Thursday, July 24, 2014

Graduation Day

It's all kinds of official—I'm a Master of Fine Arts. After two years and 20 packets, plus a horrifyingly stressful presentation of my critical thesis and creative thesis reading, I'm still trying to let it sink in that I have a freaking masters degree.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank a few people.

To my advisors Kathi Appelt, Mark Karlins, Sarah Ellis and A.M. Jenkins, thank you for the time and energy you invested in this story—you have given power to my words. To the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults faculty, staff and students, you taught me so much more than will ever appear on the page.

To my Allies in Wonderland, words cannot express how much I love you and learn from you all and stand in awe that I am a part of this amazing community of writers.

Thank you to my friends and coworkers who kept supporting me even when I forgot birthdays because I had a packet deadline and missed meetings to attend residency.

And finally, to my family. You bolstered me up when I thought I couldn’t finish, you told me to get to work when I thought my well had run dry, you lent me your candle because mine had burned out at both ends. Especially to my father and his sisters, thank you for letting me borrow the family stories. You allowed me to play with the people you know and love so I could turn real family members into fictional characters.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

School Stress, Work Stress

I'd been begging for an assistant in our department for years, and when I started grad school, we started looking for someone to help with the work load. We hired ReDonah, it was immediately obvious that she was far more than a department coordinator, and within weeks I didn't know how I had survived without her. Then, just in time for the last three months of grad school, ReDonah went on maternity leave. I miss her all the time (and not just for the work that she does), but I know she's doing something amazing in caring for her little girl.

So how have I been dealing with the stress of working without ReDonah? Simple. I send her texts whenever I get too stressed out asking for baby pictures to remind me why she's not here. Plus, who could have a bad day after all this cuteness? So for all of you who are stressing out, I share with you some of the most sickeningly sweet baby pictures ever.

Royal less than 24 hours after stealing her mom away from me. But how could I possibly compete with a face like that?

Royal reminding me to chill out and not worry. She'd let me have her mom back in a few months.

Royal pops by for a visit. Shh...don't tell the boss, but productivity might have been down that day.

Oh the horrors! I'm blinded by the cuteness!

She's waving hello before we head into the longest week of the year, preparing for our annual convention.

Good thing I have Alex here. She's totally had my back while ReDonah is gone. Plus, she likes baby pictures, too.

So ReDonah comes back to the office soon. In fact, she comes back the day I leave for my final residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Unfortunately, I won't have any cute baby pictures to send ReDonah to remind her why I've left her with all the work. But I do promise to bring her back a picture book or two.

ReDonah and Alex and all of my other coworkers have supported me through this MFA program. They've encouraged me and asked me about my work. They've never complained when I leave for two weeks twice a year to attend residency. They're understanding when I'm exhausted after pulling an all-nighter to get an assignment in. And they've made sure to tell me that they've seen my writing improve, even though I write healthcare editorial content for work and stories about teenagers for school.

I honestly don't know how long Royal will be in my life—I'd like to think it will be for a good, long while—but I do know that her mom is a huge part of why I've been able to get my master's degree. And maybe someday Royal will pick up one of the books I worked on while I was in grad school, and it will help her through something she's dealing with in her life. But for now, her cuteness is enough to take the edge off the stress.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Exquisite Captive (Dark Caravan Cycle #1) by Heather Demetrios

How lucky was I that I got a sneak peek at this book? And now that it's officially in ARC, I get to review it!

Nalia is a powerful jinni enslaved to a human master who will stop at nothing--literally nothing--to get exactly what he wants. And Malek wants Nalia. It doesn't matter that he tortures Nalia until she wishes for death or that her little brother is suffering in an Arjinnan prison camp or that the jinn are about to self-destruct in their battle for power in the magical realm. But the leader of the Arjinnan Revolution, a man who hates everything that Nalia was born to be, offers her a way to escape Malek and save her brother. Only Nalia and Raif must learn to trust each other and use their power to break the ancient magic that has trapped thousands of helpless jinn on Earth before they can fight for their own goals.

Heather is an amazing plotter, and I want her to share all of her secrets with me. There's great foreshadowing and hint-dropping and set-up for books to come. The subtext about the modern slave trade and war lords and arms dealing and drug trafficking gives it a great depth that I hope teen readers will see as well. I will admit that epiphanic rather than episodic series drive me a little nuts, but that's just personal taste, and this book handles it well. The ending actually feels like an ending and not a cliffhanger, but it still teases us with what's to come.

