Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ellen Hopkins, E. Lockhart ... And Me

I trolled Lee Wind's blog, I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? long before I discovered what a great guy he is in person.  This summer at SCBWI-LA, I told him the story of the ridiculous challenge to the anti-bullying curriculum in which The New Girl...And Me was included and the ensuing hoo-hah over my book (if you missed this story, go read it here).

Well, now Lee has been kind enough to interview little old me along with the likes of Ellen Hopkins, E. Lockhart, Frank Portman, Jo Knowles, and Sarah Brannen, on the occasion of Banned Books Week.  You can read Part One of So Your Book Has Been Challenged here.

I'll be honest: I feel a little silly being there.  As I said in the interview, it's not like I wrote something brave.  It wasn't even my book that got people all in a kerfluffle.  I almost begged out of the interview.  But then I realized that the story about people not wanting kindergartners to read The New Girl...And Me is important precisely because it is so stupid and ignorant and completely and totally unrelated to the book.  Just as, I believe, the debate over whether or not schools should have Uncle Bobby's Wedding is more about the challengers' own discomfort than about what's "good" or "appropriate" for children.  We put ourselves in danger when we let other people tell us what to read, and what to think, and the way the information about my book got all twisted is a perfect example (again, really, if you didn't hear the story of how I apparently wrote a kindergarten manual for gay sex, click here).

So go and read, and check out the rest of Lee's blog while you're there.  And come back Friday for the exciting conclusion of the Jacqui Reads Her Children Even More Books Other People Think Are Bad For Them project.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Writing on empty

I love to run, most of the time. Lately, I am training for a half-marathon. In three weeks, I will try to run to Canada and back. Very exciting. The long runs for this, though, have been less fun. Yesterday, for example, I ran 12 miles that seemed uphill the whole way, with rainy wind in my face, and while fasting for Yom Kippur.

While I was running, I was thinking about writing. I do this a lot, especially since reading Haruki Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I love Murakami's fiction and I love his parallels between running and writing (which you can read about here).

So yesterday, I was thinking, "How come it's so easy to make myself go running, even when I know it's going to be hard? How come I don't think about a day of running that isn't a race as lost time, but I think of a day of writing that I don't eventually use as a failure? How come I can't treat writing more like running?"

And this morning, it hit me, along with a pulled muscle and a bad case of chills. The reason is this: I ran 12 miles yesterday. It's over. Done. Nobody cares how well I did it. I don't have to look at a video tape and go back and run the bad parts over again. I don't have to re-run chapter three the third mile fifteen more times until I get it right. And I don't have to spend this whole morning staring at three or four words steps of the run, totally unable to figure out how to make them work.

Of course, on the other hand, nobody yesterday told me her daughter actually sleeps with a copy of one of my runs.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

This is My Space

Not MySpace. My space.

Remember my closet office last summer?

It looked like this.

At least, I think it did. I never really went in there, except to pry open the door, huck something inside, and slam it shut.

Then, I decided to "fix it up" and it looked like this:
Oh, I was so excited then. But eventually, everybody including me went back to using it as a dumping ground and every time I went in there I was assaulted by the mess and the visual reminders of the to do list and aak! Get me out of here!

But writing was like pulling teeth and I was getting to hate my coffee shop. Plus, it's not like the rest of the house wasn't a constant reminder of anything else I could or should be doing. I started dreaming of hotel retreats. I made plans to move into my friend Sharon's tree house. I Googled the (exorbitant) cost of sheds and wondered how to heat them in winter.

Instead, I went mad. I took everything out of my office that didn't have to do with writing. I put it all in the living room. I recycled and trashed a bunch of crap. Then I blew half my latest royalty check on The Chair I Have Been Coveting. And now, ladies and gentlemen, behold. My space.

This is the same view through the door as those other pictures. The desk is around the corner, like this:

I am in love.

Not coincidentally, I wrote many, many words this week.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ducks who bake

In which I ponder the feminist implications of embracing your sissitude.

Welcome to this week's Jacqui Reads Her Children Even More Books That Other People Think Are Bad For Them

For an explanation of my Banned Books Month project, click here.
For a far deeper and more eloquent post against book-banning, etc, read Laurie Halse Anderson's discussion here.

The Sissy Duckling
by Harvey Fierstein, illus. Henry Cole

Elmer the duckling likes to build things and paint and make believe. The other ducks tease him and call him "sissy" and beat the crap out of each other. Even Elmer's own dad can't take Elmer's sissy ways, so Elmer runs away to spare his family any more embarrassment. He sets himself up a nice little pad in a nearby tree. Elmer's mother and father leave with the rest of the flock to fly south for the winter, but hunters shoot his father down. Elmer rescues his father and they spend the winter bonding in Elmer's apartment. When the flock comes back, the family is reunited, Elmer's dad stands up for him, and Elmer declares himself sissy and proud.

