Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Second Grad School Reading List of Fourth Semester

If I have to read any more books for my lecture, I might actually cry. As in big, fat tears of losing my mind. I'm not sure how that translates to all of the animal books I read for this packet, but I sure did read a lot of them. And I'm not exactly a talking animals fan. But I did have fun reading a lot of these books.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt: Geez, I can’t read this book without hearing Kathi’s voice in my head, more so than with any of her picture books or poetry collections that I’ve read. (It also helps that I used to live on the Louisiana bayou.) While I don’t really care for books told from an animal’s perspective, the mystical quality and folk origins of this novel make the animal perspective work for me.

The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base: Nice concept, not such a nice execution. While the illustrations are beautiful, they're almost too pretty and too clever. The writing was weak at best, and the mystery never really came together.

Essential English Grammar by Philip Gucker: I probably need a linguistics refresher more than I need a grammar refresher—my spelling is atrocious—but it’s been a long time since I’ve taken a writing essentials class. So here’s to reviewing the rules so I can more effectively break them. This book is okay, but there's a serious lack of practical application.

Ms. Coco Is Loco by Dan Gutman, illustrated by Jim Paillot: Early readers are generally awful, and I’m really not sure why. It’s like this gaping hole in children’s publishing between the Caldecotts and the Newberys where it seems to be okay to have sub-par writing made up of stereotypes and bad puns…and not in a good bad punny way of Amelia Bedelia, which, by the way, I’m convinced were the last decently written early readers ever. (Although, to be fair, I was in second grade when I read the Amelia Bedelia books, so they might have been just as bad.)

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling: Reading this book has been a really interesting experience, a little like stepping into a narrative time capsule. With several of the "classics" that I've read recently, I've had to keep reminding myself that people viewed women, other cultures and even facts through the lenses of their time, but this book was a pleasant surprise with it's loving portrayal of Indian culture, even if there was still an imperialistic British feel to much of it. The narrative voice was probably the most interesting aspect of reading this as it's told in a remote, omniscient narrator so standard for the time. The narrator—a very traditional storyteller—sometimes referring to himself in the first person but still manages to slip across language barriers and even into the heads of animals. Sometimes the narrator is overly wise, giving us detailed translations of cultural instances, but at other times the narrator is all too human and withholds information from us. People like to complain about the first-person present novels so popular today, but every period has distinct narrative styles that kind of define the literature of the day. Makes me excited to find out what's next.

We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson: I can’t think of another book where the author inhabits a narrator like this one, which is totally unexpected for a nonfiction book. Although the narrator is never named, you feel his experiences as a Negro League ballplayer on such an acute level that you trust him implicitly. His timing and vocabulary are also spot on for the time period and the sport. (P.S. This was a re-read for me as I listened to the audiobook version years ago.)

Audacious by Gabrielle Prendergast: Holy cow do I have a love/hate relationship with this book! A part of me wants to love it because it brings empowerment words that CoUNT. And another part of my wants to hate it because it portrays religious people as close-minded bigots. The reality is that girls have more to offer than their "virtue," but most people of faith are more moderate than media would lead you to believe. Ultimately, what is going to keep me from loving this book is that the verse tries too damn hard to be poetry when it's not.

The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riorden, narrated by Katherine Kellgreen: Is this fabulous literature? No. But for what it is—a fast-paced adventure novel with quippy dialogue and a diverse cast of characters—it’s a pretty fun.

Thrall by Natasha Trethewey: The way this collection deals with the father/daughter relationship dynamic is incredibly powerful. Though this specifically addresses the relationship between a white father and a black daughter, the themes and insights supersede racial barriers, but they also brought me a deeper understanding of the challenges multiracial children face, even within their own families. The last few poems were so beautiful and poignant that they had me fighting back tears—and not very successfully. As always, Trethewey’s use of diverse poetic forms to covey high emotion impresses me beyond all expectations.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters: I will admit to being rather underwhelmed by the quality of writing in this book, especially as it came so highly recommended by a friend. Yes, the story is intense and unique, but the descriptions tend to skim the surface rather than establish place like they should in historical fiction. Also, it very much inflicts modern-day views on historical figures, which is unfortunate as 1918 was an extremely pivotal/liberating point in the cultural history of the United States so modern views don’t really need to be imposed to make for strong female characters. Then there’s that gothic element that equates depression with madness that just settles wrong with me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Catching Up, or The Very Snowy Winter

Hello, blog, my old friend. Do you remember all those times I used to post about fun book events I was going to? Or news stories that impacted my life? Or random thoughts that would pop into my head and bring enlightenment to an issue I was deal with? Yeah, I miss those days, too.

There's too much to catch up on all that has happened in my life, so let me sum up.

