Tag Archive for Roger Angell

TRANSCRIPTION: “Going Home” by A. Bartlett Giamatti (On Baseball, The Odyssey, and Returning Home)

Many years ago, in 1989 in fact, I enjoyed the memorable experience of attending a public reading at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, created by Roger Angell and A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I still remember the evening vividly, the great selections and talented readers. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and highly recommend it. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”

51gxcjdkowl_sl500_aa300_piaudiblebottomright1373_aa300_I was recently reminded of some musings by Giamatti about the nature of baseball, and specifically how the game relates to the idea — the concept, the notion, the pull — of home. His ideas suddenly seemed vitally important to me, helpful to something I was (and still am) writing. So I found the track in my iTunes Library, listened and listened again while transcribing word for word. Here I offer you that one three-minute preamble — words that struck me, and have stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Now, hopefully, a lasting internet artifact.

Please note that I endeavored to transcribe his words faithfully and accurately. The punctuation is my own, faithful to my own ear and to what I imagine to be, perhaps, Mr. Giamatti’s own predelictions, though I’m sure he would have managed the lineup differently. Any sloppiness to these sentences is entirely, I think, due to context. He was speaking from notes, as I recall, but the expression was primarily oral, not written. Thoughts are not always “complete,” as it were.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, scholar and former Commissioner of Baseball.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, scholar and former Commissioner of Baseball.

 

“There is no great long poem about baseball. It may be that baseball is itself its own great long poem. This had occurred to me in the course of my wondering why home plate wasn’t called fourth base. And then it came to me: Why not? Meditate on the name for a moment. Home.

Home is an English word virtually impossible to translate into other tongues. No translation catches the associations, the mixture of memory and longing, the sense of security and autonomy, the accessibility, the aroma of inclusiveness, the freedom from wariness, that cling to the word home, that are absent from ‘house’ or even ‘my house.’ Home is a concept, not a place, a state of mind where self-definition starts; it is origins. A mix of time and place and smell and weather wherein one first realizes that one is an original — perhaps like others, especially those one loves, but discreet, distinct, not to be copied. Home is where one first learned to be separate, and it remains in the mind as the place where reunion, if it were ever to occur, would happen.

So of course home drew Odysseus , who then set off again because it isn’t necessary to be in a specific place, in a house or a town, to be one who has gone home. So home is the goal rarely glimpsed, and almost never attained, of all the heroes descended from Odysseus . All literary romance, all Romance Epic, derives from The Odyssey and it is about going home. It is about rejoining, the rejoining of beloved, rejoining of parent to child, the rejoining of land to its rightful owner or rule. Romance is about putting things right after some tragedy has put them asunder. It is about restoration of the right relations among things. And going home is where that restoration occurs because that’s where it matters most.

Baseball is of course entirely about going home. And to that extent, because it is the only game you ever heard of where you want to get back to where you started (all the other games are territorial; you want to get his or her territory; not baseball). Baseball simply wants to get you from here back around to here, and that I think is why baseball is its own long poem, its own endless epic. We’ll come back again to this later. What we’re going to engage in now however is the way in which baseball, while it has never given itself to the literary expression that is as epic as its own unfolding, is clearly, in a game that recommences with every pitch, superbly fitted to the short poem. To the quick burst, for the shot. And we have three distinguished readers and three distinguished poets who have written quite remarkable, both descriptive and analytic, poems about baseball.”

The poems that were read following Giamatti’s introduction were: “Polo Grounds” by Rolfe Humphries, “Pitcher” and “Base Stealer” by Robert Francis, and “Cobb Would Have Caught It” by Robert Fitzgerald.

Robert Fitzgerald, “Cobb Would Have Caught It”

In sunburnt parks where Sundays lie,
Or the wide wastes beyond the cities,
Teams in grey deploy through sunlight.

Talk it up, boys, a little practice.

Coming in stubby and fast, the baseman
Gathers a grounder in fat green grass,
Picks it stinging and clipped as wit
Into the leather: a swinging step
Wings it deadeye down to first.
Smack. Oh, attaboy, attyoldboy.

Catcher reverses his cap, pulls down
Sweaty casque, and squats in the dust:
Pitcher rubs new ball on his pants,
Chewing, puts a jet behind him;
Nods past batter, taking his time.
Batter settles, tugs at his cap:
A spinning ball: step and swing to it,
Caught like a cheek before it ducks
By shivery hickory: socko, baby:
Cleats dig into dust. Outfielder,
On his way, looking over shoulder,
Makes it a triple. A long peg home.

Innings and afternoons. Fly lost in sunset.
Throwing arm gone bad. There’s your old ball game.
Cool reek of the field. Reek of companions.

