Sunday, November 30, 2008

Trying To Mix Old And New


Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah is an ambitious book that I think would have been better served with a third-person narrator.

Amal is a stereotypical teenage girl protagonist in a contemporary teen school story. She and her two school friends (one of Japanese descent, the other a voluptuous young woman who believes she's overweight) are a traditional slightly outsider (but not so outcast readers won't want to identify with them) trio. They suffer at the hands of the school mean girl and her posse, obsess about boys, complain about teachers and preparing for standardized tests. You've read all this before.

What makes the book different is that Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian who has just decided to start wearing a hijab, or head scarf. Her personal story is interesting. The story of her second set of sidekicks from her old Islamic school is interesting.

The problem, I think, is that in trying to show that Amal can be Muslim and just like everybody else, we have to read a lot of the same old, same old in which she does, indeed, seem just like everybody else. I think getting rid of the first-person narrator could have helped eliminate that. Sure Amal's voice is often witty, but she's witty just like all those other teen girl main characters hoping to become the next Georgia Nicolson. I started skipping the school girl stuff very early on.

Though the material about Amal's Muslim family and their extended connections was far more interesting, Amal the first-person narrator sometimes told us factual information about her life as if she were part of a documentary. A couple of times while I was reading this book I thought that the material I was reading would have made a great Newsweek article. Again, I think that might have been avoided with a third-person narrator.

Does My Head Look Big In This? has a great concept and some interesting material. I just felt the book would have worked better if the concept and material had been handled differently.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

It's Never Too Early To Be Thinking About Next Year

I love the feeling of a new year and am already looking forward to the next one.

Children's writers in New England can look forward to the Whispering Pines Retreat on March 27th and 29th. Note that you have to get your application in by December 31st (that's New Year's Eve) and that they only accept 24 full-time students.

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I Just Don't Understand How They Do It

I've talked here before about plowing right through drafts. I'm always reading that that's what you should do. Just work straight through without worrying about quality, letting the chips fall where they may, yada yada. And I'm sure I've mentioned that while I think that sounds like a stellar idea, I couldn't do it if I had a gun to my head. I get to chapter fourteen and have to go back and do some work on chapters four and seven so that what I want to do in fourteen can happen.

I'm working on a book I've written over and over again these past two years, and today, for the second time in a week or so, I had to spend a lot of time going back and creating a thread so it will be available for me to pull in another couple of chapters. If you suddenly start writing something in chapter seventeen without having provided the lead-in for it to happen in the earlier chapters, don't you feel as if you're standing on the seventeenth story of a building that has, shall we say, no structural integrity? What are the chances that you'll be able to patch things up properly down the road?

Unless, of course, all those other writers get the job done correctly the first time. That's a possibility, I suppose.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm Done With Thanksgiving. It's Time To Shop

Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy suggests that we reach back in our memories and give books published prior to 2008 for Christmas this year. And let's make the books titles that were overlooked. An excellent idea, and I'm not just saying that because she mentions me in her post.

Pre-2008 books I'm considering giving this year:

Charley's War, a graphic novel about a British soldier during World War I by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. The book is the story of a sixteen-year-old boy who lies about his age in order to join the army. Though not kidlit, this 2005 book originally appeared as some sort of serial in the 1970s in a comic book called Battle or Battle Picture Weekly (it seems to have changed over the years), which may have been marketed to boys. Charley's War may be a big deal within the graphic novel world, but I only just discovered it, myself, while reading Graphic Novels. I'm considering it for a family member who is into comics and has recently discovered the First World War.

The Penderwicks (2005) and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (2008) both by Jeanne Birdsall. Okay, the second book isn't pre-2008, but I'm thinking about doing a set. And, okay, The Penderwicks can hardly be described as overlooked since it won the National Book Award. But award-winning books are not necessarily widely known outside that circle of people who pay attention to that sort of thing. According to some of my on-line sources, these aren't books that circulate a lot in libraries, so the young girl I'm definitely getting them for might not find them on her own.

The first volume of Octavian Nothing (2006) by M. T. Anderson. For a similiar reason I'm planning to buy this one for a hostess gift. I know, I know, Octavian Nothing I was another National Book Award winner. How much support does it need? However, the question of whether or not this book should have been published as YA has been raised a couple of times at my listservs. And there are some doubts as to how readable YAs find it. I'm one of those who think there's a good argument for it as an adult novel, and I wonder if it's really finding its readership sitting neglected in the YA department (as it is at my local library). So I'm buying it for the couple who are hosting a Christmas party I'm attending next month. I like this book as a gift idea for a couple because I think it will go over well with either sex.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Still More On Graphics

Fuse #8 reviewed Cybils nominee Jellaby earlier this year.

Cybils nominee Skim has been named one of the New York Times Best Illustrated Books for 2008. Take that, Governor General.

J.L.Bell has more on the demise of Minx at Oz and Ends.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

What's With Her Eye?


As part of my crash course on graphic novels, I read Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life by Paul Gravett. The book covers scads of graphic novels with excerpts from each and an analysis. Plus the graphic novels are organized into topics, such as "The Long Shadow: Surviving war and its aftermath" and "The Undiscovered Country: Childhood's happy days or painful memories."

So now I've read about a great many (adult) graphic novels. Which means that I should be able to talk about books I haven't read!

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Micro-blogging? Slow Blogging?

Nathan Bransford has a guest blogger writing about 21 Things an Author Can Do With Twitter. In the post, she refers to Twitter as a micro-blogging site.

