Archive for October 31, 2012

A Public Service Announcement: How to Trade Halloween Candy

I’m passing this along, because it is brilliant and funny and easy for me to do.

My thoughts go out to friends & family & everyone else contending with the ravages of this past storm, so I’m not sure how to blog, exactly. A measured silence? A thoughtful response?

I decided to go with candy. And humor. Trade well, my friends.

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Pull with All Your Strength & Might

Just an aside, but:

This was my wife, Lisa,

Sunday afternoon.

I was glad for my daughter

to see it.

Lisa is great &, over the years, we’ve saved a lot

on towing costs.

Carry on!

#ilovestrongwomen

Sloppy Copy, Ugly Beginnings & the Sense of Smell

I could never write a book about writing well — not smart enough, for starters — but I can give you a glimpse into how it sometimes works for me. I don’t speak from a pedestal; this missive comes from the trenches.

I was recently writing Book #3 for my new SCARY TALES series for grades 2-5 (read: solidlly 3-4).

Plot: There are three kids trapped in a school at night and strange creatures gather outside the building, shuffling closer. And, sure, maybe there’s already something frightening downstairs, too.

As I was working on the story, it hit me that there was a smell to it, a smell of evil that drifted into the building like smoke, lingering and circling and rubbing against your legs like a cat. So I jotted down a few words. They are an ugly mess. And I didn’t know at the time where in the story this could possibly occur, if at all.

Let me show you . . .

Yes, this is not a beautiful beginning, but precisely because it is a beginning, I am here to celebrate it. Anything that gets you started — that opens a door — is a good thing for a writer.

Worst handwriting ever. Plus, it looks like I left the paper in a puddle, or used it to soak up a spill. This is the moment in writing when you unexpectedly receive the kernel of an idea, the beginning of something, and you need to quickly get some words on the page — even if they are only 33% of the right words, and in entirely the wrong order. You know it isn’t right, not even close, but it’s not a real worry either. Those concerns come later on, like mosquitoes at dusk.

Since this will ultimately be a scary story for children, I want to be careful about how far to go with it. Where is the line I won’t cross? My intention is to push that line a little, but I don’t want to get too dark. Everyone is going to have a different opinion on what’s “too scary” and what’s not scary enough. In terms of how that plays out as a writer, I suspect it’s best to push the limits in a rough draft, since you can always pull back in revision — and again after the input of an objective editor.

Two More Quick Pass-Alongs for Teachers: The Passive Voice Explained, and Three Types of Rock

Do you find it challenging to teach the passive/active voice? Rebecca Johnson came up with a way that students will understand and, even better, enjoy. You can follow Rebecca on some new-fangled contraption called Twitter.

So, for example:

ACTIVE VOICE: Marilyn mailed the letter.

PASSIVE VOICE: The letter was mailed [by zombies].

Below, the illustration of the girl in this cartoon really makes it work for me. She’s unexpected, and it’s always more interesting when the exterior and interior don’t neatly sync up.

My apologies, I don’t have a credit for this illustration.

My New Mets Blog: 2 Guys Talking Mets Baseball

I have a friend whose mother is a huge fan of the New York Mets. Sadly, she’s been losing the battle with Alzheimer’s, can no longer live on her own, and often doesn’t even recognize the face of her own son. This is familiar territory for people my age. We’re watching our parents get old, get sick, get terribly confused, and pass from our lives.

Anyway, my buddy tells me, “You know what’s funny? She still asks about the Mets. She may have forgotten most of her life, but there’s some part of her that still knows the Mets are important.”

And I get that, I get it completely. For starters, my mother is the same way. And I’m the same way, because I’m my mother’s son. In 1969, at age 8, I attended Game 5 of the 1969 World Series — the day the Mets won it all in that miracle year. It remains a central, vivid, defining event for me, a North Star in the constellation of my life.

As I posted on our Mets blog yesterday, I even remember going into school the next day with a knot in my stomach, fearful of my poor excuse for an absence. I missed school for a baseball game? I didn’t think that would fly.

“The following day in class I tried to appear as sickly as possible. But unbeknownst to me, my mother had sent in a note explaining my truancy. Mrs. Thompson came to me and said, “I heard you were at the baseball game!” I confessed that, alas, it was true, figuring myself for a dead man. But to my relief, Mrs. Thompson smiled wide and told me that I was a lucky fellow. And I was lucky, even I knew as much, but I had never expected a teacher to realize it, too. It’s like when you are a kid and ASTONISHED to see a teacher at, say, the supermarket. You’re like, “You’re a human being? That eats . . . food?!” You just didn’t see them as people, exactly. That’s how I felt about Mrs. Thompson. I never figured her for a fan.

