Monday, November 30, 2009

Twilight zone

With the buzz about New Moon stirring up Twilight fever again, I finally gave in and read Twilight this weekend. As a diligent would-be young adult author, I should have read it a couple of years ago. But Abbie (then 13) read it and gave me her opinion, which was enough for me. Because she's had enough trouble with friends who love the series, I won't share her take on it beyond saying that she found both Bella's character and the romance much too thin. I knew feminists weren't thrilled with it, either. (See Laura Miller's comments in Salon.)

So I didn't expect to like the book when I opened it. But I didn't expect to be truly troubled by it, either.

Yet I was. I've nothing against romantic fantasy, even for teenagers, but is this really what women want? To be helpless victims of their own passion? To have superficial relationships based on nothing more than beauty (on Bella's side) or smelling good (on Edward's)? Men who are basically made of marble?

I want better fantasies -- and better realities -- for our daughters. Ones where they can be loved for who they really are, where they have the power to choose and shape relationships that are mutual, deep and fulfilling. Ones where they aren't always thinking they aren't good enough for their lover.

As for the writing itself, the first book at least is generally competent, though on the purple end of prose. Of the commentaries I've read, Horn Book's review of the New Moon movie comes closest to describing the problems of the novel as I saw them — "the redefinition of conflict as prolonged miscommunication, the romanticization of obsession over affection, the passing off of incident as plot," says Claire E. Gross.Yep, that about covers it.

I'm a longtime feminist, and something about the juxtaposition of Twilight and the Sarah Palin frenzy over the past couple of weeks leaves me feeling sad about the role models young women are exposed to.

Anybody care to nominate female characters from current YA literature that are better examples of strong women in romantic relationships? I'm hoping there are some good counterpoints to Bella out there.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fun with children's books

Or what they're really doing in publishers' offices. The world's longest domino rally with children's books (possibly), from HarperCollins.

And then over at Random House...

Too much fun.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Unfinished stories

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, I'm reminded that I have an unfinished attempt at a Thanksgiving story tucked away in my files. It was one of those ideas that never quite came together. I wanted to capture that steamed-up-windows feeling of an extended family crammed into one house, and the pang when someone is missing. I chose to focus on the moment when the missing person calls -- and everyone passes the phone from hand to hand, each person talking from his or her own special relationship with the out-of-town family member. For lots of families, I think, it's a nice interlude in the day.

I thought it might be fun to share the start (rough as it is). For anyone who's interested in the process of writing, it might give insight into efforts that don't work out. This is overwritten and unfocused, and of course has the the little problem of no ending. But it has a germ of an idea behind it. At least, I think it does. What does anyone else think?

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Pass Me to Grandma

Thanksgiving Day was nearly perfect. Warm, buttery smells floated on the air. Cousins chased each other around the big table. Pies lined the countertops and folding chairs lined the walls.

Almost everything and everybody was in place — everybody except the one person Hannah most wanted to be there. Uncle Phil couldn’t make it home from the city.

Uncle Phil had always been Hannah’s favorite. He took her shopping at yard sales and they bought something purple at every one. He gave her a camera with a special lens that made things look bigger and they used it to take pictures of people’s noses. He taught her chess and didn’t let her win, but the first time she captured his queen, he let her keep the queen for always.

But last summer, Uncle Phil moved away. And now Thanksgiving didn’t feel right.

Hannah moved slowly while she set the table, trying to be happy like everyone else seemed to be. Then, just as she finished the last napkin, the phone rang. Aunt Jeanie dried her hands on her apron and answered it. “It’s Phil!” she announced.

Hannah ran over to Aunt Jeanie and waited, shifting from one foot to the other, while she told Phil about all the food that was cooking and who was there. When it sounded like Aunt Jeanie was nearly finished, she reached up to take the phone. But Aunt Jeanie didn’t see. “Let me hand you to ...”

Great Aunt Rita shouted into the phone like Uncle Phil was in the basement instead of on the phone. “So what are you doing up there in New York all by yourself on Thanksgiving, honey?”

Hannah stood by the chair listening with her hands over her ears. Great Aunt Rita was so loud that Socks always hid when she came to visit, but Hannah liked the way her big laugh filled every corner of the house like the smell of bacon frying. “You won’t forget us plain folks at home once you get famous, will you?” Rita teased, and laughed, and listened, and laughed. “Let me hand you to ...”

Grandpa had been smiling all day, but his whole face lit up when he took the phone from Rita. “How are you, son?” Hannah plopped on the rug to wait. Grandpa didn’t like to talk on phones, but he’d stay on the line all day for Phil. Hannah wondered if Uncle Phil would remember to ask for her.

“Everybody’s here,” Grandpa was saying. “We’re just about to start the checkers tournament. I may win this year without you here to beat me.” Grandpa and Uncle Phil have the same smooth, deep voice, Hannah noticed. She closed her eyes. After what felt like a long, long time, she heard Grandpa say, “Let me pass you along to ...”

Martin handled the phone like he held new babies, sure they would break. “Phil?” he asked hesitantly. “Is that you?”

Hannah eased up next to Martin and leaned in close to the phone. She could hear Uncle Phil, far away, telling Martin he’d like New York. Restaurants, theater, museums. Uncle Phil promised Martin he’d show him around if he came for a visit, but from the way Martin ducked his head when he said, “Maybe I’ll take you up on that,” Hannah didn’t think he would.

