Friday, December 5, 2014

Of Ferguson, the Media, and a Brown Girl Dreaming: Thoughts on Narrative in America

I've been wanting to talk about diversity for a long time. All through the initial protests in Ferguson all those months ago, all through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign on twitter (when it was a spreading of ideas) and then on Indiegogo (when it became so much more than that - when it became about driving change). All through the INSPIRE Toronto International Book Fair, where there were panels on diversity, and where even the people presenting about other issues ended up talking about diversity anyway. All through the discussion and debate and frustration and reaction to Daniel Handler's racial slurs at the National Book Awards, and all through his "apology" on twitter, and all through his Apology and pledge to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

All through all of that, I have slowly been gathering words, swirling them together in my heart and in my mind into something that resembled a cohesive whole more than a muddled soup.

And then a Grand Jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, and more protests started, and all of those words evaporated into the mist, carried away by the howling winds.

I took a break. In the meantime, I talked with friends in both my countries: around lunch tables here in Canada, and in various online spaces where my American family hang out. I read. I searched out a copy of brown girl dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award-winning novel in verse that is really part novel, part memoir. It was surprisingly hard to find a copy, which I’ll get to later.

The book is excellent, by the way.

This week, a Grand Jury in New York decided not to indict the police officer who was captured on video breaking the law in NYC when he put Eric Garner in a chokehold that killed him. And the words are swirling.

The National Book Award
The Second Amendment
The First Amendment
Celebrities singing onstage in front of a ginormous Christmas tree while protesters lie down in the street two blocks away.

All these threads.

Diversity is at once a simple thing and a complicated and difficult thing for me to talk about. Simple, because in my mind, it IS simple: we are all human; we all matter equally; we should all tell all the stories. That's it.

But it is difficult, too. Difficult because my skin is white, and I know that there are people in my life to whom my skin color matters, whether they realize it or not. Difficult because my heritage is mixed but my upbringing is less so, and even though I am American and Philippina and 4 years of Scotland and 4 years of England and 9 years of Canada and I feel like a melting pot, I look like the Privileged Majority. 

I understand that when I say, “we should all tell all the stories,” I say it from a position of privilege. I don’t like it, and I didn’t ask for it, but that’s what I inherited. America gave that to me, and it’s not exactly something that I can turn down, because even as it is tangible, it is intangible.

And I can understand why there are people saying things like "black people need to stand together", because when you look at the demographics of the prison system, and then you look at the statistics when it comes to things like arrest and conviction, and when you think about the history of access to things like education and employment opportunities and mortgages, it’s pretty clear that the deck is stacked. But at the same time, I think it’s really stupid that we are standing here, 50 years after Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, 50 years after Rosa Parks, still arguing about race.

I mean, come on. Look at us, still stuck in this place of caring what color someone’s skin is. I wish that we could all see past the color of each other’s skin, all of us. Because when you start your club as a reaction to someone else's club, you're still segregated. You're seeing each other as "other". And that is a thing that is both pathetic and heartbreaking. The fact that we even need a hashtag like #CelebrateJackie or #WeNeedDiverseBooks is pathetic and heartbreaking. But: we do need them.

We need them because when I want to go to a bookstore near my home in Canada to get a copy of brown girl dreaming, because it won a pretty huge award and I've heard amazing things about it,






And I wonder what this means, that a book so powerful that it won it's country's highest honor is not stocked in any of the major chain bookstores in a country where most of the people do not look like the person who wrote the book, even though the people of that country regard themselves as celebrating diversity. Because if we set aside the fact that the book just won the award, and maybe the stores haven't been able to stock it yet since the announcement came out - it's an amazing book that was released months ago. They should have had it in stock anyway. Why didn't they? It can’t be because it’s an “American” book; Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are everywhere, end-capped and displayed prominently on tables where everyone can find them.

And I have trouble parsing out these thoughts - the feelings of frustration at reading someone's opinion that only black people should tell black people's stories, the feelings that my skin color does not actually say anything about me (even though it says a lot about how people treat me), the feelings of anger at the people who justify police brutality without realizing the position of privilege that police officers hold over all of us, the understanding that I have been an unwitting beneficiary of White Privilege and all that it offers. The voices around me that insist that Canada's narrative is different from America's, that as a nation whose history is that of the place to which oppressed people escaped, they don't have this "race problem", and the voice within me that asks if that is the case, why, in a nation that is so diverse, do over 90% of the books have white faces on them?

All those narratives.

All those threads.

All those threads weaving together, in and out, over and under. Creating a whole.

When I hear people - in Canada, mostly White, but including people of all colors; in America, people who are White - say that maybe if Mike Brown and Eric Garner hadn’t done anything wrong (sassed the police officer, sold untaxed cigarettes) they would still be here, I am reminded of Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay grazing fees for years and who didn’t get shot for it, even though he and his supporters aimed their rifles at Federal Agents sniper-style when the agents came to round up the cattle and remove them from a protected nature preserve. Not only is Bundy still here to tell the tale, his cattle are still grazing on Federal protected (but not-really) land. Faced with the rifles of an angry militia - which takes “sassing” to a whole new level - the Feds gave up.

It shouldn’t be about race, but it is.

I am reminded of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by Cleveland Police when they saw him holding a toy gun that looked like a real one. And then they dilly-dallied before providing him with first-aid. A 12-year-old child.

