Sunday, August 30, 2009

Should kids read what they want in school?

I was going to write about something else entirely today, but then a co-worker (thanks, Julia) alerted me to this article in the New York Times. This is just too important to let pass.

It seems that some teachers are now experimenting with letting their students choose what they want to read for class, instead of the entire class reading and discussing, say, To Kill A Mockingbird. While you may have dreadful memories of boring classics thrust upon you by teachers who taught the same lesson plan year after year after year, there is something to be said for having a common culture. If kids aren't exposed to these classics before they graduate, they may never read them. And if they never read Harper Lee or Mark Twain or Charles Dickens or John Steinbeck, then references we used to think were understood by all will no longer mean anything.

This hit home when I finished reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird this morning. In a chapter about capturing ideas on index cards and then starting to think like a writer, she says that thoughts or images "will step out of the shadows like Boo Radley and make you catch your breath..."

Now, if I had never read To Kill A Mockingbird I would have no idea what she's talking about there on page 136.

What do you think? Should kids get to choose what they want to read in middle school or high school, even if it's Captain Underpants or Twilight? Is it better to let students read what they want, just to get them reading? Or should they all be required to read certain books?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reading should be a pleasure

Just had to quote the wonderful Philippa Gregory in today's issue of Shelf Awareness:

"Reading should be a pleasure, a joy, and if I am not entranced and delighted then I don't bother."


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Do you write every day? Part Two

If you want to be a writer, ya gotta write. All the best writing teachers (and wonderful writers like Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott) say this. It's kind of obvious, no? If you write every day, you get in the habit of writing and your writing will begin to blossom. If you read yesterday's post, you'll know I didn't write much at all until my aneurysm-induced ephiphany in Feb 2007. Even now, I occasionally miss a day (and I don't beat myself up over it), but I'm writing more than I'm NOT writing. And that's progress. It may only be a paragraph a day, five or six days a week. But I'm writing. (And starting this blog actually helps me stay in the habit -- thanks, Marie Devers of Booknapped, for the tip.)

But what about published authors? Do they write every day?

When I attended a recent SCBWI conference, the weekend concluded with a brunch and an Author Panel, manned by several well-known Children's writers and a few, shall we say, less well-known. Some of the latter had published one MG or YA novel through a small press. Some had a few picture books under their belts. My hat's off to all of them (except that one woman who had no business being there because she was no more published than I am, cough cough).

By far the most successful of the bunch was Dan Gutman. If you're reading this blog, you'll probably recognize Dan Gutman as the popular author of My Weird School, a chapter book series, and the Baseball Card Adventures, a MG series, among many other books. My Weird School has sold over 2.2 million copies. As he told us the night before, it took him 15 years to become successful, but I'd say you can't argue with that kind of success.

Now back to our Sunday morning author panel. Eight or nine authors, of varying degrees of success, sat in a long line facing the rest of us (the attendees), who were still munching our bagels and fresh fruit. They took questions from the audience and passed the mic down the line. Dan Gutman sat at the far right end.

The question arose, "Do you write every day?" The responses were interesting to say the least. (I'm actually paraphrasing here because -- gulp -- I didn't take notes as I did the rest of the weekend. I'm blaming the bagel.)

"No, I write when I feel like it."

"No, I write for a month or two, then I take a few months off."

"No, I find it very hard to write every day."

Finally, finally, the mic reached Dan Gutman, who said promptly, "I write every day from 8 to 11."

Aha! The most successful writer on the panel (more successful than a recognizable YA author who is remaining nameless here because I don't want her to hunt me down) and he was the ONLY ONE who writes every day.

I'd say the verdict is in.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Do you write every day? Part One

Ok, so enough bookseller recommendations and thoughts for a while. Now I want to talk about writing. That's really why most bloggers are here, right? We love to -- no, need to -- write.

