Monday, September 26, 2011

Arts & Crafts

Disclaimer: I am in no way qualified to critique anyone else's handicrafts. The last time I attempted to sew a stuffed animal, I ended up hospitalized and had to re-finger a semester's worth of piano music while my post-surgery left hand regained its function. (This was hand sewing, mind you.)

However, I feel compelled to share with you the latest item to come to us from my grandmother, if only to shed light on my potential future disappearance/brutal dismembering. ("She was delightful and had no enemies," the police will say. "Who could have done this? And why did they use such a tiny, tiny knife?")

My grandmother did not create this . . . entity. But I know who did. It came home with us in a box last week with a variety of other arts and crafts from the 1960's.

Crafts were the alternative to watching/starring in internet porn back then.
Which is a more significant sign of the apocalypse?
You decide.
This was how it appeared when I first picked it up. OK, so it's a little lopsided, but at least it appears to be wearing an adorable apron, right?

Then I flipped it over.


Now it lives next to my bed, seemingly staring at the ceiling for hours, days at a time.
Until you pick it up, and realize anew that all along it has been staring into your soul.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Shrew Symphony

A found poem

(Found by me and "composed" by my father, who may or may not have been suffering from heat stroke, whilst listening to the Grieg piano concerto in the car.)

Imagine if shrews wrote symphonies?
They'd be so fast it'd be unbelievable.

The shrews would play those tiny violins so fast they'd be on fire,
And they'd be biting each other at the same time,
Jostling for position in the orchestra.

Of course, the movements would have to be short.
Shrews have to eat, like, every fifteen minutes.
But they could have a lot of movements.

A shrew symphony would probably have, like, twenty-four movements.

For Your Consideration

(Click image to enlarge)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What is YA Lit?

Over the years, I've found myself having more and more versions of this conversation:

Person Feigning Interest in Me: So what do you do?
Me: [don't say unemployed, don't say unemployed] I write YA. Um, young adult. Stuff. Novels.
[awkward pause]
Me: Ha ha.
[longer pause] 
Me: No vampires, though. Ha ha.
PFIM: So you write for kids? [looks at watch]
Me: For young adults, yes. But I've never actually read Twilight. You know, just so we're clear.
PFIM: I used to love Babysitter Valley Pony Girls.
Me: Yes.
PFIM: There was one about a dog. Or something. Something with roller skates, maybe. And the dog was sick or something. And then everyone went to the prom.
Me: I didn't read that one.
PFIM: [looks at watch again] Where is she with those drinks?
Me: So you're an investment banker?
PFIM: I'm an actuary.
Me: Cool!
PFIM: . . . Do you know what an actuary is?
Me: Actuary, no.
PFIM: [sighs heavily] 
Me: That wasn't a pun. I was just repeating the word. [It was a pun.]
PFIM: Well, must be easy writing for kids, right? [imagines farm animals wearing hats]
Me: . . . Maybe?
PFIM: [eyes light up] I've been meaning to write this novel for years. I have the best idea. Listen, this guy -- he's an actuary -- discovers [blah blah idea for novel, most likely thriller built around "AMAZING" twist ending, probably fairly marketable depending on execution. Which will never happen.]
Me: Ah. Interesting. And you have experience being, you know, an actuary, so you'd have an insider's perspective.
PFIM: Exactly. So what are you working on?
Me: [don't mention the fact that everyone/everything in your WIP ends up destroyed by horrible fires (still working this out with psychiatrist)] It's a story about . . . two sisters. On an island.
PFIM: So what, you just use smaller words or something?
Me: Smaller words?
PFIM: To write for kids.
Me: . . . I don't think so. Maybe? [tries to think of impressive words to use in conversation to demonstrate language competency]
PFIM: Do you draw the pictures, too?
PFIM: Gesundheit. So you draw your own pictures?
Me: My own pictures?
PFIM: The illustrations. [proud of "biz" lingo]
Me: No. The publisher usually matches you with an illustrator, I think. If you write picture books. Which I don't. 
PFIM: But you write for kids?
Me: I write for young adults.
PFIM: What, like Harry Potter?
Me: . . . Yes. I write Harry Potter.

Above: Every children's/YA author.
But I've been thinking. (Yes, it happens, and sometimes it doesn't involve unicorns and space ships and chocolate. Okay, that's a lie, it always involves unicorns.) It's apparent that most people outside the YA industry don't understand what YA is. But it's also apparent that most people inside the industry have a hard time defining YA as well. Not only do we disagree on what puts a YA book into that category, we disagree on which actual books go there. But we do have instincts. One of my advisors at grad school mentioned she'd always thought Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca (one of my favorite books) was really YA. And I agreed with her. But why?

(Disclaimer: It's been my experience that most writers don't really care about this debate. Is a certain book YA or adult fiction? Shrug. Does it matter?)

