Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Banned Books Week: September 21-27, 2014

Next week is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, so it's time again to celebrate the freedom to read and the free flow of ideas.

Let's start with a list. In 2013, based on 307 challenges reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the following are the ten most frequently banned or challenged books of 2013:


  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
    Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
    Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  4. Fifty Shade of Grey, by E.L. James
    Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Occult/Satanism, offensive language. religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  10. Bone (series) by Jeff Smith
    Political viewpoint, racism, violence

I always find the reasons interesting, mostly because they are so subjective.

Let's look at The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I read for the first time this past weekend so it's fresh in my mind. I absolutely loved the book, and intend to buy it for my 16-year-old son, a reluctant reader who I think will enjoy the book and benefit from it. This book is an interesting one to look at because it made the news in April of this year when it was banned by an Idaho school district. When a student in that district who loved the book passed out copies to others, an indignant mother called the police on her. Just this week, they decided to allow the book in those schools, but with conditions.

Drugs/alcohol/smoking
Yes, there is a lot of drinking in this book. However, that drinking leads invariably to the strongest possible negative consequences, including death. As a result of the bad things that happen to people who drink too much, the main character promises his mother he will not drink, ever. The way I see it, this is an important positive lesson, and using it as a reason to keep the book away from kids is counter-intuitive.

Offensive language
Based on descriptions I had read of this book, I expected it to be laced with frequent, strong profanity. What I found was a few swears, mostly mild, and none of them gratuitous. There was nothing you won't hear more frequently on a sixth-grade playground anywhere in Utah than in this book. In fact, there were probably more instances of words like shoot and friggin' than there were of actual curse words. Of course, there are people who object to any swearing in a book. If you are sensitive to swearing, you might object to this book. I personally didn't find it excessive, but what is excessive and what is offensive is really a matter of personal sensitivities.

Racism
Yes, there is racism in this book. Of course there is racism in this book. It's a book about racism. A boy from an Indian reservation transfers to a white school outside the reservation because he believes he'll improve his future by doing so. He deals with racism from white kids for being different and, even more, from tribal members who object to his "turning" white. He is also forced to confronts his own racial assumptions and prejudices toward both groups, and the discovery that it is often strongest from his own cultural group. Without racism, this book doesn't exist, and doesn't carry much of its powerful punch. The book does not promote racism. It confronts it. It examines it. It exposes it. It tears it apart. It is honest about it. The lessons about racism are positive. But, like many other books that deal with racism, exposing racism so it can be torn down results in charges that it is a racist book. This is one of many ironies in the world of challenged books.

Sexually Explicit
The book is about a 14-year-old boy who thinks and acts like a 14-year-old boy. Like all 14-year-old boys, whether we want to admit or not, Junior is dealing with the changes his body and mind are going through, and these struggles are told from a point-of-view that is deeply internal and honest. As a result, there is a certain amount of sexual content. Explicit is in the eye of the beholder, of course, No sex acts are actually depicted. Masturbation is mentioned a couple times but never shown, even off-screen. One erection, described by a term kids often use, at an inappropriate time--a fear of all teenage boys, because it happens, sometimes for no reason at all--causes the main character great embarrassment, regret, and horror. If you prefer characters in books to be completely sexless, there are a half dozen or so places in this book that might bother you a lot, and a few other places where he notices physical attributes of girls that you might find inappropriate, although they are also very real and normal. This is another area where boys can be made aware of how they think and how inappropriate those thoughts can be by watching a character in a book think them.

Unsuited to Age Group
This is a catch-all that is almost always used when a parent challenges a book. It is nearly meaningless because of its overuse. Sometimes, there's a good case for this. Fifty Shades of Grey contains material and themes that are most likely inappropriate for middle school classes. Sixth graders might not fully understand the significance of Animal Farm or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. More often than not, though, this category is unfair to kids and underestimates their knowledge and ability to think for themselves. This criteria for challenging a book should almost never be applied to a high school class, especially an AP lit class. In general, I think educators do a good job of choosing books that will interest and challenge readers of a particular age. In the case of this book, I don't think it's inappropriate for strong readers 8th grade and up. In fact, I believe it would be very appropriate for my 16-year-old, who I think would learn valuable lessons about people, including himself, from these pages.

