Friday, October 31, 2008

Poetry Friday

A poem about courage seems appropriate this morning, as I get ready my manuscripts to head to the Big Sur writing workshop. I think I'll print it out and mull over it while I'm there.

I Would Like to Describe
by Zbigniew Herbert
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun

Read the rest of the poem here.

Poetry for Children is hosting the Roundup today.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Last weekend was filled with kid-related activities: parent-teacher conferences, a Tae Kwon Do tournament, a solo with the church children's choir. Each event brought about observations and thoughts that can fill a week's worth of blog entries, if not more.

But this weekend, I am leaving the kids with Super Dad. I'm off to a writing retreat, my first ever, at a Chautauqua site. It's the Big Sur Writing Workshop headed by Uberagent Andrea Brown. I look forward to learning from the faculty assembled as well as the attendees. I just hope my mind is focus and open enough and my skin thick enough to get the most out of the weekend.

Wish me courage!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: The End

I finished the book a few days ago and have been moping since.
The night after I finished reading, I couldn't bring myself to start another book. I watched the news instead: nothing like an overdose of rhetoric and posturing to get my mind off Edgar's world. I don't know if it will become a classic, as Oprah's magazine says, but it's one book that I won't forget.

The ending is tender and moving. The one aspect that I absolutely needed was there--thank goodness or I'll be moping even more--but it's still tragic.

The reader in me is utterly satisfied with the book. The writer in me is still trying to figure out what makes it work. As I mentioned in earlier reports on the book, it goes against quite a few of the writerly advice that is bantered about in writerly circles. Yet it made big, and deservedly so.

The only conclusion I come to is this: break all the rules you want, but you must be able to hold on to your readers. If your writing is good enough, than none of the rules matter.

It really is all about the writing.

If you're interested in my other reports on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, here they are:
  1. This one is from when I started reading it.
  2. Here is the first update, with some favorite quotes.
  3. A day later, I read the part that made me go WHOA!
  4. In this one, I rant a bit.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Review: The Willoughbys

The Willoughbys
Lois Lowry

My first Lois Lowry book is The Giver. Based on the book, I constructed an image of the author: serious, contemplative, deep. Recently I picked up her newest book, The Willoughbys, which, according to the cover, was "Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author." Hmmm. Is this the same Lois Lowry? The backcover assures me it is. I turn once again to the front cover. If illustrations can wink and nudge, then this one is nudging and winking like a 8-year old boy trying to conceal his prank. The old-fashioned black and white drawing gives the impression of being perfectly symmetrical, and therefore very proper, but it isn't. The illustrator is obviously having fun and waiting with a gotcha!

Which preconception should I trust: the one from reading The Giver, or the one from the cover?

Turns out you can judge a book by its cover.

Lois Lowry wrote this book with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek.(That image, combined with the author-blurb on the jacket flap: "...reclusive old woman who sits hunched over her desk thinking obsessively about the placement of commas" makes a striking figure, doesn't it? )She must have had great fun writing the ridiculous: four characters named Barnaby, people pretending to be furniture, and quasi-German "Mein muesli ist dischgusting. It makesch me vant to womit." Fun! Fun! Fun!

But the book is also filled with macabre details. Children as orphans is a time-honored theme in children's books, from Anne of Green Gables to the Boxcar Children to the might-as-well-be-orphans Penderwicks and Cassons in Hilary McKay's series. But seldom are there parents who want to rid themselves of children by leaving and selling the house while the children still live in it, or a mother who forgets her children's names and would rather knit for the cat, or another mother who sends her young son off to a solitary journey. Wouldn't children be scared? Wouldn't they feel insecure? Shouldn't we include this book as Halloween book for its scare factor?

Lowry masterfully balances the gruesome with a breezy style of writing that says, "Don't worry, it's all for laughs. Nothing bad will happen to these children, at least not for long." Besides, these dark possibilities are so over the top, only the most literal and timid child would not see past them to the humor behind.

