Monday, November 24, 2014

Good For You Is Good Enough: On Chapter Books, "Reading Up", and Stressed Out Kids

I’ve been thinking a lot about Chapter Books lately. Actually, all books, ALL THE TIME, but since I wrote a Chapter Book that I’m querying and I read a lot of those books in particular, I think about them. And I think about the concept of “reading up”, and I think about stressed out kids.

I haven’t been at this writing gig forever, and I haven’t been a parent forever, so I don’t know everything. But I do know this:

There is a lot of talk, on the news and in magazines and in the media generally, about how we are currently raising a generation of stressed-out, high-anxiety kids.

At the same time, there is a lot of talk (usually in the same places, often within the same program or in the same magazine issue - the unintentional irony is amazing) about how to get our kids reading younger, how schools expect them to be reading at an earlier age, and about how to help your kid “get ahead” and start “reading at a higher grade level” than their enrolled grade, so they can “get ahead of their peers and get a head start on life”.

There are levels to the problem here. First, we have the whole expectation that EVERY CHILD will somehow be ahead of every other child in every area, which is ridiculous and unrealistic and also unnecessary. (America, in particular, has an especially bad case of what I like to call "First Place-itis", both on an individual level and also as a nation. Unless you have traveled, one could be excused, based on what we hear from the American Propaganda Machine, for thinking that other countries - the ones that are Developed Nations, but that aren't the Top Dog - lack basic things like central heating and flush toilets and traffic lights. Trust me, America - being Number Two or Number Five or Number Twelve really ISN'T the end of the world.)

But the other level to the problem is the whole idea of encouraging kids to consume media that was not intended for them. I wonder if the people who write the articles encouraging parents to get their kids to read Harry Potter at the age of five have actually read the books themselves. Because when I was five, reading about a kid being hunted by a bad guy and then (SPOILER ALERT!) burning the bad guy’s face off at the end would have freaked me the hell out.

I know that if you’re a parent reading this, or maybe even if you’re an author or a publisher reading this, you’re probably defending the whole “reading up” thing. This is understandable. Parents want success for their kids, and publishers want to stay in business. And maybe your 5-year-old kid really can handle watching a man’s face turn to ash and then slowly drop away from his still standing corpse. (I guess this is me coming out against the idea of showing your kid the movie to help them understand the book that was written for kids much older than they are. Because, DUDE: if you don’t think they’re ready to read it? The beauty of books is that the images to go with the words are formed based on that child’s experience. Movies? Not so much.) But given the frequency of reports that our kids are more stressed out than kids have ever been, it seems clear that maybe more of us are wrong about that than we think. Maybe some of the kids who seem to be “handling it” are actually freaking out inside.

ASIDE: No, I don’t think it’s good to “desensitize” our kids. I want violence to always be an abhorrent, shocking thing to my children. Because once they accept it, they are one step closer to practicing it.

It saddens me that, in search of books for their ten-year-old “voracious readers”, parents hand them books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars rather than handing them books like When You Reach Me and The Tale of Desperaux. Not because the first set of books aren’t good books - in fact, I think they’re AMAZING books. But they are books written for teenagers, with the interests of teenagers in mind. They’re books written with the understanding that the people who read them will be concerned with things like how governments can wield power responsibly and what that does and doesn’t look like, and whether smoking pot is as bad for them as their parents say it is, and whether they should have sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend this weekend. Whether they’re “ready”, and what being “ready” even feels like, anyway.

Is your ten-year-old thinking about that stuff?

I hear people in the publishing world say that kids should be able to read whatever they wish, and that they will put a book down if they aren’t ready for it. I don’t completely agree with that. Because you can never un-read something that you weren’t ready for.

I think a valid question here is: why do we bother writing “for children”? What are the distinctions between “chapter books” and “middle grade” and “young adult” for, if we are going to encourage people to flaunt them? Those labels are signposts, guys.

