About Me

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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Parental nonunits in children's literature

Agent Nathan Bransford commented on Leila Sales' Publisher's Weekly post about absent parents in children's/YA literature. He points out that it's common in classic English-language lit, giving examples from Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum, and others.

He also points out the fractured and imperfect nature of other present parental units in literature.

I had noticed something similar in teen demographic mangas. It seems that the first step in almost every case is to eradicate or hobble the parents. They're workaholics, alcoholics, dead, as good as dead, working overseas, divorced and irresponsible, or otherwise irrelevant.

Bransford defends the Rowlings of modern literature (whose teenage characters are orphans) against the charge of laziness by recalling how exciting it was as a young reader to follow the adventures of other young people taking on adult challenges, and winning (or surviving).

He also admits to writing a book about a young character with absent parents. It strikes me I am doing the same. I've decided (after reading The Hunger Games trilogy, with the lead character's parents variously dead, half-dead, absent, or powerless) to base less of my work in progress (wait, that's a stretch...) on orphanhood.

But the lead's parents are still dead and gone, and now I have Bransford's "In Defense of Dead/Absent Parents in Children's Literature" to justify my folly.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Blogure (like failure, only more public)

I started this blog in part because I love to read, and hate to forget. Specifically, I hate to forget where I read things I found interesting.

So it didn’t help when I read Carl Hiaasen’s YA novel (yes, my Indian name is Reads Like Teenager) Hoot. noticed something interesting about it, and then my sister-in-law gave us the Hunger Games trilogy.

(Brief note on Suzanne Collins’ awesomeness for now: [drools] the excitement surrounding her series is justified by the craft in the first 50 pages of the first book. 2nd brief note: I am so glad I didn’t start reading until I had all three books in hand. It would have driven me nuts to have to wait!)

So what’s the blogure about? Hiaasen’s really funny, and Hoot is, well, a hoot. It works on so many levels! (Read that in Homer Simpson’s voice, and if you get the reference, congratulations! You are my loser twin.)

But I noticed something a character did that didn’t make sense. And it irks me, because so much of the book seems so effortlessly good, so effective without resorting to patterns (the overlapping cascade of crises of a Rowling book, or, in a slightly different pattern) Collins’ series that I so want ro finish this very minute). Hiaasen manages to push the conflict in irregular and unpredictable directions – well, I didn’t predict them, any way – without any rupture from our current, real-life way of doing things.

(This is not to detract from fantasy and sci-fi, where coming up with new rules is part of the fun. Sure, it lets the author advance the plot by revealing a rule that doesn’t exist in our experience – the Quarter Quell in Collins’ Catching Fire, for example, or the traditions of the Triwizard Cup at Hogwarts – but that can only work if it’s credible, and if the reader is invested in how the rules affect the characters. Collins and Rowling ace that one.)

So I’m considering contacting the eminent Floridian, Mr. Hiaasen, and asking about this late turn of events in Hoot. It’s going to be awkward for me, because I don’t know is other work, I’m not published (Heck, I can’t even get a pair of chapter past myself!), and it’s a lousy way to introduce myself… [imagines]

Hi, Mr. famous author, I’m some jerk who read your latest book, and I think you screwed up on suchandsuch a scene.

See? Tone’s all wrong. Hard to make a good impression.

So that’s what’s bothering me. After reading Hoot, I thought about this, and then I got all three Hunger Games books dropped in my lap, and I devoured the first two, turned into one of Collins' zombies, and forgot what I meant to insult Hiaasen about.

I guess I'd better just keep my observations to myself.

Testing School Testing

Susan Engel, a professor of education and psychology at Williams College, published an op-ed in the NY Times today calling for, to coin a phrase, data driven testing.

While I like her points about the narrow "read" of standardized tests on student's abilities, and agree that better measures of students' abilities and teachers' effectiveness could be used, I have three problems with her solution.

