May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Posted October 24th, 2011

National Book AwardsImagine for a moment: you are an author devoted to creating beautiful and inspiring books for children and young adults. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of your mind, you wonder if, someday, your work might be honored to receive a National Book Award. Then imagine that the impossible happens: You learn that your latest book was selected as a Finalist! You are barely over the shock and awe at your good fortune, and are settling into happy anticipation of the coming awards ceremony, where—who knows— your book might even be chosen the winner! Then, suddenly, all hell breaks loose. A book that was not selected is mistakenly announced to the world as a finalist. The aftermath is downright nightmarish.

Once the full truth comes to light, you are as distraught as everyone else for Lauren Myracle, the author in the eye of the storm. But, at the same time, you are heartbroken because your special, once-in-a-lifetime moment was swallowed up in a controversy not of your own making. The national press and social media are all over the story, of course, but the title of your honored book scarcely comes in for a mention. Ouch!

Here’s the thing: the authors selected as this year’s NBA finalists in Young People’s Literature are as blameless in this fiasco as Lauren, and yet, in a very real sense, they too were harmed. How? In the midst of the firestorm that followed, their singular achievements were overshadowed, overlooked, and almost completely ignored. That’s just plain wrong.

I’m not going to rehash the details here. Everybody knows them already. Suffice it to say, grievous mistakes were made, and have been corrected, outrage has been voiced, copious amounts of mud have been slung, and apologies have been offered. It’s done. Now, let’s take a deep breath.

For the record, there were a number of extraordinary books that just missed being chosen this year, and each judge had a favorite title or two fail to garner enough votes to secure a place among the finalists. (I’m still in mourning over the loss of one of my faves. I fought for it right up until the very last vote!) But that is the nature of the beast. There were more than 270 books submitted for consideration, and there were only five spots to fill. We read, discussed, and deliberated over these books for four months, and we chose as carefully and thoughtfully as we could. The work was arduous, and the hours long, but we considered it an honor, and handled it accordingly.

Now, speaking as one of the judges for this year’s NBA panel on Young People’s Literature, I think—we all think—it’s time to shift the dialogue, and give some overdue, positive attention to the books selected. Here, then, are descriptions of the five finalists.

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson

Set in Alaska above the Arctic Circle, My Name Is Not Easy interweaves nature, culture clash, religion and science into a vivid, multi-voiced narrative. The time is the early 1960s at the Sacred Heart Boarding School near Barrow. Eskimo, Indian, and White kids huddle at their own tables. Nothing is easy for kids uprooted from their villages: the food is not what they’re used to (where is the caribou meat, the whale fat?), the Catholic school rules are forbidding, the Cold War looms. This novel is deeply informed by the history and landscape of the high arctic region, where the relentless march of modernity presses on native culture. Back home the villagers still hunt, but now with the help of snowmobiles, not sleds. Though, as a wise elder remarks to a young hunter, “How is that snow machine going to find its way home in a blizzard?” This novel is deeply authentic; Edwardson lives where she writes, and she never falls into cliché. Even the nuns and priests are fully realized characters, with dilemmas of their own. This novel gives voice to an overlooked, outlier part of America, yet the dilemmas and victories of the characters are universal.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

If you were fortunate enough to read the Newbery Honor book, The Wednesday Wars, you’ll be familiar with the main protagonist here. In the summer of 1968, Doug Swietek moves to a small town in upstate New York, which he fondly refers to as “The Dump.” Not that it would matter much where he lived, since he’d still have to contend with an abusive father, a delinquent brother who routinely mistreats him, while sorely missing the oldest, most beloved brother who is away in Vietnam. Desperate for inspiration, Dough clings to a one-time encounter with a baseball star in this tour-de-force. What are the stats? A town that offers up a literary dugout of eclectic characters with bite and wit: a librarian/art teacher, an eccentric playwright, past her prime, a feisty female friend who proves she is more, and a host of grandmotherly neighbors who show Doug was kindness looks like. Schmidt uses these, along with Audubon’s Birds of America, to layer a rich story about choice, inner strength, and the transformative power of art. In fact, this is the first work of fiction I’ve come across that actually takes the reader inside of the process of creating art, while allowing him to experience, along with the character, the wonderful ah-ha moments that comes with exploring the creative process. An additional element that made this book a standout was the prominent place of the library in this narrative. Altogether an amazing achievement!

