Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Critiques for a Good Cause

I just joined the terrific lineup of editors, agents, and authors donating critiques and other items for a good cause over at cynthealiu.com. My page is here; check out the whole lineup here, and bid away!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Projects, Patterns, and Personalities

I was looking over the list of my past and upcoming projects, and I realized that a very good chunk of them fit into at least one and sometimes more of these subject categories:

Fairy Tales: The Legend of the Wandering King; A Curse Dark as Gold; Heartsinger; The Red Bird; The Pirate Princess and Other Fairy Tales

Religion, Religious Faith, or Religious Questions: The Book of Everything; The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children; Marcelo in the Real World; Crossing to Paradise; The Pirate Princess and Other Fairy Tales; Eighth-Grade Superzero (by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, forthcoming Spring 2010); The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (by Francisco X. Stork, Spring 2010); StarCrossed (by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Fall 2010)

Activism on Behalf of Others: Marcelo in the Real World; Operation Yes (by Sara Lewis Holmes, Fall 2009); Eighth-Grade Superzero; The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children; My Senator and Me: A Dog's Eye View of Washington, D.C.

School Stories: Operation Yes; Eighth-Grade Superzero; Happy School Year!; Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) (by Lisa Yee, with illustrations by Dan Santat, Fall 2009); Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time

Uptight Young Women Who Learn to Loosen Up: Millicent Min, Girl Genius; A Curse Dark as Gold; The Singer of All Songs; Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit; Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness; I Now Pronounce You Someone Else (by Erin McCahan, Summer 2010); The Young Anthropologist's Guide to High School (working title; by Joanna Pearson, Spring 2011)

This is by no means all of the books I've edited (and even this list here is out of date), and many of those not listed above fall far from these categories. . . . Fast Food, for instance, is just pure veggie fun. But I will admit that those categories are a pretty good representation of subjects I love and think about a lot, or that resonate with my own life experience: stories, especially love stories, and how they are told; the power of religion and religious faith, for both good and ill; the responsibilities we as human beings have to one another, and the way we can make a difference in each other's lives; school as a setting; and -- yeah, being uptight and learning to relax. (I suppose if I made it "Uptight Young People," Marcelo might go in there too, sort of.)

This would mostly be a curiosity for me -- "Hey, look, it's my brain, as seen in my list!" -- but I'm sharing it here because I think this is one dimension of what we editors mean when we tell agents and writers to look at our list and see if their mss. are right for us. . . . We're encouraging them to look for these thematic patterns in what we publish, and, if their work fits into one of those patterns, to share it with us. This is absolutely NOT entirely or exclusively what we mean or want to see: We generally mean for writers to look more at the literary style of the list, at the sorts of writing and illustration we publish, and to try to judge whether their work fits into that. The fact that stories about uptight young women resonate with my personal experience does not mean I don't want to acquire another terrific middle-grade from a male point of view, because I really, really do; and it doesn't mean I wouldn't be a good editor for such a middle-grade, because I think I have been and would be again.

But those thematic patterns, if you can figure them out, allow you a way to fine-tune your submission to certain editors -- to say, "I notice from Book X and Book Y and Book Z that you seem to love stories set in South America; here's my picture book ms. about Venezuela," and perhaps then to make a stronger connection than you would have with just a general query. When Olugbemisola queried me about Eighth-Grade Superzero, for instance, she praised Millicent Min as "painfully funny," which meant a lot to me because it meant she hadn't just read Millie and thought "ha ha" at the character's cluelessness; she got the deeper level of pain there, and she valued it too, which meant that she shared my interest in emotional depth and realistic complication. Superzero reflects that general literary interest as well as all the subject interests listed above (as well as being great in numerous other ways I will talk about in coming months).

