Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Bulwer-Lytton Has Nothing on Me

November 13, 2015

So the winners of the annual Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest were posted earlier this week.  If you’re not a literary nerd, you may not recognize the immortal name of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who began his novel 1830 novel Paul Clifford with It was a dark and stormy night–later pirated by Madelyn L’Engle and Snoopy.  Not a bad opening line, but the author unfortunately followed up with

the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Hence the inspiration for the contest.

I don’t understand why this is such a big deal–I throw off these multi-liners every day.  In fact, the original opening sentence of my latest novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, goes like this:

The scar on Mother’s upper lip quivered like a compass needle, and that was the first indication I had that a plan had been brewing in her restless mind to take us all to California–although I can be forgiven for not immediately grasping her intent because if the scar was a compass needle it was pointing north, and even my little sister Sylvie, currently wailing on the entrance hall rug where she’d landed after I pushed her downstairs, knew that California was south.

TMI, I suppose–my editor got it down to 40 words:

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.

I leave it to the reader to determine which is better.   It’s fatally easy to run on at the pen, though (or keyboard); for the opening lines of my first published novel, The Playmaker, I went for vivid imagery:

Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs, but I was happy to discover, as I crested the last rise on the road to London, that the pungent smell that ripped my nostrils was not burning flesh, only garbage and dung.

The final cut:

Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.

Sometimes shorter is sweeter.  What I consider my best opening line took a little work.  Originally I tried a dramatic approach:

Little did I know, as I stood in the bathroom doorway holding my brother’s sweaty hand as his screams mingled with the groans of my mother who was sprawled on the cracked tile floor with one leg grotesquely twisted like a pretzel and the scraggly hairs of a squirrel tail seeming to mock her agony, that I was in for the road trip of my life.

But then, it’s not necessary to give everything away in the first sentence, so I settled on Middle of Somewhere

None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.

I should enter that contest some day.  They even have a category for children’s literature.  Here’s the winner:

The doctors all agreed the inside of Charlie’s intestinal tract looked like some dark, dank subway system in a decaying inner city, blackened polyps hanging from every corner like tiny ticking terrorist time bombs, waiting to burst forth in cancerous activity; however, to Timmy the Tapeworm this was home.

You can see all the winners here.  Get inspired, and may the terse be with you!


Hollywood Backstories: Douglas Fairbanks

September 26, 2015

Continuing a series of post about historical characters and themes that appear in my new novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends.

Film historians agree that if silent film and its first heroic figure hadn’t matured around the same time, the heroic figure wouldn’t have known what to do with himself.  If Shwartzenegger was The Last Action Hero, Douglas Fairbanks was the first.  It’s not too much to say he invented the “actioner,” a genre of film that at its broadest includes spy thrillers, sci-fi/fantasy, comic-book treatments, buddy-cop movies, and all those nonstop edge-of-your-seat blockbusters that everybody says we have too much of now.  And everybody is right about that.)  But when the actioner was invented Fairbanks was there, calling the shots.

Not only that, but he appeared to have a great time doing it.  It used to be a high complement to a movie star to say, “he does his own stunts!”  Fairbanks actually did his own stunts—often because nobody else could.  No film actor since has possessed that degree of physicality, finesse, and pure joy that came bounding off the screen whenever he was on it.

He was the kind of kid who had to climb everything he saw.  At the age of three, it wasn’t uncommon for his brother to yell, “Mama! He’s on the barn roof again!” Not much of a scholar, he was expelled from high school after a St. Patrick’s Day prank and soon after joined a touring theater company headed by Frederick Warde, a British actor-manager.  Warde was impressed with the teen’s stage presence but couldn’t control him—young Doug’s first part, in a play called The Duke’s Jester, became a source of anxiety for the lead actor because the lad never made an entrance the same way twice.  He would come in through the window, or down from the ceiling—and he wasn’t even the Jester. After the tour he was fired.

Fairbanks drifted in and out of theater for the next few years before marrying the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and deciding he was out.  After dabbling in business, though, the profession called him loud and clear–and by then the film industry was vigorously recruiting stage talent.  In 1915 he moved his family to Los Angeles and, like Charlie Chaplin arriving around the same time, decided he was truly home.  The two became close friends, and even though Chaplin achieved worldwide fame a little earlier, Douglas Fairbanks was not far behind.

Hollywood royalty, 1918: Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks (by the way, all of these people were short, beginning a long Hollywood tradition of "I thought he would be taller").

Hollywood royalty, 1918: Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks

In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, which takes place during the summer of 1918, we meet him twice.  He makes a startling entrance—and an even more spectacular exit—during a huge war bond rally in Los Angeles.  He, Chaplin, and Mary Pickford (more about her later) had spent the latter part of 1917 going from coast to coast raising money for the war effort.  The rally in Chapter 8 is a hometown event.  By that time Fairbanks has become famous as a certain kind of screen character in movies like Say! Young Fellow and He Comes Up Smiling—the bumpkin or loser who turns the tables on his snooty rivals (and wins the girl, if it’s that kind of story).  He wins over Isobel by sheer force of personality.

