Monday, September 29, 2014

The Hunger Games (soap box and spoiler alert)

       As I began researching for a book list on "The Best New Series" (coming later this week), I was reminded of this article that I wrote about the Hunger Games during the peak of its hype. I know I am posting this late. The hype is over, but I wanted to address why I'll never recommend books like this on my blog. So here it is, the inevitable hunger games rant:

       I read the hunger games and enjoyed it. The idea is intriguing, the characters solid, and the story extremely fast paced and exciting. After finishing, I spent some time sitting on my bed  thinking about it. I presume you have all experienced this same after-novel “Now what?” ritual. What does it all mean? Would I want to read the sequel?
         I tried hard to justify myself. The Hunger Games is certainly entertaining, but I needed a better reason to continue reading the series. I was searching for a warrant to jump on the all-to-crowded band wagon of fans. The fact that the book ends with the capitol reigning strong, the main protagonist in danger, and a potential love story hanging by a thread, is obviously an attempt by the author to leave readers hungry (no pun intended) for more. After finishing this story and considering it for a few minutes, I decided I was done. I needed to move on, no matter what the rest of the universe did. 
      We’ve all studied Ancient Rome; didn’t we feel repulsed when our teachers explained to us the concept of gladiator games? How could humans accept such a morbid pastime? And yet now with the recent hype over this book series, I am beginning to question wether our culture has really advanced much since the days when killing was an acceptable form of amusement. 
        “Oh, well the Hunger games does not justify the evil. The capitol is bad...” 

       Poor people forced to watch children kill each other: sad. The government watches innocent children kill each other for fun: vulgar. You call it vulgar, the author calls it vulgar. And yet who is standing in line to buy the next book and buying a movie ticket to watch a simulation of the very same game we all despise the capitol for enjoying? Do you think you will feel pleasure when a young girl gets a spear thrust right through her? 
       Dystopian novels have been a popular form of entertainment for a long time. However in recent years, we are seeing a new and alarmingly vulgar breed. In the past, dystopias were used as a slippery slope analysis of some element of culture. In other words, they had a moral, a message, or a warning. For example, George Orwell's famed “1984” presents a vivid and awful picture of what our world could become if we passively allow the build up of a totalitarian state in the name of peace and security. It uses a story full of tragedy and torture to send a message of warning.        
       The hunger games presents the same kind of dystopia - although you could say that in a humane sense the obscenities filling The Hunger Games are more evil then even Orwell could have imagined. And yet there is no moral. As I sat on my bed contemplating the meaning or message of the book, I had to give up. There is no message. I hadn't learned anything. This terrible world was created for maximum excitement, maximum adventure, maximum thrill. In other words, it was created solely for the readers pleasure.

       To me, that's bad taste. 
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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why I Read (Or Why You Should Read)

I am back to the thousand acre wood! To kick back my blogging, I've decided to post this article from my personal blog:


             What a joy it is to step out of my own little life for an hour or so every day and exist in the world of someone else. What a lesson, to view the human condition from a slightly more omni-present perspective. The more time I spend outside of myself and amongst the cares of (albeit fictional) other people, the more I see my own life as part of a larger whole. And the more willing I become to live my life accordingly. 

            One of my goals for gap year was to give myself time to dive into great fiction and non-fiction. I find reading to be terribly important. Not just because it is one of the most pleasurable activities in my life, but because: 

1. Empathy

   Studies have found that reading literature actually helps to increase your level of empathy. To read a great book is to enter into a world that is not your own. It is to step out of your own troubles and consider the troubles of others. It has helped me personally to realize that the universe is full of people who think and feel like me. The more time you spend engaging in the lives of others, the less your life seems to stand out as particularly special, and the more you care about the troubles of others. 

