Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jackie: Teaching YA Fiction in the Writing Workshop

I thought I would sit down and spend a leisurely few hours working on this post, but my three-year-old daughter painted herself—head to toe—with plum lipstick, in the process painting the bedding and her baby doll. It would be fun to adapt the age here to sixteen, and imagine a situation in which a teenage girl or boy does the same, but that would be food for another post…

Instead, I’m going to take the next hour talking about my experience, this past autumn, teaching my first graduate workshop in writing fiction for young adults. I teach in the Creative Writing Program at Texas Tech, where students can earn an MA or a PhD with an emphasis in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It was the first ever workshop in YA literature here at Texas Tech, and of the seven writers enrolled in the workshop, only two were truly conversant in the genre. So as part of the workshop, I built in a serious reading component that introduced writers to contemporary literary fiction for teens via Megan Frazer’s Secrets of Truth and Beauty, historical fiction via Lisa Klein’s Ophelia, and fantasy via Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death. In the syllabus, I outlined the course objectives as follows:

The workshop is designed as a reading and writing-intensive introduction to the diverse genre known as young adult fiction with focus on contemporary and historical fiction that integrate literary archetypes (Ophelia and Hamlet, the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility) as well as fantasy. Though the fiction we write in the class will be aimed at young adults and will require writers to inhabit the consciousness of a teenager, an age driven by a host of issues (coming-of-age or “bildung” from the German Bildungsroman, exploration and risk taking, intense questioning and the challenge of authority, as well as breakdowns and breakthroughs), the workshop will focus on the key craft elements in writing character-driven, literary fiction: characterization, plotting (summary and exposition v. scene), dialogue, description, the creation of a dramatic arc in which the writing builds towards conflict and inevitably strives for a closure which is not necessarily resolution.

Because a good part of the workshop will be devoted to investigating the genre and cultivating a teenage voice, the workshop will certainly not discourage an ambitious writer to draft a novel during the semester. The workshop will require ambitious writers to produce three polished chapters of a contemporary novel and a synopsis alongside two polished chapters of a novel that integrates literary archetypes/myth and a second synopsis. These two chapters may be from a historical novel. (Writers interested in fantasy will be required to craft fiction that relegates fantasy to a secondary role, as in the examples of Libba Brays’ A Great and Terrible Beauty, Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death, and Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere. In other words, we won’t be writing fantasy novels. The fantastic may be an element of the story. In Elsewhere, the protagonist wakes up en route to the afterlife. In Beauty, the protagonist is a Victorian teen at an all girls boarding school who finds herself with otherworldly powers that lead her to another world.)

In my eight years of teaching creative writing at Texas Tech, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations, change my course, and essentially be open—essential components of my writer’s life. I therefore came to accept that one of the writers in the workshop was seriously invested in violence, profanity, and sex. He ultimately wrote more of a genre novel—a thriller/mystery—featuring a teenage runaway as the protagonist, a vigilante prone to violence and drinking who winds up winning the reader’s support because he fights on the right side in some college drug wars. So.

That said, this proved to be one of the most rewarding workshops I ever taught, in part because of the engagement of the writers and the intimate class size. Over the course of the semester, everyone chose to focus on writing 125-150 pages of a novel AND turning in a synopsis. Six of the novels were contemporary, and one was set in a sort of totalitarian New York City of the future (god forbid).

It would be impossible here to lay out 18 weeks worth of work, though I should emphasize the fact that after discussing the core values of YA fiction in each of the novels we read, we looked at the development of those core values in the evolving novels of every participant.
How, then, did I define YA fiction’s core values?

The protagonist is a teen. She is figuring out herself, her world, and questioning a lot. YA literature is an extension of the Bildungsroman, as in Great Expectations or any of Austen’s novels.

She is passionate: intense. Emotions are not lukewarm.

She is honest.

She is exploring and challenging boundaries.

She must experience crises and come through the other side.

Answers will never come from adults, at least not without the help of the teen herself.

