Good morning book people! I’m starting to believe spring might actually be here–there are tiny buds on the tree outside my window, the pavements are wet with snow melt, and our windows are open to let in the fresh (not chilled) air. Of course, the arrival of spring means the arrival of spring cleaning, which isn’t nearly as much fun as crocuses and daffodils and walks by the river, but that’s optional, right?
In the coffee break this morning, bits and pieces from all over. I’m feeling a bit scattered, so my reading is scattered–which makes it a little more fun, I think!
In response to the NYT’s piece on the death of blogging, The Economist considers how we define a blog. Is a blog simply a “website on which people publish periodic entries in reverse chronological order and allow readers to leave comments,” or is something more? It also considers the definition in terms of social networks.
Back at the NYT, Dan Kois considers why writers abandon novels. It’s a longer piece, but definitely worth reading, regardless of where you are in the writing process, because it does that all-important thing: Shows that big time authors like Michael Chabon struggle with their work, too.
And, last but not least at the Old Grey Lady, Pamela Paul has a review of two gorgeous children’s books. The first, Underground, “summon[s] up for young readers the spirit and emotions — desperation, fear and, ultimately, celebration — of the Underground Railroad.” I’ll definitely be grabbing a copy for our shelf.
Elsewhere on the interwebs…
Ari over at Reading In Color has posted a list of the Arab & British Literature she’s reading for school. There are some obvious picks on the list – Frankenstein, Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening – and a few more off the beaten path (or more off my beaten path, at least). I love seeing what’s being read, especially in novels and memoir, in classes; it’s an excellent way to get outside the genre box.
io9‘s Charlie Jane Anders has a well-thought out, nicely balanced review of I Am Number Four. That said, it’s still pretty negative–and not enough to turn me off seeing the movie, though I might wait ’til it hits Netflix or DVD, whichever comes first.
Also at io9, Orbit’s new buy one get one free e-book deal. For every science fiction novel you buy, you get a free fantasy novel, or vice versa. It’s a little reminiscent of the Baen Free Library (check the back of some Baen books, & you’ll find a disc with the whole series up to that point), which has had its fair share of success. But what I really love about this idea is that Orbit is getting its readers into a whole new genre, and opening up their market in a truly novel way (no pun intended)–outside of handselling, publishers and booksellers tend to stick to promoting a favorite genre or author. I’ll be paying a lot of attention to see how this pans out.
What are you reading this morning? Did you see the I Am Number Four movie?
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Good morning, book people! Today is babysitting day in Peta-land, so I’ll spend a good chunk of it catching up. In the meantime, here’s what I’m reading–and loving–over this morning’s cup of coffee.
An oldie but a goodie, Michiko Kakutani reviews Alison Pearson’s YA novel, I Think I Love You, about a 13 year old in love with David Cassidy for the NYT.
Not writing specific, but The Guardian has an update to their Juliet Jacques series on learning to live as a woman, which is well worth a read. Juliet’s transition through hormone therapy and into womanhood–or rather, recognized womanhood–is an eye-opener, but if you need to justify the time reading in lieu of working, think of it as research into character development. (Go here series beginning.)
Also at The Guardian, the Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire tells us why must save libraries. Favorite line? “There’s a tendency to resort to romantic cliche when talking about libraries; clearly in a digital age they aren’t a “sexy” alternative.”
At the WSJ (in the free content!) Stephen Goldblatt writes about Shakespeare and the revision process–even the bard was prone to “obsessive fiddling” with his work. (I’m feeling much better about the time I spent an hour and an half working on one sentence now.)
GalleyCat’s Jason Boog has a quick piece about The Lisa Simpson Bookclub, which collects references to Lisa’s rather extensive–and eclectic–reading list. Embedded video of a referenced clip, too.
What are you reading this morning?
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Good morning, interwebs! It’s finally warming up in Boston (finally!) but I still need a morning coffee and something to read. Here’s what I’m checking out this morning.
Update: Mir just stuck his foot in my coffee (not hot) so it might be tea for me today…
11:58 am: This should probably be 8 links now, because my interview with Scott Westerfeld about the Bitch Media 100 feminist YA books is now up @ PopMatters.
From the weekend NYT – More kids are using e-readers, and e-book sales for January show it.
From last week’s Guardian Books Blog, reflections on no longer being a young novelist.
And, in case you missed it, here’s Gribbens’ reasoning, excerpted from the introduction to the book.
At ebookNewser, a quick piece on Sarah Salway’s 2004 book, Something Beginning With, rocketing up Kindle charts with a little help from Twitter.
GalleyCat reports that AOL is acquiring Huff Po for $315 million.
And finally, more from the NYT, with a January 30th piece about young Americans of mixed race identifying as mixed rather than one side or the other. Some of the language in this piece is frustrating, like “ethnically ambiguous,” but it’s an interesting read nonetheless. Provides some insight into the YA market, too.
What are you reading today?