2. Escape 

      Sometimes I just need a break from life. Reading great literature provides a healthy way to get that much needed recharge. There are certainly other ways to escape our troubles, but I still find literature to be the most healthy for me. If I go down another route and indulge in one of my guiltiest pleasures, say... a Korean drama, murder mystery, or romance, I do enjoy myself during the activity but am left afterwards unprepared to reenter reality. Romance causes me to be either unrealistic or bitter. Mystery and action often leave me just plain out of touch with the real world. Although reading literature helps me escape reality for a bit, it doesn't leave me unwilling to come back to my life in the end. In fact, somtimes I feel like realistic fiction helps prepare me for life. 

3. Experience

    Which leads me to point three. Call me niave, ignorant, or homeschooled. I've had peers accuse me of all three crimes at once! And yet it is I who watch them creating terrible situations for themselves while I mumble under my breath: "don't do that! Can't you see? It is just like Natasha Bolonsky!" Despite a rather sheltered upbringing, I don't feel extremely underprepared for life. Sometimes I feel like I've garnered just a bit of life experience vicariously through the thousands of lives I've read about. In fact, some recent studies have indicated that reading great literature may help improve social skills!

4. Smarts

    Reading gives the brain a workout. From dicephering sentences and analyzing the causes and effects of situations to visualizing scenes and characters and prediciting future situations, there is a lot that goes on while you read. I don't want to let my brain get fat and lazy during gap year. So consider this afternoon's Anna Karenina marathon a brain workout. 

5. Writing

    My younger sister went through a Karen Cushman phase last year. As her writing coach, I was amazed to see that the more Cushman books she read, the more her writing looked like her favorite author's. Multiple people have told me: "if you are feeling writer's block, put your pen down and read!" If immersion is the best way to learn foreign languages, couldn't it also help us to master our own? By exposing myself to the best the English language has to offer, I hope to spontaneously digest and assimilate vocabulary, syntax, and story structure that can help me improve my own writing. 

6. Solving Problems 

     Some of my biggest problems in life have been solved by books. Relgious questions I had were answered in the darkest pits of Crime and Punishment. A bout of entitlement and unthankfulness was cured after reading Esperanza Rising. Some of my middle child fears and complaints were dissolved whilst devouring Jacob Have I Loved. And important questions I never knew to ask were raised while reading Tolstoy's Family Happiness. I could give you example after example of times books have helped me deal with real life situations.

     And with that, I think I have fully convinced myself that stopping life to readAnna Karenina all afternoon will be okay after all. 

If your interested, here are some fancy articles about the stuff I talked about:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Stories That Must Be Told -

           One of the best parts about literature is that you can spend the afternoon safely snuggled under a blanket with a cookie and a cup of tea, and still visit new worlds and experience far away triumphs and tragedies. I like to think that I have gained at least a little bit of life experience by living through stories created by the wisest authors and thinkers of yesteryear. 
        There are so many tough and ugly issues in this world that we have to help our kids face up to. There are so many important stories that NEED to be told to help children become empathetic and informed individuals in this modern age. A few issues in particular that come to mind are: 
Passive Aggression 

   These can be tough issues, but never fear... A book list is here! All these books deal tastefully with important issues facing today's kids. 

Hitler Youth, Growing Up In Hitler's Shadow

Hitler Youth - Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow
    Maybe I'm an overreacting history geek, but I strongly believe that WWII is a period of history teeming with lessons to be learned and stories that need to be told. You know, it is kind of easy to over simplify the situation and say: "Yeah well, Hitler was a insane and evil. Evil people pop into history every once in a while. Good thing he is dead now." When we are mentally coping with the idea of 6 million+ innocent people being murdered, it is nice to be able to blame it on a single megalomaniac. It is a comfortable solution, I mean we are all familiar with Disney villains and such... it could happen. 
   Unfortunately Hitler did not personally slaughter 6 million innocent people. Thousands of guards, "doctors" and "nurses", citizens of Germany and other occupied countries, even German children went along with him. Some disagreed with his programs, but plugged their ears and covered their eyes from the truth so that they wouldn't have to do anything about it. Some went above and beyond their orders to inflict extra pain and suffering on the doomed lives of their victims. 
     Where did Hitler find thousands of ordinary people willing to help him with his heinous crimes? That is something historians are still debating on. Unfortunately the answer can be a little scary. 
    I'm not saying that another Hitler is going to pop up in the next few years ( although that could happen). But kids need to learn the story of WWII. It is a story of passive acceptance and following cruel orders with the justification that they were given by an authority. Hopefully, children who are familiar with this story will be able to develop their own moral compass to guide them through life. Hopefully they will learn to listen to this compass, not only under cruel dictatorships, but amongst office drama in the workplace and even bullying drama at school. 
     Sorry for the long rant. But I believe that this book is a great way to present propaganda, passive acceptance, and resistance to young readers. It follows ten or twelve children involved in the Hitler youth. Some followed Hitler to his death (and later regret it), others resist him (some giving up their lives for the sake of their morals). Although the formatting can be a little confusing, as it switches frequently from child to child in the stories it tells, the message is clear and it deserves a read. 
The Giver Cover.gif