An encapsulation of how YA literature works comes early on—at the close of Chapter 1—in Secrets of Truth and Beauty:

So everyone, Mr. Fitz included, wanted to see me do my presentation on being in a
pageant and getting fat? Was it really so fascinating? The thing was, if this could have
been an anonymous project, I actually did have something important and interesting
I might have explored. But it was too personal, and too messy, as real-life stories
tend to be.

It’s the last two sentences that contain the juicy essentials: something important and interesting I might have explored…too personal, and too messy…

YA literature is all about exploration, and it has to be messy: visceral: emotionally true. And the protagonist has to be someone the reader can get behind.

Getting behind the protagonist was the central problem for my student who wrote the vigilante novel. After all, who relates to a violent, distant main character? What humanized him was bringing in his history—his abusive childhood, his desire to protect his younger brother from his father—and the way that history proved relevant in his current behavior. And then there was one more thing: the writer made our vigilante a lover of superheroes. He actually wore a costume. And in the process, he became more vulnerable, as did the writer’s decision to make manifest his character’s struggle to connect with someone outside himself….

I hope this post generates some discussion from those currently teaching the genre of hoping to do so. As a last thing, I thought I’d share my first day’s assignment which I adapted from Victoria Hanley’s Wild Ink, a handbook on writing for teens, though it’s really only the introductory chapter that I found worthwhile. Hanley does a good job of contextualizing YA literature using broad brushstrokes, and she includes a dynamite assignment. Here’s how I adapted it:

ASSIGNMENT A: “WRITE A NOVEL FOR YOUNG ADULTS”—Okay, make this your header. Now step outside yourself. Pretend you’ve been given the assignment of getting “YOUR NAME HERE” to write a young adult novel. First you have to figure out what you have to work with. To begin, search the person’s mind and heart. What sort of mind and heart does X possess? Curious? Inventive? Fearful? Mistrusting? Persistent? Next, turn to the person’s experiences. List as many as you can. Nothing is ordinary or dull. (EX: A fabulous story-in-embryo could begin with a character whose part-time job involves working at a preschool. What if this person’s father left when he/she was 4? What kind of memories would the work bring back?) Now, jot down the skills the person has. And after that, put down the person’s dreams. And of course include his/her fears. Once you have all of this information gathered, ask what sort of author might this person be? How will his/her character traits, skills, interests, experiences, dreams & fears come together in a writing voice? *Let me stress again that as you do this exercise, really consider the person at the top of the page as if you were meeting him/her for the first time. And remember, an essential of writing for teens is to create characters they can relate to.

After you’ve completed Assignment A, turn to ASSIGNMENT B: FINDING YOUR INNER TEEN—The following questions are designed to help you mind material that will create the base rock for characters and plot in this semester’s writing:

What is your clearest memory of feeling alienated? Misunderstood? Betrayed?

What is the most unfair thing that ever happened to you? How did you react?

In what way did your upbringing seem utterly different from that of your peers (not necessarily your friends)?

When have you gone against peer pressure to follow what you believe?

How do you react to authority? Give 3-5 concrete examples. Is there a pattern here?

What has been your moment of greatest rebellion? How about your greatest dream of rebellion?

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? What was the outcome?

Have you ever done something impulsive that had a long-lasting impact on your life?

Have you been disbelieved when you were speaking truthfully? Have you feared the truth so much that you lied (to yourself and/or to others)?

Has someone you loved lied to you about something that mattered?

What is the most traumatic historical event you have lived through? How close were you to the event? (Living a block from the World Trade Center v. watching it on TV in Texas v. watching it in Texas and knowing that your best friend was interning there…)

have you grown apart from a close friend? Was it gradual or sudden? Reasons?

Have you ever been so mortified you wished you could disappear?
What’s the most unconventional thing you’ve done? The most cruel? The most generous?

What’s the biggest mistake you ever made?

Have you ever been in a situation from which there seemed no escape? How did you handle it?

When was the loneliest time in your life? How did you deal with it?

When did you first fall in love? What happened?
Has someone important to you rejected you?

Have you ever lost total control or done something so wild you surprised / terrified yourself?

Have you ever laughed so hard you cried? Cried so hard you laughed?

