Friday, April 2, 2010
For those who are interested in knowing more, by the way, The Hotel Olympia is the story of an over-worrying 13-year-old boy, whose family takes an unexpected vacation to a crumbling Victorian grand hotel in the Missouri Ozarks, situated in a quaint village that first became famous in the late 1800s for its "curative" mineral springs, then more famous in the early 1900s for hosting America's first Winter Olympics. (This is all made up, by the way.) While there, the boy becomes wrapped up in a mystery over whether Theodore Roosevelt once stayed there (which the local historical society is trying to prove, to save the hotel from being torn down); develops his first serious crush (on a fellow 13-year-old female tourist); becomes friends with a college-aged goth-girl employee with conflicted feelings about the town; has his first experiences with historic architecture, after spending most of his life so far staying during vacations at cookie-cutter Holiday Inns off business-road exits in metropolitan suburbs; and is forced to confront his growing certainty that his parents have taken them there to announce an impending divorce. It'll be between 30,000 and 40,000 words when I'm finished, and with a deliberately laid-back and atmospheric tone.
By John Green
Speak / Penguin
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's title is my sixth of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books out there, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; in particular it's the 2005 Printz-winning tragicomedy Looking for Alaska, by master of the character novel John Green, whose newer title An Abundance of Katherines has also been reviewed here in the past. And indeed, it's easy to see why those who read Alaska first are generally a bit disappointed by Katherines, despite it being great unto itself as well; because both books end up sharing many of the same traits (nerdy boy hero with weird linguistic obsession, who's also popular and gets sex regularly; stocky, brusque best friend who serves as the comic relief; bewitchingly complex and deeply flawed female love interest who generally drives everyone else crazy; gratuitous drinking, smoking and cursing), but with Alaska packing much more of a punch when it finally gets to its serious half.
See, it's about a group of friends at a small private boarding school in Alabama, one of those low-tier prep schools with only a regional reputation but is where all the rich kids in the surrounding towns are sent; and the first half is not much more than a comedic, laid-back look at the inconsequential ins-and-outs of their daily lives, socially centered around a precociously intelligent yet bit of a trainwreck girl named Alaska, who seems to always be coining all their inside jokes and planning all their clever pranks. But then about halfway through, the book takes a complete right turn (and I don't think this is a spoiler, in that the book itself states it nearly explicitly on the back cover), when Alaska drives drunk one night and dies in a suspicious auto accident; and that makes the second half of the book a much more somber and existential tale, as Alaska's friends grapple not only with her death but also such troubling questions as whether she actually committed suicide, and how responsible they are in her death for knowingly letting her drive drunk that night in the first place. In trademark Green fashion, then, all of these issues are handled with a surprising amount of gentle if not dark humor, and a kind of direct connection to the topsy-turvy emotions of teens that most of us adults have long forgotten; and that of course is a big part of what makes Green such a brilliant YA author, is precisely that he does remember all the subtle emotions of teens that most adults promptly force out of their memories after the end of puberty, which he then combines with plots so tight and dialogue so witty as to make Michael Chabon himself proud.
Green is easily my favorite of all the YA authors I've ever now read, and I will count myself lucky if I can put out books myself that are even half as good as his. I recommend either of the titles mentioned today, or of course his newest, Paper Towns, which I also plan on reviewing here in the future.
Monday, March 29, 2010
Walter Lorraine Books / Houghton Mifflin
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's title was recommended to me by an actual children's librarian here in Chicago who I recently met, a sort of "Lemony Snicket" knockoff about a family full of beastly people, with parents who are trying to abandon their children and children trying to kill off their parents, and siblings being rude to other siblings and a nanny who's brutish to them all; but I have to admit, I don't really care that much for these types of neo-Victorian, comically ghoulish tales, because they feel to me like they're designed not so much for actual children but rather their snotty hipster Gen-X parents, the kind of "delightfully quirky" kid-lit book that adults read on the sly, as a way of reinforcing an idealized childhood sophistication that they never actually had, but now as middle-agers desperately wish that they did. I mean, I'm sure there are kids out there who really will legitimately like this; it's just that on the whole, it feels like everyone involved with this title cared little about whether that would turn out to be true, and a lot more about whether this could be used as the basis for an endless stream of pricey merchandise snatched up by lunchbox-carrying goth-girl college students. The entire thing is about 30,000 words altogether (not including the "Devil's Dictionary" type humorous glossary at the end), and seemed to me to be best geared towards older grade-schoolers and those just entering junior high (or in other words, very roughly ages 10 to 13).
Thursday, March 25, 2010
By Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse / Simon & Schuster
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's title is my fifth of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books out there, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; in particular it's the 2005 science-fiction juggernaut Uglies, by an author named Scott Westerfeld who was already a famed writer of adult SF before penning this, and which in reality is merely part one of an insanely popular series currently four books long.
And man, it's easy to see why people go so nuts about this book once you read it yourself, because it's a stunner when compared to a lot of other YA novels out there -- much more sophisticated than the average teen book, presenting much more subversive material than normal, a post-apocalyptic morality tale that effortlessly blends far-future hard-science concepts with the reality of our current plastic-surgery, Paris Hilton, TMZ wasteland days. Taking place several hundred years after an unnamed apocalyptic event, Uglies imagines a new type of society all green and shiny, where cutting-edge science is used to create a self-sustaining metropolitan area that largely takes care of itself, leaving its inhabitants free to essentially party 24 hours a day; and in an effort to erase the looks-based biases and open racism of past civilization (which Westerfeld hints is what caused the unnamed apocalypse in the first place), at the age of 16 all citizens go through a complicated series of plastic surgeries so that every single person ends up looking like a gorgeous, golden-skinned supermodel. Such a society, then, breaks down into what they call "littlies" (small children), "uglies" (those going through puberty, and who live in lower-class barracks away from the main city), then "pretties" once coming of age, further broken down into categories of "young," "middle" and "old" pretties (each requiring a new round of surgeries).