Also of note: The Poetry Foundation, where I signed up for spectacular email updates,  recently provided a link to a sweet collection of baseball poems. Click here and start running around the bases . . . Lots of good poems there, even some home runs.

GUEST BLOGGER: Lewis Buzbee Interviews James Preller About His Upcoming YA Novel, “Before You Go”

Greetings, I’m Lewis Buzbee, guest-blogger for the day.

Guest blogger: Lewis Buzbee.

It’s true, I’ve hi-jacked James Preller’s blog to bring you a very cool conversation with Mr. Preller (he makes me call him that) about his newest book, Before You Go (Macmillan, July 2012), which is his first Young Adult novel. I’ve taken control here because Mr. Preller is a very generous writer who frequently trumpets and supports the work of his fellow writers, and I figure it was time to hear from him. James has interviewed me twice, and our conversations have been so enjoyable, so thoughtful, I wanted to turn the tables, see what he had to say.

Before You Go, I must tell you, is a deliciously good book, whether you call it YA or not. It centers on a tough summer in the life of Jude, who has to face all of the toughest questions — what is love, what is death, what comes next? It’s everything a novel should be; it’s funny, moving, troubling, smart, and illuminating. Forget the labels, it’s a beautiful novel, and you should read it.

James, you’ve written picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels; Before You Go is your first Young Adult novel. Why now?

Before You Go was the most logical step in a haphazard career path. You could argue that writing older and longer has been a gradual process for me, roughly parallel to the growth of my own children (Maggie, 11, Gavin, 12, Nick, 19). But you asked, “Why now?” and frankly I don’t have an easy answer for that. Except: opportunity. I’m lucky to have an editor, Liz Szabla, who doesn’t look to put me in a box or turn me into a brand. She supports my randomness.

How was writing Young Adult different?

I felt that writing for young adults came closest to my natural voice. I loved going back to my 16-year-old self, tapping into that rich and vigorous vein. So many ideas and feelings and memories bubbled forth. First love, big emotions, friendships, wild times, painful times, all of it. Location became central to this story, and I set it in my hometown, including real places I’d been. That trip out to the Amityville Horror House, for example, that’s something many of us Long Island kids did in our boredom, in our driving-around-looking-for-something-to-do lives. I am instantly transported back into that car with my high school friends, Kevin, Eric, Billy, and Jim –- a bunch of guys, a little lost, trying to figure out Saturday night.

Amityville: one exit in our driving-around lives.

Tell us where and/or how this story came to you?

After glancing through the pink-and-fanged world of Young Adult fiction, I felt a desire to write a realistic book, and a love story from a male perspective. There seemed to be many rescue-type love stories that were extremely romantic, but I felt as a guy, “There’s not one freaking thing here that my teenage self would read.” That’s a slight overstatement, but only slight. So that was the impulse, number one, but where was the story? I got the idea for a car accident out of two experiences: teaching my oldest son how to drive; and my recollection of two boys from my high school, Jesse and Mark, who died the first few months after getting their licenses. I remember driving by the tree where it happened, staring at that big oak, seeing where the bark had been chewed up by metal, imagining the horror. I got the idea to start the book with the accident, page one, then rewind six weeks into the past and tell the story from that point. We catch up to the accident about two-thirds of the way through, meet the characters, wonder who will be in the car and who will die, and so the book is divided into two parts, “Before” and “After.” Thus the novel’s opening sentence:

This is the moment between before and after, the pivot point upon which story, like a plate, spins.

I hoped the accident would give my story enough of a hook to keep readers hanging on, as this isn’t a story that offers one big action scene after another. It can’t be described as a typical book that average boys typically like. I don’t feel at all comfortable with these clichéd, empty-headed notion of what boys supposedly like.  As a guy, I’d like to proclaim, “We are more than just farts and fire trucks.”

Farts = still comedy gold after all these years.

I feel there’s a certain self-defeating, self-prophecy in a lot of publishing these days, i.e., boys are big galoots, so let’s give them farting fire trucks, or girls are princesses, etc. Funny, that’s not my memory of being a kid — I had all sort of interests.

When you first glance at a list of “books for boys,” well, yes, certainly, there are many appealing books on there. Action, sports, humor (bodily, mostly), and so on. But that kind of list depresses me, because it boils down boys to caricature. Boys only like X and Y and Z.