Twitter has been discussed a great deal recently at one of my listservs. It's supposed to help people stay connected by answering the question What are you doing? Over and over again, I guess. I haven't given my cell phone number to most of my relatives because I don't want people bothering me when I'm away from home. I don't use an answering machine hoping that if people can't reach me, they won't call back. Someone wants to know what I'm doing? All day long? That's stalking!!!

On a related subject, I just got through reading an article on slow blogging (thank you, Susan), which appears to be just the opposite of micro-blogging. In fact, the author of the slow blogging article talks about a professor who gave up his blog because it was exhausting. He now "fires off short, pithy comments on Twitter." (Isn't exhausting to be doing that all day long?) He has another blog for "in-depth thought."

The idea being, I guess, that a blog appears in-depth compared to a micro-blog.

The so-called slow blogging movement appears to be about using blog technology to publish anything at all whenever the urge strikes. It sounds as if some people are using blogs as writers' journals.

Though, really, haven't people been maintaining personal blogs under those kinds of conditions right along? Is there really any new movement here?

I don't feel that I'm a slow blogger. I won't read long blog posts, and I don't expect anyone to read one of mine. On the other hand, I've heard that with Twitter you're supposed to be limited to messages of 140 characters. Come on! My grocery lists are longer than that.

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Yeah, If There's One Thing I Need, It's More Categories

Children's Writing Web Journal has a post up on different categories of children's books. Does anyone else think they're multiplying?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Perhaps Some Day Werewolves Will Be The New Vampires

Colleen at Chasing Ray interviewed Martin Millar, whose Lonely Werewolf Girl has been nominated for a Cybil in the Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction Category. The interview is part of the 2008 Winter Blog Blast Tour.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Some Graphic Links

Parenthetical.net has a few more posts up on Cybils nominess in the graphic novel category:

Little Vampire by Joann Sfar Oops. Dans Anglais

Johnny Boo by James Kochalka From Burlington! I love Seven Days!

Knights of the Lunch Table by James Cammuso.

under the covers has a post up on How to Write Comics, which both Bibliovore and I think ought to have some relation to writing graphic novels.

And, finally, Oz and Ends writes about
Sons of Liberty , a historical fiction graphic novel.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

But Seriously, Folks...

Joe Queenan (I read his book My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood but remember just about nothing about it) had an essay in last weekend's New York Times Sunday Book Review called Enough With the Sweet Talk. It was an amusing piece about the abundance of "unjustifiably enthusiastic" book reviews. Queenan's angle involved the response of authors who have received such reviews, and he quotes a number of them on the subject. Dave Barry was once called the funniest man in America in a review. In an e-mail message to Queenan he said, "This is a ridiculous assertion; I am not the funniest man in my neighborhood."

As I said, the essay was clever and witty and all that. But, you know, Queenan is touching on something more serious. You do see an awful lot of positive reviews, so much so that I've sometimes wondered if reviewers at print journals get more work if they're careful to only say nice things. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to pick up on the fact that perhaps not everything is as glorious as it may seem. Is "Will call to mind Holden Caulfield" really praise or a warning that this book has been done before? Is "filled with southern eccentrics" code for run for your life?

When I was a senior in college about to apply for teaching jobs, I was told that school superintendents in Vermont were insisting on written assessments for student teaching for UVM grads because everyone was receiving A's. In a pool of candidates that are all excellent, excellent doesn't mean much.

When all books are wonderful, don't we lose touch with what wonderful means?

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Very Classy Frankenstein Story


A Frankenstein story is one in which scientists play God, messing with nature to create life. The end result is rarely good. (Think Jurassic Park. Or Alex Award winner Never Let Me Go.)

Like Never Let Me Go, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson is a very high quality Frankenstein story. Its characterization equals its plotting, and it's very elegantly written. The outcome for The Adoration of Jenna Fox is far different than the outcome in Never Let Me Go, though. It's not your run-of-the-mill Frankenstein story ending.

Jenna Fox has just come out of a lengthy coma at the beginning of her story, which is set in a future United States that has suffered your usual futuristic disasters involving disease, earthquake, and economic breakdown. She seems in remarkably good shape, though, and the only medical person she sees is her father, the head of some kind of biotech firm. She has survived a horrendous accident that she can't recall. Things come back to her slowly. Things come to the reader slowly.

Slowly, in this case, is not a bad thing.

This book deals with some big issues, such as what it means to be human (I'm sorry, I kept thinking of Data on STTNG--not that there's anything wrong with that), parental love, rationing health care, and identity. But it doesn't do it in a pretentious, heavy-handed way. The Adoration of Jenna Fox has a scifi/thriller aspect that keeps it from feeling like too much of a problem book and a teen angst problem aspect that keeps it from falling into scifi/thriller cliches.

Personally, I could have done without the epilogue, but I never like epilogues.

I think some might argue that The Adoration of Jenna Fox ends the way it does because it's YA and YA must be hopeful. But I think that doesn't give it credit for asking an interesting question about the traditonal Frankenstein scenario--Is it really wrong to do this?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a Cybils nominee in the Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction category.

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They Did It Again

Finding Wonderland has another great interview up, this time with M.T. Anderson.

M.T. Anderson struggles with plot! I struggle with plot!

I think what makes this interview, as well as the one Finding Wonderland did with D. M. Cornish, so good is that both authors only use their first two initials.

