Word Jumble

I have much to say but feel nothing will come out today save for an incoherent mess. I was up until 1:30 a.m. reading the hotly anticipated Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, you see.

(Not a) Spoiler Alert

–  How do you all feel about spoilers? What level of spoilery? Do you just want to refrain from names, plot developments, the last word? Do you want to refrain even from what those things are not? Do you you want to stick fingers in your ears and say “LA LA LA, I can’t hear you!” if I try to tell you that by page eleventy-two you will need to cuddle with something? Or that by page eleventy-seven you will sobbing?

I suppose I spoil (however lightly) out of a desire to try to protect the ones I love from books. Because some lines in books have a way of giving you the feeling of “Pow! Right in the kisser!” And some do that over. And over. And over again. In rapid fire succession. Some books have a way of delighting you in one moment and laying bare this un-articulated vulnerability. Words have power.

I heard recently that President Obama gave The Hunger Games (first in the series) to his elder daughter. I hope he, and all the other world leaders read this series and take it to heart. Then again, anytime I encounter a dystopic, post-apocalyptic fiction, I always want to make sure the people in charge are as emotionally invested. I’m sure my parents thought it wasn’t so smart for my 13-year-old self to watch The Day After on cable. And now why at 25, I tell my father, my main movie date, that I will never, ever watch or read The Road.

The Child in Fiction

In college, I took a few classes with John Cech, a great student of children’s literature. One was “Children and Film.” Yes, we got to watch Disney movies, but also very adult movies with child actors. We were encouraged to watch a film related to the week’s theme that had a portrayal of a child but was not necessarily something you’d pop in the DVD player for just any 8-year-old. Another class was “From Hermes to Harry Potter.” That was a study of the archetypal children in fiction. It took a couple of years to let the molds fade from my brain. I can enjoy a book again without analyzing it immediately as an orphan story and predict when he will meet the Wise Earth-Mother (if it so happens to be an orphan-hero journey crossover).

I suppose I write this to make sense of what I’ve just read. The first two books of the series (especially the first) are definitely classifiable as true Young Adult. This last one –  I feel discomfiture to give it to Malia once she’s powered through the THG and CF. It’s the mama-bear mode in me. I’m godmother to a 10-year-old boy who gets nightmares from The Terminator movies. Some children are sensitive. Heck, I’m sensitive. But I’m an adult and I can process and recover from things. Things like this last book. If you’re truly in media silence, stop reading, even though I give away nothing terribly revelatory.






Who’s still here? This last book…it dredged those memories of class because it can be classified as literature about children. They are not the main characters.  They are not narrators. At 17, Katniss is a young adult, emphasis on the latter word. But they are in the book, in a crucial thematic way. I read this last book with the sense it was about the way people use children. When everyone else is caught up, we can have discussions about one particular phrase uttered by PC and its relation to what’s been going on in Europe and Japan for a while now.

Whenever people ask me why write fiction for children (or about) or even read it, I try to articulate in that foreign language  of spoken word the notions hinted at in this post – that for some reason, we the adult readers are sensitized more to an emotional response when it involves children. That children, who are literally the future, are sensitized more to everything in general are more likely to remember their emotional response to a book (see Everything I Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey) and hopefully, if it was about a future no one would want, those readers would grow up and prevent it from happening. I say often that words have power. I’m slightly off. Children have power.

Mean What You Say, Say What You Mean

Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are two brilliant explorations on communication. But should our own real-life interpersonal realtions involve such dramedy?

A dear friend passed on this story of a woman who thought she was being clear when ordering at Starbucks:


Below is the link to the journalistic  piece (in the sense it is froma  paper, which implies some standards – we’d hope):


Yes, I do get narrowed eyes when I order my small Frappucino (no whip). Inevitably I play their game and say “tall.”  I had no idea coporate-inflicted training was causing earnest people in need of a paycheck to follow procedure to the point where “a multi-grain bagel” is not clear enough.

Having worked in the retail business for far too long, I have learned a few things that impede communication.

