Monday, August 31, 2009

The Eight Deadly Words

I came across this tidbit and thought I'd share...

Back in 1991, a fantasy writer/reviewer named Dorothy J. Heydt remarked of a book she'd been reading, "I don't care what happens to these people" and stopped reading.

Two years later, she used the phrase again, only this time she dubbed it "The Eight Deadly Words." She used some rather creative emphasis, too: "I don't care what happens to these people."

The term "The Eight Deadly Words" has since been used by other bloggers and reviewers, but I note it here because children's books, as they become increasingly commercial, sometimes suffer from this problem: without strong, dimensional, appealing characters, all of the fast-paced plotting in the world can't save them. I just finished reading a book a few days ago that suffered from this difficulty; the plotting was oh-so-clever, but the characters remained at a distance, two-dimensional silhouettes like those classic cut-out illustrations of fairy tale figures by Arthur Rackham.

This past month I've been teaching an online writing class called "How to Make Your Children's Book More Marketable." The searingly obvious solution? Write better books! But plot can only take you so far. As I read Watt Key's Alabama Moon last fall, I cared desperately about Moon. I cared so much about Neil Gaiman's Bod that once I'd read a single story about him last spring, "The Witch's Headstone" in M Is for Magic, I counted the minutes till I could find out what happened to him in The Graveyard Book. And most recently, I carried Miranda in my heart for pages in Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me.

As I think back to favorite books of five, fifteen, even thirty years ago, their characters still feel real, like people I've actually met: Megan Whalen Turner's Gen, Margaret Mahy's Laura Chant, and the three sisters in Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, for example.

The so-called "quiet book" may be dying by inches, and Plot may be king or at least prince these days. But characters matter and will always matter.

Note: I googled Dorothy Heydt in the first place because I was culling my library of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress short story collections. I've found that in a given short story collection (and not just Bradley's), I usually only like 2-4 stories. In the case of Bradley's books, I always liked Heydt's tales about a wisewoman named Cynthia fleeing the wrath of the gods in an ancient Greek setting. Alas, Heydt still hasn't made the stories into a book.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: Remembering Karla Kuskin

When you read a lot of children's poetry anthologies, certain names show up over and over: Eve Merriam, David McCord, Lilian Moore, Myra Cohn Livingston, Bobbi Katz, Nikki Giovanni... And Karla Kuskin. Last Thursday, August 20, 2009, Karla Kuskin passed away at the age of 77. As I host Poetry Friday today, let me begin by honoring her.

Kuskin is probably best known as a poet, or as a writer of poetic picture books. I think her most memorable work in recent years might be The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, a book that looks at a concert by showing the musicians getting ready (illustrated by Marc Simont, 1982). Did you know that Kuskin was also an illustrator? Her first book, Roar and More, evolved from her senior art project at Yale University (1956, revised and republished 1990). According to her website, Kuskin wrote and illustrated 28 picture books, illustrated 15 books for other writers, and wrote 18 that were illustrated by other artists. I know I bought a book she wrote, Green as a Bean, for our school library not long ago (2006). Kuskin illustrated a book by Paula Fox, Traces, that came out in 2008. The book shows how the faintest images and fleeting moments make up our lives. One reviewer called it a fitting book for someone who has suffered a loss. Though that was not the book's original intent, it seems an appropriate thought about what has turned out to be Kuskin's last published work.

But quirky humor, not elegiac sadness, is the best tone to use when talking about Karla Kuskin. Her poems show us the wry yet child-like way she looked at the world. Like Shel Silverstein, Karla Kuskin was a little subversive and more than a little off the wall.

I happily reread her collected poems, Moon, Have You Met My Mother? (HarperCollins, 2003) over the last few days. The poem that strikes me as most often having been anthologized is the one about "a witch who knitted things" (only knitted them badly). That and the poem about a little bug sitting on a silver flower—who gets eaten by a big bug. The tongue-in-cheek tragedy concludes, "It isn't right/it isn't fair/That big bug ate that little bug/because that little bug was there." Then, after a solemn pause, we get a final line: "He even ate his underwear."

And don't forget Kuskin's Halloween witch poem, one of the best ever written (and quite a few children's poets have tried). Here's how it starts off:

Over the hills
where the edge of the light
deepens and darkens
to ebony night,
narrow hats high
above yellow bead eyes,
the tatter-haired witches
ride through the skies....

There are other poems that have been anthologized quite a bit, like the one about a little kid stuffed into some dozen layers of clothing for winter. Or the one about spring that starts out, "I'm shouting/I'm singing/I'm swinging through trees...." But now I'll share some of the less-anthologized pieces that stood out as I was reading. It's very clear Karla Kuskin loved—and carefully observed—cats. Here's part of a cat poem:

Examining the breeze.
A package neatly wrapped with tail
flicks a whisker

Upon the stair.
Taking the air.
Unquestioned owner
of the comfortable chair.

Napping everywhere
stretched in the sun
as if the sun were hers
awash in warmth
and furs.

"As if the sun were hers"—I like how that captures not only a cat's penchant for sunning herself, but also her arrogance!

Now see how strangely Karla Kuskin remakes something like a tree:

...with small spring leaves
like small green dimes
that cast their shadows on the grass
a thousand separate times
with round brown branches
like outstretched sleeves
and the twigs come out as fingers
and the fingers hold the leaves....

Or notice how she has the snow describe itself:

I am softer
and colder
and whiter than you.
And I can do something
that you cannot do.
I can make anything
train tracks
an old fence
I can make anything

Where one person would have taken a first or second creative step, Kuskin took a third, and then a fourth:

If you could be small
would you be a mouse
or a mouse's child
or a mouse's house
or a mouse's house's
front door key?

A superb craftswoman, the poet once wrote a poem about how a poem is made. Of course, it is also about a cat. I think this is my very favorite, maybe because it is reserved, mysterious, and assured, yet nevertheless just a little silly (hmm, kind of like a cat!):

Take a word like cat
and build around it;
a fur room over here
a long meow
floating from the chimney like a smoke tail.
Draw with words.
Balance them like blocks.
Carve word furniture:
a jar of pussy willows,
catkins, phlox,
milk in a dish,
catnip pillows,
a silver bell,
a plaster bird,
and eaten fish.
When everything is perfect in its place
step back to view the home
that you have built of words around your word.
It is a poem.

In one clearly autobiographical poem, bookworm Karla tells of loving the rain because when she was a child, it meant the grown-ups didn't try to make her go outside and play. On dry, ordinary days, they did interrupt her reading:

...while one's elders,
tall and grey,
said, "Darling, do go out and play."
And Darling shot them such look,
from over some beloved book
that Mother, or some timid aunt
would turn,
without a word indeed,
to darn a sock, deadhead a plant
and leave me be
and let me read.
Rain was my ally and salvation
defending me from confrontation....

After a bit more about the joys of curling up with a book in a thunderstorm, Kuskin concludes slyly:

Then picture this,
come Armageddon,
quite undisturbed
she sat and read on.

