Thursday, July 31, 2008

Brigitte Get Your Gun

In which the TNoftheAWSPWTBIM moves from our "hooved animals in police custody" theme to our "teens misbehaving" theme.*

Conference or no conference, I could not stand to skip this week's Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write This Book Inspirational Moment (TNoftheAWSPWTBIM).

Sometimes, I have to search high and wide for odd news that's appropriate. Sometimes, the news inspires a question in me that is unrelated to the actual story (like Tank on the Lam). This week the story jumped up and hit me in the head from the headline alone:

From Reuters:

Teen Girl's Bank Robbing Days Over

Apparently, French police arrested a 16 year-old girl who "played a crucial role in six previous bank robberies since the beginning of July, threatening staff with a gun to force them to open security doors to let in two or three masked accomplices."

Wow. Will someone please write me this book? Not the story of how a 16 year-old girl falls in with a crowd of bank robbers. Meh. Too serious. I want a first person girl-led adventure story in the voice of a French Annie Oakley. I want dopey co-robbers and men who don't think she can best them until she shoots their berets** off. And I want a satisfying reason she lets herself get caught in the end (because they'd never catch her if she didn't let them).

And after you write it, I want a cut of the movie rights. But I can't think who could play Brigitte. Hmm...***

* Just think of the poor souls who are going to google "teens misbehaving" and end up here. Serves them right. Heh heh.
** Yes, I am aware that not everyone in France wears berets. But I like the image.
*** ...much fight urge to spend all the time allotted for revising today playing around on internet casting movie of book nobody has written...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Search of Lost Time, by Proust: the Jacqui's Room Notes

At long last (and I know you have been hanging on the edge of your seats), I present the tardy but heartfelt Jacqui's Room Notes for In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past/Swann's Way,

a video which, like Moby Dick, I created using only my cell phone and iMovie,

in which I attempt to be punny with limited success,

in which you can hear Captain Destructo calling me and then busying himself banging glass spice jars,

and in which, if you get to the last scene and think "Yeah, this is really good but I'm not sure where it's going, which is okay since it's really good, but it's a little too long," well then I captured the mood perfectly, because the book is truly unique in its wandering, conversational style, but I definitely got a little antsy, and also it's cool I got to say "captured the mood perfectly" here because Proust is unparalleled in his ability to evoke the most specific of human emotional states.

I am proud to report I had many tantrums, but no official snabblefrug while uploading. Also, no actual Madelines were harmed in the making, etc. etc.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Blood Meridian: the Jacqui's Room Notes

In which I describe things you should not let your children read.*

I cannot be funny about this one. I tried. I wrote haiku instructions for a 1850s borderland scalp hunters. I compiled a page by page body count (into the tens of thousands by page 30). I even tried falling back on my trusty Little People. Everything I tried cheapened the horror of Blood Meridian, and to do so seems dishonest. Because this book is nothing if not full of horror. Why?

1. The story: "The Kid" is a teen runaway who falls in with a marauding gang of scalp-hunters who roam the Mexican-American border in 1849-50, collecting the scalps of Native Americans to trade for gold. They kill everyone they meet, in sleep-disturbingly brutal and graphic ways.

2. The language. Despite the subject matter, McCarthy's prose rolls on, sparse, matter of fact, and relentless. Its have-to-stop-and-read-it-again poetry stands in stark contrast to the violence and cruelty it describes. Observe:

"An ancient walled presidio composed wholly of mud, a tall mud church and mud watchtowers and all of it rainwashed and lumpy and sloughing into a soft decay. The advent of the riders bruited by scurvid curs that howled woundedly and slank among the crumbling walls" (p.97).

As a reader, it is haunting. As a writer, it is fascinating. McCarthy does not change his tone when the actions in the book grow chaotic and gory, which forces the reader to decipher, to read every word and, thus, to experience every blood splatter.

3. What McCarthy doesn't write is more powerful even than what he writes. He gives his characters zero emotional reaction on the page, which leaves it all to the reader. And in the end (this is sort of a spoiler), he doesn't even describe the final death, just the horrified reactions of those who see the aftermath. This implies that the scene outstrips even the utterly unbelievable terror we have already witnessed, and leaves our imaginations and fears to reconstruct what happened. I love this manipulation.

4. The facts. The book is based on a journal, which, while of questionable reliability, is certainly historically accurate. So we can't blow off what's within as the sick imaginings of a psychopath who happens to write beautifully. In the epilogue, unnamed characters dig holes in the ground, ignoring the scattered bones of those who went before. Presumably, they are laying fence. I was confused as to why, until I realized McCarthy is reminding us that Blood Meridian, and a thousand stories like it, are what built the foundations of the American Southwest.

