Thursday, December 25, 2008

Light the lamp, not the rat!

I heart almost all Christmas movies, but far and away the best is The Muppet Christmas Carol. A few weeks ago, when my sister came over for a day of cookie-baking and movies, she asked me, "Why do you like the muppets so much?" My flip response was "I don't understand why you even have to ask that."

But then I kept thinking about it. What is it that so appeals to me?

Well, just like with any truly great children's book, the Muppets work on multiple levels. There's the humor of these funny-looking puppets. The humor of juxtaposing fuzzy, funny puppets saying very dry or serious things. The humor of them saying the obviously funny joke. They're both silly and smart. They don't take themselves seriously but they also don't dumb themselves down.

They teach things without being "Educational." Think about how much information you learn about Dickens by what Gonzo and Rizzo talk about. Yet it never feels like a lesson. There are rewards for people who already know about Dickens, too--like in the opening song when one of the mice says, "Please, sir, I want some cheese."

And there's the lovely Christmas message, of course, to the Muppet Christmas Carol--that life is about the people you share with. Our friends and family are what give everything we do meaning. And on that note, I'm off to join my family in eating as many cookies as possible before sugar shock sets in.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Making choices

Every once and a while, I notice a theme in my reading, and usually it’s completely accidental. This fall it’s been books (and a few manuscripts) about choice. Which, okay, is an underlying theme in a lot of teen books, since it’s a big teen concern--choosing who to be, how to live life, how to be independent. But my fall reading has very much been about characters whose main conflict is the choice between being true to themselves, following their dream or passion or being in love. I’m so glad that there are these books for teen out there. They are important, because they show that it’s not all about the boy (or girl, if the protagonist is a boy). Part of me wonders if the novels about these concerns lately have been reactions to Twilight, in which Bella does pretty completely lose herself for Edward.

The novels that have struck me most are The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and Graceling. I really liked them all for their strong female characters and their approaches to how these young women see their choices. In Disreputable History, Frankie has to deal with getting the guy she’s had a crush on, but him not seeing all of her, seeing her only as adorable, rather than the brilliant, challenging person she is. She has the thought in one situation, reflecting on how she's proud of herself for confronting someone, "At least I wasn’t someone’s little sister, someone’s girlfriend, some sophomore, some girl--someone whose opinions don’t matter." And later, "She will not be simple and sweet. She will not be what people tell her she should be." In The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Mary lives in a world overrun by zombies, where humans are only safe in a fenced off village. But Mary’s heard of the ocean, and believes in it, wants to find it. She, too, ends up struggling with her love for a boy and her wish to see the ocean, to believe that more exists outside their fences. "Ever since that day on the hill, ever since he promised he would come for me, this was always supposed to be our dream, together. It was never supposed to be about having to choose one or the other," she says at one point. It’s fantastic that teens have strong characters like Frankie and Mary who are confronting these sorts of conflicts, so that readers can see how these young women decide, deal with it. So that they see that being conflicted like that is okay. That they shouldn't lose themselves for someone else. The only quibble I have is: why does it have to be a choice? Why can’t they be true to themselves and their dreams and have love? Of course, maybe the key there is that neither Mary nor Frankie have met the right guys, the ones that get them, and really see them. Which is part of what I adore about Graceling. Katsa has the same trouble-- "She loved Po. She wanted Po. And she could never be anybody’s but her own."--but she finds a way to have both. She’s able to remain thoroughly herself, but also to love and be loved, however unconventionally.

Katsa reminds me a little of Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet (which have been my favorite books since I was ten) in how she reconciles having her freedom and her love. The Alanna books were among the first of the “kickass girl” books, in which the hero is a girl, not a boy, along with Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. So, twenty-ish years later, and there are many, many more books showing girls as heroes, as strong, independent people. But still facing the same choices and problems. I’d like to think that these days, though, these aren’t feminist issues, but people issues. And I do think there are boy books about the same themes.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I am thankful that I woke up to the smell of the turkey cooking; that both of my siblings and I were all able to come home for the holiday; that we still put the Macy’s parade on while we make coffee and help around the kitchen and generally putz around; that everyone still stops for a minute when Santa comes at the end; that my cousins and their kids joined us; that we sit around, talking and listening to each other; that Thanksgiving is a day to slow down and catch up with life; that my parents’ home is a warm, inviting place full of life shining in a dark, snowy, starry night.

