Thursday, December 31, 2009

Peter Pan in Scarlet

Brilliant as Geraldine McCaughrean's writing is, there was enough in my memory of J.M Barrie's Peter Pan (amply borne out in my recent rereading of it) that made me put off reading the sequel until now.

But read it I did, managing to squeak it into 2009. Here's what I found:

Wonderfully crafted prose. This is a writer who can intuit voice and deliver it on the page. She's been asked to channel Barrie, and she does so with her usual fine sense of emotional tone and timbre, the things that make the music of a written voice. She's taken the 1911 sensibility of the editorial or involved author's voice and updated it subtly, so it has strength and purpose but it's not as intrusive. In contrast, the voice in Barrie's original often feels downright coy. Peter Pan in Scarlet has terrific momentum, and its through-line with Peter growing more and more like his arch-enemy is quite wonderful. The time-frame's been moved forward but it's still only 1926, so the storyteller's trapped within the viewpoint of another time. I'm saying all this to try and understand one of the storytelling choices.

Those “redskins.” They're still here. For a while it seems as if they're just putting in a sort of collective cameo appearance. Subverted and turned into pirates, but still referred to as "squaws" and "braves," they continue to occupy the awkward niche of a playfully subordinate race. Their innocent savage role plays out to the end, when they all come joyfully back in a veritable storm of "bison and appaloosas and drums and papooses and war-bonnets and peace-pipes and braids and coup sticks and moccasins and bows and arrows that went to make up the Tribes of the Eight Nations."

What? They came back just to be an escort in fancy-dress? To a bunch of white kids, forgive the plainspeak, who treated them like live toys in the first place?

Most reviews didn't make a single mention of the continued manhandling of worn-out American Indian stereotypes. What's wrong with that picture? Sure, in 1926 fake Indianness was writ large in public perception. But the one thing that the narrative voice of an involved author does, and something that this narrative voice in particular does with elegance and grace, is to convey a worldview.

Let me try to say this clearly. The worldview that this book conveys suggests that this fake subordinate war-painted "redskin" flim-flam is OK.

Now before I get accused of playing the PC card, let me say this: most of Geraldine McCaughrean's sequel is masterfully crafted. In places the prose is practically incandescent. Even the mothering thread, that at first feels stretched a bit thin, gets somewhat redeemed by the presence of Tootles's father. But oh boy, those Tribes, I just can't explain them away. I mean, given the period in which he wrote, Barrie could just as easily have chosen another kind of Indian, the kind they were drumming into the Empire's army just a couple of years after the play was turned into a novel. Had he done that, we'd have had sadhus and fakirs and cobras and elephants and Taj Mahals and turbans and dancing-bells all galloping across the plain, right into the 21st century.

Nostalgia for the good old colonial days dies hard. Hardest of all, I think, in the world of children's books.

Welcome, 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Revisiting A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean

I'm late to the Peter Pan in Scarlet conversation or debate or whatever it was. But that's all right, because I could really be speaking to myself about this, for all the attention anyone's going to give my thoughts in the matter.

Rereading the original Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie after many years (I managed to get my hands on the 100th anniversary edition) I find the narrative voice has an arch tone to it, the precise tone that has perhaps made writers veer away from omniscient storyteller viewpoints for almost a century. What a very involved author this is, frequently inserting commentary into the text, and tacitly endorsing the world of the story.

Not to upset those who have waited for years to return to Neverland, but I find that tacit endorsement a tad worrying, because both the racist and sexist overtones (the “redskins” and Wendy’s "motherly" role) are quite frankly hair-raising. I understand that 1911, the year of the first novelization of the play, Peter Pan and Wendy, was also the year of the Imperial Delhi Durbar—things were different back then. Yet this book in its 100th anniversary edition, is available to children today without a word of explanation about that shift in thinking that we’re supposed to have made. No contextual footnotes, no afterword, no explanation at all. I'm not saying we should yank it off the shelf. But a little context would be good, no? Something to suggest that we've moved on?

Unless of course we haven't.

Before I get to the sequel, I'm finding myself returning to another book by Geraldine McCaughrean. I first read A Pack of Lies twelve years ago, nearly a decade after its publication. It's a brilliant work, with its stories nested within the frame tale of mildly discontented Ailsa and her mother, struggling to keep an antiques store afloat. The iconic MCC Berkshire shows up and throws their lives into turmoil, spinning stories about objects he sells for (and sometimes despite) Ailsa and Mrs. Povey. The deft twist at the end offers a subtle commentary on the nature of fiction and truth, and throws into disarray all that we've come to believe about this bookstore world. McCaughrean's liquid prose ebbs and flows, carrying me along. I'm not even reading it so much as slip-sliding over it to an inevitable destination that makes me want to turn back to page 1 and repeat the experience all over again.

So now I'm reading it again, and taking a closer look in particular at the story that interests me most, "The Writing Box: The Story of a Liar." The customer is their neighbor Mr. Singh. Okay, so he's a bit stiff, speaks without contractions (that's getting to be my pet peeve about South Asian voices transcribed by writers who aren't from the region). What? We never use contractions? None of us? Ever?

I decide I like Mr. Singh anyway. He sounds a bit like my father's colleagues from his days in the Government of India, a motley assortment of philosopher-bureaucrats I remember from my youth. I keep going. The India part of the story channels The Secret Garden, definitely, with mysterious natives and snakes and whatnot. The land itself is more than a little Orientalist, a strange and unnerving ocean on which the English girl Grace has been cast adrift. But there the story takes a giant sweeping turn away from a Victorian worldview and into a post-colonial present, by inverting the old trope of the untrustworthy native and the helpless European. It's Grace who has lied her way through life until she meets her match in the land where her people are both served and hated. And in the end Mr. Singh naturally buys the box and book that spark the story, and his "arms closed around them as the arms of India once closed around her sweet Independence." It's all about voice and viewpoint and in this case McCaughrean slides to a nice finish on both.

Next up, Peter Pan in Scarlet.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Haroun Sequel in 2010

Speaking of books and pages, an inside reference comprehensible to those who have read Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I am thrilled to hear that there is going to be a sequel! I don’t care what a boatload of learned critics might say, I happen to think that Haroun is Sir S’s best book bar none. I also believe that’s because writing for young readers allows no room for self-indulgent cleverness. The story carries its own force and you have to attend to that force and give it its due. As Rushdie said in an interview with James Fenton back when Haroun came out, "If the engine of the book is that the world goes wrong when the mother leaves, the only happy ending that means anything at all is that the thing that was unmade is remade. The thing that was broken is mended. Healing—you know—healing is the only happy ending."

I was annoyed when Haroun was marketed in the US largely as an adult novel or at least not as one intended particularly for young readers. Rushdie made some snarky remarks about the children’s publishing industry in response, I wish I could remember where. The gripe had to do with categories and age groups in children's publishing, and sort of missed the point. In contrast, the present crossover designation of Luka and the Fire of Life sounds promising.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Student News: Looking at Art with Anjali Raghbeer

Over the years the Internet has blurred our geographical boundaries, so that even though Anjali Raghbeer lives in Delhi and I don't, I was able to see some of these interesting and thoughtful picture books when they were in very early draft form. The "Looking at Art" series uses the tools of narrative and fiction to examine the lives of four major artists from India from the 19th century to the present.

