Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Archive for September, 2011

Sona Believes Banning Books Is A Slippery Slope

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On September - 30 - 2011

KaviBannedBook 400x600 Sona Believes Banning Books Is A Slippery Slope

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And sometimes it’s true.

Take the image above. My husband, Navdeep Singh Dhillon, took it two weekends ago at the Brooklyn Book Festival. It’s the second time we’ve gone, and Kavi’s first — not bad for a 20-month-old. She had a grand old time. She got to color, run around the kids’ tent, hear Mo Willems read, eat gelato. It was a fun-filled day for her. And it’s continuing to instill in her a passion she already very much has, even though she’s not even two. It’s a love for books.

She can’t read them yet, but she can make things out, pointing to puppies and apples and creating her own little version of the story in her head. It’s a good place to start.

Boy was she excited to see that Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax, on a shelf of books at the festival. But boy were we disappointed to see the reason it had been placed there. It took its place, on the shelf of shame — or perhaps it’s pride? — alongside titles like The Perks of Being A Wallflower and Judy Blume’s Forever and Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, all in a tent set up by the very noble organization, the American Library Association. The non-profit was on a mission that day: to get people reading banned books. In fact, they created a YouTube Channel of Americans across the nation participating in a Banned Books Read-Out to counteract the effects of censorship. It’s a genius idea, one that builds one person at a time.

Now I’m not saying that sometimes there isn’t sex and violence and drug abuse and other issues too heavy or perhaps inappropriate for specific readers in some of these books. Certainly that can be the case. But here’s the thing: most readers will find the right books when they’re appropriate for them. And if they’re not appropriate? Well, perhaps they’ll simply put them down. In the case of little ones, like Kavi, I think it should be up to the parents to make informed decisions about what their kids — but not everyone else’s — are reading. You decide what’s right for yourself and your family, but you don’t decide what’s right for a classroom full of kids — or a nation, for that matter.

And in this case, I certainly wouldn’t prevent Kavi from reading Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax once she’s ready for it. In fact, the book has a very important message, one I’d like Kavi to ponder herself, once she can actually read. In the meantime, I’ll continue to read to her. Even if some of those books are banned.

Jane Wants to See More Diversity on the Shelves

Posted by Jane Moon On September - 28 - 2011

Magnified book 300x198 Jane Wants to See More Diversity on the ShelvesEarlier this year, I went to visit family in Alabama. During my stay, we went to a bookstore which was part of one of the largest chains in the area. (I’ll call it Store X.) The first thing I like to do is go directly to the YA section and look for certain authors, such as ones that I’ve heard at readings or whose books we read in our seminar classes.

So I searched the shelves and found most of the writers I was looking for. Libba Bray, Judy Blundell, M.T Anderson, Laurie Halse Anderson… they were all there. But some were missing. Julie Anne Peters wasn’t there. Nancy Garden wasn’t under “G.” The books that David Levithan co-wrote with other authors were on the shelves, but I couldn’t find any that he had written on his own. In short, there were no teen books about gay and lesbian characters.

Interestingly enough, there was a bookcase containing the Twilight series and other vampire themed books. Harry Potter and his wizard adventures were prominently displayed underneath a sign proclaiming “Reader Favorites.” And an entire section of the bookstore was dedicated to Bibles and Bible accessories. But I still couldn’t find Boy Meets Boy or Luna.

To be fair, I went to Store X’s website as soon as I got home and I found that they sell these books online. But my guess is that readers who come to this bookseller’s site aren’t aware these books are available, since they have significantly fewer reviews in comparison to other book selling websites.

My concern is that they chose not to put these books on the shelves. Young readers who come into the store would never know about great stories that could expand their points of view, like Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect or Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez. I know this isn’t outright censorship, but this particular store appears to be controlling what they want people to read. If a teen happens to come across Annie on My Mind while browsing the shelves, let that person decide if they want to read it or not.

Of course, being a private establishment, Store X has every right to put what books they want on their shelves. As much as I loved J.K. Rowling, maybe Store X can remove some copies of the Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince from the ten that are on display and make room for some Julie Ann Peters titles. If Store X could open up its shelves a little, I’m sure they could open so many minds.

