Boston Loves a Bunch of Authors

This weekend Boston played host to many, many amazing authors for the young at heart and older than their years. On Saturday, Copley Square held the Boston Book Festival. The handsome man who filled in for Lemony Snicket was an uproarious delight. On Sunday, Emerson put on the first ever Boston Teen Author Festival that introduced me to the incredibly delightful, but sadly less publicized Erin Dione, Jack Ferriaolo, and more. We also learned today’s young paranormal/fantasy authors do not actually hate Twilight.

Some gems from YA: Overcoming Adversity.

“You can’t always win, but you can change your perspective.” – Barry Lyga, author of I Hunt Killers, and who once wrote something so horrible, he couldn’t be in the same room with it.

“Teens understand better the truth that love is as necessary as air and food better than adults do.” – Kathryn Burak, author of Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things.

“When we talk about writing what you know…we mean an emotional truth that is both uniquely yours and also universally understood.” – Jo Knowles, author of See You at Harry’s, on writing Your Life: Revised.

When asked “What do you write?” Barry Lyga answers, “Words.”

On overcoming adversity in YA in books and life: “Growing up sucks. But we survived!”  – Barry Lyga.

“The sky’s the limit in YA. We can do anything we want!” – Jo Knowles

“It’s almost impossible to write about teens and not include hope.” – Kathryn Burak.

On why YA Lit seems more hopeful than Adult Lit. “Young adults move on to being adults. We adults move on to death.” – Amy Patee, moderator, and awesome Simmons professor.

“Teen books can change a person’s life.” – Barry Lyga

On whether YA authors have some obligation to teen readers: A resounding yes. To “write the truest books I can.” – Jo Knowles.  “Kids can tell when you’re being dishonest.” – Kathryn Burak.

On how do we overcome adversity in selecting books for teens: “Scotch.” – Barry Lyga. He also gave us a big tip on how to get away with a bloody murder…

“Censorship doesn’t work very well.” – Jo Knowles.

“When art moves you, it doesn’t matter what the art is.” – Kathryn Burak.

“Let’s play YA bingo! Dead mother, suicide, drugs/alcohol…” – Kathryn Burak.

“Every writer writes a million bad words, and until you write all one million, you’re not ready.” – Barry Lyga.

“If someone tells you something’s wrong [with your manuscript], they’re probably right. But if they tell you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.” – Barry Lyga. [Britt ducks from her editor, who may disagree.]

And that was just ONE panel. Here’s some more juicy tidbits from the YA: The Future is Now discussion.

“We love rendering your books unreturnable.” Cory Doctorow, author of Pirate Cinema, on signings.

On YA’s inherent hope: “[There’s] a dialectic between pessimism and optimism.” Cory Doctorow, who just inspired a grad school paper thesis. ” We find a way out of despair.” – Rachel Cohn, author of Beta. “[Teens] move from ignorance to knowledge.” – Gabrielle Zevin, author of Because It Is My Blood.

“The fundamental action of a YA novel is to put an arm around the shoulder and say, ‘This is how the world works, kid.'” – Cory Doctorow.

“[Today’s teens] have no desire to learn about this world. But they desire the imaginary world because they can still form it.” – An amazing sounding English teacher.

On why read dystopia: “[Teens] have a suspicion that our lives are not as good as we think confirmed, so we’re not alone in our misery.” – Gabrielle Zevin.

“Adolescence is a series of incredibly brave one-way decisions.” – Cory Doctorow, who planted the seed for an email I need to send to Dear Editor about maybe re-considering the the third act of TCoKGJ.

Last word:

“What I hope is that [teen readers] leave with a sense of how powerful they actually are.” – Gabrielle Zevin.


Clothing Choices

I just read a book that made me laugh. That made me cry. That made me email fellow readers and tell them that I was glad I got a copy of the book before someone inevitably slaps a big ole medal on the cover. And I have full confidence in saying this, despite its January 11 release. (Of course, I thought this about Wintergirls, too.) If I were to say it had a flaw – and it does – because let’s face it, no book is perfect – it’s the sin of name-dropping.

