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)



Meeting Authors/Signings, March 2013

Books of Wonder's fantastic MEGA-SUPER-MONSTER YA NO FOOLING FESTIVAL featured something like 45 authors.  Is there any other store in the USA that's this supportive of YA?  <3

I wish I had met them all.  It's exciting to meet authors and to get books personalized.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne

If you've read my post re: Neil Gaiman in Feb, then you'll understand the chuckle I had returning to the same place to get this book signed by David Levithan:

Every Day by David Levithan


Books: The Human Connection

At a recent dinner party, I heard a compelling argument in the Ebook vs RealBook debates:  real books can connect humans (on subways).  People actually start conversations with strangers regarding books.  Covers add a layer of human play and interest to the fray of urban life.  And yesterday, this truth showed itself during my hours at Books of Wonder.

Neil Gaiman reading & book signing! 

Illustrator/Author duo of Chu's Day
The lines began.  The most considerate way to have used my waiting time?  Figuring out precisely what to say in 15 seconds about being inspired as teacher/writer, capped with a profound witticism.

Yes, I didn't do that.

Instead, I bought a copy of every day by David Levithan.

I read 35 pages as I shuffled in line.  The novel caused four spontaneous discussions with strangers.  Four.  Not only did this say volumes about this particular book/author, it reminded me (a Nook user) of the power of books to connect people.  And of the gravity of authors within an expanding universe.

A compelling YA novel (that stirs conversations with strangers)
Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman has very passionate fans.  The store was packed.  One older gent dressed up as Destiny from Sandman.  A toddler was dressed up as Chu (from Chu's Day).  Most fans had their picture taken with Neil (with several fan in tears of joy).  I suspect the lines continued late into the evening.  Neil himself seems a particularly down-to-earth guy, which made the spectacle rather warming for such a cold, rainy day in NYC.

Me?  My back & legs cramped, but I was enjoying my new book.  

The woman in front of me handed Neil and Adam Rex bottles of fine juice, which lifted spirits.  Then as I approached, the owner of Books of Wonder, Peter Glassman, initiated a conversation about the non-Neil book I was carrying: "That's a great book!"   So, I'm 10% blaming him for having nothing of import to offer Neil Gaiman when I stepped up.  I had no fine juice.  No personalized witticisms.

Only heavy admiration...

Sometimes words just suck.

As I watched him scribble "believe" in my book, I chuckled.  Someday I will buy him a fine beer, I promised myself.  Yes.  Authors matter.  Dead-tree-book-devices matter.

Whether they sleep inside dead trees, digital data, or our frayed neurons - stories, like the gods, need our warm blood & breath to live.  I think what matters most is whether they guide us to improve ourselves.  To be more human.

(this is not a YA text)
My rambling reflection is passive, cliche, & indulgent - yet embodied.  Sometimes words just suck...  :-)

2013: new year, new stories (YA & Scifi)



Lists and lists of upcoming books.  Check out The Atlantic's Winter 2013 YA list.  See the Goodreads Lists of 2013, including a scifi/fantasy list and YA novels.  There's also TeenReads coming soon list and the TeenLitRocks Upcoming Books list.

Anyways, I'm particularly curious about the Marie Lu series, along with these other YA/Scifi novels.

Prodigy by Marie Lu

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Control by Lydia Kang

SIDEBAR:

Fantasy book about a girl = call it YA/Fantasy?
Fantasy book about a boy = call it SciFi?

Maybe it's just me?  :-)

Now for some random dance/music (Les Twins)


In fairness, those b-gals dish up quite a performance in the full video!

Brooklyn Book Festival & Young Humans


The Brooklyn Book Festival is a 1 day event filled with 5 days of content.  Endless tents and happenings scattered around downtown Brooklyn.  From the BK Law School to the magnificent St. Ann's, you had to hustle for seats at the 180 panel discussions available throughout the day.  

These four books are going onto my Nook!

R.J. Palacio's Wonder.



Andrew Zolli's Resilience.



Isabel Wilkerson's Warmth of Other Suns.



And Karen Thompson Walker's Age of Miracles.



Does the YA genre provide a unique dynamic in terms of moral reflection?

This came up during a session.

Youth seem to internalize a society's moral yardsticks and then hold it directly against reality.  For me, the matter becomes whether YA authors are writing to the raw dreams/frustrations of young audiences - or whether we're only writing from the tempered sentiments of adult reflection.  Are we writing about youth or for youth?  YA is a genre.  It's also a market.  However, I never want to forget that it's primarily an audience that thirsts for stories.  Stories that resonate.  And maybe YA is primarily about stories that go straight to the raw roots of our conflicts, our dreams, and our human fears?

Perhaps we should rename Young Adult?  Let's call it Young Human.

Now for something completely random.


Back Story: Put a Finger in the Dessert


I've enjoyed reading Steven King's On Writing.  I am fond of the way he captures the notion of stories being undiscovered relics.  Writers develop the habits to spot stories while also developing a toolbox to chisel them out.  I love this quote.
"Probably J.K. Rowling is the current champ when it comes to back story."   Page 225.
Back story.  I'm wrestling with different approaches to the pacing of back story revelation.  There is a peculiar pleasure in stimulating questions, but this seems to be a major "genre distinction" for Young Adult books.  YA often involves first person narration with snark and double-edged affect, right?  Most of the extremely popular YA books hand over heaps of back story up front, right?  There are unique elements to the market and genre.