Contrast this with the case of heavily armed James Holmes, who admits to opening fire in a crowded Colorado movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring over 70 people in 2012, but who is still here to talk about it.

It shouldn’t be about race, but it is.

There are hundreds of cases like Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Michael Brown every year in America. There are studies that show that when confronted with a stereotype - a Black person with a gun, a White person without one - people react more quickly and more accurately than when confronted with images that break the stereotype. Racial bias and racial profiling are a real thing in America.

And this is where we are all responsible. Because when we create media that show Black people as only the sidekicks or criminals, we plant the seeds that grow into racial bias. When the only movies that center around a Black character are movies in which all the characters are Black characters, we sow the seeds of racial bias. When we publish whole bookstores full of books with only white people on the covers, we deliver a message to our children and to ourselves that White people’s stories matter, that White people’s stories are important, and that people whose skin is a different color are not and cannot be the heroes, and we sow the seeds of racial bias.

When we publish photo captions like this:

we not only sow the seeds of racial bias: we water them and pile on the fertilizer.

This issue, like all major issues, is complicated. In addition to race, there are considerations like poverty and access to education. There is the issue of what it means when a child is born into a squat with drugs in her system, compounded by the lack of community resources to help those children grow up to be anything other than reflections of their parents.


Arching over all of this, there is the issue of narrative: the narrative that we tell ourselves and our children, that swirls through our minds and runs through our veins. The narrative that says: America is what it is because we fought the Redcoats for it. The narrative that says: America’s economic roots, those prosperous Southern plantations that the North fought so hard to hold on to, depended initially upon the enslavement of colored people. The narrative that says: history has shown that we can't trust Them. The narrative that says: we didn't trust you to begin with. The narrative that says: the Individual is King, and if those people can’t solve those people’s problems, then it’s nothing to do with Me.

All those threads. 

The increasing militarization of police in America, the increasing number of firearm deaths in America, the gulf between the wealthy and the poor growing wider, ever wider in America. 

The segregation of the media while we pretend to integrate our lives, going to mixed schools and mixed workplaces and then returning home to our monochromatic neighbourhoods. 

The replacement of the soapbox, where anyone passing by could hear anyone’s opinion, by the echo chamber of the social media bubble, where we only hear the people who say the things that reinforce our preconceived notions.

All those threads.

I wish we could change our narrative. We need to change our narrative. It is time to change our narrative. If not now, then when?

I don’t know everything, but I do know this:

It would be so nice if this weren’t about race. But it is. In America, it always has been.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Good For You Is Good Enough: On Chapter Books, "Reading Up", and Stressed Out Kids

I’ve been thinking a lot about Chapter Books lately. Actually, all books, ALL THE TIME, but since I wrote a Chapter Book that I’m querying and I read a lot of those books in particular, I think about them. And I think about the concept of “reading up”, and I think about stressed out kids.

I haven’t been at this writing gig forever, and I haven’t been a parent forever, so I don’t know everything. But I do know this:

There is a lot of talk, on the news and in magazines and in the media generally, about how we are currently raising a generation of stressed-out, high-anxiety kids.

At the same time, there is a lot of talk (usually in the same places, often within the same program or in the same magazine issue - the unintentional irony is amazing) about how to get our kids reading younger, how schools expect them to be reading at an earlier age, and about how to help your kid “get ahead” and start “reading at a higher grade level” than their enrolled grade, so they can “get ahead of their peers and get a head start on life”.

There are levels to the problem here. First, we have the whole expectation that EVERY CHILD will somehow be ahead of every other child in every area, which is ridiculous and unrealistic and also unnecessary. (America, in particular, has an especially bad case of what I like to call "First Place-itis", both on an individual level and also as a nation. Unless you have traveled, one could be excused, based on what we hear from the American Propaganda Machine, for thinking that other countries - the ones that are Developed Nations, but that aren't the Top Dog - lack basic things like central heating and flush toilets and traffic lights. Trust me, America - being Number Two or Number Five or Number Twelve really ISN'T the end of the world.)

But the other level to the problem is the whole idea of encouraging kids to consume media that was not intended for them. I wonder if the people who write the articles encouraging parents to get their kids to read Harry Potter at the age of five have actually read the books themselves. Because when I was five, reading about a kid being hunted by a bad guy and then (SPOILER ALERT!) burning the bad guy’s face off at the end would have freaked me the hell out.

I know that if you’re a parent reading this, or maybe even if you’re an author or a publisher reading this, you’re probably defending the whole “reading up” thing. This is understandable. Parents want success for their kids, and publishers want to stay in business. And maybe your 5-year-old kid really can handle watching a man’s face turn to ash and then slowly drop away from his still standing corpse. (I guess this is me coming out against the idea of showing your kid the movie to help them understand the book that was written for kids much older than they are. Because, DUDE: if you don’t think they’re ready to read it? The beauty of books is that the images to go with the words are formed based on that child’s experience. Movies? Not so much.) But given the frequency of reports that our kids are more stressed out than kids have ever been, it seems clear that maybe more of us are wrong about that than we think. Maybe some of the kids who seem to be “handling it” are actually freaking out inside.

ASIDE: No, I don’t think it’s good to “desensitize” our kids. I want violence to always be an abhorrent, shocking thing to my children. Because once they accept it, they are one step closer to practicing it.