Heretofore this amazingly gifted author has avoided naming the brands of clothing characters have worn. But also heretofore, this author has only ever written boy characters. Now that he has gone girl, so has some of his prose. It felt like I needed at least two hands (and that’s several fingers too many) to count the number of times the character referenced her Chuck Taylors. And I would forgive the slight of name-checking Forever 21 in re The Date Dress if there had been mention of the BFF, whose characterization was such that such things are Important, or if such choices were organic in Girl’s own character. But alas, there was not.

To me, Chuck Taylors have become the Manolo Bhlaniks or Jimmy Choos of middle class YA fiction. It became such that I would just read over the name and say…okay…she’s that girl, without ever really needing to know what a Chuck Taylor sneaker looked like. So I finally looked them up. So that’s what they are. Okay. Why do I need to know she wears these things? She, like her boyfriend, is unprecedented.

In this book’s case, I think I know what happened. The author even hinted at it. He fielded a question about the difference in writing boys vs. girls and said one main difficulty was getting the clothes right. Women in his life (spouse, editor, etc.) read the thing and their one negative comment – 16-year-old girls did not wear what he initially robed them in (flower dresses and some sort of offbeat shoe, IIRC), but they were what he remembered 16-year-old girls wearing. In 1997. So her wardrobe changed. And I, persnickety reader, am disappointed, for the character is just so “inimitable,” that the original clothing choices actually make more sense and would endear her even more to me. If that were possible.

Writers of girls: what do we do with what they wear? Is it Important? Will it date the text too much? I like it when name-dropping serves a point: satire, cultural commentary, identifier of flat characters (Gucci will always sound expensive). I hate it when it is the sole identifier of characters who are supposed to be round and when its name (or the store’s) does not signify anything some kid 20 years from now will “get.”

Is this a Gender Thing? Has anyone read a book inside a boy’s head in which he dons a Brooks Brothers for The Date Shirt when fashion is not an intrinsic part of his life? Or am I just being a crotchety old woman because I stayed up past my bedtime thinking about this book, and the clothes do not matter so much because the characters do matter to the universe and do exist beyond the oblivion of the last page?

Would a MS Sound Any Sweeter By Another Name?

Unequivocally, yes.

Recently I spoke with the publisher at a small trade house. I brought up that “s”-word, which would be funny considering she’s a religious sister – if it were that “s”-word. But it was not. It was


I, a writer, called those pre-published, unsolicited MSes, etc., slush. Because that was what I’d known from learning about the biz on the other side of the desk. The sister laughed and gently corrected me. “We call them ‘cold submissions’ here.”

Well, I said, as a writer, I am so grateful to hear that. Rather than being compared to that dirty, gray muck that ruins your budget boots, peoples’ writing are called what they are: pieces of work that haven’t been warmed by the loving hands of agents or editors.

Proof positive some editors respect and value your effort just as much as you want them to.


Banned Book Week 2010 Preview

One of my fondest memories as a teen volunteer at the West Regional Library in Plantation, Florida, was spending half of my shift on display. In the front check-out lobby, the librarians had erected a tiny makeshift room for a teenager. Very few mothers would have allowed the strewn popcorn, empty soda can, and ratty pillow-rocker chair thing. At least, my mother didn’t. That was not my room. But for an evening, this haz-mat area was my refuge and the symbol of refuge for all teens and children. Refuge from the arguing.

You see, it was Banned Books Week. Each day, the librarians had us volunteers sit and read a book that had appeared on a “banned” list. I can’t remember the title I chose, but I can remember feeling exhilarated. Screw adults! I’m going to have access to this book and – gasp! – enjoy it!

Over the years I have reduced my participation in this fun protest against censorship and pointless idealogue bickering to the point of thinking to myself, “It’s Fall…isn’t Banned Book Week sometime soon?”