I am thankful for a job that I believe affects people and makes the world better; that I help to bring kids and teens the kinds of stories that will stick with them and help them figure out life, choice, love, school, friendship, independence, and so many other things; that I get to know and work with awe-inspiring, creative people; that what I do is all about connection.

I am thankful for amazing friends who are funny, smart, passionate, giving, strong, and generally incredible people.

I am thankful.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fictional Crushes

We bookish girls have lots of literary crushes. Here are mine . . .

George Cooper from The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce
Eugenides from The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (hmm...I seem to have a thing for thieves)
Frederick Garland from the Sally Lockhart trilogy by Philip Pullman
Henry DeTamble from The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Captain Wentworth from Persuasion by Jane Austen
Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling
Wes from The Truth about Forever by Sarah Dessen
Mel from Sunshine by Robin McKinley

And, okay, I admit it, I've got a few from the TV, too . . .

Josh Lyman from The West Wing
Jess from The Gilmore Girls
George from Grey's Anatomy

I know you have your fictional crushes too...want to share them in the comments?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sharing Books

One of my favorite quotes, the one that embodies so eloquently and deeply not only what books mean to me, but what they mean to my relationships with other people, is from a poem by W. B. Yeats: “I bring you with reverent hands / the books of my numberless dreams.”* (From "A Poet to His Beloved") I can't imagine any vow or promise carrying more significance than the sentiment that line expresses.

Books are so easily shared, yet are so tremendously personal. The person I am, the way I think, the way I approach life, have all been shaped by the books that I have read. I've never been able to name "the book that changed my life" because every book has changed my life. The ones that I love are more than just objects on a shelf (or mp3s on my ipod). They hold parts of me inside of them. In their pages, they hold the places, the thoughts, the people, the smells, sounds, emotions that surrounded me as I read. Often rereading can take me back to the time and place of that previous read, can remind me more sharply of particular moments or feelings than anything else can.

And so, sharing books, even sharing thoughts about books, can be a very intimate act, when it comes right down to it. I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been collecting quotes since I was in high school. In blank books, I write down lines and passages from books or articles or that I just stumble across somewhere. I sometimes think that giving someone those quote books to read would reveal more about me than giving them the journals that I’ve kept in the last 15 years. In them are the ideas that I identified with, agreed with, found funny, found moving, disagreed with but found thought-provoking--and how I’ve grown in my thoughts about everything over the years (even if I am still mostly reading books for the YA audience). I love sharing books with people, I love the sense that I am saying, essentially, “Here is something that got inside my head, and I hope it gets inside yours, too, and let's talk about it once you read it.”

Everything we read affects our minds somehow, and being able to share something that affects your mind is pretty remarkable. Being able to have a conversation with another person about how that book affected you, what it made you think, is exciting. Maybe the person I share with won’t pick up on the exact same themes or passages that I did, but regardless, we’ll still both have that book, that story, inside of us. This feeling about books may be part of why I have an enormous to-read list. Because every time a friend tells me about a book they’ve loved or found interesting, I want to read it, too, to understand something that’s now a part of that person I care about.

My library doesn’t contains just stories and worlds and beautiful writing. It contains memories, emotions, thoughts. . . . The books that I keep, the ones I’ve connected to and identified with and found valuable enough to cart with me from apartment to apartment, to make sure I have the space for . . . well, I’m attached to them. Lots of times I’ve actually scribbled notes in them and marked the passages I later transcribed in my quote books. They’re little parts of my mind. My numberless dreams.

