Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Here’s Some Young Adult Fiction

The Earth My ButtAlright. I finished The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler.

Did I like it? I’m not sure.

Does it have relevance in today’s world and for adolescents? Absolutely.

One thing: the book is nowhere near as funny as the title. In my opinion, there’s very little to laugh at in the entire volume. Apparently, not everyone agrees with that assessment, though.

Mackler does an excellent job of capturing the brain of a fifteen-year-old with body image and other serious issues. Having been there myself, I can guarantee this.

Virginia, named for Virginia Woolf, comes from the perfect family. Older sister, Anais, is in Africa in the Peace Corp. Older brother, Byron, is the perfect student at Columbia. Mom is an adolescent psychologist who forgets her children are human beings. Dad smiles and carries on. Mom and Dad go on weekend junkets, leaving her to fend for herself in the City. All except Virginia speak French fluently. And they never, ever talk about problems, especially Virginia’s weight.

Her best friend is in Seattle for the entire school year. And she’s forming an attachment to a boy named Froggy. The other characters at school are a delightful mix. A geometry teacher who sings to the students, using their names in the songs. (I wonder if he knew my father-in-law.) A school nurse named Paul. Ms. Crowley, language arts teacher, who more than understands Virginia. The usual cheerleader types.

What Mackler does best is show how everything in Virginia’s world suddenly becomes all about Virginia. This is how many teenage brains work. (And also how many adults operate when they don’t get past that stage.) On some level, it’s good because that’s really the only way we can begin to develop empathy for others. Even when Byron manages to get suspended from college, Virginia sees it as a betrayal of all she holds sacred. To her, Byron really was perfect.

My main criticism of the story is that Virginia’s transformation is much too quick. While some sort of change is required to make a story, Virginia’s grows up completely. The entire book takes place over a matter of a few months. At the beginning, everything is about her terrible body image. She’s so “fat” she has a fat girl code of ethics. At the end, she’s fine with her body, can tell her father it’s not a safe subject, and has found a physical activity she relishes. At the beginning, Byron is perfect. At the end, he’s a human being who makes mistakes. At the beginning, her mother controls her life. At the end, Virginia does what she thinks is best. Not just as a matter of rebellion but because she is a mature woman.

But I do recommend the book. Despite my misgivings, it is well-written, has some great characters, and deals with some important issues.

ISBN: 978-0763659790

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More about My Busy Life

I’ve been reading The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler, who will be speaking at the Los Angeles conference. I’ll have a lot to say about that later.

I attended the Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC as a guest on June 13. The speaker, Wes Moore, is an amazing speaker and very inspiring. As a troubled youth, he was sent to a military school and was able to turn his life around. He met another man from the same area with the same name, who was not able to live a good life and is now in prison for life. Our speaker wrote a book for adults title The Other Wes Moore and has just completed a book called Discovering Wes Moore for young adults. I really need to get both of these books. I recommend them, even without reading them.

Summer is a busy time in our household. The trick is remembering to say “no” once in a while. Literally, we’ve had Saturdays where we could have done up to six different activities without even breaking a sweat. But, alas, I haven’t mastered the ability to be in more than one place at a time. And neither has my husband.

July, stretching into August, is turning out to be an every-moment-planned I just hope I can get some writing done. They say if you want something done, give it to a busy person. In my opinion, being busy forces a person to be organized and to set priorities.

Priority 1 – Taking care of my SCBWI region. Our two-day conference is in September, which means we have to get the registration up and running in July. I won’t bore you with all the details of this. Suffice it to say I’m off in several directions getting ready for this. Also, I arranged for a meet and greet in West Virginia on July 20. We love our West Virginia members. My cohort, Sue Peters, and I leave for Los Angeles on July 31 and don’t return until August 6.

Priority 2 – My family. My mother is now 84 years young and living 1000 miles away. We’re driving out to see her. Also my 98-year-old aunt, my brother, and my sisters-in-law.

Priority 3 – Baseball. Whether we’re winning or not.

