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

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.