The artists featured in the books are:
  • Ravi Varma, who painted classical mythic Indian images in the 19th century, using European-style oil and canvas
  • Amrita Sher-Gil born of Hungarian and Sikh parentage whose works have been declared National Art Treasures by the Government of India.
  • Jamini Roy, trained in formal European painting, whose work straddled two centuries and who abandoned that training in favor of rich, evocative and completely original art that was close to his Bengali roots
  • M.F.Husain whose art career began when he painted film billboards in the 1930's and whose paintings include horses, mythological figures--and umbrellas!
In three of the books Anjali uses a fictional storyline to explore these lives--characters step out of paintings, a forger is caught, and reality and art become intertwines. The Sher-Gil story is told in a crafted first person voice that includes selected text from the artist's own journal. The Looking at Art series is published by Tulika Books, and will launch December 24 in Chennai at 5 pm. Anjali will read and sign at Ashvita, No 11, 2nd Street, R.K.Salai, Mylapore, Chennai 600004 (opposite Domino’s). Congratulations!

Nearing the End of 2009: a Few Common Threads

Continuing an extended conversation on race, publishing, writing, Laura Atkins speaks to Zetta Elliott.

Segbookgation? More on Galleycat. Bernice McFadden raises the question of whose voice is perceived to carry credibility. It's sort of like calling a certain kind of story a "Cinderella" story. Just by employing that label we place the European tale at the center of the discussion and all the others become, well, others.

On PaperTigers, an interview with Maya Ajmera of the Global Fund for Children, and a call for more books by writers of color.

Katia Novet Saint-Lot writes about the beauty of weaving together the strands of many religious traditions and beliefs. Love the notion of Ganesha at the Nativity scene!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

How is Plot like a Rube Goldberg Machine?

Kersten Hamilton poses this question on her Unblog. Her comparison of plot to Rube Goldberg machines could not have come along in a more timely manner.

I just got back from India via Singapore, Tokyo and LA. At LA International Airport, the layover was too long and diversions for the stranded too few. An art exhibit with moving parts drew much attention. It was mounted on a board and placed on the landing on the way to the (closed at 11 pm) food court. Several people, including toddlers, teenagers, and a few gray-haired birds like me, stopped for long periods of time to gape at metal spheres dropping down plastic chutes and setting off pinging bells. Parts moved seemingly at random, but in fact their movement was dependent on the lifting or falling of flaps and lids farther back along the continuum. One section of the maze got stuck sometime close to midnight. This caused the spheres to pile up. It also caused an exhausted child to throw a screaming fit, until a couple of guys in airport maintenance uniforms came along, turned the whole thing off, and fixed the jam.

The machine (wish I'd taken a picture) both attracted and demanded attention. Plot attracts attention from a reader. The events of plot engage us in the story at its most immediate but they should ideally lead us into more introspective terrain, allow us to link cause and effect, invite us to engage with the characters. Plot also demands attention from the writer. You have to take care of it, or it will come back later to bite you and make you scream. Better you than the reader.

The machine at LAX was Goldberg-like in that it was over-engineered. It employed way more pulleys and shafts and gears and pinging bells than were really needed to make those metal spheres drop into their shutes. Those of us who worry about our plotting abilities also often tend to over-engineer our story lines. Too many characters end up serving the same purpose. Too many story turns lead nowhere. Speaking for myself, I always have to plant too many of these superficial events in an early draft. In draft form, redundancy is actually a note to myself--Hey U! Pay attention to this and figure out what it means! When I'm ready for this next layer of story, I can think about which events are really needed, and which ones ought to be cut.

The machine was all at the same distance from the viewer. This is not true of all Rube Goldberg devices, some of which can be elaborately three-dimensional, but it was true of this one. Plot, unless it's backed up by sufficient depth of character, can be flat, all at the same distance from the reader. Plot with insufficient motivation can be simply puzzling. You see a lot happening but you have no idea why.

The guys in uniforms who came along to fix the machine served the same function as the live animals in Rube Goldberg's drawings--a pencil sharpener for example involves a squirrel popping out of its hole and a bird pecking away. The reader serves this function with reference to plot. As writers we must refrain from making every last connection explicit on the page. We avoid didacticism when we trust that the reader is intelligent enough to get the point.

Rube's drawings were absurd in nature, and it's their absurdity that provokes laughter. One genre that bends the conventions of plot, laughs at them and invites the reader to do likewise is humor. In humorous writing, the links can be twisted, shaped, and reshaped. Absurdity can be taken to fantastic levels. Form itself can be re-engineered and employed to comic effect, with the reader invited to be part of the joke.

So Kersten, here's your answer. Indirection is probably the biggest lesson a fiction writer can learn from Rube. Plotting can be fun if you come at it slantwise.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Storyteller's Box

Traditional storytellers in India often use props, and one of the most elegant and striking is the kavad, or storyteller's box. Part of Rajasthani rural tradition, the kavad is a portable shrine depicting stories from the lives of Rama and Krishna, avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu. It folds out into multiple spreads each with a series of pictures. It's the low-tech precursor to today's PowerPoint or Keynote presentations. The teller points to a picture with the tip of a feather as he tells his tale. Sometimes the stories from different epics are detailed on different sides of the fold-out pages. Each spread often serves more than one purpose, representing one set of characters in one tale, another in the next. It's a nonlinear format that is simultaneously ancient and remarkably fresh and accessible to contemporary children.


Tulika Books now offers a fold-out book, Home, inspired by the design of these story boxes. Here's Nina Sabnani, author of Mukand and Riaz, talking about this new title and its origins.

Tom Greene on Writer’s Envy

Here's a post that got caught in limbo while I was crossing the date line and watching the koi swim in circles at Singapore's Changi Airport. If I had to pick an airport to live in, this could be it.

Tom Greene writes about writer’s envy, and when it seems unnecessary, in connection with Rita Williams-Garcia and Tim Wynne-Jones being shortlisted for the National Book Award (US) and the Governor-General's Award (Canada) respectively. Excerpt:
I think as writers we have an obligation to embrace our better angels. We need to support one another, encourage aspiring writers, and give back whatever it is we may have learned that can help others.
Makes sense to me. There’s a popular myth of solitude associated with writing, but in fact writing is of and about the world—making sense of it, railing against it, raising the questions that won’t go away. And most writers I know can become social beings for limited periods of time, given the right circumstances. At Vermont College of Fine Arts, when a bunch of passionate and eloquent people regularly spend time in intense 10-day residencies conversing both together and in tandem, it’s sort of like a book that’s more than the sum of its pages. As Jane Kurtz might say, a place to tether my goat--or park my Uggs in January.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tea With Chachaji

In the small world department: last month, in Albuquerque, I had the pleasure of meeting Robin Burrows (in the picture) and her husband Jeff. They're the parents of Raja Burrows, who's playing the male lead in Tea With Chachaji, the musical production of my 2003 picture book published by Children's Book Press, Chachaji's Cup.

And because I like to think about how things began, here's the cup that helped spark the story in the first place.