* Thanks, Angie, who introduced me to this quote. (In fact, is this quote part of the reason we became friends? Apart from our mutual literary crush on George Cooper? (And other mutual literary crushes.))

Friday, November 7, 2008

Poetry Friday

The Reader by Richard Wilbur

She is going back, these days, to the great stories
That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light
Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,
And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.
Onward they came again, the orphans reaching
For a first handhold in a stony world,
The young provincials who at last look down
On the city's maze, and will descend into it,
The serious girls, once more, who would live nobly,
The sly one who aspires to marry so,
The young man bent on glory, and that other
Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
What will become of them in a bloddy field
Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times
She sees their first and final selves at once,
As a god might to whom all time is now.
OR, having lived so much herself, perhaps
She meets them this time with a wiser eye,
Noting that Julien's calculating head
Is from the first severed from his heart.
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door--
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What a Good Day!

Kevin Henkes sums up how I'm feeling today best. :)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Quotable Sunday

I've been gathering quotes and passages that I love, or identify with, or find thought-provoking, or funny since high school. Sharing one of them seems like a nice way to begin a week.

"I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Poetry Friday

If the Shoe Doesn't Fit

you take it off
of course you take it off
it doesn't worry you
it isn't your shoe

-Naomi Shihab Nye

Monday, October 20, 2008

My shelves

I adore the huge bookshelf I got when I moved . . .

It has all my children's and YA books, the binders of articles I've collected, and the books of essays about children's books. And I've got all the adult books, plays, and poetry on this tall one . . .

Friday, October 10, 2008

Declare Yourself!

Last week, a few of my colleagues and I went down to Washington Square Park with copies of our book DECLARE YOURSELF, stuffed with voter registration forms. We handed them out to the young potential voters heading to and from their classes at NYU.

Today's the last day for voter registration in New York, and Declare Yourself (the organization) has a list of upcoming deadlines here. You can also submit your own story about voting to their blog by emailing

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Belatedly Happy Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week has officially ended, but Angie tagged me with this meme, and I am only getting to it now.

The following is the ALA list of
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.

How to Play:

1. Copy this list.
2. Highlight the ones you have read in RED.
3. Tag 5 people to play.

Martha's List:
  1. Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz (I've read at least one of these.)
  2. Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  4. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  7. Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
  8. Forever by Judy Blume
  9. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  10. Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  11. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
  12. My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
  13. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  14. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  15. It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
  16. Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine (I think I've only read maybe one or two of these.)
  17. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
  18. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  19. Sex by Madonna
  20. Earth's Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel
  21. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
  22. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
  23. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
  24. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
  25. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
  26. The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard
  27. The Witches by Roald Dahl
  28. The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
  29. Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry
  30. The Goats by Brock Cole
  31. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
  32. Blubber by Judy Blume
  33. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
  34. Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
  35. We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
  36. Final Exit by Derek Humphry
  37. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  38. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
  39. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  40. What's Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras
  41. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  42. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  43. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  44. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
  45. Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard
  46. Deenie by Judy Blume
  47. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  48. Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden
  49. The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
  50. Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz
  51. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
  52. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  53. Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
  54. Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
  55. Cujo by Stephen King
  56. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  57. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
  58. Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
  59. Ordinary People by Judith Guest
  60. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  61. What's Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras
  62. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  63. Crazy Lady by Jane Conly
  64. Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
  65. Fade by Robert Cormier
  66. Guess What? by Mem Fox
  67. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
  68. The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
  69. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  71. Native Son by Richard Wright
  72. Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Fantasies by Nancy Friday
  73. Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
  74. Jack by A.M. Homes
  75. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
  76. Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
  77. Carrie by Stephen King
  78. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
  79. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
  80. Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge
  81. Family Secrets by Norma Klein
  82. Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole
  83. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
  84. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  85. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  86. Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
  87. Private Parts by Howard Stern
  88. Where's Waldo? by Martin Hanford
  89. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
  90. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
  91. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  92. Running Loose by Chris Crutcher
  93. Sex Education by Jenny Davis
  94. The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene
  95. Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
  96. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
  97. View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts
  98. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  99. The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney
  100. Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
So, that's 29 books, almost a third of the list.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cute shoes are the secret to world domination.