Speaking of mastery, something else Lowry does makes this a delightful read. She sets up expectations that makes you think you know exactly how they will be fulfilled and then wheem! (Wham! implies a loud impact, a big whack on the side of the head. Wheem! does the same thing except softer, and the head doesn't hurt quite as much) she comes up with a totally unexpected answer. For example, when Jane, one of the Willoughby siblings, says there is a bad word here:

"You old fart...Good riddance to you both."

We all think we know which word. But then she continues, "Riddance is a very bad word and I won't ever say it again."

Here is another example. When Commander Melanoff decides to name his new candy after his little girl, Ruth, we are sure we recognize where it's going. Many pages later, we find out he's named the candy bar Little Ruthie.

And that is what parody does. It takes something familiar to both author and reader (or stand-up comic and audience) and skews it in a way that makes it funny and thought-provoking. The fine line between what works brilliantly and what simply annoys is not only hard to define but is different from one person to the next and even the best of 'em can miss the mark. Lowry doesn't in this book. She pokes fun at story-book conventions, and maybe even a little life conventions, and succeeds. It is a book that my children and I both enjoyed immensely.

Poetry Friday

I didn't set out to look for poems with big words. I was searching for one that talks about attitudes, and how they can shape our experiences. And there it was,
pusillanimous hanging out with the other words so comfortably as though it were just another word like "ready " and "bread."

Cheerfulness Taught By Reason
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I think we are too ready with complaint

In this fair world of God's. Had we no hope
Indeed beyond the zenith and the slope
Of yon gray blank of sky, we might grow faint
To muse upon eternity's constraint
Round our aspirant souls; but since the scope
Must widen early, is it well to droop,
For a few days consumed in loss and taint ?
O pusillanimous Heart, be comforted
And, like a cheerful traveller, take the road
Singing beside the hedge. What if the bread
Be bitter in thine inn, and thou unshod
To meet the flints ? At least it may be said
'Because the way is short, I thank thee, God.'

Big A little a is hosting Poetry Friday Roundup this week.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Promoting your book

Nathan Bransford's blog is one that I read frequently. Recently, guest blogger
Michelle Moran, acclaimed and bestselling author of NEFERTITI, and THE HERETIC QUEEN, wrote two posts on ways to promote a book.

After reading her posts, I want to go out and do some of her suggestions: I'll produce a book trailer! I'll write music to go with the book! I'll check out AuthorBuzz! But wait, I don't have a book published yet.

Guess it's time to go back to writing and editing and pulling teeth and checking in with my imagination and shushing / pleading for help from my inner editor and rejoicing and puzzling and wondering...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: yet another update

This post is for people who've already read the book because I can't avoid giving away pertinent plot points.

Spoiler alert

When Edgar ran away I almost couldn't read on. Even when I was very little, four or five, I never understood how any kid would consider running away. Where would they sleep, how would they bathe, what would they eat? And that picture I always conjured up: a little boy wearing overalls and a straw hat, carrying a stick with a small bundle wrapped in some handkerchief, always struck me being ridiculous and impractical. Reading about how Edgar and the three dogs trying to survive on their own made me worry. A sign of good fiction, I suppose, when a reader start worrying the survival of a fictitious character.

Here is a small complaint about the book. When Edgar finally realizes Almondine is his other and he misses her more than he misses his mom, I expected Edgar to turn around. But without explanation, he continues on in his journey. Nothing more is said about it. That bugs me a little.

But the thing that bugs me the most is when Edgar finally comes home and the author doesn't let boy and dog re-unite. Bad, bad David Wroblewski! That chapter in Almondine's viewpoint: how poignant, and how different from the first chapter in her POV. That's the only time I've cried in this book.

And evil Claude. If I had hackles, they were definitely raised when I read that chapter in which he so smoothly manipulates Glen, who is grieving his father's death and so very gullible. Claude has to pay, and pay good.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pusillanimous, anyone?