Have you ever suddenly changed your appearance dramatically?
What has been your most euphoric moment? How did it change you?

What have you longed to do but never done?
What and whom would you die for?

What have you yearned to find but never found?

Now that you’ve finished answering the above questions, use what you’ve discovered to write 4-6 pages in a teen voice. These pages should be contemporary. Plan to read a section of these pages aloud at next class.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mary: Memorable Characters in Middle Grade Fiction

Memorable Characters in Middle Grade Fiction:

What Makes a Character Unforgettable?

The memorable characters of middle grade fiction have their own voice, they struggle desperately to get what they want, and they are often filled with contradictions. Such characters leap off the page through their actions, dialogue, and internal emotions. How do authors create memorable characters? This essay attempts to answer that question with the assistance of four very different protagonists: Gilly Hopkins, Lonnie Collins Motion, Claudia Kincaid, and Stuart Little.

In The Great Gilly Hopkins, when the uncontrollable, stubborn, and emotionally wounded Gilly is sent to yet another foster home, she hatches a plan to make her real mother come to her rescue. Readers first meet Gilly in chapter one when she is traveling by car with her social worker, Miss Ellis, to yet another foster home. Without providing a physical description or introducing Gilly’s voice in dialogue, Paterson creates a complicated main character by showing Gilly’s actions and inner life. In response to Miss Ellis’s pep talk encouraging good behavior at Trotter’s, the latest foster home, Gilly pops her bubble gum, gets it stuck in her hair, and leaves it plastered under the car door handle for the next passenger. Notice Gilly’s reaction when Miss Ellis asks her to try to get off on the right foot with Trotter:

“Gilly had a vision of herself sailing around the living room … on her right foot like an ice skater. With her uplifted left foot, she was shoving the next foster mother square in the mouth.” (3)

By the end of chapter one, readers are already in the presence of an unforgettable character, the defiant and imaginative Galadrial Hopkins.

As Paterson’s characterization of Gilly continues, new, contradictory characteristics emerge. Careless Gilly, who hacks off her hair with scissors to remove the gum with terrible results, is also the organized Gilly: she straightens the books on her neighbor, Mr. Randolph’s shelves. And the repellant Gilly also reveals a softer side. She feels “strangely shy” about touching Mr. Randolph’s books. “It was almost as if she were meddling in another person’s brain.” (40) And in spite of her best intentions to scare and drive away William Ernest, her little foster brother, Gilly befriends him by teaching him to read books and make paper airplanes. For a moment Gilly’s soft, vulnerable side slips out when Trotter thanks her for helping with the paper airplanes: “the [proud, loving] look on Trotter’s face was the one Gilly had, in some deep part of her, longed to see all her life.” (62) But Gilly quickly recoils from the compliment back to her stubborn, conniving self. The push and pull of conflicting emotions adds to the complexity of Gilly’s character.

Like Gilly, Lonnie, in Locomotion, is a multi-dimensional character. Lonnie has a heart-rending story. After his parents are killed in a fire, Lonnie and his sister are separated and placed in different homes. But it is not Lonnie’s traumatic situation that makes him a memorable character. Woodson displays her mastery as an author by giving Lonnie a perceptive voice and unique worldview. These are what linger in the reader’s mind long after Locomotion has been returned to the shelf. Lonnie would be complex even if his family was still intact and his biggest yearning in life were to write a satisfying poem.

Locomotion is a novel told in verse. Lonnie’s teacher encourages him to tell his story in poetry because “poetry’s short” (1) Lonnie tells us, and he can get his story down in bits before it overwhelms and silences him. Through his poems, Lonnie emerges as a sensitive, thoughtful, and observant boy. He gives us this glimpse of himself before the fire:

Mama came running out the kitchen

drying her hands on her jeans

When she saw us just sitting there, she let out a breath

Oh, my Lord, she said,

I thought you’d dropped my baby.

I asked

Was I ever your baby, Mama?

and Mama looked at me all warm and smiley.

You still are, she said.

