John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars deserves every bit of the praise and attention it’s received since its publication. If I’d found this book as a teenager I would have seen myself and hugged it close, even though I’ve never had cancer.
Hazel Grace Lancaster has cancer that has reduced her ability to breathe – she must be on oxygen at all times. Her lungs ‘suck at being lungs’. Her world has been reduced along with her breathing and, concerned about depression, a “side effect of cancer”, her mother makes her attend a weekly a cancer support group where she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor who has lost part of one leg to his illness. The book tracks their relationship as they share books, play video games, talk about ideas and struggle with how to seize all that life has to offer even as people in the support group die and their own health is compromised. This is a love story but also a story about the power of ideas – and of books – to inform and anchor our lives. A central character is a book, Hazel’s favorite novel that she shares with Augustus and whose ambiguous ending sends them both on a quest for the answers to questions left hanging by the author.
The Fault In Our Stars is funny and sad and beautifully written and you won’t find spoilers here. I listened to the excellent audio version, narrated by Kate Rudd. In the author interview included at the end, Green talks about his experience working with young cancer patients over a decade ago, and how it informed his writing. This NPR interview addresses his point that young people with cancer want to live while they are alive – all Hazel wants is to be herself, to read, to love and to be loved, to have a creative life.
While I was listening to the book, right about the time that Make-A-Wish came into the story, a request for exhibition venues came into my day job at 4Culture: Ruby Lhianna Smith, a young photographer, wanted to display her work, undertaken with the mentorship of an artist-in-residence at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Working with the family and the hospital, our curator arranged to hang the photographs facing the street as an additional show for the month of June. That work was being installed the day Ruby died. It’s a beautiful group of photos that express her illness and her impulse to life. In the midst of life’s reduction she chose to be an artist, to look outward, to create a legacy. I thought of Hazel and Augustus as the work went up, and the vibrancy of the lives that Green created, with death a side effect of cancer, and life the central point.
This is my room in the American Academy in Rome, where I was a visiting artist too many years ago to be right. I could only afford a little studio room with a shared bathroom across the hall. Vic joined me after one week and we walked all over Rome, saw many wonders and made fast friends. I always felt that my IQ went way up the minute I passed through that front door, simply by being around that varied group of smart people, this one writing their thesis on a Pope who no one else found at all sympathetic; this one making sculpture out of rocks and wire and string; this one with mad plans to build a model of the water system in Rome; this one drinking and writing short stories. We all ate together at long tables under the portico while the fall weather stayed warm. It was intimidating and enchanting and scary and weirdly familiar, like being at one of my dad’s graduate student wine and cheese parties 24/7.
My time at the academy came to mind in the wake of Jonah Lehrer’s lecture at Town Hall Monday night. Of the many ideas he brought forward so economically over the course of about 45 minutes, the concept of idea spillover resonated most with that AAR experience – in his reference to studies showing that more creative problem solving happens in cities than out of them he threw away, “People get smart when they’re around smart people.” Exactly. When you get to tag along on a walk through the Forum that is led by the archeologist in charge of excavations there, you will have a closer idea of what the Vestal Virgins might have really been up to than if you walked around with a brochure – and ask better questions. As well, sitting at a table made up of individuals all very focused on their area of study and assembled expressly to focus more closely on whatever their passion is will in fact produce fabulous dinner conversation – and send you away with a head brimming with ideas. Loved hearing the science behind the intuition that my own creativity benefits from the smarties surrounding me.
Two other threads from his book Imagine: How Creativity Works really inspired and tracked with my experience. Lehrer has been quoted often on the uselessness of brainstorming. His view: its only value is in morale raising. Science says it’s much better to hang out near others who are also working away on their own solutions for creative problems, and have random conversations during breaks. Ideas spring up in the casual bumping up of one idea against each other (thus the power of cities: more bumps). So work away on your own, but have those other guys around to spur you on and take you down a rabbit hole or two. In addition, don’t focus too hard and long on trying to solve a creative problem. Those incredible moments of inspiration (they can measure them: alpha waves are involved) happen while you’re mentally looking the other way, relaxed and able to turn your attention inward.
