The Best Thing I Have Seen This Year

. . . was the LeakyCon 2013 Opening Ceremonies musical finale, written by Tessa Nutting et al., performed by an amazing cast (all of whom had about 48 hours' notice), and staged last Thursday in Portland, Oregon. If you're a fan of Rent, Doctor Who, Glee, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Hunger Games, Sherlock, The Avengers or other superheroes, Bonnie Tyler, Disney musicals, Twilight, or John Green and Brotherhood 2.0, there was something in this number for you. (The basic plot setup is that while Frodo and Samwise Gamgee sought the Ring of Fandom, Loki tried to dissuade the various characters lost in the Forest of Fandom from hoping there could be a place where they could all unite . . . until the 12th Doctor showed up, and the rest is "La Vie Fandom.") Click the little "CC" beneath the YouTube window to turn on the captions and catch all the references.

And if you enjoy the video, come next year! It's a fantastic weekend.

Worlds of Wonders: On Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy, Children's Fantasy, and Paranormal Novels

Last week, I finished World of Wonders, the third book in Robertson Davies's marvelous Deptford Trilogy. I wrote the following about it on Goodreads:
I picked up a battered mass-market paperback copy of Fifth Business off the street in May, on the simple principle that I had heard good things about it and it was free, and then I stuck it in my bag as lightweight (sizewise) reading for a trip to Arizona in June. These were both excellent spur-of-the-moment decisions -- the very kind of tiny choices that Davies writes about here as influencing our whole lives.

If Boy Staunton hadn't thrown the stone...
If Dunstan Ramsey hadn't ducked...
If Mrs. Dempster hadn't been hit, and given birth prematurely to her son Paul...

Thus do these four people's fates entwine. But while the trilogy does focus on the inner characters that impel our choices -- like Boy's native cruelty and Dunstan's natural passivity -- it also pays great honor to the unknowable in those characters and in the world around them:  the mysteries of our psychology, and of what some of these characters would call fate and others God. Everyone was fully drawn and alive on the page, and Davies's prose crackles like the Swiss mountain air in which much of The Manticore and World of Wonders are set. My favorite remains Fifth Business, which combined the focused narrator of the second book with the wide-ranging story of the third, and at less length than either; but all three were wonderfully mind-opening & refreshing to read.

A friend on Twitter told me Robertson Davies is "the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Canada," and that seems right. 
There was one passage in particular in World of Wonders that stood out to me, and I wanted to write it out here both for the sharp beauty of its prose and the wisdom of its thought:
[Oswald Spengler, an early 20th-century historian] talks a great deal about what he calls the Magian World View, which he says we have lost, but which was part of the Weltanschauung--you know, the world outlook--of the Middle Ages. It was a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world. It was a readiness to see demons where nowadays we see neuroses, and to see the hand of a guardian angel in what we are apt to shrug off ungratefully as a stroke of luck. It was religion, but a religion with a thousand gods, none of them all-powerful and most of them ambiguous in their attitude toward man. It was poetry and wonder which might reveal themselves in the dunghill, and it was an understanding of the dunghill that lurks in poetry and wonder. It was a sense of living in what Spengler called a quivering cavern-light which is always in danger of being swallowed up in the surrounding, impenetrable darkness.

This was what [Character X in the novel] seemed to have, and what made him ready to spend his time on work that would have maddened a man of modern education and modern sensibility. We have paid a terrible price for our education, such as it is. The Magian World View, in so far as it exists, has taken flight into science, and only the great scientists have it or understand where it leads; the lesser ones are merely clockmakers of a larger growth, just as so many of our humanist scholars are just cud-chewers or system-grinders. We have educated ourselves into a world from which wonder, and the fear and dread and splendour and freedom of wonder have been banished. Of course wonder is costly. You couldn't incorporate it into a modern state, because it is the antithesis of the anxiously worshipped security which is what a modern state is asked to give. Wonder is marvellous but it is also cruel, cruel, cruel. It is undemocratic, discriminatory, and pitiless.
The trilogy was written in the 1970s, and I would venture that now, as a culture, the "civilized" Western world is farther from the Magian World View than we have ever been. . . . The omnipresence of communications, and particularly of those services that encourage us to share our every thought and feeling almost before we've actually had it -- and then reward us for doing so with more attention, more stimulation -- stamp out wonder by leaving very little time to experience it for itself. At the same time, those communications make us aware of how large the world is, and often how scary, how many threats there are to our small and vulnerable selves -- and this too discourages wonder, by activating our fight and flight instincts above our imaginations and ability to stand still.

Of course my mind also turned to how this might apply to children's and YA fiction of the present day, and particularly fantasy, as that has long been the genre that most encouraged the retention of wonder in children. . . . When A. S. Byatt wrote about the Harry Potter books in 2003, before the release of Book 5, she accused the series of lacking this sense of "the numinous" -- a charge that I think Ms. Rowling disproved by the end of the series. (I would agree with Ms. Byatt that the books' strengths lie in their affirmation and celebration of domesticity, which is one of the reasons The Casual Vacancy, with its village politics focus, should be terrific.) As Ms. Byatt notes, Susan Cooper's and Ursula K. LeGuin's novels possess wonder in great quantities; so too do Kate DiCamillo's, and Erin Bow's Plain Kate. In realistic fiction, Sara Zarr's books get at the mysteries that are inside of us as human beings, and the wonders we and grace can work, while the narrators of Martine Murray's The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley and How to Make a Bird both stop to marvel at the world around them, seeing it in a true and wonderful way no one else does. Davies's description of "a quivering cavern-light which is always in danger of being swallowed up in the surrounding, impenetrable darkness" could well apply to many children, especially in the pre-twentieth-century world, and much of the best writing for young readers both acknowledges the reality of that darkness and encourages that fragile light.

