Thinking with reviewers, part 1: Katie on family in WHAT CAN’T WAIT

(This week, I’m working through recent angst over one reviewer’s comments by doing two posts on positive experiences responding to reviewers.)

Yeah, sometimes writers feel about as enthusiastic about having their work reviewed as the little guy in the picture above, but thoughtful reviewers do good things for us writer types. They’re also great ambassadors to other readers. In this post, I show how a smart reviewer got me thinking and I continue to look for newe ways of reflecting on the Gurdon thing. 

When Katie Coops reviewed What Can’t Wait recently, she noted the following:

…this book was the first time I’d seen a Mexican family life laid out. I know this is in no way representative of all Mexican families just like any YA book with a Caucasian family does not represent all Caucasian families (thank goodness, because the Kitrell’s in Breathless are pretty awful), but I think there are probably some similar aspects in many Hispanic homes.

Here’s what Katie’s post got me thinking.

Overall, most readers get this, but there have been some responses to What Can’t Wait that are along the lines of, “but that’s not what being Mexican-American/Latina/poor/from Houston/etc. is like.” I wish I could send Katie as my ambassador to explain that Marisa’s family is Marisa’s family, not meant to “stand for” any one experience. Because every family has its own unique culture, too. Some families value education; some treasure time together; some expect sacrifice; some hinge on humor.

It was also interesting to hear Katie reflect on her memories of working as a teacher because one of the reasons I wrote this book was to imagine the other side of some of my students’ lives, what was going on for them when I wasn’t hassling them to apply for college or read The Kite Runner or memorize verse from Macbeth. What Can’t Wait was penance, in (very small) part, for my first year of teaching when I failed to ask my students “What happened?” and “Are you okay?” when they were absent or not doing what I expected in my class.

With all the (mostly justified) fuss over Meghan Gurdon’s WSJ pieces (I wrote about the first one here, the second one here), I keep coming back to the feeling Katie expresses well at the end of her blog as a core takeaway from many books worth reading: “We never know what is going on in someone else’s life.”

Good books = lessons for the teen. For the teacher. For the parent. For the human. But all these lessons come about because of an encounter, not because the writer has planned or planted the lesson. 

For Gurdon and company, I’d also like to point out that “good” depends on what the reader needs. And that range of experience we were talking about probably means that we need all the books we have, including the dark or frustrating ones, as well as a lot more.

Psst! Parts of today’s post began as a comment on Katie’s review of What Can’t Wait.

Love My Indie with Actin’ Up with Books: Boxcar Books Rocks My Socks!

Hey folks, today I’m over at Actin’ Up with Books for Joli’s Friday feature on indie bookstores. Today I blog about my favorite Bloomington indie bookstore, Boxcar Books. If you live nearby and haven’t checked Boxcar Books out, you should! And even if you don’t, now you can have a virtual tour. Just click here, then stick around and see some of the other bookstores that authors love.

And don’t forget to stop by your local indie bookstore and buy a book. It could be for yourself, but it could also be for someone you love. Awww…

Indie Movies for Independence Day: Social Struggle, Foreign, and Lost Worlds

It’s Independence Day, so here’s a serving of my favorite independent(ish) films to help you celebrate. For the purpose of this article, “indie” will mean “outside of the mainstream aesthetic,” even if the film was made by a studio inside of a larger company. These movies pass the Bechdel Test. What is the Bechdel Test, you ask? To pass, a movie has to have:

1. At least two women

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

Revolutionary, I know. But amazing how hard this can be to find in the mainstream. If you don’t love the movies below, I will punch you in the nose! Okay, not really, but…

Social Struggle and Family Drama

Bread and Roses (2000): Maya is a quick-witted young woman who comes over the Mexican border without papers and makes her way to the LA home of her older sister Rosa. Rosa gets Maya a job as a janitor: a non-union janitorial service has the contract, the foul-mouthed supervisor can fire workers on a whim, and the service-workers’ union has assigned organizer Sam Shapiro to bring its “justice for janitors” campaign to the building. Sam finds Maya a willing listener, she’s also attracted to him. Rosa resists, she has an ailing husband to consider. The workers try for public support; management intimidates workers to divide and conquer. 

