Saturday, December 31, 2011

It's New Years Eve Again

I had every intention of steering clear of this holiday, of refraining from the "this is what 2011 was like" nostalgia, of doing any kind of "looking forward to 2012" thing. So hopefully this is not that. But considering last year on this day, I was walking back from Lake Michigan, soaking wet from falling through the ice, I needed to say simply this:

2011 changed everything. Since that day at Foster Beach, I have told both my grandmothers I'm gay, excommunicated myself from the Catholic Church, moved into my own apartment, joined a writing studio, been rejected from all seven graduate schools, reapplied at the last minute (which meant writing 90 pages in less than three weeks), watched my brother come out to my family, quit both my jobs, started writing full-time, learned to play the harmonica, chopped off all my hair into a Mad Men do, started a blog and a website, became a radio essayist with NPR, had an incredible partnership with a beautiful woman, landed an editorial internship with The Stranger, and planned a move to Seattle.

During that time, Steve Jobs passed away, Charlie Sheen went off the deep-end, and Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi were killed. There was an over-publicized royal wedding, under-publicized police brutality, and national protesters. We saw an American Snowpacalypse, a Japanese earthquake, and a Somalian famine. Every previous and current political figure was accused of sexual harassment. The News of the World closed. The 10 year anniversary of 9/11 passed. The remaining Iraqi troops were pulled. The phrase "debt-ceiling" was used more in 2011 than any other year in history combined.

It was all kinds of crazy, but the year really did kick a lot of ass. And everyone knows that the Mayans are right. We've got until December 21st to take risks, take chances, take trips, take opportunities, and give 'em hell. So 2012: bring it on.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: Julie Anne Peters' "Keeping You A Secret"

Seventeen-year-old Holland Jaeger knows what will happen. She will get into one of the great colleges her mother has picked out, marry her boyfriend, Seth (who isn't so bad), and become a lawyer because that makes the most sense. But then Holland meets Cece Goddard, a queer transfer student and LGBT rights activist. Suddenly, Holland isn't sure of anything. Little does Holland know that her mother's suppressed homophobia and Cece's complicated past might transform everything. And does anyone really know what they want anyway? Among coming-of-age tales and the undergrad applications process, Julie Anne Peters' Keeping You A Secret also dives deep into the powerful consequences of bullying and dishonesty.

Structure: 4 out of 5 stars

The story follows Holland's senior year at Southglenn High School, from her introduction to art class and Cece to her relationships with her stepsister, boyfriend, and "friends," many of whom turn on her. The author maintains a constant momentum, with a straightforward plot and short chapters. While the story doesn't abound in too many twists and surprises, the few life-changing moments are potent, palpable, and heartfelt.

One of the strongest parts of Peters' novel was the way she showcased other minorities at Southglenn - the Goths, the punks, the performers. She even drew a nice parallel to Mrs. Jaegar's past. Instead of featuring a simple coming out story, the author presents the difficulties of acceptance through all types of teenage experiences.

Character: 4 out of 5 stars

Holland is fierce, sassy, and incredibly brave. She has spent her life shoved into the "model teenager" mold by her mother, her school counselor, and her boyfriend. Once she realizes the things she does want, Holland experiences an amazing shift. The same goes for Cece. As a character who appears fearless, she certainly has her fair share of skeletons in the closet (pun intended). Some of the outside characters confused me at times, however. Every so often, I felt unsettled by Holland's mom or Ms. Lucas, the school counselor. The two ladies would change personalities quite abruptly at various moments throughout the story, which sometimes felt in character and sometimes didn't. This was balanced out with the multitude of other secondary characters like Faith (Holland's Goth stepsister), Winslow (the orange-haired artist), and Leah (her nostalgic best friend), all of whom offer great support during Holland's journey and cause their own trouble along the way.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

The reader gets to see, hear, and feel Holland's story throughout the novel. As a seventeen-year-old, Holland has been given an immense amount of responsibility, and her narrative voice offers a maturity far beyond her years. I would have liked to see just a little more. While the author writes about Holland's gamut of emotions, there are some moments I would have loved to see fleshed out a bit further, like when Holland breaks her news to Seth, when Holland chooses a college, or even when Holland and Cece exchange their first "I love you." Her narrative voice is spot-on for her character - I just want to know more about her reactions. Overall, a great female protagonist.

Keeping You A Secret was first published in 2003 by Little, Brown and Company. The novel has received countless awards since its release, including the first ever Alphabet Award and a 2004 nomination for the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults.

The learn more about other Julie Anne Peters books, check out her website.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot"

If the literary world needed to wait nine years after Middlesex to read another Jeffrey Eugenides stroke of genius, The Marriage Plot is certainly worth it. The book follows Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead, who all left for an undergraduate degree at Brown University in the 1980s. Madeleine, a Victorian literary nut, declares a personal "no men" rule, while heavily researching love, relationships, and marriage circa Jane Austen for her senior thesis. Mitchell, of course, falls in love with Madeleine and explores religion while trying to win her over. But Mitchell is no competition for Leonard, an up-and-coming scientist, who attempts to woo Madeleine over the microscopes in the Chem lab. While the initial setting could easily describe a grocery store chicklit paperback, Eugenides transforms the cliche "love triangle" into a modern, biting, and fresh new look at brain vs. heart. From beginning to end, The Marriage Plot delivers new ideas about everything from feminism to parental relationships to the big post-graduation question mark of "What do I do now?"

Structure: 5 out of 5 Stars

As per Eugenides style, the author introduces central events early on, giving the reader a false confidence in predictions for future chapters. The plot, of course, unravels and those predictions are turned upside down, leaving the reader pleasantly surprised and eager for more. The author introduces main characters, then jumps to flashbacks and unfolds each character's history, as well as the stories of each mother, father, sister, and friend. Then the novel continues with Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. By the time the reader closes the book on page 406, she/he will likely feel like they have invested in a satisfying history lesson rather than a fictional tale. Chapters vary from short to long, and the book is broken into five main sections. The plot comes full circle multiple times and touches on the "marriage plot" idea from every angle. Great structure. Great plot. Great book.

Character: 5 out of 5 stars

Not a single complaint. Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard are well-constructed, experience severe transformations, and finish the novel with dignity. No holes are left unfilled or any nagging questions left unanswered. While the story doesn't leave the reader unfulfilled, it certainly provides a desire for more. Both the plot and characters end with endless possibilities for sequels, though, on its own, the book stands well.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

The three narrators are easily distinguishable by character traits, mannerisms, and personalities within the first line each one speaks. Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard share a strong intellectual brain and yet differ greatly in their individual journeys. Each character voice and story is incredibly compelling. The reader can be knee-deep in Leonard's mind battle while he runs through the streets of Cape Cod, and then in just a paragraph, quickly get sucked into Mitchell's inner anguish over Mother Teresa from his hotel in India.

The book, overall, is witty, sarcastic, and endearing. Eugenides examines that ultimate idea of "the marriage plot" in many specific and general ways. I would highly recommend this novel to all readers, YA and otherwise. The Marriage Plot was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in October 2011 and shouldn't be missed!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A College Experience: Dorms, Finals, Running A Publishing House

At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, students have been hard at work across campus studying for finals, packing for the holiday and, for some, publishing books through the college's indie publishing house, Cornerstone Press. Since 1984, the UWSP's company has been publishing novels from every genre: cookbooks, poetry, non-fiction, YA lit. Save an overseeing supervisor, Cornerstone Press is entirely run by students enrolled in English 349: Editing and Publishing.

