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summer reading–let kids invent themselves

We interrupt our revision programming for this important blog entry.

I hate to give this article any more exposure, but I suppose you have to read the buttal before you read the rebuttal.

Claire Needell Hollander, a self-described “middle school reading enrichment teacher” has written an article for the New York Times saying that kids in middle school and high school should not be reading frivolous fiction during the summer.  Like The Hunger Games.

She urges children to be unfettered with the specter of essays and tests for their summer reading, that they be free to explore works which may be out of their comprehension comfort zone. On that point I agree whole-heartedly. When a grade is attached, students tend to play it safe.

But Ms. Hollander maintains “Reading literature should be intentional.” Her suggestions for summer reading include a first hand account of the aftermath of Hiroshima and books about kids who have been real child soldiers and a child sex worker. She feels these book choices  “increase world and verbal knowledge”.

Oh, baloney.

There is a reason we tell stories, and it is this: to make sense out of a senseless world.

Kids and teens especially must have the luxury to explore in a fictional setting the topics that frighten, anger and titillate them. They should be given the space to figure out how life works, how it should work.

Reading fiction with compelling characters gives kids and teens the chance to feel those characters’ dilemmas, to make moral choices along with them. They’re building their understanding of the world and their place in it, one book at a time.


drama, characters, jersey shore…with gifs!

Oh, I am going to admit a dirty little secret. Ready?

Freckles McYoungest and I have been watching old seasons of The Jersey Shore.


Man. I felt filthy just typing that.

It started when we were with Bottled Lightning, and she kind of sort of FORCED US to watch an episode or two. Holy Cannoli. The DRAMA. I couldn’t. Stand it.

We came home to the land of Antenna TV where I guess Freckles watched the rest of the episodes on Hulu or Netflix or something.

I must admit that now–I am fascinated. I honestly have never known people like this. Well, I might have run across them, but I didn’t stick around to see what made them tick.

Now, a couple of episodes into the Miami Season of The Jersey Shore, it’s easy to see who is a kid sowing wild oats:

and who is a frickin’ sociopath.

Favorite quote of the day:

“You stepped on the only toes you had in the house.”

The Situation to Angelina

If you haven’t seen this amazing slice of Americana, let me explain. Approximately half-a-dozen twenty-somethings hang out in a house for a couple of months near the beach and party. Oh yeah. Occasionally they go to a minimum-wage job. Mostly they get drunk and have Drama. (Please note the capital “D”.)


Thank you for asking.

Teens aren’t manufacturing their drama. There stuff really IS as big as they’re feeling it. First love. Choosing and getting into the right college. Losing your best friend. Standing up to peer pressure. Enlisting in the army. Deciding what to believe in, independent of your parents. Yeah. That’s big.

These guys on the Jersey Shore? They’re stirring up trouble, just so they can feel alive.

So there you have it, writers–the difference between flat characters and ones you can build a story on. You can’t put my characters’ day into a few gifs.


in the path of falling objects: the sandwich book

There’s no prison worse than “I promise.”

A promise can carry you through tough times.

Or cause them.

Jonah and Simon, two abandoned brothers, set out to rendezvous with a third brother coming back from Vietnam. The only guarantee they have of meeting up with him is in his letters.

The boys hitch a ride on the highway with Mitch and Lilly. As the story unspools they figure out that Mitch is a psychopath. Lilly’s a flirt. She likes to push Mitch’s buttons.

Jonah tries to keep the promise he made to his older brother, to keep Simon safe. Like all little brothers, Simon doesn’t like getting bossed around. Mitch encourages Simon’s minor rebellions, coaxes them into bitter hatred for Jonah. Who would blame Jonah if he just walked away?

Well, there’s that promise.


Andrew Smith’s second book is gut-punching good. Each chapter is labeled with the character whose point of view it’s written in. Not necessary. Because every character’s voice is so distinct you can tell them apart without a scorecard.  The attention to setting puts you right in the desert southwest without getting artsy-fartsy. And the Vietnam letters have heart-breaking historically accurate touches.

