2 Days, 3 Books

CS Lewis quote

I packed three books to go to my parents for the weekend – really it was more like a 30 hour trip. I went to help out after my dad had a series of small strokes that followed a severe stroke a couple years ago. My mom is his caretaker. Is is a lot.

Before I left I checked the fifth Harry Potter book on audio out of the library for my daughter. She’s seven and loves audio books. Since I introduced her to the literary crack that is Harry Potter she’s been flying through them.  I knew she was worried about me. And I knew if she had an audio book she was into she could squirrel herself away in her room and get lost in  a story.

My mom calls it defensive eating -when we eat not because we’re so hungry but to prevent being hungry later on. (Did I mention we’re Jewish?) Anyway, sometimes I practice defensive library use. I check books out to avoid being without one at my fingertips.

I brought the following books:

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein -a re-read but one that is light and smart and makes me laugh.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi -my current YA fiction read. The story of Fabiola who emigrates to the US alone to live with her Aunt and cousins after her mom is detained.

Astrophysics for People In a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – because I’ve never read anything by him and I heard him talk about it brilliantly on the radio. And because sometimes it’s good to get distracted by things that are a lot bigger than you are.

I didn’t pick up a single one -okay maybe a few pages of You’ll Grow Out of It before bed, but that was it. But I knew they were there. I knew if/when things got hard or painful that those books were there for me. I’m not a religious person but I imagine this is how it feels to have that kind of spiritual faith.

When I open the pages of a well loved book I know that the words will be in the same order they were before, that the plot will arc in the same direction. When I read something by a trusted and loved author I know I am investing myself in something that could show me the interconnectedness of all things, or a world wildly different from my own but that resonates with me emotionally.

“We read to know we’re not alone,” is a quote often attributed to C.S. Lewis but there’s some controversy around that. I’m not surprised I’m sure it’s one many people have said or thought. I know I have.

There are problems, and they are not resolved

Wired coverThis, in my mind, is the difference between writing for and about teenagers.

There are problems and they are not resolved.

I have a book coming out this week and one of the things on my mind, besides the fact that I’m a teacher and I’m going back to school and my kid is starting first grade and I selectively forgot to do all the major cleaning projects I thought I might tackle over the summer, and the damn Subaru dealer won’t call me back about replacing my faulty airbags, yeah besides all that. I’ve been thinking about the fact that not everyone will like my book.

Art and literature is subjective. I accept that because if I didn’t I’d be an idiot/insane. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE there is a lot of (teenage) drinking and some drug use. I didn’t think that much about it when I wrote it because it was consistent with my high school experience.  I did most of the things my characters did without any major related tragedies. This is not to say I condone those behaviors -whether I do or not is not the point -the point is they happen.

SOME PEOPLE think that if you write YA fiction, you should write books in which teens who have sex regret it, or get pregnant or a disease. If teens drink or do drugs they should regret it or get in car accidents or develop addictions. That way no actual teens will read the book and think these things are a good idea. As though teens (or any of us) might be more influenced by fiction than the trusted people around us. SOME PEOPLE like things tidy and morally unambiguous. That’s not the kind of fiction that interests me whether it’s written about teenagers or adults. It’s not what I’d choose to read so it’s not what I choose to write.

There are problems in WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE. Big problems about friendship and identity, about moving past life in high school and reconciling the future with the past. There will be some resolution because a story needs that. But life is messy and often times morally ambiguous and I think it’s okay for teenagers (and all of us) to know that too.

 

My dander is up

This morning I listened to a re-broadcast of an interview with David Denby on his book Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives. There were a few moments when I was white knuckling the steering wheel from annoyance. Here are two older white dudes hemming and hawing about kids on their smart phones and the fact that no one reads Huck Finn anymore. In the next breath they were totally dismissive of Twilight and  The Hunger Games, which great or not, got thousands, if not millions of kids to read.

There is so much wonderful YA literature beyond the mega-franchises and the interviewer and his guest were acting like reading Dickens is the only way for teenagers to become readers. There was also an element of youth-shaming. As if it’s all well and good for adults to be on their devices 24-7 because they actually read Tom Sawyer (and not the Spark notes) when they were in high school.

Technology is not destroying culture. Stories will always be relevant to our society even if the form they take is something different than what we’ve seen before.

Here is MY list of “great” books to engage your teenage or old fuddy-duddy self in reading.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Winger by Andrew Smith

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Gabi a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

I’ll Give You The Sky by Jandy Nelson

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Feed by MT Anderson (see this one for commentary on technology in society)

In Darkness by Nick Lake

One Story to Rule Them All

A couple of months ago I read this story about about a woman who tells her two young children a sanitized version of the plot of Game of Thrones as a way to get through meals in restaurants and long car trips. When she tells them about the fate of the characters and the various plot twists, they forget to argue over the last breadstick or kick each other under the table. This is genius.