Sorry. I couldn't resist pointing out the obvious.

No, what I think makes these interviews so good is that both authors write books that require intense world building and both authors seem to have a pretty good understanding of their process in doing that. I was just explaining to someone this evening that when I first started publishing, I didn't know what the heck process was. These guys really have a good grasp of what they do and how they do it.

In addition, the interviewers are writers who also are well informed about their subjects' work. They have a good grasp of what writers do and how they do it and can apply that knowledge to specific books.

The end result is good reading.

This interview is part of the 2008 Winter Blog Blast Tour, which is enormous and impressive and far more than I can hope to read.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

This Is Fantastic!

Finding Wonderland has a terrific interview with D. M. Cornish, author of Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling and Monster Blood Tattoo: Lamplighter. Read the interview to see why I'm careful to write out the complete title of both books.

This interview is so marvelous because Cornish talks about his various inspirations, how he got started creating the MBT world (which doesn't appear in either book), his women characters, and some behind-the-scenes business related to that title. Oh, and his notebooks. I have a number of different kinds of journals and workbooks. Now I'm feeling inspired to go write in them.

Of course, Cornish might not have gotten into any of that stuff without the interviewers' sophisticated questions.

Right now I'm feeling that I'd like to see the Half-Continent become a world like Discworld, supporting a whole array of different story cycles. That's how pumped I am from this interview! Of course, it's easy for me to be pumped because I wouldn't have to write the books. Cornish would.

This interview is part of the 2008 Winter Blog Blast Tour.

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Some Alcott Info You Won't See At Just Any Litblog

When I was at Orchard House last month (Orchard House being the Concord home of the Alcotts, of course), my traveling companion noticed the property survey hanging on a wall. Being someone who is in to surveys, site plans, etc., he noticed the surveyor's signature.

Well, now you can see said survey, too. Click on the plan, scroll down to the bottom, and you'll see that the surveyor was Henry D. Thoreau.

The Concord Free Public Library has a whole array of Thoreau's surveys available on-line.

I'd gotten the impression that he didn't do a whole lot. I've just started rereading Walden (because you just can't be reading too many books at once), and in that first essay I feel (as I did when I first read it, according to my notations) that he doesn't hold working folks in much esteem. Seeing that he really did meaningful work--that could come into play in twenty-first century title searches--may have an impact on my reading of his book.

But is that a good thing? Shouldn't the meaning and significance of his work be right there on the page in front of me regardless of what I know about him?

Ah, a question I struggle with frequently.

Nonetheless, surveyors are cool.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Maybe Graphic Nonfiction


I remember enjoying a book when I was young about a girl who disguised herself as a man so she could fight in the Civil War. So the premise behind No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure by Susan Hughes and Willow Dawson certainly appeals to me.

I have to say, though, that I didn't find this graphic presentation of short pieces on seven different women particularly successful. A lot of the panels required those little narrative boxes to explain what was going on, and I still sometimes found myself confused. The snakes that appear in the story of Alfhild, a Viking princess, threw me, for example. A prince arriving to see her kills two snakes that appear out of nowhere. The princess then says, "Sir, you have killed my vipers." He apologizes and says, "It was the only way for me to win your hand in marriage!" The next page includes a confusing panel that suggests the king had set up the kill-the-vipers-marry-my-daughter scenario. The scene appears to show Alfhild discussing the marriage proposal with her family. In fact, we're told in a box that that is what she's doing. But at the bottom of the panel, another box of text appears in which we're told that her father delayed consulting her. The graphics and text actually appear to contradict one another.

Some of the women's motivation for taking on the life they do isn't very clear, either. That's particularly the case for Alfhild and Esther Brandeau.

The accounts of nineteenth century women work better, probably because there looks to be more documentary evidence and more for the writer and illustrator to work with.

Another confusing aspect of the book: Some of the stories are based on historical fact, while others are based on legend. I think that makes the overall project less focused than it could have been.

So I didn't feel the book worked all that well, either graphically or as nonfiction. The subject matter may be of high interest to young readers, but I'm not sure if twenty-first century children feel the narrowness of women's lot in life the way children of earlier generations did.

For a different reaction and an interview with the author see Big A, little a's New Voices Blog Tour: No Girls Allowed.

No Girls Allowed is a Cybils nominee in the graphic novels category. (Though it definitely isn't a novel.)

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What? Buffy Doesn't Matter?

Actually, nowhere in this Salon interview with the director of Twilight does anyone say that Buffy doesn't matter. The tease under the title is totally misleading, trying to drag in readers who are Buffistas and probably not too into the Twilight take on women as being so weak and inept they can't sleep through the night without a male vampire watching over them.

Twilight anticipation is reaching a frenzy right now. I hope the movie does spectacularly well. Whenever the grown-ups can make big bucks off from kidlit, it's good for our field. They'll come looking around for more pots of gold.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

This Is Actually A Good Thing

A review of Paper Towns in The Ithacan Online (the Ithaca College paper) has received some attention in the kidlitosphere. Our young reviewer praises John Green by burying an entire genre. "The young-adult genre has been riddled with uninspiring novels that lack any kind of creativity or originality...John Green is one of the few young-adult authors who has the ability to really tell a story and captivate the reader."

Well, student writers often over generalize. I can tolerate it from them far more easily than I can from their experienced elders. ("...a nimble, undidactic antidote to all the dubious clichťs of the genre. Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans? Miťville dares to insist that nerve, heart and determination is all a hero(ine) really needs." That sounds like spunk. I hate spunk.)

