Archive for Greatest Hits

Scared of Santa, Revisited, Again (because it never gets old)

I’m REPOSTING from the “Greatest Hits” collection . . .


No, I don’t know why good, sane, well-intentioned people do this to their children.

This guy terrifies even me — I keep thinking he should have a lit Chesterfield and a glass of bourbon in his hands, not an innocent lamb.

I remember that my parents once gave me the “opportunity” to meet Santa at a shopping mall somewhere on Long Island. I sized up the situation from a distance, planted my feet, and said, “Nuh-ugh.” A Christmas Story is surely my favorite holiday movie (absolutely love it), and they handled this particular life passage — the visit with Santa — to perfection. But then again, I think that whole movie is genius.

Here’s the book, and here’s my original post (with different photos) about the book from last holiday season.

RE-POST: Pretty Lights on the Tree, I’m Watching Them Shine

Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times and on a random afternoon it will hit you in a new way. Whap, right upside the head. As a huge Bob Dylan fan, that happens to me frequently, where I’ll suddenly appreciate, say, Dylan’s piano technique on “Blind Willie McTell” — and need to hear that song every day for weeks.

That happened to me recently with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector.

Specifically, these simple lines:

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me

Those lines have all the qualities of a successful haiku except for the syllable count — that attention to concrete detail, the lean clear prose (no purple or wasted words), and a darting movement from exterior, objective reality to an interior emotional state, where “outside” and “inside” become linked through juxtaposition.

I admire lines that can be as unadorned as, “Pretty lights on the tree/I’m watching them shine.” I love how that straight description conveys an inner depth (I’ve talked about that quality before, most recently here). I think it’s difficult to pull off, using simple words, yet evoking a depth of feeling that lies somewhere below language.

“You should be here with me.”

And, absolutely, it’s Darlene Love’s vocal performance that puts it over the top.

A lot of people have done this song, with mixed results: U2, Death Cab for Cutie, Mariah Carey, John Martyn, Hanson, Bruce Springsteen, etc. But nobody, but nobody, touches Darlene Love’s version, produced by Phil Spector on this 1963 LP: “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.”

On this essential disk, Spector lends his signature “Wall of Sound” treatment to a number of secular holiday tunes, enlisting the vocal talents of the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love. A few years back, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #142 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time — not bad for a holiday album.

Here’s Darlene Love on a 2012 visit to “Letterman” — just a stunning version, given the full arrangement it so richly deserves. Violins and cellos, nine backup singers, a horn section, random percussionists pounding on the kitchen sink, and . . . snow!

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The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
Lots of people around
Baby please come home

The church bells in town
All singing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home

Here’s Bono and the gang giving it a go:

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In this recent cover by Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard eliminates the celebratory element that has crept into recent versions, to capture the sadness and longing that is at the song’s (true, I think) core.

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home.

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RE-POST: Imaging the Character of Griffin Connelly in BYSTANDER

I just enjoyed a terrific visit to Virginia, three nights, visiting Matoaca Middle School and Davis Middle School. I stayed in Richmond, was treated like a conquering hero, and all I can do is express my heartfelt gratitude one more time. Thank you to three librarians, Mrs. Masters, Mrs. Green, and Miss Warshen (I hope that’s how you spell it). Most singularly: The trip would not have been possible without the near-heroic efforts of Amanda Brata — and all the teachers/administrators who decided to make Bystander a school-wide read for their students. That’s an amazing honor I don’t take lightly.

SIDENOTE: I know I’m forgetting the name of someone who took me around to classrooms on Monday, and it’s killing me. It’ll come to me, promise!

Over three days, I gave eight (fabulous) large-group presentations. I was also offered the opportunity to enjoy several brief classroom visits. One perceptive student asked about how my intentions when it came to creating the character of Griffin Connelly. It was thoughtful question that I tried to answer as best I could. The truth is, I suspect that I write better — clearer — than I talk. So while I was fumbling for an answer, I referenced this blog post about Griffin’s two-faced quality.

Here’s an excerpt of that old post.


Let’s talk about smiles . . .

I began my work on the book that would become Bystander by hanging out in the local library with a composition notebook. At the top of the first page of that notebook I see that I copied a line from Michael Connelly’s  Echo Park: “What is the bad guy up to?” I was excited. After writing 30-plus Jigsaw Jones mysteries for younger readers, I finally had a bad guy. It wasn’t going to be all benign misunderstandings and well-intentioned foul-ups; here, I had a character with potential for real darkness.

I see that I was reading Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children, by Jonathan Kellerman. A powerful, disturbing book that looks at antisocial youth, from aggressive bullies to cold-hearted killers.

And right there on that first notebook page I started a list of potential “bully” characteristics. I wrote:

Smart, charismatic, charming, popular, superior, tortures animal?, trouble with police?, lights fires, COLD, raised by grandmother?, non-compliant, poor grades, not affected by discipline, causes fear, lucid, psychopathic?, free of angst, free of insecurities, (later, when caught, self-pity), preternaturally CALM.

I was in the first stages of character development — and for me, I’m at my best when character evolves into story, as opposed to plugging character into plot. That is: character first. With my focus exclusively on this “bad guy,” I even came up with a potential book title: Predator.

It became important to me that my main antagonist, Griffin Connelly, was divorced from the bully stereotypes we often see in books and movies. You know, the bully as gross coward, unlikeable lug, dim-witted brute, dirty, ugly, unpopular. It simply wasn’t realistic, and by turning bullies into  one-dimensional characters, we surrendered much of the complexity (and difficulty) of the topic (and story).