This year, it changes. Why do I care so much? Well, obviously as a writer, I have to confront the notion that these words I’m composing may very well be banned themselves. Recently, I wrote a chapter set in a public school’s sex education class. As my character is in religious ed, too, she got the Catholicized version. I can just tell one side will get angry I dared characterize 13-year-olds talking and thinking about sex. Then the other will argue that the chapter’s final scene is a critique of the glorified liberal “comprehensive” program. To a point it is. Because nothing is perfect or the right answer.

But just because a solitary adult is uncomfortable because someone doesn’t share your opinion doesn’t mean a child/teen will be. Do not deprive the youth of fresh perspective just because you have a psychological need to be right/to control.

Each day next week it is my goal to highlight first a couple of books that could be banned in the future due to content, books facing new challenges, and a classic book frequently challenged that might surprise you.

To be discussed! And please add your own in the comments!

Girl Parts by John M. Cusick (Candlewick 2010), Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Farrar Straus Giroux 1999), Lessons From a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles (Candlewick 2007), The Giver by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin 1993), and the “Friday  Fun” post (including brief snippets on such gems as the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary).

The Mockingjay Speaks

Suzanne Collins spoke at the Wellesley, MA Free Library tonight. She had no commentary and took no questions. But the 100+ or so children and young adults did not care. They arrived in force. I saw at least two “District 12” T-shirts; my friend saw a “Down with the Capitol” shirt. Fandom for books (or writing in general) gives me hope. When children get excited about things, they REALLY get excited. So it’s pleasing that they go all out to get creative and design their own shirts based on the messages that spoke to them. They dog ear yellow copies of paperbacks and write notes on pink sticky paper. Girl who did that tonight, I was you 10 years ago. I am you now. Let’s never lose that part of ourselves.

I love book events for the motley expressions you pick up while waiting. Behind us, a grandmother talked to her teenage grandson. She had just got the book; he had read it. “Is it any good?” He passed her the book. “Yeah, but well, there are some girly parts.”

In Mockingjay? Must have been the rare Peeta-Gale-war-driven make-out scene. Is it not spoilerish if I refrain from saying with whom?

Suzanne read from Catching Fire and Mockingjay. She always imagined Katniss having a “futuristic Appalachian” twang. I cringed at first. That’s not how Katniss sounded in my head! Also, she pronounced Panem as “Puh-nehm”,  not Pan (like the cookware)-ehm like I always heard myself read. It was jarring. But that brings up the musty-dust-jacket-old question of how you reconcile not wanting your reading experience invalidated with the writer’s vision and the notion that the writer is boss.

As a writer, I feel like my kitten’s been forced into a scratchy costume if everyone changes how the people in my head talked and looked. But as a reader, I like meeting the characters on my own terms. I befriend them and make them my own. Whenever I get published, I hope I have the answer that makes everyone happy.

Questions I wanted to Ask.

If anyone has uncovered the answers to these in interviews, please let me know!

1. Did you consciously know that Book 3 would be heavy on the revolution and depiction of war and vastly different from the first two books in the series?

2. A recurrent theme is the idea of a “sustainable population” and how awful it is that children are being used in war. What thoughts do you have about the real issues of declining birth rate in Europe and Japan as well child soldiers? Did they play any part in the writing of the 3rd novel? I mentioned the focus on the child and Katniss’ ultimate thesis that adults should not use children, and she deemed it pro-life. How do you feel about these readings?

3. Gale…changed. Did you consciously mean to depict him as a very real youth in certain very real societies in which young men whose homes have been destroyed resort to vengeful violence?

4. Katniss wonders to Beetee and Gale about their war tactics. “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being,” (185). Sure there is. Or was. Panem is in a time and space removed from religion and seemingly the rest of the world. What happened?

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.

When Writing Drinks Lucy’s Lemonade

This past week, performing a psychoanalysis on my writing has taken its nickels and laid them on the counter. At a writing critique group, a lovely woman paid for M., my picturebook main character, to see Lucy.  She essentially gave me the outline for a revision centered on fulfilling M’s needs and which symbols best expressed the emotional cores along the therapeutic process (I mean narrative).

