THE CRITICS AND THE CRITICIZED: OR, SHOULD WRITERS WRITE REVIEWS?

I’m very excited to have Shana Mlawski, author of Hammer of Witches, here today. Hammer of Witches, a fantasy set during Columbus’ westward voyage, is fantastic and unique and I highly recommend it!

But Shana isn’t talking about her new book today (which you should totally read!).  Shane also blogs over at Overthinkingit.com, which is an awesome website where pop culture is looked at through a variety of lenses (mostly critical).  Plus, she includes infographics in many of her entries and I have an infographic obsession!  So today Shana is here to talk about the intersection between her life as a writer and her life as a pop culture critic.  And it’s a fascinating read!

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THE CRITICS AND THE CRITICIZED: OR, SHOULD WRITERS WRITE REVIEWS?

What is the relationship between authors and critics? Should writers adjust their work to please reviewers, and what happens when critics try to write fiction themselves?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately, and not just because my first book, HAMMER OF WITCHES, was recently put out into the world to be judged. (Irrelevant side note: The reviews are pretty good.) The thing is, *I’m* a critic. Some of you might know me not for this book but for my pieces on OverthinkingIt.com, a blog full of pop culture criticism. During my tenure as an Overthinking It staff writer, I’ve criticized the idea of strong female characters, the philosophy behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, books that have the word “daughter” in the title , and every episode of LOST. If I have any fame whatsoever, it comes from being a critic.

But what happens when someone who has spent her life criticizing other people’s work tries to create her own works of art?

In my case, the answer to that question is, “She sits down and has a long think.”

FIVE TYPES OF INTERNET CRITICISM

Criticism can hurt. We’re not supposed to say that, because we’re supposed to have thick skin, and the millions of rejections I’ve gotten over the years have certainly thickened mine. Nevertheless, criticisms hurt, and when they do I feel guilty about all the times I’ve criticized other people’s work. Then I vow never to criticize again.

Silly vow, ain’t it? Criticism is fine—at least, some kinds of criticism are, sometimes. And, yes, there are different kinds of criticism. I’m no literary theorist, so instead of quoting Michel Foucault or Harold Bloom, I made a chart:

mlawski-internetcriticism

As you can see, I’ve listed the five main types of literary criticism we see on the Internet. The first three are reviews you see on Goodreads, Amazon, book blogs, Roger Ebert’s old website, and so on. Snarky, balanced, and obsessed-fan reviewers write for different audiences and for different reasons. Some have commerce in mind (“I want to help people decide whether or not they should buy this”). Some have community in mind (“I want to share my love with other fans and bring new people into the fandom”). Some have entertainment and their own ego in mind (“I’m want to make people laugh”), and some have the author’s ego in mind (“I’m going to cut her down to size”/“I’m going to show her how much I love her”).

In those first three kinds of Internet criticism, star ratings count. But there are two more types of criticism where star ratings are irrelevant. Writers of Internet-based New Criticism assume the reviewed work is great and everyone already agrees it’s great. Here, the critic’s job is not to judge but analyze and deepen the fans’ reading of the text by noticing symbols, themes, allusions, and other literary techniques. Most blog posts about Mad Men fall under this heading. The critic usually assumes that everyone agrees Mad Men is amazing and that everything in each episode was placed there with care by Matt Weiner and the other writers. The purpose of the review is to gather around the digital watercooler and pick apart why one episode was named “The Collaborators,” why Don Draper was reading Dante’s Inferno, and why it was symbolic that Betty dyed her hair black. In this way, the critic deepens our enjoyment of the text.

The last kind of literary criticism is the postmodern kind. Here, critics can view the text from a political angle. They may question Game of Thrones’ imperialism or praise its feminism. They might criticize Girls for its overwhelming whiteness or The Big Bang Theory for the way it treats autism. These last two types of criticism are the kinds I write for Overthinking It.

WHAT’S AN AUTHOR TO DO?

Once I realized I was conflating five different things and calling them all “criticism,” my question changed from, “Should I stop writing criticism now that I’m an author?” to “Which kinds of criticism should we write, and how?”

The answer depends on who we’re trying to help.

I’m an author now, so mainly I want to help other authors, so I’m going to try really, really hard not to write any more snarky reviews. These reviews can be a blast to write and read, and they might help someone make a purchasing decision. But they’re often unfair. Strip everything away from a snarky review, and what’s left is, “This text is bad and you should feel bad” Except, “This text is objectively bad” usually means “I didn’t like it for some personal reason.” The reason can be innocuous—e.g., the writer used the present tense and you hate the present tense—but sometimes it’s based on prejudices and cruelty. Some reviewers approach certain books with extreme skepticism and give their authors no benefit of the doubt because of the author’s race, gender, sexuality, age, or some other factor that has nothing to do with his or her skill as a writer. This kind of criticism needs to be called out by other readers. We reviewers also need to consider our own unconscious biases when we start to unload the snark on a possibly-undeserving author.

