Friday, June 29, 2007

Sometimes you can, sometimes you canto -- a Poetry Friday post

Today, an excerpt from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, A Romaunt by George Gordon,
Lord Byron. Byron was born in 1788 and died in 1824. He was one of the finest poets in
Regency England, and known as one of the High Romantics despite his avowed dislike of
Romanticism.

Byron had a rather, um, "colorful" life. Although his name is evoked as one of the greatest
lovers, he was truly a narcissist, and his actual sexual preferences were a bit out of the ordinary. For example, he had an incestuous affair with his half-sister, the only of his relationships in which he moved outside his usual narcissistic sphere. As a boy, he was seduced by his governess. In college, he had homosexual relationships. He later was an active revolutionary in Italy and Greece. He embarked on a string of infamous affairs, ultimately marrying a virtuous lady in order to escape one of his mistresses. That relationship suffered due to his continued incest with his half-sister and his preference for sodomy (his wife would have preferred something a bit more "conventional"). All of this information was widely known, and Byron eventually quit England for good in 1816. Byron lived in Italy and Greece, took up with a Greek countess whose family revolted against the Austrians, and, weary of life, sought a soldier’s death at age 36 (after a brief fling with his page boy).

Byron achieved fame as a poet while still living in England, in 1812, when he published his
verse travelogue, what are now Cantos I and II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He
wrote Canto III of the work in 1816, while living in Geneva (and under the influence of Percy
Bysshe Shelley). In 1817, he spent an orgiastic season among the women of Venice, and wrote
Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Canto IV is our subject today.

You may recall that I posted
stanza CLCCVIII of Canto IV
last summer. It remains one of my very favorite from this
work, beginning (as it does): "There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,/There is a rapture on the lonely shore,/ There is society where none intrudes,/ By the deep Sea, and music in its roar". (And hey, if you don’t recall -- or want to read it again – there’s a link for you).

Here are two earlier stanzas from the work, numbers 137 and 138:

&emsp CXXXVII

&emsp But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
&emsp My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
&emsp And my frame perish even in conquering pain;
&emsp But there is that within me which shall tire
&emsp Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
&emsp Something unearthly which they deem not of,
&emsp Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre,
&emsp Shall on their softened spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.

&emsp CXXXVIII

&emsp The seal is set. — Now welcome, thou dread power!
&emsp Nameless, yet thus omnipotent, which here
&emsp Walkest in the shadow of the midnight hour
&emsp With a deep awe, yet all distinct from fear;
&emsp Thy haunts are ever where the dead walls rear
&emsp Their ivy mantles, and the solemn scene
&emsp Derives from thee a sense so deep and clear
&emsp That we become a part of what has been,
And grow unto the spot, all-seeing but unseen.



The verses are all loveliness, in my opinion. And perhaps not quite what you were expecting if you read Byron’s bio first. Canto IV marked the start of Byron’s "high romance" phase, which was more firmly established by his wonderful Don Juan.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Graphix for Girlz -- a pair of book reviews

Last week, I read two very different graphic novels for girls. They are for different target ages and cover very different material, and yet both are about art and about the need to honor individualism.



First, I read To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel, by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel, which is essentially Siena's autobiographical account of her successful drive to become a teenaged ballerina, a career she ultimately left. And yes, the illustrator is her husband, who is also the editorial director of First Second books, the publisher of said graphic novel (and also the publisher of American Born Chinese, the Printz award winner for 2007 and a National Book Award finalist in 2006 The detour into Mark Siegel's role at First Second is a bit of a digression, but I believe it explains a lot about how this wonderful book got made when it otherwise might not have been considered acceptable in the graphic novel market. It won a Sibert honor this year, given by the ALA for best informational book. (Team Moon won the category.)

To Dance follows young Siena from the age of six, when she first wanted to dance but was told she wouldn't be able to due to flat feet, to her journey from Puerto Rico to New York City to study at George Ballantine's School of American Ballet, to performing onstage at Lincoln Center. The book doesn't romanticize the journey, but details the practice and dedication required of young dancers who seriously want the ballet as their career -- including injuries, missing school, and more. And the sacrifices aren't all professional, either -- personal lives are also affected, including the relationship between Siena's parents: her mother lives with Siena in New York, while her father spends most of his time in Puerto Rico.

Simplified, this book is a memoir. But truly, it's more than that -- it is both an homage to the world of ballet (and to some of the major players in it, including Mr. Ballanchine) and a true-to-life informative essay on what the life of a serious dancer is like. And the illustrations are truly lovely and evocative, perfectly targeted for the middle grade female readers at whom the book is aimed (inside the cover reads "Ages 8-14").

Here's an excerpt from the Simon & Schuster website:



If you haven't checked out To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel, you have missed something special. A must-buy for young dancers.

The second graphic novel I read was The Plain Janes by the wonderful Cecil Castellucci (), illustrated by Jim Rugg, out from Minx, DC Comics's new imprint for teenage girls.



The Plain Janes tells the story of Jane, a teenager from New York City who is involved in a terrorist attack (I'm guessing -- there's an explosion for sure, and her parents no longer consider the city safe and take her to suburbia once she's recovered enough from her injuries). Jane is full of urban edge and decidedly unhappy with her new town and high school -- until she meets three girls at the "rejects" table, all named Jane -- Jayne, the brainy science geek, Jane, the drama geek, and Polly Jane, an athlete who doesn't always get the playing time she deserves. Together, they form a guerilla movement -- they're going to create public art. The acronym for their organization? P.L.A.I.N.: People Loving Art In Neighborhoods.

With each act of guerilla art, the girls bond more closely together. Jane (the main character) learns to fit in a bit, dabbles with romance with a truly stand-up guy (who meets a completely unwarranted fate, in my opinion), and expands the Janes to include James, a gay male misfit from the school.

I didn't understand the nearly fascist police officer's motivation in this one, and why the town would countenance the extremely harsh curfews that escalate throughout the book when the art exhibits were all reversible, relatively harmless stuff. But I did like the spirit of the story and the idea of forging connections with people who appear to be so different. The absence of any truly adversarial teen was an unusual choice, but it worked in this book -- although perhaps if there had been a teen adversary, it would have seemed a wee bit more realistic somehow.

This one is for teenage girls, as I mentioned before, including as it does a makeout scene and some other scenes mildly inappropriate for younger readers. Overall, I'd have to agree with the twenty-five year old guy who writes Green Lantern Buzz: "It's not mind-blowing or going to change your perspective of comics if you're already a comic book fan, but it's a wonderful read and very intelligent."

Want to see a little bit of what I'm talking about? They check out this teaser from the Minx site. WARNING: It opens with a strobe. Click at the top right corner of the book to turn the pages -- it was a bit persnickety about turning on my computer, but it managed. (An aside: You can also see a teaser for the new title out in June, Re-Gifters.)

Look for the sequel, Janes in Love, in the unspecified future (it's neither written nor inked yet). And according to a semi-reliable source, Cecil and Jim have plans for as many as two more after Janes in Love, but I suppose time will tell.

Monday, June 25, 2007

I Feel Bad About My Neck



Over the past month or so, I read Nora Ephron's collection of short memoirs, I Feel Bad About My Neck. It's billed (by the publisher) as "a candid, hilarious look at women who are getting older and dealing with the tribulations of maintenance, menopause, empty nests, and life itself." Folks who know Nora's films, including three of my favorite romantic comedies, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail, all three of which feature Meg Ryan (two of which include Tom Hanks -- and yes, I must really like the combo because I'm one of the five people who not only saw, but loved, Joe Versus the Volcano, for, among other things, giving me the term "brain cloud" and the line "I have no response to that.") But I digress.

