Monday, May 26, 2008


Today's Behind the Book is Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano and edited by moi. I've already written a little bit about this book here and here, and I think it's brilliant -- fascinating and thought-provoking and exciting and moving, and, in its fight scenes, frankly kick-ass. (If you'd like a plot summary and some non-editorially-biased critical commentary, there's a terrific review up over at the YA YA YAs.) But I want to do something a little different for this BtB and explore not the artistry of the writing, but the artistry of the way in which the writing is delivered: the book design and specs (short for "special effects" or "specifications," which we use interchangeably in conversation). Thanks to designer Phil Falco and the good people of our manufacturing department, this book has a gorgeous, gorgeous package, and their work deserves as much recognition and explanation as any of the work we editors undertake; indeed, I love the look and feel of this book so much that I'm prone to stroking it whenever it's within arm's reach.

First we have the beautiful jacket, created by illustrator Yuko Shimizu. We wanted the cover to convey the book's action and strong central heroine, and to appeal to readers of both traditional novels and Japanese manga. When Phil and our art director Elizabeth Parisi brought Yuko to Arthur's and my attention, we looked through her website and saw that she plays often with all of these ideas, and we unanimously agreed that she was the perfect person to illustrate the novel. (Plus she was able to read the book in its original Japanese!) This cover shows a scene straight out of the first chapter: the female bodyguard Balsa rescuing Prince Chagum from a raging river. But when you unfold the whole jacket, it offers even more:

The broken bridge; the tumbling cart; the fierce soldiers: We loved the action of this image so much we gave the book extra-wide flaps (a la Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) to provide that much more of the panorama. We also embossed the title and author's name on the front cover and spine, and we printed the whole on a special textured paper with its rough side out (again like the Harry Potter hardcovers).

Here are the endpapers -- bright red to set off the flaps and pick up Chagum's coat from the cover. Although you can't see it, they have a subtle cross-hatched texture to them. (I can't seem to make the image go horizontal in Blogger, sorry.)

Now we're tipping up the book to look at the spine and sides. The hard cover of a book is called its case, and when the front and back covers are one color and the spine is another, as here, it's called a three-piece case. (The paper or cloth that surrounds the case is known as the case cover.) The small strip of yellow just inside the spine, covering the glue, is called the headband; the one on bottom is called the footband.

Here you see the spine of the book, and the front case cover with its "blind stamp" -- an impression on the book with no ink involved. Case covers are also often stamped with foil (cf. Elizabeth's post on A Curse Dark as Gold).

Opening up the book, we see my favorite spec -- blue ink! Isn't that cool? Phil also designed this spring's Orchard Books fantasy novel The Ruby Key by Holly Lisle, and that one is printed in purple. Phil's page design looks both ancient (the distressed pattern, the flower motifs) and modern [the blocky display type, the mid-page folios (aka page numbers)], and he did some beautiful things with the title page and table of contents, especially. (How you can tell you are listening to a book dork: I get excited about tables of contents.)

Finally, Yuko created three gorgeous interior spreads to hint at the suspense and power of the action. Here's the first, but if you see the book, be sure to check out all three -- the last one may be my favorite, as it shows Balsa charging at the awesome, awful monster Rarunga. (And sorry this one's sideways -- Blogger problems again.)

I'm now editing the translation of the sequel (Moribito: Guardian of the Darkness), in which Balsa returns to her homeland of Kanbal and much excellent political drama/martial-arts fighting/emotional healing ensues; Yuko will again be doing the cover and interiors. This series is like no fantasy you've ever read, I promise, and it's eminently worth picking up if you like good fiction, great fantasy, literature in translation, or fine bookmaking.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pet Plot Thoughts

Most of the April-May SQUIDs went out this week -- 68, I think, for the two-month period, of which 63 were "nos" -- and I believe I had three ms. about boys who wanted dogs. The main character is ALWAYS a BOY, and it is ALWAYS a DOG. When I was eight, I desperately wanted a cat. Why are there no books about girls who want cats? Or girls who want dogs, for that matter? Or boys who want cats? Does anyone keep potbellied pigs anymore? What about rabbits? Iguanas? Snakes? Guinea pigs?

