Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Friday, October 14, 2011

Okay for Now News

Earlier this year, I reviewed Gary Schmidt's wonderful new book Okay for Now. I learned this week that it's a National Book Award finalist. Congrats to Mr. Schmidt on this well-deserved honor!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mr. Was Is

I just finished Pete Hautman’s 1996 novel Mr. Was. The story chronicles the life of John (Jack) Lund, which begins in 1979 and ends in 1952. Yes. You read that right. 1979 to 1952. It’s a time travel story that involves a creepy old house, a secret door, and a family saga which cycles back on itself a few times before Jack’s tale is complete.

It’s a fine bit of metafiction, too, set in fictional Memory, MN, which is surrounded by very real and (at least for me) very familiar locations—including my hometown.  Hautman even writes himself into the story, as one simply presentingfor our reviewthe documents contained in an aluminum briefcase his dad found on a North Carolina beach in the early 1950’s (documents Hautman himself supposedly didn’t read until the 1990’s). While this author interaction with the text adds another layer to the narrative (and another chill factory to the story’s “plausibility”), I only wish the possibilities would have been mined a bit further to really explore the effect of story on its writer (or transcriber). Sort of like the way Wes Craven’s New Nightmare investigates (metaphorically) how the horror genre affects those who create it. All things being equal, though, Mr. Was is a much better story than New Nightmare.

Mr. Was is Hautman’s first YA novel. You can read more about it (and its forthcoming new edition) in a post by the author HERE.

Hautman notes that when he wrote Mr. Was, he did not consider it to be a novel for young adults, but Jack's "experiences as a teen made for better storytelling." And so it was published as YA.

It fits the genre. At least, Mr. Was is half a YA novel—both literally and literarily.  Literally because about half the book takes place while Jack is an adolescent. Literarily because Jack’s life teeters between fate and agency.  Agency, for me at least, is a hallmark of YA (or “coming-of-age”) stories. A protagonist must separate himself from the forces that have pushed and pulled him in different directions throughout his childhood and think and act for himself (for better or for worse). So even beyond agency, or the capacity to act, I would argue he must actually act. Jack does just this, making the decision to travel back in time to prevent a tragedy—even though it means he’ll have to wait fifty years for the opportunity to stop it. 

But, as is the case with any good time travel story, there is the question of fate.  Can anything in the past really be altered?  Because if there ever were a time traveler, any difference that he or she makes in history really doesn’t represent a difference at all—it just is. Things that are have always been and will always be.

Whew! That’s getting a little heady for this blog. But my point is, how can anyone exhibit agency (at least in the realm of time travel) when everything that is has always been and will always be? Plus what happens to Jack in the past further strips him of his agency, but we won't get into that (to both save time and avoid spoiling the rest of the novel for you).

This agency/fate split does not represent a flaw in the novel (nor even a mischaracterization of this novel as YA). To the contrary, it makes the novel stronger and more interesting.  Makes us think about these things—agency and fate.  Even—hopefully—makes young readers question the repetition of history. If we know going down a particular road will take us somewhere bad, can’t we choose a different way the next time 'round?

Recommended for ages 15-18.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On the Long Run

I’ve been reading (among other things), Perry Moore’s 2007 novel Hero.  I’m sure I’ll eventually write a review of it, but for now I'm reading only a chapter or two at a time between other readings. I've become a three or four books at a time sort of guy. Daytime reading. Bedtime reading. Out-and-about reading. And—in Hero’s case—change-of-pace reading. Perhaps that's worthy of a blog discussion sometime, too, huh?

But this morning I came across this great little snippet on running in Hero that I have to share:

Running always gave me time to think. It wasn’t like practicing with a team, when I always worried if I was fitting in with everyone else. When I ran, I never thought about screwing someone else up or ruining the team’s chance to win. It was a solitary activity, and sometimes that felt nice. (Moore 140)

While I would argue there is a team aspect to competitive running—especially in cross country—it certainly is of a different nature than most other team sports. And I otherwise wholeheartedly embrace protagonist Thom Creed’s sentiment here.

I’ve never excelled at sports that involve nets, balls, pucks, goals, etc.  And I’ve always worried about batting or passing or pitching or catching (or, rather, failing to do these things) when teammates rely on me.

When running, though, I can let my mind go. Obviously, I need to watch for traffic and uneven surfaces and whatnot. Plus if I'm training for competition, there are workouts where a great deal of focus is needed. But if I'm just out on a nice long run (say an hour or more), my mind is able to sort things out. I'm not worried about how I look.  I'm not thinking about how I might embarrass myself by missing an important basket or letting a grounder roll between my legs. I'm not afraid of letting anybody down. And I am not focused on a goal.

I just am.

I'm up, I'm moving, I'm away from the television, computer, phone, anything that might stake a claim on my attention. I'm just running.

Throughout high school and college, I worked out several essays while pounding pavement, then plopped down at my computer after practice and pounded pages. And still today, I enjoy a good run (although they’re less frequent and of shorter duration than they once were). I can flesh out characters, develop scenes, polish dialogue, or  ponder books I’ve been reading.

And while I walk a lot with my son now, it's a different sort of experience. I certainly think about reading and writing and life in general while we walk, but for those most part, strolls are our time. I’m focused on my son, enjoying his company, taking in the river, admiring houses and flowers and trees.
Running is my time—time in which my mind takes me where I need to go. And sometimes that feels nice.

Moore, Perry. Hero. New York: Hyperion, 2007.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

John Hughes and Dialogue

I’ve recently been doing a lot of dialogue work. In other words, I’ve not written much recently.  Because I, like many, find authentic, interesting dialogue difficult to write.

But good dialogue is essential to a good story.  Dialogue can advance plot, reveal character, or simply make a scene pop.

