Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

My Library Valentine

February 12, 2016

When Lois Lowry spoke at our local library event last Spring, she told one little story that didn’t end up in my reportage (and one little story that did—you really MUST read it! It’s amazing!  I’ll wait here until you get back).

The speech was a kickoff to the library’s One Book One Read event, and the One Read, of course, was The Giver.  I first read The Giver when I checked it out from the local library—the same way I “first read” almost all the books I read.  And always have.  When I was a kid I visited the local branch library every Saturday, unless that was one of the Saturdays I took the bus downtown, and in that case I visited the BIG multi-story central operation.  I honestly don’t know what my childhood would have been like without the public library, and no telling what my adulthood would be like without it either.

So here’s Ms. Lowry’s little story: not long ago, some young friends visited from Europe—France, I think.  A country we would consider “developed” and not blighted by years of Soviet servitude.  While entertaining these girls she took them to the local library, where they browsed the stacks and chose some books to check out on her card.  Back in the car and on their way to somewhere else, one of the girls asked, “What do you have to pay to belong to the library?”

Ms. Lowry was a bit startled by the question, and so I am.  Why, nothing.  That’s what we pay.

Of course it’s not technically true; you just don’t see the library line-item on your county tax statement.  But still, the public library you see in almost every community in America is one of America’s better ideas.  And a surprising number of Americans still think so.

Here’s the good news, from the ALA’s Quotable Facts brochure, printed in 2013:

  • 58% of American adults possess a library card.
  • Americans to libraries (public, school, and academic) over three times more often than they go to the movies.
  • Reference librarians answer nearly 6.6 million questions every week.
  • There are more public libraries than there are McDonald’s restaurants.  (You just have to look harder for them—maybe libraries should have the equivalent of golden arches on a fifty-foot pole.)
  • Americans check out an average of eight books/year.  (Since about 24% of adults have not even read a book in the past year, somebody is doing a whole lot of checking.)
  • The highest achieving schools have well-staffed and well-funded libraries–but you already know that!

America even designates Library Week in April.  This isn’t April, but it is close to Valentine’s Day, so this is my whacked-out, bedraggled-lace, hastily-constructed Valentine to America’s libraries.  We’ve been together through good times and bad, and I don’t know what I’d do without you.

library-valentine

Dangerous Fiction

February 8, 2016

Whenever a controversial YA novel comes under scrutiny, youth advocates always call the book community to arms.  Novels, they explain over and over again, are good for young people—period.  The right kind of fiction may even be the salvation of a struggling teen soul.  No matter how depressing or graphic the content, novels can 1) help teens find themselves by offering characters they can identify with, 2) comfort them in a desperate situation by letting them know they are not alone, or 3) offer a “safe space” to explore other ways of looking at things.  Fiction is too powerful to keep from the young, they say.  But the defenders seem blind to the possibility that that very power can be negative as well as positive.

dangerous

In the online journal Aeon, Tara Isabella Burton makes the case that reading fiction is not necessarily an unalloyed good.  Nor should it be.  Might the power of fiction be used for evil?  Or as she puts it, “in treating novels as the ultimate nutrition for the brain, do we risk neutralizing their potency?”

A story “works” by taking the elements of human life and character and emotion, cutting them to pattern, and shaping them to fit not only a compelling plotline but also a moral vision.  Every novelist works from a sense of what’s good and bad, even if he’s convinced that nothing is ultimately good or bad.  Every novelist spins an imaginary world within the text, whether realistic or fantastic, then sits back and invites the reader into that fictional parlor.  The pleasure of reading a novel depends to some degree on surrender–a true reader wants to be swept away.  Call it suspension of disbelief or unput-down-ableness, the novels you love are the ones that capture you.  “Captivating” signals charming, enchanting, magical—but those very words, in themselves, imply that someone has been overcome by something outside.  It’s what book reviewers mean when they say they were “shattered” or “shaken to the core,” and it’s not always a good thing.

Burton quotes warnings from a past that saw reading novels as a “kind of possession: an encroachment of the ‘other’ upon the self.”  She cites 19th century minister Jonathan Townley Crane who worried about consumers of fiction (mostly women) reading themselves into “clumsy little romances” and identifying themselves with the heroine to such an extent they lost track of themselves.  That was a theme as late as the 1980s, when a boom in steamy romance novels made pastors wonder if too many housewives were comparing their potbellied husbands with Fabio.

