September 22, 2014 @ 6:17 pm | Filed under: Books
We drove up the coast this weekend to move Jane back into school. My parents held down the fort here at home. Scott and I stayed in Pismo Beach and I was swooning every minute. California’s Central Coast is as lovely as it gets.
Now home, and the house seems so quiet with only five kids. Only, heh. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our regular routine. I have a stack of books awaiting me at the library, which is closed on Mondays. I was itchy all day for it to open.
Speaking of new books: two launches today made my heart go pittypat. One is Sarah Elwell’s latest, this one delivered in an innovative serialized-ebook fashion. Each week for three months you get a new installment. Sarah’s work is haunting and lovely, and I can’t wait to read this. A novel in weekly installments might just suit my jam-packed Cybils season schedule.
Deep in the Far Away by Sarah Elwell
And the other is Scott’s latest! A YA novel available on Kindle. For readers of his UNCIVIL WAR series, this is NOT the next volume of that (but it too is coming out as soon as possible).
Game Over by Scott Peterson
What are you reading right now?
September 18, 2014 @ 8:05 pm | Filed under: Poetry
Today on Twitter Sally Thomas wondered aloud what a ‘poetry-centered curriculum’ would look like, and a marvelous discussion ensued. Kortney of One Deep Drawer went to the trouble of Storifying the conversation—what a gem she is! Do hasten to her blog and enjoy it. (This link goes to her intro post, which links in turn to the Storify.)
September 17, 2014 @ 8:26 pm | Filed under: Books
So I wrote this really long post about YA fiction on tumblr, and then I was like ARGH, maybe it should go at Bonny Glen instead, what am I even doing? So now you know exactly how decisive I am.
Well, it’s there, and I’m leaving it there, but here’s a piece of it, and if you have trouble commenting on that site you’re welcome to bring the discussion here.
Something I’ll be thinking about as I gorge is what stories these writers are telling and why. (Not just how, which is a primary measure of a book’s merit—how is this story being told? How well? How vividly? How compellingly? How convincingly? How searingly? Does it leave something behind? A scar on the mind, a rune engraved on the heart? A face you can’t ever forget? How? How?)
In an endeavor like this, selecting a Cybils shortlist, the what and why questions are equally pressing. What makes this book stand out from the crowd—and a crowd it will be. Why this plot, this narrator, this voice. Why verse, or why prose? When you read a lot of books at once you can’t help but spot patterns and trends. Small details, perhaps, like the naming of cars—in 2010 we had a gaggle of them, including not one but two cars named “Holden,” (totally by coincidence I have no doubt). But larger trends as well, clusters of books exploring similar subject matter. In realistic YA fiction this very often means suicide, addiction, medical or mental disorders, sexual or physical abuse. And that, I think, tells us a great deal about what the world is like for teens. And is why the best YA is both gripping and probing—that’s what teens do: they grip tightly to each other, to ideas, to hopes, to identity, to music, to fears; and they probe and dig and ponder and search. In this light the naming of cars makes perfect sense—the quest for identity, the assignment of personality to objects of significance, the search for the real, true meaning of things. Naming a thing helps define the thing. Naming it Holden—oh there’s so much to unpack there. Holden Caulfield, the original teen gripper and prober.
You can’t read a book that is gripping without being gripped, and that’s what I’m preparing myself for. To have my mind shaken, my heart squeezed.
September 17, 2014 @ 4:01 pm | Filed under: Bloggity, Books, Cybils
It’s that time of year again: Cybils Award season. The judge announcements went out this morning. I’m delighted to be serving on the First-Round panel for YA Fiction. My last stint on this panel was in 2010, aka The Year I Read a Million Books. (I’m sure it’s a TOTAL COINCIDENCE that that was also the year I began to need reading glasses.)
