Saturday, March 31, 2012

The kids are alright...

When I read this opinion piece in the New York Times by Joel Stein where he exhorts adults to put aside any literature that doesn't stretch their minds, in particular YA or children's books, I thought my head may explode off the top of my neck. Some suggested the piece was intended as satire but unfortunately this kind of inflammatory self-congratulation only serves to reinforce the perpetual perception of YA and Children's writing as inferior to adult writing. I wasn't amused, or amazed by Mr Stein's wit, because his words were too busy bricking up the wall between adult literature and children's literature. And for those commentors who suggested its alright to read YA or Children's lit just for a bit of light relief or entertainment, that's not entirely helpful either (although readers of any literature should be able to escape within the pages of a good book no matter who it's written for). To suggest that only adult literature can educate, expand or clarify our thinking is myopic. It is arrogant to assume adults can only benefit intellectually from adult literature.  Have you read Bernard Beckett's "Genesis", or perhaps Mo Willems "We Are In A Book"? What about Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, Meg Rosoff's, "How I live Now" or Wolf Erlbruch's "Duck, Death and the Tulip".  It is arrogant to assume that only adult thinking is sophisticated. It is frustrating for those who write for younger audiences to have their work dismissed as lacking subtlety, characterisation, or any intellectual, psychological, and/or emotional depth. Sometimes the most impressive aspect of a great children's book is how a difficult or sophisticated concept is presented in a simpler or more accessible form without any loss of meaning. It is fair to say not all books for children and young adults have emotional, psychological or intellectual depth but then neither do all books for adults. Denigrating a whole section of literature because of its potential audience ( a category or designation applied by adults looking to maximise profits not necessarily benefit the reader) suggests a certain ignorance which no amount of book reading may fix. Its divisive. And damaging. You know Mr Stein, the kids are alright, but I think you need to read some more children's books.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Go on, you know you want to!...

Win this book! Whet your appetite with the first chapter, then enter in the comments section of the previous post. Go on, you know you want to.

Chapter One

Apparently my older sister Mallory was perfect. That’s not how I remember her, but it’s what my mother tells me when I’m doing something wrong. My sister certainly looks perfect in all the photos mum has plastered her bedroom with; photos that sit next to trophies for netball and gymnastics, photos that hang next to certificates of merit for academic achievement, and principals’ awards for community service. But she was just my sister. A sister who fought over the TV remote with me and complained if I took up more than my fair share of the couch. A sister who told me my friends were rude and smelly and called me names. But I guess it doesn’t matter whether she was perfect or not. It’s impossible to be as good as someone who’s just a memory.

