Monday, December 6, 2010

Five months off

People, I took five months off blogging. I think it was because I was writing the
guts of my novel. Yes, you heard correctly, my novel--directed at the very sophisticated audience of 10 year old girls. If all goes as planned, the book will have suspense, excitement, fashion, witty banter, love, loss, and what everybody wore.

As a matter of fact, I had to change the title. It was originally called Agnes Von Kliner, Fashion Designer. But Agnes is now the best friend. The protagonist is Carly Blye. I would hate to be someone who has to run a title contest, but I promise you, dear readers, that not one decent title for this book have I thought of. NOT ONE.

Enough about me and my writing (though I am also working on a book I sold called Carry It, Harriet) enough about my life (I go back to school in a few weeks you know!) how could I possibly go on and on , with complete disregard for the tediousness of the self-referential blogger (aren't we all?)

Anyway, there has been a shift for me in this blog. I find myself seldom reading to my children anymore. Why is this? I am frightened to ask. It's probably neglect. Gus (11) reads about a novel a day, if he has a new one, and Henry (8) vigilantly reads 20 minutes per night for his third-grade reading log. He has read some C.S. Lewis, Garfield, Fudge books by Judy Blume, a great book called Weird Stuff--and more. Gus just finished Rick Riordan's new book in a day. Yup, he brags. And he's lined up some Anthony Horowitz and Susan Cooper.

So I won't say to much about what they're reading until I start paying very close attention again--but I will say that I have continued to read for school (my MFA in writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline)and I have read Saffy's Angel (loved) Absolutely, Positively Not Gay (an important book), Somebody (suspenseful quick read), The Higher Power of Lucky (misplaced it 3/4 way through, so very upset)and a galley of Betsy Partridge's wonderful new novel Dog-Tag Summer (luscious) and I am also reading Darkness Over Denmark by my friend Ellen Levine who was just diagnosed with Stage 4 lung Cancer, which is so very devastating. She is so loved by so many. She is my Jewish mother in the city, and I already miss her as she struggles with treatments.

Signing off to go pick up kids, but I have not disappeared--I just needed to write a draft of a novel, and so I almost have one. I'd say another 30-40 pages, and I'll have something you can read!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Comfort in familiarity

Yesterday was a "getting the car fixed in New Jersey" day. Gus had nothing to read (finished Anne Ursu's Siren Song in two days), the hood of the car needed a new part, and so we were both understandably panicked. I'd been thinking about giving Gus some teen fiction, though he's not yet 11. This, because he's suddenly in that in-between age where he can enjoy a picture book or an Eyewitness book (about Knights in this case)as well as a juicy novel--fantasy or realistic. From my shelf I plucked a young adult novel called "Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film about The Grapes of Wrath" by Steven Goldman. I had edited the book at Bloomsbury just before I left, and loved it so much. It's a terrifically funny book about a boy named Mitchell, whose best friend, David, realizes he's gay--and despite everything they discover together about life and themselves, they remain close. And, of course, they have a typically disastrous prom--involving horrible yellow stains on white tuxedo pants. You guessed it.

Gus had devoured it by the end of the day when the car was fixed ($1300), and I loved asking him what part he was reading every hour or so--so I could reminisce about what a charming book it had been for me to work on. Thinking about it, I realize "Two Parties" was a great book for boys who are beginning to see the fun and humor about more grown-up issues, but who also feel the fears that come with becoming teens.

I learned at Hamline last week--thanks to Chris Campbell's critical thesis--that for boys, fear plays an enormous role in growing into a teen. Sure, 'tween and teenage boys may be curious about girls, socializing, and their own changing bodies, but honestly! The big problem is more about being seen naked in the boys' locker room (Thanks for the image, Chris!) and not feeling humiliated about a squeaking voice, the way you smell, or being over or under-weight. I think Judy Blume had it right when she said: Then Again, Maybe I Won't. These days when I ask Gus if he's excited about something, his answer is usually: "Not specifically." I chuckle, but I realize how indifferent he feels. And why? Because the things an eleven year old wants are the not the things we parents think are "good" for them. Ever. He wants to play video games, talk about whatever matters to him, be sarcastic, read great books, and basically never HAVE to do anything he doesn't want to do. I imagine there are many other things he does want to do, but those probably aren't the things you tell your mom! This topic has become a big theme for me lately as I try an navigate this new phase along with my growing-up son.

