Monday, November 15, 2010

Winter Leads Me To A Virtual Stillness

Brrr ... it's getting chilly out here on the Fire Escape. I'm going in where it's warm. Starting my annual winter hiatus to write, reflect, dream, and pray. Might pop back if something grabs me, and will be somewhat accessible through social media. Stay warm, friends!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Is EMILY OF DEEP VALLEY a Timeless Classic?

Thanks to everybody who participated in our Cuci Mata ("fresh eyes" in Indonesian) read of Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace. So does this book stand the test of time? I'll let a group of stellar bloggers make their case.

Booking Mama thinks it deserves the label: "Emily of Deep Valley delves into some topics that were pretty much taboo when she wrote this book, namely depression and racism."

She Is Too Fond Of Books agrees: "I found in (Emily) a soul sister of sorts, with her unconventional methods of finding her place in the world ... Although I’m hoping you’ll read all the Betsy-Tacy books, this novel can be read on its own and might make a good introduction if you don’t have time to commit to the entire series (make time!)."

Diary of an Eccentric definitely thinks it's a classic: "The more I get to know Lovelace’s characters, the more I realize that her books are timeless.  It was easy for me to identify with Emily, from her bouts of depression to feeling out of place as friends grow apart — and of course, most of us remember having crushes on guys who didn’t deserve our attention."

A Library is a Hospital for the Mind continues the case: "What surprised me was how applicable this story is to readers today. I had no idea when I picked up Emily of Deep Valley that I would be pondering immigration laws, racial and social discrimination, and the like. Who knew that a book written nearly sixty years ago could address and connect the same concerns Americans have today as they had one hundred years ago."

And what does Charlotte's Library think about the representation of race and culture in the book?
Ethnicity-wise....it was very, very interesting to see Emily and her allies take on the narrow-minded bigots in town who looked on the Syrian immigrants with dislike and distrust. Emily's dream of a tolerant America is a lot less cynical then mine, but that might be my loss...and her final argument for why the Syrians should be embraced, and made welcomed, is one that I could cheer for—Emily wants their differences celebrated, as something that can contribute positively to the whole of American culture. Yay Emily!

There was just one thing that has been vexing me. Early in the book, her aunt's house is described thus: "There was a fern in a brass bowl on the newel post, and an Indian head on the wall. Emily loved these bright modern touches." (page 8 of my edition). I have googled interior design of 1912 to death today, and not found anything that casts light on just what sort of Indian head is meant....and indeed, Lovelace, when she mentions Native Americans, which is seldom and in passing, shows no signs of awareness of the injustices and wrongs perpetrated by Emily's colonizing ancestors...

So that's the one thing I'd change. Otherwise, I think this is pretty much a perfect book!
I love this post from Four Cedar Farms, written before the re-issue, but nonetheless ringing with the argument that yes, this book is for today's readers:
I have ancestors who were known around another river town as “the Syrians.” And like the Syrians in Hart Lovelace’s book, my family was marginalized, called names by the “better” citizens of their town. Their immigration was not welcomed by those who felt the United States had enough people. They struggled with language and social structures and yet lived full lives in “shabby houses that needed paint.” I like to think that someone like Emily might have wandered into my ancestors’ neighborhood, into my ancestors’ lives, to extend to them some version of Emily’s small-town spirit of friendship. And why not? Hart Lovelace’s fiction is based on her early life experiences. Her stories are authentic. Her stories are timeless.

It is 2010 and the immigrants living on the fringe of our communities in shabby abodes hail from a different part of the world than Ottoman-controlled Syria. Yet, I’ll bet they hear people whisper derogatory names when they pass. I’ll bet some people feel they don’t belong here; the country is full enough. Still, I’d bet my carriage that despite the majority’s indifference to them, they are living out rich traditions and full lives in the shadow of the American dream like my ancestors once did. And I’ll bet somewhere in America there’s a teenager who, because of the example set by the fictional Emily Webster, is confident enough to step forward make a difference in their lives.
As for me? For this, our first Cuci Mata read, I'm going to ask you to read the preface I so gladly wrote for the re-issue. A star debater who uses her elocutionary skills to defend the rights of the powerless? In my opinion, Emily's a female hero who stands the test of time. Secondary non-WASP characters crafted so vividly you feel as if you know them in real life? The Syrian immigrants in this book aren't just foils for Emily's character development. Best of all, the power dynamic goes both ways — Emily is able to help the Syrians, but they, in turn, are able to "save" her. I could go on (as I did in the preface), but I hope you're convinced that this book deserves the "classic" label. Go get a copy and share it with the girls in your lives.