It saddens me that, in search of books for their ten-year-old “voracious readers”, parents hand them books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars rather than handing them books like When You Reach Me and The Tale of Desperaux. Not because the first set of books aren’t good books - in fact, I think they’re AMAZING books. But they are books written for teenagers, with the interests of teenagers in mind. They’re books written with the understanding that the people who read them will be concerned with things like how governments can wield power responsibly and what that does and doesn’t look like, and whether smoking pot is as bad for them as their parents say it is, and whether they should have sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend this weekend. Whether they’re “ready”, and what being “ready” even feels like, anyway.

Is your ten-year-old thinking about that stuff?

I hear people in the publishing world say that kids should be able to read whatever they wish, and that they will put a book down if they aren’t ready for it. I don’t completely agree with that. Because you can never un-read something that you weren’t ready for.

I think a valid question here is: why do we bother writing “for children”? What are the distinctions between “chapter books” and “middle grade” and “young adult” for, if we are going to encourage people to flaunt them? Those labels are signposts, guys.

I do not advocate censorship. I do not advocate the banning of books, or the removal of books from libraries and school curricula. I DEFINITELY do not advocate the sanitizing of books. (My WiP is a YA about a school shooting. It’s not sanitized. But it’s a YA, and it’s not for ten-year-olds.)

I DO advocate parents taking an active role in choosing, with their children, what their children read, and I advocate parents talking about books with their kids. I advocate booksellers taking an interest in helping their customers find the right book for them, above pushing the latest blockbuster. (Independent bookstores are much better at this than major chains, I find.) Some young kids really are ready to read books written for older kids, because they are asking those questions at a younger age. Also, some books on the “teen” shelves really are great for older tweens to read, just as some books on the “tween” shelf are genuinely appealing to 7-8 year-olds. But those are the exceptions, and most of them probably are not.

I wish - I really, really WISH - that we who make the books and publish the books and sell the books could continue to be be a little smarter about and more considerate about emotional preparedness. I hope that we will continue to be more sensitive to the emotional needs of children.

I wish that we, as a society, as a culture, would place “emotional needs” higher up on the importance pyramid than “reads and does math at a higher grade level than the rest of his class”.

Little children need, above all else, to feel loved and safe. And while I have never been a great fan of the litany of formulaic, sappy chapter books about fairies and ponies and princesses and puppies - IVY & BEAN and CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS are much more to my taste than RAINBOW FAIRIES and PUPPY PLACE - it saddens me to see Chapter Books coming out that open with demons and angry monsters and danger. It saddens me deeply. Because I do not think that we serve our six-year-olds’ emotional needs well with these types of books.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In Which I Pay a Stranger to Play With My Hair, and - Hey, Look! Headshots!

So, a few weeks ago, I went to a photographer's studio and got my picture taken, like, a bazillion times.

I have a long history of not being a very photogenic person, so, yeeaaaaah.

Me at 12. Oh, yeah. I was a looker, all right.

I was nervous.

Also, I had told them that I wanted to use their make-up person, and the receptionist (who is very nice) kept referring to her as their "hair and make-up artist", and she told me that I needed to allow for an extra HOUR-AND-A-HALF for that, and I naturally assumed that most of that would be used to deal with my hair, because… HAIR! Right? So I spent the whole two months between booking my appointment and having my appointment working up the courage to politely-but-firmly ask her to please not straighten/trim/change anything.

I was so nervous!

I even tweeted about it.


I also had to make a last-minute wardrobe adjustment.

Doesn't EVERYONE sew on the bus??

But when I arrived, the photographer was lovely and welcoming and wonderful. She sat me down on the couch and she gave me tea and she asked me what kind of "feel" I wanted the headshots to have (which was "natural" - meaning, I wanted to look like me, but less tired) and she was AWESOME. And she knew all about my book coming out because she had done her homework and looked up my Twitter, which was mortifying because of the above tweet. But neither one of us said anything about that. This lady is way too cool. (Did I mention that she is AWESOME?)

And then her make-up person walked in, and she ALSO had a cup of tea, and she was AMAZING. She also promised not to straighten my hair, which was a plus. We chatted while she put makeup on my face and put some gel in my hair, and the time flew by - it felt like about ten minutes.*

And then Denise Grant took my photo a bunch of times, and you know what? It was actually fun. Also, Christine Cho and Denise are WIZARDS, because LOOK!

Less tired! Also less 30's!
(Photo by Denise Grant Photography)


All I can say is, I never want anyone else to take my picture again. Denise Grant is wonderful. If you ever need headshots and are in the Toronto area, go to her. And use Christine Cho for your makeup.

Now I'm going to get back to staring at that chick in the photo. I like that chick. I want to hang out with her.

*A NOTE ABOUT MAKEUP: I never wear it. But you know what? If you stand up in front of a professional photographer's lighting equipment without makeup on, those lights will wash you out. There will be shadows where shadows don't belong, and light spots where light spots don't belong, and you won't look like YOU. You'll look like a skull with tissue paper stretched over it. Also, if you try to do your own makeup, you'll use too much or not enough or something too shimmery or something too dark and it won't look good. Do yourself a favor and honor the time and expense of getting professional headshots by letting them do your makeup. They know what they're doing.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: THE THICKETY: A PATH BEGINS, by J. A. White

Oh, you guys. This book.


I loved this book.