The simple truth is, I’m still a huge Mets fan and, down to my bones, “a baseball guy.” Which is a long way of telling you that I’ve cooked up a new side project, a blog about the New York Mets. I’m partnering it with my friend, Michael, mentioned above. It’s called 2 Guys Talking Mets Baseball.

If you’re a fan, come on by and check us out.

What’s that great quote from Jim Bouton?

“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball

and in the end it turns out

that it was the other way around all the time.”

Truth Revealed: What Are These Folks Looking At?

You have to love these photos taken by a hidden camera inside a haunted house at Nightmares Fear Factory in Niagara Falls, Canada. Hat tip to my friend Paul for the heads up, and the NY Daily News and Buzzfeed for the shots, though these images are now officially everywhere you look on the internet.

Of course, you may be wondering . . .

What on earth are they looking at?

What could be so terrifying?

So horrifying?

So grotesque?

So I did some research,

drove up to Canada,

and uncovered the horrible truth.

Ready?

(Can you see that I’m stalling for space?)

Here it is . . .

the horror, the horror . . .

Status Update: Spinning Plates

As you may know, I’ve been writing a new series for Feiwel & Friends. It my first return to writing a series since”Jigsaw Jones.” These past six years I’ve published exclusively in hardcover: picture books, middle grade fiction, and young adult. But I haven’t written anything for my old core readership, that 3rd-grade audience. I’ve been happy getting back to that age group (grades 2-4 really), and shooting unabashedly for big entertainment, pleasure reading, pure fun.

What’s it like to write a series? The pace is faster, for starters. Most recently I spent a full year writing Before You Go, and a lot of time fussing with it, and then another full year waiting for it to come out. It was slow-going, more about depth than speed, mostly in a good way.

Whereas writing a series feels more like this . . .

Status Update on the SCARY TALES Series:

Book #1: Home Sweet Horror

My work is done, just about. It’s been written, revised, and type-set. The illustrations are in, and the cover is done. Though the book isn’t “final,” exactly, it’s moved off my radar. Due out: July, 2013.

Book #2: I Scream, You Scream

I had forgotten the title for this one, actually had to look it up. That fact alone tells you something about the blur. The story, a thriller, has been written, revised, and copyedited. I have not seen galleys yet — that is, the type set in the exact way it will appear in book form — and that’s an important “last-best chance” to make chances, corrections. Those pages are due to me next week. The illustrations are works in progress, and I’m eager to see them. No cover, either. It’s been so long since I’ve seen this book, I feel like I’ve lost touch. I’m eager to read it again, deal with it one more time. Due out: July, 2013.

Book #3: Night of the Zombies (tentative title)

My first draft got a little too long, and a possibly a touch too old. So in revision I had to do some real cutting — eliminated an entire character! — and now my editors and I are very, very happy with it. I’m awaiting the copyedit (think: grammar, punctuation, clarity, continuity, consistency). Usually when I receive that, I’ll also receive some additional comments from the story editors. “Little things,” I’m told. Due: October, 2013 (I think).

Book #4: Untitled

The general story concept has been approved. I haven’t written a word. Well, not exactly. I have started scribbling on index cards, thinking about characters, plot points, doing some research. The real writing has not yet begun, since I just finished the revision for #3 two weeks ago. I’m shifting gears. After four books, the contract runs out — and ultimately the next move will be up to the purchasing public. I have a lot more ground to cover with this series, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. High hopes! Due: January, 2014 (wild guess).

On Lois Lowry and the Perils of The New York Times Comments Section

There was a nice piece on Lois Lowry, written by Dan Kois, in the October 3 edition of The New York Times. It’s worth reading. I’m not a fanboy by nature, but with Lois Lowry I make an exception. I hold her in the highest regard, with great respect and admiration for the integrity of our work — and, even moreso, her commitment to her work. I think of her in the way I thought of Arnold Lobel: the real deal, the genuine magilla.

In the article, Lowry made a comment that made me think. To set the stage, the year was 1978, and Lowry was to give a commencement address to a local middle school:

She was preceded to the lectern by the principal, who told the bored, uncomfortable kids that these were their golden years. When Lowry spoke, she told them the principal was misleading them. These weren’t their golden years at all. At best they were a dull beige. She reminisced about her own eighth-grade year, when she was obsessed with a girl in her class who had enormous breasts when Lowry had none.

The kids laughed. But when Lowry looked out at the parents, she later wrote, “their faces were like concrete.” She realized that day that she could talk to kids or she could talk to adults, but not to both: “And so I chose the kids.”