With that said, this is a strategy that is somewhat prone to pitfalls, because:

  1. Not everything an editor edits is his or her choice to do so, so if Books X, Y, and Z were all assigned or inherited from another editor, or done for reasons besides editorial passion, the editor in question might shout, "ANOTHER South American story? HEAVEN GRANT ME PATIENCE!" and reject it summarily;
  2. Your speculations could be wrong, in which case the editor would think you're a nutjob for discerning such a "pattern";
  3. Just because an editor has published books about Subject Q does not mean they'll like your ms. about Subject Q. Or the last book they published on Subject Q might not have done so well, or they may have three more books loosely tied to Subject Q lined up in the near future (For instance, at this point, I am clearly well provided for uptight-young-women manuscripts; I could use a cheerful hoyden or two, like Maybe from the eponymous Absolutely.);
  4. These subjects are all hugely general (The Book of Everything is the most atheistic text I ever expect to see in a children's book, at least until Christopher Hitchens writes one, while The Light of the World is a biography of Jesus, but they both fall under Religion), and
  5. The patterns can be hard to figure out anyway, unless you're the editor in question.
So, with all of THAT said, the better strategy may just be the one tested by smart writers for ages past: read a lot of recently published books, find the ones you love; find out who their editors are (which really is doable; look at acknowledgement pages, the SCBWI directory, and authors' websites); and submit your work to them. But this second level is worth thinking about as a refinement on that; and I look forward to all the mss. about princesses who decide to become nuns working in charity schools (and discover their joy in doing that) now heading my way. > grin <

Monday, June 15, 2009

Some True-Life Must-Reads

This Iranian election drama playing out now is infuriating, awe-inspiring (in the bravery of the protestors), heartbreaking, terrifying. Please follow the reports on Andrew Sullivan and the Twitter feeds at #Iranelection, @persiankiwi and other English-language Iranian Twitterers listed here (most other Internet and SMS communication seems to be down), and wear green on Monday to show support for the revolution.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Ramble: Thinking Out Loud about Book Blogging and Discussion

Roger has an interesting post up today about books and book blogging in which he says he worries that all we bloggers may well be better talkers than listeners (that is, more interested in putting our own writing out there and having responses to it than responding to other people's writing), and that this tendency may one day kill professional reviewing (if I'm understanding his post correctly). I do not quite see the connection between the two things, because, to me, the best professional reviews stimulate discussion -- I still think about the perceptive last line of Roger's review of the horrid Boy in the Striped Pajamas whenever someone brings the novel up. (The line is quoted in my review at that link if you're curious.) And if they're not stimulating discussion and further thought on deeper issues, if they're just meant to be one-way responses to a book (yes it's good / no it isn't) for other people to read, then isn't that just talking rather than listening anyway? It's still purposeful and important talking, and often just the kind of talking overworked librarians and readers need, to help them choose the right or best books for their libraries. . . . They're two different things, is what I'm saying, and I don't think they cancel each other out. If I've misunderstood you, Roger, I hope you'll clarify the point, either here in comments or on your own blog.

But thinking more about online book discussion . . . Yesterday Mitali Perkins and I had a brief, albeit (to me) stimulating exchange on Twitter, of all things, about romantic/sexual mores in fantasy. She asked, "Why do SF/fantasy authors import our society's current mores about sex and romance into their imagined worlds lock, stock, and barrel?" I thought she was talking about gender roles, so I replied with five tweets involving polyamory (thanks, R. J.), my own reading tastes, societal structures in fiction, and the alas-overlooked middle-grade fantasy novel Questors by Joan Lennon (which I recommend highly for any fans of Diana Wynne Jones). Mitali answered that actually she had been thinking about the fact that 2009-era sexual mores appeared in worlds that did not yet have modern technology or language, and then I replied to that, and then we both got on with our days. It was just the kind of conversation about books I love most, thinking through issues both political and literary out loud, with people whose opinions I respect; but I felt frustrated by the fact I kept having to limit my out-loud thoughts to 140 characters, and that it would be nearly impossible for anyone chiming in late to follow the discussion easily on Twitter, which moves along so quickly, which meant that few other people could (or did) chime in.

