YA Guide for the Confused


Tis the season for YA book lists, it seems, but apparently there’s a little confusion out there as to what constitutes YA. As in, my-head-in-a-blender confusion. As the blogger who will get even more of my love by the end of this post writes:

[YA] does not stand for “Young Age” nor does it stand for “Yeah, Anything.” It stands for “Young Adult,” meaning—loosely—“teen.”

Witness the confusion here. NPR, bless them, has got a mega-list of book titles up, and they are inviting you and everybody else to vote for 10 favorites. Now, the comments on this post are F.U.L.L. of people bemoaning the absence of their favorite “YA” books. Like… Alice in Wonderland, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harriet the Spy.  None of which, you will soon come to understand, are YA.

Let the record show, though, that NPR’s panel actually did a pretty good job of (gasp) limiting themselves to books that could be conceivably construed as YA.

Consider, by contrast, a recent Huffington Post slideshow on fearless YA characters that included in its list the following (very much NOT YA) titles: Encyclopedia Brown (possibly prompted by the recent death of the author?), The Phantom Tollbooth (huh??), A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, Ramona Quinby, The Secret Garden, and others undeniably outside the YA category by any definition… except maybe “not for adults.” In fact, I’d say of the 14, only 3 of the titles (The Hunger Games; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; and The Chocolate War) are solidly YA. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are iffy.

Now, let me buffer all of this by saying that I realize not everybody is as YA obsessed as us author/librarian/publisher/editor types. But guess what? There’s no longer an excuse because a brilliant blogger over at Clear Eyes, Full Shelves has generated this wonderfully useful (and funny) guide to YA identification.

Did you think that YA means “teen characters”? Or that everything you read as a teen was YA? Or that if it has a cartoon on the cover, it must be YA? 

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, that’s okay; we can still be friends. But you do need re-education.

For the record, the Carolrhoda Lab (my publisher) mission statement contains my favorite definition of YA–or at least the YA I write: “distinctive, provocative, boundary-pushing fiction for teens and their sympathizers.” 

Oh, and there’s more discussion of defining YA here, if you still have an appetite for it.

Writing Hungry

Our grocery carts aren't so full these days.


I’m in the middle of living something new: writing hungry.

I’ve always seen the idea of the starving artist as an unnecessary cliché, but I’m as close as I will likely ever be to living it. (I certainly hope this isn’t our new normal!) We are paying half of our income to cover childcare this summer so that I can have time to finish my draft of novel #3.

Okay, so I’m not exactly hungry. We live in America, after all. But I am painfully aware of the economic price of my creative efforts right now, of the sacrifices my family is making for this work to be possible. All this, without any certainty about when novel #3 will sell–or how much we might expect for it. 

I’m not far enough into the experience to know how things will turn out. On a Writing Excuses podcast, one of the hosts said, “I find feeding my family to be a powerful motivator,” when asked about how it feels to be a “career” writer as opposed to having a day job.

On the other hand, though, here’s what one of my favorite misbehaving characters, the nephew from Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau, says about poverty and art: 

Oh, Mister Philosopher, poverty is a terrible thing. I see her crouching there, with her mouth gaping open to receive a few drops of icy cold water dripping from the barrel of the Danaids. I don’t know if she sharpens the mind of the philosopher, but she has a devilish way of cooling off the head of a poet. People don’t sing well under this barrel.

Will writing hungry be a powerful motivator or a chilling force? I’ll keep you posted.

Good company for thinking about race in novels


Does depicting racism in the past fuel it or fight it now? (FYI: photo taken in Belfast, Northern Ireland.)

Who else is thinking about race in fiction AND has battled evil garden invaders?

The answer is…. Justine Larbalestier* (psst, that asterisk means “see memorial footnote below”)! On her blog this week, she has a great post about handling race (and racism) in her current project. Also if you dig around her site, you’ll find this post where she mentions her warfare against basil-eating slugs. Why the heck am I talking about her battle against slugs? It’s about solidarity… In light of my current offensive against a whitefly infestation, I need a sister in arms.

That solidarity carries over to writing, too, since we’re both dealing with how to write about race and racism in the 1930s, although J.L.’s work is set in early 1930s in NYC and my novel #3 is set in East Texas at the end of the 30s. In her post, J.L. points out that “a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism.” I’m not so worried about that problem as I am about another one that J.L. mentions: the danger of turning all white people into villains. She writes,

Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?

