Thursday, April 30, 2009

Separating author from art

I wonder if there is much precedent for major authors in the world of children's literature stepping into hugely fraught political and social debates. Of course, I'm talking about Orson Scott Card (and I feel like I have to say I find everything he's said appalling, but that's not the point). Here we have an author who sells hundreds of books every week to teenagers. I am not worried that this audience will not be able to separate author from art or to think critically about this. I am more interested in whether and how they will do so. If there is any precedent for a prominant kidlit author taking a public position on a controversial issue, there is no precedent for an audience so used to interacting with authors. I don't know if Card is a beloved enough author or enough of a web presence to provide a true test, but it could be interesting.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Of awards ceremonies and such

Last week was busier than expected, hence the lack of blogging (though it looks like there was much Tweeting). Part of this was due to the volume of excellent response to my call for manuscripts. Thanks to all who’ve submitted so far. I’ll be open to more at least through May 1.

IMG00007 On Friday, I got my hands on my first e-book reader, a Sony 700 series, so many of the submissions above found there ways over to the reader. It’s an interesting little device. I’ve read a couple hundred pages off it so far (manuscripts, not books) and I’d certainly call it preferable to a monitor. This one has a touch screen and note-taking capability. So far, that’s a huge disappointment. The touch screen is crude, especially if you’ve used an iPhone, and so far there’s no way to export the notes from the device. Anyway, I’ll be twittering impressions as I have them.

The highlight of the week, though, was the Minnesota Book Awards, beginning with the event hosted by The Loft and Secrets of the City at Kiernan’s in Minneapolis. I got to hang out with Monkey with a Tool Belt creator Chris Monroe and several other nominated authors. It was a good time. Saturday was the main event, the award ceremony at the St. Paul Crowne Plaza. This was my first time attending and it was quite an event. Exceeded my expectations. Chris was there again, as were Carolrhoda vets (and fellow nominees) Stephen Gammell and Nancy Carlson. Ultimately the prize went to The House in the Night author Susan Marie Swanson, but a good time was had by all none the less. Congrats to all the award winners (especially Loft ed director Brian Malloy, who took the prize for Young People’s Lit.). A complete recap is here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

In Praise of the “Small” Book (a Call for YA and Middle Grade Submissions)

Let me say right away that I have no problem with big books, long books, ambitious books, sprawling books, etc., per se. I love that conventional wisdom about kids not reading looks positively silly when confronted by the sales of, say, The Sweet Far Thing or Octavian Nothing. I am thrilled when an author bites off an outrageously ambitious theme.

But I get the sense from talking to some of my peers in the  industry that the enthusiasm for “big books” is perhaps a little overboard. I heard “only interested in big books” one too many times this spring, so I’d like to formally put out a call for small, short, lean, powerful books. Send books that pack maximum character in minimum space. Send books filled with such raw emotion that going beyond 35,000 words would be considered hazardous to the reader’s health.

I look back at the books I’ve read in the last few years that still haunt me and there are quite a few short books. Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable is 176 pages. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is 240. Both of Sarah Zarr’s novels are 224 pages. My favorite teen novel from when I was actually young, I Am the Cheese, is under 250 pages. The craftsmanship evident in all of these books is incredibly striking. Writing a short book is no mean feat.

So, I say again, send me the small books. Middle grade or YA. Go here to see how I like to receive submissions.

[What’s with the watch? Well, I happen to like watches, mechanical watches—no batteries, please. And while I don’t have a problem with the current popularity of big watches, I am always most drawn to watches whose subtle and compact exteriors, belay the enormous complication of their moving parts—which are the watchmakers’ real art. Books are a lot like watches.]

The Loft Festival of Children’s Literature

You really should come. Enough said.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Come drink beer and talk books

Or drink whatever. I don’t care, just as long as you come to the Titanic Lounge at Kiernan’s Irish Pub next Friday, the 24th, from 6:00 to whenever. Chris Monroe and I will be at Raking Through the Books, sponsored by The Loft and The Rake and Friend’s of the St. Paul Public Library. Follow the link for details

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

“Among the ruined languages”

“Oh dear white children, casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences,
Of the dreadful things you did . . . .” 
–W.H. Auden, Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day, epigraph to M.T. Anderson’s Feed.

