Archive for June, 2009

Off to Iowa again…

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Yep, Iowa. Again.

It’s just that nice there.

While I’m gone, you can stare at these pictures of things I’ll do while I’m in Iowa:

Eat slow and local…

Visit wonderful friends…

Do my grocery shoppin’ outdoors…

Hang around actual dive bars, where good drinks cost nothin’…

Watch fireflies…

And of course, tour a few historic octagonal barns… in which I’ve done… shhh…  sekrit things…

And if you’re still here, and finished with the pictures, and you’re still bored, you can read this pretty awesome post by John Green, about why a big advance might not be better!

Bye bye!!!

Epic versus episodic…

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I’m so thankful to Charlotte, for this post!

I have been trying to find other Edward Eager read-alikes– books where ordinary children find magic, and struggle to learn its rules and bend the will of the magic to their own, and get into many strange predicaments in the process. In this sort of book, there is no struggle between good and evil, no great epic quest that provides the plot. Instead, there are episodes of magic meeting real life, often leading to chaos that is always eventually resolved.

Until reading her blog this morning, I hadn’t thought to put the distinction into such terms, but she’s dead-on. This isn’t a question of literary versus commercial, old versus new, or high-fantasy versus low. This is a question of EPIC VERSUS EPISODIC.

Harry Potter, as much as he follows the Nesbit–> Eager trend of humorous, well-written magic books about “regular” kids who find magic… isn’t the same kind of book. Harry is fighting for his life. He’s fighting for his world. He is, in a way, more like Susan Cooper’s protagonists, or maybe L’Engle’s.

And Charlotte is having trouble making a Common Magic (my term) reading list. So I wonder if you people can help me help Charlotte. I want to make a list of EPISODIC MAGIC books. Books in which kids encounter magic sildalis manufacturer, and have discreet adventures, and learn from them… but the fate of the universe doesn’t having in the balance. We’re looking for books without the BIG JOURNEY…


For my part I can think of lots of older books that sort of fit the bill, in different ways. Betty McDonald’s wonderful Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, and Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth, and others that don’t quite use the format I’m talking about. Milo isn’t really a “regular” kid, and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle doesn’t exactly live in our world. But at least neither has an epic sweep. Dahl is almost episodic, but he’s sort of in a weird category of his own.

Does Indian in the Cupboard count? Not quite. What about There’s the obvious other Eager-homage book, Magic by the Book, which I have very strong opinions about. How about Ellen Potter’s amazing Olivia Kidney books. Not quite as episodic, but dang close… and the tone is the same sort of tone.

MARY NORTON! Her Magic Bed Kob was totally such a book, and I loved it as a kid. Do people still read that one?

Really, please help us make a list! What’s your very favorite episodic magic book for middle graders?

Frank O’Hara Poetry Friday…

Friday, June 26th, 2009

On the anniversary of the death BIRTH! PRETEND BIRTHDAY (O’Hara believed he was born in June but was, in fact, born in March, his parents disguising his true date of birth since he was conceived out of wedlock.) of one of my all time favorite poets, one of his greatest hits:

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.


A very very cool thing about books and the web…

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Okay, I want to share something super nifty in an interweb-as-literary-community way!

When I was writing Any Which Wall, I ran a contest, asking folks to “name my dastardly villain.” As a prize I offered to name a character in my book after the winner.   Well, the winner was a lovely writer named Christy  Lenzi, who submitted the name Wichita (see above) Grim (which I loved, and actually used in the book). Instead of wanting her own name in the book, Christy asked that I give the prize to her daughter, Alex, and so I did! 

Here’s a post over at Christy’s site, with a picture of the REAL Alexandria Lenzi holding a copy of the book in which the imaginary Alexandria Lenzi appears.

I was actually REALLY nervous about what Alex would think, because in the book Alexandria is a sort of snobby girl. A diet-coke girl who doesn’t read books or believe in magic.  And obviously the REAL Alexandria is nothing like that.  But Christy and Alex totally got the joke, and it has been a pleasure meeting the Lenzi tribe!

Yay Lenzis!

The Case of the Vanishing Girl Detective (and other catching-up bits)…

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

First of all, happy Wednesday! I had something of a breakthrough yesterday, after a bleak white night and a minor meltdown.  I’m feeling much better, and Penny Dreadful is moving along.

Second, I must strongly URGE you to head on over to Chasing Ray, where Colleen has posted the next installment of her new roundtable blog-feature, What a Girl wants. Today we’re discussing the mysterious disappearance of the girl detective… we’re talking about why she’s left us, and why that’s really sad for the girls of today, among other things!

