Alice doesn’t live here anymore

I’m currently reading Lewis Carroll’s, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for an online MOOC. That stands for Massive Online Open Course. It’s an interesting concept, to offer online course for free, in real-time, with instructor interaction. I’m taking the course for two reasons.

The first is that the topic is fairy tales and science fiction. Okay, that’s already a draw for me, given the type of MG books I write. The second reason is that I’m very interested in how a MOOC works. I am a university professor, after all.

Putting that tidbit aside, the theme of this post is how Middle Grade books, books aimed at younger readers, have changed over the years. We speak of classics, and Lewis Carroll’s two books about Alice certainly fit the title of classic children’s literature. But would kids, today, read them if they had a choice?

This reminds me of how my daughter, when she was younger, devoured books by the handful. One series of books she enjoyed was L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. She read them one after the other, enjoying them for their imagination. Then again, as an adult she devours science fiction.

Her reading tastes were quite diverse and, unlike many if her peers, she was willing to try out classics as well as new titles. Can we say the same for those we currently write for?

I’ll admit, as kid, I wasn’t much of a reader. It wasn’t until high school, when I discovered science fiction, that my reading habits, and frequency, changed dramatically. So, I missed reading most of the classic middle grade books, including those by Carroll and Baum.

Today, reading Alice for the first time, I’m captured by the shear brilliance of Carroll’s imagination, and can see how a child in his era might fall in love with the writing. Alice seems, at times, oblivious to the true meaning of the odd happenings she experiences. The plot is both silly and, in its world, believable at the same time.

But the reality being sliced and diced, by Carroll, is not our reality. Alice is a girl of her time, and acts accordingly. She is no genius, no clever solver of puzzles. Neither is she a trickster, someone who’s meant to shake things up. And she is not, most definitely, a rebel.

Alice is unlike most kids, today, yet I feel she can still speak to today’s children. Yes, it may take a bit of work for our young readers to get into the character of Alice, but hopefully not too much work. And this makes me ask whether or not a story such as Carroll wrote would be found saleable by today’s agents and editors. Even the director Timm Burton was forced to turn Alice into an older action hero to make her appeal to today’s audience.

Just the fact that I have doubts regarding the appeal of these wonderful books to our current crop of young readers brings me sadness. Are the books that have been written, are being written, so disposable? Have we created a readership that always wants something new in deference to classic, well etablished titles?

I have no answers to these questions, merely fears. I am afraid of the answers I may find.

Nuff said!

Poetry, and novels in verse

Some time back, I wrote a blog entry where I touched on my feelings about verse novels. And boy did I get flack for my thoughts. So, in order to make my opinions clearer, I’ll take one more stab at the topic.

First, let’s start with a few definitions, thanks to Wikipedia.

  • Poetry is a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.

  • Prose is a form of language which applies ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic structure (as in traditional poetry).

  • A verse is formally a single metrical line in a poetic composition. However, verse has come to represent any division or grouping of words in a poetic composition, with groupings traditionally having been referred to as stanzas. Moreover, verse has also been a traditional application in drama, which is therefore known as dramatic poetry, verse drama, or dramatic verse.
    The word “verse” is commonly, though incorrectly, used in lieu of “poetry” to distinguish it from prose. Where the common unit of verse is based on meter or rhyme, the common unit of prose is purely grammatical, such as a sentence or paragraph. Prose poems and free verse, though poetry, are not verse, because they exhibit no regular patterns of rhythm.

  • A verse novel is a type of narrative poetry in which a novel-length narrative is told through the medium of poetry rather than prose. Either simple or complex stanzaic verse-forms may be used, but there will usually be a large cast, multiple voices, dialogue, narration, description, and action in a novelistic manner.

The key point of the above is that although verse is not a synonym for poetry, it does rely on meter or rhyme. There must be a valid reason for arranging text into lines and stanzas. If there is no sound rationale for doing so, then the text should be arranged into paragraphs.

In my previous posting, I included a brief portion from a recent MG verse novel, and showed (I hoped) that arranging the text as prose worked just as well as the original verse. Here’s another example to drive my point home (again, I hope).