What began in the 70s as a simple course about copy editing quickly turned into a full-blown press initiative. In 1984, professor Dan Dietrich transformed English 349 into an opportunity for students to edit, design, produce, market, and sell new releases. Authors from all over the country can now submit proposals for graphic novels, children's books, and memoirs. Then, twice a year, English 349 students choose one script to publish. After a contract is negotiated with the new author, the publishing process begins.

Cornerstone Press' latest Whipped, Not Beaten (writer Melissa Westemeier's satire on relationships) marks the organization's 31st published book. The novel was released early December 2011. Other CP publications include New York Times bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss' first book, Your Annotated, Illustrated College Survival Guide, Volume I (published by Cornerstone Press in 2005).

To submit a script to Cornerstone Press, check out the Submissions tab on the website or the publishing house's Facebook page.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sexism. Stereotypes. Ignorance. #NotBuyingIt

This holiday season, apart from buying local and scouring for last-minute bargains, many shoppers are on the prowl for other deal-breakers: degrading messages.

Earlier this year, the documentary Miss Representation played at the Sundance Film Festival. It spoke about the false idea which girls today have come to know - that they must rely on their looks and sexuality to be accepted. But the people behind the film have worked to get their voices heard in other ways. As an organization, focuses largely on erasing labels and empowering women, and have started the Twitter hashtag #NotBuyingIt to raise awareness over brands, products, and advertisements which negatively distort women. The project was inspired by Girls For a Change, an organization that provides resources to help girls create social change.

Recently, major companies have altered products or taglines due to public complaints surrounding gender stereotypes. In September, JcPenny pulled a girl's shirt with the words "I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me." The tee was targeted for 7-16 year olds. Shortly thereafter, Forever 21 discontinued the sale of a shirt which read "Allergic To Algebra." For weeks, has encouraged shoppers to report back on similarly offensive sweaters, coffee mugs, calendars, posters, and store displays. Their #NotBuyingIt project is intended to build on the recent media awareness in advertising.

December 12th tweet: "Why does offer office & travel gifts for only men? No suggestions for prof women #NotBuyingIt"

December 18th tweet: "Just saw a mug with a 50s housewife saying 'medicated and motivated' #NotBuying It"

The cause, however, is not just about a Macy's sweatshirt or a winter boot ad - hopes to move our society in a new direction. "We've already heard from mothers in New York who've had billboards removed and young people everywhere who are creating media literacy clubs at their schools," the company's blog states. "These actions are making a difference and building momentum towards shirting our entire culture."

If you see misrepresentations of women during holiday shopping, please post to #NotBuyingIt. Let's raise awareness!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review: Cheryl Rainfield's "Hunted"

If I could picture the mash-up between Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Stephen King's Carrie, it would be Cheryl Rainfield's Hunted, which was released today. Teenage Caitlyn and her mother are on the run from the government because Caitlyn is a Para (as in, paranormal). As a telepath, she is among many other Paras with a list of extraordinary talents, all of whom are shunned as societal menaces. While on the run, Caitlyn tries to lay low in a major city, but instead finds herself deep in an underground plot. She needs to decide whether or not to join the ranks, oppose the cause, or just keep running.

Structure: 4 out of 5 stars

Rainfield fluctuates between short and epic chapters, which creates a great environment for readers. The almost 400 page novel takes place over a matter of several action-filled weeks, with frequent flashbacks to the past. Caitlyn's story is jammed with layers of memories (both her own and the experiences of those around her), which are tackled chapter by chapter. At times, it is slightly difficult to distinguish between characters in memory sequences because Caitlyn hears so many different thoughts, but overall, a great set-up. The action keeps the reader engaged and the chapters create the ideal amount of anticipation.

Character: 4.5 out 5 stars

Caitlyn is fierce, brave, and witty - everything I love in a female protagonist. The reader sees the main character not only fend for the rights of her fellow Paras, but also for other minorities at school, the less represented ethnic groups, the queers, and even the quiet kids. As a leader, Caitlyn's biggest flaw is her desire to help too many people at once. But readers love her from the first moment. The feminist in me was only slightly perturbed by the way the protagonist falls so quickly in love with the captain of the swim team, Alex, and the way Caitlyn, at first, turns to him to make everything better. But the two swiftly become an equal pair and seek the support of each other during difficult struggles.

In the same way, the feminist in me was delighted to see the secondary story of Rachel, an out and proud lesbian who stands up for Para rights. I would have liked to see more of Rachel as a character, but I look forward to her story in a possible sequel(?). As for the cast of characters, Rainfield offers an outstanding set of powerful female roles: Caitlyn, her mother, Rachel, Mrs. Vespa (the badass librarian), and even Irene, the manipulating enemy from the other side.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

Rainfield has mastered character voices in this novel. Though Caitlyn is the sole narrator, the main character also reads minds and hears thoughts. So, in an incredibly unique way, the author presents an indefinite number of character voices, histories, memories, and experiences, all told through Caitlyn, who can see and feel it all. The reader learns about Caitlyn's brother, Rachel's parents, Alex's mother, the girl in Social Studies, the two boys walking down the hall, and the motel owner, all within the confines of Caitlyn's thoughts. A refreshing take on multiple character voices, and one Rainfield writes very well.

As a whole, Hunted is powerful, surprising, adventurous, and heartfelt. I recommend it to those interested in the supernatural, and anyone who can relate to a really complicated high school experience.

Hunted was published by WestSide Books. It released today in the U.S. and is scheduled for a Canadian release in January.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The "Obvious" Answer To Controversy? Avoid Real Life.

LGBT-themed YA books have certainly seen their share of disputes, and topics like alcohol abuse, sex, and really anything Judy Blume ever wrote about have endured an equal amount of argument among teachers, librarians, and parents. For some, these topics in general are just "too dark" for young adults.

The Wall Street Journal recently posted an article relaying the apparent horrors in today's YA lit. "If books show us the world," reporter Meghan Cox Gurdon says, "teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is." Drugs. Incest. Dysfunctional families. The article insists authors try to reverse this trend, and go back to books where topics weren't as violent. Without change, she believes today's YA audience will be in trouble. "If you think it matters what is inside a young person's mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads," Gurdon continues.

Yes, and by hiding life topics from teens, youth won't possibly encounter controversial issues in film, television, the Internet, and in real life. Let's make sure to get rid of a safe learning environment, and prevent the opportunity for teens to ask questions.

(The article goes on to list two recommended reading lists: 1) Books For Young Men and 2) Books For Young Women. Because apparently recommending books to both genders is too much.)

Of the many dark topics that some adults hope to keep quiet from teens, a prominent controversial theme is suicide. As such, author Michael Thomas Ford's Suicide Notes met doubtful readers in 2008. The book follows a teenager named Jeff through a psych ward after his failed attempt at taking his own life. Jeff, struggling with his identity and sexuality, meets a group of young adults who have all survived intended suicides. Ford successfully navigates both the topics of homosexuality and suicide in a way I hope other authors attempt; he treats each issue as a complex idea, rather than diseases that the protagonist tries to hide. As Teen Ink says, "Suicide Notes is able to make something beautiful from something normally regarded with hesitation or disdain." Instead of avoiding the two complex issues altogether, as Gurdon suggests, Ford shows his readers that life involves challenges, and there are healthy, available solutions.

Gurdon's article exploded throughout the media when it was published in June 2011. Authors, bloggers, teens, and adults alike viciously opposed Gurdon's ideas. Author Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why, also a suicide-themed novel) explains that it's not about censorship or pride. "For writers," Asher says, "it's not that. [A lot of adults] don't understand the power of books dealing with these subjects." Both Ford and Asher try to show hesitant readers that knowing how the world works provides the opportunity to learn and understand. "It doesn't mean that your teen is going to be facing these things just because they're reading about them," Asher says.

