Monthly Archives: March 2011

Scribbling Women Blog Tour: Marthe Jocelyn

I’m thrilled to be a stop on Day Two of Marthe Jocelyn‘s “Scribbling Women” blog tour. Marthe is celebrating the release of her latest book, Scribbling Women: True Tales from Astonishing Lives, published by Tundra Books.

In Scribbling Women, Marthe introduces readers to eleven tremendous and inspiring women, all of whom happen to be writers. They come from across the world, span centuries, and all had unique motivations for writing. I confess I had heard of only a few of these women before reading this book. Part of what makes this a satisfying and thought-provoking read is that it makes you wonder how many other women there must have been through history who wrote, for themselves, for others, for pleasure and other purposes. Jocelyn’s book is a window into the thoughts of extraordinary women, with such diversity of experience and perspective. And spirit – they’ve all got a lot of spirit. You cannot close this book without feeling overwhelmed by the gutsiness of these women, who prove that writing can be as bold and world-changing an act as almost anything you could think of. Each of the snapshot chapters moves at an engaging clip. Jocelyn includes a lot of research in a short space, and succeeds in making you curious to learn more about each of her subjects.

I think that it is definitely a book more for a reader in her early twenties, or very late teens, than for anyone much younger. The tone is accessible, but the language is sophisticated. I imagine that a particular interest in history would be required for a younger reader to pick it up. I think it would be the perfect high school (or university) graduation gift for a young woman who is considering what she wants to accomplish in her life, and the direction she wants to go next. You can tell that this book was a labour of love for Marthe, and that it was written by a woman who possesses a hugely curious mind, who loves to learn and is excited by the rich, story-filled expanse of history. It could very well make you want to pick up a pen and scribble a little yourself.

I asked Marthe to share her response to a question I had after reading her book: Considering what you’ve learned about your subjects through writing SCRIBBLING WOMEN, and your own experience as a scribbler yourself, describe the perils / rewards / challenges / motivators that many woman writers experience.

Here’s what she had to say:

“Being a writer as well as a woman used to arouse suspicion, dismissal, or even downright danger. There is no need, for instance, to designate a Men’s History Month, because their opinions and statistics dominate the records. Women’s history, until perhaps the last few decades, was traditionally hidden or subversive; quiet accounts locked in drawers or passed along as told stories.

But I have to admit that in my experience – in the comfort of contemporary North America – writing is no longer a perilous or audacious occupation. I do, however, have an aspect of a writer’s life to rant about… There is the commonly held belief that creating books for children is ‘adorable’ or ‘fun’. Writing a book is tremendously challenging, no matter who the audience. But a child reading a book, discovering a fact or a character or a world for the first time, is far more likely to be imprinted and inspired than anyone beyond his or her teen years. How foolish to suggest that such a responsibility is adorable. If we, the kid-writers, can snag a child’s imagination, we will provide the ‘grown-up’ writers with readers for life.”

Don’t you love that? There’s a rant I’ll stand behind. Thank you Marthe!

For more information about Scribbling Women, for the rest of the Scribbling Women blog tour schedule, and for details about how to enter an amazing giveaway where you could win a giant collection of Marthe’s books, visit Talking with Tundra.

Without You

Have you had a little tiff with someone special?

Well I think I know just the book you might want to slip under that person’s door.

Genius illustrator Geneviève Coté is back with Without You, a follow-up to her lovely first picture book with rabbit and pig, Me and You. I mean, look at the cover? Check out the brilliant expressions on their angry little animal faces? They are miffed. They will never like each other again. Ever. Whether you are a small person, or a grown up person, who hasn’t felt that way at some point? Great picture books tap into essential emotions, and I love how Coté has picked such an age-defying sentiment to focus on in this book.

Even the end pages are just right. They are filled with angry scribbles. You know the book is bound to work when details like that have been thought about. It’s adorable how after their argument begins, rabbit and pig start to try to out do each other with their examples of how life is “just fine thank you very much” without you. So SO cute how rabbit doesn’t really look convinced by any of it, at any point, however. Coté’s watercolours and freely drawn pencil lines exude warmth and whimsy and charm. You will fall in love with these two characters all over again. Here is a book to read any time you need to make up after a silly fight. For a child, a best friend, a spouse who never puts his socks in the laundry basket. This one’s for everyone.