It wasn’t just a religious concern.  Burton takes a fictional character as an example of unhealthy reading, namely Dorian Gray, Portrait of (the novella by Oscar Wilde).  The title character is poisoned” by a little volume identified only as “The Yellow Book.”  Literary historians say this was an actual experimental novel, Against Nature, which affected Wilde himself in a negative way.  It could be that in the act of reading this particular book both the author and the character surrendered too much: in vampire terms, the poison book sucked Oscar/Dorian’s life force into itself and left him defenseless.

Active readers are co-creators, in a continual dialogue with the story (Why did he do that? Yess!  Don’t go there! I don’t get it—).  When a reader closes the book, it’s hers—her version, that is.  What she remembers is the book she read, and a book has as many versions as it has readers.  But some stories latch on to the reader, working so powerfully that she suspends the inner dialogue for pages or chapters at a time.  She’s becoming the story, rather than the other way around.

I read Raintree County in my early twenties, and it inhabited me for weeks afterward with its fervid romanticism.  Today I find it mainly pretentious and overwritten–but I make that judgment from the self that was, at one time, permanently altered by that same book.  We’re designed to be shaped by our culture even as we shape our culture.  So the issue isn’t whether you’re every going to be influenced by a “shattering” book, but what that influence might be.  That’s where the disclaimer for good or ill comes in.

Toward the end of the essay Burton tips her hand.  To her, it seems, the “dangerous” books are those that shaped the backward values of an earlier day.  “A rich tradition of political response—literature from the post-colonial and feminist traditions, has emerged in recent decades, in which literary classics are challenged or rewritten in rebellion against their purported textual authority.”  In other words: we know better now.  A case in point is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a “postcolonial” response to Jane Eyre showing how Rochester’s mad wife was driven insane by patriarchal and colonial oppression.

So that’s where she’s coming from.  Okay, fair enough—everybody is coming from somewhere, but to my mind Ms. Burton undercuts the whole premise of her essay in the last paragraph: “Too acknowledge that textual narratives have as much capacity to be truly dangerous as they have to be truly illuminating is to acknowledge that books, like people, are not inherently moral or immoral.”  Wait a minute—not inherently moral?  But didn’t she write the entire article from a moral perspective?  How can we even determine that some books may be “dangerous” unless that’s a bad thing (especially as opposed to “illuminating,” which is a good thing)?  .

I think she’s right in essence: some fiction can be damaging to the reader, depending on a host of factors: the content, mood, or tone of the former matched to the disposition, situation, or vulnerability of the other. Young people are especially vulnerable because they are in formation and don’t yet have the perspective to evaluate dark themes–even while many of them are attracted to dark themes.  That attraction in itself isn’t abnormal, and one depressing book won’t tip the balance of a reasonably well-adjusted teen.  But a deluge of them could create a current of despair, rage, or cynicism.  If your diet of fiction (or your kids’) seems tilted toward violence, oppression, suicide, or tragedy, it wouldn’t be amiss to wonder if it’s too much.

Coundown to IDK: First Reviews

July 31, 2015

hollywood2It’s nail-biting time.  The final edits have been made, the blurbs have been solicited, the Advance Reader Copies have gone out into the big wide world.  Reviews generally start appearing one to three months before a book’s official release, to give librarians and booksellers time to consider whether they want to order a particular title or not.  Sooner is better–or at least that’s how it looks to me.  Sooner means the reviewer is intrigued by the cover or the premise and is eager to read the book.  And if they like it, they are eager to share.   That’s why I’m excited to get two reviews of IDK already–eleven weeks ahead of official release!  One is very good and one is great.  The great one, from Kirkus Reviews, is online (see the pull quote and click the link).  The very good one is from School Library Journal, which generally doesn’t publish reviews online.  So I’m quoting it in full.

I have a shot at four more review journals: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Hornbook.  None of them, of course, have to acknowledge IDK at all.  But I’ll be watching, with eagerness and trepidation.

I DON’T KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS [STARRED REVIEW]
Author: J.B. Cheaney

Review Issue Date: September 1, 2015
Online Publish Date: July 27, 2015
Publisher:Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Pages: 288
Price ( Hardcover ): $16.99
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-1-4926-0944-5
Category: Fiction

“The novel is packed with cameos by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin…fascinating tidbits about the early days of film, and a relentless series of action scenes. Set dressing and quick pace aside, as narrated by Isobel, the story relies on—and delivers—solid characterization to drive it forward. Impressive on all fronts.”
__________________________________________

The review from School Library Journal (not available online) doesn’t come with a star, but still makes IDK sound enticing–to me, anyway:

Cheaney, J.B. I Don’t Know How the Story Ends. 288p. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. Oct. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781492609445.

