In the female-dominated world of YA, it's crucial to recognize awesome books featuring male protagonists--especially when female authors have pulled off the work of imaginatively entering the inner world of the teen male.
I grabbed Split (by Swati Avasthi) on an impulse and didn't have many specific expectations, but halfway through, I was reading the author's bio. Avasthi, a woman, writes persuasively from a male perspective, something I admire extra much because I worked hard at it for The Knife and the Butterfly. Here's the scoop, cribbed from the Goodreads listing:
Sixteen-Year-Old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father’s fist), $3.84, and a secret.
He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind—his mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret.
At least so far.
Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. First-time novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you’ve said enough, after you’ve run, after you’ve made the split—how do you begin to live again? Readers won’t be able to put this intense page-turner down.
The plotting of Split is excellent, with each thread of the story propelling the action forward. There's a count-down dimension that ups the tension considerably. The book has a wildly upbeat ending for a book about domestic violence, but it's an ending that is earned by the protag's incremental growth through the course of the novel.
This is a great recommendation for fans of Chris Crutcher--the voice of the novel reminded me of Whale Talk. Readers who've loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower might also connect well to the narrator.
I'm addicted to my writer's notebooks. Have been since college. My writer's notebook is where the ideas that matter (to my books and to my life) start percolating.
How I use the notebooks has changed over time. In fact, when I flip through them, I can tell a lot about where I am in the writing process based on my handwriting and how I use the page. Loose script dashed diagonally across the page? Definitely a sudden inspiration, probably jotted down while walking. Tight lists with page numbers? I'm trying to get unstuck by analyzing a novel I admire. Entry that begins, "why do I always forget how hard this is?" Self talk during a first draft. Crazy cartoons and doodles surrounded by quotations? Me, at a reading (probably after a glass of wine)...
Now that I've been doing it for almost 10 years, keeping a writer's notebook is kind of like clicking on the Time Machine function on my Mac. I can see all those different writing Ashleys--and how they led me to my current place.
I have changed through these notebooks, but the most crucual benefit they offer me hasn't changed. My writer's notebook lets me take my writing anywhere. It turns every park bench, bus seat, or cafe table into a workable writing space.
Even when I'm working with Scrivener on my Mac, my writer's notebook is open. I move back and forth between the two, using the physical notebook as a safe space to think out an idea (and question it) before or even as I draft a scene.
My notebooks also save my butt via the reading lists I tuck inside them, lists of (with secret notations) every book that I read or listen to. They save my butt because I'm one of those people who blanks when asked their favorite book (I have too many!). Having the lists makes it easier to track down the right recommendations when asked, too.
P.S. Just click on the "writersnotebook" tab for my blog to see bits from many different notebooks. One of my favorite posts is here.
While I've been indulging FAR TOO MUCH lately, it's no holds barred today... on YA books that center on math, that is. YA Reading List is a fabulous librarian-run blog that features YA booklists around all sorts of themes... including YA novels with a math connection for PI DAY (today). What Can't Wait is hanging out with lots of other books worth checking out right over here.
Three random Pi-related facts about me:
(1) I have eaten a PI pie.
(2) I have a friend with 4+ pi-related tatoos.
(3) My husband charmed me into going on a date with him by sending me a piece of "pi" (a string of 10 digits or so) on a day that I wasn't feeling well.
Happy Pi Day!
These days I'm doing most of my work from that "other" side of myself--the comparative literature PhD candidate side. My goal is to finish a full draft of my dissertation by early next spring, a very ambitious timeline for a humanities dissertation, much less one in literature.
But I'm told it can be done, and I HAVE managed to produce A LOT OF WORDS in similar amounts of time. Of course, as I explained to a writing buddy... in fiction, I can improvise. I can't really do that to the same degree with literary criticism.
The good news is that the work is exciting and challenging. It keeps me cranking away during the day and wakes me up at night with (mostly helpful) revelations. Thanks to the elves in the back corridors of my brain who are making that happen... I don't think I could do this without you.