My appointment to this panel spurred me to make a move I’ve been considering for some time, which is to dust off my tumblr (again) and try using it for my YA-related content. I’ve got a new YA of my own coming out next year, and tumblr seems a better fit for connecting with teen readers. I’ll add a link to the sidebar, or if that topic interests you enough to want to follow it in a feed reader, here’s the RSS. (I also use tumblr for reposting interesting articles and art I’ve come across, so fair warning.)
Disclaimer: I consider all platform changes to be experimental until they’ve proven themselves convenient, so this may or may not be a long-term shift. I just really like keeping things in different boxes. But if you’ve seen my garage, you know there usually comes a point where I get annoyed by the clutter and dump everything into one big container. (Believe me, you don’t want to see my garage.)
I believe this post may have set a new record for ending paragraphs with parentheticals. (Yeehah!)
September 15, 2014 @ 8:08 pm | Filed under: Books
The other day I mentioned I’ve been meaning to write a post about the 1972 middle-grade novel Sarah and Katie by Dori White. THIS IS NOT THAT POST. This is purely a curiosity itch I can’t wait to scratch. I took my query to Twitter, too, and…crickets. Now, ordinarily the merest mention of any book on Twitter, let alone a childhood favorite, garners zillions of immediate and enthusiastic responses. People love to talk about their childhood books.
Which leads me to believe that no one I know either on Twitter or here has heard of this book!
Can this be? Am I alone in my Sarah and Katie mini-obsession?
Illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, you guys. It was a Scholastic Book Clubs book; I’m sure that’s where I came across it.
This book haunted me. I don’t remember what age I was, maybe eleven? Story of two best friends, sixth graders, in Depression-era Oregon. Thick as thieves, a regular Betsy-Tacy pair, but the arrival of a new girl in their midst doesn’t work out quite as well as when Tib shows up. (Then again, B-T and Tib were around six in that book. Big difference between six and twelve. Trios are much trickier, at twelve.) The new girl is dazzlingly beautiful, a cloud of red curls, glamorous, dazzling, a wee bit manic; and everyone including Sarah is smitten—except Katie, who sees through Melanie’s stories. Ring a bell? No? There’s a play, and of course Melanie gets THE PART, and she’s amazing in it, she’s this incredible actress, but that too sticks in Katie’s craw…
And the whole scene when they go to Melanie’s crummy apartment, and she’s playing it up, lady of the manor, lavish, starletty…until her mother comes home and suddenly she’s TOTALLY CHANGED—clothes, hair, voice, manner. All meek and humble. And Katie’s like I KNEW IT!
What haunted me about it was the disturbed and disturbing tone, the undercurrents caused by Melanie’s deception. And the idea, which must have been new to me then, that a girl could so thoroughly fool people, could fool even her own mother. And the gradual realization, handled so deftly by Dori White (as I noticed when rereading it last year for the first time in maybe two decades), that there was a deep longing and desperation behind Melanie’s actions, that she wasn’t just someone you could slap a Bad Guy label on. Katie awakens to this slowly, painfully, and she brought me right along with her. The only other children’s book I remember experiencing that same awful poignancy in—almost a sense of guilt—was The Hundred Dresses.
Okay, so now I sort of have written the post I was thinking about, I guess. But really what I want to know is, have none of you heard of it?
September 11, 2014 @ 8:26 pm | Filed under: Books
Here’s a new game I’ve just thought of: close your eyes and grab a book from your shelves, any book, and then write a brief commentary about it. Or a long one, if you like. I’ve got so many books in my review stack, and so many others (the backlist and midlist titles I love to champion) waiting in my mental queue for some loving attention from me—books I mean to discuss or celebrate or simply wax nostalgic over. (Sarah and Katie, you guys. FOR FOUR YEARS I’ve been planning a Sarah and Katie post. The cover’s been sitting there in drafts staring mournfully at me all this time.)