Without going into too many specifics, then, the actual plot of Uglies sort of mirrors the classic '70s tale Logan's Run, the story of one 15-year-old ugly who has accidentally gotten wind about a supposed sanctuary of sorts, a semi-mythical community of non-ops who live as adult uglies out in the crumbling post-apocalyptic ruins of what sounds like might be San Francisco or perhaps Seattle. And that of course gets to the heart of this book's brilliance; because in a world full of environmentally-friendly, crime-free cities packed with supermodels, none of whom ever have to work a day in their life, why would one be complaining in the first place? Aren't we as a race ultimately striving for some kind of version of this right now, after all? And Westerfeld's answer, of course, is that it's a society without free will, a society that never grows or changes precisely because there is no pain or learning, no hard lessons and no maturation process, with the whole thing actually held together through much more nefarious means than the general population even realizes; there's a very good reason, after all, that these various post-apocalyptic "pretty" cities maintain no contact with each other, a very good reason that there's a whole secret wing of these societies acting as a shadow government of sorts, the various revelations concerning which make up the action-packed plotline of this book's second half.
Like Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, this is one of those books that liberal, intelligent parents are going to love seeing their teens get into; because ultimately this book preaches a great message that too few teens get told these days, that it's always better to think for yourself and make your own decisions, no matter how tempting a bland, comfortable, unthinking middle-class existence of television and partying might seem at times. It's a giant book, almost 500 pages, and so are all the sequels, making it a good challenge for most teenage readers, something that feels like a real accomplishment when finishing, and I have a feeling is eventually going to take on a revered, highly influential place in the minds of the current generation of youth, when thinking back on these times twenty or thirty years from now. That's a nice thing to imagine, frankly, that a book like this might have much more of a future sway over our current generation of youth than every celebrity trainwreck and embarrassing reality show added together. More books like these, please, YA industry, and a little less sexy vampires!
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
By Stephanie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's title of course needs no introduction to most: it's after all part of the second most popular YA series on the planet behind Harry Potter, and what eventually let its author Stephanie Meyer break into the "50 Richest Artists in America" list in 2008, partly helped by a massive grassroots publicity campaign by her fellow Mormons, to help promote this book about teens where no one drinks, smokes, does drugs or has sex. And here's the big surprise -- it's not actually that bad, or at least in comparison to other Young Adult novels out there; and that of course is what has garnered it so much criticism, that millions of adults have now precisely treated and therefore judged it like one would an adult novel (the exact reason it became such a huge bestseller in the first place), and for the most part a YA novel will simply pale in comparison to just about any popular adult novel that exists, barring a few exceptions such as perhaps Sarah Dessen or John Green.
For those who don't know, the book is essentially "Jane Austen Meets Dracula," with Meyer using a whole series of clever gimmicks to recreate all the great elements of Austen's oppressive, mannered Georgian world in our postmodern, anything-goes times; set in a small town in the Pacific Northwest where everybody knows everybody else's business, like Austen's Northanger Abbey it features as our hero an impetuous, mistake-prone 17-year-old girl named Bella, with an overactive imagination and healthy disrespect for blind authority, as she slowly develops an obsession for a family of standoffish yet impossibly gorgeous siblings who attend the same school as her, and especially the brooding, Byronic oldest brother Edward, who is assigned as her lab partner in Chemistry and quickly develops an intense push/pull relationship with her. As the novel continues, then, and Bella discovers the truth about the mysterious Cullen family (SPOILER ALERT: they're vampires), again Meyer uses the milieu mostly for the Austenesque purpose of letting the two hold hands and make googly-eyes at each other for several hundred pages, until interrupted by a forced Act Three that feels arbitrary and tacked-on ("And then some random Bad Guy shows up and decides to kill Bella for no discernible reason"), as if someone had told Meyer that all vampire novels must end with an action scene, even though her whole point was to write a Regency-style love story.
I mean, yes, the whole thing is a silly mess at a lot of points; but I was fully expecting a book designed for overly emotional 14-year-old girls to seem like a silly mess to me, which is why I instead read it more for analytical reasons, to see if I could figure out why teenaged girls go so nuts over this book in the first place, in an attempt to perhaps help my own wannabe career as a YA author. And the fact is that it's very easy to see why teenaged girls go so crazy for this entire series, with Meyer smartly tapping into some universal truths about idealized female desire, which I'm sure is why so many millions of fully-grown adult females who should theoretically know better have responded so passionately to this too -- after all, Edward possesses the looks of a Roman statue and a gay man's appreciation for expensive clothes and classical music; is rich but artsy and disdainful of money; is ruled by dark emotions yet has a surprisingly easy-to-control handle over them; secretly follows her around so that he can miraculously save her from her own ineptitude at ridiculously convenient moments, yet never comes off like a stalker when doing so; never ever pressures her to have sex because his burning, overwhelming hunger for her would literally rip her apart if he ever acted on it; plus his sinewy, muscular body literally freaking sparkles when directly exposed to sunlight. So in other words, he's the exact portrait of a 14-year-old girl's idea of a perfect boyfriend, which like I said is also apparently the romantic ideal of millions of fully grown women who should know much better.