You may think I'm just a Slubberdegullion, or Rodomontade, or worse, Omphaloskepsis. But after reading this post, you may go through Metanoia, and realize I have that certain Chatoyant, and that I'm merely trying to prevent the Chthonic of some very useful words. I know I'm being Panglossian to think that one obscure post is going to do anything, but I have to try. After all, I can't just sit around and be a Scrimshanker.

For more multi-syllabic obscure words, you can read this article from the BBC News Magazine.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Another award

The National Book Awards finalists are announced. Here are the finalists in the Young People's Literature category:

Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains (Simon & Schuster)
Kathi Appelt, The Underneath (Atheneum)
Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic)
E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion)
Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now (Alfred A. Knopf)

Newbery and Cybils

In the School Library Journal, Anita Silvey asked, "Has the Newbery lost its way?

When people who work most closely with children--teachers and librarians--become disenchanted with the award, does that indicate that it has become outdated and out-of-touch with the very readers it hopes to delight and instruct as John Newberry intended when this award started?

Over at Writer Unboxed, Kathleen Bolton collects some responses to Silvey's article.

For me, the questions raised are the following:
What constitutes literary merit?
Who decides?
Do the children have any say?
Should they?
Is the division really between quality writing and popularity?
Can't quality writing and popularity coincide?
And why do people resort to condescending and dismissive tactics when they argue?

[All right, this last one is really off on a tangent, but really,

There is so little right about these completely forgettable books.”
“Why do we care about whether kids like the Newbery books?"

Can we please be civilized and focus on the topic and not rhetoric? I guess I'm pleading from a mind filled with too much rhetoric lately.]

**rant over**

I definitely reacted to three of the last four Newberry winners: Kira-Kira, Criss-Cross, and the Higher Power of Lucky. I think I'll re-read them.

And if any of you think that you should have a say on which books are given awards, go nominate your favorite books for the Cybils Award. Anyone, I repeat, anyone can nominate books. So, if you have a book that you feel is overlooked but deserved much more recognition, go nominate!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Fall is approaching rapidly. I've been spending as much time outside as I could these past few weeks to enjoy the last warm days. I've been reminded once again that miracles surround us. In this picture, the plant is sprouting from a boulder! Perhaps bits of dirt have been trapped in crevices but this little plant speaks to me about tenacity, about making something work, and about thriving despite all odds.

And how miraculous it is, when this turns into this:

And finally to this:


Here's wishing you many inspired moments.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Savvy: a review

by Ingrid Law

Savvy is a quirky story that goes straight to the heart.

Children in the Beaumont family get their savvy on their 13th birthday. Mibs’s grandmother captured radio waves, her grandfather forms new lands, and one of her brothers creates electricity. On her 13th birthday, Mibs ends up on a road trip in a pink school bus with several involuntary fellow travelers.

Even though these special abilities may give the impression that this story is not reality-based, the author uses the fantastical elements to relate to our un-savvied, ordinary world. In the words of Mibs’s mother:

“We get born, and sometime later we die. And in between, we’re happy and sad, we feel love and we feel fear, we eat and we sleep and we hurt like everyone else.”

And Mibs comes to the realization herself later, that:

“We Beaumonts are just like other people...” and that:

“...savvy is just a know-how of a different sort.”

This realization plays a role in the resolution of a big problem that occupies Mibs’s mind most of the book.

The main characters are fully-fleshed and likeable, from the narrator, Mibs; to her brothers, Fish and Samson; the haughty teenager Bobbi; the fearful bus driver, Les; and the big-hearted waitress, Lil. [Spoiler alert]I was, however, suspicious of Will Junior all the way through. All his winks and smiles at Mibs make me super protective of young Mibs. When he turned out to be a good guy, I was relieved.

I love the tenderness and care demonstrated among the Beaumont family members. So many books show siblings who can’t stand one another or young people who are impatient and scornful of their parents. Many of these books are well written but they inevitably leave a bad taste in my mouth. Score one for Ingrid Law for writing about loving and strong family relationships.