When I’m stuck, I try a number of things.

For one (by suggestion of a faculty member at Hamline), I look for words in the news, on a random page in the dictionary, on a bus or truck driving by on the street—interesting words, unique words, words I wouldn’t necessarily think of using in my story—then force myself to add them to a scene.  Play around. See what happens. 

I also turn to John Hughes—specifically his teen canon of the 1980’s—Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful.

Hughes once said, “I always liked character stories best—put two or more people in a room and get them talking—that’s the whole reason I got into this in the first place.”

And his films are just that—interesting, authentic teens talking.  And often the pairings are unexpected—the hot girl and the geeky guy, the popular jock and the nerd, the dangerous guy and the quiet girl. Hughes forces these high school stereotypes into a room together and lets them loose, writing first, asking questions (and revising) later.

As a result, he's given us some of the most enjoyable teen films ever made.  Sure, the clothing, hairstyles, and music are dated, but the dialogue still feels fresh, original.

In addition to putting people in situations they wouldn't normally be in (with people they wouldn't normally be with) to get a conversation going, Hughes avoids slang and other language that falls flat. You won’t find a lot of gnarleys or awesomes or wickeds in his work.  There are some, sure. And certainly it’s sometimes appropriate to use slang to represent a particular time period or place or connect with a specific audience. Or just for fun. But Hughes doesn't overuse it—and neither should we. Mostly Hughes uses unique turns of phrase, making his stories memorable, highly quotable, and ultimately timeless. 

So I watch his films not to get specific ideas for dialogue but for inspiration on how to craft speech that is interesting and fresh—dialogue that will bring deeper understanding of  characters and their situations. In short, I want to write dialogue that will make a story pop.

Nearly two years after his death, and decades since he made his most influential films, Hughes is still an inspiration for his unique and honest portrayals of youth. And he built his best stories on characters and their words. 

Favorite quotes:
 “You killed the car.”
“You’re not dying—you just can’t think of anything better to do.”
"Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive."
“A: You can never go too far. B: If I'm gonna get busted, it is not gonna be by a guy like that.”
"We're all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all."
"Andie, hon. Listen, it's after 7:00. Don't waste good lip gloss."
“His name is Blane? Oh! That's a major appliance, that's not a name!”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself! It’s bad for your complexion!”
 “I’d rather have you not see me and like me than see me and hate me. ‘Cause I can’t afford to have you hate me, Keith!!!”
“You break his heart, I break your face.”

Monday, May 9, 2011

Book Review: The Things a Brother Knows

In Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows, Boaz returns to his family’s home outside of Boston after three years in the military, including a long tour in Iraq. The community regards him a hero. But his younger brother Levi, now 17, doesn’t know what to think or feel about him. Levi has never felt close to his brother, and Boaz’s decision to join the Marines when he graduated from high school further separates them. Most of Levi’s family is opposed to the war. Levi isn't all that interested in the politics of it; he’s just mad at his brother for leaving. For ditching out on Christina, his girlfriend. For torturing their poor mother. For delaying—perhaps forfeiting—the promising future he had (and all of the hopes and dreams his parents had for him to go to a great college and have a long and prosperous career). And for bringing three years of worry to their home.

So when Boaz gets back, Levi expects—or at least hopes—things will be better.  Hopes to have his brother back. Hopes life will return to normal for the family, like it was before Boaz left. And I think maybe he hopes to feel connected to his brother (even if he doesn’t know it right away).
The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt
Wendy Lamb Books, 2010

But Boaz has changed.  Other than to emerge for meals, he spends all hours sequestered in his room. He won’t ride in any kind of car, truck, or bus—he even walked home from the airport. And Levi can hear him screaming softly (yes, softly) from his room in the middle of the night. But when Boaz’s computer breaks down and he borrows Levi’s laptop, Levi is able to snoop through his brother's internet doings and learn Boaz has been frequenting military message boards and blogs, watching videos, and downloading maps.

So when Boaz announces to the family that he plans to hike the Appalachian Trail—alone—Levi knows it’s a lie. The maps Boaz downloaded were not of the Appalachian Trail. So he’s even more mad at Boaz. For lying. For delaying the return to normalcy. For putting his family through hell again.

For leaving part of himself in Iraq.

After Boaz departs, Levi tracks him down using the little evidence he left behind. At first Levi tries to get him to come home, to give up whatever crazy mission he’s on and get started on his recovery. But Boaz won't budge, and the best Levi can do is join him on the hike (which Boaz reluctantly agrees to). Along the way, Levi begins to realize that maybe this long walk is just the opportunity he’s been waiting for—a chance to get to know his brother.

The Things a Brother Knows is pitch-perfectly narrated by Levi. It's often funny. Always interesting. Brutally honest. It's a fascinating examination of the effects of war on the family members of those serving on active duty. Levi is angry at his brother for the way he's been acting—and for leaving in the first place—but he's plagued by guilt for having those feelings.

And what's most remarkable about this novel, I think, is the hashing out of the relationship between the estranged brothers. I’m convinced that the handling of emotional relationships between male characters is integral to how boys—especially reluctant male readers—receive literature (and whether or not they will be lifelong readers). So convinced, in fact, that I wrote a critical thesis on the subject, focusing on the role of emotional conversations between boys. You see, if a novel is completely devoid of emotionality, it will not resonate with any reader. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a pleasant read, but it certainly wouldn’t leave a lasting impression, wouldn’t make you want to go out and read another book. Or another. Or another after that. But if a story is overtly emotional (or inappropriately emotional), readers—especially male readers—will likely dismiss it as unrealistic and shy away from the book altogether. But Reinhardt, in this novel, provides the perfect example of how to handle such crucial conversations.

