10/25/14

El Deafo, by Cece Bell, or why assuming that an 11-year-old boy wants only "books for 11 year old boys" is kind of pointless

I have an 11-year-old son who is fan of fantasy--a Ranger's Apprentice, Percy Jackson, kind of reader.  Which is just fine--it means that a lot of the middle grade fantasy books I get end up in his room, a help viz shelf space.   So what is his favorite book so far this year? A graphic novel about a rabbit girl who is quite a bit younger than him, and deaf, that isn't fantasy at all except for the rabbit ears.

I had been reading El Deafo, by Cece Bell (Harry N. Abrams, Sept. 2014), for my own reading pleasure, which was considerable--it is a deeply absorbingly warm and relatable book for anyone who has felt different and wanted friends.   And the story of how little rabbit child Cece coped with being especially different after losing her hearing, and how she found her way in the world of school and friends is great and the narrative voice is just right as is the pacing etc etc.  In short, I liked it lots.

And there it was on the sofa (cunningly left there as child book bait), and my son saw it, and picked it up, assuming it's fantasy (flying rabbit girl on the cover) and read the back, criticizing apparent redundancy in the summary: "This funny....memoir about growing up hearing impaired is also an unforgettable book about growing up" and then commented on the weirdness of the rabbit children....but then he started to read.

There are few things that I love to see more than one of my children reading a book they love.  This particular child sits up straighter when he's loving a book, holding it gently but firmly with both hands--you can just see Active Engagement pouring out of him.   Emotions flicker across his face.  He no longer hears external sounds.  He is Reading.

So he finished in a single sitting.  "We are keeping this one," he said. "I love it."

"It is a library book," I said.

[deep dismay]

"But we can buy our own copy."

"Yes!"

So yeah, don't assume 11 year old boys won't read books about little rabbit girls; 6th grade boys worry about friendships too, and being different, and growing up. And 11-year-old boys can be full as all get out with empathy for kids who aren't like them--look at the success of Wonder.   And in these things they are just like rabbit girls, deaf or not.

10/23/14

OMG...Am I a Witch?! by Talia Aikens-Nunez

OMG...Am I a Witch?! by Talia Aikens-Nunez (Pinwheel Books, October 2013) is, a fine choice for the 8 or 9  year old girl who loves dogs (especially small white fluffy ones), thinks it would be fun to have a magical powers, and who isn't quite ready for bigger, more complex books.

April, justifiably annoyed by her older brother, Austin, searches the internet for a spell to turn him into a dog.  And much to her surprise, it works!  Now instead of a bothersome brother, she has a fluffy white dog, whose justifiably annoyed at her!  In the course of the breathless OMG hours of text messages, desperate plotting, secretive sleepovers, and google searches that follow, April and her friends Grace and Eve have to figure out how to turn Austin back...and keep April's parents from finding out.

It's one I think has a lot of appeal for its target audience...and not quite so much appeal for older readers, who might want more of the backstory to the magic (April's new gift is not given much page time, what with all the shenanigans of Austin's dogginess), and it's not desperately complex in terms of plot.    On the plus side, though, it has a nice emphasis on friends helping each other, offers a relatable look at sibling tensions, and the magic (though not fully developed) is entertaining.

Short answer- if they like the cover, they'll like the book!   

disclaimer: review copy received from the author

10/22/14

The Eye of Zoltar, by Jasper Fforde

The Eye of Zoltar, by Jasper Fforde (HMH Books for Young Readers, upper middle grade, Oct. 2014 in the US) is the third book about an alternate United Kingdom that's totally dis-united into a mishmash of principalities, and in which magic and mayhem and mythical creatures are very, very real.  The main character is a 16-year-old orphan named Jennifer, who is the glue holding together a somewhat creaky establishment of professional magic users.  In this installment, Jennifer finds herself burdened with a somewhat impossible task--she must find the mythical Eye of Zoltar (a stone of tremendous magical power) or else the last two dragons face death at the hands of an malignant and impossibly wealthy sorcerer.  

The trail to the Eye of Zoltar leads to the Cambrian mountains, and in this world the only tourists who venture there are those for whom the risk of death adds to the rustic charm ("jeopardy tourism" sustains the Cambrian economy).  Since Jennifer and her companions (her almost boyfriend, Perkins, the young dragon Colin, and a snooty princess who's been magically swapped into a serving maid's body to teach her a lesson) are more or less sensible people, they would rather not risk dying....but they don't have much choice.

Wild adventure follows wilder one as they journey through the deadly Cambrian Empire.  But their young guide (a plucky 12 year old girl with deadly skills and an impressive resume of tourist survival) calculates their odds as a 50% rate of death...and encumbers them with three thrill-seeking tourists to provide warm bodies for the statistics to chew on.    And monsters are faced, spells are cast, the princess shows that she is more than just a pretty very plain serving girl's face (she has a head for finance that's almost magical itself--goat futures, for instance, have never been so entertainingly brought to life in a fantasy novel), and then there's a crashing cliffhanger of an ending.

So basically this is one of those books that's a collection of fantasy bon mots for the mind, a smorgasbord for the imagination, with the Eye of Zoltar serving as the McGuffin that gets things going (aside--I just learned that without Alfred Hitchcock, we might have been stuck with the word "weenie" to describe this sort of plot device.  Thanks, Alfred!).   Many of the bits of imagination are lovely--I utterly adored the messenger snails, for instance.   And the transformation of the princess into a likable character was tremendously enjoyable.

But those looking for rich, moving, characterization and story might be disappointed--the characters aren't allowed to feel much of anything emotionally, even under difficult circumstances, and so the reader isn't given a chance to either.    Book 1, The Last Dragonslayer, is brilliant (and I really truly recommend it),  Book 2 was just fine,  and this one was fun its own, somewhat Bitty, way.   That being said, I have high hopes for book 4--the set up for that is eyebrow-raising to say the least.

