I love Freedom to Read week, for a whole bunch of reasons. Here are some of them:
1. I love books. All kinds of books. I love reading them, and I always have. I read widely as a kid and teen, and I read lots of books that wouldn’t necessarily have been considered– I hate this expression– age-appropriate. I also read lots of books that I only half-understood. This was fine– it gave me plenty to think about.
2. I do not like being told what to do. Or not do. Or not read. Actually, just thinking about someone trying to limit people’s access to a book makes me mad. Grrr.
3. I’m queer and I’m an author. I get email from queer teens. I know how important it is for them to see themselves– their identities, their lives– reflected in the books they read. I also know that these are among the books that tend to get challenged or banned.
4. I’m a mother. I don’t censor my kid’s reading and I don’t want anyone else to impose their ideas abut what he should or shouldn’t be reading. In fact, one of the experiences that pushed us in the direction of home learning was his strong desire to choose his own reading materials– and my strong reaction to his reading choices being interfered with. Yes, I do realize that taking your kid out of school could be seen as an over-reaction to a teacher’s insistence on boring leveled readers instead of science magazines.
I could go on… and on… but I have a new stack of library books calling me. So- happy Freedom to Read week! If you feel like reading a challenged book to celebrate, here’s a list to help you find one!
My friend Tom Ryan, author of the awesome 2012 YA novel Way to Go, has tagged me The Next Big Thing Blog Tour! You can check out his post and find out what he’s working on now at his website. And if you want to know about my work-in-progress, read on…
What is your working title of your book?
Record Breaker. It will be published by Orca in the spring of 2013. I just this week got the cover and it looks fabulous. I’ll post it as soon as I can!
Where did the idea come from for the book?
A couple of years ago, while working on an entirely different project, a few ideas seemed to keep bubbling up from the back of my mind. They were just things that caught my imagination, small fragments of characters and places and times: JFK’s assassination almost fifty years ago… a mother grieving the loss of a baby… the small southern Ontario town I grew up in… and a boy obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records. Somehow, through that strange kind of alchemy that seems to go on almost unconsciously, these fragments started to coalesce and shape themselves into the beginnings of a new story.
What genre does your book fall under?
Record Breaker is middle grade fiction—it is aimed at kids age 9-13.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
I’m terrible at one-sentence synopses (actually, I’m pretty bad at any-length synopses) but here goes…
It ’s 1963, the year of President Kennedy’s assassination, and Jack’s family is still reeling from the death of his baby sister. Jack decides that setting a world record will cheer everyone up and help his mother heal… but his attempts to break records from sausage eating to face slapping just cause more problems. He is about to give up when a new friend suggests a different approach, which involves listening to– not breaking– records.
Oops, that was three sentences, wasn’t it?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Probably about a year or so, maybe longer, but I was working on other projects in various stages of completion at the same time. I usually have a few books on the go at once, and sometimes one gets dropped and left alone for awhile… When I get stuck during first drafts, I have a tendency to just start writing another book. They’re so much easier to start than they are to finish! But eventually the characters always call me back and demand an ending.
Who inspired you to write this book?
My mother, Ilse, who managed to find me a 1962 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. My friends Holly Phillips and Michelle Mulder, who read early drafts and brainstormed ideas and encouraged me to keep writing. And my editor Sarah Harvey, who believed in the story and helped me to find the right ending for it.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s both funny and sad, and contains lots of strange but true facts about some early world records. And it is written for kids– but I think it might also appeal to adults, especially those who can remember the early sixties.
And now I’m tagging my writing buddies Alex Van Tol and Michelle Mulder… so head on over to their blogs to see what they are up to now.
I just stumbled across this page while wasting time on-line…. It’s a quiz on my novel A Thousand Shades of Blue. I’m relieved to say that I got a score of 100% on this one! And yes, I really should be writing…
Here I am, age six, in our house in England. Engrossed in a book, as usual.
And here I am, two years and a move to Canada later, still reading and– although I didn’t know it– I am learning how to write.
Now, as a mom to an eight year old, I’m watching my son explore the world of books and words and stories. He doesn’t go to school– in fact, reading was one of the things that made us decide to pull him out of school at six. He started kindergarten already able to read, and going over the letter sounds repeatedly bored him. Having to read the same books over and over also bored him. And not being able to choose what to read made him furious. Being a rather resourceful little guy, he brought his own science books magazines from home to read during the dreaded daily “book bag time” but he was told that wasn’t allowed. He had to put those away now to read the levelled readers that were in the ziplock bag with his name on it.
He wouldn’t do it.
And in hindsight, I’m glad he had the independence and strength to object.
He still loves books, both fiction and non-fiction: fantasy novels, science books, graphic novels, and– especially– Calvin and Hobbes comics. I’m not convinced that he would love books if he was still in school.