At the same time, many YA paranormal novels are, to some extent, the anti-wonder:  They take these strange and thrilling creatures like vampires and werewolves, beings that are by definition bloodthirsty, savage, otherworldly, and turn them domestic -- creatures that are tamed, that want to be like us, that are on our side. I'm sure someone has written a paper about how this mirrors the development of young adults themselves, taking the selfish impulses of the child and hormones of the teenager and smoothing them into the outward-looking maturity of the adult. . . . And I cannot and would not say this development is a bad thing. But when the paranormal craze was at its height, with a manuscript with a new variation on these tropes landing on my desk every week, I found myself longing sometimes for paranormal that didn't make domesticity the highest value, that had a little more wildness and wonder in it -- something with the carnality (in all senses) of Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves (and the brilliant, disturbing prose too). Maggie Stiefvater is perhaps the best practitioner of this kind of paranormal:  not stopping to smell the roses, but the blood.

Of course not every book has to have Ms. Byatt's cherished numinousness, fantasy or not; comfort is just as important and valuable in a reading life as this sense of the wild within us or without. But I'm grateful to Mr. Davies for making me think about this subject, and I hope to find more wonder all around.

SCBWI Winter Conference Links Roundup & Submissions Guidelines

Whew! I had a terrific time teaching at the SCBWI Winter Conference yesterday. In my presentation, I mentioned or included links to the following:
Because two sessions of my presentation didn't leave time for any questions, I told participants that they could send general questions about writing, revision, editing, publishing, etc. to my website e-mail address, chavela_que at yahoo dot com. I will collect these questions through February 14, then answer ten of them here on my blog shortly afterward. If you're sending a question, please put the number of revision techniques covered in my workshop in your subject line, so I know you were actually at the session, and include your name with your question in the body of the e-mail. Thanks.

I also said that I would announce my submissions guidelines here once I had figured them out -- and I now have! If you were in one of my sessions, you may submit to me in the following manner:
  1. You can see my general "What I'm Looking For" at the Submissions page on my website. I will add to that I tend to acquire far more novels than picture books, and my list is pretty stuffed with great YA right now, so I'd love to find some more great middle-grade to balance it out. That doesn't mean I don't want to see terrific picture books or YA if it seems right for me! I encourage you to check out the Books page on my website and the "Books I Edit" label to the right to see more about the kinds of things I publish.
  2. Writers who attended my sessions may submit one manuscript within the next six months.
  3. When that time comes, open up a new e-mail to CBKEdit at gmail dot com. Up until this point, I have accepted unsolicited submissions solely through the post, but I decided this was a great opportunity to experiment with e-mail submissions. (Alas for the U. S. Postal Service, denying them one more source of support...)  If I like it, I may continue to use it for future conferences or even general unsolicited submissions, but right now, these guidelines apply to the SCBWI Winter Conference only. Agented submissions should continue to go to my work address.
  4. At the beginning of each of my sessions, I listed three key principles we work toward in revision. Put one of these principles in the subject line, followed by the title of your manuscript and your name. That is how I will know you actually attended my sessions. (I gave those of you in my third workshop a code word; you can put that code word in place of the principle if you like, but either works.) If you do not include a correct principle or code word in the subject line, your e-mail will be deleted unread.
  5. In the body of the e-mail, please include the following elements in this order:
    1. Your name
    2. The title of the manuscript
    3. The format/age/genre of the manuscript. To keep this simple, include any of these options as appropriate:  Picture Book / Easy Reader / Chapter Book / Middle-Grade / Young Adult / Nonfiction / Fantasy / Mystery / Romance / Paranormal / Historical / Poetry
    4. Your query letter, including your contact information, and a flap-copy-like summary of the work as a whole.
    5. A portion of the manuscript as follows:
      1. Picture Book: complete text
      2. Novel (whatever age): the first chapter
      3. Nonfiction / Poetry Collection / Etc.: the first ten pages
    6. If you are an author-illustrator with a picture book text that you want to illustrate, I suggest any of the following methods: (a) paste the full text here, then include one sample illustration in the body of the e-mail; (b) paste the full text here, then put a link to your website in the query letter  so I can see your style; (c) if you have a full dummy available online, simply include a link in your query -- no need to paste in the text.
  6. I am able to read HTML submissions, which will retain manuscript formatting; I am also able to read plain text, whichever you send and prefer. Please do not send attachments. I do not care about any formatting questions beyond the inclusion of the elements above in the order I specified them, so please don't ask them.
  7. You will receive an automatic reply letting you know your manuscript has been received. It says that you will get a response within six months, and I will do my best to keep to that. I have often failed to stay within these expectations in the past, which I regret, but I'm doing the best I can. 
  8. As with my submissions through the regular mail, if I am interested, I will send you some  personal response; if not, you will receive a form letter. Due to the demands created by the many manuscripts I receive and edit, I will not be able to correspond further than this if I am not interested. 
Thank you for attending my sessions, and your interest in sharing your manuscript with me. 

Wake Me Up When September Ends

. . . and maybe I'll remember to post these interesting things. Because I haven't been doing much besides working, thinking, and keeping up with friends, this is, I'm afraid, a completely self-absorbed list; but hey, it's my birthday month. (Or you can attribute it to the evil influence of Eat Pray Love, which I'm reading right now and really liking. Here's to women who know what they want and go after it, I say.)
  • Jordan at the Rusty Key kindly interviewed me about working on the Harry Potter books. (Hermione's and my joint Virgoness pleases me deeply.)
  • A picture and one-line quote from me appears in Psychology Today magazine this month! It's as part of their "Person on the Street" feature, which is entirely appropriate, because it came about because of a stroll up my beloved Crosby St. I was walking to work one day, and at the corner of Prince and Crosby, a woman with a clipboard said to me, "Would you like to be in a photoshoot for Psychology Today magazine?" This seemed like a pleasingly random opportunity, so I said yes, answered a question, and posed in a strange position, which is of course the picture they chose for the magazine (in a spread of other people similarly strangely posed). It's not online, I don't think, but if you are exceedingly bored and near a periodicals rack at some point soon, you can look it up. 
  • And Sue Lederman LaNeve talked with me about self-publishing and Second Sight in her Tampa Bay Children's Book Writers and Illustrators newsletter, available here.
  • (I've sold well over half my stock of Second Sight, for the record -- thanks to all of you who have purchased it or helped spread the word!)
  • That interview also contains an announcement of another fun upcoming conference for me -- Florida SCBWI over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, which I am already excited about. Wouldn't you like to spend a three-day weekend in January in Miami talking writing and children's/YA books? I think you would. 
  • If you disliked The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, as I did, you have to read Manohla Dargis's brilliant review of the movie, which is also spot-on for the book. (Thanks to my friend Ronnie Ambrose for introducing me to this review.)
  • Make your own S'mores Pop Tarts! Yum yum yum.