If YA is a crucial resource for teens, to suggest censorship or sugarcoating topics is only a disservice. Authors and activists have been working to keep Gurdon's recommendations out of literature for good.

Recent controversial YA books to check out
(just to stick it to the man)...
But I Love Him by Amanda Garcia
Lie by Caroline Bock
Shine by Lauren Myracle

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Time After Time, Lauper Offers Resources for Queer Teens

With a tip of her hat towards Dan Savage's It Gets Better project, songwriter and LGBT activist Cyndi Lauper has created a similar project called the Give a Damn campaign. The artist sought a means to both raise awareness about issues concerning gay teens and educate viewers of all sexualities on how to help.

The Give a Damn Campaign was founded in April 2010. The website contains statistics, articles, and information on the biggest problems LGBT teens face, like homelessness, abandonment, and bullying. "Imagine sending your child off to school everyday, knowing once they're there, they'll be called names, get threatened and shoved, even kicked or punched," the website asks of straight/non-questioning viewers. "Imagine if your brother or sister, or your nephew, niece, grandson or granddaughter told their teachers about the bullying - and their teachers didn't do a damn thing about it." Unlike other teen issue webpages, the Give A Damn site takes the conversation a step farther - it speaks widely to both struggling youth and unknowing citizens and provides a wealth of information for anyone interested in LGBT topics. It provides a means to help, though conversation starters, places to volunteer, and ways to donate.

Perhaps the most helpful link for visiting teens, however, is the "Personal Stories" section of each page. Young adults from every background have submitted their battles with parents, teachers, peers, and society. On the "Youth Homelessness" tab, a boy named Ryan describes the ongoing fight with his family. Ryan's parents verbally and emotionally abused him, related his existence to that of a child with Down Syndrome, and forced him into a conversion therapy organization called the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality to be "cured." On the campaign's site, Ryan pleads with viewers: "The lives of your friends, that kid down the street, your brother, sister, mom, dad, aunt, uncle or 6th cousin twice removed, count on you, so please, join all of us, and Give a Damn."

In a similar fashion to It Gets Better, Lauper extends the project into a Youtube channel where celebrities and fellow activists can upload clips about supporting youth who are enduring hate crimes, unfriendly faces, and a sense of loss. "It is time that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is afforded to everyone equally," the channel states. "Get Informed. Get Involved. Give a Damn!"

To donate to Give a Damn, please click here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Review: Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief"

The rise of Nazi Germany has been told through many different voices - documentaries, films, a young girl in a secret attic. The narrator recounting the reign of Adolf Hitler in The Book Thief, however, is Death. Markus Zusak's 2006 novel follows the (un)life and times of Death as it works double-time throughout World War II, and becomes infatuated with an eleven-year-old German girl, named Liesel Meminger. A.K.A. The book thief. Meminger learns to read and write from her foster father, steals books only when necessary, and befriends Max Vandenberg, the Jew her foster family has been hiding in their small basement. The books Meminger comes to steal become incredible coping tools for the small town dealing with the war.

Structure: 5 out 5 stars

Zusak breaks his novel into ten parts. Each new part lists six mini-chapter titles, which are both telling and intriguing. The reader easily follows the multiple story lines, and enjoys the short, powerful sections of this 550 page adventure. The action never lulls, from Meminger's fruit-stealing escapades with her best friend, Rudy Steiner, to the jam-packed action of WWII. Zusak sets up an incredible novel.

Character: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the first time I've read a book by one narrator, realized I was hearing the story of a different character, and didn't feel I was getting the short end of either stick. Death's account, both historically and emotionally accurate, fills in the details for Liesel Meminger's life. We encounter the souls Death must retrieve and feel his own weary tale. At the same time, the reader learns about Meminger's habits, fears, dreams. Through both characters, we see inside the mind of Hans Hubermann, the girl's accordion-playing heart-of-gold foster father, Max Vandenberg, the 24-year-old Jewish writer hiding behind a stack of paint cans in the basement, and many other unique and passionate characters on Himmel Street in Munich. With so many people around - the mayor's wife, the crazy next-door neighbor, the shop owner down the street - the reader feels every minute of Nazi Germany's heartaches and victories.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

Perfect, if ever a narrator's voice could be. Death is witty, sassy, and sorrowful. He feels the burden of his profession. One of Zusak's finer ideas in this book was to be real. Death, as it would seem, does not sugar coat anything. He prepares the reader for a pending character's death, a horrible accident, or a bombing far in advance. Death's periodic announcements are well-received by the reader, who appreciates the heavy and specific foreshadowing, but is still surprised by the event itself. The author provides a powerful voice to lead his story, a voice which readers respect.

Overall, this is one of the best books I've read this year. I highly recommend it to both adult and young adult readers, and anyone who wants a good kick out of death, for once.

The Book Thief was published in 2006 by Knopf, and has won multiple honors since then, including the 2007 American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults award.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Judy Blume: FOREVER Banned, Forever Censored

Beloved young adult, middle grade, and adult author, Judy Blume, is no stranger to censorship. Throughout her career, Blume's books such as Forever, Blubber, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret have been banned from schools and libraries all over the country due to controversial material.

Blume spoke to NPR in recent weeks regarding banned reading, and books with real life topics like sexuality, smoking, and abuse. "[Censorship] is contagious, the desire to control everything in your children's lives, including what they read," Blume says. "But I think it's more than that. It's what we don't want our children to know, what we don't want to talk to our children about, and if they read it, they'll know it, or they'll question it."

The author published her first book, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo, in 1969. Since then, Blume has been named one of the most banned children's authors in the United States by the American Library Association, and the author has faced controversy over content related to body image, religion, divorce, rape, and many other topics.

Her 1973 novel Deenie describes a seventh grader's scary scoliosis diagnosis and the way Deenie copes with her medical issue, including whether or not her crush will find her new back brace repulsive. Among other things, the novel contains conversations regarding intimacy, masturbation, and menstruation. In 2004, Spring Hill Elementary in Brooksville, FL removed Deenie from public use. Many parents were outraged by the novel. A mother complained that "such content is not appropriate, in any form" at a middle school. Students were only able to check out Blume's book from the library with a written note of parental consent.

Are You There God? It's Me, Maragaret (1970) is one of Blume's most banned novels. The book follows sixth grader, Margaret, while she journeys to find a suitable a religion (with a Christian mother and Jewish father). Along the way, the narrator purchases her first bra, experiences her first period, and debates whether or not she should speak up to her friends with her different, independent opinion. Shortly after the book was published, an irate woman phone Blume and asked if she was a Communist, then hung up the phone. "I never did figure out if she equated Communism with menstruation or religion," Blume says on her website.

After surviving several literary confrontations, Blume joined the National Coalition Against Censorship, which was founded in 1974. The organization combines the efforts of over 50 non-profit arts, literary, and educational groups, as well as many individuals, in the fight to "promote freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression and oppose censorship it all its forms." NCAC has tackled controversy regarding hate speech, music, science, visual art, youth, the LGBT community and many other issues. Much of the time, the NCAC deals with book censorship among middle grades and elementary schools, and often Blume is a part of it.

