Monday, May 18, 2009

You may not be able to look at me the same way once I admit this...

Last week, I did something I haven't done in a long time. I cheated. An editor friend recently hooked me up with a much-coveted advanced readers copy of Once Was Lost, the third novel by Sara Zarr, a writer who repeatedly blows me away with the emotional richness of her stories. But alas, as much as I've been waiting and waiting for that ARC, it came at the worst possible time. May has been a crazy-busy month. I totally did not have time to read anything that wasn't a manuscript. And yet I totally couldn't wait any longer and NOT read it. So I dove in. was as great as I expected (isn't it wonderful when an author doesn't let you down as a reader, not even for a minute?). Rich, nuanced, totally human characters that I thoroughly believed in. Deep ideas about questions that don't have easy answers. Complex, REAL, confusingly muddled relationships and situations that made me ache. I think that's what I love about Zarr's writing--she writes thoughtfully about stories and characters that feel so very honest and alive.

But you're waiting for the confession, aren't you? So here it is. Once Was Lost is also totally full of suspense. And I had a limited amount of time, and really needed to be spending some of it sleeping, instead of reading past 2 a.m. So I skipped to the end to find out what happened. I've since finished it for real, and I don't think the reading experience was too scarred by my late-night, non-linear bout of weakness--in fact, I think I could even claim that it's a compliment to Sara Zarr that I HAD to know what happened before I could fall asleep. But, tell me I'm not the only one who sometimes does this? And, hey, guilt loves company--what's the last book that made *you* cheat?

Look, Ma, I'm on the internets!

Kathryn Fitzmaurice, author of the wonderful middle grade novel, The Year the Swallows Came Early, is a part of the Class of 2k9, a marketing collective of debut novelists. The 2k9 gang is interviewing their editors on their group blog, so if you'd like, you can click over here for an interview with me. Thanks to Kathryn and the 2k9-ers for asking some great questions!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Poetry Friday:"Words"

by Karla Kuskin

What separates each one of us
from all the beasts and bugs and birds?
Well, they have feathers, fur, and wings
but we have words, and words, and words.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Time-Traveler's Librarian/Book Fairy

Betsy Bird (of Fuse #8 fame) and I had an exchange on Goodreads the other day, about books we wish we could go back in time to give to our younger selves. It's a fabulous thought, isn't it? Betsy claims to have a whole plan laid out for just such a time-traveling book delivery plan, and maybe she'll be kind enough to elaborate on that scheme in the comments or in a post of her own. Me, I'm imagining the books just kind of showing up, maybe like from the tooth fairy, except more unexpectedly. Or maybe editor-me would go back and try to chat up young-me in a bookstore or library and make a recommendation. (Wee Molly would have been blown away by Future-me, btw. "You get to read for your job? And you get FREE BOOKS?!"). Or maybe I'd send one of the many fabulous librarians I now know on this time-travel mission, to replace the dull librarians at my childhood public library. And then I'd count on him/her to make a connection with the reader I was and recommend the right books at the right moments, in the way that great librarians do. In any case, these are the books I'd wish to have somehow show up in my past, if I could bend the time-space continuum in some fantastic way:

1. The Secret Language of Girls (Frances O'Roark Dowell) -- It was the just-published sequel to this book that sparked the conversation between Betsy and me, in fact. Because oh, how I want to go back to give this book to sixth-grade me, the first (or second or third) time her junior high frenemy shattered her to pieces! And then I want to make myself read it again, during the times I acted like a wicked frenemy myself.

2. A Northern Light (Jennifer Donnelly) -- I'm not quite sure WHEN exactly I'd go back and give this to myself. Maybe as a high school graduation gift? I just know that I wish I'd read it sooner, so that when I came up against some of the hard choices that happen as the world starts opening up--about life vs. love, independence vs. dependence--I'd have known I wasn't the only one who'd ever faced them, or who'd feared she might chose wrong, no matter which choice she made.

3. Sweethearts (Sara Zarr) -- I'd give this one to 14-year-old me, even though she would have railed against and totally fumed at the non-movie-romance-like ending. And high-school freshman me wouldn't totally have understood it in the moment, because she was WAY too much of a romantic. But to have it seep into her consciousness would have been important--to help first love and certain friendships make sense later, I think.

4. And just so it doesn't sound like my time-traveling book fairy/self/librarian would only trade in aching, poignant heartaches of books, I'd also be sure that twelve-or-thirteen-year-old-me got a copy of Airborn (Ken Oppel) to help her survive one of the those loooonnng family vacation car rides, where she was stuck smack between two brothers. The cool flying airship on the cover would've made them jealous, which would have impishly delighted me. And the fact that it's so deliciously LONG would've made hours fly by, and it wouldn't have even mattered that we were in the car for three days, because I'd have been up in the Aurora with Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries anyway.

So that's me. But I can't wait to know: what books would you go back in time to give to YOUR younger self?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Poetry Friday: "Wings"

"Wings" by Miroslav Holub

We have
a microsopic anatomy
of the whale
-William Carlos Williams

We have
a map of the universe
for microbes,
we have
a map of a microbe
for the universe.

we have
a Grand Master of chess
made of electronic circuits.