An example: With one sentence, Reinhardt has Levi (likely unbeknownst to him) set the stage for an important talk with his brother: “One of the things about walking I always appreciated is the way you don’t have to look someone in the eye.”  By hiking together, Levi and Boaz are moving, being active. The physicality of it tempers the emotional acuteness that might keep either or both from talking. They loosen up, let their guards down. There’s something about activity that makes many young men feel okay to talk—on the basketball court, during a run, while wrestling or fighting.  Plus, as Levi notes, they don’t have to look at each other. You know that saying, “the eyes are the window to the soul?” Well, if you don’t feel like you’re peering into someone’s soul (or worse—someone’s peering into yours), you might be willing to say some personal things without feeling too vulnerable (or feeling you seem to vulnerable).

The novel sneaks up on you. Levi’s narration is quick, funny, and spirited, and the characters (especially Levi’s friends Pearl and Zim and his grandfather Dov) are quirky and amusing. But all of that serves as a balance to the levity of the situation with Boaz. And when the brothers finally reach the end of their hike—their destination—you feel like you’ve gone the distance with them.

Highly recommended for ages 14-17. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gene Yang at Hamline!

Just learned some great news! Gene Yang, author of the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award-winning American Born Chinese, is joining the faculty in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Hamline University. He was met with great enthusiasm (including from yours truly) when he spoke at the January residency in St. Paul.  For any of you aspiring graphic novelists out there (especially those who write for younger readers), this should serve as another nudge to check out Hamline! Peruse the website to learn more (and see what other amazing faculty are involved).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Book Review: Oil Spill! Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico

Oil Spill! Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a new non-fiction book by Elaine Landau that chronicles the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. It’s broken into several sections that cover the explosion, stoppage of the leak, the devastating affects on sea life and local economies, and suggestions for what concerned readers can do.

Landau does an excellent job of illustrating that there were no quick, neat, or easy solutions. Stopping the leak and conducting the clean up have been “messy” jobs. And without being preachy, she suggests concrete things readers can do to prevent such disasters in the future (like writing a congressperson about exploring and investing in cleaner energy, or—closer to home—reducing the amount of energy you use to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels).
Oil Spill! Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico
by Elaine Landau
Millbrook Press, 2011

I like the multi-pronged approach of the book, viewing the story from several perspectives to get a sense of the breadth of the disaster and what it took (and continues to take) to counteract the devastation. But it makes everything feel a bit distant. I wish there was a unifying thread in Oil Spill, tying together the separate sections of the book. As it stands, it’s like a collection of interesting topical essays about the disaster.

But Oil Spill is very readable. I appreciate the list of other disastrous spills at the end of the book that contextualizes how serious the Gulf spill is. And the glossary of terms is helpful for young (and older!) readers.  I’m struck by the violence of much of the terminology used by people addressing this disaster: top kill, junk shot, dead well, etc. It’s appropriate, I guess, since it’s almost like we’re at war with the disaster. Battling. Fighting. Defending sea life (and a way of life) on the Gulf Coast.

And the book is timely. Not only because the Gulf region is still feeling the affects of the spill (and will for quite some time). But because we’re constantly reminded of the volatility of our energy sources. Wars and political upheaval in the Middle East (Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) affect the price of oil. An earthquake and tsunami in Japan have caused crises at nuclear facilities. These are things that all of us need to think about—even kids. Maybe specially kids. Someday today’s children will take the reins on energy use and policy. And Landau manages to present a compelling read that asks them important questions without being pessimistic or (as I said before) preachy.  It’s not an angry book. But it also doesn’t gloss over the tough stuff. Oil Spill challenges its readers to think about the real world consequences of meeting contemporary energy needs.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dialectical Completism: a review of Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

I collect things. Especially books. And films. And I’m a completist; I like to have entire sets of my favorite things.  Since my sophomore year of college, I’ve been assembling the American Film Institute’s 100 Years...100 Movies list (the original one from 1997—not the 2007 update).  I have ninety-seven so far; I’m just waiting for re-releases of the last three. I collect other films, too, like ones by my favorite directors—Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Scorsese—or favorite TV shows, like The Simpsons.  I also collect favorite books and sets of favorite book series.

The collections are less pristine than they once were, having been boxed and unpacked for several moves (including two semi-trans-United-Statesian trips). And a newly toddling child who clears any and all reachable shelves adds to the torn pages, creased covers, scratched discs, and smudged jackets in my library.  But I’ve learned to let go of keeping things crisp and new (except for signed copies—I at least keep those out of reach).  Because the condition of these items has become less important to me as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it’s just that I want the things that are important to me—items that are useful, enjoyable, and influential—to be readily available. In their entirety.  Regardless of their condition.

Or maybe it’s something else.

At any rate, I can relate to Doug Swieteck’s quest for complete-ness in Gary Schmidt’s wonderful new book Okay for Now (due out April 5). But more on that quest in a minute.

First it’s important to understand young Mr. Swieteck’s circumstances.  For those of you who read Schmidt’s 2008 Newberry honor book The Wednesday Wars, you might remember Doug, a friend of Holling Hoodhood.  This book picks up about where Wars left off, but follows Doug and his family (instead of Holling and his) to “stupid Marysville, New York” in the summer of 1968.