The author’s language is lively and all her own, and for me, this is the most and least attractive element of the book. She has some amazing metaphors and similes and out-of-the-box descriptions. Here are a few that I like:

“ a blinding explosion of brilliant blue sparks, like the Fourth of July without the red or the white.”

“Fish gave me a...look that said Now What? with a This-Was-a-Stupid-Idea tag to it.”

“...adding two and two and getting twenty seven...”

But sometimes the degree of quirkiness and uniqueness is dialed too high to where it draws too much attention to itself and away from the story:

“...had her own set of rights and wrongs—like matching suitcases she made other people carry—and she took it upon herself to make everything and everyone as shipshape and apple-pie as she felt the Lord had intended them to be.”

“His breath a loud mix of bluster and buffalo wings.”

Or they go over the top:

“...his voice galled and glum yet surprisingly tuneful like a country western singer yodeling atop a cactus tree.”
Country western singer and yodeling and cactus?

“He struck me as a fellow whose gears might turn a bit slower..., a man whose thinking cap had gotten shrunk in the wash and now fit his brain a notch too tight.”

Then there is the author’s tendency/choice to use repetition:

“I drum, drum, drummed my fingers...”
“I was sure I was sure.”
“...moody-broody self.”
“...closed tight tight tight.”
“...began to hum hum hum hum hum.”
“...the car gurgled and gargled.”
“...tatty ratty seats...”
“...whack of a quack...”
In the same paragraph, something is described as “itty-bitty” at the beginning and then “teeny-tiny” at the end.
“I could do nothing nothing nothing for Poppa.”

Repetition is an effective highlight. In this case, I can see how the nothing x 3 can convey the girl’s hopelessness and heartbreak. But because repetition has been used so much by then it no longer packed the same punch.

Some of you disagree with me and consider all these phrases fabulous. I can only reply that it’s a matter of taste. Others of you wonder why I like the first lot but not the second. Taste, again, and it’s all in the first reaction. A phrase can delight, sadden, or make me think, or it can take me out of the story. The ones I like did the former and the ones I don’t like did the latter. My reactions are completely subjective and dependent on whatever mechanisms that work together to create first impressions.

I wonder how much of the author’s use of language is the result of the publishing industry’s search for the Unique Voice. We read so often of agents and publishers being captured by a certain something—difficult to describe, yet unmistakable when present—that makes them fall in love with a book. Did the author dial up her uniqueness, consciously or subconsciously, because of that?

I hope not. I hope that this is her voice. Even though I am distracted at times, I hope she’s taking her own advice, given by Mom in this book, about scumbling, or controlling, a savvy:

“ like spreading a thin layer of paint over yourself...If you use too much paint, you’ll not only obscure your savvy completely, but most everything else in life will become dull and uninteresting for you too. You can’t get rid of part of what makes you you and be happy.”

If this way of writing is Ingrid Law’s savvy, then I hope she stays with it. Because with it, she conveys warmth and generosity, and creates a story that is grounded in the things that matter: love, faith, and hope.

Poetry Friday

I'm thinking about failure and success, in our pursuits as well as in our relationships, and about what really lasts. Here's a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.

What Survives
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Who says that all must vanish?
Who knows? Perhaps the flight
of the bird you wound remains,
And perhaps flowers survive
Caresses in us, in their ground.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Please visit Picture Book of The Day for this week's Poetry Friday Roundup.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Colorado Book Awards Results

At the Colorado Book Awards last night, Red Glass is selected as the winner in the Young Adult Literature category. Congratulations, Laura! And congratulations to Todd and Teresa as well for being finalists.

Here's looking forward to more books by these fabulous writers.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Red Glass Giveaway Results

It's October 8th, and my six-year old drew the winner's name from my hat. And the signed copy of Red Glass goes to...


Alyce, I've just sent you email. Please let me know asap that you still want the book. I hope to hear from you by next Wednesday or I'll have to award the book to the next name, drawn by my seven-year old. (Can't tell you who it is. Suspense is good...)

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: another update

After I posted my last update on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I read further. A few pages into it, something huge happened. If you've read it, you know what I am referring to. If you haven't, I can't bear to spoil it for you. Instead of making me go hmmm, it made me go WHOA!