Professor Engel is realistic about this, in an offhanded way. She scolds the reading public for accepting "expediency" as the reason for sticking with the current tests. She calls them easy to administer, which would mean that they're also cheaper than less easy alternatives. (Probably - except that testing companies are for-profit enterprises, and the schools have been their captives, especially since NCLB.)

In the current slashing and burning of school funding, I think the case for more expensive tests will be laughed out of the court of public opinion, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors.

When I was teaching, I remember being scolded about how I just didn't understand parents' concerns, and that standardized testing was a way to be fair to parents and allow them to correct problems in their children's education. I've seen it used as a bludgeon by the state, and by other sources of funding dependent on test scores, but not as a tool by parents. 

The testing methods Professor Engel proposes sound great to me, as a former teacher, but nearly impossible to score equitably across states, districts in a state, or even schools in a district.

With so much currently tied into score comparisons (teacher promotion and retention, school restructuring, to-the-top racing), there's little realistic expectation that the standardized test will go the way of the carbon-dated.

3-range of skills testable in multiple-choice
Professor Engel makes one more assertion I'd challenge. I could enumerate more problems with standardized, multiple-choice testing than she does in her piece, because that's not her point. However, it is possibly to test higher-level cognitive functions than simple memorization.

The way she puts it, "students are quizzed on the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year," but I used to work in assessment, and I am pretty sure we managed to design assessments of other cognitive functions than memory.

By allowing students one correct choice, two viable distractors, and one clearly wrong choice, and by asking students to do more than remember the year of the Gettysburg Address, it is possible to access their judgment, understanding, analytical skills, even a portion of their creativity, in tests that - to repeat the professor's accusation - are expedient.

I don't think that describes most tests public school students take for their states, and I don't like them to come only at the end of the year, so I'm hardly an advocate of the status quo in testing. (In fact, I used to work for a very good little company that sold formative testing services - helping teachers track student achievement throughout the year - until it was swallowed up by one of the big five, no - four, wait - now it's three major educational publishers in the US.)

I think I will talk about these "alternative" - maybe the term I'm looking for is "better" - tests with my kids' principal. I bet the good teachers are already doing things like this in their classrooms, and since there's little to no chance of the states and federal government replacing completely-filling-in-the-appropriate-circle with Professor Engel's much more interesting and educationally meaningful tests, I think that's where the better testing will stay for now.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tamora Pierce, In the Hands of the Goddess

A couple of weeks ago, I finished In the Hands of the Goddess, the second of Tamora Pierce's vintage (but not tired) tween swords-n-sorcery fantasy series Song of the Lioness. As with the first book, I found world-building and names to be unimaginative, and description inexplicably weighted toward eye and hair color.

Still, the story succeeds on its own terms. Alana continues to learn how to become a knight, and works toward the feared Ordeal that will mark her achievement. That makes a nice structure for the book and for the series. She also has interesting developments with various royalty (all interesting individuals!), rough soldiers twice her size who come to respect her skills, and a goddess.

The outcome of her various concerns is never assured, and the quality of every main character's -um- character is well more than two-dimensional.

As an adult, and a wannabe YA fiction author, I read this with a critical eye for craft, and come away pretty impressed. It's not high art, and it's not as good or original as much else you'll find, but Pierce really nails her character development, and once she gets past the decorative descriptions, they really come alive. I'm especially fond of Sir Miles, whose intentions are opaque to me, but whom Alana trusts at every turn, and of the knight Alex, once squire to her archenemy in this book.

Pierce also does a great job with battle scenes. She doesn't dwell on numbers and formations, but focuses believably and vividly on personal experience, including a very effective rendering of the fog of war. Maybe if you study Medieval crossbow tactics as a hobby, or reenact Hastings every even year, you'd be dissatisfied, but from a general fantasy perspective, this really stands up.

Alana is disguised as Alan for most of the book, and manages to juggle budding romantic interests (I won't say with who) despite this. It's a real balancing act, and the stress of it is worked nicely into the plot.

