Saturday, February 24, 2007

Name of the Day

I have now returned from not only dinner but a screening of the film "Amazing Grace" with my friend Zoe. We had originally intended to see "The Last King of Scotland," but it was sold out; I suppose exchanging Idi Amin for William Wilberforce was morally good for us, but as with many morally good things, it probably wasn't as much fun as the alternative. The acting is strong and the eighteenth-century costumes are gorgeous, yet it suffers from too-tight editing, as well as having to convince its main character of a cause the audience already knows to be just and right. Still, all these faults can be forgiven in the name of the actor who plays William Pitt the Younger, who is delightfully called:

I love this name more than I can say, and I hope he makes it big so I can say it often. "Have you seen the latest Benedict Cumberbatch film?" I'll ask my friends. "I so loved Benedict Cumberbatch in that role." Plus he apparently appeared in a film about University Challenge, and he will be in this year's adaptation of Atonement (amazing novel) -- although considering that's being directed by Joe Wright of P&P-from-Hell fame, I won't expect too much.
Nonetheless, who's going to be in the film? Benedict Cumberbatch. Baby, remember that name.

Q. What does a frustrated writing chicken say? A. "Block Block Block!"

My friends Melissa and Meg came over this morning for my fabulous pancakes (not boasting; simply a fact) and a writing day. They were working on creative projects; I was working on my talk for LA SCBWI in April. But while I could write down all the facts I want to put forward in my talk, I feel unsure about my metaphor tying them together; and so many of the facts seem to be taken from or inspired by Uri Shulevitz's excellent Writing with Pictures that (at the moment) it seems like the talk should really consist of my waving his book in the air and saying "Buy this! Buy this now!"

So instead I wrote a letter to an author about a picture book, because it's much easier for me to write about concrete things that already exist than theory I have to create. (Which is why I am an editor and all of you are writers.) I will go back to the talk tonight or tomorrow, get off the laptop and back on paper (which was probably half the problem anyway -- so hard to draw connections between things when you can't actually draw arrows), write write write till the deep structure of the thing clicks into place and the story I have to tell about words and pictures and how they work together emerges. (It's a romance! Hey, that's an interesting metaphor . . . )

Until then, I guess the ideas just have to percolate a little more. And I'm going to have dinner.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Quote File: Love and Relationships

(I meant to post this last week for Valentine's Day, but circumstances escaped me; here it is now.)

  • Love is not something in its own right, it is what people are and have become. -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • We're each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark. --Ursula LeGuin
  • It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it. To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. -- Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Love, I find, is like singing. Everybody can do enough to satisfy themselves, though it may not impress the neighbors as being very much. -- Zora Neale Hurston
  • Love is the true means by which the world is enjoyed: our love to others, and others' love to us. -- Thomas Trahern
  • To know the needs of another and to bear the burden of their sorrow, that is the true love. -- Reb Moshe Leib
  • The lover knows much more about absolute good and universal beauty than the logician or theologian, unless the latter, too, be lovers in disguise. -- George Santayana
  • We perceive when love begins and when it declines by our embarrassment when alone together. -- Jean de la Bruyere
  • One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can't utter. -- James Earl Jones
  • It is kindness immediately to refuse what you intend to deny. -- Publilius Syrus
  • The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for. --Maureen Dowd
  • Absence is to love as wind to fire; it extinguishes the little flame, it fans the big. -- Umberto Eco
  • Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening. -- Maya Angelou
  • The desire of the man is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man. -- Madame de Stael
  • What is man that woman lies down to adore him? -- Grace Paley
  • When you feel a pull, go with it. -- Grace Paley
  • How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle? -- Katherine Mansfield
  • If you're really listening, if you're awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold ever-more wonders. -- Andrew Harvey
  • I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be left alone.' There is all the difference. -- Greta Garbo
  • It is best to love wisely, no doubt; but to love foolishly is better than not to be able to love at all. -- William Thackeray
  • oh god it's wonderful / to get out of bed / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much. -- Frank O’Hara
  • To find a person who will love you for no reason, and to shower that person with reasons, that is the ultimate happiness. -- Robert Brault
  • Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new. -- Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Love doesn't make the world go 'round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile. -- Franklin P. Jones
  • Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck. -- Iris Murdoch
  • A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers. -- Robert Quillen
  • To keep your marriage brimming, / With love in the loving cup, / Whenever you're wrong, admit it; / Whenever you're right, shut up. -- Ogden Nash
  • We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. -- W. S. Maugham
  • On the contrary, when each of the two persons, instead of being a nothing, is a something; when they are attached to one another, and are not too much unlike to begin with; the constant partaking in the same things, assisted by their sympathy, draws out the latent capacities of each for being interested in the things which were at first interesting only to the other; and works a gradual assimilation of the tastes and characters to one another, partly by the insensible modification of each, but more by a real enriching of the two natures, each acquiring the tastes and capacities of the other in addition to its own . . . When the two persons both care for great objects, and are a help and encouragement to each other in whatever regards these, the minor matters on which their tastes may differ are not all-important to them; and there is a foundation for solid friendship, of an enduring character, more likely than anything else to make it, through the whole of life, a greater pleasure to each to give pleasure to the other, than to receive it . . . What marriage may be in the case of two persons of cultivated faculties, identical in opinions and purposes, between whom there exists that best kind of equality, similarity of powers and capacities with reciprocal superiority in them -- so that each can enjoy the luxury of looking up to the other, and can have alternately the pleasure of leading and being led in the path of development -- I will not attempt to describe. -- John Stuart Mill, On the Subjection of Women
  • It is something--it can be everything--to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below. -- Wallace Stegner
  • Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company. -- Rachel Naomi Remen
  • For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love. -- Carl Sagan