As an author, Judy Blume continues to write about characters going through puberty, getting married, or simply trying to survive. Many of her books have been banned, but she remains an advocate for free speech, and even offers tips to kids, teachers, librarians, and writers about what to do if they face censorship. When it comes down to it, Blume is hopeful for change - the author notes on her website that censors might feel differently about her books if they read letters young adults had sent her. One of Blume's favorites:

Dear Judy,
I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am.
That's why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13

Sunday, December 4, 2011

LGBT Figures and Celebrities: Where are the Queer Biographies for Kids?

Steve Jobs - Walter Issacson's biography of the late, great inventor - has been at the top of book-selling charts for weeks. Other great biographies documenting the lives of Michelle Obama, Laura Hillenbrand, Keith Richards, Harvey Milk, and Mickey Mantle can be found at any local library or book store. Of the leaders listed above, however, only Harvey Milk's story is available in the form of a children's biography. Not only that, Milk's story is one of the rare LGBT biographies available for children.

Teacher Dana Rudolph wanted her third graders to read about Frank Kameny, one of the founding fathers of the gay rights movement, before the class went to a memorial service near the U.S. Capitol this year. But there is no kid's biography available for Kameny, or any other leader in the movement. Rudolph writes in Bay Windows that she is disappointed for two important reasons - historical and practical.

One: "Because children deserve to know about all of the major civil rights movements of our time," Rudulph says. "They deserve to learn, when relevant, if and how people's significant relationships and struggles against inequality impacted their lives, no matter what the reason for their fame." Teachers have the desire to educate their students about major historical events, and need the resources to do so.

Two: "For young people who are LGBT or questioning, or who have LGBT parents, it is important to see LGBT people achieving in many areas of life." How can teachers tell kids to believe in their dreams when information about LGBT role models and their accomplishments are not readily available? More than that, teaching students of every sexual orientation provides awareness, knowledge, and, ultimately, acceptance.

In 2009, the National School Climate Survey found that students in schools with queer-friendly curricula were "less likely to report hearing homophobic remarks or negative comments about gender expression, and less likely to feel unsafe or experience victimization because of their sexual orientation and gender expression." Knowledge is power, and students who learn about the diversity of religions, ethnicities, backgrounds, and sexualities are more likely to accept others as different.

After all, that's why California now requires gay history lessons in schools. As of July 2011, all California schools will begin incorporating lessons about LGBT historical figures and events, and will continue to do so from here on out. New textbooks are being printed across the state to include information about crucial queer milestones. Besides the obvious need for inclusive knowledge, the New York Times also notes the law was promoted in big part "to combat bullying of gay and lesbian students."

"There is an increasing awareness in the public and among elected officials that we have to do something to address the problems of bullying, and the negative consequences" for queer students," says director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, Carolyn Laub. While some politicians like Republican assemblyman, Tim Donelly, oppose the idea, the widespread response has been positive and hopeful.

"This is definitely a step forward," says Mark Leno, California's first openly gay male state senator. "We are failing our students when we don't teach them about the broad diversity of human experience."

But as Rudolph points out, this new curricula would be much simpler in the younger grades if LGBT biographies for children were made available. She urges publishers - both independent houses and big time distributors like Scholastic (who have printed queer fiction in the past) - to embrace the demand. "We may not have won full LGBT equality yet," Rudolph says, "but we have had many wins along the way. It is time that we start to write LGBT history -- for all ages -- and pass on some of those victories to the next generation."

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Mic. A Stage. A Pen. A Page.

For me, there's nothing as powerful as kids finding hope in the arts. Slam poetry embodies performance, literature, creativity, and teamwork, and no one does it better than Chicago: a low-income high school junior puts down a gun to join a family of poets who speak the truth about everyday life. A 17-year-old girl works through her difficult childhood through words in a notebook. An inner city African-American teen teaches his peers about respecting women in spoken word. This is Louder Than A Bomb.

Now in its 10th year, the annual Chicago event is the largest youth poetry slam in the world. Louder Than a Bomb - founded by Youth Chicago Authors artists, Kevin Coval and Anna West - has a simple, but powerful goal: "bring teens together across racial, gang, and social economic line" where young adults embrace "self-expression and community via poetry, oral story-telling, and hip-hop spoken word." Every year, teenagers from Forest Park to Evanston to the West Loop to 116th street come together to share their words and their stories. Each team presents four individual poems and a four-person group piece.

In 2010, directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel released their documentary Louder Than A Bomb, which followed four high school teams as they prepared for the 2008 Chicago competition: poets Nate, Adam, Nova, and a group called "the Steinmenauts." Four unique story lines from four different points of view.

For everyone in Louder Than A Bomb, Nate Marshall is a legend. He's been in the competition the longest, and leaves his audience overwhelmed by his passion and speech. In 2007, he performed a poem called "Look." Onlookers jumped to their feet, cheering the poet's lines like, "my ego is Langston huge"..."but a mic, a stage, a pen, a page helped end my rage" (see a slightly older Marshall perform the piece on the New York Times website). Marshall is a son, uncle, brother, friend, but mainly, a teacher. He offers his words to his peers, but in turn, wants them to learn how to fully express themselves. 2008 was the last year he could compete. Instead of concentrating on winning his final competition, he dedicated his time to the younger members of his team. Marshall wanted the students to learn the raw sense of slam poetry so they could continue to work, write, and teach each other long after he left the school. Slamming is about a group effort.

Even so, his most famous line speaks for itself: "like FDR's New Deal, I'm gonna be the first spoken word brotha with a"

On the other side of the city, the Steinmetz "Steinmenauts" team enjoyed its first place win in the first year they entered, 2007. Many of the team's poets have nothing else but poetry - not a good family life, money situation, or grade point average. But they have words and each other.

In the 2008 competition, the Steinmenauts group piece called "Counting Graves" brought a whole new meaning to spoken word. When the students took the stage (in person and through the documentary), they "wrest[ed] us into the mind of a teen grieving his mother and brother murdered in a drive-by intended for him," said Kamaria Porter of Filmspotting. "This piece, more than any other, embodies the purpose and possibilities of slam poetry." Watch the original footage of "Counting Graves" here.

Louder Than A Bomb brings students of different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and families together to share mutual words and experiences. Judges rate their poems, but most teens are there for the friendship, the passion, and the stories. As the competitors tell each other every year, "The point is not the point. The point is the poetry."

The 2012 Louder Than a Bomb finals are March 10, 2012 at The Vic.

Check out the film's website for information about upcoming screenings.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Tale of Two Professional Hats

For many authors, the goal is just to get published. Others aim higher - writers shoot for novels on the New York Times Best Seller List, contracts with big time print houses, and a name that's familiar in their literary genre. Award-winning author, Lauren Oliver, has achieved all that before the age of 29. And to top it off? She recently co-founded a book development company that has gained massive media attention.

As an author, she goes by Lauren Oliver. As an editor, she goes by her real name, Lauren Schechter. The reason for the double name, she told Bloomberg Businessweek, is because "she wants to keep the roles of author and editor/entrepreneur separate."

As an author, Oliver's first two books, Before I Fall (2010) and Delirium (2011), have both been on the NY Times Best Seller List, and Fox 2000 has picked up both novels to be made into film. On the editor side of things, Schechter's new company Paper Lantern Lit is growing. PPL is about "building new voices," she says. The editor describes the company as a "literary incubator" for developing fresh author voices.

Paper Lantern Lit is interested in three principles: "versatility, integrity, and passion." Co-founders Schechter and Lexa Hillyer have made their organization stand out in many ways, the most distinguishing that PPL is a literary developing company, not a publishing house. In short, Oliver and Hilley explain on the PPL website that they "are interested in making books...not in manufacturing books - the paper, the glue, the covers, the pages. [They] leave that to the publishing giants. Instead, [they] develop stories. Paper Lantern Lit collaborates with great up-and-coming writers to help bring those stories to life."