Tonight I walked into his room to find him reading yet another book. "I know, I've read it sixteen times," he said as he showed me the cover of Otherwise Known as Shelia the Great. See what I mean? I always feel caught between two worlds, and now he's feeling it, too. It always goes back to Judy Blume, doesn't it!

Now I must go begin revise fifty pages from the novel I am trying (very slowly) to write, but I invite you, my friends, to suggest any great books or films for boys of this age. It's a question that's been stumping everyone in my MFA program. I will say this: Now that I realize that there are big fears and apprehensions that accompany the new-found curiosity and need for exploration, at least I can turn to books such as Fat Kid Rules the World and others, where kids Gus's age are facing the feelings that come with this nerve-racking time in a child's life: he knows he is really starting to grow up for good, and there's nothing he can do to make it go faster or to stop it from happening.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer Reading, New Books

My new book was released last week and we celebrated with PS 87 by having a reading and book fair to raise money for the school. Peter Ackerman had already arranged to read his new book, The Lonely Phone Booth, and he kindly allowed me to share the stage. His book is hilarious and terribly clever.
My book is called Orangutans Are Ticklish: Fun Facts from An Animal Photographer--and it's really a beautiful book. The photographer is Steve Grubman, who takes studio shots of every animal imaginable. The book features his photos, and my job was to find facts to go with the photos. I learned so much about the most common animals in this process, and now I can actually walk around town discussing where various species of elephant come from and the fact that a tiger would beat a lion in a fight. The book is available anywhere, so if you buy it, I will be happy to sign it for you.

I have been wanting to start a good list for summer reading. Almost everyday, I am asked about this topic. What can my son read? What would my daughter like? I love to do this and yet it's not always easy to come up with an answer on the spot. One of my favorite ways to find the right book for a child is to pull something off the shelf and read the first line, or the first paragraph, or if you can do it--the first page. This has been my secret reading weapon with my older son. I pretend I am going to read him a novel, and after one chapter, I say I am going to bed and we'll continue tomorrow--but then --HA! I trick him and he takes the book and keeps reading!

Here are some perfectly brilliant books for the nine or ten year old! (Most of these authors also write for younger kids, too, so check out their Amazon pages!)

Realistic Fiction:

Swindled and Zoo Break by Gordon Korman
Born to Rock by Gordon Korman
Schooled by Gordon Korman

With a very slightly historical bent:

Al Capone Does My Shirts
and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Jennifer Choldenko

With a British bent:

Skellig and Kit's Wilderness by David Almond

With superpowers and the internet:
A series in two forms: and by Andy Briggs

More for Girls:

Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen (three separate titles) by Lauren Myracle. She also has a series with titles such as TTYL

Sarah Dessen's books are sort of the Judy Blume books of today--friendship, family,!

I will be back soon with lists for the younger ages--7-10!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

beautiful art and storytelling

Yesterday I journeyed to Canal street in dirty damp the rain to preview an art show by my friend Serge Bloch. The gallery is Living With Art. 153 Lafayette. The opening is Thursday evening, and the prices are human. Anyone who has been to my apartment knows that I have been collecting Serge's work, but this is the first original piece for me. My friend Vincent Kirsch came, too. Vincent, being the other astonishingly gifted illustrator for whom I keep a shrine in my apartment, helped me pick out a piece called The Baroness. She is reminiscent of William Steig. (I digress to mention there is a show of Jewish picture book illustrators coming to the Eric Carle Museum/Amherst in October! It includes, Serge, Steig, Mordicai Gerstein and the wonderful Simms Taback.)I will pick the Baroness up next week. I will have to ask her where she wants to go. Clearly it's her decision. Just look at her!