I debated about posting this. Do I want other people to be able to cash in on my secret theory? But I like to share. I guess as an oldest child, I had it drilled into me for too long to stop now.

Here's the thing about cute shoes: they are ice-breakers. I'm an essentially shy person, but doing things like presenting at writers' conferences or attending various meetings, or events, or cocktail parties means that shyness has to be left behind. And seeing as children's publishing is fairly woman-centric, chances are, if you wear cute shoes, someone will notice. Voila! Conversation begun! I always make it a point to wear cute shoes when I'm going to be meeting new people or speaking at an SCBWI conference, so this method is tried and true.

It is also a good excuse to buy cute shoes. Like, maybe, these...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

For Provoking the Thoughts

I'm off to North Carolina to speak at an SCBWI conference, but here are two articles that have had my gears turning this week.

A sort of alarmist and gloom-and-doomy article about The End of publishing from New York Magazine.

And another look toward the future of media, but this time in roundtable fashion.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Obama is like a YA novel.

During dinner with friends last night, I wondered in passing if I like Obama for the same reasons I like YA fiction better than adult fiction. Sure, I was being a bit flippant. But then I thought more about it, and...well...

1. Better edited. (Oh, snap!)

2. Change: YA books are full of change, because teens are full of change.

3. YA books are about taking on the world. Fix it? Change it? At least our part of it? Yes we can!

4. Hope. I’ve always said this is one of the key differentials between adult and YA. YA books need hope at the end, we need a sense that everything the character has been through has lead him or her somewhere better. That we are better for having spent time with him or her.

5. Gets you where you live. YA books are unafraid of using new formats, different structures, and incorporating cell phones, blogging, text messages, email, and tons more ways that young people actually communicate.

6. Not issue driven. Issues are important. You’ve got to know how to handle them. But then you’ve got to be about more.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Election Season Reading!

I spent the last week of August moving and setting up my new apartment, to the company of WNYC’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention. I’m now totally addicted to NPR. It was an excellent week to have time for all this radio listening, and I was completely re-invigorated about the election and the democratic process in general.

The weekend downtime between the two conventions made me think about where else I can get my political fix once the conventions are over.

First and foremost, of course, is DECLARE YOURSELF. A collection of powerful essays about the importance of raising your voice and using your vote!

The President’s Daughter quartet by Ellen Emerson White
The President’s Daughter
White House Autumn
Long Live the Queen
Long May She Reign
Ellen Emerson White is a brilliant writer, and these four books center around Meg, whose mother runs for President and wins. Smart, funny, dry, and completely absorbing. I read Long Live the Queen back in junior high and it’s a book that has stuck vividly with me ever since.

The Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner
The Thief
The Queen of Attolia
The King of Attolia
Okay, these are fantasy, but they are are utterly astounding with the twists, turns, and political intrigue. They are must-reads for absolutely everyone. Eugenides is one of the Best. Characters. Ever.

The Future Dictionary of America
Funny mock-dictionary that came out a few years ago.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
She writes about history and politics often, and has some great essays about the 2000 election.

For levity:
America (the book) by the Daily Show
I Am America (And So Can You) by Stephen Colbert

For watching:
The West Wing
I am a HUGE West Wing fan. Huge. Every season is fantastic. (Except for season 5, which is dead to me. Don’t even bother with it, you don’t need it.) Best for election/campaign-related viewing? The first two episodes of the second season, season 4, the end of season 6, and season 7. I love seeing behind-the-scenes of any process, and it’s a witty, superbly well-written and well-acted show that gives you hope in politics.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Moving Day in the Life of an Editor

When does being a bookish person and having a kickass library have a drawback? When you’re moving to a fourth floor walk-up. Sigh. Luckily, I also have kickass friends.