Nora Ephron's book is a collection of 15 essays, some of which are incredibly short. And while the publisher's information is correct -- some of the essays are candid and hilarious, Kirkus is also correct when it calls the book "A disparate assortment of sharp and funny pieces revealing the private anguishes, quirks and passions of a woman on the brink of senior citizenhood." Because mixed in with the funny bits about how she feels bad about her neck and how she hates her purse and how she once fell in love with an apartment -- each of which touches on loss in their own way, incidentally -- are less funny pieces about disappointment and death. The one about her disappointment in Bill Clinton is particularly biting. And the unfunny one about death closes the book, which may explain (at least in part) why so many readers have given it mixed or even bad reviews. That and the sense that the book was uneven, and perhaps not put together in the best possible order.

Contributing to the book's unevenness is the fact that I think Kirkus was correct when it said that a couple of the pieces felt like they weren't quite ready for primetime and got thrown in as the book went to print -- "The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less" and "What I Wish I'd Known". Both of them are sort of list-based entries, and while I like that gimmick, they don't have a real sense of arc or closure. And the humor payoff isn't big enough to make one able to overlook that particular detail. You want to write a list? Fine, go ahead. But don't just give me your grocery list or your list of things to do unless there's a story there -- a complete story, not just the notion of one. Or else, make it a really funny list, and then I'll forgive you. Otherwise, don't take up my time sharing.

All that said, I'd still recommend I Feel Bad About My Neck for womenfolk on the after side of forty. And don't read it all at once, under any circumstances. Read one or maybe two pieces at a time, and then walk away for a while. Because a really large dose of her stories diminishes their humor, and points out the same-ness of some of her shtick. This is a book best read in doctor's waiting rooms, or while waiting for kids to finish sports practice, or maybe in the bathroom (if you have the time -- that's more of a guy thing, really, but hey, who am I to judge?)

And here's why I'm recommending it, despite all the negative stuff in the earlier part of this review: because the really funny parts made me laugh out loud, in public even. And that isn't such an easy thing to come by. And because many of the pieces had me nodding along in recognition and appreciation for her spot-on depiction of the emotional journey we all make through life's stages and situations (including marriage, children, divorce, shopping, eating, success, and loss).

Friday, June 22, 2007

Midsummer -- a Poetry Friday post

Today, a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. "Who?" you ask. Why, one of the most popular poets of the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of you are familiar with some of her lines, for she wrote a poem called "Solitude", which begins as follows: "Laugh and the world laughs with you;/ weep and you weep alone." Wilcox earned a comfortable living in her time from her poems, but has slipped into near obscurity because her poems were more popular than literary. She wrote using more traditional forms than many of the other major poets of her time, and yet, given her prolific production and commercial success, she has sometimes been called a "bad major poet" rather than a minor poet. After her husband's death, Wilcox turned to mysticism, and was one of the founders of the American Rosicrucian movement (which I do not pretend to understand, but it appears not to be a religion (per se), but to be a mystical approach to mysticism; so mystical that my headlights can't quite get through the fog to sort out what it is, actually). But I digress.

Having stumbled upon Ella Wheeler Wilcox, I must say that I like some of what I've read. The poem I've selected is particularly appropriate today, which is (depending on where you live) the day after Midsummer, or two days before Midsummer for those who still go by the fixed date of June 24th according to the Julian calendar.

Midsummer
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

After the May time, and after the June time,
Rare with blossoms and perfumes sweet,
Cometh the round world's royal noon time,
The red midsummer of blazing heat.
When the sun, like an eye that never closes,
Bends on the earth its fervid gaze,
And the winds are still, and the crimson roses
Droop and wither and die in its rays.

Unto my heart has come that season,
O my lady, my worshipped one,
When over the stars of Pride and Reason
Sails Love's cloudless, noonday sun.
Like a great red ball in my bosom burning
With fires that nothing can quench or tame.
It glows till my heart itself seems turning
Into a liquid lake of flame.

The hopes half shy, and the sighs all tender,
The dreams and fears of an earlier day,
Under the noontide's royal splendour,
Droop like roses and wither away.
From the hills of doubt no winds are blowing,
From the isle of pain no breeze is sent.
Only the sun in a white heat glowing
Over an ocean of great content.

Sink, O my soul, in this golden glory,
Die, O my heart, in thy rapture-swoon,
For the Autumn must come with its mournful story,
And Love's midsummer will fade too soon.


Today's Poetry Friday roundup is at A Wrung Sponge.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sara Zarr - a SBBT post

Today, I’m pleased to have the lovely and talented Sara Zarr () here for an interview. Sara is one of the members of the Class of 2K7, and her debut novel, Story of a Girl, was released in January, and is still in stores (at least here in New Jersey) now. You can check out my review of Story of a Girl from the merry merry month of May (hint: I loved it!).

1. One of the dominant issues in the book is Deanna's wish for a meaningful connection with her father, and she reminisces about her early childhood and how things were then. Was her working through the situation inspired by your issues with your own father, or was it simply the logical fallout from Deanna's situation?

I definitely tapped into some of my own family history to form Deanna's story, even though the particular issues were different. Deanna's dad is actually far more present than mine was, but I think even the best father/daughter relationships can be difficult during adolescence. I do think girls need fathers (or some kind of positive male adult influence) in a very particular way, and if that's missing, it can create a situation where they're more susceptible to fall for the Tommy Webbers of the world. But yeah, part of it was the logical fallout. I don't think very many fathers would know how to handle what happened with Deanna, and her father in particular just wasn't equipped. I do have compassion for him. I don't see him as a failure or a bad guy, just a beleaguered parent whose best effort at handling a difficult situation fell short, as all of our best efforts so often do.

2. I was particularly impressed that Deanna didn't see herself as a victim. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or is that just how she showed up?

It's been a long time since the initial story formed, but I'm pretty sure she just showed up that way. I never wanted her situation to be about coercion or being "done to" so much as about choices and aftermath. That's far more interesting to me, since that's so much of what life adds up to.

3. From an interview you did with Cynthia Leitich Smith, I learned that Deanna initially came to you as a side character in another story. Is the other story going to see the light of day, do you think? If not, care to share what Deanna was doing there?
I doubt that story will ever be publishable. There are some things I really like about it---some scenes with Darren and Deanna and Stacy that helped make them so real to me before I even started Story of a Girl — but I think that book served its purpose. That story was about Lee and her arrival at a new school, and her search for her father (hm, I'm sensing a recurring theme...). Deanna was there as a girl with a tough exterior who pursues Lee's friendship for reasons Lee can't understand at first. Deanna was always one of those characters who really walked onto the page fully formed. I got lucky.

4. A writing-related question: Does keeping an office outside the house help you focus on writing better than writing at home did? Does it help you leave the writing at the office when you get home?

I'm not sure how much the office helps in terms of the actual writing---I still end up doing a lot of writing at home. (And I never "leave it at the office.") What the office gives me is a place to go when I'm tired of being at home, a reason to shower and dress, a reminder that I'm self-employed and my writing is a business, a symbol of my commitment to that business, and a place to store all my books and papers.

5. What's next?

My second book for Little, Brown is about to go into copyediting. It's called SWEETHEARTS, and it's chock full of childhood trauma, compulsive eating, social and personal reinvention, and relationship drama! It's slated for April, 2008. After that...who knows?

[Note from Kelly: Just the other day, Sara posted some wonderful news about Story of a Girl: Movie rights have been purchased by Mixed Breed Films, with producers Kyra Sedgwick and Emily Lansbury.]

6. Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate?
Oh sure, start with an impossible choice! I think...cheese. No, chocolate. No, cheese. Definitely cheese.

Coffee or tea? Coffee.

Cats or dogs? Cats.

Favorite color? I don't know.

Favorite snack food? Apples in season.

Favorite ice cream? Anything described as having dough, chunks, or nuggets. But no marshmallow.

Water or soda? Water.

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? I'm listening to a Pandora station put together by friend and fellow YA author Tara Altebrando's husband, Nick, who is in a band called Dutch Kills.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? I tend to retain random bits of information against my will, so I'm liable to quote anything and surprise even myself.

For more interviews with Sara, check out her interviews with Jackie at interactivereader from Monday, and with Kelly H. at Big A little a.

