Monday, March 23, 2009

A Little Blogcation

Oooh, I've been a little remiss in posting here, and in visiting blogs. Life has trumped. I realized pretty much from the beginning that this blogging business was surprisingly time-consuming. What I didn't realize was how much time would open up if I stayed off the boards/blogs for even a little-bitty week, as my online time was never out of control. Not that my hiatus was planned; it just sort of happened.

And life continues to happen. As a result, I'm extending this blogcation to at least April 1. We will be off to the land of No Internet Access for five days in the interim, where we will recharge and refresh by getting a whole new life, at least for that brief time. Beyond that . . . I hope to have something to say. "See" you all in a bit. :)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Strand Tall by Joan Bauer is not a new book, having been published in 2002. But we want our books to have life for more than a year, right? And more are published each year than we can possibly read when new, right? I've noticed that when I read books recommended online, they tend to be new, and when I browse my library I check out a lot of books that are, shall we say, recent, but not the latest thing. And there's gold in every pile. Random comment: This is a mid-grade novel with a YA sticker on the spine. Nobody knows a chapter book from a MG from a YA anymore.

Plot summary: Tree is twelve, and he's 6'3" and growing. Everyone thinks he's in high school and he's not, everyone thinks he should be a basketball player and he's not (even though he's on the team), and he thinks his parents should be married -- and they're not. They waited to split until his two older brothers were in college. Why didn't they wait for him to leave home, he wonders? Do even they forget that he isn't as old as he looks? Why do the athletes in his school get nicknames like Fire and Boomerang, and the nonathletes get ones like Tree, Mole and Snot? Fortunately, Tree has his grandpa, a widowed Viet Nam vet recovering from an amputation who both helps him and needs his help, and a new friend, Sophie, who needs a friend to accept her as she is just as Tree does. And even in the face of greater loss, they all help each other through.

Okay, this is probably spoiler territory. They say voice is everything, and this book has great voice. It's honest, terse, and often funny. The paragraphs are short, often just one-liners, and Tree's third person POV is seasoned with just the right amount of author comment to keep readers resonating with the insights yet remain believable for a "guy book." But my personal opinion is that character trumps voice -- to the extent that the aspects of a novel are separable, of course, which they never really are. Grandpa, Dad, Tree, and Tree's brothers make a pretty funny male household at Christmas time, what with visits from the volunteer lady who has a crush on Grandpa, a pet parrot that will only say "Back off, Buster" despite Grandpa's attempts to teach it "You're certainly looking handsome today, Leo," and the rope-and-basket system they've rigged up to send food to Grandpa in the living room. Tree's mother is a super-organized type who always wants her sons to talk about their feelings -- by communicating through a website called Yet even Christmas at her place turns upside down when her visiting sister lights the fireplace without the flue open, filling the house with smoke, and her sister's dog pukes on the rug. After a flood that almost wipes out the town, after Tree realizes that his parents really don't get along, and after the Memorial Day Parade and ceremony in which Tree is the only person able to block the wind so that "a candle of hope can be lit," the book ends like this:

The purpose of a bagpipe is to reach deep into the heart.
Everything's got a purpose, really -- you just have to look for it.
Cats are good at keeping old dogs alive.
Loss helps you reach for gain.
Death helps you celebrate life.
War helps you work for peace.
A flood makes you glad you're still standing.
And a tall boy can stop the wind so a candle of hope can burn bright.

Lovely, lovely book.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Handwriting on the Wall (Chart)

I'm fascinated by the visual aids that many writers post near their keyboards while working on a book. Timelines (I've got one of those); magazine or newspaper clippings of faces that represent characters; and interviews/questionnaires that the writer, "in character," has filled out for the MC are some of the most common and helpful ones I've heard about. But when I tackled a MG novel with twelve characters (most of them friends of the MC) I wanted a way to keep track of the relationships between any two of them. What I hit on was a wall chart.

My chart measures roughly twenty inches square and is divided into thirteen rows and thirteen columns, for a total of 169 squares (I did say there'd be arithmetic in this blog). Across the top, in squares 2-13 of row 1, are listed the twelve character names, and down the left side, in squares 2-13 of column 1, the names are repeated in the same order. The square in the upper left corner is blank.

The squares of intersection show what the character in the left column thinks of the character in the top row. For example, find Jared's name in the left column, Eleanor's name in the top row, and run your fingers down and across to the intersecting cell. In that cell is the word "egghead." Jared thinks Eleanor is an egghead. Find Eleanor in the left column and Jared in the top row, and you discover that Eleanor doesn't disdain Jared (as she does most people); rather, she's mildly scared of him. Ann thinks Nicole is a popular golden girl; Nicole thinks Ann is plain and on the dull side. Run your hand across any row and find out what that character thinks of everyone; run your hand down any column and find out what everyone thinks of that character. Pick the same name at the left and on the top, and the intersecting cell will tell you what that person thinks of her- or himself. Obviously, this type of chart could be made quite easily with a spreadsheet as well as by hand on posterboard.

Have you found any neat visual aids or organizers that have helped you with a specific project?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

The Taker by J.M. Steele is a YA novel that grabbed me from the first line, if line is the right word, and didn't let go. I quote:

If Carly were to ___ the SAT, she would be ___ for life.
(a) ace . . . set
(b) miss . . . humiliated
(c) fail . . . home
(d) eat . . . sick
(e) blow . . . screwed

That's the book in microcosm -- it's about the pressure of the SAT, and more generally about the price we pay to hurdle the milestone events society says we must hurdle.

