Monday, November 29, 2010

So much llama drama

I'm heartbroken because I will be out of town and one of my favorite authors is speaking locally.  If you have a kid in your house under 10, then you are probably familiar with Llama Llama Misses Mama, LLama Llama Red Pajama and my personal favorite, LLama Llama Mad at Mama. Anna Dewdney will be at Copperfield's in Petaluma this Wednesday.

Llama Llama Mad at Mama

Decision Points

There was a fun article in the Sunday newspaper's Parade magazine about the teenage brain. Why is there so much drama in the adolescent life? The article went on to explain that many parts of the brain are still developing, particularly the ability to organize and understand or project future consequences of one's actions. There was a picture of a terrified woman accompanying the article: apparently 100% of adults knew right away that the emotion the woman was portraying was fear, but only 50% of teens got it right. 

So, teens are still learning their emotions. No shock to anyone who has been a teen or lives with teens.

In working on one of my stories today, the heroine is moody. Is it because she was recently dumped her boyfriend, or because she is a teen? She's a drama queen, this character named Meg, so she's very upset about her loss and on some level is enjoying wallowing in her misery.

With each character, with each event, there is a challenge to make each character a type - logically extend their personality types to every situation. Later, will Meg react dramatically to a failing grade, or if she doesn't get into the school of her dreams? Will she be hysterical if she doesn't get the editor job of the school newspaper? Meg, in order to be real for me, has to at some point not act according to her script, and let her mask down.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Five Tibetan Rites

The hero of one of my novels - a young adult realistic adventure - practices the Five Tibetan Rites every morning as a means of keeping fit. While the claim that these yoga-like postures are actually Tibetan has been widely and soundly disputed, I wanted B. to have a form of discipline and exercise that matches his elusive and somewhat sketchy background.

The tough part about writing a YA hero is that he's got to have a loveable fault. It reminds me of a job interview. Occasionally, one may be asked, "What is one of your weaknesses?" Of course, the only correct answer is "devotion to accomplishing my work efficiently, on-time and with laudable results." In other words, my only weakness is working so hard that you, my new boss, will look great and love me for it.

YA heroes are often of the same mold. They are so good that there is a bad outcome (think Edward Cullen leaving Bella to save her) only for those same qualities to end up being redemptive.  We love these types of heroes.

I'm struggling to give this guy a not entirely likable personality. He's in it for himself - and the Five Tibetan Rites are the beginning of his journey. He wakes up, devotes himself to his physical health, and then renews his quest every day. Can these qualities be redemptive? That is the question I'm exploring.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Focus (My new focus)

Yesterday, I overheard one of the parents dropped off his daughter for her ballet class with this word, "Focus!"

I had to laugh because it's a ballet class for 3-4 year old girls. The beauty of this age is that when kids see something they are interested in, like - oh I don't know a Disney mermaid costume - they can become very singleminded. Intense. Obsessive.

Still, it was a good reminder to me that when you want to be good at something, you've got to focus on it. You've got to practice. You've to be present for it.

So it goes with writing. When I have blogged in the past, I've used the posts as a sort of warm-up for my daily writing on my novel. Going forward, I'll be experimenting with posts about or from or related to the current writing that I'm doing.

Currently, I have three projects: two young adult novels and one picture book, so I'll be sure to make it clear which is which as I'm writing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sarah Plain and Tall

Sarah, Plain and TallTalk about coming late to the game ... I've just finished Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (1986), a Newberry award-winning middle-grade novel that has also been made into a movie starring Glenn Close. I haven't seen the movie yet, but the book has made it to the top of my MG books list. So simple, so perfect.

Sarah, Plain and Tall, set in the early 20th century, tells the story of a widower and his two kids as they invite a potential new mother into their Midwestern home. Sarah arrives homesick for her coastal home in Maine but the children and their father do their upmost to welcome her and help her transition to life on the Plains. The kids thrill at Sarah's every mention of "we" and "us" and hint of a future with them, and despair any slight sign of Sarah's sadness. Will Sarah stay?

The book is slight of hand but the story is leaden with emotional weight. MacLachlan cleverly uses the eldest child, the girl, to the story straightforwardly. There are no saccharine moments of unwarranted affection but rather a true deep inhale of suspense as we follow Sarah's journey and her transformation.

Written for kids 9-12, this book would delight any reader. The story may upset very young children with the idea of a lost mother but this heartwarming story will transcend any temporary misgivings.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat

JOSEPH HAD A LITTLE OVERCOAT: A very old overcoat is recycled numerous times into a variety of garments.Gotta be honest, my 3 1/2 year old did not like Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback, a Caldecott Medal winner.  It's a brief story about resourceful Joseph who continues to recycle his old and worn overcoat down to its very last thread. The message is clear, and timely, and the illustrations lush.