The Giver - Lois Lowry
      There are a lot of dystopian novels out there. Dystopian novels ( when done correctly ) serve a purpose. They take an aspect of our current society/culture and follow it to its slippery slope conclusion. By taking this extreme approach, they are able to uncover the subtle evils and dangers in a current political or social trend. 
    But Dystopian novels can also be thrilling and violent. This has lead many modern authors to create exhilarating dystopian adventures with absolutely no moral value (*cough*HungerGames-don'tkillmeforsayingthat*cough*). The Giver, like most novels in this category, can be a little crude, a little edgy. But it has important points that children can appreciate: 1. Pain, even though it can hurt, does serve a good purpose. And 2. Individuality, even if it can be annoying, makes life interesting.
Charlotte's Web - E.B. White
     This may be a delightful children's story, but it also contains strong lessons that kids ( and adults ) could certainly learn from. For one thing, the spider is an awesome way to show that your life will have more meaning when you use it to help others. Just delightful. 
Number the Stars book cover.jpeg

Number the Stars - Lois Lowry
    There are a whole lot of great WWII historical fiction novels out there. But this has got to be one of my all time favorites. The main character doesn't have to go to another world or become a secret agent to have a great adventure. She just lives an ordinary life, but when the time comes her brave (though small) actions make her a true hero. I remember closing this book thinking: "Wow! We kids can be heroes too. When the time comes, I hope I could do what she did." You know what? The time comes quite often. At school, at home, there are thousands of tiny opportunities to practice those hero skills. Being a hero really just means having the courage to put the interests of others above your personal wants and needs. Though this is a historic book with a great historic story, it is its message about small heroes that really sets it apart. 
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Bridge to Terebithia - Katherine Patterson
    This story is just great from beginning to end. From the weird kid, the bully, and friendship, to death and grieving, Patterson is able to tastefully deal with a host of hard issues that kids really care about. 
Rothmc cover.jpg
Roll of Thunder hear my cry - Mildre
    To me, this is a kid friendly version of "To Kill a Mockingbird". It helps kids understand and empathize with what African Americans in American History had to deal with. I would hope it would also encourage them to never passively stand by when they witness racist acts. 

So there you have it. A few beautiful stories that desperately need to be told. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What Makes a Great Children's Novel?

  As I continue to edit and re-edit and contemplate then re-edit my Day After Doomsday manuscript, I've been thinking long and hard about what makes a children's novel really worth while. After doing a bit of Internet research, I've decided to write out some of the principles I've found (because you know, I think on paper). Please feel free to add to this list in the comments. I will be continuing to contemplate these things.
1. Quality Clearness
Children may not be ready to drop their jaws at a beautiful bit of prose describing the lifting of fog on a summer morning. That is not to say that children's writers shouldn't worry about the quality of their prose. Their prose should be tip top so that adult readers can enjoy while children subconsciously soak quality writing into their spongy little brains. However some children aren't quite ready to appreciate delightful prose for the sake of delightful prose. So save the paragraph describing a yellow geranium's perfect shape and colour for your adult book (on second thought, maybe just save it for your nature journal. Yeah, that might be best.) Juvenile prose should be clean, simple, and to the point. 