As summer wheat came ripe,
so did I,
born at home, on the kitchen floor.
Ma crouched,
barefoot, bare bottomed
over the swept boards,
because that’s where Daddy said it’d be best.

I came too fast for the doctor,
bawling as soon as Daddy wiped his hand around
inside my mouth.
To hear Ma tell it,
I hollered myself red the day I was born.
Red’s the color I’ve stayed ever since.

I picked this quote, from Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, to show an example of good verse writing. The first line, “As summer wheat came ripe”, is composed of three iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot used in various types of poetry, consisting of a short sound followed by a long sound. For example, sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter. That is, each line is constructed from five (penta) iambs.

Here’s the same line with short syllables in italics, and long syllables in bold face.

As summer wheat came ripe

One immediately hears a cadence, a rhythm, which reflects the musicality of the text. Also, listen to the ‘t’ in “wheat”, and the ‘p’ in “ripe”, sharp, crisp sounds that convey a certain bite to the line’s end.

The next line consists of two more iambs, with the first short sound omitted, or rather what is termed a cretic (long-short-long).

so did I

Iambic verse is quite close to the way we speak, which is why Shakespeare often wrote in iambic pentameter.

Next, let’s look at the use of the ‘b’ sound, over and over, in the first stanza. This is called alliteration, the repetition of a particular sound in the prominent lifts (or stressed syllables) of a series of words or phrases. As we move into the second stanza, this shifts to a greater use of the ‘d’ sound, ending with the word “red”, twice, which concludes the second stanza with a strong, clean sound. See how the author echoes “red the” with “Red’s the”.

This is poetic writing at it’s best. You are drawn to continue reading not simply because of a good story. Rather, the music, the meter, the rhythm of the text is heard, and appreciated, long before the meaning of the text becomes apparent.

This implies that those who write novels in verse have two goals. The first is to tell a good tale. But the second is what distinguishes it from prose. Writing a verse novel demands attention to the poetic elements of language.

This is not easily accomplished, and merely breaking text into lines and stanzas does not yield a verse novel. Often, it simply results in prose that is arranged differently on the page.

Nuff said!

Everything old is new again!

Perhaps what I’m about to say will show my age (and no, I’m not telling), but there are two well-established science fiction authors I believe every middle grade reader should delve into at some point. They are Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946).

Ooh, I can already hear the moans and growns in the audience. “But they’re so, like, old! Who would want to read them. I mean there’s lots of really good new authors.”

Yes, they are old, so old they’re dead (sorry). And yes, again, there are plenty of new authors out there who write as well. But please, allow me the chance to continue before the virtual tomatoes rain down on my digital head.

I believe part of the reason many people see these writers as … dated … or more appropriately, out-dated, is the collection of film and TV adaptions we have been pummeled with over the years. Take, for example, H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds”(1898). Immediately, you either have images of Gene Barry (who?) running valiantly away from thrumming ships on three legs, with creatures that have three eyes, or you see Tom Cruise doing pretty much the same thing. BTW, John Wyndham’s novel, “The Day of the Triffids” (1951), covers much the same ground.

But have you ever read WotW? No? Well if you do, you’ll see just how different it is from these “action” movies. The original novel spends far more time focussing on the hero, unnamed, than on the invaders and their machines. It’s truly more about how people might react given such extraordinary circumstances.

Another great Wells read is “The Time Machine” (1895). Fortunately, an early movie adaptation stayed fairly close to the text. If you’re a fan of steampunk, as well as science fiction, I highly recommend TTM. You might also like diving into “The Invisible Man” (1897).

If we step a bit further back in time, we find Jules Verne whipping up sweet fictional delights. One of my favorites is “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1864, revised 1867). In this novel, we follow the exploits of Professor Lidenbrock and his crew as they retrace the steps of Arne Saknussemm who, according to an ancient piece of text, found a path to the center of the earth. Okay, go ahead and laugh. We all know, today, that the center of the earth is a core of molten metal. But this does not take away from the beauty of Verne’s writing.

Another Verne book I can recommend is “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea” (1869-70). Here we follow the exploits of, who else, Captain Nemo, as he takes vengeance against civilization. He also makes great scientific discoveries along the way.