Other SBBT interviews today:

Eddie Campbell by SBBT mastermind Colleen at Chasing Ray
Brent Hartinger by Jackie at interactivereader
Justine Larbalestier by Kelly H. at Big A little a
Cecil Castellucci by Gwenda at Shaken & Stirred
Ysabeau Wilce by Little Willow at Bildungsroman
Jordan Sonnenblick by Jen at Jen Robinson’s Books Page
Chris Crutcher by Tanita at Finding Wonderfland
Kazu Kibuishi by Kimberly at lectitans
Mitali Perkins by Eisha & Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Laura Ruby by Gayle & Trisha at The YA YA YAs

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Jordan Sonnenblick - a SBBT interview

Today’s interview is with Jordan Sonnenblick, author of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, Notes from the Midnight Driver and the forthcoming Zen and the Art of Faking It. For plot summaries of Jordan’s novels, see my book reviews.

1. If I had to characterize your writing, I'd say that you write funny books about serious subjects. In the case of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, I know you set out to write about dealing with a sibling's having cancer. Notes from the Midnight Driver includes coping with parental separation/divorce, underage drinking/drunk driving, healing familial rifts (in several ways) and inter-generational relationships. Did a particular issue come to you first? Or did it start with a particular character?

Notes actually came about because of a whole separate issue. In my job as an 8th grade English teacher, I had a class of students who were totally horrible to a substitute teacher one day. I made them write apology notes, which came out as weaselly excuse notes instead. So my starting point for that book was, “What if a basically good person did something stupid, and then refused to take responsibility?” Then, the day I started outlining the plot, my beloved grandfather got really sick and I had to fly to Florida to be with him in the hospital for a few days. So between the main character's refusal to apologize, and my Grampa's colorful personality, I realized I suddenly had a novel to write!

(My pet theory was that this is an homage to your own grandfather, but I'm interested to hear how it came about.)

Yup, there's definitely a tribute to my Grampa Sol going on.



2. Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie is told from the point of view of Steven, a thirteen-year old drummer who must deal with his younger brother's leukemia and the resulting shift in family dynamics that it brings about.

a. Who do you consider to be the “girls” referred to in the title? Renee and Annette, certainly, but is Samantha one of the girls as well? Why or why not?


I never thought about it, but hey, they're all girls, right?

b. Steven spends much of the book in isolation of one kind or another -- the physical isolation of being alone at home or with his drums, the psychological isolation of denial and later, anger and avoidance, until he learns to speak up for himself a bit and “work on the things [he] can change”. Was that isolation a something you conceived from the start, or did it evolve during the writing (or re-writing process)?

The isolation was absolutely integral from the get-go. I was going on my own experience of my parents' getting divorced during my high school years; there was a six-month period when I withdrew completely. Ultimately, secrets are isolating.

c. Partway through the book, when Steven ditches math class to spend time in the band room with Annette, she gives him a CD of “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck and tells him to learn it -- and that she has something planned for it. What was it that she had planned?

Just that they play the piece together -- no big hidden meaning or anything. That's just a hard tune for a drummer.

d. “Take Five” is not the only jazz tune mentioned by name and artist in this book (or, for that matter, in Notes from the Midnight Driver). Was it something you listened to as a teen, or not until later? Are you actually trying to promote interest in jazz among your teen readers, or just adding detail to particular characters?

The music is in there because playing jazz is what I loved when I was a teenager. And I always wished someone would write a teen book that nailed down how I feel when I play the drums.

Is jazz your favorite music genre?

As a listener, my musical tastes are all over the map. But as a player, jazz is just the ultimate challenge.



3. Notes from the Midnight Driver is told from Alex Gregory's point of view. After Alex gets drunk, steals his mom's car and mows down a neighbor's lawn gnome, he is sentenced to community service at a local nursing home, with the irascible Sol Lewis, a crotchety old man who enjoys insulting Alex in Yiddish.

a. In the “Afterwords” found in the paperback edition of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, you've said that Steven was a lot like the 13-year old you. I know that your basement houses drums and guitars, and Alex is a guitar player. How much of the rest of 16-year-old Alex is based on your own history (or personality)?


Just his parent-divorce situation. Otherwise, I'm much more Steven than Alex.

b. I was pleased to see Steven and Annette, now older, in Notes from the Midnight Driver, and not just because it was nice to follow up with Steven a little bit. As a former jazz band, stage band and marching band member (piano and percussion, thank you), I so enjoy the positive depiction of band nerds in your books. Are most of the readers that you receive fanmail from involved in the arts, or do you hear from a lot of nonmusicians as well? What is the prevailing view of the musical characters you portray so well?

I get lots of fan mail from drummers, which feels great. And whenever I do a school visit, the band teacher seeks me out to thank me for writing a novel about our weird little subculture. However, probably the most disproportionate segment of my fan mail comes from cancer siblings, followed by parents of reluctant readers who are glad their kids found a book to love.

c. Notes opens with Alex sitting watch over a dying person. Why did you decide to open there, rather than just starting with Alex's misconduct?

It's the old Latin writing trick of starting a story in the middle -- or “in medias res”, as Horace would have said. I figured if it worked for Homer's Iliad, it would work for me. I think that beginning is jarring and disturbing enough to make readers want to know how the story gets to that point.

d. In Notes, as in Drums, the main character has a female friend who becomes a potential love interest. However, you avoid going too far down the romantic path. Is that because you'd prefer not to write mushy romance scenes, or because male readers prefer not to read them?

Neither. It's because I had lots of those inept friend-romances when I was a teenager, so I feel a special knack for writing those interactions.



4. Your next book, Zen and the Art of Faking It, is due out from Scholastic in October. From what I could scrape up on the book, it's about an eighth-grade boy named San Lee who has moved around. A lot. And when he arrives at his latest school, he concocts a way to be different -- by pretending to be a Zen master. Care to dish a little more about it?

Nope. It's my secret, for now. All I can say is that I read Zen aloud to a classroom of teen “test pilots”, and they unanimously said it was my funniest book.

5. What's next?

I'm just finishing off the last revisions on my fourth book. It's part one of a middle-grade trilogy for the Feiwel & Friends imprint at Holtzbrinck. The working title is Dodger & Me, and it's about a boy who rubs a magic lamp -- but instead of a genie, he gets a hyperactive blue chimpanzee as his invisible companion. I've never had this much fun writing a book, so I think Dodger & Me will really make some pre-teens laugh next spring.

6. Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate?
I get instant migraines from chocolate, so it's cheese by default.

Coffee or tea? Coffee and tea. Both rule.

Cats or dogs? I’m allergic to cats & dogs.

Favorite color? Blue.

Favorite snack food? Yogurt.

Favorite ice cream? Dulce de leche -- I'm a snobby ice-cream eater!

Water or soda? Seltzer mixed with fruit juice.

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Oh geez, everything but country. My all-time gurus are the Beatles. But I'll rock anything from emo to African choral music.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Because I have two school-age kids, I am a huge expert on Pixar movies. My most shining parental achievement is that I can do all the voices from A BUG'S LIFE.

For more about Jordan Sonnenblick, see Little Willow’s interview from Monday, or check in with Jen Robinson tomorrow.

Other SBBT interviews today:
Mitali Perkins by Vivian at Hip Writer Mama
Svetlana Chmakova by Sarah at Finding Wonderland
Dana Reinhardt by Jackie at interactivereader
Laura Ruby by Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Holly Black by Gwenda at Shaken & Stirred
Hilary McKay by Leila at Bookshelves of Doom
Kirsten Miller by Erin at Miss Erin
Julia Ann Peters by Betsy at A Fuse #8 Production
Carolyn Mackler by Gayle & Trisha at The YA YA YAs

Monday, June 18, 2007

Laura Ruby -- a SBBT interview

Today, I’m fortunate to have an interview with Laura Ruby, author of Lily’s Ghosts, The Wall and the Wing, and The Chaos King for middle grade readers, Good Girls for young adults, and I’m Not Julia Roberts for the grown-up market. In addition to writing books, Laura keeps an occasional blog at her website, and has written additional short fiction for adults, published in various literary periodicals. Laura has a terrific bio on her website as well, which is as good a place as any to get to know a bit about her.

