Monday, January 24, 2011

Winner of Falling In Love with English Boys by Melissa Jensen

Congratulations, Patty Blount! You won!! Send your snail mail address to me at and I'll be happy to put the book in the mail to you asap.

Thanks for your support here at Carpe Keyboard!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Talking with Award Winning Writer Brian Katcher, and a Give Away of Almost Perfect

The Stonewall Book Awards were announced recently, including one for children's and young adult literature for the LGBT community. The book honored by Stonewall this year is Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher.  

This is the story of Logan Witherspoon, a high school student, track star, and recently dumped young man. He's obsessed with his ex, but when a new student shows up at his very small high school, he finds himself attracted to her despite her quirkiness. Sage is a little awkward, too tall, and strangely pretty -- and after being homeschooled for the last few years, needs a friend as much as Logan. As their friendship grows into something with potential for much more, Sage tells Logan her secret. She is really a boy.  

Mr. Katcher captures not only the struggles of growing up in a small town, but also of the fear, fascination, and confusion experienced by the people surrounding a young transgender teen. This book touched my heart -- and the hearts of readers everywhere. I was thrilled to know that Mr. Katcher's story was honored by not only Stonewall, but it was also listed as one of the Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association.

Mr. Katcher generously agreed to a short interview for Carpe Keyboard. Enjoy!

Carpe Keyboard: Congratulations on being awarded the 2011 Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award for Almost Perfect! How were you notified? Did you faint, shout, or otherwise act like a crazy person when you heard the news?
Brian Katcher: I was at work (I'm a teacher in real life). Someone kept calling my cell phone, but I was with students and couldn't answer. By the time lunch time rolled around, I'd checked my e-mail and gotten several congratulatory messages. Of course, I was still at work. When I announced my good news at a staff meeting later that day, everyone cheered me until they found out it was a 'gay' award. Then they laughed.
I picked up a copy of Almost Perfect based on reviews (specifically the mention from our buds at FYA) and was addicted the moment I started reading. Logan is such a believable character. His voice is genuine in its struggle to make the “right” decision throughout, which I thought came across as such a real way for a young man to handle the situation he found himself in. Any words of advice for other writers about creating that believable teen voice? And such three-dimensional characters?
Thank you! I wish I had some kind of magical formula for writing believable characters. For me, it helps if I think of them as real people, not characters. It's not hard to imagine how someone you know would react in a particular situation. As for writing a teen voice, don't think of your characters as teenagers. Think of them as people.
Why did you choose to set your story in such a small town? The small school certainly plays a large role in how the story unfolds. I wonder how the story may have developed differently if Logan and Sage lived in a big city. Do you think there is more acceptance for all of our differences in either place?
Sage feels absolutely alone, like her sister is the only one she can talk to about her situation. Sure, there's the internet, but sometimes it helps to talk to someone face to face. That's why she needs Logan so much. He knows her secret, he's not obliged to like her, and yet he tries to understand. If Sage lived in a large city with an LGBT support center, she wouldn't have had to rely on Logan so much when she felt overwhelmed. Then they both might have decided to seek companionship elsewhere.
Plus, I live in the real life equivalent of Boyer, MO, so it was easy to write the setting.
 I’ve posted here on Carpe Keyboard before about parents and their role in YA and MG books. I just loved Logan’s mom. She was absent to an extent – with her job keeping her physically away; however, she was so present for Logan when he needed her. (I so want to go on about this, but don’t want to include spoilers!!) On the flip side, Logan has quite a few emotional/heated/tense encounters with Sage’s dad – the only father-figure that appears in the story. How and why did you create the parents in this story the way you did? Was it a conscious decision to surround Logan with emotionally available women, while giving Sage such a difficult (although real) father?
I think the reason I make Logan a product of a single mother is that I wanted him to be poor, which is a good recipe for having to grow up fast. And yes, his mother and Laura probably rubbed off on him, made him willing to see Sage's courage where someone else might have just seen a pervert. As for Sage's father, his reaction was pretty typical, unfortunately. 'Beat the gay out of him,' is a phrase I've heard more than once, from people describing their parents' reaction.  I didn't want to make him evil, but I wanted to give Logan yet another excuse to abandon Sage, one that he refuses to use.
I think this story is on the cutting edge of what the kids’ lit world often calls “edgy” YA books. Did you have trouble finding an agent or publisher willing to take a chance on it? I’d love to hear about your journey to publishing…
You really want the arduous journey? Okay, there I was in my mother's womb...