My move in numbers:

1: splinter

2: times I bumped my head in the same place

3: pizzas eaten post-moving

10: friends helping move all those books

16: boxes of books

Countless: bruises

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Soundtrack of My Summer

Here are the songs that have been on repeat in my head this summer...

1. "Mamma Mia," ABBA
It's catchy, I can't help it!
2. "Inside Your Head," Eberg
3. "Ultimatum," The Long Winters
One of my absolute favorite songs. I love love love the refrain.
4. "I Hear the Bells," Mike Doughty
"winds in the night, commas & ampersands..."
5. "In the Night," Basia Bulat
6. "Click, Click, Click, Click," Bishop Allen
7. "9 Crimes," Damien Rice
8. "1 2 3 4," Feist
9. "Panic," Puppini Sisters
10. "Momentary Thing," Something Happens
11. "New Soul," Yael Naim
12. "The Crane Wife 3," The Decembrists
13. "L. E. S. Artistes," Santogold
14. "After Hours," We Are Scientists
New fave from the Scientists--and it's playing in the trailer for Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, which is a fantastic pairing, in my opinion.
15. "You Love Me," Devotchka
16. "Come Pick Me Up," Ryan Adams
17. "Sweet Darlin'," She & Him
18. "Love Song," Sara Bareilles

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why all the Breaking Dawn hullabaloo?

I’m unashamed to admit that I loved Twilight. I stayed up till 4 a.m. finishing it the day I got it back in 2005. Sure, it’s verbose, and not the most elegantly written book, but Bella’s voice is compelling, and there’s something addictive about the love story. I liked that it stayed a very personal story, rather than being about Bella and Edward fighting some Great Evil. Because, let's face it, a vampire and human being in love is complicated enough without Great Evil looming.

I did have my concerns about Bella. She so readily gives up herself, her loves, her dreams for Edward. I wanted to reach into the story and shake her, tell her that she had to be her own person, too. But even as I wanted to do that, I also thought it was a very honest representation of first love for a teenager, so I could see girls finding themselves in Bella. And Twilight ends on the ambiguous note of her butting heads with Edward over whether or not he would change her into a vampire. Because of the ambiguity, you could imagine for yourself a future in which Bella would find herself again and not let Edward be so suffocating and bossy, in which they would be true partners.

But then, with New Moon and Eclipse, Bella was put in the middle of a choice between Edward and Jacob, her best friend who nurses a crush for her. I was a little irritated that Jacob and Bella had to cross that line into romantic because I thought it would be more interesting if a friendship was represented as just as powerful as a romantic relationship (because friendships are!). I thought that it might be what spurs Bella to stand up to Edward and come back into herself. She needed her friends and her life, and she wouldn't give them up for him, and they had to learn how to have both. But it became a choice between two romantic loves instead.

So readers went in to Breaking Dawn expecting Bella to have to make the choice--between Edward and Jacob, between mortal and immortal. They were waiting to see how she would do it, and what the consequences would be for everyone involved, and how she would deal with both the good and the bad fall-out of such a hard choice. Someone was bound to be hurt, and there were sacrifices to be made and dealt with. And then...Bella didn’t have to make the choice. Circumstance neatly made it for her. No one got hurt; everyone got what they wanted; happily ever after. I think that’s what has caused the fan backlash. Yes, we all wanted a happy ending, one with hope, but what does happily ever after mean if it hasn’t been fought for? Happily ever after is only satisfying when there’s been work and even pain involved, when the characters have been active in achieving it, when they’ve had to strive, not when it’s been handed to them. (Um, Bella had her backbone actually broken, and then healed by Edward. Metaphor, anyone?)

Another point to consider is whether Breaking Dawn is still a teen book. I think it may have crossed the line into adult. Sure, sure, Bella is still a teenager, but her concerns are no longer a teen's concerns. Teens are questing--they're trying to find their places in the world, and make choices, and are going. In Breaking Dawn, Bella's found her place, and is settled. So, unfortunately, I think that many teens just couldn't relate to her as strongly anymore.