So, no, I can't be funny, and I can't exactly recommend it. I have started a new list in Cormac McCarthy's honor: Brilliant Books You Shouldn't Read. I am priding myself on not saddling you with any of the 100 horrible images running through my brain. And now, in order to keep myself from having nightmares, I am going to watch this a few hundred times and giggle with childish anticipation.

* Because I know all of your children beg to visit Jacqui's Room.
** And there is so much stunningly beautiful language that I had a hard time choosing what quote to gift to you above.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

July 28 - The Good Soldier

Welcome to week 10 of our Remedial Lit Summer Project, which features Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier.

Hey! "Ford Madox Ford" is sort of a palindrome!

After the stomach-wrenching violence of Blood Meridian, it will be good to relax with a book whose own back cover brags:

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

post edited to add: Just started the book. The above quote is actually the first line. Even better...

Wait! Before you leap to conclusions, the jacket flap also promises:

"many comic moments, despite its catalogue of death, insanity, and despair."

Who's in?

Why do I hate myself?

Tell me what you're reading this week...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Respect the Mighty Picture Book You Might Not Know

Today I want to talk about three picture books that I love that you might not know. I get asked a lot for picture book gift ideas, and I'm always trying to think of great books the child will probably not already have, particularly older gems parents may have missed. Here are some...

1. A Weave of Words, by Robert San Souci, illus. Raúl Colon

What you gotta love
: It features the weaver's daughter Anait, who refuses to marry the prince Vachagan until he learns a trade and can read. Later, when Vachagan (now king) is captured by a three-headed dev, he's saved by his craft, by writing, and by Anait (now queen) who rides into battle as fiercely as any man.

The mood
: fairy tale formal language, gorgeous and dreamy etched watercolors

Recommended for
: boys or girls, ages 5-9, to read aloud. The dev is a little scary, but Tinkerbell can handle it (and she has been known to hide her eyes during the Curious George movie).

Especially recommended for
: girls who are princess-obsessed and need a jolt of strong girl.

2. Everybody Needs a Rock, by Byrd Baylor, illus. Peter Parnall

What you gotta love
: It's a book about the ten rules for finding your perfect rock. It is funny while respecting kids, and rocks, and it says:

I'm sorry for kids

who don't have
a rock
for a friend.

I'm sorry for kids
who only have
they don't have
for a friend.*

Mood: quiet and contemplative, straightforward language; sparse line drawings that evoke the southwest setting.

Recommended for: ages 5-9, kids who collect, who pick up sticks, rocks, etc., kids who should pick up rocks more, pet rocks, kids named "Rock"

Especially recommended for: kids who collect and arrange so many sticks and rocks that the front porch looks like a scene from the Blair Witch Project.

3. Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosse, illus. Barbara Lavallee

What you gotta love
: The child wonders just how horrid she can be, and have her mother still love her. The mother answers firmly, but gently. It's mushy without being sickening. Plus, the illustrations are unique and lovely.

quiet, but with great opportunities to imitate wild beasts, great kid dialogue

Recommended for: the younger set, like 3-5; people looking for bedtime books, mothers who love their kids

Especially recommended for: kids who want to know if their mothers still love them even if those kids, say, stand in the kitchen naked and sing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" at the top of their lungs while their mother is already frazzled because they have three minutes before they miss the camp bus and their baby brother has hidden a half-eaten cheese stick somewhere in the kitchen.


* You can see that page laid out better here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I'm Melting!!!

Welcome to this week's Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write This Book Inspirational Moment (TNoftheAWSPWTBIM).

Could someone please write this book about the story of the person who won a once-in-a-lifetime trip somewhere bizarre by finding the winning code on the inside wrapper of a chocolate bar? Oh, wait. Someone did. Strange.

This week's actual inspirational moment is more serious than usual.

From Reuters:

Student Pours Cold Water on School Reform

"The 14-year-old schoolgirl threw a pitcher of cold water in Education Minister Monica Jimenez's face at an event to discuss reform of a sector that students and teachers complain is underfunded and neglects the poor."

Apparently, reaction to a proposed Chilean education reform bill has been violent, with protesters including students and the teacher's union. The government called a meeting to address the concerns and a student doused the Education Minister.

I have two thoughts before I describe the book I want you to write:

1) I know absolutely nothing about the Chilean education system. However, my knee-jerk reaction is "You go!" As a former teacher and hater of many of our own government's recent attempts to hobble "reform" the schools, I can understand the students and teachers and their frustration, particularly after the ridiculous comments from the minister about how she could have been killed by the pitcher and how she blames (of course) the teacher's union for all the problems (as opposed to, say, blaming whatever is dumb in the bill).

