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

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Draft Pact (Not NFL related!)

I met a writing pal of mine for breakfast yesterday morning. We spent over three hours catching up and talking about books, films, writing, and--among other things--New Year's resolutions. (Yes, we're aware that it's the end of April.) In January, we both resolved to complete the respective writing projects we were working on. Or rather, he made a post on our writing group's blog about making that his resolution, and I elected to borrow it as mine as well.

Because finishing stuff is hard. If I completed one full draft for every ten stories I started, I'd be a pretty prolific writer.  But as it is, I have several novels with beginnings, a few with middles, and none with endings. My friend and I agree that there are many contributing factors to this problem.  Busy lives certainly falls near the top of the list. As does over-ambition (leading to too many starts without any finishes). Premature editing and re-drafting early chapters before finishing a complete draft figures prominently as well. 

But mostly, we both miss the accountability of deadlines that we had in college and graduate school.  Self-imposed deadlines (and New Year's resolutions) just don't carry the same weight as being accountable to another person.

So we made a pact. The draft pact. We're each going to finish drafts for the manuscripts we're currently working on by July 1, which gives us about two months. Here goes!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Abundance of Stories

John Green is a crazy-good storyteller. He’s the kind of writer whose work both inspires me to be better at what I do...and convinces me that I might as well give up now because I could never possibly be as good at this as he is.

Colin Singleton, the protagonist in Green’s 2006 novel An Abundance of Katherines is not a crazy-good storyteller.  At least not at first.  He “wanders” when he tells a story.  Focuses on inconsequential details. Goes off on tangents. Lacks focus, purpose, and (usually) a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

But that’s okay, because what he lacks in storytelling skills, he more than makes up for in general prodigy-ness.  He learned to read and write (among other things) much earlier than most (like, starting at age two). His brain’s a sponge that readily absorbs information.  He reads several hours a day. He anagrams words, names, and phrases for fun. And throughout the novel, he tries very hard to make some sort of lasting contribution to society, something he’ll be remembered for so that he doesn’t end up being just another forgotten child prodigy.

The story begins the day after Colin graduates from high school (and the day after his nineteenth breakup with a Katherine).  Colin has only ever dated Katherines (spelled K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E), and most of the relationships were short-lived. But Katherine XIX was different. He’d been with her for almost a year, and she was, in his mind, the one.

His Judge Judy-loving best friend Hassan (who took a “year off” after high school, but has yet to register for any college courses in the coming term) convinces Colin to take a road trip with him—something to snap Colin out of his funk.  They’re not on the road for much more than a day when they come across the small town of Gutshot and are tourist-trapped by a sign claiming the remains of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—a figure our young prodigy had coincidentally just been thinking about—were buried there.  Colin’s doubtful the remains are authentic, but he’s curious nonetheless. 

While in Gutshot, they meet Lindsey Lee Wells and her mom, Hollis, who hires Hassan and Colin to record stories of Gutshot residents (especially those who work or worked at a textile plant that Hollis’s family has operated in town for decades).  Hassan, who has never made the kind of money Hollis is offering (with free room and board to boot), convinces Colin that they should stay.  Colin agrees, under the condition that he has time to do his “work” every day.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Dutton, 2006
Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen
His work is to develop a formula that predicts the rise and fall of relationships. But really, his work is to prove he matters. Early in the story, we learn from Colin the distinction between a prodigy (who picks up on things other people have already mastered quickly and at a very early age) and a genius (who does something phenomenally well that no one has ever done before).  Colin is the former and is concerned that he’ll soon be past his prime. He wants to leave his mark before it’s too late. Maybe cross over into genius territory.  And to him, successfully completing this formula will help him do just that—and maybe even convince Katherine XIX to get back together with him. 

The novel is stylistically interesting. It’s told in limited/close third personal narration (deep inside of Colin’s head and closely linked to his personality).  There are footnotes on most pages, offering amusing tidbits of information about mathematics and history, as well as insights into Colin’s personal history (especially with the Katherines).  The characters are exceptionally well drawn (as are most of Green’s characters).  Colin’s quirks—like his interest in anagramming—are as annoying as they are endearing.  Hassan is a “devout” Muslim, but also very much an American young adult, who (as I’ve already mentioned) loves sitting around and watching Judge Judy. And the boys’ friendship is depicted honestly and authentically.  After being best friends for several years, they’ve developed their own language—both verbal and non-verbal.  Their banter is at once cruel and kind.  They pull no punches when discussing each other’s flaws, but they only take such jabs in the first place because they care about each other. 

Which is another reason Green is such an amazing writer—the way he balances humor and gravitas.  His stories are totally readable, completely amusing. But they also matter.  And they communicate stuff that matters—about life and death and relationships...and storytelling—in a way that’s palatable, especially for young adults.

