The REAL way to be a bad parent

There’s a list out there of “Ten Ways to be the Worst Mother in the World” (I can’t find it, but trust me, it’s out there) but it’s a total lie, because I read it to my kids, and they said, “You do all those things and they make you a great mother.” They’re not hard, and you probably do them too—it’s things like “Teach your kids to say they’re sorry” and “Don’t always buy the newest things” and “Make them eat things they don’t like, like vegetables.” OK, this isn’t terrible parenting, this is Parenting 101.

Here’s the real list of things that make you a terrible mother. I did them all. In one weekend.

1. Take your kid to the beach without his flip-flops. Make him wear the cheap-o sandals they gave out at “Cave of the Winds” at Niagara Falls instead, because these are the only waterproof shoes he owns. (But, total point for not buying all the newest things, right??)

2. Then, when he runs and trips on concrete (because the sandals are a death trap waiting to happen—BUT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO WEAR THEM AS YOU WALK UNDER A WATER FALL) make him go in the ocean, even though the salt water makes him cry as soon as it hits his scrapes.

3. Cover your kids in sunscreen and leave them out all day in the sun. But forget that THIS sunscreen is not the same as the LAST sunscreen (with the SAME LABEL) that actually worked. They changed the ingredients. And now your kid is so sunburned, she can’t eat. Or sleep. Or do anything but cry.

4. After leaving your kids all day to play in the sun and the water, eating nothing but Doritos and chocolate, drive home without feeding them dinner (because you want to get them home for BED). When they complain they are hungry, feed them sandwiches and granola bars. When they are STILL HUNGRY, feed them leftover tortilla chips. That you salvaged from the ants.

5. When they are STILL HUNGRY when you get home, make them scrambled eggs, the first healthy food they have seen in ten hours. But for some reason, their stomachs hurt. Maybe this is because you fed them too much junk food in the car. But wasn’t it better than stopping at Taco Bell? Really?

6. Wake up for school, look at kid’s homework folder and realize—he was supposed to finish his writing assignment. Oops. You were supposed to check this before leaving for the beach on Friday. Write a note to the teacher and hope for the best.

7. Take your kid to school the next day after not enough sleep. Her stomach hurts. She still can’t do anything but cry. Maybe this is not just sunburn? Maybe you should have thought of trying Tylenol 12 hours ago, Mom.

8. On the bright side, we got to the library Friday afternoon. They each read four books this weekend. So I’m not a completely horrible mother after all. On the other hand, our detour to the library made us about three hours late getting to the beach because we got stuck in rush hour traffic, soooo . . .

9. Fight in front of the kids. Yeah, that’s always a good one.

10. On the way home from school with sick child, stop by the grocery store because you are completely out of bread, milk, and other necessities . . . like granola bars. Lord knows that child can’t go a day without granola bars.

We all do our best. That’s all I got.

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Does Timber Howligan pass the Bechdel test?

I believe in equal opportunity reading. Having both a boy and a girl, I’ve seen some differences in their preferences for certain kinds of stories…they’re gender differences, but is that a bad thing? When my daughter wants to fill her shelves with Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, I don’t make a big deal out of it. I know she equally enjoys Captain Underpants. My son will read anything, including The Princess in Black and Zita the Spacegirl, but he really enjoys Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an all boy story if there ever was one.

It’s all good…as long as they’re reading. Right?

Then, along came the Bechdel Test. According to Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) is a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Okay, so it turns out the Bechdel test is not new. It’s been around for thirty years. Named after graphic artist Alison Bechdel, the “test” originally appeared in her graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For. But I’ve heard of it a lot more lately, probably because the only comic I read when I was twelve-years old was Garfield, when I still thought a “dyke” was a large wall in Holland:

Bechdel

As a woman, and as a writer, I get it. I get why the test is important, why we should pay attention to it. The test sounds so simple, yet only about half of Hollywood’s movies pass it, and half of those because the women talk about marriage or babies (source: Wikipedia quoting writer Charles Stross, unverified). I totally agree that we want to give our daughters better models of what it means to be woman.

Then I went and wrote a story where the first female character of note doesn’t show up until half way through the book. Granted, when she does, she’s awesome. She’s a bit haughty, but that has more to do with being a cat than any inherent character flaw. But I’m sad to say that Timber Howligan absolutely flunks the Bechedel test. There are more than two female characters, and they’re all named. But they don’t talk to each other, unless you count a brief interaction between a dog owner and her slobbery companion. (This conversation, for what it’s worth, is not about a man.)