So in general I liked it well enough, but it wasn't quite the book I was hoping it would be.  And there were two things that annoyed me more than somewhat.

Thing that annoyed me professionally:  Australopithecines did not make beautifully knapped flint knives with bone handles.   If you are going to turn a character into an Australopithecine, read up about the subject first.

Thing that annoyed me (much more) because it smacked of racist colonialist attitudes and left a bad taste in my mouth:  the description of some of the indigenous Hotax persons of Cambria as "like humans, only stockier and with broader, flatter heads" (page 223).   Can't we just leave descriptions like that back in the 20th century?????

Thoughts on age of reader:

This is a series that straddles the middle grade/YA line.  Kirkus has it as 12 and up, but School Library journal pegs it as ages 9-12, and it's a Junior Library Guild Selection for that age group.   I am in the middle grade camp, myself.  Yes, Jennifer is 16 and she has a boy friend, but Luv is not front and center (there's just one kiss) and we barely see any emotional involvement, and what we do see is somewhat superficial.   And the dangerous adventure fun with bonus deaths/disasters is at the middle grade level (touched on with a light hand, and not such as would cause emotional trauma in the young, unless the reader is the sort of young who resents characters being killed off with no emotional weight given to their passing).  I can easily imagine a reader who thinks they are getting a YA book not being best pleased.  On the other hand, an 11 or 12 year old fantasy reader would quite possibly love it for what it is, and enjoy the bonus zest of feeling like they are reading "up."

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

10/21/14

Wish You Weren't, by Sherrie Petersen, for Timeslip Tuesday

Wish You Weren't, by Sherrie Petersen (Create Space, March 2014).  (nb:  I was surprised just now, putting in the publishing information, to see that this was a self-published book--it struck me as perfectly professional in packaging and edited, so have no worries on that account).

Marten is fed up with his parents' plan to move to Texas, with the way they ignore him in favor of his little brother Aldrin, and most of all, he's fed up with Aldrin himself.  So when a shooting star whizzes by overhead, just after Aldrin inadvertently breaks his collectible Han Solo action figure, Marten lashes back--and wishes his brother wasn't there.

Nothing happens at first.  But the next day, in a museum gift shop, Marten watches as Aldrin vanishes before his eyes.  His wish has come true.

And in the confusion of search for Aldrin, Marten and his friend Paul are visited by a mysterious stranger, Tor, the personification of a star in the constellation of Orion.  Time stops for all those around them.  Tor has come to review Marten's wish (one he's already regretting, and which he'll regret more before things are done), and perhaps, if things go well, Tor can help Marten reverse it. 

So Marten and Paul are sent back in time, first as spectators of Marten's early life.  But Tor's grasp on time are weakening, and Marten and Paul find themselves actually travelling back to the recent past.  There they must use the power of wishing to set things right--or Aldrin will be lost for ever, and the lives of all involved will be irreversibly changed....

Petersen ratchets up the tension very nicely indeed as Marten and Paul progress from passive spectators of the past to desperate adventurers very much present in the past searching for the thing that can restore the present (and Aldrin).   And though I was somewhat taken aback by the arrival of the star dude (as one so often is when star dudes appear), Tor added both a fantastical element to the story and structure and impetus to the plot.   The result was a crisp story, rooted in reality but pleasingly interspersed with the impossible.

As an added bonus, Marten's mom is a scientist who's just been accepted into the astronaut training program--yay for moms breaking from stereotypes! 

It's a good one, I think, to offer to the older elementary school/younger middle school kid (ie, 9-10 years old) who likes reality twisted by unexpected, magical consequences. 

The one thing that kept me from personally loving the story is that Aldrin really is an utterly annoying child.  I am a middle child myself, and so I can, in general, sympathize with both oppressed younger siblings and much put upon older siblings.  Here my sympathies are entirely with Marten; I think Petersen went a bit too far with the awfulness of Aldrin.  He is a brat, and his parents need to work on effective disciplinary techniques (such as I practice in my own parenting life cough cough*).

(As far as I know (based on pictures) Sherrie Peterson is an author of color....I didn't find any descriptors of Marten and his family that made me think they were POC, but because of the author's picture, that's how I imagined them.   In any event, I've decided to make a new label for "diverse authors"--and I'm sure (not) that I will find the time any day now to go back through my almost 3000 posts to add this label when appropriate.  And I'm sure that it will be easy (not) to figure out which authors should be included!)

*just for the heck of it, here is my primary disciplinary technique--the bestowal of imaginary walruses on my children when they are good, and mass walrus death/departure when they are bad.  They are both down several million departed walruses each...

10/19/14

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction (10/19/14)

Another week, another round-up!  Please let me now if I missed your post.

The Reviews

The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford, at Dead Houseplants

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at Semicolon

The Double Disappearance of Walter Fozbek, by Steve Senn, at Views From the Tesseract

Dragon Spear, by Jessica Day George, at Lavender Likes, Loves, Finds & Dreams

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at Semicolon

The Forbidden Flats, by Peggy Eddleman, at Jen Robinson's Book Review

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at Sonderbooks

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle, by George Hagen, at Semicolon

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at alibrarymama

I Lived on Buttefly Hill, by Marjorie Agosínat Charlotte's Library

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at Miss Page-Turner's City of Books

The Junkyard Bot, by C. J. Richards, at Ms. Yingling Reads and BooksForKidsBlog

The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz, at Guys Lit Wire

Little Dead Riding Hood, by Amie and Bethanie Borst, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Magic Half, by Annie Barrows, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Pages Unbound