So far, both of Oliver's/Schechter's career paths are blooming individually, but also cross each other. Oliver's latest book, Liesl and Po, just hit the middle grade lit world in September and Pandemonium (the second book in her Delirium trilogy) is due out in February; Schechter's company has sold more than 20 young adult books since its origin in 2010. When it comes down to it, though, the author/editor just cares about good stories, good books, and good authors. "A writer, at base," she said in a recent interview, "must understand people."

Check out the Paper Lantern Lit website here.
Pre-Order a copy of Pandemonium here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cyber Monday! Shop at Independent Bookstores for Gender Bending Material

As holiday gift shopping shifts into full swing, a wide variety of new ideas appear on everyone's wish lists. Fancy electronics. Gift cards. Gender neutral picture books.

Children's books that don't follow the hetero-normative, gender-stereotyped households can't often be found in big chain stores like Barnes & Noble. But independent shops like The Book Beat in Oak Park, IL will frequently provide a wider range of viewpoints and content. For example, Mary Hoffman's 2011 The Great Big Book of Families. The picture book features illustrations of the different ways families might be put together: working mom, working dad, two fathers, adoptive parents, different incomes, different foods, different religions, different ethnicities. In fact, the book starts by showing an example of what households often don't look like: a blonde smiling family with a picket fence.

For 29 years, The Book Beat has sold books that other companies won't, particularly children and teen books with an LGBT theme. The shop says in their store statement that they "hope to continue offering our community a creative bookstore that is a brighter artistic alternative to the cookie-cutter retailers."

At The Book Beat, you can find other refreshing titles like Cheryl Kilodavis' My Princess Boy, Alex Sanchez's Boyfriends with Girlfriends, and Leslea Newman's Donovan's Big Day (about a boy who gets ready to serve as ringbearer at his two moms' upcoming wedding).

Venture farther into Chicago to Unabrigdged Bookstore, which has the following categories on their website: Sale Books, Coffee Table Books, Gay Books, Children's Books. On their home page, they state that "it's safe to say that Unabridged is the only bookstore in the Chicago area where a shopper can buy the latest issue of a gay magazine, a copy of children's classic Goodnight Moon or newest title, and pick up the latest literary fiction & non-fiction sensation, all in one stop."

Julia Music, a queer Chicago mom, recently spoke with Pride Source about shopping for LGBT children's books. Regarding her son's favorite picture book, Liz Garton Scanlon's All the World, Music said that "it's important for children to see their world reflected in the literature they read."

Small Business Saturday seemed to be successful all over the country. Do yourself a favor and extend that tradition into Cyber Monday tomorrow - check out some local establishments' websites.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Dragon Lady Has Left the Building

Beloved young adult author, Anne McCaffrey, passed away on Monday. Many fans, readers, and writers were sad to see "The Dragon Lady" go. She was 85, and one of the most influential female voices in science fiction.

McCaffrey had an amazing following throughout her career. Her first trio of books were intended to be just that, a science fiction trilogy: Dragonflight (1968), Dragonquest (1970), and The White Dragon (1978). But McCaffrey quickly gained attention and a heavy fan base. Her Harper Hall Trilogy appeared almost immediately: Dragonsong (1976), Dragonsinger (1977), and Dragondrums (1979). The public named McCaffrey "The Dragon Lady" around that time.

Besides the overwhelming success of her Dragonriders of Pern series, McCaffrey also wrote many successful works of fiction, including her 1967 novel, Restoree, which the New York Times called "a satirical work of science fiction for adults [which] lampooned the genre's portrayal of women as helpless chattel." Of the novel, the author said that "she wanted to write a female character who wouldn't be the victim and need a hero to save her, but who would be a hero herself and fight for her own survival." In all her books, the author pushes for female heroines and agency for women.

After all, McCaffrey was the first woman to win the top two prizes for science fiction writing: a Hugo, which she won for her 1968 Weyr Search and a Nebula for her 1969 Dragonriders. Both novellas later became a part of the Pern series.

The author once wrote in her 1977 Dragonsinger (to the female protagonist), "There's something wrong in not appreciating one's own special abilities, my girl. Find your own limitations, yes, but don't limit yourself with false modesty."

Readers and writers will miss McCaffrey, a strong female voice and a unique author. The author passed away at her home in Ireland, where she had lived since the 1970s. A home she called "Dragonhold," because she says it had been paid for by dragons.

To read more about the inspirational author, check out Robin Roberts' biography, Anne McCaffrey: A Life With Dragons.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: Robert Ward's "Shedding Skin"

Robert Ward channeled a bit of future David Sedaris in his 1972 novel, Shedding Skin. In a series of comical but heartbreaking vignettes, Ward tells the story of a young man named Bobby, from adolescence through the first stages of adulthood. From the basement of a Baltimore home to the mountainside cabin of a crazy family named the Stumps to a hippie commune in Haight-Ashbury (in a world that reveals hints of queer identity), the protagonist truly discovers himself in the most ridiculous coming-of-age story I have ever read. As the author says in the book's final chapters, he "just wanted to find a good skin that [he] could wrap up in, be safe in. Now they are trying to sell [him] another new one - the radical skin." Amid drunken peers and 60s counterculture, Bobby forms a unique worldview.

Structure: 5 out of 5 stars

Ward sets up the perfect book. Chapters are short, powerful, humorous, and action-packed. While, at the beginning, the reader spends a lot of time wondering what is fiction and what is fact (i.e. was carrying the Taco sculpture a life event or a drug-induced fantasy?), the reader quickly pushes aside logic and just enjoys the tumultuous story.

Character: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bobby is the sole narrator, which works out just fine. The reader doesn't become too attached to anyone else. The protagonist is good company, and he meets a crazy crew. Characters are introduced and then left by the side of the road (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally). However, the reader rarely feels the loss of a new friend or lover because Ward so quickly brings in a new point of interest. Throughout the book, the author will reference a past character and the reader will remember with fond nostalgia about an earlier chapter, but then move forward, the same way the protagonist does. In this way, the story still feels whole.

My only wish was to hear more about Bobby's father in the book's conclusion. The author draws such powerful father-to-son parallels in the beginning, but then only touches on those points at the end. The reader walks away satisfied, but would have enjoyed an ending tie.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

The protagonist is a sensational storyteller. He is witty, charming, and mostly a nerd. From grade school onward, Bobby encounters influential people who he has determined are geniuses and therefore hold all of life's secrets. When they disappoint him, he moves on. The narrator is never dishonest and often overanalyzes situations in a way that is both endearing and a comfort.

Shedding Skin is simultaneously laugh out loud entertaining and historically intriguing. The reader watches a boy find his own two feet without any stereotypical YA drama. In fact, the novel is anything but predictable. Overall, a delightful read.

The book was published in 1972 by Harper & Row, and won the National Endowment for the Arts award in the same year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Overcoming All Odds: Lauren Myracle

The dust has begun to settle on the National Book Awards scandal. Lauren Myracle was in the running, then pulled, and once Thanhha Lai won in the Young People's Literature category on Wednesday, few people have mentioned Myracle. But her novel, Shine, basked in the National Book Awards news coverage (a.k.a. free publicity), and as an author, Myracle is selling books more than ever before.

Throughout high school, college, and even post-graduation, Myracle met people who insisted she should forget writing. A professor once told her not to bother joining an advanced English course because she wasn't good enough. But Myracle wouldn't take it. "I decided that teacher could tell me I couldn't take her class," Myracle told a Chicago audience at Anderson's Bookshop on Sunday. "But she couldn't tell me not to become a writer."