As I sat in my bed, teetering from this new development in the story, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago. I think it was by Faye Kellerman. Throughout the book, the question was whether a woman was a werewolf. The woman herself didn't think so, and neither did I. I was eagerly waiting for the end of the book to reveal how all the evidence that pointed to the woman being a werewolf can be explained. But I was totally mistaken. She was a werewolf.

Somehow I had taken the book to be contemporary and reality-based, i.e. no ghosts or werewolves or space pirates or monkeys that talk. When at the end, I discovered that was not the case,
I felt let down.

I am not saying that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a deceptive book, and I had known, before I picked up the book, that it was a retelling of Hamlet, but after 200+ pages that describe the world as we know it in such vivid details, a world in which a dog bite hurts, storm winds rattle windows and break barn roofs, and Mr. Coffee makes coffee, after 200+ pages of no clue or suggestion that the huge thing is even possible, I find its insertion into the story jolting, to say the least.

(I'll take a breath now after that long sentence.)

Shouldn't the premise of a book be clear from the beginning? Shouldn't unusual possibilities be at least hinted at? Or is the whole first half of the book a set up, to lull readers so that the surprise is more intense? Am I going to stop reading just because I feel as if new rules have just been introduced to a game after it's gone on? Not a chance. I'm too invested in the story, in Edgar and his dogs, and I really do love the way the author uses language.

Will keep you posted.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Free Download

Donald Maass is offering his book, The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success, as a free download. You may want to check it out.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: an update

I am in the middle of the book and still enjoying it tremendously. Here are a couple of passages that spoke to me.

This first one describes grief:

Just when normal life felt almost possible--when the world held some kind of order, meaning, even loveliness...some small thing would go awry and the veil of optimism was torn away, the barren world revealed. They learned, somehow, to wait those times out. There was no cure, no answer, no reparation.

This next one is, believe it or not, about dog-breeding; it is part of a letter from a self-proclaimed "factory-man"--one who seeks to create what is reliable--to a fellow dog-breeder whom he calls an "artist":

The artist does not know what he wants, but looks for good paints, good brushes, and good canvas. He trusts that talent will produce a desirable result. Sadly, for most people, it does not....No one can say if you are that person, who given good paints, good brushes and a fine canvas, can produce something better than a factory man...for a simple factory man like me, an effort must be abandoned once its hopelessness is exposed. Only the artist perseveres in such circumstance.

This is the reason I read: to connect and to understand, and to have my experiences explained much more elegantly than I can and to find that I am not alone in my pursuits, my take of the world, my conclusions about what I must do.

If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The power of kid-movies

The rest of the family came out from the movie theater with smiles on their faces. Each child recounted their favorite funny moments in the movie. I came out feeling depressed. Which movie? Wall-E. Sure it's a sweet movie with lovable characters, but the preaching is a bit much for me and the attempt to provide an upbeat ending, after much of the movie is spent in one depressing locale then another, is too little, too late, and too Pollyanna even for an animated kids' movie.

Anyone else wants a chance at the soapbox before I store it away?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Poetry Friday

For today's Poetry Friday, I offer a poem by David Ignatow. He writes about everyday things in a direct manner, which I really appreciate. This is for all you book lovers and writers all there.

Against the evidence
by David Ignatow

The following passage comes in the middle:

All my life
I've held books in my hands
like children, carefully turning
their pages and straightening out
their creases. I use books
almost apologetically. I believe
I often think their thoughts for them.
Reading, I never know where theirs leave off
and mine begin.

Read the poem here.

Then head on over to Two Writing Teachers for the Roundup.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Author interview: Todd Mitchell

Today I bring you an interview with the third finalist in the Young Adult category of the Colorado Book Awards. You can also read the interviews with the other two finalists, Teresa Funke and Laura Resau.