Nalia is a great character--I know she's done evil things, but I still feel badly for her. Maybe because she has blood on her hands, it makes her psudo-romantic relationship with Malek more believable and understandable. But I'll just admit now: I HATE Malek. I find him despicable in so many ways, which isn't a bad quality in a protagonist. All of the characters are really kind of evil, but somehow, I root for them and understand them. It makes me sound like a bit of a psychopath saying that, but it's totally true.

Visit Heather's webpage for more information and follow her on twitter, facebook and instragram to learn ways to win your own copy of the book. This book will be available at your local book store on October 7, and rumor has it that Heather will also be heading out for a book tour after the release.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Last Grad School Reading List of My Last Semester

Excuse me as I wax nostalgic for a moment. After two years and 226 books (plus hundreds of articles, manuscripts and lectures), I'm feeling a little teary-eyed that I'm posting my last reading list for grad school. Next month I head back up to Vermont for the last time (at least as a grad student) to present my lecture on nonlinear storytelling and read from my historical fiction novel in verse, and then I'll receive my diploma and officially become Kathryn Gaglione, MFA. In so many ways, the past two years have flown by, and in others, it seemed like they would never end. But here we are, at the end of the grad school reading lists. I hope I have given you some new books to add to your own reading list—I know I have discovered a lot of books to love.

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry: This is a dense book. Not that I expected anything else from a 560-page history book on the deadliest plague in recorded history. But it still manages to be an understandable and engaging read. (I hesitate to call it “enjoyable” because the subject matter is anything but.)

Journey by Arron Becker: I loved the twist on Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen: This is a fun book for the genre—just don't expect it to be on the same level as DiCamillo's award-winning children's books. And don't expect to see any characters of color either.

Locomotive by Brian Floca: It has it all. Great use of typography, a period sepia feel to the illustrations, perfect use of onomatopoeia and rhythm for the theme, the Wild West and trains. Historically-accurate, learning-with-out-realizing-it use of trains.

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle: I'm a sucker for wordless picture books and hidden illustrations.

Marty McGuire by Kate Messner, illustrated by Brian Floca: Marty is a girl after my own heart with a life filled with a diverse group of friends and classmates that make her adventures a little more exciting.

Ballpark by Eileen Meyer, illustrated by Carlynn Whitt: Any baseball lover and picture book lover will love this book. It’s simple with unique illustrations and a good rhythm.

Babe Ruth Saves Baseball! by Frank Murphy, illustrated by Richard Walz: This book lacked substance by not digging deeper into the historical context of the promise.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, narrated by Arthur Morey: I'm totally in love with the tiny details that Orringer chooses to describe--like the little crystal bowl of pink candy or the golden cascade of whiskey being poured into a decanter. So often historical fiction writers sacrifice something—beautiful prose for plot pacing, historical accuracy for appeal to a modern audience, character development for showing research—yet there’s such a beauty in Orringer’s writing that it highlights the historical context and flushes out the characters rather than dulling everything to make way for pretty words. And then there's the prison camp aspect to this novel, which I didn't handle well. I came away from this book completely drained.

Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World by Candice Ransom, illustrated by Heather Ross: What a great book filled with humor and southern charm! While I’m still disappointed with this books serious lack of diversity, it’s almost understandable because it mostly features a large extended family of double cousins (whose mothers married brothers).

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, narrated by Emily Klein: I love the ending of this book. Not everything has to end happily and be tied up in a neat bow.

One of those hideous books where the mother dies by Sonya Sones: I first read this book ten years ago, and I seriously can’t believe it’s been ten years since its publication. It still feels fairly contemporary, and while the verse feels a little bland in comparison to many of the outstanding novels in verse and poetry collections that I’ve read over the past two years, it’s still a good read.

Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner: I was totally reluctant to read this book, and the cover art of a cat made me question the sanity of all the people praising this book. Seriously? A book about someone's pet cat? And then was I ever taken for a ride! I had to laugh out loud when I discovered I was reading science fiction.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fourth Grad School Reading List of Fourth Semester

Only one more reading list after this. It's kind of surreal to think that after this month, I won't have any more packet deadlines. But hopefully I'll be ready to move on to publishing deadlines at that point.

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall: This is one of the better early readers I’ve read this semester. The vocabulary is age-appropriate while the usage is still unique and creative. But the characters are a little bland for my taste. Everyone is white and stereotypical of the personality they represent—I read this while babysitting my friend’s biracial baby, so I kept thinking about how absent he is from this book. The chapter breaks were also underwhelming as they seemed to be based more on word count than driving a page-turn. For me, chapter breaks should do one of two things: either heighten tension to keep me reading or conclude a plot-point while giving a teaser for what comes next. This book did neither. Overall, it’s a decent if slightly dull early reader.

