Play Mad Dumb

It's not about the quality of the humor.

It's about the o-deee intention to play all the way to the o-zeee.

Ayo, so keep it mad dumb punchy with extra corn sauce. Facts. When you're young, there's no boundary between love, humor, flirtation, and physical pain. Just lift off, grab your gumption, and keep your elbows swinging. In every school hallway... love is a battlefield.


So, so tragic...

Our Species Needs Diverse Stories


diversityinya.tumblr.com

That's a great community and a great blog.

I sincerely believe that our species needs stories. I think we need to confront new paths, voices, settings, emotions, identities, possibilities, and thus new types of stories which can transform and transport our hearts. We need diversity for reflection and growth. Right?

And now for TWO random music videos...


(explicit lyrics below)



Relatability? (a hard rain)

The photo above only shows a portion of the location.
I was walking by this massive community garden during a gentle drizzle.  In the distance, I heard acoustic music echoing over the neighborhood.  I loved the song.  The timing was sublime.
I saw a white ladder all covered with water.
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.
The music was Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall'.   Can you envision this setting?  Can you smell the garden and the gentle drizzle?

Where was I?

The South Bronx.  Echoing from a tenement window was Dylan.  Not rap or bachata or salsa or r&b or merengue.   Dylan.  Is that "authentic"?  Expected?

Do we expect kids in the South Bronx or Harlem to know Metallica and Hannah Montana?  Or do we presume they only understand/relate to certain kinds of music and culture?

I think about the "urban youth" I've seen with their heads stuck inside Riordan and Rowling books.  Do we assume they'd rather read books about teens "like them"? What does it even mean to be "like them"?  Are they culturally situated (or segregated) first?  And then human youth second?
Teen Skater
I heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'.
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'.
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter.
Another time I walked by that garden and then up Westchester Avenue towards the bustling Southern Boulevard.  If I look carefully, I notice so many nuances.  So many shades and shapes.  Skaters.  Tilted hats.  Retro-punk.  Retro-preppy.  Nerd-styles with tats.  I even see a redheaded young gal in 80s swag.  And new styles yet unnamed.
I met a young woman whose body was burning.
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow.
I met one man who was wounded in love.
I met another man who was wounded in hatred

Do we presume a black or latino boy in the South Bronx cannot easily relate to the lead female character in The Hunger Games?  Do we truly believe they must prefer a book about a boy of color who loves basketball?  A boy who must grow up poor and struggle to avoid the complications of street life?  That may be very real for many, but is this the best basis for crafting stories and "relatability"?

Don't we risk reproducing the stereotypes that often frustrate youth and make them feel trapped? 

Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty.
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters.
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison.
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden.
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten.
Where black is the color, where none is the number.
And I'll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it.
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'.

Isn't it better to approach multicultural literature and story-telling with an eye on universal human themes that all adolescents tend to relate to?  Or do we think these children only watch TV and movies with characters of the same skin color and cultural background?  Do we think these children only listen to one kind of music in 2012?



Southern Boulevard.  Notice the 80s style on the hip redhead on the left.

If reading is about meeting new people and visiting new places, shouldn't we unshackle the teens of today and build them bridges upon broad human themes?  Even if we dig into matters of despair and poverty with diverse characters, how do we avoid typecasting based upon museum-style, static notions of culture?   Do today's kids even think about differences in the ways we believe?
If we can't envision settings and characters that break the typecasts and stereotypes, then we're in trouble as a species that needs stories for growth and reflection.
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Diary of Seamless Kid on Fire


Irreverent but necessary mash-up of Wimpy Kid and Hunger Games

When I was a goofy teenager back in the 80s, I did a lot of creative writing and journal-style reflection.   A lot.  I was just imagining how wonderful it would be to have all of those ramblings from my old Apple IIe.  How interesting it would be to dig right into those teen emotions and memories!
That's an antique called a "stereo" next to an Apple.
Yes, my parents had to deal with me covering my room in graffiti
.

Perhaps it's best to let some of the past become... a little blurry?

Today, many kids start with Facebook in elementary school.  Even before they've begun the complex adolescent journey of identity development and values discernment, they've started carefully counting their online friends.   By the end of middle school, many of today's youth have spent countless hours online chatting and managing e-friendship politics.   

Real life and online life are seamless for them.  That part I can get.   I think.

But the part my head definitely can't wrap around is that today's young children can remain in immediate contact with this social network for their entire lives.   Imagine all of those kids who moved away during your K-12 years.  Imagine those you left behind when you moved.  Now imagine having been on Facebook/Skype with all them for your entire life.   Conversely, imagine being unable to distance yourself.  Even if you unplug, the social network reality remains.  That bully or that enemy from middle school is going to continue popping up as "somebody you might know" because you share friends and data.   That argument you had in 9th grade on Facebook will always remain.  

The day will come when elementary school friends will die and still be on Facebook.  I can't get my head around this childhood-to-graveyard, seamless social reality.