Another poem advises children how to behave:

Do not jump on ancient uncles.
Do not yell at average mice.
Do not wear a broom to breakfast.
Do not ask a snake's advice....

"Average mice"? Kuskin was not an average thinker! She offered this poetic counsel regarding the creative process:

Write about a radish
too many people write about the moon.

Then she proceeded to write soulfully about the radish rising "in the waiting sky."

Funny as she was, the poet could paint a picture of sadness using just a few words:

It is grey out.
It is grey in.
In me
it is as grey as the day is grey.
The trees look sad
and I,
not knowing why I do,

I'll conclude with this poem, which I think describes what Karla Kuskin did with her own life:

People always say to me
"What do you think you'd like to be
when you grow up?"
And I say "Why,
I think I'd like to be the sky
or be a plane or train or mouse
or maybe be a haunted house
or something furry, rough and wild...
or maybe I will stay a child."

Note: The poems and parts of poems quoted above are all from Moon, Have You Met My Mother? (Laura Geringer Books, HarperCollins, 2003, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier)

Poetry Friday

Browse this gathering of poetic blog posts! Posted throughout the day...

--A Year of Reading introduces us to a book of poems by young people, Tastes Like Chocolate.

--Laura Salas brings us a couple of David Harrison's bug poems and a collection of 15 Words or Less Poems about what happens when flames and flowers meet aerogel.

--Andromeda Jazmon of A Wrung Sponge shares her back-to-school poem, written for this week's Monday Poetry Stretch at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

--Bildungsroman shares a nursery rhyme Lewis Carroll used in one of his books.

--Diane Chen at SLJ's Practically Paradise shares Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Winston's collection The Tree That Time Built.

--Laura Shovan of Author Amok posts Gary Snyder's "How Poetry Comes to Me," one of the poems she uses as a model in her poetry workshops.

--Shelf Elf reviews a fun back-to-school novel in verse, Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston.

--Liz Scanlon has written a poem on a dare. Check it out at Liz In Ink!

--April Halprin Wayland shares a brief, but powerful, George Ella Lyon poem at Teaching Authors.

--Wind Spirit Girl has created a striking visual poem inspired by Andy Behrman's Electroboy, a memoir about his struggle with bipolar disorder.

--At On Point, Lorie Ann Grover is celebrating her daughter's Sweet Sixteen in haiku, "Two to Sixteen". And over at readertotz, she gives us "Dreams".

--Online Color is featuring her friend, January O'Neil, whose debut collection of poems for grown-ups, Underlife, is coming out in September.

--Write Time's Linda Kulp has written an original poem about an abused dog, "Trooper."

--Sally of Paper Tigers reviews a collection of poems chosen by children for children in aid of The International Year of the Child, I Like This Poem.

--Massachusetts writer Martha Calderaro shares an anonymous poem about differences of opinion, "Corners on the Curving Sky," in honor of Senator Ted Kennedy's passing earlier this week.

--Barbarah of Stray Thoughts shares a religious poem about Jesus Christ, "My Advocate" by Martha Snell Nicholson.

--Librarian Jone MacCulloch recommends This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, edited by poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Today she shares a Tunisian poem from the collection, "Pen." (I own this book and heartily concur!)

--Also in remembrance of Senator Kennedy, Random Noodling's Diane Mayr has posted a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox called "My Grave."

--Beth Brezenoff of the Stone Arch Books Blog reminds us that Emily Dickinson is "always a good thing" with this poem.

--Tricia of The Miss Rumphius Effect fame chose a poem by Ted Kooser, "A Spiral Notebook."

--Read Write Believe's Sara shares some Lyle Lovett lyrics, "If I Had a Boat"; she also provides a link for hearing him sing them!

--Librarian Kurious Kitty reviews a collection of poems for grown-ups about devastating Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith. The poem she shares is "Katrina."

--Jama of Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup is "asking everyone to confess their food sins," tempting us with a poem called "Eve's Confession," by Diane Lockward. (Ooh, apple fritters!)

--Author Mitali Perkins tells us, "On my blog, an American teen from Ghana expresses joy and strength in a prize-winning poem about dance."

--Kelly Polark has posted an original poem about sailing titled "The Dream" on her blog.

--Elaine Magliaro goes all out with a review of J. Patrick Lewis's new poetry collection, Countdown to Summer: A Poem for Every Day of the School Year at Wild Rose Reader; a 1956 back-to-school poem for the Miss Rumphius Effect Poetry Stretch that's "a tad dark" at Political Verses; and a poem by Ron Koertge titled "First Grade" at Blue Rose Girls.

--Karen Edmisten shares some poetic words from St. Augustine on her blog in honor of his feast day.

--Gavin of In a Heron's Eye offers us a poem by Bridget Pegeen Kelly called "The Leaving."

--Tarie reviews Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat at Into the Wardrobe. (This is another book I really like!)

--Heliodora's husband left a magnetic poetry haiku on the fridge this morning...

--Tabatha A. Yeats gives us an original poem titled "Nighttime Symphony"; she also shares some of Basho's haiku and links us to a bunch of zombie haiku parodies with an example from "Robert Frost." Very fun!

--Julie Larios commemorates two heart-wrenching anniversaries, first reminding us that Emmett Till was murdered 54 years ago today. She provides a link to an interview with Marilyn Nelson, author of the award-winning book of poems titled A Wreath for Emmett Till. In addition, tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Julie shares her poem, "Flood," as well as providing a link to a documentary about the aftermath of the disaster in the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans.

--The Write Sisters offer up "The Centaur," a poem by May Swenson.

--Father Goose has written a fall poem called "Something Silent in the Air."

--At Picture Book of the Day, Anastasia Suen highlights a story in rhyme, Wake Up Engines by author Denise Dowling Mortensen and illustrator Melissa Iwai. She also provides a writing lesson to go with it.

--Sherry of Semicolon celebrates the birthday of John Betjeman, Poet Laureate of England from 1972 till his death in 1984, quoting to us from his poem "Verses Turned."

--Melissa Wiley over at Here in the Bonny Glen reminds us of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire with Robert Pinsky's poem, "Shirtwaist."

Thanks to everyone who participated in this week's Poetry Friday--what a great selection of thoughts and voices and verses! Sometimes I feel like I'm the only "poetry person" around, and this event reminds me that there's a wonderful poem-minded community out there.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

LauraPalooza Link

For those of you who love Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, you might enjoy taking a look at this site, Beyond Little House, which I learned about from Barbara Bietz over in Kidlitosphere. Yes, a group of hardcore Little House fans are going to hold an event called LauraPalooza next July in Mankato, Minnesota. There's even a call for papers--a call issued, of course, on Laura and Almanzo's wedding anniversary. Somehow, I suspect the Laura event will be accompanied by taffy instead of pot, calico instead of tie-dye, fiddles instead of electric guitars... Which just goes to show: children's book people know how to party!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Review of The Immortal Fire by Anne Ursu

While Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series has been selling like crazy, you may have missed another series about contemporary kids and Greek gods, Anne Ursu's Cronus Chronicles. Book One, The Shadow Thieves, came out about six months after Riordan's first book about Percy Jackson, The Lightning Thief, suggesting once again that certain themes float into different authors' psyches at around the same time. Yet Ursu's trilogy has been overshadowed by Riordan's five books. Today I'm looking at Ursu's series wrap-up, Immortal Fire, but I definitely recommend all three books. I think they're just as good as Riordan's, and they have the advantage of a clever tongue-in-cheek tone.