So while there is always a degree of truth to every stereotype, I know boys who are sensitive and thoughtful, funny and frightened, lonely and confused. Boys who don’t fit the mold. Or I should say, boys who can’t be contained by the mold; they keep surprising us in new ways. Our so-called “books for boys” should not pander to an extremely narrow view of what “boy” is and what “boy” can become. I am saying as a father and an ex-boy: It’s hard not to feel insulted. I don’t intentionally set out to write for “boy readers” or “girl readers.” I write about characters and situations; readers will relate or not. I don’t know which sex will read Before You Go, but I know the story involves boys and girls, so I’m hoping for a variety of readers. Fat ones, skinny ones — come all.

Didn’t anyone tell you that teenagers “just don’t read anymore?”

I can’t listen to that stuff. Statistics, numbers, none of it connects with what I do as a writer, or what any individual does as a reader. The thing for me about this particular “market,” as they say, is that I have no experience with it, and no idea who if anyone is going to read my book. This might sound phony, but I wrote this book for myself –- I wanted it to exist, and I took my time writing it, too. I’ve been involved in children’s publishing since 1985, much of the early years with book clubs, where there’s direct, immediate feedback from the marketplace. I usually have a pretty good idea when a book might sell or when it won’t. But for this novel, I haven’t a clue. But yes, certainly, I would love to get starred reviews and awards and all that stuff –- I’d love that — and I do wish for readers to find and enjoy Before You Go.

This seems a huge oversight, but didn’t your editors point out that there are no vampires in here, no angels, no dystopias? What were you thinking?

I was recently inspired by a blogger who encouraged us to “read out of our comfort zone.” You know, the books you don’t usually pick up. So I grabbed Laini Taylor’s The Daughter of Smoke and Bone –- which has gotten gigantic buzz, sold the movie rights, amazing cover. I was curious about what I might be missing.

It’s a beautifully written story about angels and dystopias and underworlds and bizarre creatures and idealized romantic love, paranormal or otherwise, and on and on. And you know what? I was unmoved. I could admire much of it, particularly the language and the imaginative feat of creating an alternate universe. I respect it, but it’s not where I want to live as a reader. That’s not a criticism of the book, more a reflection of my own interests. Same thing with me as a writer. I am stuck with the person I am. Which does not rule out, by the way, magic realism or other elements of fantasy. See my comment about, re: haphazard career. I like to try new things, so I wouldn’t rule out anything. And to be clear: I’m glad I read Laini Taylor’s book.

Tolstoy said a writer can get lots of things wrong, but not the psychology, meaning, a work, no matter how fantastical, had to ring true to human life. This is what I find so wrong with so much vampire/fantasy/dystopian literature these days. It works on the page, but not in real life.

Realism is the coin of the realm, the heart of all fiction, including the most imaginative fantasy. It has to connect to the human heart, it has to feel true. That is, credible. In a book I’ve been writing for a long time, I began with an impossible idea. Something that couldn’t ever happen. But . . . what if? And the essential thing, I think, is to play that out as credibly as possible, there has to be a cohesive internal logic. It’s been a struggle, frankly, but I view that as a good sign. I believe a writer can accomplish powerful things in any genre, even if it involves, oh, fat vampires on a spa retreat in New Mexico. But sooner or later it’s got to deal with the human heart — or else who really cares beyond the momentary diversion?

You write: “He was in between, a lit fuse, a teenage rocket exploding, and he felt there was nothing for him on this Wrong Island.”

I am a child of suburbia and this book reflects that.

Wrong Island, New York. Levittown, specifically.

Many of my friends and I shared a sense of not belonging, of having inherited a world not of our making. I just wanted to get out, you know, create my own reality –- and I think a lot of teenagers feel the same way. Isolation, alienation, I used to think they were teenage feelings. But now at age 51, it seems like a lifelong perspective. You learn to become okay with not quite fitting neatly into the world’s puzzle.

It seems to me that, no matter outward appearances, this is how all teenagers feel, outside, stuck between childhood and adulthood, “in between.”

Literature is a powerful force –- the written word mightier than the sword, and all of that. Sometimes we forget it, but it’s still true. Ideas do change the world. Atticus Finch and how important it is to walk in someone else’s shoes, for example. To go somewhere else, or to be someone else, if only in your mind. To imagine the possibilities. That’s what’s so exciting about YA, this incredible in-between moment in a life. I was listening to a renowned speaker the other day and it’s clear that right now, today, the universally-accepted answer among educators is that kids need to read in volume. Don’t worry about what they are reading, so much as that they are reading. In other words, it’s about quantity over quality, to the point where quality isn’t even in the equation. And I get that, I really do, the way a young soccer player needs “touches” on the ball, and a musician needs hours with his instrument, but there’s a part of me that thinks, “Yeah, but that doesn’t connect with why I personally love books.” We also need soccer players, and musicians, and readers to love what they do . . . or else they quit.