Incidentally, so did Kidlet Number One. We read it for book club, and oh, my gosh. We couldn’t put it down.

Here’s the publisher’s copy:

Hand in hand, the witch's children walked down the empty road.

When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic . . . except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr's Realm. But mostly it's called the Thickety.

The black-leaved trees swayed toward Kara and then away, as though beckoning her.

The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother.

And that is just the beginning of the story.

The Thickety: A Path Begins is the start of a thrilling and spellbinding tale about a girl, the Thickety, and the power of magic.

This book pulled me in from the first sentence. I love the way the sentences were crafted, the language, the rhythm. The whole book feels like one of those ancient stories, handed down by oral tradition through generations. It feels like a fairy tale, but not the pastel-colored sappy Disney kind. The Grimm kind. There is a way people speak when they tell these kinds of stories, a cadence, and the author captured it perfectly.

I also loved the creepiness of it. Grace, the antagonist, is truly wicked, and I love the way her sociopathic nature comes through the page. I was really rooting for her to go down, and it’s not every book that can bring out that reaction.

But it is with the underlying themes of the book that THE THICKETY excels. This is a book that asks questions about the overlap between the faithful and the occult, about what it is to be good and what it is to be bad. This is a book that explores the difference between being obedient and being brainwashed, and that explores what it is like to have one’s beliefs challenged in the most basic and meaningful way. Most astonishingly, it does so in a way that is appropriate and approachable for Middle Grade readers. In Kara, we have the faithful trope of the Heroine Plagued by Self-Doubt, but in the hands of J. A. White the trope never feels tired, which is a very, very rare find. This is a girl who is shaken to her core, and the twist at the end (which caught me by complete surprise) answers just enough for the book to feel satisfying, but not enough for the resolution to feel neat.

This book is not for the faint of heart or the easily frightened or disturbed, but would make an excellent novel study for more mature Middle Grade readers. Five enormous stars!

Find The Thickety: a Path Begins at your legal independent bookseller, or online at:
Chapters Indigo (for Canadian readers)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Book Review: We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

Once in a while, a book comes along that is so honest, so true, so close to home, that it takes your breath away. This is one of those books.

Here's the publisher's copy:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

(Okay, seriously - that last line? It's too cheesy. Whatever. The copy is not the book.)

On the surface, this is a book about a wealthy teenaged girl recovering from an accident, on a private island surrounded by her wealthy family. If you look deeper, this is still a book about a wealthy teenaged girl recovering from an accident, on a private island surrounded by her wealthy family. But it is also a book about what happens when money becomes one's sole purpose; about what happens when maintaining the illusion of perfection becomes more important than everything else; about what happens when we stop listening to each other, and stop trying to talk to one another. It is a book about the danger of lies. It is a book that reveals the truth.

I don't want to reveal anything about the plot in this review, so I'm going to stick to talking about narrative devices that I liked. The story is told in first person, from the perspective of Cadence, who has experienced selective amnesia ever since being found in the water off the beach on her family's island two years ago. She mostly uses a traditional prose format for her narrative, but occasionally she falls into free verse, and I like that. It feels like the way we think sometimes.

She also uses fairytales as a way to convey meaning, and as the narrative progresses and her amnesia slowly gives way to memories, the fairytales change. I really like that aspect of this book. I think people look for their own lives in stories, and we often have to change the stories in order to fit our lives, and I like that this book recognizes that.

I saw the "twist" coming - the ending was no surprise to me. It wasn't any less heartbreaking for it, but I saw it. I had been looking for it from the beginning - maybe because the book was set up as a book of lies, or maybe because something very much like this happened to my family. Not exactly like this - the stories and the truth never line up in their details. But in the deeper truth, in the heart of it, they are the same, so I wasn't surprised.

And I guess that's the last thing I want to say. That this is a made-up story, but if you look deeper, it is a true story about someone. Someone I knew; someone you know right now. That people, even really smart, wealthy, well-educated people, sometimes make stupid decisions, and do stupid things that lead to awful consequences, and then lie about them. To you; to me; to themselves. And that I really hope you read this, because it is the truth.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On Delays, and Why They're Not Always a Bad Thing aka, I HAVE A RELEASE DATE WOOOO!

SO… Apart from those last two posts, it's been a while, eh?

I told you this blog posting thing would be pretty erratic. I'm pretty sure I warned you guys about this. I definitely meant to...


Update time!

Book! Much book!

Actually, not that much. Because DELAYS.

A lot of things have happened with my book. My editor got a different job, which meant that my co-author Kari-Lynn and I got a NEW editor. I could have cried about this, but both our editors have been really awesome, so I just feel lucky to have had the chance to work with TWO amazing editors instead of one. (YAY! Cue happy tears! Okay, not really… But YAY!)

But that's not why we're delayed. The delay is because our book is part of a series, and our publisher, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (which publishes excellent books, by the way - no, seriously, award-winning books), bumped the book BEFORE our book, so now OUR book BITE INTO BLOODSUCKERS, which was originally scheduled to come out in October of 2014, is now coming out in the spring of 2015. On MARCH 17, to be precise. Mark your calendars!

I know it's traditional for authors to be a little sad and down in the dumps and throw themselves a bit of a pity party when this kind of delay happens, but I'm actually okay with it. In fact, I'm BETTER than okay with it. Because when you think about it, bugs are a spring and summer thing, and while there are a few non-bug creatures in this book, (vampire bat, anyone?), the vast majority of them are bugs. So I think this timing is actually pretty perfect.