So here are two phenomenal books:

Which one are you more likely to find in the YA section? Well, if you live in the US, it's Markus Zusak's heart-wrenching holocaust novel, The Book Thief, while Walter Moers' snappy, satirical fantasy, The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, will probably be on one of the adult shelves.

What does this mean? Not much, really. My junior high students love Captain Bluebear, and my adult friends love The Book Thief (which, incidentally, is sold as an adult novel in Zusak's native Australia).

So what is YA?

Here are five common beliefs and some novels that disprove them. How many examples constitute a false rule as opposed to simple exceptions? I don't know. But here we go anyway.

YA is defined by:

1. Vocabulary.
No. I'm sorry, but no. While people who write picture books and chapter books are conscious of the developing vocabularies of their target audiences, YA -- and middle grade, I will argue -- writers don't give it a second thought. Or a first thought. Some YA books are easy to read, and some are difficult. This is because everyone writes differently, not because there are rules about which words we can use.

I, for example, learned the word "posthumously" from middle grade writer James Howe, in The Celery Stalks at Midnight, when I was eight. And I've learned many words from Lemony Snicket, also MG, as an adult.

We don't have "elevators" in NH.
Writers use the words they need. It doesn't matter if readers are familiar with them. That's why Zeus invented dictionaries.

 2. Complexity of Language.
I present for your consideration two paragraphs from the openings of novels:

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.

The first paragraph, as many of you probably recognized, is the opening to Albert Camus's 1942 existentialist (though he would argue this label) novel, The Stranger.

This is the cover of the edition I have.
Because, you know, it needed to be more disturbing.
Do young adults read The Stranger? Certainly. Lots of them. I read it as a freshman, and followed it up with The Plague. The first musical my writing partner wrote, just out of high school, was an adaptation of this book.

If you just look at the nuts and bolts, there is nothing particularly "adult" about The Stranger. The language is simple. The sentences are simple. And, heck, it's only about 150 pages.

But is it YA? No. More on that later.

The second paragraph you may have recognized as an excerpt from M. T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party, which won the National Book Award in 2006.

And yes, this is a YA book.

(Okay, I know, using Octavian Nothing to make a point about language in YA is like using Charlie Sheen Elizabeth Bathory as an argument that sometimes humans can be a little eccentric. But you get the idea.)

3. The Protagonist's Age.
This one is pretty valid; YA novels tend to have teenage protagonists. But not always. Some adult novels feature young protagonists, and YA main characters are often older or younger than the target audience; sometimes they're even different species.

However, it's dangerous to use commonality to define. Yes, many YA novels have teenage protagonists. But is that why they're YA novels? Or is there something more to it?

4. Theme.
Most teenagers are not big on subtlety. Therefore, I've heard it argued, YA novels are more about story and less about theme and symbolism. Do readers of YA (not all of whom are teenagers) want a story? Of course they do. Everybody wants a story. But if we're getting into subtlety vs. surface, what we're really arguing about is literary fiction vs. commercial fiction, not YA vs. adult. Both genres exist in each category. (If you're interested in the literary vs. commercial discussion, check out Nathan Bransford's thoughts on it.)

What about heavy themes and lighter themes? If you follow books at all, you'll know YA literature runs the gamut from extremely dark (Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now) to sweet or silly (James Kennedy's The Order of Odd-Fish), just like adult literature. P. G. Wodehouse's short stories for adults are hilariously fluffy, while Terry Pratchett's brilliant first novel for young people, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, is much darker than his adult fiction.

Read this book.

5. Lack of "Adult" (wink wink) Stuff.

Like taxes, right?
Nope. The only people who make this argument are those who don't read YA. You are just as likely to run across an f-bomb or graphic sex scene in a YA novel as in an adult novel.

So What DOES Define a YA Novel?

There are as many answers to this question as there are people asking it. But my own belief is that YA novels tend to be about new experiences. The protagonist might be young, or naive, or simply thrust into a situation completely foreign to her, but we are with her as she experiences certain aspects of life for the first time. (Does this mean Jane Austen is secretly YA? Maybe it does.) 

OMG srsly.
In adult fiction, characters are often fully-formed. I don't mean literarily, if that's even a word. (OK, I just checked. It totally is.) I mean physically and emotionally. They're often trying to make sense of themselves and their environment, but they're not becoming. That doesn't mean characters in adult books don't change -- change defines a protagonist in any category -- but they aren't experiencing the level of newness YA characters tend to.

While common themes like love, death, grief, success, and change exist across the spectrum, I believe you'll find a much higher percentage of YA characters experiencing these things (or experiencing them intensely) for the first time during the course of their stories.


A Gift to the Internet Community

I just thought you should all know that the following URLs are AVAILABLE:

You're welcome.
Go make your millions.

My cat, Bert I. Gordon.