Quidditch Croquet Rules!

On Tuesday I'm going down to Florida for LeakyCon 2011, and I am PSYCHED . . . to speak at Lit Day, to see the Wizarding World theme park for the first time, to party with Harry Potter fans, and because my hotel has a croquet court! (For the reason I'm obsessed with croquet, hit the "Frog" label on the right.) This obviously requires a game of Quidditch Croquet, which in turn requires the establishment of rules for Quidditch Croquet; and I propose the following for discussion/comment:
  1. Play shall generally proceed as in a standard croquet game, with the wickets in a figure-eight configuration, and in order of the colors on the post; but with the following exceptions:
  2. The black ball shall be the Bludger, and the yellow ball shall be the Snitch.
  3. Neither the Bludger nor the Snitch can play until all other balls have passed through the opening two wickets.
  4. -- The Snitch shall go first, and the Bludger second.  
  5. -- They should both start at the opposite post from the rest of the players. 
  6. The Bludger does not have to follow the standard course and try to go through wickets, but rather should spend its time trying to knock all the other balls (besides the Snitch) as far off course as possible.
  7. -- If the Bludger touches another ball (a roquet), it gets only one additional hit, instead of the standard two.
  8. ---- If necessary, an additional limitation can be imposed on the Bludger, that the player controlling it must play one-handed and/or with his/her less dominant hand.)
  9. -- If another ball (besides the Snitch) touches the Bludger, it gets three additional hits, instead of the standard two.  
  10. The Snitch also does not have to follow the standard course and try to go through wickets, but rather should travel consistently up and down the midline of the course, from post to post through the center wicket. 
  11. The Snitch does not want to strike or be struck by the other balls.
  12. -- If another ball (besides the Bludger) touches the Snitch, it gets four additional hits, instead of the standard two. 
  13. -- The Bludger is not allowed to hit the Snitch, and if it does, its turn is over and it misses its next turn.
  14. The game concludes when a player successfully completes the course, passing through all nine wickets and touching both posts (the opening post twice, at the beginning and end); 
  15. -- OR when the Bludger has knocked into all the active balls (besides the Snitch) twice (a scorecard may be useful here) and reached the closing post before anyone else; 
  16. -- OR when the Snitch has successfully completed thirteen post-to-post-through-the-center-wicket crossings of the court, including at least three where it was not struck by any other ball (ditto on the scorecard), and reached the closing post before anyone else. 
This allows the Bludger and Snitch to behave as they do in Quidditch, but gives all players an incentive to win. (I chose thirteen post-to-post perambulations for the Snitch because it would take a long time to reach,  I hope, and thirteen is a good wizarding number.)

Thoughts? Suggestions? And if you're going to LeakyCon -- who's in?

Memorialize This

So this is the way my weekend went. First, there was the terrific LeakyCon with John Green, which John Green himself sums up nicely here:

The last song on the video is the Harry and the Potters anthem "Dumbledore," and what you see in the opening bars is most of the 500 or so people in the room, having spontaneously formed a large circle with arms around each other, equally spontaneously running to the center of the circle and rocking. It set a new standard for epic Potters shows, and I fully support John's closing gauntlet to the Twilighters.

Then I flew to central New York to see my cousin Hans receive his Master's in landscape architecture from Cornell University. When we arrived, we noticed a banner on a back wall that read "WE LOVE YOU DOWLBO! CONGRATULATIONS!" But that was later topped by this --

-- dragged behind a plane that circled the Cornell stadium. We couldn't find a "Dowlbo" in the list of graduates (though granted, there were 5,000 of them), so we speculated among ourselves who Dowlbo was and why someone might have splurged on him: a message from a relieved wife to a ninth-year graduate student who finally completed his Ph.D.? A love letter from an narcisstic Dowlbo himself? Simply a proud family? That's certainly the most likely option, but also the most boring, when there are so many other interesting narrative possibilities. Any other ideas?

And then, speaking of proud, crazy families:

We held one of our semiannual battles for the honor of hosting the Frog, which had dwelt for far too long with Hans and Megan in Ithaca. While family friend Josh Shields completed the course first, the game is called Killer Klein Croquet, so we hastily invented the Shields Clause to grant the Frog to the first Klein-family finisher. And thus my aunt Carol (brown shirt and glasses in the middle) will take the Frog back to Iowa until we meet again.

And finally, we saw Niagara Falls. Quite beautiful; quite cold; quite glad I don't have to go over them in a barrel.

The entire weekend was thoroughly, thoroughly awesome -- my love and thanks to all involved.

Me at LeakyCon and Harry Potter in Paris

Leaky readers will already know this, but for others who might be interested, I'm delighted to announce I'll be half of a keynote conversation at the upcoming LeakyCon 2009 near Boston, on Friday, May 21, discussing the writing, editing, pleasures, pains, and nature of YA literature with John Green. Yes, that John Green, the brilliant author of Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns, and the head wrangler of the awesome troupe of Nerdfighters. So assuming I am not utterly silenced by fangirldom, this should be a lot of fun. Tickets are $20 with a LeakyCon registration (I don't think they're available without), and can be purchased at the second link above.

And here are two Harry Potter-related pictures from my time in Paris -- first, me at number 51, rue Montmorency*, former site of the "maison de Nicolas Flamel":

* Ten points to the first reader who can guess what other work of children's literature I thought of when I saw this name -- and no, it's not the series published by Scholastic.