Which brings me to my next point, maybe the biggest point I have to make when discussing this issue. I firmly believe that a parent has the right to use his or her own judgement in deciding whether a book is appropriate for a particular child. Nobody knows the child's sensitivities better than a parent. And, some parents may choose to shield their kids from certain challenging realities. It doesn't matter whether I disagree. A parent's rights when it comes to his or her own child are nearly absolute, given up only in cases of abuse and other criminal activity that hurts or otherwise affects the child. And while I think parents should trust the school's judgement a little more, I also believe that if a parent believes a child should not read a certain book in class, that's the parent's call.

Where I have a problem is when a parent extends the decision to take that book from their own child's hand to all children in a class, school, or district, or to all patrons of a library. Parents have a responsibility toward their own children, and should allow other parents to exercise that same responsibility for their own kids. By attempting to take books out of the hands of other people's kids, they are denying other parents the right to choose what their own children read, the same right the book challengers demand for themselves.

Sherman Alexie, the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, reflected my feelings almost perfectly when he said, "I certainly respect any parent's right to determine what their child is reading. They don't get to determine it for a whole school or community, but that said, I was the only Democrat in my high school. I went to high school with a bunch of extremely conservative Republican Christians (in other words, the kind of people who generally seek to ban my book) and let me tell you--those conservative Christian kids and I were exactly alike. I was publicly inappropriate, they were privately inappropriate. All this stuff that is controversial is stuff that kids are dealing with on a daily basis."

These are things our kids know about. They are part of their lives. Protecting them from their own reality only reinforces the feeling adolescents have that there's something wrong with them, that their issues are theirs alone and should be kept hidden as shameful secrets. It also teaches adolescents, young people who are increasingly aware of real-world issues, that books are dishonest and irrelevant.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reading reading reading





I cannot deny that I’ve been doing a lot more reading than writing these past few weeks. I feel kind of guilty when that happens, and I have to remind myself how much my excessive reading is necessary to my writing. It’s how I got into writing in the first place, which I think is true for almost everyone. These days I can count it as research—bonus points if it actually is a nonfiction, informational book about the time period my historical fiction novel is taking place in (I did read one of those last week! Ten points for Gryffindor!). I struggle with research. I feel guilty unless I’m writing. I take comfort in the fact that the author of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, felt similarly and his historical fiction novel is light-years beyond I could dream of mine being. I try to give myself permission to just read. I would be nowhere without the countless examples of other authors. They constantly inspire me to keep going.
On that note, you’ve possibly seen going around Facebook a chain-letter type post where you list the top books that have influenced your life and then tag other people to do the same. My aunt tagged me in one of them recently, and I eventually decided to play along. When I think along the lines of what books have “influenced my life,” I automatically think of what books have most influenced my writing. It’s really hard to pick, so I changed it to favorite authors as well as books (I’m a cheater). It brought back great childhood memories of when I first start scribbling down my own stories, shamelessly plagiarizing every tactic I saw my favorite authors using (You’ll have to forgive my taste back then. I was about 8 or 9 probably). So, I thought I would share that list with you and invite you to make your own if you haven’t.
Disclaimer: This is potentially one of the most gut-wrenching, awful decisions ever. It’s like picking favorite children. To quote Ever After (best movie): “I could no sooner pick a favorite star in the heavens.” So, here they are, in no particular order whatsoever, and I’ve definitely left some great ones out:

  • 1.       Jane Austen- all 7 of em
  • 2.       J.K. Rowling- Harry Potter
  • 3.       Virginia Woolf- “A Room of Her Own,” Mrs. Dalloway
  • 4.       Marilynne Robinson- The Gilead, Home
  • 5.       Barbara Kingsolver- Poisonwood Bible
  • 6.       L.M. Montgomery- actually more for the Emily of New Moon books than Anne of Green Gables. Sorry everyone.
  • 7.       Tamora Pierce- the Lioness Quartet, the two Trickster books, etc.
  • 8.       Ann M Martin- Babysitter’s Club. I have to put it. She got me writing when I was a little kid.
  • 9.       Deb Caletti- Honey, Baby, Sweetheart got me through my teenage years!
  • 10.   Louisa May Alcott- Little Women, and also the biography about her and her dad that’s not at all written by her, but it’s awesome!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Socializing

Writing is a lonely endeavor. Even with family and friends encouraging and inquiring about it, the writer sits and works in isolation. There is social media. One can tweet, pin, or post on Facebook. I’ve killed hours or precious writing time doing just that. But the act of writing remains solitary.

This week there was a social event for writers. Carol Lynch Williams and Ann Dee Ellis organized it. They may have had help from Queen Bee, Kyra Leigh. All of them host the blog, Throwing Up Words (http://throwingupwords.wordpress.com). Carol and company have down this before and a few weeks ago they posted to their blog they were doing it again.

We met at Olive Garden in Provo, about twenty of us or so. We ate, socialized, laughed, ate some more, read from our writing, and shared successes. Some of us read from our novels in progress, a few shared screenplays. Some brought spouses, some spouses were writers, too. It was a pleasant evening.

The best thing though, was the camaraderie. There were actual writers, sitting in that room, across from you and to your sides. Other people who struggle, have doubts, and continue to write away. There’s a bunch of us out there. We work in isolation, but it’s so good to know we’re not alone.

Thanks Carol, Ann Dee, and Kyra. Let’s do that again, sometime.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Indie vs. Self: What's the Difference

By Julie Daines

There's a lot of confusion out there about indie publishers and self-publishers. Let just get straight to the point. Here is this:

From Judith Briles on AuthorU.org (June 2014)

Don’t Confuse Independent Publishing with Self-Publishing

Indie, Independent and Small Press Publishing Are So, Soooooo Different from Self-Publishing, Vanity Presses and Pay-to-Publish “Publishing”  
I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a zillion times: yes, dear author-to-be (and those already published), there is a difference between self-publishing, vanity presses, pay-to-publish, a small press, and independent publishing. Don’t mix them up. Don’t get confused.
She quotes Wikipedia: 
The majority of small presses are independent or indie publishers, this means that they are separate from the handful of major publishing house conglomerates, such as Random House or Hachette. The term ‘indie publisher’ should not be confused with ‘self-publisher’, which is where the author publishes only their own books.
  Defined this way, these presses make up approximately half of the market share of the book publishing industry.
This is a great article if you're confused about any of these terms. Go and check it out.
Unfortunately, I feel the term independent publishing (Indie) is going the same way so many words have already gone--Verbicide. It is used so frequently in the wrong sense that it's original meaning is becoming lost.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Moral weakness

Too much writing advice is too much. Yet, knowing that doesn’t slow me down from seeking it.

Lately, I’ve been re-examining John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps To Becoming A Master Storyteller. The guy looks at stories from every possible angle. Among other things, he discusses seven steps of structure that every story needs as it develops over time, in its growth from beginning to end. They are:
-Weakness and need
-Desire
-Opponent
-Plan
-Battle
-Self-revelation
-New equilibrium

These are not something external, such as the three-act structure imposed from the outside. They exist within the story. Truby calls them the nucleus, the DNA of the story. They are based on human action because they are the same steps people must work through to solve problems. 

The step I’m currently paused at is an aspect of weakness and need. At the start of a story, the MC must have one or more weaknesses that holds him back from reaching his goal. It should be something so profound, it is ruining his life. This flaw forces a need for the character to overcome the weakness and change or grow in some way. This is a psychological flaw that is hurting no one but the hero. I get that.