Carly's a golden girl. She's a wonderful student, the girlfriend of the hot captain of the lacrosse team, and she's headed for Princeton, of which her daddy is a graduate. Not that she doesn't want to go to Princeton. She's a writer, she wants to study with Toni Morrison, and if she doesn't study with Toni Morrison, she'll "end up being one of those hack writers who spits out obituaries for some jerkwater newspaper." She's not much for tests, and this is Princeton she's talking about, but with normal SAT prep she should be okay, right? Wrong. The answer is (e).

Or, at least (e), part 1. Someone wants to make sure part 2 doesn't happen. That someone texts her only moments after she accesses her scores by phone, saying "I can help you" and signing himself "The Taker." The Taker is a legendary (supposedly) person who will take your SAT for you and get you a top score. For a price, of course.

Okay, here's where the SPOILERS are likely to kick in. For the next eight weeks, Carly lives, breathes, eats, and dreams the SAT. After Carly's dad puts the kibosh on studying with boyfriend Brad when he discovers them in a lip-lock, she receives not just a text, but a phone call, from The Taker. It's all very simple, he says. He takes the SAT for her and guarantees a score of at least 2250 (out of 2400). Then, she owes him whatever he asks, or he'll expose her as a cheater. "Whatever he asks" is way too much to contemplate, so the next plan is to get into an after-school SAT study group. But Carly needs her score raised by more than the measly hundred-point average, and there's no guarantee there'll be room in the class. Carly caves. She makes the deal with The Taker.

One of The Taker's rules is that she must continue to study, so her improvement doesn't look suspicious. This leads to a tutoring arrangement with school nerd and neighbor guy Ronald Gross. But about those improvements not looking suspicious? Too late. Carly's best friend Jen, an aspiring journalist, is on a hot story: In too many cases over the last few years, repeat SAT scores in certain school districts have risen by 300 points or more, far above the typical 50-point difference. "It's a statistical anomaly," Jen says. With hopes of breaking a story that will get her into a prestigious summer journalism school, she's out to discover who's cheating, and how.

The plot moves at a great pace, and the author did a fine job of keeping me guessing about the ID of The Taker. But the best thing in this book is the characters, especially the secondary ones. Ronald is so much more than a nerd, and Brad, the boyfriend, is rather shallow yet surprised me with a display of integrity near the end. My favorite twist comes when Carly discovers who The Taker is, what his game really is, what really happened when she took her second SAT, and is horribly disappointed that this person would deceive her -- until she realizes that she is as big a cheat and had been hoping for understanding from him. That this all works out happily is a credit to the author's skill, and an extension of great grace to "regular people" who never intend to sell out to what the world says is important, and then do.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Something Queer at the Library

Do you remember the "Something Queer" mysteries by Elizabeth Levy? These young mysteries feature two girls named Jill and Gwen, and I remember that one of them owns a basset hound, and one of them keeps tapping on her braces when she contemplates clues. Anyway, Something Queer at the Library is actually one of the titles, and I thought of the book the other day when I ran into, well, something queer at the library.

I love libraries. A feeling of well-being descends on me when I enter one, as if I've been able to step out of the everyday world of cares and into a pause. I get excited about research, about books I know I'm going there to get, and about books I'll just stumble upon. Even so, these days I usually put my books on hold online and just pick them up at the library -- or, to 'fess up completely, send my husband, who goes absolutely willingly. In fact, he and the library ladies have a running joke about how I've sent him over to pick up my books yet again. Once I showed up to get my own books, and they were shocked. I think they were disappointed, too. :) So now I tell DH (these are his initials, actually), "You have to go get my books, dear. It's you the library staff want to see."

But the other day I was in the library. It's a good date place for DH and me, and we were due (for a date and the library). First, I browsed the YA section. It's smaller than the MG section, so I feel like I can get a better overall sense of what's there. So what's there? More books and authors that I have never heard of than ever before. Browsing those shelves, I felt hardly different than I felt as a new writer starting out eleventy-nine years ago. "Wow, I've never heard of this book." "Wow, who is this writer?" "How can I read as much as I read and feel so far behind?"

In the MG section, it's harder to find new books among the old. But amid well-known titles and old favorites I did find a number of more recent books and authors that I've never heard of. In no time I had gathered a stack too big to carry, as is my wont (no queer experience there), and taken them to the checkout desk because when my arms are that full, where else can I go?

And yet I'm reading what percentage of what's being published? 2%? Twenty years ago, reading a professional article about books or talking books with another writer or avid reader was apt to yield a lot of common references --kind of the way English Lit students get Shakespeare references or biblical students get Bible references. Now, if another children's writer asks me if I've read such-and-such by so-and-so, I'm not only likely to say no, I'm fairly likely to say, "I never heard of it."

Maybe I need to go back to the library more often and see the actual shelves. But the really queer thing at the library the other day was that I almost decided I prefer to hear about new titles online and just put them on hold at the library. Because it's getting harder to dig them out of the myriad of physical books, which I'm rather nonplused to find so unfamiliar after all this time in the field.

The times they are a-changin', but this change is really, well, queer.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Expletives and More!

Okay, this must be a really juicy post, right? Indeed, without a doubt, to be sure, the expletives will fly. In brief, they already have.

