Or, who cares? Who would read such a thing?

I would. I did. I get it. In fact, I think Garnick should take the concept and expand it into a novel about a guy who sets out on a quest to have his baby held by all the fictional presidential candidates campaigning in New Hampshire. What does holding the baby say about each candidate? How do they react? What does he learn about them? What does he learn about their volunteers? How are each candidate's volunteers different from the other candidates' volunteers? In order to be a dynamic character, the father should change in some way, learn something. How? What?

Hell, he could write the book from the baby's point of view!

Oh, my gosh. How about a kids' book about a kid who is on a quest to have her picture taken with every presidential candidate?

Once you get into the habit of looking for them, stories are everywhere.

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Kidlit And Still All About Me

This just in from the home office: The Junior Library Guild will be offering A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers to its members next year. Perhaps you recall that it's already offering A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat.

What's that you're hearing? Me sighing with satisfaction.

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Not Kidlit But All About Me, Me, Me

Literary Mama has selected my essay, Mom Memory, as one of its Favorite 2007 Literary Mama writing in the creative nonfiction category. I know I don't usually pay a lot of attention to "Best of the Year" lists, but under the circumstances...

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Monday, January 07, 2008

You Can All Go See Inkheart. I'm Waiting For This One.


Think back long, long ago to about this time last year. Remember how everyone was all excited about American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang? The book was a National Book Award finalist and won the Michael F. Printz Award? Is it coming back to you?

Do you remember the Monkey King? He was a big part of ABC?

Well, this spring the Monkey King will be back, appearing in The Forbidden Kingdom. Never heard of the movie before yesterday, but it has a teenage boy doing what sounds like a journey thing, martial arts, Jackie Chan, and the Monkey King! Come on!

A Kidlit Conversation

Jen Robinson is the guest expert for the month of January at the PBS Parents Question and Answer site. After introducing her reading self, she poses the question "What are some of your family's favorite children's books?"

She already has a kidlit conversation going on over there. A big response to her presence might impress upon PBS that children's literature is a subject people/listeners are interested in hearing a lot more about. Go on over and see if there's anything you'd like to add.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A New Project?

For a couple of years I've been thinking of trying to write a book of one page stories for kids. I had one of those books when I was a kid. In fact, it's on a shelf where I can see it right now because, as I said, I've been thinking of doing something similar for a couple of years.

I haven't progressed very far with this. Steps to make the project, if that is what it is, move forward:

1. Work on list of story ideas.

2. Come up with a one-page formula that I can start with. I think of a formula as being like a recipe. I rarely follow a recipe word for word because it's a rare recipe that has a complete list of ingredients that everyone at Chez Gauthier will eat. Some things have to be dropped, others added. Thus, I don't get too upset about the prospect of jump-starting a project with a formula.

3. Find that book of flash fiction I was reading last year or the year before.

4. Read it.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

And This, My Little Lads, Is How You Handle Stereotype. Or Archetype. Or Whatever Those Types Are.


One night at dinner I described Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett to a couple of family members.

"This girl wants to find her brother who had enlisted in the army so she disguises herself as a guy and enlists, too," I began.

A family member said, "That's been done."

"There's this really tough sergeant," I went on.

"That, too," he said.

"And an officer who doesn't know what he's doing."

"And that."

All of which is true. These are all elements that have been used in fiction before. It's what Pratchett does with them that's so terrific.

Monstrous Regiment is one of Pratchett's Discworld books, but you don't need much knowledge of that series to enjoy the book. (That's the difference between a series and a serial, my little lads.) I didn't totally understand the politics of the war that was being fought, but it didn't matter. What was going on in young Polly's regiment was engrossing enough that I didn't care about the bigger picture. Polly is in a regiment of brand new recruits, among them a troll, a domesticated vampire, and an Igor, which appears to be a zombie of some type. The zombies here are very adept at sewing and medicine, meaning they are a whizz at sewing body parts back on. They're even good at sewing on spare parts.

Are these "monsters" what make the regiment monstrous? Hmmm.