Told in the third person, the novel stays with Jude’s character most of the time, but there are two places where you dip into his girlfriend Becka’s consciousness, and later we have access to Jude’s mother’s thoughts. Tell me about this choice.

I often begin my books by writing out of sequence and from spontaneous inspiration — building on random scenes and sentences — and as a result my rough drafts tend to lack consistency. But I revise continuously, endlessly, and over time the editor-in-mind cleans up the mess. Conventional thinking would have me “fix” all those lapses. Fortunately, I was able to talk over each scene with Liz, my editor. Sometimes I made those revisions, other times we mutually concluded, “No, this feels right, let’s keep it.” We have the same conversations about split infinitives, by the way. Oh, those are exciting times. Other editors might have told me those point-of-view lapses had to go. But as Thoreau said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” The guideline I try to follow is, “Does this work?” Another way of saying, I don’t pull every dandelion.

One of Steinbeck’s editors pointed out to him that a character early in a novel had blue eyes, but later brown, and was he going to fix that. I believe he told them to go to hell. All good books have flaws, which I believe adds to the sense of their rightness, oddly.

Right, you want to honor the mistakes. It’s a matter of taste. I compare it to music. Some bands are really polished, everything sounds perfect, slick and smooth, labored over in the studio, whereas other artists prefer to keep the rough spots, the grit –- they resist the surface sheen and focus more on making that direct emotional connection, warts and all. There’s a native distrust of polish and shine and, more significantly, even of that part of the brain, the parent-in-the-mind, where something essential gets lost in the refinement process. Most of the Beat writers felt that way. Perfection has a certain blandness, don’t you think? Don’t get me wrong. I work very hard to make the book the best it can be –- according to my own taste and ability — so I can’t pretend that my failures are intentional.

Much of the first half of the book takes place at Jones Beach, where Jude has his first job in a grease palace by the sea.

That was my summer job, age 16, flipping burgers, hauling garbage out to the Dumpster, sneaking out beer in big, plastic mustard jars. The sun, the heat, the beach, the bikinis, and that first paycheck.

I knew it would make for a vivid setting for a teenage story, that classic dumb summer job we all suffered through and secretly loved. Jude is not me, he’s his own character, but I worked that job, I know that world.

That’s the Field 6 concession stand at Jones Beach.

You’ve spoken previously about that reader who is, how did you put it, able to be bored, that is, able to enjoy being bored and sink deeply into a book, let the hours go by.

A lot of ways to answer this, and I’m afraid I might try them all, so you better grab a chair. More and more, I see writing is an act of faith, a trust. This comes back in some ways to the boy reader, which is a code, by the way, for the impatient reader, the barely-willing-to-put-up-with-it reader. And we’re told that the way to reach this hard-to-reach reader is through short chapters, lots of action, one conflict after another, etc. It rewards a certain kind of typing. But I feel as a writer and as a reader, that I’ve always (also) liked the slow parts. There are forty books in the Jigsaw Jones series, and the mystery is always the engine that drives the action forward. But my favorite parts are often the closely-observed, domestic moments. Three brothers in a room, or the parents painting a bathroom together, or the conversation at the dinner table. I saw one of my writing heroes in New York City back in the late 80’s, the great Roger Angell. During his talk, Angell compared reading to being a baseball fan, which I am.

Baseball fans and avid readers both share a willingness to be bored.

He contended that both occupations are for people who are not afraid of being bored. I’ve never forgotten that observation. I’ll quote Angell here, because I have a recording of that talk and I recently transcribed it: “It really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game.” First off, that’s brilliant. And so true. To me, at any given moment a story moves horizontally (the plot advances) or vertically (characterization deepens). Those directions are not mutually exclusive, the line may be slanted, but that’s basically the two main thrusts. I’ve always been drawn to the slowing down, the sinking into character and setting, more so than the headlong forward rush to the next big climax.

For example, there’s a small moment in Before You Go, a few paragraphs early on, when we see Jude at home for the first time, and we meet his mother. His father has already told Jude that she is in bed with a headache, not to be disturbed. So Jude enters the house after his first day of work, tired and dirty. I love that mother and son are separated by a shut door, the staging tells us all we need to know.

In the hallway, he paused outside the closed door of his parents’ bedroom, tilted an ear, listening for movement.

“Jude?” his mother called.

“Yeah, it’s me, Mom,” he answered. “How you feeling today?”

A long silence. “I’m sorry, I’ve got nothing for you in the kitchen,” she finally said, her voice muffled, as if groaned into a pillow.