My gut is telling me that the colors were a little too dark for my pink-adoring kid. In fact, I somewhat wryly suggested that if had been about a ballerina who had kept recycling her tutu and leotard she would have liked it better. She did concede that I was probably right.

 Like broccoli, if I keep plying her with this book, she'll come to know it and appreciate it as I do.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"If I Stay" Gets NPR Coverage

If I StayI don't usually post when I a book I like gets coverage elsewhere, but because If I Stay by Gayle Forman is so brilliant, I was thrilled to read a glowing review this morning on NPR's book site. The reviewer points out what makes this book so special: "Tension isn't necessarily created by murderers with pitchforks. It can exist by confronting the protagonist with an impossible decision and seeing what happens."

You can read my review of If I Stay here

Friday, September 10, 2010

When Dinosaurs Came With Everything

When Dinosaurs Came with Everything (Junior Library Guild Selection) Although When Dinosaurs Came With Everything  by Elise Broach can leave younger kids scratching their heads over the ending, this is still an excellent read aloud, use your best funny voices book. It's the story of a young boy and his mom who find that every place they visit on their typical errand day is giving out free dinosaurs. Real ones. Big ones. Naturally, mom is a little concerned about how to feed these mammoth animals (pun intended) and where to keep them. Her son is just eager to keep growing his collection. Only when she is seen carrying more donuts do we realize that mom is going back for more 'free' dinosaurs and has accepted them into the family.

We came across this book at the library in the new section and it has rapidly become a stable at bedtime. My daughter enjoys identifying the different dinosaurs (also check out books by Bernard Most and Jane Yolen for more picture books on dinosaurs, and see my Bernard Most review here) and running her fingers along the illustrations. These pictures, by the way, are not your average black and white outlines of dinosaurs. Nor are they drawn to give you the warm fuzzies (yet the pictures are not exactly frightening, either). Instead, you see the stegosauraus, the triceratops, and yes, the menacing tyrannosaurus rex, in rough skin detail outside the donut shop, the movie theater and the diner.

My favorite parts are the mom's reactions every time they are given a new dinosaur. At one point she is marooned on the floor, mouth hanging open, in fright and disbelief. A very fun read!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bunny Party and Bunny Cakes

Bunny Party (Max and Ruby) Bunny Cakes (Max and Ruby)
A couple of friends have recommended the Rosemary Wells Max and Ruby books, and one fellow writer went so far as to put Bunny Party and Bunny Cakes in my hands the other day, saying "Read these!"

In case you've not had a chance to explore this series, they are a subtle exploration of sibling rivalry for young kids. My first take on the books was that they were a little too plain vanilla for my taste. They lack the contemporary irony and wink-at-the-parents prose found in popular picture book series like Olivia.

Having a had chance to re-read them, I think that they are a more gentle and delightful take on brothers and sisters learning to share, learning to play together, and yes even care about one another. What's more astonishing from an author's point-of-view is how clever the stories and dialogue are. Writing picture books is an exercise in deliberation and rejection.  The author is restricted to words appropriate to 3 - 7 year old kids, and often must keep word count down under the 1,000 mark. From that perspective, Rosemary Wells is a genius at saying so much with so little.

Even more remarkable, and putting aside an adult's take on the books, is that kids really respond to the stories. The books and their characters are very relatable and the illustrations are beautiful. My daughter immediately requested to hear the books again.

One final note, if you're looking for a good book on numbers for kids, Bunny Party is excellent. You'll find yourself counting guests at the party, and the numbers are repeated often, and it'll feel fun instead of a chore. The book encourages kids to chime in and say the numbers or count on their own.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Confessions of a Shopaholic

Confessions of a ShopaholicConfessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella has been around for awhile but I picked it up recently on the suggestion of a few friends.  I have to confess that I ripped through it, enjoying the plot line which kept me guessing at first, and is charmingly written in the first person, taking us directly into the perspective of a 20-something British financial journalist Rebecca Bloomwood who can't say no to a good sale.

What most struck me about this book is how it predated all of the suspense-driven plot that Stephanie Meyer has made famous in Twilight (but had already been done long ago with Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding). From the beginning of COAS, it's pretty clear that Luke Brandon is going to be the love interest and a good portion of the book my mind was churning over how the author was going the two main characters together. It was well done, reminiscent of a classic romance stories (such as my all time fave Pride and Prejudice), but with a fresh take on the modern girl.

The truth is, though, that Becky Bloomwood is initially a disappointing modern girl and I guess that's what kept me away from the book so long. I keep hoping that I'll come across a heroine with more depth than this - and at least in the case, Becky does develop or reveal a conscience - still haven't made up my mind about that.