Of course there’s an opposite imbalance in children’s literature: More middle-grade books tend to be aimed at girls, more girls read than boys, especially as they enter their teenage years. There are whole websites devoted just to getting guys reading. Did this influence my decision to write a humorous middle grade action adventure that boys might like? No, I just like writing about secret agent cats. At the same time, the story wouldn’t have felt right without a few girls to balance things.

So it comes back to this: Is a good story a good story, no matter what? I say a cat who fights to save the day, surrounded by his friends—male or female—is totally someone to rally behind. Let’s not pick him apart because he’s got too many guys in his life, or because he’s not an equal opportunity hero. Especially, let’s not assume that girls only like reading “girl” stories or boys like reading “boy” stories.

I like the Bechdel test and the fact that it raises awareness to gender inequality in movies and books. But it’s not the only way, or even the most important way, to judge a book.

(The other way would be by its cover. Don’t you like this cover?)

 Front-Cover-(smaller)

With all these books, do we need one more? (Hint: We do)

Have you read every book in the library? Every one in Barnes & Nobles? Do you have any idea how many used book stores there are in the world? Even if the book industry collapsed today, we’d all still have plenty to read for the rest of our lives.

But our kids especially want the next new thing. The books we read as children, as much as we loved them, seem outdated by the time we pass them on to the next generation. Some books will always be classics (Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down), some books are instant classics (Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief), but for the vast majority of middle-grade authors, trying to get noticed by kids who spend hours a day streaming the world directly to their eyeballs is an uphill battle. Your intended audience has no buying power. Your memories of the books you loved as a child have nothing to do with what kids are reading these days—nothing. In children’s literature more than ever, the publishing industry’s editors and agents serve as valuable experts—they know what kids are reading, they know what kids want. Better yet, they know how to market it, package it, and make parents want to buy it for their kids.

Why on earth would anyone, like me, try to self-publish a middle grade novel?

I’m realistic. Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat isn’t going to be the next Harry Potter. First of all, Timber Howligan is a cat, not a wizard, so I doubt he could even get into Hogwarts. While I would love for the world to enjoy this book, my goals in writing it were simple: my eight-year old son needed something to read. He was an avid reader who had devoured the first three Harry Potter books, but wasn’t ready for the complex, dark themes in the rest of the series. He could read anything in middle-grade fiction, but had no interest in books about middle school drama. Kissing and crushes? Yuck. Bullies as villains? Not interested. He wanted something fun and funny, full of adventure.

He read my first draft, stayed up late to finish it, and laughed out loud at all the right places. He’s already planned out my next ELEVEN sequels. I’ve drafted the next book, and he’s eager for me to finish.

You cannot, when querying an agent, use your own child as a reference. But when it comes to books, I trust my son—he doesn’t read anything he doesn’t like, especially if I recommend it, much less if I write it.

Having my son believe in me was reason enough to put this book out there—and reason to do it right. I’ve got the final copy edits, and will be working on incorporating those over the next month. I’ve commissioned an extra interior image because I was so happy with the first ten. I’m working with the artist on the final cover design, and I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. Self-publishing is a lot of work, but it’s an adventure, and I’m enjoying it.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, Timber Howligan likes to help animals in need, and so do I. I’ll be using the book to raise money for the American Humane Association (not, as I linked erroneously in a previous post, to be confused with the Humane Society of the United States) or a similar agency. I’m going to do some more research and due diligence over the next month and report back—is the Humane Association the best charity to help animals? They have an A- from CharityWatch, but like any large organization, there’s overhead—not all funds go to their programs. Donating to a local shelter is always most effective, but that lacks wide appeal, assuming this book sells beyond my local region. Stay tuned!

The Literary Festival–How to do it right

As a parent, school fundraisers aren’t usually something to look forward to. But every year, I can’t wait for our school’s Literary Festival. We held it last weekend at The Regulator bookstore, and it was a huge success.

It’s not just because I’m a writer, although that helps. It’s not just because this is the one time each year I allow myself to spend however much I want on books—it’s for a good cause! And it supports a local business, too! Even my kids love the Literary Festival.