Andrew writes really fast. His third book came out last November: The Marbury Lens. It has been named one of the Best Children’s Fiction Books of 2010 by Publisher’s Weekly, and is on the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list 2010, just like his other two books. And he’s got more in the pipeline.

I’m kind of afraid Andrew’s second book, In the Path of Falling Objects might have been overlooked because it was sandwiched between book one and three, way close to The Marbury Lens release date.


That is an order.

phoning it in


that cell phones and iPods and laptops are suspiciously absent from kidlit. Why? Well, because there are a lot of stories that would have ended with one phone call to the ol’  ‘rents.


Which goes back to kids aren’t nearly as self-reliant as they used to be, BUT I DIGRESS. (RANT AVOIDED)

I confess to acknowledging the existence of cell phones in only a limited fashion in my last manuscript. But by jimminiminny, I am going to step up to the challenge of making my characters normal cell-phone-toting-teens in this WIP, WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY writing a whiz-bang knock-down story AND ALSO keeping all the plates spinning.

It’s going to be tricky. There are only so many ways you can let your characters NOT get help from the cell phone before it becomes peculiar. I suppose this opens up the possibilities of…they summon backup, but will it get there in time? Maybe they get reinforcements, but it’s not enough. Or, perhaps they get help, but actually, IT ISN’T REALLY HELP AT ALL! MWAHAHAHAHA!

Oh, sorry. Did I laugh that out loud?

master writer #6–barbara stuber, crossing the tracks

It’s been some time since I’ve posted a Master Writer blog entry. (See previous entries.) I’m pretty picky about my list of kidlit book authors who’ve mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.

I think you’ll be impressed with Barbara Stuber’s Crossing the Tracks:

A literary Young Adult novel in the finest and most engrossing sense, Crossing the Tracks is the story of Iris Baldwin, a 15-year-old-girl who lost her mother at a young age, and her father’s attention as well. When Iris’ father hires her out–without consulting Iris–to a rural doctor and his invalid mother, she has to use her grit and heart to find her way home.


She recreates her novel’s historic period with immediacy, as now time, not the past.

Crossing the Tracks is set in the mid-1920s, but you’re not going to find tired references to mobsters, flappers and bathtub gin. Barbara Stuber has done incredible research and uses multiple techniques to put us smack-dab in Iris’ life.

1. Barbara PLACES PERIOD PRODUCT NAMES throughout her novel:

“After a sprinkle of Pompeian Beauty Powder, I step into my favorite cotton dress that’s white with yellow flowers and lacy sleeves.”

Pompeian Beauty Powder was a real toiletry that ladies used during the time period Crossing the Tracks takes place. Barb shows us the lack of deodorants and antiperspirants at the time, but also finds a powder name that complements the art deco goddess wallpaper in Iris’ room. Every choice the author makes builds atmosphere.



“…my hat and pocketbook thump on the floor.”

“…she fusses, giving her cane a snappy hurry up tap.”

“…Poorly isn’t all she’s going to feel when Cecil finds out…”

While the highlighted words are still in the dictionary today, they are contemporary to the 1920s. (There’s a reason your Grandma uses them.) The trick is to insert just the right amount of dated and/or unfamiliar words. Too much, and you risk producing a parody. Too little, and your characters might as well be living next door to you today.

3. Iris Baldwin grows into a brave young lady–yet she is a creature of THE SENSIBILITIES OF THE TIME. It’s reasonable for her to find the strength to–get to the place where she ends up. (I will not spoil this book for you. It’s too good!) But women were not as open about their bodily functions then as they are now:

“Outside our shoe store window I used to watch ladies, some of them mothers of girls in my class, go into Lowen’s Pharmacy and come out with a bulky sack–their ‘silent purchase’. The store had a system–you put money in a box and took a package of Kotex pads off the counter without saying anything to anybody.”