And this last quote is not actually about love and romance, but I love it so much I quote it whenever I can:

  • The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, ''I love you madly,'' because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ''As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” – Umberto Eco

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rhymes with "Float 'Em"

(Warning: There are four-letter words in this post, as well as other words of varying lengths and opinions readers might find offensive. Read at your own risk.)

This weekend my friend Katy went to the Tate Modern gallery in London, which was having a major retrospective of the English artists Gilbert & George. Gilbert & George are most famous for huge, aggressively colored photomontages, usually featuring pictures of themselves among other iconography; to go straight to the most notorious and extreme example of their work, in the mid-1990s they completed a series called "the Naked Shit pictures," featuring both themselves naked and pictures of feces and urine. (Both links are safe for work and explain a little more of the artists' metier.) Katy didn't see the Tate exhibition itself, but she said to me after her visit to the museum, "I'd rather have one of their pictures on my wall than a Thomas Kinkade."

"Really?" I said.

"Definitely," she said firmly. "Wouldn't you?"

And here it was, the extremes of these two choices forming a wonderfully devilish artistic "Would You Rather": "Which would you rather have on your living-room wall: A six-foot-high, purposely confrontational photomontage of two naked men pointing their anuses and genitalia at the viewer? Or an overly idealized, artistically simple-minded, corporately marketed, sickeningly sentimental painting of a lighthouse at sunset? Painters of shit (literally) or painter of shit (aesthetically)? Art as meaning, or as decoration?"

And what did I answer? I didn't. I cannot in good conscience say I'd prefer living with a Gilbert & George, particularly the one cited in the conundrum; I come home to rest and think and be, and I don't need a challenge literally hanging over my head 24/7. But Thomas Kinkade is the antithesis of everything I think art should be -- light without dark, generalization without individuation, beauty without truth, which makes it only a pretty lie. I think I would go with Gilbert & George in the end, solely to maintain my intellectual self-respect. But I'm not 100% sure about that choice, nor that I'd be happy with it.

All of which is leading me to, of course, the current debate over The Higher Power of Lucky. For those readers not involved in children's books, this year's Newbery winner by Susan Patron uses the word "scrotum" on page one, where the main character (Lucky) hears a man say his dog was bitten on that body part by a rattlesnake. Lucky does not know what the word means, and her attempts to find out apparently form a minor and in the end meaningful motif throughout the book (which I have not yet read; this opinion taken from Linnea Hendrickson's post on child_lit). Many librarians know that their patrons will object to the mere appearance of this word and thus have announced they will not stock the book. (See the New York Times article here for a (poorly-written) summation of the debate.) The discussion that followed on ccbc-net, child_lit, and various blogs has tend to run along these lines:

  • It's an anatomically correct term for a body part. Are we not going to tell children about their bodies? Isn't it best to give them the correct information from the beginning?
  • Yes, but parents have the right to determine when their children learn information about their bodies.
  • Do they really? Aren't librarians supposed to provide information to whoever is looking for it -- particularly when other people (like parents) don't want them to have it?
  • But the libraries are financially supported by the community. Shouldn't they follow the standards of the community?
  • And librarians have such small budgets and so much to do, and frequently no support from their higher-ups when challenges come in . . . Isn't it easiest and perhaps best to avoid the issue altogether?
  • Those stupid, uneducated Southerners and Midwesterners -- I'm sick of them taking over the country and trying to make the rest of us conform to their Puritan moralism. Down with George W. Bush!
  • This is all irrelevant as the book has no child appeal anyway. Can't the Newbery committee pick a book kids would actually want to read for once? I miss Holes.