Without You is published by Kids Can Press. Don’t buy it without Me and You. They are perfect together, just like rabbit and pig.

Annexed

Sharon Dogar’s novel, Annexed, presents the story within Anne Frank’s famous diary through a new, imagined perspective. Peter van Pels was the teenage boy who shared the Annex with the Franks and his parents. In this novel, Dogar tells the story of their struggle for survival through Peter’s eyes. This dramatic shift in point of view has the potential to influence readers’ perception of Anne’s story, and that fact is part of why there has been some controversy around the release of this book. You should take a few minutes now or later to read some of the opinions (1, 2), and then Dogar’s response. I hadn’t been aware of the discussion prior to reading the book.

I read Anne’s diary at least three times when I was young, beginning when I was twelve or so. It’s been a long time since I reread it. Dogar’s book made me want to do that, and I hope that this response is shared by other readers. I think I need to reread the diary in order to say definitively how I feel about Annexed. I don’t think that the characters – particularly Anne – come off with the same complexity as I remember in the diary, though the tone of the book often felt very much in line with the original work – tense, at times hopeful, full of frustration and barely suppressed fear.

One of the big objections that has been noted by some readers is that Dogar’s book is too sexy. I read somewhere an opinion that this version was just a sexed-up take on the diary. In my opinion, the sexuality was far from racy. I thought it was pretty understated, and believable. Peter’s longing is a big part of what makes this book have such emotional impact. What would it have been like to imagine that you might never be able to love someone for your whole life, never be intimate with someone? It was powerful – and real – that this character would feel tormented by this knowledge. I didn’t think that there was anything drawn out in this book that felt jarring next to the text that inspired it. Dogar offers us one possible version of Peter, and one that I think feels fairly true to the spirit of Anne’s writing. I think it’s important to remember that what we know of Peter through Anne’s diary is her perception of him. Who knows what he was truly like? I liked that Dogar raises this in her Preface. I don’t think Dogar was trying to pin Peter down in her book. A person – or character – that we come to know purely through words on the page can never be the complex being represented in a real, flesh and blood individual. Dogar notes, “The Anne seen in her diary is not necessarily the same Anne that the people in the attic felt they knew.” I don’t think readers should be afraid that Dogar is trying to say “This is who Peter was.” This is an imagined story, inspired by something true. The author is very clear on this point.

Could Dogar have written a book similarly powerful and thought provoking without using historical figures? She says no. She says that it wouldn’t have been as interesting. I’m not sure I agree. Great writing is great writing. I don’t think a character is more interesting or memorable because s/he was inspired by a real person or real events. Still, all in all, I found Annexed to be a bold, harrowing novel, sensitively written, particularly the second part, set in the camps. I hope it brings more people to Anne’s diary, surely one of the most affecting testaments to the power of words to unite people across time and circumstance.

Annexed is published by Houghton Mifflin

This post is cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Interview with Gennifer Choldenko

It is my pleasure to welcome Gennifer Choldenko, author of many fantastic books, including Al Capone Does My Shirts and her latest, No Passengers Beyond This Point, to Shelf Elf. She’s here for an interview today, to chat about No Passengers and writing and inspiration. Welcome Gennifer!

No Passengers Beyond This Point seems like it had to have been a lot of fun to write, but perhaps fairly tricky to write as well. What was the most enjoyable part about writing this book, and what was the most challenging aspect?

Actually, writing No Passengers was an absolute blast. I loved every minute of it. The challenging part came after the Advanced Reading Copies were printed. I bit my nails to the quick, worried the hair off the dog wondering what people would make of this story.

How did you go about imagining all of the aspects of Falling Bird? What inspired you as you created this unusual world?

This will probably seem obvious, but travel inspired the book. At the time I conceived of the novel, I was getting on a lot of airplanes to promote the Al Capone books. I wrote whole chunks of No Passengers while waiting to touch down in Iowa or Wisconsin, New Jersey, Michigan or New York. I had my pick of jet ways and airport décor, TSA agents and flight gates.