Quick overview: In The Shadow Thieves, Charlotte and her cousin Zee stop a plot by a demon grandson of Poseidon, Philonecron, to take over the Underworld using the shadows of children as an army. Unfortunately, having their shadows stolen makes human children sick. Even more unfortunately, Zee is the unwitting conduit for this endeavor. But he and Charlotte fight back, and they are able to thwart Philonecron's dastardly plans.

Still, family is family, and Book Two, The Siren Song, finds Poseidon responding to his grandson's request for vengeance against the two mortal children who have dishonored him. What's more, Charlotte is up against something not often seen in children's fantasy books, which is that her parents freak out about her long absence to save the world. Naturally, they don't believe her crazy story; instead they ground her and make appointments with a child psychologist.

When her family wins a cruise soon afterward, it doesn't occur to Charlotte that she is being set up for Poseidon's wrath to crash down on her head like a tsunami. And Zee finds himself in the unenviable position of being even more of a pawn for Philonecron than before. After some wild adventures on the cruise ship, which is mysteriously transported to the Mediterranean Sea, Charlotte and Zee eventually manage to prevail yet again. Siren Song is my favorite of the three books, if only because of Ursu's depiction of Poseidon as the tacky blue-skinned, gold chain-wearing owner of a luxury boat he has plastered with portraits of himself. (Come to think of it, her portrayal of all of the fallible Greek pantheon is pretty amusing!)

I noticed that The Immortal Fire drags in a few spots, but Ursu ultimately comes through, wrapping up the trilogy with dash and humor. Charlotte and Zee's mentor, Mr. Metos, who is a member of a secret society called the Prometheans, doesn't take the two kids seriously enough, considering all they've accomplished. When the Chimera burns down the middle school and snatches Charlotte, Mr. Metos begins to pay a little more attention. Such strange things are happening in the Mediterranean that they're making the TV news, yet no one figures out that Philonecron is back in action, having gotten his hands on Poseidon's trident.

This time, Philonecron is gunning for Zeus and mastery of the entire universe, and he's going to use his arch nemesis Charlotte to help him do it. One of the funniest things about these books is the way the author stops every so often to show us just what's going on in this towering narcissist's head. (I suspect Phil is secretly Ursu's favorite character!) Here's a passage in which Philonecron is planning world domination, but still worrying about thirteen-year-old Charlotte Mielswetzski, who has already foiled his schemes twice:

He was a hero, this was a hero's journey, an epic for the ages—the saga of a humble demon's long journey from Underworld garbage collector to Supreme Lord of All Creation.... but every hero had a nemesis, one as terrible as he was great. It was only literary....

Was she still out there, lurking in her vile little lair, clad in an item from her relentless series of discount casual wear, plotting her next move in her eternal quest to ruin his life? What if—it was absurd, but bear with him—what if at his moment of triumph, when Zeus was on his knees quavering in front of the trident, weeping and pleading, what if the little mortal monster appeared—because that was what she did, she appeared, and ruined everything? What if, just as he was about to get what he most wanted, she came, grabbed his beautiful dream with her sticky little hands, and stomped on it with her squeaky rubber soles?
Naturally, Charlotte will appear. Charlotte is ordinary and grubby and kind of cranky, but above all she is tenacious. Before she can confront the vain villain, however, she and Zee will have to save an angry teenager named Steve from the misguided Prometheans and find their way to Greece, where breaking into Mt. Olympus is just a little harder than it sounds. As the book progresses, Ursu works in themes like self-sacrifice and love, having social outsider Charlotte bely her own cynicism and Zee make an unthinkable choice, but most of all, The Immortal Fire, like its two predecessors, is just a funny, off-the-wall ride.

A Review of Silvertongue by Charlie Fletcher

A few years ago, I gave Charlie Fletcher's book, Stoneheart, a glowing review on Amazon. Today I finished reading Silvertongue, the final book in his trilogy, and now I can recommend all three to you.

Fletcher's Stoneheart Trilogy is one of the most original fantasy series in print. The author envisions a boy named George angrily breaking a piece off of a stone dragon at a London museum when he is unfairly punished during a field trip. Suddenly a carved pterodactyl sleeks into life and begins to chase him, and then everything changes as George sidesteps into a just-parallel city in which all of the statues are alive.

Fletcher takes this premise to a thoroughly satisfying extreme, making actual statues placed around modern-day London into characters. In a further twist, statues that look like humans are called spits and are reliable, while inhuman statues such as gargoyles and abstract modern sculptures are called taints and are dangerous. George turns out to be a maker, a kind of magical stoneworker, and he has inadvertently unleashed chaos by breaking off the dragon's head.

George is not alone, however; he soon enlists the aid of a statue of a World War I soldier named the Gunner and one other human, a glint named Edie who also carries a form of magic. Edie is a flawed and angry girl, half-mad with the burden of her unusual gift: when she touches something, she can see its past, no matter how violent and heart-wrenching that might be. Edie's personal struggle and evolution throughout the trilogy are especially well drawn.

The chief villain of the trilogy is a deathless man named Walker who brings darkness wherever he goes and has enslaved one of Odin's ravens, Memory, to be his spy. Walker has also destroyed numerous glints over the years in order to steal their magic, as we learn in Book Two, Ironhand. In defeating Walker at the end of Ironhand, Edie and George unfortunately unleash another terror on the city. And Walker is not gone forever.

The Clockmaker, Dictionary, Queen Boadicea, the Black Friar, Ariel, Little Tragedy, the Temple Bar Dragon, George's lone pet gargoyle, and numerous soldiers and statesmen made of bronze and stone, along with ghastly creatures like the Minotaur: frankly, it will astonish you just how many intriguing characters the author can create using the statues and sculptures of a modern-day metropolis. Of special interest are twin Sphinxes who act as oracles and end up representing the two sides in the battle for London. Based on their obscure, prophetic riddles, George and Edie attempt to fulfill the conditions needed to defeat their unworldly enemies—although Edie is distracted by her quest to find out what really happened to her mother. For his part, as he heads for a final showdown, George must cope with a stone vein beginning in his hand and slowly turning his arm to marble, then creeping inexorably toward his heart.