Percy Jackson's Greek Gods, at Boys Rule Boys Read

The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Challenging the Bookworm

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Carstairs Considers

Tesla's Attic, by Neil Shusterman and Eric Elfman, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Thursdays with the Crown, by Jessica Day George, at On Starships and Dragonwings

Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, at Not Acting My Age

When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snickett, at The Novel Hermit

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at Semicolon

The Worst Witch: To the Rescue, by Jill Murphy, at books4yourkids

Shortish looks at a pasel of MG series starters at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

And two at the NY Times--Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle, and Heap House


Authors and Interviews

M.A. Larson (Pennyroyal Academy) at The Book Cellar and The Hiding Spot

Kimberley Griffiths Little (Time of the Fireflys) at Cynsations

Jonathan Stroud (Lockwood and Co.) shares his writing space at The Social Potato


Other Good Stuff

Katherine Langrish re-reads The Silver Chair

We Need Diverse Books has launched the Walter Dean Myers Award for "published authors from diverse backgrounds who celebrate diversity in their writing."   Here's the Publishers Weekly annoucement

Where to find diverse books, at the We Need Diverse Books website

The Book Fair for Ballou Highschool is up and running again at Guys Lit Wire

And finally, Kidlitcon 2014 was a success, and the links to people's responses are being gathered here.  Please come to Baltimore next fall to continue the conversation!

10/18/14

I Lived On Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín--poetically written dictatorship and exile for the young reader

I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, middle grade, March 2014).

Eleven year-old Celeste Marconi lives on Butterfly Hill in Valaparaío, Chile, a place of color, community, and friends are anchored by the love of her family.  She is privileged, she is happy, and the new president of her country seems all set to work for social justice and address the poverty that Celeste's parents, who work in a hospital for the poor outside the city, are only just now showing her.

But change comes to Chile--the president is killed, and a cold and cruel dictatorial regime (modeled on that of Pinochet) takes over the country.  Celeste's parents must go into hiding before they join the rapidly growing ranks of the disappeared, and Celeste herself is sent to live with her aunt in Maine.  Plunged into a new language and new culture.  Her journey echoes that her grandmother made, when she, a Jewish girl, had to flee Nazi Germany--a story kids in the US who may not be up on fascists dictatorships of the later twentieth century will be familiar with, giving them a frame of reference in which to conceptualize Celeste's experiences.   As an exile in Maine, Celeste struggles to find her feet--and gradually she challenges the stereotypes her new classmates have about immigrants from Latin America, while thinking hard herself about what it is to be a refuge.  (And finding her first glimmerings of love--this small side story was beautifully poignant!).

In this story, the dictatorship last only two years, instead of seventeen, and Celeste can return home while still young.  Her home city is re-emerging from the darkness of the past two years, but many are still missing, including her parents.  And so the last third of the book tells the story of how she finds her father again, and finds a place where she too can work for social justice (by creating a library, building on the books that her grandmother gathered into the hidden room of their house during the years of the dictatorship).

I read this book because it was nominated in my own Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category of the Cybils.   Though it seems at first to be a realistic story, it's not, for two reasons.  First, it is an alternate history--for the story to work, the dictatorship in Chile could only last two years, instead of the seventeen of the actual Pinochet dictatorship.  Secondly, there is magic in this world, beyond the subtle dreams and understandings that defy rational thought, and this magic directly affects the plot.  Celeste's friend Cristóbal Williams has the ability to see past reality with the help of a sea-glass pendulum, which warns him of the darkness to come, and later helps find Celeste's father.    Cristóbal's pendulum adds a concrete element of the fantastic that nicely complements and reaffirms the more intangible magic that fills the ordinary lives of the characters. 

So this is an fine book to offer the introspective, strong young reader; an excellent "first experience with fictionalized dictatorships and being a refugee"  book, and an excellent "don't assume every refugee has the same story" book.  I enjoyed the reading of it very much.  The writing is lovely and absorbing, in a slowish, detail-packed way, and any introverted young girl who dreams of being a writer and making a difference in the world will love Celeste.  It is a meditative book, as opposed to an angry one, one in which the celebration of Celeste's home culture and place and poetry come through much more clearly than the horror of the dictatorship.  Celeste's suffering is pretty much confined to her personal loss of her parents, her beloved home, and, to a lesser extent, lost friends.  She is often sad, but never strongly enraged; she thinks about suffering and want, but is herself protected from these things.  

This is what makes me think of this as a "first experience" book, one that allows kids who themselves are privileged and safe to start thinking about hard things.  Though I appreciate the point made by Celeste's journey that there is no single, stereotypical refugee story, I was never quite convinced that she grew from a naïve, sheltered girl to someone dramatically more aware--I would have appreciated more hard, disturbing underlining of social justice issues.   And the dreamlike quality of the whole experience is enhanced by the somewhat idealized picture of American kids in Maine appearing (in their rather brief page time) first as racist despisers and then being given set pieces to speak showing how they now love Celeste for who she is.

Here's the rather small thing that most actively bothered me-- Celeste's new mission to promote literacy at the end of the book comes from her place of privilege--her family includes Nana Delfina, a Mapuche woman from the south of Chile who is the beloved factorum of the household, who has spent her life caring for Celeste's family.  I was really bothered that Nana Delfina refers to herself exclusively in the third person (why can't she be an "I"?) and that toward the end of the book she tells Celeste, who has always known Delfina was embarrassed that she couldn't read, that she has always wanted to learn how to do so.  There she is, part of the household for decades and apparently best friends with Celeste's grandma, but with relationships of privilege and identity unquestioned all that time.

And we are told that Cristóbal's mother makes a living with a vegetable stand in the market...but the (presumably) unequal economic positions of his family and Celeste's are never brought up directly, and so it made their friendship feel sort of uncritically idealized.