This is a cute book. I love that Elmer doesn't have to change to be accepted. I love that he uses his own specific skills to survive the winter. And I love any book that shows how mean name-calling can be.

Now. This book was challenged on several occasions for being "gay themed." This fascinates me, because in order to see the book as having anything to do with anything gay, you have to buy hook, line and sinker the idea that men who like interior decorating are all gay and, of course, that all gay men are "sissies." I know people think like that. I'm just amazed that they're at home being so open about it. It's one thing to challenge a book about gay marriage because you believe it's a sin. It's another thing, in my mind, to challenge a book and to admit that the main character being at home with his own baking skills makes you unfathomably uncomfortable and don't you people know that liking to paint means you are gay gay gay! And, oh, good lord, our KIDS can't read this because what if OUR son should, GASP, take up baking! We all know what "good at baking" is a euphemism for, DON'T WE????

Of course, it is just this leap in logic on which Harvey Fierstein was banking when he wrote the book, I think. And I'm all for telling kids early on, before they ever start thinking about it, that they will be loved no matter who they love.

However, I do have one beef with The Sissy Duckling. At the end of the book, Elmer announces that he is a sissy and proud. This bugs me. Not because I don't want Elmer to feel good about himself, but because it reinforces the idea that a man who likes to do the things Elmer likes to do is a "sissy" in the first place. Which is an opinion that relies entirely on the idea that men and women should like to do different things AND that the things women purportedly like to do are weaker, less important, etc. I'd rather abolish the sissy concept all together. And "tomboy" too, while we're at it.

So, with all this in mind, we read it to our kids.

Yeah, they didn't notice any of that. They were way too caught up in the parents.

"They LEFT him?! Why did they LEAVE him?! They didn't even LOOK for him!!!"

"Hold it. The dad got SHOT?! Is he dying? Is he dead, Mama?"

"Does the mom come back? Is that her? Does he go live with them now? WHEN DOES HE SEE HIS MAMA?!?!?!"

And there you have it. To them, it was a horror story about a poor duck who nobody liked ("Those other ducks are BAD, Mama!"), whose dad yelled at him so bad that he ran away and his parents didn't even look for him before they flew south and abandoned him even though no duck has ever been known to survive a winter in the forest and then his dad gets shot by hunters and almost dies.

This is an important lesson, I think, in how hard it is, even for those of us who pride ourselves on it, to truly see things through a child's eyes, and also in the dangers of too much theory.

Meanwhile, Tink has been sneaking the light back on at night after I come downstairs so that she can see what happens to Harry, and honestly, I can't see giving her a hard time about it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pure silliness

Ever walk down the street and see something that is in no way supposed to be silly, but it strikes you in a punny way and makes you giggle? And then the rest of the day, you're thinking of silly puns and stories about it and giggling to yourself at inappropriate moments? No? Oh. Hmm.

Anyway, this week, while pondering the Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write This Book Inspirational Moment (TNoftheAWSWTBIM), I saw this:

And I thought, "Yes. I AM a giant, hardy mum." And I giggled. And then I thought of Hagrid, and his giant hardy mum. And then I wondered about the Hardy Boys, and what their mum was like.

And then I thought of the Hardy Boys being trapped somewhere, in danger, until the ceiling crashes open and their giant Hardy mum saves them.

And then I thought, "No, this is a picture book." Something along the lines of Liz Rosenberg & Stephen Gammell's Monster Mama, but even goofier. A crowd of giant, crime-fighting hardy mums who are also Boy Scout Troop leaders?

What do you think? Please tell me you don't just see flowers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Beat (and Bears)

Oh, I am a fool who did not take a picture of the stuffed and labyrinthine fantasticness that is Book Beat, this week's new favorite book store. Suffice it to say I went up to sign 40 copies of TWO OF A KIND and THE NEW GIRL...AND ME -- yes, you read that correctly, so if you live near Oak Park, Michigan and you want a signed copy, or any other book, go get it at Book Beat, okay? -- and the trip turned into an hour long book-fondling expedition.

And I came away with this:

Bears in Chairs
by Shirley Parenteau, illus. David Walker

This is the sweetest book I have seen all year. Four grab-your-heart-adorable bears all climb onto four chairs until they are happily all seated, one to a chair so no one has to share. And then a big bear comes along. Sparse and cute but not saccharine. Destructo is going to eat it up.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

This Week's Library Haul

In which Destructo shows why books are good for kids.