“What are you doing Ryan?” Mum asked, glancing over to where I sat at the kitchen table.
I covered my work with my arm. “Nothing,” I said.
“Is that homework?” she pestered. “That better be homework. Mrs Penman wasn’t very happy with your homework last term.”
“She’s just one teacher. I have lots of teachers … and Mrs Penman doesn’t like me.”
“So what did you do to make her not like you?” Mum said, standing at the kitchen bench, squeezing the last home-made muffin into an old ice cream container.
“Nothing. She just doesn’t like me,” I repeated.
“You must have done something, Ryan.’ I could feel her looking over my shoulder. “So is this for her?”
“She’s my science teacher, Mum. This is for English.”
“Ok. Well, make sure you do your science homework.”
I didn’t bother saying I didn’t have any.
“I’m off to a meeting,” she went on, sitting a knife and a small tub of cream cheese on top of the muffins in her basket. “It’s time to organise the Candle-light Rally for Missing Children again. Gosh, they come around quickly. I need you to look after Gemma.”
“I told Alex I’d be down to see him at the skate park with my bike as soon as I did my homework. You said nothing about going out.”
Mum pointed a wad of paper napkins at me. “Don’t be smart with me. There’s no one else to sit with Gemma and I can’t take her to the meeting. It’s too hard for some of the other parents. Too soon.”
Jeez. Mallory wasn’t here any more but she was still wrecking my life. I wanted to hate her but I couldn’t. It’s hard to hate someone when something bad has happened to them. I wondered if she’d felt this hacked off about babysitting me.
“Can Alex come here?” I don’t know why I asked.
“No. Next thing you know he’ll be texting his mates and there’ll be twenty of them round here. Or a hundred …”
I didn’t bother saying Alex didn’t have a mobile phone at the moment. I’d already told her enough times but she chose not to remember or blocked it out or something. She was good at blocking stuff out. I guess it helped her cope with what had happened to Mallory. I’d see Alex at school tomorrow. In science class.
“I’ll lock the back door on my way out,” Mum said briskly, brandishing her over-full, jangling key ring like a jailer.
Mallory was nearly fifteen when she disappeared on the way home from netball practice, I wrote as I heard the lock click and the back door slam. I’m older then my big sister will ever be.
I didn’t make Gemma go to bed until an hour after her usual bedtime. Gemma’s okay for a little sister. None of this is her fault. She is a bit of a cry baby, but she’s a girl. Its kind of what they do. She hadn’t moaned at all when I’d asked her to clear the table and wipe while I washed. So I just said nothing while she watched an extra hour of television. I guess you’d call it a silent protest. It’s not like Mum would find out or anything, but the program was a bit grown up and full of swearing. Gemma’s always been on about watching it so I knew she wouldn’t dob me in. I didn’t even bother to make sure she did her homework. That was Mum’s job. 
After I’d said good night to my sister I wandered aimlessly around the house. I wasn’t going to do any of the chores Mum would have made me do if she was here. I had a few more days to finish my English assignment and there wasn’t any other homework because the new term of school had only started a couple of days before. TV was rubbish and I didn’t want to ring Alex. He’d be hacked off I never turned up, although he had to be used to it by now. He’d met my mum enough times.
I found myself standing outside Mallory’s bedroom. The last door on the upstairs hallway. I’d seen those forensic crime shows on television. I know what dead people look like. In the beginning I’d imagined Mallory, pale, lying in long grass, her eyes closed. Just her face because I didn’t want to see beyond it. But I couldn’t do it any more. Mum kept telling me she was still alive somewhere. And one day she’d come home and we’d be a happy family again but that was one big fat stupid lie. Mum could tell it to herself but I’d stopped believing it ages ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted Mallory to come back for so long. I waited and waited and waited and the police kept coming back with developments and new ideas and then questions and then, eventually, they stopped coming. I cried bucket-loads of tears – I was a lot younger back then - with Mum and Dad and Gemma, and by myself in my bedroom, and then they just dried up because they weren’t going to bring her back. For a while I hated everything and everyone because what had we done wrong, why was everyone else’s life going along okay and this shit thing had happened to us? And I hated and cursed the person who had taken my sister and wrecked our family and made it break apart into five lonely pieces.
