Archive for March 31, 2010

Around the Horn

* Want to know the secret of how to write for boys? I refer you to this post.

* If you write a book about bullying, sometimes a guy will give you an eye-rolling response like, “Oh please, you big wuss.” Then there’s stories like this one, and we’re reminded of what’s at stake.

* Loyal readers know that I’m loathe to bring the snark, heaven forfend, but this “Battle of the Kids’ Books” hype does nothing for me. I mean, okay, I get it, it’s a familiar format used everywhere — featuring rock bands or supermodels or favorite cereal brands — all done in good fun to promote great books. But what can I say? The competition angle, with winners and losers, turns me off. It all feels like a rehash of the endless awards season we just experienced. Besides, I’d prefer an old-fashioned Battle Royale. That said: I’m sure the authors are happy for the added publicity.

* I was so, so, so excited for this . . . then I remembered I don’t get HBO.

* The first internet sighting of Justin Fisher Declares War! — on a somewhat dubious “Top 10 Books for Boys” list. Not that I’m complaining!

* Here’s Youtube’s 50 Best Videos over the past five years. According to somebody. Coming in at #1: “Charlie Bit My Finger!”

* Sometimes we forget to spread the awkwardness. And I’m here to remind you.

The caption for this one: “This family just wants

to know what the hell you’re looking at.”

* My 2010 New York Mets prediction: 82 wins. Not optimistic about the pitching. Worse: I’ve lost faith in management. Sorry, Doret.

* Betsy Bird’s countdown for “The Top 100 Children’s Novels” is winding down to single digits. Don’t miss out. As always, she does a spectacular job.

Overheard: Rainy, Sneezy Morning

It was one of those mornings every parent knows too well. My daughter Maggie woke up groggy, coughing, sneezing, with a thtupped-up head. She’d been under the weather for the past couple of days. So it was a struggle getting her out of bed, fed, dressed, and off to school. I mean, there was serious doubt we could pull it off.

I prodded and cajoled — showed sensitivity and firmness (never waver, that’s my motto!) — and finally, miraculously, we were in the car. Ready to go.

The sky was an ugly mass of gray clouds. Rain poured down. Maggie’s eyes were glazed, she snorted constantly, a picture (and sound) of misery.

Sliding the key into the ignition, I said, “It’s not going to rain all day. It’s supposed to get nice later on. Maybe you can walk home.”

Maggie mumbled something I didn’t catch. It was the first time all morning she’d given anything beyond a one-word reply. I leaned in closer. “What?”

“It might be a good day for rainbows,” she observed.


Hmmm. She must get it from her mother.

Cue the Inspiration: “It’s the End of the World”

“Why do the birds go on singing? Why do the stars glow above?”

I’ve been writing my first YA novel, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the process, it’s often felt like a death match. I’m like that guy on the garage floor, bloodied and short of breath, stretching for that just-out-of-reach crowbar. If only I could grasp it to smash my opponent, that damn story, across the skull.

Anyway: that’s all preamble. We find inspiration in all sorts of places. Small details aid us in our struggle. And for many writers, music can help set the right mood. In a recent interview here, Kurtis Scaletta said that he listened to a lot of Bob Marley while writing Mamba Point, a book set in Africa. David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” reportedly listened to a lot of music from New Orleans while working on his new HBO series, “Treme.”  In fact, he even wanted executives at HBO to listen to specific songs while reading the script. Which makes me wonder: Did Rebecca Stead listen to the $10,000 Pyramid theme song — over and over again — while writing When You Reach Me? I hope not, but you never know; writers can be a nutty bunch. It does amuse me to think of her pecking away at the keyboard while this song played on an endless loop:

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Anyway, my current book involves sixteen-year-old characters. I’m doing a lot of remembering, soul-searching. Again, not so much the specific details of that time but the essential feelings of that age. First summer jobs, first car, first love.

Somewhere along the line I remembered “The End of the World,” an amazing 1963 Skeeter Davis tune, produced by Chet Atkins, music by Arthur Kent and lyrics by Sylvia Dee. My goodness, what lyrics. Has any song better captured the heartbreak of teenage love? Absolute perfection. A song that could not possibly be better.

“I can’t understand. No, I can’t understand/How life goes on the way it does.”

