Thursday, June 30, 2011

Remembering the Alamo

I was in San Antonio this week to teach a couple courses on social media and messaging. While I didn't say anything terribly earth-shattering, it reminded me how much I miss working in schools. It also makes me sad that tutoring is finished, and if all goes as planned with grad school, I won't be doing it again for a couple years.

I don't often post about my day job, but here's a little glimpse of my Clark Kent persona. Put me in a suit, an inch of makeup and some contacts, and I'm like an entirely different person. All professional like.
(Thanks to Wayne Sakamoto for the picture. It's a little hard to take a picture of one's self when one is speaking in front of a room full of people.)

Though the week was mostly work and no play, I did get a chance to see the Alamo, at least from the outside. The gardens were beautiful, a little like the bayou meets the desert. And it was hot and humid, just the way I like it.

I love being able to travel to new places and meet new people. Talking and sharing ideas and questioning ideology and suggesting ways to improve strategies--they're all the best part of my job.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Five: smile-worthy YA book news

  1. Events: All the talk about ALA2011 has gotten me pumped for book events. I won't be in NO this weekend (the association I work for has our big convention in San Antonio), but it got me thinking about the National Book Festival, which isn't until the end of September, but they're already announcing authors who will be participating. Sherman Alexie, Cassandra Clare, Susan Cooper, Tomie dePaola, Sarah Dessen, Gordon Korman, Toni Morrison, Katherine Paterson, Brian Selznick, Chris Van Dusen and Rita Williams-Garcia will all be there. (David McCullough will also be there, but as he's an author of history books for adults, I didn't include him in my totally-excited-for list.) Do you know how long I'll be willing to wait in line to get my copy of The Adventures of Hugo Cabret and my Dark Is Rising books all signed? Yeah, you'd better bring a sleeping bag, is all I have to say.
  2. Audiobooks: It's been a good year for Katherine Kellgren, who was recently named Booklist's Voice of Choice, has yet to miss an Odyssey Honor from the ALA's YALSA audiobook awards, and is a 16-time AudioFile Earphones Award winner. Now The Washington Post listed her narration of The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin as one of their three Summer’s best audio books.
  3. Releases: Together again for the very first time. The 2009 Debs officially announced the release of their anthology The First Time. It will only be released as an ebook, but with fantastic authors like Sydney Salter, Carrie Ryan, Jenny Moss, Kurtis Scaletta and Jon Skovron, I'll have my ereader ready for download come October.
  4. Blogs: I'm a big fan of my library's YA blog TATAL, and this week they really outdid themselves. They got a panel of four guys to discuss what attracts/detracts them in a book cover. It should come as no surprise that they prefer action shots to pictures of girls with no heads holding shoes, kissing couples are also taboo, orange is a much cooler color than pink and bold fonts matter.
  5. Personal: I'm officially caught up on all the Jacky Faber books by L.A. Meyer. As I started the series Thanksgiving weekend, that means I've averaged one book a month, and now I'll have to wait until the fall for The Mark of the Golden Dragon. (To tie in to #2, I'll be sure to listen to Katherine Kellgren's audiobook version). Instead of being bummed about the long wait, which really isn't that long of a wait, I've been listening to my sea chanteys and heading over to the Jacky Faber website to get some recommendations from Louis (whom I probably shouldn't refer to so familiarly as I've never met the man, but he does have great taste in music).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Jokes My Father Taught Me

It's Father's Day once again, and holding with semi-regular tradition, I must insist that my dad is the best dad in the world.

One of the best things my dad taught me is how to laugh, really laugh.

Oh, the Irony
Dad taught me how to find irony in any situation and laugh at myself. No one makes perfect decisions every day, and everyone has a little bit of social awkwardness that can't be hidden, but if you can learn to make those experiences larger than life and give them a sense of the ridiculous, you can make anyone laugh.

Inside Jokes
We have a lot of inside jokes in my family, and most of them involve dinner-time conversations that got out of hand. All of them revolving around my father. Quoting movies, bodily functions (yes, my father is seven at heart) and childhood memories feature prominently in these jokes. With one phrase, Dad can make us all laugh until tears stream down our faces. If you ever join in on one of our family dinners, I recommend you avoid talking about spiders, angry letters, mashed potatoes, moving furniture, wise guys and building camp fires, or you might think you've sat down to dinner with a bunch of raving lunatics.