2) As you know, all my thoughts have been taken over recently by the sound of a five year-old trying to sing like Judy Garland.* Therefore, all I could picture when I read this was the Education Minister shrieking, "Who would have thought a little girl like you could kill my beautiful wickedness?!" and melting into a puddle on the ground.

BUT, this is supposed to be an inspirational prompt. And the story I really think is interesting here belongs not to the minister, but to the 14 year-old girl. How did she get to a place where she threw a pitcher of water on the Education Minister?! An action like that steps over the boundary between what we dream of doing and what we'd actually do in real life. What emotional or personal journey brought her to that place?

I see two ways to go. Either she starts out timid, etc. and gradually grows to a place where she can stand up for herself and her classmates in this over-the-top way. Could be touching; could be a yawner.

I'd rather read the story of the kid who never does well in school, who doesn't even think she likes or needs school, who makes her teachers crazy and doesn't fit in with her classmates. How does THAT kid get to a place where she's willing to risk whatever punishment came down on this girl (the article doesn't say) to stand up for students' rights to a good education?

Will someone please write me that book?

*In case you missed it, Tinkerbell is Wizard of Oz obsessed these days...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My Boyfriend, My Novel

As you know, these days, I am playing a lot of Text Twist and messing around on GoodReads revising my novel. I wrote and wrote and wrote yesterday and last night and today, and as a result, I have nothing new for you here in Jacqui's Room.

BUT, if you have ever tried to write a novel, or anything really, or if you know someone who has, you'll get a laugh out of the so, so familiar-to-me tale here. Warning: there are some naughty words referenced. And yes, I am currently in the naughty words phase...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Smell of 57th Street Books

I got to go to my favorite city a few weekends ago for my 10th wedding anniversary. I moved to Chicago right out of college, and lived on the South Side for nine years. Chicago is where I fell in love with my husband, bought my first apartment, made some of my dearest friends, discovered I wanted to be a teacher, wrote my first book, was pregnant with my first's where I grew up, really, if you think what I am now counts as grown up.

So, two favorites that will eventually lead us to something related to writing...

Favorite place in the whole wide world to go swimming:

Tiny picture of my favorite bookstore in the whole entire world:
57th Street Books is still my favorite. It was even better, of course, when I worked there with Franny Billingsley, storytelling, event planning, and helping run the children's section. But it's still the best. If you get to Chicago, you should go there. If you can't get to Chicago, you should dream of wall-to-wall books and a kids' section with a comfy carpet.

And here is the related-to-writing moment: I walked around Chicago reminiscing and missing it. I saw the lake, my old apartment, my old stomping grounds. But it wasn't until I walked into 57th Street Books that I thought, "Ah, I'm back." Not because of how it looked, but because of how it smelled. The bookstore is in a basement and it smells like cool air and good books. I inhaled and had a rare and great sensory memory, struck with the thought, "Yes! This is how it smells here!"

The challenge, I think, is to use all the senses in our writing. It's easy to focus on sight and sound, and even temperature or internal feelings ("her stomach jumped"). But I think the less-often described senses are the ones that are most powerful in our memories. Can you make your audience feel and smell and taste your character's experience from within?

And this leads me to In Search of Lost Time/Swann's Way, which is a vast epic memory, sparked by the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea. And which I will discuss soon.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Inferno: The Jacqui's Room Notes

In which I sum up a 700 year-old masterpiece in 10 words:

The worse you behave here,
the lower you'll sink there.


Two bonus thoughts:

1. It was interesting to read this after Pale Fire and its deranged annotator. There are so many references to contemporaries of Dante in Inferno that annotations are essential to comprehending the story; if you don't know Francesca da Rimini*, you can't understand her presence among the lustful in the second circle of Hell. Mark Musa, who translated my Penguin Classics version, is very opinionated and even goes so far as to say, on several occasions, something to the effect of, "Other critics all agree that Dante meant such and such, but they're all wrong." Had I read Inferno before having pondered truth and literary interpretation questions in Pale Fire, I probably wouldn't have noticed the translator's own voice, or distrusted it nearly as much as I did.

2. The Divine Comedy is the ultimate "should have read it" classic. Every canto, at some point, I thought, "Oh! This is like in (insert name of other literary work here). That author must have read Dante." For 700 years, other writers have been referencing Dante. I could cite lofty examples like Shakespeare, but we are a bit Wizard of Oz obsessed these days.** So the whole time I read Inferno, I kept thinking, "This is just like The Wizard of Oz." I mean, Dante/Dorothy is all, "Dude, I had the strangest dream. I woke up somewhere totally trippy and I was confused until Virgil/Glinda the good Witch explained it to me. All I wanted was to get home, but I had to make a long journey past all sorts of weird people like munchkins/usurers on burning sand to find Oz/God and get to Kansas/Heaven. And you were there! But you were a scarecrow/your head was on backwards!"