“[You] could peet your milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting the story with.”
–Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

I came across a great review for John Brindley’s Rule of Claw this morning. Good reviews always make me smile, but this one got me thinking about an interesting combination that shows up in a lot of YA, Rule of Claw included, and that’s language and dystopia.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of interesting dystopian YA these days, and by that I mean speculative YA about bleak near-futures with lots of themes extrapolated from current events or trends. Scott Westerfeld and Cory Doctorow are, for me, among the chief figures in this genre at the moment, and M.T. Anderson’s Feed is the supreme masterwork of teen dystopia. (I’d put The Rule of Claw firmly in the teen dystopia subgenre.) At first blush, these books are, broadly speaking, futuristic sci/fi-fantasy, but a key ingredient in a good piece of dystopic speculative fiction is an element of timely, contemporary nonfiction. The writer needs to draw something from the culture—preferably something often discussed—and run with it. The books can survive the cultural currency of these nonfiction seeds, but they generally lose that terrifying shimmer of plausibility and if we continue to read them, it’s for other reasons (for an interesting exercise, read 1984 and then Feed. Orwell’s book seems positively quaint as a work of current speculative fiction). the other hand, there is the ever-present issue of teenspeak in YA fiction. Not surprisingly, authors of YA are concerned with the language that develops around and within teenage culture. For fiction, I think there are two general approaches to teenspeak, the imitative (picture a writer hanging out at the mall with a tape recorder) and the creative (picture a writer hanging out at his desk and imagining the mall and the tape recorder and the teens). You could say “the mirror and the lamp,” if you care to get all freshman-year English lit. You might also say the nonfictional and the fictional.  The imitators/nonfictionists are YA authors whose language is faithful to actual speech you might hear from actual teens. At its best, I think this approach relies on an unerring ear, and it doesn't call attention to itself, rather it allows other aspects of the story and characters to take center stage. At its worst, it’s a complete distraction, where you sense a writer slavishly regurgitating slang he has no understanding of or control over. The creative/fictionist approach sees spoken language—especially teen language—as a consequence of the world of the novel and takes the time to “build” (or, as the case me be, “unbuild”) the dialect right along with the cities, schools, and scenarios of the novel. Think again of 1984 (“Newspeak” is, I think, the aspect of that novel that remains timely) or Anthony Burgess’s classic A Clockwork Orange (a book that could be discussed as proto-YA, right?). Or, of course, Feed.

And now we’re back to the dystopias and the speculative fiction subgenre. I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this than that there’s an intersection here between observed and imagined, nonfiction and fiction, and when its handled skillfully, it really sings. If there is more to say, I think it might have something to do with the unique and contradictory relationships teenagers and authority figures have with language. Fascinating to contemplate. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Nonfiction Monday: What IS Science?

File:Cangkul.jpgGreat piece on NPR’s All Things Considered last night about the agricultural crisis in India. In a nutshell, America encouraged India to take an American approach to farming beginning in the 1960s. Our motives were mixed. On the one hand, Indians were starving in places. There was real human suffering. On the other hand, we were worried that starving people are more likely to become communists. So, Uncle Sam helped Indian go from diverse crops with rain, manure, and sunshine to high-yield monocultures with tons of fertilizer and irrigation. Fast forward 30 years and the Punjab region of India is apparently on the verge of a dust bowl.

This is all very troubling, of course, but what I want to focus on are the last words of the piece, which is reported by Daniel Zwerdling, who does amazing work for NPR. Zwerdling is articulating one optimistic view on how India might solve the problems.

“Scientists will develop new ways of watering crops. They’ll invent genetically modified seeds that won’t need so much water. Science will save the day. Of course, that’s what they said 40 years ago.”

I think this gets right at the heart of a problem with how we tell stories about science, and food issues are, not coincidentally, tightly linked to this problem. I think there is a false dichotomy here between “scientific” farming and “traditional” farming. Earlier in the piece, Zwerdling talks about how Indians used to grow diverse indigenous crops using rain and manure fertilizer. This was traditional Indian agriculture, but it was proving insufficient to feed a growing population. So, they switched to the aforementioned “scientific” American approach to farming, which failed just as completely (perhaps more completely—the traditional method was at least sustainable). Now the solution that essentially proposes more of the same is “science” saving the day. The implication is that revisiting the traditional methods of Indian agriculture would be “unscientific.”

File:GLEANER L2.JPGScientists understand in scientific terms why a lot of traditional agricultural practices worked well over a long term. Objectively speaking, it’s not like farming with rotated crops, manure, sunshine, and rain is religion, while farming with petroleum-derived fertilizers, irrigation, and monocultures is science. Both can be understood scientifically, and yet when we tell stories, we always set up this dichotomy between old ways and modern ways, as though returning to traditional farming techniques is a repudiation of science, and only entirely new ways can be called scientifically valid. This is obviously nonsense, but it’s unintentionally reinforced all the time—even in great pieces like this.