For example, early in the story, Colin offers a categorical breakdown of the messages scrawled in his yearbook (how many “Good luck,” “Great to know you,” and “Wish we’d hung out more” messages there are, etc.).  But then there’s Katherine XIX’s message, which is sweet and completely personal, and sums up their relationship well, in just a few words, without being sappy (or at least, acceptably sappy). This moment underscores Colin’s quirks, glimpses the relationship he had with Katherine XIX, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Throughout Katherines, we get pieces of the beginnings, middles, and endings of Colin’s relationships. We feel the ups and downs: the euphoria of the peaks and the dejection of the dumps. And Colin’s pain over the loss of Katherine XIX is absolutely believable.  It’s easy to caricaturize a teen breakup—angst, melodrama, over-expression of loss. But Green gets it right. The breakup feels real. Colin even misses the imagined future he might have shared with Katherine, as they both headed to Northwestern in the fall (and beyond). He believes, “You can never love people as much as you can miss them.”

One of my college roommates was (and presumably still is) a masterful storyteller.  We spent many evenings around a table in the cafeteria, rapt as he told us about his childhood and teenage shenanigans. Certainly, his material was good and unique, but no material is so good or so unique that it inherently makes a good story. Take, for example, any of many Hollywood films “based on actual events”—regardless of the source material, some are great, but most are duds. On the other hand, there are fantastic stories that grow out of the smallest, most insignificant-seeming premise.

So what makes a good story?

Developing characters? Establishing place and tone? Raising stakes? Amusing and surprising your audience? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But it’s also about making connections.

Colin may struggle with organizing his stories. He might focus on the wrong things or get lost in insignificant details.  But he’s good at seeing connections—like one might pick out constellations in a sky full of stars. And by the end of the novel, he understands the importance of connections. And the importance of story, in general.

The formula he’s trying to develop—the graph that it forms—tells a story.  And whether or not the equation works, whether or not a relationship works, the story of a relationship is always there. Stories remain when everything else is gone.

So really, An Abundance of Katherines is a story about storytelling.  Literally, because Colin and Hassan and Lindsey record the stories of Gutshot residents and Colin recalls the stories of Katherines past. But it’s also about learning how to tell a story. And learning about why stories are important. Because if the textile factory closes and Gutshot dries up, the stories will be all that are left. And when every Katherine has bid Colin adieu, only the stories of the relationships remain. And the significance of these stories (as with stories in our own lives) comes from the connections we make within them.  We might mis-remember and we might get details wrong (or even tweak them to serve our own purposes).  As Colin notes:  “You don’t really remember what happened. What you remember...becomes what happened.”  But it’s not a matter of lying about our pasts; it simply gives us agency to write our own stories, make the important connections, remember what’s significant.  Because telling any story—a spooky tale around a campfire or the story of our lives—is not a matter of relaying a strict account of the facts, it’s a matter of organizing details in a meaningful way to speak a truth more honest than a literal list of facts.

Recommended for ages 15+.

If you’re wondering, my storytelling college roommate is now a middle school teacher. And if he teaches the way he tells a story (as I can imagine he does), those are some lucky students!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Guys Read: Thriller

The egg-hunting’s over. You’ve had your fill of chocolate, ham, and jelly beans—maybe even chocolate-covered, jelly bean-stuffed ham. Now it’s time to relax with a good story. Perhaps a good thriller to shock you out of that sugary stupor. Like a ghost story. Or a tale about monsters. How about pirates? Snakes? An incompetent private investigator?

How about all of the above? 

Thriller is the second in a Guys Read series of short-story collections for middle grade readers (preceded by Guys Read: Funny Business). Edited by Jon Scieszka (Guys Read, The Time Warp Trio), illustrated by Brett Helquist (Lemony Snicket's ASeries of Unfortunate Events), and written by popular writers of fiction for young readers (M.T. Anderson, Walter Dean Myers, and Margaret Peterson Haddix, to name a few), Thriller is filled with tales of “normal” kids who find themselves thrust into abnormal (even paranormal) situations.

Cleanly-told, swiftly-paced, and amusingly-illustrated, these gems are well-suited for boys age nine and up—especially boys who don’t otherwise make reading a top priority.

Many of the situations in the book remind me of Eerie, Indiana, a great Twilight-Zone-esque show from my childhood I have trouble believing is now 20 years old. Patrick Carman’s Ghost Vision Glasses has an especially Eerie vibe. It’s about Kyle, who loves collecting weird things and is convinced he’s hit the jackpot when he finds a stack of old comics at his parents’ new cabin. The old magazines are filled with ads for some of the weirdest stuff he’s ever seen, including a pair of ghost vision glasses.  Aside from a few quasi-dei ex machinis plot improbabilities, the story has a nice arch with a satisfying conclusion (and a tantalizing tease at the possibility of further adventures for Kyle). 