What struck me as positive about this whole thing was that a college paper was reviewing a YA book. That's terrific! You know who you find in colleges? That's right...YAs. Okay, they won't be YA for long, but tell that to all those moms who were reading Twilight.

By the way, I read The Ithacan pretty regularly for four years. Very nice college paper.

Link from Jen Robinson.

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Basic Black And White

A commentor on yesterday's post noted that you don't see a lot of black and white picture books even though black and white is good for you. While checking to see if yesterday's book Cat and Fish by Curtis and Grant had received much Internet buzz when it was published in '05, I found a pixie stix post on "books that do awesome things with black and white illustration." Included is the sequel to Cat and Fish, Cat and Fish Go To See.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Black And White And Read All Over


I was attracted to Cat and Fish because it is so incredibly black and white. The illustrations are riveting. So much so, in fact, that the illustrator, Neil Curtis gets first billing on the cover over author Joan Grant. Since the illustrations came before and inspired the text, that certainly seems legitimate.

Cat and Fish is a slight, charming tale of two creatures who meet and choose to stay together despite some extreme differences in background. It reminded me of The Owl and the Pussycat, which I was very fond of when I was a...a...okay...I was a teenager.

Curtis and Grant produced a sequel Cat and Fish Go to See.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Graphic Novel Problems Up North

Cybils nominee Skim has been nominated for Canada's Governor-General's Award for children's literature, but only for the author, not the illustrator.

Sacre bleu!

Link from Blog of a Bookslut.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

My Mail

I've spent a chunk of my evening trying (and not succeeding) to catch up on the back reading in just one of my listservs. I've found a couple of juicie things to share, though.

A discussion of graphic novel picture books led me to the title Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age. What struck me as particularly interesting about this is that the author, Raymond Briggs, also wrote the graphic novel When the Wind Blows, which I had never heard of until this very afternoon. How weird is that?

Then I found out about another one of those terrific Slate slideshows. This one is on Books to read to your children during a financial crisis. It's from back at the beginning of October, so I'm kind of late with that. But the financial crisis is still here, so it's all good.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thinking About How To Spend Our Cold, Hard Cash

My last post linked to a blogger suggesting that buying books will help sustain the publishing industry during hard times. Pull for the Underdog, from Good/Blog, goes further and suggests that shoppers should think about buying books by lesser known authors and/or from small presses. Those kinds of purchases "can have a small impact...on the life of an author, the sustainability of a press, and the direction of literary fiction."

Notice how few books have to sell for an author to be considered successful enough for a publisher to take a chance on a second book.

There Was A Publishing Crisis Last Month And I Missed It

Editorial Ass reports that October was a particularly rough month in publishing. Lots and lots of books returned to publishers, meaning they had to return lots and lots of money.

The link came by way of Nathan Bransford, who discusses a publishing stimulus package we can all be part of.

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Does This Sound Deep Or What?

Another graphic novel post at Oz and Ends. This one is about 2007 Cybils nominee Robot Dreams.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It's Not Just For Treating Your Bad Joints!

Remember that post on yoga and writing I did recently? Of course, you do. Well, WordCount has a post from back in March on yoga and writing, too.

I'm going to be watching for this kind of thing now.

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More On Graphic Novels

Parenthetical.net has a few reviews of Cybils nominees:

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes

Babymouse Monster Mash by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

Nightmare on Zombie Island by Paul D. Storrie

The New York Times reviewed Cybils nominee Skim by Mariko Tamaki with illustrations by Jillian Tamaki

Then J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends talks about how graphic novels are treated in Great Divides in the Comics World. Included in the post is a link to a Christian Science Monitor article, Graphic novels, all grown up, which includes a definition for graphic novels: "...extended-length illustrated books with mature literary themes..."

Of course, mature means different things when you're talking YA versus adult graphic novels and something else entirely when you're talking graphic novels for kids. But for those of us who are educating ourselves on the subject, it's a start.

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Possession For Kids?


The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett is the first in a series called The Sherlock Files because the two main characters, Xena and Xander Holmes, learn they are descendants of Sherlock Holmes and set to work solving one of his unsolved cases.

I found the Sherlock Holmes connection problematic. Anyone familiar with Sherlock Holmes will doubt he had any descendants because, 1. he was fictional, and 2. in the stories he doesn't come close to having any kind of relationship that would produce offspring. (That includes Irene Adler.) So for the basic premise of The Sherlock Files to work, some kind of alternative history needs to be provided in which Sherlock Holmes is real and did, indeed, produce heirs. Nothing like that appears in the first volume. There are references to some Holmes' stories--a pub is named The Dancing Men, for instance, (The Adventure of the Dancing Men ) and Dr. Watson's young descendant has red hair (The Red-Headed League), but beyond that, I didn't see any what you'd call world building.

Now, an argument could be made that young readers won't be familiar with Sherlock Holmes, anyway, so they won't have any problems with the lack of logic behind the story. But if they aren't familiar with Sherlock Holmes, why does the whole Holmes' business need to be there?

Putting the Holmes' set-up aside, I actually liked the art history mystery in The 100-Year-Old Secret. The kids hunt for a portrait missing for a hundred years. The art talk is interesting. And the minor, nonrecurring characters who provide information about the long-dead artist are far more realistic and able to hold this reader's attention than the members of the Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives, who I suspect are going to turn up in later adventures. A story about contemporary characters solving a mystery about a historical arty figure--with kids--has real potential, I think.