I know, ladies and gentlemen. It is just this kind of in depth literary analysis you have come to expect here at Jacqui's Room. Somewhere, Harold Bloom is trying to figure out how to get Yale to rescind my degree quaking in his boots.

* According to Musa (p. 119): "daughter of Guido Vecchio da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, and Paolo Malatesta, third son of Malatesta da Verrucchio, lord of Rimini. Around 1275 the aristocratic Francesca was married for political reasons to Gianciotto, the physically deformed second son of Malatesta da Verrucchio. In time a love affair developed between Francesca and Gianciotto's younger brother, Paolo. One day the betrayed husband discovered them in an amorous embrace and slew them both." But you knew that already, I am sure. Oh, you didn't? See what I mean about the annotations?!

** And by "we are obsessed" I mean that Tinkerbell sings songs from the play she did at camp so relentlessly that the rest of us are ready to kill ourselves. Trying to write in terza la la...I could while away the hours, conversing with the flowers, consulting with the la la... AAAHHH!!!

*** The cover image above is from my Penguin Classics edition. It's a painting by William Blake, The [First] Book of Urizen, Copy B, Plate 14.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

July 21 - Blood Meridian

Welcome to week 9 of our Remedial Lit Summer Project, which features Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

Which is a comedy, right?

What were you thinking?! You hate violence! You couldn't even sit still through Reservoir Dogs! Now you're going to read this?! Do you not remember calling his other masterpiece "All the Really Boring Horses"?

I am back from the beach and ready to do nothing but write.*

Coming attractions include thoughts on Inferno and In Search of Lost Time, seaweed, and The Least You Need to Know: the author-agent relationship...

* And blog. And sell my house. And pack then move then unpack. And figure out why my luggage landed in Detroit smelling like elephant dung.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tortoise on the Lam

Welcome to this week's Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write This Book Inspirational Moment (TNoftheAWSPWTBIM).

From the AP and Newsvine:

"Tortoise returned after 2 1/2 weeks on the lam"

Tank, an 8-year-old, 60-pound African spur thigh tortoise, escaped from his family's garage and was missing for 2 1/2 weeks before he was found and returned.

Okay, I see two ways this can go. There's the book TANK ON THE LAM, all about Tank's adventures. It could be lovely, but it's just not inspiring me today. Plus, we already did it with the lighthouse.

What I really want to know is this: why are they keeping him in the garage? Is Tank the family vehicle?! I know gas prices are high and I, too, would like to avoid a minivan for dragging my kids around, but a tortoise?!

Will someone please write the story of parents who, angered by rising gas costs and allergic to horses, decide to carpool their children to school atop a 60-pound African spur thigh tortoise?

I am thinking David McPhail illustrations, like those in PIGS APLENTY, PIGS GALORE, mostly because I love the man in P.A.P.G.'s frustrated calm in the face of the pigs' chaos. I want the kids and their lunchboxes and backpacks and sports equipment and the parents and their briefcases, and maybe the family dog, all piled on top of poor Tank. But I want the language minimal and wry, kind of like in Delphine Perret's THE BIG BAD WOLF AND ME.

Will someone please write this book?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wrath of Mama: a one act murder mystery

In which I recreate a conversation with Tinkerbell.

JACQUI: So, what did you like or not like about camp today?

TINK: I didn't like Ursula.*

JACQUI: That seems a little harsh. Poor Ursula. I hope you were nice to her. Why not?

TINK: She's mean.

JACQUI: Uh-oh. How so?

TINK: She made fun of me and another girl on the bus because we were sitting next to a boy. Then he moved his seat.

JACQUI: Hmm, that does sound kind of mean.

TINK: Yeah, and she called me a name.


TINK: She called me a baby when I was sucking my thumb.

JACQUI:Oh no, she didn't! (mother bear fur standing on end). What?

TINK: She said only babies suck their thumbs and she pointed at me and said (singing), "You are a baby."

JACQUI: Which one is Ursula? Because I am going to kill the little twit I don't know if I know her. And I need to know her, so I can kill her.

TINK: She was there this morning, with the blue shirt**?

JACQUI: In the pink shirt? With the tiny mom in the three-inch heels? I think I can totally take them both I remember her.

TINK: Yeah.

JACQUI: So, (takes calming breaths) what did you say when she said that?

TINK: Nothing. I ignored her, like you told me when people are mean.

JACQUI: (doing internal "I rule and my daughter does too" dance) That's good. I mean, it's kind of funny, Tink. What's less grown up: sucking your thumb or being mean to people?