That's not such a terrible crime when all is said and done, which is why I didn't find the book all that bad despite its eyerolling nature; although admittedly feminists are going to have a field day over this book's overarching "Bachelor"esque message, that women are essentially terminal screw-ups whose lives will never be better until a dominating man they're kind of scared of majestically swoops in fairytale-style and rescues them. In any case, now that I've read it myself, it's easy to see why so many people have responded so intensely to it, and has definitely given me some tips as far as the struggle in my own life to write entertaining stories for young females. You already know whether you yourself are going to love or hate Twilight, and I urge you to listen to your gut when it comes to whether or not you should pick up a copy.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Mummies Don't Coach Softball (1996)
Unicorns Don't Give Sleigh Rides (1997)
By Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones
Little Apple / Scholastic
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's titles are from yet another of these series of endless chapter-books designed for grade-schoolers, in this case all of them co-penned by a duo of friends who used to be grade-school teachers themselves; this is one of the types of employment I myself am hoping to find in the industry, to kick out such easy-reading 30,000-word titles once a month or so, which is why I'm reading so many of them these days. Now, admittedly, this particular series is based on a high-concept that I find tough to imagine lasting for as long as it has; basically, each title features yet another new adult in the lives of our middle-class child heroes who may or may not be a mythological creature, exhibiting strange traits throughout the story but never just coming out and saying whether they're a mummy or vampire or whatever. (And in fact there are almost 75 books in this series now, nearly all of them featuring a different mythological creature, which just on its own is pretty impressive.) These are very much for the younger end of the chapter-book crowd, in my opinion from ages 7 to about 9 or 10, featuring lots of illustrations and a ton of silly humor; and to their credit Dadey and Jones are much more interested in simply being entertaining than in trying to teach a moral lesson, usually a common trait among books for this age group. They're nothing special, but certainly readable and fun, and come recommended for younger readers looking for their first dose of genre excitement but wanting to avoid dark material altogether.
By Judy Blundell
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's title was the winner of the 2009 National Book Award for YA fiction, but unfortunately I found it hard to get into, mostly because it's pretty much the exact opposite of the type of book I plan on writing -- it's historical fiction (set in the aftermath of WW2), told from the viewpoint of a shy girl, with a storyline that hinges around a traditional romance told in a traditional way. I'm sure that people who are into these types of books will find a lot to love here, but it just wasn't my cup of tea.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
By Dave Wolverton
The Dark Rival (1999)
By Jude Watson
The Hidden Past (1999)
By Jude Watson
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's titles are from yet another long-running series of chapter books for grade-schoolers, the kind of franchise where an endless amount of 30,000-word volumes are cranked out once a month by a series of essentially anonymous authors; and this is actually one of the types of employment I'm hoping to find in the industry myself, which is why I'm reading so many of these types of books these days, to understand more about how exactly they're written.
And indeed, after expecting these to be only middling titles that rely mostly on the strength of the "Star Wars" brand for their commercial success, the three volumes of the "Jedi Apprentice" series I read (volumes 1, 2 and 3) were instead some of the better chapter books I've so far come across this year, with challenging vocabularies and nicely complex moral lessons that have more in common with Zen Buddhism than the Babysitters Club. (But then again, this series is put out by the always excellent Scholastic, so I guess I should've known better.) Although these will only appeal almost exclusively to boys in the 10-to-12 range, they're excellent for what they are, and get the classic "rules" of writing for this age group almost perfect -- for example, they include plenty of periil but very little real-world danger (helped immensely by their fantastical setting), feature plenty of action but a stripped-down non-confusing plot, and also do a nice job for sci-fi novels at exploring both school environments and inter-gender relationships at that age in depth. They're on the large side of such books, a full 30,000 to 35,000 words apiece, and despite their subject matter are not recommended for so-called "reluctant readers."
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Viking / Penguin
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's title is my third of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books out there, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; in particular it's the 2007 outing by Laurie Halse Anderson, who's actually put out a whole string of award-nominated bestsellers and passionate teen favorites over the years. It's essentially a character drama about a formerly nerdy teenage boy, who decides at the end of his junior year to commit a major piece of vandalism as a way of acting out, which then earns him a summer of manual-labor community service after getting busted; this then turns him into a chiseled hardbody just in time for his senior year, which when added to his new "bad boy" status suddenly makes him the talk of the school, including an aggressive courtship by the empty-headed future sorority girl that he's had a crush on for years.
But things eventually turn disastrous, through a series of events that are best left a secret; the important point is that they trigger a whole series of very dark emotions in our hero Tyler, who then wrestles throughout the second half of the manuscript with his suddenly strong desires to commit suicide, blow up his school, beat the crap out of his high-strung domineering father, and a lot more. Yeah, not exactly a lighthearted romp, this one is, which in fact is a complaint I see from a lot of parents online, that YA fiction in general since 9/11 has turned much too dark for their tastes; but then that begs the age-old question of whether it's our times that influence what types of books are getting published, or if it's the books getting published that influence our times.
In any case, Anderson skirts a very fine line here with her own novel, legitimately earning it the classification of "edgy;" and to her credit she pulls it off with quite a bit of finesse, eventually pulling back at the end to give us if not exactly a happy ending, at least the avoidance of a tragedy. Although I don't really plan on getting this dark in my own work, I admire Anderson for successfully doing so herself, and would recommend this to any brainy alternative-leaning high-schooler wrestling with feelings of alienation and helplessness. It's absolutely not for younger readers or those suffering from legitimate mental problems, but is for sure a great choice for teens who are simply confused by the glee they sometimes feel from picturing dark fantasies come to life. All this should be kept in mind before picking it up yourself.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Jessi's Big Break (1998)
The Fire at Mary Anne's House (1999)
by Ann M. Martin
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of existing books that have been recommended to me. Today's selections are my first foray into the world of "The Baby-Sitters Club," which during the 1990s and '00s became one of the most successful kid-lit series of all time; between the original tales and the various spinoffs, there are now nearly 500 volumes set in Ann M. Martin's sleepy middle-class suburb of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, with collective sales of at least 250 million copies and a literal empire of supplemental merchandise, feature films and television episodes. (By the way, I've been quietly told by gossipy friends in the industry that dozens of these books were actually ghostwritten by other authors, with Martin simply slapping her name on them at the end for brand consistency, although I have no way of actually verifying that; for those who don't know, this is one of the types of employment I'm seeking within the YA industry, to be the ghost-author of such formula-driven, interchangeable chapter books, which is why I'm reading so many of them these days.)