Then she went back to the kitchen. (5–6)

Already, before the devastating fire that changes Lonnie’s life but not who he is, readers sense Lonnie’s gentle nature. His sensitivity is later revealed when he writes, for example, about his classmate, Eric, who is “tall and a little bit mean” (22). Lonnie witnesses Eric outside of school, singing in a church choir, and observes that “Eric’s voice was like something / that didn’t seem like it should belong / to Eric. / Seemed like it should be coming out of an angel.” (23) If the only side of Lonnie’s character were his sensitivity, readers would soon get bored. In a later scene between Lonnie and Eric,Lonnie’s sensitivity is contrasted with his envy of Eric’s leather jacket. Such juxtapositions of seemingly contradicting traits appear over and over again in Locomotion and serve to deepen Lonnie’s character.

Lonnie’s quest for understanding the world outside of school, family, and friends further adds to the complexity of his character. Lonnie lives with Miss Edna, one of whose sons is fighting in a war. Lonnie shows his understanding of the far-reaching effects of war in this stanza:

The war’s on the other side of the world.

But Jenkins is fighting in it.

And Miss Edna’s praying about it.

So I guess it’s the same as if it was right here

in our city

in our house

in Miss Edna’s room

Everywhere. (39)

Throughout the book Lonnie also grapples with his beliefs about God. In church, on Easter Sunday, Lonnie asks a question about Jesus that is at once innocently childlike and worldly wise. “Was it a big sacrifice to give your life / if you knew you was gonna rise back up? / I mean, isn’t that like just taking a nap?” (81) Giving hints at Lonnie’s belief system is another way Woodson adds depth and interest to Lonnie.

What about a character who has suffered a trauma no bigger than the perceived injustice of being the oldest child and only girl in the family of four siblings? That character is Claudia Kincaid in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Claudia’s motivation to run away from home “had to do with the sameness of each and every week” (6), which includes both emptying the dishwasher and setting the table while her brothers do nothing. With Konigsburg’s page-turning plot and clever setting, this novel could easily have been an entertaining and satisfying read. What makes Mixed-up Files a Newbery Award winner, however, is plot and setting plus memorable characters (among other components not subjects of this essay such as tone and changing points of view).

While other children may scheme to run away, Claudia takes it one step further: she escapes her monotonous and unjust home life by running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia is determined and competent, but she’s not so self-sufficient that she doesn’t invite along a companion, her younger brother, Jamie. Once in the museum, Claudia’s particular actions reflect her meticulous character.

From the beginning readers know that Claudia “didn’t like discomfort.” (5) At the museum she chooses a bed with a “tall canopy, supported by an ornately carved headboard … and two gigantic posts” (37–38) because “she had always known she was meant for fine things.” (3) Later, Claudia takes powdered soap from the restroom, grinds it into a paper towel, and uses it to take a bath in the museum restaurant’s fountain because she “can’t stand one night more without a bath.” (80) She insists that Jamie and she have clean underwear every day. Rather than introducing traits to conflict with Claudia’s fastidiousness, Konigsburg keeps providing more examples, building on this behavior to develop the Claudia as a memorable character.

Claudia’s dialogue gives readers a clear sense of who she is. When Claudia explains to Jamie why she chose him as her companion, she says, “I’ve picked you to accompany me on the greatest adventure of our mutual lives.” (13) She refers to hiding in the museum’s bathroom stalls as “manning their stations.” (45) After a satisfying discussion with Jamie about homesickness, Claudia feels older. She tells her brother, “But, of course, that’s mostly because I’ve been the older child forever. And I’m extremely well adjusted.” (87) “Never call people dead; it makes others feel bad. Say ‘deceased’ or ‘passed away,’” (154) Claudia instructs Jamie when he refers to Mrs. Frankweiler’s husband as ‘dead.’ These, and many other instances of Claudia’s dialogue convey Claudia as the formal, righteous, and inimitable character she is.

A discussion of memorable characters in middle grade fiction wouldn’t be complete without representation from the animal kingdom. Stuart Little is one of the most memorable characters in the history of children’s literature. Undoubtedly, Stuart’s physical attributes have something to do with this. Although born to a human couple, Stuart “was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, and a mouse’s whiskers”. (1–2) In short, Stuart Little is a mouse. The premise of anarticulate mouse interacting in a human world makes for a memorable story; but Stuart is also a memorable mouse.