Updates and Downloads

Cynthia Leitich Smith interview with Alan Cumyn:
I don't pre-sell a book--I write it for the love of writing it, because it's the book I really want to read that hasn't been created yet. I try to be true to the characters and the problems they're faced with.
I could live by this. I should mention that Alan's Owen Skye is a wonderfully funny, engaging character, with a mind that runs on impeccable kid logic.

Yet another twist in the Lauren Myracle Luv Ya Bunches controversy.

And this in the Bizarre News department. A computer scoring system being tried out in the UK would have failed Churchill, among others.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

How To Write About...(Pick a Place or People)

Back in 2005, Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a wonderfully funny satirical piece in Granta magazine called "How to Write About Africa". Here are just a few gems from it:

"In your text treat Africa as if it were one country."

"Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat."

"Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her."

If you haven't read the essay, run-don't-walk to the Granta web site to read the rest or to order that back issue.

Yes, I know, it's been four years already since he wrote that. Surely things have changed. Maybe not. Listen to Chimamanda Adichie speak of the danger of hearing only a single story about a place. Any place. Thank you, Julie Larios and Sarah Blake Johnson for sending me this link within days of each other.

All this got me thinking about characters in YA books set in countries other than the US or Europe and published within the last 20 years. A few commonalities struck me.

1. Characters who are a combination of the following (pick two or more): long-ago, faraway, poor, depressed, angry, privy to or oppressed by (or both) some ancient tradition or other.

2. If they're not long ago, they still speak and act as if they were. They often don't use contractions, for one thing, or they adopt a labored kind of dialogue, with phrases in their native languages which they immediately translate into English.

3. They are torn between two worlds, two systems. That might be fine if those systems weren't defined as ancient and modern respectively as if a young person from contemporary Pakistan or Mexico or China were not quite of this century. Find me a teenaged character taking this overly philosophical psychohistorical view and I'll show you a well-intentioned writer driving the story to make a point.

4. They're either suffering from something oppressive in their cultures, or inflicting suffering on someone else for culturally grounded reasons.

Look at any of half a dozen YA novels set in South Asia and you might conclude that all the girls in the region are trying desperately to flee oppressive marriage or widowhood or sexual exploitation. You will feel pity for them and more, you will be grateful that you are not in their place. The thing is, you can't see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity. It's even more complicated when you are 8 or 10 or 14 years old and those "other" people instead of staying in their oppressive countries have somehow arrived in your neighborhood and your school.

And more complicated still if they were never in some other place at all, but have somehow, contrary to popular belief, managed to survive and are now suggesting that you share your century with them.

This is why we need more stories that don't define cultures as monolithic, impermeable and unchanging, that don't show the people within those cultures as trapped in unending cycles of victimhood. This is why there is a real danger that if the token single "multicultural" story is taken as representative of an entire place or its inhabitants or emigrants, it will leave no room for others to balance it out. This is why I'm pinning Wainaina's essay to my bulletin board. And drinking a cup of chai because, you know, that's what we South Asian types do when we stress out!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Saffron Crocuses and Understanding the Other

The saffron crocus is an oddity. It blooms in the fall, for one thing, out of step with its spring-blooming kin. And for another, when the flower opens, you can see those long red-gold threads, rich with flavor, prized for their fragrance and unique culinary properties. I recall seeing saffron fields as a child when we traveled in Kashmir--they were a beautiful, startling purple. Years later when we lived in Maryland I grew a small patch of saffron crocuses, and gathered the stigmas before the first winter frost. An amazing flower. I have alas had no luck with it in the desert soil of northwest New Mexico.

The bloggers at Saffron Tree chose CROCUS for the name (Celebration of Reading Other Culturally Unique Stories) of their week-long festival of culturally diverse books from various parts of the world. The books featured are published in the US, UK, Australia, and India. Their settings and cultures reach into just about every continent, and include books by people from within the cultures concerned as well as those from outside them, a couple of books in translation and a bilingual book or two. Katia's Amadi is there, as well as one of Uma (y)'s books.

"Other" is an interesting term and I must admit I try not to use it in conjunction with "culture" because really it demands that I define "this" or "my" culture first and that's just way too complicated. Still, if I were to talk about a "crocus book" in terms of the out of season flower or the traveling story, I'd want to talk about A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna. Originally published by Editions Autrement in French as Un Lion à Paris, this imaginative homage to the Bartholdi lion is also a tribute to the city in which the statue is located. So I was intrigued to find that the English translation, by Mariette Robbes, is published by Katha in a South Asian edition. I asked Mamta Nainy of Katha if she'd mind telling me some more about this project. She sent along these replies to my questions, from editor Vineetha Mokkil.

[Uma] A translator is often the invisible partner in books like this one. I notice Katha holds the English translation copyright--does that mean that you contracted with Mariette Robbes to do the translation?

[Vineetha] Yes, Katha contracted Ms. Robbes to do the English translation. I agree that translators are often relegated to the background. But Katha made sure that Ms Robbes’ name appeared on the cover page of Lion in Paris, a first of sorts on the Indian publishing/translation scene. So we have steered clear of this lapse.

[Uma] Tell me a little more about your World Library imprint--your vision for it, the kinds of books you select in order to bring them to the South Asian market.

[Vineetha] The World Library imprint is a very important area of focus for Katha. It has been conceived with the specific aim of introducing children in India (and south Asia, by extension), to new cultures and generating a healthy curiosity about other countries and people in them. These stories also dispel prejudices, counter stereotypes through culture-linking and help children understand the world better. We have published two books – French and German, both translated into English – in this series so far. A book from Mexico is next in the pipeline. We are keen on carrying this forward and including stories from every corner of the globe to the imprint.

[Uma] Thanks, Vineetha.

A Lion in Paris is a lovely book. Alemagna's pictures are of course stunning, with their mix of pencil, ink, and collage. Broad, flat boulevards are edged by trees with crooked shadows. The train bursts from the Metro tunnel, while the platform's crawling with one-dimensional families. Surprises lurk on every page, and the text has an understated humor that resides squarely in the persona of the prowling lion.

So there we have it. Child readers in India reading picture books in English translations, set in France and Germany and Mexico. I find it both interesting and encouraging, that this publisher is going about the task by finding native speakers of the original language of the book to translate it for the target audience. Makes sense to me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Other Uma

Yes, it's true. Cynthia's found us out.

Chris Eboch on her middle grade series: Haunted

Confession: as a child, I was an enthusiastic reader of series titles. I devoured them, often finishing a book in the car on the way home from the bookstore. Enid Blyton built her career on the reading addictions of kids like me. When I read The Ghost on the Stairs and The Riverboat Phantom, by Chris Eboch, I found myself recalling that feeling of comfort I used to get from the series titles of my youth. So I asked Chris if she'd mind talking about the particular magic of series books.

[Uma] Can you talk about the elements of series books that make them such a staple in kids' reading?

[Chris] Experts will tell you that kids like knowing what they are going to get, especially if they are beginning or reluctant readers. It's "safe" to return to the premise and characters you know. I also think it's a bit like finding a favorite new food. It's just so yummy, you want to get all that you can!