Now, this isn't quite as in-your-face as Gilbert & George vs. Thomas Kinkade. But it strikes me as the same thing in the end, complicated by the public-funding debate and all the questions always implicit in adults making and purchasing art for children: How much truth do we want to have? And here, How much truth do we want children to have? And, What if I disagree with your answers? And finally, of course, Who gets to determine truth anyway?

And again, I'm in the mushy middle here. Not on the principles of the thing -- I think we should always use correct, precise language, and libraries shouldn't decide not to purchase the book based solely on that word -- but on its practicalities: the poor librarians having to deal with challenges, which distracts them from their larger mission of serving their communities as a whole; and parents, who, it seems to me, do deserve to determine how much information their children have about sex and the body parts involved in it until the children reach a certain age (though the children will likely beat them to the information long before). For some people, seeing the word "scrotum" is like being forced to live with the Gilbert & George: It's something they don't want to look at, for whatever reason, and we have to respect their right to that. But neither should they be able to deny us the right to look at it, to keep ourselves from living in a Thomas Kinkade world. I wish the repressive communities would change, become more open-minded and thoughtful, but until that happens, I guess I sympathize with everyone but the book-banners.

Which, I freely admit, makes me pretty much useless.

The one thing I am absolutely sure about here is where the author and editor fit in to the truth debate. When these issues come up for me as an editor -- and they have -- the question is simple: What's best for the artistic integrity of the book? Does this word or plot development in question feel integral to the character's journey, the voice, the themes, and the overall story? If it does fit, it belongs there; if it doesn't, it should come out anyway. With Lucky it sounds very much as if the word is used intelligently and sensitively, in a manner consistent with the overall storytelling, so it seems perfectly appropriate. (And Richard Jackson is an editorial genius who has seen this all before -- he edited Judy Blume in the 1970s -- so I doubt it was ever a question.) It was part of Susan Patron's vision of Lucky's truth, and as the author, she gets to determine that; readers and communities fight out whether they agree with it with their purchasing power.

(Though I have to say I'm frustrated with The Higher Power of Lucky getting all this press because of one little word, when I edited an absolutely brilliant book where God disappears and Jesus is seen as friendly but useless -- and no one has challenged it yet! This follows the general trend among book-banners where they're so obsessed with the overt content of a book that they miss the larger and much more dangerous point . . . people who go after Harry Potter before His Dark Materials, for example. I know I would fight to the point of physical violence for libraries to have the right to purchase His Dark Materials; maybe I'll feel the same way about Lucky after I read it. In the meantime, book-banners, my book is called The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer, it was published last year, it's funny and beautiful and joyous and wise -- bring the challenges on! And bring your media circus with you!)

So. If you feel strongly about your school or local library having the right or responsibility to purchase The Higher Power of Lucky, or any other banned book, make your opinion known to the librarian in writing. That was s/he can point to your letter as an example of community support for the book should it be challenged -- or you might simply get it bought in the first place. All of us should try not to be self-righteous, please. Keep on writing your truths. And may the Higher Power bless us, every one.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Notes from a Weekend + One More Squid 101