And as you can expect, the BSC books follow a familiar formula down to a T (or at least the three I read -- #81's Mallory Pike, #1 Fan, #115's Jessi's Big Break, and #131's The Fire at Mary Anne's House), staring with just a massive amount of exposition, not even cleverly handled but literally as if you were reading an encyclopedia entry; in fact, each and every title in the series starts first with an entire chapter of that book's particular hero reading aloud her own Wikipedia entry, then a second chapter of them reciting the entry concerning the club itself (essentially a group of junior-high female friends who gather around a central phone every late afternoon, so that parents can call that "hotline" and have the most appropriate babysitter sent to their house later that night), a total of eight thousand words devoted to nothing but reminding people of all the various things that have happened in the hundreds of books that came before it. Like many chapter-book series, the "crises" that befall club members are usually pretty gentle in nature, and the books mainly exist as a way to teach non-controversial moral lessons to its readers. Each book is roughly 30,000 words total, pretty normal for the 9-to-12 age group they're designed for; but surprisingly, the main characters themselves are mostly aged 12 to 14, just a little older than most of the books' readers, which confused me at first until I thought back to my own childhood, and how I used to love at this age reading books about kids a little older than me, in that I felt like I was sneakily getting away with something.
To her credit, Martin tries to inject as much diversity into this white-bread environment as she can, and also introduces plenty of modern hiccups to the stereotypical nuclear family (the club members' backgrounds are filled with ugly divorces, single parents working full-time jobs, sudden moves into entirely new economic classes, adopted Asian siblings and the like); but to her detriment, these are the exact types of books that edgier YA authors are railing against, sickly-sweet tales where all conflicts are resolved by the last page, and where all the kids ultimately end up dutifully obeying the pronouncements of the all-wise adult authority figures around them. I mean, you can't argue with success, but the BSC books are definitely the ones helping to write the "rules" for chapter books to begin with, which is why they barely ever break the well-known rules we now think of when thinking about this type of literature (you know -- make sentences short and punchy, introduce lots of peril but very little legitimate danger, be sure to repeat important information several times, concentrate on the way that girls this age interact with each other, set many of the scenes in a school environment, try to get the parents out of the way as much as possible, always have a happy ending, etc etc etc). They're neither outstanding nor terrible, which I'm sure is a big reason they've sold 250 million copies by now, and I can see myself easily being able to churn one of these out from beginning to end in just two or three weeks.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
By Sarah Dessen
Speak / Penguin
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. This is my second of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books out there, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; in particular it's the 2002 project of the prolific Sarah Dessen, who has emerged this decade as one of the biggest and most passionately loved authors in the entire history of the YA format. (If her name sounds familiar to adults as well, it's because two of her books were once combined and made into the mainstream movie How to Deal, starring Mandy Moore.) And I have to confess, after going into this book thinking it was to be yet another sappy, pop-culture-laced rom-com targeted specifically to teenage girls (you know, like "Sex and the City" without the sex), I was instead absolutely blown away by how expansive, subversive, and just plain moving this book in actuality was, and can now easily see why Dessen's collective oeuvre has now sold into the tens of millions of copies. It's essentially a character-based dramedy centered around a bewitchingly complex antihero named Remy -- a self-righteous know-it-all who has just graduated high school at the start of our tale -- who has become a prematurely responsible grown-up because of her flighty romance-novelist mother (entering her fifth marriage at the start of the book), and whose dead father happened to be a famous '70s country-rock musician but deadbeat dad, a one-hit-wonder whose biggest song (now a massively popular wedding staple) is a cheesy lullaby written to Remy on the day of her birth (hence this book's title).
In fact, from an analytical standpoint, I'm starting to understand just how important it is to build as big an amount of complexity into characters as possible when writing for a younger audience, simply because of the lack of interesting things that younger characters can realistically do -- like many YA novels, the actual action in this book consists mostly of Remy and her friends driving around, going on dates, killing time at their minimum-wage retail jobs as the like, making it of utmost importance that these people be as interesting as humanly possible, to counteract the lack of action in the actual plot. And that's something Dessen is a master at, I've discovered -- because with each chapter, Remy gets just a little more fascinating, with Dessen very slowly revealing the out-of-control trainwreck our hero used to be, a reckless 15-year-old who liked to party and sleep around who has turned into an anal-retentive 18-year-old who no longer believes in the concept of love. And that of course is what then makes her relationship with sloppy teenage rocker Dexter so much more interesting than the usual YA novel, in that there are all these layers of complexity that Dessen has built up to get in the way -- Remy's distrust of musicians, her coldly calculating views on romance, her gun-shy attitude anymore about sex and drinking, her oddly adult world-weariness over money and stability, etc.