1. No, David!
by David Shannon
David's mother always said, "No, David!"
David never listens and he makes a mess, but in the end, his mama loves him anyway. I love this book and the picture of David running away down the street naked always makes us laugh.

Recommended for: every child everywhere except the kids of the sneering lady behind me in the grocery store the other day because HER kids obviously never, say, try to eat one another's hair while trapped in the cart.

2. Strega Nona Takes a Vacation
by Tomie dePaola
When Strega Nona tries to take a vacation, her assistants Bambolona and Big Anthony screw up and make a big mess, but Strega Nona comes back and loves them anyway.

We have had to read this book every night. It's a true sequel, and better if you've read the original Strega Nona, where Big Anthony fills the town with pasta. It's best, though, if you get to hear it in my fabulous variety of Italian accents.

If you like Tomie dePaola, check out the birthday treat Jarrett Krosoczka made him at Three Kisses for Tomie.

3. several Curious George books, all of which have the same plot: Curious George tries to be a good little monkey but is too curious and so makes a mess and gets in trouble but it all turns out okay and everyone still loves him anyway.

Are you sensing a trend? Let's switch it up.

4. Bear Feels Scared
by Karma Wilson, illus. Jane Chapman
I'll be honest: we didn't take this book out. We took out Bear's New Friend, which is pretty good. But we heard Bear Feels Scared at story time and it's awesome. Bear, who you'd think would be a big, tough guy used to scaring others turns out to be a bowl full of chicken when he's left alone in the woods. Luckily, his friends find him and bring him back to his safe cave.

Let me repeat: Bear is a big boy who you'd think would be, um, destructive, but he really feels scared a lot of the time.

Recommended for: anyone who gets scared.

And then, tonight at bed time, after reading these for the 100th time, after I checked his room for monsters and hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door so no bad guys can get in, Destructo snuggled up next to me and told me about when Tinkerbell knocked him off the slide today.

"It was a mistake," I said. "Everybody makes them."

"Yeah," he said. "But you yuv me anyway."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jacqui Reads Her Children Even More Books Other People Think Are Bad For Them

Week 3: Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

In which I outwit my daughter for once, in the name of my Banned Books Week project.

Tinkerbell was dying to read the Harry Potter books when she was five. I wouldn't let her; I wanted her to appreciate them in all their glory and I knew she'd be terrified. Then everyone else she knew started hearing parents read them and raving about them and Tink, who hates to be told what she should like, rebelled.

"I don't even want to read the stupid Harry Potter books," she announced. "I am never going to read them."

I breathed into a paper bag and held my tongue.

Then, last week, after the Five Chinese Brothers disappointment, I casually mentioned that some people didn't think the Harry Potter books were good for her.

"Really? Why?" she asked.

"No good reason," I teased.


"Eh, because there's magic. And stuff like goblins and flying broomsticks and I guess some people don't think people should read about a SCHOOL FOR WIZARD KIDS WHO CAN DO REAL MAGIC."

It worked. We started this week. We're taking turns reading aloud* and she is totally hooked. As any good book lover should be.

I did go back and have another conversation in which I explained carefully why some people are opposed to books about witchcraft, etc. Tinkerbell pondered it.

"No," she said. "I can believe in magic and still believe in God," she announced. "Now, keep reading."

* And let me tell you: it turns out I do a painfully bad fake British accent, so I have had to branch out to differentiate the book's, what, 3 million characters? Tink is going to be somewhat surprised when she sees the movie and Hagrid's "drawl" is not from West Virginia.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Are you what you do?

In which a chance comment sparks a No, Seriously. Just Try It story starter.

"Too often," someone told me this week. "We get caught up in defining ourselves by what we do, instead of who we are."

When she said it, I nodded, because I thought she meant "what we do" like "what our jobs are." But she didn't, it turned out. And I've been thinking about it ever since.

I am a writer, and specifically, I am a writer who believes strongly in showing, not telling. And so, in my mind, we ARE what we DO. Our actions define us as characters.

But then, because I am a writer, I had to ponder further. What I pondered is the deliciously powerful emotional space between who a character says he is and what he does. It can be hilarious* or tragic (think Lolita).

It's very real, this finding yourself unable to stop doing something that goes against everything you think about yourself. And it can drive us to do things which are even more out of character as we try to get back on what we consider our track to be.

This week, I am playing around with that moment when my characters find themselves looking down on the scene and thinking, "What am I doing??? This isn't me!" I am playing with the outrageous things they do to try to get back to themselves.

