True story: I was telling a teacher friend about the video contest the other day, urging him to check it out, and thought to myself: “Hmmm, blog fodder!”
Because once you have a blog, the world quickly divides into two parts: blog-worthy or not so much.
Here, give this 90 seconds and we’ll talk:
Fun idea, right? Simply compress the full story of a Newbery Medal or Honor Book into a video that runs no more than 90 seconds.
I can see how a good teacher, with a lively classroom, could make hay out of something like this. Get creative, allow students to actively contribute in different ways, read and learn how to analyze (not to mention summarize) a classic book, and so much more.
“We’ll just put the books . . . ANYWHERE!” — from the film, “Party Girl.”
Question: Why does this image from “Desk Set,” starring Katherine Hepburn as librarian Bunny Watson, remind me of Elizabeth Bird? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
While I’ve got you, I have to share this fabulous clip that should tickle the fancy of any librarian. Finally, a realistic portrayal. The actress is Parker Posey, America’s indie-film queen, from the movie, “Party Girl.”
And more seriously, here’s the trailer for a documentary titled, “Hollywood Librarian: A Look at Librarians Through Film,” a film I totally missed when it came out in 2004. It’s now available on DVD. Some notes from the Media Education Foundation:
This film’s subject is librarians: who they are, what they do, why they do it, and the impact of their work in people’s lives. The underlying meaning is how we express our own humanity, how we listen to ourselves and one another in the realm of the written and read word — a uniquely human privilege.
Audiences will be surprised and delighted by the fascinating librarians in this entertaining and enlightening film, and will emerge with a greater appreciation for the range of literature and materials available to them thanks to our nation’s librarians.
The film was written and directed by Ann M. Seidl, a library consultant. For a bref interview with Ann, you want to click wildly right now.
Tip of the hat to the great pop culture blog, Pop Candy, for the inspiration.
Sorry, you’re going to have to wait a minute. I know you’re in a big hurry and everything. People nowadays expect their blog entertainment to run like clockwork, click, click, click on that mouse. Well, go grab a seat. There’s some old Field & Stream magazines on the table.
It shouldn’t be too much longer. Please have your co-pay ready.
I’m waiting for author Kurtis Scaletta, who agreed to come here all the way from his home in Minneapolis for an interview. But you know how that goes, bad weather, costly delays: snow, ice, Vikings . . .
Seriously: Kurtis is an original new voice in children’s literature. His first book, Mudville, earned him wide acclaim, including being named one of the Top 10 Sports Books for Youth in 2009 by Booklist. His next book, Mamba Point, is due out in July, 2010. Even better, Kurtis claims to be writing a completely crazy book, hopefully for 2011. The truth is, I’m rooting for Kurtis Scaletta — and I know that after meeting him, you will be, too.
Hey, Kurtis. Finally, you’re here! Thanks for coming all the way from Minneapolis. Take off your wet things. Yes, the snow pants, socks, and mittens, too. I’ll throw them in the dryer while we talk. Here’s a terry cloth bathrobe and some bunny slippers.
Thanks. It’s great to be here in balmy Albany. Your orange tree is doing great. Um, do you mind turning on the A/C?
Not a problem. Are you bothered by the noise from the steel drum band in my backyard? I could ask them to stop, but like most of my neighbors in upstate NY, I could listen to “Shake, Shake Senora” all day long — and frequently do.
I actually listened to a lot of Caribbean music while writing the last one, but more Marley and less Belafonte.
Now that you mention Harry Belafonte, I remember that song gets featured nicely in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” But don’t try to sidetrack me, Kurtis. I’m onto your tricks. We’re primarily here to talk about me. I mean, Mudville. The book turns on what strikes me as just a wonderful, imaginative leap –- a rain delay that lasts 22 years. Do you remember the circumstances of getting that idea? Was it a lightning bolt moment?
It’s kinda predictable, but I was watching a baseball game that went into a rain delay and one thing led to another. I did already have some of the characters in mind and I was trying to figure out what to do with them.