So no, I didn't find it as powerful and moving social justice-wise as I might have wanted, but then, I am not a ten or eleven year old coming to these topics for the first time, and small steps are a fine way to get started.   Perhaps it is better not to overwhelm young readers, but rather to keep them reading, and learning, and thinking....

Here's another review at The Pirate Tree, by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Gringolandia--the book to offer readers two years of so after they read this one!

And also at The Pirate Tree is an interview with Marjorie Agosín , in which she talks about history, magic, and her personal story.


10/16/14

Here is my Kidlitcon 2014 talk -- Finding Your Voice, Finding Your Passion- Blogging With Conviction

Here, more or less, is the talk I just gave at Kidlitcon 2014: "Finding Your Voice, Finding Your Passion- Blogging With Conviction."  It was better in person, because I made faces (and snarky asides) and varied my tone of voice, and because there were good, insightful, provocative comments from audience members, so this is basically a pale, cold shadow of the live version.  Which also had more pictures.

This session exists because I wanted there to be an offering on the program for newer bloggers, folks still finding their feet or looking for ideas on how to make blogging more interesting for themselves and their readers, and I wanted something that talked about Reviewing Books, because that is what we do.   It also exists because Voice and Authenticity and Conviction are things I often ponder with regard to my own blogging...
There are two parts to it--the first about voice, the second about conviction--but the transition is so beautifully fluid you might miss it.  I have put "THIS IS THE INTERESTING PART" when I get to conviction, so that if you are in a hurry, you can scroll down and find it.

***************************************

The Talk:

Blogging is weird, especially when you are starting out.  Unless you are using your blog as a reading diary for purely personal reasons, you type in hope that there is an audience, with little hard evidence to support this.  And there is your blog, your own little voice chirping in the wilderness. The point of this session, in my mind, is how to make that chirping more interesting both to you and to your audience.  Because if it’s not interesting there’s no point in writing it or reading it.
And I think the two things that makes blogs interesting, attracting lots of readers, are
--a distinctive voice,  one that conveys conviction and personality
--passionate intensity about either specific books, or about a larger category of books that fall into whatever category it is that you care about (like some aspect of diversity).
Keep in mind throughout that there is absolutely no need to have a single voice for every post, because different books call out different responses.  After all, you don’t want to take every book to bed with you.  Just a few of the most special ones.



Let us assume that we (mostly) review books so that other readers can find them, and that we want the voice we use to keep readers reading to the ends of our posts, so that they can decide if they should seek the book out themselves.  But keep in mind that different people have different needs with regard to book seeking.

--Sometimes there are people who don’t have 300 plus books on their tbr shelves, and they are looking for books they want to read for their own pleasure.  And sometimes there are sick addicts who have more than 300 books but who want more anyway (cough).

--Sometimes the target audience of your blog post is a gatekeeper—a grown-up with purchasing power who is going to give the book to others, with the “others” ranging from one child to a whole library system.

--Sometimes your target audience is the whole wide world, because you have Something to Say that needs to be said.
The type of reader you have in mind for your review is going to have an effect on the voice you use--such as friendly, knowledgeable, or full of emotional intensity.
In my mind there are two ways to approach how you might express your opinion about a book. 
There's the sort that results in a dispassionate, critical, review 
"This book is a good pick for the fan of Rick Riordan’s books who also enjoys taming small mammals."
and the sort that is more a personal response:
“This is a book that I plan to shove into the face of all the children I meet because the combination of  Greek mythology and squirrel taming broke my heart in the best sort of way."

The first is more “professional” – this sort of voice, I find, comes most easily when I am reviewing a book for which I am not a good fit.   It allows you to calmly and collectedly point out the strengths of a book that maybe repulses you, or simply doesn’t appeal, on a personal level; it allows you to identify the sorts of readers who might like it, and to assess how well it succeeds in what it sets out to do.

The second more emotional review example doesn’t work at all as it stands (unless you already know and trust the blogger who wrote it).  But if whoever wrote something like that goes on to support the emotional response with references to the text, and reasons for their emotions, it can work just fine.  Some people go entirely with the former, and it works beautifully.  Most people mix it up.

"Squirrel taming was frequently part of the story, but it was not essential to either the plot or the characters’ development.  It felt emotionally manipulative, put in to advance the author's agenda, and it really pushed the book over the edge for me.  Or possibly pushed me over the edge."

Allow yourself to realize that different books, different moods, different amounts of time available to blog, and different subjects that call out different emotional/logical responses will all result in different voices in your writing.  This is just fine, perhaps even more than fine.

Some people allow themselves to talk about other things on their blog, make their voice more a believable whole person.   Sharing personal things doesn’t make a stronger voice, but it can be fun to write!  And when you are finding the writing fun, that will show, and make it fun to read.   Personal doesn't have to mean information about your cat; it can also be book related things- going to author signings, a trip to a book store, organizing your shelves--that make you, the blogger, a living, breathing protagonist on a book journey (thanks to Kim of Dead Houseplants, who gave me the "book blogger as protagonist" phrase in a comment, and who has a great blogging voice).   And if you are real, that makes you appeal more to those who like real bloggers (as opposed to those who are just in the market for real book reviews).

Here is something I think weakens a blogger’s voice, especially if you are taking a personal approach and telling me how the book worked for you as an individual reader:  please don’t give me the canned blurb lifted from Amazon.   I’ve probably already read it, and it won’t tell me anything about you; it won’t help me make sense of your response to the book.  Writing your own synopses is the most profound way to get your distinct voice and personality across.  I want to know what YOU found important and interesting in the book, what things YOU picked up on, not what the publisher wants readers to think the book is about.  (That being said, lots of bloggers I like use the given synopses; they go on to talk lots about the book, though, which makes up for it).

So the basic point of finding your voice is that you can use lots of different voices and there is no One Right Voice and what you really need is to find the type or types of writing that make it worthwhile for you to do it, and worthwhile for your readers to read it.

