Writing Life 12

I've been reading a few books by Mel Glenn (read the list of titles on the Notches list below and to the right) for an upcoming visit. I was first introduced to this subgenre of story in poetry form when I read Virginia Euwer Wolff's novel Make Lemonade. I was so excited by the book that I couldn't wait to read her True Believer (which wasn't as strong, I felt, as the first book, but this has to do more with the story than the form). My mistake was not finding out that others have done the same: Sonya Sones, Sharon Creech (I love Love that Dog!), Juan Felipe Herrera, and a handful of others. What I thought of Wolff's book (and this subgenre in general) was that if a writer's going to describe the book with any of the following tags, that the book has to fit the description to a T: a novel "in verse," "in poetry," or some such. It's got to work as poetry. It can't just appear on the page as poetry, that is, short lines that simply mimick the form. There's got to be a reason beyond wanting to write in that style. Otherwise, it reads like a gimmick. The stuff doesn't have to include poetic devices through out, but it's got to read like poetry. It's got to distinguish itself from prose. It can't be prose cut into short lines. (I've tried doing that with one of my novels and the process served only to make my manuscript longer, so I stuck to prose.) Now, with Wolff, why Lemonade works as poetry is not because of the various devices available to the poet but because of the narrator's voice: we are getting LaVaugn's story directly from her brain, it seems, and because we are right in her head, we get to hear how she thinks, which is quick and rhythmic. In addition, the imagery Wolff uses is very-very poetically visual. Creech does something different with Love that Dog: in this book, the narrator is literally learning the craft, and so readers get to enjoy various of the devices along with Jack. Plus his voice is very distinct. I don't find this to be the case with Herrera and Glenn. I'm partway through Cinammon Girl and am enjoying it more than his Downtown Boy (which I also comment on my Notches list). Though I haven't finished it yet, I can say that I'm enjoying it more due to the story, but it could be told as prose, too. With Glenn, I've only this morning finished another of his titles: Room 114: and more of it reads like poetry than the other of his books I've read. Now, in Split Image there were certain sections that were pure poetry (as with Herrera), and those sections had to do with the emotion being expressed by that particular narrator. In other words, when the students are opening up, but deep down kind of stuff, there was poetry. Otherwise, much of the rest can be told in prose. All I know is this: it's a tough thing to get right, and I certainly am not up to the task. I'm glad these folks are taking that chance and put themselves out there for this sort of criticism.


Reading Life 18

Acceleration by Graham McNamee

I'm a huge fan of thrillers: Mankell is one, Deaver another, Lehane too. In the world of YA literature, though, a really good edge-of-your-seater is hard to come by. I mean, there are good ones out there, I'm sure, but as for really good, in the same vein and at the same heart-wrenching, neck-breaking speed as those by the three mentioned above--tough to come across one, and let's leave it at that.

A month or so ago I visited with my editor at Random House, and just outside her office there's a glass bookshelf filled with so many books, and I'm there, so she says to me, "René, would you like to take a couple titles with you?" Are you nuts? I'm thinking. I'll take the whole bunch. I don't say this, only think it, right, not wanting to come across like the book-grubber that I am. At this moment I can't recall the different books I left with that evening; all I know is that she offered and I took. She suggested a few titles, among them McNamee's Acceleration. Listen, it's an older title, from back in 2003 (okay, older if we're talking dog years, but still, it's no spring chicken). I brought it home with me to Texas and set it aside. I meant for my wife to read it. She also likes thrillers and detective mysteries and is a voracious reader; if she read it and liked it, she'd say so and I'd put it on my to-read pile. But then the book ended up put away on a dresser. We must've been cleaning for one dinner party or another and so I lost track of the book. That is, until recently. And one of the things I love about this kind of book is that for the slow reader that I am, I just can't put the book down once I've started it, so long as it's good. And I've got to finish it. This book's got it all: a grittiness, a darkness, that feeling of looking over your shoulder just to be on the safe side. I don't want to be caught in the killer's web.

So, the story's about this toilet-thieving kid, Duncan, long-time friends with Wayne (who's working a dead-end job at a fast food joint, a sort of criminal-lite) and friend of five years to Vinny (a smart guy with three fingers on one hand). Duncan's suffering from a year before having failed to save a girl from drowning. He can't get rid of the guilt. His dad tells him to let it go; that it's part of guys' genetic make-up to want to save a damsel in distress. But the guilt's stuck to him like sweat resulting from heat Toronto's going through at story's telling. Worse for Duncan, he works at a place he calls "the dungeon," what other public transportation employees call "the morgue." It's a lost and found, and he's in charge of fetching stuff from the back whenever, if ever, someone takes the elevator down, way down, to claim it. Otherwise, he sits in a lawn chair in the back packing junk in boxes to be taken away to sell at the Y. Or he rifles through lost things. One day, he finds a diary. Reading it, he discovers there's a serial killer in the making who's used the subway system to hunt for his victims and is now planning on doing the deed. Duncan, Vinny, and eventually Wayne (Duncan's devil on his shoulder and co-toilet thief) join forces to search for Roach, the would-be killer. The search for him alone is exciting, and the story just gets that much better (my leg was shaking and I was biting the skin on the tips of my fingers, and my wife's kind of giggling to herself that I'm getting so into the book, and I know she's gonna read this book right after I finish it) when Duncan is found out in Roach's lair. Thinking about it just now, I got a chill. I'm telling you: you've absolutely got to read it.


Merry Chirstmas!

Here's to hoping you and yours will enjoy the most this Christmas holiday has to offer. Y feliz año nuevo.



Reading Life 17

So, Dana Reinhardt (author of Brief Moments In My Impossible Life and Harmless) has a third novel coming out in May 2008. The book, titled How to Build a House, is about Harper, a high schooler from California, whose problems include, among others, her dad and step-mom's divorce (Harper later finds out her dad was cheating on her step-mom), her own separation from her step-sister, Tess, whom she loves like a sister and was inseparable from. Unitl, of course, they move out. So Harper decides to run away, sort of. Her dad is in on her summer "time out." Our young hero, so out of sorts that she needs a break to get her head together, puts to practice her eco-political ideology. She goes down south, to Tennessee, to help build a house ala Habitat for a family who's lost theirs to a tornado. In the passing months of summer, she comes to terms with loss and love and real love and real loss.
Linda Sue Park's latest novel, Keeping Score (which is due out in the spring of 2008) is a baseball story, unlike what readers might expect in a baseball story: right--stereotypically you'd think (I would think it anyway, having played ball when I was a kid) that the hero has to be a boy, who plays ball, who is in one kind of slump or another, who has to find it within himself (usually a grandfather or some older person like that telling him to keep up his chin, that eventually the boy'll get that game-winning hit or whatever other kind of encouragement can be offered) to keep on keeping on, and ultimately, against all odds (usually the pitcher is a hulking monster of a boy who eats batters for breakfast) gets the hit. Well, none of that in Park's historical novel. And get this, the main character ain't even a boy, but a girl, and she doesn't play, she learns instead to keep score the old fashioned way, using the symbology of baseball (Xs and Ss and the like), and the girl isn't Korean, but white. Maggie's story takes place in the early to mid-50s, so the only thing that I would expect in such a book as this is that it would have to do with the NY Yankess, the NY Giants, or the Brooklyn Dodgers. Maggie cheers for the Bums, the Dodgers who reach the World Series time and time again, only to lose and to leave their fans looking forward to next year, always next year. But it's not just about baseball. Maggie is affected by the Korean War. Her friend Jim, a fireman at the local firehouse and who roots for the Giants, is drafted, only to return having suffered greatly during his time as an ambulance driver in this "police action," that only recently has been officially called a war, according to notes from Park. Just as interseting to me about this book is that an "ethnic" writer like Park is writing outside the cultural box. I hope folks won't be so silly as to hold it against such a wonderful book that these are not Korean American characters. It's an awesome book. Meant for the language arts and social studies class both. A treasure.
Lastly, and not just because I've got a story in it, but because the book in total is so solid, but the book to get in Febrary is Don Gallo's next anthology: Owning It: Stories About Teens With Disabilities. Who else has solid stories in the book are David Lubar, who writes a very serious and deep story about alcoholism ("Here's to Good Friends"), Gail Giles with a story on Tourette's ("Tic and Shout" in which she focuses on other of its manifestations besides spontaneous cursing), and Alex Flinn whose main character is, in a sense, born again due to a carwreck she's in that results in brain damage and her having to relearn much of what she learned since birth ("Brainiac"). Other contributors include Ron Koertge, Cris Crutcher, Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson, Bob Lipsyte, Julie Anne Peters, and Brenda Woods. My story's called "Fatboy and Skinnybones," by the way. Gallo has done it again, and I am so honored to have worked with him on this project, a dream come true.
Get them all. Each so worth it in its own way. But great writing every book.

originally published in slightly different form on http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/

Travels 2

I only last night arrived back to Lubbock from my trip to deep South Texas where I visited with various students over two days. First, thanks to Nora Galvan for setting this up, thanks to the librarians for putting together such wonderful events, the teachers for giving of their classtime to read my different titles and prepping the students with questions and comments, and to the administrators who love literature so much and their students even more that they opened their doors to a visiting writer.
Now, yesterday I hung out with students at LBJ Middle, where Cris and Mona fit I don't know how many into such a tiny space. Would that we could tear down some walls and fit in more students and more books. The students there were so good and kind with their questions and comments. Then I went to Beull, and alternative school where I sat and talked to some ultra, super duper awesome students who've opted out of the traditional classroom and chosen instead to study here, where they are excelling. Success to them all! And I wrapped my day up (and my two-day jaunt) with the 6, 7, and 8th graders at Liberty Middle. Janie and Dee have a great set-up in their library. And organized. Wow! They had so much planned, and I thought we might not get it all in, but Janie kept me in line, and everything got done, and right. Thanks to Mr. Sauceda whose drama class adapted and practiced, in like a week, one of my short stories: "Los Twelve Days of Christmas." And they premiered it at our last session at Liberty. What an honor! I loved the art work the kids did, the essays they wrote, and their questions and comments. All in all, a great place to visit. And if you get a chance, find out all that PSJA librarians and teachers are doing to promote true and successful literacy at EVERY campus, from elementary through high school. Authors, if you ever get a chance to visit, it's a great experience.
Thanks to everyone, again.