The other idea that arrived with a satisfying ker-chunk was the notion of grit, something that has only in the last decade or so come forward as an articulated factor in measuring an individual’s success, whatever the venture. There is a direct correlation between simply not quitting, just having the tenacity to work through the hard parts, and success. You have to have talent, but without grit it’s just talent. Advice familiar to any young baseball player or aspiring writer.
Jonah Lehrer is the cub reporter of scientists – he’s the coolest nerd on the block. I cannot wait to read all of his books, and he passes the acid test: would he find an easy place at that long table under the portico? Oh my, yes.
by Kristine O’Connell George
I’m practicing my
No one will know I’m coming.
No one will know when I’m gone.
I found this lovely poem on the website for Poetry Foundation on their children’s poetry page. I think every Monday ought to start with a poem, which is hard to promise to myself to keep; but I can make April Mondays begin with a poem for sure. When I was in elementary school – third or fourth grade I think – Mom bought us a big, fat book of collected American poetry for children. I loved opening up that book at random and reading a poem. I loved that there were poems written just for me and that they weren’t only funny, or pretty rhymes, though I loved those too. I liked how the editor had trusted that I wouldn’t be scared by a really big book filled with poems and few illustrations. That book made me step up and begin to have a more serious relationship to poems, beyond the beloved Robert Louis Stevenson A Child’s Garden of Verses, or A.A. Milne’s poems. Those books had been made just for me too, but the new book, the big book – that was made for my mind and I recognized its very existence as a challenge.
Visit photographer Phil Douglis’ website
In a swell convergence of upcoming news and recent interest, I bring you author-illustrator Melissa Sweet and her latest picture book, Balloons Over Broadway. (The link to the book goes to the excellent blog The Classroom Bookshelf, where every Monday a new post appears, reviewing a book for children or young adults along with tips to aid in using that book in the classroom. Awesome resource.) Balloons Over Broadway is created in Sweet’s truly engaging style, which incorporates assemblage, collage, drawing and painting. The book tells the story of Tony Sarg, puppeteer and creative whiz who is the man responsible for inventing the balloons used in the annual Thanksgiving Day Macy’s parade. Like Kevin Clash and his journey toward Being Elmo, Sarg’s love and mastery of puppets grew out of a lifelong habit of tinkering, problem solving and story telling. My kind of guy. The book is charming and inspiring, both visually and in its depiction of the puppeteer. With over 100 books to her credit, Sweet’s sure style still manages to be fresh and unique, marrying her love of non-fiction with the winsome storytelling that only words accompanied by pictures can achieve.
Melissa Sweet will be giving a keynote in the upcoming 21st annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Western Washington conference. So excited to meet her and hear her speak. The conference is sold out (See? Procrastinating does not always pay off!) but we’ll be blogging and tweeting the goodness over three days of workshops, learning and glorying in community. Links here and on Twitter to come.
Passover and Easter cheer – have a renewing week!
“The act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer, before we can even know the question we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach.”
A friend who is opening for author Jonah Lehrer for his Imagine: How Creativity Works book tour lecture on Monday night posted this video online today. It’s a great piece of advertising I think and inspiring as well. It gives an idea of the book, it makes us want to know more, it has profundity in its short presence and it’s beautifully put together. Way to create a book trailer! If this were not enough to get me to go to the event at Town Hall Seattle on Monday night, the fact that Vis-à-Vis Society is opening for Jonah Lehrer, conducting their patented brand of scientific research and delivering results post haste, would tip the balance. I am so there.
I have recently read two middle grade books that involve military families, crossroads in history and engaging girls in the process of discovering their place in the world. Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry takes place in Berlin just after the Berlin wall comes down, and Deborah Wiles’ Count Down takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in Maryland. I enjoyed both of these books and admire their authors’ ability to craft historic fiction that wears its era naturally and as an exciting and compelling backdrop to their protagonists’ journeys. Here are my Goodreads reviews.