Mostly, we think of expletives as cursing or profanity. I date myself, but if you remember when the Nixon tapes were publicized in the '70s, you'll never forget the phrase "expletive deleted," or cease to connect the word to that event. But the "more" in this post's title means more wordplay, and rhetorically speaking an expletive is a word or phrase that interrupts a sentence in order to emphasize what's being said. I am, in fact, going to eat that entire carton of triple fudge caramel sundae delight. "In fact" is an expletive meant to call attention to what the speaker is planning to do. Clearly, his story is a pack of lies; he's going to get arrested, of course. That sentence has two of them: "clearly," and "of course." I found expletives rather useful when making a point with teenagers while allowing them to save face: You will, I trust, return by 10:30 with the car in pristine condition. Of course, if you use too many expletives you may encounter more than social disapproval; to tell the truth, they tend to pad your writing. Clearly.

Another interrupter (boy my manners stink today, don't they?) is the parenthesis, and that one also means more than we typically think. The term can refer to the actual word, phrase or sentence that is placed within another sentence to offer a brief explanation of a point, not just the marks sometimes used to set it off. Parentheses are usually set off with commas, dashes, or -- yes -- parentheses, just to make things a tad more confusing. They are meant to be an addition, not a necessity, to the sentence that contains them. Frankie flunked four classes -- history, English, lunch, and study hall -- and his daddy took the T-bird away.

And we think we know what an apostrophe is, don't we? Although I seriously doubt they teach the punctuation mark in schools today anymore, but I digress. An apostrophe isn't an interrupter that explains, it's one that stops the present action to do something else, such as address "dear reader" directly. This is often done for the purpose of asking the reader to consider something or breaking something to him gently. We may think use of apostrophe is old-fashioned, but authors such as Jeanne Birdsall, in The Penderwicks, and Kate DiCamillo, in The Tale of Despereaux, use it: Did anyone think then about the Garden Club Competition? Did anyone hesitate, vaguely remembering what they'd been told over and over -- stay out of the gardens that day? No, no one thought or hesitated . . . (Birdsall, The Penderwicks). Reader, as teller of this tale it is my duty from time to time . . . (DiCamillo, Tale of Despereaux).

Which is all by way of saying -- if you want permission to use expletives and interrupt in three or more distinct ways, look no further than your standard English grammar guide. Who'd have thought Language Arts was such a racy subject? :)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Tax Man Cometh

It's that time again. See, I said there'd be arithmetic in this blog.

I've always done our family's taxes. And for a while there I did them for extended family, too -- kind of a Gilbert-and-Sullivan "sisters and her cousins and her aunts" type of thing. (Well, not quite that inclusive.) Ever since my high school economics teacher taught an entire mandatory unit on filling out your own federal income taxes and said there was no reason for individuals (as opposed to businesses) to pay to have their taxes done (and the forms were much worse then, and forms 1040A and EZ didn't exist), I have done them. Even in the writer's world of 1099 forms and Schedule Cs, I do them. Even though Schedule C implies I am a business and could, under Mr. Wilson's rules, morally qualify to hire somebody, I do them.

So -- does your desk look like mine? Do you do your taxes on January 2? April 14? Do you pay a professional or twist a family member's arm so you can escape all this? Have you invested in the software, unlike me? Has writing income changed your tax experience from better to worse, or the other way?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

It's no wonder that Impossible by Nancy Werlin was a National Book Award finalist. This novel, a YA fantasy filled with suspense, romance, and real love on many levels, I found almost impossible to put down.

Plot summary: Lucy Scarborough, seventeen, is the beloved foster child of Soledad and Leo, best friends of Lucy's insane mother, Miranda, who comes around every once in a while acting strange and singing the ballad "Scarborough Fair." Discovering some completely lucid diary pages from Miranda's teen years in her room, left especially for her (and believably not discovered earlier), Lucy learns that Soledad and Leo had also opened their home to her mother as she awaited the birth of Lucy, and that the Scarborough women carry a terrible curse: For generations, each has been raped at the age of seventeen, given birth to a daughter at eighteen, and immediately thereafter gone mad. Because Lucy was raped by her prom date (and can't explain why she'd felt someone else had possessed his body at the time) and is already pregnant, the pages are more enlightening than traumatic -- though comparing this sane, caring Miranda with the insane character we see is traumatic enough. The curse can be broken, Miranda tells Lucy, if she can fulfill the three tasks given in the song: (1) make a shirt without any seam or needlework, (2) find an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand (water's edge), (3) plow the acre with nothing but a goat's horn and sow it all over with one grain of corn. If Lucy does not succeed in all three tasks before her child's birth, she'll become the captive of an evil, magical elfin creature, just as every woman before her since the untrue Fenella Scarborough spurned his love untold generations ago.

Of course, Lucy does succeed, and her solutions are so satisfying because they're both ingenious and accessible. In fact, I was able to figure out #3b (the one grain of corn) well before the end, and make a decent stab at #1. One thing I love about this book is the research the characters do. Genealogical research, for example, to prove whether the known facts of the Scarborough women's lives show insanity in each generation. They study everything out, yet aren't afraid to believe supernatural elements are at work. Though not without facing obstacles, one by one they learn all they can about each task and figure out how to accomplish it. And with #3, as we might guess, Lucy must race the Stork to the finish.

But the main subject of this book is love. Lucy succeeds, in more ways than one, because of the veritable army of love behind her. Soledad and Leo; her best friend, Sarah; the young man who loves and marries her, Zach; even Miranda; do all that they can and more to love her, stand up for her, help her, and in Zach's case, reassure her that her baby will have not only Soledad and Leo but a father and seventeen more years to get the tasks right if the worst happens to Lucy. Despite the horrendous problems the characters face, readers will hardly be able to help longing to be a part of such a selfless yet real group of people. Lucy's flat refusal to consider abortion is believably motivated; Miranda did not take that way out and neither will she. Even the boy who raped her and promptly died in a car accident is forgiven, as Lucy realizes that for every Scarborough woman who was ruined, an innocent young man was also possessed and then destroyed.

