Monday, March 30, 2015

Appropriate/Inappropriate in Middle-Grade Fiction by Kell Andrews

Books for children are the ones most likely to be challenged based on content. If parents are to decide for their children which books are appropriate, that means that "inappropriate" books can and should be published so all parents have that choice.


A few days ago my 10-year-old showed me the book she was reading. She was nervous because it included a bad word.

The word was hell. The book was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead -- a book that I had read and found moving and challenging. I thought it might be difficult reading, but I had never thought it was too edgy.

So I told my daughter not to worry. Lots of books have so-called bad words in them. It doesn't make them bad books or not OK for her to read. The author was trying to show the way the world is, and sometimes people use those words. That doesn't mean that my daughter should use those words herself, but she shouldn't be afraid to read them.

A few days after my daughter and I talked about When You Reach MeClean Reader -- an application that removes proscribed words from ebooks -- created a controversy.

I reject the term "clean reading" on the face of it. Children have experiences that aren't deemed "age appropriate" in books, but that happen in their real lives. If we say the books that describe those events and experiences aren't clean, that's what we're saying about the children who live them. So it's not a term I will ever use.

Stead's book won a Newbery Award, but otherwise (and maybe even so) there are libraries and teachers that wouldn't acquire and use it with their students because the presence of that word. That is their choice -- there are millions of books out there, and every librarian, teacher, parent, and reader is free to choose among them for any reason they wish. 

The word in my daughter's book made her nervous. Some parents might think that means it's not all right for a child to read. But I'm glad she read it, and glad she came to me to talk about it. A word in a book isn't going to hurt my child. If it makes her nervous, a book gives her a safe way to deal with it. It's not the first time she's heard it, it won't be the last, and it won't be the worst. She can hear a bad word -- even say it or do something wrong -- and not be a bad person.

My speech patterns have always been PG. You could count on one hand the times in my life I have said out loud a word that couldn't be said on prime time TV. And yet sometimes my characters use much stronger language than I do, and they certainly do things I wouldn't do. In an unpublished middle grade manuscript of mine, an antagonist says something very vivid and nasty to my main character. But he is a thug and a murderer! He isn't going to sound like Mary Poppins. (This particular bit of dialogue, while something I wouldn't say, is one of the lines I'm most proud of in the book. Maybe I'm proud of it because I wouldn't say it.)

Most of the discussion around Clean Reader revolves around adult books, but adult books are not the ones that are most likely to be restricted based on content -- kids' books are. And it's fine for parents to be able to decide what's "appropriate" in a book for their child. And that means that the books that one parent finds "inappropriate" must be available so that other parents can choose, based on their own judgment.

Clean Reader is not something I would use for myself or my child, but if it allows other kids to enjoy When You Reach Me when it would otherwise be forbidden, that's not all bad. It's not all good either, but it's better than publishers, bookstores, or book clubs editing out content before publication or refusing to publish or distribute them. The original text is not affected by Clean Reader. But in middle-grade fiction, preemptive censorship happens all the time, and it impacts all readers. It reduces the quality, variety, and truth of books published for young people. It means that many children cannot read about the reality of their own lives.

When the time comes that one of my children picks up a mature work, I'm not sure yet how or if I will choose to restrict their reading materials.

But the other day, I told my daughter that she will read about all kinds of things she wouldn't do or say. She will read about things that have actually happened but shouldn't have, and about things that should never, ever happen. When she's uncomfortable with the content of a book or doesn't understand it, bring it to me, and we'll talk about it.

Or close the covers. I do it all the time. Every book is not for every reader, and I can't decide for others what is appropriate. I can only decide for my children and teach them to decide for themselves.

More
Appropriate Literature: Elana K Arnold on Stacked.com

Friday, March 27, 2015

Welcoming a New Mayhemmer: Steve Bramucci

Our newest Mayhemmer, Steve Bramucci
Finally we are back to full strength here at Project Mayhem. In the past couple of months we've added Donna Galanti and Anne Nesbet to our storied ranks, and now I get to introduce you to one more: Steve Bramucci.

Here's his bio:

Steve writes about travel, food, and adventure. His work has appeared in AFAR, Outside, and dozens of other online and print outlets. His first middle-grade novel Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo! will be published by Bloomsbury in 2016 with a sequel the following year.