  • The SCBWI Writers' Intensive on Friday was, in a word: intense. In two hours, nine writers and I critiqued their nine 500-word manuscript excerpts in twelve-minute bursts, boom-boom-boom round the table. I enjoyed it, even though I was exhausted afterward, and I worried that perhaps things went too quickly for the writers to record or process the criticism . . . but I do hope the writers who attended got something out of it as well.
  • One problem that came up a lot in these excerpts: in a novel, a first paragraph that, in trying to set up the situation, ended up explaining it, thereby destroying much of the suspense or surprise (and therefore the reader's pleasure) in what was to come. To test this on your own ms., cover up your first paragraph and start reading with your second: Is that where the action starts? Is it perhaps a more involving, less portentous beginning? (This is also worth trying on the chapter level.)
  • I arrived late to the kids' book drinks night at Bar Nine, but whoo! Writers, artists, editors, agents, even a Newbery winner in there . . . Cheers to Betsy and Alvina for staging a fine event.
  • Instruction for all illustrators everywhere, but especially ones who display their work at next year's SCBWI art show/reception: GET A WEBSITE. If I like your piece, I will want to see more of what you can do, and the easiest way for that to happen is if you have a website I can visit and see your style beyond what you showed at the show. Thank you.
  • If you like reading about writers' processes, the ever-fabulous Jennifer Crusie is reworking her novel You Again and will be talking about it on her blog.
  • Todd Alcott compares-and-contrasts two of my favorite films, It Happened One Night and The Sure Thing (the young John Cusack -- be still my heart), and brilliantly deconstructs Green Eggs and Ham.
  • Or heck, I'll take the old John Cusack too.
  • Last night I saw City Center Encores! production of Follies, with the incredible lead cast of Victoria Clark, Donna Murphy, Michael McGrath (Patsy from Spamalot), and Victor Garber -- yes, the beloved badass (there is no other word for him) Jack Bristow. It's one of Sondheim's concept shows, far less story than songs and style -- but what songs and style! "Broadway Baby," "Losing My Mind," "I'm Still Here," and some wonderful 1930s Berlinesque pastiche, terrifically staged, sung, and choreographed.
  • And today I saw "Children of Men." It starts with the nightmare proposition that, in the year 2027, no children have been born on the planet for 18 years. Flu pandemics have come and gone; mushroom clouds have swallowed New York. Britain is the only stable nation left, and it's a police state that seems primarily dedicated to locking up illegal aliens. Theo Faron (the marvelous Clive Owen) is drawn into a plot to smuggle one of these aliens out of the country for a world-changing reason: She's pregnant. The war-torn world shown in the picture is depressing and scary as all hell -- and happening somewhere on the planet right now, I know -- but Theo's journey from walking-deadness to hope and purpose is beautifully realized, and even when it's showing death and destruction, the cinematography and direction are so gorgeous, so powerful, so incredibly accomplished, I didn't want to look away. (If Emmanuel Lubezki doesn't win Best Cinematography, I will throw things at my television.) (The Academy quakes in fear.) I'm not sure what the film is saying in the end, nor do I want to think through the plot too closely, but for pure visceral world-building, style, and storytelling, only "The Departed" came close to it in 2006.
  • Oh, and a homophone I forgot:

discreet: (adj) judicious in one's conduct or speech, esp. with regard to respecting privacy or maintaining silence about something of a delicate nature; prudent; circumspect; showing prudence and circumspection; decorous; modestly unobtrusive; unostentatious

If you'd like to tell a secret / I would recommend a squid; / They will listen to your story / And close tighter than a lid. / They're discreet, restrained, remarkable, / All ego and no id; / For confidence in confidantes, / Always trust the squid.

discrete: (adj) apart or detached from others; separate, distinct

Then I spied five discrete sucker marks on the knife, and I knew: Jack the Squidder had struck again.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Drinks Night Tomorrow Night

If you're in town for the SCBWI Conference tomorrow night -- or if you just feel like hanging out with cool people, or drinking exotic drinks, or getting your children's books groove on* -- head on over to Bar Nine at 807 Ninth Avenue, between 53rd and 54th, starting roundabout 7:30 p.m. There will be a room for us in the back, reserved under the name Betsy Bird.

I, sadly, will not be there for some time, having another engagement; but I'll swing by after said engagement is over and see if you party people* are still around. And if not, I'll be at the conference all day tomorrow and much of the evening Saturday, so come on up and say hi.

* I find it hilariously wrong, and therefore delightful, to use these terms in connection with my life in children's book publishing (not that you all aren't awesome party people, of course). Funk out!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Coca-Cola Cake

This cake is precisely as good as you'd expect a cake containing Coca-Cola, marshmallows, cocoa, buttermilk, and two sticks of butter to be . . . which is so good it may actually be EVIL. I know recipes for this have been floating around for ages; I got this one from

  • 2 cups self-rising flour (or 2 cups all-purpose flour + 3 tsp baking powder + 1 tsp salt)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1 cup Coca-Cola
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease and flour a 9 x 13-inch pan and set aside. In a large bowl combine flour and sugar. In a saucpan combine the cocoa, Coca-Cola, butter, and marshmallows; bring to a boil. Combine the boiled mixture with the flour and sugar mixture. In a separate bowl mix eggs, buttermilk, baking soda, and vanilla; add to the first mixture. Pour into prepared pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes, until cake tests done. Serves about 16.