TINK: (giggles) Being mean to people. But she probably thinks that's grown up.

JACQUI: Well, then you should just grab a chair and rearrange the brat's face ignore her, like you did. It sounds like this Ursula is someone you should tell the other kids you saw picking her nose and eating it stay away from.

TINK: I do.

JACQUI: Good. Because when the grenade hits her house, I don't want you there.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and to leave no trail that could lead beaver police investigating injuries to "Ursula" and her family back to Jacqui's Room
** She was not really wearing a blue shirt.

Monday, July 14, 2008

In Search of Lost Time: the Jacqui's Room Notes

In which I confess that I have failed you, dear readers, not to mention myself and Proust and a woman in Massachusetts.

I have not finished Swann's Way. (hangs head in shame)

I have plenty of excuses, which I offer you in the sentence length of Marcel Proust:

My agent wants revisions on my young adult novel absolutely positively AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, but certainly before the end of the month, so I have to write 22 scenes by July 30, which is also the day we close on our new house, the purchase of which has required large quantities of time trying to convince the bank/sellers to allow us to close using Monopoly money and the barter system, particularly since we blew much cash this weekend when The Mighty Thor wifenapped me to Chicago to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, where I spent time I should have been spending reading Proust gazing at Lake Michigan reminiscing and thinking about landscape and literature and how I should be reading, but how I am so enjoying the Proust, and what I enjoy most is how it is different from other books in that it is truly about the process of reading it, of sinking into it and relaxing and savoring it, and how I would really be doing it a disservice to read it as fast as I can just so I can say today that I have finished it, especially when I know what an understanding, forgiving, wise, and thoughtful** audience you all are, the kind of readers who would never kick a desperate superhero when she's down, who will read this and smile benevolently and comment, "Oh, yes, Jacqui, we understand and we love you anyway."*

Right? (smiles her cutest smile and bats eyelashes)

* Not to mention beautiful and smart.
** Especially after I promise to finish and synopsisize the Proust by the time the 15 weeks are up, while also keeping up on all my other assignments.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

July 14 - The Inferno

Welcome to week 8 of our Remedial Lit Summer Project, which features Dante's Inferno.

is Volume 1 of The Divine Comedy, in which a pilgrim travels to hell.

I will be reading Inferno this week while I board a plane and travel cross country to spend the week in a cottage with the Mighty Thor, Tinkerbell, Captain Destructo, my in-laws, their dog, my niece and nephew, their dog and their cat.

Any correlation between the plot of Inferno and my life is purely coincidental.*

* This is humor. In reality, I am much looking forward to both my in-laws and the beach.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Adventures of DQHIT Woman

In which I lament that my life is a series of narrowly avoided snafus.

I took this quiz, inspired by Tabitha to discover what superhero I am.

Now, these quizzes have the failings of all standardized tests: they can’t possibly account for my genius and complexity. I had the vague sense that I might be “SuperWriter” or “Captain Always Reshelves Her Own Books Correctly” or even “The Grammarian.” Apparently I am Wonder Woman.

I do not feel like Wonder Woman. I used to, actually. These days, I am more like Doesn’t Quite Have It Together Woman,

Maybe that is the book I need to write.

The Adventures of Doesn’t Quite Have It Together Woman

Faster than, um, dial-up?
More powerful than the water pressure in her shower,
Able to leap over piles of discarded toys in a single bound,
Armed only with a laptop, a penchant for words and the cell phones numbers of better mothers who remember when picture day is,
Haunted by the memory of when she used to consider herself competent and by her agent’s suggestion that she get to those revisions as soon as possible,
Doesn’t Quite Have It Together Woman roams the wilds of Ann Arbor in her trusty, smelly Prius,
Trying to drive the five miles to camp before it closes in two minutes while jotting notes for her young adult novel and averaging 50 mpg,
Leaving happy children, Cheerios and bits of paper with important numbers written on them in her wake.

Her mission?
Keep Ann Arbortropolis and children everywhere safe from bad writing,
Keep the cats safe from Captain Destructo’s mighty grasp,
Amuse the online masses with her thoughts on police beavers, picture books, and Moby Dick.
Keep herself from going from DQHIT Woman to Straight-Up Batty Girl,
And, um, there was something else, but she forgot it.

Look! Jogging along Main Street in the rain with no umbrella!
It’s a strange bird!
It’s barely sane!
It’s Doesn’t Quite Have It Together Woman!

Sigh. Back to revising…

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Goat and Dog in cahoots

Welcome to this week's Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write This Book Inspirational Moment (TNoftheAWSPWTBIM). Despite appearances, I am not obsessed with hooved animals in police custody. By the way, you can always find past Inspirational Moments to the left (scroll down), under "Explore Jacqui's Room."