I picked up The 100-Year-Old Secret because I thought it looked like a mystery for younger readers. Though Amazon describes it as being for 9 to 12 year olds, I think kids on the younger end of that range will appreciate it best.

The second book in the series will be published next May.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Graphic Novel Column Covers Cybils Nominees

Colleen Mondor has a Graphic Tales column up at Bookslut that includes a number of Cybils nominees:

Skim and Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki,working with Jillian Tamaki and Steve Rolston, respectively;

Coraline by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell;

The Good Neighbors: Kim by Holly Black with Ted Naifeh.

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The Painting The Wild Frontier Conclusion

The Painting the Wild Frontier blog tour concludes today at Chicken Spaghetti. In case you missed Friday's stop, it was at One Book Two Book.

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This Is What I Have To Put Up With At Dinner

So dinner table conversation this evening focused on how I'd blown it with the name of yesterday's post. I was told that starting with a conclusion and writing backward is just writing backward and not reverse engineering at all.

"Reverse engineering," one dinner companion said, "would be if there had been an alien space craft in Hangar 51, and we'd taken it apart to see how it works and were then able to rebuild it using our own materials." Which seems very unlikely to me.

"Or," the other companion went on, "an example of reverse engineering occurred after World War II when the Russians were able to get hold of our Blah Blah Blah, which included technology they didn't have and took it apart so the Blahbity Blah Blah." This must be why it's so important that Alaskans keep their eyes on the Russians near them.

"There really is no analogy for books," second companion said.

"You need an entire item, not just one piece like an ending," first companion explained.

This is why I really don't mind eating by myself.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Reverse Engineering

I think Sam Riddleburger's plan to start with the ending of a story and work backwards sounds like a great idea. I wish I could come up with the ending of a story first so I could try it.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Oh, No. More On-line Marketing Opportunities

I've been seeing references to Goodreads for a while now. And I've been ignoring them because, you know, I may be at the absolute limit of my Internetability. But Growing Great Writers From the Ground Up says authors can use it for market research and sort of advertise yourself.

GoodReads sounds like some website I joined a few years ago where you were supposed to keep track of all the books you owned or read or something. I don't know what happened to that.

Then WordCount offers advice on how writers can use LinkedIn. Now, I'd actually been wondering about that, because we know a young man who found a marvelous job through contacts he made on LinkedIn. Of course, he had to move to the other side of the country, but, still, I was impressed.

Linkes from Becky Levine.

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Okay, This One Was Good


Though I've enjoyed some of Neil Gaiman's work, I'm not what you might call a Gaiman Groupie. I'm not enthralled by everything he does.

His new novel, The Graveyard Book, is really good, though.

The book begins with a multiple murder, for those of us who enjoy getting right into the action. The one survivor, a toddler, ah, well, toddles off and ends up in an old cemetary where he is taken in by ghosts, adopted by a couple who've been members of the spirit class for a few hundred years, and given the run of the place. He's raised by the cemetary dwellers in the graveyard, the only save place for him because his family's murderer is still looking for him.

Personally, I think that's enough of a description to hook anyone. But I will add that the book is structured in what are pretty much short stories (Gaiman says so, too, in an interview with Jessa Crispin, which is really more him talking to her than her interviewing him), each one an adventure with our protagonist at a different age. And there's a lot of dark humor about the dead.

I have a couple of nitpicks. One, how did Bod know to go to a pawn shop or even how to find one when he left the graveyard to try to raise some money? Two, I found the art work odd. There's quite a bit of it, when you consider this is a novel, which is just fine. But the details in the early illustrations gave me the impression that the book might be set in the early twentieth century. It's definitely contemporary. Plus Bod is described as dressed in a winding sheet in the text early on, but he's shown in clothes in the illustrations.

But, yes, that is nitpicking.

The Graveyard Book is a Cybils nominee in the Fantasy and Science Fiction (Middle Grade) category. I think middle grade is a better description of it than YA, which is how it's categorized at my local library.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

The Horn Book Got Me Into Trouble Today

I had to take today off to go recreational shopping with two relatives. Four hours of shopping (plus quite a lousy lunch) and one and a half hours of drive time. Each way. So on the way there, I very graciously offer to sit in the back seat where I can inconspicously read from the magazines I stashed in the enormous bag I was carrying.

Unfortunately, one of the first things I read was Questions for Li'l Readers in the new issue of The Horn Book Magazine. In this learned article, author Miriam Glassman speculates about discussion question for picture books on a par with those she's seen in middle-grade and YA fiction marketed to parent-child book groups.

I was reading her first few questions for Green Eggs and Ham--"The main character in this book is named Sam, yet he's always referred to as 'Sam-I-am.' What's with that? Do you think the narrator has that reading problem where all the words get mixed up?"--when I started laughing.

You know how when one person laughs, other people start laughing? Well, that's not what happened here. Someone in the front seat started yelling at me for reading when I ought to be talking with them.

You know what they were talking about? Whether or not one of them should buy an electric fireplace for her living room. I had to stop reading to discuss whether those things throw any heat. Like I know.

Then I suggested I read them other funny bits from the article, so we could all share in the experience. I figured it would be as if I were talking to them, but different. I read them a couple of Glassman's questions for Curious George. "Do you sometimes wish your dad was like the man with the yellow hat? Has your dad ever let you smoke a pipe? How was it?"