“That’s okay, Mom, I’m good,” Jude replied. He considered telling her about work, how some girl saved him from getting pummeled by a trio of behemoths, but it felt awkward trying to talk through a door. He placed his right hand on the door as if to push it open, and he saw his fingers as the legs of a fleshy spider perched there, tingling. Jude rested his head against the jamb, shut his eyes. He waited in the hush for something to happen, some change to occur, but nothing did.

Nothing ever did.

I’m proud of that little encounter. “I’ve got nothing for you,” she says. To like my book, I think you have to enjoy those quiet moments. You must have the patience of a baseball fan. Admire the way a pitcher drops that 0-2 slow change just off the outside corner, low and away, trying to entice the hitter to chase. The art, the craft, the whole of it. In this scene, I’m plunging downward, not across. It’s slow, not fast. And I need a reader who is okay with that. I have faith that that reader exists, just as any reader must have faith in the writer –- that eventually he’ll deliver. But nonetheless, I wrote it anyway. That’s the thing. You just write. Because it’s what you do.

The Similarity Between Reading and Baseball

I have written exactly one piece of fan mail in my life, to the baseball writer, Roger Angell. I’m sorry, that tag does him a disservice; Angell is a writer, period, a great one, a crafter of sublime sentences, a keen observer, a man who feels things and captures living moments. His writing goes deep into baseball and beyond it. Angell’s more than a great writer; I suspect he’s a great man.

I had written Six Innings and wanted him, an important stranger, to have a copy of my book. I wanted him to love it, of course, to recognize me as a fellow traveler, but writers don’t have much say over how the world responds. You release the work into the wild and hope it finds food, shelter, a home, and thrives. Six Innings went on to earn an ALA Notable. And almost as good, Mr. Angell wrote a kind, handwritten letter in return.

Lately I had been thinking about “the ideal reader,” and decided, perhaps cleverly, that my ideal reader would be someone who wasn’t afraid of being bored. That’s been my concern of late, because so many children’s books these days are high concept and plot-driven, because we hear over and over again that boys don’t read, and if they do open a book they will sit still only for wall-to-wall action. And I guess I sometimes fret that I don’t deliver that kind of pleasure. In truth, I only infrequently read that kind of book. So, yes, please, if I may order one to go, I’d like a reader who will hang with me during the slow parts.

And I heard in that wish an echo. And realized, once again, that the notion was not entirely my own. Authentic, yes; original, not exactly.

I remembered something I heard Mr. Angell say at a public reading on March 1, 1989, at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, dedicated to great writing about baseball, created by Roger Angell along with his friend, A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I remember the reading vividly. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and now revisit selections each Spring. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”

I recalled, most especially, the night’s opening remarks made by Angell. So I got out the CD, listened and listened again while scribbling on a yellow legal pad, until I could transcribe the brief exchange I’d remembered. As far as I know, there isn’t a transcription available on the net, so here you have one brief moment — an exchange that struck me, and has stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Angell makes a simple comparision, doesn’t extend it much, doesn’t labor over it, gets in and out, yet it made me laugh and it still gets me thinking today.

For here we are: Baseball season, pitchers and Molinas, is almost upon us. The massive spectacle of the Super Bowl has come and gone. It’s time for quieter pleasures. During my workday this past week, I arranged indoor practices for my 12-year-old Travel Team. Sent out emails, talked to the uniform guy about new jerseys. And today in my capacity as a Board Member for my local Little League, I ordered more than $4,000 worth of baseballs and assorted equipment.

All I really want to do is get out that old glove one more time. That simplest pleasure of all, a game of catch.

Well, here’s Angell and Giamatti, as they set the stage back in 1989:

A. Bartlett Giamatti:

“Why does baseball appeal to writers so much?”

Roger Angell:

The similarities between reading and baseball are evident to all of us, and may account for the enormous flood of baseball writing that goes on and on, and so much of it very high quality.

Baseball after all is a linear game. It’s the only one that is linear in the sense that one thing happens, and something else happens, and there’s a pause, and there’s a time for writers to think about it, and keep score, and take notes.

A Bartlett Giamatti:

It’s always occurred to me that intellectuals like baseball because it goes slowly enough so they can understand it.

Roger Angell:

Well, certainly I would hate to try to write intensely moving paragraphs about basketball, which is a swirling and beautiful sport of an entirely different nature, with a different feel to it. But one of the things about baseball which is like reading, in addition to the obvious things like chapters and, ah, is that if you think about both baseball and reading, they are occupations for people who are not afraid of being bored. But — you can laugh, but — also it really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game. Not dissimilar.

Fan Mail Wednesday #119: Play Ball!