After graduate school, the Examiner wrote, the author was rejected 118 times before she found an editor who would pay attention to her work. "I wrote [that first novel] five times in a two-year period," Myracle said. Finally, she got a piece of good news: Abrams Books for Young Readers publisher, Susan Van Metre, offered the Shine author a contract. The novel, Kissing Kate, hit bookstores in 2003.

In the last nine years, Myracle has published over twenty works, including ttyl, the first novel ever to be written entirely in instant messages. In 2009, the American Library Association said that the author's books were the most challenged of the year due to their real and often intense scenes of alcohol abuse, sexual encounters, and homosexuality. Even without the added scandal associated with the National Book Awards, Myracle's latest novel, Shine, continues to ruffle feathers in it's own way. Librarians and parents have already protested the book's story line - a teenage girl who tries to discover the who/where/when/why of her gay best friend's murder.

Forget controversy. Forget discouragement. Myracle's two- cents? "Other people tell you you're foolish to want to do [something], but don't give up." With the number of factors working against her, Myracle writes what she wants no matter who says it won't sell, and still manages to give many YA authors a run for their money.

"I live in my own little world," the author says. "But its ok, they know me here."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Occupational Hazards: Debt, Jobs, and Broomsticks

Something a little different today. Here is a short piece about one of my first jobs in the city:

I really needed a job. I was willing to take pretty much anything.

Chicago winter had hit me hard. I had an old car, a drafty apartment, and an empty bank account. The snow had begun the weekend I moved and hadn’t stopped. From a friend of a friend, I had picked up some temp part-time work for minimum wage, but I needed something else soon or I wasn’t going to make it through my first season in the city.

After my shift one night, a co-worker from a different department approached me to say she had an opening for a bizarre position at her other company. It wasn’t much: child wrangler meets house manager for student performances of "The Wizard of Oz."

The job was simple. Wait next to the theater door for a school bus. Then hop on, make some announcements, and wrestle the kids into a line. Also, the El train will be rolling overhead, making it impossible to shout instructions and causing many of the kids to scream. And it will likely be snowing or raining. Pay is $30 a day, before taxes.

“I’ll take it.”

My first day of work, two buses pulled up late, another got lost, one school brought a student with accessible needs and the elevator stopped working, and a first grader threw up in the lobby. I walked six blocks in the rain to bring the show materials back to the main office and then scrambled back into the storm to bum a train ride home. On the way, someone shouted to “move out of the way because I was so ugly I was stopping traffic.” Needless to say, I couldn’t believe I took this crazy job. I was cold, struggling with debt, and working ridiculous hours helping middle-schoolers learn what “single file line” means. To be honest, I was terrified. What if something happened to one of the kids on my watch? What if I caused a traffic accident with the buses? What if I was simply horrible at this position? For now, though, I didn’t have any other options.

Fast forward to Week #5. Back-to-back shows in the morning. In the span of twenty-five minutes, we needed to get 350 elementary school kids out of the theater, onto the correct buses, clear the street, coordinate the next round of schools, and usher 350 different children to their seats inside. With the help of the office staff, we made it just before the second show was slated to begin. Miracle of miracles. I knelt down to take a breather in the lobby.

The doors inside the theater opened and a preschooler walked out, crying. His chaperone couldn’t calm him down. The two of them circled the space and finally sat on the chairs in the corner. I walked over to say hello.

“He’s scared of the Wicked Witch,” the chaperone explained while the boy stared straight ahead, sniffling and avoiding eye contact.

I sat down next to him and said that I was scared of spiders.

He looked up and blinked. “Big spiders?” he asked, and wiped his runny nose on the sleeve of his jacket.

“All spiders. Big. Little. Slimy. Hairy. I’m scared of all kinds of spiders.”

The three of us sat in silence for a moment.

“Want to know a secret?” I whispered. The boy nodded, not quite sure if he trusted me. “Sometimes, I talk to spiders, too. Just to say hi. They never talk back, but I imagine what they would say anyway. Sometimes I think they might ask about what music I am listening to or what movie I like to watch on the weekends. I talk to lots of spiders. It makes them seem less scary. Does that make me weird?” He nodded.

From the side entrance, the actor playing the Wicked Witch came out and waited for his cue. In the florescent glow of the lobby lights, his green make-up looked pale instead of sickly, and he scratched his nose with the tip of his pointy hat. I grinned and motioned for him to come over.

The actor sat down on the carpet and inspected his broom. The boy’s lip quivered, but he didn’t move from his chair. The Wicked Witch continued to play with the bristles and the boy looked on. Inside the house, the piano tune to “We’re Off To See The Wizard” bled through the double doors. After a moment, the boy reached out to touch the broom, too. Both boys, the actor and the preschooler, rubbed the rough, itchy broom hairs in a rhythmic, almost therapeutic motion.

“Your nose looks like mine.” The boy felt the witch's black cape in the same rhythmic way with his fingertips.

The Wicked Witch stood up. “I’ll wave to you from the stage, OK?” The boy nodded and the actor ducked in to make his entrance. Without another question, the boy stood up and walked back inside, ready for whatever the play had in store.

That week, I got a phone call from the temp agency – they had found me a full-time job at a law firm answering phones. Business attire. Thirty minutes for lunch. Could I start Monday?

I looked outside at the snow and sleet and rambling El train, and respectfully declined the offer. The job at the theater was hardly a paycheck, but I liked the challenge. My duties were always different and sometimes daunting, and that was exactly what I wanted. There was no use being afraid of chaos when I loved the excitement. Soon enough, I’m sure I could fight my way out of debt. In the meantime, I had kids and broomsticks to wrangle.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jumping the YA Bandwagon

Since the recent explosion of many hits in the young adult fiction world, several publishers with mainly adult or children's reading material have stepped into the YA genre. Chicago-based publishing house Albert Whitman and Company (most famous for the Boxcar Children series) has been printing children's lit since 1919. This was the first year the company launched a young adult line, "Albert Whitman Teen," which included only two titles: Michael Ford's The Poisoned House and Anna Perera's Guantanamo Boy. Coming Spring 2012 will be Anna Perera's The Glass Collector and Deborah Blumenthal's The Lifeguard. The company says their list of YA titles are "smart, fearless books that explore unchartered territory in the world around teens and in their inner lives as well."

Angry Robot Books, on the other hand, has been printing adult science fiction and fantasy books since 2009. They just announced that, come September 2012, the company will also launch a YA line called "Strange Chemistry," with the hopes to print one YA book a month from there on out.

Many publishing houses are embracing the young adult genre, and it looks like other companies will soon follow!

Friday, November 18, 2011

So It's Like "The Office"...But With Books?

For some teens, the initials BFF stand for "best friends forever." For many others recently, BFF stands for "Backlit Fiction Forward," a new and innovative publishing company for the young adult audience.

"Backlit is a next-generation digital media publishing company that creates eBooks and interactive apps based on original franchises," says the company's Facebook page. It "incubates teen serials as episodic apps and film and television properties." In other words, Backlit makes the equivalent of sitcom eBooks, and release each episode as it is written. Teens then have the opportunity to stay connected more often - they can follow an eBook series the same way they can a television series. "We are reinventing publishing by shortening the path from writer to reader," says Jack Giarraputo, film producer of "Heavyweights," "The Waterboy," and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry" (among many others), and Backlit's creative adviser and lead investor.

The company's first series were recently released: Borrowing Abby Grace; The Start-Up; and The Dig: Zoe and Zeus.