Fletcher is adept at fight scenes, and as the war between the dark and the light escalates in the third and final book, we get page after page of battles. I'm amazed that he can write so many of them and still do something different and involving every time. The aerial battles are particularly stunning. This is from a scene in which George is riding in Queen Boadicea's chariot when he is attacked from the air by two gryphons:

"No!" he shouted, and without time to reverse the spear in his hands, slammed the blunt end of the haft into the back of its neck with all the strength he could muster. It squawked in outrage and turned to snap at him. He pulled back the spear haft and punched it into the gaping beak, right down the throat of the creature. Then he swiveled violently, pitchforking the gagging taint off the back of the chariot. It hit its partner just as it swooped in to the rescue, and the two gryphons were, for a moment, a whirling, snapping ball of ice and stone as they tried to disentangle from each other, before depth-charging into the snow in a great cloud of powder.
In tone, Fletcher's trilogy is most comparable to Garth Nix's Keys of the Kingdom series—dark and strange and sometimes unnerving. I've noticed that Rick Riordan's Lightning Thief and its sequels have a cheery tone comparable to early Harry Potter, even in the face of danger. In fact, the danger never seems quite as dangerous as it's made out to be. Fletcher's books are more ominous, like the later volumes of J.K. Rowling's iconic series.

These are books for kids who love danger and fantasy combat; they are also well suited for intense readers. The Stoneheart Trilogy is just so surreal—other than George and Edie and some homeless people mindlessly enlisted as eyes for the enemy, the human Londoners have no idea what's going on. In Silvertongue, the rest of humanity fades away altogether as London shifts out of Time and is covered with snow. Only George and Edie are left to inhabit the bleak landscape, together with a legion of utterly odd carved and cast characters pulled from a myriad of plinths across one of the world's great cities.

Note for Worried Parents: The Stoneheart Trilogy is quite dark and contains some frightening details. I'd say the books are appropriate for the same kids who are okay with Neil Gaiman's Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

Monday, August 17, 2009

In Case You Missed It...

Don't get me wrong: I've read all four of Stephenie Meyer's books and even liked them in a guilty pleasure kind of way (well, except for Breaking Dawn, which lost me). But I'm also a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and in a pinch, I know who I'd vote for! For those of you who haven't seen this video mix, follow the link and watch what happens when Edward Cullen meets Buffy Summers!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Review of Jayne Lyons' 100% Wolf

Paranormal is the big thing in Young Adult fiction these days, although steampunk seems to be looming on the horizon, threatening to become the hot new trend. Less paranormal fiction has been written for the middle grades, however, perhaps because a YA novel, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, inspired the recent wave of books with supernatural themes. A few middle grade titles do come to mind: Ellen Potter's Olivia Kidney and the Exit Academy and Jennifer Allison's Gilda Joyce, Psychic Detective plus sequels focus on ghosts, while A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris gives the vampire concept a new twist.

I was very happy to discover Jane Lyons's book, 100% Wolf, not only because it's a werewolf book for middle grades, but because it has the most clever premise I've come across in a long while. Oh, and it's funny!

Freddy Lupin is growing up in a proud werewolf clan in an old castle. On the one hand, his guardian, Lord Hotspur, is constantly criticizing Freddy—he and his two children are downright Dahl-worthy, they're so awful. On the other hand, Freddy is almost one hundred and twenty-one months old (by the werewolves' moon reckoning), which is when he'll have his first transwolfation, something his envious cousins will never be able to do. They don't have the tell-tale tuft of hair growing in the center of their palms, so Freddy teases them about his wolfish expectations in retaliation for the hateful things they do to him. I should note that although Lord Hotspur is a Bad Man, he is not completely wrong about "that foolster Frederick"; young Freddy loves to play pranks on the pompous Grand Growler of the Hidden Moonlight Gathering of Werewolves.

Unfortunately, there's a little something extra in Freddy's bloodline, and on his big night, he turns into a poodle instead of a wolf! At least he's black, or he's black until his cousins manage to get him dyed and cut into a foofy pink creature. Then Freddy goes on the run, and he makes some forbidden friends with the town dogs. It's a good thing, too, because a werewolf hunter named Dr. Foxwell Cripp is closing in on Freddy's family, and Uncle Hotspur's treachery goes much farther than anyone has guessed.

This goofy romp of a book is a real relief after all those dour YA paranormals I've read, and it should be especially appealing to boys who are reluctant readers, assuming they have a sense of humor. There's such a lot of great tongue-in-cheek stuff going on here: for example, part of the book is spent inside a horrible dog pound that's more of a dog dungeon, where the Commander is aided by an evil wolfhound named Cerberus. (Think Hogan's Heroes and Prison Break for dogs.) The final scenes are so action-packed that they're a little hard to keep track of, but I think you won't care any more than I did. A happy blend of adventure and comedy make this the perfect read for second and third graders who think books are boring. Meet a pink poodle who's 100% Wolf!

Note: It looks like this one was previously published in the UK. Thank you, England, for sending us another fun book!

A Review of Kate and M. Sarah Klise's 43 Old Cemetery Road Books

I hope you've already read the Klise sisters' other "graphic epistolary novels," Letters from Camp and the series that begins with Regarding the Fountain. Each clever, lighthearted book consists of a sequence of letters, memos, newspaper articles, and postcards, all written by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. But saying that doesn't do justice to these off-the-wall, character-driven books, which I highly recommend for 7- to 10-year-olds. Just to give you an idea, Regarding the Fountain is about what happens at a school when the principal orders a new drinking fountain, but the fountain designer has something a thousand times more elaborate in mind (think spa!). A group of kids at the school is also involved in the project, along with some colorful characters from the small town... It's a hoot!

I recently bought Book 2 of the Klises' new series, 43 Old Cemetery Road, so then I had to go back and read Book 1, as well. As usual, the premise is more than a little loopy: a cranky old children's book writer named Mr. Grumply rents a house for the summer, trying to get past his writer's block, but neglects to read the fine print. It states that he is also assuming custody of the absentee landlords' eleven-year-old son Seymour and his cat Shadow for the foreseeable future. What's more, the house is haunted by a previous owner, Olive C. Spence (a deceased mystery writer—read her name out loud fast!). Olive acts as a surrogate mother to Seymour because his own highly negligent parents are off in Europe trying to prove that there's no such thing as ghosts. It takes Mr. Grumply a while to realize that the "Dear Housemate" notes he's getting aren't all from Seymour, and to believe that Olive isn't a hoax. Other missive writers in the book include Mr. Grumply's lawyer, a realtor named Anita Sale, the absent parents, and the town paper, which has a running joke of quoting people as follows:

"Personally," continued Sale, "I think Ignatius Grumply is an old grouchypants, but don't print that in the newspaper."
(Sorry, Anita. Your secrets are our business!)
Book Two, Over My Dead Body, introduces a man named Dick Tater, head of IMSPOOKY (The International Movement for the Safety and Protection of Our Kids and Youth). Tater is determined to abolish Halloween and break up Seymour's new family just because it includes a ghost. In short order, Tater has Ignatius Grumply thrown in the Illinois Home for the Deranged for believing in ghosts, while Seymour is dumped in an orphanage. Another threat in this book is Seymour's despicable parents, who plan on coming back for him simply so they can use him as a prop to increase the sales of their new book, Only Fools (and Children) Believe in Ghosts. But Olive is not without resources, and even as Tater threatens to exhume her grave, she gets busy rescuing her adopted family and showing Tater just how real a ghost can be.