And sometimes I blamed Mallory.
In the end it was Gemma who kind of saved me from becoming a pathetic crying hermit because they were forgetting about us and we had to stick together. Poor Gemma.
I felt a little guilty standing outside Mallory’s room now. It’s not like she’d chosen to be abducted and murdered. For ages I blamed her for all the bad things that happened after she’d gone. And then I did my best to shut her out of my head, except when it suited me to blame her for something else. Like having to babysit Gemma tonight. Even if she was here, she’d be seventeen, nearly eighteen. She’d probably be going out with a boyfriend. Probably some jock like Mike Crenshaw who played rugby for the senior first-fifteen at my school. Or maybe someone older to piss Mum off. Or she’d be hanging out with her girlfriends and I’d still be minding Gemma although Mum wouldn’t be at the meeting to organise the Candlelight Rally for Missing children. I couldn’t imagine what else she might be doing if Mallory was still around. There wasn’t anything else.
            I felt for the light switch and flicked it on. For a second I thought she’d probably be annoying me like crazy if she was here. She’d find a way. And suddenly I desperately wanted to be annoyed. And this flood of sadness swept over me like a wave and threatened to suck me down. As if casting off from the safety of the shore in a leaky boat, I let go of the door frame and drifted into Mallory’s bedroom.
I didn’t know why I was in here. I gave up on the idea long ago that I could find some clue in here myself, something that everyone one else had missed with their fine-toothed combs and their specialist equipment but I couldn’t help feeling a small stab of hope. Then I remembered it all happened three years ago and any clue would just lead me to a pile of bones or a faded empty netball uniform.
When she first disappeared the police spent hours in here, looking through her clothes, flicking through her books as if she'd left a secret coded message in lemon ink in a pocket or between the pages of a favourite book as a clue to what had happened;  like she was someone in a Nancy Drew mystery. But she didn’t keep a diary and there was nothing in her room to show what she’d been thinking those last few days before she was gone. There were posters on her bedroom walls of people famous three years ago, but they had nothing to say now. She’d kept a whole lot of stuff in her school bag. She never let anyone else look inside it but she had it with her when she disappeared. They searched for her mobile phone but it was missing too. They monitored it for weeks but there were no calls or texts. Mum had convinced Dad to get a mobile phone for Mallory, saying it would help keep her safe. But a phone can’t protect you if someone has bad intentions. Mobile phones don’t know kung fu and can’t dial for help on their own. And they can’t tell you where they are when the battery’s dead. Just like a person.
 A frilly pink duvet lay smooth over her bed with a couple of soft toys propped up on the pillow. The one on the far side was Mr E, her first teddy that I always wished was mine, but I didn’t recognize the other one. It looked brand new; as if no one had ever held it or dragged it through the mud or wiped their nose on it like had happened to Mr E. I punched the new one off the bed. Mallory would have hated it.
Like I’d seen a hundred times before, there was Mallory’s hairbrush, and her earrings and heart necklaces and other jewellery and a bunch of face junk on the top of her drawers. Mum had tidied her girly magazines into a pile but you could see strands of paper sticking out where she’d cut out her favourite hot guy to pin on the cork board above her bed. A chill ran over me as I thought that these things were all that was left of her. Her celebrity crushes in May the year she disappeared and the big plastic rainbow heart that Tyler had given her in year seven, that she wore on a cheap rusty chain. Forever stopped at fourteen, just a roomful of stuff that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else but us. Like when you take your hand out of a bucket of water and the water falls back into place like you were never there.
I heard the car door slam outside and footsteps climbing the wooden back porch stairs to the house. The key rattling in the lock. I sprinted for the door, quietly let myself into the hallway and along to my room at the other end. It wasn’t worth the trouble I’d be in if Mum found me mucking around in Mallory’s room.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Pear Jam's Book of the Week...