I wanted to write about the love affair I experienced a month or so ago when I read The Secret Garden, but I can't because I have moved on to books about boys. But I can recommend that if you haven't read The Secret Garden, you should do it right now. Promise?

I re-read The Giver by Lois Lowry. I read it along with my fifth grader, and we chatted periodically. The book is about a boy who is chosen in his bizarre Utopian community to receive all of the memories from a man called the Receiver. What moved me about the book were the descriptions of experiences the boy has never known. Makes you think. The one that choked me up was the description of Christmas. Maybe because the scene involved grandparents. The boy in the book has never heard of grandparents, but he feels connected to the idea of it. Good for fifth grade and up.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli surprised me. Being a book about a tough homeless orphan who runs around between and black neighborhood and a while neighborhood and belongs to both and neither, it really made me think about kids today and how it all looks to them. Told as a tall tale, Maniac Magee feels more like a superhero than a regular child. A very clever concept and story. Good for 4th grade and up.

The big winner this month was Skellig by David Almond. This book crosses age ranges. I might read this to my second grader, while handing a copy to my fifth grader to read to himself. (He did, by the way.)David Almond is a favorite writer of Betsy Partridge. Betsy is the third person to whom I have a shrine in my home, but her shrine is photographic. Her new book Marching For Freedom is the story of the kids who marched during the Civil Rights Movement. This is the type of deeply affecting book you can read to your children, and feel you've done your job as a parent for the whole week. Go Betsy! Back to Skellig. I won't say too much about Skellig except for that it's the story of a boy and his baby sister, whose health is bad. His family moves house (yes, it's British) and Michael finds a man or something in the garage. He also meets up with a neighbor girl named Mina, sort of a sassy superego, and of course home-schooled. The little things and big things that happen to them and change them are magic.

Today is Lewis Carroll Day. Two weeks ago, our second grade book club took a retreat to Central Park where the children climbed on the Alice in Wonderland Statue. We had scones and sandwiches, and read parts of Alice in Wonderland out loud. It was a moment. And it was not raining! On the way back, we met some men who were making bubbles with giant nets. The perfect ending to the picnic.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


This is the first time I have ever sat down to write--with little or no sense of what I want to say. I just read my friend's Varda's blog. With twins and a dying father, she is very relatable to most of us, she writes like a poet, and she has a voice that thrums. Her blog is The Squashed Bologna, and I am following it. You should, too.

This blog is about what I read to my kids, but now it's also about what I read to myself. As I pursue my MFA in writing for children and young adults, I must read a list of 120 books supplied by Hamline. This month, I re-read Are You There Gd, It's Me, Margaret for the first time since I was twelve. I read Charlotte's Web and Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963.

This type of book is referred to as "middle-grade." My definition of a classic middle grade is that it's basically a long chapter book that's not old enough to feature romance or cursing. Middle grades are the wonderful clean read-alouds that your teacher read to you in fourth grade. This is the age level I am trying to write for, too, though I have had several false starts and am beginning to wonder if I'll ever actually write anything.

Aside from my new-found enthusiasm and complete adoration of middle-grade novels, I have also fallen hard for books that teach writing. I read From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler and am working at this moment with Donald Maas's Writing the Break-out Novel Workbook. If only there were an online version so you could fill in the workbook again and again!

I wonder if I love these books so much because they have so many great practical tips I'd have loved during my years as an editor. I find myself wanting to call my friends who are still editors and say: "Having trouble with a novel? Try this!" Or I'd tell them: "Don't sweat it, just give the author this workbook! Let them do the work, not you!"