When he's not on the road, Steve visits schools to share stories and folklore that he's collected abroad along with original tales of scalawags, swashbucklers, and rogues. He's a proud graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a member of the Sweet Sixteens. He is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

You can also follow his adventures on Twitter: https://twitter.com/stevebram He's a man on the move!


Thursday, March 26, 2015

A PMGM TRIBUTE TO TERRY PRATCHETT (Eden Unger Bowditch, et al)


 “It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It's called living.”
-Terry Pratchett


The world is simply that much lighter now. Losing Terry Pratchett is no small thing, in this world- the world of words. There are many writers whom we love, but few are as universal (literally, creating a universe or ‘multiverse’, I should say) as Terry Pratchett. We at PMGM have each had an experience with Pratchett, either loving his work, firsthand, finding his influence in our work, or seeing its influence in other authors we read. A few of us would like to share our thoughts of Terry Pratchett.
-eden

“If you trust in yourself…. and believe in your dreams…. and follow your star… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.

Dianne K. Salerni:
My first introduction to Terry Pratchett's books was NIGHT WATCH -- which was the wrong place to start, what with a character going back in time and referencing the back stories of numerous characters I'd never met. But Pratchett's comic genius was such that I loved it anyway and had to then dive into GUARDS, GUARDS to understand what I'd just read in NIGHT WATCH

My husband and daughters and I all love fantasy, but don't often agree on actual books and movies. But all four of us are united on the brilliance of GOING POSTAL, and at least half of us are in love with Carrot. 

 “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”

Kelly Andrews:
I first read the Wee Free Men a few years ago when I immersed myself in reading middle grade fantasy after spending most of my adulthood on "grownup" books. I liked it a lot, but I was intimidated by the sheer size of Terry Pratchett's body of work. Now finding myself with far too many "grownup" problems, I turned back to Pratchett and Tiffany Aching. It's just what I need -- immersive, subversive, and complex, dealing with the big problems of life with good humor. Now I only wish Pratchett's world would grow still larger -- I'm relieved that there will be another book in the Tiffany Aching series, but the end will come too soon.

“There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.”

Michael Gettel-Gilmartin:

I am embarrassed to admit that I have read only one book by Terry Pratchett. I know, I know: he was one of England's greatest contemporary writers, and a Sir, and hugely prolific. I'm not quite sure what I was doing in the 80s, when the Discworld series began in earnest, except living a roisterous life in Asia and singing way too much karaoke. After the 80s were but an ill-remembered blur, I was aware that Terry Pratchett was doing good work and becoming very popular, and I told myself sporadically that I should read him, just as I should read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (Still on the TBR pile.)

I did end up reading Good Omens, the novel Terry Pratchett co-authored with his good friend, Neil Gaiman. It is a rip-roaring production, with two wildly comic minds going at it. (If you doubt me, look up all the quotes on Goodreads.)

In fact, let me end with a quotation, now that Terry Pratchett has begun his journey beyond the stars: “DON'T THINK OF IT AS DYING," said Death. "JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.”

It has been said that Death has all the good lines--but don't think for a moment that Terry Pratchett won't be at his side now, making them even funnier!
 
The pen is mightier than the sword if the sword is very short, and the pen is very sharp.”

Marissa Burt

Alas! I haven't read any Terry Pratchett. I did see GOING POSTAL while doing some steampunk research and enjoyed it very much. In fact, watching that made me realize I needed to add his work to my to-read pile immediately! I loved the humor and world-building - very masterfully done. 


“Sometimes it's better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness.”

Eden Unger Bowditch:

My eldest son, my youngest son, my sister, my friends, my last publicist (who once accidentally spilled a pitcher of water in Mr. Pratchett’s lap) were fans of Terry Pratchett when I was newly discovering his magic. My husband and I had our mystery-loving hearts at the bursting with Going Postal. It felt like every aspect of everyday life was introduced through a convex mirror. Utter silliness, raised eyebrows, a wink, a nod, an affect of the natural among the completely ridiculous, and characters you simply adore …this could be found on every page. Once you start, it is hard to stop. THUD!, Reaper Man, The Color of Magic...an impossible list. The thought that the furiously prolific Pratchett pen is now still and the ink pot is dry must give us pause. In the magical world of the word, however, Terry Pratchett will be alive and offering to fill our brains with magic.

The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”


Terry Pratchett lovers, share your favorite books and stories with us.