What about fair and balanced reviews? They seem more useful to authors, because they’re said to offer constructive, rather than destructive, criticism. However, in my experience, these reviews aren’t really constructive to authors at all, because they tend to contradict one another. One reviewer loves the main character; one hates him. One loved the prose; one hated the prose. One was moved to tears; one felt nothing. Unless 90% of the reviewers make the same exact comment, this type of criticism will not help an author improve his or her craft. But fair, well-written reviews help authors in a different way. Reviewing a book puts it on readers’ radar, so your balanced review acts as a form of advertising. So if you’re a reader and you want to support an author, write a fair review for one of the major websites. It helps!

As for gushing reviews: they’re nice for a quick ego boost and a smile, but they won’t help me improve my craft, either. (I appreciate the ego boosts, though! Thanks!) That said, I’ll never give up writing gushing reviews myself. Sometimes you need to express your love for a work of art. Unrelated: Has everyone here watched Slings and Arrows yet? OMG it’s amazing! Funny, clever, wonderful for Shakespeare fans and even more wonderful for artists. Mark McKinney’s in it! And Rachel McAdams! It’s on Netflix! Go watch it now!

Writing New Criticism is fun, and so is reading it. I can’t imagine analyzing the symbolism of a writer’s work actually helps the writer improve his or her craft, but it helps readers enjoy the text more, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Anyway, my editor at Overthinking It will flip out at me if I give up this type of criticism. I promised I’d do video recaps of Game of Thrones and Mad Men every week.

The one type of criticism we should never give up is the postmodern kind. I can’t. I can’t shut off my brain when I’m reading or watching something. Let’s say I’m watching a comedy, for instance, and there’s a rape “joke.” I’m not NOT going to notice it. It’s not that I’m looking for sexism; it’s that the movie features some sexism. I’m going to point it out in my reviews in the hopes that writers stop writing sexist things and that audiences stop enjoying them. This type of criticism can truly be called constructive, as long as it’s fair. I like to give authors some benefit of the doubt and assume they’re at least trying to write in good faith. After all, criticizing is easy. Creating is hard.

What do you think? Should critics risk becoming authors? Should authors risk writing criticism? If so, what kind? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments.

Full STEAM Ahead with Eliot Schrefer, author of Endangered

Full STEAM Ahead

The past summer, I read Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered in one sitting.  (My review here). I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so when I decided to query authors for Full STEAM Ahead, Eliot immediately jumped to mind.  The research he conducted for the book took him all the way to a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  You can’t get more hands-on in science than sitting amongst the bonobos and interacting with them and their caretakers! And what I really love is that the story began with Eliot researching where the name of his favorite store, Bonobos, originated.  Talk about real-life applications of research!

Eliot contributed some Q and A about the way science influenced his writing.  Specifically, he is here today to talk about the time he spent at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He has even shared some video clips of the time he spent at the sanctuary!

Q: Did you make any surprising observations about bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary?

A: One thing I discovered while I was at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo was that the orphans really don’t like men. I’m a smaller guy, so they didn’t mind me too much, but whenever I had an orphan on my lap and one of the larger men on the staff—a gardener or a guard—would come over, the orphan would immediately be on his feet and crying for her surrogate mother to come over and hold her.

Of course, it was mostly likely men who came into the forest and killed that orphan’s mother. The young creatures receive so much love at the sanctuary, and have such a good time playing with one another, that it’s easy to forget where they all came from. But the immediate, visceral fear on an orphan’s face in the company of men made it all come back. They are 98.7% human, and extraordinarily sensitive. They’re as likely to forget about losing a parent as we would be.

Esperance Tsona and Anne-Marie Ngalula, surrogate mother and nurse, respectively, at Lola ya bonobo, Kinshasa. (Video taken by Eliot Schrefer.)

 

Q: Did it concern you to write about animal welfare in a country with so much human suffering?

A: Jane Goodall, who no doubt gets asked this question all the time, wrote a wonderfully articulate response in her memoir, Through a Window:

Often I am asked whether I do not feel that it is unethical to devote time to the welfare of ‘animals’ when so many human beings are suffering. Would it not be more appropriate to help starving children, battered wives, the homeless? Fortunately, there are hundreds of people addressing their considerable talents, humanitarian principles and fund-raising abilities to such causes. My own particular energies are not needed there. Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins. To fight cruelty, in any shape or form— whether it be towards other human beings or non-human beings—brings us into direct conflict with that unfortunately streak of inhumanity that lurks in all of us. If only we could overcome cruelty with compassion we should be well on the way to creating a new and boundless ethic—one that would respect all living beings. We should stand at the threshold of a new era in human evolution—the realization, at last, of our most unique quality: humanity.