“The electrifying setting of early Hollywood, along with the ever-relevant story of a young girl’s search for stability in an increasingly chaotic world, make this a winner…Industrious, creative, and resourceful young characters will charm readers interested in the life-changing magic of filmmaking.”

Gr 5-7–Isobel’s father is serving overseas in the Great War and she misses him terribly. But when her mother moves the family from Seattle to Los Angeles for the summer, her world is truly turned upside down. This is the golden age of cinema and Hollywood is the center of it all. Isobel’s tour guide is her stepcousin, Ranger, a biracial renegade auteur with a habit for sneaking onto film sets to stalk his favorite directors. Ranger and his friend Sam, the son of an alcoholic cameraman, have a plan to make a moving picture and enlist Isobel and her impulsive little sister, Sylvie, to star. Unfortunately, this plan also involves more than a little “borrowing” of film equipment and facilities. The 13-year-old sheds her responsible nature and is swept up in the allure of authoring a happy ending to her story. Cheaney’s well-researched descriptions of the complex filmmaking equipment and processes of the silent era will surely amaze any reader used to casually filming their world with a smartphone. Cheaney also recounts several real silent films of the era, which may encourage some readers to broaden their movie-watching choices. The story tends to feel unnecessarily long at points, but the electrifying setting of early Hollywood, along with the ever-relevant story of a young girl’s search for stability in an increasingly chaotic world, make this a winner.

VERDICT Industrious, creative, and resourceful young characters will charm readers interested in the life-changing magic of filmmaking.

 

Countdown to IDK: First Words

June 19, 2015

What grabs you about a book, from the first page?  Some readers like getting right into the action, as in

  • Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.  (Tom Clancy, Patriot Games)
  • Renowned curator Jacques Suaniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.  (Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code)
  • None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Middle of Somewhere)

Some want to identify immediately with a character:

  • Call me Ishmael.  (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • I am an invisible man.  (Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man)
  • I didn’t mean to do it.  I just got carried away.  (J. B. Cheaney, My Friend the Enemy)

Other readers like a strong sense of place or time; they want to setting to descend on them like a mist.  For example

  • The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, like the highest seat of a ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. (Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .  (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.  An English boy of any learning whatever knows that.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Playmaker)

Other readers are looking for a jolt of mystery or suspense:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  (Louis Sacher, Holes)
  • One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War, and the next minute he was gone.  (Michael Grant, Gone)
  • Last night’s weather forecast predicted rain.  This isn’t rain.   (J. B. Cheaney, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous)

And others like a shot of emotional adrenaline:

  • What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? (Eric Segal, Love Story)
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  (Nora Zeal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God)
  • “Stop! Halt! You’ll kill each other!  (J. B. Cheaney, The True Prince)

(Look at me swanning around on the same page with all these great authors!)

Every author knows that first lines can make the difference between a reader reading or a reader refusing (though most readers will stick around at least for a paragraph).  But more than that: a first line can set the tone for the whole story.  Of course you want to engage the reader with some sense of the action to follow.  Of course you want to surprise and mystify.  The question is how.

For my soon-to-be-published novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, I decided to go for voice.  That’s the indefinable quality that makes one person’s style different from another’s.  When you read Call me Ishmael next to You don’t know me without you have read a book called Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter, you know you are in for a sojourn within two very distinct personalities.

I decided to try for that.  Meet Isobel Ransom, the narrator and cover girl of I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (Sourcebooks, Oct. 2015):

* * * * * * * * * * * *

      The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.

It wasn’t all my fault.  She pushed me before I pushed her—figuratively, I mean.

She’d picked a bad time to tangle with me, for I was in a drippy, dismal mood, like our Seattle weather that day.  While walking from my room to the stairs with an open book—Jane Eyre, my new most-favorite—I heard a moaning noise behind me, starting low and growing louder: “AhhhhWOOOO!”

I turned around.  “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

A cobwebby ghost was creeping up behind me: Sylvie, draped in gauzy curtains she’d somehow pulled down from our parents’ bedroom window.  “AWOOO!  I’m the ghost of the battlefield.  No—I’m Daddy’s lonesome spirit come back to haunt you, and . . . Quit it, Isobel!”

I had smacked her on the shoulder with my book.  She smacked me back, so I pushed her against the banister and she stumbled on the wads of curtain under her feet.  The next moment she was bouncing down the stairs, howling at every bump.

The noise brought Mother from the study and Rosetta from the kitchen.  Both could only stare at first, flummoxed by the noisy cocoon I was frantically trying to unwrap.  Sylvie had made it all the way to the bottom without breaking anything, I was pretty sure.  Father used to say he was going to take her on the road as a scientific curiosity because her bones were made of rubber.  But the fact remained that she had been pushed, and someone had done the pushing.

