Running for My Life
WestSide Books, Ages 14+
Hardcover: 238 pp; $16.95
Running for My Life available at Amazon.
An Interview with Ann Gonzalez by Grier Jewell
If anyone deserves to be an overnight success, it’s Ann Gonzalez. With her debut novel, Running for My Life (WestSide Books), to be released later this month, Gonzalez works hard to make the impossible look effortless. She wrote her book in thirty days, polished and sold it within a matter of months, began working on her second thirty-day novel, and is now gearing up for the next emotional twist in a writer’s life: marketing. So, has it been as easy as she makes it appear? Gonzalez would be the first to say, absolutely not. While she may have written a novel in less than a month, it took her forty years to pick up a pen.
Considering the prohibitions against writing and speaking Gonzalez experienced early in life, her reluctance is not surprising. Raised by a mother whose dreams of being a writer were shattered by schizophrenia, Gonzalez grew up being told she would ruin the English language if she ever tried to write.
“As nonsensical as it sounds,” she says, “I believed my mother when she told me things like that. As a child, I didn’t understand that I could know better than Mom.”
At age forty, when she entered therapy, Gonzalez finally found the courage to write through the pain of childhood trauma, eventually enrolling in the Whidbey Writers’ Workshop MFA Program to hone her craft. It was during her time at Whidbey that she wrote Running for My Life, which tells the story of a fourteen-year-old girl dealing with the devastating effects of being raised by a mother with schizophrenia. Although it’s something Gonzalez knows from personal experience, the story is not autobiographical.
“This is a work of fiction,” she says. “It’s informed by my background, but it’s not my story. I wanted to reach out to teens struggling with the same sort of pain. I truly hope the book will help teenagers, particularly ones who have experienced trouble or trauma in their lives. I want them to know they’re not alone.”
Gonzalez points out that this is an unfortunate, yet comforting truth. “When I was growing up, I had no idea there were other teenagers that had similar experiences. I want kids today to know there are supports out there in the community.”
Inspired by Stephanie Stuve Bodeen (The Compound), Gonzalez accepted the challenge to write 50,000 words in thirty days during National Novel Writing Month, known to most as Nanowrimo. Running for My Life was the result of that effort.
“I’m a Nano novelist,” she laughs, coining a new term. “The experience was really amazing. While writing, I had no idea where the story was going. I had the experience of being an interested and surprised reader of the story as it unfolded.”
Typical of Gonzalez, she does nothing half-heartedly. A passionate advocate of Nanowrimo, she encourages all writers to shed that harping internal editor. “There’s something about writing a novel in thirty days that keeps the energy going and keeps the characters alive. When I enter the life of a character, I don’t want to leave until she tells her story. If I take a year and a half or two years to write a novel, which I did after I wrote Running for My Life, I lose that energy.”
Gonzalez credits the Whidbey Writer’s Workshop for being able to write the book. “You need those other writers if you’re going to survive. Writing is really hard work, and this program has some of the most supportive writers I’ve ever met.”
At Whidbey, Gonzalez met and studied under Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky), at that time a faculty member of MFA program. Larson helped Gonzalez mine her past and polish Running for My Life for publication. “I am enormously indebted to Kirby, not only for inspiring me through her writing and teaching, but for her good heart and support of writers.”
After a few fits and starts and delays in publishing, Gonzalez proudly displayed her Advance Readers Copy (ARC) to an audience of current Whidbey students during thier January residency, where she read from a chapter of her novel.
“It gave me chills to hear that,” one of the students said. “I can’t wait to read the whole book.”
Gonzalez can’t wait either. “It’s been an interesting process. You’re getting such incredibly good news, but there’s nothing real until you’re holding that book.” Despite her well-deserved success, she knows there’s still more work to be done to put her novel into the hands of readers. “The challenges a writer faces never go away,” she sighs. “They just evolve.”
With characteristic humor and humility, Gonzalez attributes her accomplishments to “luck and grace.” True enough. Teen readers everywhere are incredibly lucky she had the grace to pick up that pen.
Ann Gonzalez currently teaches at North Seattle Community College and offers her own online creative writing class in writing for teens. To learn more, visit http://www.anngonzalez.com
Running for My Life
by Ann Gonzalez
WestSide Books, Ages 14+
Hardcover: 238 pp; $16.95
Running for My Life available at Amazon.
Review by Sharon Mentyka
All parents know the primal urge to protect their children, and endure an equal amount of suffering when seeing them suffer. But what happens when the cause of the suffering is the parent themselves?
In her debut novel, Running for My Life, Ann Gonzalez presents a story of coping and eventual understanding within a family in crisis. The book is sure to resonate with teens that will identify with the book’s engaging protagonist and her friends, but the issues explored are important enough to matter to many more readers.
The story is narrated by Andrea McKane, a fourteen-year-old guilty of nothing more than being scared and bewildered when facing the reality of her mother’s recurring mental illness. How Andrea copes—or doesn’t—offers a glimpse into a world that is both moving and disturbing.
In our society, it is still unfortunately true that it’s okay to be sick in some ways but not in others. At least that’s what a lot of kids think. Andrea wants to love her mom—does love her—but is tired of carrying around the burden of her mother’s illness. She just wants life to be normal. To imagine her mother in her future becomes almost more than she can bear.
Gonzalez captures these intense emotions and feelings honestly. The unfolding of Andrea’s story—as she reveals her fear that she, too, will someday be “sick” like her mother—emerges slowly, through sessions with her therapist Samantha, frank talks with Margie, and a budding connection to her first crush, Sean.