Truby says most stories incorporate that. What elevates a so-so story to an excellent one, is a moral flaw. A moral weakness hurts not only the protagonist, but others around him, as well. As an example, he cites the story The Verdict in which the MC, Frank, has a psychological need to overcome his drinking problem and regain his self-respect. His moral flaw is that he uses people for money. In one instance,Frank lies his way into a funeral of strangers, upsetting the family, trying to round up more business. 

Okay, I get that, too. And because Truby acknowledges its importance in stories, I give it credence, as well. But how about for an MG character? Do they need to be morally flawed for the story to pop? The stakes are lighter for MG and that’s the nature of it. Experts say there are certain lines not to cross and having the hero be morally corrupt seems like one of them.

But this is John Truby. He really, really knows his stuff. Shouldn’t I listen to him? If Tiger Woods offered tips on your golf swing, seems to me it would be wise not to argue about it. Still, a moral flaw doesn’t feel right for that age level of story. 

Looking back over other stories, I can’t think of any MG characters with moral flaws. There must be a few. They have psychological weaknesses to overcome. The strong-willed behavior of Kyra in Carol Lynch Williams’ The Chosen One brings the anger of the prophet down upon her family. That seems like a character strength rather than a flaw and it does raise the stakes for her. Same with Sal in Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. Her denial creates angst with her father, but again, rather than immorality, it seems it’s more a matter of innocence. Both of these works are YA. It could be a YA vs. MG thing. What works for older audiences doesn’t necessarily work for all readers. 


Julie Daines posted here a few weeks ago about listening to your gut, your writer’s intuition. That inner voice is telling me to question Truby’s on this. Truby or not Truby, that is the question.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Diversity Defined

Diversity is a really hot topic in the Kid Lit world these days. At the recent SCBWI International Conference in LA, hundreds of people attended a panel about diversity and a chat afterward. You hear the word being tossed around all over the place, and sometimes I wonder if everyone is talking about the same thing.

Blame it on my days in high school debate, but I always like to define our terms when talking about something that could mean many things. When I think about children's books/literature, I think of diversity coming in three ways.

First, there is a diversity in authors and illustrators. From what I've seen, the Kid Litverse is full of a diverse cross section of authors and illustrators. Dozens of various ethnic and racial origins are represented. Just off the top of my head I can think of Asian, Hispanic, African-American, Native American artists in every age level of our industry. I know many LBGTQ authors and illustrators, men and women. I know some of almost any religious affiliation. Sure it could always be a higher number, which is I think where the discussion starts. It's not that publishers don't want diverse authors and illustrators, nor do they discriminate. Talent is talent. It seems to me the challenge is encouraging, mentoring, and training more people, letting them know their voices are necessary and welcomed. There are many ways we could do this--scholarships for under-represented groups to attend conferences/schools/events, mentoring programs, and contests. SCBWI is on the forefront of this, offering a wide variety of opportunities for everyone, and some special programs for under-represented groups.

Second, there's diversity in the publishing industry. As we all know, the publishing industry does not always embrace change very fast. But there are publishers out there--Lee and Low comes immediately to mind--that particularly focus on diversity in their publishing program. Plus, with the rise of self-publishing, access is there for anyone of any age, gender, ethnic or religious background. The discussion continues into the blogosphere, where there are numerous blogs and other resources where diversity in literature is the frequent topic.

Third, we're talking about diversity in the characters portrayed in children's books, and this is where the discussion can get heated, but I also find it the most interesting. White, middle-class characters have dominated children's literature for decades. But, as we all know, kids come from all sorts of diverse backgrounds, skin colors, religions, genders, sexual identities, and economic status. In the last few decades, we've seen a few more characters of color, particularly in picture books, which is terrific. And in the last decade, we seem to be getting more ethnic backgrounds represented in novels, too. I think we need more LBGTQ characters.  I'd love to see more characters with metal illness, handicaps, autism spectrum syndrome, ADHD. More characters from around the world. Not just Americans with different colors of skin, but different cultures from all over.

