Let It Snow (White)

By now, you’ve probably noticed that Snow White is having a good year. There are two Snow White-inspired movies out or coming out, both featuring some pretty major Hollywood actors. NPR takes a look at why 2012 might be Snow’s year. One theory looks at Snow White and our contemporary interest in the aging process (and trying to stop it):

“What’s interesting now,” [Mirror, Mirror screenwriter Melissa] Wallack says, “is that almost the first time really in history, you can remain young. Everyone now is out there shooting themselves with Botox.” In the movie, in fact, Julia Roberts gets an Evil Queen spa special with scorpion bites, bee stings, bird poop and grubs digging around in her ears.

Although Botox and other treatments claim to keep you young, there’s still a stigma about resorting to these methods. And they don’t always make you look exactly like you did twenty years ago. I can understand a social anxiety about aging and the next generation creeping up. (Even now I feel kind of old when I see teen tv stars. Who are these kids?)

Another theory involves mother/daughter struggles:

The tension between the princess and the queen, says Harvard professor Maria Tatar, might also help explain Snow White’s recent revival: “Maybe the mother-daughter rivalry that has caught our attention with so many women trying to remain youthful now.”

You can even see that, says Tatar, on a reality show fairy tale like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s filled with beautiful princesses, sham weddings — and, like Snow White, an older-versus-younger-woman dynamic. “The mother is constantly competing with her daughters for attention, and she’s got these gorgeous daughters; she becomes more anxious than ever about aging.”

This makes sense to me. Between Amy Poehler’s hilarious interpretation of a “cool mom” in Mean Girls to real parents who buy their babies designer clothes or t-shirts emblazoned with indie rock band names, parents are increasingly trying to maintain a sense of youth. And who can blame them? Just because you have kids doesn’t mean your life is over. But problems can arise when you value being cool or beautiful over being a parent.

Also, it’s kind of nice to see (what I assume are) more active roles for Snow White. She was never my favorite fairy tale princess because she a) doesn’t understand that you shouldn’t take candy from strangers, and b) passes out. I haven’t seen the movies so I’m not sure how their roles are actually handled, but it’s nice to get a glimpse of Snow White as someone more in control of her own destiny.

(image: Rob Webb)

The Latest YA/Adult Lit Debate

It happens whenever there’s a YA/children’s book bestseller or movie adaptation: someone writes an article about whether or not YA/children’s books are worth reading if you’re over the age of 17. The New York Times features just such a discussion over at their Room for Debate.

YA Patricia McCormick holds down the fort for YA. She argues:

“…adults are discovering one of publishing’s best-kept secrets: that young adult authors are doing some of the most daring work out there. Authors who write for young adults are taking creative risks — with narrative structure, voice and social commentary — that you just don’t see as often in the more rarefied world of adult fiction.”

Obviously I very much agree. It’s a wonderful time for YA, when authors are allowed to push boundaries, and readers are enthusiastic about these risks. Teens already seek out innovation in technology, music, and other fields. Why should it surprise anyone that this happens for literature?

Columnist Joel Stein argues that adults should be embarrassed for enjoying anything that a young person might appreciate. But I find it hard to listen to an argument by anyone who claims that he can’t appreciate Pixar films–has he seen the heartbreaking depiction of love and married life in Up?–and hasn’t even read a YA novel. I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate or understand these novels, but I also think he wrote the article to be controversial and get hits. As such, I’m even more inclined to ignore him.

Lots of other articles included as well, most of them in favor of adults expanding their bookshelves with YA novels. In short: just as with adult literature, there is a lot of good and a lot of bad and a lot in the middle. But you shouldn’t cancel out a whole genre simply because you assume it’s beneath you.

(HT: Chronicles of a Mountain Librarian)

Creating the YA Voice

This article by Natalie Haney Tilghman is a little old, but it’s still an interesting look at creating appropriate voice in YA. One point I like:

“Language is paramount to making a young voice believable in both YA and coming-of-age adult fiction. Writers can create beautiful art using informal diction, kid-sized comparisons, invented words, and slang. Teen narrators are memorable not because their experiences of adolescence are unique but because they recount them in such a way that the reader revisits and rediscovers what it means to be a teenager.”

Although I think ‘revisits’ and ‘rediscovers’ suggest an older reader, I think the general idea is well grounded. Good narrators don’t have to explore new realms of experience; they have to express thoughts and emotions in a way that makes the reader think “Yes, that’s it exactly.”