As a writer, doing a series has several advantages. Of course it's great to get a multi-book contract. But also, now I know my characters so well that I can jump right into each new book. I know Jon's voice, the pace I want, and roughly how many adventures I need to get the right length. So I just have to find a fun new premise, and then figure out what weird things happen to the kids!

[Uma] You use the ending of each book to point to the next title. The Ghost on the Stairs is set in Colorado, The Riverboat Phantom on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. Talk about the latest one, The Knight in the Shadows--released just this month, right?

[Chris] The first two books came out in August, the third one this month. For The Knight in the Shadows, the ghost hunter TV show visits New York City and the Metropolitan Museum (though it has a different name in the book). They hear rumors about a sword that has been moving on its own. When they investigate, Tania sees the ghost of a squire, who used to serve a French knight. He's still trying to protect the knight’s sword. The kids want to help him return the sword and move on, but they face a couple of challenges -- the knight isn’t here, and the squire only speaks French.

[Uma] You talked about your two young characters, Jon and Tania in your cynsations interview. I want to ask you about the ghosts. In each of the first two books, the ghosts are tragicomic characters, bewildered and lost even while being fearfully cold and in fact dangerous to the children. Still, their confusion sometimes leads to occasional humorous relief. Is this a balance you plan to maintain in additional books?

[Chris] I decided when I started the series that the ghosts wouldn't all be the same. Some can communicate clearly, others can't. That allows a variety among the books, so they don't all feel the same. I also have in mind a book where Tania will see a lot of ghosts, and not be able to help all of them. I want to keep things fresh. But I do want to keep a strong blend of spooky action, humor and occasionally touching emotion.

[Uma] I like that. It keeps the basic pattern alive from book to book but allows for, um, diversity in the ghost universe. Chris, do you have any advice for aspiring series writers?

[Chris] Make sure you have an idea that will sustain a series. I had to figure out the rules for the world of ghosts, and I didn't want to wind up with a repetitive pattern, like in the old Scooby Doo series where it's always some guy in a mask. You also need to make sure it's a premise that you'll enjoy for book after book. And finally, since a series publisher may want two or three books per year, you need to be able to write quickly! Spend lots of time developing your characters and premise, so you'll then be able to move into each new book smoothly.

[Uma] Thank you, Chris Eboch, and here's to more spooky adventures in this terrific series.

Here's the trailer for the first three books:



Chris Eboch teaches through the Institute of Children's Literature and is the New Mexico Regional Advisor for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

In Memory of Norma Fox Mazer

I'm lighting a lamp this morning in memory of Norma Fox Mazer. Norma passed away October 16th 17th. She was a beloved wife to Harry Mazer, a mother, and a shining light in our field, a dear friend and mentor to innumerable others on the writing path. She made you want to braid your hair, smile, and commit to translating your deepest passions into story. She was tough and insistent as an advisor, students said. She wouldn't let up. She argued for structure. In a 2002 lecture she gave at Vermont College she said, "If you haven't built your house well, even splendid furniture will get rained on and your characters will be wandering, homeless and sniveling." Norma herself built astonishing stories, strong and vital. Her YA novel, The Missing Girl, is a masterpiece of viewpoint in which the brief, taut narratives of multiple characters weave together into an unforgettable tapestry. In all her writing, Norma did that thing that Kurosawa said artists must do--she never averted her eyes.

Go in peace, dear Norma.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware

Unrelated to either of my habitats, except perhaps in my scheming brain, is M.T. Anderson's trope-busting Pals in Peril sequel to Whales on Stilts and The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen: Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware.




Delaware, you say? Delaware? Here's what the Governor of Delaware had to say.

Personally, I think New Mexico is calling out loud to Jasper Dash. We have a setting for Jasper and Pals that makes those flame-pits look like barbecue grills. Just for starters, we have: Aliens. Ruins. Ghosts. Lava beds. Rattlesnakes. Chili. Come on Jasper. I mean Tobin. Governor Bill wants you.

No? How about India? We can talk.

Elizabeth Bluemle and others on the new Pooh

When I was a child, I read Winnie-the-Pooh while sprawled in the shade of a laburnum tree with parrots shrieking in its branches. Then we moved and I found myself hiding away in a banyan tree and sighing over the ending of The House at Pooh Corner. It was a sad sigh and a satisfied one all at once, an early encounter with emotional ambiguity that I can still remember. I firmly believed that the Hundred Acre Wood was thick with lacy yellow flowering laburnum trees, and banyan and peepul and neem. Never mind the iconic pictures of the gentler English version of the thing, my wood was in my mind and Milne's words placed it there. This is how some children read, bringing their own worlds to the page in a fiercely possessive way.

So decades later I'm worried, along with Flying Pig Bookstore owner and VCFA alumna Elizabeth Bluemle, about the new authorized sequel by David Benedictus, an English writer who has written novels and a new memoir. Benedictus said in his interview with the BBC that he immersed himself in Milne's world in order to write these stories, characterizing this process as one of an actor rather than a writer, trying to get under Milne's skin. His exposition, I must say, does carry echoes, even if they're a bit faint, of the fabulous "contradiction" that prefaces The House at Pooh Corner. And I don't find myself shuddering the way I did when Disney took Pooh on and made pastiche out of him, so that generations of children no longer know the Shepard images. This sequel, if it leads us back to the real Pooh, will be a good thing, so I'm going to defer judgment until I read it.

Will the words be as good? That's the big question. And if they're not, will we forget that visceral quality they had, that drew me so deeply into the stories that my trees became the wood in the pages and I inhabited the skins of those characters?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interview with Ted and Betsy Lewin

More on the making of their lovely picture book, Balarama: A Royal Elephant.

[U] I first became aware of Ted's work with a book that also came from a trip to India: Sacred River. When and how did you first begin to think about combining travel and children's books?
[Ted] Interestingly it was our first trip to India that inspired my first picture book. We were watching a tiger from elephant back in Kanha National Park when she began to hunt. We watched the entire hunt including her taking a chital fawn. It was a story with a beginning, middle, and end that was just handed to me while on the back of an elephant. The title of the book was Tiger Trek.

[U] In Balarama, it's clear that you have both taken great care in depicting the setting in text and art. You may have been visitors but this is far from a tourist video rendering of the place. Can you speak about the work you both did to create this careful and loving representation?
[B & T] We enter into these projects with minds like sponges, and attuned to every nuance of color and light and sound. We listen, and try to capture the cadence of people's stories. We tape record the ambient sounds, keep sketch books and extensive journals, and take thousands of photos from which we distill our story. We use our time in airports and on flights on the long trips home to organize our material into a rough manuscript.

[U] The words I loved most in this text are these: "We are bursting with pride." So simple, and yet you pull your reader right into the space of the narrative with those words. Talk about the choices you made in the writing of this picture book text.
[B & T] Since a picture book is a marriage of text and art, we usually wait until the manuscript is complete, then select the images that fit the text. Now we can see what the picture shows that the text no longer needs to tell. We allow the image to carry the story, and start editing and tightening up the text.

There are times when descriptive passages are necessary, especially when describing our feelings at any given time, or describing the way something looks to us. For example: "Balarama's mahout gently embraces the elephant's huge head, the tusks extending like ivory railings on either side." The image triggered that phrase.