But that was a fantastic idea, literally, and introduced an element of magic realism into the story. Have I got that right? Is it something you resisted at first? Or do you have an interest in speculative fiction?
I like to tread a fine line between the improbable and impossible. All of my books do it. I call them “tall tales” myself. Sounds less pretentious. I mean, I ain’t Marquez or Borges. I read a lot of speculative fiction when I was younger, especially Harlan Ellison, but I don’t really see myself in that arena.
Are you excited about Mudville coming out in paperback?
Definitely. Something about the Yearling logo makes it especially neat. I remember a lot of great books having that horsey from when I was a kid.
It’s cool because Six Innings is coming out in paperback around the same time. Come to think of it, we should be bitter rivals. Where’s my trident?
Yeah, I guess other kids baseball writers are in competition. Unfortunately, they’ve also proved to be decent dudes. I’ve met John H. Ritter, Mick Cockrane, and John Coy, and in all three cases had to pocket my shiv.
Ah, disappointing. Nothing quite beats a brawl between children’s authors. After Mudville, was there an expectation that you were going to follow with another sports book?
I did worry for a while that I would be expected to deliver a series of sports books. I figured I could write one or two, but I’m not Mike Lupica and I have a lot more interests besides sports. I remember my wife saying, “In seven years when you’re writing the lacrosse book, you’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing.” But when I started talking to my editor about ideas for a second book, she was more taken with the Africa book than other suggestions, which included sports books. So I chalk that up to landing at a great house with a great editor.
I had a similar experience after Six Innings. I remember when your lovely wife said to me . . .
She encouraged you to write the Africa book, right?
Exactly! She’s been helpful in so many, many ways. I was wondering, how do you deal with reviews? You received such wonderful notices for Mudville. Are you thick-skinned, or more of a whimpering baby like me?
I really appreciated the good reviews, and the non-mention in one major outlet actually hurt more than the slam in another. I mostly just want people to know I exist, I think.
Are you hungry? I’ve got a Yodel, a Ho-Ho, or a Devil Dog. Which one do you want? Orange soda or root beer? And yes, Kurtis, it’s raining gum drops. That’s the way we roll here at jamespreller.com.
Yeah, and I guess the definitive word is “roll,” with that kind of diet. I’ll have the Yodel and the Orange pop, thanks.
Sorry, all out. Here’s a can of tuna fish and a hammer.
I’ll bring the tuna home. My five cats will appreciate it.
Five cats? I’m not going there. You went to school for writing, didn’t you? So is it safe to assume that you believe writing can be taught?
Well, the truth is that it was 17 years ago and I mainly had to figure out what to do with myself. But I do think I benefited from working with my advisor Elaine Ford, who is a terrific writer and was very frank and helpful with her feedback on my works in progress.
I can’t deal with “frank and helpful.” I’m more of a looking-for-false-praise kind of guy.
I’ve read that a lot of sensitive geniuses are like that. Anyway, it was a long time before I actually got published, but that had to do with me and not the University of Maine. Still, I think creative writing is in a weird position where there is both an abundance of non-academic “how to” manuals and workshops but very little serious scholarship on teaching and learning and very little about best practices or pedagogy that is based on evidence. My day job in higher ed is showing here I think.
Kurtis, you have a pretty active blog and I enjoy reading it. Do you think it’s helped you professionally? And if so, in what ways?
Now I use my blog as a way to connect to readers, librarians and teachers, but the biggest help it’s given me was before I got published. Before I had my professional authorial blog I had a book review blog, now defunct, and a personal/chatty blog, also defunct. Blogging was a turning point for me as a writer because I started writing every day and I met and started talking to other writers and people who care about kids books. My day job is not in writing or literature and I was way out of the loop, so I’m glad I got connected to a community and started writing again.
You have a new book coming out, Mamba Point, inspired in part by your experiences living in Monrovia, Liberia. That’s not near my old haunts on Long Island, is it?
Well, they’re on the same ocean, so sure. Just a skip across the pond.
So the story involves . . . dancing?
You’re just trying to get me worked up, aren’t you? One of my missions now is to get people to learn the difference between a mamba, which is a deadly snake, and a mambo, which is a risque latin dance.