In America (2003): Following the tragic death of their adolescent son Frankie, Irish couple Johnny and Sarah Sullivan and their remaining two offspring, 10 year old Christy and 5 year old Ariel, emigrate illegally to the United States via Canada with little in their pockets. Their final destination is Manhattan where Johnny hopes to work as a stage actor. They move into a unit in a run town tenement housed primarily with drug addicts, transvestites and one tenant coined “the man who screams”. They do whatever they can to eke out a supportive family environment in this difficult situation, the support which ultimately extends to those around them, most specifically “the screamer” who turns out to be an African-American artist named Mateo with AIDS.

Foreign-Language Gems

The Sea Inside (2004): Life story of Spaniard Ramón Sampedro, who fought a 30-year campaign to win the right to end his life with dignity. Film explores Ramón’s relationships with two women: Julia, a lawyer who supports his cause, and Rosa, a local woman who wants to convince him that life is worth living. Through the gift of his love, these two women are inspired to accomplish things they never previously thought possible. Despite his wish to die, Ramón taught everyone he encountered the meaning, value and preciousness of life. Though he could not move himself, he had an uncanny ability to move others.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006): The story of the battle of Iwo Jima between the United States and Imperial Japan during World War II from the perspective of the Japanese who fought it.

The Lives of Others (2006): In the early 1980s, Georg Dreyman (a successful dramatist) and his longtime companion Christa-Maria Sieland (a popular actress), were huge intellectual stars in (former) East Germany, although they secretly don’t always toe the party line. One day, the Minister of Culture becomes interested in Christa, so the secret service agent Wiesler is instructed to observe and sound out the couple, but their life fascinates him more and more

Peeks into Lost or Unknown Worlds

A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004): Upon hearing of her mother’s death, jaded teenage loner Purslane Hominy Will returns to New Orleans for the first time in years, ready to reclaim her childhood home. Expecting to find her late mother’s house abandoned, Pursy is shocked to discover that it is inhabited by two of her mother’s friends: Bobby Long, a former literature professor, and his young protégé, Lawson Pines. These broken men, whose lives took a wrong turn years before, have been firmly rooted in the dilapidated house for years, encouraged only by Lawson’s faltering ambitions to write a novel about Bobby Long’s life. Having no intention of leaving, Pursy, Bobby Long and Lawson are all forced to live together. Yet as time passes, their tenuous, makeshift arrangement unearths a series of buried personal secrets that challenges their bonds, and reveals just how inextricably their lives are intertwined.

ME: the French Quarter has been restored, but in A Love Song, we get to see the New Orleans that was lost in its gritty, pre-Katrina glory.

Sunshine Cleaning (2008): Rose and Norah, in Albuquerque, lost their mother when they were young. Rose is responsible – a housecleaner, raising her seven-year-old son Oscar. She’s also having an affair with Mac, a married cop, her high-school sweetheart. Norah can’t hold a job. Their dad, Joe, is quirky. When Oscar is expelled for odd behavior, Rose wants to earn enough to send him to private school. Mac suggests she clean up after crime scenes, suicides, and deaths that go undiscovered for awhile. Rose enlists Norah, and Sunshine Cleaners is born. Norah bonds with the dead, Rose finds out that it’s a regulated business, and complications arise. Can a family marked by tragedy sort things out?

(Unless otherwise noted, summaries are from

Diversify your reading NOW

There is a fantastic new reading challenge out there, and this one offers two bonuses: (1) the chance to explore diverse MG and YA lit and (2) a chance to win a crazy huge heap of YA & MG books as the prize for the best post on reading diverse YA/MG. (Seriously, y’all, I won’t even be in the country next year, but I’m scheming as to how I can work around that–the stash is that sweet.)

All the details are at the Diversity in YA page.  Also notice that there is a category for libraries and one for individuals, so if you have a librarian friend (or are one of these awesome folks yourself), be sure to spread the word. In recession time, we need all the copies of these awesome books we can get into readers’ hands.

Also, while you are at the Diversity in YA page, why not cruise around and check out the many diversity-related guest posts by thoughtful writer and reader types? Here’s my D in YA post on the majority minority world of What Can’t Wait and what writing toward diversity means to me. Also check out Dia Reeves’s post about flying solo as a black female author of YA speculative fiction.

Why Gurdon (Still) Doesn’t Get It: Parent-Vision, Teen-Vision, and What It Means For Books to Reach Their Audience

Ken Teegardin:

An alternative title to this post might be, “YA saves, but not like you think.” It’s about how the shouting match over “darkness” in YA has its roots in two very different ways of seeing the books in question (and the business of teens reading). I also fight my way toward an articulation of what’s a little off for me with the direction the #YAsaves conversation has gone. 