Goaled by Margie into joining the track team on the pretext of impressing Sean, Andrea is surprised to find she loves to run, although the potential solace it offers is cut short when a bad fall results in her breaking her leg. Gonzalez’s use of running as both a literal and figurative metaphor to bracket Andrea’s stop-and-go journey as she confronts the reality of her mother’s illness and navigates her own healing, is brilliant. In an subtle way, the book offers a great model for teens of a way to alleviate stress by embracing the euphoric high that physical activity offers as an alternative to less positive ways of coping.
There is much to admire about Running for My Life, including the sensitive way Gonzalez presents the relationships between Andrea and her father— who remains supportive of his wife while being fully present for his daughter—and down-to-earth Margie, the kind of friend any parent would wish for their kid.
Within this support system, Andrea learns that life goes on, sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but it does go forward. As Andrea slowly defeats one demon after another, she learns that with each victory come consequences that affect not only herself but also everyone around her, giving her struggle an urgency that propels the reader forward.
In some of the book’s best passages, we experience along with Andrea—in real-time—her terror, as she navigates the physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Burying my face in the crook of my arm, on top of my knee, I feel squeezed into a tight dark spot. I don’t ever want to lift my head.
“She’s going to kill me,” I talk to the blackness.
“Is that what she said?”
Maybe they’re wrong about my leg. Maybe it’s okay, and if I take off this stupid boot, I’ll be able to walk, and run and run and run, without any problem.
“Andrea? Where are you?” Lifting my head I see Samantha’s face, my mother’s face, the face of a monster.
Considering the truthfulness of the subject matter, it could have easily fallen into the dark and depressing. Yet, Gonzalez, writing in the first person point of view, completely eludes a sense of hopelessness, while still grasping a young girl’s reality head on, and bringing the often untouchable subject matter of mental illness out in the open.
Weaving a story around a serious and important trauma takes courage. Gonzalez manages to make Andrea’s story speak to situations many teens are undoubtedly facing, and presents it in a way that is not only illuminating but entertaining—not something that is always easy to do when tackling tough topics. The arguments and information in Running for My Life are what make the book important, but it’s the story that will keep you reading.
Meet the Watsons: A Visit with Author-Illustrator Richard Jesse Watson
by Stephanie Lile
There are UFOs in Richard Jesse Watson’s studio. For most, Unidentified Flying Objects are the highest of high-tech wonders sported across the universe by aliens of unusual smarts. But in Watson’s world, they are three-dimensional collages made from old pot lids, light fixtures, cast-off utensils, beads, balls, and bulbs. Hovering above and resting upon a drawing-table landing pad, the literal flying objects are a mere taste of Watson’s creative energy and questing mind—both of which he’s passed on to his children and grand children. His children, Jesse, Ben, and Faith, are all artists and writers as well.
With the winter snow flurries having subsided enough to make the trek from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Washington—where the Watson’s have lived for 16 years—we settled into tapestry-draped chairs near a crackling fire. Watson and his illustrator son Jesse took some time to chat as Susi, Richard’s wife and business partner, and their twin granddaughters made snow people out of construction paper and cotton balls at the dining room table. Above the twins, Santa’s turbo-powered white sleigh paused on the kitchen counter. Christened The Polaris*, the sleigh is a model fashioned by Watson from mailing tubes, a lamp shade, an auto filter, and a cheese container as inspiration for his beautifully illustrated book, The Night Before Christmas. On the kitchen wall hung a painting of the sleigh in action, the original version of what I’d only ever seen fantastically reproduced on a book page.
Writing and illustration is in Watson’s blood, in the very air he breathes. “It’s total emersion for me,” he explains. “Each project is this lovely little world I live in.” And sometimes his real and make-believe worlds merge.
In fact, two furry models, Sniffy and Chewy, from his picture book The Magic Rabbit, became part of the family and are living in a cozy hutch out back. Even the model for one of Watson’s most noted book covers, Nancy Willard’s The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake was sitting in a chair next to me. “Jesse was the model for that painting, back in his younger, blonder phase,” Watson says with a smile.
The painting Watson is referring to hangs at the base of the stairway and is literally a glorious roarious rendition of an angel boy in a streaming patchwork coat peering into a light-filled oven. The model, Jesse, has traded bleach blond spikes for ropey dreads and has grown into a noted illustrator in his own right. His latest book, Chess Rumble, a verse novel written by Greg Neri, is hot among tweens. Jesse’s other credits include some thirteen book covers, most of which are for Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver’s Hank Zipzer series.
So where does all this creative energy come from? “My mother was a great storyteller,” says Watson. “Dad was a physicist, a scientist, so there were always interesting gadgets around.” Watson’s dad encouraged his curiosity; his mom “encouraged my drawing.” What she didn’t anticipate was Watson’s early vision of drying sheets as beckoning canvases and the spinning wheel of a sewing machine as a prime venue for the creation of psychedelic “squirt-n-spin” paintings, the likes of which were immensely popular on the California boardwalks of the 1960s. Watson also grew up playing with desert critters near the China Lake petroglyphs in California. “I loved the horny toads, little lizards that bleed out of their eyes, and the land tortoises.” Watson learned at a young age that all the world—and beyond—is an inspiration.
And what line of inspiration are father and son following now? “Greg and I are presenting at the Hip Hop Chess Federation conference in February,” says Jesse. “Then we’re headed to New York and Chicago.” For Jesse, it’s all about getting guys to read, and as a teacher, to really “get kids thinking.” Chess, and art, and language can do that.
As for Watson, he’s recently signed on with Zondervan to illustrate a version of The Lord’s Prayer. Somewhat hesitant to be pigeon-holed as a religious artist, Watson will nevertheless find himself in good company as the book is part of the publisher’s Master Illustrator series that features other well-known children’s book illustrators such as Barry Moser and Gennady Spirin.