A confusion that has led to many senseless deaths, I might add.
Seriously, because those mambo dances are tougher than they look!
Do not confuse the Mamba with the Mambo. Kurtis Scaletta is here to help.
Please, Kurtis, continue about your book.
Mamba Point is about a kid who moves from a small midwestern air force town to Montrovia, Liberia, in 1982. He’s worried about making new friends, just starting to get curious about those creatures called girls, and mostly wants to read comic books and play games. So far, that’s pretty autobiographical. But this kid is harassed by a black mamba… at first he’s scared out of his wits, but ends up kind of befriending it. They have a kind of connection. Then there’s a little adventure story thrown in, for good measure. Needless to say, that gets pretty far away from my own experiences. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s straight from my own life, and a lot about what it’s like for an American kid to move to Africa.
We both felt the death of J.D. Salinger, in my case more than expected. You mentioned “The Laughing Man” as your favorite Salinger story. What’s so great about it?
There’s lots to love about that story. The outer story is the typical spare, haunting modern story we all read in lit classes, but then there’s a completely ridiculous, endless, laugh-out-loud adventure story that’s narrated throughout. And there’s a pretty sweet baseball scene, too.
You’ve also written elsewhere about your admiration for the books of Betsy Byars.
You identify with the misfit, don’t you?
That was definitely what attracted me to her books. In the late 70s/early 80s when I reading her books, there was often a quirky misfit kid at the center. I really connected with them. I think she’s one of by biggest influences; I think I learned a lot of what I know about creating characters from Betsy. I really became aware of it in the middle of writing Mamba Point.
Do you read a lot of children’s books?
Yep. More than I read grown-up books. You kind of have to know what’s going on in the industry, so I read a lot so I know how to position my own books in a crowded marketplace. I do try to work in a couple of grown-up books but it’s hard to keep up as it is. Right now I’m in the middle of several books including The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Marchello in the Real World. They are both great.
Okay, tell me about this new “work-in-progress.” But it has to be in 139 characters or less; I’m tougher than Twitter and I think it’s time people knew it.
Wake, ME is about a small town in Maine that’s taken over by a giant fungus and couple of kids who believe it portends the town’s doom.
I want that book right now! Lightning Round: I know you’re into music, Kurtis. Give us ten songs on your imaginary mixed tape.
This one goes to eleven: “Train Whistle Blues” by Merle Haggard; “Driver 8” by R.E.M., “Play a Train Song,” by Todd Snider, “Waiting for a Train” by Jimmie Rodgers, “The Train Carrying Jimmy Rodgers Home” by Greg Brown, “Trains” by Ryan Adams, “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” by the Old 97s, “Freight Train Blues,” by The Weary Boys, “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, “Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen, and “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits (not Rod Stewart). Sorry, I have a one track mind.
Got any Oscar favorites? Best Picture of the Year?
I seriously love “Up.” It’s probably the only nominated movie I saw, and I don’t think it’ll win best picture (just best feature-length animated film), but the first 15 minutes of that movie are beautiful. It’s a really wonderful and imaginative story after that, and the dog was great, but it’s that long prologue that gets to me. Sniff. That being said, the smart money is on “Avatar.”
I thought the opening minutes of “Up” were extraordinary, compressed storytelling. Beautiful. After that, I didn’t care so much. I’m going to go with “The Hurt Locker.” Five favorite blogs?
Oh, I loved bat-girl! “Less stats, more sass.” She also did those incredible Lego recreations of great (and not-so-great) moments in Twins baseball history.
I’m glad she’s appreciated even outside of Twins’ territory. You might also know her alter ego, Anne Ursu, who’s written a terrific fantasy series for kids. My wife says her grown up books are good, too, but I don’t really read grown up books.
I’m your reverse in that way; I read mostly adult.
Besides the time issue, I’m like an open pitcher of milk in the refrigerator. It’ll take on the taste of whatever’s around it. So when I read something, especially something really stylized, it affects my own voice. So I have to avoid getting deeply immersed in a novel when I’m writing. And these days I’m almost always writing. Kids books, I can usually read in a day, and shake it off.