Doug hates his new life in this little town in upstate New York.  He wants to be back near the city, near Yankee Stadium, where he might have another chance encounter with his favorite player Joe Pepitone, who Doug is convinced is the greatest guy in the world.  Young Doug enumerates, in his amusing and endearing voice, all of the things he hates about Marysville (and life in general), including his house, which he calls “The Dump.” Plus his older brother is a jerk who picks on him and steals all his stuff (including his Joe Pepitone signed baseball cap, which is the only piece of clothing he’s ever owned that hasn’t belonged to another Swieteck before him). His oldest brother’s off fighting in Vietnam. His dad is so dissatisfied with his life that he has taken it upon himself to make everyone else in the family absolutely miserable. And the principal at his new school doesn’t think much of him. Nor do several of his teachers—especially Coach Reed.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2011

But thankfully there are some bright spots in Doug’s Marysville life. First is his mother.  She’s a bright spot everywhere. Especially her smile. Enough said.  Then there is his company-picnic-baseball-trivia-partner/horse-shoe-instructor, who turns out to be his dad’s boss (you’ll need to read the book to fully understand this one). And, of course, there is Lil (short for Lily, short for Lillian) Spicer, who is in the eighth grade with Doug. In their first meeting, she teaches him how to drink a really cold Coke (spoiler: it involves an impressive belch) and offers him a Saturday delivery job at her dad’s store. Lil quickly becomes his first and best friend in Marysville.

But most important is the public library—which is funny since Doug has never before set foot in any other library in his entire life.  Inside he’s drawn to an enormous book in a glass case, which is opened to a painting of an artic tern.  The book is John James Audubon’s Birds of America. And Mr. Powell, a librarian, finds Doug tracing his finger over the image, entranced by its beauty. He immediately recognizes his interest (although Doug won’t admit it—it’s just a bird, so what?), and over the course of the book  teaches Doug (who is unsurprisingly reluctant, at first) to draw. And to draw well

The book is a bit darker than The Wednesday Wars, dealing with weightier subject matter. But Schmidt does so delicately. The story is at turns sad, joyous, infuriating, hysterical, and touching. And it is always sincere. It earns its emotional punches. We can feel the shifts in tone and mood as we navigate through the pages. And he provides subtle markers that tell us where we are in the story. Like with the delivery route.  Doug takes groceries to the same set of people every week, and Schmidt gives us quirky details about these characters and their lives. And how they change throughout the book (especially in their attitudes towards Doug) not only suggests the passage of time but reflects Doug’s internal and external struggles and the evolution of his place in Marysville. Doug learns how to ride the ups and downs of life, whether it be troubles or triumphs with his brothers (both of them, since the eldest returns from war partway through the book), his father, his teachers, or Lil.

Another point of navigation is the plates—individual paintings of birds—from the Audubon book.  Each chapter is centered on one of the plates, either on drawing it or collecting it (again more on the collection quest in a moment). Many chapters involve sequences in which Doug receives detailed instructions from Mr. Powell about perspective, movement, tension, etc.  In short, he learns how to bring life to static images (in the same way writers bring places and characters to life through the use of abstract, static symbols called letters). And Schmidt uses the descriptions of the paintings to create a deeper and more complete understanding of the relationships Doug has with the other characters. For example, Doug’s relationship to Coach Reed seems one-dimensional at first—the aggressive gym teacher and the somewhat mouthy new student. But Schmidt uses the painting of the fork-tailed petrels to illustrate one of the more complex relationship arcs in the story. When Doug and Coach Reed finally talk, really talk, it’s not the result of a direct engagement, smashing into each other as they have throughout the novel to that point. It’s more like they’re circling, circling, until finally the right situation emerges, the right words slip past their lips. They circle, circle until they meet like the petrels.

There are numerous subplots involving a play, a rash of robberies in Marysville, the hijinks (not of the amusing, whimsical variety) of his dad and his dad’s drinking buddy Ernie Eco, Doug’s oldest brother’s search for gainful employment, andoh yeah—the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, but these are secondary to Doug’s primary quest. Yes, we’re finally going to talk about the quest.

When the arctic tern disappears one day and Mr. Powell moves on to teaching Doug about another painting from the Audubon book, Doug learns a terrible truth. The book is very rare, and very valuable. How is that terrible, you might ask? The book is so valuable that few people can afford a copy in its entirety.  So the town of Marysville (which is short on cash) has been cutting individual paintings/pages/plates out of the book and selling them one by one. 

This devastates Doug, and he makes it his mission to return as many of the paintings to the book as he can.

If he succeeds, the book won’t be pristine.  Not even close.  Much in the way my DVDs and books have been battered, crushed, dented, and otherwise damaged over the years. Much in the same way people aren't in "mint condition." Not as children. Not as adults. But the book will be whole.  We can be whole.

For Doug, each plate he collects is literally an important page from his life (underscored by the way Schmidt organizes each chapter). The reassembled book represents a pivotal year of Doug’s adolescence.  A whole book. And a whole person.

Which makes me think that while it’s true that I collect things that are important to me for the simple reason that I like them to be readily accessible for my personal use (in their entirety), I think there might be something more meaningful going on.  The items or libraries we build or collect (of books, films, music, antiques, works of art, toy cars, rubber bands, whatever) are tangible representations of us, our internal selves fit nicely into objects we can (often) hold in our hands. That’s not to say we’re simply a sum of our possessions—that’s not what I mean at all. Doug, for example, doesn’t have much (not even his signed baseball cap that his stupid brother stole and it ended up in the stupid gutter). But the things we value both reflect and shape who we become. As do our quests.  Viewing the films I’ve collected and watched again and again or (and especially) reading the books I’ve read and the notes I’ve made in them at different times in my life, you will begin to get a sense of me. Not an exact me. But a sense. And that me grows and changes as my library grows and changes (as the complete sets I collect grow and change), which will in turn influence what I read and view and collect in the future.  And while I certainly won’t keep everything I’ve read or seen (or even everything that’s important to me), I will always have the quest. And the quest to complete those sets is as important to me as actually having them. Each movie in the AFI 100 represents a story for me (in how I acquired it, where and when and with whom I first saw it, etc.). The list has been an important part of the last nine years of my life.