Only one plot point gave me pause, and it occurs at the end. This is a definite SPOILER alert. Close to finishing the plowing and sowing task, in horrible weather, well into labor and with the tide rolling in, Lucy is visited by the creature she knows as "The Elfin Knight." He almost charms her into quitting by telling her that if she goes with him, Zach and her baby will be safe. Lucy even drops the plow momentarily before picking it up and continuing on. Later, having returned to Zach and given birth, she is again visited by the Elfin Knight who entices her to accompany him because of the bargain she made. What I don't buy is that Lucy truly believes she made a bargain. She never agreed to anything. This attempt to keep Lucy's victory up in the air till the very end doesn't work, in my view. The Elfin Knight's ploy is too obviously just that, and as Zach declares, "The curse is broken. And there is no new bargain. If that weren't true, you wouldn't be here trying to convince Lucy to come willingly." Even so -- to the extent that the Elfin Knight is betting that Lucy will interpret her temptation to give in as the actual deed, this plot point does make some sense and illustrates another theme: Temptation isn't the same as doing the deed, and intentions aren't as important as actions. Impossible is one fantastic read.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's Goof-Off Day

Okay, I'm swamped and could use a breather. You too? This little time waster game of skill will indulge your love of words and exercise both your eye-hand coordination and reaction time. This is what I tell myself when I am excusing my procrastination no lie.

Ready for some addictive vocabulary-building behavior? Click HERE.

Do let me know if you hate me now because you can't leave the thing alone have fun.

Revealing your score is optional. Anybody game? ;)

Monday, February 9, 2009

What Makes a Story Original?

Twice lately I've seen novels called "original." Since that's a quality any writer would like his or her stories to have (has "their" been officially accepted as the singular gender-neutral pronoun yet?), it makes sense to do some thinking about how we can achieve it. What makes a story original?

Some argue that there are no truly original stories left, that they were all told long before anyone currently living was ever born. I think that's true in the sense that most stories can be fitted to one (maybe sometimes more than one) plot form: the quest plot, the adventure plot, the rescue plot, the revenge plot, the rivalry plot, and so forth. Not being a great plotter myself, I have two books on plot patterns that show how to spot the bare bones of a particular type of plot, choose a basic skeleton that best fits your idea, and flesh it out with your own characters and events. The books overlap in their advice to some degree, but they also differ on how many plot templates exist and what they should be called. From Hemingway to Fitzgerald to Homer to Melville to Dickens to Austen to Sophocles to Hawthorne to Henry James to Shakespeare *inhales*, and no doubt to Faulkner, example after example is cited to prove the authors' point: If the plot exists that doesn't fit some pre-existing pattern, good luck finding it.

Others argue that of course there are original stories. No realistic story about computers could be written before computers existed. No American literature could be written until that one-of-a-kind nation, the USA, was born. Besides that, many suggest, originality lies in character, emotional accuracy and voice, not necessarily in plot.

I think this is one of those issues where the "sides" aren't sides at all, and both have a piece of the truth. If you accept the idea that there are certain types of stories that resonate with human beings and those types are likely to be finite, which I do, you conclude that originality doesn't lie in developing a new, never-used plot pattern. On the other hand, if you pick up a book like The Hunger Games and marvel at the storyline, you know plot plays a role in originality. This book gives at least one clue to an original story, I think: it takes a fairly new phenomenon, reality TV; adds a current political problem, a sense of division among Americans; and spins them out into some plausible conclusions. It asks "What's new? How might that new thing change over time? How might it turn ugly?" When seeking an original plot, another question to ask might be, "What's the story behind ____?" Impossible, by Nancy Werlin, which I will be reviewing next Monday, asks the question "What's the story behind the ballad 'Scarborough Fair'?" The quest for originality challenges the writer to ask -- and this is broader and more elusive than any one example -- "How can I think outside the box?"

Let's turn to character. This is like the plot issue, in a way. Though everyone in the world is unique, and theoretically so can our fictional characters be, many psychology experts agree that there are four basic temperament types. Just four. They're called by different names and may be broken down into varying numbers of subtypes, but the four main types are readily identifiable from one system to another. Everyone, unique though he or she (they?) may be, is one of four types. How do you move from a type to an original character? I think you do it by tuning into that person's emotional truth and being sure to express it. For example, in Rex Zero, King of Nothing by Andrew Clements, Rex speaks some lines that nail his emotional state in a specific way. Waking up one morning he says, "I feel smart, just like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard gives him a diploma. Morning is like a diploma." What an original way to express the newness of morning -- as commencement. Rex describes a wobbly smile as "a smile with training wheels." This kind of care taken with specific language to express thoughts and feelings in turn creates the original voice.

So -- what do you think? What makes a story original?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Outside Editorial Development -- The Wave of the Future?