From USA Today and the AP:

Police Nab Mercedes-Climbing Goat

"It happened Sunday when a woman driving the Mercedes saw a goat and dog playing on U.S. 72 in northern Alabama, Sheriff Mike Blakely said.

She stopped, afraid they would get hit, Blakely said. But the goat jumped on the car and wouldn't come down. Fearing scratches and dents in her import's paint job, she called the Limestone County Sheriff's Department. A deputy got the goat down and put it in his patrol car, but then the dog jumped into his back seat too."

Three things you gotta love about this:

1. Classic example of the importance of the hyphen. Otherwise, the headline would read, "Police Nab Mercedes Climbing Goat," which is an all together different story about police catching a German car as it drove up a goat.

2. The dog refuses to be separated from the goat. Did he leap into the back seat of the squad car desperately sobbing and woofing, "Take me with you!" or was he making a last ditch effort to save his friend?

3. The rhyming picture book possibilities. I want a cumulative rhyme, along the lines of The House That Jack Built and The Napping House. I want the goat (and in my book the dog is with him up there, because I am the author and I can manipulate reality) placidly sunning himself atop the luxury car, maybe in the clear lines and bright colors of Rob Scotton's Russell the Sheep. Each successive page features someone new trying to talk the animals down. Meanwhile, in the background, traffic mounts and the illustrations build vignettes of motorists getting into fights, sharing snacks, and playing frisbee across the parked cars. Right before the end, there's a wordless page where the goat and dog yawn and then nod at each other. The goat steps down and allows himself to be led to the police car, the dog hops in, and on the back inside cover, we see them speeding away down the highway, chaos in their wake, and the dog says to the driver, um, um, something clever. "Can we stop for pizza?" "Petco, please, and make it snappy?" Neither of those is clever enough. Help, clever readers. What does the dog say?

Will someone please write this book?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Favorite Picture Books to Read Aloud

In which I give much respect to the mighty picture book.

We talk a lot about novels here in Jacqui's Room. And I do love me some Young Adult fiction, some Rushdie, some dead white guy classics, and even a 444 page ramble that, as far as I can tell so far, is about falling asleep and eating cookies.

But I don't write any of those.* I write picture books. And they have long been, and remain, my favorite genre. A great picture book is a poem, airtight writing, succinct story, engaging emotion -- all the elements of the classic novels we've been reading, but funnier, and in 800 words max. They are our children's introduction to reading, to literature, to the wonders imagination can bring, to the world outside of their everyday existences. All with pictures, and children's book illustrations contain some of the most striking, innovative, and careful art being created today.

No joke, my absolute hands-down favorite thing in the world to do is to read a great picture book aloud to a crowd of eager children.

So we have a new occasional feature here in Jacqui's Room:
Respect the Mighty Picture Book.**

In today's Respect the Mighty Picture Book, I present to you my top ten absolute favorite picture books to read aloud to a crowd of eager 5-8 year olds.
Note: 1) these differ entirely from my favorite picture books to read aloud to my children; that's a list for another day, and 2) if these seem skewed towards older books it's because one of my criteria is the book having stood the "read it a million times and still enjoy readin' it" test.

Jacqui's Top Ten Favorite Picture Books to Read Aloud to a Crowd of Eager 5-8 Year Olds
(in no particular order)

1. Piggie Pie, by Margie Palatini, illus. Howard Fine
Pure fun, fairy tale refences, great chance for kids to "figure it out," many opportunities for ridiculous voices, chickens, and an evil spell.

2. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig
The emotion in this beautiful book gets kids up on their knees, leaning to me, totally engaged and wanting to know what happens, every time. And the pay off ending does not disappoint.

3. The New Girl...And Me, by me, illus. Matt Phelan
Hey, I'd be lying if I didn't include it!

4. Fox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss
A tongue twister that's actually hard, and nothing gets them laughing like me messing it up

5. The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, illus. Robert Lawson
Ferdinand the bull refuses to fight, even in the face of the most famous matador in Spain. By the end of the year, my students would admonish each other to "be like Ferdinand" on the playground.

6. Atalanta (from my Free To Be You And Me compilation)
Retelling of the ancient Greek myth, strong princess who races to be able to choose her husband, or whether to marry at all. Exciting race scene, and the my favorite opening to a classroom conversation about how to talk to someone you don't know.

7. The Hungry Thing, by Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler, illus. Richard Martin
Silliness, silliness, silliness. Predictable text that the kids can shout out, good practice rhyming, adorable monster.