And Doug spends a year of his life with these plates, which (in the acts of both drawing and collecting them) influence his actions, relationships, and feelings. And he directly impacts the paintings by getting them back to where they belong. Completing the book. "Completing" himself. And in a nice surprise twist at the end (one spoiler I will not reveal in detail), Doug becomes intimately linked to this particular copy of Birds of America, which, after he grows up (and possibly moves away from Marysville), he might never even see again. But it will always be a part of him and he a part of it. As will the quest to reassemble it.

As for me, I think I’ve decided how to fill the AFI void when I get through the list: by collecting the complete works of Gary D. Schmidt.

Recommended for ages 11-15.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Book Review: The Many Faces of George Washington

When you think of the face of George Washington, what comes to mind? The visage that graces the dollar bill, perhaps? Maybe his profile on the quarter? Or is it the majestic pose chiseled into the side of Mount Rushmore beside Presidents Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln? In her fascinating new book due out this month, The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon, Carla Killough McClaffery explains that not one of the above-mentioned images—or any other image of Washington painted, carved, or sculpted during his lifetime—looks exactly like any of the others. And since there is no photographic evidence from this time period, we’re left to wonder, do we really know what the first president of the United Sates actually looked like?  Or has his image been so irrevocably obscured by history that the closest we’ll ever get to the real thing is little more than a caricature?

The early part of the book is filled with examples of mismatching Washington portraiture in beautiful, full color images. And again, no two are alike, including two that were painted on the same day—during the same sitting—by father and son. Even the iconic image of Washington on the dollar bill is suspect. Washington sat for painter Gilbert Stuart on an “off day” for the portrait. And the President had new dentures that made his lips bulge out. On top of that, the portrait on the bill is actually a mirror image of the original (a product of the engraving process).

Throughout the rest of the book, McClaffery follows the contemporary leadership at Mt. Vernon as it tries to figure out what George Washington really looked like and develops three life-sized recreations of the man (at ages 19, 45, and 57).  The leadership compiles portraits—none of which were painted before he was forty—and written descriptions of the president, and forms a team, which includes a sculptor and a forensic anthropologist.

The Many Faces of George Washington:
Remaking a Presidential Icon
by Carla Killough McClafferty
Carolrhoda Book, 2011
As the figures emerge, McClaffery paints her own portrait (with words) of Washington, describing his life during the three time periods featured in the recreations. And she helps the reader understand that both science (including technical measurements and research) and art (consideration of subtlety, emotion, and character) combine to create the realistic representation of President Washington (with accurate size and dimension and appropriate expression and poise).

One of the team’s biggest breaks was the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon, a French sculptor who was commissioned to make a life-sized statue of Washington late in the 18th century. (Some wanted to make a larger than life sculpture of the man, but at over six-feet in height, Washington himself said life-sized would be big enough.)  Fortunately, Houdon insisted on doing the sculpture in person (not just from a portrait) so he traveled the Atlantic and lived at Mt. Vernon for several weeks, drawing Washington, getting to know him, taking precise measurements, and casting the President’s face! The original cast has been lost, but the life mask and bust that he made from it survive.

From the bust and the mask, McClaffery explains how researchers used sophisticated scanning technology to create detailed 3D imaging of Washington’s face. She discusses how his appearance changed as he aged (especially his mouth and jaw due to his severe tooth-loss) and how sculptors considered how bone and skin and muscle affect appearance and change over time.  She talks about Washington’s posture—a product of his grooming as a gentleman in upper class society—and his clothing, which was recreated for these figures according to styles he would have worn, right down to the type of fabrics used.

You can see how the President’s life story is so intimately tied to his appearance (and the recreation of it).

And as McClaffery recounts the pain-staking detail that went into the creation of each model of Washington at 19 (as a young surveyer), 45 (as a general in the revloution), and 57 (as the first President), her story of the man unfolds. I worried, at first, that it would be a dry recap of his life—like many other histories and biographies I’ve read of Washington. But her portrait really does put a heart to the face. She recounts his struggles, desires, profound sense of duty and obligation to his country, sophistication and class, and warmth and humor.

A particular scene that sticks out to me is one in which he addresses congress, officially giving up his role as commander-in-chief following the end of the war. He felt he was a poor public speaker so he wrote out his remarks, and his hand shook as he held the paper and made his speech.  Apparently there were few dry eyes in the chamber when he was finished.

The final chapter of the book underscores the interdisciplinary involvement in this project: anthropology, science, technology, art history, and textiles. Artists, scholars, tailors, taxidermists, and craftspeople, who demonstrate “the study of human history is not confined to research libraries or archaeological digs” (107). 

And James C. Reese, Mount Vernon president, says that people who visit the historic site don’t really know much about him. They might respect the President, but they feel no connection to him. Reese says that changes by the time they leave: “They really feel good about Washington, and that makes them feel good about America” (108).

Ultimately, McClafferty’s book makes us think about how our own physical characteristics, clothing expressions, posture, etc. affect what we think, how we act, who we are. And vice versa.

And by the end of the book, after we see all three of the Washington re-creations now on display at Mt. Vernon, we feel that a man whose image was once obscured by history has been made “flesh and bone” again through modern technology and old-fashioned story-telling. Washington is made accessible and relevant.