Okay, first what’s new: today the WSJ publishes another Meghan Gurdon piece following up on her denunciation of YA as too dark (I blogged about the first one here). Bookshelves of Doom’s Leila Roy responds to Gurdon here with wisdom, wit, and eloquence. Here’s what she says in response to Gurdon’s claim that “It is surely worth our taking into account whether we do young people a disservice by seeming to endorse the worst that life has to offer”:

Sure, there are novels that promote certain beliefs and novels that set out to prove points: Ayn Rand and Beatrice Sparks come to mind. But the idea that a book that deals with rape somehow endorses it, that a book about anorexia endorses it, that a book about self-harm endorses it, that a book about teen pregnancy endorses it?

No. Compassion is not endorsement. Trying to understand is not endorsement. Exploring our world, giving voices to the silent, trying to gain perspective: None of those things are endorsement. Neither is turning a light on in a dark room.

I told you Roy was smart. Another bit worth quoting:

It was unfortunate that Gurdon dismissed the passion of adolescence as “…feel[ing] more dramatic at the time than it will in retrospect”. Because, while in some cases that might be true — it was, at least, for me — it also minimizes what is, at the very least, an extremely emotionally turbulent time. It’s exactly the sort of “Oh, you’ll laugh about this when you’re older” attitude that always made the teenaged — and again, extremely sheltered — version of me want to punch adults in the face.

This final observation recalled for me a brilliant comment on my editor Andrew Karre’s blog post on audience in response to Gurdon’s first article. Andrew shows how Gurdon’s claim that YA writers and editors only understand children “in the abstract” (while parents “love them very specifically”) couldn’t be more off base. Many of us are, after all, parents as well as writers, and even those of us who aren’t parents write with real kids in mind. MG author Peni Griffin writes,

I don’t have any children. I remember my childhood more vividly than the parents I know. There’s a practical reason for this. When I see a kid testing his limits I get double vision, kid vision and adult vision. Say for instance there’s a set of shallow stairs and the kid is jumping them – first one at a time, then two at a time, then three, etc. The kid me is thinking: “Hey, he’s good at that. I wonder how many he can jump?” The adult me is thinking: “That kid is going to break his neck.” 

If you’re raising kids, you can’t afford this double vision. You have to act before the kid goes a stair too far. This is why parents and children are in continual conflict – the kid wants to push his limits, the parent wants the kid to grow to adulthood. 

When I’m writing for kids, the double vision is an absolute necessity. To interest the kid, I need to see things from his point of view, need to assume competence on the part of child characters, tempering it with the adult view only as appropriate to the realism level of the story. A story that doesn’t let a kid’s growing brain push on its boundaries and exercise its developing synapses won’t engage them in any meaningful way.

Here’s a YA-oriented example: yesterday when I took Liam to the park, I got majorly peeved because a bunch of adolescent males were climbing all over the play structures (as in standing on the roof and jumping from the top of the swing set). The parent in me wanted to know, What right did they have to make the space unsafe for my child?

Consider, though, what a liability that parent perspective is for me as a YA writer. It has to be tempered or silenced before I go to the page or else I won’t be able to voice any of the concerns that are real to the teens in question, among which I might number (for those guys) finding a place for play and identity performance, exploring autonomy, and challenging authority.

Taken together, Griffin and Roy point to the deeper issue beneath Gurdon’s surface complaint about dark themes in YA: the inability of certain parents to accept the validity of other adults (namely YA writers) putting teen-vision before parent-vision. But what makes YA lit so powerful is precisely this decision to let the teen take on life matter more than moralizing.

In my view, YA saves, then–not by presenting a specific content (cutting! discrimination! homophobia! AIDS!), as sometimes seems to be the implication in the #YAsaves conversation–but by voicing varied teen encounters with their world, whatever its contours.

Why Nobody Cared When FDR Wore a Dress (Bettmann/Corbis)

Franklin D. Roosevelt, photographed in 1884.

A article on gendering trends in clothing, “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?,” has me thinking about lots of things–from how I dress my son to how I portray children in my novels. Here’s the article’s answer to why it was perfectly unexceptional for FDR to wear a dress in the above photo:

Social convention of 1884, when FDR was photographed at age 2 1/2, dictated that boys wore dresses until age 6 or 7, also the time of their first haircut. Franklin’s outfit was considered gender-neutral.