One thing I like about the Klise sisters' books is that they're not a threatening read thanks to the graphic component and the small chunks provided by the letters, yet they require readers to make a certain amount of effort in order to put all of the pieces together. If you haven't tried the Klise creations, I suggest you give them a chance. There's really nothing like them on the market!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Review of Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute by Jarrett Krosoczka

Graphic novels are still a fairly young genre, and graphic novels for children are newer still. Some graphic novels for teens are based on existing Young Adult titles (Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series, for example); fewer are original series (e.g., Holly Black's new urban fantasy creation, Kin). For younger readers, the Babymouse books by Jennifer and Matthew Holm are the most solid entry so far. A few book series with strong visual elements, most notably Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants titles and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid plus sequels, have also charmed readers. Now author-illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka of Punk Farm fame has entered the fray with his series starter, Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute. (I have yet to get my hands on the companion volume, Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians.)

Obviously, the very best thing about this series is that Krosoczka chose a lunch lady for his undercover superhero. That made me laugh even before I discovered related details such as weaponry. In a brief scene before the title page (comparable to the scene before the opening credits roll in a movie), we see two bank robbers being stopped by a heroic figure on a motorcycle that has a sloppy joe button. Yep, it's hard to get away when your van is sliding around on a wave of sloppy joe filling.

The child characters in the book are a trio of average kids: Hector, Terrence, and Dee. When they are bothered by the school bully, Milmoe, a new substitute teacher saves the day—but there's something very strange about the sub, and soon Lunch Lady is trying to figure out just what he's up to. She is assisted by another lunch lady named Betty, who is like James Bond's gadget guy, Q.

The kitchen humor continues with a hidden lab behind a fridge and gadgets made out of things like spatulas, not to mention weapons formed from fish sticks. One of my favorite pages is a view of the spy screens in Lunch Lady's lab, which show what the teachers are doing. For instance, we learn that "Mr. Johnson is reciting poetry" to his class. Of course, the poem he is reciting begins, "Beans, beans, good for your heart..." before trailing off to be completed by amused readers.

Considering the title, you will not be shocked to discover that the substitute turns out to be a robot. What's fun to follow is how Lunch Lady figures this out and what she does about it. Meanwhile, our intrepid trio of kids have begun to spy on her. This, of course, allows them to participate in the obligatory climactic fight scene.

Lunch Lady herself is a delightful creation. Her cuss words in tense moments are vegetables: "Sweet potato!" and "Cauliflower!" When she tails the villain, she says, "I'm on him like cheese on macaroni!" L.L. is brave and knows some great fight moves, but she is also dedicated to providing school meals—a satisfyingly surreal combination.

The Babymouse books have an inherent sweetness, and so does Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute. The humor is goofy and lovable, the trio of children are ordinary enough to represent Everyreader, and the fight scenes are tongue in cheek. I'm very happy to see another graphic novel series served up in the children's book cafeteria. There's no mystery meat here: second and third graders are going to eat these up!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Notes from a Children's Book Conference

This weekend is the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Conference, conveniently located just across town from me here in Los Angeles. I'll try to squeeze in a book review later this weekend, but for the moment, let me give you a few observations from the conference. I'll continue to add to these as the conference progresses. (For more extensive blog notes, go to the SCBWI site, where a team of bloggers is reporting on the conference.)


Keynote speaker SHERMAN ALEXIE made me think, Wow, I would have paid the $450 just to hear this talk! He was passionate, funny, and (deliberately, I suspect) more than a little nuts. It's not the kind of thing I can recreate here, but hearing him prompted me to retrieve The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from slightly lower down in my massive To Read pile and move it to the top. He joked around about the banned book elements in his work and the odd friendliness of our crowd, as opposed to the world of publishing for grown-ups. (That world is cannibalistic; the world of Young Adult literature, he said, is still a little ruthless, but you'd only come away with a pinkie toe missing, not your whole body.) By telling the story of a poignant personal experience with a reader, Alexie reminded us that if, as authors, our books touch only one kid, we've done our job and it's all worth it. He also pointed out (sharing examples from two groups of readers who sent him fan male, one from a rich prep school and the other from the Crow reservation) that most teens, rich and poor, sound a painfully common theme: "My choices are being made for me."

The second speaker was brilliant picture book author-illustrator DAVID WIESNER. He started with some video from the old movie, Frankenstein, in which Igor cries, "It's alive." Using this as a repeated theme about how inspiration strikes, Wiesner walked us through the genesis of his ideas for key books. It turns out early science fiction films and books are major inspirations. 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly its match cut from the thrown bone to a spaceship, is one such influence. Match cut-style illustrations and worlds within worlds appear over and over in Wiesner's work. It was fascinating to see how the bits and pieces of Wiesner's visual inspirations came together to help create his unique work. For example, Flotsam was originally the story of a round piece of crystal shown traveling through time till it washed up on a beach, but the boy who appeared late in that draft came to dominate the story, as did a single sketch of a girl holding a picture of another child holding a picture of another child. We learned that Wiesner painted each of the children in the series of photos-within-photos separately and inset them using the computer rather than painting them with what would have been an increasingly rough brushstroke relative to the size.

Naturally, I couldn't attend all the workshops. To start with, I chose INGRID LAW, curious to hear from the woman whose debut book won a Newbery Honor award earlier this year. Law's topic was supposed to be "Writing a Strong Voice in a Willly-Nilly, Namby-Pamby Way," but someone accidentally typed it up as "a Strange Voice," so she incorporated the error into her presentation with panache. The most important thing I can tell you about Law is that she loves and collects words. As she told us, "Words sort of rule voice for me." Law recommended a book called Spunk and Bite (a parody of the classic Strunk and White); she also encouraged us to have a piece of cake (which she brought on the plane as part of an object lesson) and to take creative risks. Law said she was unhappy with the manuscript she was working on one day, so she took out a piece of paper and just put down the craziest sentence she could think of: "When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he'd caused it." With a minor word change, that sentence became the first sentence of Savvy; it also contained the seeds for much of the book. I am happy to report that Law is nearly done with a companion book, tentatively titled Scumble. It's about a boy in Wyoming (cowboy country) named Ledger Cale. Let's hope for a 2010 release!