Priority 4 – Friends. Picnics with my former office and neighbors.

A dental cleaning. Online critique group. Books to review. Then additional writing.

In between, I will be sleeping.

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We Were Here

Here is a book I can’t recommend enough, especially for teens of mixed race. I gotta tell ya, as a reviewer of books, I run into a lot bad crap out there. It’s only when I find a gem like this one do I know why I have to keep reading.

We Were Here

Matt de la Peña

Delacorte Press, 2009,

Hardcover, 356 pages

ISBN 978-0-385-73667-1We Were Here

When the story begins, Miguel is in Juvi Hall as a result of an unspecified crime. He’s quickly moved to a group home, where he lets the other boys think he stole a bike. The reader gets enough information to suspect the crime was much worse. Down the road, he finds that many of the other residents have led much worse lives than he has. But Miguel does his best to insulate himself from the rest of the boys. One very disturbed individual, Mong, convinces him to leave the home with him, with the eventual destination of Mexico. Miguel’s roommate, a slow-witted large black adolescent named Rondell, insists on being included in the escape. The trio travel from San Francisco to San Diego and back. The characters they encounter are wonderful and diverse. Every one of them affects how Miguel sees the world and how he reacts to it. Mong’s gorgeous cousin and Miguel’s grandmother are especially memorable. The situations the boys end up in seem very real. Life on the streets can be brutal.

The story is written as a journal, complete with dates. It is supposed represent the journal the judge requires Miguel to keep as a therapeutic tool. Therefore, the reader only knows as much as Miguel is willing to put into words – a very effective device that allows for surprises in the end.  Writers of juvenile fiction are told they have to allow the main character to solve his own problems. De la Peña does this beautifully. Even Rondell and Mong come up with their own solutions. One of the most compelling themes is in showing how one moment can determine a whole life’s direction. But the author also shows how further action can move events in a better direction. You can’t change the past but you sure can guide the future.

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To Kill a Tribble

Maintaining a blog, especially with relevant posts, is often a challenge. It’s not like I have nothing to say, but there is always a question of whether anyone will care. I often crack people up with my off-hand remarks, but they’re so often situational that I get no help for the written word.  I have strong political opinions, but I have yet to meet anyone who agrees with me on everything. It’s not my goal here to piss people off, though I would like to provide food for thought.

People who know me well know that I’m, at heart, a Trekkie. But am I? The conventional wisdom is that science fiction fans are drawn to plot-driven stories. I couldn’t care less about special effects or plot. Unless they directly affect my favorite characters. I can name episodes from TNG that still annoy me because of what the writers did with MY characters. Thinking about Spock and Dr. McCoy’s interactions in the original series still makes me smile. Although I’m enough of a purist that the new movies irritate the crap out of me – for so many reasons – I do appreciate the filmmakers’ attempts to be true at least to most of the characters from the original series. (Even though the new Spock is definitely losing control of his emotions.)

So, what makes a good character? (By the way, this is a question writers ask themselves pretty much daily.) Obviously, there must be some overriding character trait with which the reader or viewer can identify. I admire Dr. McCoy’s loyalty and passion, Scotty’s inventiveness, Spock’s self-confidence.  One of my favorite books of all-time is To Kill a Mockingbird. I can’t say enough nice things about Atticus or Boo.  Atticus commands respect, even from his enemies.  Boo is innocence personified.

Foibles are also important. It’s very hard to love a perfect being. Would we love Kirk as much if he never took unwise risks? (Seriously, I can do without the womanizing, though.) Even Atticus doesn’t know everything.

Although readers should be made to feel they know something no one else knows about their characters, there should always be hidden details. Without them, there would be no story and no surprise. Atticus’ hard-nosed honesty causes him to question the sheriff’s decision to fudge the facts surrounding Boo. Mercy and his children turn out to be more important to Atticus than honesty.

Beyond that, I do love a good space western. And a world in which Justice may not be perfect but she sure is blind.

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