Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quick! Happy Birthday!

On Monday, August 25, Emma turned ten. It's not a vast age, but while I was all excited about a trip to Toys R Us, she looked at me with her (then) nine year old patience, and announced, "Mom, I want a new computer, not toys. It's not like I'm five."

Right. She's not five, but she is only ten, and already her friends have laptops, cell phones and separate phones to text. One of her closest friends has a Blackberry.
She's ten and a half. I can't imagine what she enters on it: "Suite Life of Zach and Cody Saturday morn" or maybe just the week's spelling words.

In fairness, these are the kids who grew up with the Internet. None of them can remember a time when there weren't computers in the house, or when pictures took up to a week to get back from the developers. A few parents we know assist their children with blogs (remember diaries?) Their homework is online, they take keyboarding in second grade, and they are computer savvy by about the third grade.
Each year, along with nutritional guidelines, bus rules and field trip permissions, the Internet safety code comes home. Emma learned how to use a mouse and how to click on icons in kindergarten. She has only seen her teachers take attendance on computers that are now built in to teachers' desks.

So she got her laptop. She didn't want a party, just a family trip. For Christmas, she wants a cell phone, but she does think her friend's Blackberry is silly.

I can't imagine her opening a copy of Little Women or Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights and understanding that time. I look at most tween books, and I wonder if she will understand how life used to so much less immediate, so much less global.

Today, I answered my own question. Since she can only go on the Internet with someone present in the room (someone = older than 13), I have been watching her navigation. So far she has watched:

-a man claiming he can count to infinity

- a fashion show for dogs

- kittens (and more kittens, and yet more kittens)

- several episodes of a show involving a castle,a princess, and a witch

- music videos of bands she likes

When I asked her this morning what she liked best about her birthday, she replied,
"Two things: the wipeout (which is a water park slide) and the cake."

I don't think kids change; just their toys do. When I asked her about the laptop, she replied, "Oh, that's really just for homework so I don't have to borrow one of the boys."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Some of the Writing Questions

I am away at the Land of Make Believe (I kid you not -- my daughter's tenth birthday is this Monday, and she gets to pick the weekend trip), so I am sharing my Amazon blog here so I can go down water slides and disregard the laws of physics.

In June, I agreed to answer the questions of a junior/senior creative writing class, and I decided to do it as a blog. Be back Monday.

Ok, because the Summer Reading Project is due on September 3, I have taken a group of submitted questions related to writing and I will answer them in two mock interviews. This is the first one.
If you have a question you don't see here, I will answer it before the end of August (at the latest). I still have about six more questions on this.
And thanks for these -- some of the questions actually made me think more deeply about the whole process of writing.

Where do you get your ideas?

The idea for a novel usually germinates from a small scrap of information: it could be a scent in a coffee shop that reminds me of when I first started college, or of a friend's house, and a weird kind of association begins. A few days later, I'll remember that scent, or the particular way a tree looked in the yard, or a few words someone said to me, and a character kind of "appears" - I don't know anything about the character. Yet. I don't force anything. Little by little I begin to see the character more fully. So, to answer another question, it's not from thinking of one specific problem or conflict. It's much more from a character.

Do you have a writing schedule?

God no. I have three kids, five animals, a part time job, and a big house that's not fully unpacked from last year. It's more like I grab a few minutes here and there to work on a scene. Most of my writing time is granted through insomnia.

Do you write from drafts and revise?

Sort of. When I have down time, like waiting at my daughter's dance class or when everyone is still asleep, I write notes about the story I'm working on. Remember when your English teacher freaked about sentence fragments? That's what I use. The notes will say -- "S. goes nuts b/c no friends call." Of course, sometimes I look at these notes a day or two later and say, "What on earth did I mean by this? And who's S?"

Do you consider yourself a serious writer?

Yup. Absolutely. I kid around a lot, but in spite of a really busy life, I always manage to write because it's really important.

Why did you pick YA as your genre?

Because I, like thousands of adults, am still secretly in recovery from all the damage middle school inflicts. I can revisit that time in life and change everything.

Are you working on a new book? Is it YA also?

Yes and yes.

Do you want to write a book that is not YA?

I am also working on a middle grade/tween novel.

Some writers say that dialog is the hardest thing to write. Do you agree?