Photo credit ntwowe at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2043

To Ban or Not to Ban: Amber Weighs In On Book Censorship

Posted by Amber On September - 27 - 2011

the awakening 175x300 To Ban or Not to Ban: Amber Weighs In On Book CensorshipOne thing that can be universally agreed upon is that books are powerful things. They can entertain, enlighten, intimidate and inspire readers, regardless of age. But even though books impact our lives and how we see the world, that doesn’t mean that we will blindly follow the behaviors that we read about. I have to have faith that we’re smarter than that, especially since reading about something outside of your comfort zone makes you more likely to question the world around you, which is a major aspect of what it means to be a critical thinker. And if you didn’t know, being a critical thinker is a good thing.

If parents are afraid that their children will be negatively transformed by the books that they read, all they need to do is have a dialogue with their children about the subject matter.  And when I say have a dialogue, I don’t mean they should forbid a child to read such a book or immediately condemn whatever subject matter is present. Instead, it may be more helpful to contextualize such behavior and talk about its risk factors and pitfalls. Or, I don’t know, maybe a parent could even read what his or her child is reading.  I think such conversations, the ones where parents show an interest in their children’s lives, are underrated. Being a parent is hard work, and what you don’t say matters just as much as what you do say.

I tried to understand the idea of banning books. I really did. But no matter what I can’t get behind it. That said, I do believe that there’s an age for everything. Fourth graders shouldn’t be exposed to books like The Awakening or Crime and Punishment, but I don’t see what’s wrong with high school students dissecting such texts inside or outside of the classroom. Age appropriate texts that are honest about both life’s hardships and wonders alike should be embraced, not banned.

Books, in some ways, go beyond entertainment and escapism. They teach you about the world, and while it’d be nice to live in a world where only good things happen, we need to be honest with ourselves and with our children (depending on their age) about all the possibilities around us. Ultimately, to an extent, it is a parent’s decision whether or not to protect their child from books with controversial subject matter. But, truthfully, I really think it can be a disservice to overly protect someone. Without proper knowledge of this world, how can anyone stand upright within it? It’s better to have a middle-schooler or a teenager learn about something through a text and then consider consequences and circumstances, than to have them stumble upon it blindly firsthand.

Photo Credit: Amazon.com/Avon Books

 

Corey Chooses Books Over Television

Posted by Corey Haydu On September - 26 - 2011

 Corey Chooses Books Over TelevisionA funny thing happened in our writing worksohp last night. A funny thing often happens in writing workshop. The question came up about parents who won’t allow their kids to read Seventeen magazine vs. parents who won’t let their kids watch MTV. And no, Seventeen is not literature by any stretch of the imagination, but I immediately assumed everyone’s family had a much stricter ban on television and movies than they did on anything involving the printed word. Given the class’s response and the very existence of banned books, I should have known this is not always the case.

When I was twelve, I didn’t want my parents to know I was watching Saved By The Bell, but I was encouraged to read adult books on any subject. My mother wouldn’t let me watch sex scenes, but our bookshelves were meant to be shared family space. I couldn’t watch a PG-13 movie until I actually TURNED 13, but I devoured The Shining, Rebecca, and Of Mice And Men before I entered middle school.

Is it a double standard?

I don’t know. In my family reading was, in and of itself, a value. And probably the most important one. So to put limits on what a kid could read would have been in deep confict with our family “religion.” If I was old enough to pick the book out, read the back, and think “yep, this sounds good!” then I was old enough to read it.

Not only that, I was applauded for picking up a book instead of turning to a movie or a video game. My parents weren’t worried about what terrible secrets of sexuality or profanity I would pick up from literature, they were just pleased I was curious about the world of books.

This is a family value, of course, but libraries, even school libraries, are places kids should be encouraged to go, and the books they find there should cover a wide range of topic so that each kid can find a book that speaks to them. For some kids, that will be fantasy, or humor, or fairytales. For other kids, the books that speak to them will have darker themes, scarier moments, more adult material. If a kid is picking up a book like that, you can guarantee it is because they ARE ready to confront it. I hate to see libraries and schools banning books, because it limits the world available to kids and teens. If you only offer books about the most idyllic circumstances and the nicest characters, how alone will the kids without those circumstances feel? Is it fair, at any age, to present a vision of the world that is so wildly different from the world we actually live in?