In the end, this is Stephenie Meyer's story, though, and she had to write the one she wanted to write. And now that it's out in the world, readers can decide for themselves whether or not they want to accept it in the way they've accepted the previous three. That's one of the great things about art--we don't have to like everything, but there are readers (or listeners or viewers) for everything.

For more, here are some of the eloquent, sometimes snarky, and sometimes very funny articles and blog posts about Breaking Dawn that I've enjoyed:

Gail Gauthier's blog
Washington Post Article
Salon Article
An amazing (but quite long), snarky play-by-play of the BD reading experience

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dark Knight & Tension

I saw The Dark Knight a couple of weeks ago, and have been a little haunted by it ever since. It’s disturbing and amazing and as interior as it is exterior, which I think is pretty incredible for a superhero/comic book/action movie.

One of the reviews--I think the NYTimes one, but I’m not sure--had a line that stuck with me as I watched. Superhero movies find both their key and their downfall in the ultimate conflict between the hero and the villain. We all know that’s where it’s going, in any movie of this sort. It’s barreling toward the final showdown. That’s what hooks us, and sometimes it’s what disappoints us. So I had that in mind while watching Dark Knight, and was fascinated by how tense I was through the whole thing, regardless. Even though I knew what the climax was going to be, and even though I knew that somehow Batman had to come out on top, I felt the suspense winding me tighter and tighter, and keeping me on the edge of my seat. (Or, maybe more like curled in a ball in my seat.)

This got me to thinking about building tension and keeping your reader in suspense as far as books go, too. As the old saying goes, there’s only a certain number of stories in the world, and we all know what those stories are. In children’s and YA, maybe even more so than adult, we can often make a good guess as to where any given story is going. Voice and playing within the story make each new one fresh and compelling to readers, but how do they maintain the tension?

I’m not sure I have an answer to that question yet, but my idea is that it has to do with that interior/exterior balance. If we can predict what the exterior climax is going to be, then we need to be surprised by the interior one. Maybe it works the other way around, too. It’s all about the layers, and how they work each on their own and together as a whole. There has to be both friction and connection to keep interest. If we have an idea of how one could go, we need to be surprised by the other. And perhaps this is something that can switch back and forth even within the same work. As the Joker and Batman raced toward their final conflict, the balance of power shifted between them constantly. As the Joker told Batman in their last scene, they need each other to survive; they’re the two sides of human nature, and each needs its foil. Because it goes so psychological, we never really know which one we can trust--extremes in either way can be harmful and wreak havoc. This aspect--the way two sides can push and pull at each other, and the way exterior and interior conflicts do the same--is certainly something to keep in mind for stories that need the suspense to work in the best possible way.

Hunger Games is one that I’ve read recently that does the same thing so well--the whole premise tells us where we’re going as far as final conflict, but Katniss is in such opposition to it, that we are wound tightly through the whole experience as her internal battle intersects with the outside plot events. And it doesn't turn out perfectly--just as Dark Knight didn't turn out entirely great for Batman. Hm...maybe this is one of the reasons Breaking Dawn didn’t so much succeed. But that is a whole different blog post.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Maps on Google

One of my new favorite internet discoveries is that I can create customizable maps on Google Maps! Neat-o!

So, without further ado, my map of favorite bookstores. Most likely to be added to as I think of other bookish spots to add.

View Larger Map

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Literacy vs. the Internet vs. Books vs. Kids

An interesting article on literacy, the internet, and child/teen readers in the NYTimes today. It's a tricky debate--whether reading online is as beneficial as reading a book, whether it's helping or hindering kids.