Though Stuart takes great care with his morning toilet including touching “his toes ten times every morning to keep himself in good condition” (13), he doesn’t hesitate to go down the slimy bathtub drain in search of his mother’s lost ring. Stuart puts loyalty to family above pride in appearance. One would think that such a well-mannered and well-turned out mouse would be modest or humble. Not so! Note how Stuart taunts his nemesis, the cat Snowbell:

“As for exercise, I take all I can get. I bet my stomach muscles are firmer than yours.”

“I bet they’re not,” said the cat.

“I bet they are,” said Stuart. “They’re like iron bands.” (18)

Later, Stuart becomes indignant when a bus driver makes disparaging comments about his size. Stuart has no trouble sticking up for himself: “I didn’t come on this bus to be insulted,” he tells the conductor. Stuart takes his job as captain of the schooner Wasp seriously, but no so seriously as to let go of the ship’s wheel for a second and to do a little dance. Stuart is a self-respecting, responsible mouse who takes time to enjoy life.

Readers find it easy to admire and root for this diminutive hero. On another level we are deeply moved by Stuart’s emotional yearnings. His sorrow when his beloved bird friend, Margalo, leaves Stuart’s home is palpable. “Stuart was heartbroken. He had no appetite, refused food, and lost weight.”(72–73) He decides to run away in pursuit of Margalo without saying good-bye to his family. Pulling a strand of his mother’s hair from her comb as a souvenir, Stuart goes in search of Margalo and to seek his fortune.

Underlying all the entertaining adventures on his trip (of which there are many) is a deep sense of loss and longing. After a disastrous date with Harriet Ames when his canoe is destroyed and all goes awry, readers understand Stuart’s tantrum at Harriet’s suggestion that they pretend they are fishing: “I don’t want to pretend I’m fishing,” cried Stuart, desperately. “Besides, look at that mud! Look at it!” He was screaming now. (122)

Stuart continues his journey. At book’s end “…the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.” (131) With Stuart, readers will hang onto that hope, but not without a deep sense of melancholy that will haunt readers’ hearts forever.

Prolific children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor says, “the physical description of the character alone will not bring him to life. … Readers need to hear how he sounds when he talks, to see how his body moves when he walks, how he relates to the members of his family.” (49) She encourages writers to choose the right details about their characters, ones that give hints to his to personality and the life he has lived. Establishing a “few specifics about his looks and a habit or two may be all readers need to form a mental picture.” (49) Moving a character in and out of scenes, concentrating on the feelings, actions, and dialogue particular to that character is essential to creating a memorable character.

Paterson, Woodson, Konigsburg, and White all show that this to be true. Gilly’s actions and inner life are particular to Gilly. Her character displays many contradictory emotions. Lonnie’s voice and his way of looking at the world could only belong to Lonnie. Claudia moves in and out of scenes, always the determined, organized, and careful girl that only Claudia can be. But it is Stuart the eloquent mouse who illuminates most clearly what is central to creating a memorable character and what all these characters have in common: intense yearning. Yearning for family, yearning to be safe, yearning to love and be loved. Each character in his or her own particular way longs for these basic human needs. When authors succeed in bringing an individual character’s longing to the page, that longing goes straight to a reader’s heart, and that character will never be forgotten.

Cited Works

Konigsburg, E.L. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Simon and

Schuster, 1972

Naylor, Phyllis Reynold. The Craft of Writing the Novel. Originally published by The Writer, Inc. of Boston, 1989

Paterson, Katherine. The Great Gilly Hopkins. HarperCollins, 1978

White, E.B. Stuart Little. Harper & Row, 1945

Woodson, Jacqueline. Locomotion. G. P. Putnam’s, 2003

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Training wheels

This happens to me and friends of mine who write for children quite a lot. Someone praises one of our books, then -- in an encouraging, coaxing tone -- says something like,
"Why don't you write an adult book? I'm sure you could do it."

