So much plot Sunday, Feb 17 2008 

In a (fairly) recent Time Out New York interview, Geraldine Brooks talks about rekindling her own joy in story through reading to her young son: “I love children’s literature because there is so much more plot, and when I looked at my older work, I saw the stories were beautifully crafted — but there was no story.”

Are we freer, then, when we write for younger readers, freed by expectation (as one is by genre, say) to revel in sheer story? Is kidlit/YA our key out of the hermetic, grown-up, wearily pointillist universe of “existential problems you could sort of identify with” (as Ann Hodgman called it out in a recent review of a Max Apple collection), where the reading of a novel does not transport so much as identify: Yup, there’s your problem right there?

From my own experience, I know that writing YA has made me a better writer across the board. I always felt the YA reader was much more demanding than your average adult — not that I hadn’t tried my best with all my books, since back in the day — I had, and I continue to try — but that the bar was now higher and the course was faster, calling from me a more concentrated and pointed response. Which in turn made my new (not YA) novel swifter, juicier, and such tremendous fun to write that I could not wait, literally, to get up in the morning, so I could settle down at my desk and get to work.

But is “what happens next” the only goal? No: because what happens next happens to characters, to the ones we care about. In the world of Story plot is the map, and the human heart, as always, is the traveler and the terrain.


Readers and writer Saturday, Feb 16 2008 

Listening to the Cranbrook students contrast my two Red Riding Hood stories with Perrault’s ur-text was truly fascinating, a fly-on-the-wall moment, observing my work from the outside in as they diagrammed and discussed.

Reading the students’ critiques of Kissing the Bee produced a similar fascination, as well as gratitude: to be allowed to watch a reader approach my book and its ideas and observations, to take what it had to offer, to decide whether or not it was a gift worth keeping. . . .Writing is the doubled art of observation and communication: Look, I saw: now you look, too. And reading is the art of reception and reflection, something these students did thoroughly, honestly, and well.

Sometimes one thinks of school visits as something the writer does, gives, to the students. But it’s a two-way street.

At Summers-Knoll Thursday, Feb 14 2008 

Catie Quist’s class at Summers-Knoll

Kathe and Grace at Summers-Knoll

Here we are, Grace and I, talking about (what else) writing.

And there we are, embroiled in discussion (and lunch). I’ll say it again, this class is awesome.

So what CAN we say to kids? or Children’s Lit, part two Wednesday, Feb 13 2008 

Our last class meeting was notable for what we didn’t achieve: namely, a hard-and-fast definition of what writing-for-kids “should” be like. Comparing and contrasting my two Red Riding Hood stories (“I Shall Do Thee Mischief in the Wood,” and “Lupe,” both, interestingly, in anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling) produced some surprising similarities, and an important difference in tone.

Is there an adult obligation to tell young readers the truth? Absolutely: we all agreed on that. But is there an instinct to temper the truth with hope, insofar as that truth permits? Some of the students weren’t so sure that protection was what was required; others wondered if truth were subject to a certain elasticity when it came to ideas and behaviors sanctioned, and desired, by adults.

The students who spoke were articulate and strong-minded. Wish the discussion could have continued. . . .At any rate, we all have a firmer idea of how porous the boundaries are, when one writes for young people, and how difficult it can be to make one rule address all cases.

Defining kidlit, part one Tuesday, Feb 12 2008 

This week I’m meeting at Cranbrook with a class of seniors, discussing children’s lit: what it is, what it probably definitely isn’t, and how do we read it?

Yesterday we talked about Kissing the Bee, its various narrative points of view, its apian through-line, and how many of us there in the room had stuck with a friendship and/or relationship long after it had essentially changed past saving (just about all of us). Today we dissected the role of marketing in publishing, with emphasis on cover art and what it’s really for, a paperback original’s usual shelf life (eyes widened at this information), and the process that moves an idea born in the writer’s head into your hands, between those covers. I showed them some foreign edition covers for straydog, and how each seemed to represent an utterly different text. (The South Korean edition is due soon; there’s an Italian edition I’ve seen online, but as yet have not received a copy.) We also looked at the hardcover and paperback versions of Talk and parsed their differing design, what the covers emphasized (or didn’t), and what readers might be attracted to each edition.

Tomorrow we’re going to talk fairy tales. I plan on reading from two versions of “Red Riding Hood,” one I wrote as a retelling for adults, one for kids; the elasticity of myth!

It WAS fun Friday, Feb 8 2008 

Was it ever. Catie Quist, you have an amazing class at Summers-Knoll, and we had an amazing discussion today: about “Becoming Charise” and Going Under, why book covers (hi, Rick!) are so much better when they suggest rather than insist, why the writer doesn’t always know everything about her characters (honest), why some bottled water tastes inexplicably like dishwashing liquid, and . . . Well, I could go on, but you get the idea: it was an awesome visit. And all thanks to you, Grace!

Don’t give up yet, Krystel! Saturday, Feb 2 2008 

First, a very welcome and insightful review of Kissing the Bee. . .

. . .and then a thought on Krystel’s sidebar notation that she’s “given up on books for grownups.” While I can’t know what prompted her escape (or retreat) from adult lit, it does make me think about crossing that Maginot Line, and why there is a line at all.

We won’t get into the whole issue of marketing (books in bookstores, virtual and brick-based, need to be commercially arranged somehow, etc. etc.), when it may be, for each reader, more an issue of emotional categorization: is The Velveteen Rabbit “for” kids, babies, sentimental grown-ups, fantasy readers, or . . ? Is Wuthering Heights “for” romance readers, Bronte fanciers, lovers of English novels, moor nuts. . . .How about Harry Potter and his friends? Everyone reads those books. And what about poetry — who in the world (or out of it) is Emily Dickinson “for”?

The text exists to give the gifts it has to whomever can receive them. The more giving the text, the more it can offer to readers on differing levels of understanding and desire. The only way I can judge if a book is for me is whether or not it speaks to me. If the voices your reader’s heart echoes are found primarily in YA, that’s wonderful, there’s a depth and breadth in the field one can spend happy years exploring. If not, that’s fine, too. To read is to enlarge the self as well as escape its physical boundaries as long as the story (novel/play/poem/examination of 18th century French politics*/whatever) lasts. Read on, Krystel! and all the rest of us, but do keep your eyes open to all the gifts LitWorld has to give.

[* My current readerly obsession is Talleyrand – three biographies going at once, and I’m utterly enthralled by a subject I knew little about, and cared less for, about three months ago. A chance encounter, a stray book review in The Economist, and voila: love!]