“Isobel,” my mother said accusingly.

“I’m sorry!  But she was acting silly, as usual, and saying she was Father’s ghost, and we know that Father’s alive and well, but I can’t stand it when she . . .” Et cetera.  And all this time Sylvie was yelling that it wasn’t her fault.  She was just playing, and I hit her before pushing her, and so on.

Rosetta stepped in to lend a hand, and finally Sylvie was standing on her own two feet, both of us waiting for Mother to send us outside for a switch from the forsythia bush.  But she just looked at us, lips pressed together, the silence lengthening like the long shadow that had fallen over us ever since Father left for France.

“That does it,” Mother said at last.  “I’ve had enough of dreary days and melancholy daughters.  We’re going to California for the summer.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So the adventure begins .  .

postcard

Countdown to IDK: Cover Coverage

June 12, 2015

Some of my covers I’ve loved; some I cringed at, just a little.  I got kind of a shock with my first-ever published novel, The Playmaker, which looks like this:

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

First of all, the character, Richard Mallory, looks nothing like I described him in the book.  I’ve heard that artists were supposed to actually read the book to get design ideas, and this artist wouldn’t have needed to read far—the description is in the first chapter.  Second of all, nowhere in the story does Richard attack anyone with a sword.  Third of all, what’s with the font style?  It looks like “Goosebumps.”  (On the positive end, I really like the bear in the background, even though lots of kids guess it’s a dog.)  I did bring up the Goosebumps font with my editor, who explained that the design team was going for boy-appeal.  And in the end I can’t complain, because The Playmaker is still in print—after fifteen years!

myfriendtheenemy

Alternative Title: Please Love Me. Please.

Usually the hardcover image carries over to the paperback, but that didn’t happen with my third published novel, My Friend the Enemy.  To your left is the hardback, which quickly made itself scarce.  No wonder; to me this cover says Read me because I’m thoughtful and sensitive and good for you.

MFTE.pb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, here’s the paperback edition, which says Read me because I’m a great story about a girl and a boy and their fraught friendship during World War II.

I might hesitate about reading the first.  I’d pick up the second in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

 

My first publisher, Random House, always gave me a completed design and basically said, “Here.  We hope you like it.  (And too bad if you don’t.)”  My current publisher, Sourcebooks, asks for my ideas ahead of time and doesn’t use them.  But they also ask for feedback and are willing to make small changes.  So here’s what the cover of my goes-on-sale-in-October MG novel looked like in its first version:

hollywood

“What do you think?” asked the editor.  Well . . .

Isobel Ransom, the main character in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (that’s what IDK means, if you’re wondering) lives in Seattle.  The story takes place during the summer of 1918, while America is involved in World War I.  While her father is serving as an army surgeon in France, Isobel and her mother and sister travel to southern California to spend a couple of months with her aunt, who lives in a sleepy little town called Hollywood.  But times are changing fast for Hollywood, soon to become the motion-picture capital of the world, and Isobel is caught up in the frenetic, wild-west age of movie-making.

First of all: nothing in the above design says 1918.  The look is more 1930’s.

Second of all: nothing says California.  The look is more depression-era Kansas.  In fact, a couple of people I showed it to said the first thing that came to mind was The Wizard of Oz.  Since that was also the first thing that came to my mind, surely it’s no fluke.

Third of all: nothing says motion pictures.

I mentioned all this to my editor: the girl’s dress needs to change; her hair should be different; what’s that thing in the background that looks like a broken-down fence; why is the landscape so desolate; and can’t we stick in a few palm trees or something?  And finally, where’s the movie camera?

No movie camera.  The philosophy behind this cover is that the story reflects universal themes and they didn’t want to make the time and setting too specific, in order to appeal to as many readers as possible.  I don’t know about this, since movies are about as universal as we get these days, and the specific subject matter seems to generate plenty of interest whenever I mention it.  But they did take the landscape and costume into account, and here’s what we ended up with:

hollywood2

Still no palm trees.  But it passes for California, and if you look closely you can make out the hazy outlines of the blue Pacific. And the girl’s dramatic pose is a nice touch–even if it makes older readers like myself immediately hear the opening bars of “Tara’s Theme.”

So, what do you think?

Keep watching for reviews, blurbs, first paragraphs and chapters, and more!  You might even find out How the Story Ends!  (And oh yes, you can pre-order here.)

Book-Burning and Guilty Consciences

June 10, 2015

I burned a book once.