And then I noticed this interesting juxtaposition of elements on the front of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur:

Coincidence? Or the mark of a French seeker of the Hallows (perhaps even Monsieur Flamel himself)? Who can say?

HP, Jane Austen, Twilight, Recipes, LOST, Movie Pitches, Baseball, Cassons, Words, and Old Ladies/Politics.

In other words, everything ever in the history of the world! AND the results of the great Socks vs. Underwear debate.
  • I had the great pleasure of being a guest on PotterCast this week for a live discussion of The Tales of Beedle the Bard at Books of Wonder. You can listen to the audio here. Thanks as always to the PotterCasters for having me on the show!
  • During the discussion, I start to articulate a theory of what I think might be a personality test based upon which tale you like the best. "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot": You are cheerful and enjoy seeing justice done. "The Fountain of Fair Fortune": You're something of a romantic and probably supported Barack Obama (since we are the change we've been waiting for). "The Warlock's Hairy Heart": You have an unexpected Gothic streak. "Babbitty Rabbitty": You also enjoy seeing justice done, but by rabbits. "The Three Brothers": You like contemplating the big questions of life. (This is only the start of a theory, mind you . . .)
  • A must-read if you're an Austen lover and/or Facebook member: AustenBook. (Thanks to Christina and Suzi for posting this on FB in the first place.)
  • A very smart review of Twilight from the British newspaper The Guardian. I'm trying to read the novel this month (after not being captured by it back when it first came out), and so far this review seems spot-on. Do people who genuinely love the book and think it's good (as opposed to the legions who know it's bad but read it anyway) actually find Bella and Edward interesting as people? Hmm. (via child_lit)
  • If you're having a holiday party, I highly recommend both this Hot Spiked Cider and the Caroling Wine.
  • LOST fans, the videos posted beneath the comic here are hilarious, and for you.
  • A list of Endangered Words (via Judith Ridge on child_lit). The voting on this is now closed, but the words are excellent: embrangle, nitid, skirr, fubsy . . .
  • A seven-year-old plots Jurassic Park IV -- this time with Nazis!
  • A fascinating essay about George Steinbrenner by my favorite sportswriter, Joe Posnanski.
  • If you love the Casson books by Hilary McKay -- Rose has a blog! (via GraceAnne DeCandido on child_lit, which is where I evidently get everything)
  • But this one is via Andrew Sullivan: Two old ladies, best friends for sixty years, blog about politics, Sarah Palin, family Christmas letters, and breastfeeding. Meet Margaret and Helen.
  • Finally, I am very pleased to see that Underwear trumped Socks for both women and men in our highly scientific poll. Thank you for confirming my faith in humanity.

My Terminus Speech + My Four Favorite Books on Writing

My Terminus speech is now online here: A Few Things Writers Can Learn from "Harry Potter"

Also, I was talking with someone at Terminus about good books on writing, and I realized these are my four all-time favorites:
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This will teach you how to write a clean, strong sentence and paragraph, and once you master those building blocks, you can build essays, stories, arguments -- entire books.
  • The Poetics by Aristotle. Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle identified nearly all the essential elements of a compelling plot and recorded them here. I often run through the elements he identified when trying to figure out why a story's not working.
  • Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (part of the Writers' Digest Elements of Writing series). Much more recently, Card anatomized what makes a compelling character and how you as a writer can get the reader to connect with your characters, not to mention how you can manipulate the point of view for different effects. Brilliant.
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Reading this book is like having a friend teach you how to write: She gives you advice, encouragement, reassurance, and lots and lots of laughs.

One More HP Interview

This quarter's Carleton College Voice includes an interview with me by the lovely Danny LaChance '01. The picture above was an outtake from my photo shoot with the equally lovely Metin Oner at the Cloisters.

The hat I'm wearing in the picture on the Carleton page has been lost to me, alas -- a sincere "alas" there, as I really loved that hat: pink wool, with a flower. So I'm grateful to have a good picture of me in it, and grateful to Carleton for the nice attention.

ETA, 3/26/08: When I was writing up this post last night, I forgot to mention what I was really excited to talk about in the interview: mechanics -- that is, punctuation, capitalization, spacing. As my authors can attest, I am mildly obsessed with these things, because, as Isaac Babel said, "No steel can pierce the heart of man as icily as a full stop placed at the right moment." I think of that cold breath in the middle of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," how you hear the futility of human ambitions and the silence of all the ages in the pause before "Nothing beside remains." Or, closer to home, in our incredible In the Shadow of the Ark by Anne Provoost -- the Noah's Ark story told from the point of view of a girl who stows away on the boat -- one polytheistic character eventually comes to accept Noah's Unnameable and singular god, and we signified that change by making "him" (in reference to God) uppercase when that character talked about Him: the tiniest of differences conveying this entire shift in the character's philosophy. I love this kind of stuff, and I was thrilled to get to talk about that in relation to HP, where much thought and discussion went into capping Cloak vs. Wand and Stone or the right circumstances for a colon vs. a semicolon. . . . While I do try to move faster than this, I admit that like Oscar Wilde, I can spend all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out again.

Boy Wizards, Barack Speaks, Bone Marrow, and Happiness of the Week

In that order:

  • I am going to be a keynote speaker at Terminus 2008, a Harry Potter convention in Chicago, Illinois, August 7-11 (Tamora Pierce is the other keynoter). This page has the official description of my speech, but I think in practice I think it will play out as "Ten [or some other number] Things Writers Can Learn from the Harry Potter Series," as that's a talk I've looked forward to writing for some time. Whoo!
  • If you've only gotten news clips of Barack's speech yesterday about race and his relationship with Reverend Wright, please, read or watch the whole thing. It made me teary-eyed; inspired; amazed to see such honesty, integrity, humility, nuance, and rhetorical ability in a politician; and more passionate still about his candidacy. (Even Mike Huckabee praised the speech; maybe Barack can inherit the "Walker, Texas Ranger" endorsement.) Really, just a marvelous piece of writing and speechmaking.
  • It normally costs money to register to be a bone marrow donor, odd as that seems, but through May 19, you can sign up here for a free kit and registration. Donors from mixed ethnic backgrounds are especially needed. It costs you nothing and can possibly do great good -- why not?
Finally, this is slightly embarrassing, but my Happiness of the Week:

Jim Steinman's Pop Hits!!!