"Editorial development is increasingly taking place outside publishing houses." This is a quote from the website of namelos, a new firm formed by a respected group of children's book professionals including Stephen Roxburgh, Carolyn Coman, and Joy Neaves, many if not most of them with ties to Boyds Mills/Front Street, especially the now-shuttered NC Front Street office. Altogether, the staff has a host of experience in editing, art direction, publicity, agenting, teaching, and writing. They offer development services to authors and illustrators, even editors, agents, and publishers, to make a book everything it can be. The advantages, they say, are that the writer gets editorial guidance (and honesty, if they feel the project isn't marketable); agents and editors get more fully developed, high-quality submissions; and the writer/artist receives the company's help with submitting to agents and editors "with a few well-placed emails and phone calls." Alternatively, namelos can and will guide you toward the goal of successful self-publishing, offering their "editorial, design, production, subsidiary rights, sales, and marketing support."

Outside editorial development, they say, is "evolutionary and inevitable" in these times when publishers must cut the costs associated with getting books in print. The concept is certainly interesting, and the idea that these reputable people are in your corner with ongoing editorial help (to the extent that you want to purchase it) and networking -- networking! -- is more than a little appealing. So -- what do you think? Would you welcome the chance to get this kind of editorial help before you ever submit to agents or editors, and then get help with submission too? Would you balk at paying a fee for such services? Could this be the first step in a major change in how the industry works? Will namelos become overworked and then copycat companies spring up whose credentials will be harder to assess? Are the higher costs of publishing being passed along to the arguably poorest people in the chain -- writers and artists? Do chime in!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Book of the Semi Month Club

I saw The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd and thought, "Yippee, a mid-grade mystery!" I picked it up eagerly, and was not disappointed. Though I didn't swallow it in one gulp, I came as close as I could.

Plot Summary: Ted and his older sister, Kat, receive a visit from their cousin, Salim, who is about to move from England to NYC with his mom. Salim has never ridden the Eye, a huge observation wheel in which people riding in sealed pods get a twenty-five mile view (on a clear day) of London in all directions. As the kids queue up to buy their tickets, a strange man approaches and almost forces a free ticket on Salim. Though somewhat nervous, Ted and Kat decide they'll save their money and that Salim should accept the free ticket since this may be his last chance to ride. The siblings track their cousin's pod as the Eye makes its thirty-minute revolution. The pod opens -- all the pods open -- and the riders emerge. No Salim. No Salim at all.

Besides the fact that this is a fine locked-room mystery, the characters are as strong as the plot. Ted has an unnamed "syndrome," which to this untrained eye sounds like mild autism or some relative thereof. His hands flap when he's nervous, and he has trouble with eye contact. He counts how many pieces of "shreddies" he eats for breakfast. He's obsessed with weather, though this is at least partly his passion for the science of meteorology. His brain runs "on a different operating system," as he puts it. His sister coaches him in the nuances of body language, and he has memorized a "five-point code" given to him by his neurologist for reading facial expressions, because that's the only way he can figure out people's feelings. Each time someone smiles, Ted reminds himself that this means "he and I could become friends." At certain moments, everyone laughs, and Ted says, "I didn't know what was funny but I laughed too." But -- after dismissing a number of wild theories such as his cousin spontaneously combusted --it's exactly Ted's "operating system" that helps him work out what happened to Salim.

Kat grows as a person, too. She starts the story obsessed with her Hair Flair catalogue, ditches school, and says things to Ted like, "Get stuffed, you creep," because Ted is incapable of not speaking the complete truth when his mouth opens. Yet she becomes Ted's full partner in solving the mystery of Salim's disappearance, playing the brave, action-packed role to his mastermind. She is the only one who will listen to Ted's ideas, as the adults keep brushing him off with, "Shush, Ted, now's not the time." And because she does listen, she becomes every bit as responsible for the last-minute victorious outcome as Ted. The way Ted sees it: "When I talk to people about something I've found out, they don't listen. When Kat does, everybody listens."

As the solution to the mystery unfolds, we discover that Salim's operating system is pretty clever as well. Throw in Salim's dramatic mom, Aunt Gloria; a few more run-ins with the mysterious ticket benefactor; and the police inspectors; and we have a cast of colorful, believable, enjoyable characters who illustrate a number of themes about Difference -- that two people who are very different just might be two halves of a whole; that some differences, such as transatlantic moves, may be harder to negotiate than we think; and that the "different" in "different operating systems" may well stand for "superior."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The ALA awards -- So What Do You Think?

Are you pleased? Surprised? Disappointed? Going "huh?" because those books weren't on your radar or you don't understand how such-and-such could possibly have won? Or lost?

If you need a link to the complete awards, it's here.

As for the above reactions, I often run the gamut, even in the same year. For me, this year's Newbery, Printz, and honor books are a mix of "I knew that" and "Huh?" Not as in "How did that book ever win?" but as in, "No matter how much I read, there's so much more I never get to."

First, the Newberys. I haven't read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and must confess the title (though not the author's name) is totally new to me. I now have it on hold at the library. Two of the honor books, The Surrender Tree (poems by Margarita Engle) and After Tupac and D Foster (Jacqueline Woodson) are also brand-new to me. Savvy (Ingrid Law) was not at all an unexpected pick, and I'd have dropped my teeth if my pick for the medal, The Underneath (Kathi Appelt), had been passed over. Though Waiting for Normal (Leslie Connor) didn't make it in the Newbery category, I'm happy to see it as the mid-grade Schneider Award winner. Trouble (Gary Schmidt) I consider conspicuous by its absence. And oh how I wish a Penderwicks (Jeanne Birdsall) book would place. I shall have to be content with The Penderwicks' National Book Award a couple of years ago -- and I am, I am.