Nothing screams “fraud” louder than putting millennial ideology in your main character’s head. It’s a disservice to people of the past, who were hamstrung by the mores of the day.

Barbara Stuber’s Crossing the Tracks is on the Kirkus 2010 Best for Teens List and the short list for the ALA’s William Morris Award. It’s an emotionally true story, packed with stunning detail that puts us inside every scene.

And so I declare Barbara Stuber Master of Recreating Her Novel’s Historic Period With Immediacy: As Now Time, Not The Past.

james frey: still a piece of work

Oh, James Frey.

Who the bleep do you think you are.

Some wonderful insight on Frey’s shenanigans from Nova Ren Suma and Maureen Johnson.

IN A NUTSHELL: (Emphasis on NUT)

James Frey is raiding MFA programs. He entices destitute grad students to write YA books for him.

For slave wages.

To his specifications, to maximize movie-licensing tie-ins.

Also, these books are written under pseudonyms.

And various and sundry other unfair practices. (See Nova’s and Maureen’s sites.)

My God. The Hubris.

Please notice that he doesn’t go out into the wide, wide world to find his writers. He harvests kids desperate to pay off their tuition debt and too young to know what a crappy deal they’re getting.


He asks the student to submit an outline, and if Frey likes it, the student writes the book. Then the two of them are considered “co-authors”.


Then he and Spielberg add material to the novel which will translate well onto the screen and into the Happy Meals.


The whole undertaking from beginning to end reeks of disrespect–for the writer, for the publishing business, and most of all for the reader. James Frey thinks  all YA readers like the same bowl of gruel, and he’s got the recipe.


(Hey. That is a direct quote from a picture book. Don’t blame me!)

Please. Don’t support this insult. Don’t buy, or even read, these books.

I mean it.

5 points you better get about ya literature

I really don’t have anything against adult writers dipping their pens into the YA market.

Really, I don’t.

If they know what they’re doing.

Because YA Lit is not dumbed-down Adult Lit. In fact, I put to you that YA Lit is smarter than Adult Lit. Because teens have very sensitive bullshit-meters, and they won’t sit still for your condescending crap.

I am perpetually 16.

So baby, if you want to write YA, here’s


  • The Main Character Damn Well Better Be a Young Adult. Not his Amazing and Wise Parent. Nobody gives a rip about a kid who does whatever his mommy thinks is best. Who the hell wants to read about a shrinking violet who has to be saved by her smarmy father? And then we can all learn a lesson about how parents know best and have milk and cookies around the kitchen table and realize we are incompetent and should never leave the nest. The End. Ick.
  • The Author Can’t Lie. You aren’t going to be able to get away with a damn thing. Every thought, feeling and syllable of dialogue has to be authentic. Oh, adults are used to equivocation. They expect it. Heck, they can’t even tell the difference between fact and fiction any more. But teens? They still think life ought to be fair. They rage against the darkness.  So if you dash off some cliché, if you write  how you think sixteen should feel, if you don’t dig down to your guts for what it really felt like when you were sixteen…well, they’ve got you by the balls. Stuff feels big. Heck, stuff IS big. It’s time for your first kiss, first love, first break up…you get the picture.
  • Something Has to Happen. A lot. Teens will not hold still while you stroke your ego with soulful meanderings about the color of the sky and the wind upon his skin and woe and blah blah blah and the state of the world and lah dee dah. Now, they will remember a few well-chosen phrases that really get them somewhere, but blathering just because you can? Show off. Adult readers are such suckers.
  • The Characters Must Grow over the course of the novel. Sure, there’s a story arc, but in YA the character has to show change. Because that’s what’s happening to teens. They’re morphing every day. Think about the difference in maturity between a 13-year-old and a 19-year-old. You’ve got to change practically every day to make that journey. Remember, this is your audience. If you want to connect, keep in mind what is happening in their lives.
  • There’s a Got to Be a Tomorrow. The book has to end with some hope, or at least the idea that there’s a future. YA literature doesn’t end with the destruction of every living thing on Earth. Teens are our hope for tomorrow. Don’t take that away.