When asked about their dream projects, father and son both smirk. Watson presses his fingertips together and seems to gaze into his wire-rimmed spectacles as if they were his personal reflecting pool. “The perfect book speaks to people of many ages. I’d like to write and illustrate one that allows me to explore some of the childhood fantasies and ideas I’ve played with over the last 57 years.” On a more practical level, he adds that it’s all about trying “to find your unique voice and pay the bills.”
Jesse nods in agreement, then leans forward, elbows on knees as if he can’t stand not to share his secret. “I have it. I’m working on it now. But I can’t tell you what it is.” His eyes dance with all the things he loves—surfing, soccer, chess, hip hop, to name just a few. “Let’s just say it’s an international story about not needing language to get along in the world.”
Being open to unexpected avenues for sharing their work, both father and son are in discussions with the Washington State History Museum about the exhibition of Chess Rumble art and an illustration feature in COLUMBIAKids, the museum’s new online magazine for children. Ultimately, however, both are in “it” for the love of art and personal growth. “I would love to do a book and never have a regret—not a pen stroke out of place,” says Jesse. “I guess that dream is a good sign that I’m still pursuing growth.”
This time Watson nods, proud of this thing he shares with his eldest son. “Art reflects something of the mysteries of the universe,” he says. “I once dreamed that I opened a mailbox, and instead of finding mail, I discovered it was filled with all sorts of little sculptures.”
Playfulness and sincerity merge in Watson’s life and work. With dinosaurs now stalking the UFOs in his studio and an imagination that crosses dimensions and media, Watson is in constant pursuit of a deeper vision. “My goal as an artist is to get beyond the words— to stir people’s longing for oneness with the universe.”
And if takes building a space ship to lead the way, Watson’s our man.
* The Polaris is a State-of-the-Art Flying Object—with technical details delivered straight from St. Nick himself. You can read the full interview in the back matter of The Night Before Christmas, but here’s a key excerpt:
ST. NICK: Ah, yes. The Polaris is composed of high- and low-tech materials, such as foam titanium and comet dust. This baby is tricked out with electron injection and a little old gamma ray booster I picked up at JPL Surplus in Pasadena. By tucking in the wishes and hopes of children everywhere, the sleigh is able to expand the moment between “tick” and “tock” on Christmas Eve. Oh, it’s also equipped with pontoons in case of water landing.
The Wednesday Wars
by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, New York
Review by Sharon Mentyka
It can be difficult for writers to know sometimes when they set out to create a story, whether they’re writing a middle grade novel (ages 8-12), or a book for young adults (12 and up). The author or their editor may question where a particular story belongs since many of the themes and situations are similar for the two age groups.
A rule of thumb used to be to go by the age of the main character: if the protagonist was under twelve, it was middle grade; over twelve meant young adult.
But in recent years, a spate of Newbery winners—awards bestowed annually by the American Library Association to authors of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for middle grade children—have challenged this formula, offering main characters who are thirteen or even a bit older. Many publishers launched a new crossover category for ages ten to fourteen with books that bridge the gap between middle grade and young adult, and have even designated novels with older themes as “ages 15 and up.” So while the age of the main character can provide a rough guide in determining the audience, perhaps the type of conflict the book’s characters encounter and their level of their growth are better measuring sticks.
Middle grade novels tend to be characterized by the same kind of conflict their young readers are experiencing. These readers are beginning to learn who they are and what they think and traditional middle grade books mirror those personal experiences. With themes ranging from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, the characters in these novels are learning how they operate within their own world. They are solidifying their own identity, experiencing the physical and psychological changes of puberty, taking on new responsibilities—all within the boundaries of their family, friends and neighborhood.
Characters are, of course, also a key element to young adult novels, but these books often have more complicated plots than those for middle grade. Protagonists experience an internal change, but it may be triggered by external events and often fits into a bigger picture. Characters begin to step outside themselves and see how they influence, and are influenced by, the larger world. They go beyond their backyard and encounter adult problems for the first time.
One of the 2007 Newbery honor winning books, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, came with high expectations of tapping this crossover market because of Schmidt’s 2005 book, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.
With its theme of a friendship that transcends racism, Lizzie Bright was named both a Newbery honor and a Michael J. Printz honor book, an award established in 1999 to recognize excellence in literature written for young adults. Lizzie Bright is not an easy book to read. In addition to the complex descriptive prose, the historical events of the destruction of Malaga Island in 1912 are presented unvarnished. Racism is prevalent and scrutinized in all its undisguised shame. The inhabitants of Malaga Island are labeled thieves and worse just because of the color of their skin. And although the plot is simultaneously challenging and engrossing, for many characters in the story—including Lizzie and Turner’s minister father—things do not end well. With a boy and a girl sharing the main character roles, the book was sure to interest the vast majority of ten to fourteen year olds.
But was there something else that ensured its appeal to both middle grade and the young adult markets? And could The Wednesday Wars do the same?
To be sure, the books share themes of friendship, coming of age, and baseball,
but The Wednesday Wars exhibits a sense of humor that was downplayed in Lizzie Bright. In its review School Library Journal called the book “[An] entertaining and nuanced novel…. There are laugh-out-loud moments that leaven the many poignant ones.”
Yet on a deeper level, in both books, Schmidt speaks to that part of what it is that makes a child move from childhood to adulthood—that moment when a child becomes their own person and is empowered to say, ‘No. This is my decision. I’m the one to make this call.’ In Lizzie Bright and again, now in The Wednesday Wars, Schmidt successfully plants us deep inside a confused thirteen-year old’s head and writes a story for middle graders within the larger context of turbulent times. In so doing, he ensures his readers’ transition to young adults on his own terms.