Now add to this some of the most sparkling dialogue I've ever seen in a YA novel, and Dessen's refusal to shy away from more sensitive material -- much like John Green's work, This Lullaby is full of sex, liquor, cursing and negligent adults -- and it's easy to see why people go as nuts for her books as they do, and why so many argue that the best of YA literature these days deserves to have the "Y" dropped off the label altogether. I can agree with that when it comes to a book like this -- I think it's fair to call This Lullaby as sophisticated and entertaining as any adult relationship dramedy (even down to its full-sized length), simply with all the main characters being teenagers. (And in fact, you could argue that a book like this is actually better than most of the "Devil Wears Prada" chick-lit crap being force-fed to adult women these days, making it interesting to speculate what female-oriented literature might look like in another ten or fifteen years, when this current wave of Dessen-loving teenagers become adults themselves.) It's been a big shock to learn this year about the current state of YA literature, but needless to say a happy shock indeed.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
by Susan Patron
Atheneum / Simon & Schuster
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of existing books that have been recommended to me. This is the 2009 sequel to Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2006 Newbery Award (and which I've already reviewed in the past), around 40,000 words total and best suited in my opinion for ages ten to thirteen; and it's unfortunately also a good example of why sequels to character-oriented middle-school fiction are so rarely written, and why the key to a good chapter-book series always lies in the events that take place, not the people they happen to. Because the fact is that most of the charm of the original Higher Power resided in the natural pathos that came with our hardscrabble ten-year-old hero, Lucky -- in the first book she is dealing with the recent death of her mom, a deadbeat dad who wants nothing to do with her, the post-industrial California ghost town full of Unabomber types where she lives, the stresses of a flighty young French woman who has been thrust into the role of her guardian as an emergency stopgap measure, and a lot more, the uniqueness of all which is what mainly drives the slow and subtle plot on display. But in good kid-lit fashion, of course, all these issues are resolved by the end of that book; so there's not much pathos left by the start of the sequel, leaving its similar subtle plot this time very much lacking in the eyes of the typical reader.
Also, many of the issues from the original that were only borderline problems here tip over firmly into the legitimately problematic; for example, Patron has a bad habit of putting overly precocious, overly magical dialogue in the mouths of her kid characters, which she would always manage to rein in at the last second in the original but here she lets flow forth way too much at several points. (And make no mistake, by replacing the male best friend in the original with a new female best friend here, Patron definitively makes this a book that will appeal to girl readers exclusively.) By the end, then, the whole thing reads less like an actual kid-lit book and more like the kind of precious thing that many parents wish that kid-lit was like, which explains why this has been far less popular than the original Higher Power. A shame to see, because I really am quite a fan of the first book, but also a good lesson learned, that kid-lit multiple-book series are mostly driven by action and not character.
by Judy Blume
Yearling / RandomHouse
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first re-reading a selection of books I myself enjoyed as a kid, to see if I can figure out as an adult why I liked them so much. And being a child of the '70s, of course my favorite author during my own youth was Judy Blume; and 1971's Then Again, Maybe I Won't was my second-favorite of all her books back then, known among my childhood friends as the male equivalent of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (my number-one favorite Blume title), in that it was the book that middle-school girls read to get an idea of what was going through the minds of middle-school boys, while Margaret served the exact opposite function. And indeed, reading through it this week for the first time as an adult, I was surprised to see how the vast majority of the book actually deals with the class struggles that come from a poorer Italian family in urban New Jersey who suddenly become an upper-middle-class family in suburban Long Island, due to a McGuffin-like invention by the family's patriarch; because as many of you can guess, about the only thing I remembered anymore about the book, 30 years after I first read it, is its frank portrayal of pubescent sexuality, which as an adult I now realize is a subject that confines itself to literally only four or five pages of this entire manuscript. And this was the power of Blume's work in the '70s, I suppose, that it tackled head-on the kinds of messy yet very real issues that confront most 10- to 13-year-olds, in a candid way that kids ate up back then but that made her controversial among adults; it's a tradition that I realize now as an adult started with JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and that paved the way for such contemporary YA masters as John Green and Sarah Dessen.
In fact, one of the biggest things I take away from this book as an adult is just how much I craved flawed characters as a kid, heroes who made plenty of mistakes and sometimes had less-than-stellar personalities, such a change from the perfect little sweethearts that dominated children's literature before the countercultural '60s; and I suppose this is why I was drawn so much to character-based dramas in general during those years, although it should be noted that I was as much a fan of various action-oriented books in those same years, such as the Narnia series and the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries (several of which I'll also be re-reading for eventual critical inspection here). What I learned as a writer by re-reading this is that kids can often forget nearly everything about a book and still count it as a favorite, as long as it offers up a few genuinely unique, laser-precise insights into tricky areas of the child psyche; unfortunately from a professional standpoint, I'm told that such books are incredibly difficult to get sold, and require coming across a dedicated editor with a mindset towards winning awards, and who doesn't mind taking on the occasional censorship battle. (There's a reason, after all, that something like 80 percent of the submission guidelines I've now read from various publishers explicitly state, "We do not accept manuscripts that deal with puberty or sexuality.") Although they're the kinds of books that stick in readers' heads for decades, I'm coming to realize that one simply cannot try to base a career on such titles (unless you're Judy Blume, and I am certainly not Judy Blume), although definitely one can always be concentrating on adding unique insights about childhood to virtually any kid-lit story they're writing.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
The X'ed-Out X-Ray (2005)
The Yellow Yacht (2005)
By Ron Roy
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process simply by reading a large selection of titles that have been recommended to me. I've been told that these, the "A to Z Mysteries" by Ron Roy (a 26-book series, each named after a different letter in the alphabet) are among the most popular "chapter books" these days among the elementary-school readers they're designed for (so in other words, aged roughly 7 to 10); and indeed, after reading three of them myself (U, X and Y), I can see that they touch on nearly every piece of advice I've now been given regarding writing for this age group, including a strong sense of humor, a quickly-paced but not too complicated storyline, lots of action and mystery, many scenes set in a school environment, and sentences that average around ten words. (Note, however, that these books don't adhere to one piece of advice I've been given, to concentrate on the ways that boys and girls interact at that age; although the three-person team of friends at the center of our tales is co-ed, they essentially all act the same, and eschew relationships with other children mostly to instead interrogate adults regarding the latest mystery they're trying to solve.) In fact, I was surprised by just how old-fashioned and even fuddy-duddy these stories sometimes are, given their immense popularity, happy proof that you don't nearly need to know about all the latest children's fads in order to write books that will appeal to them; they take place in a small middle-class pedestrian-oriented "Leave It To Beaver"esque town where even cellphones barely exist, and except for a few references to the internet could easily be mistaken for the chapter books from the 1950s and '60s that I grew up on.