All those plans create pressure, and pressure, I have found, is the enemy of blogging. So I’m thinking about making a game of it, a game with a challenge built in. I do like a dare. Will I find a few words to say about any book I pluck off the shelf? I suppose I’ll have to allow the caveat that if it’s one of Scott’s books and I know nothing at all about it, I can choose another. And I might need to impose some mild rules upon myself about mixing up the shelves, since our books are sorted into a rough order and I could easily stack the deck by reaching for the favorites on the bookcase next to my desk.
Want to play along? Feel free to chime in below, or on your own blog (and share the link, if the latter). If there’s enough interest I could make a Mr. Linky for it, but I wouldn’t promise to host a linkup on any kind of regular schedule, because promises are pressure and see above. Unless maybe a Mary Poppins kind of promise…when the wind changes…
All right, here I go, getting up and squeezing shut my eyes. A bedroom bookcase, since that’s where I am now, but not the one by my desk.
Okay, that was harder than I expected. It’s tricky to get close enough to make a grab without either walking into the bookcase or peeking at the lineup on the shelf you’re reaching for. I might have to enlist a child to help with future random selections. But I did nab a title, and here it is:
The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Marie Child. Now, this little book may have had an unfair advantage over all the others because I happen to own two copies of it. They live side by side on a shelf, alongside my Blue-Back Speller. Both books were indispensable to me during the writing of the Charlotte books. A lot of the meals Martha cooks come right out of Frugal Housewife (“Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy”). Originally published in 1833, this was THE go-to book for housewives, covering everything from recipes to housecleaning to general life advice such as the essay on “How to Endure Poverty.” Mrs. Child was the home management guru of her day, sort of a Tightwad Gazette meets Flylady meets Ina Garten. She’s perhaps best-remembered today for her poem, “Over the River and Through the Woods.” But I think her real genius shines in her foodie writing. For example:
If your husband brings home company when you are unprepared, rennet pudding may be made at five minutes’ notice; provided you keep a piece of calf’s rennet ready prepared soaking in a bottle of wine. [Blogger's interjection: I MEAN, OBVIOUSLY.] One glass of this wine to a quart of milk will make a sort of cold custard. Sweetened with white sugar, and spiced with nutmeg, it is very good. It should be eaten immediately; in a few hours, it begins to curdle.
That is but THE TINIEST SAMPLE of Mrs. Child’s wisdom, and I could write for hours about this book and its sweeping influence—oh what a doozy of a selection I wound up with for this first go! Actually, I have written a lot about it already, ages ago, when for a time I was doing a recurring “Mrs. Child’s Wise Advice” series here, entirely for my own amusement. Those quotes are a hoot. (“EGGS.—To prove whether they are good or bad, hold the large end of the egg to your tongue; if it feels warm, it is new; but if cold, it is bad.”)
Scott’s waiting for me to finish, so I’ll leave it at that!
Contrary to appearances, we are not giving away our youngest son (and all his toys, to boot). The neighbors put out this shelving unit and we thought it might be just the thing to replace our sagging makeshift TV stand. We stand corrected. What it is JUST THE THING for is setting up a shop, of course. What were we thinking? The Legos and Wedgits are being offered in lots ranging from “small pile” to “big pile” to “treasure.” When business is slow, you can fold yourself into your house and take a nap.
TV stand. ::snort:: What nonsense adults come up with sometimes.
Today I forgot to blog first; it’s nearly bedtime.
Melanie has begun a link-up for sharing daily learning notes, always an engaging topic (if you’re anything like me). I used to have an entire side-blog for my daily notes, and then a different one, and then a different one. These days I’m tracking things on paper, but I do like to compile some of our best resources and rabbit trails here pretty often, as you know.
Selvi asked in the comments the other day why we were working on memorizing the English monarchs, because I’ve mentioned that several times. The main reason, as I replied to her, is because they make very handy pegs for hanging other historical events on. So often in our history, literature, and science reading we come across some incident involving Great Britain and we used to always say, “Who was king then? Or was it queen?” So we set about learning the list (and American presidents as well, but that was easier because these kids grew up on the Singin’ Smart CD with its infectious tune for the presidents) and it turned into a really fun family accomplishment. Oh the triumph now when we can all get through the Horrible Histories song without a hitch!
