Thursday, January 28, 2010


File:JD Salinger.jpgThis was on the cusp of being an entirely different post, but then the news of J. D. Salinger’s death popped up on Twitter.

I must confess to not being a true Salinger fanatic. I’ve read and enjoyed the novel and most of the stories (A Perfect Day for a Banana Fish made a strong impression on me—maybe the first short story to do so). But I don’t generally feel compelled to reread them regularly (now I will). That being said, I know many brilliant people in this business for whom Catcher and Salinger are enormously important personally. And wherever you stand on his books, he permeates this wonderful world of YA we’re all occupying. An agent friend and I were exchanging emails about our Bologna Children’s Book Fair travel plans, and quite naturally, he referred to Holden (suitcases). I don’t hear “like Holden Caufield…” in queries much, but I think that’s mainly because everyone thinks it’s too obvious a comparison and/or it’s too presumptuous. And I have also been the bearer of bad news to authors frequently in this form: “I’m sorry, but Salinger never grants permission to use any part of his work. You’ll have to write out this quote.” I did it yesterday, in fact.

I don’t actually think it’s true that Catcher is the father of all YA. I don’t think that’s how influence works. This doesn’t diminish, though, how important Salinger is to writing about teens. Catcher isn’t a template; it’s a shared experience, a set of semi-secret passwords for the genre. I think Frank Portman sums it very well in his King Dork:

So this has been my dad’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye when he was (doing the math), um, twelve. My God, I thought: my dad had been one of those people who carried Catcher with him everywhere when he was a kid. He had been a member of the Catcher Cult.

We who work in YA are most of us initiated into the “Holden Caufield Mysteries,” as Portman’s narrator calls them.

Whether Catcher fans are a gnostic cult or not, the shadow of Salinger’s work is long. And, in this era of hyper-available authors (especially in YA), his model of his authorship stands as an uncompromised specimen of a path not taken. Over on Facebook, David Levithan put it well in in a status update: “David Levithan is glad J.D. Salinger eluded us 'til the end.” Truly.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Congratulations Vaunda Micheaux Nelson!

I like it when history works out well. One hundred years ago this month, Bass Reeves passed away in Muskogee, Oklahoma, bring to an end one of the most remarkable stories in African- American history and in the history of the American West. And today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal  by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson with illustrations by R. Gregory Christie has won the 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award from the ALA.  Bass Reeves gets a gold medal to go with his gold badge. I like that.

Vaunda Micheaux NelsonI think I speak for everyone at Lerner in saying how proud we are of Vaunda and of the remarkable portrait of Bass she and Greg Christie created.








The cell-phone snap above is of the announcement from the ALA Midwinter meetings. (It’s probably the same cell phone that texted me at 5:20 a.m. Minnesota time to tell me Vaun had won. They ALA gets going early.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Here, Kitty-Kitty…

Before I begin an unapologetically odd post, I want to wish all the authors at ALA this weekend good luck (I won’t be there, but many of my colleagues will). Carolrhoda has had some fantastically successful titles year, and I am very proud to have them mixing it up in what has been a distinguished crop of books for young readers industry-wide in 2009. Good luck, all!

On to the oddities …

Hidden Cat by Grahford.As an editor, I consider myself a serious collector and student of cat-skinning methods. That is, even though I don’t write fiction myself, I always want to know about the many ways my authors do their work.

I’m not the only one thus obsessed. The Internet has been a great tool for turning spotlights on writers’ processes. For example, Carolrhoda author Blythe Woolston’s latest blog post is a reminder to herself about the importance of drawing. You should definitely take Blythe at her word about drawing and writing, but I think there’s more to this post than the explicit message. The medium—blog--matters. Blythe prefaces her post this way:

Note: This is mostly a message and reminder to myself about the importance of drawing. If the tone seems condescending or the content obvious, it is because my intended audience--me--is rather thick and easily distracted.

I suspect writers have been reminding themselves of stuff like this as part of their processes as long as there’s been creative writing. And writers have probably shared these reminders amongst themselves as long as writers have been gathering around campfires, on barstools, at cafe tables, etc. But now process isn’t the cultish concern of the relatively few; it’s the large scale obsession of a great many. For writers, you don’t need to look any farther than NANOWRIMO, and even that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Readers care about this, too. They have for at least as long as there have been mass media. There are plenty of stories about how Hemingway wrote. Kerouac's “process” for On the Road is legendary. And there are the contemporary antecedents: JK in her cafe; Stephanie and her dream. The processes of the famous have always been interesting. That’s why talk shows exist.

But here’s why I like anecdotes like Blythe’s better for my personal collection: you’ve likely never heard of Blythe Woolston. Only a few people have read her novel, The Freak Observer. To my knowledge, she’s never been on a talk show. In my imagination, Blythe still has cat blood on her hands, and she’s a little winded (there may be more than one way to skin a cat, but none of them are easy so far as I’ve seen). This isn’t a process made all clean and neat in hindsight by fame. The book was hard work. For people who care about the written word and the work behind it, this is fantastic. For me, a little peak into the real effort makes the fictive effortlessness so much more pleasing.

Friday, January 8, 2010


January has become Sally Walker month in my office. It’s also, by my declaration, editorial shoe disclosure month (precedent). Just wait and see how the two go together. First, as you might have heard, it’s insanely cold in Minnesota. Your humble blogger recently acquired a pair of Steger Mukluks IMG00083(yes, that Steger), so he could feel his feet when he got to work. I find myself tempted to wear these not-so-fashionable boots at my desk (photo, left), when I’m working on the photos for Sally’s next book, which is about Antarctica. It is simply not possible to read about and look at photos of Scott, Amundsen, and especially Titus Oates and stay warm.


A Very Gallant Gentleman by John Charles Dollman.

Written in BoneThe rest of you, however,  get to bask in the relative warmth of Sally’s latest published book, Written in Bone, for which the required accessories  might be a modern toothbrush. As librarian and Booklist Bookends blogger Lynn Rutan writes:

“I learned SO much with this book and it was filled with the most deliciously yucky facts! Who would guess you could die of a toothache?”

Written in Bone is one of five nominees for YALSA’s first annual Excellence in Nonfiction Award, to be announced at the upcoming Midwinter Meeting. You can read YALSA’s interview with Sally here.

Top photo courtesy of Subarctic Mama, a blogger whose review had made me buy my new boots.