For me, dialog is pretty easy. I live with and work with teenagers so I hear my characters' dialog all the time. What is hard for me is to keep track of the scenes because I sometimes write them out of order. I have to make sure everything goes together seamlessly so it's not snowing in the beginning of chapter six and they end up at the beach two days later. That would probably be noticed by readers.

What is the most memorable thing anyone ever said to you about The Shape of Water?

It seems that I am getting more and more email about this book each day, so this might change, but it had to be from a lady who called herself "A Mom" -- she wrote that she had purchased the book due to its "pretty name and lovely cover" and she did not realize the book was about an arsonist.
Now, Magda is attracted to fire, and yes, she does set a few, but an arsonist has a sinister implication that I think is too weighty for a fifteen year old girl. Anyway, this lady went on and on about how awful it was that I wrote about an arsonist and made her my main character. She went on to say what a terrible example I was setting for teenagers.
And here's the thing: my dad really was a New York City fireman, and I heard about teenage arsonists all the time. It's not like me writing about teen arson CREATES arson. It's been around forever, and it probably will be around forever. Books have to reflect what we do as human beings.
That was a pretty weird rant, but I must say, most people write lovely things.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Few Minutes With The Boys or Why I Like Talking to Teens So Much

Last night, a warm Saturday, I told my boys that they had a choice: they could work on their summer reading projects or they could go for a ride to the harbor with me. I hate to admit this, but it was a toss up.

But since my boys were read to prenatally, grew up in a book-stuffed house with almost no television interaction, had a mom who read to them as often as she fed them, they ditched the reading. (Have I mentioned before how upset I am that they don't read? Do I already know that is the perfect way to rebel against me -- like my strict vegan friend whose son now works at and dines at Burger King?) All right, I'll stop. Not for good, but for this one blog.

The catch was they had to go for the ride and not text or answer their phones. They had to actually sit in the car like it was... "1990 or something..." (as they put it). They didn't really talk to me. I asked a few questions and got responses like, "Huh?" - "Ya" - "Duuude" - what they did do was talk to each other, and then I remembered why I like talking to (or rather, listening to) teenagers so much. I asked them if they were going to join Pep band again this year. In case you don't know, (and I, who was gifted with the athletic ability of say, Woody Allen, never knew) Pep band is their school's band that plays the National Anthem and other songs to induce tribal unity at football games and the like.

"You know, Mom, they don't let us sit during the games," Philip said, "and I play the sousaphone which is just so cool."

"It is sort of cool," I said.

"Right, because it's one of the few instruments you can actually wear."

Christopher commented, "You can see the bell of Philip's sousaphone from across the field. And Pep band is like being a musical cheerleader."

Then they launched into a mini-tirade on all the stupid things they had noticed lately.

Christopher: "Who is that woman on t.v. who sells the sleep number beds? All it says under her name is that she is a bed owner. Who isn't a bed owner?"

Philip: "Why do they swab the prisoner's arm with alcohol before giving him the lethal injection? Why does it matter at that point?"

Christopher: "Why do they put prices on the dollar menu? If it's the dollar menu..."

They did have to take their phones out at the harbor, just to check their messages. But because they tolerate me, Christopher took one phone camera shot of me and Philip (yes, he's over six feet). I pretended that was the reason they had their phones out.

Still, I had them to myself for just a short time.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summer Reading and Karma

Years ago, when I was first given high school students as victims, I took summer reading very, very seriously. I made a comprehensive list by researching books that would help kids either on the SAT's or in September's English class, I wrote up thoughtful discussion questions, typed them out and stapled them into packets that I mailed home. I saw nothing wrong with asking 14 year olds to read five books and answer questions on them during their ten weeks off. After all, isn't that what summer was for -- reading?

Well, no. It had been for me, but I'm only now realizing exactly how weird a kid I must have been.

My summer packets rarely came back and the more experienced teachers smiled when I complained. They told me I would be lucky if some of the kids read one book. This was shocking news to me: what was wrong with the kids in that school district? Maybe something in the town's water supply was making them lazy.

But they weren't lazy; they were teenagers. (Though it could be argued that lazy/teen
are synonymous).

So fast forward. While I am diving for socks under my son's bed this morning, I find Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

"Why is this here?" I ask my 16 year old.

He yawns, shrugs, and turns away.

"This is required reading. Did you finish it?"