I was a bit sad (as sad as someone who hates snow can be, anyway) when I got to Vermont for my last winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts to find it slushy and brown. But I wasn't there for the weather—I was there to learn and write and have fun, all of which I did. And just as I was ready to head home, the snow fell. After my flight got cancelled, I took the train from Vermont back to DC, only the snow decided to join us on the train, freezing the water in the restrooms and the doors shut, and what should have been an eight-hour train ride stretched into 16 hours. It was quite the adventure.

Back in DC, I got to attend the signing of my friend's second book (Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd), which was a blast. I also might have gone a little fan-girl on Stephanie Perkins—but come on! It was freaking Stephanie Perkins! My leopard gecko Harper thought this was Megan's best book so far.

I celebrated handing in the first packet of my last semester with a quick trip up to New York City for my friend’s book launch. Heather Demetrios (author of Something Real and the upcoming Exquisite Captive) is talented and funny, and I'm so lucky to call her my friend. We had a blast at her party and then spent the night dancing at her favorite club, and there may or may not have been a impromptu performance of "Sisters" from White Christmas at some point. It was a brilliant weekend away.

While I was up in NYC, my good friend's baby boy decided he couldn't wait any longer to meet us all and made an appearance a month and a half early. So the day I got back from NYC and the day my other friend just happened to fly in from Ethiopia (where she's stationed for the next year and a half) for some training, we went to visit Heather and her son. Healther Bingham is an incredibly talented opera singer, and while she's taking a few months to enjoy being a new mom, I look forward to seeing her back on stage soon. (Sorry, no baby pictures as I'm not sure Heather wants her son exposed online just yet.)

And then there was more snow. Six inches of snow between midnight and 5 a.m. meant DC was shut down for the day and I didn’t even bother getting out of my PJs. We've had four snow days this season, with four more delayed starts because of icy conditions. That brings the total snowfall for this season to 23 inches, eight inches above normal. But I could be back in Chicago where that total is 68 inches, which is 42 inches above normal. Small blessings.

So now you're all caught up on my life. Or at least some of the highlights. And only for the next few days until I bury myself in homework once again and forget to blog for awhile.

Friday, March 7, 2014

First Grad School Reading List of Fourth Semester

Yes, my first bibliography of my last semester, and I'm only posting it a month late. I'm working on preparing my graduate lecture for Vermont College of Fine Arts—which is kind of like the defense of your critical thesis—so I reference my topic a lot in this list. I looked at a lot of nonlinear picture books and focused on narrative subtext. What can I saw, picture books are deep, man.

Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner: While this is a fun picture book that I immediately thought of for use in my lecture, reading it alongside books like Where the Wild Things Are and Grandpa Green made me realize how cliché rhyming picture books have become. You always hear not to rhyme in a picture book unless you can do it really well, and this book probably doesn’t do it well enough.

The Several Lives of Orphan Jack by Sarah Ellis, illustrated by Bruno St-Aubin: There’s a lot we don’t know in this book—the time period, the country of origin, the backstory of Jack—but that somehow gives it a folklore feel. When I went back to look at the original Grimm’s fairytales a few years ago, I was amazed by how much detail those stories lack. A lot of my memories have been filled in by Disney or books my mother read to me or watching Into the Woods every day the summer after third grade, but those stories have survived for generations because they allow the reader to fill in the details. It’s hard to put trust in the reader and let them make your characters their own.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Cancer may be fatal, but it’s not a flaw. This book annoyed me to no end. Talk about a manic-pixy-fairy girl and a tall-dark-and-handsome boy who say all the right things and feel all the right emotions and are just quirky enough to be endearing and totally unrealistic. Hazel talks about a character’s "fatal flaw," and unfortunately, the main character and romantic interest’s fatal flaws are completely superficial. Gus’s biggest flaw is that he’s a terrible driver with a hero complex, and Hazel’s flaw is that she can’t see her own beauty and won’t let herself love a guy who loves her because she thinks she’s “a grenade.” Sure, these kids have to deal with huge issues, such as their own mortality and living with constant pain, but I’ve known kids with terminal diseases before—deeply loved them and been torn apart by their deaths—but I’m also hyper aware of what pain and stress does to a teenager’s personality—and it’s not a pretty thing. The irony is that Green actually has the main characters talk about the postmortem saintly status of children who die young, but he himself is horribly guilty of reinforcing the same view. I felt like this book was doing a total disservice to teens with terminal illness by not allowing the characters to be real kids. And I don’t care how intelligent you are, missing three years of school because you’re receiving medical treatment will not make you some kind of literary savant. If you look past the emotional manipulation that is this book, you find hipster adults stuck inside teenagers’ bodies (see the dinner in Amsterdam scene) without any real substance who are completely defined by their circumstances rather than who they become in the end. Green’s a great writer, there’s no doubt about that, but can’t authors create beautiful sentences and substantive characters at the same time?