8. More Than Anything Else, by Marie Bradby, illus. Chris Soenpiet
True story of Booker T. Washington desperately wanting to learn to read, despite the fact that it is not easy. I like that we don't find out it's Booker T until the end. Gorgeous illustrations.

9. Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, illus. John Schoenherr
My favorite poem. Sparse, simple, breathtaking, and very much from the point of view of a child. The class sits silent, barely breathing, and sighs with pleasure when the owl appears. I had a very, very troubled, violent student who chose this as his "reader's theater" project and announced, "Now I want to be a poet." Also, I met Jane Yolen at SCBWI-NY last year. Hmm. I should blog about my conversation with Jane Yolen...

10. a tie between Tacky the Penguin and Me First and Listen Buddy, all by Helen Lester, illus. Lynn Munsinger
Important lessons without preachiness and with lots of hilarity and energy. Also, many opportunities for silly voices.

Oh, and Chrysanthemum (Kevin Henkes) and Wilma Unlimited (Kathleen Krull, illus. David Diaz) and -- hey! Whose idea was it to limit this to ten? And when do I next get to read to kids? Who has a classroom I can borrow?!

Sigh. Yum. What are your favorites?

* Okay, this is not entirely true. I am in the middle of a young adult novel, as many of you know because I yammer about it constantly. But it's safe to say I don't currently write YA novels, since I don't currently write anything except checks, to do lists that are forgotten immediately, and this blog.
** Until I think of a more clever name. Ideas, clever readers?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Pale Fire: the Jacqui's Room Notes

In which I may make no sense if you haven't read Pale Fire. Or even if you have, I suppose.


Pale Fire was published in 1962, written after the success of Lolita allowed Nabokov to give up academia and write full time, much as the success of The New Girl…and Me, allowed me to give up teaching first and second grade and write full time, so long as I could find other ways to pay for day care.

Pale Fire also contains my current favorite quote on the fragility and the power of the written word:

“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of though, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing… I wish you to gasp not only at what you read, but at the miracle of its being readable" (p. 289).

Pale Fire: a haiku

poem by John Shade
extensive annotations
deranged editor

Line 1 “John Shade”
The fictional author of the 999 line autobiographical work “Pale Fire” which appears in the book of the same name, born July 5, 1898, shot and killed July 21, 1959*, under circumstances delineated** in the commentary.

Line 2 “annotations”
Pale Fire is written in three parts: a foreword by the editor, the poem “Pale Fire,” and commentary on the poem by the editor, which composes the vast majority of the book.

Line 3 “deranged editor”
Nabokov is the king of the unreliable narrator. The annotations to Pale Fire are mostly disorganized personal reflections of questionable relevance.*** As we read, we realize the annotator is, at best, bitter and stretching the truth to self-aggrandize, at worst, totally delusional.**** and ***** In the end, we are left enthralled by the language, engaged by the story, and amazed at Nabokov's play with the power of words.

* Being a secret numbers person, I can’t help but be amused by having read Pale Fire on the dates during which the story takes place. Of course, I planned this. Because I am just that organized.
**sort of, see note on delusion of the annotator below
*** much like this blog
**** but funny
*****again, much like this blog

Sunday, July 6, 2008

July 7 - A Book by Proust

Welcome to week 7 of our Remedial Lit Summer Project, which features Swann's Way Remembrance of Things Past In Search of Lost Time a book by Marcel Proust.

Tomorrow I will attempt to summarize the fantastic, complex mystery that is Pale Fire.

This week, we* are reading Swann's Way, which is the first of seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which is what all the cool literary scholars (a far different crowd than the cool writers club) now call the novel formerly known as Remembrance of Things Past.

The man who sold me this book from Shaman Drum warned me that "the first 30 pages of this book are about falling asleep, both for the main character and reader."

he narrator in Pale Fire called it, "a huge, ghoulish fairy tale, an asparagus dream, totally unconnected with any possible people in any historical France" and of "unsufferable length" (p. 162).

Here in Jacqui's Room, we call it "beach reading."**

Who's in?

*And I realize that by "we" I mean "me and, well, just me."
** Or "literary penance for having enjoyed the vampire book so much"

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Happy Fourth of July

In which I panic.

I was born for summer. I grew up in Florida swimming in the Gulf of Mexico year round. I was a happy camper counting the days until school ended and I could go back to the lake. I was a teacher, still counting the days until summer break. Now I am a writer and I work in my little hole and never see any other humans* or the sun, but I still love summer.

