Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In a world where Bridge to Terabithia gives me hope for The Giver...

Remember the ads for the 2007 Bridge to Terabithia movie?

Bridge to Terabithia is not a fantasy. It is not about giant fantasy creatures leaving giant footprints. It is not the kind of story that calls for a power voiceover. It's Bridge to Terabithia, not BRIDGE. TO TERABITHIA.

The thing is, the movie turned out to be a faithful adaptation. The fantasy creatures showed up for about as long as they did in the trailer, and they played the same role that Terabithia played in the book: they we clearly creations of the characters' imaginations. Hollywood made a trailer using the moments it believed would put butts in the seats, but first it made a movie that respected the book and its fans.

Which brings me to this:

The studio has assured us that the movie will begin in black and white, as it should. We know that Hollywood has aged Jonas up and gathered a cast so all-star, it's made a few jaws drop. I'm not expecting a completely faithful adaptation; there's no beaming up in The Giver, but there is in this trailer. Maybe, though, the beaming up is less significant than it looks. Maybe it's a dream sequence.

The source of my renewed optimism is this article. Clearly, there've been some changes to the story (Jonas has a "girlfriend," huh?), but the reporter seems to have viewed a story that's very recognizable as The Giver in both theme and plot. (The Washington Post deserves kudos for its informed writing about YA, here and elsewhere.)

I'm still going into this one warily, and I'm sure I'll find things to rant about, maybe even big things. But maybe, just maybe, the moments chosen to put butts in the seats don't represent the movie's essence. And whatever else Hollywood did, it kept the title, which means more people are going to read the book.

Friday, July 11, 2014

On religion and children's books

There's a scene in More All-of-a-Kind Family, the third book in Sydney Taylor's wonderful series based on her own childhood, when Henny begs her older sister Ella to check the nearly new Anne of Avonlea out of the library. Henny can't do it herself because the book is in the adult section, but that's a subject for another post. Today, what I have on the brain is religion, specifically religion in mainstream children's fiction.

If you've read L.M. Montgomery's work, you know that religion comes up pretty often, usually in a way that's irreverent toward minutiae but respectful overall. Most of her characters are Presbyterian, and characters' hangups over their differences with Methodists are played for comic effect, as are some anxieties about what is or isn't okay to think about on Sunday. But in serious moments, Christianity is taken seriously, and all this is just part of the fabric of life for the ridgepole-walking redhead. It doesn't seem to bother Sabbath-observing, kosher-keeping Henny. Fast-forward about eighty years, and much as I loved seeing my family's religious practices in the All of a Kind Family books, the Anne books felt just as much my own.

These days, there are religious publishers of religious books for religious kids, but there are fewer mainstream books that acknowledge religion. And just like books with characters of a particular ethnicity shouldn't just be for readers of that ethnicity, there's value in giving kids a chance to see what they have in common with kids from other religions. I would guess there's been some hesitation on this front because religion is so personal and sometimes so fractious, and mainstream publishers may be afraid to be seen as endorsing a particular set of beliefs. I wonder if it's actually easier to get a book like Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. or My Basmati Bat Mitzvah published than it is to include a more prevalent religion in a kids' book. (I'm speaking here of American publishers and American demographics.)

This is on my mind now because of two recent reads that I thought did this well: Julie T. Lamana's Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (yes, I finally got my hands on an ARC). Upside Down follows a family from the Ninth Ward through Hurricane Katrina. Religion is not a major focus, but the Curtises are devout Christians, and it makes complete sense that in very difficult moments, they automatically take comfort in their faith. I'm pretty sure that if I had read this as a middle-grader (obviously an anachronistic hypothetical), I would've understood the emotions being expressed through religious language. Brown Girl Dreaming does something perhaps even more interesting, and being based on the author's life, it sort of had to. It portrays a variety of religious beliefs within one family - Jacqueline's grandmother is a Jehovah's Witness, and various members of the family embrace or reject her faith and practices to varying degrees, even evolving as time passes. An uncle adopts Islam, and young Jackie prays with him without abandoning her earlier beliefs. There's some push-and-pull over religion in the book, but it's not cataclysmic.