Then, later this week, I happily handed over the weighty coin myself for GJ, a stalled project. “Lucy” told me that right now, my main character’s issues are my issues. If I try to write them out, they will have the essence of 25-year-old woman about them, not 13-year-old girl. Further, until I fully understand myself, I will never gain the perspective I’ll need to help GJ see them through.

But this post helped me realize the path I am starting on by not writing. Maybe some distance is too much distance. Maybe some distance is just some excuse. Maybe I need to see Lucy!

Have you ever taken your writings to Lucy? Do you ever take her prescriptions? Let me know!


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:

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.

The Doctor Will See You Now

Last year I imagined the next profession in the creative world: writing therapists. Such a qualified professional would hear your writing block woes and counsel you to overcome your neuroses so you can get back to your writerly schizophrenia (hearing voices in your head and writing them down), multiple personality disorder (they’re not imaginary friends; they’re characters), and bipolar disorder (exposing yourself to the entire gamut of human emotional responses so you cry when your character cries).

For those writers facing the dreaded writer’s block, they may at first feel like paranoid hypochondriacs. This is one writing disease the Doc should help you avoid. Patients with this disorder, like me, feel like that if they’re not creating, something is wrong with them. They latch onto a new excuse a week. How do you get over it?

By accepting that nothing is wrong with you. Or your writing.

Stephen J. Cannell said in a bonus feature for the Castle TV show Season 1 DVD: “YOu know what causes writer’s block – the desire to be perfect.” In other words, get over yourself. To me, it makes sense. The pressure to be awesome all the time, the pressure to have the words work, the pressure to be better than that 16-year-old who got on the Today show – it all compounds in your brain and blocks the impulse to get scenes out of your head and through your fingers.

So, I will sit at my laptop and start my self-prescribed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. When I write, I will tell myself: I desire to write. I desire to create. I desire to make a mess and not care. I can always clean it up later. I desire to be imperfect, because it is the “flaws and quirks that are more interesting.” (another Castle DVD quote).

How have you overcome writing blocks?

Matter of Consent

When writing mainly young adult fiction, I come to the moment in plotting where I consider giving my characters typical teenage firsts: pimple, period, um, accident, kiss, that other first. Generally the characters I write  find themselves both wanting the it-takes-two firsts. At the very least mentally, if not outwardly expressive of the desire.

Yet in fiction I’ve read, the authors have done a swell job of swaying me to root for the firsts, but have at least one character unsure, hesitant, and then ultimately find herself “forced” into the first, however subtly. What do these readings have to say about issues of consent in the real world?

One example is scene in a novel I read for a summer study while in high school. It’s not of “the canon” of YA, so I can’t remember the title or even the character, but I remember clearly feeling uncomfortable as the heroine’s new love interest came to her dorm bed at night, lay with her, and then left. And later in the book she’s still with him. The next day during discussion, the professor distinctly said “so, after what we all agree to call ‘the rape’ of…” What gives us readers the power to judge an action if the character herself doesn’t see it that way?

In a second example, from an upcoming dystopic YA, the first-person narration tells us reader she is terrified; she’s just been through a dramatic escape during a raid; she is bleeding heavily from the leg. And yet the hunky guy starts running his fingers along her face and then his mouth until they are kissing.  At first, I was swept up in the drama and heat; but later I felt disturbed. Obviously not all characters can be like one particular ex-boyfriend who literally asked  permission before kissing me, but still I found myself later thinking, wouldn’t taking advantage of the heroine and the moment be cause for concern? Why did she, a naive love neophyte surrender to someone who knew exactly what he was doing, fully conscious of the fact that she did not? Am I allowed to bring my real-world sensibilities into the reading, or should I accept the characters’ granting of permission?

At the very least, expounding on these questions will inform my conscience when writing my own firsts scenes, unless of course BoyWonder the Character gets out a broom and sweeps me up.