Excellent read!  Recommended for ages 9-12.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bad Days

Not long ago, I reviewed two of the Alexander books by Judith Viorst. That poor kid just can’t catch a break.  The stories are amusing glimpses at the “bad days” we have as children. There’s certainly a spectrum of what constitutes “bad,” and it means something different for every child. But his experiences seem somehow universal—a microcosm of the little things that go wrong and pile up on one another until their sum equals one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I’ve been having a few of those days myself recently. Nothing major. You know, just little stressors that accumulate and no amount of shrugging seems to slide the weight from your shoulders. Bills to pay.  Parties to plan. Sick kids to take care of. Not having time or energy to write. Or writing garbage. Those sorts of things. And the cold and dark of February in Minnesota hasn’t helped. Nor has our recent snowstorm. Don’t get me wrong; snow is lovely. But in December, when it’s new and exciting. And it’s nice to have a White Christmas.  Even in January, I can handle it. But in late February, after Mr. Punxsutawney Phil himself promised me an early spring?  Too much. Especially when it’s fourteen inches on top of the 60+ inches we already have. Especially when you have to take your twelve-month-old to urgent care in a blizzard to conquer an ear infection that keeps him up at all hours. Poor little guy.

Hey, Al by Arthur Yorinks
Farrar Press, 1986
Illustrations by Richard Egielski

But I digress. My point—if I have one—is what should a late-twenty-something do when he, for the first time in his life, experiences a mild bout of seasonal affective disorder (which has the most wonderfully appropriate acronym: SAD)? How does an adult handle a no good, very bad day?

I’ve heard sitting for hours in front of a bank of bright lights can help. But who has the time for that?

Mercifully, and coincidentally, a former co-worker and friend recently suggested that I revisit the 1987 Caldecott winner Hey, Al by Arthur Yorinks (illustrated by Richard Egielski). It wasn’t a suggestion for improving my mood, just a favorite of hers that she had recently reread. But it was the right book at the right time for me.

For those of you not familiar with the story, Al is a janitor who lives in a small (and I mean small) apartment in New York with his dog, Eddie. They eat together and watch TV together and are generally content. The narrator asks, “What could be bad?” which sets a playful tone for the story, especially when you turn the page to find the answer: “Plenty.”  Turns out Eddie’s not happy. Not happy with their dumpy apartment or Al’s job. Not happy that everything’s hard, everything’s a struggle.  “Pigeons live better than us!” he says. Oh, did I mention that Eddie speaks?

Then a large bird comes a-calling, “Hey, Al.” He takes Al and Eddie to a beautiful island in the sky, where there’s plenty to eat and drink, and the days are long and beautiful and sunny. The large bird says, “So, Al, is this so terrible?” Al says he could live like this forever. Facing this seemingly interminable winter, I have to agree with Al.

But as the narrator points out, “ripe fruit soon spoils.” And Al wakes up one morning to discover that he and Eddie are turning into birds. Al says he’d rather mop floors than be a bird, and he and Eddie flap on outta there. But before they reach home, Eddie—exhausted—crashes into the ocean. Al barely makes it back alive, alone and missing his friend. But luckily little Edie is quite the swimmer and he finds his way back to their apartment.

The last page shows the little apartment all covered in newspaper as Al paints the walls. The narrator concludes that “Paradise lost is sometimes Heaven found.”

So perhaps the story is a little clich├ęd. You know, “appreciate what you have,” or “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  That sort of thing.  And the story almost seems to suggest that we should “be careful what we wish for” and not “fly too high.” A little conservative for my taste.

But that’s overanalyzing it. The story is not preaching or intellectualizing. It’s just a good story with a good emotional punch. When Al gets home, exhausted and alone, I almost tear up. Sad, right? But I feel sorry for Al. Sure things are bad at the beginning of the story, but at least he has Eddie. Now Eddie’s gone. This is terrible! 

But then Eddie returns, and not only is all back to normal, but things are better than normal because Al and Eddie realize—I mean, truly understand—that they have each other.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. A story that reminds me I have friends is what broke me out of my winter funk? Yes. It is. But not by making me think about what I have. Hey, Al is a simple story, but surprisingly visceral. It makes me feel my appreciation for what I have.

I often read as a writer, trying to understand why something in a story works and how a writer achieves desired effects. But there are times I read as a reader, too. And when I’m in a funk, I let a story wash over me.  My guard is down in a way that it’s never down when I’m having a conversation with someone. This is one of the many reasons we need story. We need to feel.

Thanks, Peggy for the recommendation. Before bed, I think I’ll read Dr. Seuss’s Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?, which offers a different emotional nudge to break free from a slump—humor to enumerate the outlandishly awful things that could be.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: Invasion (released 1.4.2011)

Invasion, a new book by Jon S. Lewis (writer for D.C. Comics), is the first installment of the new CHAOS series for young adults. We’re introduced to Colt McAlister (even sounds like an action hero, right?), who might soon become the next leader of the CHAOS organization, which has monitored the movements of—and protected Earth from—alien invaders since World War II.

But as the story begins, Colt is a typical teenager in San Diego, the youngest (at age 16) of eight boys (and the only one still living at home). He goes to school. He surfs. He plays video games.  Life is pretty good.

Then a drunk driver kills his parents in a car crash.

Colt moves in with his grandfather in Arizona and begins school, drifting through life following the abrupt loss of his parents.  Fortunately, a childhood friend (Danielle—a.k.a Dani) goes to his new high school.  Plus he meets a new friend, Oz.

But then weird things start happening. Colt is contacted by a man who claims to know a secret about his parents' death. And Oz points out that Grandpa McAlister might just be the real-life inspiration for the Phantom Flyer, a World War II era comic book hero.  All of the pieces start coming together—CHAOS, Trident Industries, the Phantom Flyer, his father’s military career (and—as Colt learns—CHAOS career).  And all the signs point to Colt becoming the next leader of CHAOS (even though he’s only a teenager).

