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2012-02-09 08:37 am

That Personal Spark

This is both the best and the worst thing I have learned from spending two years with the slush pile:

Every story is someone's favorite.

I'm not exaggerating. Even the worst story out there has an audience who loves it. The audience might just be the author and a single child they've chosen to share it with, but for those people, the book provided the perfect alchemy of creativity and time spent together that the story has forged something really meaningful.

There are a lot of blogs out there about the crap you get in slush, and trust me, those are just the tip of the iceberg. The very fact that you're reading a blog about YA lit tells me that you would honestly not believe the ignorant things some people say. (PROTIP: if you wrote a picture book or YA novel, the way to sell it is not to say that you haven't read much in the field since you were a kid but know you could do better than everything out there anyway. At least LIE, like a normal person.)

But I think what gets lost in discussion of the slush pile is how much people CARE. No one out there is writing a story because they think it's crap. No one sends in a manuscript that they just scribble out in a day. They figure it out, they refine it, they make it the best they can be with what tools they have (whether or not those are the CORRECT tools is another story), and they take that giant leap of faith saying they love it enough to want other people to love it too.

To that end, a lot of people mention in their query letters that they've tested it. They shared their work with their daughters and sons, their nieces and nephews, their neighbors, a local kindergarten class. And almost invariably, some of those kids have told them it's the best story they've ever heard. It's their favorite.

When I'm feeling cynical, it's really easy to ask how that's even possible. These are sometimes amazing manuscripts, but they're just as often manuscripts that manage to sink to the bottom of the slush pile, complete with a lack of basic understanding of character, story, plot, grammar, and theme.

But what it's taught me, more than anything else in this industry has, is that a book doesn't exist in a vacuum. I remember the excitement of being ten years old and getting a book signed by the AUTHOR, this person who MADE the book that you're holding- and that's just a ten-second exchange, not the full process of being read to while sitting on the lap of a person who's really passionate about the project. As an adult who has friends who are writers, too, I know that it's a different experience reading a manuscript when you know the person who wrote it and know they care about it: it makes you care more too. And as someone who's given editorial feedback, I know the thrill of seeing a manuscript that was influenced, even the tiniest bit, by something I said. Those books mean more to me than some of the best-written, best-plotted, best-themed books in the world (although, for the record, the books that I've helped edit ARE THE BEST OF ALL THINGS), because they have that personal spark.

The personal spark isn't always the personal connection with the author, obviously. Sometimes it's just that you relate to the protagonist so much it hurts, or an event in the plot strikes so close to home that you have to put the story down. But whatever it is, it transforms the book from something that you read into something that changes you. And that personal spark is the reason that good teachers and good librarians and good parents and good authors are so, so important: because the connection that creates a favorite is the connection that ends up changing a person.

Don't get me wrong. The existence of that spark doesn't necessarily mean it's GOOD. The personal spark won't sell a manuscript. It won't get an agent or a publisher or good reviews or a place on the New York Times bestseller list; with ninety-nine pennies, it could buy a carton of milk at the dollar store. But it's something that every single book out there has for someone. That's why I take people's assurances that someone really loved their book with a grain of salt. But it's also what makes me read as voraciously as I try to do, and it's what makes me love diving into the slush pile each day: the knowledge that even if a story doesn't connect with me it's connecting with someone, and the idea that in every story, there's a possibility of me finding that personal spark which will elevate a book from something I enjoy into something that changes the way I look at the world.
astern: illustration from Lane Smith and Dr Seuss's HOORAY FOR DIFFENDOOFER DAY (Default)
2011-02-13 06:11 pm
Entry tags:

a break from your regularly scheduled programming

In response to all of the drama surrounding the Bitch Magazine YA Top 100 controversy, I've started a blog which is unrelated to this one except for how I'm the one writing it, and my influences are pretty transparent.

I have a post I want to make on Rob and Russell coming back to Survivor for their 4th and 3rd times, respectively, and how their consistent returns (I think I've seen Russell more in the past two years than most of my family) really highlight both the good and bad aspects of sequels in literature, but for now I'm rereading Wrinkle in Time and trying not to spend my entire Sunday evening doing a post-colonial reading of the occupation of Camazotz.

The YA Subscription
astern: illustration from Lane Smith and Dr Seuss's HOORAY FOR DIFFENDOOFER DAY (Big Brother is Reading)
2011-01-12 08:58 pm

Award Season

As probably most everyone reading this knows, Monday was the announcement of the ALA awards! This is basically my Oscars. I have been reading a ton of books in preparation (although I haven't read nearly as many winners as I'd hoped- way to go, DARK HORSES) and I was really excited. So I'm really disappointed that there are two things that jumped out to me as problematic.

I don't mean problematic as in "I disagree." I disagree that Hush didn't get at least a Printz honor, but I understand it. I disagree with the choice of A Sick Day for Amos McGee for the Caldecott, but I can see how people would choose that. But two things rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, while I think Terry Pratchett deserves many awards, I'm not really sure he deserves the Edwards specifically. And second, the distribution of awards for the Stonewall confuses me.

cut for length )

To be clear, I do think it's important that the award goes to the best books. But "best books" doesn't exist in a vacuum. That's why the Stonewall exists: because the books for LGBTQ teens deserve their own attention, and because the ALA is making a great move toward making sure they're better serving an under-served population. And I don't think they're adequately serving that marginalized community if they've chosen five books to recognize, but none of them acknowledge any type of lesbian or bisexual female experience.