Todd Mitchell is the author of the fantasy novel, The Traitor King (Scholastic Press, 2007) His next YA novel is coming out with Candlewick Press in 2010 but he can't figure out what to title this one. He's also published several short stories, essays, and poems in journals and magazines. He earned his M.F.A in Fiction from Colorado State University and his B.A from Oberlin College. Currently, he teaches creative writing at Colorado State University. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with his wife, dog, and daughter (whose middle name is Story). P. S. If you have any title suggestions for his upcoming book (about a high school sophomore who likes a lot) please email them to him (click on contact me at his website.)

I know your secret to writing so convincingly: you are really a teenager pretending to be an adult. You're not? Then how do you do it?

I think everyone is a teenager at heart. Some people just like to dress up in suits and pretend they're more adult. As for myself, I try to avoid pretending.

Which makes you want to procrastinate more: starting a new scene of revising draft? (And if you never procrastinate, please, please, please share your secret.)

Facing the blank page is always the hardest for me. Anytime I need to start a new scene, I get an overwhelming urge to play hacky sack, or mow the lawn or something. THe only tip I have is to put a few words down. ANy words. Once something is there, things get easier.

In your writing, what is the relationship between putting down the initial idea and revising?

I see putting down the initial ideas as capturing a vision or mood. But it's only in revision that the vision becomes real. Or to use another analogy--putting down the initial idea is like gathering a handful of clay to work with. But it's in revision that I actually shape that clay into something I want other people to see. I often spend three times as long rewrigin and revising something as I do writing the first draft.

Which scenario comes closest to yours: (a) you wake up at dawn, sit at your keyboard with your coffee and work for a couple of hours before the rest of the family gets up; (a) you put away the dinner dishes, tuck the kids into bed, start a load of laundry and start writing; (c) you have 10 minutes between your office hour and your next class/you sit in the pickup lane of your child’s school and scribble down a few sentences?

I write in the morning, because it's too easy to let other things crowd out writing. Th only way I can get writing done is to make it a priority, and do it before everything else. Unfortunately, this often means I forget to pay bills, and my house is trashed, and the dinners I make are pretty lame.

Do you have a community you turn to for support, encouragement, critiques, and celebration in your writing life?

My wife reads everything I write. She's a pretty tough critic, but she's the one I'm always writing for. I also trade manuscripts with some writer friends (some of them are up for the Colorado Book Award this year too!) It's important to have a few good, critical readers who can keep you from getting locked in your head.

Did you ask young readers to read you book before you published it? What was the most interesting response you’ve received?

Nope. My wife is pretty immature, though. I think we have that in common.

If you weren’t a children’s book writer, what would you do?

I'd be Vice-President. (Todd's debating tonight!)

What will you do for your two fellow authors if you win: (a) bring them homemade apple pies, (b) offer to watch their child/children for a weekend, (c) provide them with unlimited signed copies of your book?

If I win, I'll gladly bake them corn bread. That's about as far as my baking skills go.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cybils nominations open

Nominations are open for the 2008 Cybils award. Nominate your favorite children's books published between Jan 1 and Oct. 15 2008 in nine different categories. The panelists consist of teachers, librarians, authors and other people passionate about children's lit and who blog about it.

Here are the 2007 winners.

The process

Since stepping in as the choir accompanist at my church, I've been offered another accompanist job: at a local charter school with a strong music program. The first concert is presented by 7th and 8th graders and their selections are musically advanced and require some practice on my part.

In the process of learning yet more new music, I've been reminded just how messy the process can be. All the unpredictable mistakes, the funny things that happen when my eye-hand co-ordination gets wacky, and the passages that suddenly don't work when I play them at different speeds. Over the years, I've accepted these as part and parcel of playing the piano. I get frustrated occasionally, but never to the point where I start losing faith. I need to transfer the same attitude to my writing, and not become discouraged when my writing refuses to gel or fit the vision I have for it. I need to remember that it's a process, a journey, in which mistakes and unexpected happenings should be embraced and learned from.

Writing is kinda like life that way. (Okay, obvious and cliche, but I need to hear it every once in a while.)