Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tips, Tricks, and Twitter Parties

I'm departing the Fire Escape for a week's writing retreat, but I'll leave you with some tips, news, and tricks, as well as an update on our Twitter Book Parties: only room for two more books!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gran Torino: Nice Work, Eastwood

At first glance, Gran Torino might seem like another one of those white men saves the day kind of stories that spew out of Hollywood on a regular basis. But it's not. It's a movie about how crossing borders to encounter the personal and particular, as Hazel Rochman put it, can "save" the racist in all of us.

Clint Eastwood liked the script by Nick Schenk, a rookie screenwriter based in Minnesota, so much that he didn't allow a single word to be changed. Schenk credits the friendships he made while on the job, both with war veterans and Hmong factory workers, as inspiration for the story he wrote with his brother's buddy Dave Johannson.

How did the brown people portrayed in the film view this story by a white writer? Asian Week covered the Hmong community's reaction to the film. The general response of Hmong moviegoers has been positive, and (but?) eastwoodmovie-hmong.com, a blog that was critical of the movie, has disappeared.

Two Hmong-American guys, Cedric N. Lee and Mark D. Lee filmed, directed, and produced a documentary about the making of the blockbuster. It's called Gran Torino: Next Door? and is available only on the June 9, 2009 Blu-ray disc release of the Eastwood movie. Here's the preview of Gran Torino, which I recommend as a must-see for those of us who cross borders in our storytelling. Who saves whom, and how, and why?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hospitality, Chattanooga Style

My last author visit of this academic year was a quick 24-hour sojourn to Chattanooga, Tennessee over the weekend. The library put me up in the Stone Fort Inn, a bed and breakfast in the heart of the city, Holly Reber of the Chattanooga Times Free Press interviewed me before the visit, and writers young and old shared their stories in writing workshops about creating a sense of place.

The main branch of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Public Library

Della Phipps, YA librarian, was a superb hostess.
She promised to send me her family recipe for grits.


Tip: Stop by the local indie to glean a sense of place;
Rock Point Books was full of life on a Friday afternoon.

Teen book shelf at Rock Point Books

Thank you, Chattanooga!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

I love asking questions on Twitter (where I tend to focus on "professional" subjects) and Facebook (seems better suited for the personal stuff). Here are a few I've posed lately, in case you want to weigh in:
  • Booksellers, tell me the truth. How tough is it to sell a YA novel with a nonwhite protagonist? If your answer is "quite," any exceptions?

  • Why do sci-fi or fantasy authors import our society's current mores about sex and romance into their imagined worlds lock, stock, and barrel?

  • What can Google Wave offer our Kid/YA book community?

  • I'm compiling a list of great father-son children's and YA books. Recommendations?

  • When they meet me in person, my virtual friends inevitably exclaim, "Oh, you're actually tall!" Does this happen to anybody else?
Social media provides a great venue to get input on many subjects. As in real life, though, whether or not we get a straight answer depends on how we ask the question. Sometimes I get no response. A few questions lead to more in-depth thought and discussion. The last one above, for example, which at first I thought was frivolous, prompted several people to weigh in about physical stereotypes and race.

Through trial and error, I'm getting better at virtual conversations, and hoping that stimulating discussion, both online and in person, helps the gray matter survive.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Celebrating Book Birthdays on Twitter

The release of a new book is something to celebrate. Each story winging out into the world deserves a communal "HURRAH!"

Authors and illustrators, if you're on twitter and have written or illustrated a traditionally published book for children or teens, follow @bookbbday, and DM or direct message the publication date / TITLE / genre / publisher / @twittername. (Genre key: PB = Picture Book, CB = Chapter Book, MG = Middle Grade, YA = Young Adult, NF = Nonfiction.) Since this is a one-woman job, I'm capping this list at fifty, but if it's easier than it seems once we get rolling, I might open it up again.

The day your book releases (full list below), we'll spread the news, raise a glass, break out the chocolate, and virtually party with you. We’ll also provide a link to IndieBound so that thousands of tweeps can rush to their local independents and buy your book. In exchange, you agree to re-tweet toasts to the other books as often as you can. Booksellers on twitter, we invite you to tweet the news, too.