The true thrill of reading Verne is that he was able to imagine technologies, that we see as common place, so very, very long ago. Unlike some early science fiction pulp novels, about space travel and weird aliens (think space opera), Verne and Wells create stories that though they might seem outlandish, today, still have a ring of truth about them. Good writing does last.

Now, here’s the really great part about author’s such as these. Their work is so old, it’s in the public domain. That means that you can download ebook versions typically for free. You can find them at bookseller websites such as amazon.com, as well as another site I recommend you take a good look at: Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/).

So download an ebook version to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, Android, or whatever. Or, better yet, step into your favorite local public library, and check out a few. I know you’ll thank me.

Nuff said!

Call for submissions: Massive Middle Grade Anthology

Greetings and well met!

Currently, I’m seeking submissions of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, for what I’m calling the Massive Middle Grade Anthology. Details can be found on our website (http://www.aniprof.com/MMGAP/).

I urge you to submit, as well as spread the word far and wide. All profits will go to RIF (Reading Is Fundamental).

Nuff said!

Gee, and I thought blogs were for …

As you may or may not know, I write poetry, stories and books for kids up through middle grade. So, I decided to see if there were any other WordPress blogs I might wish to follow. I entered the search term, “middle grade,” and found …

Ads! Lots of posts that were essentially PR for the blogger’s books, or reviews of specific books. What I did not find, however, was any sort of posts that focussed on the art of writing for kids.

Yes, I know, we all use the Internet (notice the capital ‘I’) for getting the word out about our efforts, but is that all there is? Have we become nothing more than mere snake oil salesmen, hawking our wares from the back of a website? I would hope not.

Therefore, if you’re still reading this, I need to ask a favor. Can you please let me know of any blogs out there that are extremely light on both self-publicity and book reviews, and heavy on the art of being a writer. This inquiring mind needs to know!

Nuff said!

A Plea for More MG Science Fiction

There are two areas of Middle Grade writing that I often discuss in these blogs. The first is poetry, and why there is not a lot of true poetry for MG readers. I’ll try and cover that again in a future entry.

The second is one I feel is more pressing, as it impacts on the future interests, and possibly career choices, of our children. That is, the presence of good Science Fiction for MG readers.

Of course, there will be many of you who will start listing fantastic SciFi tomes, attempting to refute my argument before I’ve even begun. So, allow me to agree, that there are a fair number of excellent MG SciFi books in the marketplace. Charlotte’s Library (http://charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com/), and other blogs, do a fair job of listing new titles. Hopefully this will satisfy the “wait a minute” crowd.

But consider, who reads these SciFi volumes. Boys? Girls? I would suggest that the majority of MG SciFi readers are male. Oops! I can hear the “wait a minute” troops marching back. “My daughter reads nothing but science fiction!” I hear them scream. Yes, this may be true. In fact, my own daughter, now in her thirties, has always read two genres: science fiction and mysteries. No sparkly vampires for her!

But it stills seems, at least to me, that there is a gender divide with respect to what boys and girls read. BTW, for me, males and females do not become men and women until they’re at least eighteen years old. Until then, they’re boys and girls.

Getting back to the discussion, I see boys as being drawn to more fact based plots, ones that have the look and feel of contraptions. Girls, I would suggest, are more drawn to plots where the focus is on how people interact with one another. For MG readers, that might, perhaps, include some light romance (very light).

But let’s stop right here and examine the flaws in assumptions you may be making, based on what you’ve read so far. For example, that all science fiction plots are just full of nuts and bolts stuff. Oh how wrong you’d be to think that way. Many, many of the greatest SciFi books ever written have very little to do with things like science or technology. Instead, they focused on people, sentient creatures from various planets, and how they interact. Shouldn’t this attract girls?

And let’s put aside the false premise that all books with a romantic bent have wimpy plots. If a book, any book, has a wimpy plot, no one would read. No editor would ever say yes to purchasing it. Good writing is good writing, pure and simple.