Third, I’m so excited that Any Which Wall is being embraced by the library world! The main “adult helper” in the book is a wonderful librarian named Lily, a woman inspired by so many people who helped me when I was a kid, learning to read (and exisit as a human).  Thank you libraries!

Fourth, you should send Kurtis Scaletta a snake! I did!

My dirty dishes…

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Okay, so first… I want to say that there is a lovely review of Any Which Wall at the Palo Alto Weekly. For this I am exceedingly grateful.

But then… I want to share some slogging (i.e. process) with you.  Because I am a believer that sharing the ugly with people is a public service.  I’m not someone who cleans up my house before guests arrive.  Rather I’m someone who shows them the sink of dirty dishes and says, “See, this is how I really live!” I like to think it makes everyone feel better about the sink of dirty dishes they feel bad about.  And maybe someday, they’ll let me see their dishes too.

Okay, so… here are my dishes.

In the midst of what I like to call “life” (flea-bombs, nights-o-fun, adorable sprinkler-kids, arguments, etc) I am trying to write the next book.  This is not so easy, and some days, I  wish I had a “real job” as it is hard to write around the kids and the house and the fleas.

Please, don’t misunderstand me… I love my life and wouldn’t really swap with anyone in the world. But it is HARD.  Hard to focus with a squawking kid hanging off of you.  Hard to dance among the fleas. Under any circumstances, writing is HARD (for me) but with the huge swirling vortex of LIFE it is much harder.  And that is when the writing is going well.

Right now… the writing isn’t ‘t going so well.

I wrote a book, a new book, called Penny Dreadful.  I liked the book. It was a first draft, but it was full (as my books are) with what you might call “quirk.”  Over-the-top silliness, funny characters, humor (I hope). And I liked all of that, but when I stepped away from the book, and thought about things… I decided to try to make the book less quirky, more REAL.  I wanted you to care more about poor Penny Dreadful.  And (as I’m not Roald Dahl) I couldn’t figure out how to add the REAL in alongside the QUIRK.

So… with a deep sigh and a big knife, I slashed away most of the funny/quirky stuff. I murdered all the darlings.  I stripped the book down to its bones, to see what I could do with the REAL stuff that was there…

Guess what I found…

Not enough REAL.  Under the quirk there was not enough REAL. The bones weren’t as sturdy as I’d hoped.  It was ALL HAT, NO CATTLE.

So now, here I am, basically starting over… and I have this choice.  I can  add the quirk back in, or I can rebuild the bones…  or I can, if I am up to the task, try to do both.  Try to add a little more of the quirk back in, as I rebuild the bones, in a way that makes sense…

Which is what I hope to do. But it is HARD. It is so HARD.

Once you are inside any long-form work, there are so many mistakes to be made. Every word is a possible failure.  Everything you do leads down a path… and you never know until you get there whether it is the right path.  The only thing to do is to head down the road, hoping. And sometimes, you get there, look around, and realize you wanted to go the other way. So you start over…

Of course, the other option is to quit, break up.  The other choices to  say to your book, “Sorry, book. I thought I was  into you. I’m not. I’m just not that into you.”

I’m not ready to do that.  Not yet. With books, as with other relationships, the decision to quit is largely about a person’s unwillingness to work at it. You can blame the other person (or book) for your frustration with them, or you can figure out how to love them better.

There are, after all, bones beneath the bones.


Saturday, June 20th, 2009

So my week (and a half) away sped by, sweetly and wetly and boardwalkly (see above). Now I’m home, with the boys, to face a terrible revision and a heatwave…

Many nice things too, including this review at Book Page! But mostly, nasty heat and edits and edits and heat.

I know I need to do more Eager Reader posts, but let me catch my breath!

Meantime, what have you been up to?  Anyone reading anything good?

Country Roads…

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Take me home…

The kids and I will be doing our highways/byways thing for a bit.  Tonight, Luray Caverns!  Tomorrow, Bawlmer, hon.  And on Sunday…

Weese guys is gwan downy ocean, hon…

It’ll be a long haul by myself with the kids (and a broken car stereo).  Wish me luck!


BBT: Eager Readers!!!

Monday, June 8th, 2009


Because I ended up posting Wendy’s comments on the blog yesterday… she’s our BBT Eager Reader today!  I love what Wendy has to say about Eager, especially her thoughts on his “borrowing” from Nesbit.  I, myself, “borrow” a lot and I prefer to be very obvious about it…

I think one of the things I loved best about Edward Eager books was the extreme ordinariness of the children and the world they lived in.  The kids in Eager books get bored, get disappointed, and have to go Baltimore instead of the Rockies.  They continually irritate each other and do stupid things.  But they have MAGIC.  Any child, reading these books, would have to feel like magic is waiting for them, too, if they wish on the right coins.  (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rubbed a sprig of thyme and sniffed, half-hoping I’d be sent back in time.)