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Yesterday, The New York Times ended Paper Cuts. It wasn’t the best books blog out there–and wasn’t updated anywhere near regularly enough–but I’m sad to see it go.
Although they’ve shuttled their books coverage into their ArtsBeat blog, the NYT is trying to convince Paper Cuts readers things aren’t actually changing that much.
“For Paper Cuts stalwarts, you now have one source for The Times’s dispatches from the world of letters, and are part of a much larger community of readers. ArtsBeat is the leading edge of The Times’s culture report, full of news and commentary on television, music, movies, theater and more. But if you’d just like to see posts on books, visit (and bookmark) the “Books” category…more.”
While this may seem like no big deal–after all, how hard is it to just click on the “books” category?–it’s actually a huge deal. Scratch that. It’s a ginormous, humongous, whopper-with-extra-ketchup-and-fries-in-the-bun kind of deal. Moving books coverage into a general arts & culture blog does several terrible and important things:
1. Devalues book reviews and literary discussion.
2. Makes it easier to update even less frequently.
3. Suggests there’s not actually that much lit news to cover.
I know, I know, it’s been more than a week since I posted! But things on the Peta front are much better thanks to my interweb hiatus–I’ve finished draft 3.5 of the novel, had a marvelous birthday and wedding anniversary, and caught up on some much needed sleep. But YA news waits for no one, and it seems a lot has happened in the past week or so–including an interesting piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. According to WSJ’s Amy Chozick, television parents are making a comeback–
For decades, TV has depicted teens as angst-ridden and rebellious, and parents as out-of-touch and unhip… [but the] less-defiant generation is influencing plots, changing what types of shows get made and prompting networks like MTV that have long specialized in youthful rebellion to rethink their approach. The new, more-sanguine shows still broach racy topics like sex, drug use and teen pregnancy, but they appease parents by always presenting consequences. Parents typically have prominent roles and just as many tawdry story lines as the teens—and look almost like older siblings.
Though the article focuses largely on a new ABC Family show, Pretty Little Liars, Chozick makes a good case for the rise of the television parent. Over the past few years, Gilmore Girls style fare–shows families can discuss and use to find common ground–have been more popular than the glitzy Gossip Girl dramas most adults associate with teens. Although television and literature coexist rather than correlate, TV’s spotlight on the parent-child relationship presents a stark contrast with the absenteeism of parents in YA literature. Over the past few years, argues Julie Just, children’s book editor at The New York Times, many popular titles–including Twilight (Stephanie Meyer)–feature absent parents, forgotten parents, irrelevant parents, and even pathetic parents. (The Guardian’s Book Blog has a nice response to Just’s article here.) Will YA lit make a return to more present parents? Or is the absentee parent becoming the norm?
The Hero’s Journey
Most fantasy books–Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book, Eva Ibboston’s The Island of the Aunts and The Star of Kazan, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, to name a few–sideline the parents. This isn’t just because parents aren’t interesting, but because most fantasy novels (including the above) follow the hero’s journey pattern, as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
While not all YA is fantasy, a lot of YA is about the hero’s journey. Unlike television, which presents a very external view of the world, most novels (yes, even third person novels) depend on the reader getting inside the protagonist’s head and following their character development–their personal hero’s journey–into uncharted emotional/internal territory.
Getting deep inside a character’s head requires a certain narrowing of focus; instead of gathering several impressions of an event or person, as we might with a television show, novels keep us to a limited set of view points, because more than said few (more than four, in my case *cough cough*, Anita Shreve) become unwieldy and confusing. Skipping very detailed parent description also helps keeps readers within the right frame of mind (yes, some parental development can be a very useful thing, but more on that later).
Parents can also be symbolic–cutting away parental ties, either by choice (deliberately setting foot on the hero’s path) or by force (being orphaned/kidnapped/etc.) can provide a lot of detail about a character with just a few broad strokes. In the latest Dianna Wynne Jones’ novel, Enchanted Glass, Aidan is an orphan whose parents weren’t exactly card-carrying members of The Helicopter Parents‘ Club. As a result, his family is less about biology, and more about choice, as he gathers the people he cares about (and who care about him) together, a common theme in Wynne Jones‘ novels. But Aidan can’t find his true family until he has, to some extent (the book has that first-in-a-trilogy feel), completed his journey and come to certain realizations about himself.
Absent Parents–Truth or Fantasy?
(Remember when I said more about developing parents as a characters later? This is later.)
Books are about children, not parents. And yet, according to Chozick’s article, the teen shows just about teens or glitz and glamor are those with falling ratings. Why? I suspect it’s because giving depth to a parent is like giving depth to a villain–it adds depth to a book, and is often the difference between a good story and a great one.
Unsurprisingly, young adult books are about young adults, not their parents. And yet the popular teen dramas Chozick references, with their carefully fleshed out parents, present a side of the story much young adult literature does not, giving viewers a context for why parents act (or react) as they do, and why/how teen characters are perceiving the world. Would such a tactic work in a YA novel? I’m not sure, but I suspect it would, if handled well, because giving depth to a parent is like giving depth to a villain–it adds depth to a book, and is often the difference between a good story and a great one.