I feel like being a sensitive adult leading an examined life entails a low level of guilt— this nagging feeling that we’re not doing enough to help others, that there’s so much to be improved but no clear way to help. Normally that guilt can be ignored, but it’s brought to the surface when we face suffering directly. One of the ways to hide that guilt back away is to say that some sufferings are outranked by others and can therefore can be ignored. But that’s a sure route to not doing anything about any of them. At some point you have to trust in compassion and the support of others, that someone else might take care of the rest of the world’s woes if I help this specific creature in front of me.

Bonobos also serve as the ambassadors for a number of less adorable species. Congo has one-eighth of the world’s forests.1 By protecting them for the sake of the bonobos and chimpanzees and gorillas, we’re also protecting the insect, amphibian, reptile, plant, and mammal species that reside there. Benefitted, as well, are the tribes that live within the forests and steward a huge plant biomass that tempers global warming.

Bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, outside of Kinshasa, using rocks to crack nuts. Video shot by Eliot Schrefer.

1Wolfire, D.M., J. Brunner and N. Sizer (1998) Forests and the Democratic Republic of Congo. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.

I love that Eliot Schrefer devoted so much time to the biology and zoology of the bonobos, determined to get it right for the book. It was certainly worth it!  I knew very little about bonobos before reading Endangered, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since  I finished reading it.  The science and research aspects are so realistic and I imagine they will inspire many readers to learn more about the great apes.  Maybe Endangered will even guide some readers into conservation or zoology!  How great would that be- students reading about math, science, or engineering and then jumping into a career inspired by that reading!

But even if the reader doesn’t become a zoologist or an environmental scientist, Schrefer’s book (and the story behind the book) will bring the bonobos to the forefront in many readers’ minds.  STEM may seem like an overused buzzword, but it is vital that our students understand the world around them.  Reading about bonobos, an endangered species, will hopefully inspire our students to protect the world they will one day inherit.  And understanding science and conservation is vital to being someone those in charge listen to.  As English teachers, we can introduce our students to STEM, compassion, and empathy at the same time.

Be sure to check in next Thursday, when another author will be sharing their experiences with STEM and how it may have influenced their writing!

I Love Jessica Darling and Megan McCafferty!

I love Jessica Darling.  She is smart, sarcastic, and a fellow Jersey girl.  Back in 2008 I picked up Sloppy Firsts: A Jessica Darling Novel after seeing it at the bookstore.  I then flew through the rest of the series in a matter of days and have been recommending it to everyone I know ever since then.  I was eight years late picking up Sloppy Firsts, though.  It was first published way back in 2001, when I was starting college. (This is my excuse for missing out on it back then!).  But Megan McCafferty is throwing a month-long party in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Sloppy Firsts.  I am thrilled to be a part of the party today, interviewing both Jessica and Megan. :)

First, a few questions for Jessica Darling!


Welcome, Meg! I’m a Jersey girl, and I like to think that Jessica and I are very similar (clearly me projecting). One of my biggest guilty pleasures is MTV’s Jersey Shore. So who would Jessica’s favorite Jersey Shore cast member be, and why?

Snooki. Jessica would hate to admit it, of course. But I think she’d have grudging admiration any girl who is bold enough to do a drunken dance-floor cartwheel in a thong.

Haha, very true!  I think we can all agree with that.  How about some other aspects of pop culture.  What’s on Jessica’s iPod today? What is she reading? (I’m cheating, I know- this is two questions. :) )

Jessica listens to LCD Soundsystem because James Murphy was so heavily influenced by 80s new wave and electronica. And she reads Jezebel.com and wishes it had existed when she was in college so she could have gotten an internship there.

Sigh.  More things Jessica and I have in common.  I love Jezebel.  I’m addicted to celebrity gossip and other ridiculousness.  What about Jessica?  If she had to choose one celebrity crush, who would it be?

Len Levy, lead singer of the multiplatinum band The Mighties.

You stumped me there.  Now I have to google The Mighties!  Itunes, here I come.  Forget celeb crushes though.  Tell us what Marcus Flutie is like today! How has he changed? How has he stayed the same? What are your future plans?

Marcus is happier now than he’s ever been. Let’s just leave it at that.

Oooh.  An intriguing answer.  :) And you, Meg?  What’s your life like right now?

As for me, I’m working on the idea for my next book. And THUMPED (sequel to Bumped) comes out in Spring 2012.

Woot!  Can’t wait to read THUMPED!  But first, back to Jessica.  What was her New Year’s Resolution for 2011?

Don’t feel guilty when good things happen to you.

I like that.  Words to live by from Jessica Darling.  So Meg, as you look back to when you were first drafting Sloppy Firsts, what advice would you give to past-Meg?

Oh, to be so clueless about the business of selling books. You’ll never be so blissfully naïve again.

Haha.  I guess there’s nothing better than blissful ignorance.  Before the business end of writing came into the picture, you had to draft.  What came first? Did Jessica come to you as a character, or was the concept/plot the first thing that you started with?