Second Fiddle: Rosanne Parry handles this story of a young girl finding her confidence in friendship and her own musical ability, told against the backdrop of Berlin in the early 90’s, surely and with affection. I loved all three of her girls, distinct characters all, and enjoyed learning about military life and culture through each of them. The depth of the portrayal of music in a young life, the first glimmerings of a crush on an impossible object of admiration, daring actions and espionage, as well as the historical verisimilitude are a difficult mix to pull off, but I read this story with absorption. I rooted for Jody, her friends, her music and her escaped Russian soldier. I rooted for her family and for the trio to do well in the music competition. I relished the episode in Paris with its unexpected developments and its vivid descriptions and interactions. And I thought the relationship of Jody to her music, how it reflected her own sense of self, gave her a sense of accomplishment and mastery in an uncertain time and afforded joy was lovely. Just: yay!
Deborah Wiles spoke at last year’s SCBWI Western Washington conference and given her lovely presentation on the creation of her novel Count Down and the fact that I, too grew up in this era, for the life of me I can’t say why I waited so long to read this book. I listened to it as an audio book, so the illustrations, photographs and narrative asides made for a slightly cluttered listen, but Emma Galvin did a lovely job of narration.
This story of 12 year old Franny Chapman and her family, her father a pilot on Air Force One during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Wiles does a terrific job of the psychological setting of that Russia and A-Bomb-obsessed time, and holds to her narrator’s point of view, and the fear and dawning understanding of the complexity of issues that influence family choices and behaviors. The struggle to matter within the family, with a ‘saintly’ younger brother, a glamorous older sister and a shell shocked great uncle, the changes in friendships at a time when some girls grow up faster than other girls, the primacy of school and importance of every assignment and classroom occurrence, the sudden infatuation with a boy who was just a pal a year ago – all of these threads come together in this story of a girl working on becoming her best self. Ultimately, Franny takes her next step in growing up and finds herself secure within her strict but loving family.
Funny, immersive and utterly human, Countdown is the first in a Sixties trilogy. I look forward to the next book, though Countdown stands on its own, whole and complete. The choice to include photographs, quotes and other imagery from the time will no doubt help its readership understand the era and the context for much of Franny’s anxiety. For me, the story alone would have been enough.
With so many American families dealing with lives in the military, the cultural involvement, loss and adjustment to both children and adults, fiction that reflects difficulties as well as strengths within these experiences are necessary and welcome. These two also offer excellent writing, memorable characters and great storytelling and that’s a really, really good thing.
As always, should you choose to buy, consider your local independent bookstore, which also offers its own culture, inclusion and an important community gathering place.
If you are looking for a book to give a young reader this holiday season that combines a ripping story, great characters and emotional heft, I recommend The Apothecary by Maile Meloy. A middle grade novel, it can be read by all ages for its fine drawing of history along with meditations on family, war, power, freedom and the threat of nuclear weapons. If this seems heavy freight for adolescents be assured that these deeper themes are carried along by adventure, budding romance and magic.
Janie Scott, the daughter of two successful Hollywood writers is wrenched from her comfortable life in 1952 Los Angeles when her parents take a job writing for BBC television. In brief scenes we know the ease and pleasures of Los Angeles, and are introduced to the paranoia and destructiveness of Joseph McCarthy’s State Department investigation into communism, the impetus for the family’s move. Arriving in London to a cold, cramped flat, Janie records her impressions of her new life in her diary and reacts with typical adolescent resentment to the changes she experiences. On her first day in London she meets the Apothecary of the title, who runs London’s version of a neighborhood pharmacy, supplies the family with hot water bottles and gives Janie a remedy for homesickness that seems to work.