(HERE IS A PART THAT IS PRETTY INTERESTING THOUGH STILL NOT THE MOST INTERESTING PART AND I HAVE ADDED A BIT TO IT)

Here are some things you can try at home, to play with your voice and to examine it more closely:

Just for the heck of it, break out of your regular review structure.  You could:

   --Have fun with wild exaggerated metaphors in your description of the book (and then cut them out of the final product.  I like metaphors more than the next person, but I only allow myself to use them every once in a while because it would get old fast.)

  --Write a review in which you break the plot summary up into acts as if it were a play (like my own review of The Forbidden Library) , and critically discuss/ share your reactions to each bit, instead of saving it all to the end.    Or write a review as a menu for a grand dinner.  Or write it with newspaper headlines, like this review of Nancy Drew #12 at Bookshelves of Doom.

--write it about it in a whiney voice throughout, or in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice throughout.  Read what you wrote the next day, and see if you still agree with what you said.

Or you could break away from the types of books you usually review.

Blogging about a beloved book from your childhood is a great way to rediscover how much fun it can be to share a book with an audience.  Post about old books often get lots of comments from others who loved it too, and voila!  New friends!

If you blog mostly fiction for kids, read and review a non-fiction book for adults, or vice versa.  It makes a nice change.

Think “who wouldn’t I give this book to, and why” instead of always searching for the perfect reader.  Or ask if you would give it to your kid self.  Would you want 10 year old you to read it?  Would it help that person be a better, stronger Charlotte, or not? 

Here is ten year old Charlotte, probably not growing as a person as a result of her reading.  Despite that, I now manage to coordinate my outfits with the upholstery in a much more pleasing way.

 

Search your blog for words or phrases that you sort of nervously think you might be overusing.   This might actually be comforting.   I was pleasantly surprised to find how infrequently I “love” books, and I haven’t said “in a nutshell” since last July.

[THIS NEXT BIT I JUST ADDED AND IT IS A GOOD POINT SO I AM DRAWING ATTENTION TO IT]

Check your blog for “we” and ask who the non-we readers might be.  Do you want to exclude them, or is it just thoughtlessness?  If you create an “us” on your blog, it draws lines.  Anytime you are part of a "we" you are assuming there are people who want to be that particular "we” and that there are people who aren’t part of it.

Search your blog for times you “liked” a book.   Did you mean it sincerely, or were your eyebrows slightly raised and your mouth slightly sneering?  Could a reader tell which you meant?   (I know I failed when I didn’t really like a book, and commenters chime in with “glad to see you liked this one so much!).  And check to make sure there’s a reason why you are using such a wishy-washy word as like.

[THIS IS WHERE IT GETS INTERESTING]

And speaking of wishy-washy, and I think that this maybe is the most important part of finding your voice—look back through your posts and examine the strength of your convictions

Here is a quote from one of my reviews that makes me cringe: “Basically, I did not feel the plot and the characterization were meeting my needs as a reader.”

Why couldn’t I just have said: “The plot and the characterization were not meeting my needs as a reader.” 

Or even just:  "I did not like this book." 

Actually, it doesn't make me cringe (I was setting myself up as a straw man).  I remember typing that, and I was having fun being disingenuous--I was playing on purpose with how to say I hated the book without saying that. But still.  YOUR READERS WILL NOT KNOW THAT YOU ARE DOING THIS!  They cannot see your expression of unholy glee.  They cannot see your snarky mouth twists.  And this is a problem for me, because sometimes people say "I am glad you liked this book" and I am all, uh, no, not so much.
Adding to my own issues with voice is my lamentable tendency not to want to come right out and express my opinions as if they are fact.  I habitually use weak language that privileges subjectivity --I felt, I thought, in my opinion.   But sometimes people just need to come right out there and say things they really truly know to be so.   And when talking about the things you believe, you don’t always have to include the personal pronoun.
Things I might well have said (not having the energy to look for actual examples from my reviews:
“I felt that it was unrealistic that a character in a wheelchair could be swept over a waterfall and suffer no consequences to either wheelchair or self.”
Or “I got the impression that the author does not look favorably on women in leadership roles.
Both are  weak for no good reason.  Both fall into the trap of wanting to be nice, and sometimes some of us have to give ourselves permission not to be nice. Both end up making the authorial voices small, and weaker.  The “I felt” can be edited out in the first, which is easily done.  If I really want to convince anyone that the second statement has validity, I need to argue it, with examples, instead of feebly feeling it.
“Strong” language isn’t always called for.  Not every bad thing merits a rant.  But I need to give myself permission to state as fact those things that are, to me, factual/obvious/unarguable.   And if there is something that really bothers you about a book, give yourself permission to own it.  If you are a naturally diffident person, like me, this will be hard. 

There was a book I read recently, The Queen of the Tearling, that made me furious: the protagonist was raised in an isolated forest home, knowing only the two people who raised her, and the very first night away from the forest home she meets a guy she thinks is handsome, so she doesn't eat much at dinner because --- she doesn't want to seem like a greedy pig because she knows she is overweight.

How could she think this, when all she's known is the two old folks at Forest Home????  Why is she defaulting to an early 21st-century screwed-up body image? She probably is perfectly healthy because she has spent childhood skipping around forest home on a low fat diet.  She’s spent the day on horseback with no snacks—can’t she be allowed to be hungry?  She has never seen herself in a full length mirror and compared herself to other girls.  As far as the reader knows, she has never been told her body is unattractive. How CAN SHE THINK THIS?  Also, how does she know what handsome is, but that's another issue.