I'm not sure of all the distinctions, but it's different.

I think adult readers are lenient and patient across most genres.  If adult readers see indicators of quality writing in the early stages of a book, then a small appetizer becomes a delight.  Adult readers enjoy the mouthwatering steps.  They want to savor each moment, each course, and to appreciate the pauses.  Right?

Younger readers want to dip a finger straight into the dessert.  First.

Can you blame them?  Do you remember being 15?

This story involves a zombie apocalypse?  Fine.

Is there a dash of non-corny humor and a course of romantic tension?  Action?  Promise?  Before I care about the female lead's road to power-enabling self-discovery in this Dystopian world, let me taste these sweet expectations - thank you very much.  PROMISE!

I've obviously taken this darling food analogy too far.  This had something to do with back story...

The Best Outdoor Reading Spots in NYC

Summer time!

What are some of your favorite outdoor #ReadingSpotsNYC?

In NYC, we're lucky enough to have incredible public transportation.  We can sit on our butts and travel around town while reading.  The journey can become the destination quite easily. 

The city is filled with parks and waterfronts.  The parks are filled with benches.  Let's go!


Prospect Park / Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Pavilion at the Japanese Garden
Annual membership to the BBG?  Prospect Park itself has wonderful places to read, but the BBG is a spectacular place.

Plenty of benches at the Overlook. Look down at the Cherry trees & Rose gardens.
Cherry Esplanade.

Coney Island/Brighten Beach, Brooklyn

Hey, guess what?  There's actually an ocean nearby!  If you like dawn adventures, go there early and enjoy a fantastic morning.  Crowds probably won't arrive until 10-11am.

Enjoy the OCEAN breeze on the historic pier (with Russian & Chinese retirees trying to catch fish).
Beach towel or not, there's plenty of ocean seating.    I enjoy the end of the pier.
You'll also find several pavilions along the beach.

Riverbank & Riverside, Manhattan

Riverside Park, Hudson River Park, and Riverbank State Park offer many places to sit and enjoy life with a book.  I personally love the uptown views of the George Washington Bridge and the Palisades.


Great benches and regular kite flying (attempts)!

Gantry Plaza State Park, Queens

Across from the United Nations is this park with spectacular views of Manhattan.  There's also the East River State Park in BK with a similar view.
Claim your seat under the willows!
From here, you gaze across waters at the UN and  Manhattan.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

Ramble down romantic Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights to the promenade with its incredible views of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty.  One of the greatest views on the planet.

These benches are prime real estate!

Central Park - Upper Half

The upper half of Central Park tends to be much more quiet and relaxed than the lower half.

Harlem Meer 
Off-hours, the benches around the meer make for a peaceful time. 

The Conservancy

There's a reason this garden is one of the top spots in the city for wedding photos (lol).  Nonetheless, you can find plenty of corners to read yourself into bliss.
One of the most romantic places in the city.

Shhhhhhhh....
The Pool & the North Woods Loch

The Pool always offers a fine reading getaway.  If you're really looking to escape, then explore the North Woods and the calming waterfalls hidden within!


Belvedere Castle, Turtle Pond, Shakespeare Garden

The castle makes for superb tourist watching.  Poke around the western side to find quiet corners and benches in the Shakespeare Garden.  Or go lay out on the great lawn above Turtle Pond!

You can find a quiet spot near the Castle or just sit on the vista.

Central Park - Lower Half

If you love the background energy and buzz of international tourists, then grab a bench on the Mall.
Explore the quiet brambles or just grab a bench somewhere.  Anywhere. :)


NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx 

Take the Metro-North Harlem line or cross over from Manhattan on the BX19 bus.  See their website for additional travel options.  It's a very large place with many spots to read.  A nearby zoo, too!

This place is massive with lots of spots to hide away.

Park on that bench under the bridge or wander over to the waterfall.
This may be the best argument for annual membership!


Morningside Park, Manhattan

Waterfall, ducks, and a looming Cathedral.

Inwood Hill Park - Where Eagles Roam

Did you know that bald eagles nest at the northern tip of Manhattan?  This park is a gem.  The northeastern section is great for plopping on a bench.  You may also want to adventure around (or over) the hill to the Hudson.
This quiet tip of Manhattan makes for a great escape.  Also investigate the local cafe.
The Hudson side of the park offers great views of the GWB and beyond.

Queens Botanical Gardens & Flushing Meadows

Grab the 7 train for a great adventure.  Hop off at Flushing Meadows or continue to the end, then walk down Main Street to the Botanical Gardens. Nearby zoo and museum.

The grounds of Flushing Meadows offer lots of benches and views.
The QBG offers quite a few enjoyable spots to sit.
I'm linking this image from gothamist.com
* Photos taken on an iPhone, sometimes using the Pro HDR and Pano apps.

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."

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!

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.  :)