I love summer so much that I am always a little sad on the Fourth of July, because, people! June is over already! And I haven't had a good picnic or re-learned to play tennis or eaten a bomb pop! We barrel towards fall and I don't even have good barefoot callouses yet! We haven't played in the sprinkler or made homemade ice cream! The strawberries are gone, people, and I NEVER CANNED ANY JAM. We are stuck eating store bought jam until the raspberries come in and -- Holy cow, look! I see a yellow leaf on the oak tree outside! Soon the leaves will fall and the wind will blow and I will be cold cold COLD and fighting the kids to get into winter clothes and spending time I could be writing looking for a freaking missing pink Dora mitten. And my bike will sit rotting in storage. And my skin will fade to transparent. And I'll spend early mornings scraping and shoveling and swearing and wondering for the 500th time why two people who NEED sunshine like plants need, well, sunshine ever decided to move to Michigan instead of to somewhere like San Diego where I wouldn't ruin all summer panicking about not having summer.

Wait! What am I doing blogging? What are you doing reading this? We are all, all of us, yes that means you, too, Captain Destructo, I don't care if you're not done napping and are already sunburned, we are all going outside RIGHT NOW to play. Summer is almost over, Tinkerbell; put DOWN that book. You can read when fall comes. Go play. PLAY already, I said. Mama is going to sit here and drink this iced coffee and be hot and love it. Aaaaaah.

Happy fifth of July.

* Except the Bearclaw coffee guy.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Police Suspect Giraffe in Circus Breakout

Welcome to this week's Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write This Book Inspirational Moment (TNoftheAWSPWTBIM).

Sometimes I worry I won't find something silly enough for this feature...and then something like this falls into my lap:

From Reuters:

Police Suspect Giraffe in Circus Breakout

"Fifteen camels, two zebras and several llamas and pot-bellied pigs escaped from a circus visiting
Amsterdam early Monday."

The visual image of this mass exodus amuses me. Anything with pot-bellied pigs is inherently funny, and the collection of animals is wonderfully motley (I get why the camels, zebras and llamas are in cahoots. Why bring the pigs?!). I see fabulous escape scenes illustrated by Quentin Blake, with other animals cheering the fugitives and possibly a Charlotte's Web-esque capture-the-pig scene involving the strong man and someone on stilts.

But the real hilarity here, to me, is the headline: Police Suspect Giraffe. I suppose the police have the giraffe in custody and are questioning him in connection with the break-out? THAT is what I want in the picture book. Will someone please write the story of the poor giraffe, duped by smooth-talking camels into kicking the gate open, hunted by police, and handcuffed to a chair under a bare light bulb, being interrogated by police beavers* smoking sticks of wood?

* I don't know why I'm picturing beavers. Feel free to choose your own police animal.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Space Chicken, Intergalactic Milk Delivery Poultry

In which I eventually get to my new favorite technique for getting unstuck while writing, I promise. But first, a word on zombies and poultry.

My husband* would take issue with my last post. He says you can't have a checklist of what makes a great novel without one of the following:

  1. zombies
  2. nanotechnology (preferably a swarm of tiny robots gone bad)

He would probably also grudgingly accept the following:
  1. fire
  2. defenestration
  3. shape shifters
  4. a biological villain, such as a supervirus**

In fact, whenever I write something new, my husband inquires which of the above it contains. He is always disappointed. He would like the social conflicts in my classroom oriented picture books to be more often resolved through clone wars.***

Now, Tinkerbell loves my books. But, she REALLY loves the stories her dad tells her in the bathtub, which revolve around the exciting adventures of Space Chicken, Intergalactic Milk Delivery Poultry, whose efforts to bring fresh cold milk to all of our universe's children (alien and otherwise) are constantly thwarted by circumstance and occasionally goofy bad guys.

The fact is, the Space Chicken stories are fun. Fun to make up, fun to hear.

Which bring us to my new favorite technique for getting unstuck. You know those times when you have something to write, or to revise, and just isn't coming? It just looms over you, dreaded and humongous? Your house is spotless, your bills are paid, and you've created hand-made paper scrapbooks for your pets -- anything to avoid putting pen to paper? Here is your assignment:

Choose one item from the lists above and use it. I am not joking. I don't care if you're writing an 18th century romance; have the lovers attacked by zombies. Make the mama bunny toss the baby bunny out the window.

I am willing to bet three things:
  1. It will be much easier to write the scene (or whatever) than however you're trying it
  2. It will be much more fun to write as well
  3. Even though you can't use the scene like this, you'll find something, some little tidbit, that you can use. And hopefully having that little bit will make the whole thing start to come together.
Let me know. And if you need more, try here, which is what inspired my sharing this.

* My husband is actually quite well-read and enjoys many books without any robots. Just not as much, I think.
** Preferably one that speeds through the air and is neurologically devastating so that our hero can be a pediatric neurologist with a penchant for research and several letters in track...
*** Also, he would also like me to refer to him in future posts as "The Mighty Thor."