A quick plea: There’s a tendency to slot any topical book, such as this, into the bibliotherapy shelf. But Bystander is a story, a page-turner with thriller elements that a biased Jean Feiwel called, “Unputdownable.” It’s not a thesis paper. It’s a good, fast read. I hope boys find it.

Whew. I see that I’m letting this post get away from me, because I’m trying to talk about too much. So I’ll get specific:

I wanted Griffin Connelly to be  a great-looking kid, with charm and verbal dexterity and a great smile. He would be, in every sense of the word, attractive. All the surfaces would shine. The ugliness concealed.

His smile was one of the keys to his character. But what is  a smile if not a baring of teeth? The smile beams beatifically, but also represents a flashing of fangs. A threat. The wolfish grin. There’s menace under the surface.

Griffin Connelly was the kind of person who would smile at you while he stuck a knife in your back. And maybe, for pleasure, gave the blade a twist. The toothy smile was the mask he wore, this master of the mixed message.

Page 7, when Eric first meets Griffin:

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

Some random examples now . . .

Page 11:

Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning.

Page 18:

Griffin flashed a smile, that hundred-dollar smile he could turn on in an instant. He reached out his fist. “Are we cool, buddy

Page 50:

“Mrs. Chavez!” Griffin exclaimed, smiling cheerfully. “Please let me help you with that . . .”

Page 68:

There was no way Eric could tell Griffin Connelly that story. So he told bits and pieces and white lies. Eric wondered if Griffin sensed it, the whole truth, if somehow Griffin already knew, saw into Eric’s secret heart and smiled.

Page 78:

“You want to hang out, don’t you?” Griffin asked. He smiled, put an arm around Hallenback’s shoulder.

Page 130:

Griffin winked at Eric. Then gave that big Hollywood smile, and swept the hair from his eyes.

Page 130:

“What are you going to do? Punch me?” Griffin taunted, grinning.

Page 131:

“I’ll be seeing you around, Eric,” Griffin said. His smile was like a pure beam of distilled sunlight. His long lashes blinked, his cheeks pinkened. He wore a perfect mask of kindness and light.

Page 165:

Griffin smiled wide, folded his hands together, and said in a soft voice, “We’ll see about that.”

Page 186:

Griffin grinned through the insults.


Presented in this way, it may seem a little much. But  in the context of the story, I suspect it’s unnoticed. The accumulated effect, I hope, is creepiness. Here’s a guy you can’t trust. Every threat comes with a smile. White teeth gleaming in the sunlight, fangs bared.

“My Grandma, what big teeth you’ve got?”

Don’t let that smile fool you.

REPOST: Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

I learned this morning that Elmore Leonard passed away, so my thoughts immediately returned to his wonderful “Rules for Writing” which I blogged about some years back. Here’s that post once again. Thank you for the lessons, Mr. Leonard.

As part of a series called “Writers on Writing,” published in The New York TimesElmore Leonard penned a thought-provoking article that first saw print on July 16, 2001. Every once in a while I remember that it exists and go back to reread Leonard’s observations.

I’m sympathetic to Elmore Leonard’s basic vision. I mean to say, I think I could hang out with the guy. When he talks about writing, I tend to nod my head. Grateful, reaffirmed, inspired. He explains in the opening paragraph, “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.”

A long time ago I decided that ego was the enemy of good writing. Thing is, that’s a tough dragon to slay. These days, I most admire writers who get out of the way (another way of saying, “remain invisible”) — who strive to eliminate any trace of “look at me, I’m so darned clever!” from their writing. (That tends to be the exact opposite of what we are taught to appreciate in college English courses, so most of my adult writing life has been about trying to unlearn aspects of my college education.)

Regarding Leonard: I like his everyday guyness, his plainspeak, his pragmatism, his unpretentiousness. Unfortunately, and oddly, I’ve never really gotten into his books. Maybe I’ve tried the wrong ones, or not tried hard enough. The thing is, I want to like his books more than I actually do. It may be worth noting that so many of his books have been made into movies precisely because he is such a “show, don’t tell” styled writer. Or maybe it’s because he’s okay with sex and violence.

Though I encourage readers to go back to the full article (linked above), I’ll only post the ten rules along with an indispensable additional comment or two from Leonard (in the article, he provides more background on each rule). Enjoy. And remember, when it comes to writing, there are no rules. But guidelines can be instructive.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Writes Leonard: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

Says Leonard: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” For what it’s worth, there are a ton of adverbs used exactly this way in the Harry Potter books.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

And here comes my personal favorite:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard comments: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

I love that phrase, “perpetrating hooptedoodle.”

NOTE: For more posts that touch on the writing process, click on the “writing process” icon on the right sidebar, beneath “CATEGORIES.” I’m trying to do more of this kind of thing on this blog, in the hopes that it might sell books, urm, be helpful to teachers, or to writers of any age!

ANOTHER NOTE: I lifted that sound, urm, from the legendary graphic novel, The Watchmen (soon to be a major motion picture). A character in there says it a lot, just a variation on “um,” but I like it.

RE-POST: An Interview with Thomas Newkirk, Author of “Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”

NOTE: I’ve been blogging at this site since May, 2008, which is like 120 in Blogger’s Years. My strong suspicion is that a lot of the oldies-but-goodies have not been seen by my current readership, so I decided to give this one a new airing. I still often think of Mr. Newkirk’s great book and insights. This was originally posted on March 6, 2011.

I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.

Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?

I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers. It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.

I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.

Thomas Newkirk.

One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.

Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.

You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?

But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.

At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.

Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.

As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?

There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.

Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”

Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?

I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.

I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.

As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.

Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.

At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?

School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.

It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!

I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.

You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?

I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.

I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?

One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.

Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?

I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”

I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow ReadingI posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”

My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”

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Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book,Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.