They didn't get it. I don't think they knew who Curious George is.

On the way home I snuck out The Horn Book again (it's a very convenient size for this sort of thing) and just read reviews. They didn't catch me that time.

By the way, this month's issue includes an article on e-book readers called Better Than a Suitcase by Sheila Ruth.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Yoga And Writing

Cynsations has a post up with Shana Burg on how yoga has helped her writing. She says, "In yoga, they say what you learn "on the mat" applies to life. If you learn to focus intensely on the mat, you can take that skill into your everyday life. If you develop persistence on the mat, that transfers too."

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Graphic Novels Are For Kids! Like Dead Dogs!

Oz and Ends has another post on graphic novels, this time on Laika, another Cybils nominee from last year. In it, J.L. Bell says, "...in our culture the comics format lowers the perceived age of a book's readership."

Discuss among yourselves.

Be sure to read the comments about YA and graphic novels.

Yeah, and I agree with all those who would like to be spared another story about a dead dog.

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Well, I'm Not Doing NaNoWri Mo This Year, So...

...I guess I'll do the The Comment Challenge.

I've done National Novel Writing Month a couple of times. Enjoyed it. Felt I made some progress. But I stopped because a family member said, "Ah...How is National Novel Writing Month any different than every other month of your life? Isn't writing every day what you're supposed to be doing, anyway?"

Which is true. I'm supposed to be NaNoWriMoing all the time.

So, anyway, while everyone else is all psyched up for National Novel Writing Month, I'll be spending my time sprinkling my thoughts across the Internet.

And I'm hoping to see a lot more comments here this month.

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A Conversation With Susanna Reich



Weíve got a first for you here at Original Contentóa conversation with another writer, Susanna Reich, author of Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin, which was published in August by Clarion Books.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

GG: I was taken with Painting the Wild Frontier because I could see so many parallels between George Catlinís life and that of Ethan Allen, whom I researched and wrote about. Both men didnít begin the work theyíd become known for until after they were thirty--Catlin, painting Indians in the western frontier; Allen, organizing what some might describe as a guerilla militia of poor farmers in what was then the frontier of the Green Mountains. Both men tried their hands at businessóCatlin ran his own elaborate exhibits of his art; Allen was a land speculator. Both men were what might be described as flawedóCatlin seemed to be hunting for that big financial break that never came; Allen was a heavy drinker (even by the standards of his time) and, in my opinion anyway, a bit of an overcompensating blowhard. Yet both men became voices for people who otherwise wouldnít have had one. Both these guys could easily have been characters in novels, and their real life stories could have served as their storylines.

Though you have written historical fiction, Susanna, you chose to write an historical account of George Catlinís rollercoaster life. Why did you decide to go that way?

SR: Yes, Catlinís life could have been a novel. But why create a fictional story when the real one is so exciting? Itís my job as the writer to find a subject whose life story is inherently dramatic, to research it thoroughly, and then to tell that story so that itís vivid and suspenseful, as well as factual. I prefer not to make up dialogue or put thoughts in my subjectís head, and try to keep conjecture to a minimum. Facts arenít dry if theyíre well presented.

Also, remember that illustrations play a really important role in nonfiction. Thatís especially true here, because Painting the Wild Frontier is about an artist. The illustrations provide crucial visual information. Thereís additional information in the captions, tooóthey function like mini-sidebars. Between text, pictures, and captions, the reader gets a kind of multi-layered experience thatís not possible with fiction.

GG: I think youíre right about creating a multi-layered experience thatís not possible with fiction. With fiction, you do have to be careful to stay on task, as I like to call it, and make sure that every detail serves the story in some way. That sometimes means leaving out things youíd like to include. While I was reading Painting the Wild Frontier, I noticed that the information in your captions was not just repetition of material in the text but new information. I canít think of any way a writer could add additional details to fiction without taking readers out of their experience of a fictional world.

Research

GG: Though I heard about Ethan Allen as a child, I didnít discover him, so to speak, until I was in college doing research for a paper on New England folklore. I ended up doing another paper on his memoir. Then I sat on the material for many years before I did anything with it. Was Catlin someone you discovered recently or did you live with him for a long time before you started working with the material?

SR: When I started this project, I was vaguely familiar with Catlinís paintings of North American Indians, as many people are. But I didnít know anything about his life. I didnít know about the "Indian Gallery," for example, or that he had traveled and painted throughout South America. The fact that he had written many books was also a wonderful surprise. I was excited that there was so much primary source material to work with.

GG: Among your many sources are four works by George Catlin in which he wrote about his travels. The editions were from the 1840s and 1860s. Have his works not been reprinted since then, or did you choose to go with early editions for some reason? Either way, did you have trouble getting hold of those old volumes?

SR: I used both modern and 19th-century editions. Some of Catlinís books have been reprinted in modern editions, but not all. The modern editions are useful because of the commentaries and essays by editors, but in some cases, Catlinís original text has been cut. I actually consulted four different editions of his most important book, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. Also, I felt most comfortable quoting from early editions because theyíre all in the public domain.

Luckily, I live near New York, and the New York Public Library owns the early editions. They donít circulate, but you can sit in the main reading room and use them there. Thereís something very magical about sitting in that spectacular room and holding in your hands an old, cracked, leather-bound book that no one has looked at for years.



Hereís a picture of the Rose Reading Room. You can see why I like to spend time there. Itís like a temple to scholarship.