No seriously. I had spent a few years down in Mexico. My girlfriend and I were on the outs and it was going to be several months before I could return to the US. I figured I could either start drinking heavily or do something that I'd never once considered doing: write a book.

I decided to do both.

One day, back in the US, I realized that I'd actually finished writing the book. Not knowing what else to do, I sent query letters to a bunch of agents and editors. It was rejected with the traditional form letter. I was very close to shelving the whole project, when I decided to send it off to a contest. I didn't win, but it caught the eye of an editor, Claudia Gabel, formerly of Random House. She helped me with the many, many rewrites, and eventually my first book, 'Playing With Matches,' was born.

I think she was a little surprised when I introduced her to Sage, but she was very willing to take a chance on this unusual topic. It's funny, fifteen years ago, writing a 'gay' book for teenagers would have been scandalous. Now, they give out awards for the best one.
You mention in the author’s note at the end of Almost Perfect that you did quite a bit of research when you wrote this story.  What kind of research did you do? How did you go about making contacts with people who would give you the gift of their stories? (And what a gift! To share stories about their experiences being transgender must have taken courage…)
Well, that's thanks to our old friend the internet. Stories such as these are obviously very personal, not the sort of thing you'd tell a stranger. However, thanks to the net, people can unburden themselves without showing their face. Most of the time, I didn't ever have to ask a direct question, I'd just read message boards on transgender support sites. When I needed something clarified, I'd e-mail that person directly. Most people I talked to were very open and very helpful. It was emotionally draining, though. When Sage's father said he'd rather see her dead then acting like a girl, I was quoting one of my sources.
           When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Well, I have a four year old daughter, so it's not very easy to write after work. I mean, how can you say no to 'Daddy, come dance with me!' On the other hand, I get a few hours in at night, and my wife is great about arranging time for me on the weekends. Plus, as a teacher, I have summers off. That, and caffeine, allow me to be prolific.
To win a copy of Almost Perfect, leave a comment below. You can increase your chances of winning by "following" Carpe Keyboard on Google or Networked Blogs (via Facebook) or adding Carpe Keyboard to your blogroll. Remember to leave a comment here to tell me of all the ways you have entered to win! I'll announce the winner on February 1, 2011 here. If I don't hear from the winner in one week, I will put the book up for another give away.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Giveaway: Falling In Love with English Boys – Lessons on Voice from Melissa Jensen