Interesting, and again, that’s the exact reason why I don’t read them — especially when I’m deep into my own writing, when it’s an absolute no-go for me. We’re like two peas living in completely different apartments.
I worry about having too much consciousness about the marketplace. You start to hear about what sells and what doesn’t, and become too familiar (I think) with the conventions of the business — a business that’s often predicated on ripping off ideas from the bestseller list. Follow that to the end and you’re writing about a boy wizard with a sassy friend who falls in love with a smoldering vampire who’s really a geek who . . . and on and on. It seems like too much information can get in the way of originality. Thoughts?
It’s more about voice than subject matter. I’ll read a collection of essays by David Sedaris and start writing like David Sedaris, even though I’m still writing my own completely original work about the boy wizard who falls in love with a fairy, but to win her love he has to battle the vampires in dystopia with his werewolf buddies and his pet dragon. Or I’ll read Cormac McCarthy and start writing like Cormac McCarthy, even though I’m working on a tween romance.
You know what I like about you, Kurtis? Even though you strike me as having this heightened awareness of the business, you went out and wrote Mamba Point, a personal, deeply-felt story that has NOTHING to do with the trends of the marketplace. Last I looked, kids were not clamoring for more books set in Liberia. Yet you wrote from the heart. And that sound you hear is cheering, my wishing you success with this story.
Okay, whew. I hate it when Jamespreller.com gets all soggy. It seems like we’ve drifted a fair distance from our original list of bloggy goodness. By my count, you’ve only listed four.
Well, you know, I know a billion writers with blogs, but yours stands out. A newby writer like me learns stuff about the profession of writing. I also like the reader mail, which I’d love to do myself but I don’t get enough of to do. I think your blog is a good example of what writer/bloggers should do, connecting with teachers and readers. So much of it ends up being us writers just talking to each other.
That’s very kind of you to say, thanks. But I can tell from the buzz of my Kenmore dryer that your clothes are dry and it’s time for you to depart balmy Albany — alas, before you had time to visit nearby Cohoes, just ten miles north on 787, alleged home of Kilgore Trout — to brave the Minneapolis winter. As a parting gift, please accept this rare, 1988 VHS edition of “Beetlejuice.” It may look like it’s just a crummy old tape found in the bottom of my closet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Um. So, thanks for the interview . . . yeah. Are you sure you don’t have an extra Yodel?
Oh, fine. Knock yourself out.
FOR MORE INTERVIEWS . . .
If you enjoyed this interview with Kurtis Scaletta, you might not like the others. They aren’t very good.
I thought this passage was particularly interesting:
What I really loved about this book is the fact that it doesn’t end with the teacher or another adult solving the problem and dealing with the bullies. Eric and his friends need to decide for themselves how to handle the situation. As a teacher, I admit to being a little frustrated at first when I read the last page. But then I realized it is exactly what tween are looking for. They don’t need us stepping in all the time and solving their problems. They need to learn how to work within their own cliques and peer groups. As much as we might want to see the bully “get what he deserves,” that isn’t always realistic and kids know that. So kudos to James Preller!
The ending to this book has gotten some attention, not all of it positive, in part because there is no clear (or happy?) resolution. Though I contend that many loose ends can be inferred: most of Griffin’s friends have started distancing themselves from him, Griffin is involved in petty crime and we know that the police are investigating, and Eric and Mary have gained new insights and strength. Note that bullying tends to peak in middle school, whereas in high school many of the Griffin types tend to lose their group appeal (upon which their behavior depends).
But, no, Bystander is not a revenge fantasy in the mold of “Inglourious Basterds.” (Loved that movie, btw.)
From the outset, I was determined to avoid the easy wrap-up, the unrealistic solution — mostly because that’s what I was writing against, all those simplistic “bully books” that tied everything up in a neat bow. I just don’t think it helps to pretend these are simple issues with clear resolutions. At the same time, I do understand that fiction depends upon artifice: most of us thirst for that big payoff at the end. I recall the famous test screenings for “Fatal Attraction,” when the audiences clearly wanted to see Glenn Close get it, and in as horrific a manner possible, before the credits rolled (and the studios listened — and made gobs of money, too; to read more on that, click here and scroll down to “alternative ending”).