Make it easy to tweet these parties.
Sign up for twitterfeed, an application which automatically posts an rss feed to your twitter stream. Here's the RSS feed for the Twitter Parties blog: http://feeds2.feedburner.com/TwitterBookParties. Each twitter party will appear automatically as a blog post over there, set to publish on the day of each book's release.

The posts there will be simple: TITLE / genre / publisher/ twitterhandle / bit.ly link to IndieBound / #bookbday. Once you add the RSS feed to your twitterfeed account, you can personalize how they'll appear in your twitter stream. (I'm prefacing the parties with "We toast a tweet to ..." if you want to use that.) Feel free to send personalized messages of admiration and delight to the author or illustrator on publication day as well.

See the master list of 50 books publishing between June 2009 and July 2010 we're celebrating with a TWITTER BOOK BIRTHDAY PARTY over at Twitter Book Parties.

Photo courtesy of pasotraspaso via Creative Commons.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Poll Results: Amending Classic Children's Books

Last week, I asked visitors to the Fire Escape when, if ever, it would be okay to update a classic children's book to reflect changing mores about race. The results (152 votes) were almost equally split between those who thought some changes might be in order, while the rest arguing that a book must stand as is.
Slightly more than half of you (83 votes, or 54%) said never.

Among those who felt it might be worth it to change a classic book, we see a strong belief that an author alone retains the right to change the story. Fifty-nine voters (38%) thought it would be appropriate to update if the author were still alive and wanted the changes.

Twenty-eight (18%) thought it would be permissible to revise a classic children's book if the publisher included a note in the re-issue explaining the reasoning behind the change.

Fifteen of you (9%) thought it would be okay to update if the changes made were incidental rather than integral to the plot, and fifteen (9%) more were amenable if the copyright holder (a descendant) were still alive and authorized the changes.
Where do I weigh in? I was in the "let the author do it" camp until this discussion, because I made changes to one of my own books. But I'm surprised to find myself shifting into the "never" camp, albeit cautiously.

It's worth a read through the comments to understand the "never" camp's arguments. Part is aimed at those of us who write, because all authorial cheeks burn while re-reading our earlier work. Do we have the guts to let mistakes stand, own them, and even discuss them publicly as part of our call to mentor the next generation of storytellers? Maybe a "what I wish I could change" or "using my book as discussion" section should be a standard feature of an author's website (featuring those books out of print, for those earning our rice from writing.) No matter how much an author wants to retain control over a story, once it begins the dialectical dance with a reader, it's out of our hands. Our primary job is to focus on telling the next story while we have breath.

The remaining bits of the "never" argument boil down to a call to shepherd a child through books from the past so that she can enjoy and learn from them. That's what I attempted as teacher and parent. But did I succeed? I'm not sure. No matter how large or small an adult gatekeeper looms in the background, ultimately the meaning and message stays between a particular child and that story.

Here's where the caution comes in. Keeping my eye on the margins, I have to re-post the video "A Girl Like Me," a 7-minute exploration of girls and skin color written and directed by a sixteen-year-old filmmaker, Kiri Davis, and produced by Media Matters. As you watch, remember that the children choosing the dolls aren't much older than six or seven. They live in supportive communities in Los Angeles, California. How did they already internalize the message "dark skin = bad" and "light skin = good?"



Creators and packagers of children's stories, whether in film or in print, must strive to be aware of the messages we're endorsing consciously and subconsciously. Nobody wants to be didactic these days, but all stories are laced with values. It's the nature of the beast.

(Postcript about Babar: In Alison Lurie's December 16, 2004 article in The New York Review of Books, The Royal Family, she wrote that "Laurent de Brunhoff has regretted his early drawings of African 'savages'; he decided years ago that Babar's Picnic will never be reprinted.")

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Race, Caste, and Class in HUNGER GAMES

Yesterday I asked you how you pictured the characters in Suzanne Collins' bestselling novel THE HUNGER GAMES. Well, here's what I gleaned about race, culture, and class in this enthralling story.

Early on we're informed that families in the Seam who work the mines have olive skin, dark hair, and gray eyes. Notice that their eyes aren't brown, which means they aren't Middle Eastern, Hispanic, or South Asian.