So here's what my Web 3.0 would look like: a forum in which any registered member could come in and post a discussion topic, which everyone else would respond to. I could repost my thought piece on the definition of YA literature, say, or Roger could repost any of his favorite past provocations or introduce new ones, or Mitali could post her question above or any of the other fascinating topics she often raises about race, gender, and equity in children's literature. An interested reader could log in, scroll through all of the questions, and respond to the discussions all in one place; and it would update in real time, as Twitter does, so if Mitali and I found ourselves in a topic together, we could carry on just the sort of discussion we were having yesterday, back and forth, clarifying points and stimulating further discussion. And it could have rooms to discuss various books of the moment, like, say, Catching Fire; and because it wouldn't be hosted on any one person's site, no one would be the ultimate authority, the way it can sometimes feel in blog comment discussions. (Plus the person who set it up would make sure the response boxes had plenty of room to type and format comments easily, unlike the way blogger.com does comments -- which is why I'm responding to Roger's post here rather than in a comment over on his blog). There could even be the opportunity to vote for topics/comments/responses one finds especially useful, the same way there is on Amazon.com reviews or NYTimes article comments. This technology already exists, I know -- it would just take someone to find the right webspace and organize it for the kidlitosphere as a whole.

. . . Okay, so now I am pointedly not volunteering, I admit. And these sorts of discussions already take place in blog comments and on listservs like adbooks and my beloved child_lit, so such a forum may not be necessary. But that's my dream for a space where we can all discuss the books we love easily and at length, an ongoing conversation sometimes prompted by and incorporating reviews, and going on to the big questions that inform our thinking, writing, publishing, and ultimately the whole literary art.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


(Should you be one of those poor souls who has not read Austen's major novels, beware spoilers below.)

When I first heard about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was immensely excited, not least because of passages like these:

"Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor." -- Frederic and Elfrida

"With a heart elated by the expected happiness of beholding him, I entered [the forest], & had proceeded thus far in my progress thro' it, when I found myself suddenly seized by the leg & on examining the cause of it, found that I was caught in one of the steel traps so common in gentlemen's grounds. . . . I screamed, as you may easily imagine, till the woods resounded again & till one of the inhuman Wretch's servants came to my assistance & released me from my dreadfull prison, but not before one of my legs was entirely broken."
At this melancholy recital . . . Alice could not help exclaiming, "Oh! cruel Charles, to wound the hearts & legs of all the fair." -- Jack and Alice

"MADAM: An humble Admirer now addresses you -- I saw you, lovely Fair one, as you passed on Monday last, before our House in your way to Bath. I saw you thro' a telescope, & was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food." -- Amelia Webster
As you may have guessed, these are excerpts not of P&P&Z itself, but of Jane Austen's own juvenilia, drawn from the splendid e-texts here. And they perfectly demonstrate why I think Ms. Austen might have enjoyed the concept of P&P&Z: She knew that frightful beings plus random, goofy violence plus absurdist humor plus well-chosen details (e.g. the "human" in "human food") usually equals a good time. (For instance, she would have loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) So when I finally got my copy of P&P&Z at the beginning of May, I settled down to read it with great expectation of pleasure.

Alas, dear reader! I found that Mr. Seth Grahame-Smith, who undertook the addition of the undead to Ms. Austen's work, also decided to edit the original text in ways that had nothing to do with zombies or their defeat. True, he made Elizabeth and her sisters trained Shaolin warriors, which was hilarious (especially in Lizzy's closing duel with Lady Catherine), and Charlotte Lucas explains her marriage to Mr. Collins by admitting that she has been infected with the "strange plague" and wishes to keep her family safe -- in some ways a better justification than the original. And the line "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains" is just delightful.

