Predators, Hormones, and Slippery Slopes

Writing last week’s blog about Valentine’s Day picture books and this week’s blog helped me clarify some of my thinking. The author Gary Schmidt (see post of 9/27/12 “Books I Wish I’d Written”) has said that the writer’s job should be to help a child become more human. Picture books are part of building and reinforcing the ties that hold us together. They deal with love in a simple and innocent context.

As a child grows into adolescence and the transition to making his own decisions and judgements, the world is more complex with fewer safeguards. The literature for adolescents, to stay true to this mission of helping human growth, has to venture beyond the “I love you. You love me.” message of early childhood. These books have to provide maps to the dangers and still find a way to reinforce the ties of love.

At the Whittier Bookfaire (see below), I am so pleased to be introducing Laura McNeal, a terrific writer of five novels for young adults. Laura and her husband Tom have collaborated on all but one.

The first three are a trio of books sharing the same setting. The first and the third share a few of the minor characters. The protagonists change from book to book, but commonalities exist including good kids stretching limits and looking for romance (hormones), adults looking for romance, teens treating each other poorly, adults treating each other poorly, betrayers, manipulators (predators) and people doing the best they can under the circumstances. Our heros and heroines make some questionable decisions (the slippery slopes) on their path to maturity.

The books are cautionary, but never preachy. A friend of mine who works with adolescents near the edges of the bell curve is upset about YA books where some situations, such as manipulation, hypocrisy, or date rape, are somehow presented as acceptable. Not so with the McNeals’ books. They are satisfying on more than one level.

The first, CROOKED, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 1999, winner of a California Book Award for Juvenile Literature, opens with, “Before everything stopped being normal, the thing that Clara Wilson worried about most was her nose.” That’s all I’m going to tell you except, if sleep is important, don’t read the ending late at night.

ZIPPED, published in 2003 also by Knopf, also goes between the points of view of male and female protagonists. Did I mention that’s a strength of these books?—the male and female perspectives with misunderstood communications floating back and forth.

Writers, note the opening sentence. “It wasn’t a normal Thursday, but all day long it had seemed like one, so when the final bell rang, Mike Nicols did what he normally did.”

CRUSHED, Knopf, 2006, again balances female, male perspectives and unbalances the lives of the characters with betrayals, bullies, and slippery slopes. Good wrap-up to this atypical trilogy. And while you certainly don’t need to read these three in the order written, for some reason, I liked ZIPPED better when I read it after CROOKED rather than before.

THE DECODING OF LANA MORRIS, Knopf, 2007, uses a tiny bit of magic in an otherwise realistic book about a teen in a less-than-ideal foster home. That little seasoning with magic gives this book a beautiful touch. I really love this story. It still has adults and teens treating each other poorly, good kids, predators, hormones, and slippery slopes.

Finally, DARK WATER is Laura McNeal’s solo work, Knopf, 2010. This has a Romeo and Juliet or South Pacific theme set in Fallbrook, California during one of our horrible wildfires and is another good read.

I can’t wait to meet Laura McNeal in person. And her husband, Tom McNeal, author of GOODNIGHT, NEBRASKA and TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER will also be a speaker.

The Bookfaire, taking place at the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College on Sat., 3/23/13, is a wonderful event for book lovers. Last year was my first time, and I had an absolute blast! (Keep in mind, this is a “blast” in bookworm terms). Especially wonderful is the opportunity to hear and interact with the authors.

Ok, so we won’t be outside and this isn’t the Whittier College campus. I just think it’s pretty.

For more information about the speakers, times, tickets and prices, go to www.shannoncenter.org

I can’t wait. I’m already picking out books to buy and get signed. If you do get the opportunity to attend Bookfaire, please say hello. I’d love to meet you.

Valentine’s Day 2013

I loved Valentine’s Day with my first graders. They got so excited about getting a little piece of paper with a message. Eerie quiet reigned in the classroom as the kids read their valentines until somebody would call out a “thank you” to other kids. Students were not required to bring valentines, but if a student did, he or she had to bring one for every other child in the class. Everyone was included, whether or not children had brought valentines themselves. Seeing how much those red paper hearts meant to my kiddos often brought tears to my eyes.

Sometime during the day, we always read SOMEBODY LOVES YOU, MR. HATCH, written by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Paul Yalowitz, and published by Aladdin Paperbacks in 1991. A postman’s mistake has unintended consequences. Lonely Mr. Hatch comes out of his shell when he receives an anonymous valentine. I don’t want to give away the story, but, be forewarned if you are reading aloud, the end will cause your throat to constrict.

Sorry, the colors came out funny. The cover is prettier than this photo shows.

I set out to find what’s a little newer at the bookstore and found a wealth of choices for Valentine’s Day. Here are a few that called out to me.

LOVE, SPLAT, written and illustrated by Rob Scotton and published by HarperCollins

Our Splat known as Riff-Raff.

Children’s Books in 2008, is one of five Splat the Cat books. The art work is perfect for Splat’s goofy personality. In this story, Splat makes valentines for everyone in his class with a special one for Kitten. But Spike does everything on a bigger scale than Splat. Who will win Kitten’s affections? This is a funny, touching book.