Travels 1

Though I've written about my book-related traveling before, under the "Writing" entries, I've decided to begin a separate strand just for travels, starting with today's visits to two schools in deep South Texas: PSJA North HS and San Juan Middle School. I can't say enough about the tight ships the librarians run at their respective spaces. Tight is the foundation, loose and comfortable is on the surface. Like I've always been saying, libraries are supposed to be havens, and Sylvia, Toni, and Letty all've got it together that way. Thanks for a wonderful couple of experiences. And, I have to say, the ELA teachers set me up real nice with how well they prepped their students: 6, 7, & 8 and 10 & 11. And Nora, at Central Office, in charge of Libraries, great show you guys put on. How exciting it is to see kids excited about reading.



I'm a bit behind on this posting that dates back to Novemeber 4, 2007. The race took place at the Texas Motor Speedway outside of Dallas. The weather was just right, and the folks I went with, friends from church, are old pros at this NASCAR business. I kept leaning over at Charles and asking about this or that, and he kindly explained about all the nuances. In advance of the race he said I should get ear-plugs because it was sure to get loud, and loud it was. It was music. I know this because for the first three or four laps I left the plugs out and it was a sort of symphony. I don't mean to be melodramatic. But it was good. I certainly will return, in April, perhaps, but for certain in November.



Here are a few shots from my recent trip to NYC for NCTE, where I officially became a member of the Standing Committee Against Censorship, saw bits and pieces of the city by way of foot, and met up with again or for the first time some very cool people.

The ultra-cool author of Harmless and soon to be released How to Build a House (Wendy Lamb Books, 02/2008), Dana Reinhardt

Chris Crowe (Getting Away With Murder & Mississippi Trial, 1955) and me at dinner (I'm the shorter one)

Christopher Myers signing Jabberwocky

Charles R. Smith, Jr. signing Twelve Rounds to Glory (Smith carries his own gloves)

**more photos to come**


Reading Life 16

Jellaby by Kean Soo (due out 02/2008)
This first installment in Soo's graphic novels is a solid statement on friendship, fighting bullying, and dealing with loss. Portia, the story's hero, is too smart for school, which is in part reason enough for the bullies to target her. She's also beginning to seriously ask herself (and even attempts to ask her mother but to no avail) about her father's whereabouts. She suffers from nightmares as a result. She's befriended by the unlikeliest of characters, Jellaby, a sort of dinosaur-looking alien or non-alien she sneaks up on one night in the woods. Then there's Jason, another kid who's constantly being bullied, who makes three. Together they devise a trip to the city, made easier because it's Halloween and they train Jellaby to talk enough to buy three train tickets, one adult, two kids. The goal is to visit a sort of haunted house that Jellaby recognizes in the newspaper earlier in the week. Not the house, but the door, and so because the kids know that everyone should be where they belong, they want to help their lizardy friend get home. A fine graphic novel!

Writing Life 11

I'm at NCTE in NYC. It's a great city, my first time here ever. It's cold, and I'm from Texas, and so you would think I'm not enjoying the weather, but my wife and I really love the cold. Too bad she and the boys aren't here with me enjoying the city. Though I'm not into the sites, I've enjoyed walking up and down Broadway, Avenida de las Americas, and 5th Ave. The lights, the pace, the noise. The crosswalks and the rules of the crosswalks. Taxis coming hard to the intersection so long as the light is green, seemingly never minding the people sticking a foot onto the street too early, but honking instead. The stagehands enclosed within gates, picketing. And how hard it is for folks who have come to NYC at absolutely the wrong time, tickets in hand. Food's expensive, though.
I got the chance to hang out with Don Gallo and C J Gallo today, and I met Louann Reid also. What a group of people! So much love for literacy and for the kids who need it so much.
I also visited Random House's offices. It was Catherine S. who led me around, and it's such a wonderful space, so much light, and the views are amazing that high up. The amounts of books, man! And it's cool walking into the building. On walls facing each other just beyond the entrance, two gigantic glass shelves housing the history of RH's list. What titles.
And talking to Wendy Lamb over dinner last night, and then in her office briefly. I'm so fortunate to have such a wonderful editor. And this morning talking to Adriana Dominguez at HarperCollins was fun too. And there's still tomorrow.


Writing Life 10

Reading Rock Stars! is one thing that makes the Texas Book Festival one of the premiere gigs. Here's how that works: schools in the Austin (TX) area apply for consideration. What they get if they're chosen: an author or two to visit with kids a day before the actual festival begins. Another plus: each child receives at least one of the author's books, signed. Schools chosen are Title 1 campuses, which means most of the kids are traditionally non-readers, or book owners. I say traditionally, meaning really stereotypically non-readers, b/c my experience at St. Elmo Elementary proved otherwise. (On a side note: based on my experiences with such communities, as writer and teacher both, I didn't need proof of the fact). The 4th and 5th graders I met with on my visit went more than very well. Here's the skinny in a nutshell: I show up, and lined up just outside the office waiting to be walked to class is a group of 2nd graders: one of them says to me, "Hey, you're the author." I say I am. We talk a bit. Another writer, Sally Cook, is there to meet with the little kids. She's a picture book writer (most recently of the non fiction book Hey, Batta Batta Swing! The Wild Old Days of Baseball), and I got to sit in on part of one of her presentations. She had close to 100 preK kids and in the cafeteria. They were hilarious and Sally was too cool. She's done this before. I hung out in the library with some solid readers. Their teachers obviously don't believe for a moment that Title 1 means lesser fortunate and so lets water down their education. They're about teaching kids to learn for themselves. Awesome job, teachers!
The following day I met, briefly, Sherman Alexie. I walked up to him and asked for his autograph since I wouldn't get another chance for it since we were presenting at around the same time. He said, "Funny, I was just telling Sharon (his guide for the day) that being in Texas is like being at home b/c there's always a guy who looks like my cousin Steve, pointing at you." Or words to that effect. But still, I guess if Alexie wants a cousin in Texas, I'll be it. I loved his latest The Almost True Diary of a Part-time Indian. I also met Monica Brown, Sarah Cortez, and a couple of others. And I got to present with Linda Sue Park, whose Tap Dancing On the Roof: Sijo (poems) is a great read! I so want to present with her again.


Writing Life 9

Look for the ALAN Book Club at http://alan-ya.org/index.php. So far Ellen Wittlinger, David Klass, Mary Pearson, Gail Giles, Carl Hiassen, Laurie Halse Anderson, Robert Lipsyte, Nancy Garden, and I have had the pleasure of meeting up with teachers, librarians, and other readers over an hour on a given Wednesday night. The format is ChatRoom style, reminiscent of the old days on AOL well before IMing. Though better looking than the plain white background. And who runs the show for ALAN? C.J. Bott does, and she does a great job. Now, due to different holidays coming up, she says, there won't be meetings during November and December, but we're hitting the ground running come January 2008. On the 16th (a day before my birthday) we'll get together at 9PM Eastern sans author (Traci L. Jones) to discuss in advance of the interview with her her fantastic novel STANDING AGAINST THE WIND. The following Wednesday, Jan. 23rd, also at 9PM Eastern we gather again, but this time witht Traci on board, willing to field questions, take comments, and the like. It's a really fun format. I had fun doing it. So join C.J. and others who love YA lit for lively discussions. Later in 2008 Coe Booth, Pete Hautman, and Alex Sanchez will also take part. Check for scheduling and updates to this list on ALAN's site.


Writing Life 8

Part of the life has to do with Readings at different venues. A writer gets to meet with readers or potential readers. I've done my share, and I'm not done yet with them. As a matter of fact, aside from having to be away from my family and not being able to dedicate that time to my writing, I love readings. Today's was no different. Abilene TX's Friends of the Library are on their 7th Annual West Texas Book and Music Festival, and what an awesome group of people who showed up at it today--Sept. 26, 2007: Noon: West Texas Book and Music Festival (Abilene Public Library on 202 Cedar St). Thanks for the chance to get to know folks in another reading town in Texas.


Reading Life 14

Carl Deuker's Gym Candy, a story about a boy who so wants to succeed in the sport of football, is also a story about a boy whose life careens hopelessly out of control due, ironically, to that same desire to prove to the world that he deserves to be the starting running back for the Shilshole Raiders. In serious competition for the position, Mick looks to bulk up, but when hard workouts and protein shakes don't cut it, he looks for what will; what he finds is D-bol, a steriod his trainer at the local gym sells to him on a regular basis. Mick mistakes Peter's interest for genuine friendship; Peter, Mick believes, is the only one on his "cheating" secret, a secret he's keeping from even his best friend, quarterback Drew. With or without intending to Deuker also comments on how willing those in positions of authority are likely to look the other way, so long as the team keeps on winning. The system is broken that doesn't allow for drug testing of juveniles, which makes the turning away that much easier for coaches, trainers, parents.