The story in The Wednesday Wars is set in the suburbs of New York City, on Long Island in September of 1967. The book’s inciting problem is spelled out—literally—on page two: “If your last name ended in ‘berg’ or ‘zog’ or ‘stein,’ you lived on the north side. If your last name ended in ‘elli’ or ‘ini’ or ‘o,’ you lived on the south side.” And so Schmidt bestows the unlikely name of Holling Hoodhood on his antihero, which means that on Wednesday afternoons, when his Jewish and Catholic classmates are at synagogue and catechism, Holling is alone with his seventh-grade English teacher, Mrs. Baker, whom he is convinced “hates his guts.” After much verbal sparring, Mrs. Baker settles on having Holling read Shakespeare’s plays, which effect subtle, yet profound changes in his world.
I will admit that some of my reaction to The Wednesday Wars undoubtedly results from the fact that during the 1967-68 school year I too was living in a similar anonymous New York City suburb, just slightly younger than Holling Hoodhood. I too had an older sister in the midst of declaring her personal and political independence, a distant mother, and an overbearing, clueless father. So the book rang true for me.
But beyond my personal circumstances, 1967 in America that began in innocence with the Summer of Love and followed the first televised war—night after night after night of television news reports showing shooting and bombing on the other side of the world, accompanied by body bags of American kids, not much older than we were. For many young teens, this was a school year of unprecedented change.
In the ten chapters of The Wednesday Wars—each one named for the successive months that constitute that infamous year, and with the book’s title itself alluding to a ‘war’ far greater than the one being waged between Holling and Mrs. Baker—Gary Schmidt impeccably portrays those times. When 1968 finally ended, with the double murders of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, we had all grown up in ways we could not fully comprehend at the time.
The Vietnam we see in this book affects everyone in the story, even if only tangentially, although Schmidt comes perilously close to stereotype with Mai Thi, a Vietnamese girl brought over by the Catholic Relief Agency. Since this isn’t Mai Thi’s story, we can only see brief instances where she suffers abuse because of her ethnicity, and her plot line and happy ending seems a bit forced.
But the setting of this book cannot be isolated without considering how it functions as a backdrop for the individual journeys each of the characters takes, and how Holling’s teacher, Mrs. Baker, helps him learn to go beyond what people want you to become. In small but significant ways, many of the characters go through inner struggles during this book and end up in a better place.
Throughout The Wednesday Wars, Shakespeare works as an ideal transition between the different adventures and events going on in Holling’s life. Would a middle grade reader who’s never heard of Macbeth or The Tempest understand many of Holling’s musings in the book? Perhaps not, but Shakespeare is a brilliant choice because his works may be interpreted on multiple levels and Schmidt (and his publisher) are smart enough to know that the connections don’t require an intimate knowledge of the original material. To his credit, Schmidt highlights the plot twists most likely to grab young readers. As Holling says: “It is surprising how much good stuff there was. A storm, attempted murders, witches, wizards, invisible spirits, revolutions, characters drinking until they’re dead drunk, an angry monster….I figured she hadn’t read it herself, otherwise she would never let me at it.”
Schmidt makes the integration of Shakespeare and historical middle grade fiction a seamless alliance by not pushing it. It would have been easy to assign each month in this book one of Shakespeare’s plays and then wrap the storyline around the already existing dramas. Instead, he inserts the plays where they complement rather than direct the action. He doesn’t go for obvious choices either, such as ending with The Tempest. Instead he practically begins with it. And when he does end, he chooses Much Ado About Nothing. Might this be Schmidt’s way of having the last word on Holling’s (and his readers’) internal adolescent struggles?
There is also a healthy dose of redemption in this book, where abused frightened teachers come back as conquering school board members, ready to take down enormous scary rats. Again, Schmidt shows us this change in subtle ways. It isn’t until the point that Holling rallies to support his sister that Schmidt tells us her name, perhaps meant to suggest that the two are moving into a new relationship, where they see each other in a new ways. Doug Swietick’s brother, on the other hand, never gets a name because from Holling’s point of view, all he will ever be is Doug’s brother. Holling doesn’t know him beyond that.
Not everyone is redeemed. Holling’s father remains as stiff and intransigent as ever by the story’s close. His indifference to both his son and his daughter is chilling and you can see how he may easily lose everyone he loves through the force of his inflexibility. In many ways he represents the whole idea of suburbia where everything is planned from conception to grave. Nothing bold or unusual can be allowed to happen. There’s only one moment in the story, following the assassinations, where there’s a glimmer that he understands something fundamental about the world has changed.
If there are weaknesses in the book, they may be how Schmidt brings events together in ways that one might say work for the convenience of the author. Mrs. Baker, for example just happens to turn out to be a silver Olympic medalist in track at the point when Holling doubts he can hold his own competing with the eighth grade boys. The ceiling just happens to fall at the very moment when the new principal, Mrs. Sidman, is sitting directly underneath. But we are willing to accept these coincidental convergences because they are the not the real story Schmidt wants to tell us.
Today’s ten to fourteen-year old readers need all the help they can get to immunize themselves to the conflicts of the greater world. Some may even find Holling’s 1967 world far less disturbing than the one they live in now, with parents who molest and murder, and playground bullies who pull knives and guns instead of merely punches. I am guessing Schmidt was fully aware of this disparity and did not take his responsibility lightly. A lesser writer might have been satisfied to offer us only Holling’s hijinks. But Schmidt shows us his growth—slowly—as Holling moves from a self-centered thirteen-year old whose sister screams at him to “get some guts” to a young adult exchanging roles with his ineffectual father, becoming the surrogate parent to his older sister, while “thinking of Bobby Kennedy, who could have made all the difference.” In the end, he suffers the disillusionment of adulthood as well, when he says:
“That’s the way it is in the real world. It’s not always smiles. Sometimes the real world is like Hamlet. A little scared. Unsure. A little angry. Wishing you could fix something you can’t fix. Hoping that maybe something would fix itself, but thinking that hoping that way is stupid.”