Guys Read: Thriller
Edited by Jon Scieszka
Walden Pond Press, 2011
Illustrations by Brett Helquist
But some stories in the collection leave a little too much to be desired for my taste, especially Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Pudding and James Patterson’s Boys Will be Boys. Both start with such promise and energy but fizzle in their abrupt, incomplete-feeling conclusions.  Almost like the stories are excerpts from larger works crammed into this collection out of context.  But I don’t know if that’s the case.

For the most part, though, the stories are light and fun and satisfying.

One notable departure in tone from the rest of the book is Walter Dean Myers’ Pirate.  The pirates in this story are not inspired by a ride (or multi-billion dollar film franchise) by Disney, nor are they the stuff of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. They’re contemporary pirates found off the coast of Somalia—the ones we hear about in the news every now and then, capturing vessels and holding hostages for ransom. It’s a weightier and more challenging story than the others found in this collection—but no less readable. And it’s certainly not out of place.  It still thrills and chills, but in a different way than the P.I. or paranormal stories do.  It’s narrated by the youngest (14)  member of a group of pirates that captures a yacht for money.  It’s gritty. Tense. Ideologically ambiguous.  In other words, it’s a great story.

So guys, get reading! For fans of excitement, Guys Read: Thriller is a good place to start.

Recommended for ages 9+.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jules Ffeifer, selected works

Jules Feiffer is an illustrator. A cartoonist, to be specific. A Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, to be precise.  In 1979, he published Tantrum, one of the first actual graphic novels (a “novel told in pictures,” as opposed to a “comic book”).  And he illustrated Norton Juster’s children’s classic, The Phantom Tollboth.  But he's made important independent contributions to children's lit, as well. A couple of fine examples?  His middle grade novel The Man in the Ceiling and his picture book Bark, George, both written and illustrated by Feiffer.

Bark, Georgeby Jules Feiffer
HarperCollins, 1999

In Bark, George, George’s mother tries to teach him to speak like a dog, but instead he speaks like a cat, duck, pig, and cow. It’s simple and silly, and the pictures are hilarious. We see the frustration and embarrassment on his mother’s face as George speaks to her (and the vet) with every sound but a bark! And as the vet pulls the animals that make each sound from George’s mouth, Mom is mortified. When the vet finally pulls out a cow, George's mother passes out, flipping over in the background.  Feiffer uses the simple pattern of George making a strange noise, the vet pulling out the corresponding animal, and Mom making a face throughout the story, which sets up reader expectations nicely and maximizes the effect of the surprise ending: George saying, “Hello!” Recommended for ages 3+.

The Man in the Ceilingby Jules Feiffer
HarperCollins, 1995
The Man in the Ceiling, an amusing and creatively rendered story of how “every ‘failure’ is a bit of future luck,” follows Jimmy—a budding comic book artist who yearns for the admiration of schoolyard critic Charley Beemer—and Jimmy’s uncle, who takes his crack at success on Broadway. One of the novel’s aspects that I particularly enjoy is the way in which Feiffer’s narrator often addresses the reader directly, especially to offer commentary on the illustrations. At one point, the narrator directs the reader to refer back to a specific drawing earlier in the book, just to prove that Jimmy is right about an argument he’s having with his mother.  And in another instance, the narrator says Jimmy’s latest illustration cannot be displayed because the book would never be published with such drawings! But the narrator never distracts us from the story at hand—a poignant tale about not giving up, that resolves itself in a role reversal between Jimmy and his uncle, with one beginning the story as the motivator and becoming the motivatee (and vice versa). Recommended for ages 9-12.

Okay for Now wins Battle of the Kids' Books!

Congrats, Gary Schmidt, whose terrific novel Okay For Now is the victor in this year's Battle of the Kids' Books (School Library Journal)!

Monday, April 2, 2012


So who knew raising a toddler would be so time-consuming and exhausting?  I know--EVERYBODY, right!? 

Well, I thought I did, too, but I wasn't prepared for JUST how time-consuming it could be.  I've neglected this journal--among other things--during the past seven or eight months (my last post was coincidentally around the time that our son figured out 1) running, 2) opening childproofed doors, 3) taking the safety plugs out of outlets, and 4) carrying a small chair around the house to use as a stool and access the last few "safe" places we had to put anything out of his reach).  

A bunch of other stuff has happened, too.  A move. Some trips. Winter. But I'm not making excuses.  I elected to spend time with my son--reading, playing, going to the zoo, whatever.  And I elected to work on some of my own writing.

But still busy or not, it's time to bring the blog back.  I've been reading some great books. Watch for updates soon!