I can aslo appreciate how, in spite of the opportunity Deuker has to use more realistic langauge due to the nature of the game, he opts to keep this very worthwhile book clean of cursing. With the exception of a few SOBs, the language is super clean. The descriptions of the actual plays, entire games encapsulated, were awesome. Edge of your seat high school football!


Life 3

Today we celebrated our oldest, Lukas's, fourth birthday. He's an awesome kid, and the more so because he loves to read and write. As a matter of fact, right now he's drawing a picture of a horse and a hot air balloon, running back and forth between his mother and me and his writing table, informing of each of the additions he makes. Happy Birthday, Lukas! Your Momma and I love you!


Reading Life 13

I first met Cayetano Garza back in deep South Texas where we both hail from. He was doing some awesome work on comics back then, and he wasn't so bad either on canvas. I'm fortunate that I was able to afford him then and have two of his early pieces. And the man wasn't bad at the clarinet and the guitar. I'm sure he could've done wonders with the kazoo even, that's how good this guy is. To find out for yourself, visit his website at http://www.magicinkwell.com/. You won't be disappointed. Oh the places he's been, oh the places he's yet to go. Abrazos, my good brotherman, Cat. Continued success to you and your family and in school.


Writing Life 7

So, for the last week or so, since my last entry (Writing Life 6), I can honestly say I gave this whole notebook-and-pen try; I think Dillard speaks some serious writing-wisdom when she argues for slowing down the writing-act. But I just couldn't do it. I guess I'm just too used to this contraption as tool. One thing I have noticed I've been doing on my last couple of projects (the new novel and the story collection, several individual stories also), I'm going back to the beginning of the writing as often as possible and cleaning up. Going over the writing with a fine-tooth comb is where I'm slowing down. Wendy, my editor, can attest to that: with The Jumping Tree, she'd send me a marked up copy of the MS and within a week the "revision" work would be done and zapped back to her; she'd take a couple or three (back then, to me, excruciating) months; I'd get the package in the mail with her blue editor's marks, and within a week I'd be done again. And so it went for a good while, until one day she said over the phone (something like this but not word for word exactly): "René, why don't you keep the manuscript for a couple of months. In that time…" I thought this was a waste of advice and time, as my way was to get the work done while Wendy's suggestions were fresh in my head. I mean, please, I had to prep for two, sometimes three grad classes, teaching two freshman comps, working at Barnes & Noble, was (still am) married. I'd stay up well past my bed-time to get finished. But when she said she didn't want to lay eyes on my novel for a month, maybe three, plus minor advice, mostly big picture things she wanted me to look at, I had no choice but to keep the manuscript. I got the work done fast, like was my wont to do, then the MS rested within the confines of my hard drive, but in its lingering in microchiplandia, it also meandered through my consciousness, sub- or otherwise. And I got to work eventually, and that was about the last time the MS passed between writer and editor. And, so I am back to the laptop for the next book. As a matter of fact, as soon as I decided to put down the otherwise blank notebook and I opened up the document I've titled "AlzNov." And I'll tell you what: those five or so days of me carrying around the notebook and various and sundry pens served a purpose, that of incubation time. I added around 5-6 pages almost immediately. Dillard would look at those pages (much like I will later, upon revision) and say I've added maybe 4-5 pages too many. She'd suggest cutting, perhaps? I know that's what will happen anyway, but in the midst of those 4-5 pages there are 1-2 worth keeping. I'll take my sweet time culling through all those words, and take out the literary hedger, and be ready not to trim, but to cut large swatches of writing. Slow and easy. Slow and easy.


Reading Life 12

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Kirby says as much in her author's note at book's end, that readers will find obvious parallels between WWI states' side and today's war on terror, since much of the research for the book and much of the writing happened smack-dab in the middle of today's events, including The Aftermath (September 11, 2001, as if there can be any other event in our lifetime that merits such reverence). The date itself, September 11, comes up in the story. Maybe a bit heavy on the sybolism, but how cool it is to be able to call this a post-9-11 book. Inspite of this maybe too obvious connection, boy oh boy, the story is one great story. Funny at times, inspiring more often, Larson has a knack for introducing a character and allowing her to take charge of the outcome. From chucking rocks at a cow-tail-eating wolf, to flailing arms full of petticoats and skirts to scare off wild horses, to standing up for a fellow citizen, to tearing into the earth and waiting and waiting on rain, then witnessing one's harvest torn to bits by hail, to witnessing the oh so unfortunate passing of an innocent, "our little magpie." (Kirby, what wonderful magic you have to make my eyes tear up and my heart to grow heavy for this family, for our hero, for this generation.) All in all, a wonder of a book! I will take my yellow highlighter and color in the silver sticker on my copy of your book.


Writing Life 6

I met with my editor in D.C. not long ago (we were there for ALA), and I promised Wendy I'd have a completed manuscript (a novel on AD and adoption) by summer's end. That was a month ago, and since then I've added at most five more pages of story to the 20 (+/-) pages I already had. Now I've got what? 100-150 pages to go in the next couple of weeks, maybe a month? What's been keeping me from writing? I'll tell you: two things: first, I'm teaching two classes this second summer session, way busier than I could imagine; second, I grabbed a ton of reading material walking up and down the aisles at ALA and have been reading almost non-stop since. Sure, busy as it is, I'm loving the teaching. I've got some awesome grad students who are making the few weeks' worth of classes go by so very quickly; and sure, reading is so useful to me as a writer (I tell young would-be writers that reading the work of others, both good and bad, is part of the writing process; mentor texts is what I've heard people call these titles), but man, if I pick up a great book, I can't stop. I've got to finish it. And in so doing I sacrifice my own writing time. Oh well. But I have promised my good friend at Random House, Adrienne Waintraub, that I will finish reading Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky and that'll be that for reading, then I'll hit the blank page hard, both fists grabbing hold tight to pencils. Okay, pens. I have gotten used to working on the computer, but this morning, during my run/walk/pick up aluminum (to sell at a recyle place for, what I'm calling, The Boys' College Fund (and my brother jokes: "So, they'll be on the slow track? The old 12-year 4-year degree?--funny, my brother)) I heard Annie Dillard on NPR talking about the process for her, and she convinced me to go at it sans computer. She says on the computer we tend to go overboard with words, too prolific, we type too fast. We overtype our stories. We waste words. We don't take the time necessary to go over the language, the story, the characters, etc. I'm paraphrasing very loosely there, but that's what I took from her interview. So I found me a blank journal in a box in the garage, and I plan on picking up on page one of the journal where I've left off on the computer. Maybe I should even write longhand in the journal what's already typed onto the hard-drive? I'll reread it at least. More on the progress later.

Larson, I feel, should've won the Newbery. Nothing bad about Patron's book, but I think Larson's is on the heftier side. And if you liked Zusak's The Book Thief, you've got to pick up Fighting Ruben Wolfe. Don't think you'll read the same story or even similar writing technique and form. This guy, as I've said before to a few folks, is a writer's writer. Never the same thing twice. Fighting is slow-going at the outset, but when you get maybe a couple chapters into it, the story takes you on a wild ride.


Life 2

Happy 4th of July to our Nation and to all of you! Lukas calls it America's Birthday party. At 3 1/2 that's pretty good.


Reading Life 11

Harmless by Dana Reinhardt
Best friends Anna, Emma, and Mariah tell a little white lie (that is not so little and not so white really) to get out of a world of trouble with their respective parents. As happens with lies, big or small, a person either comes clean at the outset and suffers immediate consequences or she lets it go and the lie takes on a life of its own; out of the liar's control, that original lie grows and grows and eventually the liar feels, as do the girls in this story, that it's too late and too impossible to fess up. After all, they (meaning their parents, their schoolmates, the police, the community in general) will let it go. But they don't let it alone: there is a violent offender out there who needs to pay for having attempted to assault the girls, and someone will pay. Is it the man accused of the crime or the girls who end up paying? This story will keep you on your literary toes with twists and turns. The girls, each of whom relates the story from their own point-ov-view, falls deeper and deeper into this pit. Each of them suffering in their own ways. An awesome book! And and awesome writer!


Writing Life 5

So, back from ALA. And what a show! Here's who I met or saw again: from RH: Adrienne, Tracy, Catherine, Nancy (Knopf), Rachel, Beverly, Greg; Wendy Lamb; David Gale; David Lubar, Terry Trueman (Truefriend!), Kirby Larson, David Almond, Markus Zusak, Christopher Paul Curtis, Marilyn Singer, John Green, Dana Reinhardt, Jack Gantos, Traci L. Jones, Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Myers, Gene Yang, James Sturm, Kadir Nelson, and the list goes on. And the list of librarians is even longer and just as strong and impressive! Thanks to them all for pushing our books, those of us fortunate enough to write books.
I got ARCs galore: Elijah of Buxton by Curtis, Stachel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by Sturm and Tommaso, One Good Punch by Wallace, Gym Candy by Deuker, I Am Not Joey Pigza by Gantos, The One O'Clock Chop by Fletcher, Bone By Bone By Bone by Johnston, The Name of this Book is Secret by Bosch, Yellow Flag by Lipsyte, and more. Where will I find the time to read!
I also know for a fact that Dana's third book is almost good and ready to go. I can't wait for it to get to book form. Kirby Larson and Jennifer Holm both looked great receiving their Newbery Honors plaques. Heartfelt kudos to the two of you! Zusak and I got to talk boxing for a bit; what a real and true guy this writer is, a family man, a rock star of a writer, genuine. Bobby and Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos out of El Paso, thanks for the coffee, the sit down time. Lynn Rutan, grandmother of twins born a day after my oldest son, Lukas (Sept 6 and 5 respectively). Do I sound like I'm just dropping names? Sorry. But it was so awesome!
Thanks to RH for getting me the gig. YALSA, ALA, all the backers, true champions. If this were an acceptance speech at the Oscars the music would have started playing a while back.