He shows up again two chapters later at a dinner party hosted by Ranger’s father, during which he (Fairbanks) dances on a table and does handstands on his chair.  Maybe a little far-fetched, but not by much—Isobel wonders if he’s going to swing from the chandeliers next.  He arrives at the party with Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” and while I don’t dwell on this in IDK the two of them were living together even though married to other people.  They were, we might say, the first “Hollywood couple,” and when they married a few years later, their fans went wild and forgave all the, uh, awkwardness.  (In other words, sin)

By then he was exercising more control over his output, and in 1920 came the movie that established his swashbuckling persona for good: The Mark of Zorro, which has spawned endless remakes.  The Three Musketeers (also endless remakes) followed in 1921, then Robin Hood (ditto) in 1922.  Keep in mind, when watching Russell Crowe as Robin Hood or Logan Lerman as d’Artagnan, that Fairbanks did it first, and if he didn’t set the all-time industry standard, he certainly had the most fun with it.

The Thief of Bagdad is probably his masterpiece. It’s visually stunning even today, and while some of the “special” effects are anything but, others will make you wonder how they did that.  Though not the director, Fairbanks was so closely involved with every aspect of the production it’s fair to call it his movie.

Like most silent film stars, he didn’t make the transition to sound pictures very well, but unlike Chaplin and Pickford, he died relatively young: 56.  It was as if all that combustible energy burned itself out quicker.  By then he and Mary had split up and Fairbanks had found happiness (one hopes) with Lady Sylvia Ashleigh, of the British nobility.  That seemed fitting; he was king of the screen for a while, but his style and dash have lingered ever after.

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Movies

D.W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

Charles S. Chaplin

Five Reasons to Go Slow with Children and Transgenderism

September 4, 2015

I usually steer clear of hot-button issues like this one.  Except, perhaps, when it touches my own field of business, a large part of which is writing for children.  I try to keep my ear close to the ground regarding hot books and publishing trends (you should feel how my ears ring sometimes), and it doesn’t surprise me that MG and YA novels, even picture books, with transgender themes are buzzing in the book world.

There’s no question that some children experience a real struggle with gender identity, and the adults in their lives should be gentle and encouraging.  Sometimes the struggle is due to actual physiognomy, sometimes to neurological cross-signals, and sometimes to we know not what (more on that later).  That said, here are five reasons why it may be too soon to celebrate if a pre-pubescent boy or girl decides they are really a girl or boy.

  • Males are overwhelmingly more likely to experience transgender feelings than females.  Three to one.  Maybe that should be perfectly understandable (Girls are better!) (Just kidding, of course) except that males also experience more identity issues in general: more likely to be exclusively gay (as opposed to bisexual), more likely to fall on one side or the other of the IQ bell curve, more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be geniuses or criminals, statesmen or tyrants.  This means something.  It may mean that the male identity is more precariously balanced than the female, and can be more easily tipped.  I have my own ideas about why this is so, but if transgender identity is simply a matter of being born in the “wrong” body, why don’t girls experience it as often as boys?  There’s something here we need to understand better before we go full-speed-ahead.
  • Children are impressionable and suggestible.  When I was growing up, my sisters and I and the jacobneighborhood kids would occasionally put on plays in our backyard.  I always wanted to play the boy parts.  In my imagination (which took up way too much of my time) I pictured myself hunting bears like Davy Crockett or fighting in Civil War battles.  I never thought this was because I was “really” a boy—neither did anyone else.  That’s a significant phrase: neither did anyone else.  Nor were there cultural hints or markers to incline me to think my identity was more male than female.  The word “identity” was not commonly used that way at the time.  But if I were starting school right about now, at the height of public debate and interest in transgenderism, I might have questioned my femaleness instead of taking it as a given.  Is it too much to conjecture that a little boy (for instance) whose first-grade teacher puts Jacob’s New Dress in his hands during reading time, might interpret his occasional interest in cross-dressing to mean that he’s really a girl?  And if other factors gang up on him, such as an absent father or mother, academic challenges, bullying, etc., might he possibly start rooting all his problems in his gender identity?
  • Children are in process.  Growing up involves a lot more than height, hormones, and rapid cell multiplication.  It’s an integrated, multi-layered enterprise: mental, physiological, spiritual, emotional.  We all know “good” kids who took a walk on the wild side for a while—who knows why—and straightened up later.  We know “bad” kids who turned out surprisingly well.  We know kids who went through phases and obsessions that made us wring our hands in despair.  The point is that they’re going through: identities will be picked up and discarded along the way.  At the age of six, they don’t know yet who they really are.  It’s said that eighty percent of children who experience some gender-identity confusion before puberty will come to identify with their biological sex after puberty.  So why push it before?
  • Children are already confused enough. Growing up has always been tough, but never tougher, perhaps, than right now.  Kids need stability while navigating the constant shifts and challenges of personal development, and fewer of them have it.  Whatever our personal feelings about divorce or revolving-door parenthood, in the vast majority of cases, lacking one or both parents is not good for children.  It’s terrible, in fact: it pulls the rug out from under them.  Moving house, changing jobs, changing relationships, and all the other adult vicissitudes their children are subjected to multiply the instability.   Most of them (the vast majority—well over 99%) could at least cling to a few basic identity markers: I’m a human being.  I’m an American.  I’m a girl.  I’m a boy.  But now even those stout pillars are getting shaky.  Can we at least agree that it’s best for all if a child’s gender identity agrees with the child’s anatomy?  The alternative is a severe mind/body split, years of futility and unhappiness, costly therapy, even costlier hormone treatments, and—if the victim takes it all the way—astronomically costly “reassignment” surgery that, in many documented cases, does not solve the problem.
  • We don’t know enough yet.  Cross-dressing in itself isn’t new.  Lord Cornbury, the royal governor of colonial New York, raised eyebrows when he borrowed his wife’s clothes for special occasions, and we’ve heard of brave ladies who disguised themselves as men in order to go to war.  Those examples may or may not be instances of what we now call transgenderism, which dates only back to the first successful “sex change” surgery on Christine Jorgenson in 1952.  That’s within my lifetime; I remember the buzz over Myra Breckinridge and Victor/Victoria.  One of my best friends in college, ca. 1970, became convinced that he was a woman (the conviction was temporary, last I heard).  The phenomenon has mostly been a sidebar except for some high-profile cases every twenty years or so; now it’s front page again.  All of which is to say that there hasn’t been enough serious scholarship on the long-term effects of transgenderism on individuals—not a group, not a movement, but boys and girls and men and women.  We don’t know if this is ultimately liberating, or even healthy.  We don’t know, and it’s worth waiting a little longer to find out.