My interview focused on Laura’s middle grade fiction, with a slight detour into the world of book challenges in the case of her first book, Lily’s Ghosts.



1. Your first children's book, LILY'S GHOSTS, is set in an old house in Cape May, New Jersey. It begins with Lily and her mother moving to Cape May (the most recent of a number of moves), and with a twinge of a possible love interest, and then moves into a ghost story as we meet various ghosts in the house, and then it becomes quite a mystery -- with a rather serious, potentially fatal, twist at the end.

Was the book always intended to have the overarching real-life mystery involving Lily's Uncle Wes and the quest for treasure?


I knew it would have a mystery at its heart, and I knew that Lily's antagonists would include humans as well as well as ghosts, but I had no idea when I began that treasure might be involved, the kind of treasure involved, or what role Uncle Wes would have. I had to write numerous versions and many, many, many outlines before I had the whole story.



In a really weird turn of events, Lily's Ghosts was challenged in some parts of Florida, apparently for being a ghost story. My understanding is also that some folks were particularly concerned because one of the ghosts was a suicide. In an interview with Cynthia Leitich-Smith, you indicated that you had sent correspondence and copies of The Wall and the Wing to the concerned school districts. Did you get any response? Would you care to comment here on the entire challenge issue?

The story: Lily's Ghosts appeared on the 2006-2007 Sunshine State Award Lists -- one for elementary school and one for middle school. These lists are book recommendations chosen by Florida librarians and used in schools throughout the state. One day, I was contacted by a friend who'd heard some rumblings about challenges to my book. This totally floored me, as it had been out for more than three years with no such issues whatsoever. After that, supportive parents got in touch to tell me that, apparently, school officials in a few counties decided my book and two others weren't "appropriate" for the elementary school kids after receiving some complaints.

For a while, there was much scrambling: the Sunshine State List was removed from certain websites, alternate books were offered in place of mine and the others, etc. I was worried that Lily would be removed from school libraries or taken off the Sunshine State List. (It wasn't). But here's the thing: I still have no idea why Lily's Ghosts was challenged in those counties, because the authorities involved refused to give any specific reasons. Even the official inter-school memo didn't specify a reason beyond the general "inappropriate for kids" thing, nor did it give a reason for the challenges to the two other books: Attack of the Mutant Underwear [by Tom Birdseye] and My Brother's Hero [by Adrian Fogelin]. They have issues with underwear? With heroes? I mean, who complained about these books exactly? What was the nature of their complaints? And how many complaints were there?

But the lack of specific information didn't stop a reporter at a Florida paper from furnishing his own guesses as to the reasons why our books were challenged. One of his theories about Lily's banning was this thing with suicide. When I read that, I was really annoyed. Firstly, because the official interviewed for the article wouldn't specify any passage or part of Lily that she considered questionable (uh, okay). Secondly, because my book has five major ghosts and a bunch of others parading through it, all them decades if not centuries dead from various causes. To my mind, Lily's Ghosts is no more a book about suicide than Harry Potter is a book about murder. Thirdly, because I didn't think reporters were supposed to invent things.

I conferred with other two authors and they were just as puzzled as I was over this whole situation. Lily's Ghosts was an Edgar Award nominee, a Parent's Choice Silver Honor Award winner, one of the Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best, etc. and now it's "inappropriate for kids"? I was angry until I realized I was in excellent company. So many amazing books have been challenged: To Kill a Mockingbird, Bridge to Terabithia, and The Giver to name just a few.

So, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Tampa Tribune to give my opinion on the issue and to question the reporter's theories. (My letter never appeared. Interesting). Next, I wrote to school officials and sent signed copies of my next book, The Wall and the Wing (which has no ghosts, but does have a "talking" hand). I never received any response there, either.

While I feel for school officials and teachers who have to find books to please large populations of children (and their parents!), I'm concerned about the way this situation was handled -- shrouded in mystery. The books on the Sunshine State lists were not required reading, simply recommendations, so what's the issue here?

No single book is going to be right for every single person — this is a given. If you find a title that doesn't work for you or for your child, ask for another book. This is exactly what my sister-in-law, a Jehovah's Witness, does for her children. She has never had a problem, nor has she ever felt the need to have a book banned from a classroom, book list or library. In other words, she feels she has the right to decide what's appropriate for her own family, not everyone else's.

The whole experience did lead me to do my one and only podcast on the issue focusing in on Teen Read Week: http://brainlint.podbus.com/TeenReadWeek2.mp3



2. THE WALL AND THE WING was one of my favorite books in 2006. I should tell you that I'm usually skeptical about "big claims" for books -- like that W&W is "an authentic American fantasy" -- but in this case, it was all true.

Thank you!

a) The Wall and the Wing is set in an alternate New York City, one in which most people can fly, at least a little bit. The main character, "Gurl," has been confined in a horrible orphanage; she is a non-flyer, or "leadfoot", who has the secret power to make herself invisible. The plot is based on a question from "would you rather" -- would you rather have the power to fly or the power to be invisible? Of the two, which would you pick?

I've asked so many people this question and most say they'd rather fly -- apparently everyone in the universe has had these amazing flying dreams. I never had those dreams. I'm much more interested in discovering secrets (and not being discovered discovering them). But I think that the "would you rather have the power to fly or the power to be invisible" is an introvert/extrovert question. I've been asking it for years, and it's usually the extroverts in the group who want to fly and the introverts who want to be invisible. Gurl's invisibility is a metaphor for the shy, different kid who is shunned or forgotten.

b) In this alternate reality, cats are scarce. Gurl finds a cat that she names Noodle, who has the ability to calm Gurl with her purring. When Noodle purrs, Gurl hears a riddle in her mind "If a tree falls in the forest . . . " Your blog indicates that you have a penchant for cats yourself.

1) Are either of your cats riddles? If so, what riddle are they?


Noodle is actually based on my cat Izzy, who is unbelievably smart and talkative for a cat. She's also mesmerizing in the way I describe Noodle in the book; when I pet her and she starts to purr, I relax. Thing is, I'm the only one who can pet her; she won't go to anyone else in my family. For the longest time, they wouldn't believe me when I told them that she would sit on my lap while I worked, etc. Izzy's riddle is Noodle's: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?

2) Why are cats so rare in the alternate NYC?

I figured that people who could fly would want pets who could fly as well -- that means far more birds than cats. And since cats are the natural enemies of birds, city-dwellers simply wouldn't own them and they wouldn't want them around. So, naturally, cats would be very rare indeed.

c) Were the giant red-eyed rat men in The Wall and the Wing merely an exaggeration of the sewer rats in the current version of the city, or were they the result of the scarcity of cats in the alternate one?

The giant rat men were actually based on a gang called The Sewer Rats of Satan that I read about while doing my research on the history of New York City. I decided to make them real rats rather than people calling themselves rats. Because what's a good fantasy without a giant rat man who loves kittens?

d) The villain in the book -- Sweetcheeks Grabowski -- runs a gang not unlike that depicted in the movie The Gangs of New York. Is his character based on any actual crime figure?

Sweetcheeks is an amalgam of crime figures I read about in books like Gangs of New York, Gotham, and others, made more modern -- and funnier, I think -- with his unique history as a diaper model. On the other hand, Billy Goat Barbie, Mrs. Terwiliger's mom, is based on an actual female gangster who actually used to head-butt her victims before snatching their valuables.

e) Monkeys play an important part in the book. In particular, hypnotic mechanical toy monkeys who take people's secrets and memories. Where did that idea come from?

I was writing and these words suddenly came into my head: "MONKEY CHOW!" I have NO idea why. And I realized that I desperately wanted a reason to have someone say "MONKEY CHOW!" in my novel. Thus, the monkeys were born.

f) The key relationship in The Wall and the Wing is the developing friendship between Gurl and Bug, a boy at the orphanage who doesn't remember anything about his past either. Their relationship is built out of necessity, first in rebellion against Mrs. Terwilliger, the evil headmistress of the school who is blackmailing Gurl into a life a crime, and then against a host of other players, including Sweetcheeks Grabowski, but the relationship itself develops very realistically.