Reading Life 10

We Happy Few by Rolando Hinojosa
How's this man do it? In such a short book Hinojosa manages so much. But you can't read just the one title by this grand-master writer. You must read as much as you can get your hands on of this saga, of this Texan epic, that all started out with Estampas del Valle, later translated into the English and titled simply The Valley. Read Hinojosa's entire work to begin to get what he's about. It's no surprise why his Klail City writings have been compared to Faulkner's works.
I am sad I finished the book. It left me wanting the next installment, and soon.


Reading Life 9

Ball Don't Lie by Matt de la Peña
This is what I'm talking about: a book that is so fresh, so on-the-forefront, so chockfull of genuine voice it's not even funny. It's no wonder ALA chose it as one of its Best Books for YAs or why all the positive reviews. What is a wonder is why it wasn't chosen as the Printz winner. Or the National Book Award.
Sticky, the soon-to-graduate ball player knows nothing else but the court on which, when he's on he flows, he lives in the moment of the arc of the shot headed right smack-dab into the hoop, nothing but net. When his girlfriend, Annie, asks him one night what makes him the happiest, aside from spending time with her, of course, his answer is expected: playing ball, but not just playing, excelling in it, outplaying even the toughest of opponents, jab-stepping, and going for his shot, the one out of a thousand possiblities. Always dreaming of playing college ball, maybe even in the NBA. He's that good, this kid.
The kid's lived a hard life, in and out of foster homes, being dropped off back at 7FLOW, his "foster pad," having lost his mother early on, having lost himself in that tragic moment. Making all kinds of rash decisions outside of the Lincoln Rec center (and his naivete hurts you). Making it worse, he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, he knows it, and tries to force himself to stop being that way. It takes another near-tragic moment for Sticky to find himself. And one of the most beautiful things he finds in this very emotional roller-coaster of an ending is Annie, having spent the night at the hospital watching over him, even in her sleep. She hasn't quit on him, no matter all the dumb things he's done.
What I love about de la Peña's writing is the language: it's poetic, it, like Sticky's most perfect shot, flows, but it flows in a very new way. It seems private at first, very much the lingo of the court, an insider's language; within pages, though, a reader will grow into it, understand it, be able to speak it. I'm not talking about the b-ball lingo; I'm talking about the writing langauge. This story could not have been told in any other tongue.
It's a wonderful novel!


Reading Life 8

Before the Frost by Henning Mankell
Like many, I love a good mystery. More than a good mystery, I love a well-written detective, one with tragic flaws, a normal everyday sort of guy who just happens to also work at solving crimes. Such is Kurt Wallander, Mankell's hero, of sorts, a much-flawed gumshoe who does his think in the south of Sweden. In this book, we are introduced to his daughter, Linda, who recently has graduated from police training and comes to live, as temporarily as possible, with her father before she becomes a beat cop in Ystad. She's suffered her own tragedies in life, and in Linda, Mankell introduces his readers to a new hero.
She has a week or so before she officially begins work, so in the meantime she spends time with her childhood friends, Anna and Zeba. Not much time passes (as often happens in the genre) before Linda finds herself in the middle of a bookload of trouble, and it isn't up to her father, the great solver of crimes to get her through to the final pages. She learns from him what she can, watching him conduct an interview, listening to him listening to his colleagues, and managing meetings during which the crew goes over details of the crime. When I first started reading Mankell, I was thrown off by how often these Swedish detectives met to go over the same old clues, ocassionally adding new ones, trying to decipher what was what. And how long the meetings! But now these meetings are among my favorite parts of Mankell's writing. As a matter of fact, in Before the Frost, many of these meetings are elliptical, that is, we see the group come together, sit around the table, and within a few sentences, Mankell announces it's now three hours later, and a great bit of information has been dealt with.

Anyway, back to the book: the prologue introduces us to Erik Westin, the sole survivor of the Jim Jones massacre, who, for all intents and purposes, is dead to the world, assumed dead at the mass suicide/murder site. For the next 20 years or so, Westin, disillusioned by Jones's ego, works out the kinks and eventually builds his own sect. He also searches for and finds his long lost daughter Anna, the person he feels God means to take over his church and vision. What sets the story in motion, aside from the introduction of Westin as cult leader, is a very horrific and violent murder scene: a woman's remains are located in an out of the way hut in the woods, her head and hands severed from her body, her hands folded as though in prayer, and the rest of her nowhere to be found. Then Anna goes missing. Then she turns up again, then she goes missing, and turns up again, but this time to announce that Zeba is also missing. A couple more mysterious murders take place, the sect meets in other out of the way places, and an assault on religious institutions around Sweden is planned. The assaults will take place just before, but are unrelated to our own September 11, 2001 tragedies. Interestingly, Westin says at one point that his bombings will most likely be blamed on Muslim extremists, his number one enemy.

Christian though they claim to be, don't be fooled. Westin's is nothing more than another sect, extremists in their own right, and just as bent in their way of thinking and living. Fundamentalists they are not. An awesome book, and great author!

(Other Swedish Recommendations: The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg)


Reading Life 7

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is a tale of innocence gone largely undisturbed. Bruno, our 9-year-old hero, the son of the newly-appointed commandant at OutWith is, much like any other 9-year-old boy, more concerned with how the world is supposed to revolve around him than with the horrible reality that he is thrust into by the Fury. He sees not Shmuel, a Jew in a death camp, but initially as a "dot in the distance, which in the meantime had become a speck, and then began to show every sign of turning into a blob. And shortly after that the blob became a figure. And then, as Bruno got even closer, he saw that the thing was neither a dot nor a speck nor a blob nor a figure, but a person," a boy in striped pajamas and matching cap. And for the life of him, Bruno cannot understand the severity of the suffering going on in this place on that side of the fence. Instead, he imagines it to be like his own Berlin, with streets and avenues that lead to squares surrounded by houses with front porches on which old people sit and tell stories and boys and girls play hopscotch and soccer and the like. For a year, he walks quite a ways away from his own house on the pretense of exploring but really to meet his new best friend for life, Shmuel, his mirror image, only pale and overly-skinny. More so like twins when Bruno gets his head shaved clean to deal with a lice problem. And what does this naive boy wonder? Whether a lice epidemic explains why all the people who live in huts in OutWith are shaved bald, too.
After so long of wishing to be back in Berlin amongst his other best friends for life, Bruno begins to forget what they look like, and even their names, and so he is confused about the meaning of "home" when his father announces that it is time for his wife, his daughter, and his son to return to their home in Berlin. Later he shares the bad news with Shmuel, who has bad news of his own: his father left for work one day and he hasn't returned. The man is lost, and would Bruno help find him? The day before they are scheduled to leave OutWith, Bruno agrees to dress the part of a Jew to explore that side of the fence, and in the meantime, look for clues that might lead to finding Shmuel's missing father.
What Bruno finds on that side of the fence is nothing like he had imagined. But one thing his does find there is a best friend for life.
Boyne handled the topic of the Jewish death camps very responsibly and respectfully, even though some readers might disagree because it is a very naive look at the horrors the Jews and others suffered through at the hands of the Nazis and their "Fury." But we must remember, Boyne is telling the story through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, not of a grown and mature person who is world-savvy. A great book!


Writing Life 4

A couple things on my mind: one, my recent trip to South Texas went better than I could ever imagine. Friday, April 27, I visited with a great group of high school students who make up a reading group calling itself G.R.O.W.L. from P.S.J.A Memorial (and please forgive me for not remembering what the letters stand for even though I asked several times--Readers is one, Wolverines is another). I got to hang out with them from around 8a.m. til around 1p.m. Thanks, Liza Puente, for that wonderful experience. We talked books, the importance of reading (I was preaching at the choir), we videoconferenced with another couple of schools (actually lunching with P.S.J.A. HS too), then drove like a maniac to Donna ISD where I met with 99 middle schoolers who had read The Whole Sky Full of Stars. I was iffy at first to meet with this younger set because my story deals with the problems of two high schoolers and here they were, middle schoolers, and yet, they seemed to have enjoyed it. I enjoyed passing time with them.

Later that night several contributors to the anthology edited by Dagoberto Gilb titled Hecho en Tejas gathered for a performance at Cine El Rey. David Garza's music was haunting, no matter what language or genre he sang in. Hanging out with former students Becky, Ronnie, and Tanya (whose boy Christian is awesome!). The following day several authors did readings, workshops, signings at the first annual literary festival at Region One Educational Service Center. It went so smoothly largely due to the hard work of Maria Elena Ovalle and her people at the center. I hope it'll go on for another 20 years, at least.