Here’s one from Wyatt . . .

I replied:

Dear Wyatt,

Thanks for your letter. I’m sorry for the delay in my reply. Despite my best efforts, every year I seem to reach a point when I get hopelessly behind in my fan mail. I guess my goal of “keeping it real” isn’t the most efficient approach. I once printed up cards that I’d sign and send, but it felt too phony, like I was working in a factory rather than responding to a real person.

Anyway.

I can’t believe you played in a State Championship game! Wow, that must have been an exciting experience. I know a few players I’ve coached who would throw up before big games, that crazy mixture of emotions, fear and nervousness and over-the-moon excitement. I hope you played well (and avoided hurling).

“Play ball,” yes, that’s what it’s all about. Just going out there, playing a game you love, and giving it your best, win or lose. The idea, I think, has been with me all my life. I grew up loving baseball, and still vividly remember Little League games from my childhood. As an adult, I’ve coached my three children in Little League, Travel, and All-Stars. I also spent seven years coaching a men’s hardball team. Coached more than 500 games, easy. Baseball offers up a world that I know. Also, I’ve read a ton of books about the sport, so it felt like a dream come true to contribute something to the bookshelf in my office that’s dedicated to baseball. There I am, next to writers like Roger Angell, Daniel Okrent, Bill James, Roger Kahn, Charles Alexander, Lawrence Ritter, Arnold Hano, Mark Harris, and many more. All of us pulling on the same oar.

Since you asked: You might enjoy my book, Bystander. It’s pretty much written at the same level as Six Innings, and is set in a middle school. Click here for more information.

My best,

James Preller

James Preller Interviews . . . The Happy Nappy Bookseller

I first encountered Doret Canton and her singular blog when I read this post back in May, 2008. She was saying nice things about my book, Six Innings, so, naturally, I fell madly in love. In today’s world, that means: We read each other’s blogs. I recently asked if she’d be willing to be interviewed. And, hey, look, here she comes now . . .

Note: Not really Doret.

Doret, though we’ve corresponded sporadically over the past year, I really don’t know much about you. So let’s start with some basic facts: Who are you?

Well, you know my first and last name and I’ll throw in my middle initial for free: Doret A. Canton. I am from the Bronx, N.Y.

Though for some reason I never got an accent. I’ve been in Atlanta since 1996 and I still don’t have an accent. I am pretty sure I am immune to them. I didn’t learn about children’s literature in an air-conditioned classroom or office but rather on the unforgiving retail floor. Now I can pretty much hold my own in a conversation about children’’s literature, and if need be I’ll fake the funk.

Doret, I’ve been faking the funk all my life. In the “kidlitosphere,” you represent an under-served population and offer, I think, a valuable perspective on children’s literature. You are a bookseller. And an African-American. And definitely not “inner circle,” whatever that may be.

As a minority, I know how it is not to be represented or to find your stuff in the back corner. So on my blog and the displays I do at work I always strive for balance. About a year ago, I looked at the YA table and I noticed it was all girl-centered titles except for Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz.  My first thought was OMG, how did I let that happen?  What does that say to the teenage boys who pass this table? Now the table its about 50/50, and I feel much better showing it to teenage boys and mothers who have sons.  When the holidays roll around I check the calendar so I know when Hanukkah begins so I can get the books out on time. I may not always achieve balance . . .

. . . but I always strive for it.  It’s the same with my blog.  I just want people to come and discover authors they may not find elsewhere.

What motivated you to blog?

Before I started my blog, I was a bloghopper, leaving one or two comments. I finally wanted to start my own after finishing a YA book by an African-American author because I knew there was nowhere to talk about it. I noticed there didn’t seem to be many African-Americans blogging about children’s and YA lit. So I said, Why not?  When I was thinking on blog names I knew I wanted something that reflected my melanin. So people who visited would know which box I checked in the last census.

When I started a little over a year ago, I didn’t know where I was going to go with it but I knew I wasn’t going to review only African-American authors.  I enjoy reading many authors, styles, and genre. I wanted that reflected on my blog.  (No one puts this bookblogger in a reading corner!)  It was really slow going in the beginning.  I was like, “Hello, is anyone reading?”  I started to feel like that always-falling-down tree in the forest that no one hears. Early on I was lucky enough to get some nice links from Kelly Herold over at Big A Little A and Jen Robinson.  Those links felt like welcomes and encouragement.  So thank you, ladies!

I know what you mean. Those few people who reach out, provide links, and write comments are so important. Validation, you know; it’s not all navel gazing.

So what have you learned along the way? Any surprises?