I get to sidestep this a little since the color spectrum I’m working with is fuller; my protag is Mexican-American, her twin (half-) siblings are mixed, and her love interest is black. Because the East Texas town of the time didn’t have three-fold segregation like regions with heavier Hispanic populations (a bit more about that here), Naomi and her sibs manage to slip into the white school, giving me a lot of situations where I need to deal with particular patterns of racism.

J.L. also points out that even those sympathetic to the situation of black individuals could be hideously patronizing in the 1930s, and I agree. I have some of those folks in my book. But I also think that there are wise souls in every time who think a bit outside of the paradigms of their world. This needn’t be a protag or even a main character (indeed, let’s avoid having a white character “rescue” people of color), but the presence of such an individual can help readers recognize that the author isn’t trying to vilify white folks.

Like J.L., I have been struggling with the question of what to do about the N-word in my novel. I’m mildly obsessed with a feeling of authenticity in dialogue. Dialogue shouldn’t be a facsimile of reality (boring!), but it should gesture convincingly toward it.

This is why The Knife and the Butterfly contains a number of words–and sentiments, especially about women–that aren’t at all an expression of who I am. They’re part of who the protag (a teen male) is at that moment, and I need them so that I can show how his experience deconstructs that bravado (at least partially).

So where does that leave me with the N-word in novel #3? I would never dream of inserting it with anything close to the frequency with which I am sure it was uttered in 1937 East Texas, but to omit it completely seems wrong, too, although as one commenter pointed out, we can generally count on readers to fill in at least some of the trappings of racism on their own.

Right now I am using the N-word in the mouths of a few characters in their most extreme states. (I did the same thing with the F-word in The Knife and the Butterfly and managed, by the end of writing, to cut down the frequency pretty dramatically.) I will have to decide later if the N-word needs to come out altogether. I’m not sure, though, that in a book that deals with lynching (as mine does at one point) that it’s right to excise it. After all, this was a time when some white people still attended lynchings as if they were picnics, keeping photos as souvenirs or to send as postcards.

For now, I’ll just keep writing. And following the discussion on J.L.’s post here.

*It’s possible (ahem, probable) that I have a professional crush on Justine Larbalestier. Not that I want to be·her–or to have her particular challenges when it comes to getting publishers to behave properly (I mean that whole white-washing thing with Liar). But I do admire her bold stance on various issues and her adventurousness·as a writer (check out this challenge list of genres and subgenres she wants to hit at least once). I also love her use of footnotes on her blog. This footnote is a tribute to all that awesomeness. And like the mention of slugs, this footnote has nothing to do with what today’s post is about.

Now Go Write: Postcard from an Emotion


What can you do in those infamous fifteen minutes of writing each day (the daily chunk of time I had for writing most of What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly)? And what if you’re not in the middle of a project? I plan to start dishing up some of my favorite writing prompts to entice you to bring writing into your daily life.

At a recent writing group meeting, one of my writing buddies challenged us with the following fabulous prompt cribbed from a session at the Indiana University Writers’ Conference. Under the prompt, you’ll find  an unedited version of my in-session work (WARNING: dubious merit).

PROMPT: Write a postcard from an emotion (as in, the emotion is your current location, where you’re writing from).

CONSTRAINTS*: (1) Refer to something that you’ve brought with you. (2) Include one action with a muscular, surprising verb. (3) Ask a question. (4) Use a phrase like “I always believed,” “they say,” “all along,” “we should have,” or “I think you would,” (5) evoke a palpable landscape.  BONUS POINTS: use a surprising adjective/noun combination (my favorite from writing group: “deadfly words”).

* A quick note about constraints: for me, writing prompts like these with fairly detailed requirements are the best. Weirdly, the more constraints, the more creative I feel. The flattest exercise prose seems to come from prompts that are too open.


My humble attempt at a postcard from an emotion:

Postcard from Expectation

You were right, it’s all queues and waiting rooms here. I haven’t made it through a single attraction entrance or into any of the offices that ring the many reception rooms. Traffic doesn’t move at all; the drivers lose themselves in anticipatory loops. They wait for red, they wait for green, they wait for yellow. It’s not like you’d think, though, no snarky comments or shoving in line, no fingers tapping out their impatience on waiting room armrests, no young mothers huffing angrily into their bangs.