And yeah, maybe my family had some weird ideas, preventing me from watching Wayne’s World but letting me pick up The Bell Jar. But I think I turned out okay.

Photo Credit: Seventeen Magazine

Riddhi Believes The Word “Ban” Should be Banned!

Posted by Riddhi Parekh On September - 23 - 2011

high the satanic verses front  cover  208x300 Riddhi Believes The Word Ban Should be Banned!The only thing that should be banned is the word ban!

I was shocked to find many books that I recommend to my students at drama class on the list of the decade’s most banned books. Books like Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret by Judy BlumeGoosebumps (series) by R.L. StineTiger Eyes by Judy Blume, Junie B. Jones (series) by Barbara ParkBlubber by Judy Blume, The Color Purple by Alice WalkerCaptain Underpants (series) by Dave Pilkey and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. These are books that I enjoyed reading as a child and certainly provided food for thought as I was growing up. I’m glad that in India, these books were readily available in libraries and nobody ever stopped me from reading them.

When I think about banned books, one of my favorite authors, Salman Rushdie immediately comes to mind. Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses was published in 1998 and less than a year later, it was banned. Rushdie’s style of fiction heavily incorporates magic realism, and while nothing in the text struck me as  “anti-Islam”, The Satanic Verses sparked a major controversy when Muslims accused it of blasphemy and mocking their faith. The outrage among some Muslims resulted in afatwā  or a death sentence issued against the author by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, on February 14, 1989.

Now, it is one thing to have your book banned, but to receive a death sentence for it is, to have people across the world hunting you down for a reward, to put it mildly, ridiculous. While Khomeini died a year after the fatwa was issued, the death sentence was never revoked, because according to Islamic tradition, only the issuer of the fatwa can withdraw it.

The unnecessary attention that The Satanic Verses received led to Salman Rushdie spending almost eleven years of his life in hiding, separated from his family. Perhaps the only positive thing to come out of all of this, was his children’s book Haroun & The Sea of Stories, that he wrote chapter by chapter as a means of communicating with his son. Haroun & The Sea of Stories is cleverly written, many examples in the book refer to Rashid Khalifa, a storyteller, being unable to tell his stories.

According to me, banning books is completely pointless. There’s a real world out there, one that children and young adults are sure to make contact with sooner or later. No matter how much you try to shelter your child, reality always catches up. In my opinion, it is better to allow teens and younglings to read material that may be controversial, ask questions about it and comprehend it. The more you try to tell a child not to do something, the more they will want to do it.

Photo: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (book cover courtesy Viking, U.K. 1988)

Author Interview: Christopher Grant’s Teenie

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 21 - 2011

 Author Interview: Christopher Grants TeenieSince Black History Month I’ve been wanting to catch up with Christopher Grant, the author of one of my favorite 2010 debuts. After a few unanswered emails, I decided to track him down over the summer. David Levithan moderated a Teen Author Reading Night in July at the Jefferson Market Library, and I spied that he would be reading there, so I met my friend J.A. Yang, and decided to bombard him after the presentation. The ambush worked out well and I discovered that my emails had been eaten by his website form, and got to secure an interview with him. We caught up with Christopher about his inspiration, his newest endeavor, and rejections.

Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer? What did you do before you “officially” became a writer?

I love to tell stories.  If you let my friends speak on it, they’ll say I love to flap my gums.  In jest, one suggested that I should share my stories (they were probably thinking stand up comedy but that’s never going to happen), and I decided to give writing a shot.  That was about eleven years ago, right after I finished grad school.  Around the same time, I began my career as an equities trader, something I continue to do it to this day.

What made you want to be a writer? Do you write full-time now?

As I mentioned above, I love to tell stories.  By the grace of God, I’ve been blessed to see and hear a lot crazy things, many of which appear in my book. I am of Caribbean descent and I feel that there isn’t much of a representation of that population in contemporary literature.  My folks, all islanders (Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada) have a unique and colorful way of expressing themselves.  It was great fun attempting to incorporate some of that vivid language into TEENIE.

I have been an equities trader for the past eleven years, and do my best to balance that with my writing career.

 Author Interview: Christopher Grants TeenieCan you give us a quick synopsis of TEENIE? How did you come up with the concept for the book?