So. What kind of person does your character THINK she is? Now, what can she do that totally contradicts this? How does she get to that point? And when she realizes where she is, what does she do to escape?

No, Seriously. Just Try It.

*Like, say, you consider yourself a loving wife until you totally space The Mighty Thor's birthday today until he parades into the kids' room while you're in a good game of Pretend To Drown and says, "Ahem, how do I look, FOR 39???"

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Five Chinese Brothers

In which I attempt to incite my children to violence and they are underwhelmed.

Welcome back to Jacqui Reads Her Children Even More Books That Other People Think Are Bad For Them (explanation here).

Somebody asked me if I would feel differently if the books that people wanted to ban or challenge were things I truly thought were inappropriate for kids. She implied that it's easy for me to make fun of not wanting kids to read books about two daddies when I have no problem with someone having two daddies. So this week I decided to read something with which I might have a real problem. And in honor of today, and the violence associated with it, I decided to read something violent.

In The Five Chinese Brothers (by Claire Huchet Bishop, illus. Kurt Wiese) five brothers who look exactly alike have five different superpowers, each of which luckily corresponds to the five ways their town tries to execute criminals. When the first brother drowns a little greedy boy, the law comes after them and the brothers take turns pretending to be the first one and using their powers to escape justice. This book has the added bonus of having been challenged as promoting racial stereotypes* (I think because all five brothers are supposed to look exactly alike and the pictures are highly stylized). So there was going to be, I thought, lots of juicy conversation, lots of teachable moments, lots of good dirt for the blog.

I read it to Captain Destructo in the library. I cringed. I mean, a kid is drowned and never heard from again. Then the rest of the book is the town trying to kill the brothers by beheading, death by fire, drowning, and suffocation. Here I am reading it aloud to my two year old. But I refused to budge. I didn't change a word. Tink read it to herself and then I sat them down to discuss it.

DESTRUCTO: (happy and charmed) They get to see their mommy in the end!
JACQUI: Hello?
DESTRUCTO: Why you say "he-yo?"
JACQUI: What did you think?
TINK: Pbbltt.
JACQUI: You didn't like it?
TINK: Nah.
JACQUI: Because it was violent?
TINK: No, because it was boring.
DESTRUCTO: Yeah. It bo-ying.
TINK: Can we go have breakfast now?
JACQUI: But --
DESTRUCTO: Yet's go! (exit, pursued by sister)

And that, ladies and gentleman, is all I got. At least you know I'm not making this stuff up.

* It has been challenged both for the racial stereotypes and the violence.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

ISO algae eating robot

Really, some days the odd news is already so close to a TNoftheAWSPWTBIM book that all I can do is quote.

According to YahooNews and the AP:

Florida boaters urged to look out for missing robot

SARASOTA, Fla. – Scientists on Florida's Gulf Coast are trying to find an underwater robot that has mysteriously vanished.

Apparently, the robot took a 30,000 algae detector and ran away. The best part? His name is Waldo. So he's got all of Florida playing a giant game of Where's Waldo?

I want a picture book, from the robot's point of view. Tired of being a slave to man, he escapes. Inspired by his adventures and feeling for his fellow electronics in bondage, he goes around the country liberating the other robots. People wake up to find their iPhones and alarm clocks have fled the coop. The suburbs are full of roaming Roombas refusing to return to vacuuming. Everything automated quits on the humans, who are left baffled and helpless (a la the officer holding a lily pad at the end of David Wiesner's Tuesday). As the book ends, we see the machines lounging on a beach next to a statue of Waldo, the hero who started the revolution.

Who will write me this book?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To the nines

Remember when I got all giddy about 08/08/08? Well, today is even better. Not only is it 09/09/09, but it's also my birthday. Hurrah!

(does silly birthday dance)

Yeah, I still love my birthday like a seven year old princess, because how many other days are ALL ABOUT ME (at least in my mind)?

There shall be raspberry-picking and jam-making and me-worshipping today; you can bet on it. And I will be demanding slobbery toddler birthday kisses and lanky seven year old birthday snuggles.

And, of course, there will be this:*

Wow. That is like cake porn. I keep re-reading this post just so I can drool at it. Mine won't look that good, but if I lived in St. Paul, I would go right now to Café Latte, on whose website I found this picture, and I would point to my computer screen and say, "That. I want that." And then I would eat it all with a glass of skim milk. And then I would rent a room at the lushest hotel in St. Paul and I would collapse into my featherbed without brushing my teeth and I would sleep until next Friday.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Take That Book Haters, Redux

In which I once again read my children things that will ruin, ruin, RUIN their moral fiber. Oh, and I also teach kids how to be gay.