Polly's sergeant, Sergeant Jackrum, assures his recruits over and over that they are his little lads and he will take care of them. It appears that ol' Jackrum has been taking care of little lads for decades. Generations. This guy goes way past your run-of-the-mill screaming and spitting sergeant to become the stuff of myth and legend. At one point while I was reading the book, I wondered if he didn't have some kind of connection to hell. He should have been forced out of the army because of age long, long ago, but he's fought everywhere, knows everyone, and more than a few people owe him.

He is one incredible character, and Pratchett is always revealing something new about him.

Our lieutenant is as inept an officer as you could ever wish to find in a book, but he's saved from becoming a one-dimensional stereotype by his flashes of compassion and technical knowledge. Of course, it's not military knowledge, but you have to give a little respect to a man who knows anything at all and isn't afraid to put on a dress.

Except for the trolls, domesticated vampires, Igors, and the occasional werewolf, Monstrous Regiment reminded me of the historical fiction I enjoyed as a teenager. I read an array of hissyfic (none of it of an improving nature) but what I really liked were books about long ago young women who had adventures. The American Revolution and Civil War were good periods for girl adventures, but nothing beat the Napoleonic Wars for a time period when a young woman could find herself stumbling onto battlefields, fighting off stray soldiers, or doing a little spying.

Monstrous Regiment seemed like a takeoff of the books I was reading years ago, with a far better heroine who has no interest in ending up with a guy, the way so many of the heroines in my old books did. Oh, no. Our Polly can do way better than that.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Gail Goes To The Library

Yeah, this is newsworthy because I've been so overwhelmed with work and Christmas that I've been reading off my TBR shelves. I know. I should be reading off them, anyway, but the library is so full of pretty things. I got so excited about getting out yesterday that I went to two libraries.

My experience indicates that the Cybils do their job. (Does its job? What is that word, anyway?) Because I saw Skulduggery Pleasant on the SciFi and Fantasy Finalists list, I picked it up when I stumbled upon it at I'm a Reading Fool's library. I probably would have passed it by, otherwise, because "skulduggery" isn't a word that's a big draw for me. But I'm enjoying the book. I also picked up Faradawn, Book 2 in The Fog Mound trilogy because I liked Travels of Thelonius, the first book in the series, when it was on the Cybils' SciFi/Fantasy reading list the year I was on the panel. And, finally, I was delighted to see Hellbent, another Cybils' nominee from last year, prominently displayed with the new books. Hellbent will definitely be of interest to older teens and deserves attention.

On a less happy note, I brought home a book I've seen being discussed on one of my listservs only to realize today that it's written by someone who wrote a book a few years ago that I absolutely hated. I'm not feeling good about that.

This has nothing to do with my trip to the library, but I just found a recent review of another 2006 Cybils SciFi/Fantasy contender.

Why do I keep bringing up my favorites from my Cybils year? Because they are my little lads, and I will take care of them!

Recognize that (nonCybils) reference? You will in another day or two.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Do Kids' Historical Novels Get A Pass?

I recently finished a historical novel from the beginning of this century written by an author whose work I was familiar with. The book was filled with one World War II cliche after another, to say nothing of a few stereotypical characters who appear in other kinds of stories. The writing was flat. It was such a chore to read it that I started skimming. Yet as I plodded along I thought I might give my copy to BDT, who's teaching sixth grade this year, for his classroom library because the book was, after all, historical fiction.

Jeezum, Gail, I said to myself. What are you thinking? That it's acceptable to encourage the young to read poorly written books simply because they include historical content? Then I began to wonder if that is exactly what is happening in the world of children's literature. I mean, over the last decade or so I've stumbled upon some less than stellar kidlit historical novels, some of them very highly regarded by others.

Take the book in question, for instance. Its child characters have no real storyline of their own. They are placed in a setting in which things happen to other, adult, characters. Three of the four dramatic moments in the book occur offstage. The first-person narrator tells us about them. In two cases, he doesn't even take part in the events. He doesn't even witness them. Another character tells him the important information (offstage) and then he tells us. Instead of being shown action we're told second-hand stories. Finally there really isn't a climax to the kids' story because they don't have a story. They're just sort of there while stuff happens to other people.