I do not advocate censorship. I do not advocate the banning of books, or the removal of books from libraries and school curricula. I DEFINITELY do not advocate the sanitizing of books. (My WiP is a YA about a school shooting. It’s not sanitized. But it’s a YA, and it’s not for ten-year-olds.)

I DO advocate parents taking an active role in choosing, with their children, what their children read, and I advocate parents talking about books with their kids. I advocate booksellers taking an interest in helping their customers find the right book for them, above pushing the latest blockbuster. (Independent bookstores are much better at this than major chains, I find.) Some young kids really are ready to read books written for older kids, because they are asking those questions at a younger age. Also, some books on the “teen” shelves really are great for older tweens to read, just as some books on the “tween” shelf are genuinely appealing to 7-8 year-olds. But those are the exceptions, and most of them probably are not.

I wish - I really, really WISH - that we who make the books and publish the books and sell the books could continue to be be a little smarter about and more considerate about emotional preparedness. I hope that we will continue to be more sensitive to the emotional needs of children.

I wish that we, as a society, as a culture, would place “emotional needs” higher up on the importance pyramid than “reads and does math at a higher grade level than the rest of his class”.

Little children need, above all else, to feel loved and safe. And while I have never been a great fan of the litany of formulaic, sappy chapter books about fairies and ponies and princesses and puppies - IVY & BEAN and CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS are much more to my taste than RAINBOW FAIRIES and PUPPY PLACE - it saddens me to see Chapter Books coming out that open with demons and angry monsters and danger. It saddens me deeply. Because I do not think that we serve our six-year-olds’ emotional needs well with these types of books.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In Which I Pay a Stranger to Play With My Hair, and - Hey, Look! Headshots!

So, a few weeks ago, I went to a photographer's studio and got my picture taken, like, a bazillion times.

I have a long history of not being a very photogenic person, so, yeeaaaaah.

Me at 12. Oh, yeah. I was a looker, all right.

I was nervous.

Also, I had told them that I wanted to use their make-up person, and the receptionist (who is very nice) kept referring to her as their "hair and make-up artist", and she told me that I needed to allow for an extra HOUR-AND-A-HALF for that, and I naturally assumed that most of that would be used to deal with my hair, because… HAIR! Right? So I spent the whole two months between booking my appointment and having my appointment working up the courage to politely-but-firmly ask her to please not straighten/trim/change anything.

I was so nervous!

I even tweeted about it.

Overshare?

I also had to make a last-minute wardrobe adjustment.

Doesn't EVERYONE sew on the bus??

But when I arrived, the photographer was lovely and welcoming and wonderful. She sat me down on the couch and she gave me tea and she asked me what kind of "feel" I wanted the headshots to have (which was "natural" - meaning, I wanted to look like me, but less tired) and she was AWESOME. And she knew all about my book coming out because she had done her homework and looked up my Twitter, which was mortifying because of the above tweet. But neither one of us said anything about that. This lady is way too cool. (Did I mention that she is AWESOME?)

And then her make-up person walked in, and she ALSO had a cup of tea, and she was AMAZING. She also promised not to straighten my hair, which was a plus. We chatted while she put makeup on my face and put some gel in my hair, and the time flew by - it felt like about ten minutes.*

And then Denise Grant took my photo a bunch of times, and you know what? It was actually fun. Also, Christine Cho and Denise are WIZARDS, because LOOK!

Less tired! Also less 30's!
(Photo by Denise Grant Photography)

THEY ARE MAGICIANS, I TELL YOU!

All I can say is, I never want anyone else to take my picture again. Denise Grant is wonderful. If you ever need headshots and are in the Toronto area, go to her. And use Christine Cho for your makeup.

Now I'm going to get back to staring at that chick in the photo. I like that chick. I want to hang out with her.