In her new school Janie meets Benjamin Burrows, the Apothecary’s son, who has lost his mother to a German bomb during the Blitz and who refuses to “duck and cover” for a nuclear bomb drill. The two become friends. Benjamin would rather be a spy than dispense prescriptions like his father, and the two stumble upon Cold War espionage when they observe suspicious meetings in the park and discover that Benjamin’s father is not what he appears. No spy, he has alchemical powers and harbors secrets that place them all in danger. When he disappears, entrusting an ancient book of spells and transformative elixirs to Benjamin, the reader and Janie are swept up in a journey of mystery and suspense that could end in the world’s annihilation. With magical transformations, a pickpocket, murder, and the race to contain the power of nuclear bombs through physics and magic (and what is physics if not magic?), Janie, Benjamin and a host of well drawn and engaging characters are propelled through laboratories, capture and flight until they end up in the Arctic aboard an icebreaker with everything at stake. The resolution is surprising, suspenseful and tender, and left me hoping for a second book with these characters. I loved the magic and the very real relationship Meloy establishes.
Huzzah for the resurgence of illustrated books. The lovely drawings by Ian Schoenherr carry the story forward. A gorgeous book in the hand, compulsively readable and beautifully written. May I suggest that a local independent book store will allow you to page through and discover first hand the charms of this book? Indies rule.
It’s always exciting to find a new illustrator to love. My early morning Twitter check-in paid off big time with pal Audrey Vernick’s link to Steven Salerno’s illustrations for her upcoming book, Brothers At Bat. I love the story line, based on a true story: the twelve Acerras brothers (from NJ) who formed a family baseball team.
Check out Steven’s blog with his illustrations and sketches for the book. Always such a pleasure to see the process an artist goes through to create their work.
This is the second baseball book for Audrey – we came to know each other through She Loved Baseball, her picture book on Effa Manley, another New Jersey baseball luminary. I have her first Middle Grade novel, Water Balloon on the top of my stack of books. Awesome to start the day off with such bodacious talent. A tip of the cap to Steven and Audrey!
I work with several critique groups: an online group of YA novelists who banded together following a mediabistro class; a mixed bag of non-fiction folks, YA, Sci-Fi and adult novelists and short story writers who meet IRL once a month; and a sustaining group of Kidlit/YA authors and illustrators who meet every Saturday at a Starbuck’s to write. We email during the week and don’t always have time to make the meeting, but the ethic of inclusiveness and feedback that we encountered in Peggy King Anderson’s evening class, where we all met, informs the communal conversation. A few of us scheduled a retreat for this weekend on Lopez Island and the fates obliged with changeable but lovely weather.
The place we’re staying is a decidedly modern cabin on the beach with a big table for our laptops and meals, a fireplace and a great deck. Only two of us came up the first night. We ate and did our weekly online chat (oh yes, there is some overlap in the critique groups) and wrote. At ten p.m. I decided to read, and cracked open the sky is everywhere by Jandy Nelson. I finished it at 2:15, awash in tears and meditating on the themes of love, loss and identity that this beautiful YA novel explores.
17-year-old Lennie Walker lives in Clover, California with her sister Bailey, her Uncle Big and her grandmother, Gram. Lennie is a gifted clarinetist who as the book opens has just returned to school after Bailey’s sudden death from heart arrhythmia. The two girls have always been close, sharing a bedroom and a private ritual of creating an imaginary life for the mother who left them with Gram sixteen years before.
Lennie’s grief is expressed in poems she writes on anything and everything, and scatters around her home, underneath the redwood trees, by the river where she and Bailey swam, throughout the town where she lives and the school where she is finishing up her Junior year. These poems are reproduced graphically and introduce or sum up sections of the story. The poems themselves stand on their own two feet and read together are a lovely, heartbreaking view into Lennie’s struggle and sorrow.
She finds solace with Toby, Bailey’s fiance, a bond of loss that takes a confusing, sexual turn but which she can’t resist. Balancing this is a developing relationship with Joe Fontaine, recently relocated to Clover from Paris. Impossibly handsome, charming and a brilliant musician, he goes right to Lennie’s heart by way of music. As Lennie takes her journey through fresh loss she re-examines her relationship to music and her family and struggles with a future that doesn’t include Bailey but that she must somehow find a way to navigate.
