Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Unexpected "Thank You"

When I was trying to think what I wanted to write for a Thanksgiving post, Alanis Morissette's "Thank You," off her 1999 album "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," popped into my head as a silly joke. Alanis? For Thanksgiving? She's Canadian, for goodness's sake. But I have always liked her for her emotional nakedness and sheer belting, and liked the song, too, for its hypnotic rhythm and narrative of slow progress toward health and peace. And when I thought more about the lyrics of the chorus:

thank you india
thank you terror
thank you disillusionment
thank you frailty
thank you consequence
thank you thank you silence

I realized how interesting and appropriate they would be for Thanksgiving. Because the song is not about giving thanks for good things, like I do every day, for sweet potatoes and my family and James and a warm bed and the novels of Georgette Heyer; but rather giving thanks to things, sometimes (not always) hard things, for experiences that made me better by pushing me beyond where I had been. And Thanksgiving at its best is meant to be both, I think: a peaceful moment of good things, celebrating a respite from the difficult ones; and gratitude for all of the harvest of one's year.

So there is no way to make this lyrically pretty, no matter what beat I put under it, but I would say thank you to rejection, anxiety, and self-consciousness; Park Slope United Methodist Church; my authors; my commenters here; various people discussing various questions in children's literature; therapy, yoga, running; Kickstarter; the bloggers at the Atlantic; and all the people in my life, especially my friends. And I am thankful for many of those same things, and for cuisines from around the world and good movies and independent bookstores and my running shoes and blonde hair, and public transportation even when I curse it, and my job even when I want to do nothing, and James Franco on "General Hospital" and "Glee" and the good gentlemen of Project Rungay, and for many things more. And for Alanis, too, for always being so thoroughly herself.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Those Interested in Issues of Race and Children's Literature . . .

. . . should check out this interesting post and discussion today at Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog, as I think a lot of what he and his commenters say about the writers and characters on television could apply to our discussions of children's publishing as well. I was especially struck first by this:

But whenever I read that XX field isn't diverse enough, I don't so much doubt the truth of it, as I think the charge deeply underestimates exactly the price being exacted for white supremacy in this country, and the length of time for which it went unchecked. We're 50 years into a truly democratic, non white-supremacists America. Congratulations. But we we spent some 150 years in which the country's major institutions--its government, its business, its churches, its block associations, its military, its police force, its labor unions--in the main, aided and abetted white racism. There are certainly exceptions, but I tend to think that the long-term damage done is incalculable and has a lot to do with how we live today.
and then later by these comments, also from Ta-Nehisi:
For minorities, I think people really need to think about what kind of people go into writing, and what sort of backgrounds they generally hail from. I know in magazines, the sort of profile for writers (family, generally, pretty well-educated, sent the writer to an Ivy) doesn't match up that well with black people. People always ask "Why aren't there many minority XXX?" But there are a lot of questions that should precede that one.

. . .

Again, speaking only for magazines, it takes a particular person who can write, and then a particular person who can write in that format. This isn't simply a talent question, it takes a particular endurance, and it takes time to develop that endurance. How do you get that time? Money--or a willingness to live without it. Take color out the equation--there are very few people who can do the job. Finding good writers--of any color--is extremely difficult.

Now, just speaking for a black people, look at a group that's only 13 percent of the pop, and isn't as well educated. Then take the fact that the group's families tend to be less wealthy, thus making it hard to get the time to get good. Take into account that, often, when someone from this group "makes it" they have brothers/sisters/mothers/grandmothers/grandfathers who they have to also worry about. I think a lot of us say, "Man, I kids to feed" and go for the sure thing. The point is that you're already talking about a small pool, and for black people it's almost certainly even smaller.

Does this mean media should say, "Oh well, we tried." Nope. But it means media should get smarter. If you really are concerned about diversity then you need to start with high school kids. You can't start looking for fully formed adults. You need to set aside fellowships for people from particular economic backgrounds to help them learn the craft. You have to think broader and bigger.