As is typical for this age group, the "mystery" behind each story is pretty easily solvable, and is used mostly as an excuse to teach the rational problem-solving process of observation, interviews, and logical deduction; and as is typical of many authors for this age group, Roy often uses these stories to emphasize non-controversial moral lessons (i.e. "Lying is bad"), and also I think does an admirable job at adding as much diversity as possible to his admittedly white-bread environment. Each book is around 10,000 words altogether, broken into a dozen or so chapters, and contains dozens of illustrations* by John Steven Gurney.
*And P.S., not that this matters, but there was an aspect of these books that re-awakened an old complaint of mine from when I was in grade school and actually reading such books myself -- namely, the fact that the covers are done in a lush, full-color, photorealistic style, while the interior illustrations are monotonally cartoonish to the level of a typical newspaper comic strip, something I always considered a "bait & switch" scam when I was an actual kid. Although I could care less as a grown-up (and indeed, as a grown-up now understand why such a thing is done in the first place), I found it funny that these books could make a long-forgotten thirty-year-old memory re-emerge like that so profoundly.
By Rodman Philbrick
The Blue Sky Press / Scholastic
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of existing books that have been recommended to me. My most recent, The (Mostly) True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (also a 2010 Newbery Honoree), turns out to be historical fiction, specifically about a wisecracking child during the American Civil War of the 1860s, whose teenaged brother is illegally sold into proscription with the Union Army by an abusive guardian; and I'm not planning on writing historical fiction myself, so don't have much to say about this other than that I found it to be just fine for what it is, and that it reads not just like a kid's version of a Mark Twain story but literally like an actual Mark Twain story. It's around 50,000 words altogether, and is best in my opinion for adventure-loving boys in middle school or junior high, or in other words from around 11 to 14 in age. (And a special warning to parents of younger children -- this book contains exactly as many dark elements as you would expect from a story about neglected rural children in the 1860s.)
Thursday, January 28, 2010
by John Green
Speak / Penguin
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. This is my first of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; and indeed, after finishing it myself, I could easily see why John Green has in just the past few years rapidly grown into one of the most popular YA authors in history. And that's because this character-based relationship comedy and coming-of-age tale is literally as complicated and witty as any better-than-average adult novel out there, sort of a teen version of a Michael Chabon or David Foster Wallace book (complete with superfluous footnotes, no less), which of course is going to get eaten up by a crowd that's usually fed a steady stream of parent-friendly morality tales and vampire soap operas.
In fact, that's the best compliment I can give this novel, that it literally made me flash back to some of the deepest, most private moments I had in my own teen years (25 years ago now for me), moments I had completely forgotten about, a laser-precise look sometimes at the weird ways intelligence and naivety and hormones mix in the high-school years; and that's always a special and remarkable thing, when an adult author can tap back into those emotions as if they were there again, and especially astonishing when you add it to Green's natural mastery over plot, ultra-realistic dialogue, and creation of all kinds of fascinatingly unique elements while still adhering to the "rules" of YA fiction (like: find a plausible way to get rid of the adults as much as possible; be dark but not too dark; make the plot at least slightly more adventurous than most teens get a chance to experience in real life; examine sex mostly by way of examining sexual tension; etc). Green has a whole series of passionately loved character dramadies out now (to say nothing of the first project that got him a lot of notice, the million-person-watching "Brotherhood 2.0" online video experiment), and I'm highly looking forward now to reading more.
Additional thoughts, as far as my struggle to become a better YA author myself...
--So far in my research, this is the book I've most pictured as the kind of novel I myself will probably write; but that said, I happily admit that Green is a much better writer than I will ever be, which I actually find oddly inspirational for some reason, the fact that a guy this funny and smart is being so rewarded by his industry right now. (He's also a multiple award-winner, and the film rights to several of his books have now been purchased by Hollywood studios.) That's another big compliment I can give, that I really want Green to write a book for grown-ups now, so that an adult audience can also discover what a wonderful writer he is.
--For being a multiple award winner, I was surprised by how much subversive material there is in here: all the teens curse like sailors, most of them get drunk at one point or another without any repercussions, and there's even a scene where two teen boys come across another teen couple making love in a field completely naked, and end up watching them for a bit before making their presence known. I'm sure it's another reason why these books are so massively popular among teens themselves. Also, I was happily reminded while reading this that teens actually have a much more nuanced understanding of things like relationships than we tend to remember by the time we're in our forties; the characters seen here can get surprisingly jaded and adult in their observations about romance and the like. This is one of the nice things, of course, about a book like this becoming so popular, that it confirms that teen readers really are intimately connecting with the highly sophisticated writing style seen on display here. It's one of the things I'm starting to realize these days, that the entire YA industry is a much different thing than when I was a young adult myself in the early 1980s, and that the most popular YA novels out there (the ones specifically for ages 14 and up, that is) are routinely as large, complex and realistic as any adult book, just with teenage characters.
--Did I mention yet all the infinitely unique and utterly charming details that Green comes up with for this book, all while servicing the traditional blueprint for what a contemporary novel should contain? This is why he reminds me so much of the adult-lit author Michael Chabon, and especially that author's early hit Wonder Boys. I love how Green starts us out in Chicago, for example (in fact, just around the corner from where I live in real life), but somehow comes up with an entirely plausible way for our teen heroes to end up spending the rest of the novel in a tiny little hillbilly town in Tennessee, one that they just happened to randomly come across during an impromptu road trip. I love that the comic-relief best friend is an overweight slacker Muslim, filthy-mouthed and addicted to daytime television and who introduces himself to everyone with, "Hi, I'm not a terrorist." I love how the story ends up centering around a factory that makes the pull-out strings for tampons, and I love how that ends up providing this lovely, completely surprising, visually magical moment at the book's climax. I love how the main conceit is that our male hero has had 19 romantic relationships since the age of eight, and that every single one of them was with a girl named Katherine with a "K;" and I love how Green uses this quirky fact as an excuse for these long, (500) Days of Summer style reminiscences about them, all in the service of this science nerd trying throughout the course of the book to perfect a mathematical formula that can be used to predict the outcome of any new relationship. There's a hundred other details like these I could mention, but I won't.