Invasion is about confronting loss, dealing with high school, and navigating relationships with friends and family—all set against the backdrop of a mounting invasion by the Thule, who have poked at the weaknesses in the portal between their world and Earth (and who have been running Trident Industries from the inside, creating an army of drones to aid in the destruction of mankind).

Invasion by Jon S. Lewis
Thomas Nelson, 2011

The premise of Invasion is great. I like the comic-books-as-reality idea (I’ve often thought of comic books as contemporary American folklore), and I like the idea of an average teenage boy going through average teenage things while also going through something extraordinary (much in the way that Harry Potter endures the ins and outs of growing up while saving the world and such). 

But what Rowling does so seamlessly in the Potter series seems a little forced and clunky in this first installment of CHAOS.  For example, there’s a nice little interaction between Colt and his dad in chapter one, but it’s too quick, ends too soon, and oddly turns into a discussion about Trident and CHAOS (like that bit of information needed to be crammed into the beginning to fit a framework, instead of letting the story unfold organically from characters and situations).

But where the story lacks subtlety and nuance, it makes up for in action.  And by setting the stage as quickly and efficiently as Lewis does, we get to that action sooner rather than later. And there’s a lot of action! Reluctant readers will like that.

Plus the interactions between Dani, Oz, Colt, and Lily (Colt’s love interest) are well drawn. Lewis’s dialogue is sharp. The characters are fun. And he writes about awkward teen situations really well—like Colt worrying that he’s got something hanging from his nose or that he isn’t wearing deodorant.  That’s great stuff!  I only wish there was more of it.

Bottom line: the story is plot driven, for better or for worse.  Sure, some of the action seems preposterous and unnecessary, like when one of the Trident drones pours out a bag of miniature mechanical drones and stars controlling them (seriously, drones controlling drones?!), but it’s always in good fun.  Invasion is action packed, fast-paced with lots of dialogue, and ultimately a fun read.   

My only hope for the next installment (due out in January 2012) is that the action is more rooted in the emotions of the characters, that the physical problems of the novel are more intimately tied to the emotional life of the protagonist and his friends. And I’d like for readers to pick out and understand connections and developments for themselves, instead of being told how everything in the story fits together.


Recommended for ages 12-15.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Stephen Fry on Language

A friend and writing peer, Andy Cochran, shared with me this wonderful little piece by Stephen Fry on the joy of language (and the unnecessary focus on its "proper use").  It's a great reminder of how to think about context and meaning when we write, especially for children and young adults. Plus it gives writers license to be playful. Don't worry about "mistakes" in an initial draft. Cleaning it up  can be fun, too, but just get out what you mean to say the first time around. Revise later.

And by George, it's okay to break some rulz every now and then--even in a revised draft!


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Pete Hautman interview on MPR

Check out this great interview with Pete Hautman that aired on Midmorning with Kerri Miller on MPR today! Pete is a National Book Award winning author. He talks with Kerri about writing YA fiction and his favorite books from his teen years. Plus he answers some questions from callers. 

Pete's latest book The Big Crunch is available now.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Featured Article: "Authors Rewrite the Book on Self-Publishing" by Kim Ode, Star Tribune

Check out this article in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune by Kim Ode about Stanley Gordon West and self-publishing. On page two, Mary Logue, writer, editor, and faculty member at Hamline University (and former advisor of mine!) discusses the ever (and rapidly) changing and unpredictable nature of the publishing world.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Featured Book: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Harper & Row, 1963
I probably read Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are about a thousand times as a little guy. Love it.  Sendak creates some of the most memorable images in children’s literature.  And it’s the images that drive the story. In fact, the “wild rumpus” sequence is told entirely without words in 3 full-page spreads (six total pages).  Also, early in the tale, we see a picture on the wall of Max’s room that he drew (which both illustrates his fantastic imagination and foreshadows the adventure to come).  The story is very simple, told with basic vocabulary in fewer than ten sentences. Max is sent to his room without dinner because he’s being wild.  He then has an elaborate daydream in which he sails to where the wild things are and envisions himself as the wildest wild thing of all.  He is then brought home by the smell of his dinner, which is waiting for him at his door. And it’s still warm.

Spike Jonze film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are found mixed reviews upon its release.  I, however, enjoyed it immensely.  I’ve often heard it described as an adult meditation on childhood. And I think that’s an accurate description. Especially because one of the most wild parts of childhood is pain. It’s been over a year since I’ve seen the film, but I still remember the expression of concern and confusion on Max’s face when his teacher talks about the finite nature of the universe.  And  then there’s the heartbreaking scene in which Max is playing under his mom’s desk (maybe telling her stories?) as she works. She enjoys time with her son, but she wears the pained expression of adulthood. There’s longing and sadness in her eyes, and it makes Max hurt, too. And feel sad. And the hardest thing about all of it is that he doesn’t understand.  I got a little choked up watching that scene. And it altered my expectations of the film.  And the way I watched the rest of it. Max spends his time in the land of the wild things trying to make a child’s wild nature and understanding of the world fit into what he believes are the adult rules. But those rules just don’t make sense.  I come away from the film feeling that life, generally, makes so much more sense as a child. And maybe that’s why I still love this story (both the book and the film) so much.  Hell, maybe that’s why I love children’s literature so much.  Thank you, Mr. Sendak.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Featured Book: Harry the Dirty Dog

