Sunday, June 24, 2007

The End???

This moment, it happens to every writer... the split-second gasp of recognition and frustration, the sudden discovery of a book they wish they could have written.

Or--more than that--the discovery of a book they think they *might* have written eventually. If they pushed themselves to the limit... and of course, if someone else hadn't beaten them to the punch.

Well, this week I found such a book. A picture book by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Richard Egielski, The End. I wish I had thought of this!!!


No-- I don't love this book because the pictures are vivid and funny (a little bit Sendak even). Or because it's a fairy tale of sorts. Or because the economy of words is pretty amazing.

I love it because LaRochelle has invented something that feels new to me. A new form.

"The End" is a book you read backwards. Duh. So obviously, it begins with "The End". And then each subsequent page contains the "cause" for the action on the previous page. In this manner, it leads readers back to the "beginning".

Like so:

“And they all lived happily ever after. They lived happily ever after because…”

How incredible is that? Simple and brilliant at once. A backwards book.

Especially brilliant because this is JUST how writers work a lot of the time, backwards. Asking themselves "Why?" before turning the page At each moment of decision or action, writers have to determine what the compulsion for the next page is. If they're worth their salt.

So here we have a book that teaches kids how to become storytellers, how to understand momentum and compulsion. How things can seem inventive and bizarre (gigantic tomatoes and big bowls of lemonade and floods of bunnies and flaming knights) without seeming arbitrary.

Because the seemingly bizarre details are connected by the all-important question "Why?"

Of course, adult writers have given us backwards books, but I don't think anyone has ever done it with pictures, have they?

Ach! Darn! I want to have written this book! But I didn't.


Monday, June 18, 2007


Sorry to miss posting this week, but I gave birth to an amazing baby boy on Monday, and don't have the time to blog just yet. Too busy snuggling.

Though I will assure you that Lewis Abraham (see above) and I *are* reading . N.E. Bode's book, the Nobodies.

I'm enjoying it a lot, and Lewis thinks the pictures are *just* "blecftchhhh!"

Whatever that means.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hale and Hearty...

I've been reading Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl at last, after loving The Princess Academy . And I have to admit that all the attention Hale has received in the last few years is well deserved.

Hale is a meticulous writer, and her prose is full of lovely similes, gorgous descriptions, really creative character details(which is to say that she shows, rather than tells.. when it comes to internal landscapes)and a general fluency with language. She's a poetic writer. I even caught a little Emily Dickinson riff in there.

More importantly perhaps, Hale has a skill with creating worlds. Without ever sounding artifically olden-timey or high-falutin, she manages to evoke believable once-upon-a-timeness. This is something I envy her-- that she neither dips into the language of our world today, nor relies on grandiose speech.

In Princess Academy, I was blown away with Hale's imagination, with the element of "Quarry-speech (people can communicate through memory, and stone, but you'll have to read the book to really understand what that means) in particular. And though The Goose Girl shows a less innovative streak, I think that's mostly because she's set her book inside an old fairy tale, and (correctly I think) used the narrative scaffold to its fullest, leaving less room for wilder invention.

Both books do a really subtle job of integrating feminist (and also a bit of political) theory into the fairy tale universe, without ever being heavy handed, or pulling the reader out of the story/mythic realm. And this too is something I strive for myself, and struggle with-- how to NOT cave to the worst aspects of our canon/tradition, but to also preserve the "feel" of the fairy tale.

How to allow a princess her swoons and her crowns and her moments of weakness, and yet send a message to girls today that they DON'T need to wait for a prince.

Hale is really really good at walking this tightrope.

So all in all, I have to say that this woman just pretty much rocks the princess novel, hard. But there are two things I want to mention/ask about, in closing.

1. What do people think of the recent trend in fairy-tale retelling? In general? I mean, this isn't new, really (fairy tales have ALWAYS been retold, rewritten. That's one of the things that makes them fairy tales). But it does seems there's a lot of it today. From people like Sarah Beth Durst, whose new book delves into the Rapunzel myth in a far less traditional manner, to the wildly succesful (and not so new) Ella Enchanted. What do people think of these books? I ask mainly because I've noticed recent press for a few new books like this that are coming down the pipe in the near future, and I'm intrigued at why this is happening right now. I wonder what you folks have to say about this trend...

and also... another question related to Hale...