Of course, this is true for “adult” fiction as well. But YA writers also have the challenge of creating thoughts and emotions that feel genuine to their character’s particular age and place as well. Most YA narrators are really encountering the world for the first time. For me, I find that one of the most exciting parts in writing YA. While the language might require more crafting, the emotions can really touch on the genuine and the revelatory.

Make sure to check out the whole article for more of Tilghman’s thoughts on voice.

Writing on Writing

It’s almost two weeks into the new year, and your resolution is write more is lagging a little. If you need some writerly inspiration, check out these great books on writing. My favorite is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She’s encouraging, offers solid advice, and adds more than a dash of humor throughout.

A couple of others I’d add:

  • What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by By Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
    Pam was one of my professor in grad school, so I might be biased, but honestly it’s an excellent book with fantastic examples and exercises. I used it in an undergrad fiction class as well and loved it then.
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
    More on the literary analysis side, but still very helpful.
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
    A workshop classic. Lots of great advice about writing as a practice.
  • 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market by Chuck Sambuchino
    A fantastic collection of information on agents, publishing houses, magazines, and more. Plus lots of articles on craft. A new one is released every year, so make sure to get the most up-to-date info.

What are your books for literary inspiration?

The Writer’s Metaphorical Toolbox

At some point, almost everyone in middle or high school English class questions whether one or another author really intended all the symbolism in their novels that English teachers claim there is. Fortunately, Shannon Hale is here to insist that writers do write intentionally:

“When I’m writing, I’m not thinking about what an English class might study. I’m not thinking in words like “symbol” and “theme.” But I do take careful stock of the story. I study early drafts to see what motifs have started to occur, what ideas seem to repeat themselves naturally. Then I examine what the story needs and nurture those motifs into what an English teacher would call a theme, and I do that in order to make the story stronger, to add layers of meaning that will make the book more intriguing as well to give it an emotional connection. I am very aware of creating connections–with other works, with historical events unmentioned, with other ideas within the story. I do this all with a great deal of thought and purpose. I or another writer might be unaware of one of a reader’s personal interpretations, but that doesn’t mean we’re unaware of any allusion or motif.”

I think this is the perfect description of using writerly elements in stories. I don’t know any writers who sit down and map out each image and symbol and metaphor, but all the writers I know think about these elements as they craft their work. And all of this enhances the experience for the reader (even if the reader is then forced to write an essay about symbolism in The Great Gatsby). I’m glad to see Shannon stand up for this kind of thoughtfulness.

Good Books, Bad Reviews

It’s easy to think that classic novels have always been considered classics. But even the most famous novels got some bad reviews. Book Riot has compiled some quotes from bad reviews for great books. My favorite:

“On J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

This Salinger, he’s a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me.”

Granted, I’m pretty sure you could round up a hundred tenth-graders and get the same opinion. But a review like this is a good reminder that not everyone has to love your book. Not everyone will love your book. Sometimes even important reviewers will hate your book. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad book or mean that it won’t connect with someone. Being a writer means having to deal with a lot of criticism and rejection, even when you’re talented and beloved. It’s not an easy life, but seeing quotes like this helps.

Click through for even more bad review inspiration!

Speaking of Monsters

Here’s a cool essay by Paul. A Trout about why humans create monsters. One reason is a cultural warning for people to stay away from real creatures (lions, tigers, bears, oh my) that thought people might be a tasty snack:

[T]he basic function of the monster was to give fear a face, to graphically capture the dread that is bred into us by millions of years as a prey species that was stalked and sometimes eaten by huge and terrifying carnivores.

So dragons aren’t just cool in stories; they could have served an evolutionary purpose. Another reason is that people may have seen fossils of ancient creatures and developed stories of monsters based on those giant bones. I saw the Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Museum of Science a few years ago, which featured this idea.

Anyone who has had a nightmare also knows that monsters could come from dreams, where the familiar is mashed together to create something terrifying:

Among the salient experiences our ancient ancestors remembered and stored in their unconscious must have been life-threatening encounters with predators. Which means that during altered states, images of predators would have undergone further shaping, twisting, recombination, or hybridization. The upshot is that proto-humans were able to conjure up hybrid images of animals well before cognitive fluidity and mythmaking emerged during the Middle Paleolithic.”