True confessions: it was an ARC I got at a library or booksellers convention, and I didn’t like it.  Usually I don’t burn books I don’t like—that conjures up all kinds of Nazified images, like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  But it was winter, and we had a fire in the wood stove, and I was so irritated with the contents (don’t even remember what the book was now) that I bent its innocent spine and tossed a section at a time into the flames!  I’m not bragging, because I still feel a little guilty.  What is it about books that seem so not-for-burning?

Maybe it’s their humanity.  Humans are sometimes described as embodied souls–not quite accurately, I think–but if that’s so, books are embodied minds.  Every human artefact is in some way an embodiment of the mind, and we do burn old houses and letters and discontinued uniforms and items no longer useful (otherwise known as trash). Books are more personal, though: they don’t just say something about the writer, they also testify to the reader.  When displayed proudly on a shelf they declare our admiration–or pretention, if we haven’t actually read them.  When stuck in a briefcase or hidden under a sweater they assert our guilty pleasure.  When blazing in a bonfire they express our contempt.

Some thoughts, stories, premises, and exploitations are contemptible, and I wouldn’t have a big problem with a bonfire made of Hustler magazines.  When the Ephesian converts brought their occult books and magic scrolls “and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19), they meant to demonstrate the worthlessness of superstition against the power of the Holy Spirit.  Book-burning is a statement—or least it seems like it should be.  Remember the scene in The Day After Tomorrow where the survivors of an apocalypse are burning books in the library just to keep warm?  That was a statement in itself: Look how and how quickly a civilization can fall.   (I couldn’t find a video clip on youtube, but that scene has its own piece of soundtrack, appropriately mournful.)

Each volume, whether it’s Karl Marx or J. K. Rowling or Pope Benedict or Louis L’Amour or E. L. James stamped on the spine, represents some little facet of humanity, whether noble or trashy.  All together, they represent one huge facet of humanity, perhaps the most definitive one: the ability to communicate in words, across continents and down the years.  Even if it was written to formula by a nameless hack in a basement apartment, each book is a little voice crying out—articulately.

Voices from the flames give me the creeps.

I tend to hold on to books the way hoarders hold on to old tools, old clothes, pieces of string: I might need those particular words someday.  But limited space demands culling every now and then, especially since I now get unsolicited copies for possible review. So . . . what to do with unwanted books?  Not just the unsolicited ones, but the ones you now realize you’ll never get around to reading, the ones you’ve outgrown, the ones that were gifts from Aunt Marge who totally doesn’t get you?

  1. That’s what library sales are for, and once I’ve dropped off the two-three boxes I accumulate every year I try not to think about what happens to the books that don’t sell.  Not my problem.
  2. Some trendy couples use books as decorating items.  If you google “Creative Uses for Old Books,” or similar key words, you’ll get pages and pages of ideas: knickknack shelves, furniture, desk accessories, clocks, paper roses.  A few years ago a very creative lady I know make these as giveaways for all the authors attending the Warrensburg Children’s Literature Festival:

JC book

(Those little voices may have cried out when the saber saw cut into them, but I don’t care–I’m keeping mine forever!)

  1. And did you know there’s a whole creative field of book sculpture?  I love these—a striking blend of thought and deed, word and form, spirit and flesh.  The artist said, “Let there be . . .” and it was so.

book-sculpture

My admiration for books-as-art doesn’t change the fact that most of us can’t do this for all their unwanted titles.  It’s an understated secret that publishers submit their unsold copies to the pulping machine.  I shiver at the thought—some of MY books have met that fate–but at least those unappreciated pages can be reincarnated to new pages.  And life goes on . . .

Character Qualities – IV

June 3, 2015

One more to close out the school year!  Yesterday the sixth-graders at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Kankakee, Illinois, voted on the character interview they’d most like to see, after Shelly, Bender, and Igor.  This time the vote went to

JAY THOMAS PASTERNAK III

Take it away, Jay!cartoon_0022

What’s your favorite color?

Blue and silver.  Go, Cowboys!

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

Setting a goal and sticking to it.

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Life’s pretty good right now; I’d be almost afraid to “improve” it.  Or me.