All this to say this other thing: part of the work of the writer is to hang out with the readers.

Item two on my mind: book reviews. Generally, I do pay attention to them. That is not to say I let them get to me; if they're positive (as is the recent starred review in Booklist) or negative (like the one found in School Library Journal). I take the good and bad in stride. What other cliches can I use: I got thick skin; It don't stick; No skin off my nose; Sticks and stones...? I've been blessed with good reviews mostly. Reviewers who have critiqued my work have done so in a contructive way: not enough character development, weaknesses in plotting, etc. Stuff I can work on if I want to please the critics, which I don't, really. That is, I don't want to write to cater to this very particular group. I want to communicate my story as clearly as possible to all readers. That's what drives my writing. That includes thinking very seriously of who my characters are, what drives them, etc. The latest review, though, the one in School Library Journal, seems ignorant to me. It doesn't bother me that Marie Orlando, the reviewer, is bothered that the dialogue seems false, or that the ending is overly-simplistic, or that the characters are flat. All of those come with the territory. What I feel is uncalled for, though, is Orlando's statement that I give my Mexican American characters a "mere passing nod to the boys' ethnicity." I don't know how to read this statement: my initial reaction, that I documented in an email to my editor, was that Orlando's is a closeted sort of racism. Sleeping on it, I had time to let her silliness settle, and yet, I still had no clue what to think. So maybe bigoted (intentional or not) or simple ignorance on her part (or simple arrogance). Should I have had my characters scream from rooftops their Mexican Americanness? Would that have made mine a better story, the writing stronger and clearer? If that is what she means, then I could do the same thing; that is, I'd expect gender and sexuality and faith or lack of faith and all ethnicities to be treated in a very stereotypical manner. Our young narrator's supposed to be Black in C.P. Curtis' Bud, Not Buddy, but can you make him sound Blacker still? Lucky, in Patron's award-winning book, isn't girl enough because she's word-curious (read intelligent) instead of being boy crazy and crippled by her looks (not enough of this or too much of that body part). You see how dumb this train of thinking is? It's racist, it's sexist. Ugly. I could give Orlando the benefit of the doubt and let her off easy: she's giving my book a very superficial read. I'm not saying it's a work of genius, but there are choices I made that address everyone of her issues with my story; I'll address this one, though: the characters' nicknames are Alby and Barry. Alby's real name is Alberto, and Barry's is Bartolomeo. They've opted to go with the more Anglocized versions of their names. They've been in the U.S. a long time, or long enough to let pop culture influence them. I challange Orlando to find one instance in the whole, entire book a lick of Spanish coming out of either of the boys' mouth. She won't be able to do it. I didn't put the language in their heads. They, like so many other young people who are Mexican American in South Texas (even on border towns, which Mission is not, which is where my story takes place) either can't speak it or choose not to (too much to get into about why either choice, but it's written about in so many places). Their parents do, but even they stress speaking English, so aside from describing Alby and Barry's dark brown skin, the switchblades they carry in their pockets, their misogynistic behavior, their lack of dedication to education, their broad smiles that expose such white teeth, their taco/burrito/bean eating habits, their overall laziness, what can I do to give these boys' ethnicity a passing nod, when it was my intention to write them as boys who don't think about their ethnicity? And now I wonder what rang false about their dialogue? Is it that they don't speak Spanish? Man, I'll leave it there. Except to say this: I thought readers were supposed to be enlightened, forward-thinking.


Picture Books 1

Here're some picture books that are just awesome:

The Soldiers' Night Before Christmas (a big Golden Book) by Trish Holland and Christine Ford and illustrated by John Manders is a wonderful retelling of the classic poem; this version takes place on a base, where "Only sentries were stirring--they guarded the place" and "At the foot of each bunk sat a helmet and boot" to be "fill[ed] up with loot." The soldiers dream of "back home" and our narrator, one of the brave soldiers sleeps "with the letters my family had sent." In place of the more traditional, clad in red velvet suit and hat and shod in shiny black boots, we've got Sergeant McClaus, a cigar-chewing drill-sergeant looking gift-giver. But don't let the rough demeanor fool you; like the other Santa, he's a big old softy whose purpose it is to "Bring Christmas from home to the troops far away!" The story, related in the form of the original poem, is an homage to all soldiers serving, who have served, who will serve. The artwork is on the light-hearted and soft side, and very appealing to the eye. (Christine, we'll continue praying for you son and the countless others in the service to our Nation.)

Also by Trish Holland is Lasso the Moon (another Golden Book, illustrated by Valeria Petrone), a story about tiny cowpokes and wranglers "On the star-dusty trail." They sit by a campfire "In the Milky Way," and "sing / 'Yippee-ki-yi-ay!'" Having lassoed the moon, they set they sights on home where, after having corraled the moon and the stars, the young buckaroos head to bed. The rhythm of the poem is even and the story is good. The artwork by Petrone complements the story. Nice all the way around.

17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter): what a funny story Offill tells: the young narrator informs the reader what all she has done and how she is not allowed to do those things anymore: first, "I…staple my brother's hair to his pillow," then, when she's busted by her mom, she says, "I am not allowed to use the stapler any more." It gets even funnier because the girl is unnaturally occupied by beavers, writing a report and dedicating it to them, and close to the end of the book, she even wants to run away to live with them, toting a handsaw, we can imagine, to help with dam building. The artwork, a mix of line drawings filled with a sort of wash and cut-and-pasted-in photographs works really well. (The story behind how I came across this book: my family and I went to TLA last week, and when I took Lukas, my oldest at three and a half, to meet the RH staff manning the booth, AW told him he could pick out a couple of books for himself. He went for a board book of a toddler Grover learning how to tinkle and another title. Then AW asked if he wanted to pick out a book for his baby brother Mikah. What did he care? He had books, and he was already making eyes at CS, the Sticker Lady, his big-big girlfriend, so he pointed at this book without really knowing what he was choosing. He did a great job, and although Mikah can't appreciate Offill's book just yet, he will someday; besides, both Lukas and my night students sure enjoyed it.)

Finally, there's One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II written and illustrated by Lita Judge (which won't be out until June 2007). It's such a touching story of an American family who does what it can to help those left behind in the war-torn Europe. It is told through a young girl's eyes, presumably, Judge's mother's. What they do is collect foot/shoe size tracings, that eventaully number in the thousands, and enlist the help of neighbors near and far to supply folks in Germany and elsewhere with shoes. The story also documents how suffering most often goes well beyond the physical. In the end, One Thousand Tracings is an uplifting and positive story; it is, after all, a tale of healing. Honestly, I was in tears, both happy and sad. What a book that could be used to introduce or accompany a study of this era. And it's not just a book for children either.


Reading Life 5

So I finished Patron's Higher Power of Lucky, and not surprisingly I liked it. And go figure, I wasn't thrown off by the first mention of the word scrotum, nor by the second mention of it a couple of pages later. I was, however, thrown by the third mention of it, there near the end of the book, not because it's a term offensive in a sexual sense, but because I’m reading as a writer and as teacher of literature and writing. I fully understand that our hero, Lucky, is word-curious, and so if it was a recurring thing with her, that is, to look into the word again and again in an attempt to discover for herself its meaning, its nature, then I'd buy its final use (would that she would have instead heard Short Sammy use the word 'father,' 'cremated,' 'cremation,' 'remains,' or 'urn,' words that she does deal with over and over throughout the story, words that she's very curious about, words that carry both scientific and spiritual weight with her (she even calls herself a scientist and "a girl-speck looking for her Higher Power" (127))). As it is written, I would have to point this seeming weakness to a group of middle schoolers or college level folks. It makes no sense whatsoever to bring it up twice right at the beginning and then never again until the very end. The question, "Brigitte, what is a scrotum?" comes out of nowhere. I wasn't prepared for it. (I don’t mean that I wasn’t ready for it, I mean the author didn’t prepare me for it to resurface and to do so in this context.) And worse, Brigitte's answer is too clinical, almost as though she'd been preparing to answer this very question throughout the novel. And worse than that, Brigitte's next comment leaves me baffled: "You know if anyone ever hurt you I would rip their heart out." Lucky, or the narrator, says right prior to this, "For some reason," and the reason isn't even implied. If someone had indeed tried to hurt Lucky in any way, shape, or form at any time during the story, then the comment would be justified; as it is, I don't buy it. Another weakness, if you'll allow me (then I swear I'm going to praise the fire out of the book! and even recommend that the book not be banned anywhere): the story takes too long to get started. It's not until around page 40 that we are finally clued into what Lucky's desire is: to not lose Brigitte as her Guardian, and she becomes more than a ultra-witty character, she becomes sympathetic when we find that she has lost her mother and has no idea who her father is. If kids choose not to finish this book, it will most likely be for this reason.
So, it falls on our shoulders as teachers and librarians to encourage our young readers to keep going. Insist that it is part of the book's thematic and symbological structure. An overriding theme or image is that of threads tied into to knots, but not just any knots: like the "Ten-Strand Round Knot" Lincoln gives to Lucky one day, this book comes together beautifully: it is "a piece of jewelry, intricate and beautiful" (67). The knot, the work of art, doesn't become such when it is a bunch of individual strings; not until Lincoln (read Patron) begins to tie all these loose threads (read seemingly disjointed bits and pieces of narrative for those first 40 pages) together do we get this work of art, this award-winning novel. Booktalk it that way: admit upfront that there is cause for this apparent weakness, this disjointedness, this rambling at the outset of the novel; if our students know in advance that it is part of the author's intention to put a book together in this way, they will likely give you, and it, the benefit of the doubt. Like Jim Trelease kind of says in his The Read-Aloud Handbook, sometimes we, the educators, are the only ones reading aloud to them, or talking to them about books. Ours shouldn’t be simply to put books in their hands, not even the right books in their hands, but to talk these books up, to give students the language with which to speak about literature themselves. I would also have to mention the other weaknesses addressed above (not the just the word scrotum but the other flaws), not in order to get them to giggle or to blush or whatever, but to get them to start talking about books like readers, and maybe, dare I say, writers (but really, who needs the competition, right?). I'd compare this book to Steinbeck's Cannery Row for its wit, its meandering style. Short Sammy and the other 12ers would fit perfectly with the guys of the Palace Flophouse and Grill (excuse me if I got this reference wrong; it’s been so long that I’ve read it and don’t have a copy in fro). Both books, if you're not careful as a reader, appear to be about nothing, but they are both about huge events in people's lives. I'd say to students that sections of Patron’s writing are pure poetry, the language so beautiful, etc.
As to the censorship issues surrounding this book: Instead of using the same old same old (and tired) argument: Don't censor, you bunch of right-wingers/evangelicals/conservatives (I am a Christian and a social conservative myself, by the way); it's her right and the readers' to use the language and to read it; this word is tame versus what kids say on an everyday basis; you're violating my freedom of speech, or Patron's; it's a scientific term (in the case of this book, this argument doesn't hold water, in my opinion, because even though it is clinical, the word in the book refers to a dog's genitalia, not a boy's), etc.; we should, because we are all intelligent folk, those of us concerned with our young people's love for literature and their success and well-being, we should use the book itself to prove its own worthiness. We all know these people who will skim until they find "that" ugly word, or base their opinion on what they foolishly read in a silly rag like the NYT, or hear another skimmer talk about; but why aren't we informing them? Parents won't read the books necessarily; so we need to booktalk literature to them also. They're part of the community as well. Reach them, we reach the intended audience. But know this, that there are a great many very intelligent parents out there who are on the conservative side who will not only ban the book but burn it if we make it an "us versus them" thing. We are not ignorant, those of us who would rather our children not be exposed to stuff in certain settings/contexts/ways; I, as a parent, will not give up my right to talk to my sons about sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. I will do it, in my own way, in what I feel is the right time.

