Friday, April 2, 2010

Reviews on temporary hiatus; "Hotel Olympia" about to begin

For the small but dedicated group of readers who come by this kid-lit blog regularly, I just wanted to mention that today's review of John Green's Looking for Alaska will be the last seen here for awhile; and that's because it's finally time for me to try writing my own first children's title, a character-based dramedy for 10- to 14-year-olds in the spirit of Susan Patron and '70s Judy Blume, called The Hotel Olympia. (That's the finished outline you're seeing in the photo, which I finally came up with yesterday.) Unlike other projects in the past, I will not be posting any excerpts from the book itself while actually writing it; but I thought I'd at least go ahead and post small updates here for the next month or two while I'm actually writing and editing it, on how the process is going and how far along I am. Anyway, I hope you have a chance to follow along, and of course don't forget that I'm in real need of people willing to test-read it afterwards; just drop me a line at ilikejason [at] to let me know of your interest.

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.

Book review: "Looking for Alaska," by John Green

Looking for Alaska (2005)
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

Book review: "The Willoughbys," by Lois Lowry

The Willoughbys (2008)By Lois Lowry
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).