  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa
  • 6 tablespoons Coca-Cola
  • 1 pound confectioner's sugar (1 box)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

In a saucepan, bring butter, cocoa, and Coca-Cola to a boil. Stir in the sugar and mix well. Stir in nuts. Spread over the cake while both cake and frosting are still warm.

* Cheryl's note: I just sprinkled confectioner's sugar and pecans over the finished cake, which looked pretty and tasted just as good.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Coming to New York for SCBWI?

Here's my list of things I always recommend to visitors to the city; sorry I don't have time to post links as well. (New Yorkers, feel free to chime in with things I've forgotten.)

  • Take the subway -- after walking, the cheapest, fastest, and most enjoyable way to get around New York
  • Visit one of our fantastic art museums: MoMA (free on Friday nights after 5 p.m.), the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, the Frick Collection (this latter especially appropriate if you like Stately Homes as well)
  • Or other museums . . . The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a terrific glimpse of "how the other half live[d]," and I particularly commend the Morgan Library for readers, as they have two terrific exhibits up right now -- one on Victorian bestsellers, featuring some of Charles Dickens's manuscripts and book contracts, and one on Saul Steinberg -- as well as the jaw-dropping heaven that is J. P. Morgan's library
  • Have authentic Chinese food in Chinatown (Goodie's, New York Noodle Town, Dim Sum-A-Go-Go), New York-style pizza (Lombardi's, Patsy's, John's of Bleecker Street, or Two Boots for funky toppings), a hot dog from a corner stand, and at least one ethnic cuisine you can't find in your hometown
  • Stand in the center of Grand Central Station and marvel at the ceiling; extra points if you can find the whispering corner on the floor below
  • Take the Staten Island Ferry past the Statue of Liberty and back again; best when the sun is setting on a sunny day
  • Visit Patience and Fortitude at the New York Public Library at 42nd St. and 5th Ave.; extra points if you go up to the Rose Reading Room, one of the most beautiful spaces in the city, IMHO. You can also visit Winnie-the-Pooh and Betsy, too, at the Donnell on 53rd St. between 5th and 6th, across the street from MoMA.
  • Stroll through Times Square and Central Park
  • Go to the top of a tall building -- probably the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock -- for a view of the whole city (probably not advisable in the cold)
  • Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge (ditto)
  • Visit Coney Island (ditto II)
  • Go to a taping of "Late Night with David Letterman," "The Daily Show," or a daytime talk show (probably a little late to get tickets now, but it's worth a try)
  • See a show, on Broadway or off (I love "Company," "The 21st Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," and "Avenue Q")

And have fun!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Happy Second Blogiversary!

Happy Blogiversary to me!
Happy Blogiversary to me!
Happy Blogiversary, my-sellllllf,
Happy Blogiversary to me!

If I might be permitted a brief (and hopefully non-pompous) speech on the occasion:

*clears throat with a ladylike ahem*

Thank you to all of you who have taken the time to visit, read, comment, link, or in other ways contribute to Brooklyn Arden in the past two years. This blog began as my continuation of a correspondence gone defunct; evolved into a journal and observational bulletin board for my friends and family; and, upon its discovery by writers in November 2005 or thereabouts, became a repository for occasional thoughts and comment-conversations on publishing and the editorial life. What all of these things have in common is that they offer me the very great pleasure of thinking out loud, on everything from September 11 to Jane Austen movies to submissions to (of course) pants and the funk; I've always loved E. M. Forster's quotation "I know what I think when I see what I say," and that's been proved true here over and over again. But just because I'm thinking out loud doesn't mean you have any responsibility to listen to it, so again, I appreciate your kind attention.

Another great pleasure of this blog has been the community that has grown up through the comments here -- the frequent posters I've gotten to know through their thoughts on my words, and the great blogs I've discovered through their comments. This is why I'm always glad when commenters sign their names to their remarks: It's hard to be part of the conversation without a name or a face! I understand the reasons writers might wish to remain anonymous, particularly if you've submitted something to me, but I do hope that if you post, you might consider using at least an alias (Natasha Badunov, Roonil Wazlib, Harriet the Spy), so we have a name to know you by. And if you lurk here and something interests you -- why not add your voice to the mix? I am a great believer in the power of creative energy: The more you say, the more you think, the more you create, the more you do -- always with thoughtfulness and passion -- the more people come together around you and the more possibilities blossom everywhere. But it starts by saying, thinking, creating, doing. This blog has proved that for me in the last two years, and I feel extraordinarily lucky because of it. Thanks again to all of you for being part of it.

Thursday, February 01, 2007