1) The barista could have been under supervision and wanted to go by the book. Similarly, the barsita could have been warned about “secret shoppers” who will rate the store on this person’s performance, down to the script undoubtedly from some green binder memorized during training. [Note: I have never worked at Starbucks, but have at a coporate monolith, and such places literally iterate every last little “i” in conversation).

2)  The construction of this store’s “language” has so influenced the barista and Western society at large that anything else sounds like it’s coming from a foreigner.

What do we do?

A) The customer is always right. Handle things gracefully and humanly. And if she says just a bagel – first ask nicely if she’d like anything on top.

B) Order like Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally.

C) Give in a little to the new language and customs. You’re entering their world with their worlds. Be gracious, too.

What does this have to do with writing?

I believe each literary expression creates its own microcosm. Characters develop their own slang (even the phonies). Writers will take words we know and ascribe new meanings to them, to the point where we can’t understand “our” language (see the opening pages to M.T. Anderson’s Feed). Personally, I think engaging with “new” languages enriches our experience with the world.

You mission: come up with a new word using common ones OR ascribe new meaning to an existing word.

Mine is “huggle” (hug+snuggle).

Sins of the Author

Lately, the child-lit digest is a twitter over author K.P. Bath’s arrest and guilty plea for possession of child pornography. Here’s a link to the Google News page so you can read and synthesize different journalists’ takes. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&tbs=nws:1,sbd:1&q=kp+bath+author&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=

The central question for authors, readers, and industry professionals is at what point should an author’s personal life be included with the reception and inclusion of a book? Can we keep the text separate from the creator, or are they intrinsically linked?

I’m reminded of the time a while ago some people got their knickers in a twist over a sighting of JK Rowling in a lingerie shop. My thought: the grown woman is married; what of it? And even if she had not been, what difference does it make? The rational way to think is that the author is not his/her story. The author is a person with a life outside the fiction, however much real events/people may have colored the creation of characters and plots.

But Bath’s crime was against children. As he decided to plead guilty (in exchange for dropping charges of distribution – CNN), I’m not inclined to give him any benefit of the doubt (like he had them for research for a project). I certainly wouldn’t let children near him, but do we let them near his books? Was it right for his publisher to cancel his forthcoming novel? I think the texts (devoid of any content related to his crime) can stand on their own and be enjoyed for what they are. It makes complete fiscal sense to pull his manuscript – no one will want to buy the man’s books, and he won’t be available for marketing. But editorially…I could argue for dissociating the work from the creator…a pen name, an anonymous provision. Think about your favorite Newbery/Printz/Caldecott winner. Would you justify still its existence if you knew the author/illustrator was convicted of a terrible crime?

Judging books by their creators and not their content can lead to the slippery slope argument  that if he’s this undesirable political party or if she’s with that group that stands for the thing I don’t like, then their work shouldn’t be supported. In regard to that, I say, put aside your personal beef and instead “Think of  the children.” They may need that book and your bravery to be actual parents and help them differentiate between idolizing the person in their head (this author is my very best friend!), the person who is real, and the fiction they love.

New Thoughts on Historicism

Though I have much work to do to prepare a manuscript for submission, The Killers plot bunny won’t leave me alone. After rolling my main character’s possible name on my tongue for a few hours, pretending her friends were being either tender or tough with her, I think I’ve settled on it. The name is decidedly Irish and her story utterly fantastic. And I mean that in the true sense of the word – of fantasy. That lead me to start initial research into Irish lore. What if this story has been told before  – nay, I’m sure it has – so in what ways has it been told? If I find the answer, do I want to draw on the mythology as source material, acknowledge that it exists in an author’s note, or not look at it and write around it in my own way?

I’m tempted to do the last thing, as research is exhausting and attempting to create a new mythology in our modern world seems more fun. I get to create a society without all the hassle of creating a whole new world. If anyone has the link to Kristin Cashore’s wonderful speech at the Simmons College 2009 Symposium about the difficulties of world building, please let me know.