2. What do people think of Hale as a YA writer? While her books are longish, and they do involve a few innocent kisses and embraces here and there, I don't really read them as YA. Is this classification simply an issue of length, and the fact that this sort of fairy-tale mode requires princes and princesses, and so bumps into issues of dating/courtship/betrothel? I've dealt with this myself a bit for an upcoming book), and fought with the question of how to turn a child princess into a marriageable woman in 200 pages... and I find it a little bewildering. Since fairy tales (not to mention Disney movies) are full of love/dating/kissing but are NOT YA. In Hale's writing, I'm inclined to say that the tweenage princesses are really NOT YA characters, but fence-straddlers (which I like) and successfully so. But I don't know, and I wonder... how have other people handled this issue as writers, and responded to it as readers?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Magic of Eager...

It had to happen sooner or later (inane spouting and rambling about how I love Edward Eager), so it might as well happen now...

After all, I'm re-reading a few of his books this week, as I begin tinkering with the first hundred pages of my next novel. I need it, a good dose of Eager. Regularly.

There are many levels on which Eager was a complete and total genius. Many. And I'd happily debate (or maybe pop) just about anyone who dares to disagree with me... but the particular flavor of genius that interests me tonight is best summed up by the author himself.

Or rather... by Barnaby, a character from Seven Day Magic:

The best kind of magic book... is the kind where the magic has rules. And you have to deal with it and thwart it before it thwarts you. Only sometimes you forget and get thwarted.

(Oh, and DIBS on this quote. *I'm* using it, and if you steal it I'll come and short-sheet you or something.)

But hmmmmm.... rules... Barnaby was a wise wise boy.

You should all, ALL OF YOU (and me too of course), think about rules often, if you happen to be writing books about magic and children. Lest you be thwarted.

See, magic is dangerous. Because it removes certain limitations from a book. It frees an author of many restrictions. And restrictions are so important when you're writing.


Let's say you've written your character (Jimbo) into a dark cave full of wild snarling beasts, and you are NOT writing a magic book. Well, now you have to draw on the objects and traits and characters and themes already at work in the book, to get poor Jimbo free. What resources does Jimbo have? What other characters might have been introduced earlier on, who might now fly to Jimbo's aid? Is there a father he fought with earlier in the day, who has come looking for him to apologize? Does Jimbo have an amazing gift with animals> You'll have to turn to the book's logic to free Jimbo. And so the book will hang together.

But if you are writing a magic book, and Jimbo has a wishing talisman, and the wishing talisman has no real rules to it... Or Jimbo's best friend is a fairy who comes whenever he calls and has limitless powers... well, under those circumstances, Jimbo will simply wish himself free. Which is LAME if it happens every time he gets stuck. Like a series of identical trapdoors. LAME! Such a book will NOT hang together. It hasn't been knitted with anything.

Magic HAS to have a logic, and you have to understand it, if your book is to succeed in any real way. Edward Eager was the king of magical logic. Each of his amazing books operated on a different set of principles, and his characters all (while they have fun too) spend a lot of time figuring out their magic, and learning about themselves and the world in the process. Which is important.

Eager struck an incredible balance between fantasy and reality. Something we all need. All of us. In our books and in our lives. You have to earn your wishes, your pleasures.

Lately, as I've been trying to read contemporary books, I've found myself a little disappointed at how many authors fail in this way. I won't name names (because I don't want to make enemies) but it seems like a lot of people just send in an amazing magical cavalry when they feel like it. Characters "discover" new powers in the nick of time.

Or worse, authors create a world in which a magic cavalry is possible or such discoveries are commonplace... and then they DON'T use these devices now and then... for no particular reason... just so they can build some tension, create a jam for Jimbo.

Which is just really really stupid. Because no matter how dumb Jimbo is, he's not THAT dumb. If he's got a magical all-powerful talisman, you can bet your sweet patooty he's keeping it with him.

Ach, okay... I haven't talked much about Eager in detail, but (now I have to run to the baby, who needs some boiled carrots and string cheese ASAP! and) suffice it to say he's a genius. His characters are smart without ever being irritating. He's literate and literary without ever seeming like a snob. And while the books are all set in the past, they don't feel dated, because the kids are so REAL.

Read the man, if you haven't already (though how you grew up without him I cannot comprehend.

Start with Half Magic and go from there.

(OH! I should also mention that the illustrator of these books is one of my three all-time favorite illustrators. ALL TIME!)