Of course, not all stories can feature parents, because parents aren’t a part of the equation. Would Harry Potter work if he were a regular wizard kid, like Ron, with parents who knew most, if not all, of his doings? Moreover, if Harry were your standard-issue wizard progeny, he wouldn’t bring his neglected, unloved kid angst to the story–which, although not absolutely necessary to a good YA fantasy, is part of the reason YA readers relate to him. (What teen hasn’t felt unloved at some point?) In contemporary YA, though, absent parents can be quite problematic, because their whereabouts need to be accounted for. The constant stream of fantasy that keeps our suspension of disbelief alive doesn’t hold for contemporary lit–once realism creeps in, questions start to arise. From Just’s article–
Sometimes the parents are very, very busy, and sometimes they’ve simply checked out…In Laurie Halse Anderson’s best-selling “Wintergirls,” about a dangerously anorexic high school senior, the mom is a sought-after surgeon too pressed to notice that her malnourished daughter is a bit shorter than she was four years earlier.
Like the mother in Wintergirls, many parents in YA literature are missing because they’re out (or in, as in Gaiman’s Coraline) at work. But even in a novel like Wintergirls, reality threatens to intrude at any moment, because it’s only Lia’s biological mother who is accounted for. The people she lives with–her father and step-mother–are very present in her life (though, granted, not as present as they were when she first checked out of hospital), weighing her, taking her to psychiatrist appointments, asking her to pick up her younger sister. The true absence of Lia’s parents is in her pushing them away–her step-mother asks her questions Lia doesn’t answer, or simply doesn’t hear, because she’s lost in the fog her problems, and her lack of adequate nutrition, bring. But although Halse Anderson’s characterization addresses this, it’s sometimes hard to believe that even this rocky suburban family doesn’t notice Lia’s decline.
At the end of Wintergirls, readers learn more about Lia’s family, and her parents’ choices etc. are put in context–for me, those chapters are the most powerful in the book.
Teens Saving Themselves
Just points out that absentee parents are fast-becoming a stereotype, and one that does not reflect reality. She writes–
Ineffectual, freaked out, self-centered, losing it — and all that smoking! — this was the dawn of the struggling parent (the completely pathetic parent would come later). One might vaguely remember real mothers like the beautifully observed Ma in “A Place Apart” (1980), by Paula Fox, seen through “a smoke screen,” cigarette ashes patterning her sweater, or her neighbor, “a restless ghost” who takes special pills twice a day. But in less fine novels the stereotype started getting out of hand. One study from the 1970s compared mothers in young adult fiction with the ones in real life, based on statistics from the Census Bureau and the Department of Labor, and concluded that less than 3 percent of the depictions were “realistic”: in the novels, mothers were disproportionately seen as being paralyzed at home, while in real life they were beginning to go out and get jobs.
Problem novels, arguably the birth place of the absentee parent trope, are popular for a reason. Like fantasy, they’re a window into another life for many readers, though a more realistic, easy-to-visualize one. (While I agree that problem novels can also help readers struggling through difficult issues and times, I’m not convinced these readers represent the majority of the purchasing demographic.) Absentee parents, truth or not, are part of the teen experience–even teens from great families sometimes feel isolated. As author Sarah Ockler (Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah Hannaford points out–
The best YA lit — arguably, any literature — is not that which paints the most accurate reflection of reality, but that which resonates most authentically with the intended reader. It’s the whole “perception is reality” thing. Regardless of the reality, lots of teens perceive their parents as inept, mopey, or even downright bad — I know I did. In my thirteen- to nineteen-year-old mind, Mom and Dad were clueless, ineffective, and, you know, stupid.
If someone wrote contemporary YA with great parents, what sort of story would they write? A more grown up version of Paul Haven’s The Seven Keys of Balahad, seems a likely candidate. Instead of absentee parents, the book has very present parents and absentee kids, who sneak out and lie (for a good cause). At several points, the main character, 11-year old Oliver, worries about his parents worrying about him, about disobeying his father (when visiting Balahad’s thieves market), and about lying to cover his tracks. The isolation American-born Oliver feels is isolation from his peers, and from finding a way to fit into Balahad, as his parents have.
The Seven Keys of Balahad, while a great novel, falls into the opposite trap–adults are needed to come to the rescue. While not all present parent books end with grown up help (Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series, for instance), many do. It’s the damsel in distress complex updated–teen gets into trouble, cries out for help, gets rescued by a hovering parent. But damsels in distress are boring the second, third, and fourth time around. Knowing there’s a safe haven is great, but contemporary damsels don’t don’t want the prince to ride in and fix things. No, they want the damsel to save herself, to cut off her own hair, tie it to the bed post, climb on down and go on adventures (Shannon Hale’s Rapunzel’s Revenge) where she kicks ass and takes names.
Image Credit: Garrison Photography, via sxc.hu