No, the true fault I see is not in the books themselves, or the readers, but in those who publish MG, and also YA, books. There *seems* to be a notion that girls want do not like SciFi because it’s too, well, techy. That girls wanted softer material, and genres such as fantasy or the supernatural are perfect for their tastes. Don’t believe me? Just take a walk through your favorite brick and mortar chain bookstore and you’ll see what I mean; all those glossy dust jackets, usually in YA, with girls in slightly suggestive poses. And sparkly vampires! BTW, how come only vampires get to sparkle?

I just took a peek at the New York Times best-selling list for Children’s Middle Grade. The only book on the list that falls under the label “speculative fiction” is A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz and Jacob W. Grimm (Penguin Group), a collection where Hansel and Gretel end up in other Grimm tales. That’s not even science fiction!

So, if you are beginning to sort of, kind of, agree with me, then how do we go about getting MG readers of all genders to get interested in true science fiction (as opposed to pseudo-science fiction, which is actually more fantasy or supernatural than anything else)? We need to write more of it (of course) and work hard at getting agents and editors to attach themselves to it.

This last part also means convincing them that there *is* a market for the stuff. This, I’m sure you all realize, is the hard crux of the matter. No matter how “daring” an agent or an editor is, they still must deal with what they believe the market will bear. I suggest that for many, this vision is a weak one, and that MG readers will gladly buy and read lots of science fiction IF it’s well written.

Finally, allow me to get back to an earlier theme concerning how reading more MG SciFi can affect or kids’ futures. It is a fact that as kids get older, girls seem to shy away from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics). Yes, there is a fair number of girls who do pursue careers in STEM fields, but the majority of adults in STEM areas are male.

I believe this is the outcome of a self-prophesizing myth that girls do not do well in STEM and boys do. I also propose that this myth is part of the rationale behind not targeting girls as likely SciFi readers. If we want *all* of our children to be successful, in a wide variety of career paths, then we, as writers, should foster reading of all genres by all genders.

Okay, it’s time to hear from the “wait a minute” folks.

Nuff said!

Looking for good MG verse

As of late, as you may or may not have noticed in my recent posts, I have been on a crusade to increase the amount of poetry that gets into the hands of middle grade readers. Lo and behold, a colleague of mine brought to my attention a list on amazon.com, of MG novels written in verse. Huzzah, I thought, perhaps this is the way to meet this goal.

However, at my monthly children’s writers shoptalk, I got to see first hand one of the books on the list: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose. I eagerly began to read the book, and then my heart fell. Yes, the book was written in verse, free verse, in that sentences were broken across multiple lines. And yes, the text was further arranged as stanzas. But as far as I could tell, this was not true verse, true poetry. It seemed to have the form of verse, but none of its substance.

Later, after the meeting, I found myself chatting with another group member who, like myself, writes and publishes poetry. As we talked, I conveying my disappointment with the book. My friend then thanked me, profusely, saying she had felt the same way. I went on further to say that given the low word count, the book was more akin to a long short story, or perhaps a novelette.

Before I continue, allow me to make it clear that I only read the first so many pages in the book, and that this post is not about the merits of the volume as a story. In fact, online reviews have praised it as a wonderful story. Yet, I wonder. How much of that praise was due to the verse-like form of the text? Hard to say for sure. So let’s leave that discussion for others to pursue.

Returning to the form of May B., I found the text lacking in the music of verse. This is not to say that a poem needs to be sing-songy. Not at all. But it does need to develop a flow, a rhythm all its own. This is true whether we’re speaking of structured or free verse.

Take, for example, Chapter 1.

I won’t go.

“It’s for the best,” Ma says,
yanking to braid my hair,
trying to make something of what’s left.

Ma and Pa want me to leave
and live with strangers.

I won’t go.

Now, let’s rearrange that same text in paragraph form.

I won’t go.

“It’s for the best,” Ma says, yanking to braid my hair, trying to make something of what’s left. Ma and Pa want me to leave and live with strangers.

I won’t go.

The first thing you notice is that it reads quite well in either form. That is, there’s nothing in the rhythm of the text that lends itself to being arranged as verse. However, if we had tried to rearrange, say, a Shakespearean sonnet, we would still hear the same lilting music in verse or paragraph form.

So, I’ll keep looking for good examples of poetry, or verse novels, for MG readers. Hope springs eternal!

Nuff said!

Previous Older Entries