Right after that sentence, Collins writes that Katniss' mother and Prim have light hair and blue eyes, physical characteristics that are out of place next to the mine workers in the Seam. She tells us that Katniss' maternal grandparents were part of a small merchant class of pharmacists. Katniss' parents, then, crossed some borders to marry.

Peeta, too, is blond, and is part of a clan of bakers, definitely more prosperous than the mining families.

We start to see a connection between race, class, and occupation. Is this a society organized along the lines of India's ancient caste system?

Hunger Games contestants Rue, with her "bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin," and Thresh, also dark-skinned, are from District 11. This is the place where crops are grown for all of Panem. The community is impoverished, they're whipped if they disobey, love music, and send Katniss a gift of baked bread.

Interesting.

Also, when you're writing a dystopian novel, what do you do with our global diversity of languages? Collins, who has some international experience herself, didn't write different dialect or jargon for each character, so I assume everybody in Panem speaks the same language in the same way.

I appreciate how smoothly Collins included and described different races, but wonder if she was purposeful about the interesting connections between physical appearance (i.e., race), occupation, and class in her story. Did her conscious mind invent those classifications or was her unconscious mind in charge?

I trust the movie makers at Lionsgate will cast the movie carefully. Will they pick actors with a range of accents? Will they represent the same distinctions between race and class as in the novel? If not, why not? It's going to be fascinating to watch them decide, especially as Collins herself is adapting the book into a screenplay.

Oh, and if producer Nina Jacobson needs a consultant, tell her I'm available to fly from Boston to Hollywood, will you? Especially in the dead of winter.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Race in Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES

When it comes to race and ethnicity in Suzanne Collins' gripping dystopian novel, HUNGER GAMES (Scholastic), how did you picture the characters?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Virtual Author Branding: Five Tips

This isn't your mother's publishing industry. These days, we authors sound more like musicians who have long worried about "generating a brand" and "developing a fan base."

Since I've been blogging and micro-blogging (mostly on Twitter and Facebook) for a while, my writing buddies sometimes ask for tips. Here are five basics to keep in mind as you venture into the virtual world to sell your books.

1. Pursue excellence.

Quit whining about publicists or the lack thereof. These days, an author must take primary responsibility for his or her "brand." This requires writing great books, of course, but it also means that the small stuff matters.

From spelling and grammar to rants and raves, everything we publish on the web should display a commitment to the kind of excellence that attracts followers and fans.

Midlist or debut authors can learn from musicians who claim that to make a living an artist needs a fan base of 1000 members. If we count aunts, uncles, cousins, and old flames, surely we can each gather 900 or so new "true fans."

2. Reveal your voice.

Exploit the power of blogging and status updates to give visitors and followers a clear sense of your writing voice, whether it be funny, frank, and friendly, or passionate, incendiary, and revolutionary.

If they enjoy your tweets and blog posts, they just might consider reading your books. On the flip side, if you're boring online, why should we assume you write scintillating fiction?

3. Master the tools.

Online tools like blogs, Twitter, and FB are powerful and free ways to promote our work. It's well worth some time and effort to learn how to use them.

Do you know how to retweet? Have you heard of bit.ly? Do you have a Facebook fan page? When is the last time you visited somebody else's blog and successfully linked back to yours in a comment? Do you understand the power of a bracket < > in coding anything on-line?

If your head is spinning from these questions, follow some tech-savvy authors and learn from their examples. Browse this list of YA authors on twitter to get started.

4. Remain, respond, and connect.

Don't get me wrong -- I still think it's still possible to write and sell great books and remain a virtual hermit. If that's your bent, please don't bother with an online presence. Because once you start collecting fans (or clients, if you prefer that word), you need to stick around.

Today's online experience is not a one-time, static venture like a website. Developing an author brand is a dynamic, relational process. It requires responding to people who take the time to comment on your blog, your FB page, your twitter posts.

It's called social media for a reason -- these are venues to connect and relate. Leave your identity as curmudgeon or recluse at the door or don't come in at all.

5. Serve others.

Ironically, if your virtual branding efforts are only about you and your books, they'll probably fail. The Golden Rule applies online as it does everywhere else: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Questions? Feel free to ask. Follow me on twitter. Fan me on Facebook. If you're a total newbie, no worries, drop me an email. Let's see if I can practice what I preach.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Bowdlerizing Children's Books: A Poll

Should publishers edit beloved children's books like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA to eliminate racial or ethnic stereotyping? When (if ever) is it okay? Please vote in the poll in my sidebar and/or comment below.