In terms of child development, I understand the desire for a pet is generally read as the child's desire to take care of something (have power over it, if you like) as s/he is being taken care of -- the same instinct that leads kids to play with dolls or ask for little brothers or sisters. Not to mention, of course, entertainment or cuddle value. I did get a cat when I was eight -- a kitten we adopted from a nearby farm, and which I named Miranda -- but it scratched me every time I got close, and eventually I became scared of it, to the point that we had to return it to the farm. The two emotions I remember most clearly about the whole thing were my shock and fear when I woke to the cat sitting on my bed one morning, and my profound relief as we left her again at the farm. . . . If I were making this story into a text for publication instead of a random anecdote, the point I would probably try to make out of it is not that I wasn't ready for a cat (which may have been my parents' interpretation -- and which might also be true), but that I wasn't ready for that cat, or she wasn't ready for me. I had wanted any cat, and all cats are not created equal. What matters, as in most things, is finding the one that works with you.

Anyway. I guess indoor pets do not offer as many possibilities for plots as dogs do, as dogs can ramble all over the neighborhood with the main character and generally cause more trouble. But if the story is about the desire for a pet, why is it always dogs and boys? Or are there recent books I'm not aware of about cats or other non-canine pets? Your thoughts?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Of References and Readers

In the course of a recent child_lit discussion about food in children's literature, specifically in the Chronicles of Narnia, a listmember remarked "But [children] don’t easily tolerate something that’s assumed to be normal but isn’t normal to them. What do all our brilliant editors – Cheryl? – think on this point?" I wrote a response that I thought might interest some of you, so I'm cross-posting it here, with some amendments. (And yes, I admit I'm posting tonight partly to make another diagonal line in the calendar.)

I work on a lot of translations, so I usually deal with this problem not so much in terms of outdated references [the problem that Narnia presented us for discussion] as cultural unfamiliarity. . . . For instance, in the first-draft translation of our marvelous Japanese fantasy novel out this month, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Chapter 2 described the main character as taking a bath indoors in a bathhouse, then going outdoors to another hot pool in the garden. This is of course entirely standard behavior in Japan, where bathhouses are an established part of the culture, but it would seem odd to an American child, who would be much more likely to view a bath as a place for hygiene than for relaxation or socialization (and two baths -- perish the thought!). Taken to the word level, this is also the debate over "Americanizing" British or Australian texts -- changing "jumpers" to "sweaters" -- and even in American books, we deal with it in "aging" a text: Will a third-grader understand the word "anticipation"?

The editorial options when faced with something that would likely be strange or difficult for the target audience are:

  1. To let it stand as-is: The reader can pick it up from context, or it's not significant enough in the overall reading experience to change, or it can be looked up, or it's a mystery whose answer they can discover as they age. (I'm still learning some of the references in the Lord Peter Wimsey novels -- "Vagula, blandula," anyone?)
  2. To emotionally contextualize the reference: The Narnian example we were dealing with on child_lit was that Father Christmas gives the Pevensies a tea tray for Christmas, which would be a wonderfully luxurious present amidst the privations of WWII but perhaps makes less sense to the well-fed children of the post-war years. But if the books were revised so it was established in the text that the Pevensies were usually very hungry, that they never saw sugar or hot tea or any of the other delicious things on a tea tray, then we readers might have the same reaction to the tea tray that they do, and the reference would make perfect sense. [Note that I am not advocating that such a change be made -- I'm just observing one way that the problem might be solved.] Or, in the third-grade book, if you see the kid simmering with excitement about getting to see his new baby brother, jumping up and down as his father escorts him down the halls of the hospital, then the meaning of "anticipation" should be clear.
  3. To explain the reference outside the narrative text: For instance, in the lovely Australian novel The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley, which we published a few years ago, my boss Arthur Levine suggested to the author, Martine Murray, that we add a glossary at the back of the book to define fun Aussie terms like "footy" and "drongo" and "hoon around." This allowed us to keep those words but also to feel that the reader wouldn't be totally lost in the language. E. Lockhart also does this in her most excellent The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book -- the main character Ruby Oliver is a huge movie buff, and when she refers to an old film most contemporary teenagers might not have seen, she uses a footnote to explain the reference. (E. recently had a post on her blog asking teenage readers to fill out a survey about what references they recognized and what needed footnotes for the third Ruby book -- a pretty smart use of the Internet, I thought.)
  4. To change it: "jumper" to "sweater," or "anticipation" to "excitement," or just by adding a little context. In our wonderful Spring 2009 novel Marcelo in the Real World, the religiously-interested narrator refers in passing to Ezekiel jumping on dry bones. The reference made sense to me, thanks to many hours spent in Baptist Sunday Schools, but I knew other readers may not have had such a religious education, so I suggested to Francisco that we add the phrase "in the Bible" to tell these readers where "Ezekiel" came from. The line now reads something like, "I think of Ezekiel in the Bible, jumping on dry bones" -- a change that barely slowed up the action and yet made the reference clear.
  5. To delete the reference altogether if it's not fully necessary in the text.
When I come upon a reference or word that gives me pause, and which I think might cause the child reader pause in turn, I try to figure out which approach to the difficulty seems to be the right one -- including, of course, leaving it alone -- and then I suggest that to the author or translator. We discuss it as needed (sometimes extensively) and settle on a plan of attack. All of these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, as what works for one book may not work in another, and a reference that doesn't work at one point in the book may be perfectly fine later. To return to the Moribito example, the translator (Cathy Hirano), author (Nahoko Uehashi), and I decided to cut the reference to the first of the two baths, because:
  1. The baths took place early in the book, so the reader may not have fully committed to the story, and we didn't want to give that reader an excuse to put the book down because s/he found something difficult or weird. If the two-bath reference had come in chapter 12 or 13, say, instead of chapter 2, when the reader is fully invested in the characters and the (awesome, unlike-any-Western-fantasy-you'll-read, kick-ass) action, then we might have left it alone.
  2. Along similar lines, the main plot of the book has not yet started (that happens in the very next scene), so having two baths was slowing up our getting to that action.
  3. While the book draws on elements of Japanese culture, it is a fantasy set in a fantasy world, so we were neither being untrue to Japanese culture nor losing the opportunity to teach children about it by changing the reference.
And that is the way it was published. We editors think about this a LOT, trying to imagine our ideal reader for each book, what that reader will tolerate, what adult gatekeepers think child readers will tolerate, whether the reference really detracts from the pleasure of the book (my first priority in editing as in reading -- pleasure), and so forth. But the final decision is always the author's.

In the followup discussion, another listmember posted a link to a fascinating article by the British author Anne Fine on updating her own books' references: Read it here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Utter Silliness

I am posting today for the sole pleasure of making a little diagonal line in the calendar on the right. See it? Whee!

But in order to make up for wasting your time:

  • The Reading Reptile, a most excellent independent children's bookstore in my dear hometown of Kansas City, MO, is holding a Debt Depletion Auction featuring many signed books and original picture-book art. There's some awesome stuff there, like the original Arlene Sardine cover art or paintings by Jon J Muth, and three days left to bid -- have at it!
  • A fabulous mac-and-cheese recipe (via Jeremiah).
  • Things I highly recommend to you: in movie theatres, Ironman; on Broadway, August: Osage County; in children's books reading, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street; on the Internet, Roger Ebert's new blog.
  • And the Happiness of the Week: It carries me up to Prospect Heights and down to Kensington; it's usually on time, even though I'm often not on time for it. It is rarely overcrowded, and its staffpeople unfailingly polite. My thanks to you,
the B67 bus!!!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Three Links That Made Me Laugh Hard This Week

The World Beard and Mustache Championships

Actual text from the website: "With his superstyled partial beard which NPR's Robert Siegel once dubbed a 'hair pretzel,' Willi Chevalier practically owns the partial beard freestyle category. Indeed, Willi has won this category at all WBMCs in memory with the exception of the 2003 WBMC when he was on injured reserve following an unfortunate encounter with a power drill." Check out all the photos in the gallery.