Teenie is desperate to be accepted into a prestigious study abroad program in Spain, so that she can see what life is like beyond the streets of Brooklyn.  She wouldn’t mind escaping from her strict (though lovable) West Indian parents for awhile either.  But when the captain of the basketball team starts to pay attention to her and Cherise, her best friend, meets a guy online, Teenie’s mind is on anything but her schoolwork.  Can Teenie save her friendship with Cherise, save her grade point average so that she can study in Spain, and save herself from a potentially dangerous relationship?

TEENIE is like the sister I never had.  Many of the situations in the book are based on things I’ve heard and/or seen.  For instance, Teenie’s father Beresford has an eating utensil called a spife, half spoon, half knife.  One of my uncles used to eat with something very similar to it.

What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where does your inspiration come from?

I do the majority of my writing on the NYC subway.  During my commute to and from work, I get about an hour and a half (forty five minutes each way) to create new material.  More often than not, I keep my headphones off and listen to the banter around me.  There is no place like a crowded subway car to pick up authentic dialogue.

My inspiration comes from my routine.  I try my best to make the most of my time during my commute.  My schedule is so hectic, it’s pretty much the only time I can really get any writing done.

What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

It took a long time to get published.  I worked on TEENIE (on and off) for about nine years.  In the process, I received over a hundred rejection letters from various agencies.  I kept clippings of the rejections and Bible verses pasted to my wardrobe to keep me motivated.

The most surprising part is how much I’ve enjoyed doing TEENIE related readings and events.  I always thought public speaking would be my biggest issue, but thankfully, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.  I have a couple of events coming up in September and October.  Those wishing to hear more can check me out on twitter, @nycsubwaywriter.

 Author Interview: Christopher Grants TeenieWhat’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was from an article  I read awhile back.  There was one line in particular that really resonated with me.  “You may not be published if you write, but you’ll never be published if you don’t.”

For the aspiring author, make sure you are as well versed in the process as possible.  Agencies and publishing houses get inundated with material and will look for any reason to send out a form rejection letter.  There are several basic things that a writer can do to help push their MS beyond the initial culling.  The Novel and Short Stories Writers Market is a great resource to make sure that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed.  Taking a creative writing course is another way to get technique up to snuff.  These are resources that I used during my process.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

There are too many to name.  I always had a book in my bag.  My mother would get upset because I would take all her paperbacks, read them, and return them with the covers mysteriously missing.  That tends to happen when you put a book in the same bag as football cleats.  As a kid, I liked Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Archie comics.  As a teen, anything by Marvel Comics, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and whatever I could find on my mother’s bookshelf.  I tried to read one of her romance novels but couldn’t figure out what quivering love pudding was.

I just finished the HUNGER GAMES Trilogy, and am currently reading WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE.

7. What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I am working on a sci-fi/fantasy novel.  It’s exhilarating and nerve-wracking all at once.  There are times when my main character, Genesis, is asking questions that I don’t know the answers to yet.

Genesis lives in Harlem with his grandmother Selva.  She beats the living daylights out of him, but for good reason.  She doesn’t want him getting too excited and giving his location to people that might want to steal his blue blood.  Then there’s the issue of him leaping to different time periods before Selva’s had a chance to teach him everything he needs to know.

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

Whether it’s a writing group, or in my case, a focus group, every writer needs honest opinions from people they trust.  There are times when I think I’ve written something so good that the page should be bronzed, only to have someone in my focus group say, “That’s not going to stay in the story is it?”  I have three readers for my new novel and their input and critique, both negative and positive, really help me to get through the story.

Did the race and ethnicity of your characters help or hinder your publication process?

I would hope not.  It’s obvious that people of color are underrepresented in all forms of media, but I was fortunate enough to have the book published by one of the largest publishing houses in the world.  I received a lot of rejections, but only a fool would have been brazen enough to cite race as the reason.

Thanks for catching up with us!

Photo Credit: Tara Holland, Knopf Books for Young Readers

Caela Says Let Kids Ban their own Books

Posted by Caela Carter On September - 19 - 2011

 Caela Says Let Kids Ban their own BooksI hate it when books are banned.

It’s a simple and guttural reaction for me: Keep the books on the shelves! Let the children discover whatever world they want! Stop putting causal clauses where there is absolutely no evidence to back them up! And for bleep’s sake, authors for children are artists, and you can’t tell them what to write!