The Half Life of Ryan Davis is Book of the Week over at Pear Jam Books and in conjunction we are running a giveaway of two signed copies. To enter the giveaway just tell me (in the comments here or on facebook) which book was the first Pear Jam title to be published (Hint, this super book was created for a very special reason and was published in the record quick time of just one month). All correct answers will go in the draw!!

Readers have this to say about The Half Life of Ryan Davis

"recommended teen reading" (check out Bookie Monster's Sunday Herald review here)

 hell yeah!! i loved it. 

It was a character-driven, fast-paced story that was full of family drama, mystery and the unexpected that left you both shocked & suprised.

The book is awesome, thoroughly enjoyed my copy!

Why don't you check it out for yourself :)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Giving thanks...

When I first wrote Made With Love, I submitted the manuscript for the Storylines Joy Cowley Award. I was short-listed for the award and while I didn't win I was advised my story had been Joy Cowley's favourite and she subsequently helped me with editing and promoted it to several publishers. I had a few nibbles but ultimately it remained unpublished until Duck Creek Press came into being. When I received my author copies about a month ago I sent one to Joy to say thank you for her help and support. In her reply she said "...I thought this was one of the best manuscripts I've read and am so delighted to see it in print. at last. It's a gem that needs to be out there in the shops every Valentine's Day, and in between." I felt deeply touched and honoured by her words. I have needed to re-read them a few times in recent days. I hope she doesn't mind my repeating them here. Thank you Joy Cowley for your very generous encouragement and support for many new writers for children, including myself.   Thank you too to Gabriella Klepatski, for her wonderful warm and touching illustrations that have brought my story to life.

and grateful too my eldest is being so well looked after in USA. Here she is on Spring Break in Key West

Monday, March 19, 2012

My thoughts on reviews

One of my books was given a negative review in the media recently. Kind of a, your baby's weird and somewhat deformed and shouldn't be allowed to play with other children, kind of review. I know and appreciate that authors should take it on the chin, turn the other cheek and say nothing about it all. I've had negative reviews before. I feel confident that if I keep writing there are more bad reviews in my future. I create something and send it into the world and people form opinions about it. It is an incredibly subjective business and it is an impossible job pleasing all of the people all of the time. You can't embrace the glowing reviews and refuse the bad. In fact bad reviews might be seen as a positive sign that people are taking notice of your work. The more people that read your work the more chance the group will cover a range of responses. You do not have to like what I have written. But I couldn't help feeling a little upset when I read this review. After all my books ARE my babies. And there was nothing I could do or say to explain or answer the questions or concerns raised. But this is the only way reviews can work. So yes, I still firmly believe the right thing to do is say nothing, but it is really hard for an author, or any creative person for that matter to stay silent. It is incredibly important that reviewers feel free to say what they believe about a book. And it would be horribly wrong for reviewers to feel obliged to say only good things. Reviews would be pointless if that were the case. Reviewers, on the whole, are skilled, thoughtful book-lovers.

In the interests of taking the bad with the good, the review can be seen here (it is at the bottom of the page). My book is about the transformative power and magic of maternal love. Its about enjoying life. It seems sad that this wouldn't be shared with children who seem the perfect audience. But it is a book for grown ups too. When my children were much younger I would make highly decorated cakes for their birthdays and other special occasions. A number of times it was suggested I should offer my work to cake shops but I always said I would never like to do it for commercial gain, for me it was an act of love. And that it was what Penny and Sam's mother does in Made with Love. Her baking is an act of love and this love transforms the gingerbread. And when the children eat the gingerbread they feel their mother's love and it transfers to the snowman they make. How can the gingerbread woman and the snowman not recognize eachother - they have both been made with love, just as Penny and Sam were. You can check out an earlier review of the same book from The NZ Herald's Canvas Magazine here (click on the picture to enlarge for reading).

I can't help my stories coming out the way they do, and ugly and/or deformed, I love them just as much. I know along the way, others have loved them too. I hope some readers will pick them up and fall in love just like we did. I take heart from the fact that when my book The Were-Nana first came out many adults thought it dark and mean. When it was nominated for the NZ Post Children's book awards, one commentator couldn't see who would like a story like this, feeling it was far too dark for the littlies and too young for the older primary children. I worried about the comments. And then The Were-Nana won children's choice. I get asked to read it everywhere I go, by all primary children, and sometimes by some a bit older too.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Existing in a constant state of battle readiness...