 


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Blurring the Line Between Good and Evil by Donna Galanti




My worn copy from school translated
by Ian Seraillier
I did a panel this weekend as a presenter at Liberty States Fiction Writers Create Something Magical Conference in New Jersey on the line between good and evil in fiction. This is a favorite topic I love to debate when it comes to writing and reading!

I write fantasy and it can be difficult to separate the idea of good and evil from the fantasy genre, which traces its ancestry back ages with stories about brave heroes battling hideous monsters or cruel tyrants.  Fantasy tales of long ago contain a clear good and bad side, like the hero Beowulf and monster Grendel, or the noble Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham (although personally I kind of feel bad for Grendel).

Here’s the original and translated beginning of the heroic epic poem Beowulf, written sometime between 700–1000 A.D. and primarily in the West Saxon dialect of Old English. It's grand poetic lyrical verse portraying good versus evil for sure! And it's actually a good middle grade read with beautiful language that could open up discussion with your child if you read it together (if you don't mind a little monster mayhem). And I did just this with my son.

Original manuscript from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf with my translated copy
  

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings he continued this convention of white hats/black hats in fantasy, writing about the evil adversary of the dark lord and the band of courageous heroes that seeks to stop him. He wrote this during World War II, and at that time people had a clear definition of “evil.”

And in The Lord of the Rings the battle lines are clearly drawn between the ugly, vicious orcs as the “bad guys,” set against the handsome and brave alliance of elves and men. There is little doubt in the reader’s mind which character they should be rooting for; J.R.R. Tolkien practically stamped “evil” and “good” on the heads of the characters.

Anti-heroes blur the line now more than ever between good and evil in fiction, even though anti-heroes have been around a long time. But what exactly is an anti-hero? One way to look at it is this: if doing X makes a villain and doing Z makes a hero – what about those that choose option Y? These are the anti-heroes – and my favorite kind of character to write. To get a clearer picture, think 'Dirty Harry' and 'Mad Max'.

Anti-heroes are too good to be a villain, too evil to be a hero. They perfectly walk this line of good and evil, blurring the line. They are good guys who do bad things for all the right reasons.

Take Harry Potter which has examples of good, evil, and the anti-hero at play throughout the series. Harry = classic hero. Snape = anti-hero (a villain for the good guys). Voldemort = pure evil. As a reader, for me it’s a thrill when someone I perceived as bad turns out to be good, and vice versa. Like Snape in Harry Potter.

One of my favorite fantasy series is The Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan. In these books, good and evil are clearly drawn between the characters yet while we have heroes like the ranger, Halt, we also see him as a flawed hero - and to me, that makes him more relatable and appealing.

If we keep it in comic book terms, we have bad like Lex Luthor, good like Spiderman, or a mix like Batman. And Batman is the original comic book anti-hero as a creature of the night, striking from the shadows, and using fear as a weapon and working outside the law for justice.

Dragon Con 2012 by  Andrew Guyton

In my book Joshua and the Lightning Road, one of my favorite characters to write was the anti-hero Leandro. Why is he an anti-hero?

He is evil because: He kills “bad guys” like Child Collectors and anyone who gets in his way to further his cause to find his lost family.
He is good because: He self-sacrifices by giving up a life to find his family and helps others he deems “deserving of his help” along the way.

And I think we can all relate to that. It’s a universal feeling to want to protect those we love. And to get back to J.R.R.Tolkien, I actually fashioned Leandro’s spirit after my hero, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, a tormented, self-sacrificing kind of hero who kills to protect those he cares about. 

But let me play devil’s advocate here. If boundaries help to differentiate between heroes and villains – and if someone is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals, can it lead them astray forever? Does the end justify the means?

I think it’s important that we as storytellers set up situations that allow readers to seek the truth about good and evil – and that we must do so in a compelling, engaging fashion. It’s our responsibility as writers for story to deeply impact people, otherwise we have failed as writers.

And, ultimately, every character is their own hero to themselves in every story – villain, hero, or anti-hero. Just as we are heroes in our own real life stories. 

As people we embody both good and evil, and our characters need to be equally as dimensional. The question is: have the days of white hats/black hats in stories been replaced by the flawed hero, anti-hero, and the relatable antagonist? And if so, which do you prefer? And who are some of your favorites in middle grade fiction?