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield: I think personal essays, autobiographies and creative nonfiction are just about the perfect example of nonlinear storytelling—it allows the writer to dissect cause and effect with hindsight. The entire time I was reading this book, I was amazed at its organization, how events were grouped by topic and not chronology so I could see how one little thing could affect a future event in a big way. It reminded me of something James Cross Giblin said in his book Writing Books for Young People: He advises writers of nonfiction to “try not to begin a chapter with a flat, factual statement, but start instead with an anecdote or scene that will help establish the mood and lead the reader into the main part of the chapter” (22). Hadfield pulls that off to perfection.

Cold Skin by Steven Herick: I always approach novels in verse with trepidation—too many of them either focus too much on poetry or lose sight of the form—but this one did it well. I really liked Herick’s sparse use of stanza breaks. I also liked how seamlessly he weaves dialogue into exposition.

Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr., narrated by Dion Graham: This is a powerful letter, and with King's oratory skills, it's a letter written to be read aloud. It reminded my of the Pauline "Prison" Epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Sorry to go all Biblical when I try to keep this blog fairly nonsecular (though my religious views are a deep part of who I am, so they pretty much come out anyway), but hearing the voice of prophet's past in the voice of someone today is a pretty good sigh that he is doing God's work.

Anno’s Journey by Mitsumasa Anno: It was about halfway through this book that I realized why someone recommended this book to me. This is a book where time (Middle Ages, modern day, Renaissance) and space (England, France, Spain, Italy, even America) meet. Belgium surrealist painter René Magritte would have loved Anno. Everything is happening at once, but the journey keeps moving forward. Now to figure out how to do it so seamlessly with only words instead of only images.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: I’ve probably read this book 1,000 times or more, but it’s always been out loud to kids. What amazing surprises there where when I could flip back and forth and take time to actually study the pictures in connection to the words. There are only ten sentences in this book. Ten! But the way they build tension shows how possible it is to (purposely) break grammatical rules with run-ons and fragments. I also love how the word “and” acts as a beginning rhyme (rather than the traditional end rhyme) with 23 lines opening with the conjunction. The use of the moon to show the passage of time—or lack thereof—is absolutely brilliant. What a difference reading as a writer can make to a beloved classic.

Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd: This book has wonderful chapter openings that ground readers in action and equally wonderful chapter endings that propel readers into the next scene. Sure, the vocabulary isn’t always historically accurate (one of the characters wears “pajamas” inside of “night clothes,” and the MC’s BFF uses “God” as an interjection like a modern teenage would), but this book has great plotting and pacing that makes me more willing to ignore those little slips.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith: This is probably the best example of a layered picture book I have ever seen, with three stories in one. You have the rather simple narrative of the boy telling the story of his great-grandfather, all in the text. Then you have the story of the little boy tending and playing in the garden. And then there’s the story told in the topiary garden itself—a legacy left by an old man to his children. I know that having a book written and illustrated by one person lends itself to this kind of layering as the artist knows when to let the pictures speak and when the words are needed, but it got me thinking about how and where writers can leave room for the illustrations. I heard Brian Selznick speak a few years ago about the process of writing The Invention of Hugo Cabret and how he originally wrote it as an unillustrated novel, but then he went back at took out every passage of description or action and illustrated them instead. What words are really necessary? And how does that translate into writing an unillustrated novel?

Flotsam by David Wiesner: This is a great nonlinear picture book that uses a clever frame story of pictures within pictures to tell about the past and get a peek into the future. I love the unexpectedness of the fantasy within such realistic watercolor images. I wish I could use this one in my lecture, but it’s a little too fantasy based to work with the other books I’m using. (While Where the Wild Things Are and Snowmen at Night can technically be categorized as fantasy, they are really only fantastical within the imagination of children while this book is a fantasy hidden beneath the surface of the ocean.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Writing the Perfect Novel

I just started my last semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. That means in six months, my father will be required to address me as Master Kathryn, no matter how often he denies the truth of the situation. It also means that I've spend the week since returning from residency worrying about all of the things I still have to learn. Stressing myself out about fitting it all into the next 170 days (yes, 170 days until graduation). That's a lot of learning that still needs to be done.

The severity of the situation became abundantly clear last night as I sat down to begin revisions on what I hope will be my creative thesis—a finished manuscript that is at least 80 pages of publication-ready writing. I've spent the past year and a half doing research, getting to know my characters and finding a plot that could sustain an entire novel. To complicate matters, it's a historical fiction novel in verse, which took an extraordinary amount of study to figure out how to do, especially as I'm not a natural poet and historical fiction takes a TON of research to pull off.