A writer spends a large part of their writing life defending their work. The very act of submitting to a publisher after a rejection from another, is an act of defending the quality of your work. "Yes it is good enough to be a book," you repeat, sometimes repeatedly. Doubt is common. If the work is published, the writer must then defend the content from those who disagree about its audience, its packaging, its value, its quality, its price and its credibility. Writers are desperate for people to buy and read their books and then live in fear that people won't like them. If you are a writer for children you must also defend your work against those who believe books for children are the very poor relation; the simple minded cousin even, of books for grown ups. The last time I looked many books for children contain characters, plot, voice, tone, realistic dialogue, setting, effective pacing and a satisfying conclusion. Many show a sure hand with writing technique. Many deal with issues important to their readers. Some are so good one forgets there is a writer controlling the words on the page (and I include picture books here). Strike me dead if all these things aren't also features of books for adults. If a book for children is very good it magically becomes 'crossover' where adults are willing to adopt it as one of their own, preferably with an adultised cover. Yet writers for children do two things that writers for adults don't. They exercise greater control over content for an audience still learning about their world socially, intellectually and emotionally. And they must appeal to both children (as audience) and adults (as audience; as publishers, as gatekeepers - librarians, teachers, parents - and purchasers). Children's writers are interested in the human condition too - but it's the human condition as experienced by children that they explore. Is seeing children's literature as inferior therefore seeing children as inferior versions of adults? That would be a shameful attitude. There are inferior children's books just as there are inferior adults books, but I feel I must defend children's books against the blanket view that in general they are inferior to adult books.

And with the number of books increasing dramatically as frustrated writers publish their own, to the accompanying cries of concern over a drop in quality, the need to defend one's work only deepens. So if writers seem a little defensive these days its only because they are living in a constant state of battle readiness. Just don't make any unexpected loud noises behind us.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tonight Matthew I'm going to be the Mad Steward of Minas Tirith...

It is a busy, busy month. March is New Zealand Book Month and I am speaking at three evening events, doing several school visits and I'm one of the authors at the NZ Book Council's Speed Date the Author Event which was so popular they have put on a second date. It is nice to be wanted. I will be talking on Character. One of my publisher's, Pear Jam Books, is having a celebration down at the St Heliers Public Library on March 31st which is also the day of the Storylines Margaret Mahy Day and AGM being held at Kings Prep. in Remuera. Hopefully in amongst it all I will be finishing off writing a book, sneaking in reading a few, and studying for this year's university paper. It is BRILLIANT to celebrate books, and books by New Zealand writers in particular. Reading books makes you smarter. And if you are searching for magic - books are where you will find it. If you yearn to be a student at Hogwarts or mix with Vampires, Werewolves, Unicorns, the brave, the beautiful, the damned and the heroic, all you need do is open the cover and read the words inside. Words are powerful things.

And because I like to share, here are today's juicy links. The first via agent, Rachelle Gardner's blog, is a very interesting discussion on the financial rewards an author might expect. I agree that authors should get back what they put in and years of perfecting your skills and being generous with your work will most likely pay off, but this pay off for hard work, generosity and talent is by no means guaranteed. No business model would operate on this basis. There are salaried folk who are rewarded despite no effort, generosity or talent. It is somewhat depressing to think that the majority of hard working authors might never receive a fair days pay for a fair days work.

And in the continuing saga of the battle for Publishing Middle Earth (with both sides taking turns at playing Sauron in Mordor against the Mad Steward in Gondor's Minas Tirith) here is another perspective or two from over at author Lexi Revellian's blog. It is somewhat startling to see people actually 'taking sides'. My joke aside, this is not a war, this is about change. And this guest blog post here by publisher mark Williams at Anne R. Allen's blog is a very rational discussion with a lot of great information. I believe we shouldn't be afraid. Millions of people still want to read good stories. Everywhere I go, I tell children how wonderful books are and what all the benefits of reading are both as entertainment and as an educational tool. I can tell you right now, no one disagrees.

Friday, March 9, 2012

And (drum roll please) the winner is ...

I very much like Nicola Morgan's analogy about how the reading experience for children is like strawberries or spinach. Go check it out here. Its exciting to find children are reading and loving the experience. Its cool to think they are relishing the experience and getting so much out of it - both strawberry and spinach. Whatever form they get their books in, stories are still important to them.