Voice came first. Then I created a character to go with that voice. I struggled with plot, trying to figure out what was going to happen to this Jessica Darling girl that I had invented. The title SLOPPY FIRSTS actually came from another unrelated short story I wrote in college that eventually was published in Seventeen magazine as TRUE BLUE.

And what type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?

It’s a combination of planning, inspiration and intuition. I have to know how the book begins and ends, with very flexible ideas for what happens in between. I love making discoveries about the story and the characters as I go along. Those surprises are what keep things interesting for me as a writer—and for the readers.

 Do you write everyday? Do you have a specific writing schedule?


When I’m working on a book, I write from Monday to Friday while my son is in school. I have a minimum word count that I must get done (usually 750 words) before I’ll allow myself to do anything else, like go to the gym or go out to lunch. Once my son comes home, I’m done for the day. I try to keep my writing life and my real life as separate as possible, which can be a challenge because I work at home.

And what books are you reading now? Any recommendations?

I just finished Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, the most charming romance I’ve read in ages. Now I’m reading Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes. It won a bunch of awards for YA fiction, but I think it could have just as easily won accolades if it had been published as an adult title.

Thanks for stopping by, Meg!  It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. And thank you for giving the world Jessica Darling!  

Do you love Jessica Darling?  Be sure to take part in Megan McCafferty’s SLOPPY FIRSTS: The Epic 10th Anniversary Giving Away of Rare and One-of-a-Kind Stuff.

(from Meg’s blog)

To commemorate the 10th Anniversary, I’d like you, the biggest supporters of my series,  to share with me (and the world) what SLOPPY FIRSTS has meant to you. What form should your tribute take? That’s up to you. Write a heartfelt blog post about discovering SLOPPY FIRSTS in the bookstore. Make a video re-enacting the infamous “lip nip” with finger puppets. Compose a song incorporating one of Jessica’s many graphs, charts and lists. Create a line of SLOPPY FIRSTS inspired t-shirts.  EXPRESS YOUR LOVE ANY WAY YOU WANT TO. Send me the link(s) to your awesome tributes via Twitter or my Facebook Page, tagged #sloppyfirsts10th. (If you are a nonparticipant in these social networks, you can always email me at megan@meganmccafferty.com.)

……BE CREATIVE AND HAVE FUN. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

 

I can’t wait to see what the fans come up with. And Meg has some fantastic prizes up for grabs, including “A SPECIAL 10th ANNIVERSARY EDITION of SLOPPY FIRSTS. A one-of-a-kind copy randomly annotated in my (Megan’s) very own, very sloppy handwriting .”  Umm, yes please!

Alyssa Sheinmel Interview!

Today I am very happy to welcome author Alyssa Sheinmel to the blog.  Her realistic fiction books always grab me so when I was offered the opportunity to speak with her, I jumped on it. Her new book, The Lucky Kind is the story of Nick, a teen in New York who’s world is turned upside down when he learns that his father had a son whom he gave up for adoption. Suddenly, Nick doesn’t know who he is, and if he can trust his parents.

Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed at thereadingzone, Alyssa! I read and loved The Lucky Kind  and I can’t wait to share it with my high school students. When you first got the idea for The Lucky Kind , what came first? Did characters come to you first, or was the concept/plot the first thing?

Well, first and foremost, thank you for reading and for sharing it with your students! I’m thrilled that you like the book.

The idea for this story had been percolating in my imagination for a while before I sat down to write it. From the beginning, I knew I was going to tell the story of someone on the periphery of adoption; not the person who gives up a child for adoption, and not the person who was given up. The story in my head was of a boy just outside of the experience of adoption, but who was nonetheless deeply affected by it. As far as Nick’s character, I didn’t really get to choose it; as The Lucky Kind took shape in my imagination, Nick’s voice – and through it,his character – came right along with it. It was always Nick’s story.


The Lucky Kind  and your previous book, THE BEAUTIFUL BETWEEN, are both set in New York City. What made you choose NYC as your setting?

I’m a big fan of writing what you know – or at least, writing some of what you know – so I always try to ground my stories in real details. For me, that meant placing The Lucky Kind in New York City. That’s where I went to high school, and those are the restaurants and movie theaters that I grew up going to, the subway I grew up taking, the streets I walked with my friends. That’s not to say I’d never write a book that takes place anywhere else. (I hope that I will!) But New York seemed like the natural setting for this story.


What is your routine like? Do you write everyday? Do you have a specific writing schedule?

I don’t write every day. Right now, writing fits into my life in bits and pieces – I fit it in around my day job, around walking my dog, even around silly things like the TV shows I want to watch and the friends I want to meet for dinner. So, I’m pretty flexible when it comes to when I write; though my favorite time to write is in the morning.


What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?

Somewhere in between. I don’t outline, but I do make a lot of notes, from the minute I get an idea for a story. I generally begin with an idea about where my story is going to start, and where it will end, and a few of the plot points in between. But as I write, some of those plot points are almost always abandoned in favor the ones that manage to pop up along the way.

Your books are so perfect for teens of both genders. What inspired you to write for teens?