When my daughter was a little younger bath time was fraught with drama; mostly around washing and drying and combing the knots from her hair. To get through the fun times I found myself resorting to long Baby Squirrel stories or Anna Marie Bananacake stories. The Baby Squirrels are your archetypal mischief makers and Anna Marie Bananacake is a girl who never wants to wash her hair until birds and other wildlife begin nesting in it. You get the idea. The point of the stories was to hold her interest long enough to accomplish the task. Therefore they often dragged on interminably over the details. Eliana never minded. She loves a story. But pretty soon I minded. I would have rather poked my eyes out with a fork than tell another Baby Squirrel story. Luckily she developed more of a tolerance for bath time and does most of the hair washing herself. Also, we turned to audio books. I’m perfectly happy to listen to the same stories over and over as long as I don’t have to be the one inventing them on the spot.

But this recent article got me thinking about the power of stories, about their ability to soothe and transport us. Stories allow us to focus on the struggles and challenges facing others in the face of our own difficulties; whether that’s a huge sticky knot of hair or something worse. I also wondered what stories I know well enough to recount the way this woman clearly knew Game of Thrones. I could probably do parts of Harry Potter, and all of the Grapes of Wrath -though I’m not sure that would interest my five year old. I wish I knew Tolkien better; I think the adventures of Sam and Frodo would be ideal. Any ideas? What stories would you tell if it meant you could eat your dinner in relative peace?

Is it YA? Summer Reading Round Up

As a YA author and a middle school teacher, I read a lot of YA. But even if I wasn’t either, I still would. Stories about adolescence and coming of age interest me. They always have. The line between what is considered YA and what is not gets fuzzier every day -especially with new categories like NA joining the party.

Now that Labor Day is past and we’re officially in the heady waters of a new school year, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about three books I read this summer. All three featured young adult characters, though only one is officially categorized as YA.

LilyKingThe first of the three was FATHER OF THE RAIN by Lily King. In the first third of this book the main character is 12-13 years old and if the book kept her there it might even qualify for a YA label. But soon we speed up to her future as an adult in her mid-twenties and the bulk of the book is told from there. Even without this, there is something dark and gritty that would prevent me from ever labeling this book as YA even though it is a coming of age story. Perhaps it’s that the coming of age doesn’t really take place until the character is in her twenties. Or perhaps it’s that the main character is unprotected and just barely shielded from her alcoholic and sexually explicit father by her own naivete. Regardless the book is tense and emotionally engrossing from beginning to end.

BonegapThe second book I wanted to mention was BONE GAP by Laura Ruby. This YA novel featured incredible writing and original small town characters and layered on magical realist touches a la Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. Magical realism is hard to do well and rarely done in YA -it’s all usually fantasy or realistic contemporary, but rarely are the two combined, and skillfully! Underneath the wonderful layers of disappearing girls, magical horseback rides and faces that can’t be seen is a story of self-acceptance and first love, both archetypal YA themes.

LightwecannotseeLastly, I read the much lauded ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. Okay, this one is a Pulitzer prize winner as well as being endorsed by yours truly! So what I would mention here is that the two main characters, who’s lives we follow through World War II are both little more than adolescents for the entirety of the book. But no one would every categorize this book as YA. Perhaps because its characters are not engaged in the typical tropes or plot lines of adolescence? I think if YA is to survive and thrive as a true genre it can’t define itself by what it is not. As in, it’s not deep or thematic. Or it’s not complex as this book certainly is. These are neither true nor useful in reading or defining YA.

So read anything good this summer? YA or otherwise?

Books by his bed

May was a killer blog month for me, June not so much. Life caught up to me, family, end of school year, a new edit letter on my Spring 2016 book -ha I wish I could say I’ve been writing. Mostly I open the letter, read and think, “whew I have a lot of work to do”! But I’ll get there, I will. In the mean time I have some thoughts on life and reading.

Many of you know that about 2 weeks go my whole life changed. It’s disingenuous to say it in lesser terms. My dad suffered a bleed in his brain that caused a stroke. I don’t want to get all medical here -not the place for it -but over the course of the last 2 weeks he’s been slowly regaining his consciousness and cognizance. There is a long road ahead for him relearning to do so many tasks that we take for granted.