TEN THINGS I LOVE ABOUT YOU, written and illustrated by Daniel Kirk and published by Penguin’s Young Readers’ Group in 2013, is not strictly a Valentine’s Day story. Rabbit decides to make a list of the things he loves about Pig. Pig asks him to go away and come back later. Rabbit has such a lovely way of thinking of things to add to his list. It’s a tender lesson in seeing the best in the people we love.

Another old book that is funny and sweet.

Next week the blog will be about Laura and Tom McNeal’s books for young adults. Lots of romance and struggles. As I’ve been looking at these books along an age continuum, it seems the role for picture books for the very young is to reassure and aid in the formation of ideals, in this case love for specific other people and love that embraces all. But our world is not an innocent place and the books for older children and young adults have to provide navigational tools to help people and their ideals survive choppy seas and raging storms to reach a safe harbor.
Note for liturgical sorts:  Interesting that this year Ash Wednesday leads us to Valentine’s Day.

Mallows have started to bloom. They’re natives here.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Tryin’ to Get the Words Right

I wrote this poem when I couldn’t get anything written right.

Ahem . . . a poem by Cindy Schuricht that is improved by reading aloud

Tryin’ to Get the Words Right

Trying’ to get the words right,
Singin’ with Kurt Cobain,
Sayin’ too much and not enough,
Singin’ in the rain.

Can’t tell if my corrections
have made or broken the tale.
Rewrite, rewrite, and edit,
Sloggin’ through the gale.

Tryin’ to get the words right,
So they’ll echo off a heart
Or spark the sight of hidden
Dreams only glimpsed in part.

Have to live up to my alma mater after all.

Tryin’ hard to knit a story
And not drop a stitch or six.
But no completed garment—
It’s a knot I cannot fix.

Tryin’ to get the words right,
Scribblin’ in the dark.
Won’t know until they’re written,
If they’ll sing or merely bark.

And I’m just tryin’ to get the words right.

At least it was cathartic. (You’re more than welcome to use the poem, if you like. Please credit it though.)

And now for something useful, hopefully—the first Thursday of the month writing discussion concerns adverbs, which are almost always not the right words to use. Here’s where I want to head off in two directions—describing words and rule breaking. We’ll just go a short way on each of these paths. (Can you spot the word in this paragraph that pulls you out of the flow on the thoughts? Hopefully, it also made you laugh, okay more likely smile, but it does make a little bump for the reader, as does this parentheses.)

First topic—describing words and a picture book I love and used with my first graders to illustrate making writing clearer and more interesting by adding words that describe a person, place, thing, or, in the case of adverbs, actions. (My inner editor is saying, “You might want to break up that forty-five word sentence.”)

THE MAESTRO PLAYS, written by Bill Martin, Jr., illustrated by Vladimer Radunsky, and published in 1994 by Henry Holt and Co. Inc., is one of those simply written picture books that leads people to say, “I could write that.” Well, many of us could if we had the same clarity of vision and eye for elegance.

When I first read it to my kiddos, I would read the whole book except for the adverbs. It becomes, “The maestro plays. He plays. He plays. He plays.” And so on. The variation on one sentence is not the whole book, but it’s close. The kids would look confused and scratch their heads. “What kind of a book is this?”

I’d asked them if they thought the story was a bit boring. They did. Then we read it again with the adverbs. “He plays proudly. He plays loudly.”

Like I said, I love this book.

Rock rose pre pruning. I’ve been trying to make it into a cave. It hasn’t cooperated.

But now we reach the dreaded topic of RULES. And one rule for effective writing is THOU SHALT NOT USE ADVERBS (unless you are, say, Bill Martin, Jr.). Instead of using adverbs, find a better verb than the one being modified. For example, instead of “He said softly,” try “He whispered or mumbled.” It cuts out some of our wordy flab. (But does put us into the issue of “said.” Another time.)

Descriptions should be concise and leave the reader in the story. When I hear a list

Partly pruned to focus on branch sculpture. It gets to recover now before I do any more shaping.

of five or six adjectives for one noun, I feel like they are just being piled on top hiding rather than illuminating the object.

Pick the details that are important. Maybe your character always wears jeans. You might not tell the readers the color of her shirt everyday. But the day she wears a dress, a description that lets us know if it came from the thrift store or the fanciest department store in town could tell us more about her. What details actually help move the story forward?

It’s very hard to see the bees in the kei apple, but it’s rumbling like it’s ready for lift off.

And think about the order of information. We tend to say we put on our shoes and socks. Often with similar descriptions, I have to go back to my mental image, take off the shoes my mind has visualized without socks, put the socks on and then get back to the story. We’re writers. It’s our job to go back and fix things instead of writing the equivalent of, “Wait, I forgot to tell you something.”

One last word about RULES—BREAK THEM WHEN IT SERVES YOUR STORY. Think Bill Martin, Jr. and THE MAESTRO PLAYS.

And, just for practice, can you think of different verbs for “He plays reachingly” and “He plays beseechingly?” Please share your ideas.