*A NOTE ABOUT MAKEUP: I never wear it. But you know what? If you stand up in front of a professional photographer's lighting equipment without makeup on, those lights will wash you out. There will be shadows where shadows don't belong, and light spots where light spots don't belong, and you won't look like YOU. You'll look like a skull with tissue paper stretched over it. Also, if you try to do your own makeup, you'll use too much or not enough or something too shimmery or something too dark and it won't look good. Do yourself a favor and honor the time and expense of getting professional headshots by letting them do your makeup. They know what they're doing.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: THE THICKETY: A PATH BEGINS, by J. A. White

Oh, you guys. This book.

THIS BOOK.

I loved this book.

Incidentally, so did Kidlet Number One. We read it for book club, and oh, my gosh. We couldn’t put it down.

Here’s the publisher’s copy:

Hand in hand, the witch's children walked down the empty road.

When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic . . . except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr's Realm. But mostly it's called the Thickety.

The black-leaved trees swayed toward Kara and then away, as though beckoning her.

The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother.

And that is just the beginning of the story.

The Thickety: A Path Begins is the start of a thrilling and spellbinding tale about a girl, the Thickety, and the power of magic.


This book pulled me in from the first sentence. I love the way the sentences were crafted, the language, the rhythm. The whole book feels like one of those ancient stories, handed down by oral tradition through generations. It feels like a fairy tale, but not the pastel-colored sappy Disney kind. The Grimm kind. There is a way people speak when they tell these kinds of stories, a cadence, and the author captured it perfectly.

I also loved the creepiness of it. Grace, the antagonist, is truly wicked, and I love the way her sociopathic nature comes through the page. I was really rooting for her to go down, and it’s not every book that can bring out that reaction.

But it is with the underlying themes of the book that THE THICKETY excels. This is a book that asks questions about the overlap between the faithful and the occult, about what it is to be good and what it is to be bad. This is a book that explores the difference between being obedient and being brainwashed, and that explores what it is like to have one’s beliefs challenged in the most basic and meaningful way. Most astonishingly, it does so in a way that is appropriate and approachable for Middle Grade readers. In Kara, we have the faithful trope of the Heroine Plagued by Self-Doubt, but in the hands of J. A. White the trope never feels tired, which is a very, very rare find. This is a girl who is shaken to her core, and the twist at the end (which caught me by complete surprise) answers just enough for the book to feel satisfying, but not enough for the resolution to feel neat.


This book is not for the faint of heart or the easily frightened or disturbed, but would make an excellent novel study for more mature Middle Grade readers. Five enormous stars!

Find The Thickety: a Path Begins at your legal independent bookseller, or online at:
IndieBound
Chapters Indigo (for Canadian readers)
Amazon

Friday, October 3, 2014

Book Review: We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

Once in a while, a book comes along that is so honest, so true, so close to home, that it takes your breath away. This is one of those books.

Here's the publisher's copy:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

(Okay, seriously - that last line? It's too cheesy. Whatever. The copy is not the book.)

On the surface, this is a book about a wealthy teenaged girl recovering from an accident, on a private island surrounded by her wealthy family. If you look deeper, this is still a book about a wealthy teenaged girl recovering from an accident, on a private island surrounded by her wealthy family. But it is also a book about what happens when money becomes one's sole purpose; about what happens when maintaining the illusion of perfection becomes more important than everything else; about what happens when we stop listening to each other, and stop trying to talk to one another. It is a book about the danger of lies. It is a book that reveals the truth.

I don't want to reveal anything about the plot in this review, so I'm going to stick to talking about narrative devices that I liked. The story is told in first person, from the perspective of Cadence, who has experienced selective amnesia ever since being found in the water off the beach on her family's island two years ago. She mostly uses a traditional prose format for her narrative, but occasionally she falls into free verse, and I like that. It feels like the way we think sometimes.

She also uses fairytales as a way to convey meaning, and as the narrative progresses and her amnesia slowly gives way to memories, the fairytales change. I really like that aspect of this book. I think people look for their own lives in stories, and we often have to change the stories in order to fit our lives, and I like that this book recognizes that.

