Tuesday, October 28, 2014

After Grad School

My graduating class and I have been talking a lot about how hard it is to get back to writing now that we have finished our master's program. There are a billion and one reasons that we're having trouble picking up a book to read or sitting in front of a computer to write. I need time to recover from sleep deprivation. It's hard to feel motivated without a deadline looming. I'm not sure where to go with a novel without the feedback of an advisor. I have all this grad school weight to work off, and I'm not as bendy as I was two years ago. It's still summer and there are yards to tend, vacations to take and kids to get ready for school.

But the thing is, that all of these excuses have always existed for us as writers. Then again, I did get engaged and I'm planning a wedding and a move across the country as well as looking for a new job and getting used to the idea of becoming a stepmother. So maybe I'll give myself permission to not write for just a little while longer.

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.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day, Then and Now

She holds me just as tightly and loves me just as much now as she did back then. She instilled in me my love of books and stories, and it's thanks to her sacrifices and encouragement that I've been able to do so many amazing things. I'm lucky to have this woman as my mother.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Third Grad School Reading List of Fourth Semester

After five years, I was kind of sick of my old header, so this week I designed something new. I'm kind of in love with it.

I know this is shocking, but I have once again fallen way behind in posting on my blog. With summer coming closer and grand school coming to an end, I have a lot to share. Over the next few days, I'll catch up on my reading list, and then I can post about my summer adventures.

Baseball ABC edited by A. Grobani: I thought I’d go through some of the digital children’s book collection at the Library of Congress, and I have to say, this book is kind of delicious in its horribleness—forced rhymes, lost rhythm, strange word choice. I'm so glad children’s publishing has changed so drastically in the past 130 years.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt, narrated by Rosalyn Landor: I read a great review of this book by Publisher’s Weekly that effectively boiled down this complex book to one sentence: "Buried somewhere in here is a fine novel." I know Byatt from her novel Possession, so when I heard such a prolific historical fiction writer who understands poetry had written a book about WWI, I was excited to read it. In reality, the beauty of this novel gets completely lost in the details, a prime example of showing your research in historical fiction—specifically the extensive descriptions of the Paris World’s Fair that has very little to do with setting the scene for character development. The author also had a tendency to use pet phrases that would appear multiple times and make me wonder if I had accidentally hit rewind and was re-reading a passage, and while this can sometimes be done for literary purposes, these instances felt more like mistakes than purposeful echoes.

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins: While I’m very familiar with Collin’s work—as a poet, performer and teacher—it was rather fun to read a collection of work by him. I was struck by his humor, which for some reason became much more obvious when observed against his other poems of more serious tones. As I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetic voice of a novel in verse, I loved the poem “Workshop” in general and the fourth stanza in particular where he explores words and sounds in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way: “his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging— / a hook in the slow industrial canal below. / I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.” It made what you’ve been saying about evocative words and the feel of a sound make a little more sense. The words themselves don’t have to be complicated or even unique, but how they are used together and to invoke feeling gives them their power.

London Town by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton: This is kind of a poorly written love poem to Victorian London. While A Walk in London by Salvatore Rubbino is a far superior children’s tour of London, this book has a sweet and nostalgic view of 1883 London. The illustrations are surprisingly fabulous.

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman, et al.: While the concept of this book is incredibly complicated, I felt the dialogue was overly simplified—something I didn’t notice when I first read this series in middle school. There are kind of three elements that make up a comic book (or graphic novel or manga, whatever you prefer): the storyboard, the illustrations and the dialogue/text. So the storyboard carries the plot, the illustrations carry the description and action, and the dialogue carries the character development, although all three elements can trade roles. This is something I’m going to have to think more about.

Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill: What a bleak look at the life of such a talented writer. It was almost painful to read this book, not because I think that I’m even close to the skill level of Plath, but because I can understand those manic swings, self-destructive behavior and deep need to be loved yet not feeling that love is deserved. Feeling a kinship to a woman who was obviously suffering from mental illness is quite frightening. The form of this creative biography in verse is ingenious. To use Plath’s own poetry as a structure and telling her story through the eyes of those closest to her echoes Plath’s life of voluntary solitude and emotional remoteness. Most of the time I didn’t even realize I was reading a sonnet or a villanelle until I was half-way through the poem.

The Children’s Object Book by G. Loewensohn: This book makes me realize how much more accessible books may be to children of today but how out of touch publishers still are of the class disparage in our society. This is basically a board book of common objects and portrays the life of the upper class as if it is the every-day experience of all children. At least now we portray the middle class in children’s books. The pretty Victorian illustrations keep this book from being a complete waste. (I am not so naive about the business world that I don’t realize that consumers drive a product more than altruistic values do. At the turn of the century, only the wealthy could afford to buy books—especially books with color illustrations. And now, the majority of books are purchased by middle-class women. So it makes sense that publishers look for books that reflect this demographic, even when it’s a picture book.)

Heaven Looks a Lot Like a Mall by Wendy Mass: This is a novel in verse that has no purpose in being a novel in verse, and writing issues can be found in abundance. First of all, there’s no arc to the narrative voice. That might seem like a strange statement, but this book starts with a teenage narrator who then reverts back to childhood in a near-death experience. While it is all told in present tense, there is no difference in the narrative voice from before her accident at 17 to when she is a toddler to when she is again 17 after her enlightenment. There is also an issue with completely unlikeable characters. Seriously, this narrator treats others—especially those she refers to as friends—horribly, and any glimmer of hope you see for character growth is completely lost from one verse to the next. Her mother is image-obsessed, her father is a doormat and her brother is an egomaniac. Even the kid she shares a hospital room with pulls the plug on her ventilator! There’s also the issue with the ending telling rather than showing what Tessa has learned about her relationship with her mother—“I know that by trying to fix me, / she us really trying to fix herself” (247)—and her father—“my dad might not be the greatest / dad of all time… / but he never stopped / trying to protect me / and trying to make me feel special” (247). What makes this even worse is that Mass doesn’t even lead up to this enlightenment through the rest of the novel—so without her spelling it out in the ending, readers would have no clue how Tessa has grown. As it stands, I’m not sure I buy into this realization even with it being spelled out. But none of those are this books most egregious sin.

Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb: This is perhaps the most introspective book I have read in a long time—a true grief novel about what it’s like, not to get over loss, but to learn not to let it consume you. Each memory is presented almost as a vignette, a brief image of what happened to make Mia who she becomes. It is interesting to see how Rabb chose to open and close each vignette, and while there is almost a complete lack of transition between each passage and no discernible timeline, there is a distinct emotional arc that carries readers through.

Roland Wright: Future Knight by Tony Davis, illustrated by Gregory Rogers: This was a much better early reader than most. It uses reading-level-appropriate language, uses humor and history (kind of) effectively, and for the most part manages to stay away from cliché phrases and stereotypical characters. It also uses a secondary character—Roland’s pet mouse—as a rather unexpected foil to Roland’s boyish fearlessness.

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.