So what did I do?  I angrily returned the book to the library.   I did not give myself permission to say anything about the book, because I do not like to review books that I haven't finished, and because there were lots of other things in it that bothered me and I just didn't have the time and energy at that point in my life to deal with it.  It is a fact that sometimes with a full time job and people in your life who need your energy and the impending visit of your mother and concomitant worry about not having a bathroom door to offer her that you do not have time to write strong and impassioned posts.   I do not blame myself, exactly, but I am annoyed at myself.

But at any rate, the first exercise here is to go back through your posts and see if you weakened your voice by being too diffident!   And then the second  --next time a book makes you mad, write about it.  You don't have to write a full review, and you don't have to press send right away, but write it anyway.  And if you still believe what you wrote the next day, press send.

You don't have to have strong opinions every time you write something.  But if you are like me, you might have to remind yourself that you are entitled to them just as much as anyone else is.  

[THIS IS THE STRONG CONCLUSION PART--you have to imagine me saying it with intensity, making eye contact with as many members of the audience as I can]

This is especially important because so many of us are women—it is scary in this internet world to be a woman who has an opinion that is at all controversial, but we shouldn’t default to diffidence out of laziness or apprehension if we want our voices to have conviction.



So then at Kidlitcon I talked about the different passions (book related ones) of different bloggers with lots of examples...but that really worked better in Powerpoint, so I will stop now.

The End.

10/15/14

In which Sarah Beth Durst (most recently Chasing Power) answers my most pressing question

I've been reading Sarah Beth Durst's books since January, 2008--that was when the Cybils shortlists for 2007 were announced, and her fantasy book for middle grade readers, Into the Wild, was on it.  Since then I have kept reading her with pleasure, following her journey into YA (with books like Vessel) and books for grown ups (Lost).  Her newest book, Chasing Power, has just been released.

It's my pleasure to welcome Sarah to my blog today, answering the following question that I posed her:

What it is like to write books that are so different from each other?  Is it something you have control over, or is it just what happens?  And do you think you'll ever write any more Middle Grade books?

My books do have one thing in common: something impossible.  All of my books are fantasy.  Always fantasy.  That's just how my brain works -- as a kid, I was constantly checking the back of my closet for a gateway to Narnia and keeping a close eye on my stuffed animals in case they moved.  (You can never be too careful, I reasoned.  After a babysitter cheerfully described the plot of Stephen King's IT to a very young me, I banished all clown stuffies to the garage.)

 Beyond my childhood issues... fantasy is also what I love to read, and I think you should always write what you love (if only because it takes so long to write a novel that to NOT write what you love would be miserable).

 But within the fantasy genre, I hop around a lot.  My latest YA novel, CHASING POWER, is an Indiana Jones style adventure about a girl with telekinesis.  Very fun to write.  My most recent novel, THE LOST, is magical realism about a woman trapped in a town full of only lost people and lost things.  My other novels include psychological thriller (CONJURED ), epic desert fantasy (VESSEL), snarky comedy (DRINK, SLAY, LOVE), contemporary getting-into-college fantasy (ENCHANTED IVY), modern Arctic fairy-tale retelling (ICE), and fractured fairy tales (INTO THE WILD and OUT OF THE WILD).

 So how did this happen?  How did my books end up so different?  Is it something I have control over?  Well, sort of.  I am the one who decides what idea has captured my heart and mind at the moment I sit down to start a new project, but what kind of novel it turns into... that's dictated entirely by the story itself.

 I know, I know, that sounds a little touchy-feely, the muse-speaking-through-me or whatever, but really, there's a technical explanation.  The best way I know to write a story that feels real is to stay true to the character.  See the world through their eyes.  Write the scenes filtered through their thoughts and emotions.  If you do that... then the rest follows.

 For example, if I write about a sixteen-year-old girl who loves her mother and best friend, fears her abusive father, distrusts just about everyone else, has the ability to move objects with her mind, has a somewhat loose grasp on the concept of personal property, and uses her snarky sense of humor as a defense mechanism... then I'm going to get something like CHASING POWER, a YA novel that feels like a fun fantasy adventure, with some family drama.

 On the other hand, if I write about a sixteen-year-old girl who has embraced her destiny to sacrifice herself so that her goddess can inhabit her body and save her clan from dying in the unforgiving desert... then I'm going to create a more serious, sweeping epic fantasy like VESSEL.

 The key is to always stay true to your character.  That's what makes the novels different.  Everything else -- writing process, amount of chocolate consumed on an average revision, etc. -- is pretty much the same.  Some novels are more complicated than others in terms of untangling the plot threads.  Some require extra delving into emotional depths.  Some need an additional pass to cut the stray snark (because I love writing snark and it doesn't always fit).  Others need extra attention to worldbuilding or pacing or whatever.  But the basics feel the same: sinking into a character and trying to make something awesome happen on every page.

As to the last question...  Will I write more middle-grade books?  That one is easy to answer.  YES!!!

 I am currently working on a middle-grade novel called THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM. It's about a girl whose family owns a secret store where they buy, bottle, and sell dreams, but who can't have any of her own, and the adventure that she and her pet monster go on when someone starts kidnapping dreamers.   It's coming out from Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in fall 2015, and I'm really, really excited about it!

Thanks so much for having me here!
 
To which I say--Thank you so much for stopping by, Sarah!  I'll look forward to The Girl Who Could Not Dream!

10/14/14

The Magic Mirror, by Zetta Elliott, for Timeslip Tuesday

This week's Timeslip Tuesday book is The Magic Mirror, by Zetta Elliott (Rosetta Press, August 2014, for younger elementary school-aged readers), and it makes me very happy that it's the first book I'm reviewing after taking part in all the discussions of diverse books at Kidlitcon, and meeting Zetta in person! 

Kamara goes to her grandmother's house sad and hurt by the words of a mean boy in her class...and her grandmother knows just what will help.   She sends Kamara up to the guest room at the end of the hall on the second floor to clean one of the family heirlooms--an old mirror.  And as Kamara starts to clean, she looks at her reflection and wonders if her grandmother is just being kind when she calls her beautiful....