[U] Any particular challenges with this book?
[B & T] In this particular case we set out to tell Drona's story, but wound up telling the story of Balarama not knowing how it would play out. This is always a challenge. You can't make a story happen. You have to let it happen.

[U] And finally, talk about Balarama the elephant as a character in the book.
[B & T] Because we'd been told that no elephant could ever measure up to Drona we weren't prepared for our first encounter with Balarama. When he stepped out of his stall he was back lit by the sun. It was as if he had a blinding aura all around him. He blew air through his trunk, and shuffled forward causing us to back away in awe. Right then we knew he was going to do a great job. The more we observed him the more evident became his patient, endearing personality. The day after his debut he seemed very content and unaffected by his new celebrity.

Thank you, Ted and Betsy Lewin and congratulations on a beautiful book.

Updates and Downloads

VCFA Day in the Lone Star State is drawing near, and there will be a New Mexico contingent attending.

Rita Williams-Garcia reminisces in The Horn Book about growing up, corporal punishment, and becoming her mother.

Rachna Gilmore will be among the speakers at the 8th Annual International Children's & Young Adult Literature Celebration. For more information and to register, please go to: http://www.wioc.wisc.edu/childlit/2009/registration09.htm

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Story, Language, and Identity

Mitali Perkins has a beautiful post on story and language and growing up, on mitali's fire escape. It made me think of the mix of stories I heard when I was a child growing up in India. Today I look back affectionately on the Tamil stories my parents told: jester tales, stories of gods and demons, animal stories, stories of magic and long-ago people. They were so vibrant and alive that when I was very young I couldn't differentiate between myth and legend and the equally lively stories I eavesdropped furiously on, about relatives and neighbors and what they were up to.

Then I began to read. Literacy was magical and exciting. But it had an unexpected effect. It thrust a wedge between that realm of interwoven tales and new others. The new others that came to me in print began to be the ones that I privileged. They came in shiny paperback mostly from England. They hardly even acknowledged that India existed, and when they did they often showed it in a light that was less than flattering. So I didn't even have to live in a foreign land that didn't value my culture, to have this experience of what happens when you don't see yourself in a book. Rather as an adult I now have to look back to see that my own culture back in the 1960's had not yet learned to value itself. We had no shiny new books that showed our world. Not yet.

In a very real way, this is why I write. I think I understood the text and subtext of those books I read--perhaps understood them all too well. Marion Dane Bauer always says we write to fill the holes in our childhoods. Don't get me wrong, books and reading were incredibly important to my younger self. But they also created a hole in my life because they implied that the stories I'd loved until then were not important, not cool, not worthy. It's a hole I've spent the last decade trying to fill.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Balarama: A Royal Elephant

From Ted and Betsy Lewin, here's a lovely travelogue in picture book form that I had the privilege of seeing while it was in production.

Balarama: A Royal Elephant. Lee & Low, 2009.

In a direct present tense voice, the Lewins take us to Karapur, near Nagarhole National Forest in south India. On their first visit, they meet the venerable Drona, the Royal Elephant who leads the procession on the last day of the Dasara festival. They return, eager to see Drona serve as the lead or Ambari elephant, but find he has died in an unfortunate roadside accident. A new elephant, Balarama, will be the Ambari. The rest of the narrative is the story of Balarama’s debut, complete with humorous episodes in the training camp and a dramatic introduction to Balarama himself. Lavish paintings depict the decorated and caparisoned elephants, and capture the dust and foliage, color and vibrancy, of the Mysore setting. This is a joyful and intense introduction to a complex and beautiful tradition. Glossary and pronunciation guide included.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A List of 50 Multicultural Books with Not a Single South Asian Title?

Neesha Meminger brought to my attention the fact that the CCBC list of 50 Multicultural Titles Every Child Should Read, which is also featured on the NEA web site, doesn't have a single South Asian title on it. Not one.

Mind you, this is a worthy list, developed by caring people at a greatly respected institution. I also know that the list was first drawn up in 2001. The 2006 revision added a couple of titles I'm very pleased to see--Cynthia Leitich Smith's Indian Shoes, and Jackie Woodson's Show Way. But really, I wonder why there's no South Asian content at all, in any of the categories. Pooja Makhijani's bibliography contains a number of titles across the age range with South Asian themes. They are by a range of writers, some of South Asian origin and some not. Perhaps, this being 2009, it's time for another look.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Updates and Downloads

Scholastic India announces the publication of Amazing India, an encyclopedic book that I for one am delighted to see. Perhaps it can take the place of those interminable educational series titles about India that keep getting published in the US, even when they're full of errors in their facts, pronunciation keys, and sometimes even picture captions. Here's an interview by a 10th grader with the authors of Amazing India, Anita and Amit Vachharajani.

Congratulations to Sandhya Nankani on her article on South Asian historical fiction in the summer issue of the MultiCultural Review. The article includes reviews of several current titles and commentary on historical fiction with South Asian content in the American youth literature market.

Fans of Grace Lin's tender, generous, funny middle grade novel, The Year of the Dog will want to read her new book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Virtual launch at partygraces.

My little vegetable garden has bunches of lovely wriggling earthworms this year thanks to sheet mulching and kitchen scraps, so Carol Brendler's new picture book, Winnie Finn, Worm Farmer really stirs my compost! Illustrations by the versatile and gifted Ard Hoyt.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

And So? Cover images in YA novels

Some of us have been following the debate over the cover image on the US edition of Justine Larbalestier's forthcoming novel, Liar. And groaning, because sometimes the decisions made about covers seem just, well, baffling. Or maybe not. Either of which option is a little depressing.

The Ya Ya Yas take this topic on by examining an enormous array of Asian Americans on YA fiction covers. Funny that all the figures need to be so far away or shadowed that you can't see their faces, or close up so all you can see is eyelashes or belly-buttons. And that's not even getting to whether the figure in fact looks like someone from the community the book's set in, or is after a kind of generic "Asian-American" look, whatever that is.

I did a quick check of the covers of books on my shelf with South Asian protagonists and here's what I found. They don't de-brown the characters, not quite, but they often lighten them up, face them backwards, hide their faces, or do that heads-cut-off thing that seemed to be a trend in YA girl novels in general. Or the images are so close-up that the girl is all eyelashes, or all bellybutton. Where there's a sari, it's usually red or orangey-red or goldish, like a wedding sari, you know. It's always Banarasi, regardless of the region of the subcontinent used in the book. It also always has a gold border, because heavens, don't we all walk our teens about dressed in gold-bordered saris all the time? There are of course no regional differences evident in these covers at all, so that a book set in a southern family is likely to manifest clothes and jewelry straight from the windows of Delhi boutiques.

None of which would matter, of course, except that as Justine points out in her blog, most readers have no idea that the author didn't personally endorse the cover decision.