I would have loved The Wednesday Wars when I was twelve, or fourteen, or fifteen. It would not have been an obvious choice with its boy protagonist and pranks with escaped rodents, baseball, and fears of being labeled a girly-boy, but I would have loved it nonetheless. But more importantly, it would have given me hope at a time when both my personal and the wider world seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
It is not all that different today. Some may find themselves torn over the multiple happy endings in this book. But kids need resources to bolster their immunity against the scary future they face. Mrs. Baker gives Holling a piece of advice in the book that should be treasured and remembered: “Learn everything you can—everything. And then use all that you have learned to be a wise and good man.” Kids today, reading this book, can take heart in Holling’s struggle and growth, while just happening to get a laugh along
Many would say Schmidt took on a challenge that was unachievable: writing a comic novel set against a backdrop of Vietnam and political strife. Is it even appropriate to write about topics like these? And more to the point, does it work?
I believe it does because the emotions and voice come honestly. In spite of its complex, interwoven themes of war and youth revolution, the book is a gentle, hopeful, moving story that allows Schmidt’s lighter, even sillier side, to come through. In the breath and spirit of what it undertakes, The Wednesday Wars offers writers a valuable lesson—tackle those big topics if they matter to you. Write that story others say should not or cannot be written. If your story speaks to you, know that there are kids out there yearning for the hope and validation that perhaps only your story can provide.
And never forget—funny is what gets kids reading. When you ask why a reader would choose one title over another, nine out of ten young readers will go for the book that will make them laugh and think. And when they’re done, if they wind up asking for a copy of The Tempest or Much Ado About Nothing, all the better.
CLICK: One Novel, Ten Authors
By Almond, Colfer, Doyle, Ellis, Hornby, Lanagan, Maguire, Ozeki, Park and Wynne-Jones
Scholastic, New York
Review by Christine Myers
Did you ever play the story game? Mom makes up the first line, something like “It was a dark and stormy night.” Your brother develops the plot, maybe introduces another character, and so the tale goes until you, the budding writer, finish with a flourish.
That’s the idea behind Click: One Novel, Ten Authors. Except Click’s storytellers are not bored siblings on a long road trip, but ten best-selling young adult writers around the English-speaking world, whose collaboration benefits Amnesty International. Each of the authors contributes a single chapter, tossing out possibilities and slapping down plot twists before handing off to the next challenger. While nearly a novel-in-stories, Click manages to maintain its integrity in the form of a traditional novel that reflects the multi-ethnic world in which modern children live.
In the book’s opening chapter, Newbery-winner Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard) sets up history, mystery and misery with the death of Gee, a famous international photographer. Gee’s bequest to his two teenaged American grandchildren, Maggie and Jason, offer the possibility of action on any of Earth’s seven continents:
A box with a rainbow inside. Rainbows, light — light and dark always so important to Gee, to his work.
She picked up the card again.
Throw them all back.
Another part of the puzzle.
Back? Back must mean, back where they came from. The ocean. She could almost hear Gee’s voice saying “Guess which ocean?”
The next nine authors take up her challenge with settings ranging from post-World War II Japan to a futuristic Australian seaside town whose beach houses have been half-buried by global warming. Children of all colors and abilities, both magical and realistic, populate Click’s world. David Almond’s (Skellig) chapter introduces folktale qualities with Annie, an outcast with a fin on her back. Deborah Ellis (Breadwinner series) casually offers a cot in the cell of a Russian prison’s youngest inmate. Fellow Canadian Tim Wynne-Jones (Some of the Kinder Planets) focuses on thirteen-year-old internal landscape:
She had gone from being invisible at school to certified freak. Sometimes you burned up on reentry.… there wasn’t a girl trapped in the glass any longer. Just a jagged piece of empty blue sky.
Booker prize-winner Roddy Doyle (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) spins a Dublin sports yarn out of a single photograph of Muhammad Ali. With Great Britain already used, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) twists the plot in an impressive windup and spins Maggie’s story off to France like a Frisbee.
Click appeals to writers as well as readers. The writer wonders about the life of the book: were there rules? Did the authors take turns revising? Was that issue solved by instinct or by conference call? To a writing student, Click reads like a style survey of top young adult authors, each of whom applies a different skill set to the challenges of the novel. Though separately inclined to pathos, slapstick or mystery, the authors share a sense of pacing and plot. Individual technique strengths in this project are evident: Eoin Colfer’s (Artemis Fowl) eye for humorous detail places Jason in an Irish pizza parlor as a surly leprechaun. Ruth Ozeki’s (My Year of Meats) social conscience leads off her chapter with the statement, “when my older brother came home from the war, he had no legs.” Australian Margo Lanagan’s (Black Juice) magical futurism dispatches any possible return to normalcy. The book teaches creative solutions to plot and backstory, artful handling of flashbacks and flash forwards, even how to sneak a subliminal omniscient point of view into third-person narrative.
Protagonist Maggie has three point of view chapters; the other characters get only one a piece. Most of the contributors stick with a third-person point of view, although changing the narrator each chapter accommodates first-person and omniscient deviations. Each of the rotating narrators reveals a few more nuggets of truth, explains part of the mystery and adds new complexities to the big picture:
“What about you?” Gee asked Lev. “Is there something special you want?”