I’m writing to you from a pale green room, crowded but not overfull. From what I can tell, nobody here worries if their name will be called or when. A man with a bottlebrush mustache pats his belly lovingly. A little girl mimes the unwrapping of a candy bar, a granny with spotted hands winds yarn around her finger. Can they all be so sure that what they await is behind one of these doors?

I haven’t caught it yet, whatever they have, but it’s in the air like humidity, throat-tightening and tugging at the corners of the mouth. The place is lousy with Mona Lisa smiles, but I try not to mind. 

I think you would know how to handle yourself here. Why don’t you give those narrow, dusty streets of Despair a rest and join me for a while? Bring your open hands; that’s all you need.

Paper calls me back

This is my writing area, paper consumed.

A while ago I wrote about how Scrivener was the perfect tool for drafting a novel. I need to revise that statement. Scrivener is the best electronic tool. Why the qualification? Because ordinary paper always, always calls me back. 

Scrivener is a dream for drafting, especially for someone (ahem…) who likes to make heaps of lists and obsessively subdivide her material into reorganizable chunks. I also love the cleanness of being able to move through hundreds of files in a single pane without those pesky Word windows piling up and misbehaving.

But… After all my elaborate folders, character files, and color-coded classifications and comments, in the end, I need paper. For the current revision, I am working between Scrivener and a paper draft that I have manually cut and paste onto colored construction paper to sort out the development of different plot threads. With paper, I can surround myself with something material·and feel the power to move the pieces around and assess the changes.

I think there is a touch of fetishism in this method. I get an actual thrill from laying things out on paper–especially paper filched from one of our Texas host’s amazing scrapbooking stash. Our two-year-old Liam knows what I am talking about. Recently he learned to open doors and, while we were playing hide-and-seek, let himself into the strictly off-limits scrapbook room. (Anyone who has ever SEEN the quantity of scissors and sharp things involved in making a scrapbook will understand the prohibition.) His words upon entering the room?

“Whooa, papel!”

I feel much the same way. Paper is, quite simply, this writer’s best friend.

Caught in a Crazy Quilt


In case you missed it, I was recently tangled up in a lovely crazy quilt: an interview with fabulous librarian, writer, and blogger Edi Campbell. Check it out here to learn about why I played hooky, the best of Paris, and my favorite librarian. And check out the whole cast of the Summer 2012 Blog Blast Tour here at Chasing Ray.

Presidential Announcements and the TIME cover: Is the DREAM Act on its way back?


Cover of TIME magazine for June 25, 2012

I haven’t read it yet, but I plan to get my hands on a copy of the June 25 Time magazine because the cover story is close to my heart: the plight of young illegal immigrants who contribute in countless ways to American experience.

The most powerful feature of this article? The first word in its title: “We Are Americans.” Everything could change for young immigrants if others–especially those with legal status–embrace the fact that immigrants are part of the “we” that makes us a nation. 

The Time feature comes right on the heels of President Obama’s recent decision to provide a bit of security for young people without legal status. While it’s a long way from the DREAM Act that would give the children of illegal immigrants the opportunity to access higher education and a path to legal status, Obama’s announcement is important both as a step in the right direction and in the way it has energized the immigration debate. Perhaps we’ll see the DREAM Act come back–and pass. 

As I wrote back in 2010 when DREAM passed the House (only to fail in the Senate), the DREAM Act is about providing opportunities for children raised in the US—many of whom have no memories of their parents’ home country. Without the DREAM Act, there is little incentive for undocumented immigrant kids to pursue higher education because the doors that a college degree would open are bolted shut by their illegal status.

This is a frustrating situation I saw repeatedly while teaching senior English in Southeast Houston. Some of my best students—straight-A kids who spoke perfect English and had been in US schools since pre-K—felt paralyzed by a secret: they didn’t have papers. According to a recent College Board report, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools every year. In Texas and nine other states, these kids can attend college and even receive some financial aid, but that is where the opportunity ends.

The DREAM Act does not reward so-called lawbreakers; it relieves the consequences of an immigration system that’s broken and protects the children who have been caught up in that system. 