Our various readings continue to interconnect in satisfying ways. We spent a couple of weeks on Wordsworth (you don’t leave this house until you know a good bit about the Romantics, that’s just the way it is) and are reading Coleridge this week, and that has created excellent crossover with our readings about the French Revolution. Except a MOST UNFORTUNATE THING happened and that is: while (continuing on in the juggernaut of world history) reading aloud about Napoleon, my tongue got twisted and his name came out BonaFART. Never, never, never shall I be allowed to live this down. Never, never, never shall I be permitted to read another word about him without a ripple of giggles across the room. Waterloo can’t come fast enough, believe me. I might have to move to Elba myself.
ANYWAY, back to Coleridge. We began a discussion of “Frost at Midnight” today, which is one of my most beloved poems. It’s a good many years since I’ve lived where there’s frost, but I still look at a winter sky and inhale the cold air and think of silent icicles quietly shining to the quiet moon. We found so much to discuss in the first stanza that that’s as far as we got for now—and the best is yet to come.
Today during our after-lunch block (that’s when I focus my attention on Huck and Rilla), we did cornmeal letters. Uppercase printing for Huck and lowercase cursive for Rilla. This was a new activity for Huck and he enjoyed it tremendously. (And ate a whole lot of dry cornmeal, gah.) He’s not yet shown much interest in writing or drawing—loves to paint big swirls and stripes of color, but crayons interest him not at all—but we have a Montessori Letter Shapes app that mimics this kind of tactile finger-tracing, and he used to play that quite a lot. When I put the plate of cornmeal in front of him today and showed him what we were going to do, he asked, politely puzzled, “But how do we reset it?” No reset button, you see. Oh my digital-era child.
He got the hang of the analog method pretty quick.
G is for grin
September 7, 2014 @ 8:59 am | Filed under: Art
The Basic Line Drawing class at Creativebug led me to the blog of its instructor, illustrator Lisa Congdon. Lisa and her work have galvanized our artistic pursuits around here, especially Rilla’s and mine. Something she said in one of her videos really grabbed me: a while back, she decided she needed to improve her hand-lettering skills and decided to practice lettering every day for a year. Now her illustrated quote prints seem to be among her most popular creations. Her work is quite wonderful, and I love the idea that an already accomplished artist challenged herself to develop new talents by committing to practice every day for a year. This ties in perfectly to the habits posts I’ve been working on. Daily practice, even if some days what you produce falls flat.
Just like the actor who yearns to be in a band, I’m a writer who wishes I could draw. Draw really well, I mean. I have so many artist friends whose work knocks my socks off. Watching them at work—oh, that’s the best, witnessing their command of line, the rapid unfolding of story on the page. My own work is so internal. All the color and life it possesses comes from within, from a store of words, ideas, memories, experiences—like Frederick the Mouse in winter, calling up the colors and stories and sun-warmth he stored away during the rich seasons. I love this process, I wouldn’t be me without it; but there are times I yearn to grab those colors and pour them directly onto the page without having to first simmer them in the crucible of my own mind for so long.
Not that I don’t think visual artists transfigure experience in crucibles of their own—I don’t mean that at all, and perhaps my metaphor is running away from me. What I mean is, there can be an immediacy in drawing and painting—you see it, you sketch it, you have it—that is wholly unlike the way writing happens for me. I suppose the place I find immediacy in writing is right here, on the blog, where, as I’ve said, I try to write more rapidly, in what I’ve come to think of as a kind of mental freehand. And the thing I love about drawing, clumsy as my skills are, is that the words part of my mind is actually silenced for a time. I think drawing may be the only thing I do where that is the case. I think in words, I see them scrolling across the screen of my mind always, always—when you speak to me, I see the transcript of our conversation. While things are happening, I’m searching for the words to recount the experience—it happens automatically, I can’t not do it. I first became aware of it on a plane headed for Germany when I was fourteen years old. I was frustrated that I couldn’t just be IN that moment, living it—I was already writing it up in my head.