So what do you do in the meantime?  Be patient.  Take one day at a time.  If your child is being bullied at school, help him or her deal.  Consider home schooling. Love a lot.  Remind  them that, God willing, they’ll be around for a while and bad days don’t last forever and we’ve got some time to figure this out.  It’s not easy, but changing genders isn’t easy, either.  In fact I suspect it’s a lot harder than we’re being led to believe.

Countdown to IDK: Blurbalicious

June 26, 2015

(Sorry about the title–I couldn’t help myself.)

The jury is still out over whether a glowing comment from a fellow author can help boost sales of your latest book.  My best-selling book ever (The Middle of Somewhere) didn’t come with any italicized quotes on the front or back cover.  But at least they don’t hurt, and they can sure give an author a shot of self-confidence just before the reviews start coming out.  So I’m very appreciative of blurbs recently received, and of the generous authors who took the time to read the book and say something nice about it.

Like Cheryl Harness, one of my favorite all-time go-to authors for history.  She’s better known as a topHarness illustrator, but underappreciated (I think) for her wordsmithing.  Cheryl Harness Histories, published by National Geographic and terminated too soon, offer young readers a look at some significant human beings in the American past by taking in the whole context of their time.  Myles Standish is one of my favorites, reviewed here.

So, what did she say about I Don’t Know How the Story Ends?  This:

J. B. Cheaney masterfully combines a family’s pathos in wartime, a vivid sense of old Hollywood (including appearances by the era’s superstars), PLUS  a suspenseful, creative adventure through an entirely new kind of storytelling: MOVING PICTURES!

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

CushmanThen there’s Karen Cushman, practically a dean (in my view) of children’s historical fiction, whose Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice wowed Newbery committees some years back.  They’re still wowing readers today (even one who wants to make a movie of Catherine, and has the clout and the ability to do so).  So it’s a real treat, as well as an honor, to get a friendly nod from her:


I Don’t Know How the Story Ends will grab you by your shirt and drop you right into the early days of Hollywood and movie making.  Peopled with delightful characters who find that real life is not just like the movies, this is a funny, insightful, and touching celebration of friendship and family, the imagination, and the power of the movies.

My humble thanks, ladies.  We share a love of history and I’m proud to be on the same page.

Ladybug Invasion

October 30, 2009

This happens every year: they ball themselves up and work their way inside: little hard-shell tanks squeezing in through slits and cracks. Something draws them, some mysterious bait, like a smell, a color, a texture too small or esoteric for humans to comprehend. It’s a ladybug thing. Once inside they are at a loss–their little instincts have played them false. There are no rose bushes here, no grass blades, no aphids or cutworms to molest. They fritter away their remaining hours crawling from here to there, or buzzing–when they land they stuff their gauzy gray wings quickly undercover like a torn slip. I never see them in flight, only landing. It’s a clumsy business with the wings spinning like helicopter blades, hauling a bulky cargo. On their tiny pinstroke legs they’re neat and spiffy, reconnoitering for the home they’ll never make.