Is it hopelessly optimistic to think that Obama’s announcement and a story in Time might lead to the passage of the DREAM Act? Probably. But I’ve got my fingers crossed. And I know hundreds of young Americans who do, too.

Juneteenth: a reminder that change comes slowly


This is where Granger is said to have read his proclamation on June 18.

Today is Juneteenth, the commemoration of the actual emancipation of slaves in Texas and other parts of the South on June 18 and 19 in 1865, which came considerably later than the official end to slavery (January 1, 1863). On June 18, Union General Gordon Granger and his troops came to Galveston, Texas, to enforce emancipation. According to legend, Granger stood on the balcony of one of Galveston’s grand houses and read the following: 

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Interesting choice of words. The emancipated slaves, however limited the real change in their lives, did not “remain quietly” at home but had some considerable celebrations. Their world didn’t shift much as most remained de facto slaves. But there was the promise of something better, even if it would take another hundred years to come.

The naming of the celebration Juneteenth is a bit of linguistic playfulness combining June and nineteenth.

Don’t miss out on the 2012 Summer Book Blast Tour

I’m writing you from the depths of a hideous stomach virus, and I recommend each and every one of you to stay FAR, FAR away from me. What better way to keep your distance than by making a few stops on this year’s Summer Book Blog Tour? You can see the whole schedule, with links and snippets posted each day, here at Chasing Ray. Here are a few hot stops from days one and two:

Kate Milford – Chasing Ray: “Staten Island is a perfect blank for lots of folks, except they know there’s a ferry and they know there’s an expressway.”

Randa Abdel Fattah – Crazy QuiltEdi: “…A feeling of dread came over me as I worried that I’d be the last person to be chosen. And it clicked then that the desire to belong and not stand out as ‘a loner’ never quite leaves you, even after your school days are long gone.”

Tim Lebbon – Bildungsroman: “Blimey…quite some time since I wrote that story. It’s a tale about a guy losing his wife, and then trying to regain some hold on her by bringing back all the dolls she used to collect.”

Nalo Hopkinson – The Happy Nappy Bookseller: “It’s a dilemma for many — not all –young black Canadians as they try to self-define. On this continent, blackness is seen as synonymous with black Americanness. If they don’t look and act like what people associate with American blackness, they get seen as weird, inauthentic.”


Timothy Decker – Chasing Ray: “I put hours into every illustration because I want to make drawings that are so interesting or intense that a child falls into them. I want them to have a magical adventure inside their mind, where my words or maybe just my illustrations spark all kinds of thoughts or questions. No one blows through my books as if the stories are mindless entertainment, they have to bring their brain and meet me half way.”

YS Lee – The Ya Ya Yas: “What’s not to love about a perfect storm of mega-pollution, heat wave, and the great public health panic of urban London?”

Tanita Davis – The Happy Nappy Bookseller: “A little bonus fact: I wrote Ysabel’s backstory twice because originally she was in orchestra, and my editor said that there were too many YA novels with female characters who played cellos.”

What a fabulous way to discover new authors and old friends (if you missed the mad love I have for Tanita Davis and her book Happy Families, go back to this post). And you can find me chatting with Edi Campbell of Crazy QuiltEdi on Friday, by which time I will be safely uncontagious, I hope!

The Look of Home


You see these pumpjacks all over East Texas, humping oil up from the earth.

After smooth flying and driving, we are finally “home” to the States–Texas for a bit before heading back to Indiana. Husband and I are nostalgic for Paris already, especially when we are eating out (“Look at the size of this table! Where are our cozy cafe spots?”). Liam still talks about one of his friends from his Paris nursery school, and I’m sure he is jonesing for those daily patisserie stops.

But we are home.

I remember, as a sixteen-year-old girl about to leave East Texas for the first time. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place than my Piney Woods, and yet I knew I needed to go. 

Now I’ve been blessed to have seen all kinds of beauty–mountains and East Coast forests, California’s lush bits, beautiful vistas in Paris, farmland in Normandy, Belfast’s skies. But there is something about the look of home, its smells. There is nothing beautiful about an oil derrick or pumpjack, but they are part of my childhood landscape. Living in this place with my own child returns me to my experiences as a little girl, and that’s its own kind of beauty.

For now, I’m avoiding comparisons to Paris and just living our re-discovered home one gentle look at a time.

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