In the story, Gurl's true identity is really her destination -- a place she's trying to get to -- whereas Bug's true identity is really his point of departure -- where he's trying to escape from. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or did it just evolve that way? What lessons about the nature of identity does it hold for readers?


The story just evolved that way. That said, a friend of mine just told me yesterday that she believes all my books -- the mystery, the fantasies, and the realistic novels -- have one thing in common: they're all about the breaking and reconfiguring of families. And she's right. Though I may not set out to write about this subject, it keeps cropping up for me, probably because I come from a family that changed drastically through divorce and abandonment. Whether I like it or not, I've been shaped by those events but I hope I'm not doomed by them. We can become the people we want to be because of our beginnings, or we can develop in spite of them. Mostly, it's a bit of both.

g) The true key to the alternate universe is the Professor, an absent-minded inventor with grass instead of hair who wears women's housecoats and has pocketsful of kittens. How did you conceive of him? And how is his longevity explained?

I wanted a sort of sage character in my story, but I wanted my sage to be a bit different than, say, Albus Dumbledore or Gandalf of Lord of the Rings. I wanted a quirky, cranky old guy more of a scientist than a magician (though a bit of both), and more fallible than those types of characters in other fantasies. In other words, he makes mistakes. He doesn't like people. He's not interested in being in anyone's mentor, or even being nice. But as soon as I started to write him, the really quirky stuff started to appear -- the kittens in his pockets, the grass for hair, and his amazing Answer Hand.

As for his longevity, I think it's pure stubbornness.

h) One of my favorite characters in The Wall and the Wing is Jules, a "personal assistant" -- essentially a guardian angel. Where can I get one, please?

I'm the first in line!



3. THE CHAOS KING is the sequel to The Wall and the Wing. Some, but not all, of the characters (or character types) return from The Wall and the Wing. Gurl, now Georgie, is with her parents and Noodle the cat, Bug is a huge sports star who lives alone, and the Professor is in trouble, having been swept out to sea.

a) New characters include Agnes, the cook for the Richest Family in the World (including Georgie), who is actually another personal assistant. I suspect that many children will like the idea of an adult supervisor who doesn't seem to judge them the way that a parent would, but who will act to protect them if need be. How did you come up with Agnes (and with Jules)?


Believe it or not, by watching tons of What Not to Wear. I love that show. I love that people come on the show harried, depressed, lacking in confidence, hating their bodies etc., and the hosts aren't there to analyze how or why they got that way, to get them in touch with their feelings or whatever. They’re not there to diagnose them or judge anything beyond the bad mommy jeans the guests have swaddled themselves in. All the hosts want to do is teach them how to dress and send them on their way. When I thought that Gurl was a bit too alone and maybe needed a guardian angel, I tried to imagine what an American version of a guardian angel might look like. Voila, Jules.

b) Another new character is Dietrich, who is a doorman at Georgie's building, but turns out to be far more powerful than initially suspected. He's no personal assistant -- he's in charge of a particularly powerful organization: The New York City Public Library. "Facts" about the library, including the use of actors in suits to replicate the stone lions outside, are sprinkled throughout the book, and the building itself figures quite prominently in the story. a) Why did you decide to make the library -- and in particular, the director of the library -- so powerful, not just over books, but over ideas?

I'm a writer and when I'm not writing, I'm reading. Books are everything (or nearly everything). Made sense to me that the library would be the most happening place in the city, and the guy in control of it would basically control the flow of ideas.

c) Did you do on-site research into the NYC Public Library and, if so, are there actually secret passageways and tunnels? Books that can kill you?

I did spend some time at the NY Public Library, but I'm not aware of any secret passageways (though I would be disappointed to hear that there aren't any). As for books that can kill you, well, ideas are powerful things, no?

d) This book does not have any rat men or gangsters in it, but it does feature a Punk (one of the types of characters found in The Wall and the Wing). Rather than calling himself "Sid," which is what all male punks are named, this one is "Mandelbrot," based on a mathematician specializing in chaos theory. How much do you actually understand chaos theory,

um, barely.

and how hard was it to apply to a middle grade children's book?

Not that hard, actually, considering how little I understand it. Basically, I was interested in mess and messiness. I'm a messy person. My husband is a neat and tidy person. My messiness drives him crazy, so he often "helps" to clean it up by building me shelves or filing cabinets or Excel spreadsheets. (He's a lot nicer than Mr. Fuss, the guy in charge of city clean up in Chaos King). I thought it would be cool if there was actually a person in charge of city clean up-- not physical clean-up per se, but the clean-up of problems that occur when the city's magic gets out of control. (I've tried to convince my husband that the piles of papers in my office is really due to my magic getting out of control but he's not buying it).

e) In addition to the Punk, the book includes vampires and crows. I liked your contribution to the mythology of vampires, including a penchant for counting.

Can you tell me a bit more about what crows are?


I did some research into vampire mythology, and found that in Eastern European lore, it was said that poppy seeds laid by grave sites would ward off vampires, who would be so distracted counting the seeds they would forget to disturb the dead. I loved that. I also love poppy-seed bagels, and the two ideas came together so very nicely.

As for the crows, well, I ended The Wall and the Wing with a crow, so when I started to do the sequel I realized that the crows would have to be special, more than they seem. So I researched crow behavior to get inspired. They're very smart, exceedingly curious birds who are also very social and hang out in large groups. And don't you think crows always look as if they were watching you? (Okay, maybe I'm just paranoid.) Anyway, I took the phrase "Old Crow", a derogatory term for an old woman and tried to turn it into into something fabulous. Mrs. Verona was born, along with her book group of "old crows".

f) In this book, Georgie and Bug start out separately but come together to work out what's going on in the world around them, which seems to include a number of fossils inexplicably come to life. I really enjoyed seeing their relationship moving forward, even in their "new" post-orphanage lives. Was it a challenge to write about the awkwardness of being a tween/early teen finding new ground in a relationship?

It wasn't a challenge to write about it, it was a challenge to figure out that this is what the story needed. I'd never written a sequel before; it took me a while to understand that I not only needed a whole new plot, but a new emotional driver for the story.

g) Hewitt Elder is a bit of a conundrum in this book -- she's the one girl at school who is nice to Georgie, but she's also a complete loner, who achieved fame as a poet when quite young, only to turn her back on it. Hewitt particularly enjoys her time volunteering at the New York City Public Library, especially when she can be alone after hours. I know you've written fiction for adults (including I'm Not Julia Roberts) and young adults (Good Girls) -- do you also write poetry?

I wrote a ton of very bad, dark poetry in high school, so I had a good time writing Hewitt's poems.

h) And, in a Hewitt-related question, were you ever a librarian or library assistant?

Yep. My very first job was as a library page at the Wayne Public Library in New Jersey.

4. Do you have a favorite library (and why)?

I like my own library cause almost all my favorite books are here. Plus, my cats sleep in the shelves. No library is complete without cats.

5. What's next?

For me? Well, I've got a few more contemporary YA novels coming out, but after that I'd like to do an adult book and maybe some more fantasy. (But if you ask me in an hour, I might have a different answer).

Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate?
Cheese.

Coffee or tea? COFFEE!!!

Cats or dogs? Cats.

Favorite color? Red.

Favorite snack food? Pirate's Booty.

Favorite ice cream? Vanilla.

Water or soda? Soda (unfortunately).

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? A Girl in Trouble is a Temporary Thing (Romeo Void).

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? I memorized lines from Pride & Prejudice (1995). Not on purpose, but only because I watched it 43243853409225945043945 times.

Want more Laura? Additional interviews with Laura will be available later this week – on Wednesday, you can find Liz’s interview with her over at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, and on Thursday, you can read Gayle & Trisha’s interview with her on their joint blog, The YA YA Yas.