It's okay to update a classic children's book to reflect changing mores ...
  1. if the changes made are incidental rather than integral to the plot (see these changes made to Robert Lawson's Caldecott-winning THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD, for example).

  2. if the publisher includes a note in the re-issue explaining the reasoning behind the change (as Roger Sutton references here).

  3. if the author is still alive and wants the changes (for instance, me).

  4. if the copyright holder (a descendant) is still alive and authorizes the changes.

  5. never.
Authors, when it comes to making changes in our own books, all of us reflect the ethics and morals of our time and culture, and all of us will err in one way or another. It's guaranteed that we'll reread our books a decade down the road and wince over something. When do we let those mistakes stand? How can we be sure that we're not pressured by new, erroneous cultural trends to make such changes (there's no guarantees that culture gets more ethical with time; i.e. 1930s Germany)?

Publishers, if a book from the past is unchanged, isn't it more helpful to package it with a vintage look to cue historical fiction instead of using a contemporary art or model to "draw in young readers"?

Educators and parents, how do you lead discussions around these topics with children/teens? Any tools or best practices you can share with the rest of us?

For more on this, author Laurel Snyder leads a discussion on her blog, where she invited me to share my thoughts on Edward Eager (HALF-MAGIC) and racism.

Friday, June 05, 2009

A Writer's Day in Connecticut

The audience at the Greenwich Arts Council and Leslie Guegen of Just Words listened yesterday to Rachel Vail (GORGEOUS/Harper Collins) and me (SECRET KEEPER/Random House) share tips about writing books for kids and teens.

A no-duh takeaway for authors (including me) from the talented, funny, and practical Rachel: use a separate credit card for writing expenses to manage your business easily.

Award-winning Connecticut author Sarah Darer Littman (PURGE/Scholastic) attended our session to show some authorial support.

Before driving back to Boston, I had lunch in Ridgefield with Sarah Rettger, marketing coordinator for the American Booksellers Association, and ...

... part-time bookseller for Books on the Common, where owner Ellen Burns (right) was celebrating the store's front page appearance on The Ridgefield Press.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Massachusetts Book Awards

The Massachusetts Center for the Book recommends children's/YA books published in 2008 by Massachusetts authors. Full disclosure: I'm on the list. Winners of the Book Awards will be announced shortly.

Picture Books

As Good as Anybody by Richard Michelson. (Knopf) Lessons from the parallel upbringings of Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel culminate in their 1965 march together against discrimination, from Selma to Montgomery.

One Hen by Kate Smith Milway. (Kids Can Press) The true story of Kojo, a young boy from West Africa, who realizes that one small loan will result in a successful venture. An inspirational story about a little help, i.e., a micro-loan, that makes a real difference.

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A Nivola. (Frances Foster/FSG) The story of 2004 Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner Wangari Maathai who launched the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and changed her homeland one seed at a time.

Priscilla and the Hollyhocks by Anne Broyles. (Charlesbridge) With a backdrop of the Trail of Tears, the true story of a young slave, Priscilla, separated from her mother, who is sold away, and connected to her past through hollyhock seeds she eventually gains the freedom to plant.

Sisters of Scituate Light by Stephen Krensky. (Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin) During the War of 1812, two sisters trick the British soldiers into retreating from Scituate Harbor, by playing the flute and drum. Based on a true story.

Middle Reader

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O’Connor. (Frances Foster/FSG) An intergenerational cast of characters find their lives intertwining at the up-for-sale Sleepy Time Motel in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Lost and Found by Andrew Clements. (Philomel Books/Penguin) Twelve-year-old twins Jay and Ray take advantage of a paperwork error at school and discover what it is like not to be considered as one of a matched pair.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall. (Knopf) The Penderwick sisters and their Aunt Claire hatch a Save-Daddy Plan to find their widowed father a new wife.

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry. (Walter Lorraine/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) An old-fashioned and zany story of a nanny, her badly behaved charges, and a long lost heir.

Young Adult

Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Book II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson. (Candlewick) Octavian joins a Loyalist navy regiment that has promised freedom to African-American slaves after the Revolutionary War.