I saw the "twist" coming - the ending was no surprise to me. It wasn't any less heartbreaking for it, but I saw it. I had been looking for it from the beginning - maybe because the book was set up as a book of lies, or maybe because something very much like this happened to my family. Not exactly like this - the stories and the truth never line up in their details. But in the deeper truth, in the heart of it, they are the same, so I wasn't surprised.

And I guess that's the last thing I want to say. That this is a made-up story, but if you look deeper, it is a true story about someone. Someone I knew; someone you know right now. That people, even really smart, wealthy, well-educated people, sometimes make stupid decisions, and do stupid things that lead to awful consequences, and then lie about them. To you; to me; to themselves. And that I really hope you read this, because it is the truth.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On Delays, and Why They're Not Always a Bad Thing aka, I HAVE A RELEASE DATE WOOOO!

SO… Apart from those last two posts, it's been a while, eh?

I told you this blog posting thing would be pretty erratic. I'm pretty sure I warned you guys about this. I definitely meant to...

ANYWAY…

Update time!

Book! Much book!

Actually, not that much. Because DELAYS.

A lot of things have happened with my book. My editor got a different job, which meant that my co-author Kari-Lynn and I got a NEW editor. I could have cried about this, but both our editors have been really awesome, so I just feel lucky to have had the chance to work with TWO amazing editors instead of one. (YAY! Cue happy tears! Okay, not really… But YAY!)

But that's not why we're delayed. The delay is because our book is part of a series, and our publisher, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (which publishes excellent books, by the way - no, seriously, award-winning books), bumped the book BEFORE our book, so now OUR book BITE INTO BLOODSUCKERS, which was originally scheduled to come out in October of 2014, is now coming out in the spring of 2015. On MARCH 17, to be precise. Mark your calendars!

I know it's traditional for authors to be a little sad and down in the dumps and throw themselves a bit of a pity party when this kind of delay happens, but I'm actually okay with it. In fact, I'm BETTER than okay with it. Because when you think about it, bugs are a spring and summer thing, and while there are a few non-bug creatures in this book, (vampire bat, anyone?), the vast majority of them are bugs. So I think this timing is actually pretty perfect.

ALSO: Web Series Adaptation!

I have written a web series! It's an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and you are going to love love love it! I found a really smart, talented filmmaker named James to do storyboarding with me and co-write a few episodes with me before I wrote the rest of it and it will be awesome! James found a blogger and art designer extraordinaire named Olivia to make a set! IN MY HOUSE! I have a set in my basement where a bathroom will be one day. Oh, yeah, baby. I can't show it to you yet, because SURPRISE, but it looks amazing. I have cast most of the roles in the web series! I have FILMED (and also directed) ONE THIRD of it! (The rest will be filmed as soon as I have an actor to fill the last role, which will hopefully be soon, because among other things, it would be awesome if we could finally turn that space into a second bathroom.)

So, basically, once this baby is done and launched, I will be adding "screenwriter, director, and producer" to my list of credentials. But more importantly, I WILL HAVE CREATED A WEB SERIES!

You have no idea how absolutely terrifying that is to hold in my heart.

Seriously.

But it's also really cool, and I hope you all love it.

HOWEVER, I had hoped to have it done and launched and all over the interwebs by now, but I don't because of the whole not-being-able-to-find-the-right-actor thing. And I'm glad it's not done yet, because I've been using this time to perfect the scenes and rewrite and rethink and it is so much better than it would have been otherwise. So this delay, while unanticipated, has not been a bad thing. It has forced me to actually do a not-rushed-job on this series, and I can't wait to share it with you.

SO: here's to rolling with the punches, looking on the bright side, and embracing the opportunities that delays present. Because this is the arts, and delays are inevitable.

Thanks for stopping by.

P.S. BITE INTO BLOODSUCKERS has a pre-order page on AmazonHow cool is that? There is a special place in my heart for the people who pre-order copies of my book. If you would order it, I would love you forever. Seriously. ALSO: that cover is a stand-in for the REAL cover, which will be revealed shortly.