You also get the feeling that the kids find ordinary things just as exciting and almost magical as the real magic: picnics with individual box lunches, going to a movie, swimming in the ocean, going to the library, and so on.  That’s how I felt as a kid about those things, and, of course, it’s even more how I feel about my childhood looking back on it as an adult.

The magic is necessary for me, though.  I’ve only reread Magic or Not? and The Well Wishers a couple of times (versus… I don’t know how many for the others.)  I just want to whisper to the kids that REAL magic is much better, and they ought to go get some.  It’s interesting: it seems there’s a large faction that think these two were Eager’s masterpieces, and the rest of us don’t care for them much at all; no one in between.

I’ve also read a review or analysis that claims The Time Garden is widely acknowledged to be Eager’s weakest work.  I don’t know who widely acknowledged that, but I don’t find it to be true.

As for the Nesbit issue… when I finally got around to reading some Nesbit–I was probably about 12, and it was The Enchanted Castle–I was sort of distressed.  I knew, of course, that Eager’s books were all Nesbit homage, but I didn’t expect them to be THAT close.  I thought they would just be sort of in the same style.  I was sad to acknowledge that Eager wasn’t as creative as I’d thought.  I enjoyed The Enchanted Castle, but haven’t picked up another Nesbit since then, maybe because I wanted to avoid cognitive dissonance.  But, scandalous as it is, I do sort of think that Eager’s books have aged better (except for the sexism and racism, of course, but these are what I expect to find in books written at that time).  The dialogue is snappier and funnier, and the prose is simpler.  Of course, I should probably READ some more Nesbit before I go around making statements like that–that’s what Eager wanted, after all.

Maybe that can be a summer project.  I’ve always been glad that he was so very blunt about borrowing from Nesbit–there are other authors who borrow almost as much and don’t acknowledge it.

Yep!  I’m a big believer in stealing openly.  Best just to hang the title of “thief” on yourself.  Fits better that way.  And this makes me wonder if readers know of other authors who’ve stolen so shamelessly…

Nothing like a Classic…

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Okay, so I’m holding off on posting a new Eager Reader post because this conversation is so GOOD!  Please, go over to Mitali’s blog and vote in her poll about whether we should “update” classic books that are politically problematic today.

And also, I encourage everyone to read the comments thread in her post below.  People have put some real time into addressing the issue here, and they’re worth a read. Here’s one from Wendy, for a taste of the conversation!

It’s always difficult for me to respond to discussion about racism in Edward Eager’s books without feeling (and probably sounding) like an apologist. I don’t mean to do so.

I’m not going to say these books aren’t without problems. But let’s look at Achmed and how the children interact with him. (I haven’t got the book here, and the library is closed! I think I remember it well enough to respond, but please correct and forgive any textual errors.) Achmed appears as a stereotype, definitely, just as the desert setting is stereotyped–like all Eager’s fantasy settings, the kids find exactly what they expect to find; they’re always getting the “essence” of the desert or London or Arthurian England. Achmed’s portrayal is disturbing. But Eager also goes on to make him into a more complex character; someone beaten down by the world, who sees the kids as his last hope, but who really only wants the basic things anyone else wants of life–moderate prosperity, a wife and family. I love Achmed for including children in his heart’s desire.

Some people mention that it’s offensive that Mark greets Achmed with “How”, the stereotypical and misinformed way many of us absorbed as the “American Indian greeting”. It’s clear to me (and was clear when I was a kid) that Eager probably chose that greeting to make Mark look stupid, not because he himself was ignorant. Eager is playing with race and stereotypes here in a way that I think was fairly rare in middle-grade books at the time (just as in The Well Wishers the kids’ response is “Is that all?” when they find out why people didn’t want the family to move in).

The cannibal island in Magic By the Lake and The Time Garden is similarly problematic, but without the depth and redeeming features. I read it purely as fantasy, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse it. There is still the playing with stereotypes, though, when the islanders are perfectly familiar with safety matches. I remember that this made me think when I was a kid.

As for Mary Poppins, Laurel–PL Travers did the editing herself. I can’t argue with that. As I’ve often said, if I’d written something so offensive and only realized it later, I would totally want to go and take it back.

I don’t think there’s any point to re-editing Edward Eager’s books. If an editor was able to get the racism out, would s/he also be able to remove the sexism? And if so, who gets to decide what’s actually sexist and what’s anti-sexist? These things are deeply woven into the books. It’s not like in Mary Poppins, where changing one chapter doesn’t have much of an effect anywhere else. These books are period pieces, and I think it’s best to leave them as such. (I love to hear kids say things like “Can you believe what this author wrote in this book?”.)