Picture the page of an old school book on farming. The page that discuss “modern” farming (monocultures and synthetic fertilizer) probably has a picture of someone in  lab coat or at least a picture of a huge tractor in a field of corn, while the page about “traditional” agriculture (manure and sunshine) probably has a picture of some craggy-faced farmer hoeing a row of short, unidentified plants  in a dusty garden. If it’s a newer book, perhaps there’s someone in Birkenstocks and tie-dye picking arugula (for eventual sale at Whole Foods).

We confuses science, which is a way of understanding the world, with its most iconic tools and techniques— modern equipment, chemicals, genetics, etc.--and think that where those things are not obvious, science must be absent. This is a problem of rhetoric, of storytelling, and anyone who’s writing about science for children is on the front lines of fixing it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The College Question

Anxiety about college—getting in, paying, etc.—plays big roles in many YA novels, and yet I think its often an aspect that feels a little dated or underexplored in books and manuscripts I read. It’s a very complicated issue. College, to go or not, is rarely the question.

There’s a long piece on the New York Times web site that I think addresses the variety of issues presented by the college decision to modern teens. It’s even got a couple of first-person accounts. It’s well worth a look.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Where do children’s books come from

File:Stork nest on power mast.jpgThis question is slightly less problematic than where do children come from, so you’re more likely to encounter it in polite conversation. Or, if you’re me, you get it in statement form, shortly after someone discovers what I do. Like so (imagine it with swanky Ed Briant illustration):

AK: You’re a derivatives trader? That’s cool. I’m a children’s book editor.

Mr. Derivatives Trader: Children’s book editor? Huh. Say, I’ve got some story ideas I’ve been thinking about having illustrated . . .

So you see, children’s books come from high-powered executive types (or entertainment professionals) with time to spare.

Actually, before my most recent encounter with a subspecies of this exchange, I heard this excellent story on NPR, about author Deborah Wiles, who spends a lot of time doing school visits and talking to kids about where stories come from.

I suspect kids have always been interested in process and smart authors have done what Ms. Wiles is doing for years, but there is an added layer to this interest in process and origins that feels fairly new to me—that is, awareness of release dates. When I was reading in elementary school and junior high, I don’t feel like I thought of books as new or old. Books just existed. It never occurred to me to wonder when The Tripods books came out or when there would be more of them. Yet, as early as junior high, I was acutely aware of the release dates of albums, probably through MTV (I remember walking to the mall to get Pearl Jam's Vs. the day it came out).  Now, of course, kids are often acutely aware of release dates—and not just of blockbusters. I’d venture to chalk this up to Harry Potter, but I’d love to hear earlier tales of release date anticipation, if any exist.

(Speaking of anticipation, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do publicity stunts with readers like this one that Paramount did in advance of the new Star Trek movie?)


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

SLJ Loves the Monkey

SLJ blogger Diane Chen has a great post about our favorite handy monkey. She hits on a couple of my favorite details about Chris’ work:

I've gotta tell you that I love how Monroe side-steps the implausibilities by writing that Chico Bon Bon wanted to ask how this had happened, but "thought that might be rude" so he just goes on. While adults might insist on knowing how it possibly could happen, students will be content with just moving on.

So true.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

View from the Loft

The Loft Literary Center’s most recent edition of The View from the Loft has an interview with Zach Marell, our creative director. Illustrator’s might find his thoughts on how he finds new talent particularly interesting. Check it out.

(Yes, I’ve got a piece in it, too.)

Popular Things Do End

CBS announced the cancellation of the soap opera (“daytime drama”?) Guiding Light. If you count its radio incarnation, the soap has been on for 72 years.

File:GuidingLight2008logo.jpgAmong people I know, this development is more curiosity than anything else, but GalleyCat Ron Hogan has wisely picked up a few interesting broadly applicable themes in his Twitter feed: “A lesson in perspective for authors? CBS is cancelling Guiding Light because 2.1 million regular viewers isn't enough to make a hit show.” And then later: “NYTimes says Guiding Light already has digital cameras, handheld equipment ( Why not revamp as 15-min online soap?”

Firstly, if there are that many viewers, I imagine there are quite a few people who are as concerned about what this means for daytime TV as my friends and colleagues are about, say, the future of the book.