Impossible by Nancy Werlin (Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin) Successful crossing of genres, realistic fiction and fantasy, with Lucy Scarborough, a foster teen who must work to perform three impossible tasks to free her from an ancient family curse.

First Daughter by Mitali Perkins. (Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin) This sequel to Extreme American Makeover follows the escapades of Sameera, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl living with her adoptive parents in the White House. Being the First Daughter has unique pressures and challenges, and Sameera tries to choose her own political path.

The Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ New World by Nathaniel Philbrick. (G. P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin) A vivid account of the epic saga of how the Pilgrims and the Native Americans maintained fifty years of peace and of how that peace was shattered by one of the
deadliest wars ever fought on American soil.

My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger. (Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin) Follows two best friends and pseudo-brothers through a whirlwind year in Boston that includes activism, baseball and friendship with the Mexican Ambassador's daughter. An engaging writing style with alternating perspectives and Instant Messaging.

Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman. (Razorbill/Penguin) In this dystopian novel Honor struggles to fit into the regulated society of her new home, but when her parents disappear, she questions everything.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

An Agent Talks Trends in MG/YA Publishing

At our Boston Bookish Tweetup on Sunday, literary agent Lauren MacLeod of the Strothman Agency reflected on the current and future state of Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA) books. Lauren kindly gave me permission to post some notes here. If other agents, editors, or teen and tween experts want to chime in, feel free to add your comments.

What's in her slush pile:
  • A ton of romance.
  • Lots of books chasing TWILIGHT.
  • Ghosts, vampires, witches, werewolves, the supernatural in general.
  • Historical fiction, especially with WWII and Civil Rights content.
  • Fantasy, with many HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS wannabes.
What publishing houses are asking for:
  • Clean books that can sell in every part of the country.
  • MG in general -- several publishers are eagerly looking for it.
  • Funny books, especially for middle grade. Absolutely saleable.
  • "Boy" books, including nonfiction, which sells better to boys.
  • Solidly commercial books versus award-winning "literary" books.
  • Paranormal stories still have an open window.
What we'll see in the future:
  • A growing market for books about food, chefs, cooking.
  • YA dystopia will come back strong with the release of the HUNGER GAMES movie.
  • A push for books with YA/Adult crossover potential. More adults in their twenties and thirties are shopping in the young adult section.
Recent tweets to authors about finding an agent:
Being a member of a writers organization or group is nice, but won't turn a maybe to yes.

Check out what the agency has sold, make sure they don't charge fees, and look for happy/repeat clients.

We can usually sell nonfiction faster than fiction.

It's important that the query reflect the voice of the writer; especially if including sample pages.

Query everyone who reps your genre! Agents are delighted to fight over authors, even if we lose.

I love hearing that an author blogs -- that should definitely be in your query letter if it is part of your platform.

I'm dying for YA or MG nonfiction. Also looking for things with adult crossover appeal.

I look for people I want to work with! I'd say no to good writing if the author was a jerk.
Track tips from Lauren and other agents on Twitter here (hashtag #askagent, for those who tweet). To submit to Lauren, read her agency guidelines, and address your email or regular mail to her attention.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Boston Bookish Schmooze Photos

Hinting at a future of low-cost regional gatherings, a group of bookish folk who weren't at Book Expo America connected via Twitter at Porter Square Books on Sunday 5/31 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

We exchanged books and social media tips, made new connections, and enjoyed the cozy ambience of one of the finest independent booksellers in the Boston area.

One of the organizers, agent Lauren MacLeod of the Strothman Agency (@BostonBookGirl), shared some interesting findings on trends in Middle Grade and YA fiction. With her permission, I sum up her talk here on the Fire Escape.

Track us on twitter via hashtag #BostonBEA.

Some of the BostonBEA participants: from left to right, back row: John L. Bell, Brendan Halpin, Delia Cabe, Lauren MacLeod, Marie Cloutier, Laya Steinberg, Anindita Basu Sempere. Front row: Mitali Perkins, Kathleen Benner Duble.

Lauren MacLeod (center, back) leads a discussion on trends in YA and MG books.

Anindita Basu Sempere, Joan Paquette, John L. Bell, and Brendan Halpin share books and tips.