Okay, I guess there’s one thing.  I freak a little too easily.  It may not look like it, especially compared to Spencer, but like for instance.  When I started going nearsighted, I didn’t want to admit it.  It went on for a long time—even last year I started noticing, but I kept hoping it would get better on its own.  Nobody in my family wear glasses.  Peppy still has eyes like a hawk; he told me so.  He just uses reading glasses sometimes.  Even my dad.  So I didn’t mention it to anybody for a whole year, even when I started missing Poppy’s throws.  He brought it up himself: how’s your eyes lately?  It wasn’t until early this year that I had to say something, because I was writing the wrong assignment pages down from the smart board.  Just admitting it made it seem like the end of the world for a while.  I know that’s stupid, but it took some attitude adjustment.  All the time I was thinking I should be able to take it more in stride.  NFL players get injured all the time.  And I see it in the movies; star runner gets body-slammed, the doc says he’ll never be able to play again but he sucks it up and . . . Forget the sucking-up, I just don’t want anything like that to happen in the first place.  I have to be extra careful.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

That’s easy.  Without Poppy I never would’ve been able to develop my talent to this level, or get as much fun out of it.  My dad’s a good dad, but he’s just not into the whole pigskin thing.  I would have grown up watching the History Channel and not have a clue until I got to high school, maybe, about a whole big side of my life.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Happy, friendly, fun.

What do others not understand about you?

Whoa, dude.  I’m not sure what there is to understand.  I mean, I’m pretty much out there all the time, you know?

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years, I’ll be in the top ten contenders for the Heisman Trophy and talking to pro sports agents.  I’d really like for both Cowboys and Steelers to be bidding for me, but I’d settle for one or the other, plus at least one more club showing a strong interest.  Maybe an expansion team, like the Titans or Panthers.  I could live with that.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

I don’t know if I would pick a happy moment.  But a happy time would be winter.  You’d probably guess my favorite time of the year is the fall, but actually it’s between Christmas and Super Bowl, when the playoffs are going on.  On Monday and Sunday nights, I run across the commons after dinner—Mom always yells, “Is your homework done?” and I always say Yes.  It usually is.  Cold air freezing my ears as I sprint through the woods, dodging trees like they were defensive blocks, leap onto the patio like I’m clearing the goal posts, chest-bump the grill, knock on the glass door.  Geemaw slides it open, hot dry air rubs my face (they’re always arguing about where to set the thermostat).  She says, “Come on in out of the cold, Trey!  You want some spice tea?” I love her spice tea—she loads it up with extra sugar and Tang and puts in a cinnamon stick to stir it with.  Poppy won’t touch the stuff, calls it warm syrup.  He’s already set up in his Lay Z Boy with a can of beer and a bowl of Doritoes or popcorn, with the platform rocker pulled up for me.  That’s Geemaw’s chair, but she never watches the game so she doesn’t mind Poppy moving it as he puts it back.  Which he never does anymore, so I do it myself just before going home, so they’ll have one less thing to fight about.  The fighting doesn’t really bother me, since it doesn’t seem to bother them.  I’d just rather they wouldn’t, especially if it’s got anything to do with me.  Anyway, those few minutes before the game starts, when I’m stirring my spice tea with the cinnamon stick and we’re talking over our picks and he’s threatening to trounce me on the averages again, and we don’t kind what kind of surprises the game is going to have for us . . . I don’t remember being any happier than that.

What is your greatest fear?

Do we have to talk about fear again?  Okay: knees.  Then calves.  Then shoulders.  I just have to be careful.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Uh-uh.  I’m not going there.  No way.

 

 

Character Qualities, III

May 29, 2015

Continuing this short series on character interviews . . . If you’re just joining us, I’m exploring the use of imaginary “interviews” as a way for authors to get to know their characters better.  Somebody on this Bus Is Going to Be Famous is a great example of the benefits of this technique, because with nine (count ’em! Nine!) main characters I needed an effective way to get to know them better.  Earlier this week I visited with kids at Montessori Magnet School in Kankakee, and asked them which interview they’d like to see.  The winner:

SHELLY GUADALUPE ALVAREZ!

(She’s not surprised at all.  Just wait until she’s famous–everybody will want to read her interviews!)

What’s your favorite color?cartoon_0025

Silver!  That’s my brand.

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is determination and focus.  Is that two qualities?  How about focused determination?  Or determined focus?  You know Roger Foulkes, on American Star Search?  He says not having a focus is like playing darts with a balloon. He means you have to be sharp.  And I guess kind of hard, too.  I can’t think of anybody in my whole school like that except me.  Focus means you have to think about something all the time and set goals for yourself and figure out ways to reach those goals.  The only people I know like that are in the All-City Glee Club.  I’m the youngest member, did you know that?  Luke Springer, our coach, says that I—

What?  Go on to the next question?  Okay . . .

