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)