In the realm of the adult literary market, Mary Anne Mohanraj takes the conversation in another direction, when she analyzes covers of books writen by South Asian women and men. Sawnet features multiple covers by a number of books by South Asian women, a few of them adult-YA crossovers. I'm especially intrigued by Mary Anne's observation that the books by women in her sample featured bodies that were still or at rest, not active or in motion. Come to think of it, that's true for every single YA book I've seen with a South Asian female protagonist. And now I'm thinking, is Shyam Selvadurai's Swimming in the Monsoon Sea the only YA book with a South Asian male protagonist? And yes, the kid's active on that cover, throwing himself into the water in a great energetic arc. And the color is blue-green, no reds in sight. Mary Anne, you may be onto something!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts July 2009 residency, and the galloping 60-second lecture

I really did mean to post from charming Montpelier, but somehow (crazy schedule? Lack of sleep? Brain overload?) I just didn't. But the intrepid Julie Larios did, on her wonderful blog, The Drift Record. See her posts with lecture notes and a picture of College Hall on the green, commentary on Good and Evil Day, and more.

But she lost the notes from my lecture.

Julie. How could you? (Only kidding--of course I know all about losing stuff. Like my mind, after one of those amazing, exhausting residencies.)

Anyway, here's the condensed version of my lecture. You must read it at a brisk clip, in the manner of 60-Second Shakespeare. Ready?
Tools and Techniques for Accessing the Inner Life of Your Novel. You think you have one mind? Wrong, you have two. Creative, critical--don't laugh. Dorothea Brande's ghost may be listening! You need both those minds--don't be fooled into killing either. What? No, no! Never bring them onstage together. Don't you read labels? Creative's tagged "draft," Critical's "revision." Get it? Look, just give yourself permission to manage them in your head. Or on paper or even (gasp!) your computer. Whatever works for you. Use any stage directions you like, that's all those organizing tools are: outlines, timelines, calendars, maps, charts, graphs, visual plotlines of all shapes and sizes. Synopses. Try a synopsis that reads like flash fiction. Fool your creative mind into cooperating. It's not against the rules, you know. Dickens outlined. Could it be he knew a thing or two? Thomas Hardy drew maps. Because honestly, it's hard to keep an entire novel in your head. Plus who said the outline had to be Roman-numeralled and indented and pretty? Who said you had to do it before you wrote the novel? Who said? Point is, you're in charge. Figure out when to use those critical mind tools and when to toss them. Remember the organizing tool is not the art form. Stop. Save yourself years of fruitless tinkering. Just take the time to figure out the creative-critical balance you need. The end.
There. Clear as feathers?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Reading, Writing, and Trust

We're going to be discussing Margo Lanagan's fascinating novel, Tender Morsels (a Printz Honor book) at the VCFA residency. Margo (who talks about the book on her blog) will be visiting as well--I can't wait to meet her.

Tender Morsels wasn't easy reading at first, not because of the dark subject matter but because the novel demanded a great deal of trust from me as a reader. To be honest, much more trust than I am accustomed to give to YA novels as a rule. I had to quit trying to create my own logic out of the unfolding story, and instead let the text carry me along, like the "smoke...cauliflowering out of the fireplace." I had to hold the easy judgments ("I like this" or "I don't") for later. Once I'd let go my need to make meaning immediately, something very interesting began to happen. The story started settling into place, and it was startling, disturbing, and very, very beautiful.

It left me with so many questions. Do we ask too little of readers when we try to place too much on the page? Isn't it necessary sometimes to leave dots unconnected, to define less, to leave more room for the emotional self to create meaning rather than the logical mind? Isn't that the only way that young people can really grow as readers, constructing the story for themselves in deep and meaningful ways that go beyond the plot steps of one event following from another ? Something that has to do with the very mind of the story, the deepest truths it can tell, the ones that drove the writer to craft it in the first place.

Writing is all about trust. Trusting the story enough to get myself out of its way. Trusting it enough to see when a rejection is simply a matter of taste, not a reason to put the work away and deem it worthless. Trusting my vision of it enough to know that when a reader says, "I don't understand this" the solution is not always to change the confusing parts, but to aim for a larger plausibility. Lanagan's book suggests all this and more.

Tender Morsels has apparently awakened controversy in the UK about its "appropriateness" for the young--note that it's not a "children's book" but one for "young adults" and older. When I grew up in the India of the 60's, my parents who were quite strict in lots of ways, nevertheless practiced a kind of benign negligence in the matter of my reading. That meant I scoured the shelves for everything there was, and read it, usually more than once. From that I learned one thing--the content I was unready for just wafted right over my busy head. Years later, I'd think, Oh, that's what that meant. When some things scared me, I just closed the book. When you trust the young, they learn to trust themselves.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Parenthetic Comma Phrases, Anyone?

Yes, I know. The comma phrase, enclosed by commas within a sentence, is grammatically correct. Nonrestrictive clauses, which the author puts in place to clarify meaning, are also correct. Strunk and White sorted that out years ago, so that's not my gripe.

A certain use of the parenthetic expression placed between commas, however, has acquired currency in a certain kind of middle grade and young adult book: the kind of book that is sometimes referred to as "multicultural," and is thus placed, so to speak, in its own little virtual parenthetic universe.

In these books, the parenthetic comma phrase or clause is used as shorthand for cultural translation. It pauses the story in order to explain something in a quick aside to the reader, thus demonstrating that:

1. the author expects the reader not to know.

2. the author is assuming that readers who do know won't mind, don't matter, or will never read the book.

3. the author does not trust the reader to understand meaning contextually.

I've seen this little quirk of punctuation used to explain food, customs, clothing, traditions. I've seen it used to translate into English words spoken in foreign languages. I've seen one used in an opening sentence to explain a celebration that is important to the protagonist, even before we've had a chance to get to know the protagonist.

A writer to whom I pointed this out protested that editors want explanation, since books by "us" (i.e., writers of color) are often written for a diverse audience, all of whom may not be familiar with the culture in question. That's true enough, but we have so many rich and wonderful choices. Show the detail through action. Integrate the detail into the story. Make it organic to the story. Return to it after an initial mention and make it clear contextually. Why take the quick and lazy route quite so often? Why not trust the reader?

I'm not against the humble comma, and I'm not suggesting that its use at the beginning and end of a phrase or clause ought to be banned. But when we're writing about food, flowers, festivals, customs, clothing, colloquial expressions in languages other than English, or other elements of culture, that little book-ended aside isn't the only way to offer explanation or translation.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bookbird, the IBBY Journal


This week, Cynsations features an interview with Cathy Kurkjian and Sylvia Vardell, the co-editors of Bookbird, the IBBY journal. The journal publishes articles on children's literature from an international perspective.

Excerpt from the interview: "Our goal is to provide a forum for considering books, topics, themes, and issues in the field of children's literature that are of interest to professionals and scholars around the world."

Bookbird is also valuable reading for those writers whose stories tend to wander across geographical and cultural boundaries and who feel the need to stay in touch with the rich diversity and dynamic growth of children's books in more than one market. A gift indeed.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan

Rukhsana Khan's new YA novel, Wanting Mor, deals with the life of a girl in post-Taliban, American-occupied Afghanistan. Here's what Rukhsana (author of picture books such as The Roses in My Carpets, and Silly Chicken) told me about the creation of this work.

[UK] How long did this take you to write?
[RK] Wanting Mor took me five months to write (and only three months to revise). It literally poured out of me.