To motivate myself, I have combined a favorite photo of "my boys" (because they are a big reason for wanting to get this done sooner than later) with my ambitious but achievable writing schedule. Any other brilliant ideas for staying motivated and on task? Email or comment... I'm always looking to boost my productivity.
I've got fingers crossed that I'll land a dissertation fellowship to cover childcare next year--and buy myself a few hours a week to dip back into fiction even as I'm writing the Frankendraft of my dissertation.
Butterflies keep turning up in my work, as you can see even from the cover art (and titles!) of What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Recently I saw a beautiful photograph on Flickr* that got me thinking about what it might mean that I keep seeing butterflies in the inkblots of my characters' worlds.
It has to do with obvious things, like my iron-clad optimism. I like (and need) the notion of change and growth. Of breaking out of confined spaces. Of surprise. After all, I believe no one is more surprised by transformation than the butterfly himself.
But there is something more to the butterfly thing. Fragility. Flight. Upward movement. Silence. The ephemeral.
That seems to be the direction the butterfly theme is taking in novel #3, which is darker still than The Knife and the Butterfly. The butterflies in my WIP seem to be a kind of negative image, their absence marked out by the contours of events. I think maybe I am the only one who will see them, gathered in the shadows.
*"Rorschach" by Robby Cavanaugh. It's not available for reposting via CreativeCommons, but it is so worth the click. Go on, click. You won't be sorry.
Not long ago I heard from a Houston high school teacher that my novels The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait had gone “viral” among students. It wasn’t that a teacher was requiring kids to read the books; it was that students were sharing the books, telling their friends about them, and reading them under the table when they were supposed to be doing their science homework.
This is the situation anybody who cares about kids and their reading lives should want.
It’s especially important for reluctant readers who can count their successful encounters with books on one hand. And it’s most important for reluctant readers in lower-income brackets minority groups, where becoming an avid reader (the earlier the better) may be what helps close the gap between their academic performance and that of their “majority” middle-class peers.
We can’t transform readers’ lives by micromanaging their choices, whether by insisting that they focus on “great works,” or by shoe-horning in saccharin PC reads. Encouraging personal connections to books is the way to make books go viral.
In my experience, when you set aside big hits like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, the books that get passed around and talked about by teens are those that speak to their own experiences in some important way. And that’s not just about race or ethnicity, either.
While the biggest issue that may be hindering the success of young Latino readers is the relative lack of high-quality literature that features Latino protagonists at all, a related (and less discussed) issue is the lack of representation of diversity of experience within the Latino community. A recent New York Times article made precisely this point in terms of young Latino readers:
Kimberly Blake, a third-grade bilingual teacher, said she struggles to find books about Latino children that are “about normal, everyday people.” The few that are available tend to focus on stereotypes of migrant workers or on special holidays. “Our students look the way they look every single day of the year,” Ms. Blake said, “not just on Cinco de Mayo or Puerto Rican Day.”
On a recent morning, Ms. Blake read from “Amelia’s Road” by Linda Jacobs Altman, about a daughter of migrant workers. Of all the children sitting cross-legged on the rug, only Mario said that his mother had worked on farms.
This passage from the NYT article resonated with my own experience as a bilingual literacy tutor in East Austin some ten years ago and as an English teacher in Houston. I also reviewed Spanish-language books for Reading Is Fundamental, and almost without exception they were translations of popular children’s books in English with white characters. Why is this an issue? For one, it exercises a subtle pressure on students to value the commercialized image of mainstream U.S. culture over their own family lives and culture. Even for students from other backgrounds, seeing more Latino character has considerable value, as this balanced and thoughtful response highlights.
Many of the comments on the NYT article (also see this post and comments, including my own) were depressing in their willful misunderstanding of the issue. The point is not that children can only relate to books with characters from their own background or experience. Clearly, that’s not the case or much of literature—including most of what was written by dead white guys—wouldn’t appeal to any of us. The point is that there is something inherently unjust and damaging about never or rarely seeing anyone like you (whether in terms of socio-economic status, gender orientation, race, or ethnicity) in books.