I know it’s a predictable question, but this book really makes a reader wonder where the initial idea came from. So, where did the idea come from? Did it come to you all at once, or take you in directions you hadn’t expected?

For many of my novels, I know exactly what that first idea was and how that seedling of an idea grew into a finished product. Not so with No Passengers. I had written a chapter book about the three siblings: Mouse, Finn and India, but my editor didn’t like it, so I put the chapter book draft away for a few months. When I brought it out again, I loved those characters even more than I had before and I was not about to let them rot in my file cabinet. But I wasn’t sure where to go with the story. The plot wasn’t nearly as interesting as the characters were. Then the thought occurred to me: I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy, why not give it a shot. I decided to try just one chapter to see where it went. And when I looked up two months had passed and I had finished the first draft of No Passengers Beyond This Point.

That ending! Readers aren’t likely to forget that ending. I’m curious to know how readers have responded to the ending. What have you been hearing?

The response I’ve heard about the ending has blown me away. The kids absolutely love it! It is such a thrill to talk to students individually or whole classes full of kids, who have read this book, because they are wired for sound about this story. It has made them think, it has made them question, and it has made them wonder. The ending reminds me of the Madeleine L’Engle quote: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Not every adult can handle this novel, but the kids are having no problem whatsoever.

The way that you get the kids’ voices to be so true, and so differentiated is very impressive. How did you manage it?

With some other novels I’ve written, getting the voice just right has taken years of hard work. With No Passengers, the voices were there inside of me. All I had to do was open a door and let the sound out.

Now I know you’re not supposed to admit who is your favorite, but please tell us, who is your favorite of the siblings, and why?

Probably Mouse. I’m not Mouse, but I was quite an annoying little sister and I did have an invisible friend named Bing. Bing is the only completely “real” part of this book. One of the issues I had had with my editor when she saw that early chapter book I’d written was around the voice. I had told the whole story in Mouse’s voice and she wanted me to write in India’s voice. “India’s boring,” I told her, “Why would I want to write in her voice?” But when I started writing No Passengers it became apparent almost immediately that I could not tell the story if I didn’t write from India’s POV and from Finn’s POV. The moral of this story: Get a good editor and listen to what she says.

What’s the best writing advice you can give?

I find this a difficult question to answer because I think we all need different advice at different points in our writing lives. So here’s my disclaimer: Disregard my advice or anyone else’s if it doesn’t fit. You know more about what you need than anybody else. But if you want advice, here it is: Write for yourself and not for anyone else. Burrow down deep inside until you locate the story only you can tell.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Feel your way through a novel, don’t think your way.” – Norma Fox Mazer

Your story explores the power of home. What do you hope readers will think about this theme as they read your novel?

I work hard to have layers in my story. I personally do not like to read what I call junkfood stories. Stories that suck me in, but give me absolutely nothing for my time. When I’m finished with a novel like that, I get positively peevish. But if I read a book with real depth, the experience of reading it is so rich and fulfilling. While the theme might be summed up in a sentence, the experience of reading that book never can be. That is the kind of book I love and that is the kind of book I try to write. Is No Passengers Beyond This Point about the power of home and family? Absolutely. Do I hope each reader defines this a little differently for himself? You bet. I tried to leave space between the lines for the reader to bring his or her own experience to the story.

What new things did you learn about writing through writing this novel?
I surprised myself with this novel. I didn’t know I could write a story like this one. That made me realize I can set the bar a little higher next time.

Thank you so much for stopping by Shelf Elf to share a bit behind the scenes of your latest novel Gennifer. I’m sure readers will agree with me when I say, “Don’t stop at just one! Keep writing fantasies for us!”

No Passengers Beyond This Point is published by Dial.

Forest Born

I cannot tell you how much it pleases me to have seen over at Shannon Hale’s blog that this:

is going to be released in a hardcover version like this:

Hooray for Alison Jay’s gorgeous artwork! All is as it should be with the world. When I was reading Forest Born last week, I was bemoaning the fact that the Bayern covers went from beautifully evocative and unique, to cheap-looking and a little bit laughable due to cheesiness. I had no idea that the series was still being made available with the original cover art, in the U.S. hardcover editions. In celebration, I have just ordered Enna Burning and River Secrets to go along with my Goose Girl (a little pre-birthday prezzie to myself), and will be sure to snag Forest Born when it comes out in October. Won’t they look pretty all together on my desk, in pride of place?