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Immigration was a recurring theme in the books we read this year but this one, which happens to be a novel-in-verse, was the clear standout. In a pure and authentic voice, a girl named Ha tells the story of her family’s harrowing escape from Saigon as it falls, the horrific ship-ride to America, and the other-worldly experience of landing in Alabama where the coldness of strangers awaits them. Ha, a tough and tender ten-year-old fights for her place in America while relying on the strength of the culture that gave her birth. The emotional impact of this story is felt as much in the words that aren’t said, as in the words that are. With hints of humor throughout, the poetry carries the rhythms of the Vietnamese culture. Readers will think more kindly toward the immigrants in their midst after spending time between the pages of this book. For me, this was love at first read!

Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

This work of non-fiction explores the infamous Triangle Fire, one of the worst, and most preventable, work-related disasters in American history, eclipsed only by the events of 9/11. In the hands of Marrin, the scope of this story is deep, and wide. The book traces key points in the history of Southern Italians and Russian Jews—the primary victims of the fire—exploring the reasons their forebears immigrated to America, and what brought their descendents into the factory sweatshops of early New York. Readers learn about the so-called “Black Italians,” the impact of the Mount Vesuvius eruption, the Russian pogroms, the Pale of Settlement, right up to Ellis Island, once known as “the Island of Fears,” and the fall of Tammany Hall, illuminating bits of history connected to the Triangle Fire event. The book then follows the impact this disaster had on shifting labor laws and practices to create the more humane, and safe, working environments we all enjoy today. Mirren also brings to light unheralded heroes and heroines of the American Labor movement who rose up to lead reform, and organize unions to push for necessary changes in the workplace. There is drama, poetry, and music in the language here, allowing this history lesson to flow with ease.

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Don’t be fooled by the cover. There is nothing cookie-cutter about this novel. Take twin sisters, a boggy landscape, a handsome young stranger, a ghost or two, then add a magic cauldron, and stir. This book features some of the most lively, original, engaging line-by-line writing you’ll find anywhere. What’s more, the lush language is at the service of a story which manages to explore a dark psychological bond that will be eye-opening for alert, self-reflective readers, and heart-pounding for fans of romance in a kind of steampunk fantasy landscape. This book will be a stretch for many readers, but the remarkable use of language makes the journey a singular experience.

Now that you’ve had a chance to learn something about these outstanding books, I hope you’ll check them out for yourself. They are well worthy of your attention and the authors deserve all of our support. Just imagine, for a moment, if you were one of these authors.

Nine Not-to-Miss Novels

Posted October 13th, 2011

National Book Awards readingComing up with the title for this blog was a breeze. As a poet, I’m partial to alliteration. However, I fell in love with a good deal more than nine books this summer, so I’ve decided to list all of my faves and let someone else worry about the final tally.

First, a couple of caveats: I don’t generally talk about specific books on this blog because that’s not what it’s for. I’m making this lone exception because, as a judge for this year’s National Book Award, friends have been asking me what wonderful titles I found along the way. So, this once, I’ll give you my two-cents worth of commentary on some of the latest, and what I, personally, consider the greatest YA titles entering the marketplace this year. Again, this is a one-time thing, so please don’t send me any books to review, because I won’t. That’s not my gig. You’ll also notice, I did not include publisher, price, or grade-level. Again, not my gig.

Second, the titles on this list are not the only good books published in 2011. There are many more, I’m happy to report, but you won’t find all of them here. These, in addition to the five finalists, are simply my own, top-tier favorites.