I’ve learned to always be willing to stand by what I say and never blog angry. Site meter checking is the blogger equivalent to authors checking their Amazon ranking.  For a while I was obsessed with checking my site meter to see who stopped by. I still get a kick out of seeing when someone from another country has visited.  I love it when authors take the time to leave a comment.  It means a lot.

I had been thinking about trying to get to know you better for a while -– I’m curious about you, and you’ve always been nice to me -– but one of your recent blog posts sealed the deal. As you wrote in the poem: “I don’t like to play the Card/But this time I am licking the back/smacking it on my forehead and calling/B.S./And that’s what this rant is about.” Have you gotten any response from that self-proclaimed rant?

I’ve only gotten positive responses for the rant. It would be easy for me to go on about authors of color being under-represented online but I don’t want to come across as the angry Black girl — besides, do it too much no one will listen. I decided I was better off exposing the few people (and I am not being humble, I have site meter, remember) who visit my blog to diverse reviews.

I love how you inject your personality into your book reviews. These aren’t “official” reviews from some kind of anonymous, official, sanitized source of wisdom: It’s Doret Canton talking books. For example, this quick review of Pure by Terra McVoy. You began it this way: “I thought this was very good. I liked it so much I’ll forgive the pink cover and just pretend I don’t see that cherry.”

I try to have fun with my reviews. I just hope my love or enjoyment of the books comes through. If you want something more professional, go to Kirkus or SLJ or someone with a degree. I simply do me and that makes it fun. To do anything else seems like work. One time I did up my review game for Zetta Elliott‘s YA novel, A Wish After Midnight. For two reasons: 1) It was a self-published book, and I wanted to give people a reason to take a chance on it; and 2) I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a slightly more professional review.  But I did stay true to me. Towards the end of the post I have, “Don’t roll your eyes” in parenthesis. I like to think of that as my Duckie prom moment. Remember, Duckie got dressed up for prom but still wore his crazy shoes?

Um . . . nope. I have no memory of a Duckie. In crazy shoes or otherwise. But don’t let that stop you.

I won’t. Whenever I can fit in an 80’s movie reference like “Pretty In Pink,” I’ll do it. I think a good review is honest with a little heart in it.  That statement probably doesn’t include New York Times reviews, but since I have yet to understand one from beginning to end, I am not entirely sure.

Well, I loved Lisa Von Drasek’s review of Six Innings in The New York Times Book Review. But I do think that’s what’s great about your blog, specifically, and great about blogging, generally. No one needs authorization to blog (read: speak your mind); you just do it. Now more voices can be heard. The dialogue has become more open and inclusive.

One of the great things about blogging is freedom, to share. There is no order to my blog but that’s my choice. One of the beautiful things about blogs is individuality.

It’s like what you said before, about not knowing where it might lead. You start a blog and then, gee, you wonder, What is this, exactly? What have you gotten yourself into, you know? So you make it up as you go along, and gradually it becomes perfectly itself. But please, Doret, let’s turn the conversation back to me. You’ve said that you enjoy my recurring “Fan Mail Wednesday” feature. What about it do you like?

I love Fan Mail Wednesday, wish more authors did it. I like the way you take the time to interact with your fans. Your responses are fun, honest, witty and show much respect and appreciate for your fans. Can you bring back the dog who was speaking to President Obama?

Thanks for that. A funny thing about those two “letters to the president”  my dog wrote: They were by far the two most popular posts on my blog. You can imagine how much I resent Daisy for that. Now I feel like Daisy, my Goldendoodle, should have her own blog. But the problem is I  have this job that gets in the way –- and a career to relentlessly, shamelessly self-promote.

Speaking of which: Look everybody, more pictures

of me, Me, ME! Look: I’m SQUINTING!!!

You know, Doret, I get a kick out of it when you complain about customers, little things that happen in the store. It’s like we’re co-workers, there’s a confidential/conspiratorial tone to it, and I can imagine you rolling your eyes as you type, shaking your head, muttering, “Oh Lord.”

Earlier when I said I learned about children’s literature on the unforgiving retail floor, I wasn’t kidding. Some customers don’t play — you had better know what you’re talking about. Don’t try and fool them, they’ll catch you and call you out on it. Some costumers are just crazy. Some are just plain mean. (Emily Post, where are you?  Please tell these people to get off their phones while receiving help.)  Complaining about customers on my blog is a good way to get it out of my system. Plus they add a little more bite to the bookseller in my blogger name. If there was a musical for the book industry, I’d be singing and dancing (off-key and off-beat), “It’s a Hard Knock Life” (with the Jay Z beat), while picking up book reshelves and giving customers the evil eye.  Every once in a while screaming, “Books are not coasters!”