I must say the Printz list includes a lot of "I tried it, but it wasn't for me" books. I'm not familiar with the winner, Jellicoe Road (Melina Marchetta), but I haven't been able to get into any Octavian Nothing books (though I wish I could), Nation (Terry Pratchett), or anything Margo Lanagan. Currently, the only book I've both read and enjoyed in this category is the Printz Honor book The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (E. Lockhart). I wonder where The Adoration of Jenna Fox is. I wonder where The Hunger Games is, though I suspect it was too plot-driven to place. And again, I'm looking in vain for Trouble, which, like many Gary Schmidt books, overlaps the two categories. One book that I'm eager to get hold of is A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce, winner of the first William C. Morris award for a first YA novel. So far, my library system hasn't bought this book. I'll bet they will now.

Well, my record hasn't changed: My all-time Newbery-picking score still stands at One. While I do tend to get at least one honor book right most years, I've only managed to pick the medal once. That was way back when Lois Lowry's The Giver won.

So, now that the news has had a few days to settle -- what do you think of the awards? How often have your predictions been right? What are some of your favorite winners -- from any year -- and why? What books do you feel should have won that didn't? What books do you think are "the most distinguished contributions to children's (or YA) literature"?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fun with Lists -- Or, An Award of Our Own

Vijaya Bodach and Kim Kasch awarded me this Kreativ Blogger award. I'm honored by the implication that I not only blog creatively, but possibly kreativly. Although not in the area of spelling, I hope. :)
I'm to name seven things I love and then pass the award to several others. Maybe seven others? I'll have to visit their blogs again to find out. Hmmmm, these awards are useful little things for promo, no? :D
Okay, for the list:

1. I love Jesus. The more I go all-out in faith, the more real He gets, and the more I see that fantastic-sounding scriptures really are true. And then all the promises of the Bible open up to me and I want to find out how to realize them. Wow. I'm an actual child of the King of the universe.

2. I love books. I don't know how non-readers live. And though I might possibly love books enough to do whatever it takes to read them, including invest in e-reading gadgets if those are the only way to go in the future, I sure hope they're not. I love the physicality of books as well as the contents. Besides, I read and write all day on the screen. Enough screens, already.

3. I love singing on my church's worship team. Now, I'm not the best singer that ever came down the pike, but I ain't bad, and the old girl's pipes can get some of those long-ago abilities back, even after a period of dormancy. I love it, I'm honored they'll have me, and it's an opportunity I didn't expect to get since most churches want you to be -- ahem, not quite so long in the tooth to be in a band. But our mid-20s worship leader not only doesn't care, he actively wants me. Amazing.

4. I love fruit. The snap of a fresh-picked McIntosh apple as you bite into it. Tangy citrus; sweet strawberries; smooth bananas; the juice-explosions of plums, peaches and pineapple; those little nubbins raspberries are made of -- I love it all.

5. I love ice cream. I LOVE ice cream. Which, in the calorie department, I guess cancels out loving fruit. No wait -- that's balances out, right?

6. I love my husband and children. And that definitely includes the kids-in-law and grands. While I mean no slight to my husband here -- oh, my, the kids. There's no other love quite like it. As somebody said, when you have kids, you start walking around with your heart outside your body. We joke that "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." But it's just as true, as Anne Bradstreet wrote of her children, "I happy am, if well with you."

7. I love good friendships. I've been really up and down in this area of life. I've had periods of wonderful, one-of-a-kind friendships, and I've had friendless periods that lasted years. Fortunately, I'm on an upswing. :)

8. Okay, I need an eighth. I love to write, of course!

And now it's time to pass it on. The thing is, I don't want to pass this award on to people who've already gotten it, so I shall also have to check blogs to see who has, and hope I don't accidentally repeat. And to people about whom I'd be curious to know what seven things they love. So I'm off to do the research. Okay, I'm back. The Kreativ Blogger award -- hey, you can all say that on this day of the Newbery et. al awards, you too have won something -- goes to: Anne Spollen, Susan Gray, PJ Hoover, Mary Whitsell, Nora MacFarlane, and Donna.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

But I Exaggerate . . .

Time for some more nifty rhetorical devices, alias wordplay, today. Hypberbole (not to be confused with the above, which is a hyperbola [y=1/x, to be precise], which is math [I did say there'd be math in this blog]) is exaggeration meant to create a vivid, funny or memorable effect: I gained five hundred pounds over Christmas. There are more crowns on my molars than on the crowned heads of Europe. The words in my mouth have more flavor than these powdered mashed potatoes.
**Quizzy Time: Guess which one of the above is mostly true of me? Guess which one is just a smidgen true?

The opposite of hyperbole is understatement, which isn't exaggeration in the sense of making something bigger than it is, but we could argue that you can exaggerate smallness too, yes? For that we have a cool technique called litotes (LYE-teh-teez), an indirect statement that dampens the impact of something by negating its opposite or making light of the truth. He's not too swift. Wrapping your car around that tree didn't do much for the front end. And perhaps my all-time favorite, which I heard at work years ago, She's just a little pregnant around the edges.

Apophasis (ah-PAHF-ah-sis) is understatement that states something by stating it will not be stated. These are all your "needless to say," "I don't need to tell you" and "as you undoubtedly know" remarks. Like all understatement, it's meant to get a point across in a delicate, persuasive, wryly humorous, or inoffensive manner, giving directions yet expressing your confidence that the person already knows as much. Then again, apophasis can signal an antagonist that your words have teeth while still remaining pleasant: For the moment we'll overlook any rumors that you blew the entire month's payroll at the casino.

