Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Making of a Bookworm

I became a bookworm because my brother needed a break from his annoying little sister.

I was 9 and he was 18, home from college, jet-lagged and worn out by playing with me. Eventually he handed me a book so he could have some peace and quiet. So of course I pestered him incessantly about the meaning of the words I didn't understand. (To his credit, he remained unfailingly patient.) After a couple of pages, however, I was so caught up I just skipped ahead. There was a story to be discovered, what were a few unknown words?

Peace and quiet for him, a lifelong love of fiction for me.

I need to back up and tell you that my siblings and I were born into a household of reading materials: Chinese classic texts and literature, foreign stories translated into Chinese, issues of National Geographic, a set of encyclopedia. I read mostly Chinese books when I was in grade school. In English, I read captions for National Geographic photographs, jokes from Readers' Digests, and comics from the English daily newspaper. My vocabulary was limited. (And often skewed by my misunderstanding of lyrics in American pop songs.)

Turned out my brothers had a whole collection of Enid Blyton books: on boarding schools, adventures, mysteries, fairies and gnomes and elves. I spent the next years devouring all of them, multiple times. I enjoyed the Famous Five adventures and boarding school stories. I even wrote a story, when I was about 13, that took place in a boarding school in England, with a protagonist named Bronwyn or Beatrice or something else with a strong British flavor. Yes, my characters had midnight feasts and drank ginger beer and routinely turned as red as beetroot. I still remember characters from Mallory Towers and St. Clare's: Darrell and Felicity Rivers, Pat and Isabel, Alicia, Mary Lou, a perfect head-girl named Rita, a teacher named Nosy Parker, and a new girl who was unjustly sent to Coventry. I longed to be allowed to wander around an island with my cousins and solve mysteries, and craved bacon and eggs for breakfast instead of milo and bread with kaya.

Sigh. Memories.

Despite all the criticisms of Enid Blyton's work, I am enormously grateful that she chose to write. These books opened my eyes to lives in foreign places and unfamiliar customs, made me a fluent reader, and laid the foundation for a habit of reading.

What are the first books that hooked you?

Fellow readers who grew up with Enid: which were your favorite books? What are some phrases you remember from her books, besides "red as beetroot?"Did you want to be one or another of her characters?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Getting to know my readers

To celebrate having 100 avatars adorn the right side of my blog, I decided to interview some of them. Today, we're beginning with the person who bumped my number to three digits, Scott F. Bailey.

Here's his blurb:
Scott Bailey is a writer, musician and art-school dropout. He studied literature and political science at university and his short stories and essays have been published here and there. He's older than he looks, which bothers him a lot. Scott also blogs here and he is awfully fond of jam.
Scott is represented by Weronika Janczuk of D4EO Literary

I "met" Scott at The Literary Lab, one of my favorite blogs. There have been quite a few instances when his observations and insights have made me think and re-think my understanding and beliefs. And the guy is witty. I have not met him in person, but I'll bet he's one who deadpans his punchlines in perfect timing and while everyone around him roars with laughter, he is calmly sipping his beverage of choice.

Here are some questions he answered.

1. Name the last three books you read.

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus
"Possession" by Antonia Byatt
"Malone Dies" by Samuel Beckett

2. Name one of your favorite authors. The first name that pops into your
mind. Explain. Or not.

Ernest Hemingway. I love his use of language, and the line, "It's a nice
bar; they've got a lot of bottles."
William Shakespeare. Nobody's better than Shakespeare. He gave us so much.

3. On a typical weekday, what are you doing at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m?

9 a.m. I'm usually working. 9 p.m. I'm usually reading.

4. Have you ever had breakfast for dinner? Dessert before main course?

I love breakfast food for dinner. Hash browns and eggs Benedict and sausage
et cetera! Dessert comes last.

5. Why not?

Dessert last because it's usually rich and I like to have coffee with it,
but I don't usually have coffee with the entrée.

6. How do you want your work to be characterized? First three words that pop
into your mind.

Brilliant. Moving. Funny.

7.What have you written today? (Email/memo/comments on fb/recommendation
letter/grocery list)

This email. Nothing else.

8. Name a favorite food/dish that is colorful (Tandoori chicken, orange bell
pepper, green eggs and ham.)

Malai kofta.

9. Name a vocation, time, and place you'd love to be. (A general in Kublai
Khan's army; a writer in 1920s Paris; camel trainer when the silk road was at its peak; a journalist when the Berlin Wall came down.)

I like it here, but I wouldn't mind being a violinist in a professional
string quartet in, say, New York just after Prohibition ended.

Thanks, Scott.

Go visit him at The Lit Lab or at Six Words For A Hat.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One, Two, Skip A Few...

...Ninety nine, a hundred. (That's how my kids like to count to a hundred. They think it's hilarious.)

99 followers: who knew? I certainly di
dn't expect it when I started blogging. I don't have the hundreds and thousands of followers some other blogs do, but these 99 clicked that "follow" button to my blog.

Thank you.

I love having you visit and comment and getting to know you here as well as at your blogs. I'll mark my hundredth follower with a celebration. A few ideas are brewing in my head. Do you have any that you'd like to share?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

50 children's books

If you're like me, you'd run the other way when someone comes to you and says that everyone "should" read this and "should" do that. That was my initial reaction to the list
by The Independent, of 50 books every child should read. But my curiosity got the better of me and I checked it out. (Thanks, Kelly Fineman at Writing and Ruminating, for pointing out the link.)

The article is about a list of 50 books compiled by prominent British children's authors and librarians in response to the their Education Secretary's suggestion that every 11-year old child should read a book a week to improve literacy.

I have read only a few on the list and wonder about the inclusion of some others. But
rather than to comment on their list, I thought I would come up with my own. I hope you'll indulge me as I share the books that have a special place in my children's reading journeys.

