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.