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Well, I believe that you don’t focus on your weaknesses; you build on your strengths.  So sure, I want to improve on everything there: voice, volume, breath control, musicality, body stamina, flexibility.  Grades?  Okay, I want to improve on those enough to get into some good performance schools.  Even though, like, how is it going to help me to know when the Civic War was or how to find the area of a circle?  But whatever it takes, I guess.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Claire, definitely.  Did you know she was the youngest of six kids, and their dad ran off and their mother had to work all the time and she grew up in Arkansas?  And she made it big singing country and western?  Yeah.  You can find her old clips on YouTube, age 15 or something like that, singing “Wildwood Flower” on an acoustic guitar.  Wearing white cowgirl boots and a shirt with a fringe!  What I admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to change or, you know, evolve.  She kept the white boots but that’s it.  And now she’s so . . . so . . . just dazzly.  She lights up the whole stage.  She’s going to be in St. Louis in January and I’m dying to go.  But Dad says it’s either that or save the money for camp, so . . . Nobody should have to make a choice like that!

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Sparkly.  Exciting.  Focused.

What do others not understand about you?

Well, I think everybody understands my goals, and that’s all I care about!

But . . . I don’t think they understand what performing does to me.  I guess maybe they might think I’m just a showoff.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Really, a lot more.  Like music.  Music takes me places, you know?  When the music gets inside and starts swirling around it kind of lifts me up and swirls me around, too.  And then I’m exactly who I want to be, not a little Mexican beanpot like Uncle Mike says.  (I guess I used to fart a lot, though I don’t remember.)  He still calls me that, even though my ears fit my face a lot better and my hair got long and thick enough to cover them.  It’s like a big hilarious joke that nobody thinks is funny except him.  He’s a loser, anyway.  But the music, that’s what people don’t get.  The talent show really showed me that.  I know, it was just a little dinky elementary-school show, and when the sound went off I would have freaked, totally, except for the music.  It was inside me—no, it was me, and it made me so much bigger and stronger I could pick up that whole cafeteria full of kids and take them anywhere I wanted to go.  Talk about focused!  I was so there, I never want to be anywhere else.

That’s what I wish people understood about me.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll be 22.  Claire did her first concert tour when she was 19, her first platinum album at 20, her first Super Bowl halftime at 21.  Does that give you an idea?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

Well, I was going to say the talent show—duh!  But then I thought a little more about this question, and I remembered this funny thing from way back when I was only 7.  M6y grandpa on my mom’s side, Papa Early, he gave me my first showbiz break.  Really.  He was the entertainment chairman of this old-folks group he belonged to, the Golden Gang, and he came up with this bright idea to have a grandkids’ talent show.  He called it Bragging Rights Night, because he told us he got tired of all the old duffers bragging on their grandkids and wanted to see all these wonderkids strut their stuff (he actually talked like that).  He’s the one who talked my parents into letting me sing, because I used to sing for him on the back porch on barbecue nights.  He picked two songs and even coached me a little.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I always liked to sing but never thought about performing.  I didn’t get too nervous, or not too anything until I was halfway through “The Good Ship Lollipop” and noticed all these old people smiling at me.  Really smiling, not like Aw Isn’t She Cute, but like I was making them happy.  And that made me happy.

At the end of the show, Papa Early picked me up and walked around with me like I was, like, three years old.  “Here’s my little star,” he kept saying, like he wanted all his friends to know me.  And all the time they were smiling like they were still in that happy place.

Papa Early died a few months after that.  Heart attack, really sudden.  I wish I could remember him better.

What’s your greatest fear?

Well, if you want to stay focused you can’t think about fear!  So I’ll pass on this one.

If you died tomorrow, what should your epitaph be?

What kind of question is that?!  And what’s an epitaph?  Like, what you put on your gravestone?  Okay, if you want to know how I’d like people to remember me, how about Shelly Alvarez: a Real Shooting Star.

But really, it’s a stupid question.

___________________________________________

To see how other characters answered these same questions, here’s Bender and Igor.

Character Qualities, II

May 27, 2015

So, last week I introduced

The Interview

as a useful tool for helping an author get to know her character.  That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit the main characters down and ask them a set of predetermined questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  Nothing mystical happens here; I’m answering as if I were Jay or Shelly or Igor.  But I have to use what I’ve already determined about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward, in order to answer these questions.

Last Thursday, I posted my interview with Bender Thompson at the request of the class I Skype-visited.  Today, at the request of King Middle Schoolers in Kankakee, IL (thanks for your great questions, guys!) I’ll share my interview with

ROBERT JAMES PRICE SANDERSON, better known as “Igor”

(I pronounce it EE-gore, by the way)

 What’s your favorite color?