ALSO: Web Series Adaptation!

I have written a web series! It's an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and you are going to love love love it! I found a really smart, talented filmmaker named James to do storyboarding with me and co-write a few episodes with me before I wrote the rest of it and it will be awesome! James found a blogger and art designer extraordinaire named Olivia to make a set! IN MY HOUSE! I have a set in my basement where a bathroom will be one day. Oh, yeah, baby. I can't show it to you yet, because SURPRISE, but it looks amazing. I have cast most of the roles in the web series! I have FILMED (and also directed) ONE THIRD of it! (The rest will be filmed as soon as I have an actor to fill the last role, which will hopefully be soon, because among other things, it would be awesome if we could finally turn that space into a second bathroom.)

So, basically, once this baby is done and launched, I will be adding "screenwriter, director, and producer" to my list of credentials. But more importantly, I WILL HAVE CREATED A WEB SERIES!

You have no idea how absolutely terrifying that is to hold in my heart.


But it's also really cool, and I hope you all love it.

HOWEVER, I had hoped to have it done and launched and all over the interwebs by now, but I don't because of the whole not-being-able-to-find-the-right-actor thing. And I'm glad it's not done yet, because I've been using this time to perfect the scenes and rewrite and rethink and it is so much better than it would have been otherwise. So this delay, while unanticipated, has not been a bad thing. It has forced me to actually do a not-rushed-job on this series, and I can't wait to share it with you.

SO: here's to rolling with the punches, looking on the bright side, and embracing the opportunities that delays present. Because this is the arts, and delays are inevitable.

Thanks for stopping by.

P.S. BITE INTO BLOODSUCKERS has a pre-order page on AmazonHow cool is that? There is a special place in my heart for the people who pre-order copies of my book. If you would order it, I would love you forever. Seriously. ALSO: that cover is a stand-in for the REAL cover, which will be revealed shortly.

Monday, September 15, 2014


This year, the people behind the Scotiabank Giller Prize have put together an awesome Crazy for Can-Lit giveaway - make a list of books eligible for the Giller Prize in 2014 that you want to read, post it in a public place by 5PM on September 15, 2014 (that's today, guys),and you will be entered to win prizes! (Full details HERE.)

I had a look at the list of eligible books, and WOW, it was hard to pick just a few, but this is my To-Be-Read list from the eligible Giller Prize books:

1) HAIR TRIGGER, by Trevor Clark: Bookstore manager-turned-bank robber Derrick Rowe enlists two other men in an armed heist, setting off a chain of events that lead to a violent climax. I haven't read a good heist book in a while, and this one looks interesting.

2) THE DELUSIONIST, by Grant Buday: "Art, love, and history furnish the setting in this tale of fate and destiny. Set in Vancouver in 1962, we follow Cyril Andrachuk, son of immigrant parents from the former Ukraine, as he makes his way from high school to menial labour jobs, from first love to first heartbreak, from sibling rivalry to malicious family betrayal." I'm interested in stories that explore the concepts of fate and destiny, and there's something about the title that I find irresistible.

3) WORST. PERSON. EVER. by Douglas Coupland: A B-Unit cameraman enters an amusing downward failure spiral that takes him around the world and eventually finds him in the centre of a nuclear war. This book looks hilarious, and after the last book on the list, I'll probably be ready for a light read.

4) THE GEOGRAPHY OF PLUTO, by Christopher DiRaddo: "...perfectly captures the ebb and flow of life through the insightful, exciting, and often playful story of a young man's day-to-day struggle with uncertainty." I love this kind of book, and it's the kind of thing I hope to address in my own work, so I'd really love to see how DiRaddo approaches it.

5) FROG MUSIC, by Emma Donoghue: In 1876 San Francisco, a young woman is shot dead through the window of a saloon. Her friend, a French burlesque dancer, risks everything to bring her murderer to justice. This is based on a real unsolved crime and Donoghue used actual documents to craft her story, AND, I loved ROOM, so I will basically read anything that she writes.

6) THE STONEHENGE LETTERS, by Harry Karlinsky: "While researching why Freud failed to win a Nobel Prize at the Nobel Archives in Sweden, a psychiatrist makes an unusual discovery. Among the piles of papers in the 'Crackpot' file are letters addressed to the executor of Alfred Nobel's will, written by several notable Nobel laureates - including Rudyard Kipling and Marie Curie - each offering an explanation of why and how Stonehenge was constructed. Diligent research uncovers that Alfred Nobel added a secret codicil to his will, a prize for the Nobel laureate who solves the mystery of Stonehenge." One word: Stonehenge. I will read anything that even pretends to be connected to Stonehenge.

7) ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, by Miriam Toews: Two sisters. One who wants to die, and one who wants to keep her sister alive. Toews' work is always poignant and clear as crystal, and I love her books.

8) THE AFTERLIFE OF STARS, by Joseph Kertes: Hungary, 1956. As tanks roll in to crush the Hungarian revolution, two brothers flee with their family. As they grapple with sibling rivalry and incalculable loss, they arrive at a place they thought they'd lost forever: home. I think this sounds wonderful, and I'm curious to see how the story is told through the brothers' perspectives.