2. Go On An Adventure.

The awesome thing about kids is that they have so little experience. Your story about a girl from Mongolia may be the first time a child hears of nomads living in tents. Your story about a girl growing up in the depression may take a child to a world she or her could never have imagined. Kids love adventures, so show them something they've never seen before and make it interesting. The best part is that you don't have to make anything up. You can use the world around you, introducing children to realities they have never touched before. I remember how fascinated I was with the idea of nuclear power and radiation after I read a book about a girl whose family takes in a couple of Chernobyl refugees. I'd never heard of Chernobyl before. That book wasn't spectacular; I don't remember the plot, the characters, or anything particularly beautiful about it. But it took me places I'd never been before and expanded my world, for that reason I will never forget it.
    I really love the way Richard Robinson (president and CEO of Scholastic Inc.) described this principle at a NYC children's publishing conference: "A great book is...One that makes the world seem larger and more interesting."

3. Don't Talk Down.

    Nobody likes to feel stupid. Of course there is a fine balance here. Most ten year olds don't read Charles Dickens simply because they just can't handle Dicken's vocabulary, prose, thematic elements etc. quite yet... But don't underestimate children. Have you ever heard of Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor? Yeah, I am talking about a wildly popular series of picture books aimed at preschoolers that use words like "iridescent" and "delectable." Kids have this thing called curiosity that empowers them to want to learn and stretch themselves. So don't dumb down your characters, themes, or stories. Be age appropriate, but not stupid. As long as you are using clear and understandable prose, you can go to deep places and children will happily follow.
   Think deep but simple. If the reader can tell your an adult writing down to kids, your doing something wrong. Children's stories should create a level field of understanding. Remember that you are writing to an equal, not someone who is less than you.

4. Teach Don't Preach. 

   I remember early reviewing the first book in the Fish Finelli series about a year ago. It was an interesting story with great characters and ALMOST all the elements of a wonderful Children's novel. Yet at the end I was left unsatisfied. What was the point? That little boys can lie to their parents, steal, sneak into other peoples houses and then gain a huge treasure out of the whole adventure? I am not saying that your characters must be perfect little peaches. That is totally boring and kids won't buy it (see principle #3. Cough cough, Elsie Dinsmore). But remember Tom Sawyer? Though the story seems to follow a naughty boy's misadventures, there are plenty of strong moral lessons hidden away. In the end, Tom Sawyer is much less selfish then when it all began ( although he doesn't lose any of his original spunk). There is no need to yak a lesson about keeping our rooms clean. But great books have deeper messages that leave your soul feeling warm and fuzzy after you close the back cover. 

5. Characters Are King. 
    While children may not be ready for Dickensian prose, they certainly are ready for Dickensian level characters ( minus the prostitutes and other sketchiness of course). From the time kids pop out of the womb, they begin to learn about people. Kids are drawn to fun, unique, and well developed characters, just as much as adults are. Use all effort lost in not being about to spend paragraphs on exquisite descriptions, pool it together, and thrust it into creating amazing characters. The best children's novels (in my opinion) are based on strong (not overly simplified) characters. 

Five Principles in Good Children's Novels from Scholastic CEO:

Fancy Nancy Principles:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Debut novel... Coming right up!

