Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The "Name My Dastardly Villain" Contest...


Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!! I'm so excited about all the submissions. As I'm about to have a baby (in like, a week) I'll not get to these until July, but please know that every name has been counted, and there WILL be a group of finalists, and a winner! Hurrah!

Okay, I've never done a contest of any kind before, but I'm stuck on something. So I'm turning to the small (but growing) number of brilliant people who read this little site for help with my next book, "Any Which Wall."

Here's the deal:

I need to NAME a dastardly fellow, a filthy scoundrel, a naughty man from the Wild Wild West, stuck in the 21st century. He's truly rotten-- cruel to animals, mean to kids, and willing to rob banks and kidnap YOU just for the fun of it. He wears a black hat and a long dark coat. He smells funny.

Can you help me???

Just enter your suggestions (as many as you want, but one per comment please, so I can keep track of how many entries I've got) in the comment field of this blog.

I'll select the best name I'm offered for use in my book (Random House, 2009), and the winner will be thanked most graciously, and also given a signed ARC of the finished book, and the chance to name ANOTHER character in the book as well (I'll select the character). But they can name this other character ANYTHING THEY WANT!

I suggest that the winner use this opportunity to honor their mother or win points with their boss (I've discovered recently that moms LOVE to appear in books). But as far as I'm concerned, anything (suitable for readers 7-11) goes!

So bring it on! Help me write a book! Name my villain!

(Disclaimer-- while at least one person WILL win, and receive the chance to name a secondary character and a signed ARC, I reserve the right to change the dastardly villain's name at a later point if I have a middle-of-the-night writing freakout or a stroke of genius. Because, after all, writers are flaky and controlling and fickle!)

And please, if you have a blog, feel free to plug/link this contest! I need all the help I can get...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Danger Danger...

This week, I came home from the library with a stack of old friends (Knight's Castle, Pippi Goes Aboard) and a stack of new reads (Peter and the Starcatchers, The Wide Window).

(One of the perks to writing for kids is that you call this kind of reading "research")

And I had every intention of reading the Dave Barry Book. Really I did. But despite the awful new cover (why do publishing houses do that, put tacky new covers on classic books?) I couldn't resist Pippi.

So last night I re-read Pippi, and I have to say that I was a little surprised by the book, after all these years. Because now I'm a mom.

And I'd forgotten that Pippi is-- in addition to being a wonderfully funny liar, the strongest person in the world, and a delightful red-haired orphan living all on her own in a funny abandoned house in small-town Sweden-- also the greatrest fear of every overprotective neurotic GenX parent in the world.

Seriously, if you happen to be someone who wipes your kid's hands down with Purell, baby-proofs the laundry baskets, and reads informative websites about carseat recalls... then stay away from Pippi.

Yes, Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking is your nightmare. She'll move in next door and tempt your overly-protected children to abandon their senses. She'll teach them to climb into cages at the zoo, swim without water-wings, talk to all kinds of strangers, drink unidentified bottles of medicine, light fires, climb trees, and even (horrors!) eat lots and lots of high-risk-choking-candy.

Pippi doesn't do her homework, listen to silly grownups, or wear the proper undergmarments. She doesn't have a babysitter. She doesn't listen.

And of course I love her.

Because she doesn't teach lessons. Not at all. We don't learn anything from Pippi, except maybe that life is odd and people are interesting. Even the best (non-pulp) book for kids today tend to sneak a little morality into the mix, and Pippi doesn't. Pippi defies lesson-learning at every turn.

Which might lead one to assume there's a lesson of rebellion in the book...


Except that there isn't. Tommy and Anica (Pippi's little neighbors) are as tidy and well-behaved as the cobblestones in their little Swedish town. And she loves them as they are. They're timid and clean and polite and they do what they're told, and that's okay too. That's fine.

See? No lesson...

Of course, the book is also just totally genius in its dialogue. In the development of Pippi's (fairly complex) character. In its amazing use of humor.

But most of all, today... now... as a mom living in the age of spill-proof-eveything, handi-naps, and splinter-free toddlers... I love Pippi for being everything we fear.

Dangerous and rude and rebellious and filthy and precarious and accidental. And unafraid.

And I love timid Tommy and Anica for loving her, in their little pressed shirts.

So maybe that's a lesson.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

This week I read two very different books, and both are well worth a mention. But for different reason. One is worth a mention because I think it's pretty special and wonderful, and the other one....

just isn't.

The wonderful book? Olivia Kidney (and the sequel to Olivia Kidney is equally great, btw) by the quippy, funny, imaginative Ellen Potter.

Olivia is a very real little girl living in New York City, dealing with the death of her brother and the loss of her mom. But in Potter's quirky style, these issues get tackled with humor, simplicity, and the kind of curious child-thought process that most grownups lose the ability to follow or recall the validity of. The result is that rare thing-- a book that handles serious issues without preaching or hitting you over the head. You just experience them.

The story has magic, ghosts and conjuring... introduced in super-creative ways. but the storyline is extremely urban, very common-sense-ical. The book NEVER has to tell you how smart the author is, or how smart Olivia is. It comes through in the mildest, smallest ways... driven by clear description and humor... that both Potter and Kidney are special.