I am currently a school librarian–and writer–and that is my professional opinion under both of those hats.

However, this was a little more challenging when I was a teacher. There is a world of difference between allowing a book to be on your school library’s shelves, and assigning a book to an entire class. The bottom line is that when you assign a class book, the students can no longer self-select and say “I’m not ready for this material.” This is especially pertinent in middle school when the maturity and worldliness of each student varies so heavily. However, it was important that my students–who were inner-city young men–be exposed to books with characters who acted and talked and felt like the people they knew. It was important to me that they faced some tough issues in our literature so that they learn how to discuss tough issues in life. My colleagues and I taught many books that could have drawn objection from an adult or discomfort from a student–namely Bad Boy, Monster, The Outsiders, The Giver, The Glory Field, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, and more. When we did, we always prepared a detailed explanation for any questioning parent.

Turns out that was a lot of useless preparing. I never had anyone object to a book with content that was actually capable of making any of my students uncomfortable.

Instead, the only direct challenge I ever faced as a teacher (from a parent) was to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If you have read even a few of the books that I’ve mentioned in this post, you’ll understand why this is a joke. And while I spoke to this parent with respect, there was no way I was changing the curriculum, even for her son alone. I asked her to read the book, of course, and she refused. However, we came to an amicable conclusion: I will make sure that your son understands that magic–i.e. flying brooms and cars, Quidditch, three-headed dogs, and Voldemort–is not actually real, and your son will continue to read the book with the class. I simply had to hide the flying broom I rode to school everyday after that.

However, when a student raised a concern about a book–namely Monster–and he was truly unable to handle a book that takes place in prison while members of his family were incarcerated, he was given an alternate assignment. This objection is quite different because kids actually can think for themselves and their discomfort is a real feeling.

But his objection was also a bit more difficult to interpret. While the mother who doesn’t believe in my Nimbus 2000 objected by calling me on the phone, requesting a conference and stating that her pastor was concerned about the book, my student raised his objection by throwing things in class, turning around in his seat, pretending his pens were spaceships or wrestlers, etc. It was not that he didn’t have the language or the words to tell me that the book was upsetting him, it was that he didn’t know he would be listened to.

Yes, kids can think. But they aren’t always used to this ability being acknowledged. So, here is my proposal to all of you teachers, parents, librarians, pastors–let kids ban their own books. If a book makes them uncomfortable, they won’t read it and (as long as that’s actually the reason they aren’t reading) that’s ok. If their book makes you uncomfortable, read it yourself and talk to the kid about it.

Because if you tell her not to read it, she’s bound to find a way to get her hands on those pages. I’ve seen that happen enough to know.

Dhonielle Straddles the Fence on Banned Books!

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 15 - 2011

 Dhonielle Straddles the Fence on Banned Books!As a former teacher, I know the importance of independent exploration of the library and bookstore for children and teens, but I also know how the wrong book at the wrong time can be counter-productive and expose kids to material that they may not be developmentally and/or emotionally ready for. By no means am I am pro-banning books and restricting them from the library, but I am a supporter of organizing books so that they are kept for the right kid at the right time.

I  would like to group them by subject matter, reading level, content area, etc…, which some might argue is as bad as banning books. Many of the books on the banned books list are banned for  silly reasons, such as:

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Thought to be Satanic

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series: Promotes witchcraft and devil worship

Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry: Offensive language

Before my teaching experience this summer I was totally on the “Why would anyone ever ban books” team, then I had an interesting experience that made me re-think my ideas. Liberals, bear with me, I’m wadding into moderate/conservative waters…

I taught a 5th grade English Language Arts summer school class at a charter school in Harlem and had a little 5th grade student (a 10 years old) who we will refer to as A, and she was reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. If you have not read this book, please go read it, it’s fabulous, but also definitely suited for a teenage readership, not upper elementary. During morning meeting, this little bug was showing her friends the edgy parts of the book: the masturbation, the curse words, etc… I took it from her, but it was too late. And of course, what happens the next day: I get a slew of parent phone calls about A and monitoring what the kids are reading.