What does it take to make a successful Literary Festival?

School-wide excitement and participation. Boy, does our school do it right.

Weeks before, there was a school-wide vote to select this year’s “theme”. Each class voted, and the winner was “Enter the Kingdom of Reading, Where Books Rule!”

Then there was a drawing contest–everyone could enter, as many times as they liked. The winners were selected to be on posters advertising the festival. Winners for each grade were also announced. All of the drawings were on display at the bookstore during the festival!

My daughter's drawing of a "Knight book."

My daughter’s drawing of a “Knight book.”

The week before, book-related trivia questions were given to each class (grade-appropriate), for example…
1.    In the novel “Wonder” by R. J. Palacio, fifth-grader August Pullman has a hard time adjusting to his new school. What is unusual about August?
a.    He has severe facial deformities
b.    He is hard of hearing
c.    He has only been home-schooled before
d.    All of the above

(Answer: D.)

The Festival itself

The Festival took place Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Thursday and Friday classes walked to the bookstore. There they browsed books, made “wish lists” (for parents to buy for home or the classroom), and listened to “Mystery Readers.”

"Wool E. Bull", the Durham Bulls Mascot, acting out "Ferdinand the Bull"

“Wool E. Bull”, the Durham Bulls Mascot, acting out “Ferdinand the Bull”

Friday was “Dress as your favorite literary character” day. Last year my kids went as two characters from my book—a mom’s biggest dream. Unfortunately, they wanted to be something else for Halloween. But how could I refuse?

"Timber Howligan" and "Lester McMuffin"

“Timber Howligan” and “Lester McMuffin”

Friday night was “Bedtime Stories” and “Scary Stories”—the main event. Parents bring kids in PJs. Snacks are served. Kids listen to stories while parents shop! My new favorite read-aloud was “The Dark” by Lemony Snicket (it’s wonderful). We also went home with “The Book with No Pictures” by B.J. Novak. (If your child, like mine, is resisting transitioning from picture books to chapter books, this is the book for you.)

My seven-year old daughter reads this out loud three times a day. In her mind, this is the book of the year, hands down.

What’s better than reading a book?

This year was special. My son’s class WROTE a book. They’ve been studying the Great Depression, so during the last week of the first quarter, they planned, outlined, and wrote “I Survived the Dust Bowl” (in the spirit of the very popular “I Survived” series by Lauren Tarshis). Each kid wrote one chapter. I helped edit and publish it over their three-week break.  At the Literary Festival, they had a “Meet the Author’s” table, where they signed and sold copies.

Cover

My daughter saw this and immediately started writing “I Survived the Dog Stampede.”
It turns out, there’s nothing like writing a book to encourage the love of reading.
We’ve got armfuls of new books to read. The school raised a few thousand dollars for their library. Success all around! This may well be more intensive than having Scholastic come in and hold a book fair (for more on that, check out kateywrites’ great post), and it does require the  cooperation of a local book store (We ❤ The Regulator). But a Literary Festival is another way to raise funds for your school, have fun, and cultivate a love of reading at the same time.

Is YA just for girls?

Are Young Adult books just for girls? Should they be?

Well, no.

But how do you explain this:

“Imagine your local independent bookstore’s shelves. They teem with pouting girls and hunky boys and various shades of purple. Few self-respecting teen boys would venture there to find their next great read…So you are taking quite the gamble if you target your YA to a boy audience or use a boy-centric male protagonist.” – Mary Kole, “Writing Irresistible KidLit”

And this, a snapshot of the latest YA titles from GoodReads:

Image

The landscape is remarkably similar to what Mary predicts. And her advice has never steered me wrong before. You can tell at a glance that most of these books are heavy on the romance and angst, spanning genres from high fantasy (The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen: “One war. Too many deadly battles. Can a king save his kingdom, when his own survival seems unlikely?”), Science Fiction (Cress by Marissa Meyer: “Rapunzel’s tower is a satellite. She can’t let down her hair—or her guard.”), the infamous dystopian novel, (Landry Park by Bethany Hagen: “Downton Abbey meets The Selection in this dystopian tale of love and betrayal.”), and Romantic Comedy (Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg: “For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are.”) Fourteen of 15 are clearly aimed at the female audience (we’ll come back to the exception, Grasshopper Jungle, at the end).