Susan Cooper: The Magician's Boy
This was the perfect book, in terms of the magical
quality of the story, the whimsical illustrations, and the length, for my daughter when she first learned how to read and we've worn out You Read To Me I'll Read To You (how I miss those cuddling sessions spent with this series of sweet, funny books.) She felt accomplished having finished reading a book on her own.

E. B. White: Charlotte's Web
We read this together at about the same time as she read The Magician's Boy. We would each read a page. Once again, she felt a sense of achievement after finishing it, especially after I told her this was a famous book.

Tony Abbott: The Secrets of Droon series

These are the books I credit for bringing my daughter from being someone who can read to someone who reads fluently.

Roald Dahl: Matilda
She first read this in first grade and has continued to read it once a year.

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter
Rick Riordan: Percy Jackson
These books brought her the type of engagement and enjoyment that we bookworms thrive on.

Cressida Cowell: How To Train Your Dragon series
My son liked the Magic Tree House series when he first began to read but lost interest after about three books. I looked for many different alternatives, fiction and non-fiction, that would capture his attention enough to move him from able-to-read to able-to-read-fluently-and-for-enjoyment. These were the ones that did the magic. I knew he was hooked when I heard him chuckling to himself while reading. You can imagine my happiness when he ran to my room just to share a particularly good passage with me. Ah, thank you, Cressida Cowell.

Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black: Spiderwick Chronicles
At the library one day, I checked out all five books at one time, on a hunch. Sure enough, he finished the first book that night and the other four within the next few days. He devoured the Beyond Spiderwick books as well. When are you going to write more, Tony and Holly?

Bruce Coville: Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher
Like Spiderwick, this book combines magic and reality in a way that captured my son's imagination. (The entire Magic Shop series is fabulous.) The other reason he enjoyed this particular book is that he could relate to the character of Jeremy Thatcher.

Jeff Smith: The Bone series (graphic novels)
My son brought home a copy from the school library and
told me how funny they were. Again, the chuckling while reading. Priceless.

Tom Sniegoski: Bone novels
I saw the illustration on the cover and assumed this was another installment in the series of graphic novels. Turns out this is a novel written by another author, but with illustrations by Jeff Smith. My son didn't bat an eyelid when he found out this wasn't a graphic novel. In fact, he chose to read this over playing his beloved handheld video game!

There are a number of books that I love but my children don't (yet) such as C. S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, and those that I want them to be older before they read, such as Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy.

What about you? What are some of your favorite books for children? What are some of your own beloved books when you were young? Would love to hear your lists.

Note to self: The Hobbit! I bet both of them would love it if we read this together.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Food, Shelter, and Clothing, meet your competitors

A theme emerges from recent conversations--on topics ranging from career choices to exercise routines to venues of children's birthday parties: people need affirmation. We make decisions and we want others to know the reasons behind them.

When the basic essentials of food, shelter, and clothing are met, we become focused on our other set of basis needs. From my observations, these are:
  • understanding
  • acceptance
  • affirmation
[I didn't put "love" on the list because that's like including "oxygen" in the other list. Also, I used to include "respect" but I think "acceptance" is more fundamental. Also also, these are not mutually exclusive but are intertwined.]

There are degrees to which each person requires these three elements, depending on age, maturity, personality, but I suggest that even the most highly respected, mature, confident person has these needs.

In fiction, when we're not dealing with characters struggling for food and safety: say, in a dystopian society, knowing how our main and secondary characters deal with these needs can make these characters more alive and believable.

What do you think? Do you agree that these are essentials? Have I neglected something else you consider even more fundamental? Do you characters feel the need for one or the others strongly? Do these needs drive their motivation? Drop me a note!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Compassion as antidote

Recently, two events spread through the writing online community like wildfires in Colorado. They have made me think long and hard, not just about the writing life, but life in general.

I haven't come up with anything coherent yet, but Nathan Bransford, ex-agent and current Middle-Grade novelist, wrote a really wise post this morning. I'd highly recommend a read.

(I am rather concerned about some of the comments that follow the post, which exhorts people to react with compassion, but seems to have excited more judgmental attitude, but that may be another story.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Team Chopped / Team Iron Chef

Last night, my daughter and I watched episodes of Chopped in which famous chefs--heard of Jacques Torres, anyone?-- battle for the title of the All Stars Chopped Grand Champion. Even though the show is like the more famous Iron Chef, I enjoy watching this much more. Why? Because the judges on Chopped are all highly-experienced chefs, unlike the celebrities and actors who perform the judging on the other show.

I have often wondered how the contestants on Iron Chef feel about being judged by people who are not trained in their art. Kinda like Hilary Hahn and Joshua Bell being judged by violin students.

Receiving critiques is hard, no matter who gives it, but I imagine it would be a little easier to hear commentaries from someone who have had much training and experience in the field.

Seems like Chopped provides a better way of judgment, no? I watched Chopped, but I would squirm and lose interest if I had to watch Iron Chef.


In real life, chefs cook for patrons, who, unlike food critiques, may not care about how difficult it is to produce souffles that rise just so, or how much acid is needed to balance a particularly oily fish. They just want to eat good food.

You know exactly how I am going to relate this to writing, don't you? Every published work is judged. Some works are loved by those in the know and some are loved by the masses and some by people from both camps. (I resisted the urge to use parenthesis around the two groups of people, but by golly, I really need you to know that I am aware of how unnuanced I am to put people into two neat groups like that. And isn't this the perfect example of how we want to appeal to those who do the same thing as we do, a certain understanding, or maybe even affirmation?)

As a writer, do you have a preference for which group of people you wish would value your work? Assuming there is a show like Chopped and another like Iron Chef for writers and you can only be a contestant in one or the other, which would you choose?