Sherman Alexie’s novel is fantastic and brilliant for a 9th grade reader and above, not an elementary school student. It contains graphic language and references to male masturbation that a 10 year-old girl probably shouldn’t be reading about at this time. When she hits 9th grade, sure! I am not saying that the novel should be banned entirely, but it should be placed in a section of the library where my 5th graders wouldn’t have the privilege of visiting yet. They should look forward to getting to each new section of the library where there are more books for them to read and varying subject matters.

What do you think? Is there room for grey area in this debate? Is categorizing books in a similar vein to banning them?

The history of book banning and burning is just horrible, so I don’t advocate or support this practice. However, I would like for books to be organized so that the right book finds the right kid at the right time. The one book I remember explicitly from my childhood is Judy Blume’s Are You There God Its Me Margaret. Whenever I see the cover it brings back an emotional memory. I can recall what it felt like to read that book, to ponder God, getting my period and if my boobs would grow. Equipped with a trusty flashlight, I read the book from cover to cover after bed time because I just had to know what happened. I am thankful that I was given this book at the right time by an insightful teacher, and I hope to recommend and give books to my students that can inform the experiences they are having right now.

Photo Credit: AP Photo

Book Burning & Banning: Amy Doesn’t Understand Outlawing Books

Posted by Amy Ewing On September - 14 - 2011

 Book Burning & Banning: Amy Doesnt Understand Outlawing BooksBanned books. Two words that make my skin crawl. They always reminds me of that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the Nazis build a pyre out of literature.

Let’s face it, kids are drawn to dark things. As a child, I loved Roald Dahl, a guy who wrote about kids getting eaten by giants and children abused by their parents. I think the tendency toward the darker side of things emerging in the current YA market is indicative of what kids are looking for—something raw, sometimes ugly, and often scary. Growing up is all about exploration, and whether it’s reality-based teen brutality, like The Chocolate War, or a government-controlled utopia, like in The Giver, these books allow kids to form opinions for themselves, or find commonality and comraderie with a fictional character, or maybe escape from their own lives for a while. Banning a book like The Perks of Being a Wallflower because you’re worried about your child being exposed to masturbation is not only ludicrous, it’s insane. Chances are, he’s figured that one out for himself—he didn’t need Charlie’s help.

What really blows my mind is the violent censorship that the Harry Potter series has received. These books are among my absolute favorites, with such clever writing, delightful characters, and complex storylines, that I can read them over and over and never get bored. So, while watching the movie Jesus Camp, I was shocked when a counselor denounces Harry and his friends, proclaiming that warlocks are the enemy of God, and that, were Harry around in the time of the Old Testament, he would have been put to death. Cut to a small boy crying because he read the Harry Potter books and loved them, and is now tortured by guilt. Did I hate the counselor in that moment? Did I want to silence her forever? Yeah. I did. But she has just as much right to express her opinion as I do to read Goblet of Fire. Take away those rights, and it feels like we’re back to Indy and a pile of burning books.

Photo Credit: Lauren Mitchell Nahas

Author Interview: Amanda Cockrell’s What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 13 - 2011

What we keep co 210 Author Interview: Amanda Cockrells What We Keep Is Not Always What Will StayI got the wonderful pleasure of meeting Amanda Cockrell during my first masters program in Children’s and Young Adult Literature at Hollins University. This talented author is both the Program Director of the Children’s Literature Masters Program as well as a prolific writer (not sure how she does it all!). After graduating college, I jumped right into this program and I’ve missed it ever since. Don’t get me wrong, I love The New School and my workshops, but Hollins University has the best literature courses on children’s literature (take a peek at the course list). We caught up with Amanda about her latest novel, her day-job, and use of magical realism.

Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer?  What made you want to be a writer? Do you write full-time now?

I grew up in Southern California, in Ojai, a town that was the template for Ayala in What We Keep. It was a wonderful  place – still is. I could ride my horse down Main Street and there was a hitching post outside the library. It was a bedroom town for Hollywood and a lot of recognizable people lived there. We were mostly polite and pretended we didn’t recognize them. I usually didn’t anyway, since I had my head in a book.

My parents were both writers – a screenwriter and a novelist — so it always seemed like the family profession.

Very few of us manage to write full time. Writing is not the best get-rich-quick (or get-rich-slowly either) scheme in the world. So I keep my day job, which I actually love, at Hollins.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of WHAT WE KEEP IS NOT ALWAYS WHAT WILL STAY? How did you come up with the concept for the book? 