Which brings me to Forest Born… It is astonishing that I had an ARC of this book for a year and a half before I finally got around to reading it. Astonishing, and wrong. I adore the Bayern books, and I cannot wait to own all four so that I can indulge in the absolute treat of reading them one after the other all the way to the end. I am delighted to report that this, the fourth book in the series, is in many ways as satisfying and captivating as its three predecessors. If you’re a Hale fan, I doubt you will be disappointed in Forest Born.

This time, the story is Rin’s, Razo’s younger sister. In the beginning, she is unsettled by the growing feeling that she is suddenly out of place in the home she has always loved. The trees have always offered her solace and peace, but her connection with the forest seems to have changed. Where once she felt calm, she now finds only ugliness and fear. So Rin leaves the forest and heads to the city, to serve in the royal court. Adventure and danger soon follow, and Rin comes to know that she possesses a power that could be more destructive than anything she has ever known or imagined. 

It doesn’t have the humour of River Secrets, even though Razo does feature in the plot, and brings laughs with him. Hale succeeds brilliantly in making Rin a complicated, sympathetic character. You really feel like you are inside her head as you move through the story. Her struggle and her sense of isolation creates a strong emotional impact as you read. You want her to find her way and feel happy in herself. Of course, it wouldn’t be Shannon Hale without lovely poetic turns of phrase and some terrific action and just enough romance to make you dream of being a part of the world of the story too. Rarely do books absorb me in the way that these have. When I read a Shannon Hale fantasy, I feel like a kid again, when I used to hole up for hours and hours in my room reading and reading until I’d finished the whole book, completely forgetting about the “real world” and never wanting the characters to leave my mind.

If you haven’t read these books, you don’t know what you’re missing. Read them all – tacky covers or not. You couldn’t ask for more entertaining stories.

Only love

There will be a bunch of reviews this week, I hope, since it’s March break and I plan on lazing around inside plenty of stories. My to-be-read pile has become indecent, so I am going to do something about it. In the meantime, I present a little love, in the form of a gorgeous song / video by one of the most talented singers I’ve discovered in the past few years, Priscilla Ahn:

I could listen to her sing anything. Dreamy, lovely, perfect.

 

What Happened on Fox Street

I am so delighted by this book, it makes me feel sunny inside just thinking about it. I was listening to the wonderful audiobook version of What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb and I was taking so much pleasure in it that I decided I had to have my own copy and read it again, enjoying every single lovely turn of phrase and lingering wherever I wanted. If you’ve been a kid, if you know a kid, if have a kid, you need this book. It might make you nostalgic. It will make you laugh. It could make you cry. I dare you not to love it. And there is a fox in it. Foxes (aside from Siamese cats and Irish terriers) are my favourite animal. (Random interesting aside: you should read this article about animal domestication in National Geographic. Foxes as pets? I’m in).

Mo loves her street, where she lives with her father and her wild little sister, Dottie. Fox Street is wonderfully eclectic and it has nearly everything a girl with an imagination and an adventurous spirit could need. It’s also where she can best remember her mother, whose death left Mo wanting everything to be the way it was, or at least, not to change any more. But this will be the summer when a lot of change comes to Fox Street in spite of all Mo’s wishing, and Mo will have to discover a way to make it through, holding on to all that she loves for dear life.

I have huge respect for writers who can write short books that yield big emotional and artistic impact. This little book says so much about home and family and community, and captures perfectly that difficult time when you’re right on the edge of beginning to grow up for good, when everything will start to get different forever. Mo doesn’t want things to change and she’s beginning to see she can’t stop it from doing just that. That’s so poignant, and so true. I confess that this story hit me. It reminded me of having to let go of my childhood home (which was beyond hard, and I was an adult when it finally happened). It made me remember all the time I spent imagining and thinking as a child. Mo is a great thinker. She’s one of a kind. You’ll never want to leave Fox Street. Good thing we can keep going back.

What Happened on Fox Street is published by Balzer & Bray.