I did appreciate the discussion about debt and it's a subject that could have been completely mishandled. Instead, here, Becky becomes sympathetic through her travails and the reader really does feel that she is struggling her way out of her financial woes. Naturally, nabbing a wealthy boyfriend helps, but by then it's clear that Becky will be able to manage on her own and Luke almost seems like some kind of cosmic reward for figuring out how to handle her finances.

All in all, a fun book, that works on several levels. It would be easy to dismiss COAS based on the title, but there is a depth here that makes it a great contemporary read and discussion book.

He Came with the Couch

He Came with the Couch
He Came with the Couch written and illustrated by David Slonim is a funny, funny book.

When a family searches garage sales and junkyards to replace their old couch, they find the perfect fit but it comes with a permanent guest. The family goes to great lengths to remove the couch resident, including bagpipes and trips to cure his "upholsterosis". Begrudgingly the parents accept him, and he proves his worth in the end.

The prose is sparse, but the words are told with a twinkle in the eye. And the pictures both perfectly captivate the eye as well as delight with details such as a rummage scene brimming with goofy objects.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

26 Letters and 99 Cents

26 Letters and 99 Cents (Mulberry Books)As is sometimes the case, my daughter requests a book over and over again much to my surprise. 26 Letters and 99 Cents by Tana Hoban is such a book, something we stumbled across in the library.

The book is two-in-one. One side of the book contains the letters of the alphabet - both upper case and lower case, along side a picture of a toy or a piece of fruit or some other kind of object that illustrates the letter. The version we checked out was dated - the pictures look like something from the '80s - but each image is colorful and my daughter liked talking about the connection between the letter and the object.

Flip the book over and each page is devoted to numbers.  For example, the number 4 is accompanied by 4 pennies while the number 5 is shown next to a nickel. My daughter doesn't grasp money yet so pointing to the coins has proven fruitless.  But she likes to recite the numbers out loud with me.  At some point, the book begins to count by 5 which is way beyond what my 3 year-old is managing with numbers.

Still, it's fun to flip the book, and she likes the colorful pictures. It also is fun for her to shout out something that she has been learning.  So this isn't necessarily a good night book but it's can be a fun take on counting on reciting the alphabet during a slow afternoon.

Kipper's A to Z: An Alphabet Adventure

Kipper's A to Z: An Alphabet AdventureKipper's A to Z: An Alphabet Adventure is a charming romp through the alphabet for toddlers working their way from A to Z.  The book tells the story of Kipper and his little pig friend Arnold collecting various insects in a simple box. There is also an overly-eager Zebra, excited to make an appearance.

Both the images and the text are light and uncluttered, allowing the reader to focus on the letter in question. The story is also sweet, completely in keeping with the television series. For Kipper fans, this book is a must.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Before I Fall

Before I Fall
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is ostensibly Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day. More than that, it feels like Emma (yet another mean girl book in the YA genre, and yet another Emma spin wherein the heroine at first seems unlikable) brought forward two hundred years mashed up with Before I Die, or even the very excellent If I Stay (reviewed here - another story about a high school girl forced to examine her life as she lies on her deathbed).

To judge it on its own merit, Before I Fall is a well-written page turner about a popular-by-affiliation mean girl and her last day, which she must relive until she gets it right. It takes her a couple of days of reliving her last day before she realizes the impact of her subtle interactions with her snubbed classmates and family. Then there's another day of anger. Another day of sadness. Another day of woe. And finally, two days of trying to right her past wrongs while simultaneously learning to appreciate the average moment as well as the the people in her life, even with all of their own faults.

Some readers will note the parallels as explored in Thornton Wilder's famous play, Our Town, a perennial high school literature subject. But the appeal here is that Sam Kingston is not an every day, average girl and thus I think the modern appeal. What wild outlandish prank that Sam and her clique of girlfriends inflicted on their classmates will we read about next? How mean can they be? Instead of watching reality TV, it's as if we're reading about it in Before I Fall.

Sam's transformation into a more caring person is believable, although I think I'm one of the few people (at least compared to Amazon reviews) who did not ultimately like her. I also found that the book dragged. Sam seems abnormally slow at figuring out how far her influence extends, and how she alone is able to affect the outcome of the fateful day that landed her in her situation. One other minor complaint - occasionally, Sam talks to the reader (text is in italics) and it never added one degree of complexity or originality and nor did it make the book more enjoyable.  Instead of trusting the reader that we get it - did Sam deserve to be in that car accident? - the author has Sam ask, did I deserve to die? After all, we've got 480 pages to think about that question.

The dialogue is well-done, and I found the scenes with Sam and her family touching.  I'm glad that I read it, and I would recommend Before I Fall because of the caliber of the writing, but only after insisting that you check out If I Stay.