But the 200-and-some-odd pages I have written thus far have major issues. MAJOR issues. As in about 80 pages are still missing from the middle, the ending has lost the poetic voice, and I still struggle to jump inside the head of my narrator. And trust me, no one wants to read a book with a messy middle, inconsistent voice and a remote narrator. So I sat at my computer ready to attack the revisions, and then I wanted to cry because the project seemed far too big for my meager talent. Then I decided that I could fix one page. Just one page. I could look at the problems with my first page and make it better. Not perfect, but better.

Over the next two hours, I worked on making one page after another better. For ten pages, I forgot about perfection and just worked on getting inside my narrator's head. Then I went back through those ten pages and looked at how I could improve the voice. This morning I sent it off to a friend and asked her if it was any better. And I just about cried when she told me that it was, that she felt she knew the narrator, that the poetic voice was there, that she'd love to read more.

I still have 190 page and a messy middle to go, but tonight I'm only worried about those next ten pages. Not making them perfect, but making them better.

Maybe, when my dad starts calling my Master Kathryn, the perfection will come. Probably not, but I can still dream.

Monday, December 30, 2013

My Holiday Newsletter

I hope that everyone had as wonderful a Christmas as I did. Chicago was snowy and freezing, but to spend time with my family and childhood friends, I'll put up with the miserable weather. If you follow me on twitter or Facebook, you've seen most of these pictures, but I think they're worth sharing again.


My friend and I discovered coconut nog this year. Yes, dairy-free eggnog! My excitement over this is probably completely disproportionate to how good it actually is, but I miss eggnog.


I'm sure you are aware, but my immediate family is just about as nerdy as you can get. My brother decided to nerdify the Christmas tree as well. So we had the TARDIS from Doctor Who as the topper, and Star Wars snowflakes as ornaments. Next year I'm planning on getting him some more nerdy ornaments for his collection.


My cousin is teaching in Thailand for the next year, and she's incredibly homesick. So a bunch of us crammed onto my aunt's stairs to say hello to Emily. You'd think that with so many people, one person wouldn't be missed, but we always miss those who can't be with us on Christmas.


We had two little miracles born into the family this fall. I'm holding Zackary, who gave us quite the scare by coming two months early. My aunt weighted him on her kitchen scale on Christmas morning, and he had finally hit eight pounds exactly. My other cousin's baby wasn't able to join us as he was just diagnosed with Cardiomyopathy and had only been released from the hospital a few days before Christmas. Instead of exchanging gifts, my extended family all made donations to the Children's Cardiomyopathy Foundation on Ryaln's behalf. (Yes, I did include the link there so you can donate as well if you feel so inclined. In fact, I encourage you to keep the Spirit of the Season past the New Year and find a charity to support throughout the year.)


As part of our Christmas tradition, we pass around a fiber optic poinsettia to be displayed in the recipient's home until the next Christmas. On the tenth anniversary of the poinsettia, my cousin Tim handed it off to my brother Michael. As my brother and sister just moved in together, Tim got double the laughs--my sister had it five years ago.


Just in case you were worried that I didn't treat myself to anything, I had fun putting together this "Leopard Gecko Palace" for Harper. I've actually been working on it for about six months--growing the plants and finding the terrarium decor that I wanted. I'm happy to report that Harper LOVES his new digs. It used to be that he'd fight me every time I'd try to put him back in his tank, and now he tries to crawl back in whenever I take him out.

Last year was a...difficult year for me, and this year has been filled with trials for a lot of people I hold dear. My family has gone though some incredible challenges, but we are all making the best of our situation. The worry and heartache have made us express our love and emotions in a way we've never had to before, and we find ourselves relying on each other a lot more. A good friend of mine was in critical condition after a hit-and-run driver, and I often found myself praying for the well-being of many friends serving in the military or living in volatile places overseas. Far too many friends and family members have been too close to tragedy for comfort--including friends attending the Boston Marathon, others who work at the Navy Yard, and still others in the path of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and tsunamis. In many ways, 2013 was an anxiety-filled year, but my family and friends have been lucky. And to the many individuals who have not been so lucky this year, I grieve with you.

Someone at my hometown church asked me how my year was, and I told him it couldn't be better. And reflecting back on that answer, I have to say my response was totally sincere. My life is incredibly fulfilling, and I feel the love and support of a lot of people every single day. I might complain about school wearing me down and work stressing me out, but I love what I do, which far outweighs all of the negatives. I'm probably happier now than I have been at any other point in my life. And don't think I'm unaware of just how special that is. I am grateful every day for all of my many blessings.