You may not think you know who Jim Steinman is, but you do -- oh yes, you do. I had some major cleaning to do for my houseguests this past weekend, so I popped a mix CD of songs he composed into my CD player, and enjoyed the musical energy and ridiculousness of:
  • It's All Coming Back to Me Now by Celine Dion
  • Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler
  • Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler
  • Making Love Out of Nothing at All by Air Supply
  • and the crown jewel of the catalog: I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That) by Meat Loaf
(My CD doesn't include his other big hit, Paradise by the Dashboard Light.) Yes, these are terrible, terrible songs. But I love them for the same reason I love reading novels: the chance to tap into lives and emotional experiences not my own. I have never called a person "Bright Eyes," the flesh and the fantasy have not yet come back to me, and I still don't actually know what the thing is that Meat Loaf won't do. But it is just enormous fun (and a great inspiration when housecleaning) to be sucked into the drama of the personae who live those lives for four minutes, to ride that musical roller coaster, and to be spat out, exhausted and exhilarated, on the other side. If you would like to experience this yourself, here's the video of It's All Coming Back to Me in its full soaptastic glory.

So he would scorn the bloodlessness and lack of bombasticism in this weak little celebration. But nonetheless: Yay Jim Steinman!

Dumbledore, We'll Fight for You Tonight

Nomadica asked me what I thought about J. K. Rowling's Dumbledore revelation. In answer I'd like to quote a wonderful comment on the Leaky Cauldron from a person calling himself TrustSnape, which to me perfectly captures (a) why it was such a great announcement for her to make and (b) why it wasn't included in the book text itself (emphasis below mine):
I'm 52. Been gay all my life. The thing is that being ME is way more complex than being gay…. Being gay is part of me, but certainly not all of me. You will find in this world, despite what you may be hearing here, that most gay and lesbian folks are just folks and just like anyone's sexuality, gayness is a larger part of some aspects of one's life than others. The Potter books are written through Harry's eyes. Through Harry's eyes, there was no reason to know about his Headmaster's sex life… just like you would have no reason for any high school kid to know about his or her principal's sex life. The reason so many of us think it is cool is because she told the story of a GREAT man who happened to be gay, not a GAY man who happened to be great. If you think about it there is a world of difference in the two and that is why she didn't need to put anything in the books, but when someone asked about his great loves she was honest and told people how she envisioned Dumbledore. And since she created him, the way she envisioned him is the way he IS. Some people may not like hearing it but then some people don't like hearing the answer when they ask me something that demands an honest answer. Long ago I gave up believing it was okay to be dishonest because some people are uncomfortable. And even before that I gave up believing that being gay made me less of a valued person—either in the eyes of the supreme being or in the eyes of anyone who is really worth caring about.

To which I would add only that the announcement was made in the context of a Q&A where the question was, "Did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?" Ms. Rowling stated that she had always perceived Dumbledore as gay in order to set up her answer, which is that he once fell in love with a male friend. I think people tend to obsess over the sex part of "homosexuality" and forget about the love, which is just as real and true as the love between any two heterosexual people, and just as deserving of recognition and respect.

(For all of you wanting answers to your questions about SQUIDs: I'm working on another post about that, by the end of the week. And in the meantime, sorry.)

Seven Reasons Why People Love Harry Potter

There has been much discussion of late on "Why Harry Potter?" -- why did these books break through, when so many other books haven't? What makes them special? Why does everyone care? I wrote out my theories for child_lit today and cross-post the message here.

1. Relateability. In Book 1, J. K. Rowling is a genius at getting you to sympathize with Harry -- first through showing you the Dursleys, who are so awful that you automatically like anyone they dislike (and you enjoy disliking them); then through his difficult circumstances; then when things start to happen to him -- a story is gathering around him, with owls and letters from no one and giants; he is clearly someone worth following. (I've written more about this here.) Beyond that, in all the early books, Harry is such a decent Everyhero that he is hard not to like; and all the people around him generally fit into the pattern of being either people the reader likes as well (the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Luna) or else people we enjoy disliking (the Dursleys, Hermione before the troll, Malfoy, Snape).

Harry's everyday experiences are also enormously relateable: Even though he's fighting off a Dark Lord who wants to kill him, what he's really thinking about a lot of the time is his friends, and homework, and mean teachers, and girls, and the mean rich kid, and sports practice -- the everyday life of many kids, which readers recognize and connect with. His life is not all excitement; it is not all sad; it is not all funny, and that variance in tone reflects real life as well.

And then the overarching arc: Ms. Rowling traces the entire seven-year course of Harry's teenage maturation with a wise and excellent eye for real adolescent emotional development, and for narrative development too; from the simple "Yay School!" atmosphere of Book 1, to the family history of Book 3, to dealing with death in Book 4, to Harry's discovery of seemingly every single adult's feet of clay in Book 5, to his taking control of his destiny in Book 7 . . . Even though the details will be different for we Muggle non-orphans, I think we readers recognize the truth of this process in our own lives -- the unfolding of information as we grow up, and our growing with it.

2. Accessibility. The wizarding world is just like ours, with a magical twist: The staircases might move, or the clock might tell you "You're Late," or the billboards advertise magical broomsticks and cleaners in language very much like that of our Muggle advertisements for boring broomsticks and cleaners. Because it's so recognizable, it is not a hard fantasy world to enter -- much easier to fall into than, say, Tolkien's, as the settings are so comfortably domestic and there isn't another language or unfamiliar creatures to decipher; plus we have the humor and pleasure of recognizing the wizard twists on our Muggle lives ("I think Mum has a second cousin who's an accountant, but we don't talk about him much").