Monday, September 15, 2014

MAKE LISTS! WIN PRIZES!

This year, the people behind the Scotiabank Giller Prize have put together an awesome Crazy for Can-Lit giveaway - make a list of books eligible for the Giller Prize in 2014 that you want to read, post it in a public place by 5PM on September 15, 2014 (that's today, guys),and you will be entered to win prizes! (Full details HERE.)

I had a look at the list of eligible books, and WOW, it was hard to pick just a few, but this is my To-Be-Read list from the eligible Giller Prize books:

1) HAIR TRIGGER, by Trevor Clark: Bookstore manager-turned-bank robber Derrick Rowe enlists two other men in an armed heist, setting off a chain of events that lead to a violent climax. I haven't read a good heist book in a while, and this one looks interesting.

2) THE DELUSIONIST, by Grant Buday: "Art, love, and history furnish the setting in this tale of fate and destiny. Set in Vancouver in 1962, we follow Cyril Andrachuk, son of immigrant parents from the former Ukraine, as he makes his way from high school to menial labour jobs, from first love to first heartbreak, from sibling rivalry to malicious family betrayal." I'm interested in stories that explore the concepts of fate and destiny, and there's something about the title that I find irresistible.

3) WORST. PERSON. EVER. by Douglas Coupland: A B-Unit cameraman enters an amusing downward failure spiral that takes him around the world and eventually finds him in the centre of a nuclear war. This book looks hilarious, and after the last book on the list, I'll probably be ready for a light read.

4) THE GEOGRAPHY OF PLUTO, by Christopher DiRaddo: "...perfectly captures the ebb and flow of life through the insightful, exciting, and often playful story of a young man's day-to-day struggle with uncertainty." I love this kind of book, and it's the kind of thing I hope to address in my own work, so I'd really love to see how DiRaddo approaches it.

5) FROG MUSIC, by Emma Donoghue: In 1876 San Francisco, a young woman is shot dead through the window of a saloon. Her friend, a French burlesque dancer, risks everything to bring her murderer to justice. This is based on a real unsolved crime and Donoghue used actual documents to craft her story, AND, I loved ROOM, so I will basically read anything that she writes.

6) THE STONEHENGE LETTERS, by Harry Karlinsky: "While researching why Freud failed to win a Nobel Prize at the Nobel Archives in Sweden, a psychiatrist makes an unusual discovery. Among the piles of papers in the 'Crackpot' file are letters addressed to the executor of Alfred Nobel's will, written by several notable Nobel laureates - including Rudyard Kipling and Marie Curie - each offering an explanation of why and how Stonehenge was constructed. Diligent research uncovers that Alfred Nobel added a secret codicil to his will, a prize for the Nobel laureate who solves the mystery of Stonehenge." One word: Stonehenge. I will read anything that even pretends to be connected to Stonehenge.

7) ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, by Miriam Toews: Two sisters. One who wants to die, and one who wants to keep her sister alive. Toews' work is always poignant and clear as crystal, and I love her books.

8) THE AFTERLIFE OF STARS, by Joseph Kertes: Hungary, 1956. As tanks roll in to crush the Hungarian revolution, two brothers flee with their family. As they grapple with sibling rivalry and incalculable loss, they arrive at a place they thought they'd lost forever: home. I think this sounds wonderful, and I'm curious to see how the story is told through the brothers' perspectives.

9) ALL THE BROKEN THINGS, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: 14-year-old Bo is a Vietnamese immigrant living in Toronto, and his family has a secret: his 4-year-old sister was horribly disfigured by Agent Orange. When the circus learns about his sister, and one day his mother and sister disappear, Bo sets off on an extraordinary journey to find his sister. I'm SO INTRIGUED by the plot of this book!