Igor

Neon!  I know, lots of colors can be neon.  But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What do you see as your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is my abdominal muscles because I can leg press 200 pounds.  No kidding.  My Webelos troop that I was in for about two seconds (before they kicked me out) had a fitness day at the Y and we tried out all the machines.  That’s what I could do.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

I would like to improve my report card.  But not enough to, like, work at it.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

The person who has had the most influence on my life is the Incredible Hulk.  That’s why I turn into this big green destruction machine when nobody’s around.  The person with the second-most influence is probably my real dad.  Even though I don’t really remember him.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Funny, crazy, hysterical.

What do others not understand about you?

My friends don’t understand how smart I really am.  I’m just pretending to be stoopid.  Most people don’t realize, but it takes a lot of brains to act dumb.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll probably be finishing junior high.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was when I finally managed to flatten the Empire State Building in Monster Donkey Kong.

Okay, here’s the truth: my happiest memory is the day we left for Disney World, in Florida.  Big Al, my stepdad, told us two weeks before that we were going on this vacation, but up until that minute I didn’t believe it.  I’ve been told enough things were happening that ended up not happening.  Big Al is a morning person—when he’s at home his normal get-up time is like 4:30 in the morning—and he likes to get an early start on any trip, so we were on the road before the sun came up.  I know what that that time of day feels like, because every time we make a move that’s when we leave: it’s kind of fuzzy and blurry but sharp at the center.  Does that make sense?  Anyway, Big Al had the van all loaded up so all we had to do was pile in, but I was already awake—I’d been lying in bed thinking about Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion and all the other rides.  The baby was a little fussy when Mom strapped her in her car seat, but I knew she’d be out like a light once the car started rolling.  Little Al and Samantha started a fight over whose space was whose and Mom told them to knock it off, but not like she was mad.  Big Al said, like he does every time, “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it,” and we backed out of the driveway.  There was a rim of orange light on the horizon and I knew that in about fifteen minutes Big Al and me would be the only ones awake in the van but we wouldn’t need to talk.

Of course, we ended up having to leave a day early and I never got to ride Space Mountain.  I guess nothing can be perfect.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that someday the space/time continuum will break down and I’ll wake up to find I’m 87 years old but still think like a kid.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Here’s lies Igor Sanderson—just kidding!

(Illustration courtesy of Tielman Cheaney, Cartoon Vegas.)

Can a Book Really Change Your Life?

May 16, 2015

Well, technically anything can change your life, from the high jump that secured your state track record and won your scholarship to the University where you met your wife and fixed your geographical location . . . to the speck of dust that flew in your eye and got under your contact while you were driving across the bridge that caused you to swerve and then over-correct and plunge over the guardrail into the river, ending it all.

But really . . . can a book change your life (always excluding books like, you know, the Bible)?

Changing might not be the best word, but I was interested in the results of a BuzzFeed post on the subject.  In answer to the question, “What children’s book changed your life?” readers a posted jacket images with a brief exposition on the book’s life-changing properties.  Some of these were quite specific: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (which I have never been able to finish) launched one reader’s lifelong interest in linguistics, leading to a college major.  Another has never killed a spider since Charlotte’s Web.  Meet Samatha (American Girl) taught proper table manners.  Other reported changes are more nebulous: “This is the first book I remember my mother reading to me and it reminds me of how much she loves me” (Goodnight Moon).  “These books taught me to value everything in life because nothing is forever” (A Series of Unfortunate Events).   “It taught me never to follow the crowd” (Sophie’s Ponytail).    Other books could have taught those same people the same lessons–as in romance, there’s no “one” for you,  but several “ones” who, in intense communion with you at a particular time and place, will change your life.

When I was about ten years old I read this book (The Silver Sword by Ian Serralier).  It was a Weekly  Reader Children’s Book Club selection silver-swordfor the month, and the copy in the picture is not the actual copy I read, though it looks that old and beat up.  (Found this one at a Good Will.)  It’s’ a great story that holds up well fifty-five years later, but I can’t say for sure that it taught me about courage and perseverance and sacrifice, although the story offers indelible models of all those virtues.  It probably did, but what I know for sure is that this book make a reader out of me.  That is, someone who doesn’t just read for pleasure and enlightenment, but for a particular kind of pleasure and enlightenment that can’t come any other way.  With this book I first experienced the sharp pang of discovery when a story wraps around your heart and shakes hands with itself–when something happens that’s so poignant and right and piercing, you know you’ve been changed.   To this day I can turn to the very page where it happened; I wrote about it here.  When you read such a passage, you know you’ll read it again–not to find out what happens, of course.  That particular secret is out, but the deeper secret of how it touched you can be discovered again.  And again.

Other books could have done that–and would have, since I was certain to become a reader.  But for me it was this one.