A slightly different version of this review first appeared on middle_school_lit@yahoogroups.com on 21 February 2007.


Reading Life 6

So, I got done with a couple of books, and both of them are top notch: the first is Chris Crutcher's first novel, Running Loose (visit CC's site at www.chriscrutcher.com). I've admitted to a few folks that I hadn't read any of Crutcher's work because, I, wrongheadedly, thought he wrote about sports, which is not a bad topic in and of itself, but if that's all it is (which is the wrongheaded part of my thinking) then it isn't worth reading. There's got to be more meat to a book than just baseball, or long distance running, or swimming, or wrestling. And I have to admit, in Crutcher's work there is quite a bit more than a treatment of sports. There are fully-developed characters (for goodness' sake, even Boomer, who easily could've been the flattest of stereotypes (what, with being nothing more than a overly-enthused jock who brags about relationships (imaginary) with girls, who takes out a Black kid named Washington during a game simply because as an opponent he is too good and too not White) turns more human by novel's end).
[On a side note, the first book of Crutcher's I read was Athletic Shorts, his collection of stories that takes on various of the characters he'd already dealt with in his novels (this, according to CC's introduction to the book, or my recollection of it), that also includes "A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune," a short story made into a fantastic film (which, if I'm honest, might be the real reason why I chose not to pick up any of Crutcher's work--he got a movie deal! And I haven't!). Anyway, the language and some of the themes are a bit on the more mature side, and so you'd have to go into this collection knowing that; in spite of that, this book is awesome!]
Back to Running Loose: Louie, after walking off the football field in response to the "hit" job on Washington, finally finds his place in sports: he runs the mile and the two-mile for his school's track team. The track coach advises him to do something, anything basically to deal with his recent tragedy. He'd fallen deeply in love with a girl he thought would never pay him any mind, then loses her. The lesson he learns is that with punks like the head coach and the principal (dishonorable men), one doesn't have to deal honorably. So as difficult as his life has been over the past year, Louie comes out of it the better man for it, a man, as Dakota says, who's gone through the fire and lived to tell about it.
The other book I've finished and loved is Night of the Howling Dogs by Graham Salisbury (www.grahamsalisbury.com), a guy I consider to be one of today's literary giants, and not just in the world of YA literature. This is one of the benefits of sharing the same editor, that I get ARCs (advanced reader's copies--also called uncorrected proofs or galley proofs) of stuff Random House is publishing in the coming months. One such book is Salisbury's. Known for his historical novels like the most recent Eyes of the Emperor, GS writes solid realistic fiction too (read his short story collection, Island Boyz for a taste of that). Howling Dogs, though, passes as both.
Very loosely based on true events, Howling Dogs is the story of boys becoming men after surviving a natural catastrophe--a volcano errupts in the middle of the night in the middle of a camping trip; "…the world fell apart" is how Dylan, our narrator, describes it. But there is depth to GS's characters: Dylan hungers for his father's attention, his best friend, Casey, is strong despite being on the smaller side, and Louie is the unlikeliest Boy Scout. GS introduces early on that Dylan shares "something personal" with Louie, a secret that goes back a ways. Louie openly shows disdain for Dylan, who is a haole, a "white guy or white punk." Then they are forced to put aside, at least for the moment, their ill feelings for one another to help save the others on the camping trip. At one point, a key moment in Dylan's life, he thinks "of Louie racing over the rocks to get help, and how when everyone was struggling to get to higher ground after the waves, he'd gone the other way," never mind the danger he was putting himself in. Troubling Dylan is whether he'd have acted so selflessly. Know this: scared as he is, he is brave, so much so that he's able to put aside the inane things of life, like insignificant skirmishes, and realizes that "When people share something terrifying like that, it joins them together and makes them a family." Of himself and Louie he can say, "We friends now."
(Night of the Howling Dogs is due out in August of 2007--Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children's Books)


Writing Life 3

Texas Library Association Rocked!

List of authors I met, hung out with, touched based with again, hounded for autographs: Diane Roberts, Matt de la Peña, E. Lockhart, Dana Reinhardt, Diane G. Bertrand, and so many more. I don't have the actual list in front of me so I don't want to misspell any names, and I'll add to this other list at a later time, with maybe some personal comments for each.

Also haning out with Adrienne, Tracy, Allison, and Katherine of Random House was the best, and I'm so looking forward to seeing them again in June at ALA in D.C. More on them later too. (I hope these storms that came up this weekend didn't keep them from getting home to rest.)

And, I got a chance to sit over dinner with Teri Lesesne last night, and people think she's cool as a result of her booktalks and being such a cool teacher; I know she's even cooler from getting to know her more and more every time we talk. She's got some stories.

And I'll get to the other awesome librarians I spoke with later. All in all, this was the best TLA conference ever.

On top of everything, I got to hang out with my parents (Lukas' and Mikah's 'Buelo and 'Buela), my great friends the Raymers and the Ramoses. And, better than all this, I got a chance to share a conference like this with my wife, Tina, and our boys.

More later.


Writing Life 2

As other writers often do, I find myself this week presenting at a conference, namely the Texas Library Association. Today, Wednesday (I know its technically Thursday, but I've yet to go to bed, and only then can I talk about tomorrow as today, or is it today as tomorrow? Whatever! It's late, so cut me some slack, please.)--so today, Wednesday, I got to meet a writer whose books I've been teaching a while, a writer I've always wanted to talk with face-to-face, Diane G. Bertrand (author of Trino's Choice (my personal favorite of hers), Trino's Time (a fine sequel), and so many other titles for the younger set, the slightly older crowd, and the more mature. These are definitely two titles every teacher (fifth through twelfth grades) should make part of his/her classroom library who's concerned about encouraging the reluctant reader (especially the boys; more especially boys with hard core choices in life to have to make) to take responsibility for one's own literacy life. The books are high interest, they're fast, they're solid. (I'd include librarians in this group of having to own at least one copy of each, but I'd be speaking to the choir; most, if not all already have them in their collections, know them well, and know who of their readers want/need to read them.)Anyway, when I figure out how to throw in audio onto this blog, I'll see about getting up on here a few of the words she had to say about these books, about writing, and other topics. She was kind enough to sign copies for me; I'm such a hog I got her to sign even the Spanish translations of these books.

I also hung out over some of the best tortilla soup with a great pal at Pico de Gallo, author/illustrator Xavier Garza, whose Creepy Creatures and Other Cucuys has made him a favorite of librarians and teachers. Today marked the third time I've recorded Xavi telling his story "La Lechuza Lady," and I swear, he never tells it the same way twice, much less thrice. Which, in my book, is a good thing. Both the story and the telling are still alive and breathing then. He also signed a copy of his latest picture book for me, Juan and the Chupacabras, a bilingual text. But my all time favorite of his is his first picture book, Lucha Libre: the Man in the Silver Mask: a blingual cuento (published by Cinco Puntos Press out of El Paso, and recently released in paper, so I see it going through the roof now that it's more kid-affordable; Lee and Bobby Byrd have done a great job of getting this book, that is, incidentally also illustrated by Xavi, out there and moving like it is).
The last person on the panel was Lila Guzman, author of a series of historical books about Spain's involvment in the American Revolution, each that centers on the life of a boy named Lorenzo.
But I haven't said anything about the audience: a room full of librarians, how can a guy go wrong? All I have to do is talk about books to them, and we're on the same level; although I almost spoke heresy to them. I suggested we get rid of any technology from our libraries that doesn't have anything to do with pushing/stressing books. Librarians are too cool.
I also met with a few of the Random House folks: A.H., A.W., and T.B. I scored an ARC of Spinelli's sequel to Stargirl. Can't wait to read it.