Obviously, I think that reading books is vital. But that belief doesn't mean that I think online reading is detrimental. It's different. I found myself a little irked by one quote in the article:
“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”

That seems an extremely elitist position to take. After all, I read this article online. (Okay, yes, I'll be printing it out to save, too.) Lots of learning is acquired from books. But much of the learning I did in college was from xeroxed articles or printouts from online journals. And I'm sure that current students are relying on those means even more than I did. We can read thought-provoking arguments, debates, ideas, stories in any form. We learn if we take the time to digest and mull over them. And if we can talk them over with other people. What the internet hinders is the time to digest and absorb what we read online. It's so easy to click onto the next thing, or to become distracted: it’s your turn in Scrabulous! there’s another interesting article! ooooh, there’s a new post on your favorite blog! a friend is im-ing you! But what the internet helps is finding more people to discuss and debate the ideas with. Ultimately, isn’t the internet a tool, and we can use it how we want to? We can’t really blame it for kids reading or not reading books. It may not be the problem, but how we think of it could be.

It did worry me, though, that the teenage girl in the article said she wanted to major in English and be published someday, but didn't see the point of reading books. The best advice that can be given to aspiring writers is to read, read, read, so they can see how other people are doing it and what works or doesn't work.

This article, too, talked about what kids read during their leisure time, but in the same breath about testing scores. So are they really concerned with the leisure time reading? I mean, I'm a grown-up, avid reader, former English major, and editor, and when I read in my leisure time, it's to be swept away by a story.

Also, I was caught by the line about the internet having no beginning or end. Does that make the internet God?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Literary Jewelry

One of my favorite Esty shops is Brookadelphia, who have hip, bookish necklaces. (I have the "read." one.)

But in timely fashion, they've added a few new ones since my last visit:


Monday, July 21, 2008

Actually listened to Radio Lab in a timely matter this week, during a Very Hot run in the park this morning. It was on emergence--how societies can become complex and function even without leaders.

It started off with an amazing visual image of fireflies in Thailand that end up blinking together rather than randomly. Besides "firefly" being one of my favorite words, it also reminded me of the end of Criss Cross, which always warms my heart and makes me feel better about the world.
Someone opened the jar. The lightning bugs knew what to do. They flew out into the night air, every last one. Blinking, "Here I am."

But besides that, the idea of emergence struck me as one that applied to revising. They talked about how you can't take one ant out of the ant society and have it work, or how you can't take one neuron out of the brain and have it contain a whole thought. It's all in how every ant or every neuron works together. A manuscript is made of individual sentences, but they can't function alone. A really great revision won't simply pull out a problem in an individual sentence and fix that, but will see how that sentence fits into the whole, how all of it comes together to form a complex and working story.


A new Threadless t-shirt design! So cute!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Big Read

According to The Big Read, the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books on this list.

The instructions:
Look at the list and:
Bold those you have read.
Italicize those you intend to read.
Underline the books you LOVE.--I couldn't do this so mine are starred.

1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen*
2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4. Harry Potter series - JK Rowling*
5. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee*
6. The Bible
7. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte*
8. 1984 - George Orwell
9. His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

11. Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12. Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13. Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare (Oh, come ON! I've read 11 and seen 11.)
15. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18. Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19. The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger*
20. Middlemarch - George Eliot

21. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald*
23. Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29. Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30. The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame

31. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34. Emma - Jane Austen
35. Persuasion - Jane Austen*
36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis*
37. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38. Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40. Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne

41. Animal Farm - George Orwell
42. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown (well, I skimmed a lot, but I did go the whole way to the end)
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving (this book made me angry)
45. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46. Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47. Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50. Atonement - Ian McEwan

51. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52. Dune - Frank Herbert
53. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60. Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63. The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65. Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68. Bridget Jones' Diary - Helen Fielding
69. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70. Moby Dick - Herman Melville

71. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72. Dracula - Bram Stoker
73. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74. Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75. Ulysses - James Joyce*
76. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77. Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78. Germinal - Emile Zola
79. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80. Possession - AS Byatt*

81. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84. The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87. Charlotte's Web - EB White
88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90. The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

91. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92.The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94. Watership Down - Richard Adams
95. A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96. A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98. Hamlet - William Shakespeare (but I've seen it!)
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

38 . . . that's not too shabby!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

It's what's beneath the cover that counts

Forget the cover controversy, because inside the New Yorker is a great article about the formidable Anne Carroll Moore vs. Stuart Little. I love getting the behind-the-scenes scoop on the industry like this, seeing how children's books came into their own, with the help of such legendary women as Anne Carroll Moore and Ursula Nordstrom (and many others).