And the mirror begins to show her girls and women from the past--taking her on a journey through history.  She sees a captured girl being forced onto a slave ship, and then an older girl (the same one?) planning to escape for freedom.  She sees a young teacher at the turn of the century saving her books and students from a school deliberately set on fire, and then she jumps twenty years on to a young poet in Harlem.  The next picture shows a woman facing prejudice in the factories of WW II, but doing her part regardless, and then two scenes from the Civil Rights era.  And finally, the mirror shows her something that warms her heart most of all--her own mother graduating from college, the first in the family to do so.

The strength and courage and beauty of these girls and women from the past fill Kamara's heart, and are balm to her spirit.

I can easily imagine this story being one that many young readers in Kamara's shoes today will also find heartening--Kamara's feelings and self-doubt might well mirror their own.  Books like this can also be windows, that let kids look past their own spaces into other lives--and so it shouldn't be one that's just given to only to young readers who look like Kamara.  Yes, it is a book with a Message, celebrating strong Black women and girls through history, and sometimes the message is stronger than the magic of the story, but it is written for young readers for whom the message might well be new, and it's one they deserve to hear.  Yes, it is didactic in that points are underlined with a firm hand, but anyone who spends time with young kids knows that underlining is helpful pretty much essential if you want them to hear you.

That all being said, my favorite part of Kamara's story is the fact that her grandmother lives in a big, old house with shut-up rooms full of family history.  Quick--how many books for elementary school readers have African American kids whose family homes are big old Victorian houses with glass doorknobs and so many rooms that some are never used?  Yay for this story, for adding such a home to the places where readers can imagine kids of color.   (And lots of bonus points for doorknobs, says I, because I really really appreciate authors who include details like this that ring so true to those of us wrestling with our own historic doors).

Continuing on this line of thought, I myself would have liked to have seen more unexpected scenes in the magic mirror than those it shows to Kamara--ones that challenge standard expectations.   I would love to read the story of a family like this one, adding color to our mental images of the Victorians and pushing against the common default to stories of slavery.



 But again, I'm not the intended audience, and the stories that Zetta Elliott tells here are important ones that all young readers, regardless of gender or ethnicity, need to make part of their mental storehouse of history.

(For time travel purists out there--this one counts as a timeslip because Kamara is not just a passive observer-the people she's seeing also see and acknowledge her).

disclaimer: review copy received from the author

10/13/14

Happy times at Kidlitcon

So I am finally back from Kidlitcon, and in as much as I have had only 2 hours of broken airplane sleep I should probably just go to bed, but first I wanted to remember some of the small moments that make me grin to remember them....

There was lots of passion and intensity of conversation, and that was good, and there were of course lots of new friends made, and old friends enjoyed, and that was very good too.

But I also loved these small things:

Me and Jewell Parker Rhodes trying to close the blinds of the conference room, and me saying "I think you pull that" and Jewell pulling and the whole thing breaking off in her hand and us cracking up. (We fixed it, with much help from David, Tanita's husband, who could reach the top of the window (the part where he was perched on the windowsill was scary, and everybody else in the room turned their backs so they wouldn't have to watch if it ended badly) and who was also a Godsend in the tech support side of things.)

Shannon Hale skyping us from her rocking chair, and as Giant Shannon on the screen rocked, I found myself rocking too, and others were as well, and it was just like that scene from Ice Age 2 where Sid the Sloth is being worshiped by the small volcano sloths.

And how happy Melissa was when Shannon Hale called her up (to talk about Skype technical difficulties, but still....)

And most of all, getting to say to Leila--"So, been Slanketing much these days?" (I love saying the word "Slanket."  Simple pleasures for simple minds.)

Come to Baltimore next fall for more good times!

(other people are writing more thoughtful round-up posts- like Hannah's, and I will too, post nap, and the hope is that they will all be rounded up over at the Cybils website)

10/12/14

A list of elementary and middle grade speculative fiction books that haven't been nominated for the Cybils yet

Looking for a book to nominate in the elementary/middle grade speculative fiction category of the Cbyils?  Here's a somewhat random list of books that haven't been nominated yet (with the disclaimer that I haven't read most of them, and the further disclaimer that some might actually belong in YA).

Something to think about -- diversity isn't one of the criteria by which we pick our shortlists, but of course the chances of the short list including diverse books are improved when lots of great diverse books are nominated. 

The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie, by Kristy Murray

Dragon on Trial, by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland

The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker, by E.D. Baker

The Demon Notebook, by Erika McGann

Sky Run, by Alex Shearer

The Carpet People, by Terry Pratchett

The Twin Powers, by Robert Lipsyte

The Broken Spell, by Erika McGann
 
The Doll People Set Sail, by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin
 
The Black Stars, by Dan Krokos

The Emerald Shore, by Barbara Mariconda

Blood of Olympus, by Rick Riordan

The Junkyard Bot, by C.J. Richards

Heap House, by Edward Carey

Fall of Heroes, by Jeramey Kratz
 

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction (10/12/14)

Greetings from Sacramento!  I am here for Kidlitcon, now over for another year, and have to check out of my hotel room in just a few minutes, so this is not as complete a list as I would have liked to offer....so let me know if I missed your post!