As one commentor, BorincanoDC, wrote:
Even 45 years ago it would have been a good idea for me and kids like me to pick up a book in the classroom and see intelligent, decisive, challenging characters like the kids in my family and neighborhood. And it would have been a pretty good idea for the OTHER kids to be presented with a world a little different from their own where characters named Juan and Maria lived valid and coherent lives.
Speaking of names... May I please weigh in that, while a name change may be better than no representation, I found myself biting my hands to keep from screaming when I read one high-school English teacher’s strategy for getting his Hispanic “bibliophobes” to read: “I have quite a few stories in Word format that I print, including some I’ve written. I’ve taken the liberty of changing characters’ names to Hispanic just to see what would happen. I’ll try almost anything.”
I hope he’ll try something else—anything else. If his students are anything like mine, they can smell condescension a mile away.
He could start by handing his reluctant readers The Knife and the Butterfly, which I wrote specifically with my Latino guys in mind. Other great picks are Jack Gantos' Hole in My Life and anything by Matt de la Peña. For guy-friendly short stories by Latino authors, he could check out Junot Diaz's Drown and Oscar Casares' Brownsville.
One last point: if any group needs support in overcoming educational disenfranchisement, it's the Latino population in the US, especially those who have parents and grandparents who moved through the public education system. Whereas African Americans prior to the civil rights era moved through segregated schools in which, however inadequate the resources, they were taught by other African Americans who did believe in their potential, most Hispanic students prior to the fifties and sixties were forced out of schools (the methods used to accomplish this were myriad) or taught in overcrowded classrooms by white teachers with little investment in educating their pupils. In 1930s Houston, for example, there was virtually no access to high school for the majority of Hispanic students. (More on segregation here, and more on race in writing here.)
Discrimination and exclusion of that magnitude is bound to have an effect, and we all can have a part in bringing trust and investment in education back to this community. I write books that I hope will be worth reading and passing around. Teachers, librarians, readers: help us make the good books go viral.
It's a new year, and you are looking to start things off right. Set some goals, sure, but most of all, go write. Here's a tried-and-true idea you can use.
Take a break from structure and write blind (literally, if you can touch type). Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping, not worrying about punctuation or even making sense. Repeat words if you get stuck; there’s no wrong way to do this.
Your goal is to get to a state where your internal editor can’t block anything (some people call this “automatic writing”). Just write—riding emotions, not worrying if anything is “okay” or not. When the timer goes off, look at what you’ve written. Most of it will be gibberish, but you may well have tricked yourself into writing a gem of an image or revealing a raw emotion that you can graft onto a character. If nothing jumps out as immediately useful, file it away and come back to it later. You might see something different then. If nothing else, you'll be surprised at just how weird your brain can be when unmonitored.
This may work best first thing in the morning when your brain is closest to that crazy underworld of dreams. For optimal results, try the exercise every day for a week.
Forget the Grinch! The holidays are the perfect time for indulging in re-reads of favorite books from the year and from years past. If you're looking for a book to cozy up to for a few hours, here are a few ideas. These books are also highly giftable if you're looking for a last-minute selection for a literary loved one.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: A beautiful book that shows an odd mix of characters becoming a family--for a brief spell--and ultimately having that joy systematically dismantled by the vagaries of life under a highly corrupt Indian government.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: Highly recommended for readers who like a strong female lead, anyone interested in WWII, those who like a kick of page-turning adventure, and budding engineers/techie types. Code Name Verity is a perfect crossover novel with as much adult appeal as teen appeal.
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: Funny, tragic, beautiful. A book that makes you feel new things about Holocaust experiences. Superior to Foer's more recent novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Beginner's Greek by James Collins: This novel immediately made me think of Jane Austen. The characters (who matter) are privileged, marriage is a central concern, and we're wondering from page one to the end if the two who are so right for each other will overcome all the confusion and earn their shared happiness.
Holiday cheers and best wishes for the new year!