My favorite detail, though, might be the "Not recommended for purchase by the expert" stamp. Such power!

I hope people keep talking away about how offended/not offended they are by the cover, so that more and more pick it up and stumble across this article.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Artists take on lapel pins

Courtesy of the NYTimes, various artists and illustrators design lapel pins for Obama.

Peter Sis's:

Monday, July 14, 2008

I think I heart Cory Doctorow

Not only did he write a riveting, sort of terrifying but hopeful, page-turner of a book (Little Brother--if you haven't read it, go get it now!), but he also wrote a fantastic column for Locus, about writing for young people. And he gets it.

He talks about books being markers of social identity for young adults, which is a thought I don't think I'd ever put into the right words before, but this is totally it. He says:
That's one of the most wonderful things about writing for younger audiences — it matters. We all read for entertainment, no matter how old we are, but kids also read to find out how the world works. They pay keen attention, they argue back. There's a consequentiality to writing for young people that makes it immensely satisfying.

He also points out that literature may be one of the few escapes left for young people today, with how much fear there is about getting hurt making it hard to live. Which is, too, a major theme of Little Brother.

Since I think one of the most obvious differences between adult and YA literature is that YA lit has HOPE, I'm glad that Cory Doctorow--and many others--are there for teens.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Guilt Trips

When I was at the BYU Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conferences last week, there was a mixer one night with local authors. For whatever reason right now, the Provo area has an amazing amount of gifted writers who are also fantastically nice. Shannon Hale is one of them, but she couldn't make it to the mixer, which made the other editor, Stacy Whitman of Mirrorstone, and me sad. So what did we do? We emailed her a picture of our sad faces. And it worked! She dropped by the next day!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stories and Believing

I've taken to listening to podcasts at the gym, and two of my favorites are This American Life (obviously) and Radio Lab. I am not at all orderly or timely about listening to them, so I'm always behind and out of order. The Radio Lab I listened to over the last 2 gyms visits was from January, the "War of the Worlds" episode.

There's a lot about the topic that's intriguing, but what I've taken away is the question of why people can fall for this sort of thing again and again. After conversation with a psychologist Robert Krulwich said:
"People are suckers for stories; we just cannot help ourselves. . . . The thing is we do go in, we all fall into these stories, he says, it's just the way we are built. For hundreds of thousands of years, our memories, our friendships, our sense of family, our kinship, we build our identities form stories. Stories that we tell, and stories that we hear."

We seem to be built to believe in things. Because it's hopeful. Because who wants to go around not believing? Even if it's believing in small things, not big ones. We'll fall for things because we learn so much from the stories that saturate our lives, perhaps. Stories show us that there's always something to believe in.

Comfort Books

Alice Sebold wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times last summer that had a great sentiment I wrote down for my quote collection, and part of it says very much why I'm a big re-reader of books:

"It is comfort, company, a way to buffer oneself form the pain and isolation of the everyday. It is the peace I find by visiting my closest friends. I have given up thinking I'm deranged for discovering them between the covers of a book."

Perhaps I would not necessarily call my books my closest friends, but I do certainly think of them as friends. They're familiar and engrossing and give something to me every time I open them, regardless of whether it's the first time or the twentieth. And some of them have been with me since my childhood. They have not only their own stories inside them, but pieces of my story, my memories.

And so, my favorite comfort books, the ones that are as welcoming and comforting as old friends, the ones that make me feel that all will be right in the world...

The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins
Matilda by Roald Dahl
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Persuasion by Jane Austen