By contrast, the other book I read this week (and NO, I'm not going to to tell you what it is) does just the opposite. It SHOUTS at you that the author (by right of being a literary name-dropper) and the children at the center of the story (by right of being precocious little prigs) are all brilliant. Everyone is "clever" and everyone is "interesting" and everyone is well read, and there aren't tacky things like telephones or TV sets or fast food to get in the way of the culturally elite lives being lived.

And the magic is secondary, as well as being harvested from other books. And the end result is that I felt, as a reader, slightly insulted and also bored.

And I mention this now by way of confession... because I saw in the pages of this book a million mistakes I myself (being a little priggish at times, and something of a name-dropper) might make.

So I thought I'd mention now as a writer... that when we seek to relive the past in our books, when we seek to pay homage to the great literary children's writers of bygone eras, we MUST remember that what made those books great was the humor, the quality of "Real" (and I do mean in a Velveteen way), the humanity of the characters.

NOT the fact that the little girls wore dresses and played with dolls, or that the little boys climbed trees and didn't talk on cell phones. A magical TV can be just as literary as a magical tea set. What makes a book literary is what the child says when she turns on the TV, or as she sets down the tea set. How she enters the magic, and how we enter it with her...

Olivia Kidney pulled me into her magic. This other book... pushed me away.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Back in Print...

In a lot of ways (although I'm not sure anyone will be able to tell) "When the Sky Is Like Lace" is the book I had in my mind when I was writing "Inside the Slidy Diner" (Tricycle, 2008).

Not because the two books are really much alike, but because "When the Sky is Like Lace" doesn't really tell a story, so much as it describes a place, time, or state of mind. Because it leans on language, and depends on quirks and oddities rather than plot. Which isn't that common of late.

So many picture books today rely on EXACTLY what we've come to expect from picture books. Which is to say... whatever has most effectively been selling. And so, much like pop songs, picture books are full of exactly what we expect to find in them-- animals who act like people, children who learn lessons, precocious babies, sweet mommies and spunky kids. Blah blah blah.

And while I may not have succeeded in avoiding these tropes/traps myself with "Slidy", "When the Sky Is Like Lace" most surely succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of the usual fare.

It favors unexpected turns, but doesn't get wacky for no reason. Most of all, it chooses its words very carefully. It sets a tone, creates a world within our own. As a kid I really really wanted to believe in this world:

You will also find that, on bimulous nights when the sky is like lace, the grass is like gooseberry jam. It's not really squooshy like jam, because then the otters' feet would slurp around and snails might drown. It only smells like gooseberry jam. But if you walk barefoot, it feels like the velvet inside a very old violin case.

If you plan to go out on a bimulous night when the sky is like lace, here are some rules you must remember:

Never talk to a rabbit or a kissing gourami.
If your nose itches, don't scratch it.
Wear nothing that is orange, not even underneath.

And -- if you have a lucky penny, put it in your pocket. Because, on bimulous nights when the sky is like lace and the otters are singing and the snails are sulking and the trees are dancing and the grass is like gooseberry jam, it's a good idea to be prepared.

Words by Elinor lander Horowitz, and insanely lovely pictures by Barbara Cooney. It was out of print until recently, but they've brought it back. Get a copy before it disappears again!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

A Little Bit Dark...

Last week, my mother told me that a friend of hers--a woman she knows from church-- had written a book for children.

I yawned. I expected a self-published tale of floopsy the bunny, who teaches kids about the importance of literacy or something...

Then I discovered that THIS, A Drowned Maiden's Hair, was the book! It sounds absolutely wonderful. Dark and coldly Victorian. But also sweet and affirming.

So then I had to eat my words (or at least my yawn)

While I haven't read it yet and so can't review it here (I just ordered it from my library) I adore the first line: "On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

But hearing about this new dark and sweet book got me thinking about the wonderfully dark (but also sweet) books of Joan Aiken. And in case you don't know them, I want to be the one to tell you... they're great!

My favorite is "Black Hearts in Battersea," the second book in the "Wolves" series.

These books take place in an alternate universe, but it isn't a completely invented fantasy-world, it's a historical one. And set in England in the early 1800s,it actually FEELS historical, though never dull-- full as each book is with bawdy roustabouts, spritely waifs, dismal London streets, mad dashes across dark moors, and political unrest...

Not to mention hilarious songs and the occasional balloon ride.

In the world of Simon, a young art student (and our charming main character) James II was never deposed, and Simon (loyal to the crown) matches wits with the evil "Hanoverians" (who are often drunk but always a stitch) intent on bringing down the good king, James III.

Very English. Very smart. Very funny. A little bit frightening and a little bit sad in moments. With a fine silt of dingy coal dust everywhere...

If you don't know the Aiken books, I strongly urge you to get yourself to a library or a bookstore. There are lots of them, and once you start reading you're bound to have a stack beside your bed.

Oh, and you should know that this is a series you can read out of order. The books relate to one another, but they also stand alone (and I'll tell you as an author that's no mean feat!).

So don't worry about starting in the middle. Just start!