Joe Posnanski's Account of His Best Sportswriting Day Ever

"The first question came, and it was something like: 'So, did you think you had it in you to beat the great and unbeatable Russian?'

"And Rulon Gardner said: 'Well, when I was growing, I used to wrestle cows on our dairy farm …'"

Sarah Jessica Parker's Hat in This Picture

Like Dr. Seuss and Patricia Field started an accessories line together. The Fug Girls are their usual brilliant selves in the dialogue.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Welcome to the Neighborhood

My thought process on seeing this yesterday:

  1. Oh wow -- ninjas live in Park Slope!
  2. But wait -- the true ninja would never advertise his or her whereabouts so crudely. Therefore, ninjas do not live in Park Slope.
  3. But the true ninja would know that his or her enemies would think that the true ninja would never advertise his or her whereabouts so crudely. Thus the true ninja might go ahead and advertise his or her whereabouts in just that fashion to lull the enemies into a relaxed stupor and slay them. Therefore, ninjas live in Park Slope.
  4. But the enemies would know that the true ninja would know that the enemies would think that the true ninja would never advertise his or her whereabouts so crudely. Therefore, the enemies would not fall for the ploy; therefore, the true ninja would not make such a ploy; therefore, the sign-writer is lying, and ninjas do not live in Park Slope.
  5. But the true ninja would know that the enemies would know . . .
  6. Ad infinitum.
  7. Perhaps the ninja's enemies marked his or her house so that other enemies would know where the ninja lives and kill the ninja on behalf of the first enemies.
  8. Or perhaps it's actually the first enemies' house and the ninja marked it so that the second enemies would kill the first enemies.
  9. Or perhaps it's a decoy house to draw out all the enemies, and the ninja actually lives next door.
  10. The Ninja Next Door: Now there's a title for a picture book.
  11. Perhaps the Staten Island ninja has moved to Brooklyn!
  12. Perhaps a ninja is behind me right now.
  13. (And as you're reading this, one could be behind you.)
  14. . . .
  15. . . .
  16. . . .
  17. Perhaps I should stay away from that street.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Quote File: Sentences

"I'm probably more interested in sentences than anything else in life." -- Tom Robbins

"My sentences are all I have. My life has always been an engagement with words. I do not have very much of a physical life. I write, I edit, I teach. And in all of these activities the focus of my attention is sentences. Sentences are continuous with my inmost being." -- Gordon Lish

"The sentence is my primary element, my tool, goal, bliss. Each new sentence is a heart-in-the mouth experiment." -- Cynthia Ozick

"My whole theory of writing I can sum up in one sentence: An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

"You must convince yourself that you are working in clay and not marble, on paper and not eternal bronze; let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. No one will rush out and print it as it stands. Just put it down; then another." -- Jacques Barzun

"All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." -- Ernest Hemingway

"To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself. . . . Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph." -- Mark Twain

"It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died." -- William Faulkner

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Happinesses of the Week

Two Happinesses this weekend, for whichever week you care to count them. On Friday Jeremiah and his lovely wife 2.0 (long story) took me and another friend to his parents' house in central upstate New York. From there we all took a day trip to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is a beautiful and entertaining place, if sadly lacking in Royals information and memorabilia. (The Boys in Blue get one display about half the size of a batters' box, while the St. Louis Cardinals are everywhere . . . which may indeed be their respective contributions to baseball history, but I was indignant on behalf of my hometown.) Anyway, the best part of the weekend was the people I was with -- especially Jeremiah's parents, who were kind and generous and funny and wise and excellent cooks. So in gratitude to both couples, young and older:

The Conways!!!

Then after we returned to Brooklyn, I went for my Sunday run in Prospect Park, and this came up on the iPod:

"Jesus Walks" by Kanye West. I am not giving it the typical large-red-letter three-exclamation-mark treatment because while it's a Happiness aesthetically -- a terrific song with witty, meaningful lyrics (and, speaking personally, a beat that is just right for my running pace) -- it also has a great and important message that is worthy of a little more seriousness, and one that everyone should listen to. If you've never heard the song or seen the video before, please watch it. (It gives me goosebumps.) Kanye has also made two other videos for the song that serve as companions: Part 2, Part 3.