Well, I'd better go make supper before everybody starves to death. Such an event wouldn't exactly make our families' weekend. Needless to say, I'll expect some comments on this post. :)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Rex Zero, King of Nothing by Tim Wynne-Jones is a middle-grade novel set in 1962 Ottawa. One month after the Cuban missile crisis, Rex Norton-Norton (whose last name is a subtraction problem, his friends note) is due to attend an Armistice Day ceremony -- which Rex had misunderstood as "Our Mistress Day" -- with his father, a WWII vet who "always gets crabby this time of year." So unenthusiastic about this occasion is Rex that he honestly forgets, standing his father up and creating distance between the two of them that he regrets but doesn't know how to bridge. With five siblings; a fascinatingly horrible substitute teacher; a collection of funny, loyal friends; the discovery of a little black book of phone numbers in a phone booth; a mixture of crush and worry over a young woman married to an angry husband; and increasing secrecy on the part of his father; eleven-year-old Rex has plenty to sort out in this active, funny and heartwarming novel about the many different expressions of love.

I found both the family and the friends funny, thoughtful, and engaging, but I was really caught up in the teacher, Miss Garr. I had Miss Garr in elementary school. She's the kind of teacher who, when you calculate that a week after November 26th is November 33rd, as Rex does, and the students roar and the class clown literally rolls in the aisle, says to the clown, "Do you think it polite to show such disrespect because of the stupidity of a fellow classmate? Have you no concern for his feelings?" She's the kind of teacher who, when a student reveals that he knows the song she mentions as her favorite, as Rex does, decides that a fitting punishment for some infraction would be to make him sing that song in front of the class. ("I didn't used to hate the song. Now I do," Rex says later.) She's the kind of teacher who, when someone needs help with his math, as Rex does, says to the kid in the next seat, "Help your mathematically inept friend, will you?" If the fact that I'm reading about "kids my own age" here weren't reason enough to ID with these characters, I SO had Miss Garr in elementary school. Yet she has her sympathetic point: Miss Garr's turns at playground duty show her special affinity with younger children. Miss Garr's problem (though I don't think this would have been the answer for my Miss Garr) is that she's teaching at the wrong grade level.

Another thing I love about this book is the number of subplots. I'm sure somebody somewhere would say that theoretically this book has too many for a mid-grade novel. About a third of the way through the novel, Rex does something that helps not only himself but readers get a handle on all of the plot threads. He lists several of them: 1) Why has my father been acting so strange? 2) What is the story my mother thought he was going to tell me on Armistice Day? 3) Why was Annie [his sister] snooping in Dad's study? 4) Who is the beautiful Natasha Lavender and why is she so sad? 5) Why is she called "Nate" in some guy's address book? 6) What is Kathy going to do about Dr. Arnold Schwartz? 7) What is my class going to do about Miss Garr? From this point on, the author tightly weaves all of these -- and more -- together until all are resolved at the end. Rex's string of mysteries creates an active, concrete plot structure for a novel whose overall aim is more psychological -- to explore what it means to love, to become a man, to be loyal, to take responsibility. It all works very well.

Rex has some great lines. Waking up one morning he says, "I feel smart, just like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard gives him a diploma. Morning is like a diploma." He describes a wobby smile as "a smile with training wheels." Though some might object to the present-tense narration, I barely noticed it. I think we've reached the point where objecting to present tense just because it's present tense makes no more sense than objecting to past tense because it's past. Just throwing it out there. :)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Aw, Thanks!

Thanks to Tabitha, of the terrific Writer Musings blog, for this lovely -- literally -- award. Rather than pass it along to a bunch of others in one fell swoop, I think I'll take my time. Meanwhile, thank YOU to all of you who take the time to keep up with what I write here. I appreciate you all. :)

Friday, January 9, 2009

In Defense of Fiction

For millions of story-lovers, of course, fiction needs no defense. That's true even if you're not a reader. Fiction tends to be a word we relate to books, but people who love movies, TV shows, plays and operas merely like their fiction in another form. I once knew a fellow who explained to me at some length, knowing full well I was a writer, that fiction was an absolute waste of time. No value in it at all? I asked. Nope. None. Hardly five minutes later, he began to extol his love for Clint Eastwood films. And no, he never did get it.

Despite its many fans, fiction still catches flak. Even from people who like it, as shown above. It's trivial, some say. Fluff, at best, keeping us from worthier pursuits. Or it's subversive, enticing us to any one of the seven deadly sins and then some, depending on genre. It encourages living in a dream world, taking us off on flights of fancy when we ought to have our feet on the ground. It's false, all lies, goes another rant.

To which I reply with one of my favorite quotes: Nonfiction is fact; fiction is truth.

Fiction exercises your imagination and creativity, and that's a useful thing. But it's bigger and better than that. Fiction is a road out of self. You walk in other people's shoes for the length of the story. You try on problem-solving and compassion. You see how characters grow and change as a result of what they've been through. You visit other lands, other cultures, other times. You live other lives. But the following is my favorite way to defend fiction. I tell people a little story:

You may remember King David, a man of great successes and great failures. He wanted the wife of one of his military leaders, so he enticed her while her husband wasn't home, got her pregnant, and then had the man killed when he couldn't maneuver him into sleeping with his wife in time to make it look like the child was his. Time passed, and a prophet named Nathan came to visit the king. Nathan sat for a spell and said, "I've got a little story for you. There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor." He proceeded to tell David about the poor man's one little ewe lamb, and how, when the rich man received a guest, he didn't butcher one of his own sheep or cattle for the meal but stole the poor man's one ewe instead. David was incensed. "That man should die!" he said. "And pay for that lamb four times over." Nathan replied, "You are the man."