10) WATCH HOW WE WALK, by Jennifer LoveGrove: "Alternating between a woman’s childhood in a small town and as an adult in the city, this novel traces a Jehovah Witness family’s splintering belief system, their isolation, and the erosion of their relationships." This description reminds me of Toews' A COMPLICATED KINDNESS. I'm very interested in books that shine a light on the inner lives of people who follow very strict religious practices, and this looks fantastic.

So there's my Top 10!

What are yours? Are you keen to get your hands on any of the same books? Have you read any of them already? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, September 12, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

A while back (an embarrassingly long while back), I received this package:

What could it be???

I wasn't expecting a package. I LOVE packages! I eagerly tore it open, and inside:



I know Terry! This must be Terry Lynn Johnson!


 I hope MY books have covers that good one day...

IT WAS! It was her newly released book, ICE DOGS, a Middle Grade contemporary adventure that I had been WAITING for ever since she and I had shared a room at an SCBWI conference way back in…let me see now…2012???

Yeah, I wanted this!

My first reaction was, HOLY ICE DOGS, LOOK AT THAT COVER! I mean, just LOOK at it! It's gorgeous! It looks like someone opened the gates to Narnia and a sled dog is walking through them right now. I wanted to get lost in that book.

Unfortunately for me, so did Kidlet Number One, and he snagged it before I could, the sneaky little sneaker.

He read it in an afternoon. This is an indication of just how good ICE DOGS is.

And then: MY TURN! First, a short intro. Here's the flap copy:

Lost.

That's how the fourteen-year-old dog-sledder Victoria Secord has felt ever since her father died. A champion musher, Victoria is independent, self-reliant, and, thanks to her father, an expert in surviving the unforgiving Alaskan bush. When an injured "city boy" and a freak snowstorm both catch Victoria and her dog team by surprise, however, a routine trip becomes a life-or-death trek through the frozen wilderness. As temperatures drop and food stores run out, Victoria must find a way to save them all in this high-stakes, high-adventure middle grade novel of endurance, hope, and finding your way back home.

This is a book that delivers. From the very first page, I was drawn into Victoria's world: the sights and sounds of a race, the tension, the way the dogs scratch and claw in anticipation The writing crackles with description. Every detail is painted so clearly, but with exactly the right amount of sparsity, that I felt as if I was watching it play out in a film reel in my head. And the author's choice of first person, present tense lends an immediacy to the writing that is perfect for this story.

I also loved how much I learned from this book. As Victoria and Chris (the injured "city boy") navigate the Alaskan wilderness, they rig up snares to hunt for game, follow carrion birds to find food, build fires, snow camp, care for injured dogs…and that's just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I have some limited experience with snow camping and wilderness survival from my College days in the Berkshires, but what the kids do in this book is something else. The insights into life as a dog sledder are so clear, I feel almost as if you could plonk me in the winter wilderness and I'd survive. (The rational part of me knows that's not the case - DON'T TRY THAT AT HOME, KIDS - but it's an indication of the quality of writing that the imaginative part of me believes it.)

The only part that I didn't absolutely love was the way Chris came into the story. For the first few chapters after we met him, his character struck me as "off" - a little too weird, a little too unpredictable, and a little too unwilling to talk. In hindsight, I think this is all related to the accident that injured him, but while I was reading, I was half-trusting the author to take this to a good place, and half-wondering if he was going to turn out to be a rapist or amateur highway robber or something. As awful as it would have been for Chris, I kind of wanted Victoria to leave him behind at the beginning. Either way, it definitely ramped up the tension! (Not-really spoiler: It's good that she didn't leave him behind. He's not a rapist. This IS a middle grade book, guys)

Finally, the way Victoria's handling of the issues with her mother is woven through the action of the book is so smooth, I didn't even notice it until the book was over. I cried a little at the end, guys. That doesn't happen often.

This is a finely paced page-turner of a novel that both keeps the adrenaline pumping and tugs at the heartstrings. It is a fine piece of writing, and a perfect autumn read! FOUR STARS.