I'll let Book Duck have the last word:  "Emily is a girl with a spine. The most important thing (she) does with her time, though, is reach out to the community of Syrian immigrants just outside Deep Valley. The townspeople and children give the immigrant community a hard time because of their odd manners and broken English. Immigrants still come to America, and people still forget that poor English is not a synonym for 'stupid.' While idealistic, Emily of Deep Valley challenges readers to rethink their gut reactions to people who are different in manner and custom."

If you're in the Boston area, come join us for afternoon tea this Saturday, November 13, at the Brookline Booksmith, where we'll talk all things Lovelace and I'll try to make a case for Emily as a classic in person.

Note: If I've missed your review, please add it in the comments. December is dedicated to a Cuci Mata read of L.M. Alcott's Old-Fashioned Girl. Come join us to see if this novel stands the test of time.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Chatting in 140 with Roger Sutton about A FAMILY OF READERS

I devoured and post-it-ed my copy of A FAMILY OF READERS before today's noon chat with co-author Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book. Here are a few highlights of our slightly frenetic talk via Twitter. Please remember and excuse the limitation of 140 characters per tweet. I'm in italics, Roger is not, and I've edited for brevity and flow.

Okay, Roger, first tell us about you. How long have you been Editor-in-Chief of The Horn Book?

RS: Almost 15 years.

Why this book now? And why did you choose to target adults who love to read?

RS: Because I don't care about adults who DON'T like to read, frankly ... and you say "now" but Candlewick says it was due a couple of years ago. ;-)

Educators are reaching out to kids who live with adults who DON'T like to read. Suggestions for them?

RS: Get them into the library, which houses plenty of right-thinking grownups.

This guide is a superb endorsement for libraries. Where else can kids--with or without bucks--discover such joy and power?

RS: The library was the center of my child life. Dedham Public Library, Dedham, MA.

I love how A FAMILY OF READERS explores themes of power around children's books.

RS: What do you mean by "power"?

At one point, a contributor says "words deserve respect." You encourage adults to back off and let children and teens read in privacy.

RS: I do think the greatest power we have is to read exactly what we want to ... I guess there *is* a lot of "you're not the boss of me!" in this book.

"You're not the boss of me!" is a resounding cry of childhood, which is why this book is so much on the side of the child.

RS: Once a coworker here told her son, "You're not my boss." And he said, "No, Roger is."

A ringing message about power: a good story is on "the side of the child." A recent example from your nightstand?

RS: I've just discovered Bill Bryson. Loving it.

More than anything, this book empowers Kid/YA readers by illuminating the act of reading for gatekeepers.

RS: Gatekeepers need to know books AND how to get out of the way. The role is to make sure the kids know there is a whole world of and in books, but never force them to read "for their own good."

Ginee Seo and Bruce Brooks talk about a parent's freedom to put "crap in the trash." Isn't that too much adult power?

RS: Every reading experience with young children is a transaction, yes? Parents are readers too. And don't forget a child's freedom to hide books from mom or dad.

Were you peeking under the edge of the carpet under my bed when I was reading in Flushing, Queens, Mr. Sutton?

RS: I respect the privacy of bedroom reading!

But if a parent is "trashing crap," then the parent's definition of crap is ruling the reading of the house, right?

RS: Not if the child has the gumption to raid the trash. ;-)

"Given the chance, kids will read the same way adults do: for themselves." Why is reading well essentially for self?

RS: Because that's the one person we can actually control.

You tell parents to leave the reading teen alone, saying fiction is never a "how-to" guide. What effect does it have, then?

RS: More like a "what if?" guide.

You also say, "'YA literature' has never been been synonymous with 'what teenagers read.'" Any other synonym, then?

RS: YA lit is about coming of age, for the most part. Teens like to read about other themes, too.

Enjoyed the essay by Robert Lipsyte on how books helped him widen his definition of masculinity.

RS: Books helped me feel like a "real boy," something I periodically doubted.

You tell Katherine Paterson that her books are more "family fiction" than "children's fiction." Elaborate?