[UK] You've talked about what sparked this story in the afterword (a news report about a real girl). Will you tell me what kept that spark alight for you?
[RK] As I say in the author's note at the back of the book, I read this report on children in crisis and this girl's story broke my heart. Her mother had died during the war, father got remarried, new stepmother didn't want her so the father took her to the marketplace and left her there and she ended up in one of the orphanages I sponsor.

I think the story really affected me because a similar scenario was playing out with a friend, where she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her husband had run off with another woman and when she died the kids were left with a dead beat dad. And I thought, wow, same story, different continent. And I thought, how many kids go through this kind of scenario!!!

At first I tried to write the story as a picture book, but I quickly realized it was way too complex. It wasn't until I was going down to visit my Mom that the spark to write it actually came. I heard this girl's voice--in my right ear--and all she said was "I thought she was sleeping." I started crying, even as I was driving, knowing that she was talking about her mother, she had just discovered that she was dead. And she just sounded so devastated and so desolate, I had to find out what would happen to this poor girl. I pushed aside all
other projects and started writing Wanting Mor--basically just to find out how she'd come through this.

Finding out what would happen to this poor girl kept the spark alight for me.

[UK] There is a streak of severity in Jameela that I found oddly touching--as if maintaining her own set of inflexible rules and judgments about others is the only way she can survive. And yet she has to break through this because people around her are not all good or all bad. This book in fact is a lot about shades of gray and judging others, from Khalaa Gul who is not above using the pitiful girls' faces to get money for the orphanage, to the Americans who come with gunfire and arrogance but also pay for medical care. Talk about that. How much of that was intentional and how much evolved as you wrote?
[RK] I'll tell you that I found Jameela's judgmental attitudes quite alarming, and yet that was her character. She had no opportunity to be anything but the way she was. She had lived such a sheltered confined existence. I actually found the writing of Wanting Mor to be a very claustrophobic experience. At some points I wondered if people would think that I shared her severe views!

I felt sorry for Jameela because she'd never had the opportunity to understand the beauty of other faiths and cultures, and within the scope of this story, she never would.

As for the shades of grey, I'm so glad you picked up on that. None of that was exactly intentional. It just felt right to put it in the story. It was something she'd come up against and reflects my own nuanced approach to other cultures and circumstances. I think she necessarily takes any help she can get.

As for the father, I had to figure out why he would do such a thing too. And I worked backwards thinking that he could only have done that if his whole family structure had been demolished, because Afghan cultural family ties are so strong, they tend to keep people within the folds of a kind of propriety at least publicly taking care of their responsibilities towards their children.

So I started to research, and I came across a news story about a wedding party that had been bombed by American forces. And the army issued a statement of regret, and then it happened again, somewhere else, and again somewhere else, different wedding party, same end results. And it was all so casual. And I thought what if this was an inciting event in his life. In my research I also discovered that so many adults had succumbed to drug addiction, and I thought it made sense that having gone through what he did, the father would have been one of those.

[UK] The music of Arabic and Pushto can be felt in this narrative. Exclamations like Subhanallah and Asthaghfirullah. The term Khalaa used for auntie and even the titular Mor for mother. You have a glossary in the back but really, the contextual meanings are remarkably clear. Talk about the process of weaving those words in so they feel natural within the text and don't need translation.
[RK] I wondered at first if I should allow Jameela to express herself in such religious terms all the time, but I found that they were just part of her vocabulary. She couldn't help it. Then I thought of how I approach books with a lot of foreign words in them. Most of the time I just gloss over them if I'm hooked on the story. I thought the word 'Mor' would be easy for Western readers to become accustomed to, but I was worried about the other phrases, but then I thought if we can get used to other culturally grounded words like '"chutzpah", "gezundheit", and "schlep" why should I balk at including culturally appropriate words that my character would definitely say and think under the circumstances? And I made sure it was never absolutely crucial that the reader knew what they meant. I wanted the reader to be able to get the gist of them without bothering with the glossary if they were lazy about things like that--like I tend to be.

[UK] Why does this girl don the chadri (burqa) in the last third of the book? That is such a powerful and yet controversial symbol of Muslim women. Why go there?
[RK] When I begin a book, I often work backwards to find out about the characters. In this case I heard Jameela say, "I thought she was sleeping." I had the basic synopsis of the story, that she would be abandoned by her father in a marketplace and end up in an orphanage, but that was all. I had to work backwards to find out what Jameela's character and her father's character were really like.

Part of Jameela's wearing the chadri/burqa was a bit self-serving on my part. All three of my daughters, despite being born and raised in the West, have made the same decision to cover themselves completely. I never approved, but I respected their decision.

In figuring out Jameela's character, I looked at some of the other books coming out of Afghanistan. Books like The Kite Runner and the Breadwinner. And I thought that these books are all written from the perspective of people from Kabul, and Kabuli people do not accurately reflect the majority of Afghan culture. Kabuli people tend to be more westernized and educated and secular. The world is getting a skewed perspective of Afghan culture. They're only hearing one side of the story. I thought that Jameela would be from Kandahar.

I felt confident that I could write accurately about Kandahari and Kabuli culture because I am quite familiar with both. My son in law's family is from Kandahar and my sister in law's family is from Kabul, and I've seen first hand the differences.

Jameela would wear the chadri for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to show an alternate reality of Afghan culture, and the second reason was more personal, I wanted to better understand the reasons why my own daughters had made the choice they had--and I know no better way of really understanding other perspectives than by writing from them.

I was absolutely surprised when the chadri/burqa actually worked its way into the plot!

[UK] Without giving anything away, I can say that in the end Jameela finds a way to pass on the gift she was given by her Mor. What's the gift you want to pass on in this book?
[RK] Simple! An engaging story that happens to be set in Afghan culture!

Thank you Rukhsana. All the best of luck to you with this book and future projects.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pardada Pardadi

Back in March, I was contacted by Shaista Chaudhry from Virginia. She wrote:
I have recently become involved in a charity near New Delhi and had an opportunity to spend two short weeks there during the 2008-09 winter break. The charity called Pardada Pardadi is a K-12 school for 1000 rural girls from the most underprivileged section of society, located in Anupshehr in the Bulandshehr district in UP. Since my return to the U.S. I have dedicated an hour each day to explore ways of enhancing the charity's mission.

That got me where my heart sat, in more than one way. Pardada Pardadi is a Hindi term that translates directly into English as "great-grandparents". The term is used as an analogy to the ancient Indian wisdom that knowledge and education from your family contributes to the full blossoming of an individual. And when your family doesn't have enough, anyone and everyone who can, ought to step in.

And then that other point Shaista made: an hour a day. What a thought. What if we all spent an hour a day to think about others, to think about the planet, to think of doing good in small, practical ways?

I sent a box of books and here they are two months later, in the girls' hands.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Craft Books

On a listserv of writers and illustrators the conversation turned recently to craft books--as in which ones fuel your writing? Now we weren't talking about the basic ones: Harold Underdown's comprehensive volume in the "Complete Idiot's Guide..." series, and Connie Epstein's The Art of Writing for Children. And we weren't talking about literary criticism. There's plenty of that. And yes, we all loved everything Leonard Marcus has ever written, and are in awe that he's singlehandedly documenting the evolution of children's literature for all of us.