I never intentionally chose to write for teens; I just wanted to tell the stories that came to me to tell. But I do love writing for teens. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but I truly think that no books stay with you like the books you read when you’re young. I still remember the first chapter book I ever read (The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo), and I still remember how proud I was when I finished it, exactly where I was sitting in my grandmother’s house, my father at my side. I considered myself a reader from a fairly young age, but never more so than as a teenager. The books that I loved then are the books that I read over and over; I can recite passages of those books from memory to this day. Now, I try to write for the teenager that I was, who loved her books so much that she begged her mother for bookshelves the way most girls beg for clothes. (Though, I begged for plenty of clothes, too.)

And the most important question- what is your favorite go-to snack when you are writing?

Does gum count as a snack? I chew a lot of gum while I write. Sometimes I can’t start working until I have a piece of gum in my mouth (though I spit it out after about 60 seconds).


Thanks so much, Alyssa!  Readers, be sure to pick up a copy of her new book, The Lucky Kind , in bookstores today!  It’s fantastic and you can count on a review very soon.

Author Visit from Brian Christian

Last Tuesday, my students were thrilled that Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive and 2002 alum, came by for an author visit. Brian is an old friend and I am so grateful that he was willing to give up a day and head back to his old stomping grounds to talk about his book and being an author.

Brian speaking to my seniors

Brian spoke to the freshman for about 40 minutes, and they were rapt with attention.  They later mentioned that he never spoke above conversational volume, yet no one ever had to strain to hear him.  He never raised his voice and no one spoke over him.  I was proud of my kids, but even prouder of Brian.  He was a fantastic speaker and I looked around the room to see my students constantly mouthing, “Wow!” as he shared anecdotes about his time studying for the Turing test.

After speaking about his book, Brian took questions from the students.  They had fantastic questions and both he and I were very impressed.  A nice number of them had picked up the book on their own and read it and they asked some great, intelligent questions.  I think some of them would have loved to talk to Brian all day!  But alas, the bell rang for lunch.  Yet a lot of students stuck around- a few brought their copy of his book up to be autographed and to continue their conversations.  Suddenly, a few of my freshman girls came rushing out the open computer lab clutching printouts of Brian’s author photo.  They shyly thrust it towards him and asked for an autograph.  I couldn’t help but laugh. “I guess that’s not something you get at every reading, huh?” I asked him.  He laughed and signed the photos.  The perils of teenage girl fans, eh?

After lunch, Brian kindly stuck around for an informal 25-minute chat with my seniors.  He talked a lot about the importance of following your passion and majoring in what you love and enjoy, trusting that a job will be there when you are done. (He double-majored in computer science and philosophy, following that up with an MFA in poetry!)  I think that is such an important idea for kids to hear and I was so glad he took the time to share his experience.  Again, he took questions from the students.  One student raised his hand, asking if Brian was familiar with Megaman.  Brian laughed, and said of course.  The student then went on to explain that he is seriously interested in sentient robots and asked a great question pertaining to AI.  After the presentation, that same student walked up to Brian and asked to shake his hand. “Thank you so much for taking my question seriously.  This is something I genuinely want to study and most people tend to laugh me off. So I just wanted to express my gratitude to you.”  How awesome is that?

Having Brian come back to visit was fantastic.  He is a real-world example of what my colleagues and I work so hard to express to our students- life isn’t a box.  You are never “just” an engineer or “just” a sales manager.  Every occupation involves many different disciplines.  It’s why we work so hard to combine Biology, Software Apps, English, and History.  No man is an island, and no subject is either.  Brian is a poet, a science writer, a philosopher, a teacher, a student, an author, and a computer scientist.  We all need to follow our passions and create something in our lives that we are proud of.

Local newspaper article about Brian’s visit

Gallery of Photos

Lesley M.M. Blume is Here!

AN INTERVIEW WITH LESLEY M. M. BLUME
Author of Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate


Today I am so excited to welcome Lesley M.M. Blume to the blog!  One of my favorite authors, I was lucky enough to hear her speak at a publisher’s preview a few years ago.  Her Tennyson is one of my top five favorite books (ever)!  When I was given the opportunity to join her blog tour for Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate, I jumped at the chance to pick her brain.

Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate is different from your other books for children as it is a collection of short stories, rather than a novel. How was your writing process different for this book?

It actually wasn’t hugely different. With novels, I handwrite the elements of each chapter while sitting at my favorite neighborhood café – always with my special fountain pen in a red leather notebook — and then I go home and write it up on my laptop. In the case of MODERN FAIRIES, I’d map out each short story and follow the same process. What was different was being able to create and concentrate on a different setting and set of characters each time around – it was very liberating and fresh.

Short stories seem to be a dying genre for children, outside of textbooks and the occasional children’s magazine. What inspired you to publish this collection?