I think the key “perspective” here is that a media form’s appeal has a different lifecycle, independent from media content’s, and an audience’s enthusiasm for the content may not survive the obsolescence or lack of appeal of the form. Newspapers are a case in point, of course. The very name is an unnatural union of content and form, each of which is headed in a different direction.

Ron also asks “Why not revamp as a 15 minute online soap?” I think there’s another lesson for books there. While this seems look a good idea, I wonder if it’s too late. Don’t you need to use the last useful moments of your old platform to promote the new one? If there’s a gap, I think, it would get filled with something else in the audience’s attentions. Does this prove that you can’t jump to a new ship after the old one has sunk (which is, I suppose, not quite the case here, since the show is on until September).

The end of Guiding Light is also notable in that its beginning coincided with the beginning of something near and dear to the hearts of book people: the mass market paperback book, which appeared first in the UK from Penguin and later in the US from S & S in the mid-late 30s (assuming you trust the Wikipedia article*). Interesting to contemplate the parallels here.

However you look at it, though, the lesson seems to me to be that media cannot become complacent about the delivery forms it chooses.


* Speaking of demises. Wikipedia killed Encarta this week, too.

Thoughts on Bologna

The children’s book fair that’s been held in Bologna is an interesting kind of fair. It’s been held in Bologna for more than 30 years (I can’t find the date of the first one), and, coming on the heels of the much Tweeted SXSW and TOC, it is a fair that seems positively quaint, with no web 2.0-themed panel discussions, no hash tags, and not much Internet at all. And unlike American trade shows, where librarians and booksellers are part of the picture, this show has almost no schwag (very cool tote bag from the Flemish stand excepted—gone before I could snag one). In my limited experience, Bologna is all about thirty minute pre-scheduled meetings at the fair and chance encounters at surrounding hotel bars and restaurants after the show. A day is meetings, quick lunch, meetings, drinks, loooong dinner, bed. Repeat three times and head for the airport. It turns out to be a very collegial sort of rhythm—rarely have I found myself in the company of more friendly strangers (who did not long remain strangers as a result).

Despite the sense of relative isolation from the desperate hand wringing over the state of our industry (or perhaps because of it), there is something about Bologna that feels very important—even essential—to this moment in the history of books. Being an editor in a position to buy books at Bologna does a number on one’s assumptions about bookmaking. Not only is the content diverse, but many things about the books as physical objects are unique to their countries. I think it’s important to be reminded of this heterogeneity in the face of technology, which often seems relentlessly homogenizing.

So, did you actually do any business at the fair, you might ask. Well, yes, actually. In the Happy category, I actually finished a deal for my first YA novel acquisition at Carolrhoda. It’s a debut and that makes me very happy.  This circumstance is somewhat amusing because not only is it an American book, but the author lives about a mile from me in St. Paul. That his agent and I met to finalize the deal in Bologna is just a coincidence, but I rather like the idea that a book could travel from a meeting at Minnesota SCBWI conference last fall through beers at several St. Paul bars to a legal pad in the agent’s hall at the Bologna fairgrounds. Also Happy was the chance to meet with my counterparts at Andersen Press in The UK, whose books we distribute in the States.  It’s always a pleasure to have a leisurely meeting with people you knew only on a frantic-email basis before. In the Less Happy category, the Brit novel I read giddily between meetings at the fair ended up going to a higher bidder. Better luck next time. I brought home lots of other leads, though, and I trust one of them will fall into place in the coming weeks.

One last thing: I think I am collecting moments like these. I was at a conference in San Diego two months ago when a room full of editors and agents congregating around tables of wine and cheese was suddenly plunged into darkness as the power went out. We didn’t miss a beat, and the schmoozing and boozing went on by the light of dozens of cell phones. In Bologna, I was at a big party hosted by the Dutch in a gorgeous palazzo when a room full of publishing types was silenced as an enormous table of food collapsed dramatically under its own weight. I was standing a couple feet away, and it was seriously shocking.  The silence lasted only seconds though, and waiters descended, messes disappeared, and food reappeared. We all got back to whatever we were talking about. I think these events are apt metaphors for contemporary publishing. Despite power failures and sudden collapses, we continue on all the same. Comforting.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Celebrating the Mother Ship

Lerner Publishing Group turns 50 this year, and it's an understatement to say this is very exciting for everyone involved. Booklist has a good article about Adam Lerner, son of the founder and our present CEO and publisher. (Among other things, you get learn that Lerner was "originally founded as Medical Books for Children, which had the express purpose of publishing books for children to page through in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices.")

One thing the article doesn't get into is the origin of Carolrhoda. But I'm working on a post about that. Stay tuned.