I’ve written about the mysterious, all-consuming, just-plain-intimidating concept of character voice before here on Carpe Keyboard. But it is a topic worth revisiting. Often. At least if you are me – and want to write believable teen characters who talk and think and act like real people.
It is important to realize that character voice doesn’t just come to life in the characters’ dialog. It also plays a huge role in how she thinks and how she acts. Her voice encompass all the ways she communicate to others in the story, not to mention how her voice comes through if she is the first-person narrator of her own story.
For example, you can’t have a character use vocabulary in her first-person narration that she wouldn’t use when she speaks. After all, does your voice sound different in your own head than it does when you talk to a friend? Don’t have your MC speak like Elizabeth Bennet, but have her narration include Lady Gaga lyrics. Get it? Does. Not. Work. You’ll lose your reader. Keep your MC’s voice consistent with their personality, situations, growth and the events of the story.
Melissa Jensen’s new book, Falling in Love with English Boys has been reviewed or mentioned on lots of YA blogs in the last few weeks, so I sought out a copy this weekend. It was my Sunday Afternoon Read, accompanied by lots of iced tea, a big blanket and a fuzzy white cat. Her story is told by two young women – one a regency lady “coming out” to society and telling her story in her diary. The other – a contemporary young woman living for a summer in London (and unhappy about it!?! What?!?) and telling her story through her summer blog.
I loved that – the parallel of a hand-written diary and a blog. Nice. In a lot of ways. Ms. Jensen shows us the differences between not only writing styles (or..ahem…voices!) from these different generations, but she also shows us differences between the culture and society of these different times. It is a bit like reading your funny BFF’s blog interspersed with the lost papers of Jane Austen.
Ms. Jensen splits her story between the two K/Catherines by alternating chapters. One told via Cat’s blog, the next via Katherine’s diary, and so on. I’ve read quite a few YA novels recently that are structured this way, and none have drawn such distinct voices as this one. Never once did I have to pause to figure out which character was narrating; their styles are so beautifully distinct.
Cat’s voice: quirky, quick, snarky, and self-deprecating. She is sort of obsessed with style, clothes, and fashion. She is almost annoyingly sorry for herself, separated from her friends back home. And I snorted iced tea out of my nose more than once at her descriptions of new, posh London friends. Cat’s voice is full of short, fragmented sentences – In other words, she writes/narrates like people today would write in a personal blog. Tons of information in little space, lots of self-interest (for the Facebook generation, this rings so true) and loads of pop culture references.
Katherine’s voice: Careful, a bit rebellious, wanting to follow the rules. Her diary is full of stories about style, clothes, parties and men. She is uncensored about her own mistakes, as a girl would be in her private diary. She is steeped in her own current events, which include the escape of Napoleon from Elba and her brother’s role in the war. And she is clueless – in the way only a regency young lady can be – about men and love.
Both women: Want to fall in love. With English boys.
To win a (slightly used) copy of Falling in Love with English Boys, leave me a comment telling me about your favorite book that shows great examples of voice. You’ll get extra entries in the drawing for adding me to YOUR blogroll or choosing to “follow” Carpe Keyboard via Google or Networked Blogs on Facebook.
Fine Print: I will draw the winner on Monday, January 21, 2011. I will announce the winner here, on Carpe Keyboard. If the winner does not respond within one week, I will put the book up for another drawing at a later time.

Friday, January 14, 2011

and the WINNER is...

Sayantani! You've won your very own copy of My Side of the Mountain. Contratulations! I'll put it in the mail asap.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Do You Feel About Violence in Kids’ Lit?