Next I went to RICHARD PECK's workshop on the topic of setting because I had heard one of his presentations a few years ago and knew he was an amazing teacher. Peck walked us through various examples of setting, helping us see that setting details have to earn their pay by telling us things about character and plot instead of just lounging around. He told us that a story always works from the idea of an epiphany, "a sudden new awareness that is acted upon" by the main character--unlike in real life, he quipped, where we generally run from epiphanies and the thought of change. In addressing authors' tendency to "overdress the set" with too many details, Peck observed, "Happy writing makes for sad reading" and encouraged us to cut back. "I'm not fifteen; I don't want credit for everything I write," he noted. The author also gave us a look at his next book, a YA ghost story called Three-Quarters Dead. It's due out in 2010 and sounded wonderfully creepy, so put it on your list. One more thought from Richard Peck: "Setting is the exterior landscape that reflects the interior of our characters."

The last speaker I heard was BETTY BIRNEY. She's the author of a middle grade series about a class hamster named Humphrey. Her sense of humor made me want to take a look at this series for younger readers, which sounds clever and appealing. The first book is called The World According to Humphrey. Fun facts: Birney worked at Disneyland for years, and she does not own a hamster. She's pretty sure her dog wouldn't like it!


I wasn't going to mention yesterday's panel of editors, but I've realized that JENNIFER HUNT from Little Brown offered us a nuanced categorization of the best kinds of books on what she calls (beautifully) a publisher's "well-curated list." Hunt spoke of (1) A backlist gem, a book which just seems to quietly stay in print, year after year--e.g., Wendy Mass's A Mango-Shaped Space, (2) The great debut, a book which quickly acquires a solid fanbase looking forward to the next book from that author--e.g., Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer, (3) A book in which an author noticeably finds his/her voice, creating a true and unique style in comparison to previous publications--e.g., Julie Anne Peters's Luna, (4) A career changer, a book which solidly puts a previously less-noticed author on the map and off the midlist--e.g., Sarah Zarr's Story of a Girl, (5) [A work with] Vision, a book which may be unconventional, a risk on the publisher's part, but which is a unique success--e.g., Peter Brown's The Curious Garden, and (6) The phenomenon, a book which shoots meteorically to the top, not only of the list, but of the national/international consciousness--e.g., Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

I missed most of a panel on picture book collaboration with Melinda Long, Eve Bunting, and Kadir Nelson, conducted by Arthur Levine, because I was upstairs having breakfast with a group of fellow fantasy writers from the Enchanted Inkpot. (It's always nice to eat scrambled eggs while watching famous authors like Richard Peck stroll by.) What I caught at the tail end of the panel was that illustrators don't mind talking to authors as much as editors seem to think they might, and that the illustration process truly is a separate creative endeavor--most of this from the great KADIR NELSON (see We Are the Ship and Abe's Honest Words, among others).

KAREN CUSHMAN, creator of Newbery honor winner Catherine, Called Birdy, and Newbery Medal winner The Midwife's Apprentice, was up next. She shared some great quotes, including this one from W Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." She went on to caution us, "Don't listen to advice. Even mine, which of course I am going to give you anyway." Cushman then talked about the ways in which her own writing process bucks conventional wisdom. I was surprised to hear how late her own writing career started--she said she had been telling her husband story ideas for years, and he always listened. When she was about fifty, she came to him with an idea, and he refused to listen. "Write it down," he told her, "and I'll read it." She was irritated, but she did it, and the book became Catherine, Called Birdy. Cushman scoffed at the idea of "writing what you know," pointing out that if she did that, she'd write this: "Got up this morning, made stuff up, went to bed." Instead, she told us, "I say, write what you want to know." The author said that she is concise to a fault. Her first drafts are usually only fifty or sixty pages long, prompting her editor, Dinah Stevenson, to call one such manuscript "a bouillon cube of a book."

I attended HOLLY BLACK's workshop on "How to Be Good Critiquers and Critique Partners" mostly because I like her writing and wanted to hear from her. I won't give you a lot of what she said because it's pretty off topic for this blog, but she did say she thinks that by working with a critique group or partner, you can learn things from watching someone else go through the revision process. She also mentioned "The Envy Test," saying that if someone's work makes her a little envious and angry, she figures it's ready to go out to the publisher. Speaking of generosity, Black said, "You have to believe that there will always be more ideas." The author was delightful! This may sound obvious, but one of the nicest things about attending an SCBWI Conference is finding out how fun, funny, smart, and kind the author presenters are, almost without exception.

ELLEN HOPKINS then addressed the entire conference. She was self-effacing and light-hearted, in contrast to her books--young adult (YA) novels in verse about extremely difficult topics, or rather, teens in extremely difficult situations. She explained that her first book, Crank, came out of a painful personal situation: Ellen was forced by a judge to send her bright high-school age daughter to spend time with her drug dealer father. The girl took up with a bad boy and became a drug addict. Hopkins talked about getting as far as she has in the world of children's books by "sheer stubbornness," explaining that while people like Stephenie Meyer take a helicopter to the top of the mountain, most of us are in for a long, hard climb.

After Ellen spoke, we heard from a panel of agents, who agreed that even if these tough economic times, children's books are doing fairly well. That is, the publishers have had lay-offs, but they are still buying and selling books. A few factoids: YA is going strong, especially since more adults are reading them. Brenda Bowen, a senior editor who was laid off and switched to being an agent earlier this year, said she looks for strong voices; confident, assured writing; creative language; and humor in acquiring books. All six agents--BRENDA BOWEN, SARAH DAVIES, STEPHEN FRASER, DAN LAZAR, KELLY SONNACK, and MARIETTA ZACKER--said that they usually work with authors on editing manuscripts before sending them on to editors. As Sonnack concluded, "All of us here want to fall in love. We want to fall in love with your work."

I then attended a workshop with EVE BUNTING called "What Makes a Good Picture Book Better." The author had some good advice, but best of all was hearing her talk about her books. In case you weren't aware, Bunting has written a number of picture books about serious topics like the Vietnam Memorial, the Holocaust, and homeless people living in airports. However, Eve Bunting is not a somber person, and even though she looks like a dear grandmother type, she is nice and feisty. Perhaps the best thing she said was during the Q&A at the end, when someone asked her "When do you do your thinking?" (Bunting had said that she spends a lot of time pondering her ideas before writing anything, which she considers part of the writing process.) The author's answer? "While my husband is talking." Perhaps her best advice was "Never be boring." She pointed out that parents will have to sit through repeated readings of picture books. "You can escape this pitfall with a little humor and a fresh idea." She also advised us that if someone asks us what we do and we say we write for children, and they get a condescending look on their faces, "Slap them!"

Wow, I am so running out of gas... Conferences are rewarding, but draining. I will try to add to these notes in a few days. Meanwhile, I've posted a book review!


Author-illustrator-animator DAN YACCARINO spoke to the group on Sunday morning. His theme was "Yes!" After years of hard work and training in illustration (doing pieces for newspaper editorials, for example), he broke into children's illustration and animation partly because if anyone asked him whether he could do something, he'd say he could, even if it was new to him. I like this line, which belies a lot of misconceptions about creating for an audience of children: "You can't be precious about this stuff." He later added, "Kids can smell it on you a mile away when you're insincere."