Lev looked at the man, who could go on journeys and not pay a price for them, who could walk out of the prison and not be yanked back in. There must be something this man could do for him that no one else could do.
And then he knew what it was, and his mouth spoke the words the instant they reached his brain. “I want you to find my mother.”
By chapter ten, Maggie is nearing the end of the long, wonder-filled life set in motion by her grandfather’s gift. It is up to Gregory Maguire (Wicked), who drew the job of wrapping up remaining loose ends, to fit together the puzzle of characters and events that populate the previous nine chapters. He gently delivers Maggie and the reader to a destination unimaginable at the book’s beginning, with a richer understanding of human interconnection through image and story.
Overall, Click is a fun, engrossing afternoon’s read for a good cause—a testament to the limitless imagination of ten masters of their craft.
Review by Stephanie Lile
There is a land somewhere far away from each of us where the language is unknown, the symbols unidentifiable, and the social structures unseen. And yet we must go there. For reasons that lurk larger than life, that threaten our very existence, we must go. We must travel to another place, and make our way in unfamiliar territory. Still, memories linger and merge with new experiences. Do we despair at the differences, or do we celebrate survival? Whether going to a new place or learning a new thing, we are all in some small way, at risk of becoming “The Arrival.”
Shaun Tan, in his extraordinary work The Arrival, explores what it is like to arrive in a new place not knowing the language or the geography or the people. His is a story of a man who must leave his wife and daughter to go find work in another country. Using pictures and gestures, the man finds a room to rent, a job to work, and food to eat. All is strange and confusing, but he learns to survive and make friends. Through it all, a lone family picture and an origami crane symbolize memory and hope for a happier future. Tan does all this without placing a single word on the page.
In The Arrival, pictures tell the entire story. But these are not just any pictures. They are both universal and exclusive to every reader. Rendered with an unparalleled imagination and emotion, Tan’s story in pictures touches the soul of anyone who has ever felt out place anywhere. It reveals the complexity of the immigration story with detail and insight pulled from actual stories and references of migrants to Western Australia, Britain, and the United States. From the frustration and discrimination of being tagged as an immigrant, to the joys of being befriended by an unexpected pet, to the compassion expressed through the sharing of arrival stories, Tan gives us a personal glimpse of what it takes to survive in a new place. Faces of sixty immigrants line the endpapers like a high school annual-each black and white pencil drawing alluding to another life story, another story of arrival.
This moving work, published in the United States by Arthur A. Levine Books, begs the question: “why no Caldecott for this one?” This year, in 2008, the Caldecott Medal for illustration went to Brian Selznick’s clever and intriguing book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. While Hugo is without question a compelling work of art and story, highly deserving of its honor, The Arrival stops any Caldecott follower in his or her tracks. Like Hugo, its pictures speak as loud (actually louder) than the words, and the images are rendered with a similar technique and style. But the catch of the coveted Caldecott is that it “shall be awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year. The award shall go to the artist, who must be a citizen or resident of the United States, whether or not he be the author of the text.” The Arrival fails these criteria on two counts. Shaun Tan is not American and the book was not originally published in America. It was first published in Australia by Lothian Books in 2006.
A testament to Levine’s eye for signing international books with groundbreaking impact, The Arrival is stunningly produced. Harkening back to turn-of-the-century, leather-bound photo albums, even the pages possess a gritty texture and faux crackled edges to suggest the original documents that provided much of its inspiration.
Production for Hugo was groundbreaking, too. Echoing the old wide-angle to tight shot movie imagery, the book’s hefty 530 page count stunned booksellers and buyers. But its message, innovation in production and early film inspiration, moved readers beyond those hurdles as quickly as a 30-second film trailer makes a person want to sit through a three-and-a-half-hour movie. Unraveling the mystery of a broken automatron and a young, orphaned Hugo Cabret, this story weaves a magical tale of life’s desires and disappointments as seen through the eyes of Hugo. After the death of his father and uncle, he secretly takes over the maintenance of the clocks in Paris’s grand train station. The story evolves from what he sees and hears while secreted away inside the station’s walls.
In comparing these two books, one significant difference is the speed at which you find yourself reading. I found myself wanting to read Hugofilm-flicker fast and The Arrival sightseer slow. Yet interestingly, while these two books vary noticeably in dimension, production, and pace, their messages are largely the same. Theirs is a message of invention – and reinvention-of our selves. And yet the bigger question both stories pose is, “how will you do it – how will you get there?”
If we follow Tan’s and Selznick’s lead, we invent and reinvent ourselves by unlocking the stories captured in life’s pictures. Their works make it seem deceptively simple.
By Sherman Alexie
Little, Brown and Company, New York
Review by Sharon Mentyka
“I was born with water on the brain.” So begins Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. An award-winning author, poet, and filmmaker, Sherman Alexie’s previous works of fiction include Reservation Blues and the short story collections Ten Little Indians andThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This is Alexie’s first book for young adults and the 2007 National Book Award winner in that category.
The semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, an aspiring cartoonist from the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Arnold was born with water on the brain and has endured a childhood of poverty and teasing from his peers. “My brain damage left me near-sighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other…I get headaches because my eyes are like enemies, you know? Like, they used to be married to each other, but now they hate each other’s guts.”
So when it comes time for high school Arnold refuses to accept that he’s destined to spend his entire life on the “rez.” He makes the huge decision to leave and attend school in all-white Reardan High, even falling for “movie-star pretty” Penelope and trying out for the varsity basketball team.