And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish-Americans by John J. Bukowczyk: This was a research book for my current work-in-progress. One of the issues with writing an ethnic historical fiction is getting the cultural context correct. A lot has changed for Polish Americans in the past 95 years, and their experience was also completely different than other immigrants who came to America around the turn of the 20th century. This book put their unique struggles into context and gave me a lot of new vocabulary to be able to express those struggles.

Something Real by Heather Demetrios: I finally read Heather's book! (Although I have read plenty of Heather's writing, so I don't exactly feel guilty for taking awhile to get around to this one.) Heather understands how to get readers inside a character’s head, and she makes you fall in love with her many diverse characters—even the ones you hate. You must watch Arden Rogow-Bales from the Bushwick Book Club perform his song "Dreamy Patrick Sheldon" from Heather's book launch party. (Yes, that is me laughing inappropriately hard while trying to hold the camera steady.)

Once by Morris Gleitzman: The narrative frame of this book is really good and makes it stand out from a lot of other Holocaust books—a little boy tells other children stories to help them deal with the horrible things happening around and to them. I also love that it starts at a rather unexpected moment in history—a Jewish boy from Poland whose parents have hidden him in a remove Catholic orphanage. (If you have ever seen the French movie Au Revoir Les Enfants, you will know this wasn't an uncommon practice during WWII.) Unfortunately, I had some major issues with the narrative voice of this book that the great concept couldn't distract me from. First of all, opening each chapter with "Once" (as in "Once upon a time") implies something that happened in the past, but the story is told in first person. Secondly, the narrator constantly makes incorrect assumptions about the world around him, and while it's understandable that a kid wouldn't understand why the Nazis burn books, I got incredibly annoyed when Felix assumes they are librarians. What nine-year-old boy doesn't know the difference between a soldier and a librarian? But the biggest issue I had with the book was how the action sequences are narrated—it’s like reading a transcript of bad play-by-play commentary on a football game.

"We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kid Lit" by Kelly Jensen: I read a lot of articles and blog posts about kidlit, but I usually don't include them on my reading lists. This one, however, not only deserves to be included, but I encourage you to read all of the articles Jensen links to. One of the many problems with the diversity of kid lit is that people who do not feel like they reflect diversity (a.k.a. me) tend to feel like they don’t have a right to address it. And often times, when we think we are filling kid lit with color, we make our divers characters too white. Matt de la Peña addressed this in a CNN article saying, “I get worried about people who just make the character black on the outside, but not on the inside.” At least we’re talking about it, which means that if writers, publishers, book pushers and readers actually make an effort, things really will change.

Homespun Sarah by Verla Kay, illustrated by Ted Rand: I know that I’ve read a few of Kay's books before, but I couldn’t remember much about them other than that they were historical fiction about Colonial America. I love how she subverts sentence structure, often switching the predicate and subject, and that though fragmented, each sentence has distinct meaning. She also almost always flips the tag by putting the speaker tag before the dialogue (something I wrote an essay on my first semester because Karen Hesse often does the same thing in Out of the Dust). She breaks every rule, but she does it so well you don't even notice unless you're looking for it.

Hornbooks and Inkwells by Verla Kay, illustrated by S.D. Schindler: There is an impressive amount of research that went into this a 250-word book—just look at Kay’s bibliography. Her author’s note is just as long as the book itself.

Tattered Sails by Verla Kay, illustrated by Dan Andreasen: The rhythm and rhyme of Kay’s books are impeccable—she never misses a beat. It begs to be read aloud.