I've lost touch with many childhood buddies.  Isn't that "natural"?
I moved quite a few times as a child and went to many different schools.   From the big city to a small one.   A central part of my adolescent development was about "getting out" of that small town life… about dreaming of new horizons.   Like many people, my life involves critical breaks from the past as I explored the world and essentially developed my identity.  How many of us had at least one time in their life where they just needed to break away?  Travel.  New friends.  New world.  It's one thing to reconnect with the past.  That is exciting.  It's entirely another matter to never disconnect.

Will today's youth ever be able to venture out "on their own" like youth of yesteryear?

As a writer, I find this question to be a powerful challenge.

Imagine if you could never truly break away?  Your elementary school, middle school, high school, and college "friends" are all right there on Facebook (or whatever)… for your entire life.   And there's no escaping mom and dad during college!  Now I respect that kids learn to negotiate and manage these online dynamics, sometimes purging "friends and family," but it still seems like a profoundly different developmental reality with this new type of social networking.   It isn't just a matter of privacy.

scene from The Hunger Games
Kids today seem pressured to think of themselves in terms of publicity and public relations on a level that we never had to worry about.   Remember being 14 and feeling like you were always on stage?  Even when alone, teens often feel that sense of eyes on them.  Do today's youth ever get to let go of that feeling?  Just think of all the news stories of online bullying, suicides, etc.  For them, there seems to be no sense of breaking free of the publicity and visibility (not the same thing as fame).  What does it mean to be "independent" in that panoptical context?  This seems like a great theme for YA writers to wrestle with.

Are we surprised that "unwanted publicity" themes explode in popular stories for youth?

scene from Harry Potter
I believe this theme is one of the reasons Hunger Games resonates so deeply.  The protagonist's life is at stake in how she manages unwanted, nearly seamless publicity.  This goes way beyond our worn discussions of reality television.  

However, I also wonder about the reverse side of this thematic coin.  

What will today's youth remember?  Will their life stories be too carefully managed and edited?  If you can never completely lose touch or distance yourself from it, then will you ever fully appreciate it?

Isn't the juicy stuff where our stories snap apart?

And in the fully-alive-but-blurry moments of complete privacy...  

"Don't it always seem to go...that you don't know what you've got till it's gone...
they paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Tickling Brains, Turning Pages (books)

Stargirl
Dangerous Days
Hunger Games. The Hobbit.
Percy Jackson. Stargirl.
Harry Potter. Terabithia.
Outsiders. Daniel X.
Twilight. Catcher in the Rye.
Pretty Little Liars. Ender's Game.
The Giver.  Speak.  The Skin I'm In.

What do these titles have in common?  

Power?  Love?  Tragedy?  Recognition?  Voice?  Brains tickled?  Pages turned?

Why do middle-grade readers love Fudge, Judy Moody, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid sooooo much?

I've seen students (in the South Bronx) trying to read while walking down stairs.  While that is obviously a safety concern, I am thrilled to see that motivation!  As read-alouds or as independent reading, these stories tickle their brains.

What's not to love?

Are You There, God?
Writing for the adolescent species may seem completely daunting, but let's not kid ourselves.  Or perhaps I should say, let's kid ourselves a bit more?

Remember being a kid?  We could grin at a friend and start crafting fun out of anything.  If you call math drills "math kung fu" and pull out a timer, then you might find the kids doing math with a smile.  The Joy Factor.

Let's play.  Tickle brains.  Get dramatic.

Kids love power, right?.  All kinds of power.  Adolescents like power, too, but they also seem to like stories that are dipped in tragicomedy and end with some brand of heroic recognition.

Let's humor them!

Can I develop unique stories that are a joy to read?

Anaphora & Working Memory (reflection)



Are teens still "developing readers"?  Yes.

Rick Riordan kicked off an extremely popular series with The Lightning Thief.   Whatever critics might say, the truth remains that kids love his books.   He may not always provide the funniest jokes, but you can find him offering at least one joke on nearly every page.  Riordan spent years teaching teens.  When I read his stories, I sense an author that truly understands how to keep adolescent brains tickled and turning pages.

Let's forget questions of entertainment and just think about the concept of working memory.

Working memory is related to, but not the same as, short-term memory.  I think of working memory as the cognitive workbench where we sort, chunk, analyze, and classify information in the short-term.

Find somebody to challenge.
    1. Say the following.
    "I'm going to ask questions based on these letters & number pairs.   9-W, 3-T."
    Ask: "What are the 2 letters?"
    Ask: "What are the 2 numbers?"
    Ask: "Can you list the letters in alphabetical order?"
    Ask: "What are the original 2 pairs?"

    Did they struggle?  Depending on their ability to visualize the original pairings, they may not reach a saturation point as they "work" with the bits of information from different angles.
    2.   Step it up!
    "7-D, 4-R, 2-Y, 6-E."
    Ask: "What are the 4 letters?"
    Ask: "What are the 4 numbers?"
    Ask: "Can you repeat the letters in alphabetical?"
    Ask: "What are the original 4 pairs?"

    3.  Push them to their saturation limit and then have them challenge you!

Do you see how sorting and wrestling with even small amounts of information can become extremely taxing on our working memories?   Feel the frustration?  This is what basic reading is often like for many students.  Adolescents are still developing, cognitively.