Today I feel lucky to be doing what I dreamed of. I always wanted to be a writer of stories for children of all ages. Not only am I writing stories but they are ending up as books with my name on the cover. I read the words and wonder "How did I do that?" I guess I put a lot of good words in my brain over the years. Some of those words were in breathtaking combinations (strawberry and spinach) and that helped me form some of my own good sentences. Sometimes I wish things ran a little smoother and the path was a little more straight forward. But I'm still getting to do my dream job. Every day.

I would like to announce the winner in my 500th blog post competition. It was tough to pick, but my SO and I agreed Ms MANIC was the best. Old Kitty if you would like to pick two from the following titles - picture books The Were-Nana, The House That Went to Sea, or Made with Love, and novels Jack the Viking and The Half Life of Ryan Davis - and send a postal address to me here I will post those out to you. I will be running more competitions in future - both here and on facebook for those of you who missed out this time.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

No, I do not want to answer your quick survey...

I owe a huge debt to all the cold-calling sales people, door-to-door sellers, and bible enthusiasts. They have made me skilled at fobbing them off. I'm not proud, but I have even developed the ability to have a joke at their expense. "Excuse me madam I would just like to conduct a quick survey. Are you worried about retiring at 65?" No. When they try the question again - I'm not planning to retire. I'm a writer. Writers never retire. We might throw the towel in but that's a different thing entirely. I'm not even having to make up stuff to have my fun. The thing is when you deviate from the script, 9 out of 10 cold-callers don't know what to do. When you've answered all their questions with responses they didn't expect or anticipate, when you've made it clear you don't have any concerns about it, its hard for them to launch in to their sales pitch about how they can address your concerns about retirement or whatever it is they were relying on you to be concerned about, with their lifestyle, money scheme, life insurance plan etc... that they were trying to sell you. I never invited them to sell me this stuff - I consider them fair game. And I confess that I now have charity collectors in my sights. I have made my selection of worthy charities I can and will continue to support. This includes local school children with their terrible (but brilliant) chocolate, thons and raffle tickets I will never, ever win anything on. The education of those children will be good for them, my neighbourhood, and me. But anyone else who rings me up with a pen or teddy bear in return for my $30 donation or who knocks on my door with a laminated badge and a clipboard wanting to sign me up for a monthly amount is TOO organised - being this organised costs money. The fact that there is a near continuous stream of folk ringing, knocking and asking, and that as someone who works from home there is no way to avoid these folk apart from hiding in the closet when I see someone coming down the driveway which just seems wrong when I am in my own house, I have no choice but to develop strategies to make a quick exit or, if I'm in the mood, extract that pound of flesh from them that they are trying to get from me. Bring it on - because I am ready!

Friday, March 2, 2012

When the bun-fight is over...

Well there is still plenty of debate happening online about the role of publishers these days. You could check out this post over at ex-agent, current-author, Nathan Bransford's blog about how publisher's are perceived. Lots of interesting comments follow. Then there is this from author Anthony Horowitz which is funny in places but also, ultimately, not the full picture IMHO (thanks to Maureen Crisp for alerting me to this one). I'm not anti-publisher. I'm not anti-e-book. What I want is the best possible opportunity to connect with potential readers. I want fair recompense for my efforts. I have no idea how all this is going to shake out but in the meantime I will continue to write, in the hope that I can still get my stories to any interested readers, and get paid for it, when the bun-fight is over.

Finalists for the NZ Post Children's Book Awards were announced this week (you can see the list here). I wasn't on either the picture book or YA lists and had to scurry off and hide under a dark duvet to lick my wounds and some chocolate for a while. But I am back now. My thoughts? I was surprised. There are some wonderful books on the lists. There are some wonderful books not on the list (so many I thought were sure-fire inclusions are absent). Congratulations to all those shortlisted and good luck for the announcement of the winners in May.

In happier news my new picture book Made with Love, illustrated by Gabriella Klepatski, published by Duck Creek Press, and out in bookshops April, got a lovely review in the Canvas Magazine from the Weekend Herald today. Yay!!