9) ALL THE BROKEN THINGS, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: 14-year-old Bo is a Vietnamese immigrant living in Toronto, and his family has a secret: his 4-year-old sister was horribly disfigured by Agent Orange. When the circus learns about his sister, and one day his mother and sister disappear, Bo sets off on an extraordinary journey to find his sister. I'm SO INTRIGUED by the plot of this book!

10) WATCH HOW WE WALK, by Jennifer LoveGrove: "Alternating between a woman’s childhood in a small town and as an adult in the city, this novel traces a Jehovah Witness family’s splintering belief system, their isolation, and the erosion of their relationships." This description reminds me of Toews' A COMPLICATED KINDNESS. I'm very interested in books that shine a light on the inner lives of people who follow very strict religious practices, and this looks fantastic.

So there's my Top 10!

What are yours? Are you keen to get your hands on any of the same books? Have you read any of them already? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, September 12, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

A while back (an embarrassingly long while back), I received this package:

What could it be???

I wasn't expecting a package. I LOVE packages! I eagerly tore it open, and inside:

I know Terry! This must be Terry Lynn Johnson!

 I hope MY books have covers that good one day...

IT WAS! It was her newly released book, ICE DOGS, a Middle Grade contemporary adventure that I had been WAITING for ever since she and I had shared a room at an SCBWI conference way back in…let me see now…2012???

Yeah, I wanted this!

My first reaction was, HOLY ICE DOGS, LOOK AT THAT COVER! I mean, just LOOK at it! It's gorgeous! It looks like someone opened the gates to Narnia and a sled dog is walking through them right now. I wanted to get lost in that book.

Unfortunately for me, so did Kidlet Number One, and he snagged it before I could, the sneaky little sneaker.

He read it in an afternoon. This is an indication of just how good ICE DOGS is.

And then: MY TURN! First, a short intro. Here's the flap copy:


That's how the fourteen-year-old dog-sledder Victoria Secord has felt ever since her father died. A champion musher, Victoria is independent, self-reliant, and, thanks to her father, an expert in surviving the unforgiving Alaskan bush. When an injured "city boy" and a freak snowstorm both catch Victoria and her dog team by surprise, however, a routine trip becomes a life-or-death trek through the frozen wilderness. As temperatures drop and food stores run out, Victoria must find a way to save them all in this high-stakes, high-adventure middle grade novel of endurance, hope, and finding your way back home.

This is a book that delivers. From the very first page, I was drawn into Victoria's world: the sights and sounds of a race, the tension, the way the dogs scratch and claw in anticipation The writing crackles with description. Every detail is painted so clearly, but with exactly the right amount of sparsity, that I felt as if I was watching it play out in a film reel in my head. And the author's choice of first person, present tense lends an immediacy to the writing that is perfect for this story.

I also loved how much I learned from this book. As Victoria and Chris (the injured "city boy") navigate the Alaskan wilderness, they rig up snares to hunt for game, follow carrion birds to find food, build fires, snow camp, care for injured dogs…and that's just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I have some limited experience with snow camping and wilderness survival from my College days in the Berkshires, but what the kids do in this book is something else. The insights into life as a dog sledder are so clear, I feel almost as if you could plonk me in the winter wilderness and I'd survive. (The rational part of me knows that's not the case - DON'T TRY THAT AT HOME, KIDS - but it's an indication of the quality of writing that the imaginative part of me believes it.)

The only part that I didn't absolutely love was the way Chris came into the story. For the first few chapters after we met him, his character struck me as "off" - a little too weird, a little too unpredictable, and a little too unwilling to talk. In hindsight, I think this is all related to the accident that injured him, but while I was reading, I was half-trusting the author to take this to a good place, and half-wondering if he was going to turn out to be a rapist or amateur highway robber or something. As awful as it would have been for Chris, I kind of wanted Victoria to leave him behind at the beginning. Either way, it definitely ramped up the tension! (Not-really spoiler: It's good that she didn't leave him behind. He's not a rapist. This IS a middle grade book, guys)

Finally, the way Victoria's handling of the issues with her mother is woven through the action of the book is so smooth, I didn't even notice it until the book was over. I cried a little at the end, guys. That doesn't happen often.

This is a finely paced page-turner of a novel that both keeps the adrenaline pumping and tugs at the heartstrings. It is a fine piece of writing, and a perfect autumn read! FOUR STARS.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Gluten, Casein, and Why The Hell I Eat Weird S**t

Some people think I'm crazy...

A couple of days ago, a Facebook friend asked me for my thoughts on this article. My thoughts are varied and complex, and this is a huge topic that is basically impossible to compress into one blog post, but I suspect that she was asking this question in relation to the gluten-free casein-free diet that The Hubbles and The Kidlets follow, so basically: The study isn't wrong. Also: The study is wrong. More specifically, the study is the wrong study.

Let me explain. You should probably take a moment to get a warm drink; this could take a while, and I'll be linking to articles that you should read in order to really understand all of this.

Okay. First, there are lots of different things that people are talking about when they say "gluten intolerance". Sometimes they mean "Celiac Disease", which the Mayo Clinic explains very well here. It is a very serious disease that involves symptoms that vary from abdominal cramping to full-on "go to the hospital now, because everything is swelling, and staying alive is a good idea". Diagnosis is done via urine tests, blood tests, and a very uncomfortable, very invasive test in which doctors actually reach up in there and cut out a piece of your small intestine and look at it through a microscope. I have a few friends who have been diagnosed with Celiac disease, and it is literally life-or-death for them every time they eat food that they haven't prepared themselves.