The book’s chapters are short, the cast of characters quirky and the snappy sentence style might fool you into thinking this book could be a quick read. But be forewarned. There’s a lot hidden here under the surface. Alcoholism threads through the entire book and there’s real brutality in some of the characters’ interactions. Arnold himself is irreverent and unflinchingly honest about his own predicament. His move off the rez has effectively and spiritually alienated him from his “tribe” and turned him into an apple—red on the outside, white on the inside.
Young readers will love the drawings sprinkled throughout the book by cartoonist Ellen Forney that bring an intimate feel to the telling of Arnold’s tale, as if you’re paging through someone’s notebook doodles. Arnold, the budding cartoonist says, “I draw because words are too unpredictable….when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it. So I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me.”
One drawing shows Arnold arriving for his first day of school at Reardan High, split right down the middle—the white side of him has the bright future, the Indian side the vanishing past. The white side has Tommy Hilfiger khakis and the Indian side has a Glad garbage book bag and canvas tennis shoes purchased in aisle seven of the Safeway Supermarket. Another documents Arnold’s cache of possible responses to his most expected question, “Are You Poor?”
Forney teaches cartooning at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts and is a long-time friend of Alexie. I asked her whether she and the author ever had any second thoughts about portraying Indians in a way that could be considered stereotypical.
“Sherman’s feeling was that this was his reality,” Forney said. “On his reservation, in his family, alcoholism was epidemic. Stereotype implies that it’s not real and it’s absolutely real. My cartoons might temper that reality a bit, but the edge is definitely there.”
At one point Gordy, the white genius of Reardan High gives Arnold a book to read. Here’s an excerpt of Arnold’s musings.
“Gordy gave me this book by a Russian dude named Tolstoy, who wrote, happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Well, I hate to argue with the Russian genius but Tolstoy didn’t know Indians, and he didn’t know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reason: the frickin’ booze.”
But Arnold’s humor, creativity, and refusal to give up hope in the face of overwhelming odds wins out and by the end of the book, if you’ve given it the time it deserves, you are entirely inside Arnold’s oversized head delving into every possible aspect of his adolescent wanderings. I’m betting when you turn the last page, you’ll find it hard to shake him out of YOUR head — this engaging and sympathetic boy, looking to see if maybe, just maybe, he can belong to more than one tribe.
Review by Ann Gonzales
Before I Die, by Jenny Downham is so book. That’s book, as in cool or excellent — one of the best British slang words to come from teenagers texting each other. (When attempting to type the word “cool” on a cell phone keypad, the first word you’ll write is “book,” and that’s how it entered the British vernacular.) With every page of Before I Die, I felt envy and admiration for the clarity of Tessa’s voice and the beauty of the prose. Reading it as a writer, it’s a book I wish I’d written, and I hope, someday, to write one as good… you know, before I die.
The story shape of Before I Die is relatively simple – a sixteen-year-old girl, Tessa, is dying of acute leukemia, and she has a list of things she wants to do before she passes away. The list itself is compelling; it contains many firsts such as having sex, doing drugs, becoming famous, and saying yes to everything. As Tessa completes items on the list, she adds more as a way of putting off the inevitable. The list is her lifeline.
At the heart, this is a story about not wanting to die because of all the experiences one wants to have in life. The reason this basic story is riveting and not simply depressing is because Downham allows us to understand, through Tessa, what it’s like to experience deep and undeniable grief without ourselves having to bear it. We are given the rare and profound opportunity to share in Tessa’s heightened states of awareness, anger, desire and sensitivity. We get to experience the jarring turns from happy to sad to angry, which transform Tessa from one second to the next, and we get to become intimately aware of the significance and importance of this life we are living. We get to awaken to the gift of time.
Tessa’s friend Zoey, also a teenage girl, becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Tessa wants to live to see Zoey’s baby born, but all the doctors and medical tests suggest she won’t make it. Tessa narrates, “Zoey’s over three months pregnant. A baby needs nine months to grow. It’ll be born in May, same as me. I like May. You get two bank holiday weekends. You get cherry blossom. Bluebells. Lawnmowers. The drowsy smell of new-cut grass. It’s one hundred and fifty-four days until May.”
Tessa fights for another one hundred and fifty-four days. Most of the literature about people dying gives the impression that everyone achieves a profound state of acceptance in their final weeks, days or hours. This hasn’t been my experience. On the contrary, when I’ve attended to the terminally ill, they’ve all had an unrelenting desire to deny death, right up until their last breath. They are fierce about living, just as Tessa is. That’s another reason I love this book: it never turns Tessa into a wise young patient willing to accept her death like an enlightened sage, like Jesus or the Buddha. Tessa is completely human, she doesn’t want to die, and she fights for every breath, every experience, every blessed minute. Downham has my gratitude for writing a book for those of us who don’t want to die, and don’t want to feel inadequate if we aren’t sage and tranquil about the inevitability of our own demise.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
By Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press, 2007
By Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007
by Mary Hershey
Razorbill/Penguin Young Readers Group (Ages 10 and up)
Review By Sharon MentykaBooksellers tell us that girls will read books in which the protagonist is a boy but it doesn’t work the other way around. With the Harry Potter series laid to bed, a common complaint among parents of pre-teen boys is the dearth of books that interest their sons. (Would-be children’s writers might take note.)
An exception might be Mary Hershey’s newest novel, The One Where the Kid Nearly Jumps to His Death and Lands in California. The book has an unwieldy title, a complicated plot with too many subplots, creepy characters, difficult father-son relationships, rough language… hey, wait a minute… this is starting to sound pretty appealing to a pre-teen boy!