There has been so much in the news lately about the power of words. Twenty people were shot – killed or injured – in Arizona last Saturday by a young man who may or may not have been goaded into action by words he heard in our current political climate. This tragedy occurred at a political event called “Congress on the Corner” where the local congresswoman was seeking opinions and needs from her constituents. Instead of an animated community discussion, a bloodbath occurred.
Just so you know…I’m not a very politically minded person. I’m not going to go into a rant about inflammatory political pundits or the inappropriateness of graphics used by some politicians, along with hot-button phrases and fishy logic. No… You can come to your own opinions and read many, many other peoples’ opinions online.
But as I heard about the Arizona tragedy, I was sitting in my family room with a book in my hand. (Yep. Book in hand. Go figure.) It is called The Ask and The Answer – the second novel in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series. I’ve read the first two in the series, and I can honestly say they are just about the most violent YA books I’ve come across so far. And when I say violent, I mean bloody, cruel, scary violence. People are shot, stabbed, tortured, branded, and more. The coincidence of watching real life violence unfold in Arizona while reading a violent story has stuck with me this week.
Now…before you squinch up your face and decide to judge the book or the author (not that any Carpe Keyboard readers would judge that quickly, but still…) …I absolutely must tell you these are also some of the absolutely most gripping YA stories I’ve read in a long time. I’m addicted. I white-knuckled my way through hundreds of pages in a single weekend. I ignored my family, left the dog to whine at the back door, and decided a shower was optional when this book was still unfinished in my hands.
But I’m an adult. I’m an adult who was raised with guns in my house. Hunting and guns were part of my family’s culture and still hold prominent places in our family stories and history.  I’ve taken history classes and read newspapers for decades. I’ve studied literature and poetry and religion. So my fascination with these books carries with it a lifetime of experiences and knowledge. My mind dodged around thoughts of Nazi Germany, concentration camps, military conflicts the world over, Henry V, Battlestar Galactica, Stormtroopers (real and fictional), slavery in the early United States, and every wartime movie I’ve ever seen as I gobbled up The Ask and The Answer.
Would a 12 year old kid have this same body of knowledge to pull from when he reads Mr. Ness’s books? I don’t know…
Book One in the Chaos
Walking Series
Here’s the thing you must know: Mr. Ness created a story that absolutely is more powerful and meaningful because of the violence experienced by the main characters. This is a story that will make any reader shiver in fear, not of monsters or vampires or ghosts – but fear of and for humanity. Fear of the universal potential for people to be cruel and seek power over others.
My opinion: Mr. Ness’s story well-written. Fascinating. Gripping. And violent. And I can’t wait to get my hands on the third and last installment of Chaos Walking.
Do I want my 12 year old to read this without talking to someone about it? Probably not yet. But could it give kids an opening to talk about that universal potential for people to be cruel and seek power over others? Could it give kids a platform to think or talk about power and violence and humanity? I think so.
Will books like this – or movies or video games – “teach” kids to act out violently against others? I don’t believe so. I’ve heard convincing arguments on both sides of the fence, though.
Have you ever read a kids book that was more violent than you expected? How did you feel about it? Do you think there is a place for graphic violence in books marketed toward kids? I’d love to hear your opinions on this.
Oh…and keep an eye out for my upcoming Carpe Keyboard interview with Patrick Ness, along with a giveaway of his books in February!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reading at Risk! A Book Give Away to Stop the Insanity!

I read an article online today about the concern for the decline of “deep reading,” or the ability to sit alone with a book and read it for an extended period of time, digesting and enjoying what you are reading. In this age of Internet, tweets, and texting…it’s no wonder, I guess, that there are concerns about not only how adults might be impacted by these quick reading fixes, but also about how they will affect children’s ability to learn to read deeply.

I found myself feeling very lucky. I love to read. (Surprised, aren’t you? Ha!) I was raised by a woman who always – always – had a book in her hand. I still have my antique bookshelf from childhood – one with glass doors that swing up and slide back into the shelf to reveal my favorite tomes, waiting in their dark and cozy lemon-Pledge scented home for me. In fact, there are now bookshelves overflowing in each and every room of my house. (Well, except the bathrooms – although one of those has an overflowing magazine rack and the other has a treasure trove of books stuck in the cupboard under the sink. There might be anything hidden under there – Tolkien to Potty Training 101. You even need a flashlight to see the furthest corners. I like to play Indiana Jones in there, even if rolls of toilet paper aren’t nearly as scary as giant spiders or huge rolling boulders.)

But I digress…

I read quickly, but deeply. I love adventures that take me out of my suburban neighborhood and my everyday life. I read to escape, mostly. In fact, my husband recently accused me of reading for days on end over the winter holidays to escape from my job and hide from frustrations. Know what? He was right! There is almost nothing better than cracking open a thick book and wading into the pages, taking on the main character’s persona or imagining riding along on their journey.

And apparently, I’m in the minority. Here’s the thing: I do believe the short texts, emails, easily skimmed internet news pages, and twitter feeds are changing how we process information. The idea that it might make today’s children into adults who won’t have the attention span to “read deeply” is truly a concern. Will they never allow Ray Bradbury’s stories to send a shiver up their spines or shake their fists in agony over Jean Valjean’s plight? Will they never shed tears over the tragedy of Juliet and her lost love? Will they never laugh out loud at a boy and some bugs who travel inside of a giant peach?

And what is life without these stories and others like them? It sounds …well…it sounds sad to me.  And a little empty.

