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?