"Nah, it's just about this Jewish guy in Princeton who tells lies. And it's racist."

"Oh, right. That's a thorough analysis. Did you read it?"

"Ma, I told you. They let the writer talk about how he's stubborn because he's Jewish. You can't say stuff like that."

"You understand it's about the disillusionment of the time period after World War I, that..."

"How many books do I have to read for English this year?"


"Dude, that's not gonna happen." He yawns again. "Not when they assign books with racist writers."

"Don't you have to write an essay on this? And on the other one?"

"Last year so few kids read that the teacher just let us do it on a short story she gave out in class. Actually, she read the story to us."

(He's in college prep level English)

"You know what's going to happen to you if you don't read, don't you, Christopher?"

"Yup. I'm going to end up homeless. You've been telling me that since I was 9."

"What about if we read it together and talk about the chapters?"

Christopher smiles very patiently at me. "Mom, it takes way, way too long that way. You like go over every little thing. Just tell me what happens."

"No, that would ruin it."

"You know what would be cool?"

"Not Spark Notes...please, anything but Spark Notes..."

"No, no, but why don't they just make video games out of these books and take out all the slow parts? Then we would do them. And it wouldn't take so long."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MG Moments and Mirrors

I usually take on too much in my life. When I had two kids under the age of five, a husband who was away most of the time in corportate America, no help from family, and a part time job, I decided to do the only logical thing: I decided to have another baby.

It's sort of like an ADHD of the soul.

So now I am trying to leave a numbing teaching job that looms in the fall by becoming a freelance writer (the research is so interesting that I don't get any writing done), write a middle grade and a young adult novel simultaneously while my kids bicker and complain they are bored.

Then there are the dishes and wet towels and the cat hairballs that um..."reappear" on the carpet complete with feline stomach bile. (I just picked three random items that are completely and entirely invisible to the rest of my family).

I'm not complaining, just observing.

So when my friend came for a visit this weekend, she asked me, "How do you keep the tone of the middle grade novel and the young adult novel separate? Don't you mix them up?"

Here's how:

In our hallway, there is a mirror. Before my sons leave, they have to check that their hair is straighter than a ruler, that their pants are properly sagged, that their cell phones are properly aligned in their pockets so they won't mix a single text message.

This morning my daughter (a fourth grader) was ducking down in front of the mirror. After she did this about five times, I asked her what she was doing.

"Checking," she whispered, "but I'll tell you later, Mom."

She did: Emma believed the mirror had "captured" her face and was holding it there. All she had to do was pull away fast enough and she would be able to still see her face caught inside the mirror.

That's the difference.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Yesterday, my son went to a girl's birthday party and somehow, like always, they ended up back in our house. I'll call the birthday girl Casey. I had noticed marks on her arms and legs, strangely symmetrical lines that never seemed to heal. And as usual, when I asked my son about those marks later, he told me he was busy. (He was making a frozen pizza and texting the kids who had just left our house - when I pointed out to him that didn't qualify him as busy, he got the desperate look of a trapped animal).

So yes, he said, she's a cutter, only she's a real cutter and not a fake emo cutter.
Ahh, I said, that's...what on earth?

I know teenagers cut themselves. There's at least one YA book on it and it's being mentioned more and more in YA lit. I've heard the teenagers in my living room say sentences such as, "Oh, Josh, the kid who cuts?" Followed by, "Nah, he only cut when he was going out with so and so...he doesn't anymore." Cutting is mentioned in a lot of metal song lyrics. It's a strangely accepted habit.

Kids who cut say they do it because it makes them feel better, and this is true. Doctors say cutting releases endorphins which actually DOES make the kids feel better. It's a form of release.

But the problem I see, aside from the bizarreness of self mutilation, is that there are "fake" cutters (emo cutting for attention) and the more Goth type of cutting which the kids view as authentic and a little brave. How does anyone tell when the attention-getting cutting crosses the line? And why do parents not know more about this?

When I casually mentioned this once before, in front of Casey's step mom, she thought I was referring to cutting class. She said she had never heard of it and changed the subject.

That exchange explained a lot about Casey and probably about most teens who engage in this habit.

Just a note: If you want to leave a comment, it won't be seen unless you go to This blog is dedicated to teen issues now since a few of these posts elicited such a strong response : )