Whoa. Talk about being blindsided with truth.

Now suppose Nathan had gone in with the nonfiction approach. "Your majesty, you've sinned big-time and God sent me here to tell you he's steaming mad. You're guilty of so many sins I hardly have enough fingers to tick them off: idleness, looking at naked women who don't belong to you, enticement, adultery, deception, disloyalty, murder. You've misused the crown, you've--" By that time Nathan might have lost his head, I don't know. At the very least, David's defenses would go up. The chance that he'd get haughty and refuse to hear would be much increased.

But story bypassed David's mind and got him in the heart. And that's the worth of fiction.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

When I picked up Things Hoped For by Andrew Clements, I was unaware that it's a sequel to a previous book called Things Not Seen. Which, having read this one, I will definitely read as well.

Gwen, seventeen, is a serious violinist from West Virginia. But her dad grew up in Queens, her grandfather still lives there, and for some time now Gwen has lived in New York with Grampa so that she can study with a Russian master and prepare for auditions at Juilliard and other top-flight music schools. When she isn't practicing, which she almost always is, she reads Yeats, Wordsworth, and Jane Austen. The artsy milieu and mature-yet-believable teen voice (no slang or teenspeak here) are right up my alley, and the NYC setting is interesting and exciting.

Now, things do get a little weird. The story opens with a mystery -- Gwen has come home to an answering-machine message from Grampa saying that he's had to go away for a while, and she should just carry on as normal and get ready for those auditions that are coming up fast. Grampa isn't the least bit irresponsible, forgetful or neglectful, and she doesn't know what to make of it. Though she's become a New Yorker in her own right and can handle city life, it's a little disconcerting to effectively be alone in a city of 10 million people. Alone except for Uncle Hank, that is. Hank is Grampa's younger brother and co-owns the brownstone where Grampa and Gwen live, and he's up from Staten Island more and more often to cajole, beg and threaten Grampa to agree to sell. Could Hank be responsible for Grampa's disappearance? Gwen wonders. Or could Grampa have fled because he couldn't face Hank anymore? But that just doesn't seem like Grampa . . . Meanwhile, Gwen goes to school, attends her lessons, practices her violin in the soundproof basement room that Grampa had built for her, and stresses out about what these auditions mean. To her future, they mean everything. A musician friend, only a junior, remarks how senior auditions aren't the end of the world. But they are, Gwen thinks. Because if her auditions aren't brilliant enough to land her in a college program that will lead to a pro career, she will need a whole new world for herself.

Then Gwen meets Robert, a senior from Chicago in NYC for auditions, as talented with the trumpet as she is with the violin. As the two become good friends, Gwen reveals to Robert that Grampa has disappeared. Eventually, Robert reveals a secret of his own: Something happened to him in the recent past that rendered him . . . invisible. Gwen doesn't laugh, but as we might imagine she doesn't take him completely seriously. Yet Robert has been carefully developed as a character so that we DO take him seriously. We WANT to take him seriously. He is too nice a guy to turn out to be whacko.

So now we have "mystery meets fantasy." The plot takes a nerve-wracking turn when Gwen and Robert spot a shadow cast by a person neither can see, and Robert insists they flee. Back at the brownstone, a scene with Uncle Hank allows the invisible man, who has followed Robert, to slip inside. The man announces himself, and after scaring them to pieces, proceeds to horrify them with the story of his life since becoming invisible -- robbing big-name jewelry stores. But now he'd like his visible life back, so he can live on his riches in a normal fashion. Robert's recognition of him in public could only mean Robert has been in his predicament, the man reasons, and somehow became visible again. And the man wants the secret.

Okay, back to mystery. There's no way to say this gently. Grampa is found dead in the freezer. Gwen, Robert, Uncle Hank, and the neighbor upstairs are all automatically suspects, but it's promptly discovered by the medical examiner that Grampa wasn't murdered. Nor did he exactly commit suicide. He realized his death was imminent, as people often do, and he climbed into the freezer in his winter clothes with an oxygen supply to wait for the inevitable. He did this so as not to disrupt Gwen's auditions, reasoning that chances were he would not be discovered until afterwards. All of this, plus an apology for the discovery of his body, is revealed in the police station, through letters Grampa had left. And, to wrap things up nicely, just as Gwen and company are leaving the police station, the unmistakable voice of the invisible man is protesting as he's placed under arrest. Robert has outsmarted him, told the police their wanted jewel thief seems to "think he's invisible," and the cops catch him by tracing his body heat with an infrared camera.

It's a tribute to Clements' skills and the emotional depth of the work that any of this comes together at all. And really, only one part seems to dangle at the end. We have no idea why Robert became invisible or what made him uninvisible; the only clue is that his dad is a physicist who works at the Fermi lab. As fragmented as a recounting of the plot might sound, this book has many pluses, the main ones being, I think, the fine friendship that develops between Gwen and Robert, the promise of friendship with Robert's girlfriend back in Chicago -- yes, he has a girlfriend, they are all friendly and no one has cheated on anyone; it's so refreshing -- and the way in which life has thrown the weirdest obstacles in Gwen's path just prior to her "life and death" auditions and she has managed to prioritize well and negotiate them all. As the book ends, Gwen heads off to the first audition, confident but not overconfident, because "I can play." Yes, she can.