This doesn't crackle with freshness or originality on many levels, but the series offers a believable and positive female lead, one I would have gladly read about had I ran into this series when I was of the right age.

A few years before Pierce published the first of these, I was reading Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series, to which I compare this. McCaffrey invested more in world-building, which I like, but less in character development than Pierce in this series. Both are very appropriate for tween readers of fantasy.

There is a bit of graphic violence and (socially accepted) teen drinking, though not to excess, in Pierce's series. I know this can be an issue for some parents. I would feel comfortable with my 9 year old son reading this. (He just finished the Eragon trilogy (Paolini), is close to finishing the Amber Spyglass (Pullman) - which has gay angels, and the Hobbit.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Muslims versus Jews" email

I love my aunt and uncle. But they watch Fox.

They recently sent me an email you might have seen going around comparing Muslims and Jews, centering on the number of Nobel prizes each group has won, and on vague, misleading or inaccurate, and ridiculously decontextualized generalizations about propensities toward violence.

Have you seen it? Here are a few gems:

The Jews are NOT promoting brain washing children in military training camps, teaching them how to blow themselves up and cause maximum deaths of Jews and other non Muslims. The Jews don't hijack planes, nor kill athletes at the Olympics, or blow themselves up in German restaurants.

There is NOT one single Jew who has destroyed a church. There is NOT a single Jew who protests by killing people.

Note the artful use of capitals, the clever repetition of the phrase "NOT one single." Just in case the meaning of "one" was unclear.

Recently, the UK debated whether to remove The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it 'offends' the Muslim population which claims it never occurred. It is not removed as yet. However, this is a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving into it.
OK, I'm not sure it's metonymy, but I wanted to show off by using the word. Probably the above phrasing is just laziness. The whole UK debated this? A quick search online turns up debunkers and promoters of this meme. I guess people just pick a side and run with the facts that fit their conclusion. The analysis on Snopes does a good job of confirming the predictable - that this is a tempest in a teacup, and a much more interesting and less alarming piece of news than the fantasy version. It boils down to one school reconsidering the teaching of controversial topics in a history class in light of a study on the effects of such teaching methods.

It's almost comforting to think of the world in Glenn Beck diagrams instead. Certainly, it's easier to understand between commercial breaks. It settles my stomach to compare my commute, my sore knee, and my credit card debt to Adolf Hitler.

Back to my massive wimp-out. I wanted to send this reply to the whole mailing list, but I really hate getting emails like that, so why send one? .

So here's the reply I didn't send.


I feel that the intended conclusions of this email are unworthy of anyone with humane intent. I am sure I will see the contents recycled and repackaged as part of an equally loathsome accusation of the imaginary international Jewish conspiracy.

And in the meantime, several thousand emails will be concocted and forwarded around the circles that receive these contents gladly, condemning me for my beliefs, calling me inhumane, stupid, a coward, a criminal, un-American, and counting the achievements and crimes of people somehow like me, and what will that prove? (After all, I am a member of the most despised minority in America!)

Remember, you and I are citizens of the only nation in the world to have used nuclear weapons against humans, and in both cases the targets were, or were surrounded and outnumbered by, large cities.

Our nation recently launched a war to bring down a dictator it had supported and armed, in reaction to an attack with which he was in no way connected, predicated on the spurious charge of a direct connection, killing a million or more people, and displacing tens of millions.

Our nation legalized, regulated, and promoted slavery, and for a hundred years after the end of slavery, resisted legal equality for the descendants of slaves.
Our government practiced genocide against the original inhabitants of the land, and confined the survivors to tiny, resource-poor outposts.

Men mistreated women, Europeans mistreated non-Europeans, Christians mistreated non-Christians, Catholics mistreated non-Catholics (and other Catholics who were unable to defend themselves), and Californians produce more trash, smog and greenhouse gases per capita than almost any other population on earth. What right have I to even live with such a record as a male Californian of European and Catholic descent? 