I started writing when I was eight years old. I can still remember the awful story I wrote about a girl who died and saw a path to heaven (yes -- it was that dreadful) . I ripped it into pieces and tossed in the wastebasket. Off and on throughout my school years, I wrote depressing stories and depressing poetry. In college, I went more for the urbane, sophisticated short stories. I thought I'd get published by The New Yorker. Ha. No publishing credits to my name, other than the college literary magazine, but I kept writing. Off and on. Off and on. I'd write furiously for a month or two, then stop writing for a few months or a year. (Get the picture yet?) In my twenties, I plugged away at short stories and started branching out into essays. Rejection letters began to pile up in earnest. Still I wrote off and on. A few months off. A few months on.

I married at 30 and my first son was born when I was 32. That's when I started trying to write children's books, specifically picture books. I collected more rejection letters and long before my second son was born (when I was 35), I had given up. Kaput. No more.

Most of the time I was too exhausted to clean the house, let alone write picture books. I've never understood how mothers of young children can also write. Maybe if I'd kept up with the writing and stopped worrying about cleaning the house, I'd be published by now.

I'd have a filthy house and probably be divorced, but I'd be published.

So it's a trade-off. I wouldn't take back those years of being a stay-at-home mom for anything. It was something I was actually good at (yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition, but you get the idea).

My sons are now in college, I've been working at the bookstore for seven years, and I've been writing on a regular basis for two years. What changed? It's simple. I survived a life-threatening illness in 2005. Nothing like a brain aneurysm to help you see the light. Once I'd recuperated to the point where I felt like myself again (in 2007), I told myself: if you're ever going to realize your dream of writing children's books, you need to sit down and write. Right?

To be continued...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Quick Picks

More books to look for in the coming weeks:

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, September 1st), ages 12 and up.

This gripping sequel to The Hunger Games will keep you on the edge of your seat. Having defied the Capitol, Katniss and Peter now find themselves caught up in a different kind of dangerous game, as sparks of rebellion begin to catch fire. An electrifying read.

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, illus by Yoko Tanaka
(Candlewick, September 8th), ages 8 to 12 (or, really, all ages).

Reading this lovely story is like floating inside a dream. Anything is possible. When Peter asks a fortune teller for help in finding a long-lost sister, the fortune teller says an elephant will lead him to her. Kate DiCamillo has outdone herself. This is a timeless fable that will linger long after you turn the last page. And undoubtedly will be one of my top recommendations for holiday gift-giving.

And a few titles that are already available in stores:

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic), ages 14 and up.

A deeply romantic and unusual fantasy about a girl named Grace, obsessed with wolves since she survived an attack years ago, and a yellow-eyed boy named Sam, who's a shapeshifter. This heartwarming story could well do for werewolves what Twilight did for vampires. Told in alternating chapters by Grace and Sam, the narrative races to a powerful conclusion.

n You Reach Me , by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House), ages 8 to 12.

In the future, this will be one of those quirky and amazing books that everyone talks about. Set in New York city circa 1979, this brilliantly-plotted novel delves into the life and times of Miranda and her friends, and involves a series of mysterious notes and unusual occurrences. Reach out and grab this book and read it. Now.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

An oldie but goodie

Thought it was time to re-introduce a youtube oldie. Seems more timely than ever, in these days of book vs e-readers. This comes from Norwegian television, in 2001. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Sound of Silence

Excuse my silence (if there's actually anyone out there reading this. Hellooo? hellooo? hellooo? )

Haven't posted for two weeks. The day after my last downer of a post, I learned some distressing news that hit much closer to home. So I decided to start another blog for personal posts and go back to being professional in this one.

Ahem. So here are my Gems of the Week, based on ARCs I've read recently (and no spoilers, I promise).

GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray (Ages 14 and up, Random House, available Sept 22, 2009). Cameron, the sixteen-year-old narrator, is a slacker and a stoner who wants nothing more than to coast through high school (forget reading Don Quixote). Early in the book, Cameron learns he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (commonly known as mad cow) and that he's dying. The kicker: it's actually very funny. After being visited by a punk angel named Dulcie, Cameron escapes the hospital (or does he?) and goes on a cross-country trek with a hypochondriac dwarf and a living yard gnome. Everything in Cameron's life comes into his journey, so in that respect it's reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. But look for those sly Don Quixote touches too. Oh, and there's Disney World. Who wouldn't love a novel with Disney World in it?