Nelson does a lovely job of creating a small town that feels northern California small with enough quirkiness to support belief in Lennie’s colorful family. Uncle Big, five times married and the town arborist (his assignations take place in the basket of the cherry picker from which he prunes trees), and Gram, a painter who creates only portraits of women in shades of green and who owns a seemingly endless supply of wildly colorful floral outfits, set the familial tone for the sisters’ creative personalities. Gram’s garden of aphrodisiacal flowers and Uncle Big’s serial monogamy are threads of love as expressed in nature that carry through the book and echo in Lenny and Joe’s developing relationship. The embracing world of her family and the glimpses of love and belonging she sees with Joe are threatened when she and Toby are discovered, and Lennie must ask for forgiveness and understanding from those she cares for the most.
Lennie’s best friend Sarah serves as the chorus and conscience of the book, verbalizing the questions Lennie asks herself about her behavior and proving herself a true friend despite the distance that Lennie creates as she works through her loss. All of this should be too much description and emotion for one story but once the almost magic realism of the story is established Nelson does such a masterful job of balancing loss and passion and the ache of the past with the promise of the future that the reader accepts the story on its own terms. Ultimately the lesson that Lennie embraces by the book’s end is that she will never get over the loss of her beloved sister, her mourning will be with her throughout her life, but she can choose to live with joy and integrity and become her own best self as a memorial to Bailey.
I admired the writing and the story of the sky is everywhere but also that I have been left with much to ponder and reflect on from my own life. This one’s a keeper.
Gary Schmidt’s latest middle grade book, Okay For Now, is a funny, tragic, redemptive read. With a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review and admiring reviews elsewhere, it seems clear this book will find the audience it deserves.
A companion to The Wednesday Wars, Okay For Now stands on its own and follows a minor character from the earlier book, Doug Swieteck as he moves with his family upstate to “stupid” Marysville, New York. With one brother in Vietnam and another who brings his troublemaking ways with him, Doug arrives friendless, with his mother as his only ally. She is the sole element of warmth in a family that is dominated by an alcoholic, disappointed bully of a father. If this sounds a grim setup it is, but this is the backdrop to the story, the place Doug starts from. We are privy to Doug’s thoughts, wry observations and a dawning sense of his own possibilities as he meets and befriends Lily Spicer, a smart, no-nonsense girl whose father owns the corner grocery store. The job she gets for him delivering groceries takes him into the town’s kitchens and up to their front doors. The friendship he finds in a few of those houses, coupled with adults at school and the public library who take an interest in him, help Doug to see that he can make different choices than his father and brothers are making.
Doug’s discovery of a glass case in the public library containing a first edition folio of Audubon’s bird prints is the informing moment of his young life. The beauty of the birds and the pleasure he takes in learning to draw them, helped by librarian Mr. Powell, grant him the beginnings of a new identity. The town has been selling off the individual pages one by one as they need the money, and Doug vows to recover the prints and return them to the folio. In the author’s words, to make “one thing in his life whole.”
Doug’s journey of self-discovery develops against a backdrop of the Vietnam War years, small town dynamics and the drama of Doug’s family. The abuse he experiences at the hands of his father and older brother Christopher is held in check by his mother’s love and intervention, and we see Doug working out what kind of man he’d like to be himself. The return of the eldest son, Lucas, from Vietnam, blind and in a wheelchair, and the revelation in front of the whole school of his father’s past cruelty allows Doug to work through the issues of worth and choice that are at the center of this novel.
Mentors come forward, friendships are challenged, and both good and bad things happen in Doug’s life before and during his time in Marysville. The key thing is what you make of the life given to you, and how you allow experience to either spoil or temper you. The writing here is lean and beautiful, the sorrow balanced with humor and while there are no easy answers provided for Doug or the reader, a way forward is made clear. As a young reader I would have found this comforting, at the same time I was crying my eyes out. Kind of like I did as an adult reader.