I love me some novels-in-verse, don’t you know. Besides Inside Out and Back Again, I found three titles to add to my collection. Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle gets my vote. An evocative story of adventure on a pirate ship and an island along the Caribbean Sea, this is a gem of a book with a lyrical lure. Eddie’s War by Carol Fisher Saller shows us the impact of WWII on a farm boy in the Heartland. True and tender. Then there’s Allan Wolf, who does not disappoint. This time around, his tome is The Watch that Ends the Night, a novel about the Titanic. Written in the voices of those intimately connected with the story—including the iceberg! (I love that)—Wolf steers the story place it’s never gone before. Kudos, Allan!

I’ve never been one for sci-fi novels, but one novel so catalogued got my attention. Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky was fascinating, and thought provoking. It answers the question “What if online communication completely replaced face-to-face human interaction?” The answer will give readers a lot to ponder, and they’ll enjoy the journey along the way.

Sara Zarr is up to nothing but good once again. How to Save a Life, a novel about a baby in need of a parent, and a parent in need of a mother, is a big story with an even bigger heart. When you’re done, you’ll want to give this book a hug.

Speaking of babies, do pick up Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan. I guarantee you’ve never met a character quite like Eleanor Crowe, nor thought of placing a pregnant teen in a so-called fat camp. Yes, there is some hilarity, but that’s not the half of it. What can a pregnant teen learn about herself in this environment? Read to find out.

I love books about tough-talking girls, and I could not put down The File on Angelyn Stark by Catherine Atkins. This smart, and smart-mouthed, teen is rough around the edges, and with good reason. But she fights to claim the good in herself, and discovers the courage to set her life on a healthy path. She’ll make you a believer.

Bird in a Box, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, is a break-out title about the impact boxing legend Joe Louis had on Depression-era America, in general, and on the African American community, in particular. The voices are authentic, and often joyful, and the historical detail brings the period to life. An uplifting story about hope and the human spirit, this would make a great classroom read. The author’s note and back matter expand nicely on the historical detail. Fabulous job, Andrea!

Another novel of note for its historical theme is Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Supetys. This novel explores a Holocaust story few have heard before. This book reveals the horrors suffered by citizens of the Baltic States, under the heels of both Hitler and Stalin. A powerful story of survival, compassion, and amazing grace. Another title that cries out for the classroom.

Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada is a small, but important contribution to the national dialogue on immigration. This gently written story takes readers inside the duality of being a first-generation American, with a foot in two cultures. The reader is challenged to examine what it means to be an American.

As most of you know, I am not a fan of profanity in books for young readers, but sometimes it’s necessary to make an exception. Compulsion, by Heidi Ayarbe is one. In this novel about a boy wrestling with OCD, the rough language is a powerful expression of the severe frustration this character experience every day of his life. He struggles, and often fails, to hide or control his symptoms, often teetering on the edge of despair. But he never gives up on himself, and neither will the reader. This is a great book for engendering empathy for those around us who battle their own disorders, whether they are physical, psychological, or economic. This book is one worth checking out.

Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams stole my heart, broke it, and then pieced it back together. This is a beautiful book about hope, with a character who emerges in layers. Loved, loved, loved this book!

There’s another Lynch on my list. The wonderful Chris Lynch rocked it out with Angry You Man. In this story about, quite literally, being our brother’s keeper, we are reminded to check the timber in our own eyes before judging the mote in someone else’s. That will make little sense until you read the book, and I suggest you do. And, oh yeah, there’s a bit of eco-terrorism thrown in, so I’d call this title rather timely. Lynch is a master of the powerful voice, so you’ll be hooked in no time.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick. Need I say more? A light-filled combination of visual and literal storytelling, as only Selznick can produce. This tale is richly imagined, and gives a glimpse of the World’s Fair in NYC, then brings the story forward. This book is a treat. Do yourself a favor and get this one.


Hey 13! by Gary Soto

Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon

Lie by Caroline Bock

Bloody Times by James Swanson (non-fiction)

A Girl Named Faithful by Richard Bernstein

Joseph’s Grace by Sheila Moses

The Summer of Hammers and Angels by Shannon Wiersbitzky

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy


Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson (absolutely stunning!)

Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack

We Are America by Walter Dean Myers

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright

Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck

The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson

Eliza’s Freedom Road by Jerdine Nolen

St. Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

So, there you have it! I’m sure I left off some important titles, but after reading 279 books in one summer, I’m doing good to be able to narrow the list at all! So forgive me. I hope this list gives you a good starting-off point. That’s the most I can hope for.

The Trouble with YA Literature Today

Posted October 1st, 2011

Wizard WomanThe problem with YA literature today is— fill in the blank. Some scream that the genre has gone too dark: drugs, alcohol, dystopian tales, profanity-overkill, parades of paranormal fantasies. All true. Others complain about zombies and other gore, about witches and warlocks and werewolves. But I have a bigger bone to pick: originality, or the lack thereof. That, my friends, is what’s wrong with children’s and YA literature today.

Seen any new movie sequels, lately? What about remakes? The entertainment section of the local newspaper reeks of them, and there’s plenty more where those came from. But you won’t just find them in the neighborhood six-plex.  A trip to your neighborhood bookstore (if you still have one) will do just as well.

Here’s what you’ll find. In volume after volume, you’ll meet a character who leaves the only home he’s ever known. He attends a school with familiar Gothic architecture. Along the way, he discovers a supernatural gift. And, oh yes, the child is an orphan.

Then, of course, there is the second type of volume. This one features a teenaged girl who is far away from home. She meets a dashing, but rather standoffish, young man she finds herself attracted to. There’s something slightly odd about this boy, though. His hand is cold to the touch and sometimes his eyes turn blood-red. If this storyline does not sound familiar, then you, my friend, have been living under a rock.

Children’s and YA literature has gone Hollywood, people. I’m not talking so much about the plethora of sequels as I am about the plethora of clones: Harry Potter-wannabes and Twilight re-treads chief among them.

Why all the copycats? There’s a shake-up in the industry, as we all know. The children’s market has shifted from backlist, to mid-list, to front-list. Then, too, as libraries dwindle at an alarming rate, so do library sales, which once accounted for a large chunk of a publisher’s bottom line. The increasing numbers of titles available on the Internet are also having an impact on cloth-book sales, though few of us are sure of what the end result of this trend will be. I, personally, wave away those who make loud pronouncements about the death of the book. No, Chicken Little, the sky is not falling. It is, however, extremely overcast.

I’ll grant you, from a marketing point of view, there is reason for concern. I get that. Because of that concern, fewer publishers are willing to produce the so-called quiet book. Good Night Moon and Charlotte’s Web would have a tough time finding a publisher in this economy, and that’s absolutely criminal. Literary jewels are not what publishers are seeking, in the main. Everyone has gone blockbuster-crazy. Everybody wants the big book, the runaway bestseller. And who wouldn’t relish the outrageous success of Twilight? I can understand why an author might be tempted to try her hand at creating a literary clone for a chance at reaping similar monetary rewards. But here’s the thing: bestsellers become bestsellers largely because they’re original, whether in content or structure.  And, by definition, an original is original because it is one of a kind.

But let’s say your copy of somebody else’s idea is successful. Let’s say you do make a few extra bucks hashing out that clone. What happens to those stories that are uniquely your own, those books that you alone were meant to write? Will they ever see the light of day? It’s doubtful. And when those extra C-notes are spent on the house, the car, or the classic Armani, and the hollowness of your “success” clangs in your ear to distraction, what then?

No one can keep you from pouring your creative energy into cloning someone else’s original idea, of course. But if you do, chances are you’ll have little self or soul left to produce, and enjoy, the brilliance of your own original creations. And, by the way, your original idea is priceless, simply because it is yours.

My mentor, James Baldwin, encouraged me to guard my gift and to write with integrity. He warned me not to ever compromise in the area of my gifting. Now, more than ever, I understand exactly what he was talking about.

When you first dreamed of becoming an author, did you have dollar signs dancing in your head, or were your thoughts filled with liquid language, imaginary vistas, and larger-than-life characters who might leap from the page? I think I know the answer to that question. Here’s what I have to say to you: write your own story, not somebody else’s. In the end, you’ll be proud of yourself for having done so.