Reading Life 4

So today I was in the kitchen cleaning up, maybe putting away dishes from the washer, something like that. My son, Lukas, called my name two or three times, each time saying I needed to come look see his castle. I imagined he was talking about his having arranged the couch pillows in such a way that he imagined it like a castle. Incidentally, my wife and I are painting the boys' room in a castle theme, so my version of what he might have built wasn't too far-fetched. Anyway, each time I said, Sure, I'll be right there. Let me just get these dishes put away. He'd disappear to his room, and out of the corner of my eye I'd see he'd reappear, but I wasn't paying close attention. He'd say again, Dad, come see my castle. Finally I got done with my task and followed him into the living room where I saw what he was talking about. He'd built for himself a castle of books that he'd carried out in piecemeal bundles and stacked and stacked until he had a column--or a tower, no, better yet, turret, to go along with the flow--as tall as him. I said, Oh, that's cool, buddy, but I was thinking, Oh, no. More work for me. So I said next, Well, you've done a great job of building this castle, but let's get to work on putting the books back on the shelf. They were all picture books, a good chunk of them at the top were Golden Books (on a side note, my wife and I saw what Random House (?) is doing with the spines of the Golden Books now, and we don't like it--I only hope the change has nothing to do with being more ecologically friendly; I'm almost over that because we just can't enjoy a single thing without being criticized, mostly by folks who don't live right either, but that's another rant on another blog--forgive the soap boxish thing there). Get this--he looked up at me from where he sat at the base of his castle and said, Maybe not. I'm going to read them all. I said, Well, that's a lot of books. He pulled the first one off the top, opened it up on his lap, and said, They're all my favorites. We're talking close to 75 books easy, and every time I checked in on him, he was on another book, he'd flip through it, sometimes slowly, other times quickly, but he got through them all. Good for him! Silly me, though: I didn't get a picture.


Reading Life 3

One of the very coolest things I've seen on the road: no, not an accident fixing to happen due to a driver's choosing to focus on applying make-up, talking on a cel phone, or eating a greasy fast food breakfast instead of on his/her driving (which really wouldn't be cool). My wife and I were headed to a doctor's appointment, and at the 82nd and Slide intersection we came to a stop at the red light (which, by the way, Lukas, our three-year-old, seems to scoff at because he's constantly egging me on to "Go, go, go, Daddy. Just go." I don't. I abide by the law.). To our left, a mom (the driver of the mini-SUV) was holding up a board book version of one of Eric Carle's titles, holding it up for her child in the back seat to see, all the while reading it to the child. What an awesome way to pass the time at mandatory (and in Lubbock, sometimes unusually long) red lights. When it comes to reading to our children, every moment counts.

Also, I've asked one of my classes to write and illustrate a picture book, a project they also can take into their classrooms in the near future to use with their students, no matter the grade level. Students can write and illustrate a picture book in any of the varying disciplines, right? In math, science, history--the works. Anyway, my students handed their projects in last night after a few weeks of studying the genre, after workshopping them, etc. I was so excited I told them, jokingly perhaps (but who knew I was speaking prophetically at the time?), that I couldn't wait to get home to share them with Lukas. This way I wouldn't have to spend any money on new books for some time. Lo and behold, he loved them! I wasn't surprised. The quality of the work is high, but I was pleasantly surpised at how much he loved them. I thought he'd sit through me reading my students' work to him and say, "Thanks, Daddy, now can I go play in the mud?" or some such comment. Instead, he said last night, "I really like your new books, Daddy." And this morning, he asked if we could read my "really cool new books." What else can I do? I'm a dad who so wants his kids to be readers, so I pulled them out of my bag and read through a few more of them. Kudos to my students!


Reading Life 2

So I finally finished Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). At 550 pages, this historical novel seemed a daunting task when I first received a copy of it in the mail. You'll recall, I am a self-described slow-as-molasses reader, perhaps the slowest reader of all time. Anyhow, back to the book:

In the brief Prologue to The Book Thief, the narrator, Death, introduces himself ("I am all bluster-- / I am not violent. / I am not malicious. / I am a result."), the colors of this story (red, white, and black), and the book thief, Liesel Meminger, one of the survivors, among the few "left behind." Death then invites us, "If you feel like it, come with me"; furthermore, he asks us to listen to this story, and he'll "show us something."

Following, in part, is what the narrator shows us: Liesel and her younger brother are being transported to a foster home by their own mother, who is incapable of caring for them. We find out later Liesel's mother and father have been labeled Communists by the Nazi party, the mother must abandon her children in order to try and save their lives. En route, the boy dies, and graveside, Liesel begins her life-long book thievery, taking a book a gravedigger has dropped in the snow. The book? The Grave Digger's Handbook: A 12-Step Gide to Grave-Digging Success. Ironic is her inability to read, but she somehow feels the power of words withing the covers.

Eventually, the girl (whose dark brown eyes were "dangerous eyes"; "You didn't really want brown eyes in Germany around that time.") is dropped off at 33 Himmel Street in Molching just outside of Munich at the Hubermann's. Hans paints for a living, enjoys rolling his own smokes, and plays the accodion. During WWI, he cheated Death, and he cheats Death a second time during the Second World War. He is the one who stays up bedside with Liesel after she awakens from a recurring nightmare, every morning at 2. Rosa is built like a wardrobe, spews forth cursewords one right after another, manages to ruin soup even, and in her own way, loves her husband and her new daughter deeply and passionately, in spite of not showing any emotion except anger.

Living in a new town, in a new home, with strangers who ask her to call them Mama and Papa, is rough going at first. She meets Rudy, who idolizes Jesse Owens, the U.S. track and field Olympic champion, and a few other kids, both good and bad sorts. She plays soccer and joins a den of thieves. Because of Hans' life before 33 Himmel and promises he made to a fellow soldier, the Hubermans and Liesel take in a Jew who lives in basement for the longest of times, until he is forced to leave this haven filled with music, warmth, and stories.

Liesel learns some powerful lessons during her stay at 33 Himmel, among them that she loves Hans and Rosa sincerely, loves Max, the Jew beyond understanding, and regrets not having admitted her love for Rudy when it was still possible to do so.

In the end, Death states, "I am haunted by humans." What haunts me is this powerful work of art. Listen: you've got to get a copy and read this before you read anything else.


Life 1

Today, I returned from a trip to SC and WV. In SC I visited with a group of 2nd and 5th graders at Tigerville Elementary, where my sister-in-law teaches. I hung out with her 2nd graders for much of the day, talking writing (mine, theirs, and others'). At the end of the school day, we headed to Pipestem, WV, to spend time with my in-laws, celebrating my grandmother-in-law's 90th birthday.

A recap: at Tigerville, I began the day by reading Big Chickens by Leslie Helakoski, a great picture book to show alliteration and rhyme, and according to my sister-in-law, prediction. Sure, why not--I missed that but the kids didn't. I then left to videotape students doing writing, since several of the teachers employ a writing workshop-styled class, beginning at the kindergarten level, on through to the fifth grade. It was exciting to see these kids be so into their writing. In kinder, the kids were working on an alphabet picture book, or whatever other project of their choosing, but they were writing. One kid was working on a letter to her Nana. Another was working on a comic book-like piece, using as characters three action figures that he was drawing then writing about. I talked with the fifth graders who had read one of my short stories, "Jump Away," which appeared in both Every Man For Himself (an anthology edited by Nancy Mercado) and Boys' Life. Later, I sat on the floor with my sister's kids again, and talked to young writers about the Writer's Life, talked about being observant. There is a story, potentially, in every minute of the day, if we are living like writers. Later, I taped the fifth graders in workshop, then wrapped up the day by talking to them and the second graders. I loved every minute. I didn't get to sell copies of my first novel b/c American Eagle lost my bag, in which I had the books. But that was cool b/c it was at the house when we got back before heading out to WV.

WV: got there late at night, having driven in with Maria, my sister-in-law, and my father-in-law. We went through Bristol, where, incidentally, it was race weekend, and I'd never been that close to anything real NASCAR. I got pics (or my sister did) of several of the trailers and the Bristol Motor Speedway, traffic slowed down to a crawl since the entire town just about is taken over by fans, walking and riding and driving. I was awed. On the way out of town, we stopped at a brand-spanking new Cracker Barrel, up on a hill. What a view of the mountains. So we get in and I'm back with my wife and kids, and by brother-in-law and his wife and their friends, over from Dubai and Sweden, respectively. On Saturday, we spent a bit of time with Grandma Neely, then left to get ready for her birthday celebration. What a party! Everyone of her sons and daughters, grandkids, great grandkids (which Lukas and Mikah are), and even her great great grandkids were there. What an experience. We enjoyed a walk on the farm, family, and left over dessert. Sunday we spent at Cooks Chapel Baptist Church where my father-in-law taught Sunday school. Then we went back to Grandma's for some last minute family hanging out, then the Ryan's buffet, and back to Greenville, for the night, and I flew out today.