On a different note, there has been much turning-up of noses here about the surface of her prose and whether she is a good writer. To my mind she is very much in the style of C.S. Lewis's writing for children: brilliant -- absolutely brilliant -- at showing-not-telling -- at creating an image in the reader's mind, giving just enough details to make you intrigued and leaving just enough else to the imagination. She does not overexplain, she does not tell you what to feel (beyond the adverbs and dialogue tags, I admit -- but note there were MANY fewer of those in DH); we readers see, experience, and feel everything right along with Harry, which is partly why we come to care about him so much. And *that* is the most important kind of good writing, especially for children; it doesn't matter how beautiful the prose is if you aren't there with the character in the moment.

Finally, she is really and truly funny, with humor both highbrow (the accountant above) and low (the firecrackers that "resolutely spell out POO"), and nothing warms a reader to a book like enjoying a joke in it.

3. Complexity. Part of the reality of the series is the acknowledgement that things are very rarely simple, especially people. James Potter as a teenager was an arrogant toerag; Voldemort had an unhappy childhood; Severus Snape loved Lily Evans; Sirius Black died partly because of his own impetuosity; Narcissa Malfoy spares Harry; Dumbledore wanted to rule Muggles and death. Though the good vs. evil lines are clearly drawn here, nearly every character has mitigating factors or shades of gray. (This may just be one of MY personal reasons to love Harry Potter, but it's an accomplishment worth noting.)

4. Mystery. Has anyone since Dickens plotted like J. K. Rowling? (And even Dickens only did it in one book -- I am thinking of Bleak House here, but bow to anyone's superior knowledge.) Seven books, the keys to the climax of the seventh laid in the first, a mystery in each book feeding into the mystery of the whole; red herrings and clues in plain sight (in retrospect) and characters mentioned in passing in one book blooming into central importance later; her incredible authorial control of her backstory, and incredible restraint, in never giving away a word more than she wants the reader to know at any one moment.

5. Authority. By which I mean in this context, the reader's sense that an author is in control of the story, and we can let go and relax into it -- the sense that she knows Harry's great-grandfather's middle name, the wizarding history back to the arrival of wizards in Britain and Harry's history forward through all seven books; that she has a destiny in mind for Harry and we can trust her to reveal that destiny to us, step by step. This trust in an authority is such a comforting thing to have, especially in these uncertain days of global warming and stupid presidents and economic fluctuations, and we readers take that comfort wherever we can get it.

6. Community. Harry Potter was published in the U.S. in 1998, right at the beginning of the dot-com boom, when everyone was first making web pages or joining chat rooms or logging onto AOL. And as people discovered the books, and especially their increasing complexity as the series went on, they wanted to theorize about the mysteries and write more stories about the characters and tease out the literary and linguistic connections and, in general, play in JKR's world. All we readers got to know other people all around the world through this process; and then we were logging on not just to discuss Harry but to hang out with our friends, so we spent even MORE time discussing Harry. July 21 in New York felt like New Year's Eve or Halloween -- a gigantic party, the entire city (or my little corner of it) united to count down to and celebrate an event -- a book!

7. Pleasure. Glory, so much pleasure, from all the things I've listed above: discovering the world, hanging out with her characters, feeling and thinking through their adventures, talking about them with friends. I hope my (theoretical) kids have the chance to experience something like this someday, and I hope I get to go through it all again too.

Back to Harry: News (including Incredible Famousness), Thoughts, and a Theory

(This cartoon of Harry drawn by my friend Jeremiah, who has an excellent webcomic called Five Bucks to Friday.)
Do we need more spoiler space? Here:







First the news: The first of the "Today Show" interviews with Jo yielded some wonderful tidbits on the trio's future careers, what happened to Luna, and Jo's feelings about Snape; check out the article and video. The second part of the interview will air tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. EST, the third at 7 p.m. Sunday on Dateline (you should double-check that Sunday time).

Also, if you didn't see the Colbert Report opening, it's hee-larious.

We have found one verified typo in the U.S. edition thus far, which I am announcing so none of you HP fans write to us about it when you discover it yourselves: "suceeded," on page 5. We are disappointed, of course, because we always want to make the most perfect book possible; but given that the book is 784 pages and we're only human, we'll cut ourselves some slack.

And my personal period of Incredible Famousness comes to a close this week with a brief profile in one of my favorite magazines, "Entertainment Weekly." I don't know if any of it's online -- I actually haven't even seen the article yet, and I have my fingers crossed about the picture that's supposed to accompany it. . . . The magazine also profiles Arthur and Jo's terrific longtime publicist, Kris Moran.

Next, thinking a little bit more about the epilogue: I think some of what we're seeing in the split over the epilogue is the split between readers who feel like there's too much infodump in that section and therefore dislike its style; and readers who are like, "Dump! Dump! Dump! Rain that sweet information down!" But it is hard to satisfy the latter readers without further inflaming the former: If you're disappointed with the epilogue because it didn't include the trio's careers, for example, imagine the exceeding awkwardness of "Then Harry turned to Hermione and said, 'So, how are things in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement? We're really revolutionizing things over in the Auror Department! And have you had a letter from Luna recently? Wonder if she found those Blibbering Humdingers in Bolivia, ho ho ho!'" I think the author came to the right balance in the end, with a scene that showed us all the essential things discussed below without going too far in the dumpy direction. I can't imagine the book without it, myself -- how cold it would have felt, to know only that they survived, and not that they achieved all the happiness it showed . . .

Finally, here's my personal theory regarding Teddy Lupin: I've always figured he was raised by his grandmother, Andromeda Tonks. As her daughter, son-in-law, and husband would be dead, she'd want to keep this remaining member of her family close; and Harry, at 17, may have been able to defeat Lord Voldemort and all his Death Eaters, but I doubt he was equipped to care for a screaming one-month-old.