Here’s the plug from the back of the book. I’ll steal that since I’m not good at short, snappy descriptions, but I like this one:

“Angie never used to think too much about God – until things started getting strange.  Like the statue of St Felix, her secret confidant, suddenly coming off his pedestal and talking to her. And Jesse Francis, sent home from Afghanistan at age nineteen with his leg blown off. Now he’s expected to finish high school and fit right back in. Is God even paying attention to this?  Against the advice of St. Felix (who knows a thing or two about war), Angie falls for Jesse—who’s a lot deeper than most high school guys. But Jesse is battling some major demons. As his behavior starts to become unpredictable, and even dangerous, Angie finds herself losing control of the situation. And she’s starting to wonder…can one person ever make things right for someone else?”

The idea started because I always thought that sainthood might take a person by surprise, so to speak. Felix claims that God de-sainted him because he wasn’t holy enough. And the war had been on my mind and I thought the saint might know a thing or two about that.

Amanda 2009 330 214x300 Author Interview: Amanda Cockrells What We Keep Is Not Always What Will StayWhat’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where does your inspiration come from? 

I generally try to write in the office, first thing in the morning if possible, or if not, in the afternoon when I have got everything else out of the way. My usual thing is to re-read what I did the day before, revise that until I like it, then write about 3 more pages, re-read and revise that when I quit, print it out and let it sit. The next day, I look at it again, rework it, and go on. Then at the end I do a complete read-through and realize how much revising is still left to do.

I have no clue where inspiration comes from. Sometimes it just drops out of the sky, a nice little gift from the gods. Other time I achieve it through a lot of biting and chipping.

What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you? 

I have published a lot of books, through varying paths, with and without agents (I vastly prefer with), some series, some stand-alone, some with major houses, some with a small press. Nothing surprises me anymore. Annoys, perplexes and possibly makes me shriek, but not surprises.

This is my first YA novel, and it has been a lovely experience all the way through. I have never had a publisher give me input on the cover before (I adore the cover) and they sent me to ALA which no one has ever done either. I am completely in love with Flux.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

I was once asked for the three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as I’ve developed as an author. I would say that paying attention to detail is probably the first. That is what makes a story live. Followed by being willing to revise. To embrace revision. Which I am currently being forced to do with my new book, and I admit that the process is not inherently embraceable. And finally followed by going after the hard things to write about. Not dodging something because it makes you uncomfy. If you get to a scene or scenes that you just don’t want to write because they make you uncomfortable, that is a sure sign that they touch on the heart of your story and you had better write them.

So: detail, revision, discomfort. Or, you could stack those three in reverse. Or sideways. They’ve all been equally important.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

As a child I adored Kipling’s The Jungle Book (and am still incensed at what Disney did to it). I wanted to be raised by wolves. I adored my parents, mind you, but wolves are so cool.

As a teen I discovered Georgette Heyer and British mysteries—Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers.

Right now I’m happily reading Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna.

 Author Interview: Amanda Cockrells What We Keep Is Not Always What Will StayWhat’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I just sent my agent the first draft of a new YA novel, and she (wise woman) pointed out that not much important stuff is actually happening to these nice characters. If I have a besetting writing sin it’s dreaming up interesting characters and then not having them do enough. So I am making them do things.

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

When I have a good writers group, it’s heavenly. I think they are enormously useful. If I was part of one right now, someone might have said, “Amanda, when are these people going to do something?” But you have to have a group that’s willing to say that, and also one that knows what they’re talking about. It’s no good if they just love everything you do. And it’s no good if they indulge in what I have heard described as “owl criticism” – “There is an owl in this poem, and I don’t like owls, so I don’t like this poem.”

In What We Keep Is Not Always what Will Stay, your use of magical realism is so deft and light and not once do readers question St. Felix, so how did you decide to use magical realism?  

I have always been a huge fan of magical realism, and several of the previous books for adults that I have done employed it, so it’s just a natural urge for me. The premise of a saint coming to life, declaring that God threw him out  for not being saintly, pretty much demands magical realism right there.

Thank you Amanda for catching up with us, and I just love your book cover.

Photo Credit: Flux

pixel Author Interview: Amanda Cockrells What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay
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