Until recently, he hasn’t been interested in writing. In fact, it’s something he’s generally avoided. If he were in school, he would no doubt be seen as “behind” in writing. One of the lovely things about unschooling is that regardless of your interests or abilities, you are never ahead or behind– you are exactly where you need to be.
Over the last few months, I’ve been watching his interest in writing gradually emerge.
We’ve had great conversations about books. He’d comment on characters (“It’s hard to believe Harry, Ron and Hermione aren’t real people. It’s so strange that they’re just text!”), motivation (“What do you think about Snape? Dumbledore trusts him but he seems bad. I guess sometimes a character can start out bad but maybe underneath they really want to be good…”), structure (“It’s kind of an ABC pattern, isn’t it? Have an adventure, get into danger, escape…”), and interpretation (“Do you think Hobbes is real? Or is it just Calvin’s imagination that he’s alive? I’m pretty sure he’s real.”)
Then he started to see stories everywhere. We’d come across a science story (genetically modified babies, for instance) and he’s say, “Hey, that’d make a great book. Imagine if a future government decided…” and he’d be off, spinning out ideas. He started wanting me to write these ideas down for him. Then he wanted me to write the stories with him. He’d dictate; I’d type.
Handwriting is slow and uncomfortable for him, as for many kids his age, so the computer opens up worlds of possibility. Thanks to his passion for Minecraft, his typing is getting faster and his spelling is improving (spawn, nether, kick, zombie and teleport may not be on your standard BC curriculum grade two spelling list, but given his interest in sci-fi and fantasy, Minecraft vocabulary is probably more useful to him anyway).
It’s fascinating to watch the natural learning of a child driven by his own curiousity and enthusiasm. And it has made me reflect on my own relationship with reading, writing and school. Although I had at least two great teachers (Mrs. Virgin and Mr. Lister, if you are out there somewhere, thanks for two good years!) I don’t think I learned much in school that really helped me as a writer. I learned to write by reading voraciously, and I became an author because I loved books and stories so much so much that I wanted to create a few of my own.
School has a way of turning reading and writing into work when they should be play. As my son commented at the end of kindergarten, “Work is when you do something because someone makes you. Play is when you do something because you want to.”
Which is something I need to keep in mind for myself, as writing has turned from my part-time hobby into my full time job.
So– off to play with my latest manuscript!
Fact: Several of my novels (Out of Order, Inferno, Big Guy) include characters who are queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning their sexuality.
This shouldn’t need any explanation or justification. Some people are queer, in fiction as well as in life. In fact, if anything queer characters are, statistically speaking, probably under-represented in my novels.
So it’s a little odd that I have received more than one e-mail asking me why I write about queer characters. One e-mail, from a high school teacher, actually began by mentioning “the gay agenda” apparent in my writing, which made me snort coffee all over my keyboard.
Do I have an agenda? Hell, yeah. Hence this post.
The teen years, as we all know, are a time when questions of identity often surface. Parts of yourself which you’ve accepted without too much question during childhood take on increased importance and you suddenly realize that your clothes are all wrong, your parents are too strict or too weird or too generally embarrassing, and your nose—you’ve never noticed before, but it’s a terrible nose.
Most of us go through this, to a greater or lesser extent— but teens who see themselves as different from the majority of their peers in some more obvious way have an extra hurdle and may struggle with that part of themselves which they feel sets them apart. For these kids, seeing themselves and their lives reflected in literature can reduce a sense of isolation.
Of course this doesn’t just apply to queer teens—but as a queer writer, LGBTQ teens are a group I care about and it’s important to me to write novels that reflect their lives. We have made huge gains as a society and the level of support and acceptance for queer youth is far higher than it was. Still, research shows that teens who are queer or questioning continue to struggle. Drop out rates, rates of drug use, and even suicide rates continue to be significantly higher for teens who identify as queer. Queer teens are also significantly more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual peers.
Which is something everyone should be concerned about, and everyone should be doing what they can to change it.
Queer youth sure are. In Ontario. In California. In Texas. All over the world, young people are doing what they can to make sure that it gets better.
I’m an author, so one thing I can do is write. And this may be a small thing, but we all do what we can. For a teen who hasn’t yet come out, particularly a teen in living a small town or one who fears their family’s reaction, a fictional character may be the first other openly gay person they meet. While not a substitute for other supports and community, these fictional teens can let the reader know that he or she is not alone, that there are others out there like them, and that this path they are walking has been walked by many others.
While books about coming out or about coming to terms with one’s sexuality are needed, so are books that have characters that happen to be queer—good stories about all kinds of things, told from the point of view of a character who happens to be queer. Queer teens, even those who are quite comfortable with their sexuality, need to see themselves and their lives reflected in the books they read.
And it isn’t just queer teens that need these books. Straight teens also benefit. Reading novels expands horizons and introduces the reader to a larger world. Novels about queer teens can increase readers’ understanding and empathy and make them more likely to support their peers. They can raise awareness of human rights issues affecting LGBTQ youth. They can lead to action that makes the world better for LGBTQ people of all ages.