Well, if you think about it, short stories should be more relevant than ever. Much has been written about the so-called waning of attention spans of the digital generation, so short stories should be more in demand than ever. I personally loved short stories as a kid; one of my favorite children’s books – The Devil’s Storybook by Natalie Babbitt – was a short story collection, and as a writer, I was simply ready to throw my hat into that ring as well.

Were you well-versed in fairy stories as a child? Were you one of those children who was able to see magic in life- fairies in the flowers, hobgoblins guarding the George Washington Bridge , etc?

Yes – absolutely. I read everything on the topic, and it was a great joy to revisit these tales years later while I researched MODERN FAIRIES. I spent hours in our backyard, looking for fairies, “ringing” lily of the valley buds to lure the creatures out of hiding. We had a dark circle of grass in the yard; my mother told me that it was a fairy ring and as a result had to spend many midnight hours chasing me out of the “ring” and back up into my bedroom.

Do you have the same writing routine whether you are writing for children or adults?

You know – I just realized that I have a different approach for the respective age groups. For adult non-fiction especially, I rarely handwrite the elements first. It just goes straight into laptop. So funny. I wonder why.

What do we have to look forward to next? Are you currently working on anything for children or teens?

I’m currently working on another collection of very short stories about the ancient animal world: another fantasy- and mythology-oriented work. It’s quite delightful and bizarre – my illustrator David Foote and I are sort of inventing a new genre and format as we go along. It’s not *quite* a short story collection; nor it is a literal guidebook. It’s novel-like, in that it follows the adventure of a single protagonist over many years. I’ll be curious to see what everyone thinks of it when it hits shelves in 2012.

Wow!  I can’t wait to read what you have coming up.  I always look forward to your writing and I am so glad you could stop by today.

Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate is the perfect holiday gift for that middle grade reader in your life.   Pick up a copy today!

 

 

 

Be sure to check out the rest of the tour:

LESLEY M. M. BLUME’S MODERN FAIRIES BLOG TOUR

Monday, December 13th – Random Acts of Reading

http://randomactsofreading.wordpress.com/

Tuesday, December 14th – Library Lounge Lizard

http://www.libraryloungelizard.com/

Wednesday, December 15th – Through the Looking Glass Book Review Blog

http://lookingglassreview.blogspot.com/

Thursday, December 16th – Book Divas

http://bookdivas.com/

Friday, December 17th – The Children’s Book Review

http://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/

Saturday, December 18th – The Book Faerie

http://bkfaerie.blogspot.com/

Sunday, December 19th – The Reading Zone

https://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/

Monday, December 20th – SUVUDU

http://suvudu.com/

 

Book Event in NYC!

So sad that I can’t make it to this event, but hopefully you can!

Courtney Sheinmel and Regan Hofmann at at the National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South (20th St. between Park & Irving Place), New York City on Tuesday, Oct 12th, 8 p.m, for a reading/discussion/signing.

STORIES CAN CHANGE THE WORLD

Reading, Discussion & Booksigning.  Authors Regan Hofmann and Courtney Sheinmel share stories of hope, redemption and the liberating power of the written word.  In 1996, Regan Hofmann became an unexpected symbol of HIV:  a young, well-to-do, white woman.  For a decade she kept her status secret.  But Regan, a journalist by trade, knows secrets and stigma can kill, and sharing personal truths can unite people and save lives.  In 2006, she became editor-in-chief of POZ Magazine, putting herself on the cover.  Her memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, chronicles her journey, and was praised by Kenneth Cole as “insightful and inspiring.”  Young adult author Courtney Sheinmel was thirteen years old when she began volunteering for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, after reading an article about Foundation co-founder Elizabeth Glaser.  Courtney’s critically-acclaimed novel, Positively, follows a seventh grader living with HIV and was hailed by Publishers Weeklyas “wrenchingly authentic and quietly powerful.”  The book was inspired, in part, by her relationship with the Glaser family.  She’s also the author of My So-Called FamilySincerely, and the upcoming All the Things You Are.

I have read and loved all of Courtney’s books (Positively, My So-Called Family).  A few months ago we connected on Twitter because we both have experience with Elizabeth Glaser.  Courtney is extremely involved in the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and I performed Glaser’s famous speech from the 1992 Democratic Convention when I was on my middle school forensics team.  I so wish I could make it to this event, but it’s too difficult on a weekday.  I’m just too exhausted lately!  But you should go and tell me all about it!

Pictures and video of Regan and Courtney speaking together in January at Housing works.

Spaceheadz Blog Tour starring Jon Scieszka!

I am thrilled to be hosting Mr. Jon Scieszka today on his blog tour for his new middle grade book, SPHDZ Book #1! (Spaceheadz)!

Jon Scieszka is the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, named by the Library of Congress. He is the author of some of the best known and funniest books written for children including The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Time Warp Trio series and the Caldecott Honor Book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales. He is the creator of the Trucktown series, of which Smash!Crash! was an NY Times bestseller for many weeks. Jon is a former elementary school teacher, and a avid promoter of literacy—particularly for boys. His website www.guyssread.com focuses on his national campaign. Jon lives with his family in Brooklyn, NY.  (For more information, check out this website.)