I remember once telling another writer friend, as she described a similar experience: Oh, you’re like me, you think in narrative. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a mind that doesn’t work this way—except for those brief flashes of silence that come while I’m sketching. And yet I’ll go years without drawing. My skills are elementary (I can go a bit beyond the stick figures I was joking about the other day, but not far) but I know that, like all skills, regular practice would improve them. And so (to come back to my point at last) I was charmed by Lisa Congdon’s determination to hone an aspect of her work by doggedly doing it every day for a year. It’s a simple and even obvious notion, but how rarely such persistence occurs to us! Or occurs in practice, even after we’ve made the resolution.
And then a few days ago Lisa interviewed another visual artist on her blog (delightfully named Today Is Going to Be Awesome). Jennifer Orkin Lewis is a freelance illustrator living in New York City, and her work is lovely, lovely. I was instantly smitten. I learned in Lisa’s interview that in April 2013, Jennifer decided to paint in her sketchbook every day for a month—which turned into painting in her sketchbook every day, period.
…I decided to do a painting a day for the month. I didn’t put any restrictions on myself and I ended up spending hours each day on them. I finished out the month, but it was stressful. In May I did it again but my rules were that I would limit it to 1 hour and I would only paint food. I finished that challenge as well but I felt too tied down to that theme and I didn’t experiment enough. I picked up the sketchbook I’m using now last October and I started painting in it. Something clicked and I really liked how the paint went onto the paper, its size, the fact that it wasn’t a gorgeous sketchbook. I kept painting in it so when January came it just flowed that this would be my daily project. I decided to post them all on Instagram to hold myself accountable to painting everyday.
When I went to Jennifer’s Instagram account (@augustwren), I was blown away. I think what I like best is that she posts a snapshot of the day’s painting alongside the paints and brushes she used to make it.
Kotor Montenegro by Jennifer Orkin Lewis. Image source: Instagram.
“I’m in Venice, these are some things I saw in shop windows.” Image source: Instagram.
Scottish Sheep by Jennifer Orkin Lewis. Image source: Instagram.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly disciplined, so I have surprised myself. I have loads of 1/2 finished sketchbooks on my shelves. A great result from the practice is I now have hundreds of pages of personal reference material. I’ve gone into it to look for color combinations for projects, for the shape of a flower, a technique.”
Please do click through to read the whole interview—it’s fascinating. Jennifer now works on these paintings for 30 minutes each. 30 minutes a day for over a year. She posts the finished pieces on her website, and the range is quite breathtaking.
The obvious conclusion to this post is a resolution to work in my art journal every day for a year, but do you know, I’m terrified to make such an avowal? I always feel like announcing a plan on the blog is a surefire way to stall it. So no public declarations. Just a tiny, quiet—resolve is too binding a word. A notion. A hope. Last night after the boys were in bed, while Scott and the girls were watching a movie, Rilla and I worked in our journals. We used the Lisa Congdon piece at the top of this page as our inspiration. I’ve got Lisa’s 20 Ways to Draw a Tulip book and right now I’m in the copying stage, just trying to improve my own command of line. Got a long way to go. I added a fern to my sketch, though, figured it out all by myself using photo reference, and I’m pleased as punch with it (while simultaneously nitpicking its flaws). My writerly affection for circular structure demands its inclusion at the end of this post, but you that terrifies me too! Well, I once posted a story I wrote when I was five years old. My mother saved it for me and now I look at the fledging handwriting and nonsensical dialogue (“We will have to take care of it. If we don’t it will die.” “OK. Let’s go to the store and buy a big Ice-Cream.”) with real affection. Maybe in a year or ten I can feel the same way about this.
A different kind of copywork. Rilla likes to work in miniature and I like to eat up the page.