I love that: I chose the kids. I’ve asked myself if that’s always true of my own work, or even if it’s possible. With the Jigsaw Jones series, for example, I was always aware of the potential parent in the room, the mother reading the story out loud at bedtime. And I was aware of the gatekeepers, the teachers, the librarians. Even before that, my editors and publisher. You have to navigate through a lot of adults before reaching an actual kid. Maybe that was wrong, but I tried to please those adults, too.

I remember coming across Bugs Bunny cartoons as an young adult, and realizing (then) that they often threw in some grown-up humor, with references that few children would understand. I liked how it worked on dual levels. Anyway, that’s NOT the section of the article that got the biggest response. Lowry was asked about The Hunger Games, and she had the temerity to respond carefully, respectfully, and honestly:

“I could certainly see why kids love it. It’s suspenseful. The plot moves right along. But I was troubled by the fact that it’s children killing children.”

Here’s are few highlights and lowlights from the Old Gray Lady’s comments section. In fairness, you should read the entire article, since some of these folks are taking issue with Mr. Kois’ handling of the article, more than anything Lois Lowry specifically said. The YA crowd is a tough (and yet sensitive!) readership, and some of them shoot arrows:

A.J. asks:

Is Ms. Lowry somehow implying parents should censor their children’s reading habits if the book doesn’t rise to the level of hers? I hope not.

Herzliebster writes:

Where is it written that to praise one author one is obliged to disparage others? Or that there is only one right way to write a book — or even one right way to write a dystopian novel for teens? Since when is literature, or even one subgenre of literature, a zero-sum game?

Cynthia Bishop:

I am beyond sad for Lois Lowry’s loss of her son, and in awe of her writing ability. Nonetheless, to imply that there can only be one kind of ‘good’ book for children and teens, and that all books written for the latter are violent and negative is simply ridiculous.

Elizabeth Hutchinson writes:

Why must every discussion of children’s or young adult literature invariably devolve into some sort of dismissal, in this case, that “every young adult book published is a dystopian thriller packed with action sequences,” a claim so easily disproven as to need no examples? Even as the NY Times (and NPR and many others) force themselves to acknowledge the indisputable presence of the YA market, there is always an undercurrent of “less-than,” and why is that? Is its sheer popularity a threat to some other authority? Maybe.

To which Tamora Pierce replies:

Yes, the dismissal gets very old. Anyone who walks down the aisle can disprove it immediately, and yet journalists and pontiificators insist on doing it. Surely the days of dissing the fiction that shapes our adult minds should be over? What’s worse, these pronouncements are usually made by those who have made no effort to read what is available–and sadly, that includes Ms. Lowry.

Alice comments;

All kudos to Lois Lowry, but I’m not sure why granting those kudos requires the digs at the Hunger Games, a series of novels embraced by no less a literary critic than Stanley Fish (and on this website!).

Thom McCan:

Euthanizing a baby, worrying about another girl who has large breasts while she has none, violence by children. This is supposed to help children understand the world?

And at last, mercifully, there’s Donald:

As a former children’s librarian, I read this article with interest and pleasure. Having enjoyed Lowry’s “Looking Back: a Memoir” so much so that I have given it as gifts to several people, I was thrilled to get a little bit more of the back story of her son’s death. That said, I am a bit shocked to see all the negative and angry comments. Methinks these folks doth protest too much! Mr. Kois you have done a fine job interviewing a Newbery medal winner and a legend. Kudos.

And most beautifully, Jane Hinrichs:

This is a wonderful piece of journalism. The quotes the journalist chose and the direction he went is beautiful commentary on a quartet of books that are so rich in meaning and beauty I think everyone on earth should read them. Lois Lowry is a genius in her writing.

I am sorry for those who have commented against what she said and what was written. She said good things about The Hunger Games. Her criticism of it was not against the author or the writing, but she gives thoughtful questions about why children killing children is a good thing to highlight. We can disagree with her or agree with her, but to then slam her for her opinion is not a good thing. She doesn’t slam The Hunger Games author at all.

If you haven’t read Lois Lowry’s books I recommend them. I’d let my youngest child read them though the material is not all happy. But it is written in a way that will get them thinking about what life is about.

Title Page Art: A PIRATE’S GUIDE TO RECESS

Let’s roll . . .

Illustration by Greg Ruth, a piece of spot art that was originally intended for A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade but didn’t serve the story, so failed to make the cut. Greg brought it back as spot art on the title page for the sequel, A Pirate’s Guide to Recess. It glad it will see the light of day.

File this under: You can’t keep a good idea down.

Another Quick Pass-Along for Teachers

If you are on Facebook, maybe you’ve seen this already.

But there are still some sane people out there. This is for you . . .