RS: Used to be books were published with the whole family, say 9 years and up, in mind.

Other examples of a "family read" (books for kids and adults to enjoy at the same time?) 

RS: Holes, Year Down Yonder, The Yearling, Cheaper By the Dozen.

It was liberating to read how Coe Booth wanted to grow up to be the black Judy Blume.

RS: I think Coe Booth is one of our new truly great writers.

Naomi Shihab Nye says: "Poetry was not trying to get us to do anything, it was simply inviting us to think, and feel, and see."

RS: Poetry is really radical that way.

Marc Aronson says the graphic-novel memoir as genre holds promise. Do you agree? If so, why?

RS: I love comic books--hope graphic novel respect does not disallow this outlaw literature for children.

Margaret Mahy talks about the "accumulated power of a story" for the reader. What did she mean?

RS: I think she was talking about what a story continues to gain even years after you first read it.

Martha makes the case that the page turn puts the child in power of the pacing of a story ... unlike movies or television.

RS: Yes, you go as fast or as slowly as you please, you skip, you go back, you read twice ... *THAT'S* power. But even TV? Don't be a killjoy.

Okay, I love the movies and television, but with a book a storyteller gives more power to the reader. Pacing, picturing ...

RS: Yes, that's why I don't really enjoy books like Harry Potter that try to color in absolutely everything. Leave room! Like, you, Mitali, did a great job with providing just enough scenery description in Bamboo People. Tell me what I'm looking at but let me imagine it for myself.

Will we lose "the power of a page turn" in a digital age?

RS: I think digital media will give us a new way to turn pages. Jean Gralley wrote brilliantly for us about digital picture books a couple of years ago, and I wrote an editorial this month about digital publishing.

In the book, Jon Scieszka says, "Design sets the tone for everything." How so in a digital age?

RS: Digital books have to look like themselves, making best use of their own medium. I hate the stupid page turn animation in iBooks. "It's an iBook, Jackass!"

You interviewed several Kid/YA book stars. Anything surprise you in one or two of these conversations?

RS: I'm always surprised in author interviews--how different people are when they write. Serious writers can be a scream, quiet writers can be wicked.

I'd love an example of how someone's interview differed from their writing, but feel free to skip.

RS: All I'll say is, Maurice Sendak tells a dirty joke better than anyone I have ever met.

I loved Jon Scieszka's joke about the bell-ringer. Lovely to picture him as a fifth-grader with that choice: an "A" or a laugh.

RS: Always go for the laugh. "A"s are far more fleeting.

Since you started at The Horn Book, what's one positive change you've seen in this industry?

RS: Wider doors are letting in the crap but also all kinds of voices.

Full disclosure: my essay on how a few fictional BFFs gave me courage to achieve womanhood is in A FAMILY OF READERS. I'll close with a Maurice Sendak quote in this brilliant book: "Absorption in creating is the actual reward." A great reminder for writers. Thanks, Roger and Martha, for this timely and inspiring guide.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Virtual Author Visit: Talking To Students Via Skype

Wondering how a virtual visit works? I traveled via Skype last week to Patton Middle School in PA to answer questions about writing, including this one about outlining novels:


I'm in my Boston study, and the student is in PA. Who could have dreamed of this five years ago?

Friday, November 05, 2010

You're Invited: A Family of Readers Twitter Q & A

"A godsend for adults who want to instill a passion for reading in the next generation has arisen out of Boston’s bookish past." — Boston Globe

"A gem of a guidebook to help parents navigate the world of children's literature ... a wonderfully knowledgeable and highly opinionated guide to books for children ages infant through teen. — Seattle Times

"For grown-ups who want to know more about the books kids read there's a great new resource ... filled with smart and opinionated essays, reviews, and information by smart and opinionated children's book experts on a wide variety of genres, books, and ideas about books." — Huffington Post
About which book are these reviewers raving, you ask? None other than FAMILY OF READERS, edited by Roger Sutton and Martha Pavarrano and published by Candlewick.

To find out more about this collection of Horn Book essays (including one of mine), curated thoughtfully and wisely by Roger and Martha, join us on Twitter Monday, 11/8, from noon-1 EDT. I'll be asking Roger questions, and you should feel free to chime in. Track the chat with hashtag #familyofreaders, and I'll also be posting the highlights on my blog.


Roger Sutton and I, showing off our products.