But above all
we have
the ability
to sort peas,
to cup water in our hands,
to seek
the right screw
under the sofa
for hours

gives us

(I feel obliged to share the writing-related thought that seeking "the right screw under the sofa for hours" seems not unlike searching for the right word for hours. But I love this poem mostly because it reminds me how utterly simple it is to be human.)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Q&A: Authors, Dead or Alive version

If you could ask one question--mundane or profound--of any one author, living or dead, who would you ask, and what would your question be?

I'm typically much better at coming up with questions for other people than answering them myself (this is why I'm an editor). But since I know I'll get scolded if I don't play my own game, here's at least one of mine (and I admit this is as much for the curious editor in me as for the young reader I once was): Louisa May Alcott - Of course you must have known that many readers would want Jo to marry Laurie. Did you ever try writing scenes of the two of them together, just to see what it might look like?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Great American (YA) Novel

My friend Mark is an an aspiring writer who mostly focuses on adult fiction, though he seems to flirt with the thought, as many do, of writing for kids someday--perhaps because has several young-readers-in-the-making of his own. He occasionally tosses astute questions out at me about the kidlit world as he reads and writes and thinks about the writing life, and I've actually been chewing on one of these queries for weeks, because, well, there's a lot to ponder packed into it. In his own words:

"The Great American YA Novel: In your opinion, has it already been written? If so, which one is it? If not, what would it look like? Discuss."

My first reaction was to think, "Yes, of course it's been written! Need you even ask?! We're living in the Golden Age of YA, after all!" But the second piece of that question gets far trickier--which one is it? Of course dozens of books jumble into my mind, one after the other--award-winners, and personal faves--contemporary, historical, fantastical.... There is certainly a growing canon of universally- acknowledged great YA out there these days, and we could no doubt have a rich discussion about what should top that list (in fact, this is your invitation to duke it out in the comments, if you'd like).

But it's actually the next piece of the question--what would or what does the Great American YA novel look like?--that got me thinking even deeper than titles and authors and books that carry shiny awards stickers.

We (and by we, I mean the tribe of English majors to which I suppose I belong, having written altogether-too-many college papers on Milton and Shakespeare and The Great Gatsby and Sophie's Choice and 20th-century this and postmodern that) usually call adult literature great because of aesthetics and symbolism and critical acclaim and technical brilliance and etc., and because we can categorize and classify and rationalize and argue and footnote it all.

But young adult literature's greatness comes from a place that is often just as aesthetically and technically brilliant, but also far more emotional, I think. And perhaps this is why I love it far more than the many Great Works of Literature I read in college. (Apologies on that count to all those English professors of mine--but hey, at least I ended up with an English major sort of job, right?)

Part of being a young adult is by nature, I think, to be a bit self-focused. You're beginning to truly claim (and also reject) the defining pieces of your world and your SELF for the first time:
your future, your family, your friends, your relationships, your truths, your ambitions/dreams/beliefs/hopes/ideals, your joyous/painful discoveries, your life. With so many things already in fragile balance, it takes something fairly significant to tap through that wall of self-absorption and demand attention . . . to affect the person a young adult is, and is becoming. But the brilliant power of books is such that, sometimes, they can do just that. They can validate, they can challenge, they can inspire . . . they can make a reader pause and redefine the world they've known up until that moment. And when they do any of those things, it's that book, whatever it may be, that becomes The Great American YA Novel for that reader. And so The Great American YA Novel is constantly changing. Because young adults are constantly changing, constantly growing, and the novels they claim as great--because they are full of words and characters and truths that affect and shape them--change and grow with them.

So, Mark, that's my long-delayed answer, I think: what matters most in YA is not the labels scholars give, but rather, the labels that readers give. What matters is that, actually, every YA novel published has the potential to be considered The Great American YA novel in the mind of the teens who will read it.

Treatise now complete, I'd love to hear how other people would answer this question, so please chime in with your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry Friday: "[Over a cup of coffee]"

This week, I had the thrill of watching immensely good things bloom for someone who has spent years working very quietly, very diligently, and very determinedly to secure a dream. I have a feeling she hasn't seen her last Very Good Week yet, either, and that many more well-deserved, shiny moments await her. But as I watched things unfold from the sidelines, it struck me how powerful it is to be an observer in the lives of others--to witness people's turning points, whether big or small--the moments in which they "become" in a new way, the moments in which they change, irrevocably. The sheer power of such transformative moments has everything to do with why writers write, I think. And I suspect it has something to do with how we come to understand ourselves, too, and our own arrivals into "uncharted lands," just as Stephen Dobyns quietly, elegantly ponders here:

"[Over a cup of coffee]"

by Stephen Dobyns

Over a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench or
walking the dog, he would recall some incident
from his youth—nothing significant—climbing a tree
in his backyard, waiting in left field for a batter's
swing, sitting in a parked car with a girl whose face
he no longer remembered, his hand on her breast
and his body electric; memories to look at with
curiosity, the harmless behavior of a stranger, with
nothing to regret or elicit particular joy. And
although he had no sense of being on a journey,
such memories made him realize how far he had
traveled, which, in turn, made him ask how he
would look back on the person he was now, this
person who seemed so substantial. These images, it
was like looking at a book of old photographs,
recognizing a forehead, the narrow chin, and
perhaps recalling the story of an older second
cousin, how he had left long ago to try his luck in
Argentina or Australia. And he saw that he was
becoming like such a person, that the day might
arrive when he would look back on his present self
as on a distant relative who had drifted off into
uncharted lands.