This is meant as a compliment, I know, but I find the idea that children's books are training wheels preparing the author for the real two-wheeler insulting! I never have a gracious answer, either. To respond as though I think it's a compliment is impossible. To say what I think -- that children's books are actually HARDER to write than adult books and more important, too -- and then launch into a speech about why, would be rude and boring.

So I usually just say (truthfully) that maybe someday I will. I've wanted to be an author since I was four, but by the time I was a teenager, always imagined my books would be adult books (and great classics, of course). I don't know why I started writing for children; it just happened. I never planned it. It's true that I think I was better at being a child than I am at being an adult (who isn't?) -- but leading your adult life expertly -- being good at handling money, jobs, romantic relationships, blah blah blah isn't a requirement for writing for adults (think of Scott Fitzgerald!); and a happy childhood isn't a requirement for writing for kids, either. Just the opposite, probably.

So why DO I write for children, not adults? In some ways, I find the form limiting -- you can do things in an adult novel that you can't do in a middle-grade one (change the point of view, wander around in time, deal with social class and other things that children don't find very interesting)....but still, I write for middle grade readers.

Maybe it comes down to feeling like I have more to say to children than to adults, and that children are interested and will GET IT in a way most adults won't. I was once at a dinner party and someone asked what I was writing -- instead of giving the sound bite, which is usually what adults want when they ask a question, I gave a detailed description of the first chapter.

I could tell that the adults were bored, I knew I should stop talking, but I COULDN'T. Or didn't. The children at the table, though, were listening, their eyes fixed on my face -- expressionless, but listening. When I was done, the adults hurriedly returned to more interesting topics; the kids were silent, until, after what seemed like a long time but was probably really only a few seconds, the oldest --a girl -- looked at me and said, intensely, without smiling:

"That is SO funny."

That's the closest I can come to an answer. Why do you write YA or middle grade?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kristen: What I Talk About When I Talk About My Books

Today, my third teen novel, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers, was released by Disney-Hyperion. When you are a writer, and you tell people that this is your job, they usually ask the same sorts of questions. Here’s a popular one: What are your books about? You’d think by now that I would be prepared to field this question. I am a very prepared person. I never run out of cat food, apples, or paper towels. I keep an emergency aluminum laminated polyethylene blanket in my car that reflects my own body heat. And I can speak a little Spanish (If my screenplay partner is reading this, which is highly unlikely because he is crewing a yacht from the Bahamas to Rhode Island right now, he might object to the claim that I can speak a little Spanish. But I feel that my ability to recall three verses of ‘Vengan a Ver Mi Chacra Que Es Hermosa’ totally qualifies me to make this claim.)

Crowe’s Nest blog readers, I am not going to lie to you and pretend like I say zippy things to strangers. Here’s what usually goes down. A person whom I loosely know or don’t know at all or maybe one of my cousins asks me: What are your books about? My answer: I write about different stuff. This is actually a terrible answer, because it requires a ton of elaboration. And so I do that. And I attempt to summarize all my books with catchy sound bytes. (Not my forte.) Why do I do this? Because when faced with this question, I’m overcome with the impulse to persuade this person to like my books (maybe even me). I say: My first teen novel, Lost It, is about a girl who loses her virginity underneath a canoe. My second teen novel, Crimes of the Sarahs, is about a group of girl criminals who live in Kalamazoo, Michigan but they aren’t hardcore criminals, I mean, nobody shoots anybody in the head. My first middle-grade novel, Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus, is about a girl with hypoglycemia who falls underneath her school bus. (When I say this, a lot of people look a little freaked out.) I find myself adding this qualifier—Don’t worry. It’s a funny book. It’s based on the time I fell underneath my own school bus. I grew up in Idaho. Very slippery roads. Seriously. It’s cool. I didn’t damage my brain.