Further information about the SBBT:
Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s exclusive interview with Gene Yang over at Finding Wonderland.

Other interviews available today:

Tom & Dorothy Hoobler by Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray
Mitali Perkins by Kelly Herold at Big A, little a
Sara Zarr by Jackie at interactivereader
Justina Chen Headley by Vivian at Hip Writer Mama
Justine Larbelestier by Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Dana Reinhardt by Kimberly at lectitans
Brent Hartinger by Eisha & Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Jordan Sonnenblick by Little Willow at Bildungsroman
Ysabeau Wilce by Tanita at Finding Wonderland

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Second Coming -- a Poetry Friday post

Wednesday was William Butler Yeats's birthday. To mark the occasion, I've decided to go with one of his most famous poems, "The Second Coming," which is widely referenced by other poets.

Brief introduction to Yeats

Many people assume, based on the title, that this poem is about the Second Coming of Christ, as foretold in Revelations or the Gospels. That assumption is incorrect. To the extent that Jesus factors in at all in Yeats's System, his Mask (or mirror image, or inverse) would be born at the end of the 2000-year cycle, thereby triggering another cycle. Yeats depicts a male sphinx, awakened from 2000 years of sleep, stalking through the desert toward Bethlehem, where the next "pure soul" will be born, thereby starting the cycle again.

To make sense of the poem, it pays to know a bit about Yeats's life and world view. First and foremost, Yeats was Irish, and kept company with Irish revolutionaries including the great love of his life, Maude Gonne. Yeats was also an occultist, and a member of the Golden Dawn. Yeats and his wife, purportedly a medium, believed in a System in which life is patterned after the Great Wheel of time, a wheel with 28 spokes (derived from the moon cycle). Each soul moves through all 28 phases of the wheel; each complete rotation of the wheel takes 2000 years.

Keats was a believer in opposites -- not just that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, but for every being there is a "mask" -- equal and opposite. He conceived of interlocking (and opposite) spirals -- one is at its widest point when the other is at its base, and vice-versa. These correspond to roughly 2100 year cycles, with something resembling equipoise every 1050 years. For a complete understanding of his theory, read A Vision by Yeats; various summaries can be found on the internet, with a decent representation of the Cycles of History to be found at yeatsvision.com. The gyre of which Keats speaks in the first line of the poem is the outward spiral; if a falcon were to follow the spiral, it would eventually travel so far from the falconer as to be unable to hear commands anymore.


The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?



Discussion

This can be classified in part as a war poem, first written in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, when everyone was trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Revolution was still sweeping Europe, including the Russian revolution and, more personal to Yeats, the struggle for Irish independence. In the earlier draft of this poem, Yeats complained "And there's no Burke to cry aloud, no Pitt", referring to two denouncers of the French Revolution. He also made reference to Germany invading Russia; both references were removed, thereby making the poem less specifically about a particular world situation, and rendering it more prophetic in tone.

The first stanza

The first four lines describe the state of the world -- the falcon, a bird typically associated with royalty (or aristocracy) has flown ever higher and wider and farther from its source, until it reaches a point where it has lost contact with its source, the falconer. Oh, how I love the next line: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". I picture a pot on a potter's wheel, flaring out nicely but suddenly wobbling and losing its form. These lines are a refences to the political situation in much of the world at the time -- the old kingdoms were no longer able to hold their shapes, and were blown apart, frequently in violence and bloodshed. The folks who should be there to denounce it lack conviction; only the worst elements in society have "passionate intensity."

The second stanza

After setting the stage, Yeats tries to make some sense of it. He grasps for reasons, as the first three lines reflect with their repetition: "Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand./The Second Coming!"

Here the poem turns to a vision, which Yeats attributes to Spiritus Mundi (or "the world spirit"), a Zeitgeist type of phrase. He describes his vision of the male-headed sphinx (in Golden Dawn parlance, a representation of Sandalphon, with various connections to Elijah and Enoch, who is historically the entity charged with determining whether a child will be male or female). In the vision, the sphinx "is moving its slow thighs," a somewhat sexual turn of phrase, as it moves in the desert.

"The darkness drops again" puts an end to the vision, and Yeats shares its meaning. Twenty centuries of sleep in the desert have ended. A rocking cradle -- here, a sign of instability and not an item of comfort -- has put the sphinx on the move. I can't help but wonder whether the cradle reference is a reference to civilization, which was at the time reeling from so much strife. In any case, Yeats indicates that it was a sign that something big was coming, and that things were about to change (and a new pure soul would be brought into existence, to start the turning of the wheel again).

It bears mention that Yeats paid homage to his two favorite poets, William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley in this poem, first with a nod to Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," and then with a phrase ("stony sleep") borrowed from Blake's "The Book of Urizen." Yeats held both poets in high esteem, and believed that "Prometheus Unbound" should be understood as one of the world's sacred texts.

The final phrase of the poem, "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" is one of Yeats's best-known lines, and one that sticks in the brain, years after reading it for the first time in college, where I also learned about the spirals and cycles and read "Leda and the Swan" and more Yeats. And more Yeats.

Related references

Those last lines are a popular reference for poets and other writers. Charles Bukowski referenced it in his collection, Slouching Toward Nirvana. Billy Collins in his poem Dancing Toward Bethlehem. Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Robert Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

And for HBO fans, Wikipedia tells me that the poem has been often-quoted in The Sopranos, now at an end. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". Bits of the poem have recently been used to describe the war in Iraq, with The New York Times weighing in on the poem's applicability (or lack thereof) to Iraq.

Gee, that all sounds a bit like a downer, which isn't really where I meant to go with this. Because despite its doom and gloom, I really like this poem. It sticks to your ribs (or in your brain, more likely). And perhaps it helps to know that Yeats didn't see the beast he describes as a bad thing -- in fact, he was to Yeats a most satisfying companion.

More Yeats

For a kinder, gentler Yeats poem, check out today's post by Michele over at Scholar's Blog, who's put up "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven."

And look at these prior posts: The Song of the Wandering Aengus and All Souls' Night.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Congratulations Susan at Chicken Spaghetti

Susan wrote an excellent article about Poetry Friday for the Poetry Foundation's website. You can find it from the main page by selecting "Features" and then "Children," or you can simply go here and read it.

Nicely done, Susan!

Could it be? Yes it could. Something's coming, something good. The SBBT!

Starting Sunday, the kitlitosphere is going to be abuzz with the Summer Blog Blast Tour (SBBT), a week-long series of interviews with various YA writers hosted by a bunch of different kidlit blogs. The SBBT is the brainchild of Colleen Mondor over at Chasing Ray in response to the seriously negative rap that online lit bloggers have taken in recent months, particularly those who review books. Some of it was touched on over at Read Roger and Fuse #8 and over at the NBCC's Critical Mass blog. You can find links to the NBCC posts at the School Library Journal blog, where Colleen was interviewed about the SBBT. But I digress.

Long story short -- One week. Many authors. Many interviews. Many blogs.

I will post links daily to the new interviews on the Net as they arrive, but figured I'd show a little leg now, just so your enthusiasm can being to mount.

Who I interviewed: Laura Ruby, Jordan Sonnenblick and Sara Zarr.
Who else was interviewed: Not telling. Okay, I'll tell you ONE more -- The fun starts this Sunday over at Finding Wonderland, where Sarah will be posting an exclusive interview of Gene Yang, author of the award-winning graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

The Chaos King

Imagine, if you will, an alternate New York City, where almost everyone can fly (or at least hover), where cats are a rarity but birds are prized (because they also fly), where vampires can blend in as part of the nightclub culture, and where Punks live in the subway tunnels -- the boys are all named Sid, the girls are all Nancy. With me so far? Good, because we've arrived at the setting for Laura Ruby's latest book, The Chaos King, a sequel to last year's The Wall and the Wing.