Young adult, as an audience, existed long before the broody “teen romance” market blossomed. Somewhere between The Outsiders—a 1967 novel about rival gangs, and Twilight—a 2005 novel about vampires who sparkle, publishers apparently got the idea that teenage boys didn’t go to bookstores.

But boys do read (although apparently not as much as girls), and they even read books with female protagonists. GoodReads’ list of “YA for Boys” has The Hunger Games series in its Top Ten. Other YA books I expect boys would like: Scott Westerfield’s similarly dystopian Uglies, Pretties, and Specials series (there’s a classic YA love triangle, but the sci-fi element is superb, and the action is gripping). When I was a teenager, I discovered science fiction, so most of my recommendations fall in that direction. Ask any male science fiction fan over 40 in your life about their favorite Robert Heinlein book, and most will sigh happily at the buxom babe on Friday—a book I loved for apparently entirely different reasons than my husband. In fact, I suspect that when we lose boys from YA, we gain some of them in Sci-Fi–a genre that tends to have more male readers. (I have absolutely no data to back this up, just a strooooong hunch.)

The teenage years are a time of finding your place in the world, and good YA usually reflects this by placing compelling external conflicts against a soul-searching internal conflict. In YA, the internal conflicts are always larger than life—a good YA author can make you feel 16 again, when every slight was the end of the world, every crush was your first love, every failed friendship was the downfall of a dynasty–it was all so breath-taking and terrifying because every experience was new. When you are 16, these books make you feel like you’re not alone. Some of the best books I’ve read lately (Veronica Roth’s Divergence, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle) place these conflicts against literally end-of-the-world scenarios, hence the appeal of the Dystopian genre.

Another reason we’re so drawn to books where things go so badly is that fiction is a kind of disaster-preparedness simulation: It helps us navigate potentially scary situations by modeling various horrible outcomes from the safety of our couch. Especially emotional outcomes—cowardice, fear, longing, sexual insecurity, love, rejection, betrayal. Boys need this sanctuary as much as girls, if not more. Our society is more forgiving of girls who show emotion. Boys are told from the time they feel the first rush of cold air in the delivery room to “Man up!”

So while it may be a bad “business” decision as a writer, I reject the premise that YA is just for girls, and that KidLit authors should target their YA that way. (I do, however, recommend Mary Kole’s book–she knows the market, she knows writing, and she is chock-full of excellent advice. She would probably advise me not to use cliches like “chock-full.”)

So if they’re not reading about brooding vampires, self-reliant heroines, and voluptuous fae, what are boys reading? And how do we write for them? Take a lesson from Andrew Smith. Grasshopper Jungle is a YA sci-fi/dystopian/weird tale—and the less you know of before you read it, the more you will be delighted when you do. It is about a 16-year old Polish boy who accidentally unleashes a plague of giant praying mantises on his dying rural town. He is in love with his girlfriend, Shannon, and his best friend, Robby. He is horny and confused. Never have I read anything that more perfectly overlays the outer end of the world with the inner.

How did Andrew Smith do it? In the Acknowledgements, he shares his secret: He gave up writing. This book is not written for girls or boys. He wrote this book for no one but himself.

Not only do boys read, they write, too.

More reading:

What were your favorite books when you were a teenager? What do you recommend for teenage boys today?

Rediscovering A Wonderful Book for Young Readers…and Writers

ENMTitle: Emily of New Moon (first of three in the Emily series)
Author: L.M. Montgomery
First Published: 1923
Opening Line: The house in the hollow was “a mile from anywhere”—so Maywood people said.

Plot Summary:

Emily Byrd Starr is orphaned at the age of 11 when her father dies of tuberculosis (“consumption”). Her mother’s people will take her in, of course—the Murray pride demands it—but none of them want her. Lots are drawn, and Emily ends up at New Moon farm with strict Aunt Elizabeth, loving Aunt Laura, and kind Cousin Jimmy.

Emily is miserable at first. Though school is difficult for her—she accidentally writes poetry when ought to be doing sums, and the teacher, like many adults in her life, finds her maturity frustratingly willful—Emily soon makes friends. Her best is the wild and free Ilse Burnsley, whose father barely notices her (Ilse’s mother disappeared mysteriously under no small amount of scandal, and Dr. Burnsely holds all women responsible).