It is also not what The Kidlets and The Hubbles have.

So let's move on to the second thing people sometimes mean when they say "gluten intolerance", which is "Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity", which is basically characterized by general bloating and discomfort and tiredness and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)-type things. This is what the study was looking at: is this a thing? And if it is a thing, is it gluten that is the problem, or is it something else in wheat and other grains, that coincidentally gets eliminated when one follows a gluten-free diet?

Studies like this are important, and I'm glad they're being done, because it's a good idea to get to the bottom of questions like this. And what this study found is that no, it isn't gluten; it's something else. (That something else is called a FODMAP, which is fancy-abbreviating for a short-chain carbohydrate that isn't readily absorbed by the body. You find them in things like corn syrup and artificial sweeteners and other things, as well as gluten-containing grains.) THAT SAID, any study in which a person is asked to self-report (i.e., report their own symptoms) is a study that, in my opinion, needs to be reconsidered, because DUH. You're asking for inconsistencies and bias there, guys. You are practically begging for them. And you are going to get them. In spades.

But IBS-type symptoms are not what The Hubbles and The Kidlets have, either. This study is not about them. Nor is it about most of the people who are both on the Autistic spectrum and need to follow a GF/CF diet. (Although it is about SOME of those people, because that's just how life works. There is always overlap.)

This brings me to the third thing that people sometimes mean when they talk about "gluten intolerance", which is probably best described as a lack of behavioral control when they eat gluten or casein. This can mean: a lack of ability to focus; a lack of ability to moderate their behavior when they feel an overwhelming emotional response; a more extreme emotional response to their surroundings than most people; an increase in self-stimulatory behavior; general difficulty picking up on social cues (as opposed to overtly stated directions); and a few other things that basically fall under "autistic behavior". (This is obviously not a technical term, but, you know, this is already kind of a long post.)

These symptoms are related to gliadorphin and casomorphin, two peptides in gluten and casein that don't get into the bloodstream of most people but do get into the bloodstream of some people, and that, once in the bloodstream, get carried to the brain and activate the same receptors in the brain as opiates. This has been shown to happen in rats, and THIS is the issue The Hubbles and Kidlet Number One have. This is not an allergy. This has nothing to do with antibodies or immune response. This is a chemical reaction akin to what happens when you inject heroin or smoke opium. You can read a little bit about that in this study here and also in this study here.

We figured this out because I noticed a bunch of Asperger-type behaviours in Kidlet Number One starting from when he was a toddler, and I had worked with Autistic kids for years before I had my own kid so I knew that this is sometimes a part of the equation, and so when Kidlet Number One was five and Kidlet Number Two (who never did any of those Asperger-type things) was one-and-a-half, we all peed in cups and sent them off to a lab that found way-too-high levels of gliadorphin and casomorphin in the urine that came out of The Hubbles and Kidlet Number One, and borderline levels in the urine that came out of Kidlet Number Two, and almost nil levels in the urine that came out of me.

So. No gluten and casein for us. Because Science.

We could do a bunch of tests and figure out why this is happening to them. We could try to find out if the problem is a missing enzyme, or a GI tract that lets more things through than it should, or both. But really, why bother? Those tests will be expensive, and they won't change anything about the way they eat.

It is important to note that not all people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder have this issue. It is also important to note that eliminating gluten and casein are NOT "cures" for autism or Asperger Disorder, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying, or misinformed, or desperate, or a combination of those things. Kidlet Number One is almost 11, and he still can't lose a board game without being on the verge of tears; he still turns red and starts to hyperventilate a little when plans change, or when his expectations for the day aren't met. There is a huge difference between his response to a sudden rainstorm that rains out a game of baseball, and his younger brother's response. And that is simply who he is. It is what the Universe handed him when he was born.

BUT, this diet has helped him. Kidlet Number One's teachers noticed a huge difference in his behavior when we took out gluten: his sensitivity to noise decreased, the number of total meltdowns decreased, his need to always do the same work in the same order was moderated, and the severity of the meltdowns lessened. His ability to cope with sudden changes to a planned schedule is much better when he is off gluten and casein than when he is on them. It is easier for all of us to live with him, and it is easier for him to live with all of us. And in terms of diagnosis, the psychiatrist put him on the "Asperger" side of the line when he was eating gluten and casein, and on the "normal but quirky" side when he wasn't. But, you know: it's a pretty sketchy line. He went from severe problems coping to less severe problems coping, and problems are problems, no matter what you call them.

SO: what do I think of the study? I think it's not relevant to me, but it might be relevant to you. And I think that we need some words that are more accurate than "gluten intolerance" to talk about all of these issues.

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Stickers, Crap, and Angst: Things That Make Me Cry

So, I've been doing a lot of reading lately. It might have something to do with the fact that my novel and I are sitting deep in the bowels of writerly angst - you know, that place where you know your manuscript needs a little work but you think it's promising, and then you open it up to work on it and you realize that it's awful, and the characters are flat, and you repeat yourself a million times, and this will never, ever, ever be as good as those books with the shiny award stickers on them, and it's not commercial and plotty enough to sell, so you might as well quit now and let The Hubbles carry the bills while you get fat eating bonbons and binge-watching Castle reruns and a loop of that Van Damme commercial on YouTube…

Maybe that's just me.