Don’t you agree?

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Why does the sun go on shining?

Why does the sea rush to shore?

Don’t they know it’s the end of the world,

‘Cause you don’t love me any more?

Why do the birds go on singing?

Why do the stars glow above?

Don’t they know it’s the end of the world.

It ended when I lost your love.

I wake up in the morning and I wonder,

Why everything’s the same as it was.

I can’t understand. No, I can’t understand,

How life goes on the way it does.

Why does my heart go on beating?

Why do these eyes of mine cry?

Don’t they know it’s the end of the world.

It ended when you said goodbye.

Happy Nappy Bloggy Baseball: Around the Horn with Doret

My friend, Doret Canton, of The Happy Nappy Bookseller blog, goes around the horn with nine authors of children’s baseball books. It’s a pretty cool lineup with some heavy hitters, sure to score runs in bunches.

Doret’s come up with a fun, inventive way of sharing her passion for baseball and baseball books, with each author answering interview questions over a series of days.

Here’s the lineup:

1. Gene Fehler, Change-up: Baseball Poems
2. Linda Sue Park, Keeping Score
3. Kurtis Scaletta, Mudville
4. Alan Gratz, Brooklyn Nine
5. Julianna Baggott, The Prince of Fenway Park
6. James Preller, Six Innings
7. Jennifer E. Smith, The Comeback Season
8. Carl Deuker, Painting the Black
9. Mick Cochrane, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies

Alongside this company, I’m like that kid at second base, murmuring to himself, “Don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up, please God don’t let me screw it up.”

Here’s Round One, questions 1-3.

Here’s Round Two, questions 4-6.

Stop on over and check it out.

By the way, I interviewed Doret back about a year ago. She’s a passionate, voracious reader and I love her attitude. You wanna get real? Go talk to Doret. But don’t believe my word for it, decide for yourself.

After spending time with Doret, you’ll definitely want to put on a squeeze play.

Breaking the Silence: Interview at

I’m breaking my self-imposed gag order to alert my Nation of Readers of an interview I did with Carl DeLuca over at

Click here like a crazed ferret and you’ll find it.

I think anyone interested in boys and books (together, at last!) will appreciate the effort, commitment, and care that Carl has put into his new website. You should check it out! There’s thoughtful essays, lists, interviews (so far: Jessica Lee Anderson, Laura Manivong, Kurtis Scaletta, and Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen), links, and free pizza and beer for every visitor (no, I’m lying).

Thanks, Carl!

What’s Writing All About?

You want it in one word?

Here goes:

I always shake my head when people talk about “multi-tasking” and what an essential skill it is for the next generation and blah blah blah. I don’t believe a word of it.

For me — and I’m willing to bet this applies to everybody, on any career path — the key to productive work is concentrated effort, pushing aside distractions, trying to achieve a diamond-shaped focus on what’s in front of you.

Which means: Next week I’m taking a brief break from blogging.

Back on Monday, March 29th — hope to see you then!

And thank you, as always, for stopping by. It’s probably something I don’t say enough.

Fan Mail Wednesday #82-83

I’m running a day late again, and falling behind on everything. So let’s hop to it!

Letter #82:

I replied:


Thanks for the letter and the book report. I’m glad you connected with Six Innings. I’m a big reader of baseball books myself; I’ve actually built up a pretty good collection over the years. It means a lot to me that I now have a book to place on the same shelf alongside some of my all-time favorites.

Where I live, in upstate New York, we’ve finally broken winter’s back. I’m now coaching two baseball teams. One is regular Little League, boys 10-11, and the other is a 10-Under Travel Team. By the time All-Stars is finished in July, I expect I’ll spend about 70-80 days running practices and filling out lineups for games. I love it — and have always, always loved it, for as long as I can remember — so it was natural for me to finally get around to writing a baseball book. It’s a world and a game I know inside out and from a variety of perspectives.

Whenever I think of that book, I’m grateful to Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla, my editors in New York City, for giving me the opportunity to write it. (By the way, Jean is going to be very angry when she sees that you misspelled her name — it’s the kind of thing that freaks her out completely; my advice, find a safe house somewhere, stay out of the city for a while, lay low.) You know, it  means everything in the world when there’s someone behind you, believing in you, setting you up to succeed. That’s my coaching philosophy in a nutshell: I try to be the guy on the side clapping my hands, saying, Come on, you can do it.