Emily’s hopes, dreams, and disappointments are all keenly and vividly described as she pours her heart out to the page—in long letters to her father, on scraps of paper, on her chalk board at school. At first, writing is her refuge. As she grows to love New Moon—and it becomes clear her heart is generous and full of love, no matter how she may clash with Aunt Elizabeth—she writes not out of need but out of passion. Because she simply must. Even though, as expected, Aunt Elizabeth forbids it.

Despite Aunt Elizabeth’s rule, Emily thrives. She finds allies and friends, even among her Murray relatives. She develops close friendships with not one but three potential love interests, who all are captivated by her slow smile and long lashes. By the end of the book—which takes us not only on a delightful literary journey of adolescent growth, but solves a suspenseful mystery along the way—we are eagerly looking forward to the sequel in order to see who this captivating young girl will become. (And who will she marry?)

Why I STILL Love This Book

This book has so much to offer young readers—especially the young girls who will most be drawn to it. It is marketed as a “YA novel for ages 11 and up.”

By today’s standards, it is quaint. Probably old-fashioned—at New Moon they refuse to use lamps, and still use the giant cauldron from the old country to boil the pigs’ potatoes. But I found it absolutely magical, even thirty years later. So much fades with time–this grew brighter.

It is a book that celebrates the imagination and the written word. The innocence and joy and power of youth—for much of the book, four children entertain themselves by writing, sketching, orating, or putting on a Shakespeare play in Lofty John’s bush. And there is no doubt about it, Emily is destined to be a woman of power. She is surrounded by strong female role models: her mother who defied her family to marry Douglas Starr, Aunt Elizabeth who works so hard to ensure Emily grows up to never do such a thing, and Aunt Laura who co-exists, in her own way with her own peaceful rebellions, side by side with Elizabeth.

And for writers? Revel in this book. Fall in love with the written word the way Emily does. Share in her amazement each time she has “the flash” of inexpressible delight—whether it be from:

the dark boughs against that far-off sky…with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of ‘Holy, holy, holy’ in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a ‘description’ of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

And above all, write. Fill notebooks until your hands cramp. Hide them from prying eyes. Burn them rather than let them fall into the wrong hands. If you run out of paper, write on the backs of envelopes and magazines. Fight for it the way Emily does:

“Oh, I must write, Aunt Elizabeth…You see, it is this way. It is in me. I can’t help it.” …If Aunt Elizabeth had asked her to give up crocheting lace or making molasses taffy or eating Aunt Laura’s delicious drop cookies, Emily would have done so wholly and cheerfully, though she loved these things. But to give up writing stories—why Aunt Elizabeth might as well have asked her to give up breathing.

I didn’t realize until I re-read this book: Emily of New Moon was the first book on writing I ever owned.

Related links:

“The will to finish and a good contract”

A Message From Writer Beware Co-Founder and Chair, Ann Crispin
(Thanks to The Passive Voice for the article)

This is the second time this year I am learning about an acclaimed author through their blog posts, just as they near the end of their life. The first was Scottish science fiction author Iain M. Banks, who died in June from gall bladder cancer. Too late, I discovered his masterful writing, sharp wit, and “Culture” novels. I’m sad that he has left us. I’m partially consoled by millions of his words I have ahead of me to read.

Now, another prolific science fiction writer is leaving us, and yet again, I’m sad. Sad for her friends, family, and loved ones who will mourn her personally. Sad for the community of readers and writers who came to love her through her words.

Ann Crispin leaves another legacy, as co-founder of website “Writer Beware“–an invaluable resource for writers lucky enough to navigate the rocky waters of publishing, agents, and contracts.

“I wish all aspiring writers the will to finish and a good contract.”

As I search for a publishing home for my book (news may be forthcoming…stay tuned), the advice on Writer Beware becomes even more timely. I refuse to count embryonic chickens, but an inch-pebble (not quite a milestone, yet) has been achieved.

One almost-within-reach goal becomes a bittersweet reminder of life’s frailties and perils. Publishing a book is just that–a book. It doesn’t necessarily make you rich or famous. It doesn’t make you immune to bad contracts, pain, or death. (Words may be immortal. People rarely are.)

It doesn’t even make you a writer. Only writing does that. Yesterday, I finished the first draft of my second book. That’s something to be proud of.

A yard-boulder, at least.