Some Irish in San Francisco murdered Chinese laborers a century ago. My children are Irish and Chinese? Should they hate themselves, fear themselves, or forgive themselves?

Thinking of people as groups first and individuals second is the source of too many problems to count. Please find in your heart, draw from your belief system, or discover in the support of your friends and family, the will to be better than this.

Practice peace.




OK, tell me, was that "practice peace" just a little to goody-two-shoes? Yeeikes!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Can’t Remember All That! – Working Memory Deficits

Adrienne Akinsete posts on a Special Ed group on LinkedIn, and had a nice post about working memory and comprehension I just read today. She describes usefully the exchanges between working, short-term, and long-term memory that go on in successful readers' minds. It made me think about the conceptual load I'm trying to control in my development of high interest-low readability books for struggling readers. She cited a lot of research that now I feel obligated to chase down... I mean, intrigued. 

Found in Translation: Soccer and Basketball Manga

Phew! Brief hiatus, in which I read another Tamora Pierce book (comments TK) and attended a Scottish cutural festival without drinking any ale.

For today, I just read Jonathan Bethune's Found in Translation: Soccer and Basketball Manga, where I left the following, incriminating comment:
I didn't know Captain Tsubasa had such a long history. I agree - the eight year run sounds like a good addition to manga libraries.

For my part, the sports series I would love to see licensed and translated in the US is Urasawa Naoki's tennis drama, "Happy!" The main character Umino Miyuki's grit, shown wonderfully in her facial expressions and body language, and her frustrating stoicism both make for a great combination of sports and drama.

It's definitely a seinen manga, but there's a romantic theme that probably cut into the purity of its fan base in Japan where, I read, it suffered by comparison with Urasawa's immediately preceding sports series, "Yawara."

Umino's name, Miyuki, which means "happy," gives the series its somewhat overbearing irony, in that (as far as I've gotten with the amateur translations), she isn't.

If I win the lottery, I'm going to have somebody translate this for me. It's that good.
I'd welcome more sports manga that looked and read different from "Eyeshield 21," which has a silly name and a skimpy premise, with underdeveloped characters, little story line, and spazzy art, or "Beach Stars," which is cheesecake volleyball (hmm, the word "skimpy" applies here, too), and exploitative of short people! (I'm tall, but I still disapprove...maybe not enough to keep from looking, but still I disapprove.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beth Revis, Across the Universe, first chapter

Not sure where I got this, but it was last Friday, and while cleaning up my computer desktop, I stumbled across chapter 1, "Amy," a kick-in-the-guts first chapter by Beth Revis (visit her blog here) that has me looking up the author, linking to her website, and trying to figure out why I have wasted my time with the milquetoast that passes for sci-fi in the rest of my reading list. I hope the rest of Across the Universe satisfies like this chapter.

Her website links to the publisher's page, and it seems it's due in Spring 2011, part of a three-book deal.

Nice! I can't wait.

On word counts and novel length.

I slept last night, so no reading or writing. It's been hot, and I just can't do weather-changes, work-and-commute-and-kids, and writing all in one day. Most of the year east of San Francisco is just fine, but we finally got some summer, and it's killing my writing.

Just to throw what remains of my writing goals (I'm suppressing a "Ha!") into further disarray, this interesting piece by Colleen Lindsey about length of fiction manuscripts. The long and the short of it is that my (see the writing page - go on, click the link at the right) writing goal of 100,000 words by year's end might be either WAAAAAY off, or dead-on. I was planning to revise, but I decided on 100k words because that's the approximate length of the first Harry Potter book, and I thought I would be hard-pressed to find a better model for the breakout YA fantasy novel than Janet Rowling's.

Makes sense, right?

Colleen's piece shows why it doesn't, but leaves wiggle room for me to keep striving.

Maybe some iced coffee tonight after the school open house will get me back on track.