If you haven't read The Wall and the Wing (and if not, why not?), then I must say that I really think it best if you go off and do that before you pick up The Chaos King, even though a brief plot summary is provided in the early part of the book. It will help you to understand the alternate world much, much better than you'll be able to if you just read the second book, where some things (like why everyone's so eager to get to the Hall of Flight at the museum, and who the Professor really is, and the true nature of cats) aren't really discussed in enough detail to make sense. They're mentioned, and I doubt you'd be lost, but you might not understand the import/backstory as well. And besides, The Wall and the Wing was a truly terrific fantasy -- and an original concept. No elves, fairy/faerie, mystical languages/quests or any of the other stuff that smacks of British fantasy -- it relies on sheer American ingenuity and the quest for invention.

Ah, but I meant to be talking about the book. Right.

The Chaos King, like its predecessor, begins with a prologue, cleverly titled "The Chapter Before the First". Also like its predecessor, the prologue focuses on the Professor, a man fond of wearing women's housecoats, with grass instead of hair, pocketsful of kittens, and an "answer hand" that he bought from a guy on eBay. Only instead of hiding in his home/lab (like usual), we find the Professor on the run from a new character named Mr. Fuss. We know Mr. Fuss wants to take something that belongs to the Professor, and that he's working for someone else. And we know that the Professor is afraid. Afraid enough to allow himself to be swept out to sea, rather than let Mr. Fuss get his hands on the device.

Cut to the first chapter, where we catch up with Georgie, known in most of the first book as "Gurl." Life as the Richest Girl in the World isn't particularly fun, we learn, largely due to Roma Radisson (Paris Hilton very thinly disguised, no?), the Second Richest Girl in the World, who resents pretty much everything about Georgie. And hey, Georgie resents parts of herself at this point -- she's had a growth spurt, she's promised her parents that she won't use her power of invisibility (yeah, you read that right), and she's had a falling out -- or at least a falling off -- with Bug (Sylvester Grabowski, son of an infamous mobster), her only friend from the time before she was reunited with her parents, now a major athlete and advertising icon.

As it turns out, Mr. Fuss knows that Georgie and Bug were friends with the Professor, and he thinks they may have what he wants, so he goes against his boss's orders and decides to meddle with those kids after all, using a Punk who has renounced the name Sid, and instead uses the handle "Mandelbrot," as in the mathematician associated with chaos theory, not as in the almond biscotti of the same name. Mandelbrot is the Chaos King, complete with odd personal habits like spontaneous dancing, lapses into pig latin, and a preference for making art out using food products. And, oh yeah, the vampires like him because he's interesting to watch.

And in (alt) NYC, there's a decent amount of chaos afoot. Bug is dragged off a pier into the river by an enormous octopus soon after a fossilized giant octopus disappears from a museum. Gurl sees an abstract statue come to life and "bite" Roma at the art museum. And then Bug meets up with a giant sloth while filming a commercial. And I'm talking King Kong-sized giant sloth, here, complete with an Empire State Building climb while holding a pretty blonde. Is The Chaos King behind it?

This book features mystery, intrigue, and clever kids. Vampires, crows, talking birds, web-surfing cats, a rogue poet, and one very powerful librarian. More than that, I will not say, except that if you're a fantasy fan, you should seek this one out. After you've read The Wall and the Wing, of course.

A word about limericks

And I sure hope my daughter's sixth-grade English teacher is reading this. A limerick, unlike some other forms of verse, does not have a restricted syllable count. It's got a stressed beat pattern.

Limericks are five-line poems, almost always humorous, and quite frequently bawdy. Edward Lear is sometimes credited with inventing them, but they existed a good 100 years before his birth in published form.

They are a song-based poem, with common wisdom being that they came from a tavern song (hence the humor and bawdiness references). If you're a musical type (and I'm not just talking to here), you will understand when I tell you that limericks are recited in 6/8 time, and begin on a pickup to the first "measure."

I will write it out for you as best I can -- ta is a pickup (the 6th beat of a 6-beat measure). Capitalized Da is a stressed syllable, and lowercase da is an unstressed syllable of the poem's text. The numbers in parenthesis are actually the count of the rest, when you've paused at the end of the line.

ta Da da da Da da da Da (2-3-4-5-)
ta Da da da Da da da Da (2-3-4-5-)
ta Da da da Da (2-)
ta Da da da Da (2-)
ta Da da da Da da da Da

They often begin "There once was . . . ", but not always. They are almost always in rhyme, as follows: AABBA (all three long lines rhyme, and the two short lines rhyme with one another).

Sometimes, the last stressed beat has syllables after it -- they cut into the "rest" time, but the beat goes on just the same.

Examples:

A wonderful bird is the Pelican,
His bill can hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.
&emsp &emsp by Dixon Lanier Merritt

or, for a mildly bawdy one:

There was a young lady from Lynn,
Who thought that to love was a sin;
But when she was tight,
She thought it quite right,
So everyone filled her with gin.

Again, there's no ACTUAL syllabic requirement, although truly, 10 is the most you can fit in a long line, and seven is the most for the short lines. (Minimums are pretty much 8 and 5.)

Then why, I ask you, did my daughter's teacher send home a sheet telling them they had to count syllables in order to write limericks, with no regard for the stressed meter of the poem? *Heavy sigh*

And I offered to come in and do a poetry presentation if she wanted, but they're pressed for time and jamming poetry into 5 days at the end of the school year. Not that that's kept her from requiring the kids to write an entire book of poetry using her incorrect patterns. (You should see what she said a cinquain was -- it was also all wrong, because she told them it was a certain number of words per line, when the key to a cinquain is syllables Blurgh.)

Friday, June 08, 2007

La Belle Dame Sans Merci -- a Poetry Friday post

La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a lyric narrative poem that tells a seemingly simple story in the form of a stylized folk ballad. In the first three stanzas, a speaker asks a woeful knight what's wrong, and the remainder of the poem is the knight's answer. The poem's title is from a medieval poem by Alan Cartier, and is translated as "The beautiful woman without pity/mercy".

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
by John Keats

O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
&emsp Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
&emsp And no birds sing.

O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
&emsp So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
&emsp And the harvest's done.

I see a lily on thy brow
&emsp With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
&emsp Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
&emsp Full beautiful---a faery's child:
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
&emsp And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
&emsp And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
&emsp And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
&emsp And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
&emsp A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
&emsp And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said--
&emsp 'I love thee true.'

She took me to her elfin grot,
&emsp And there she gazed and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
&emsp With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep
&emsp And there I dreamed---Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamed
&emsp On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
&emsp Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried--'La Belle Dame sans Merci
&emsp Hath thee in thrall!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
&emsp With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
&emsp On the cold hill side.

And that is why I sojourn here,
&emsp Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge has withered from the lake,
&emsp And no birds sing.


While it's clear that the knight is the speaker from the fourth stanza through the end, the identity of the speaker for the first three stanzas is left unclear. Usually the speaker is presumed to be a passerby, concerned about the knight's appearance. I posit that it may be the knight himself, talking to his reflection in the lake. If I'm correct, then the knight is trying to shake himself out of his melancholy, but drifts back into his recollection of the faery woman, and finds he cannot.

The description of the knight's appearance in the third stanza -- with a "lily on [his] brow, an anguished, fevered appearance, and fading cheek color -- is that of a dying man. We sense that he will join the ranks of the other men, all pale, who appeared to him in his dream. The knight prefers to stay where he is, in hopes of again finding the faery woman, rather than returning to the real world.

The history of the poem is interesting. The text version I've used is the original, as written by Keats in a letter to his brother George in the year 1819. A second version of the text exists, which is the poem's first published form, although it's unclear who did the alteration.

Keats had a turbulent relationship with a neighboring woman, Fanny Brawne, and it is possible that some of the poem reflects his relationship with her, since, while he loved her passionately, she was source of vexation for him. Also noteworthy is Keats's fascination with Edmund Spenser's poem, The Faery Queene, which is what drew him to write poetry in the first place.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Side by Side by Sonnenblick

Oh the joys of funny, funny novels. I recently read two of them, by the same guy even -- Jordan Sonnenblick, (former?) middle school teacher and novelist extraordinaire. (Jordan was on sabbatical lately, and I'm not sure whether he's back to teaching or no.)