The photo gallery that accompanies the article is especially intriguing, showing a number of period photographs as well as boy paper dolls whose wardrobes include pink dresses and lots of frilly lace. Now, why does it weird so many of us out to see a former president in a dress?

“It’s really a story of what happened to neutral clothing,” says Paoletti… For centuries, she says, children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6. “What was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted,’ ” Paoletti says.

Jo Paoletti is the author of the forthcoming Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America (IU Press). If the Smithsonian article interests you, check out Paoletti’s website, which also includes links to many of the sources she consulted in writing the history. One of her most interesting findings is that the use of pink=girl and blue=boy is relatively recent–in the past, pink was actually viewed as a stronger color more appropriate for boys than “dainty” blue.

As a new parent, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the gendering, not just of clothing, but of toys and toy stores. This Guardian article chronicles two moms’ campaign against the commercial pinkificiation of girls’ lives (Their website is Here’s a bit:

There is a pink globe, specially for girls. Scrabble has been repackaged in pink (the tiles on the front of the box spell FASHION). Monopoly has gone pink, with the dog, thimble and shoe pieces replaced by flip-flops, a handbag and a hairdryer, houses and hotels becoming boutiques and malls, and utilities turned into beauty salons. In at least one major supermarket chain you can now buy slices of bright pink ham, cut into heart shapes and called Fairy Hearts.

It seems to me that this whole thing is a lot worse for girls than boys. In fact, I hadn’t given it much thought until coming across these articles (bad me, I know). It’s true that Liam’s clothes (all of which are hand-me-downs) are sometimes blue and covered in football-wielding bears. But he also has a lot of pretty neutral stuff, like shirts with fishes and frogs.

I wonder, though, if it will be harder to keep things neutral for a future (as yet unconceived, possibly never-to-exist) sister. If we are deliberate enough, might we keep the tide of pink at bay? I am starting to think this is a pretty big deal. Consider this appeal, reported in the Guardian article:

“I am nine years old,” wrote one girl, “and I think PinkStinks is my voice. Girls like me shouldn’t be forced to like pink. Can you think of a good name for girls who don’t want to be girly girls but aren’t tomboys?”

My heart goes out to her. I want to buy her an “I am not a princess” T-shirt and send it to her. But can I do something more? Both of my YA novels feature little sisters who play with dolls and like Dora the Explorer. Perfectly probable, given the state of things in stores as described above. Believability, however, isn’t the only thing that matters. Maybe I need to pay a little more attention to other little sibling possibilites. Maybe I’ll have to work on a character who finds just such a good name for the non-girly girls.

Swimming: Voice, voice, plus some prickly humor

Now that I’m done reading a scholarly book (or more) a day for my PhD exams, I get to read for fun again! Last week I listened to Nicola Keegan’s Swimming in several galloping gulps. This book has amazing voice and dark humor.

Okay, so read the synopsis and you see that it’s a book about a (fictional) Olympic gold medalist in swimming. Hmmm. Snooze. Sports bio? Blech. But not so fast… the thing that some crankypants on goodreads don’t like–that the book is not really all “about” swimming–is what makes it work for me. Swimming forms an exquisite backdrop for what is really the story of being Philomena, seeing the world as she sees it. There are healthy doses of family drama. I’d recommend it for anyone who liked Jenny Downham’s Before I Die or for people (like me) who can listen to that sad Sulfjan Stevens cancer song (“Casimir Pulaski Day”) over and over for a good cry.

I could cite the Kirkus review’s final line to sum up my overall reaction: “Flags a little at the finish line, but nonetheless well worth plunging into.” But when you put it like that… well, it makes it sound like a book a lot less worth reading than it really is. So I’ll go with the final line of the Publishers Weekly review, which is what convinced me to check out the book in the first place: “It’s worth reading for the prose alone.”

It’s true that the novel doesn’t really end, it sort of just sputters to a stop. Okay, that’s not awesome. I wish Keegan and her editor had worked it over one more time to find the right final note, the right final movement.

BUT let’s remember how hard endings are and focus on all the (many!) things this book gets right. I mean, the speaker Philomena is brutally honest and funny in a way I only dream of. Here’s a bit to give you a taste, but really the book is so much better because we get to hear this girl on dying, nuns, sex, sugar, and much more.