A most definite "evil" character but did he deserve what he got?
Illustration by Bill Pesce

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Gatekeepers by Robert Lettrick

When I decided to become a middle-grade author, I was fortunate to have the support (and keen eyes) of some wonderful teachers and librarians. Their feedback on my first book was invaluable, because they knew exactly what kids loved about middle grade fiction and why. They were quick to let me know when something I’d written would likely click with my target readers or when something would miss the mark completely. My best friend, Funmi Oke (Soon to be Mrs. Funmi Mosly in a few days, congrats!), loves MG so much she built a library in her classroom because the school’s library doesn't carry all of the popular, fresh-off-the-press titles like Alex Rider or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. She knows what her students love to read, because she loves middle grade too! We should all be so lucky to have teachers like that, right? 
Librarians and educators are allies to both children and writers. They are our partners. The facilitators of literacy. The concierges of imagination. The gatekeepers. If they were characters in the books they recommend they'd be Dumbledore and Gandalf and Aslan and possibly Charon, if the child appreciates horror like I did as a kid (and still do as a writer). So often they’re the ones to introduce a young reader to that perfect book. The book that transforms them into a lifelong, avid reader. Maybe a book you've written. 
I thought it would be fun to ask a few of my librarian and teacher friends to riff on the topic of middle grade books (sans guidelines). As an author, I found their ideas to be useful and insightful. 

Funmi Oke (teacher)
Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton will ALWAYS have a place in my heart, and my class library, which is approximately a thousand books (and counting!).  My name is Funmi Mosley and I am an elementary teacher and book addict.  It sounds like a confession.  In truth, it is and I’m not ashamed of it!  I’ve been an elementary school teacher for almost two decades and have amassed a rather large personal library, which has changed over time.  The days of recommending Roald Dahl books will, I pray, never disappear, but in this day and age where our youngsters are digital natives, and demand instant gratification and entertainment, adrenaline is but one word in the game of keeping the attention our young readers.
 My time in the classroom has definitely seen my bookshelves go through what some might term as a metamorphic change.  Middle school children (fourth through eighth graders) now have a varied menu to satisfy any literary palette.  For the adrenaline junkies, you have the young James Bond series (Charlie Higson) and Alex Rider series (Anthony Horowitz).  For those who love the supernatural there is of course the Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling) or Charlie Bone (Jenny Nimmo), or even the adventures of Vladimir Tod (Heather Brewer), an eighth grade student who is half vampire! The dystopian genre has ignited the minds of youngsters everywhere with the likes of The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and the Divergent series (Veronica Roth).  For those students who enjoy the macabre there are even ‘child’ friendly zombie and horror series written by Charlie Higson and Darren Shan.
One thing is clear; there is no shortage of books or ideas. Authors truly have to work for their money as they are currently competing with the world of electronics.  It takes an extraordinary book to zap the remote control out of a child’s hand and replace it with texts that not only holds the child’s attention, but also leaves them wanting more.  The books above do exactly that! 
 Authors clearly understand today’s children.  They expertly paint pictures with words. It isn’t just their use of figurative language that captures the imagination of children today.  It’s their ability to weave plots that are just convoluted enough to keep the kids guessing but not too challenging that they give up and put the book to one side.  Material today HAS to be excellent simply because it needs to represent and exemplify skills that are being taught in the classroom.  Authors of yesteryear wove wonderful stories, but their use of language and ability to relate and ignite the imagination of children left much to be desired.
Authors today are grand masters and take the art of manipulating words to a whole new level.  This allows their material to be used by a teacher to highlight where students need to aim when writing.  Story structure, character and plot development, use of figurative language, avoiding explicit explanations to force reader to use inference skills, these are ALL skills being taught and all skills that can be found in middle school aged literature today.  If you haven’t read the research on the relationship between good readers and great writers….you should!  The avid readers in my class had an innate ability to play with words that simply can’t be taught.  It was instinctive to them.  Where did their source of vocabulary, ideas, original figurative language come from, they were imitating of course!  Borrowing from those who they hold in high regard, the authors whose work they loved! 
When students start challenging themselves to create strong female leads like Katniss Everdean and Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior or plough through books to locate specific, high level vocabulary and original figurative language, you know you have a student who is hooked on books.  Their medication / cure? …Offer up another book!  It will do them the world of good. 