Still, we had to conclude that we're sadly lacking in good, I mean substantially good craft books in our field. Books about the creation of fiction and nonfiction for young readers.
Me, I'd love to see more books that go deeper than an introduction. Books that really dig into the complexities of writing for young readers.

So what's on my shelf in the way of craft books? Well, there's Jane Yolen's Take Joy which is lovely and feels as if Jane's standing there at my desk giving me a pep talk. Everyone needs to get a pep talk from Jane.

And a collection of essays (lectures from years ago) edited by William Zinsser, Worlds of Childhood.

The first third of Uri Shulevitz's Writing With Pictures is essential reading for picture book writers. The next third is of tangential interest, geared more toward illustrators, and the last third--oh, please someone tell me there's going to be a revised edition that will catch up with today's printing technology. Also related to picture books, there's Maurice Sendak's wonderful Caldecott & Co.

In the inspiration department I turn to Katherine Paterson's essays, and to Scenes From a Writer's Life by Ruskin Bond. Bond is something of a national children's book treasure in India, and his work gives me hope, convinces me that story matters in this world.

For a quick mind-bender in rhyme and meter, there's nothing like Stephen Fry's wonderful The Ode Less Travelled.

And the rest, I have to confess, are all books about writing for ex-children: Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House and his other one, Subtext. Janet Burroway's standby, Fiction Writing, which offers more nuanced views of things like viewpoint and characterization than we'd find in most books that do address writing for children and young adults. Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft. John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. Rilke's Letters. Barbara's Kingsolver's essays. Some of Salman Rushdie's essays. And for the occasional (hollow) laugh, Forster's Aspects of the Novel.

Clearly there's room for a volume or two that could speak to craft in books for young readers, picture book through YA.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Lee & Low New Voices Award 2009

The call for submission for Lee & Low's 10th annual New Voices Award is open. Manuscripts will be accepted through September 31, 2009, and must be postmarked within that period. Details on the L & L web site.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Updates and Downloads


Congratulations to April Halprin Wayland, Carmela Martino, Esther Hershenhorn, Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, JoAnn Early Macken, and Mary Ann Rodman on the launch of their new blog, Teaching Authors.

Bid on critiques with agents and noted writers at the Hunger Mountain online auction. Details and links at Cynsations. Bidding's open already--includes critiques by Donna Jo Napoli, Tim Wynne-Jones, Marion Dane Bauer, Sarah Ellis, Martine Leavitt, and many more.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Adult Protagonists in Children's Books

On Original Content, Gail Gauthier's writing about adult characters in children's books. I'm convinced that it takes certain childlike qualities to make an adult protagonist (as opposed to just an adult character) work in a children's book. Think of these characters:
They each possess traits that we think of as characteristic of children. Eccentricity. Curiosity. Large hearts. Impetuousness. Lack of real power.

Wait. Apart from Mr. Popper's Penguins, which was published in 1939, the rest are all published in the UK.

American children's books with adult protagonists, anyone?

When I was a child my father told me stories about Tenali Rama, a character in south Indian folklore who is vastly appealing to children on account of his endearing character flaws as well as his position of combination wise man and jester in the court of the 16th century king Krishna Deva Raya. His lack of real power combines with a few good flaws to create the same odd combination that seems to work for adult protagonists in children's books.

In the YA realm, the emergence of adult protagonists isn't such a huge shift, but may simply reflect a trend toward books that are literally about "young adults" rather than teenagers. Look for The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones, due out next month.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Literal, Tedious Novel Draft

A former student wrote to me saying she's bogged down in an early novel draft, can't seem to get past the middle, goes back to read what she's written and it feels clunky and awkward. The more she tries to push ahead, the weaker the writing gets. So I started thinking about drafts, and wondering if perhaps she was trying to judge hers by the same standards she'd apply to a finished work. Which doesn't seem fair somehow.
In early drafts I find that I am often literal and tedious. I usually begin with a character or two--or more. But it takes living with a story for a while before I can find my way to figuring out:

1. What the story is--plot
2. What voice to use--voice, tone
3. What slice of the story to tell--timeline
4. What viewpoint to tell it in--POV
5. How to open, how to end--scene or summary, and how to balance them throughout
6. When to zoom close and when to pull away--psychic distance
7. Who the characters really are--desires, flaws, driving beliefs.

Unless you're one of those rigorous outliners who has to nail it all down before starting to write, it's clear that this is only going to happen over a few to several drafts, with some good reflecting, note-taking, organizing, reworking time in between.
And then too, in among the literal and tedious material, there will be a few gems that remain, leaving their traces in the story. Drafts need to be--well, drafty. With some large holes to let the cold critical breezes in that will show me how to reshape the work.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis

Hmm, I wanted very much to love this 2009 Batchelder Honor book but I found myself unable to do so.

Ahmad Mudhi is a Rajah, supposedly Muslim but choosing his 8th wife. So I tripped up right away on that, plus no Muslim rulers to my knowledge ever used the title of "Raja". All right, this is fantasy but it seems to operate on the old premise of writing about one group of people for a readership that will consist of quite another. The girl Safia, now Raka (supposedly Hindu, but Safia? Not a Hindu name, surely) is not a virgin. Okay, that works for me, even becomes intriguing as we go on to find out that the eunuch Lalit is not an eunuch. But wait--Farhad Kamal is supposed to be a Hindu name? I found Tiger Moon to be a confusing and complicated story that also managed to mangle the Hindu mythological stories of Krishna and Rama together in ways that seemed completely unnecessary. Everyone’s after the bloodstone and Farhad has to rescue Krishna’s daughter. By this time I just wanted to be done. But Ravana’s involved as well—oh, I was SO confused, more so by the praise the book was garnering!

The mythology isn't the only thing bowdlerized. All the regions of India seem rolled into one , which not only adds to the confusion but homogenizes the entire subcontinent by implying that gestures, behavior, customs can be transplanted easily from one to the other.

The expository text contains vast generalizations about India, the kind a tourist might make after a few months traveling the country. The statement up front about Indians not valuing life made me go pull out my Complete Works of Rudyard Kipling. I found these fragments of exposition in a variety of stories, voiced very much like the declarations Michaelis makes about India:

"Now India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously..."(Plain Tales From the Hills)
"All hours of the twenty-four are alike to Orientals..."(Kim)
"Herding in India is one of the laziest things in the world." (The Jungle Book)
"All kinds of magic are out of date and done with except in India where nothing changes..."(The Bisara of Pooree)

To me it seemed as if Michaelis may have been channeling Kipling. Which is fine, except that Kipling obviously did Kipling a whole lot better! And his exposition, whatever its tone, was always relevant to the story. If you really study the man's work, it's a primer in the construction of story. Nothing is gratuitous, whether you agree with it or not. In contrast, the expository bits in Tiger Moon felt throwaway.

Some things made sense—the hijra dancer, and how the foreigner keeps changing, sometimes French, sometimes English, sometimes German. That was a brilliant touch, a commentary on the history of colonialism in the region that added momentum to the story.

Lots of dramatic story twists, but in all I somehow didn't care about anyone except perhaps the tiger. Thanks to Reeta Sinha who helped me clarify my reactions to this book.