Yaccarino is inspired by things like robots, cartoons, Mad Magazine, and toys and packaging from his childhood. He showed us a page from his first book, My Big Brother Mike, with the comment, "I still haven't forgiven my big brother for breaking my toys." Later in his presentation, he showed us a picture of his art studio, which is filled with cool gadgets and toys. "This is my studio. So I got back at my brother." Yaccarino showed us that he works on personal art projects on the side to fuel his work; some of the styles he tries end up appearing in later projects.

Asked if he knew how to do animation, Dan Yaccarino said, "Yes!" He ended up creating multiple TV shows for children, including Nickelodeon's terrific program for preschoolers, Oswald. Yaccarino did the initial character design for the Backyardigans, another well-known show. His newest animated program will appear on cable this fall: Willa's Wild Life. He is very proud of his work re-envisioning the Little Golden Books for a new audience; for example, take a look at his urban Mother Goose. I'm interested in reading his biography of Jacques Cousteau, as well, and the book he has coming out next spring sounds hilarious: Yaccarino described Lawn to Lawn as "The Incredible Journey meets lawn ornaments."

HOLLY BLACK addressed the entire conference on the topic of fantasy writing, "Examining the Strange." It was very fun to hear that she grew up in a decrepit Victorian with a mother who believed in the supernatural. Black said that as a child she asked her mother, "Mom, are there things out there like vampires, werewolves, and witches that might come get me?" Her mother's response? "Well, probably not." Black's mother also warned her never to astral project because if she left her body empty, something might come and take it over before she got back!

The author of Tithe and the Spiderwick Chronicles told us, "I believe that all writing is a conversation with what came before," so we should "Read enough that we are part of the conversation." She had an interesting take on the audience we write for: "As children's book writers, we are in a genreless genre." She said that since children don't know a lot about categorizing books by genres, we can invent things that are entirely new, and the kids won't know that. They're a wonderfully fresh audience.

Black explained that she doesn't think fantasy is more escapist than any other kind of literature. "Fantasy is the language of metaphor; it actualizes metaphor." This lends itself to working with themes in rich ways. For example, "When we write about something alien, we will also write about alienation." Black expounded on this idea, saying that fantasy gives writers and readers a safe place to deal with difficult issues such as anger. "You can't be mad at someone for being a werewolf. You can't say, 'It's not nice to be a werewolf.' You have to say, 'Okay, now what?'"

The author differentiated between horror and fantasy, saying that the latter may evoke both awe and fear, but the former only evokes fear. With fantasy, "You get the sense that the world is bigger and stranger and greater for having those strange things in it." And she quoted adult fantasy writer Gene Wolf as saying, "All novels are fantasies. Some are just more honest about it." She went on to say that Gene Wolf had said that realistic fiction made him feel like something was missing--the spiritual, the mysterious, the divine. Then she quoted from a rather caustic essay from Ursula LeGuin which stated, "A writer may use all the trappings of fantasy without ever imagining anything." Black added that we have to believe in Elfland when we read fantasy. It has to feel real. Like historical fiction, good fantasy convinces readers that they've been somewhere they've never actually been.

Holly Black then told us about "closed fantasy" with "day logic," or fantasy which has predictable spells and rules, e.g., Harry Potter. She contrasted this with "open fantasy" that has "night logic," where the rules are seldom spelled out and magic users must work more intuitively. The example she gave for this is Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire series (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood).

I next attended a workshop about the current children's book market given by agent (and former editor) STEPHEN FRASER, who said, "I think this is an era of no mediocre books." He explained that in tough economic times, publishers are unwilling to buy books that don't have strikingly fresh plots and voices supported by amazing craftsmanship. The bar has been raised, which is good news for readers! Picture books are the part of the market that is shrinking the most, while middle grade books are holding steady and YA is on the upswing. On the whole, children's books are doing better than most adult genres in terms of sales these days, the exception being mysteries and thrillers. I liked what Fraser said of middle grade kids: "They're really fervent readers." He said something thought-provoking about YA, as well. He talked about the increase in edgy books, but said that he didn't mean edgy in terms of shocking topics. Rather, the newer books are edgier when it comes to authentic writing, humor, and over-the-top drama. They're "extra special," he said. (Printz winner Jellicoe Road is an example that came to my mind when he said that.) Asked about the effect of publishing house mergers on the market, the agent said that yes, it has an impact on writers. He quipped, "There's this little corporate quirk called greed."

As far as trends, Fraser predicted that the current vampire fad (prompted by the success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight) will end soon. He sees a need for books about boys, especially by male authors, and really good books about Latino and black characters.

At the GOLDEN KITE AWARDS luncheon, we heard from the following:

BONNIE BECKER, winner for A Visitor for Bear for picture book text, quoted E.B. White as saying, "All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world." Becker changed the quote for herself, saying that she would end it, "I love people." Hence her lovely characters, the bear and the mouse in her book.

HYEWON YUM won for best illustration with her lovely book, Last Night. SCBWI president Steve Mooser introduced her with a quote from editor Arthur Levine, "We're looking for books that show unmistakable originality." Yum was very soft-spoken, apologizing for her limited English--which kind of matched her wordless winner! I did look at her book later, and it's a darling read for 2- to 5-year-olds.

PAMELA S. TURNER is part of my group over at Enchanted Inkpot, since she's currently writing a fantasy. But she is best known for really terrific nonfiction. Turner spoke about her winner for nonfiction, A Life in the Wild: George Schaller's Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts. We were touched to hear that she's donating her royalties and her winnings to George Schaller's wildlife conservation foundation. It turns out George Schaller is the father of the modern conservation movement, and the first to suggest studying live animals in the wild (as opposed to their corpses!). He went out in the wild all alone and showed that it could be done, and that it was highly effective, studying gorillas, lions, and pandas, among other animals. His work with gorillas inspired Diane Fosse. Well, anyone who studies animal behavior in the wild is following in his footsteps. (Turner's new book The Frog Scientist also looks fascinating--plus the scientist is black, which I appreciate as an educator. I picked up a copy at the conference.)

STEVE WATKINS won the Golden Kite award for fiction. His book, Down Sand Mountain, is set in the late sixties. I didn't take a lot of notes, but the author was very personable, and his racism-themed coming-of-age YA is obviously a troubling and touching work, intended to make readers think about what it means to be human.

DONNA GEPHART won the Sid Fleischman humor award for her book, As If Being 12 3/4 Weren't Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! Sid Fleischman was unable to attend, but Steve Mooser quoted him as saying, "The author knew the secret of comedy: it's tragedy wearing a putty nose."