Religious differences don't have to be cataclysmic. That's all I'm saying.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Let fREADom ring.

Happy Fourth! As always, there's been a lot to talk about lately here in the American kidlit/yalit world. Maybe my perspective's a little skewed - after all, this is kind of the primary lens through which I view the world - but the discussions we're having seem like a good reflection of what this country is.

It's a place of incredible diversity, a place where not everyone has always been treated fairly, but where people step up and say what needs to be said for the sake of the future. It's a place where ideas get challenged, but where we can challenge those challenges. It's a place where it's okay to express unpopular opinions and to respond to them, and to read whatever the heck you want. It's a place where we're making progress.

And, especially in this weather, it's a great place to curl up and read.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Nancy on My Mind

Flashback a couple of years: At a New England SCBWI conference, we'd just watched a screening of  Library of the Early Mind and listened to a panel discussion with some of the authors featured in the documentary. One of them, a small, elfin woman named Nancy Garden, was charming but a bit self-deprecating about her appearance in the film, which included images far more memorable than anything she might have done with her hair. Bonfires of her book, for example. On our way back to our respective hotel rooms, a few friends and I ended up in the same elevator as Nancy. Everyone was silent for a moment, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wanted to say, "Nancy, you're brave and amazing and important." I finally settled for, "Nancy, I thought you looked lovely."

Flashback a few years earlier. I checked out Annie on My Mind knowing it was an iconic lesbian novel, and feeling like I was doing something a little daring. But when (minor spoilers ahead) authority figures in the novel treated same-sex relationships as something people should get in trouble for, I knew enough to be angry, to want to jump into the pages and say, "you know these people haven't actually hurt anyone, right? Or harmed themselves? Or done anything wrong?" I missed out on the pre-Annie novels in which homosexuality always ended in tragedy, but I knew of their existence. And I knew that though this was a happy novel, a positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship, it also depicted a time and place where the world's reaction to such relationships was not okay. (In many cases and places, it still isn't.)

Flash forward to today.  Lambda Literary's obituary for Garden quotes her on why she wrote for teens, and points out the astronomical growth in young adult literature since the height of her career. I would add that YA with queer characters has grown in leaps and bounds. We're way past the point of discreetly checking out one or two iconic novels. We have a ways to go, especially in the area of casual diversity (hero or heroine of story is queer but the main plot is about other aspects of his or her life), but look. Look. Look. Look. Look what Annie hath wrought.

Thank you, Nancy.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stealing a school election, revolutionizing the publishing industry, potato, potahto

I'll admit I liked the galley's cover better.
He's lean, he's keen, he's of color and not just 'cause he's Greene, and he's getting seen.

But the finished book's cover ain't bad!
We're most of the way through the Great Greene Challenge, a friendly battle among indie bookstores to sell as many copies as possible of a funny, well-written-and-characterized middle school caper to prove that such a book with a diverse cast depicted on its cover can be a viable publishing venture. I'm not expecting us to end up in first place (what's this I hear about some stores' campaigns involving costumes?), but I don't much care. We've sold plenty more copies than we ever would have if the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement hadn't brought it to our attention, and if that's true in other stores, that's enough to say to the publishing industry that books like this are worthy of editorial energy and of marketing dollars. Yes, we're pushing this one extra hard, but the fact is, customers are buying it.

In some ways, "challenge" is an appropriate word. This is a hardcover by a debut author, and one that, regardless of its characters' ethnicities, doesn't have a wildly successful readalike right now. This is not an "if you liked Wonder" book, or an "if you liked Wimpy Kid" book, or an "if you liked Percy Jackson" book. The Ocean's Eleven comparison is apt, but it does more to encapsulate it for parents than to align it with kids' other favorites. It's just a book with great characters and a complex plot involving sticking it to the principal. (Don't worry, the principal deserves it.)