Isn’t that what everybody needs?

Oh yeah, thanks a lot for the self-addressed, return envelope. Very thoughtful and much appreciated.


* * * * *

Letter #83:

I wanted to tell you that my son (6 years old) and I have greatly enjoyed your Jigsaw Jones series.  I picked your series because they were chapter books, but mainly because they were upbeat and friendly.  I was a bit dismayed by the dark  themes that some of the other series contained and was happy to find yours.  Many thanks for all the writing you have done!

As an aside, in one of the books I read “FLY 92″ and my curiosity was suddenly piqued!  I was tickled when I realized you are currently in the Capital District.  I grew up in Greenville, NY which is southwest of Delmar.

Blessings to you and your family.  We look forward to reading more of your books (not just Jigsaw!) in the future!

– Rachel

I replied:


I am always so grateful when I receive notes like yours. It means a lot that you, a parent, took the time to say those kind words. I’m touched. And yes, sure, I’m glad somebody noticed! I’ve kept Jigsaw squeaky clean because I’m writing for very young readers. It’s easy to lose track of how little these kids are. I just have a clear sense of where I will and won’t go with that series. I don’t see the need for words like “fat” or “stupid” or mean-spirited behavior, much less what we commonly hear in popular children’s movies today. In fact, I feel a strong need to avoid that language.

Quick story: Yesterday we had a hard moment with my daughter Maggie, who’s in 3rd grade, when someone called her fat (she isn’t, but that’s beside the point). At the same time, I’ve been reading Queen Bees and Wannabes, constantly reminded of the importance of language and the labels we use to hurt or limit others. There she was, crying. And it wasn’t the crying that worried me, but the self-image issues that can make being a girl so difficult in today’s world. Maggie’s mother is 6’1″ — strong and powerful and gorgeous. For Maggie there’s no hope that she’ll be the idealized petite blond in skinny jeans.

I guess we’re growing up.

In fact, I blogged about this same issue — in a totally different context — earlier this week. Words have a power over us.

Thanks for writing. When you are ready to take the next step beyond Jigsaw, you might like Along Came Spider, which is just right for 3rd grade and up. Mighty Casey is a baseball-themed picture book your son might enjoy. Sorry, didn’t want to sound like a commercial there at the end.

Greenville forever!


Music Video Weekend: St. Patrick’s Day Edition, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy”

“What care I for my money-o?”

Must be the weather. I’m feeling St. Paddy’s Day a wee bit early this afternoon, so started listening hardcore to Irish tunes. And me being me, I just had to share one of my favorites. But hold on a second while I wet my whistle.

Ah better. You have to love Ireland’s Mike Scott and The Waterboys, it’s a requirement here at, and a staple from my late-80’s period. For me, the must-have disk has always been “Fisherman’s Blues.” Here they do a lively version of one of the great traditional Irish tunes, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” full of wild idealism and that particular strain of (fading?) Irish anti-materialism. “Gypsy” can be found on “Roam to Room,” perhaps their disk most influenced by the traditional music (and gypsy spirit) of old Ireland.

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There were three old gypsies came to our hall door
they came brave and boldly-o
And one sang high and the other sang low
and the other sang a raggle taggle gypsy-o

It was upstairs downstairs the lady went
put on her suit of leather-o
And there was a cry from around the door
she’s away wi’ the raggle taggle gypsy-o

It was late that night when the Lord came in
inquiring for his lady-o
And the servant girl she said to the Lord
“She’s away wi’ the raggle taggle gypsy-o”

“Then saddle for me my milk white steed
– my big horse is not speedy-o
And I will ride till I seek my bride
she’s away wi’ the raggle taggle gypsy-o”

Now he rode East and he rode West
he rode North and South also
Until he came to a wide open plain
it was there that he spied his lady-o

“How could you leave your goose feather bed
your blankeys strewn so comely-o?
And how could you leave your newly wedded Lord
all for a raggle taggle gypsy-o?”