Of course my title is a bit misleading, as I can't figure out how to post the book reviews next to one another, so they'll be more like "One After the Other by Sonnenblick". Only you can see how that title's not quite as catchy. Nor does it reference musicals. And with all the music inside Jordan's books, I wanted music up there, even if that coinkydink didn't occur to me until this morning, after I'd already decided on the post's title two days ago.

Both of Jordan's books are extremely funny books about serious topics. His first novel, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie examines the life of an eight-grader whose entire life is thrown into chaos when his younger brother gets leukemia. The second, Notes from the Midnight Driver, brings us a year in the life of a sophomore whose life is thrown into chaos after he decides to drive while intoxicated -- and underage -- and then lands himself in a probationary stint with an irascible old man who is dying of emphysema.

First up? Jordan's more recent novel, Notes from the Midnight Driver, the cover of which features a mischievous looking garden gnome.



Notes from the Midnight Driver is the story of almost a year in the life sixteen-year old Alex Gregory. The book opens with three paragraphs from May, then flashes back to September, coming forward through May to the end of the school year. Ordinarily, that is a thing I despise, but in the case of this book, I totally understood the decision. Because the three paragraphs from May let you know that the main character is sitting in a hospital near someone who is dying. (Really and truly -- this is not a spoiler. It's the first page of the book.)

If you didn't know that, you might not care about the first real chapter, a hilarious romp through the world of underage drunk driving. And no, I'm not kidding. You get the benefit of living with Alex as he makes disastrous decisions (vodka, swiping his mother's car, plowing down a neighbor's lawn gnome, arrest, vomit, well . . . you get the picture). On the one hand, it's funny, because the MC you're hearing from is drunk and finds it all funny. On the other, it's an excellent cautionary tale about drinking and driving, with possible consequences (killing an actual person) front and center.

But if you just launched into the first chapter, in which Alex is already impaired and making patently bad decisions, you might think he lacked substance and moral fiber. But the flashback from May makes it seem like perhaps he's got a little bit of depth to him, and is worth sticking with. And you'd be right.

Alex is a typical teenage kid, willing to make excuses for any and all behavior. Lots of excuses. It's not his fault he decapitated the lawn gnome -- it's his parents' fault for getting a divorce; it's his mother's fault for leaving the house, which contained both vodka and car keys; it's his father's fault because Alex was off to yell at his dad when he damaged the neighbor's lawn; it's his friend's fault for not being available to hang out with him. (Sonnenblick has said that this particular idea -- of a person set on making excuses -- came to him after he asked a class to write letters of apology and almost every kid turned in a letter full of excuses.)

Early on in the book, Alex is sentenced to quite a bit of community service, for which he is to be paid, but all the pay has to go to compensate the neighbor for her expensive garden gnome. Alex's mother assigns Alex to hang out with Sol Lewis, an elderly Jewish man dying of emphysema. Sol's gruffness and use of mildly abusive Yiddish bothers Alex for quite a while, but eventually they establish a rapport. And when Alex brings his jazz guitar along, things get interesting, and we begin to learn more about the difficult Mr. Lewis, and his own guitar-playing past. And, like Alex, we learn to care about him. Which is (again) why that opening page was so important. Because it doesn't take long to figure out who's going to die, and that knowledge shades the reading of the entire book -- even the funniest passages are seen through that prism.

And there are a lot of funny passages, because Sol is a funny alte kacker (we'll go with the more polite "old fart" as its meaning), and a truly colorful character. Also, Alex's relationship with his friend Laurie is good and funny, because Alex has started to notice that she's, well, y'know, a girl, but isn't sure that she's noticed he's a boy. In that way. And really? The letters between Alex and the judge who sentenced him to community service are pretty entertaining as well.

Also good about this book? We get to see two characters from Sonnenblick's first book, Steven and Annette, whom Alex calls "the ka-CHINGS" because of how in sync they are. And it's nice to know that Steven and Annette are doing alright, to say nothing of the update on the health of Steven's brother, Jeffrey.

Which brings me to the next book, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie. Since I own the paperback, that's the cover I'm showing you:




Steven, a drum-obsessed eighth-grader, has a much-coveted (among music kinds) spot in the All-City Jazz Band, a crush on the hot girl in school, and an annoying six year-old brother named Jeffrey who idolizes Steven. When Jeffrey falls off the kitchen stool one morning and gets a bloody nose that requires medical attention, the family learns that Jeffrey has a particularly insidious type of leukemia.

Within what seems like only minutes, Steven's schoolteacher mother has taken a leave of absence and taken Jeffrey to a Children's Hospital hours away, while Steven and his dad are left home alone to cope. Only Steven's dad's method of coping involves spending more time at his accounting job, and so, in the end, Steven is basically left home alone, and is kept out of the loop, unaware of the medical horrors his younger brother is facing.

Steven copes with his stress by spending more and more time drumming, and less and less time doing homework or anything else. The story really truly takes flight when the school counselor intervenes with a useful piece of advice: "Instead of agonizing about the things you can't change, why don't you try working on the things you can change?" From then on, Steven starts to make decisions . . . he becomes active instead of passive, just the way that Alex (the Midnight Driver), does. Which includes him making up his homework, looking for ways to save money in order to help the family afford the devastating medical bills Jeffrey incurs, standing by Jeffrey, and making new friends at school.

And even though the topics are serious, and even though there are parts that will make you cry, overall this is still a funny book -- one where you'll find yourself rooting for Steven and for Jeffrey. One of those great books where all the characters are nice and round, even the hot cheerleader. No wonder Frank McCourt gave it such an excellent blurb. (And yes, McCourt was Sonnenblick's high school English teacher -- which explains HOW Sonnenblick got the blurb, but not the wonderful content of that blurb.)

Friday, June 01, 2007

A child said, What is the grass? -- a Poetry Friday post

Yesterday was the anniversary of Walt Whitman's birth. He was born in 1819, and died in 1892, and, in between, he lived and laughed and loved. Harold Bloom has termed him "the central American poet," although in his day he was underappreciated. His works are full of sexual references (including homosexual and homoerotic references). His master-work, Leaves of Grass, was declared "obscene" by Anthony Comstock, causing Whitman to lose his job in the Department of the Interior. "Central poet" or "depraved monster?" Let us go with Abraham Lincoln's assessment: "Well, he looks like a man."

Today, I give you an excerpt from Song of Myself. It's the sixth poem, which is frequently referred to as "A child said, What is the grass?" because that is part of the first line. I have taken my punctuation tips, spellings and (in the case of a particular line) word choices, from a very early edition of the poem, published in 1905. The particular line where a word difference exists reads, in other editions, "It may be that you are from old people and women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps", but I've gone with the earlier iteration (as did Harold Bloom in his collection, The Best Poems of the English Language. I should note that the punctuation here differs, however, from Mr. Bloom's choices.

To best understand this poem, I strongly urge you to read it aloud. There is a lovely rising and falling within the words that only becomes truly evident when read aloud. And the pauses indicated by commas and semicolons are important to the pacing of this poem, and are too easily skipped by if you merely skim through it.


from Song of Myself

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
&emsp may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white;
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of
&emsp their mother's laps;
And here you are the mother's laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon
&emsp out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end
&emsp to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward -- nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.


He moves from tangible grass, in the child's hands, to the general idea of grass in various places, to grass atop graves. And once he's arrived at the graveyard, he considers the dead, buried beneath the grass, and wonders about their fates. The last two stanzas are lovely, I think -- Whitman concludes that the dead aren't dead, but are alive somewhere. That death is only there to lead forward life, and is not standing about waiting to end it. That life is what is real, and death is what dies (or ends) whenever life appears.

And oh, the beauty of those last two lines:

"All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,/And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."

Lucky Walt Whitman . . . he lives on even now, if only through his words.