It's September!* That means it's almost Banned Books Week (September 26-October 3). Which means it's time for me to start forced calm breathing, because, well, because book banning makes me mad. As I wrote last year:**

... the topic of other people, particularly hateful, closed-minded people, telling me what it's okay for my children or me to read gets me so worked up that I can't post intelligently about it or I would end up in a big, bad-word-laden snabblefrug.
So instead of posting intelligently, I will once again spend the month exposing my children to all sorts of rubbish for your entertainment. Welcome to...

Jacqui Reads Her Children Even More Books That Other People Think Are Bad For Them

It's simple. Every week until October 3, I will read my children a book that has been banned or challenged and report back. You can check out last year's array of evil here.

Week One: The New Girl...And Me, by me, Jacqui Robbins

No, sadly, I am not joking. Here's the story.

The Alameda (California) Unified School District created an elementary anti-violence curriculum that uses books to spark conversations. They chose The New Girl...And Me as their kindergarten book.

I love this idea, not just because it's my book, but because I believe in explicitly teaching social conflict resolution and I think stories are the best way to do it. This is, in fact, why I started writing in the first place. Go Alameda!

Now, later, after kindergarten, the curriculum includes such discussions as (gasp!) families that don't fit "traditional" molds. In older grades, students will read And Tango Makes Three (Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell, illus. Henry Cole), the true story of two male penguins who raised a baby penguin (reviewed here by Tink).

Oh, the furor that erupted! "School board imposes mandatory gay curriculum," the headlines blared.*** Fox News did a whole segment on Alameda's "gay curriculum." The bloggers started yapping -- and here is your daily lesson on the dangers of getting information off the internet -- the complaints got passed on and on in an infernal game of internet telephone misinformation and exaggeration, until one day my Google alerts alerted me:
Alameda kindergarteners to learn how to be gay ... through the use of such books as The New Girl...And Me, by Jacqui Robbins, in which a shy girl learns to make friends WITH ANOTHER GIRL.
Their emphasis, not mine. Apparently, my book is part of a "homosexual instruction program."

The kicker that you could have guessed? Nobody read the books. How do I know? Because if you have read The New Girl...And Me, you will know that nobody in her right mind could think it is a "kindergarten manual for gay sex," as one blogger warned parents.

As my agent put it, "Wait until they find out the next one's called Two of a Kind."

Sigh. It would be funny if it weren't for the fact that the Alameda Unified School District -- and every school district in the world -- has gay students and students with gay parents. In fact, I am sure some of the protesters have gay children, whether they know it or not. So a lot of feelings are being hurt, which is what it comes down to for me. The feelings behind this outrage are the same confused, angry feelings that cause the very kind of violence Alameda is trying to help kids avoid.

I honestly believe if I want my opinions respected I have to respect the right of some people to believe homosexuality is a sin, as hard as that is for me to do. But rather than hide others' ideas from my children, I want to talk about them, discuss them, use them as teaching opportunities. And I really, really want my children to grow up knowing that our lifestyle is not any more "right" than anyone else's; we are all just doing the best we can.

Which is why I believe so strongly in Banned Books Week: because I don't believe in silence (obviously, judging from the length of this post). I believe in words and stories and in their power to teach and to console and to bridge differences and to bring change. So this month, I will read my children books that other people think are bad for them.

Hey! Think how cool it would be if YOU read your kids (or, even better, someone else's kids) some books other people think are bad for them. Do it! Do it! And report back, okay?

* Yes, I am aware it has been September for 7 days. Did you miss the post where I claimed the right to change the date at will? Whose idea was it for school to start so late into the month?! And whom amongst you offered me last-week-of-summer-vacation child care so I could blog the arrival of September on time? Nobody. I am now claiming the right to be a week behind for a while.

** Credit for inspiring this Banned Books fiesta must go to my agency sister and RockSugarBeet buddy, the amazing Elise Murphy and her 2008 Banned Books Challenge.

*** I am not linking to any of these because I don't want to drive up traffic with my millions of readers. Google "jacqui robbins gay alameda."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

An open letter

Dear Person Who Drove Into the Electrical Transformer and Knocked Out Power to the Whole Area That Includes My Son's Day Care Meaning Even Though I Have Waited For What Seems Like Months For Today (My Only Work Day This Week) I Will Most Likely Get a Call Any Second Demanding That I Pick My Son Up Immediately,

I really wish you hadn't done that.


p.s. I still hope you lived.