In my book, Eric’s father doesn’t magically appear to save the day. Griffin, the book’s antagonist, doesn’t seem to have learned any big lessons. But look at the book’s title. That’s the focus here — with the silent majority — and, I believe, where there’s the best hope for meaningful progress. It’s not unlike the world wide war on terror, in the sense that there’s no easy victories to be won and it’s a disservice to pretend otherwise; Afghanistan (or Iraq, or Iran, or Pakistan, etc.) can’t be fixed in twelve months or five years. The struggle is ongoing. It’s not something that can be definitively “won” and walked away from, mission accomplished, satisfied with a problem removed.
On a related note, there was a recent discussion over at Read Roger, titled “too damned long,” about the length of book reviews. Opines Mr. Sutton, who is a master at stirring the pot:
Vine reviews, customer reviews, and, sorry, blog reviews–they are all too damned long. That’s the problem I have with ’em. Just because the technology allows one to prattle on forever should by no means encourage one to do so.
As an author, still fairly new to the world of reviews — none of the books in my paperback Jigsaw Jones series, with 40 titles, ever got a print review as far as I know — I confess that I find myself unimpressed with many reviews, print or otherwise. But the most disappointing is the brief review, which amounts to a quickie plot summary with an opinion-based sentence tagged on at the end. I guess those reviews serve a purpose, but where’s the thought, the engagement? So if anyone wants to write at length about a book, good or bad — and here’s somebody who consistently takes the care to do it extremely well — I for one appreciate the effort, both as a reader looking for books and as someone who has perpetrated more than a few myself.
In our time of Twitter book reviews — thumbs up or thumbs down in 140 characters or less — I want to thank you, again, Sarah, for not only reading my book but for giving it your time and consideration. It was also nice to see you purchased your copy — ca-ching! Baby needs a new iPod nano.
Oh, yes, one last thought that pertains to bullying, from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”
A tense, dramatic, tautly-written account of an ambush in Afghanistan, it struck me as such a different kind of article than I remember seeing before. Maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that after years of regulations that attempt to control war coverage, perhaps now there’s a new openness about war reporting. Could that be true? Regardless, this article signaled to me that there was a shift of some kind. I applaud this article, the courage of the reporter, and the Times by putting this story front and center, above the fold on page one. It’s too easy to forget that we’re at war, that young men are killing and dying, that there’s a cause and a cost. By all means, read the story.
I did a school visit recently, where I spoke with approximately 400 6th-grade students. In part, I focused on my upcoming book, Bystander, which centers on bullying and its effect on five main characters: Dylan, Griffin, Mary, David, and Cody. The idea for the opening scene was inspired by a piece of information I picked up on Columbine and ketchup packets. If only for myself, I needed that allusion echoing through my book. When I asked the students if they’d ever heard of Columbine, only two hands were raised. I guess that surprised me. After all, that event changed our schools forever. Just the other day I was in an elementary school when they had a “lock-down drill,” you know, because there’s “a wild animal loose in the school.” I imagine my second-grade daughter, Maggie, picturing a deer skidding through the halls, like a clown in socks.
Anyway, this new book, Columbine by Dave Cullin, is at the top of my reading list. The cover designer for the book, Henry Sene Yee, recently posted a detailed account of how he arrived at that remarkable, understated, haunting cover. Fascinating.
Elizabeth isn’t just providing another tired list, she’s doing research, showing artwork and videos, clips from reviews, and personal commentary. It makes you want to go back and read those books all over again; and in some cases, discover the few that somehow fell through the cracks.
Lastly, a few shots of Canyon de Chelley, Navajo land, in Arizona near the New Mexico border, another one from Taos Pueblo, one from Mesa Verda, and a couple of shots of people who came along for the ride. It was a great vacation/adventure.