Sashi Kaufman (teacher and author of YA Novel, The Other Way Around, published by Carolrhoda Lab)
I've been an 8th grade English teacher for 6 or 7 years now. Though I've taught Science, Social Studies and Math to other grades, never English. So that leaves me in an interesting place as far as middle grade fiction is concerned. Most of the kids in my class have moved on to YA and a lot of them turn up their noses at anything that appears "too young" to them. Since my own bias as a reader is more towards YA -this works out well. However 8th grade is an interesting year. Some kids come in ready for high school and some kids are still happily playing with dolls or building forts -even though they wouldn't admit it to their peers. These are often the kids for whom YA is still too much. Too much relationships, too much drama, too much darkness and definitely too much romance. These are kids who, when I try to describe the plot of my favorite John Green or E. Lockhart book look at me and say, "Yeah but what happens?" These kids still want to be transported to a world of adventure, of dangerous mountains and cliffs rather than dangerous emotional leaps. For these kids middle grade fiction is where they want to be. 
Some of the middle grade books that get high marks from my students are Wonder, The Ranger's Apprentice Series, and anything by Rick Riordan.

Jennifer Wielt (librarian and writer)
The most rewarding part of being a middle school librarian for me is connecting students to books. It's easy with students who already enjoy reading. For them, I pay attention to their favorite genres, authors and types of stories and make sure each year I order plenty of new books in those categories. One year I had a 7th grade girl who was a particularly voracious reader. She liked realistic love stories and books about princesses. With her as my inspiration, I ordered almost every Meg Cabot novel I could find, and for something a little different I also ordered The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen. My student read through all of these her 8th grade year and loved them. Several years later, after she was gone from the middle school and had graduated high school, I had the opportunity to see this student again. She gave me a big hug and said every time she sees any of the books in The Luxe series she thinks of me. It's generally true that if one student likes a book, there are others who will as well, and each of the books I ordered with this one student in mind have remained popular with others to this day.

Connecting students with books if they don't like to read is a little more challenging. I can always tell I have my work cut out for me when students approach me with put-upon expressions and ask if I have any good books, or if I can point them to the shortest book in the library. In these situations, the students usually need an independent reading book (which is a requirement) for English class. I have a list of questions I generally go through, starting with, "What's the last book you read that you really enjoyed?" If they name one I follow up with, "What was it about the book you liked?" Often they can't name one, and so I ask next "What TV shows and movies have you seen recently that you enjoy and what was it about them that you enjoy?" Sometimes I'm able to make a match they jump at, sometimes not. My best success story using this method was the time a girl came to me, announcing she didn't like to read anything but had to, and I matched her with The Hunger Games. This was well before the book was a hit and a movie. She went on to read the entire series and every other post-apocalyptic YA novel she could find.
In my 16 years at this job I believe I've identified the top reasons students choose to read certain books:
1. Peer recommendation (the more fan-girl or fan-boy enthusiasm the better). This is hands-down the biggest reason. I think it's why certain books become runaway hits.
2. Teacher or other adult recommendation. If an adult has read a book and talks about why they loved it, students will almost always come to the library to check it out.
3. Movie or TV tie-in.
4. The student has read other books by the author.
5. The book had a catchy cover. Kids are all about judging books by their covers.
One thing's for sure -- all it takes is once for a student to experience the magic of finding and loving the perfect book and they're hooked on reading for life. Maybe that book will be yours!

Catrina Baldwin White (teacher)
My thoughts are that middle schoolers don’t always engage but when they bring you a book recommendation it is like starting a conversation. It’s a glimpse into the world they are thinking about and a great bridge for questions about what they wish was happening in their own lives (or affirmation of what is happening!). Books, no matter the age, give you the opportunity to explore new ideas, dreams, and to identify with someone when they might have felt alone before. A lot of middle school books are kinda “heavy” so funny would be great! Middle Schoolers are at the age where they are not kids anymore per se, but not adults either, and so sometimes the themes are a bit heavy. Plus, as an elementary teacher, the kids who can read on that level shouldn’t always, due to content. I think there needs to be a selection for those who are wanting to read for entertainment and not necessarily to “work through stuff”.

Catrina’s middle-grade-aged son recommended his favorites: The Maze Runner series, The Fire Eternal series, and the Divergent series. Her stepson is a fan of Uglies and The Outsiders.