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion 
HarperCollins, 1956
Illustrations by Margaret Bloy Graham
The title of Gene Zion's 1956 Harry the Dirty Dog says it all. Harry dislikes cleanliness. He hides the scrub brush whenever it's time to take a bath. To Harry, filthiness is next to dogliness.  So he runs away and indulges in joyous, untidy rebellion. His dirty doings are depicted in a series of short, simple sentences and corresponding drawings: playing in a street, at the railroad, with other dogs. Even in a coal chute! In a humorous twist, all of the grime transforms Harry from a white dog with black spots to a black dog with white spots. He looks so different that his family doesn’t recognize him when he returns home (one of several indications that Harry is brighter than his family--another being that he always outsmarts them with concealing the bath brush). Harry finally does the very last thing he ever expected to do in his entire life: beg his family for a bath.  But as the story comes to close, we’re not left feeling like Harry “gives in.”  No, Harry might be clean and safe at home, but the bath brush is still tucked safely beneath his pillow.  Only now, it seems, that instead of always refusing to be clean, he will be the judge of when he needs a bath (i.e. when his silly family doesn't recognize him through the filth!).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Featured Book: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

 Narrated by our protagonist, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (illustrated by Ray Cruz), demonstrates the many perils of childhood, like tripping, getting gum in your hair, and not getting the prize out of the cereal box.  Fortunately, Alexander has a plan--a remedy--that pops up as an amusing refrain throughout the story: he's going to move to Australia. Before the story—and the day—comes to a close, Alexander’s best friend demotes him, he fails to impress his teacher with a drawing of an invisible castle, he sings too loudly, he forgets the number 16, he doesn’t get dessert, he has a cavity, he is pushed in the mud and called a crybaby, he gets lima beans at dinner, and he sees kissing on TV.  Ew! That’s the worst! The loveliest thing about this story is that it doesn’t feel the need to end on a positive note. Instead, Alexander admits that sometimes days are just...terrible, even. But they can be bad in Australia, too. We close the book satisfied that Alexander survives the ordeal, and we hope the poor fellow has a better day tomorrow.

Bonus Review:

Two decades after Alexander has a terrible day, the poor kid still can’t catch a break.  In Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move, a late entry in Judith Viorst’s Alexander series (illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser), our plagued protagonist returns, facing yet another childhood woe: moving (no--not to Australia). Told again in Alexander’s charming voice, he lets the reader know—absolutely, positively, unequivocally—that he will not move. “Never. Not ever. No way. Uh uh. N. O.”  In fact, we never hear other characters' exact words from their own lips, with their own voices. Alexander paraphrases all of it for us, including the repetition of his brothers’ opinions of him: “Nick says I’m_____ (fill in the blank with a variety of nasty things brothers might say),” and “Anthony says I’m being immature.”  Repetition is also used to underscore the sadness that sort of oozes through the humor of the story. It's really a melancholy little tale.  Alexander notes the distance between his current and new homes: a thousand miles.  He considers his not-moving options, plotting to live with the Baldwins or the Rooneys.  Or moving into his tree house.  He packs and says his goodbyes, but all the while he plots, thinking of how not to move. Finally, his parents offer incentives to Alexander, like calling his best friend long distance and maybe getting a dog. Finally, he decides that maybe he can handle moving after all. And the “incentives” are a nice touch, because when thinking about all of the things that he likes about his current home early in the story, we encounter the neighbor’s dog and the friend he’ll be leaving behind.  While not as charming as Very Bad Day, it's a worthy entry in the Alexander canon, a sweet story about loving what you have while also being willing and able to change (and hopefully love the change, too).

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,
by Judith Viorst, Atheneum, 1972. Illustrations by Ray Cruz.

Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move
by Judith Viorst, Atheneum, 1995. Illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser (in the style of Ray Cruz).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Featured Book: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
Houghton Mifflin, 1939

In Virginia Burton's Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, the reader learns, in a series of beautiful and detailed pictures, what a steam shovel can do: dig canals, cut through mountains, lower hills, straighten curves, smooth ground, fill in holes, create landing fields for planes, and dig holes for the cellars of skyscrapers. Mike Mulligan is proud of his steam shovel Mary Anne (apparently a reference to Marion Steam Shovels), and boasts that she could dig in one day what 100 men could do in one week, and the two always work faster and better when others are watching.   

But gas, electric, and diesel shovels are rapidly replacing steam shovels. Out with the old and in with the new. Mike knows that Mary Anne still has worth; so he goes to the small town of Popperville, which needs a basement dug for its new town hall. Mike is so confident that the work can be done in a day (remember his boast about the 100 men?) that he promises that the labor will be free if not completed by nightfall. 

At dawn the next day, they set out to work. The reader gets the sounds of the digging: BING! BANG! CRASH! SLAM! The people of Popperville (and neighboring Bangerville, Bopperville, Kipperville, and Kopperville) all come to watch, which makes Mike and Mary Anne work faster and better! The ending is exciting and unexpected: Mary Anne gets stuck in the basement! 

This dilemma encourages interaction with the reader, asking of him what should be done in this situation.  Ultimately, upon the suggestion of the little boy in the story (based on the suggestion given to Burton by a real-life 12-year-old), it is decided that Mary Anne will be used to heat the new town hall, and Mike is given a job there so that he may always be with her.  The technology in the book is deliberately outdated (and infinitely more outdated now). But the story still feels fresh. Ahead of it's time, even. At least for me.  I'm still young, but I can feel more and more each day just how quickly the world moves, and how easy it is to feel suddenly irrelevant. Especially as a writer. Mike Mulligan encourages salvage and reuse of valuable resources and finding value in things (and people!) that might otherwise be written off. Not preservation for preservation's sake, but creative and essential new uses for what we already have.

Picture Books

I devote much of my time to reading, writing, and reviewing books for middle grade and young adult readers. But my love of words began when I was very young. With picture books. And now that I have a young son of my own, picture books have become a significant part of my life again.  So for the next week or so, I'll talk about a few of my favorites. Books my son enjoys. Books I enjoyed. Books my parents enjoyed. And books their parents enjoyed.

I hope you enjoy them, too.