Why am I making my elementary years sound like one giant bus tragedy? I don’t know. I keep talking and I try to make my next book sound universally appealing by downplaying any violence (I omit the book’s villain, Corky, a homicidal sociopath). My next teen novel, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers, is about two teenagers who travel to Prague and infiltrate a college-level writing program and encounter a ton of hot-dudes. At this point, it’s not uncommon for the person I’m speaking with to believe that they are funnier than I am and try to hijack my plot points for their own jokes. They say things like, Does anybody fall underneath their tour bus? Or, How many canoes does this story have in it? (I rarely think it’s funny when people hijack my plot points.) Okay. This is usually when I start talking about bears.

I don’t even try to manufacture a good segue. I say something, like, I know a lot about bear safety. I tell them, My first teen novel, in addition to being about a girl who loses her virginity underneath a canoe, has a ton of bear safety advice in it. The conversation either goes one of two ways at this point. Either I start talking about the ways to distinguish between the two main types of bear attacks —defensive and predaceous—or I keep talking about my forthcoming books. For this blog entry, let’s stick to the latter. I tell them that in my next middle-grade novel, The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter, my sixth-grade character actually wants to become a grizzly bear mascot. (I usually try to emphasize the sexual politics involved in this sort of tween ambition and highlight the novel’s strong feminist undertones. Apparently, I think a girl wanting to be a grizzly bear is a progressive idea.) At this juncture, the person I am speaking with usually concedes that I am a big fan of bears. I take this as a compliment, thank them, and press on. Because I still have another book to talk about. I say, right now I’m working on edits for my next teen novel, Enid Adrift, with Disney (I usually don’t say the word Hyperion, because when I say that word a lot of people not connected to publishing ask me ‘What’s Hyperion?’ And I can’t talk to this person for the rest of my life. I can’t break down all the major publishing houses and who owns what. Pretty soon I’ll wind up discussing Warner Bros. or ABC or that TV series Lost that I didn’t watch.

I say, Enid Adrift is about a group of teenagers who wind up adrift on a life raft in the Atlantic and get attacked by sharks. (People tend to like hearing this plot.) I then say, It’s sort of like the Breakfast Club meets Jaws. With four sets of twins. Usually, I then have to justify the plausibility of this situation. (No, not the sharks. The twins.) By this time, I am getting dehydrated. And when I get dehydrated, I rarely want to talk about my books anymore. I just want water. Luckily, I have a thermos that I got for volunteering for the National Park Service. I carry it everywhere. It has the words ‘Park Hero’ written on it. When people see it, they often ask, Which park do you volunteer for? This is not my favorite question. Because I volunteer as a gardener on Alcatraz, where I’m helping to restore the historic gardens. And when I tell people this, they usually want to hear more about it. Because people love hearing about Alcatraz and its famous inmates—Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, the Bird Man, Kevin Bacon. And I need to get home. I have deadlines. And a cat.

As I disentangle myself and wave goodbye and tell this random person (or cousin) to have a great day, I have no idea whether or not I’ve swayed this random person (or cousin) into becoming a reader of my books. But really, is that what I’m supposed to be doing when I go to the taco cart or muffler shop or vacuum repair store? (I own lots of things that break.) I mean, deep down, I’m talking about the deepest and downest parts of myself, I don’t want to believe that because I’m a writer that my life has become a pitch-fest for my books. I’m being serious. I am not the kind of woman who wants to wear a sandwich board. Am I? (Okay. Okay. If a friend needed me to, I would definitely wear a sandwich board.) I have a problem. As I see it, it’s a problem that requires two solutions. One: I need to learn to stop caring about what strangers think of me and my books. (why the acceptance of strangers at the taco cart matters to me is another blog post). Two: I need to formulate a better answer to the question. Maybe even a zippy one. . .

From now on when strangers and cousins ask me: What are your books about? I will say: Bears, buses, virgins, sharks, and tweens/teens suffering from blood sugar disorders.

Side note. Disney-Hyperion is sending me and a bunch of wonderful writers--Daniel Waters, Brent Crawford, Stacey Klemstein, Emily Franklin, Brendan Halpin, and Liz Rudnick--on an unREQUIRED READING TOUR. We’re taking our carry-on luggage and newly released books and going across the country. (Also, we will read from them. The books, not the luggage.) Or at least that’s the plan. If you want more information, visit my website and look for NEWS at www.kristentracy.com