And please keep nominating books for the Cybils!   There will be a round up of lists of un-nominated books at the Cybils site on Monday for your nominating convenience.
The Reviews

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at That's Another Story

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer Holm, at alibrarymama and This Kid Reviews Books

Frostborn, by Lou Anders, at Reader Noir and Semicolon

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, at Laurisa White Reyes

Gabriel Finely and the Raven's Riddle, by George Hagen, at Word Spelunking

The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

He Laughed with His Other Mouths, by M.T. Anderson, at Semicolon

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at Book Nut and Ms. Yingling Reads

The Screaming Staircase (and also The Whispering Skull) by Jonathan Stroud at Librarian of Snark

Pennyroyal Academy, by M.A. Larson, at Effortlessly Reading (not yet nominated)

The School for Good and Evil (books 1 and 2) by Soman Chainani, at This Kid Reviews Books

Sky Jumpers, by Peggy Eddleman, at Becky's Book Reviews

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Book List (not yet nominated)

Sparkers, by Eleanor Glewwe, at Librarian of Snark (not yet nominated)

The Terror of the Southlands, by Caroline Carlson, at Project Mayhem (not yet nominated)

The Twin Powers, by Robert Lipsyte, at BooksForKidsBlog (not yet nominated)

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at Bookyurt and Sonderbooks

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, by Patrik Henry Bass, at This Kid Reviews Books


Authors and Interviews

Ellen Prager (Shark Whisperer) at The Children's Book Review

F.T. Bradley (the Double Vision series) at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

Sarwat Chadda (the Ash Mistry books) shares "My Multi-Colored Heroes" at Diversity in YA

Kit Grindstaff (The Flame in the Mist) at the SCBWI Blog



Other Good Stuff:

Lots of good stuff from Kidlitcon 2014, which I will write more about soon I hope; in the meantime, check out all the tweets at #kidlitcon.

A space-themed art interlude of covers from the 1940s and 50s at Views From the Tesseract

And also at Views from the Tesseract, a Tuesday 10 of Villainy!

Goodbye, Zilpha Keatley Snyder....Thank you for adding the world of Green Sky to my mental storehouse of lovely places.

10/7/14

Thinking about Blogging Voice, in preperation for Kidlitcon

It occurred to me today that really I had better do something about this talk that I am giving on Friday morning at Kidlitcon-- Finding Your Voice, Finding Your Passion- Blogging With Conviction.

And so I have no Timeslip Tuesday book to offer. 

But I welcome enthusiastically any thoughts you might have on what makes a good Blogging Voice!  Or examples of bloggers who you think have particular fine Voice(s)!

10/5/14

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (10/5/14)

Greetings from Lebanon, New Hampshire! I am here with my mother on a now-concluded Julian May pilgrimage (successful ascent of Mount Washington, successful appraisal of the Mount Washington hotel where Uncle Rogi worked, somewhat dreary appraisal of Dartmouth due to heavy rain, and visit to the intersection of Main and South where Uncle Rogi's bookstore was supposed to be).

Here's what I found in my blog reading this week; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia and at Word Spelunking (with giveaway)

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at Geo Librarian

The Doll People Set Sail, by Ann M. Martin, Laura Godwin, and Brett Helquist, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at alibrarymama

Empire of Bones, by N.D. Wilson, at Semicolon

The Enchanted Castle, by E. Nesbit, at Leaf's Reviews

The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker, by E.D. Baker, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Forbidden Flats, by Peggy Eddleman, at Word Spelunking

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer Holm, at Kid Lit Geek

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle, by George Hagen, at Waking Brain Cells

The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove, at Semicolon

Hook's Revenge, by Heidi Shulz, at My Precious and Candace's Book Blog

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at By Singing Light and Charlotte's Library

The Island of Legends, by Lisa McMann, at Hidden in Pages (audiobook review)

Krabat and the Sorcerer's Mill, by Otfried Preussler, at Children's Book-A-Day Almanac

The League of Seven, by Alan Gatz, at Mister K Reads

Magic Thief: Home, by Sarah Prineas, at Hidden in Pages (audiobook review)

Marianne Dreams, by Catherine Storr, at Marvelous Tales

The Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood, at Never Ending Stories

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Book Nut

Nuts to You, by Lynne Rae Perkins, at Challenging the Bookworm

The Ogre of Oglefort, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Kid Lit Geek

The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda, at Twinja Book Reviews

The Scavengers, by Michael Perry, at The Reading Nook Reviews

Shouldn't You Be in School?, by Lemony Snickett, at Tor

Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, at Librarian of Snark

The Terror of the Southlands, by Caroline Carlson, at Carstairs Considers and Reader of Fictions

Thursdays with the Crown, by Jessica Day George, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Becky's Book Reviews

The Time of the Fireflys, by Kimberley Griffiths Little, at Time Travel Times Two

Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, at Bunbury in the Stacks (audiobook review)


Authors and Interviews

T.A. Barron (Atlantis Rising), at Geo Libraraian (with giveaway), and at Cynsations

Lou Anders (Frostborn), with cover analysis, at Project Mayhem

P.J. Hoover (Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life) at Cynsations

Dianne K. Salerni (The Eight Day) talks about the no-man's land between MG and YA at Project Mayhem

Eden Unger Bowditch (the Young Inventors Trilogy) at Project Mayhem

Roland Smith (Mutation) at Nerdy Book Club


Other Good Stuff:

At Oz and Ends, a look at a myth about Oz's "women in strong leadership roles."

There are two MG fantasy books on the Guardian's children's fiction award shortlist-- Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, and The Dark Wild, by Piers Torday (incidently, my 11 year old nominated the first Torday book, The Last Wild, for the Cybils....he would have picked The Dark Wild, but it'd not eligible yet).

Speaking of the Cybils, now is the time to nominate your favorite books of the past year (Oct 16, 2013- Oct 15, 2014)!  Here's what's been nominated in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction so far...and there are still lots of worthy books out there that aren't on the list yet (and I have just made a list of some of these, lifted from Kirkus).

And once again this year, Amy at Hope is the Word is organizing an Armchair Cybils so you can play along even if you aren't a panelist.http://www.cybils.com/2014/10/2014-nominations-elementarymiddle-grade-speculative-fiction.html

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