The story centers on thirteen-year-old Alastair, who calls himself ‘Stump,’ and who is shipped out to spend the summer with his estranged father in California. When Alastair was eight, he lost one of his legs after a too-soon jump from a ski lift. Guess who was supposed to be supervising him at the time? Now Stump is ready to confront his father for ruining his life. Except he didn’t count on a host of new discoveries he makes, not least of which is the unrelenting optimism of Skyla, his father’s new wife who also happens to be a double amputee.
Hershey has woven macabre humor and irreverence into Alastair’s life that I suspect young readers will find satisfyingly normal. Stump is the first one out of the gate to crack jokes about his own disability, such as when he takes off his leg at school, puts it in his locker, then ties a rag with fake blood around it.
The jump in the title is both literal and metaphoric, as the best jumps should be. Both Stump and his father are on the brink of looking at each other in new ways. Hershey lets us see their journey with wicked humor and underlying affection. But the real star of this story is Stump and his voice. It is worth noting that the author is a former juvenile probation officer who says she has had ‘the great privilege of working with some very funny, smart, and resilient kids.’ In her wonderful depiction of Stump, it shows.
by Dean A. Anderson
Volume 1 – Full Metal Trench Coat
Volume 2 – Guarding the Tablets of Stone Review By Stefanie Freele
“I don’t suppose you have a friend who is a warthog. You probably don’t have a friend who is a professional detective, either. So it’s very unlikely that you have a friend who’s both. But I do.”
Dean A. Anderson is an emerging author who also is fond of the terms ‘up and coming’ or ‘has potential.’ He attended San Diego State University,
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and worked as a youth pastor. He is now a hotel night auditor. The “Bill” books (“Full Metal Trench Coat” and “Guarding the Tablets of Stone” with three more awaiting publication) came about when a church he was serving in treated him to a writer’s conference. He needed to turn in something to be evaluated, so he wrote a collection of bedtime stories he had told his kids about a warthog detective. And at that very conference, an editor expressed interest in publishing his book. When he tried to contact that editor a few weeks later, he found she had lost her job. But, he kept sending Bill off, and a few years later, he found a home.
Writing for Children and Young Adults
An interview with Kirby Larson
WS: You’ve just launched your first novel, Hattie Big Sky. On your webpage, you say you didn’t know it was a YA until your critique group pointed it out. The subject of a young woman’s struggle against nature and cultural expectations could have been pitched to any age. So—is it your heart, your head, or your voice that is, apparently, naturally attuned to the younger audience?
KL: My passion is writing for children and young adults so it never crossed my mind to make Hattie any age other than 16. Interestingly enough, I’m getting many, many emails from adults who are reading HATTIE BIG SKY. Several bookstores are featuring it in both the YA (young adult) and adult sections.
WS: Hattie has already received two starred reviews, one from Booklist and one from School Library Journal. Did you sense it was that good when you were writing?
KL: HA! When I’m writing, especially the first draft, I can’t believe how wretched the writing is! So, no, I wasn’t thinking about the story’s goodness as I was writing it. I did connect with Hattie, however, and loved looking at her situation through her self-effacing, stubborn and caring heart and eyes.
WS: Previously, you’ve published well-received books for younger readers. Was writing the novel a substantially different process? If so, how?
KL: Hattie is book number six. My one picture book is THE MAGIC KERCHIEF. People always think picture book texts are so easy to write; I say they’re so easy, it only took me ten years to write one! The four other books I’ve had published are chapter books, which are geared for emerging and newly confident readers, about 1st-3rd grade. The novel was a much messier and scarier process as there was so much more story to get my hands around and hold onto. But, the primary elements are the same no matter which category a book falls into: you need an engaging character and a problem for that character to face, tackle and, perhaps, resolve.
WS: You’ve said you were inspired to write for children when a particular picture book touched you. Do you have any different perspective about that statement now that you are an author?
KL: No; I can still remember that magic moment. The book was MING LO MOVES THE MOUNTAIN by the amazing Arnold Lobel, also known for his charming Frog and Toad books. I still want to write books that touch others the way his book touched me. And what an honor for me when the people I touch are children!
WS: Do you feel pressure to touch your readers?
KL: No, I only feel the pressure to tell a good story; to honor the telling of the story at hand.
WS: Do you feel a different responsibility than you might if your intended audience was older?
KL: While I think children deserve our very best, I don’t think about my audience as I write. I think about telling a story “true,” telling it to the best of my ability, in a way that could only be told by this cast of characters in this particular set of circumstances.
WS: Some people complain that books for children are getting too dark and edgy. How do you respond to that?
KL: I think a lot of stuff—books, TV, music, movies—for children and for adults, is getting too dark and edgy! But that’s me. I will confess to being disappointed in or uncomfortable with books that seem to include dark and edgy elements for the shock factor. But I can’t think of many books darker than M.T. Anderson’s FEED, and it is a stunningly brilliant satire of our consumption-oriented culture that still has me thinking, a year or more after reading it. Again, for me, it comes back to a story being told “true.”
WS: You’re participating in the National Novel Writing Month. Have you moved on from picture books or is this a “phase”?
KL: I wonder if you would ask that question of a poet who was doing NaNoWriMo, or a short story writer. It’s not about moving on—I hope I can live up to the rigors of publishing another picture book (I have several manuscripts out at editors; it’s not that I’m not trying!). There are so many stories I want to tell and some of them will be in the form of picture books, some chapter books, some middle grade novels and some young adult novels. Since I plan to write until I’m 99, that gives me about 40 more years of having a grand time.
WS: If you could go back and give advice to the Kirby writing Second-Grade Pig Pals, what would it be?
KL: She wouldn’t listen to me, even if I could tell her something! But I would tell every writer the same thing I remind myself daily—writers write. Some days, they write badly, some days brilliantly. But the brilliance can’t come without the bad. So sit in that chair and get to work!