But Mr. Grahame-Smith's editorial work often goes awry. He flattens out subtle emotional and character behavior, describing Elizabeth as rolling her eyes at Mary at one point, and turning Mr. Collins explicitly fat (apparently to make him funnier). He introduces totally unnecessary sexual references and crudity: Mrs. Gardiner has a Polish lover in Lambton, and I counted three jokes about "balls," at least two made by characters who were supposed to be models of propriety. There is a lot of vomit and "soiling" and pus and blood and guts even in scenes that had nothing to do with undead rampages (Mrs. Bennet projectile vomits often, and Elizabeth at one point refers to emptying "piss-pots," which the real Elizabeth would never have said loud). I understand I'm approaching this book from an Austenian rather than a zombie-lover's point of view, and that Mr. Grahame-Smith may have regarded the changes as necessary to make the comedy comprehensible and amusing to the zombie lovers. (Is there a lot of soiling in zombie stories? Ew.) But to my eye, rather than heightening the humor of both the genteel social comedy and the violent zombie mayhem through straightforward contrast of the two, Mr. Grahame-Smith simply undercut the characters and social comedy with changes that demonstrated little understanding or appreciation of Ms. Austen and her world.

The book also was sloppily edited and barely copyedited. . . . I normally extend other editors charity when I find typos, because none of us are perfect, but the editor of this one should have noticed that "Kilkenny" on one page became "Kilkerry" on another, never mind standardizing "Bennet" with one T. The illustrations show the ladies in Edwardian rather than Regency dress. And the switch of Colonel Fitzwilliam for Mr. Collins in one particular scene of the novel was frankly stupid and out-of-character for the Colonel, and could have been easily avoided by any editor (or adapter) who had half a brain. (Perhaps theirs were eaten by zombies.) Given all these unfortunate changes, I'm afraid I soon came to find the project tedious; and while I greatly looked forward to beginning this book, I also greatly looked forward to the end of it. Or as Samuel Johnson is said to have said, "The manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

Finally, if you're an Austen fan interested in horror, check out this cover of a 1950s reissue of Northanger Abbey -- both excellent deceptive packaging, and a classic case of not getting the joke. And if someone would like to hire me to turn Sense and Sensibility into a vampire novel (with Willoughby and Lucy Steele as the undead who bleed the sisters Dashwood dry), or Emma into a werewolf book (with Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax as a secretly mated pair) -- like Mr. Bennet after his daughters are engaged, "I am quite at leisure."

Blue Website! New Talk!

Exclamation-point worthy news: At long last, my redesigned website is up and running!

(That sentence is your signal to click on over to www.cherylklein.com to see the new layout. I'll give you a second.)

Okay. Hooray! The beautiful, bright new design is by my friend John Noe of the Leaky Cauldron, and incorporates my favorite Tudor Rose emblem (sign of my membership in the sacred siblinghood of English majors) as well as an easy-to-use navigation bar. If you took that opening-page invitation to poke around, you'll know that most of the navbar links don't work yet, the book covers for the slideshow need to be resized, and neither the majority of the talks nor my submission guidelines are up at present. But I'll be adding these things over the next few weeks, so please check back occasionally to see what's new. And my blog, for the record, will continue to reside here at chavelaque.blogspot.com, so please don't change your bookmarks to that other address.

To celebrate the redesigned site, I put up a new talk as well: the "Springing Surprises" speech I wrote but did not deliver in full at the Vermont College Novel Writers' Retreat. That talk made me think a lot about effects in writing . . . the way a writer can use surprises, or spacing, or the pacing even in a particular paragraph, to focus or distract the reader's emotional attention and thereby achieve the writer's emotional aims, the same way a movie director can blow up a truck to make the audience go "Oooh!" I don't know that I have anything more to say about this now than what I say here, but I'm interested in tracking cool techniques/effects for use in a future talk, maybe. . . . Let me know if you see any worthy of note.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Theory: A Definition of YA Literature

So I've been thinking off and on about a practical definition of YA literature -- something I could look at to help me decide whether a manuscript is an adult novel or a middle-grade novel or, indeed, a YA. Such delineations don't matter to me as a reader -- a good book is a good book -- but they do matter to me as an editor and publisher, because I want every book I publish to find the audience that is right for it, and sometimes, despite a child or teenage protagonist, a manuscript is meant for an adult audience. Hence I have written the definition below to help me think through these situations as they come up. This is very much a WORKING theory; I hope you all will offer challenges, counterexamples, additions or arguments to help me improve what I'm saying here. But here's what I have right now -- the definition broken into five parts for easier parsing:

  1. A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of
  2. its teenage protagonist(s),
  3. whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the
  4. story,
  5. and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.
Some further discussion of terms here:

1) "centrally interested": The book's central storyline focuses upon the emotional, intellectual, and all other forms of experience and growth of its main character. It may be interested in other things as well -- dragons, the definition of justice, life in 1908 Russia -- but all of those interests are secondary to the experience of the main character, and usually filtered only through him/her.