I realize that some of these books may be formulaic or pat or whatever you wish to call them, but they teach the nuts and bolts. Writing is a craft in many ways, and while no one can put the thoughts in your head, a good teacher can explain some of the most important rules. So these days, I find myself in a state of ecstasy several times a day as I come upon ideas on how to develop characters with more depth and internal conflict or even how to use index cards to put a novel together. I love it!

A note on Judy Blume: if you have a middle grade kid who is confused about religion, Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret is your book. What a genius Judy Blume was--to create a character with grandparents of different religions, both battling for her soul. Yes, we always knew it was the "period" book, but as an adult I was touched much more by the idea that poor Margaret goes to synagogue and church in search of religion--completely ignoring the inner knowledge that she already has her own unique relationship with God. Maybe she doesn't realize it, but you can bet the reader does. The book truly stands up all these years later.

Similarly with Charlotte's Web: E.B. White pulls a fast one, letting his reader worry that poor Wilbur is going to be murdered for bacon, when all along he knows that it's Charlotte and not Wilbur who we will soon lose. Charlotte does die at the end, and the only reason I must mention it is that if you don't remember the last line of the book, I will include it here. It is simply stunning: "It is not often someone comes along that's a true friend and good writer. Charlotte was both."

Thank you, E.B. White.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A New Chapter

In January I went away to school to learn
how to write. It all happened when I was
about to apply for the MFA in writing at
The New School, and a writer and good friend
named Ellen told me to apply to a program
at a school in St. Paul Minnesota called Hamline.
That way, it sort of fell from the sky and landed
in my lap, and for December, I got my application together,
got accepted (a nice feeling!)and on January 7th,
I packed hundreds of fleece layers, my new Sorels, and left
for this place called St. Paul. (Home to both
Scott Fitzgerald and Garrison Keillor)

The program takes two years to complete and involves
going to St. Paul five times, all in Januaries and Julys.
Each residency has a theme--this time it was setting.

The faculty consists of seasoned children's book authors who have
been teaching writing over the years, and it was hard
not to be very impressed by the program--which is run
by a group of logistical savants. In my next life, I
will organize an MFA residency and will be rewarded handsomely!
In other words, it's a lot of planning, logistics, therapy,
question-answering, etc.

The fun part is that I got to go to workshop in
the mornings, lectures in the afternoons, and readings in the
evenings. By day four, I began to feel my brain
stretching like a balloon. I was learning how to stop acting
like an editor and start acting like a writer. (That means being less
bossy and acting like less of a know-it-all and just trying to help one another improve our writing.)

Children's book luminaries came and gave talks (Wendy Lamb,
Anita Silvey, Roger Sutton, Jane Yolen), writing exercises were sprinkled
throughout the lectures, and I met person after person who came to
the program with different life stories and crazy, incredible stories
to share.

To show you who some of the faculty are--all women this time--
I am posting their pictures in the margin. I wish I had copies of all of their books, but some day I will! Each one of them was dedicated, luminous, and
open to the silly first semester students--and for someone who never
really felt the need to connect with professors in college, with these women
I felt like I was being given a second chance!

There were two Marshas, a Claire, a Kelly, a Lisa, a Mary, a Liza, an Alexandria, a Phyllis, a Jane, a Jackie, and an Anne. I hear that in the summer, this is a Ron and a Gary.

I left the residency 11 days later after meetings with
my adorable semester adviser, Marsha Wilson Challs. So now my job
is to read and write. A lot. Marsha suggested a book I have fallen hard for.
The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb. If you are trying to write, get this book! I am calling it my bible.

Friends and family asked how Eric coped while I was away, and
I think he did really well. The boys seemed to thrive and survive,
and know I missed them more than they missed me. I cried about ten times more than any of them did!

I go back in July--when the snow will be gone. The theme will be theme, and by then I will feel like
a Hamline veteran.

My reading list for the program has 120 books on it, and although I have
read several already, I will refer to them as I read them, and give
suggestions--but first I wanted to tell you about my new adventure!