I don't disagree with the core goal, I just suspect that it may require more than we think.

I've been thinking a lot about the "Why are there so few minorities in children's literature?" question since the Liar controversy -- well, before then, too, but Liar was the tipping point for me, as it was for many people -- and I think these comments get at one part of an answer (though of course not the whole answer, if such a thing were even possible). I genuinely do not receive many submissions from people of color (who can be identified as such, that is), and with those that I do, as TNC says, "It takes a particular person who can write, and a particular person who can write in that format" -- someone who wants to write the literary sort of book we publish at Arthur A. Levine Books, and can pull it off to our standards. (And I acknowledge here the problematic nature of "literary" and "standards," though I'm not going to go into that at this hour of the night.) The point is, that is not a large pool of writers altogether of any race, and as black people (to take the minority TNC is thinking of) are thirteen percent of the population, the segment submitting mss. to us, and therefore getting them published, is correspondingly rather small.

None of which excuses any publisher from a responsibility to remember the shameful history TNC alludes to in the first paragraph I quoted, and to try to represent all voices now (which we at AALB do), and even to go beyond that -- to get smarter, as he says above. And I am really, genuinely, not meaning to make excuses with this post, and I'm sorry if you're hearing it that way. I'm saying, as I understand TNC to be, that if we look at the question culturally, there are larger reasons this lack of minorities is happening in our industry, and across most media; and while we need to address the problem where we live, certainly, these reasons are worth thinking about as well.

ETA: I withdraw this post. Just read the comments on it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Protests and Publishing

And now, a conservative Christian group protests Luv Ya Bunches.

Of course, this was only to be expected; that's the way conservative Christians roll, and it's their absolute right to do so. But if you disagree with them -- as I do, as a Christian myself, a reader, and a human being -- then please think about this: This Christianist* organization is bringing negative economic pressure to bear by threatening to boycott an entire company based on one title. This hurts a lot of people -- my company**, sure, and all my authors, but also the authors from other companies who are represented in the Fairs, and their respective publishers.

But we readers can create positive economic pressure in a way that actually benefits the publishing industry and the authors we support. And that's by buying books with gay characters -- either the book in question if it's in a Fair, which will prove desire for such books outweighs the repressive effects of the Christianists, or other books in the bookstores, which does the same in the trade.*** I'm suggesting this because publishing is a business, and, as we all know from Capitalism 101, sales success speaks just as loudly as moral indignation in the business world -- even more loudly, in some ways, because it means consumers are literally putting their money where their mouths are. That's what this Christianist organization has done by threatening to withhold sales from the company simply because it has dared to list a book with lesbian moms. And that's what we fans of lesbian moms can do too, and counteract the organization's effects at the same time, by buying Wide Awake, or Absolutely Positively Not, or Absolutely Maybe, or Totally Joe, or Everywhere Babies (one of my personal favorite picture books ever), or Twelve Long Months, or many other wonderful titles.

If books with gay characters sell well, more writers will feel free to write them, it will be easier for editors to acquire and publish them, and there will be more of them in the world. But that responsibility for sales rests with readers and book-buyers as much as it does with publishers, to show that there's a demand for such characters against those who'd like to repress their very existence. If you care about this cause, then read the books, write the books, but please, also, buy the books and get other people to buy the books. Every book really does make a difference.

* A term borrowed from Andrew Sullivan to identify people who use their Christian faith for a right-wing political agenda. See his explication of it here.
** Yes, this relates to a division of the company for which I work (not my division), and so the caveat in the sidebar of my blog applies here more than ever: All opinions expressed here are only my own, and are not the official views of said company. But I would feel the same way and say the same things if it were a different company.

*** Actually, this could also apply to books with black characters, or Native American characters, or differently abled characters, or any group whose existence is underrepresented or often challenged in literature and you would like to see more books with them. It is more Capitalism 101 to say that the business world loves success and tries to duplicate it endlessly -- witness the spate of paranormal romance titles in the wake of Twilight. Make a real success happen for a book you love, and more books like it will follow.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'm Ba-a-ck!