(Having written that, my continuity editor instincts kick in and I think, Wait, is it really a month? How much time passes between Lupin's appearance at Shell Cottage and the trio's departure for Gringotts? Isn't it more like a week or two? But I'm going to give myself a break here and not check it in the book. :-) )

Some Thoughts on "Deathly Hallows"












I’ve spent a good deal of the last two days reading comments on various websites about Deathly Hallows and talking to friends about their opinions. And while I really, really, really don’t want to debate here or apologize (in the rhetorical sense) for every plot point readers dislike, I’d like to write a little about two things that keep coming up in the reactions, and that deserve further thought before everyone hates on them completely. For the record, I have no special insight into these subjects beyond that of a reader who’s had the privilege of thinking about them for seven months rather than twenty-four hours; and this is also of course only my interpretation: I am definitely not speaking for J. K. Rowling or Scholastic or anyone else.

The Deathly Hallows: “What is their point?” some readers gripe. “What role do they serve in this book?” "She had the Horcruxes, she had to add another magical device?" This series, like any fantasy novel in which the characters wield magic, and like much of children’s literature in general, is at its thematic heart very much about power: who has it, how far it goes, the wise use of it, if it should be used at all. Voldemort is obsessed with it, like most evil overlords are, and he sees it as unequivocally good: the more, the better. And this approach parallels his obsession with death, which he sees as unequivocally bad: a weakness (the opposite of power), a failure.

The Hallows combine these two obsessions in three objects and use them to test Harry’s character: Will he chase down the Hallows? Will he take the ultimate power over death? That is certainly what Voldemort would do, if he knew all three existed; it was what Dumbledore wanted to do, when he was the age Harry is in this book; and it would provide Harry with the conventional means of destroying Voldemort—accumulating greater firepower (emphasis on the “power” there) with the Elder Wand, rather than undermining him from within by chipping away at the Horcruxes.

And Harry rejects them. He keeps his Cloak, but drops the stone somewhere in the Forest (there’s a fanfic waiting to be written); and most significantly, he decides not to keep the Elder Wand: He rejects fame, power, and immortality in favor of normalcy and a sandwich. I am not well-versed enough in epic fantasy conventions to know how unusual this is in the genre, the decision that the best use of power is abstention from it; but it is the perfect ending for Harry’s story, when he’s constantly been the victim of power, from page one with his parents’ deaths. His decision proves him truly the opposite of Voldemort, because his understanding of love, power, and death is so much richer and deeper than Tom Riddle’s; and he would not have been able to make that choice (that key J. K. Rowling word," choice") if he were not confronted with it in the form of the Hallows.

And this leads me to the epilogue. It is not receiving much love, I see—some people hate it because it doesn’t answer all their questions, some people hate it because it gives answers they don’t want, and some people just find it cheesy. I think it paid off five essential themes of the series (not just the book):

  1. Family. At the beginning of this series, who was Harry? A boy without a family, orphaned, friendless, belonging to no community, unhappy in the family he did live with, who gave him no love. At the end, he not only has a wife and children who love him (and whom he loves), he has a godson, many brothers-in-law, all their wives and children, and the acceptance of the full wizarding community.
  2. Maturity. Harry’s son’s name signifies that Harry has come to recognize Snape’s sacrifice and supreme courage (“Sometimes I think we sort too soon”), and to value those virtues over the pettiness with which Snape treated him at Hogwarts. Such a judgment is the mark of a intelligent, thoughtful, and empathetic adult, so it shows us that Harry has grown up and become wise.
  3. Fame. We see that Harry is happy being simply a father like the other fathers, and when all the kids on the train are gawking at him, he (and Ron) accept it matter-of-factly, rather than displaying the awkwardness that’s stalked him since his first visit to the Hogwarts Express in Book 1.
  4. Choice. He tells Albus essentially what Dumbledore told him in Book 2 -- “It is our choices, far more than our abilities, that show who we truly are” -- carrying that wisdom into the next generation.
  5. Power, or Where Real Happiness Comes From. Repeating a bit things I’ve said above . . . The epilogue is resolutely domestic, with kids squabbling and dads talking about parking—it’s a scene straight out of typical middle-class family life, plus wands. As far as we know from it, Harry is not powerful, he is not super-important, he does not wield any significant power. He is just a dad who loves his family. This, I think, may be part of the reason why people dislike the epilogue so much—the Chosen, special one, the Boy Who Lived, the one we’ve identified with all this time, has become just a regular guy, which means (by fictional standards especially) that frankly his life is a little boring. But J. K. Rowling is showing us clearly that he’s finding his happiness in everyday love and domestic life rather than big fantasy heroism—he is a Jane Austen and not a World of Warcraft hero in the end. And that is a kind of happy ending we can all aspire to: “All was well.”

Finally, some things I love about the book (not all, but some):