One warning: if you're looking for something similar to Great and Terrible Beauty and the rest of the Gemma Doyle trilogy, you may be shocked. Or disappointed. But don't be. Because this is a wild ride of a novel and overall just a really cool book. (In fact, it mentions Schrodinger's Cat, which I wanted to mention in my own YA novel, of which I've written only 15 pages, so ... bummer. Libba Bray, you win.)

LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld, (Ages 12 and up, Simon & Schuster, available Oct 6, 2009). This is my first experience with Steampunk. As the ARC explains, "Steampunk is a genre of science fiction set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used." Leviathan is set in an alternate 1914. Yes, you remember a few things from history class, right? The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 started The Great War (later known as World War I). Well, that's what Leviathan is all about, with the addition of some really imaginative machinery (used by Germany and Austro-Hungary) that should make George Lucas salivate, and the even more amazing addition of living beasties that have become machines (used by the British Empire and France). Huge airships are whole ecosystems, with whales, bats, birds and other animals each contributing life threads to make it work.

But this is mostly the story of Alek, from Austro-Hungary, and Deryn, from the British Empire, two fifteen-year-old kids drawn into war. Both kids are hiding secrets.

I'm a huge fan of Westerfeld's Uglies books and of So Yesterday, and I'm really impressed with his newest offering. He's a master craftsman. I was completely caught up in the story and couldn't wait to find out how the two story lines would intersect. I was so interested in it that the ending caught me off guard and left me wanting more (naturally, because this is the first in a series).

Side note: this would be perfectly safe for younger readers too. And it's even illustrated (by Keith Thompson), with detailed, though rather dark, drawings.

So keep those pub dates in mind and run to your local independent booksellers to order them. Ok?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The bookseller as counselor

Sometimes my job is awesome. I mean I get to read books (ARCs or Advanced Reader's Copies, but more commonly known as galleys) -- on my own time, of course. But then I get paid to tell customers how great these books are. How I couldn't put this one down. How I cried over the ending of this book. Or laughed out loud throughout this book. Or how this book didn't work for me. Or I couldn't get past chapter 2 of this book.

Let me repeat: I get paid for that.

Of course, I also have to shelve the books, straighten and alphabetize, pull books that aren't selling so they can be returned, clean up empty coffee cups and crushed Cheerios after the customers leave.

But then there are parts of the job that are more difficult. Like hairdressers and bartenders, we hear all the stories. People tell us details of their lives, their hopes, their dreams. We hear that someone's 2-year-old grandson is a genius who is already reading. We hear that a child is jealous of a new sibling, and is there a book for that? (yes, of course, several). We hear that a child is sick or has a broken leg or just lost a grandparent (or, worse, a parent) and is there a book for them? Always.

Today ranked right up there with the most difficult days. I just learned last night that my 19-year-old son's former classmate died suddenly over the weekend. And today, at work, his older sister came in with a neighbor to buy a guest book. For the funeral. The neighbor could barely bring herself to ask me, in a whisper, if we had something appropriate. Ahh. Of course we did and I found the guest books for her. But I'd rather not have to do things like this.

RIP, Matthew.

We sell portable reading devices

As a bookseller, I've been following the smackdown between the Book and the Kindle, brought to you by the guys at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. It's funny to me. But it might not be to you. (Yeah, it's a little hokey and the acting is um, not exactly professional, but hey, they're doing their best. Indie bookstores have a tight budget.)

Ahem. If I could figure out how to include a youtube video right here, I would. But if you go to the Green Apple's blog, you can see them all.

Then today I found this bookstore sign in Shelf Awareness. This is so awesome it has to speak for itself. Yay, Jackson St Books!

Monday, August 3, 2009


Ok... so I've been wanting to start a blog for a long time. Now I've gone and done it. And darned if I'm not totally speechless. What were all those witty things I was going to say about books? Or brain aneurysm awareness? Hmm? Shoulda kept notes.