Bring on the Cheese
While Dad loves to play with words and laugh at good memories, he also has a repertoire of jokes that never fails to make us groan. (I'm trying to keep it fairly clean and P.C., but these are still really bad jokes.)
Q: What’s red and goes ding-dong?
A: A red ding-donger.
Q: What’s green and goes ding-dong?
A: A green ding-donger.
Q: What’s blue and goes ding-dong?
A: Sorry, they only come in red and green.
Q: What’s the last thing that goes through a flies mind before it hits the windshield?
A: It's rear end.
Q: What's red and green and goes 50 miles an hour?
A: A frog in a blender.
Q: Why did the turtle cross the road?
A: To get to the Shell Station.
Q: Why are blond jokes so short?
A: So brunettes can remember them.
(I inherited my blond hair from my father, so he taught me this one early. Of course, he taught me all his blond jokes first.)

Happy Father's Day, Dad! I hope your day is filled with joy and laughter. I know you have filled my life with both.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What Books Are You Missing Out On?

People are always shocked when they've read a book that I haven't: "What do you mean you've never read (insert book title here)? It's a classic/best-seller/cult phenomenon." I can't tell you what a relief it was to finally read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee this year. While it was a good book, I'm mostly grateful I no longer have to explain to people why I'd never read it.

The truth is, there are a lot of amazing books published every year that I just don't have the time to get to. And then there are the millions of books published long before I was born--let alone before I could read--that I still haven't read. And while the vast majority of them I have no desire to read or have come to terms with the fact that I will never read, there are a couple I know I should read. I really want to read. I even have sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read.

Guilty Un-Reads:
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Jungle Book by Ruyard Kipling
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Beloved by Toni Morrison

(I refuse to feel guilty about not reading a book that's been published in the last five years. Okay, I still feel guilty about a couple of them, but I try not to.)

So I'm trying to read up this year. I'm in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth, and then I plan to delve into The Hobbit followed by The Great Gatsby. We'll see how many others I get through. Talking about "getting through" them probably isn't the best way to start...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Children's Books: Picture, Early Reader, Middle Grade, Young Adult

What's the difference?

I get this question all the time. Whether or not they have kids or have years of teaching experience or read hundreds of books every year, a lot of people don't know the difference. And that's okay, because next year the category names will change or two new ones will appear or we'll stop reading altogether and just have information digitally implanted in our brains.

Picture (ages 0-6)

With such a large age spread, there are many sub-groups within picture books that span from board books to emergent readers. Including story (narrative), novelties (nontraditional layout), informational (nonfiction) and concept (ABCs and 123s), picture books generally have 24 or 32 pages and contain around 500 words. While their rhythmic patterns and recurring themes are good for speech and reading development, they are designed to be read aloud and encourage interaction between the reader and child.

Early Reader (ages 6-8)

Often seen in series, these books generally have simple plots with larger font and possibly a few black and white illustrations. They are also referred to as independent readers or beginning chapter books, though children benefit from reading them with an adult. Capping out at 100 pages or so, they usually have between 2,000 and 10,000 words. While children advance quickly through these books, they are critical for reading development.

Middle Grade (ages 8-12)

Sometimes called juvenile or JV books, these are what people often think of when they think of children's books. They tend to have more literally themes and deal with more complicated issues. With 20,000-40,000 words and about 200 pages, they revolve around more diverse characters with a more dramatic story arc.

Young Adult (ages 12-18)

These books often get passed over for classic novels as teens begin to do more analytical reading for school, yet they still sell well and adults love to read them as guilty pleasures. The word count can range from 20,000 to 200,000 words, but publishes tend to think 55,000 at 250 pages is the YA sweet-spot. They are the children's books most susceptible to publishing and cultural trends.