Reading Life 1

I shared last night a bit of my reading life, jotting down a few titles I'm in the middle of reading, others I've really enjoyed reading. You'll note from the titles (or not) or by checking them out online or a library, that all are aimed at the young adult readership. Although I do read mainstream adult fiction and non-fiction, and enjoy it quite a bit, I am more into YA at the moment for a few reasons, among them 1) I write in this genre so I have to keep up with what is being published out there by my peers; 2) I'm teaching in a college of education where I help prepare future teachers by exposing them to children's and YA literature; 3) I sincerely feel there is more exciting things happening in the world of YA literature than in the mainstream market for adults; 4) aside from it begin good and strong writing, and of high quality, it's fun to boot.

Understand, though--I have not always enjoyed the act of reading. It was something I had to work my way back into. Understand also that I am a horribly slow reader, what I consider a curse and a blessing both. Curse b/c I feel that at this stage in my life I am playing catch-up; there is so much I've yet to read, so much I can't possibly get to, especially due to my slow-as-molasses-in-mid-January reading ability. Blessing b/c I get to go over every single word and relish them all; I get to paint a clearer picture than if I were skimming, or glossing over. That is not to say that my wife, who breaks all kinds of speed-reading laws, doesn't relish and paint awesome pictures; she most definitely does; but we are not all cut from the same reading cloth, if you allow me to mix all kinds of metaphors there.

A bit of my reading autobiography: I do recall back in elementary school loving to read; I read it all, most probably at a snail's pace, too, back then, but who cared about literacy theory and practice then? I most certainly didn't. I most likely couldn't've spelled any of that if I wanted to. But reading, that I cared about. Early on, I found the coolest of characters in one of our in-class texts: Wet Albert. Then I had no clue he existed in his very own picture book, but as tiny stories within this greater text. Nevertheless, I loved this kid. Wet Albert wore a yellow slicker, rain boots, and hat, and everywhere little Wet Albert went, a grey and rain-heavy cloud followed. I don't recall many of the specifics of the stories, but when asked, that's my first ultra-very-positive experience I had with reading. Try as I might, over the next many years, I searched and I searched for copies of that text, but to no avail. Until I visited a local Salvation Army in McAllen, where I'd go ocassionally and look through their books. My son Lukas was close to being born, and I so wanted to find something for him, and on this particular day, I was perusing the picture book section, and to my joyful surprise, there it was, in picture book format. Wet Albert in a book all his own, and wearing a blue slicker, boots, and hat, but that same boy and his story. I snapped it up for no more than 50 cents, I'm sure, but I would've paid more, much more to be able to share it with my soon-to-be-born boy. And he came, sooner, way sooner than we expected, early by 6 weeks, and so what was the first book I ever read to Lukas on his first night on this earth while plugged into all kinds of machines and all kinds of tubes sticking in and out of him, but Wet Albert by Michael and Joanne Cole. What a treasure!

But I'm getting so ahead of myself. Back in elementary, I read voraciously, slowly sure, but I couldn't do enough of it. I read Encylopedia Brown (even though then nor now could I figure out what Brown could), biographies of Terry Bradshaw in short chapter book format (this was kept to a minimum as in Texas you were either a Cowboy fan, or an Oiler fan, and in the case you didn't root for either, you most definitely couldn't be a Steelers fan as they'd whooped up on the Cowboys a few times in Super Bowls), stuff on treasure hunting, lost treasure, great wonders of the world, and U.F.O.s. I also read the Hardy Boys and (I'm secure enough in my manhood now that I can admit it openly) Nancy Drew, actaully preferring her b/c in her books, it took one chick to do what required two guys in the other. Little House on the Prairie, too. At Foys Supermarket, where we shopped for groceries, I'd always stay behind at the magazine rack, pouring over Lowrider Magazine and MAD Magazine. Mabye even a few of the Teen rags (one clear memory I have is of me trying to uncover the identities of the then make-up encrusted faces of KISS bandmembers; every so often, they'd be shown minus the make-up, but covered by handkerchiefs, etc).

But then came junior high, where we couldn't be reading the things of children anymore, I guess, so we were introduced to DeMaupussant's "The Necklace" and O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," both stories and authors I can appreciate now with a BA, an MA, and a PhD in English, but for a junior high kid, whoa! What drivel! What boring and irrelevant garbage. Yuck! is what I would've said in those days, most likely.

High school wasn't any better. Among all of it, one Shakespeare play after another, The Pearl, The Great Gatsby, and Catcher in the Rye (more on this last one in a bit). Like I've heard many young people say today, this kind of reading was a chore to do, a chore also to write about. So I was going downhill fast. In 11th grade, my English teacher, Ms. Ida Garcia (now Vela), assigned us Salinger's coming-of-age novel, and a friend and I asked to be allowed to read something else, on religious grounds, we argued. We attended a Baptist church (and still do although now he in Michigan and I in Lubbock), and knew that this novel dealt with material we didn't care for and the langauge was a bit rough (ironically, it's no rougher than much of what's being published for this younger market today). So, Ms. Garcia agreed. She did say, though, that we were still expected to read something, but not just anything. She is the very first teacher I remember having an in-class library. It was small compared to what Dr. Teri Lesesne describes having when she first began her teaching career, but still. So, Ms. Garcia said, "You'll choose something from my shelves, write a report, and you won't be able to participate in the discussions with your classmates" (first time also for this, for choice in reading material). I went for it. But silly me, I gave up a relatively short book and in its stead pulled an abridged version of Dumas' The Count of Montecristo (even abridged it was way longer than Salinger's--what a doofus! Or was I?) I'd argue no, not that big of a fool. It was the first book I couldn't put down since back in my elementary days. I read it day and night. I sacrificed sleep over it, too. But it wasn't enough to change my mind. It was my "homerun" book, but it was the last time I chose my own reading. The rest of the school year and the following, it was back to status quo. Go figure. Even so, I'd gotten a taste for it.

All the while, I never shied away from the library. Even in high school I was still reading up on long ago lost treasures, the Titanic (and so you can imagine my disappointment in the movie by the same name years later), the mafia, football, and the like. I did take my book(s) to a corner where I sat on a bean bag and hid behind a chest-high shelf, leaning on an air vent that connected to the teachers' lounge, where I was exposed to second-hand smoke (it was still not against the law to smoke on campus, that's how long ago it was) and where a few of us unbeknownst to these gossiping teachers, we found out the skinny on things that mattered to teachers (who was getting in trouble for this or that, who was in danger of failing, etc.). Later, a teacher myself in the old school district, I mentioned this little "secret" to one of the teachers from back then, and she informed me there was nothing "unbeknownst" about the air vent talks. Hmm.

More later.


Writing Life 1

It's been an intersting time leading up to the publication of my latest book, The Whole Sky Full of Stars. First, about the cover: the car pictured is a 1964 Ford Galaxie, the make/model that a father and son would travel halfway across the country to buy. That according to my father-in-law who owns one, who let me get grease under my fingernails while I passed wrenches and screwdrivers to him while we "worked" on it to ready it for my wife's and my wedding. I say we worked on it, but really, I did more standing around learning about the art of cars and science of mechanics, which was fine by me. And so I write about the '64 Ford Galaxie, make it an integral part of the story, b/c of the above, but mostly b/c my wife and I drove away from our wedding in my father-in-law's car, the very car he and my mother-in-law drove away in after their wedding. Later, I found out that my father owned a '64 Ford Galaxie as well when we lived in California, so another reason to insist on this version of this cover, although in retrospect. In any case, the publisher decided to go with a '65 version (which I'm including below for you to compare to the final cover to your right on the screen). The '65 is a nice enough car, but not the one a father-son team would travel to SC to purchase.

Note the difference in shapes: the '64 end is tapered, the '65 more blocky, a move toward muscle rather than style. I asked my editor to please rework the cover, and she did. (Wendy is awesome in so many ways.) To boot, it's a wrap around cover, and very gutsy, in my opinion, since we left to top half of the cover empty of text; the title and byline both are made to fit at the bottom. So much space, so much, but I like it b/c the title, in part, concerns itself with the sky, and that's what you get.

Second, the editing process: wow! It's a lie if I say it's getting easier. It's still a hard thing to go through, but it's a part of the process that I've grown to love. I'm doing everything in my power (and with the help of a very good editor) to communicate as clearly as possible with my readers. It's at this point that I keep the reader in the foremost part of my mind. Am I willing to take my editor's suggestions to cut (sometimes dramatically and traumatically) seriously? Will it help me reader understand better what I want them to understand? If yes, then do the deed. Anyway, it's a great time.

I am encouraged b/c the book's been picked up by the Junior Library Guild, which is too cool b/c they put the title out there, get it into school libraries. And so far, the reviews are positive. Discouraging is that my brother's gone to two of the major book chains, a friend into one, and a former student into one, and each has been told that they, the bookstores, are having a hard time getting copies for whatever reason.

What I'm reading: The Book Thief by Mark Zusak, Night of the Howling Dogs by Graham Salisbury (ARC), A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt, and Running Loose by Chris Crutcher.

Loved reading: American Born Chinese by Gene Yang and Mediggo's Shadow by Arthur Slate.