Back-ish, anyway. I spoke at the Western Washington SCBWI retreat last weekend -- a lovely conference -- and two of my three Fall 2010 novels are now in copyediting, with the next to follow within the week (right, Author Who Should Be Revising Rather Than Reading This Blog or Facebook*?), so I am now free, by my own standards, to blog again at will. But it seems to be taking a little time to move my brain from a work place to a blog-writing place, so here are some tidbits to get it going again:

  • Kidlit Drinks Night tonight (Thursday the 12th) at the Globe Bar on 23rd! I'll be there at 6; Betsy will join us at 7-ish; all shall be swanky.
  • A lovely, lovely book I edited, The Snow Day by Komako Sakai, was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book! It has also been named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book for Children. I adore this book for how beautifully it evokes a day spent inside, waiting for the snow to stop, but there's a real emotional wallop to it, as you realize how very present the missing character actually is all that day. Writers, if you're going to do a quiet book, this is a good model for its careful precision, pacing, and scope.
  • And Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork was named both a Publishers Weekly Best Book and an Teens Top Ten.
  • And The Snow Day, Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) by Lisa Yee, and Wishworks Inc. by Stephanie Tolan were all named to the New York Public Library's One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing.
  • And in AALB-wide accolades, Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan was both a NYT Best Illustrated and a PW Best Book, and Lips Touch by Laini Taylor was also a PW Best Book, and Blue Mountain Trouble by Martin Mordecai was also a Kirkus Best Book!
  • My church's annual holiday crafts fair -- a great place to pick up beautiful handmade gifts and participate in a silent auction for services from local businesses -- will be this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Camp Friendship, on 8th St. just below 6th Ave. in Park Slope. I will again be donating an hour of editorial services of some kind (bidder's choice) for the silent auction (opening bid $40, all proceeds to benefit the church); if you're interested in bidding remotely, e-mail me at the address associated with my website.
  • And speaking of my website, I finally reestablished links to my complete book list and a bunch of other resources on the Etc. page, like the Annotated Query Letter from Hell.
I think that will do for a blog-brain warm-up. In the words of Jim Anchower, I look forward to rapping at you again soon.**

* Kidding, with great love and understanding, since I am always, always Editor Who Should Be Reading a Manuscript Rather Than Writing This Blog or Facebook.
** Or in the words of Smoove B, I have missed you, my one true blog reader, and I will soon break it down with you again. Damn.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Welcome, SLJ Readers! + Next Kidlit Drinks Night

If you're coming here for the first time because of Betsy's kind article in School Library Journal, thank you for stopping by! I appreciate the time and attention. I'm a senior editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, where I edit and publish a wide range of books, and I've also been a blogger here at Brooklyn Arden since 2005 -- sometimes about personal stuff, sometimes work or kidlit or writing stuff, sometimes recipes, sometimes nonsense. I also have a website where many of my past talks for writers are archived, at, plus I Twitter.

As you'll see from my post on October 1 below, the blog has mostly been on hiatus for the last month while I've been concentrating on work projects and some upcoming speeches I'm giving; but you might be interested in these past posts about children's literature or writing:

(A little aside to longtime blog readers: The green satin cocktail dress I cite as one of my favorite things in life? It's the one I'm wearing in the picture that accompanies the article -- very Mad Men.)

And for everyone: Our next NYC Kidlit Drink Night will be Thursday, November 12, at the Globe Bar on 23rd St., between Lexington and 3rd Ave. -- the very bar where the cover and photos for that article were shot. The festivities will start a little after six. If you'd like to get an e-mail reminder about this or be on the mailing list for future Kidlit Drink Nights, send a message to nyckidlitdrinks at gmail dot com and we'll sign you up.

Thank you again for visiting; please come back; and happy November!