A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier: Another historical fiction author who showed her research more than she wrote a compelling novel. Only Lucier took it a step further and wrote a love story to the city of Portland with long passages that read more like a tourist brochure than actual descriptions of the city through Cleo’s eyes. The best descriptions do double-duty by grounding us in place as well as saying something either about character or plot. Why is it important that we see the red leather chairs in Public Auditorium theater-turned Red Cross hospital? Is it the contrast of watching the plays that once came to life on the stage to the death that Cleo now sees there every day? Is it because Cleo longs to go back to the way things uses to be but will forever see blood on those chairs? There are also a lot of promises that this novel never fulfills. For example, there’s a great and humorous scene where Cleo accidentally drops a contraception brochure in front of a medical student she has a crush on, but the med student laughs it off and we never find out if Cleo is actually thinking about having sex and what that might mean for her social standing. Instead, it is just used to highlight an interesting piece of history about women’s rights without giving us any real insight into any of the characters.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen, narrated by Charlie McWade: A few semesters ago, I attended a lecture that praised this book for its use of and "inevitable surprise," and I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more. This book purposefully misleads readers—and not in a good unreliable narrator way—though we are inside the narrators head in extremely close first-person. While it’s good to use “felicitous confusion” to either heighten tension by withholding information or so that the reader isn’t bombarded with backstory right at the beginning, having a narrator lie inside his own head makes him seem schizophrenic, which is only okay if the narrator really is unstable (e.g. Humbert Humbert) or wants us to believe he’s mentally unbalanced (e.g. Hamlet).

The Poles in America: 1608-1972 edited by Frank Renkiewicz: I will probably be going back to this book as reference as it includes an incredibly detailed timeline of events for Poles in America. It also includes long passages of primary source materials from 1910-1920, which I also found helpful.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra: I enjoyed this book, mostly because Eleanor is an incredibly complex character whom I can relate to on so many levels that it’s kinda scary. I also loved that this book is full of color, and the adult characters are just as complex and well-rounded as the teens. I swear the breakfast table eyeliner scene came straight out of my family playbook, and I still remember going through my dad's vinyl collection like it was a spiritual experience. What I don’t love about this book is Park. I'm getting tired of the self-aware, sexually evolved, hipster love interest who puts up with a girl who treat him like crap because she doesn't want to be loved. Park is just a little too perfect, his only fault being that he loves Eleanor a little too much (their desperate need for each other is at times rather creepy, as in Bella/Edward creepy). What teenage boy loves only the music and comics that will eventually turned into cultural icons? Watchmen, Vans and The Smiths? I know that people like to read books that push the boundaries of reality, because really, who wants to read a book about a guy who leaves a girl because he gets bullies for liking her and it's too hard to get past her emotional walls. And no child of the 80's wants to admit they loved Rick Springfield more than Elvis Costello. We all want to read about characters who manage to say the right things at all the right moments, but there needs to be some balance. I want to know how Eleanor changes Park, why she's a good match for him, and not some cop-out sudden realization a third of the way through the book that he needs to stop worrying so much about what his less-evolved peers think. Maybe I’ve lost my romantic streak in my old age, but I didn’t drink the Park Kool-Aid.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: What can I possibly say about the book that had the single biggest impact on me in high school? (Even the title of this blog comes from this book.) This book defined me, and to go back to it, not as an impressionable teenager about to leave for college but as an adult writer was a little challenging. Smith is so amazing at creating complex relationships with such vibrant and unique characters. And the images she chooses are so incredibly perfect at establishing time and place. Her descriptive instinct is pretty much pitch-perfect, and her sense of order along a nonlinear plot is unparalleled.

Geography of Girlhood by Kirsten Smith: This is a novel filled with missed opportunities. One of the most powerful things about verse is that it’s image driven—that it gives us the opportunity to see the world from someone else’s perfective, and by doing that, we can see the beauty of some else’s mind. But from the first stanza, Smith allows that imagery to slump into bland description: “everything is trees and water and rain / and smoky stink from the paper mill / and small town, small town.” And just when you think you’ve come upon another opportunity for imagery that says something deeper than the picture it’s painting, you get “the three men watching their fourth / fall to the damp ground, / platter of leaves and shoes, / watching as their boy falls upon it, / his body a heave of light.” And then she ends with the same bland image she opens with: “everything is still trees and water and rain / and small town, small town, / but no matter how you slice it, / it is my life / and I am floating right out here / in the middle of it.” It’s all images that never become tangible.

Almost Invisible by Mark Strand: This collection of proses pieces lacked an emotional punch—the book flap calls it “an exquisitely witty and poignant series of prose pieces,” but I didn’t feel especially amused nor moved by these pieces. It was interesting to see how Strand uses dialogue (of which there is a surprising amount)—he kind of runs it all together with the narrative, and often with running dialogue it is kind of fun to guess who is saying what and why each of them might say it. There is also a kind of tender relationship between a man and a woman that ran through the pieces that I enjoyed, especially in the piece “Provisional Eternity.”

Max Counts His Chickens by Rosemary Wells: It’s amazing how such a little picture book can speak to childhood experiences so clearly…with bunnies. This book uses dialogue and illustrations so well to portray what it’s like to be a younger sibling of a competitive older sibling.