She reached out to take the phone, but wasn’t fast enough. Martin handed it to ...

[Feel free to write your own ending. Post it as a comment if you like! Consider it wiki-storytelling!]

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Evidence that I don't have a clue what's likely to get published

If anyone had asked me, I would have said this title would never work as a kids' book. What kid even knows what a bunion is? And the story is in rhyme? No way. I'd have guessed that no editor would touch it.

I would have been wrong. An editor liked it, reviewers liked it -- and I'm sure kids like it. Author Marsha Hayles has served up what Kirkus called a "bouncy rib-tickler."

Bunion Burt had feet that hurt.
They pinched and poked and pained him.
The folks all knew
‘Bout Burt’s feet too-
His bunions helped nickname him.

I guess that's why it's a good thing there are lots of editors and publishers and book buyers. Because one person's take on things (mine, anyway) can be completely off base.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why writing books for boys makes me nervous

This book was number 2 on the New York Times Bestsellers list for picture books this week. I might not have noticed, except that I was around my nephew over the weekend.

Justin is 7 and we spent a good bit of time paging through the Jedi starfighters and battle droids while he told me about Geonosians and General Grievous. I didn't follow all of it, but he was very enthusiastic so it didn't matter whether I got every detail.

I've been close to a lot of little boys in my life, but haven't spent much time with boys lately. (Justin lives two states away.) So I don't know if I can write authentically about boys' lives. Here I was, completely oblivious to the Lego Star Wars phenomenon and this book is the number 2 bestseller.

I certainly write about boys. The narrator in Maggie's Monkeys is a boy. I also write books I hope boys will like. There are plenty of universal themes that relate to boys and girls no matter what times they live in. But could I make a boy a protagonist in anything longer than a picture book and hope to get it right? I don't know. Maybe I'd have to make it historical fiction (as in the 60s).

I want to think I could write a convincing boy. I'm even enticed by the idea of trying. Not only because it would be a creative challenge, but also because there aren't enough books aimed at boys, especially middle grade and young adult books.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for reading material for a boy, Guys Lit Wire was created to help connect boys and books, and does a great job reviewing titles that our sons and brothers might like.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Escape from Disneyland

I just picked up the edition of The Jungle Book illustrated by Robert Ingpen for my sister's family. It came out a couple of years ago, but I'd never seen it. The illustrations are simply incredible. Realistic and detailed yet richly evocative, they convey the dignity of Kipling's characters that Disney so unforgivably robbed them of.

I'm sorry that so many kids (myself included) first encounter the clownish cartoon figures Disney created. They're amusing enough, but lack the depth and complexity -- and, yes, the brutality -- of the real story. I regret even more all the children who never read The Jungle Book because they believe they know the story from the movie.

Anyone who wants to introduce children to this classic would do well to choose this version. Ingpen (great interview with him here) has illustrated a number of other classics, which I intend to seek out after seeing his beautiful renditions of Mowgli and friends.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Springing eternal

I did it again.

I don't submit to publishers as often as I used to, but I do have three or four manuscripts I still believe in enough to keep sending out. For the most part, I try to send them and forget about them. You can drive yourself bonkers if you don't.

But I decided a couple of days ago that I should check my file to see what's out. With so many publishers taking the "no news is bad news" approach where they no longer send rejections, I have to remind myself whether enough time has passed that I should assume the publisher isn't interested. (It's an interesting "reject thyself" sort of exercise.)

As I reviewed my submissions record, I noticed that one manuscript was at a house that still sends rejection letters. This particular editor usually responds very quickly, but this time it had been six months with no word.

And -- for one ridiculous minute -- I thought what almost every writer has thought at some point. "Maybe it's in the acquisitions process. Maybe that's why it's taking so long to hear."

Why do we do this to ourselves? We're so hungry for feedback and eager for good news that we try to read between the lines in rejection letters or extract meaning even from an editor's silence. "The editor said she's very sorry not to have better news. The last time she just said sorry, so she must have liked this one better." Or "She drew a smiley face on the letter this time, so..." Or "My friend got rejected in two months and it took me seven, so..."

I know better. I know rejection letters and how fast they arrive aren't codes we're supposed to decipher. I know that a faster rejection may mean nothing more than an intern was helping wade through the slush. I know that a nice rejection letter may mean nothing more than an intern was writing the rejection letters. If I didn't know all that from my own experience, Editorial Anonymous' Eight Rules of Rejection would make it clear enough, specifically rule #6:
6. Most rejection letters mean nothing. Nothing. (Except that you can cross that publisher/agent off the list.) You need to internalize this fact however you can. Chant it in the bathtub. Write it backwards on your forehead. Listen to a tapeloop of it while you sleep. No matter what the editor/agent says, no matter what words they use, rejection letters mean nothing.
 Even so, every now and then, I do it to myself again. I don't know whether that makes me pathetic or optimistic.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Reader of the free world

No matter what your feelings about Barack Obama, I think we can all agree he knows how to read a picture book to children. I love how he engages the kids in this clip, especially when they all practice staring into the wild things' yellow eyes without blinking.

Picture books should be shared like that, don't you think? With the adult and child interacting about the content, sharing their reactions, asking and answering questions -- pretending!

I know a lot of busy parents don't spend much time reading to their children these days. I hope they'll make more time for reading picture books like this when they see how much fun it is!