SPHDZ Book #1! is absolutely hysterical!  While it is aimed at younger readers, on the lower end of the middle grade spectrum, I still found myself laughing out loud.  Part comic book, part prose, it will be hard to tear this one out of young readers’ hands. The book is the perfect combination of an actual, physical book and pouring over a physical book with the technology that kids love.

Michael K. just started fifth grade at a new school. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the kids he seems to have made friends with apparently aren’t kids at all.At first, they just seemed super weird. Then, they announce that they are aliens. Real aliens who have invaded our planet in the form of school children and a hamster. They have a mission to complete: to convince 3,140,001 kids to BE SPHDZ. But with a hamster as their leader, “kids” who talk like walking advertisements, and Michael K as their first convert (and only convert), will the SPHDZ be able to keep their cover and pull off their assignment?

I highly recommend SPHDZ, especially to boy readers.  I gave my copy to my younger cousin and he was a little skeptical until he read the first page.  After laughing hysterically, he screamed across the room, “This book is funny and awesome!”  I’d say that is  a stamp of approval. :)

___________________________

Today, I am happy to announce that Jon Sciezka has created some exclusive content for TheReadingZone readers!  Rather than explain it, I’ll let Mr. Sciezcka take it away….

“Major Fluffy is definitely a Spaceheadz.  He has disguised himself as what he believes is the most powerful form on all Earth – a fifth grade class hamster.  But Major Fluffy knows more than you might think.  The only problem is that he usually speaks hamster . . . or dog . . . or cat . . . or duck . . . or baby . . . or whale . . . or ant . . . and maybe grape soda.”



Want to know more?  Major Fluffy also has a blog at http://majorfluffy.wordpress.com/ and tweets @majorfluffy.

*review copy courtesy of the publisher

N. D. Wilson Blog Tour- Life Cycle of a Writer

I am thrilled to be a part of N.D. Wilson’s blog tour for the final book in his exciting series, The 100 Cupboards.  The first book, 100 Cupboards: Book 1 (The 100 Cupboards), is the current book club selection for Al Roker’s Book Club for Kids. The final book in the series, The Chestnut King: Book 3 of the 100 Cupboards, was released last month. The whole series is great and N.D. Wilson is a phenomenal writer. I absolutely loved Leepike Ridge, which I read a few years ago. (Check out my  review for more thoughts.)

Today, N.D. Wilson stops by TheReadingZone to share some of his thoughts on writing.  I can’t wait to share this with my students!  (And anyone who knows me is aware that I love metaphors that deal with insects and metamorphosis!)




Writers are like insects. We hatch in kindergarten—learning to read. And as our reading level climbs, we enter into some form of larval stage, consuming everything in front of us. Place a stack of fresh leaves in front of a globulous caterpillar and you have the perfect picture of the young writer. A young writer is a young reader—someone who will devour virtually anything. At this point, gatekeepers are necessary. It’s up to teachers, librarians, and parents to make sure that the books consumed are actually healthy (and helpful). Like any other form of consumption, not everything is good for you. A lot of kids with appetites for stories end up stuck in some form of literary junk food, a place with a never ending supply, where it’s easy to grow lazy and narrow in their tastes. Of course, when teachers are dealing with kids who hate eating at all, junk food is a great place to start. The flavors are simple and appealing. But those are different kids and different problem. We’re talking about young hungry, hungry caterpillars. The devourers. Bottomless pits. Throw anything at them and they’ll bring it back tomorrow, finished. (The first time I ever stayed up all night, I think I was in sixth grade, reading a book. And it was a terrible book, too.)

The first great change finally comes. The young writer’s belly is bulging. They become picky. Or they should. We are corpulent. We are full, and our parents and teachers and librarians panic. What happened to the appetite? Where has it gone? Has the reader died? Lazing bloated on the sofa, we complain of our boredom, we push books away untasted. We’ve seen this little thing with the dragon before. Funke did it first. Or at least second. This happens at different ages. I started doing this in the fifth grade. For others, it comes sooner. And I know people who didn’t get picky until college.

We have become pupae. Wrap us in a cocoon of old favorites. Actually, bring me mere selections of my old favorites. Give us some space—a little breather. And then make us work again, but differently. At this point, the young writer’s greatest strength—that which needs to be developed—is distaste. They need the ability to loath a character, a plot, a concept. If they are ever going to be left completely in the driver’s seat of a narrative, they need to develop a connoisseur’s palate for literary finesse and a quick sneer for literary folly. Make them read, but encourage them when they throw a paperback across the room. Question them. Force them to develop. Make them justify their own dislike. Help them learn to tear down stories. And, of course, in that context, the discovery of a story that pleases is sweet relief. But don’t let it sail by untested either. What was better about that book? Why did it resonate? What was more believable about it than the poor hurled paperback? The boredom fades. Sitting in judgment, the discovery of talent and failure, and the contrast of characters is interesting. Until it too, becomes easy.