Leonard wants me to be a mini-Bron, but I won’t. He wants me to be an intellectual success, skipping entire grades like rope, wants me to bring home prizes from French clubs, wants to display my medals, ribbons, shiny cups from tricky debates and interscholastic spelling bees. He wants me to look out at the world, curious and smart, then he would like to talk to me about it, over dinner. He’s not the least bit interested in how fast I swim, barely listening when I explain how I lowered my personal best once again. He reminds me, on Sunday afternoons, during short trips to the grocery store. You’re eleven now. He reminds me when he picks me up, when he drops me off, when we fly, his voice cutting through the static. Well into the double digits. He reminds me during commercials, when he’s boiling water for tea. Junior high is serious business. But I am so overinformed that the end is coming, I don’t believe it, just keep hoping that something miraculous will happen and I will be back, like Jesus. I am shocked, sickened, stunned, and amazed when I find myself standing by the pool on the last day of my last workout of the last season. I have no idea how right I am when I get dramatic: Pieces of my heart are being ripped up and, and, and it’s all downhill from here. I just know it. It’s all downhill from here, snot gushing out my nose as I weep myself into convulsions that get the Cocoplat and the few girls who can still stand me going. Coach Stan purses his lips, clicking his stopwatch on, then off.

Really, get your butt to the library and check this one out. I recommend it in audiobook. FYI, Philomena is a teen for most of the book, but it starts with her infancy and goes on into her twenties. Not your usual YA range, but then it’s not marketed as YA. 

The Things Characters Carry & Chekhov’s Gun

Even when a character’s daily essentials don’t actually make the final cut of the novel, I like to know what he or she carries around. In The Knife and the Butterfly, Azael carries just about everything he’s got (which isn’t much) in his backpack. An inventory of these items actually makes its way into the novel. For an infinitely more masterful instance of personal objects used to develop story and character, check out Tim O’Brien’s aptly named story “The Things They Carried” from the collection by the same name.

Knowing what characters carry is a bit different from what rockstar writer/teacher Tayari Jones writes about in this post about using significant objects to develop character. Since we sometimes carry things by accident or without actually knowing why they matter to us, inventorying the things a character carries early in the drafting process can open up possibilities for plot that the writer might not have anticipated. By contrast, the (already) significant object works mostly to reinforce what the author already knows about a character.

How does knowing what a character has with him or her plant a plot possibility? Consider the “Chekhov’s gun” idea: if a gun appears in act one of a play, it should go off by the end. You could take this as meaning, on the one hand, that we shouldn’t include unnecessary details. But if you think about things from the author’s point of view, putting the gun (or stone or letter or photograph or whatever) there in the first place calls for the writer to fashion a plot that will make that object meaningful in some way.

So don’t be afraid to put something in a character’s pocket; see what happens when you write with that object in mind. You might find that it tugs the story into a new, exciting direction. And if it does, you can let the reader in on the magic.

P.S. Thinking through or making up a character’s stuff is the kind of thing I do in my writer’s notebook. If you want to write, you need a writer’s notebook. And if this sort of exercise interests you, check out Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens. (I wrote about this book and some of my other favorite writing tools here.) This book makes you think through all kinds of crazy details about your characters. It’s a great tool for zero drafting, which I talk about here.

Glogster as extra credit? Fine by me!

I didn’t know about back when I was teaching in Houston in 2004. Actually, I bet that it didn’t yet exist. But anyway, this online poster-making tool just screams “extra-credit.” I’m guessing that the poster for What Can’t Wait on Glogster was one such effort–but that’s fine by me because I think it’s quite cute. You can check it out here:

I wouldn’t go crazy with this tool for extra credit since it seems like putting together one of these posters would take only a few minutes and wouldn’t necessarily require actually reading a book. But I can see it as a handy tool for increasing interest in YA novels for independent reading. Students love to get recs from other students, and the glogster format is more appealing than your standard summary or book report. Create a glogster group for your classes and award students a few points when they add a poster after reading a novel. Easy for them, easy for you, fun for all.

Thanks, hdiaz807, for the sweet What Can’t Wait poster!

Cornered by the NWP (Author’s Corner interview with the National Writing Project)

Today, check out this “Author’s Corner” interview with the National Writing Project. Back in 2005, I spent a transformative summer with the Greater Houston Area Writing Project. The NWP helped me learn how to write with my students, which paved the way to the writing of What Can’t Wait.

If you want more goodies for teachers, check out this post from a while ago or cruise over to the resources section on my website.  

Twitter Facebook Goodreads RSS
All materials © 2022 Ashley Hope Pérez. Author website by Websy Daisy.