No, not coasters – but they do make great furniture. Every house should be filled with them.  Doret, you are obviously crazy about baseball. What are the baseball books you are recommending this season?

I love talking about sports books because they can turn non-readers into readers. Here are eight new baseball books that I’ve read and reviewed:

The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott. I loved this one.  So far this is my favorite baseball book of the year.

Babe Ruth and the Baseball Curse by David A. Kelly, illustrated by Tim Jessell. This was a great early chapter baseball book. I’d highly recommend it for baseball fan parents who are looking for something a little longer to read to their child.

Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta. I loved the way the main characters were developed.

Mighty Casey by James Preller,  illustrated by Matthew Cordell. As always I really enjoy your text J.P., but it’s Cordell’s light and easy illustrations that make it okay for me to add it to this list (don’t want people to think I am playing favorites). And that really did look like pee!

Baseball Crazy edited by Nancy E. Mercado. Great collection of baseball short stories, from authors such as Jerry Spinelli, John H. Ritter, Sue Corbett, and more.



Top of the Order by John Coy.
If a parent came to me and said my son hates reading but loves baseball, I would show them this book. Coy took the time to create four characters and situations boys could relate to.  This book could show many reluctant readers that reading isn’t so bad.

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane. It’s about a girl who pitches on her eighth grade baseball team, with a wicked knuckle ball.

Change-Up Baseball Poems by Gene Fehler,  illustrated by Donald Wu. I loved everything about this collection of poems.  The text and the illustrations are a beautiful match.

These next four I haven’t read yet, but I’m looking forward to them:

The Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz. I know this is a great baseball book when non-baseball fans are giving it great reviews.

Ray and Me by Dan Gutman. I take Gutman’s baseball card adventure series for granted because its always so good.  I do plan on reading this one. It’s about Ray Chapman, the only major league baseball player to get hit by a pitch and die in a game.

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Andre Winter. I saw this reviewed  over at Fuse #8.  My first thought was, That’s a beautiful baseball book I must read.

The Baseball Talmud by Howard Megdal.
This is the history of Jewish players in major league baseball.

In a recent email, you asked me about, “your Mets.” It used to be “our Mets.” What happened? You haven’t crossed over the to Dark Side (read: Yankees), have you?

I could never cheer for the Yankees.

I agree, it’s like rooting for a Swiss watch. Roger Angell, who is one of the great pure writers of the past fifty years, says that people have more “Mets” in them than “Yankees” — that we’re more shaggy dog than exalted champion.

That quote couldn’t be more perfect, and I will always root for the Mets.

Okay, Lightning Round:

Five favorite books you love pressing into customers hands?

1. Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
2. Marcelo In the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
3. Flygirl by Sherri Smith
4. Carter Finally Gets it by Brent Crawford
5. A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
6.  Fairy School Dropout by Meredith Badger

(Six is the new five!)

Favorite music?

Neo-Soul, Pop, Rock and Jazz.

Favorite movies?

Anything with a good story line that doesn’t rely on special effects.

What other sites can you recommend that celebrate diversity in children’s literature?

* The Brown Bookshelf
* Color Online
* Crazy Quilts
* Mitali’s Fire Escape
* Paper Tigers
* A Wrung Sponge

To be fair, I do run across a few other reviews of authors of color at other blogs — but its not nearly enough. I am not going to do the percentages, that’s too much math for me. If I was to take a guess, even including the blogs I’ve mentioned, reviews of authors of color wouldn’t make up 5% of the kidlitosphere.  That’s simply not right and there’s no excuse. It’s 2009, we have our first Black president; this should not be an issue. I don’t want anyone to stop reading and talking about the books they enjoy, but be more open and inclusive. Everyone should check out Diversity Rocks Challenge. It was started by Ali from Worducopia.  This is a pressure-free challenge that encourages bloggers to add more color to their reading list I don’t do challenges — I am too lazy — but the Diversity Rocks Challenge requires no effort. After reviewing an author of color you simply link it to the site. That’s it, you come and go as you please.  Also check out Crazy Colored Summer Reads over at Crazy Quilts. Edi has compiled a great list of titles featuring teens of color.

Thanks for that info, Doret. Lastly: Ali or Frazier?

Ali.

Doret, my friend, thanks so much for stopping by. I really enjoy you and love that you are out there, shouting loud, staying proud. Keep up the great work.

Shouting loud, staying proud —  with those four words I am almost tempted to put up a Black power fist.  Instead I’ll say thank you, James, for finding me interesting enough to want to interview. And please bring back Daisy, her fans are waiting.

Woof.