Backlit recognized the habits of today's young adult audience, and saw the untapped opportunity in turning one more thing into a constant supply-and-demand. "Focused on Millennial readers with episodic attention spans," says Market Watch, "Backlit ebook downloads will be released exclusively digitally every few weeks, yet offer significant narrative depth."

The company has even thought further, past the books themselves as a product. They have become not only a self-marketing tool, but also encouraged a kind of "audience participation" to keep readers hooked. Teens will have the upcoming opportunity to win "character walk-on" roles in ebooks, and the Mentors Program will launch in the next weeks, "whereby the publisher will mentor and crowdsource new YA authors to write new episodes."

Backlit has tapped into the growing trends of ebooks and young adults, and supplied a unique experience for teen readers. Upcoming series include Young Americans, Future Perfect, and The Defiants, to be released early next year.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Bittersweet Victory

The 2011 National Book Award Winners were announced last night. Audiences applauded the well-deserved wins:

Fiction: Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones
Non-fiction: Stephan Grenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Poetry: Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split
Young People's Literature: Thanhha Lai's Inside Out & Back Again

Five finalists had been chosen for each category. Each finalist won $1,000 and a medal, and each winner received $10,000.

I still wonder, though. After everything that happened in the young adult category with Lauren Myracle's Shine, did Franny Billingsley even have a chance with Chime? (Get caught up with the backstory here). Had too much dust already been kicked up with the two novels? Did the controversy skew the judges final decisions? While National Book Award higher-ups insist that the mix-up "will never happen again," did Chime getting thrown into an unavoidable debate ruining Billingsley's chances?

Regardless, Lai's award-winning YA novel is worthy of the honor and praise it has received. And hopefully the next time Billingsley and Myracle find themselves on the finalist lists for major awards, they will get a fair judging.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chapter One: "Call me Ishmael."

Books are either memorable or they're not. You either finish reading them or you can't. You either recommend stories or you don't. But the first line certainly makes a difference.

"124 was spiteful" - opening line to Tony Morrison's Beloved.

"All this happened, more or less" - beginning of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

And how could you refuse: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." (Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex)

First lines prepare you for the story that almost never unfolds the way you thought it would. You meet the narrator who may or may not be reliable. You read that first line and decide, "Am I committed to this book?"

InfoPlease has compiled a list of the 100 best first lines, ranging from 18th century English prose to 1980s gritty text.

Leave a comment with your favorite first book lines!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Read and Write in the World's Top Ten Literary Cities

In their September 2011 issue, National Geographic posted an article about the top 10 literary cities in the world. You can read about recommended travel sites for writers, and about novels that were penned in and about those cities.

In Stockholm, Sweden (#6 on the list), travelers can visit the many places described in Stieg Larsson's popular book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as well as the statue dedicated to Pippi Longstocking author, Astrid Lindgren. On the way out, you can stop by City Hall to check out the location for the annual Nobel Prize dinners.

Number 9 is Melbourne, Australia. There you will find the 200-year-old State Library of Victoria, and exhibits in three galleries. In the back, visit the La Trobe Reading Room, a massive octagon-shaped space covered in engraved quotes by famous authors and classic thinkers. The weekly Saturday book market can be found in Fed Square, close to a bar called the Drunken Poet, where portraits of well-known authors hang on the walls.

If nothing else, stay the night at the Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon (#7) to get the "Books by Your Bedside" package. This includes a "personal tour of the lodging place's 2,000-volume library, made up entirely of signed books by author guests."

Read the full list of cities and sites here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: Kate Cann's "Consumed"

In many current young adult books, settings include either modern-day reality or fantasy life. Rarely do they include both. Kate Cann's 2011 Consumed tells the story of teenager, Rayne, and her new home at a place called Morton's Keep. When I first began reading, I assumed I was starting a book about witches and spells and evil spirits. Well, I was, but the reader learns halfway into the book that just outside of the main action is regular old London, full of coffee shops and gossip and television. Plenty of normal day-to-day events are happening all over the world.

But in Morton's Keep, ancient pagan spirits are about to be released, after being contained for hundreds of years. No one is sure what or whom is behind it, but one thing is clear. Rayne has some sort of connection with the only one who can stop it: a pagan goddess everyone calls "the green lady." Non-stop action and infinite questions consume the reader until the last word.

Structure: 4 out of 5 stars

From page 1, I was intrigued. When the story begins, Rayne has been caught up in some violent love triangle, which concludes in a dungeon fire. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg for both violence and love triangles, as well as a mess of confusion, betrayal, and unlikely friendships. Cann keeps her chapters short. There is never a lull in the story line, and the reader continues to get caught up in the ancient myths.

Though I discovered after I finished the book that Consumed is a sequel to Possessed (and I assume much of the exposition is contained there), I would have liked to see a bit more back story for the new reader here. Many characters were introduced and events referenced right off the bat, and I found myself rereading some pages in the intro chapters to stay afloat. The story itself trapped me in a nice way, but it would have been a smoother read with a couple of extra detailed paragraphs bringing the new reader up-to-date. Overall, though, a great story.

Characters: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Rayne and her partner-in-crime, Ethan, lead most of the book, but a group of other characters round out the novel for a fulfilling read. The housekeeper, Mrs. Driver, seems like a background figure, but then takes hold of the last third of the book. The new house manager, Miss Skelton, continues to surprise and aggravate everyone in Morton's Keep until she takes a brutal shift halfway through the story. St. John Arlington, Possessed's antagonist, is an easy write-off as seemingly harmless, having been put to shame at the end of Book One, but then also reappears. And, of course, Ethan's crew of fire festival boys become necessary to the story and to everyone's survival.

Cann gives the reader an incredible group of characters. No one is ever certain who the enemy is, which keeps the cast of misfits on their toes. In a surprising act of agency, the author also leaves the fate of Morton's Keep in the hands of the teenagers; the adults in the story all step back and let the young adults lead.

In the last chapters, Cann references Miss Skelton's eerie past, as well as her niece, Tara's. If the author churns out one more read to make it a trilogy, I would be eager to hear more about some of the darker figures' pasts, and hear the "how" and "why" of their place in Book Two.

Voice: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Rayne dominates as the protagonist. She is confident without being cocky, she is cautious without being a wimp. Ethan relies heavily on her to keep the action moving. While a romantic tone follows the story line like a shadow, Rayne rarely lets any kind of stereotypical teenage girl (the kind often projected by the media) show. She is all business, albeit she doesn't mind the handsome company. While the reader trusts her, we don't quite know what is going on inside her head, particularly when she is consumed by sensations of evil.

That was one of the high points of Rayne's tale, honestly. She could walk into a room and feel something wrong, or approach a person and sense their dark thoughts - she is even drawn to different places in the woods or around the Morton's Keep grounds where help is needed, though she can't explain how. I love the way the reader and Rayne find those answers together. Again, I felt a little unknowing about Rayne for the first past of the book (where is her family, how did she get here, why is she alone - all things that were certainly explained in Possessed), but otherwise enjoyed her as the protagonist.

Cann has given readers a great story that isn't overwrought with romance, spells, or a dominating future government, though pieces of those themes do arise. Consumed is unique its place among other YA novels because it neither rejects nor fully embraces reality or fantasy. I recommend this book to readers interested in dark drama, adventure, paganism, and cultural myth.

Consumed was published in February 2011 by Scholastic.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Really Good Authors! Really Bad Titles

People tell you not to judge a book by its cover. Or, for that matter, to reject a book for its title. For many authors, though, creating a captivating title for a new novel is often one of the hardest steps in the writing process. And they are among good company.