Wherever the idea of monsters came from, I think it’s awesome that almost all cultures and social groups have some kind of scary creature in their stories. And it’s fun for writers now to be able to play with these cultural touchstones and myths. (Even if it does mean a restless night’s sleep.)

Check out Trout’s book for more on the history and creation of monsters.

Cheerfully Defending the Adverb

When I was in high school, someone gave me Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s supposed to be a great book. I’m sure that if I read it now, I’d really enjoy it. But I am a cold-hearted person and King’s comment that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” inspired fury. “What does he know?!” I shouted.

It’s common advice: adverbs are the death of writing. Ten years later, I do use less adverbs in my writing, but I still think they hold an important place in literature. A well-used adverb can make a verb striking or exciting or unsettling. So when I read the title of Lily Rothman’s article “Why I Am Proudly, Strongly, and Happily in Favor of Adverbs,” I cheered a little.

Rothman describes how adverbs can drag down writing when they’re used lazily or improperly:

Even if English speakers have a tendency to misuse adverbs, that doesn’t mean they’re evil. Some—those that help the current move “ceaselessly” at the end of The Great Gatsby or the crew of the starship Enterprise go “boldly”—are downright great.

Just because people misuse something doesn’t mean it lacks a place in literature. And I love that reference to Gatsby. “Ceaselessly” makes the rest of the sentence shine in an unexpected way. It wouldn’t be a classic line without that adverb.

I tend to like “useless” parts of grammar more than other people. (Don’t bring up that Oxford comma debate!) But I’m glad to see that the adverb has at least one other defender.


I Think There’s Been a Misunderstanding

From a recent article about why adults like YA:

Now Dr Louise Joy, a Cambridge University academic, has suggested that traditional children’s tales attract older readers because they offer things that jaded adults cannot find in their everyday lives. “Books such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach offer a world where self-consciousness is overthrown and relationships are straightforward… But relationships in the real adult world are often fraught by miscommunication and the impossibility of understanding one another properly.”

I’m sorry, but is she reading different version of these books? Neither Alice nor James have an easy time of it, even just when they try to communicate. Also, I don’t think I’ve seen many people with Alice in Wonderland on the T recently. Mostly, if people are reading YA, I’d wager it was something written in the last 50 years.

Also, maybe Joy had a different childhood than I did, but I’m pretty sure children’s relationships are fraught with miscommunication. It can be hard enough for kids to understand the layers of their emotions; communicating those layers is even worse. Look at Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time. In the initial chapters, she has a horrible time communicating with pretty much anyone outside her family. She’s emotional and volatile and sensitive. And what about Max in Where the Wild Things Are? He torments the dog and gets sent to his room. How are these characters and their relationships free of any kind of misunderstanding?

Someone needs to get Dr. Joy into the children’s section of a local library immediately.

(via bookshelves of doom)

High School’s Never Over

Dyana Herron’s essay, “Why I Read Young Adult Literature,” is a fantastic look at what YA means for teen and adult readers alike. One of my favorite points:

“…when I began to read contemporary books written for young adults, I found a wealth of well-written, sensitive, imaginative, bold stories about individuals who are navigating a crucial, difficult time in their lives.

A time in which they are awakening to the fact that the world is not as safe as it may have seemed during childhood, in which they are developing identities outside their family units, in which they are having sexual awakenings, making best friends, losing best friends, falling in love, and — almost invariably — wondering if they are going to survive to experience something better.”

I think YA Lit could easily be called Coming of Age Lit or (if you want to get really literary/pretentious) Bildungsroman Lit. It’s about encountering the world and yourself for the first time. As with adult literature, the tone can vary from funny to serious, breezy to intense, and more. And most YA (not just the best) is about a character confronting something new and exciting/upsetting. How is that not engaging?

Herron goes on to talk about why she still reads YA even though her middle/high school days are over:

The need for these kinds of stories isn’t something that goes away when we graduate with our advanced degrees, or start paying our own rent, or when there’s no one around to care how late our friends call. “

I’m certainly touched by characters in YA stories, and I doubt that’s going to change anytime soon. I think a lot of adult readers assume that all YA is Sweet Valley High or Gossip Girl. But that’s like assuming that everything in the general fiction section is by Dan Brown or James Patterson. There’s a wealth of material and emotion on the YA shelves, and I hope more people start opening themselves up to the genre.