I guess I hesitate to play with melding historicalities with my own imaginings like a child would smash blue and yellow Play Doh together. Roger Sutton points out in his blog that a writer at Jezebel totally misunderstood Sharon Dogar’s forthcoming book Annexed, a novel told from the point of view of Peter Krause, one of Anne Frank’s companions in hiding. I have much to say about this book and the way fiction uses and plays with a historical reality, but that will come in a GoodReads review soon. While off base, the Jezebel writer and her commenters have valid fears that an author could co-opt a history for her own fictive purposes.

Not that fictive purposes need be nefarious. When you smash blue and yellow together, you sometimes get the lovely green. A whole new entity worthy of its own consideration. I suppose what I will do is what any of the great authors do: put the story first. History will always be there if I need it.


Last night I stopped looking at cute cat pictures and actually wrote. Me and words: reunited, and it feels so good!


– Revision of my MbM picture book. I shoe-horned in a subplot, and like Cinderella’s glass slipper, it was a perfect fit once everything settled.

– Envisioned two brief scenes and came up with awesome names for my plot bunny, to be referred to as The Killers, as the story’s genesis came from a song lyric of theirs. Some people sing in the shower. I write in my head.

– Researched names for the main character using this awesomeness: www.languageisavirus.com/

Still Pondering:

– What the writerly equivalent is to singing into a hairbrush

– How to trust my dear readers with character names and titles. I don’t want them to be stolen!

– When being cute becomes too cute.

Almost There

The past few days I have been in Iowa visiting family. I read, I reflected, I edited my nephew’s collection of short stories (he’s 9), and I breathed.

In terms of my writing life, I feel as if I’m teetering on the edge of some precipice, hesitant to fly off. I can’t go back. The back is a dead wasteland where I felt nothing. Sometimes feeling numb is good, necessary even. But there came a point where  the feelings slowly crowded the air, and I couldn’t stay there trying to be impervious.  I’m going to need to embrace the air.

Someday soon, I will lock myself in writing mode, spend hours creating, obsess over submissions, and be flying.

“I Know it When I See it”

The it does not refer to what the original speaker of the titular quote used it to refer to. Instead, “it” is that pronoun that encompasses any number of sins in literature (or sins of literature for that matter). In my online life, I recently railed against an “it” that led me to question my usually literarially liberal viewpoint.

A Catholic school assigned The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons for summer reading. To sixth graders. Now, we could argue until eternity the distinctions of adult vs. YA vs. children’s literature, and whether or not the classifications need to a velvet rope or to see ID before you can read them. But who wants to visit Purgatory today? That’s not to say, though, that we shouldn’t think about what it means to command a child to read a book s/he may not be ready for (a determination made in conjunction with parents), a point which I will try to make while willfully ignoring the thematic inappropriateness of the novel’s content in relation to the school’s specific values.

When I was in seventh grade, I picked up A Time to Kill by John Grisham for reading time at the end of the day. What can I say? I had recently seen The Rainmaker on TNT, thought Matt Damon was cute and the writing of the movie as smartly humorous. I checked out the book to bring home. While I was in the midst of the gripping narrative on my pink carpet, my mom came in and told me my teacher had called and said I had picked this book. This book with the rape and the sex and the shooting. “Was I okay with it?” my mom asked in a gently concerned voice. I nodded and got back to the cool lawyer. Mom let me be, but made sure I knew she was around if I wanted to talk to her about it. In the end, I wasn’t traumatized by the book, and since I speed read, I pretty much glossed over the “inappropriate” stuff and felt unaffected.

I share this story to illustrate 1) Neither my teacher nor my mother barred access to this book. 2) I had self-determination in my reading. 3) No one told me I had to read this book, nor told other kids who maybe weren’t slighlty emotionally dead inside that they had to as well.

I normally hate when one parent tells a library to remove a book because s/he doesn’t like the thematic content. I want to join letter writing campaigns to save the banned book. But today, I found myself willing to write a letter to the school that I don’t know to ban these two books – from the reading lists.

I guess I don’t think it’s disingenuous to say once, “Don’t tell me I can’t read that,” and another time “You can’t make me read that.” Because the only person who gets a final say in reading a book is the reader herself.