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.
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/
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.
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.
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**
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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)
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.
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 email@example.com on 21 February 2007.
[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)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.