People like context with their books. When they already know the author, or there's a movie coming out, or they can make an easy comparison with another favorite, they feel like they know what they're buying. I've found that when I just describe the plot of this one without attaching it to anything, it's been hard to handsell. But when I say, "we're competing with other indie bookstores to sell this and prove to the publishing industry that a great book with a diverse cast can do well," they take an interest. Some of them may know about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement; others don't but still know that we need diverse books. Some care deeply about indies, especially these days. Many, I suspect, like the feeling that they're participating in something current and important.

And they are. They're helping ensure that in a year or two, booksellers will be holding up other inclusive books and saying, "If you liked The Great Greene Heist..."

Friday, June 6, 2014

I'd let it go, but this is more fun.

The incredibly fresh suggestion that adults should limit themselves to adult books deserves an equally fresh response: a parody of "Let It Go."

The shelves bear tomes in some grownup homes,
not a youth read to be seen.
The books live in isolation.
It's your shelf, so you're the queen.

The masses howling that the fault lies in our stars
should be young and need fake IDs to bars.*

Don't crack the cover, don't you peek.
Let your age designate your brand of geek.
YA's a frenzy you won't feed.
Well, here's my creed:

Let 'em read, let 'em read.
Call it backward, call it down.
Let 'em read, let 'em read,
young and old and beige and brown.

I don't care
for your cold dismay.
Let the storm rage on.
The old never bothered me anyway.

It's funny how some distance
makes everything seem small,
and the power young adult has
can't get to you at all.

Come look at what YA can do.
A bunch of readers can break through.
If this is immaturity,
say we,

let 'em read, let em read,
raid our shelves for LGBT
let 'em read, let 'em read,
though they have a Ph.D.

Here I'll sit
on a bench by day
with my book of choice.
The old never bothered me anyway.

*Not encouraging this behavior. There's too much to read, anyway.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Children's-bookier than life as usual

I suspect I'm not the only one in this field who sometimes laughs at the concept of Children's Book Week. Celebrate by reading and talking about children's books, you say? Okay! While we're at it, we'll celebrate Breathing Week, and Walking and Talking Week, and Being a Carbon-Based Life form Week.

But then the calendar fills up with events, and there are organized opportunities to discuss children's books while concurrently breathing and being a carbon-based life form (and possibly walking and talking, depending on the nature of the event). This year, the highlight for me was A Place at the Table, a "speed-dating" event for rotating small-group discussions about the big topic these days, the conversation that I'm delighted people are clamoring to join: how #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

The Boston children's lit community has had discussions on this topic before, of course - even whole events on the subject that have raised important questions. But this event felt like a new step. The guidelines for the discussions asked that we keep the space safe by agreeing not to share specific people's sentiments without permission, so I'll only share my own, but I felt that the emphasis on "action steps" what each of us can take in our own spheres of influence forced us to start coming up with our own answers to the questions being raised lately. Can any of us solve the whole lack-of-diversity-in-kidlit issue single-handedly? Of course not. (For one thing, diversity by definition needs a variety of people.) But our store is getting more folktales from around the world in lately, and I can make it my business to familiarize myself with them so I'll be equipped to handsell them. I can handsell The Great Greene Heist even if Eight Cousins and Odyssey are going to beat the pants off us in the handselling challenge. I can be mindful of the need for diversity in my own writing. I can keep hanging out at the #WeNeedDiverseBooks party on social media, while bearing in mind that that's a fun and valuable first step, but it's only a first step.

And A Place at the Table was only one children's-booky part of a week that also included a galleylicious visit from our Candlewick rep, the kidsourced creation of a "we love books" poster for the store, and lots of reading and writing and children's book-related planning. (Apparently, I'm diversifying my writing by including made-up words. That's right, I said galleylicious.)

Now they tell me it's #IreadYA week! Guess I'd better get on that.