YA Literature is not Adult Literature lite. Edgy or quiet, lush or spare, fantasy or contemporary, romance or sports story–it’s written for a demanding readership.

By talented and savvy professionals.


Please. People. Chime in. Add your criteria for what makes a book YA Lit in the comments.


when adult lit writers go ya

I went to a book signing for a writer who is fairly well-known, but new to me. She’s primarily an adult author, but was in town to promote her second YA book.

Well, she gave an interesting talk. A little reserved, but perhaps that’s how adult authors are. Then it came time for questions.

There weren’t any.

A sure sign she hadn’t engaged the audience. Which consisted of a few dozen older adults, a trio of college-aged girls, and a homeschooler family with a tween and two teens.

After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, some pity-questions popped up.

Where do you get your ideas?

What did you read when you were growing up?

How long did it take you to write this book?

What’s the difference between an adult book and a YA?

red alert*red alert*red alert*red alert*red alert

I certainly wanted to hear what she thought the difference was between adult and YA lit.

Here is my reconstituted and paraphrased but fairly accurate rendition of her answer:

“I can’t use such big words in YA. And I have to tone the sex way down.”

That would be a wrong answer.

To be fair, earlier she said the most creative stuff was happening in YA lit. She got THAT right.

But then she said she wanted to write YA because she had something to say to the youth out there.


I have heard of her editor. She is brilliant, and knows the difference between an adult and YA novel. I’m sure she guided the manuscript well. I went ahead and bought the book, told the author I enjoyed her talk, because I did. I bet I’ll enjoy her book too.

But that answer about the difference between adult and YA is stuck in my craw, dames and dudes.

Next week I’ll give you a good answer to that question.

speak? banned? again? are you kidding me?

A quote from Wesley Scroggins, in the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader:

“In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.”

One of the books he wishes to ban? Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Here’s some “pornography” he quotes:

‘NO!—I’m not really here, I’m definitely back at Rachel’s, crimping my hair
and gluing on fake nails, and he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me…”

Well, Mr. Scroggins, I think we learned a whole lot more about you than you meant to tell us, you poor sap.

These people may win battles, but they never win the war.

Banned Books Week starts Saturday.

crossing the tracks by barbara stuber

You’ve been to the party–today you get to hear about the book, Crossing the Tracks by Barb Stuber.

It wasn’t Iris Baldwin’s idea to leave her home in Atchison. Just like it wasn’t her mother’s idea to die and leave Iris alone with her father.

This particular summer, Iris’ father decides to hire her out as a companion to a doctor’s elderly mother.

Without consulting Iris.

Seems like a reasonable solution to him–after all, he’s got his hands full with a fiancée and a new store he’s opening in Kansas City.

So Iris leaves her hunkalicious friend, Leroy, and obediently boards a train to live with strangers in the middle of nowhere.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, because it’s too delicious to spoil for you. I want to assure you that plenty of stuff happens. PLENTY. Also, DO NOT COUNT LEROY OUT.

Usually, a book stays with you for one striking characteristic, but Crossing the Tracks is one of those rare books that dazzled me for multiple reasons.

First, the beauty of the language. There will be passages you stop and reread just to savor the words. But I’m not the kind of gal who loves words just for their own sake. There’s gotta be story.

And there is story. Man alive, there is story. Barb Stuber has gleaned vignettes and narrative from family and acquaintances who lived during the era. And of course, from her magnificent brain box.

Last of all, the historical detail. Crossing the Tracks contains the kind of information you can only get  from reading stacks of magazines, listening to old radio programs or from people who experienced the times.

This book was especially interesting to Freckles McYoungest, as her grandmother was a teen in the ’20s in Kansas City. But it should appeal to any reader with a grandmother or great-grandmother who lived during this time.

Read Crossing the Tracks, even if you think you don’t like historical fiction. You’ll like this.

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