  • I had to say this line out loud every time I read it: “Vot is the point of being an international Quidditch player if all the good-looking girls are taken?”
  • I found a liveblog somewhere where a reader remarked, “I knew Regulus Black was R.A.B. as soon as I saw the handwriting!” This made me throw my arms in the air and shout “YES!”, as we deliberately set the handwriting on the door in the same font as the note to give readers (and Harry) precisely that clue and payoff. Yay!
  • Also a good liveblog: The Onion AV Club read.
  • “The Silver Doe” is my favorite chapter in the book. I love the wonder of the doe; the miracle of Ron’s return; the awkwardness in the conversation that follows; the pure Ron-torture the locket puts him through (so much delicious pain!); the Harry and Ron hug afterward; and Hermione beating Ron up, because he does totally deserve it. It’s heartrending and hilarious.
  • You know what JKR is amazing at? Hairpin emotional turns. Consider all the emotions in that chapter, or in the “Tale of the Two Brothers” or the “Deathly Hallows” chapter, from Harry’s broodiness to the lightness of the radio program (other people, at last!) to the terror at the Snatchers . . . I am so right there with them the whole time. And that ability to pull you into the moment and direct your emotions with ease is one of the things that makes J. K. Rowling such an incredible and popular writer.
  • Ron's line about Death having an Invisibility Cloak -- I don't have my book with me, but it's something like "Sometimes he gets tired of running at them and shouting 'Woo! Woo!'" To me that just encapsulated Rowling's magic and humor and interest in death all in a single one-liner.
  • The beginning of the "Wandmaker" chapter, where Harry digs Dobby's grave.
  • The brilliant payoff for Sirius's mirrors, and Aberforth in general -- I really liked him.
  • Jane Austen would have LOVED the fact that Hermione and Ron only kiss after he has expressed his sincere concern over the house-elves—thus demonstrating the completion of his moral education, and therefore his worthiness of Hermione’s love. I love it too.
  • The professors defending Hogwarts in the "Battle" chapter: McGonagall waking the suits of armor and telling the desks to "CHARGE!", Trelawney hitting crystal balls, Grubbly-Plank dropping Venomous Tentacula -- in the midst of the grief and chaos, these touches were delightfully funny and in character with the magical world.
  • Snape's last request for Harry to look at him, and "the green eyes meeting the black" -- I gasped out loud when I hit that line and realized what it meant.
  • I do not cry at books much. I did not really cry when Dumbledore or Sirius died—I had my arms over my head, sure, but my eyes were dry, and I didn't really cry through most of the deaths here. But I wept as I’ve never wept at a book before throughout the chapter where Harry is going to meet Voldemort. Sacrifices for others always do this to me; it's what made me cry in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" (a comparison a lot of readers are drawing) and in "Titanic" (shut up).
  • Another favorite line: "Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and above all, pity those who live without love."
  • Did everyone notice the lack of adverbial dialogue tags in this book? If you did not, do. :-) $300 million bucks -- or however large her fortune is -- and she still listens to her critics and uses what's useful.

ETA: For more thoughts on the epilogue and a theory on Teddy Lupin, click here.

On Harry Eve

Exactly 24 hours from the minute I'm writing this sentence, people will rush toward boxes, grab bound stacks of paper from them, and read as though nothing else on earth mattered. And while Muggles (and Roger) may scoff at the term, it truly is a magic moment: a reunion with old friends; the beginning of a great adventure; an experience shared with millions of other people around the world, when our world so rarely unites in love of anything, much less a book. I remember my pure joy when I first laid hands on Goblet of Fire at a midnight release party in Leawood, Kansas -- the longed-for story, mine at last -- and I wish you all that joy, and all the reading pleasure that follows.

The colophon at the back of the American edition of Deathly Hallows mentions a number of people involved in its production, but many others deserve recognition and remembrance for their roles in bringing this book to readers:

  • Emma Matthewson, the Bloomsbury editor
  • Isabel Ford, the Bloomsbury desk editor -- my "continuity editor" counterpart in the UK, who (with Emma) did truly heroic work
  • Rachel Griffiths and Emily Clement, editor and editorial assistant at AALB
  • Susan Casel, Veronica Ambrose, and Cheryl Weisman, our copyeditors/proofreaders
  • Francine Colaneri and Kirk Howle in supply and manufacturing
  • Ed Swart, who managed the shipping
  • Mark Seidenfeld and Dev Chatillon, our HP legal team, and Teresa Connelly, who supported us through many late nights
  • Rachel Coun and Suzanne Murphy, the marketing managers, and Katy Coyle, who oversees the Harry material on Scholastic.com
  • Kris Moran, Kyle Good, and Sara Sinek, who coordinated all the publicity
  • Francesco Sedita and his Creative Services staff
  • Alan Smagler, Mary Marotta, and Margaret Coffee, our heads of sales
  • and Ellie Berger and Lisa Holton, who oversee everyone

Finally, if you are home at 11:35 p.m. EST tonight (Friday) -- awaiting delivery of your copy on Saturday, surely -- you can tune in to "Nightline" on ABC for an interview-cum-profile of me and my work on the HP books. A camerawoman actually came to Queens with me this past evening for the Harry and the Potters concert (which was fantastic), so besides shots of my unnaturally neat office and unprecedentedly made-up face, you can see me and several of my friends rocking out to "Save Ginny Weasley" and "Stick It to Dolores." Good times! (There will be one more item in this Parade of Incredible Famousness, coming next week, and then midnight strikes, the mice run home, and I revert to being a happily behind-the-scenes mild-mannered children's book editor. But in the meantime, it's fun.)

The happiest of Harry days to you all!

And the Incredible Famousness Continues!

I was (very briefly) a guest on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" this afternoon, discussing my role as continuity editor and two errors that can be found in the series; the audio is not yet available, but should be up here shortly. In the meantime, if you seriously need an AALB-HP radio fix, you can listen to Arthur's NPR interview from Weekend Edition Saturday, available here. (Fun fact: He received the orchid in the background of his picture on that page from Linda Sue Park after Book 6, with the message "R.I.P. [character who dies in Book 6]." Kind Linda.)


Well, no, not really. But I am quoted (and indeed called "a studious 28-year-old") in a Time magazine article about some of the behind-the-scenes logistics of the seventh Harry Potter book:

Harry Potter and the Sinister Spoilers

with an accompanying graphic breakdown of the path the manuscript traveled:

The Saga of the Seventh Manuscript

I was amused by a comment on The Leaky Cauldron saying that Scholastic should have sent me to London on a private LearJet -- that would have been fabulous, but totally defeated our strategy of secrecy! As it was, no one gave me a second glance all that trip, other than that nosy airport security guard . . . I was just another twentysomething doing Sudoku. Hee.

While I'm on the subject of Harry:
  • If you're on Facebook, you can join my fan club: Hottt Cheryl -- the Myth, the Legend, the Hotness. (I did not found this fan club, I hasten to say, but I'm honored by its existence.)
  • For the book release on the 21st, Scholastic will once again create "Harry Potter Place" on Mercer Street behind our headquarters in New York; click here for details.
  • And the Knight Bus is awesome too!
  • Harry and the Potters will be performing at the Bohemian Beer Garden in Astoria (Queens) on Thursday, July 19 -- the perfect way to kick off a weekend of Harry madness. Who else is in?