Once upon a time I decided to write my high school research paper on the Black Death. That is how this story begins. The more research I did, the more gruesome facts I learned. I found primary and secondary sources citing husbands abandoning their wives and mothers abandoning their own children in the desperate struggle to stay alive. All that death got me thinking, there must have been exceptions to these tales of selfishness? Somehow humanity made it through that rough time. So somebody must have stayed back and nursed the sick. There must have been some forgotten heroes. I wanted to write about them. 
    So my research paper transformed itself into a children’s historical fiction novel. I follow a young girl named Lyddie on her quest to survive. With death closing in on her village, Lyddie is forced to forge a new life in an abandoned lord’s castle. There she meets a diverse cast of folks escaping from disparate plague created situations: a baker’s wife and daughter attempting to run the castle while their lord is gone, a monk’s son fleeing from a vicious tour of flagellants, a proud but unlucky minstrel honing his musical skills, and a Jewish peddler attempting to right past wrongs in London while surviving deathly prejudices. The characters grow to love and lean on one another. While this tale is set in one of the darkest times in human history, it is not a tale of death. It is a tale of survival and the heroes that made that possible. It is a story of life. 
      The book as it lies now is 61,942 words. I have done my best to make it as historically accurate as possible, from the characters backstories and attitudes on death and God, to the details in the descriptions of clothing, climate, and food. I have been working in it for over two years now. I finally have a draft I believe is worthy enough to be shown to close family and friends and anyone else interested in helping me make it better. 
    What you've just read is a query letter. If any of you would like to help me out with technical editing and other suggestions, I would love to send you a PDF file of the current draft. 

    Writing a novel is an exciting journey. Please feel free to join me on the inside of finishing and publishing my debut novel. I'd love to hear from you! I'll be giving updates on my journey to publication on this blog. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

I'm back for more...

   Okay you know one of my pet peeves? When people use the "I'm busy" excuse when they really mean "I've been too lazy" or "I stink at managing time." So (as tempted as I am) I am not about to start this post with a "yoohoo, I've been too busy for blogging. But now I am back. Doesn't that make you SOOo delightfully exuberant?"
    Nope. I'm going to start with an apology. Other parts of my life have taken precedence over this blog. I could have kept blogging, but 1. I couldn't decide if I wanted to maintain a blog like this and 2. I was a bit too lazy to work on something I wasn't so sure about, so I let it slide.
    Ayah. Now I wish I could tell ya'll about the details of my late soul searching trek through Mongolia where I went for weeks without a pillow in order to follow the footsteps of Marco Polo, clear his name once in for all, and (most importantly of course) find myself ( you know the deeply hidden soul version of me). Oh the adventures I could tell you. Unfortunately it simply isn't true. I haven't left this blog to climb Mount Everest or fufill my lifelong dream of planting a pumpkin in Antartica, or for any other terribly exciting reason. I've just been casually finishing highschool, planning the next steps of my life, and regurgitating every delightful minute through my pen and my journal. Okay, I admit, there has been a tad bit of soul searching...
      Now I am back. I have decided that blogging is one of those rather time consuming hobbies that is rewarding enough to maintain through college. One of the things I have discovered about myself? I am a writer. I've fully decided that. I'm not saying I am good at writing, that's not what this is about. All I know is that bad or good, amazing or embarrassing, I write to live and live to write. Writing is how I cope with excess joy and excess sorrow. It is how I sort out exciting plans for the future and unbearable problems from the past. When I write it puts a smile on my face and ( more importantly ) it sometime even puts smiles on other people's faces. That is why I do it every single day.
    There is really only one thing I could compare my love of writing to: my love of reading. I just love the idea of using writing to share my very favoritist reads with the world ( or the 5 people who read this blog- love you guys!).

   So here I am, ready to get back I gear. Here is some of the awesomeness you can be expecting:

Stories that Cannot be Forgotten - the most important stories children need to be told.
Class Notes - I am going to have the opportunity to sit in on my older sisters children's literature class about historical fiction. Hopefully i will retrieve some neat insights to share with ya'll.
Author Profiles - A new series about my very favoritist children's authors past, present, and... Okay not future, that would be weird. I'll do the research so you don't have too, make book lists, and  hopefully keep it really fun. Wouldn't it be cool if I could get some author interviews?

Gear up, good stuff is coming.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Physics books anyone?

     So I started writing a children's introduction to physics. The target audience is young boys, 9-13, with a scientific bent. Unfortunately physics has been a hard topic to cover. While I have no problem studying specific laws/concepts/history. Every time I get started on the basics, the very general principles, and of course the major problem of how everything fits together- I start to feel like this guy:

   And I don't think I'm going anywhere. Does anyone have any physics books suggestions? Be it full length textbooks or interesting picture books you've run into, I'd love to hear what you've got!