And now it’s time for a dose of humility.

Make them fix stories. You don’t like My Side of the Mountain? The Egypt Game? Fine. Fix them. Make them better. Force the young writer out of the destructive phase and into positive construction. And don’t just pat them on the back and smile at every proposal. Turn their critical eyes onto their own ideas. Self-regulating creativity is a must. Judge them by their own finicky judgments.

Of course, throughout all of this, the hope is that these kids are learning the basics of craft as well. The mechanics of a sentence, a paragraph, metaphor, simile, etc. But those do not make a writer. Those are tools in a builder’s hands, and they’re terrific. But the builder needs visions. The builder needs imagination, creativity, sharp critical teeth, and the ability to weigh (and discard) ideas.

For me, the critical process kicked off as a result of my father. He pushed me when I moaned about my school reading. He was fine with my constant return to favorite passages from Lewis and Tolkien, but at that phase, it was just as important to read things that I hated—so long as the hatred could be justified.

My entrance into high school brought new desires. Forget fixing other people’s stories. I wanted my own. Prose craft became the order of the day, and lots of parental encouragement (and red ink criticism). I had sharp enough eyes to know that I wasn’t any good (when compared to my favorite authors—and I truly couldn’t think of any way to describe firelight without using the word dancing). That struggle to communicate kept me going. I read more poetry. I disciplined myself by writing (bad) poetry. I focused on many, many short exercises, especially sketching real scenes and events, and trying to reproduce conversations I stole in public. (The beauty of sketching the real is that it’s easier to tell when you’ve gotten it wrong.) I read more and more broadly. All the way through college and then grad school, I focused on short, refined prose. Finally, having popped out the other end of my formal education, I began tackling novels. And here I am.

All of this is autobiographical. I have no way of asserting this as the universal path to becoming a writer. But I have a nagging belief that my own experience is hardly unique, and many’s the time that I’ve listened to the grief of parents who believe their middle school reader has passed on—bored, listless, critical . . . pupating.

I’m no beautiful butterfly. A lunar moth, maybe (if I flatter myself). But I’d like to be a dragon fly. I want mosquitoes to fear me.

The book trailer for The Chestnut King: Book 3 of the 100 Cupboards:

Be sure to check out N.D. Wilson on the rest of his blog tour!

2/8 Shadow Hunters

2/9 Books4YourKids

2/10 Here!

2/11 Eva’s Book Addiction

2/12 Becky’s Book Reviews

2/12 Fireside Musings

N.D. Wilson’s website is great- be sure to check it out!




The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson

I love Mary Pearson. Every time I read one of her books I am transported to a new world and closing the book doesn’t always bring me back to reality. Pearson manages to snatch you away from your world and plop you down amidst the strangest of circumstances, yet they are always believable.

The Miles Between is a hard book to describe without giving too much away. Des (Destiny) Faraday rarely stays in one place very long- she moves around from boarding school to boarding school. As such, she has learned that it is best not to get attached to people in her life because they will only leave you in the end, just like her parents. But something is different on October 19th….something is in the air. When Des finds a car at her disposal she throws caution to the wind and ends up inviting three of her classmates on a road trip. In search of “one fair day”, the unlikely friends set out towards Langdon, a two hour drive. Along the way they learn a lot more about themselves and each other.

Des is an interesting character. I have to be honest here and say she actually drove me crazy for most of the book. I didn’t find her very likable and was mostly annoyed by her. Yet I couldn’t put the book down. There was something about her that drew me to her and her story. And Pearson has done a phenomenal job here, leading you down one path and then WHAM! The ending slams into you out of nowhere. It brought tears to my eyes, no lie.

This is a great read. I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to my 6th graders, though it’s definitely on a higher level than most middle grade books. I don’t think they would have a problem understanding the store and even connecting with Des and her friends, but I would handsell it to my higher readers. The adventures the foursome go on are funny, touching, and even sad at times. However, I found myself laughing more than crying. When the I finished the book I kept thinking about it even hours later. I’m thrilled to add The Miles Between to my classroom library this fall.

The ARC of The Miles Between has been on quite a road trip this summer. I was thrilled to get a chance to participate in this awesome blog tour (thanks Kristine!). The book traveled around my town for a few days in my purse and I never remembered to take it out for a picture. Oops! I was too enthralled in the story, I tell ya! However, before mailing it off to the editor in New York I snapped a picture of the ARC visiting my monarch butterfly caterpillars. I was changing their milkweed and realized that the monarchs are such a huge part of my life and classroom during this time of the year that it only made sense to take a picture of my backyard, milkweed, and caterpillars! (Plus, my town doesn’t have the biggest, weirdest, smallest, etc anything).

CIMG4651You can see one 3rd instar caterpillar on the second leaf from the bottom!

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