Technology is evolving so fast that if I were researching this book today, I wouldnít need to go to the library as often. Some of the early editions of Catlinís books are available on Google Books.

GG: How was George as a writer?

SR: His first book, Letters and Notes, is his most famous. Most of it was originally published as a series of letters in a New York newspaper, and he later reworked the letters into a book. The letters describe his travels out West in the 1830ís, visiting and painting different tribes. The writing is colorful and dramatic, albeit a bit flowery and romantic in a 19th-century way. I get the feeling that heís very conscious of his role as a storyteller, and that heís trying to convey a sense of himself as a bold adventurer in an exotic land. He strives to be objective, but sometimes the tone is a little self-aggrandizing. At the same time, some of the material is very valuable as a record of Indian ways of life that have been lost. In a way, he was an anthropologist before there was such a thing as anthropology.

His later books are a bit over the top. He gets carried away with himself. Thatís probably why theyíre not read much anymore, except by scholars.

GG: Though I think Iíll probably try writing a true historical novel at some point, Iím actually afraid to write real history. My high school American history teacher gave us a talk on plagiarism that had me trembling in my seat, for one thing. For another, Iím anxious about making any kind of assessment without, essentially, justifying any thought I have with as much documentation as I can find. Iíd be ibiding every half line. (Which is pretty much how I wrote my college papers.) I donít see writers doing that. In fact, Iím reading a strange history/memoir right now that uses no citations at all.

How do you guys decide where to cite sources? I know you used them wherever you used a quotation, but, otherwise, where do they need to be used?

SR: Anything thatís a direct quote gets a citation. As for plagiarizing, thatís why itís important to take careful notes. When Iím researching, I read at my desk and type my notes directly into the computer, making sure to write down the page number of every quote, and also making sure to phrase my notes in my own words so that I donít accidentally end up using someone elseís words. After a book is written, I triple check the quotes and page numbers.

When I researched Painting the Wild Frontier, I gave every book I consulted its own section of notes. Then, when I was ready to write, I used the ďFindĒ feature to assemble the notes for each chapter. To give you an idea of the scale of what Iím talking about, I took 263 single-spaced typed pages of research notes for this book. That doesnít include the notes I had to keep about negotiating permissions and fees for the illustrations.

GG: Organizing my research after the fact was a big problem for me. Typing notes directly into the computer so you can search for material later sounds like a great idea.

SR: Itís hard to imagine tackling a project like this without the computer. It wouldíve taken ten years!

The Past

GG: In addition to your historical novel and Painting the Wild Frontier, youíve written a biography of Clara Schumann, a nineteenth-century figure, and a picture book biography of Jose Limon, a twentieth-century dancer. Why the big interest in the past? (And I ask that as a history fan, myself.)

SR: I donít really think of my books as taking place in the past. I think of them as stories of interesting people who inhabited times and places that are different from ours. Their feelings and motivations are human, and thatís why we can relate to them.

GG: So would it be accurate to say you think of the time these people inhabited as the setting for your work, the way a fiction writer might think of setting? You just have to do a great deal of work on your settings?

SR: Itís like that old phrase, "the past is a foreign country." If I were writing a novel that was set in a foreign country, I would try to spend as much time there as I could, in order to learn about the culture. Iíd want to know about the customs, religion, language, politics, social relationships, ways of working, childrearing practices, artistic expressions, etc. Since I canít actually visit the past, I use research, particularly primary sources, to experience it. I guess Iím an anthropologist in my own way.

GG: Why write about these people in books for children instead of adults?

SR: I enjoy the challenge of taking complex material and finding a way to make it comprehensible to children, without dumbing it down. Part of the process is about finding the essence of the story and letting go of the details that are less relevant. I hope that my books will help kids understand themselves and the world we live in.

A book can have a big impact on a child. There are books I read as a child that changed my life. That doesnít happen with adults too often.

GG: While I appreciate the beauty of George Catlinís work and believe itís significant because artists (particularly in the days before photography) provide documentary history for us, I find it difficult to actually like him, in large part because in my mind he neglected his family. Yet I know all kinds of unpleasant things about Ethan Allen, and I still like him. Mainly, I think, because I knew men like Allen while I was growing up, and I think I understand why they were the way they were. Do you like George Catlin? And, of course, why or why not?

SR: Catlin had his strengths and his weaknesses, as we all do. Itís easy to be disapproving of the way he sometimes put himself and his work ahead of his family. But I think itís important not to judge him by todayís standards. Men at that time were not expected to directly participate in childrearing. What may seem like selfish behavior to us wasnít necessarily seen that way by Catlin and his contemporaries. I talk about this in the book.

When I was writing his biography, I really didnít think about whether I liked Catlin or not. I just tried to tell what happened and to let readers come to their own conclusion about whether he was likable or admirable.

My feelings about him are complicated. I admire his courage and boldness, his sense of adventure, his artistry, and his dedication to his work. I also think he was sometimes foolhardy and deluded. Whatís undeniable is that he led a fascinating life, and that his paintings and writings are historically and artistically significant.

GG: And, finally, Iíve read for years that Americans donít know much about history, that itís given little attention in schools. How would you like to see Painting the Wild Frontier used with child readers?

SR: Iíd like to see the book used as a jumping-off point. It touches on so many different aspects of American history and world history. Itís not just the story of one manís life. Itís about artists and the role they play in society; about American Indians and the settlement of the West; about scientific exploration. Any chapter of the book could serve as a point of departure for further research into the Pipestone Quarry, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, 19th-century portrait painting, or the history of lacrosse. The possibilities are endless. Iíd also like the book to prompt conversations about American Indians, stereotypes, and the interaction of cultures.


The Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin blog tour continues tomorrow at OneBookTwoBook.

Image Credits: Susanna Reich--Laurel Golio
Stu-mick-o-sķcks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, by George Catlin-- Smithsonian American Art Museum

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Informed Outsider And Painting The Wild Frontier

Be sure to check out Mitali Perkin's interview with Susanna Reich, Art and the Informed Outsider. They discuss biographers as "informed outsiders." I was particularly interested in Susanna's answer to the question that begins "When considering heroic artists and writers in the past, how do you study their lives without using twenty-first century eyes to judge their choices...?"

Tomorrow I'll be talking history with Susanna Reich here at Original Content.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes, It Does


Personally, I believe there's an under-the-radar sort of genre involving books about early-twenty-something characters who are coming to terms with the fact that life, well, sucks. That pretty much describes, in a nutshell, the graphic novel Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, and Warren Pleece.

The basic set-up for this book is just brilliant. Two years before the start of our story, our hero, Dave Miller, applied for a night job at a convenience store so he could attend community college during the day. The store owner, Radu, (who prefers to be called Lord Arisztidescu) is an immigrant (from some eastern European country, I'd guess)who turns Dave into a vampire. Now Dave must be Radu's...er, Lord Arisztidescu's...low-wage slave--through eternity! As if that isn't bad enough, Dave can't tolerate the idea of blood so he can't go around preying on humans. This means he'll never become a strapping, healthy vampire, just a miserable, little weak one with a job working permanent nights. Really permanent.

Yes! Life does, indeed, suck!

While not necessarily roll-on-the-floor funny, Life Sucks definitely is drole and clever, particularly if, like me, you enjoy dark, subtle humor. There's lots of humorous takes on traditional vampire lore. And, I guess, traditional convenience store lore.

I can't say I loved the art, but it is dark and moody to fit the subject matter, and it carries the narrative very well. I read a rather lame graphic novel a couple of weeks ago that had to use a lot of what I think you might call narrative boxes because the graphics weren't telling the story by themselves. Nothing like that here. The art carries everything but the dialogue.

This book would be a big draw for your older, edgier YAs who are already beginning to suspect that life sucks. While I was reading it, I was wondering who I knew who might like it for Christmas.

Life Sucks is one of this year's graphic novel Cybils nominees.

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Day Two For PTWF

Tina Nichols Coury hosts Day 2 of the Painting the Wild Frontier blog tour at Tales from the Rushmore Kid.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Let's Look At Some Graphic Novel Posts

For the last few weeks I've been staying on task with writing much better than usual because I've been trying to treat it as a practice and think of myself as in training. While I have no problem blowing off work to zone out on the Internet, it seems that I can take training far more seriously. I've been staying away from the computer card games for a couple of weeks now.

The unfortunate flipside of this is that while I'm working better, I'm not able to keep up as well with all the blogs I follow or my listservs. So today I'm going to try to do a round-up of posts I've been missing on the graphic novels nominated for a Cybil.

Both Pink Me and A Fuse #8 Production reviewed Chiggers by Hope Larson.

Parenthetical.net reviewed Magic Trixie by Jill Thompson.

Parenthetical.net also reviewed Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale.

Sam at Parenthetical.net has been incredibly busy, also reviewing In the Small by Michael Hague.

And then Oz and Ends has a post on Camp Babymouse, by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, which was a Cybil nominee in 2007.

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Painting The Wild Frontier Blog Tour, Day One

Becky's Book Reviews is the first stop for Susanna Reich's Painting The Wild Frontier blog tour. Notice the question "What do you love about writing?" In her answer, Susanna talks about sound, which I found interesting.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Now That's What I Call A Recommendation

Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the screenplay for Twilight, has also written for Dexter.

Small Presses

Last week the subject of small presses was covered at the kidlitosphere listserv. And what do you know? Yesterday while I was at a NESCBWI Salon, I heard about two small presses that were new to me.

Linda Crotta Brennan's picture book, The Black Regiment of the American Revolution, has been rereleased by Apprentice Shop Books, located in Bedford, New Hampshire. Apprentice Shop Books "produces high interest history books for children." It publishes both new titles and reprints.

An interesting marketing sidenote--Linda will be speaking soon to a dinner meeting of retired military officers. Now, retired military officers are probably not your traditional market for children's books. However, I've spoken at a couple of League of Women Voters author luncheons. They liked to have a children's author there for parents and grandparents. Military people are as likely to have offspring as LWV members, right? Wouldn't a book about a military regiment be just the gift they'd like to get for the kiddies? Don't we all like to buy books on our interests for our kids? Linda is making exactly the kind of outside-the-box promotional effort all the marketing books tell us we ought to be making.


Jeanne Prevost's first picture book, It's Raining Cats and Cats!, was published by The Gryphon Press of Edina, Minnesota. From The Gryphon Press website: "The Gryphon Press is dedicated to publishing picture books for children that explore the human-animal bond. The books will feature themes of animal advocacy and animal well-being. A portion of our book sales profits will be donated to shelters and animal rescue societies."

The Gryphon Press publisher, Emilie Buchwald, was a founder of Milkweek Editions, a literary publisher.

Notice that both these presses have a specific interest. Instead of trying to publish everything, they're specializing in one area.

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