This is often where I find adult books separating themselves out here, because while they may have a younger protagonist, the adult books aren't interested in that protagonist's life per se -- they're interested in showing the world the protagonist will encounter in all its ugliness or glory, and a younger character often provides a useful "innocent" or "naive" viewpoint, or at the very least a figure of instant sympathy to adults. As an example, it's been years since I read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle, but I remember it as a wonderful book that avoided the "innocent/naive" pitfall by making Paddy a fully-rounded and rather foulmothed boy. Still, I felt it was rightly classified as an adult book because to me it read as much like a work of anthropology -- A Report on the Mindset and Behavior of a Representative Ten-Year-Old Male in 1968 Ireland -- as it did a work of fiction; that is, it felt as much like a study of a childhood in Ireland at a time of social unrest Paddy didn't fully understand, as the story of a child there. (See also note below on "story" in #4.)

"growth" -- the character is different at the beginning than he is at the end, and usually for the better. I always think of Richard Peck's wise dictum that a YA novel ends "ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life yet to be lived"; and that the events of the book have left the character better prepared for that.

2) "teenage protagonist(s)": Yeah, I'm going to posit that YA novels require a protagonist at an adolescent stage of life, between childhood and the full rights and privileges of adulthood. I do not think this is true of children's books, particularly picture books (that is, that they must have a child main character); but I think it's true of teen books, because life between the ages of 14-18 is such a unique time, full of so much intensity and so many firsts, that only a very sheltered adult or a very advanced child could have those same sorts of experiences and changes.

3) "dramatized" -- shown, not told; dialogue, not narration; the primary action happening before our eyes, not offpage.

"choices, actions, and concerns" -- the protagonist does things; s/he makes choices, takes action, and has interests in and/or connections to the world outside his/her head.

"drive" -- the protagonist is expected (by the reader at least) to make a difference in this fictional world, and by the end of the book is empowered to take some action to do so.

4) "story" -- a sequence of events linked by cause and effect, generally with a recognizable beginning and end. When people ask me why I went into children's books editing, I have often said just this, story: that things were required to happen in children's/YA books, that they had to have a forward action beyond the events of everyday life, as it often feels they don't in adult books. Maybe what I really mean here is that the events of the book have to have shape and meaning, while in adult books things can just happen because that's what happens in life: things happen.

5) "narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective": The book does not have to be in first person (though goodness knows a good eighty-five percent of YA fiction seems to be these days; I wonder what the actual statistics are on this), but it stays close to the viewpoint of that teenage protagonist, without the distance of, say, an adult looking back at his teenage years. The exception that proves the rule here might be The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, whose detached, almost academic third-person narrator is nonetheless sympathetic to Frankie and describes her emotions as well as her excellent plotting.

There is one more assumption running through everything I'm saying here that I'm hesitating to codify into part of the definition -- but perhaps I should. And that is that a YA novel should end with hope, that there must be some thread of a ghost of a promise of a happy ending or more growth, that there is indeed meaning to the events enclosed. Not necessarily a moral, certainly not an explicit one; but no existentialist despair, either, or random horrors that do not cohere other than aesthetically (I am thinking of Thomas Pynchon's V. here, but I may just be a bad reader of Pynchon). In terms of the Richard Peck quote above, if a YA novel leaves its reader with the sense of a lot of the protagonist's life left to be lived, perhaps it should also leave the reader with the sense that that life (and the reader's life) is worth living. But do we limit the art of the genre if we say it can't go fully into the darkness?

What do you all think of all this?