--And finally, definitely one of the reasons Green has grown so absurdly popular is that he has a brilliant handle over teen stereotypes, and of all the massively complicated layers of personality that actually reside under that top stereotype in real life. Just to cite one example (and again, I could do more if I wanted), look at how our main female character Lindsey comes across at first as a typical redneck with too much makeup and who dates the town quarterback (literally); but how as we get to know her, we come to realize that she's actually an emotional chameleon, whose personality and even dialect changes radically based on who she's around; and how under that, there's actually a very rebellious creature who was once an angry junior-high goth; and how underneath all THAT, what really lurks is the heart of an intelligence-loving nerd, which is how it is that she and our nerdy male hero click so profoundly, despite the surface-level details of their lives being almost diametrically opposite. It's easy for adult readers to look at a character like Lindsey and imagine her as the sassy graphic-designer ingenue or cultishly loved punk-rock bassist she's fated to be; it's absolutely wonderful to watch Green so completely peg this type in the years before she grows into the person she was always meant to be. (And speaking of all this, that's the secret behind Green's miraculous feat of writing a relationship book that somehow appeals to boys as well: he makes the male hero an antisocial, book-obsessed former child prodigy who nonetheless has an insanely busy love life, manages to get the hot white-trash girl by the end, and actually beats up the town quarterback, a wish-fulfillment wet dream for nerdy boy book-lovers if I've ever heard of one.)
By Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow / HarperCollins
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of existing books that have been recommended to me. Kevin Henkes' Bird Lake Moon was recommended as a good example of books for older grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers (so roughly ages 10 to 13) that deal with dark material in a gentle yet realistic way; it's almost 40,000 words total, on the heavy side of such books, and also contains an expansive vocabulary that will be a pleasant challenge for younger readers. It's the story of two boys who one summer move next to each other in the sleepy Wisconsin cottage community of Bird Lake; one has a set of parents who are going through a divorce, which is why they've temporarily moved in with his mother's cantankerous grandparents, while the other has a brother who drowned at Bird Lake almost a decade ago, with this being the traumatized family's first trip back.
Things I took away from this book, as far as my own struggle to become a better children's writer...
--Although really well done, I can see here why people recommend so much that character-oriented novels for kids be loaded up with a lot of extra drama and unique events, with this book many times coming off as what I imagine is too subtle for many kids, and therefore with only a limited potential audience (although of course with that audience intensely passionate about the book, precisely for these reasons). Also, to reference my own reading habits as a kid, this book many times feels not like the best of someone like Judy Blume (where the characters create and drive the situations being played out) but more like her second-tier work, minor books like Deenie and Iggie's House where it feels like first an issue was picked ("I think I'll write a book about desegregation in the suburbs") and only then were characters created and a plotline written. Although I want to reiterate that Henkes does a great job with the material he's chosen here, just like adult literature these kinds of stories need to feel natural and not forced, which Henkes teeters just on the edge of many times.
--And speaking of all this, I thought Henkes treads a very fine line here as far as how dark is too dark for kids in the 10-to-13 range; this is one of the issues I find fascinating as an author, in that I imagine many of my own future kid's books will be dark in tone as well, and I'm trying to learn exactly where the balance is for the pre-YA crowd. I really loved for example that one of our heroes, Mitch, is in typical divorced-kid fashion acting out just all the time, in ways that are sometimes surprisingly destructive for a person who's supposed to be our protagonist; for example, as part of his ongoing secret campaign to convince his new neighbors to leave again, in the desperate hope that his own family could move in next-door so that his mom and grandparents will stop fighting all the time, he actually unchains their dog and lets it run away while the family is gone for the afternoon, in what could've easily led to the dog's death or permanent disappearance in the real world. The book is full of moments like these, uncomfortably real details of just how dysfunctional people can get in the middle of a divorce or the grieving of a dead child, a polarizing element that I imagine young readers will either intensely love or hate.
--And finally, I thought this book did a particularly great job at examining the subtle relationship between kids at different ages, which I'm told is a topic that's really loved by many child readers at this age; ten-year-old Mitch admires his neighbor Stewart for being twelve, Stewart admires Mitch back for his above-average athletic skills, while both have a begrudging tolerance only for their fairytale-spouting, costume-wearing chatterbox grade-school siblings. And I also think that Henkes does a great job at examining the heavily flawed parents that are around these kids, and how their only so-so dealings with these family dramas end up creating new legitimate hassles sometimes for the kids themselves; just to cite one good example, how Stewart's mother after a few days realizes that the cloud of her first son's death is hanging just too heavily over the entire environment for her comfort, even though the entire rest of the family has quite intensely fallen in love with being there by then. This is such a subtle thing in children's literature, the question of just how much of adult personalities and adult weaknesses one should add to the story in the first place -- because obviously most kids are at least a little fascinated with adult behavior, and especially when they get a chance to glance at truly adult reactions that they suspect they're not supposed to be seeing, although ultimately most kids prefer that the books they read be primarily about other kids, and of the ways those kids live their lives when the adults aren't around. I have a lot more to learn about the various ways that authors deal with this subject, and is something I always keep a close eye on whenever reading yet another character-oriented middle-school drama.