For what it's worth, I can think of at least two books about the relationship between teen girls (A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner and Scars by Cheryl Rainfield) that were strong, engaging YA reads published in 2010. If you have any other recommendations, please feel free to leave them in the comments.
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2010-11-02 10:49 pm

You can take the girl out of grad school...

Today, the New York Public Library had a screening of Library of the Early Mind, a documentary about children's literature that was pretty damn fantastic. It has a lot of information, but was fascinating to me partly because this is the first time I've seen a documentary where I knew most of the information already. What was new was hearing it in the voices of these authors and illustrators, and seeing how the film put it together. Because I knew the facts being referenced and the books that were being referred to, it evoked this really nice feeling- like rather than just sitting and absorbing information from a teacher, I was engaged in a conversation. I even wrote down quotes I wanted to respond to!

Yet somehow, now that I'm home and in front of a keyboard, rather than discussing any of the points brought up in the documentary, I find myself wanting to discuss a very important question that has been bugging me all day and has nothing to do with children's lit at all: how do reality TV hosts conform to stereotypes about race, gender, etc? I've seen a lot about stereotypes and casting contestants, but what about the people who are chosen as leads? There are women hosts on reality programs, but mostly in the context of traditionally feminine roles, like childcare (Supernanny), cooking (Top Chef), or beauty(America's Next Top Model and Project Runway). The only exception I can think of is Big Brother, which features an Asian woman as its host in contrast to the white men hosting the other two CBS reality programs.

This has led to me wondering if, because the narrative is framed as people living in a "house" and dealing with cutthroat interpersonal problems without the intrigue of international travel or the living-off-the-land aspect, Big Brother would count as inhabiting the domestic sphere.

One of these days, I'm invading one of the nearby college libraries, and not leaving until I find the billions of articles on these subjects that I refuse to believe haven't been written. And then I will die happy.
astern: illustration from Lane Smith and Dr Seuss's HOORAY FOR DIFFENDOOFER DAY (Default)
2010-08-13 10:38 pm

I'm itching to reread 1984 right now.


I've talked before (well, I can't find it, but I swear I have) about the Big Brother voice and its role in both production and the show. The voice is pre-recorded (I believe it's Don Wollman, one of the producers) and it has a set list of phrases. First it mentions who it's addressing (one or two names, or else a general HOUSEGUESTS) and then it gives an instruction, direction, or reprimand: PLEASE GO TO THE DIARY ROOM, or STOP THAT, or PLEASE ADJUST YOUR MICROPHONE, or IT IS TIME TO GET UP FOR THE DAY. It shows up constantly on the feeds, but to my memory has only happened on the show whenever someone is on the verge of getting removed from the house, or- in this season- when they're giving the saboteur his task.

Basically, despite the show's title and the entire construct that these people are monitored 24/7, the show tries to be as "natural" as possible. (I mean, that's true for all reality shows, but it's more striking on Big Brother, because part of the appeal for shows like Survivor is the idea that these people are alone in the jungle, whereas the appeal of BB is that these people are living in a panopticon.) As transitions between scenes, they'll show cameras on the wall rotating slowly, but during the actual scenes they're virtually invisible except as background decor.

So the main fascination for me with the sabotage twist this season is that they're invoking the voice on the actual show. On the live feeds, the voice isn't treating Ragan any differently from any of the other houseguests, but because on the show he's the only one who gets explicitly called to the DR, it makes his situation seem special, and it makes him seem more like a powerful force. It also gives the illusion of the audience being invited behind the scenes. (An illusion that feed viewers know is false, but let's be honest, feed viewers know 90% of the show is false, and that's part of the enjoyment.)

The only time the producers let the television audience hear the Big Brother voice when it's to remind them- remind us, I should say- of the constructs of the show. Which raises the question for me of what exactly it's TRYING to be. With a few exceptions (e.g. Garry Shandling's Show), scripted filmed programs don't acknowledge the presence of the invisible fourth wall the way plays have to. And since Survivor, basically all reality shows avoid showing the other camera people, aiming for a documentary feel rather than Cops. The explicit presence of cameras emphasizes the fact that these people's behavior is altered by the fact that they're being recorded- BUT THAT'S THE POINT OF BIG BROTHER.

So it's this weird simultaneous hide-and-show where the audience is both included and excluded from this exclusive club. Which is both really confusing to think about, and really, really cool.
astern: illustration from Lane Smith and Dr Seuss's HOORAY FOR DIFFENDOOFER DAY (Default)
2010-08-08 11:18 pm


Big Brother turns you into a hypocrite. )

Ultimately, I would argue from the critical viewer's point of view, reality television can be more emotionally complex than scripted.

You can stone me now.
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2010-08-08 11:09 pm

Public Service Announcement

From now on, I'll be cross-posting everything from the Big Brother is Reading livejournal here.

Previous Posts, linked for your convenience )