ANYWAY, when I know my work is terrible and I don't know how to make it better, I read. I read all the books with those nice shiny stickers on them. Because I'm masochistic that way. Why be satisfied with the knowledge that I need to improve when I can rub my own nose in it? Also, it's an opportunity to learn. And I want to learn from the masters.

So since my current WiP is a YA, I read a bunch of really good YA. I read John Green's Looking for Alaska, where I paid attention to things like how to structure the first chapter to introduce statement of theme without being too obvious about it (or how to be obvious and still get away with it), and how to incorporate backstory without making it feel like backstory, and how to make characters feel real, and pacing. I read it out loud to The Hubbles and learned about poetic prose and the importance of rhythm so that the words flow from sentence to paragraph to page to chapter and back again. I could get a whole writing course worth of learning out of that book. I cried a lot over the course of reading it, usually when I thought of my own sorry work-in-progress, but also when the story called for it.

I read Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion, where I noticed how important it is to get the small details right, that the reason I knew I was in the hands of a good storyteller from the very beginning was that the sights and the smells and the sound of the wind just felt right. And I thought about archetypes, and Cinderella stories and Ugly Duckling stories, and how if I hadn't just read Cheryl Klein's essay on archetypes and plot in her book Second Sight, I wouldn't have noticed the archetypes in this book, but they were still there, and maybe it was my identification with those archetypes, my emotional response to them based on my own social and cultural context, that makes those kinds of stories so powerful for me as a reader. And I also learned about pacing. Again. There's another writing course in that book. I cried at the end of that one, too.

And then I opened my own WiP and I cried myself to sleep, because, you know. CRAP.

And then I read Eric Walters' The Rule of Three, because a kid in my YA book club picked it. And I have to be honest here - I didn't want to finish it. The dialogue seemed stilted (to me). The plot was predictable (to me). The characters were boring and stereotypical and, if I can take a minute to be arrogant on my own blog, pretty slow (to me). There was an interesting character, Herb, who showed up after about 50 pages or so, but he wasn't enough to pull me through the novel. I knew the publisher was excited about the book (because I had read it in an article in Publishers' Weekly or some place like that), but I couldn't figure out why. I thought it probably had something to do with the plot. And I know this stuff is totally subjective. So I did what I always do when I am mystified by a book's buzz: I passed it to The Hubbles and asked him what he thought of it.

He read the whole thing in a couple of days. He agreed with me on the dialogue and the characters, but he thought the plot was really interesting, and he loved Herb, and he figured that for the average YA reader, it was enough. It didn't change his worldview, but it diverted him for a few hours and gave him a distraction from bills and was entertaining. I learned a big lesson there, too: that just because a book isn't the kind of book I want to be writing right now, that doesn't make it a book that isn't worthy of existence. That there are different books for different people at different times. And that having an interesting plot is really, really important, no matter who your audience is.

I can't say that it made me feel any better about the state of my novel, but at least it didn't make me cry.

And then I read Vikki VanSickle's Words That Start With B, which isn't a YA, it's a Middle Grade, but which was delightful and welcoming and honest and wonderful in a wrap-you-up-in-a-cozy-blanket sort of way, and which filled my brain with real characters and a well-paced story. It was like rediscovering Judy Blume. And holy moly - the craftsmanship that went into making that book. I'm still figuring it out. There's another writing course right there. I'm mystified at the lack of buzz for this book. Or maybe I just missed it; I only recently got around to starting the Harry Potter series, after all. If my friends had to describe me, the phrase "late to the party" would almost certainly come to mind.

That book didn't make me cry, either - I take that as a good sign, that I can read a truly excellent book now without dissolving into hot, silent tears of self-loathing (although I can still feel them as I type, swelling at the back of my throat). I've been jotting down ideas for my novel, elements I can add that will strengthen a character, plot points I can change to raise the stakes and make things more interesting, scenes I should take out or rewrite. I'm not quite ready to look at the 58,000+ words that I wrote back in November, but at least I'm no longer battling the urge to just print the whole thing and set fire to it in a garbage can in the backyard.

Which brings me to the reason for this post, apart from letting you know what books I think you should read, which is this: reading is important if you're a writer. You need to read to learn how to do it right, and you need to read to distract yourself from your own misery when you know you're doing it wrong. You need to read critically, as well as for your own enjoyment. You need to read widely, both within your genre and outside of it. But you don't have to read everything. It's okay - even preferable - to put a book down when it isn't speaking to you. Just make sure you know why you're putting it down, and why someone else might want to keep reading. Get other people's opinions if you have to. Don't let a book pass through your hands without learning something from it.

And when in doubt, look for the stickers.

Thanks for stopping by.

Note: With the exception of Cheryl Klein's Second Sight: an Editor's Talks on Writing Revising & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, which is only available on Amazon and is thusly hyperlinked, the aforementioned books are all hyperlinked to their IndieBound pages, should you wish to buy them. But in case you can't find a local independent bookstore using the IndieBound search engine, or are a heartless soulless pathetic excuse for an individual who hates independent bookstores with every fibre of your being, here are those books again, this time hyperlinked to their Amazon or Chapters Indigo pages:
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer
The Rule of Three, by Eric Walters
Words that Start With B, by Vikki VanSickle