“What care I for my goose feather bed
wi’ blankets strewn so comely-o?
Tonight I lie in a wide open field
in the arms of a raggle taggle gypsy-o.”

“How could you leave your house and your land?
how could you leave your money-o?
How could you leave your only wedded Lord
all for a raggle taggle gypsy-o?”

“What care I for my house and my land?
what care I for my money-o?
I’d rather have a kiss from the yellow gypsy’s lips
I’m away wi’ the raggle taggle gypsy-o!”

I discovered this version by Eliza Carthy, playing alongside her parents, folk musicians Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson. She gives it a completely different feel and arrangement — utterly gorgeous — and I realize that I’ve got some catching up to do:

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Here’s a band I don’t know anything about, named Mad Dog McRea, but these guys give a spirited, ale-spilled, “Wish I was there hoisting me glass” performance:

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And finally, there’s Planxty, an Irish “super group” including Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Liam O’Flynn, and Donal Lunny. Here they give the song a go with stirring results, taken from their 1973 eponymous debut. Sorry, audio only:

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Bring Change 2 Mind: “Words Have Power Over Us.”

I was impressed and pleased to find this full-page advertisement, featuring actress Glenn Close, that addressed the stigma of mental illness:

Here’s the body copy of the advertisement:

Glenn Close’s sister Jessie and Jessie’s son Calen have a disease. And even though their story is their own, it’s far from unusual. The fact is, one in six adults has a mental illness. The harder reality is that the ignorance that fuels the stigma associated with mental illness can often be the most painful part of managing the disease.

Glenn and her family chose to be national voices for the first campaign dedicated to fighting the stigma that accompanies mental illness. Because having a disease is difficult enough. Being blamed, or ostracized for having it, well that’s just crazy.

Readers of Bystander may suspect that I have some personal experience with schizophrenia. And it’s true: my brother John suffered from schizophrenia. I touched upon  John’s experiences in a fictionalized way in that book, and also blogged about it more directly here.

Clicking around cyberspace, I found this insightful, deeply-felt piece written by Glenn Close for O, The Oprah Magazine, titled “Glenn Close’s Aha Moment.” It begins:

As an actress, I have always loved words. I believe in their power. But certain words have power over us — until we destigmatize them and learn to speak them out loud, without fear or shame.

By the way, since I was mildly critical of J.K. Rowling last week, let’s recognize how brilliant and accurate she was to make the characters in the Harry Potter books fear the word “Voldemort.” They were afraid to say it out loud. And to that extent, he held dominion over them, for he had stolen a piece of their language. Ms. Close continues:

My aha moment hit me several years ago, when I realized that three deeply frightening words had power over me: schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar. There is mental illness in my family. And I knew that if I really wanted to help, I would have to learn to say those words fearlessly, out loud. That’s the beginning . . .


And my aha moment is beginning to have repercussions. A group of us, along with Fountain House, are launching a campaign called Bring Change 2 Mind. In June we went to Washington and presented our idea to the major mental health organizations. With their enthusiastic blessing and support, we shot our first public service announcement— in Grand Central Station — directed by Ron Howard. Jessie and I and our children are in it. And John Mayer gave us use of his exquisite song “Say.” has links to all the major mental health groups. It will connect people to whatever they need: help, community, education, or a chance to join one of the organizations.

It is just the beginning, but I hope it will give people the courage to talk about mental illness, to lose their fear of the words, to conquer shame and stigma. Jessie and I felt a huge sense of relief when we decided to speak out. There is nothing to hide. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Depression. I have no fear. We are all connected, and none of us should ever feel marginalized, stigmatized, and alone. — As told to Johanna Schneller

I congratulate Ms. Close on the courage of her convictions, and the bright shining power of her insight. This is good work; I believe she’s right. We need to talk about this stuff, not hide from it, because there is a power in words — a power to do harm, and a power to make positive change.

“Change a mind about mental illness, and you can change a life.”

Here’s the PSA as directed by Ron Howard:

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“Bystander” Review

Mary Ann Gallagher writes of Bystander:

This fast-paced read is an eye-opener for children in the often-confusing world of middle school.

For the full review, click here.

To discuss books with Mary Ann, who owns a bookstore in Canada, you may visit her by leaping headfirst through this magical rabbit hole . . . jump here!