What might this mean for writing?  

base image from theinformationarchives.com
I think we remember the stuff most directly tied to emotion and conflict, but how do we know when we've gone too far with detail?  What types of information saturate the brain the most?

Developing readers struggle to keep track of who, where, why, and whatever.  I remember Kate Garnett (Hunter College) talking about anaphora as a primary reading challenge for adolescent students.  Combine this with working memory issues, and we can easily see how average readers get lost within many stories.  They yawn and tap out.

In the most simple terms, writing that relies on lots of antecedents and contextual references can lose readers.  When I look at popular stories with middle-grade students, I don't see "dumbed down" writing.  I see writing that fully engages their hearts and minds.  Isn't that the optimal way for them to make progress as independent readers?  Do we want them to passionately read?

You know that deep, metaphoric passage we study in school?  It just made our 13 year-old reader put the book down.  He's dreaming about this girl in his class.   Now he just flipped on the television to enjoy 5th-generation MTV programming about teen girls who play video games.  Good luck getting him back to your deep inferences!  Do you want him as a reader?  I do.

When it comes to managing anaphora and working memory, here's my current approach:
    Slice my scenes up into smaller, focused, pre-chunked scenes.
    That.  Which.  I shall use them (i.e. keep the relative pronoun unless it's vernacular).
    Chunk paragraphs carefully.  Don't cross the antecedent beams in massive paragraphs with multiple subjects and glorious relative clauses set upon prepositional phrases dancing around whatever I'm trying to actually say.
    Do not rely on complex inferences in order to understand the story.   However, I believe developing readers enjoy inferences when loaded inside humor or strong emotional moments.  
    Boil down my exposition, connecting revealed information with conflict & emotion.
    • Use a comical simile rather than the lyrical metaphor that I think is so incredibly awesome.
    • Reinforce new ideas & information with context clues or repetition.  Keep it moving.
    Punch the important information with conflict, emotion, or dramatic conventions.
That's an approach, not a set of hard rules.  I hope I'm heading in the right direction!

Esperanza Rising (book)

Some stories can remind us that oral storytelling came before the written traditions.

I love this book.

Esperanza Rising makes for a perfect guided or shared reading text.  There are rich themes and ample opportunities for discussion.
A man with a small goat on his lap grinned at Esperanza, revealing no teeth.  Three barefoot children, two boys and a girl, crowded near their mother.  Their legs were chalky with dust, their clothes were in tatters, and their hair was grimy.  An old, frail beggar woman pushed by them to the back of the car, clutching a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Her hand was outstretched for Alms.
Esperanza had never been so close to so many peasants before.  When she went to school, all of her friends were like her.  When she went to town, she was escorted and hurried around any beggars.  And the peasants always kept their distance.  That was simply the way it was.  She couldn't help but wonder if they would steal her things.
"Mama," said Esperanza, stopping in the doorway. "We cannot travel in this car. It... it is not clean.  And the people do not look trustworthy."   (p.66-67)
What makes some stories so lyrical & enjoyable when properly read aloud?  

In that passage, there's mood-laced exposition with its rhythm and concrete descriptions.  No teeth. Barefoot children.  Dust.  Tatters.  Grimy.  Beggar.  Our imaginations are filled with just enough theme-rich detail to induce a reaction.  The author, Pam Munoz Ryan, then reveals some more back-story about the main character and her worldview (which is likely to also induce a reaction from readers).  Then the strong beat comes at us as Esperanza gracelessly and regrettably conveys a class judgement in front of everybody.

  1. Setting as setup (details with thematic clues, but without saturating "working memory")
  2. -->  Revelations that tug at reader emotions
  3. ---->  A powerful beat that exposes her worldview to conflict with family/friends

I've seen 5th graders completely enthralled by this book.  They fought over copies.  They sat motionless when given a chance to listen to the audiobook with the lights low.  They drifted to this distant time and truly cared about the characters.

In terms of revelation and exposition, I've put this book on my "short shelf" of model texts.

What are the other devices and structures that authors use to manage exposition and back-story without losing the "flow" of narration?  What other books weave in exposition so masterfully that it naturally reads aloud?

Why a blog? (reflection)

My students are my deepest inspiration for writing.

When I shifted from school system bureaucracy into the K-12 classroom, I created some personal narratives to model the writing process with my 6th graders.  The hook sank right into my bones.

For over three years now, the writing bug has woken me up early in the morning.

In this process, I've come to see myself as a writer-for-life.  As a professional challenge, it makes sense to share inspirations, reflections, and perhaps some reviews-of-sorts.  It's an exciting moment.

I'm currently revising a YA novel that's set in a near-future NYC.  My goal is to craft a book that youth will not be able to put down.  I want them to fight over copies.  I want them to pull out the book to read when they could (or should) be doing other things.  That's the dream.  This blog cannot be separated from this writing process - the joys, the hope, the strains, the moments of complete bafflement.

So, I just picked up Story Engineering by Larry Brooks as well as the Gotham Writers' Workshop text on fiction.  As impossible as it seems, I also hope to take a week to step back and reflect.  I'll probably dump quite a lot of posts and media during this time.  :)