This is an award-winning book I'm talking about, and it appears to have received significant attention at the time it was published. A lot of people liked it a whole lot more than I did.

Or did they? Is it possible that the literary gatekeepers in kidlit believe that making sure children get a history lesson is far more important than the way that the history lesson is presented? And thus they are willing to turn a blind eye to stereotypical characters and situations, weak plots, flat prose, and any number of other writing flaws?

I am aware that some adult readers are so interested in the content of a book that they just don't care about how it is written. I understand and respect that. I sometimes even feel shallow for requiring more of a book than its subject matter. But child readers are never going to get a chance to decide that they prefer one kind of fiction over the other if they aren't exposed to books that include both good content and good writing.

Promoting unbalanced historical novels, books that are pretty much all history and no novel, isn't the way to do it.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Cybils Announcement

The Cybils folks announced the short lists for four categories yesterday. I was particularly interested in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Finalists, since I served on that panel last year. Notice that panel did two lists, one for YA and one for elementary/middle grade. This makes a great deal of sense given that science fiction and fantasy cover all those ages yet you probably shouldn't be trying to compare a book for eight year olds to a book for sixteen year olds. Plus it means the panel could bring twice the number of books to our attention.

Another really positive thing about the Cybils: No entry fees. I'm hearing about more and more awards that require entry fees, some of them quite hefty. Before Christmas I heard about one that required a $175 entry fee. The National Book Awards only ask for $125, for crying out loud. And that's the National Book Award.

Hefty entry fees have got to narrow the field. With the Cybils, the field is wide open. One more good thing that can be said about Cybilization.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

January, Blessed January, Is Finally Here

And not a moment too soon, if you ask me. In fact, it may be a few moments too late. Though, actually, if it were later still, I might have finished the draft I was hoping to complete by the end of the year.

Here's something I've learned this past past week--Getting up at 5:30 or so to work before putting in a day of holiday prep two to three days in a row may not be a stellar plan. Or maybe, as one of my family members has mentioned in the past, I'm just not accustomed to hard work.

As any old Sunday school teacher could tell you, even though it is January we are deep into the Christmas season. So I'm not at all late telling you about the books I got for Christmas or the Christmas-y book adaptation I just finished watching on TV.

First off, a family member gave me a copy of David Copperfield that had been in his family since, maybe, the 1920s or '30s. (My living room is the final resting place for most old children's books in our family, and the family member who gave me David Copperfield thought I would like it, too. And I do.) The book doesn't include a copyright, but the publisher is Walter J. Black, Inc. I'd never heard of that publisher before, but according to an obituary for one of its former presidents, it "specializes in reprints of popular titles, and issues books in the Classics Club, the Detective Book Club and the Giants of Literature series, among others." The book includes the original illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne.

No, I have never read David Copperfield. And, yes, now maybe I should.

The other book I received was The Book Club Cookbook by Judy Gelman and Vicky Levy Krupp, which, from what I've read of it so far, is really quite terrific. The book isn't just recipes, which would be kind of gimmicky and get old very, very fast. Instead each title covered includes a description of the book, some recipes related to the story, and then a profile of a book club that has discussed the book. Really, you can skip the recipes, if you want.

Gelman and Levy Krupp have also written The Kids' Book Club Book.

Then this morning I finally finished watching The Hogfather, which ran on a cable station weeks ago and which I've been watching in bits and pieces ever since. The Hogfather is an adaptation of a Discworld book of the same name by Terry Pratchett. The Hogfather is the Discworld equivalent of Santa and Hogswatch is the Discworld equivalent of Christmas. The story involves an assassin hired to off the Hogfather, how he goes about it, and who stops him. (You'll be surprised.)

I found watching this rough going for quite a while because there were a number of characters with what appeared at first to be unrelated storylines and the film kept flipping around among them. I felt I would have enjoyed reading it more than watching it. But the ending was quite interesting and worth hanging around for.

The experience inspired me to read another Pratchett book that's been on my TBR shelf for years. I'm rather enjoying that one. More on that another time.