Then RICHARD PECK spoke, and I have to tell you, he's the most quotable person on the planet. What a way the man has with words! I'm trying to think of the male equivalent of the term grand dame, but the closest I can come is grand master, as in chess. Here are some of the lines I caught on paper:

--"You have to read 1000 books to write 1."
--"J.K. Rowling never attended Hogwarts, and Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit."
--"A story is always about going forward because you can never go back."
--"Nobody ever grows up until he has to, and in our stories, everyone has to."
--"Boys do not wish to make imaginative leaps; boys like to make clear connections."
--"You can teach children, or you can fear their parents; you cannot do both."
--Speaking of writers, who have become today's most powerful teachers of children: "We can't be fired; we're unemployed."
--And "We are a subversive counterculture."
--At the airport, "The checked bag is the badge of the amateur."
--"We write in a time when maturing itself has become an elective."
--Speaking of despair, "...when the self-pity comes in like the tide..." and "in a world of sexting and Twitter and the communal stupidity of MySpace." Later he added to his description of "a world disfigured by sorrow and chatrooms... and the double-barreled despair of Barnes and Noble."
--"We're growing older every minute while our readers stay mysteriously the same age."

Near the end of his talk, Peck recounted visiting a group of eighth grade writers at a middle school and telling them, "All stories turn upon epiphany." He then asked the class for a definition of epiphany, and one boy responded with "An epiphany is when everything changes and you can't go back." Peck said that that was the best definition of the word he'd ever heard. After the students filed out, the teacher explained to Peck that the boy had discovered his father in the bathtub two years earlier, dead of an accidental overdose. The mother was already deceased. With great tenderness, Peck told us that as an author, when you meet a boy like that, a child in a dark place, "You wonder if story can help, and give him a little companionship." (Aha, I've got it! Peck is an elder statesman. But I still like grand master.)

Speaking of epiphanies, after that I went to a workshop on voice given by ELLEN HOPKINS, who introduced us to several teens by showing us their MySpace letters to her, their profile descriptions, and their pictures. She wanted us to understand that each kid has a unique voice, one affected by his/her experiences. Hopkins also asked us how many of us loved high school, and how many hated it. She gave us some pointers about using a YA voice, then asked us to write a few paragraphs describing a life-changing moment in our own high school experience. I have to say, the piece I wrote felt pretty epiphanic to me. It also shook me up: I cried when I read it to the group. Although I do cry easily--blush blush. But hey: I walked out of there thinking differently about teens, let alone voice! (Note for Worried Parents: Hopkins's books are not for the faint of heart, as they're about topics like drug abuse, mental illness, abuse, and teen prostitution. Yet she is really meeting the needs of her readers, many of whom are themselves struggling and clearly feel understood and connected when they read her work.)

Egmont editor ELIZABETH LAW ended our day with her address to another full session. Like many of the other editors and agents at the conference, she emphasized the need for unique, powerful premises/plots. She cited Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, Ingrid Law's Savvy, and Laurie Halse Anderson's "spectacular, terrifying" Wintergirls as examples of striking books that stand out in a crowded market. I have to say, Richard Peck also talked about Wintergirls, saying how superb it is! I tend to shy away from the darker YAs (because I'm a big softie), but these endorsements make me curious. One interesting observation from Law: She pointed out that although people gripe about the awards process (Newbery, Printz, etc.), the awards encourage publishers to continue to acquire literary works in a business that is increasingly oriented toward more commercial books.


Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor DINAH STEVENSON opened the last day of the conference with a talk about "The Four C's" required for a successful book. She included numerous brilliant quotations from various literary figures. Her Four C's are:

1. Creativity--"an essential strategy for writers" and, she noted, "something you do."
2. Craft--She talked about creativity growing in the garden and craft happening in the kitchen; you grow creativity like vegetables, then apply craftsmanship to them to turn them into something delicious. Craft is "artistry, skill, insight, and how to use language."
3. Community--although writers are naturally competitive, we must support and nurture one another. Through helping others, we help ourselves.
4. Chocolate--or some other kind of treat or celebration. Writing should be a joyful act.

Another good piece of advice from Stevenson was "Make yourself indispensible by writing what only you can write."

INGRID LAW addressed the conference next. Her talk was titled "Writing Magic: From the Head to the Heart." She told us, "Don't be too careful, because that is part of the magic that you create.... All of you are enchanters, and all of you are potion-makers." The rest of her talk was a story, an allegory about writing in which a man aspires to make magical potions but goes about it all wrong, or rather, learns a lot along the way. It is only when the aspiring potion-maker includes the shards and tears from his own years of pain and worry that he is finally able to create a true potion. The story was touching and a little funny, like Law's book Savvy.

After the two keynote speakers finished, I went to a workshop by agent SARAH DAVIES, who has one of those wonderful Gaiman-esque accents. She told us that a love of language had created the path for her life, and went on to give us five (actually six) ingredients for creating a breakout novel:

1. Unique--an inspired concept; "I see a lot of very similar stories."
2. Larger-than-life characters--A main character must be vivid and true, must leap off the page into our hearts and minds. Get to know your characters very well.
3. A high-stakes story--e.g., Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, though in realistic fiction, the stakes may be emotional rather than physical.
4. A deeply felt theme--a moral or spiritual message delivered without preaching or teaching overtly. It's something that stays with the reader after the last page is turned.
5. A vivid setting--one that is imbued with emotion, almost becoming a character. E.g., the setting in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
6. That special alchemy called voice--"You need to develop a musicality about language."

Davies quoted Anthony Trollope as saying, "There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily." She also quoted an anonymous person who stated, "What I like in good author is not what he says, but what he whispers." Davies noted that "[publishing] is so hard because we are at that painful interface between creativity and big business."

Then I attended a panel on cross-genre writing given by Simon and Schuster editor ARTHUR LEVINE (filling in for Sid Fleischman) and authors LINDA SUE PARK and LISA YEE. One of the points they made is that different arts and genres cross-pollinate: Sid Fleischman started as a magician and a screenwriter, Linda Sue Park was originally a poet, and Lisa Yee worked in copywriting. All three built on strengths from their previous creative endeavors when they began writing children's books. Writing across genres seemed like a natural extension of this practice. The funniest moment in the workshop came during a Q&A at the end, when someone asked the panel, "Have you ever thought about writing under a different name?" To which Lisa Yee responded immediately, "I write under 'J.K. Rowling.'"

The conference concluded (no, really!) with a talk given by KATHLEEN DUEY, who said that she revised her remarks that very day so as not to cover the same ground as the other speakers. She spoke of the need for having a reentry strategy after attending the conference--specific techniques for maximizing the ideas learned during the course of the weekend. Duey is the author of the YA fantasy Skin Hunger, which I confess is languishing in my gigantic To Read pile. The sequel, Sacred Scars, was just released. Duey wrapped up her talk by saying, "I want to talk about this thing we do, this story thing we do.... I think stories are the connective tissue for lots of things, for many things... stories don't only teach, they also shield." She added that stories "can serve a thousand, thousand, thousand uses every day of our lives."