I write about queer teens because when I was a teenager, those books weren’t out there. Now they are, lots of them, and that is awesome. I love that I get to be a part of this wave of contemporary YA authors who are making that happen.
One of the awesome things about being an author is getting e-mails from readers. Mostly these are from kids and teens who love reading and maybe want to be writers themselves, and I love love love getting those messages. I was a total bookworm kid who wanted to be a writer, so when I hear from folks like that, I’m like, ahhh- my people!
But I think my very favorite e-mails are the ones that start out like this one does:
“Well I’m in grade 9 and I hate reading! I just hate it!
In our school we have reading time after a break and my teacher said I had to have a book and I didn’t because I HATE reading and he said i NEED a book so I went in his book bag and took inferno I read the back and I’m like this is awesome so I read the first chapter and I said I love this book!
My teacher wouldn’t let me take it.
And I said that is so not fair!
Each teacher has a book bag with the same books so I ask my next teacher and said can I borrow it she said yes and I’m like YES!
I’m on chapter 24 I love it! I have one question “Will there be another inferno, like Inferno 2 or something?”
Now e-mails like that give me a reason to keep on writing on the days when I feel less than inspired…
…According to the Resident Expert on Such Things, aka My Son:
1. Harry Potter, by JK Rowling. Just awesome. These were the gateway books to the fantasy realm for my son and so many other kids. Enough said. Oh… and Pottermore should be open any day now! Early April, they say… Sigh. We’re waiting!
2. Percy Jackson, by Rick Riordan. I won’t say too much because everyone already knows all about these books, but it’s hard to go wrong when you have a cast of teenage demi-gods facing off against assorted mythological monsters that need beheading.
3. Heroes of Olympus series, also by Rick Riordan. Same as above, but with Roman gods instead of the Greek variety, and according to my son, even better than Percy Jackson.
4. Silverwing series, by Kenneth Oppel. Neither my son nor I usually go for talking animals, but these bats are… well, sheer awesomeness. This is a trilogy of gripping, fast-paced novels that sucked us right in and didn’t let go. We told all our friends to read them but took no responsibility for any nightmares that ensued. Those cannibal bats are SCARY!
5. Theodosia series, by R.A. LaFever. AncientEgypt, Edwardian London, and a highly intelligent and courageous young girl taking on the forces of evil. Very cool website too!
6. Raider’s Ransom, by Emily Diamand. Dystopian but not too dark. Gutsy and loyal Lilly, a fisher girl, steals a ransom to rescue the kidnapped Prime Minister’s daughter from the Raiders; and sails through half-drowned London with her sea cat… and it only gets better from there, with tough young Raider boy Zeph and battles at sea. Oh, and a computer with artifical intelligence plays an important (and hilarious) role! We both loved this book and even though I like paperbacks, we bought the sequel, Fire and Flood, on Kindle because we needed it IMMEDIATELY.
We are always looking for recommendations, so please, if you have a suggestion for us, don’t be shy– post it here!
My first YA novel was published in the fall of 2007, which is almost five years ago. Which that makes it five years since people started telling me that I should have a blog.
The thing is, I started writing after my son was born. For the first couple of years, I wrote when he napped. Then he stopped napping, and I wrote early in the morning, before he woke up. Then two afternoons a week, when he went to pre-school. I think most parents of young kids can relate to the feeling that there is never enough time—that you’re either not returning phone calls because you’re desperate to get to the gym, or you’re skipping your workout to get the groceries, or skipping the grocery shopping because you have to take the cat to the vet, or…. Yeah. I skipped housework and sleep in order to write, and it was worth it because I love writing and it keeps me (mostly) sane.
And it worked. Even when my son quit school near the start of first grade, and I realized he wouldn’t be returning anytime soon, I made time to write.
But write a blog as well? Um, when would I do that, exactly?
“A blog helps you connect with your readers,” my social media savvy writer friend told me.
“But I don’t have time,” I said.
All more writer friends– well, okay, most of them- shook their collective heads. “You should be on Facebook and Goodreads and My Space and Librarything and JacketFlap and Tumblr,” they said. “You have to Establish an Internet Presence. You have to Tweet. You have to Promote Your New Book.
“But if I use my writing time to blog, I won’t have a New Book to promote,” I said.
It seemed like a good excuse until this past fall, when I suddenly hit some kind of a wall and couldn’t write anything at all. I’ve never been a believer in writer’s block– though I can procrastinate just as well as any other writer- so I wasn’t sure how to explain what was happening. Um, is happening, still. It feels like I need a break from writing fiction. Not unreasonable, perhaps, after writing fourteen books in seven years.
Or maybe I just need summer to hurry up and get here already.
Either way, with the latest New Book coming out this spring… it seems that the time is right for me to try my hand at blogging.
I’m actually kind of excited about it. Plus, check it out— I’m writing something!