I’m doing my best to raise deep readers in my children. They, too, have bookshelves groaning with everything from beloved picture books to the latest middle grade and YA novels. And so far, they seem to have adopted at least to a degree, their mother’s love of reading. Some evenings, when all is quiet, I’ll find one kid stretched out across her bed with her nose in a book and the other curled up in his kid-sized recliner, giggling to himself over the latest adventure of Captain Underpants of the Wimpy Kid. And I smile. I love that they love to read, too.

If you know a kid…If you have a child or a neice/nephew/grandchild/neighbor/friend who tends to watch tv and play games on their iPod more often than they read … Suggest a book. Ask if they’ve ever travelled to another planet or waged war against the Orcs. Read in front of them and better yet – read with them. Enjoy a story…slowly…together.

But before you curl up with that good book -- leave a comment here. You'll be entered in a drawing to win a copy of one of my favorites: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. LOVED this story when I was a kid! Hope you enjoy it, too!

Drawing details: I'll draw the winner on Thursday, January 13, 2011. If the winner does not respond within two weeks, the book will be put up for another drawing at a later date. I'll add your name into the drawing for each comment you leave below, any mention you make of Carpe Keyboard on your own blog, or any link to this post from your Facebook or other social network. Just tell me (in a comment here) that you have linked from FB, etc.  

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Truly Gritty Journey

If True Grit by Charles Portis were published today, it would show up on the shelves of the YA section at your local Borders bookstore. It has all the hallmarks of a modern YA novel: a young main character, a journey fraught with action and danger at every turn, life-changing experiences for the MC, tragedy and loss... It has also been turned into a blockbuster film not once, but twice in the last few decades. The current version stars Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, and a bright new star – Hailee Steinfield as the determined and tough (and 14 year old) Mattie Ross.

In the interest of clarity, I haven’t actually read the novel. Nope. (Shame on me, I know. It will soon go on my reserve list at the library.) But I LOVED the original movie when I was a kid (John Wayne still ROCKS!) and I couldn’t wait to see Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake when it came out last week.

I want to hang with Mattie. (Hang in the current way…you know – drink lattes and talk about books… Not the wild west version of “hang”…) Mattie speaks like a Victorian novel on speed – all hopped up and rapid-fire, like she can’t stop herself from showing her smarts and her dogged determination even if she wanted to.

Mattie is no shrinking violet – no. She takes on the chase – experiences her own Hero’s Journey – and triumphs. She is far outside of any wild west stereotype of a girl or young woman. Endowed with the intelligence to outwit local businessmen, hire Rooster Cogburn because he is a man of “true grit” even if he’s drunk most of the time, and fight her way to accompany him on the journey into Indian territory…she absolutely proves her own grit. And her own truth.

As an example of the hero’s journey, you can’t get much better than this story. There are fantastic scenes reminiscent of Greek or Roman myths, and character archetypes we all know and love. If Mattie is our hero, then Rooster makes a fine Obi Wan – teaching Mattie about life and her own strengths and weaknesses (though they are few). LaBoef (Matt Damon) is a less rascally Han Solo. He is the handsome “helper” who shows up intermittently to help Mattie along on her journey, just as Han and Chewie helped Luke. Even Little Blackie fills a role as Mattie’s side kick. Watch out R2D2!

The mythology of the old west mingles with the classics. Mattie crosses a river not in Charon’s ferry, but on her little black horse. She and Rooster encounter a body hung high from a tree, two outlaws more willing to kill one another than reveal any truth, and the real murderer – only to discover he is only one arm of a larger “body” of evil.  Her journey is hard but Mattie is tough. Like Hercules, she knows her end goal and will complete any number of trials to see it through to the end.

I hope the novel depicts Mattie the same way the Coen brothers did in this movie. But until I can get my hands on the book, I’ll settle for keeping up my admiration for the movie version of this heroine. If you haven’t seen this film yet, I’d give it all the stars I could find. I’m also going to predict that we see more than one of these actors nominated for Oscars later this year for their brilliant performances.

Go see it. Put down that book (I know…eerie isn’t it? That I know you are reading a book?) and log off of your laptop. Go to the movies. They have popcorn there! Go on! As Rooster would say, “Git!”