The website Flavorwire is one of many to have recently published articles about some of the best worst first titles for famous novels of the past. For example, publishers weren't sure anyone would touch a book called Trimalchio in West Egg, but Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires didn't really work either. So they bounced around One the Road to West Egg. Then someone suggested Under the Red, White, and Blue, and, somewhere towards the end, The High-Bouncing Lover. Before it went to press, F. Scott Fitzgerald finally agreed that The Great Gatsby was the proper name for his new novel.

In the early 1800s, Jane Austen was pretty set on calling her second book First Impressions, but her publisher insisted Pride and Prejudice was more fitting.

William Golding first submitted his novel, Strangers from Within, to Faber and Faber for consideration. An editor suggested Lord of the Flies sounded more enticing.

Not all titles change because they lack aesthetic flare, however. Sometimes authors switch titles to remain unique. The phrase "catch-22?" The one we all use because of Joseph Heller's book of the same name? It was originally Catch-11, but Heller didn't want anyone confusing his novel with the recent release of the original Ocean's Eleven film. Then Heller tried for Catch-18. But Leon Uris' Mila 18 had also just been released. So Catch-22 it was.

Suddenly all the silly names you thought of for your first piece don't seem so strange, do they?

Read the full list of crazy titles here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sendak, Seuss, and Silverstein: Back in the Game

Who says childhood can't go on forever? New books by beloved authors Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein have recently been published. Of the three, only Sendak is around to see his newest book hit stores. But all three new reads have excited fans and been well received.

As with many authors in the past and present, Sendak, Seuss, and Silverstein have seen their fair share of support and disapproval, during their lives and posthumously. Sendak, for instance, met strong criticism with his 1963 classic Where The Wild Things Are. Adults roared that the picture book was too scary for youngsters, even after it won the annual Caldecott Medal in 1964. "It is always the adults we have to contend with," said Harper & Row editor, Ursula Nordstrom. "Most children under the age of 10 will react creatively to the best work of a truly creative person."

Sendak, now 83, just published Bumble-Ardy, about a nine-year-old pig who has never had a birthday party. The opening illustration shows the enthusiastic main character proudly showcasing a newspaper with the top headline: "We Read Banned Books!" Time Magazine calls Bumble-Ardy "yet another mildly subversive children's book by a writer known for pushing - if not the absolute limits, at least poking around their edges." This is Sendak's first written and illustrated book in almost 30 years.

As for Seuss and Silverstein, readers are happy to see the collection of old and dusty words back out in the world. Seuss' new The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories includes seven short stories that were first featured in magazines in 1950 and 1951, and are newly illustrated. Fans can read "Steak for Supper" and "The Strange Shirt Spot," among others.

Silverstein's Every Thing On It features 145 previously unpublished poems. The collection closes with a bittersweet couplet called "When I Am Gone," which resonates differently now that the well-known author has passed:

"When I am gone what will you do?
Who will write and draw for you?
Someone smarter - someone new?
Someone better --maybe YOU"

All three authors have contributed in major ways to the scope of children's picture books. They have inspired readers and writers, and will continue to do so as their books live on. As Seuss wrote in I can Read With My Eyes Shut!, "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Make It Safer Project

After Dan Savage announced the It Gets Better campaign to provide support for struggling queer youth, the media exploded with video responses. President Obama posted a video about feeling out of place growing up, Sarah Silverman provided a brief and angry clip explaining that bullying stems partly from influential injustices like anti-gay marriage laws and Don't Ask Don't Tell, and Neil Patrick Harris submitted a video encouraging kids that being an individual is way cooler than being average because it makes you unique. A mass of other celebrities, adults, and youth (both queer and not) rallied for It Gets Better. Ninth grader Amelia Roskin-Frazee has taken a slightly different approach.

Roskin-Frazee, an out and proud 14-year-old, began a series of actions in her high school to support queer teens, like founding her school's GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) and representing the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network). Her latest idea is the Make It Safer Project.

With the funding from online donations, "the Make It Safer Project provides LGBT books about coming out and life as a queer teen to high school populations across the country," said LGBT entertainment blog Autostraddle. Roskin-Frazee puts together a shipment of ten modern inspirational queer YA novels and texts, and sends the books to high school GSA groups all over the US. She has strict instructions that the texts should only be left in school libraries if the groups are "sure that the library will keep them safe and available for all students."

Books include Nancy Garden's Annie On My Mind, David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy, and Chely Wright's Like Me.

The Make It Safer website is a valuable resource for LGBT teens as well, where readers can find stories of struggling peers or submit their own story. You can also see Roskin-Frazee's incredible list of LGBT efforts, including her work with the Give A Damn Campaign, Freedom to Marry, and ThinkB4USpeak. She turns 15-years-old soon.

Roskin-Frazee has accomplished more in the fight for LGBT rights than many politicians, and Dan Savage has transformed the online efforts to support gay teens. With the dual help of It Gets Better and Make It Safer, queer youth now have an abundance of resources that weren't available even two years ago.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Review: Lucy Christopher's "Stolen"

In modern film, television, and literature, a common reason for kidnapping is money. Some greedy thief demands funds from a rich parent or spouse before releasing a hostage. But sixteen-year-old Gemma Toombs has a different problem. When she is stolen from the Bangkok airport and dragged to a ranch in the middle of an Australian desert, her captor has no intention of ever letting her go. Twenty-something Tyler MacFarlane has stalked Toombs for over six years, and now he wants her all to himself. Forever.

Lucy Christopher's novel, Stolen, follows Toombs' excrutiating journey from a coffee shop in Bangkok to MacFarlane's homemade Australian mini-resort. Unlike the 2008 film Taken and other typical violent abduction stories, there is no sex slavery, no rape, no abuse, and no threats in Stolen. In a more terrifying tale of psychology, MacFarlane is simply trying to make Toombs fall in love with him so she will stay with him always.

Structure: 5 out of 5 stars

Christopher had the clever idea to present the novel as a 300-page letter from kidnapee to kidnapper. Toombs doesn't hold back - every moment of uncertainty, every hateful plan, every fleeting (but eerie) loving thought - she spells out exactly what happened in an attempt to deal with her horror. There are no chapters. The book isn't broken into two or three parts. Instead Toombs' letter just flows, with occasional page breaks when she falls asleep or gets overwhelmed. The reader feels Toombs' full gamut of emotions, and watches her story unfold.

Characters: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The majority of the novel revolves around Toombs and MacFarlane. The reader learns about the former's life back in London, and the latter's adventures in the wild. Both characters are dense and complicated, and the reader consumes both life stories. I would have liked to learn more about Toombs' relationship with her parents and best friend, Anna, and about MacFarlane's mother and childhood nanny. All five secondary characters are introduced in a number of ways, but only on a surface level. Overall, the story doesn't lack in character development, but there are certainly questions from the reader by the end of the book.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

While the reader only hears the protagonist's words, plenty of the antagonist's personality, fears, and past show through Toombs' detailed account. Both voices dominate the text in different ways, even if the story is told from just one perspective. At times, I crave to know more about Toombs, more than just her thoughts and the way her body reacts to fear and heat. If the reader could get a glimpse of Toombs' desires, her hopes for the future, her feelings toward her parents, Anna, and a previous love interest, Ben, we would relate to the main character on a more personal level. Overall, though, a strong character narrative.

Christopher has written a chilling story, one that makes you glance over your shoulder and wonder if a stranger is staring at you. I recommend this book for readers interested in thrillers and dramas, and look forward to more works from Christopher.

Stolen was published in 2009 by Scholastic.