It's vital that children are exposed to as wide a variety of books as possible. Some kids like to read fiction while others prefer nonfiction, and many children still need to partner read with an adult all through adolescence. You might not like that your child wants to read graphic novels or magazines, but that might be what you need to let them do to keep them reading. Letting a child guide their own reading choices while still encouraging them to stretch themselves is an incredibly difficult balance to find. But if children can graduate high school loving books, they become life-long readers.

Monday, June 6, 2011

YA Saves, Books Save, People Save

First it was the New York Times, and now the Wall Street Journal has decided to take a passive-aggressive approach to book banning. Because that's what their stance is perpetuating--the need to "protect" our children from this kind of writing.

Yes, there are many "issue" books in YA lit these days that deal with sex, drugs, mental health, death, sexual abuse, crime, violence, dysfunctional families. There is also a lot of "dark" YA fiction featuring the supernatural, dystopian societies, alternate realities, mystical folklore. And while they might not always be realistic, these books do reflect real-life.

While every teen may not feel the urge to cut themselves and they may go their entire lives without witnessing a violent crime, it happens. And it happens to a lot more teens than you might think. I have worked with and known teens who had been victims of kidnappings and other violent crimes, gone through rehab before they could drive, seen a family member murdered in front of them, succumbed to terminal illness, suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of a parent, attempted or succeeded at suicide, and so many other atrocities that my heart aches just thinking about these children. Even I experienced some of these things in my adolescence.

Miraculously, most of these children go on to lead full, happy lives. They turn into adults who are productive members of society. They attend college, find jobs, experience love. Then they share the path they took to overcome their trauma with the teenagers they come in contact with. They write books about what happened to them, they love their own children, they talk about it in quiet conversations behind closed doors.

Books about these subjects aren't an instruction manual on how to be unhappy. They don't encourage children to turn to a life of crime. And they certainly don't turn them into teens with a false view of the world. Instead, they make teens more accepting and understanding of other people, they prepare them to deal with challenges, they help them overcome the past. They make children believe they are not alone--because they aren't alone.

You don't have to fight to the death to learn something from Katniss Everdeen. You don't have to be dated raped to feel compassion for Melinda Sordino. And you don't have to run away from home to want something more than Holden Caulfield. But if you read Hunger Games and Speak and Catcher in the Rye, you just might be a better person in the end.

However, there are other options available to children who don't want a steady diet of these weighty topics. Meg Cabot, Jerry Spinelli, Ally Carter, Eion Colfer, Shannon Hale, Gordon Korman and many more authors write lighthearted books for teens. So yes, Lisa Belkin, people do still read Anne of Green Gables. Which means, Meghan Cox Gurdon, there is no reason for a parent to go empty-handed because they can't find a book "appropriate" for their child.

Maybe it's time we stop worrying so much about what teens read and start showing a little more concern for why a lot of them aren't reading. I can guarantee it has nothing to do with a lack of lighter books on the market.

Show your support for YA lit by following #YASaves on twitter.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Five: An Unholiday Weekend

1. My life has been so busy the past few months that I refuse to do anything but mundane chores this weekend. I'll go grocery shopping, see a movie and finish reading my book. It might even get a bit wild and crazy when I go to renew my membership at Mt. Vernon.

2. I have no idea what movie I want to see. As I rarely go to the movies, I'm not quite sure what I'm in the mood to spend that much money on. Maybe Bridesmaids for a laugh or Thor for some eye candy. There's always nostalgia with On Stranger Tides, or I could go the more intellectual rout and see The Tree of Life. But an insane little part of me suspects I'll be heading to X-Men: First Class as I suspect it has a good bit of nostalgia and eye candy.

3. Now that all of my books are cataloged, I keep wanting to read them all again. Just knowing they're sitting there, unread and lonely, makes makes my fingers itch to pick them up and delve into some of my favorite stories.

4. Revisions aren't as painful as I expected them to be. Because I'll be applying to grad school soon, I need to have some really solid writing samples. While I love working on new pieces, coming back to some of my old work has been fun and enlightening. I'm able to see a lot of my mechanical weaknesses and fix a lot of narrative issues I wouldn't have known were issues five years ago. Time and experience have given me a new perspective.

5. Watch out, Dad, I've got plans for Father's Day. Okay, so they're not particularly good or exciting plans, but they're plans none the less.