Nick (dad) has had varying degrees of awareness about what happened to him and where he is. For a week he could barely open his eyes and even so there were a few things he asked for repeatedly. One of them was his book and his reading glasses. If you know my father, and it is so lovely that so many of my friends do, you know he is a man who loves words. I dedicated my first book to him with the words;

For Dad and the shared love of stories

Next to his bed at home my dad has his stacks of books. Stacks is not an exaggeration. Stories are what my dad turns to for entertainment, for joy, for distraction, for insomnia and to appreciate the beauty of the world. They provide a kind of security. When the narrative of life is challenging you can always focus on a different narrative when you open the pages of a book.

One of the first things I was able to do for my dad in the hospital was read to him. I opened up to his bookmark in The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien and picked up where he left off. Oddly, it was a book he had mentioned to me on the phone the last time we spoke. And here I was sharing it with him. We were in the ICU, there were tubes and beeping monitors everywhere and as I read, dad whispered hoarsely, “She gets the details just right. She nails the characterization with the details.” My mom, brother and I shook our heads. Even in the worst of situations, here was dad, still able to appreciate and love what was dear to him.

I was so happy to talk about this book with my dad. There in this surreal twilight world with it’s sickening sterilized plastic smells we discussed the main character and why it was she couldn’t be seen with her male companion -was he married? Too old for her? Was it just that it was Ireland in the 1960’s? We changed the narrative, if only for a few minutes.

So what am I reading right now? Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel; a post apocalyptic novel with just the right amount of good writing and plausibility.  Here’s a little blurb from goodreads:

“Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.”

It’s perfect for where I am and where I want to be.

 

Recipe for a Book Title -the Final Installment

Here are a few more stories about how books got their titles. I find the genesis of book titles totally fascinating -hopefully you do too!

Thanks to all my author friends who shared their stories!

Braider“The Good Braider was always The Good Braider and my editor and editorial staff all thought of it that way.
A novel coming out in a few months was always Rabbit in the Moon to me.  I was terribly committed to it, having found myths and symbolism around rabbits and the image of the rabbit in the moon in Cambodian culture. But now it’s called Either the Beginning or the End of the World,  taken from a Carolyn Forche poem.” -Terry Farish

Fletcher“With my debut, the title began as The Family Furnival. And then, fairly late in the game my editor told me that “some people” thought Furnival sounded like “funeral” and they couldn’t get beyond it. I polled literally dozens and dozens of people and no one else heard “funeral.” I got “carnival” “festival” “fun” and even (my favorite) “fur carnival” but no one (other than my editor’s “some people”) heard funeral. However, it was not a battle worth fighting, so I embarked on a name hunt. I wanted alliteration with family, but Fletcher actually has another secret meaning. My aunt is children’s book author Elizabeth Levy, and her first book series, back in the 1970s and 80s, were a series of picture books called Something Queer is Going On, and they featured a basset hound named Fletcher. So my book’s title -The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher – was ultimately a little inside joke with her!”  -Dana Alison Levy*

*Another gorgeous author website!!

No place to fall“My original title was Sing To The Wind. The editorial staff was concerned it sounded too young, so my editor pulled all sorts of phrases from the manuscript and No Place To Fall is what we kept coming back to. Now I can’t imagine any other title.” -Jaye Robin Brown
“Typically when I come up with my titles, I think of the simplest elements that represent my story, and I try to give it a more poetic meaning.  My story is about a lesbian girl in a small town in the rural south.  Since rainbows are the symbol for gay pride I wanted a title that represented rainbows without using the word.  After playing around with some words I came up with SOUTH OF SUNSHINE.  Rainbows are south of the sun, it’s set in the south and I named my fictitious small town Sunshine, Tennessee.  I think it accomplishes what I was going for very well.” -Dana Elmendorf
Water Castle“Secrets of Truth & Beauty was Just Like Mama Cass (changed because marketing didn’t think teens would know who Mama Cass was.)
The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill was The Remarkable Adventures of the Girl Detective, the Boy Genius, and the Spy
The Friendship Riddle was Letter Bee
Very in Pieces was Bottle Cap.
So that makes one book — The Water Castle — that kept the title that I gave it.”  -Megan Frazer Blakemore
5to1“I named my book 5 TO 1 because it’s about a world with 5 boys for every 1 girl and I honestly couldn’t think of anything better. I kinda assumed they’d change it but they didn’t. In retrospect, I wish I’d spelled it out as search engines don’t handle numbers very well.”
RealMermaids3TitleChange (2)“My first Real Mermaids book was always ‘Real Mermaids Don’t Wear Toe Rings’ from submission to publication but the other three titles in the series went through some debate, especially my third book (as did the cover art!). Here’s a comparison of the first title ‘Real Mermaids Don’t Have Two Left Feet’ (which the sales team thought young readers wouldn’t ‘get’) and the second ‘Real Mermaids Don’t Need High Heels’ (which is what went to print).”  -Helene Boudreau