Here's where I think things get challenging when we talk about diversity. Who's writing or illustrating these characters? Some people feel strongly that the author/illustrator come from an authentic place in presenting these characters, by which they mean, I think, that only a Native American can authentically write or illustrate a Native American character, for example. I would love to see more people writing characters from their authentic experience, but I also don't think we need to limit ourselves.

Writers and illustrators have always portrayed characters outside of our own experience. We write about historical figures, when we never lived in that time period. We write fantasy, when we've never fought a dragon. It is possible to write characters that are outside your own personal realm of experience. That's why research is so useful and important. I am currently writing a book set during WWII in which one of the main characters is a Japanese American girl. I am Caucasian, so how can my character be authentic? Lots and lots of research. I have another WIP that includes a Native American character. I may not be Native American, but I grew up in a town just outside one of the nation's poorest reservations, and I had daily interactions with Indians both on and off the reservation, so I think I have a fairly authentic grasp of their struggles and issues, even though they are not my personal struggles and issues. I am a female, but one of my latest books is in first person from the point of view of a teenage boy. Again, I live with my teenage son, so I have a pretty good picture of his male voice and viewpoint. I have written gay characters, lesbian characters, and more. Because, basically, I think there are some universalities about our human experience that allow us to imagine and put ourselves into the shoes of people who might be different from ourselves by focusing on what unites us.

To me, this stance isn't a cop out. It's an acknowledgement that an African-American author, for example, is in the best position to authentically portray an African-American character. However, if that author wants to write about a white, middle-class character, I have no problem with that. If he is a good writer, he should be able to manage it. And I think if I do my homework, I can manage to portray an African-American character if I want to. And I want to portray diverse characters. I hope we all do.

I'd love to hear what others think about this.

For more information about diversity in children's literature, check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which just recently announced its inception as a 501-c3 non-profit organization.

And look for our Boise SCBWI conference next April, where we plan to focus on diversity in children's literature.


by Neysa CM Jensen
Boise, Idaho

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Looking Back or Moving Forward?

Anybody who has written for a while has likely faced this predicament: Do you go back and fix up an older project, or do you move forward?

Here's my situation. I'm revising my current WIP and, although struggling a bit with the middle (what else is new, right?) I am getting close to finishing. I am also in the early stages of planning my next story, and am getting excited about it. But now I've also received feedback suggesting that my previous story might be more marketable if I increase its length by about 30 to 40 percent.

I've been focused on my current WIP for quite a while and really want to finish it. I probably need to let it sit for a little while, but not until I finish the current round of revisions. Normally, I start my next project during this resting period, and my brain has been working on it while I go about my daily business, and I'm looking forward to finding out what it has come up with.

So, do I want to go back and work on an older project again when my brain is trying to move ahead with something new? I really like the story, but do I like it enough? It's not doing anybody any good just sitting there, but now, thanks to this feedback, I no longer think of it as finished. I don't know how I could add that much, but I do know my brain is working on it back in some dusty corner where I don't know what's going on, and that eventually something will present itself to me.

I also have an even older manuscript collecting dust. Every once in a while, I read about some agent who might be interested in something like it, so I shoot off a query. But, I've moved on. I don't even think about that one anymore unless something brings it to my attention.

And, I have several more ideas for new stories percolating. I've even played around with some of them.

It comes down to that old question writers often face. When do you let go and move on?

I realize that it's kind of a good problem to have. Better to have too many ideas than to have only one that you work to death. It's a luxury to have multiple stories at tugging at me. But at the same time, it affects my focus on any one story. I can work on two things at once if I'm writing one and revising the other, but add one more and the balance is shattered.

And with a month-long vacation looming on a very near horizon, with no definite plans beyond writing, decisions must be made or I risk paralysis that could keep me from getting anything done.

I guess it beats writer's block.