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading all the books that have won the Newbery Award in the last ten years, although I've been warned that there is sometimes a strong disconnect between such books and what the actual book-buying public really wants. This was the 2003 winner, a fairytale set in medieval France which like Pixar's Ratatouille concerns a mouse that develops a taste for the finer things in life, like art and beauty; and while I found it just fine for what it aims to be, there's a certain overly twee preciousness to this story that I myself don't care for in children's literature, sort of like combining the worst elements of Lemony Snicket, Victorian first-person narration, and that Simpsons episode where they make fun of Cirque de Soleil. Although I recommend it for people who are looking for that kind of thing, it's just not the kind of kid-lit I'm interested in writing, which is why I don't have much to say about it. The book is around 30,000 words altogether, and is best in my opinion for third, fourth, and some fifth-graders, a nice challenge for those getting more and more comfortable with smaller chapter books.
Richard Jackson / Atheneum / Simon & Schuster
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading all the books that have won the Newbery Award in the last ten years, although I've been warned that there is sometimes a strong disconnect between such books and what the actual book-buying public really wants. This was the 2006 winner, which reminded me a lot of the '70s Judy Blume / Betsy Byars stuff I myself grew up on -- complex character dramas featuring significantly flawed heroes, that is, and with a strong sense of melancholy throughout. It's the story of ten-year-old Lucky, a strange and slightly arrogant girl living in a dying, post-boom Industrial town in southern California, almost comical in its post-apocalyptic surrealism; the story consists of us simply watching her life for awhile, as among other things she contends with the flighty young French woman who has through bizarre means become her legal guardian, the lonely five-year-old neighbor who constantly trails her like a shadow, and her growing confusion over what exactly she's supposed to do with the ashes of her mother, who died in a recent accident that Lucky blames herself for. The book is around 30,000 words total, and is best in my opinion for older grade-schoolers and younger middle-schoolers.
Here are the main things I took away from this book, as far as the struggle to become a better children's writer myself...
-Patron uses a series of clever devices to get rid of nearly all the adult authority figures, which of course almost all kids love seeing in their favorite literature; the mom dies at the beginning, and the deadbeat dad wants nothing to do with her, convincing his first ex-wife instead to come in and clean up the mess, the flighty young French woman already mentioned, whose life was kind of a trainwreck back in Paris and so didn't have much to lose. And by setting this in a comically post-apocalyptic Industrial ghost town, it gives Patron the perfect excuse to make all the rest of the adults either mentally ill, fried-out hippies, or hermit Unabomber weirdoes. And speaking of which, making Lucky's guardian a flighty young French woman injects a lot of quirky, original humor into what's usually a boilerplate-type character in books like these. They are all inventive ways to stick to age-old kid-lit conventions.
--I like how Lucky is a significantly flawed character who makes plenty of mistakes, an overly curious slight know-it-all who I imagine mirrors many of her real-life fans. It not only brings extra complexity to the story (highly needed in a character drama during these "all vampire, all the time" days), and makes her more easily relatable, but also teaches kids that even when you sometimes mess up, it's still possible to pick up the pieces and keep trudging on. That said, there's also a precocious side to Lucky that I kept thinking just has to make actual kid readers roll their eyes, but that is the very kind of parent-friendly detail that won it the Newbery in the first place. For example, look at the overly cutesy situation that inspires the book's title, the fact that Lucky secretly listens in on the town's 12-step meetings, and has incorrectly surmised that a "higher power" is a literal object that one can acquire, and becomes convinced that it's just what she needs to sort through her mess of a life these days. I can already hear the anguished cries by 12-year-old readers nationwide of "whatEVER," even as the parents fawn at such a concept.
--And finally, how dark is too dark for middle-graders? There's as many different answers as there are people answering it, and it's of course a topic that Patron toys with here too; after all, this is the book that infamously starts on page one with a dog being bitten by a rattlesnake in the scrotum, and Patron actually using the word "scrotum." It was interesting to read a book like this that actually got published and did well for itself; I kept imagining it as one of those manuscripts that gets passed around the industry unsigned for years, until finally the exact right editor comes along who says, "You know, this could very well win next year's Newbery."
HarperTrophy / HarperCollins
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process simply by reading a large selection of titles that have been recommended to me. I was told that Bruce Hale's "Underwhere" series is a good example of literature perfect for third-graders; and indeed, as I read this first volume myself, I saw that it matched up with a lot of common advice I've now been given regarding writing for this age group, including a strong sense of humor, a quickly-paced but not too complicated storyline, a concentration on the ways that boys and girls interact at that age, lots of action and mystery, many scenes set in a school environment, and sentences that average around ten words.
Of course, this differs quite a bit from the last series I read, Nancy Krulik's "Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo" books, even though they share nearly the exact same literary traits; the "Underwhere" books are designed specifically for boys, and rely on a steady concentration of gentle potty humor that I've seen many parents actually complain about now online, but that is apparently like catnip to eight-year-old boys. (I also find it interesting how both authors paint similar views of the relationship between boys and girls, but with competing looks at who's supposed to be the hero; in both series, for example, the boy characters are obnoxious and gross, but with it being a hinderance to our girl heroes in "Katie Kazoo" while being the key to the solution in "Underwhere.") I'm also told that this is a great title for the infamous "reluctant readers" of this age group, in that half the story (all the chapters that take place in the fantasy realm of "Underwhere") are done in comic-book form, in an abstracted, engaging heavy-line style by Shane Hillman. The book is around 10,000 words plus another 70 pages of comics, for a total of 165 pages, making it on the long side of the books I've now read for this age group.
By the way, my fellow aspiring authors would be wise to check out how proactive author Hale is with his career -- he's also a trained storytelling performer who appears at dozens of conferences and schools each year, with a website, lifestyle and even wardrobe that is almost entirely kid-friendly. Just like with adult literature, this is a highly important part now of how successful an author is, of how willing they are to really go out there and hunt down as many promotional opportunities as they can, and chances to directly connect with their audience.