Lovely Laziness

I am still in my pajamas at 10:42 in the morning. Lord, I love vacation.
  • The resolution of the mystery (which I'm sure has kept you all on tenterhooks): I went to Texas to visit my dear friend KTBB, who was staying with her in-laws in Fort Worth, and she and I took a girls' night at the Beaumont Ranch in Grandview. While we'd been attracted to the Beaumont because it promised a comfortable B&B experience on a real Texas ranch, it ended up being one of the most bizarre places I've ever stayed, starting with the spa/ranch combination, continuing through a reproduction 1880s Texas town on the property (utterly deserted), and culminating in a giant mural devoted to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Eventually Katy and I pieced together the Ranch's provenance: The "Beaumont" of the name was Ron Beaumont, former CFO of the infamous telecom giant Worldcom, and the Ranch had originally been developed as his private retreat-cum-corporate conference center. After Worldcom melted down (Beaumont turned state's evidence and was never charged), the Beaumonts opened it to the public as a dude ranch/B&B/spa. They're still working on the B&B piece, however -- despite excellent food and good service, there were 23 dead crickets found in our room on arrival, holey sheets, and zero security at night. Thus Katy and I do not recommend the Beaumont accommodations, but we thank the ranch for giving us many more memories.
  • From there I came home to Kansas City, where my Iowa family was waiting. Two inches of hard-frozen snow outside kept us from playing our usual game of Killer Klein Croquet, but because the Frog was at stake, my father and Uncle John devised a clever solution: They drilled holes in wood blocks to form standees for the wickets, and we played in the house, with inflatable plastic balls replacing the usual wooden ones. Everyone devised their usual impossible wicket setup (I created a ramp using a metal sign and a wooden "M"), and Melissa's dog and cat served as moving obstacles. It was a wonderful game, just as competitive and hilarious indoors as it always is outside. My cousin Hans came away with the victory and the Frog, which he will take to the Iowa caucuses on the 3rd before bringing it home to New York (upstate) later in January.
  • James and I went to see "Sweeney Todd" on Wednesday. Every time I see this show (which is now touring the U.S. on stage, in the brilliant John Doyle revival) I'm struck by what a paradox it is: a story filled with murder, cannibalism, rape, near-pedophilia, obsession, and betrayal -- undoubtedly the most misanthropic musical in the canon, with all the worst and ugliest parts of human nature -- portrayed in what is highest and best in human accomplishment: soaring, searing, unforgettable music and lyrics. The movie captured both sides of this paradox respectably, though Tim Burton clearly takes more glee in the spurting fountains of blood than the more subtle aspects of Sondheim's score. But Helena Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp were both suitably demented and Alan Rickman is a perfect Judge Turpin. . . . I feel sorry for Timothy Spall, who plays the Beadle, because his physiognomy so often regulates him to those ratlike roles; someone should write a romantic comedy just for him and have him get the girl.
  • I love the Wii.
  • Reading on vacation: The Subtle Knife; Sondheim & Company; The Lonely Planet Guide to India.
  • I don't normally write about acquisitions here, but I wanted to note I just bought a manuscript that started as a SQUID: Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich's (aka Mrs. Pilkington's) EIGHTH-GRADE SUPERZERO. Foremost among its many virtues are wonderful, wonderful characters and a terrific voice; I'm really looking forward to working on it and with Gbemi. Yay!

Random Location Post

I am posting this for the mere pleasure of the absurdity of this statement (which is true):

I had a facial today at a dude ranch in Middle of Nowhere, Texas.

Your questions now are "What are you doing in Texas?", "Is it really a dude ranch if they offer spa services?", and "No, I mean really -- wouldn't they kick that ranch out of Texas?"

Alas, you shall live in suspense.


First in an occasional series, I hope, about the books I've edited, how they came to be, and, in my highly highly highly biased opinion, at least a few of the things that make them wonderful.

This book started when I stopped by my friend Rachel Griffiths's desk, something I do at least once a day. Rachel had just met with the agent Kendra Marcus, who represents a number of foreign publishers in their U.S. business dealings, and a few books were stacked on the edge of her desk. Since Rachel was finishing an e-mail, I picked one up -- Jesus pour les petits -- and started to leaf through it while I waited.

"This is really beautiful," I said, turning the pages. "Oh, wow, really beautiful -- look at this." The illustrations were by Francois Roca, a French artist Arthur had loved for years and who I'd come to love as well, and like all his work, the gorgeous paintings in this book had Hopperesque lighting and composition and yet Renaissance texture and warmth -- a perfect combination of old techniques and new aesthetics. "Do you want this?" I asked Rachel. "Could I take it and look at it a bit more?"

"Sure," she agreed, and I went back to my desk to study the book further. It was 96 pages, with each page of simple text on the left facing a beautiful, iconic image from Jesus's birth, life and teachings, or death and resurrection on the right. I can't read French, but I fell in love with the images: a radiant Mary, the boy Jesus running past a house in Nazareth, the preacher Jesus sitting beneath a tree with his disciples, three crosses against a stormy sky. Jesus was never seen full face, and was consistently viewed from some distance away, so he remained always a figure of mystery; but the softness of the edges and the warmth of the colors around him made him approachable and human. This was the Jesus I had grown up with, as far away as God and yet right there to listen, and by the time I closed the book again, I knew I wanted to publish it.

I also knew it would be a lot of work, as the economics of the American publishing market were (and are) not instantly supportive of a 96-page French picture book with only its subject and beauty as selling points. The length would mean a high unit cost; the Frenchness would require a translation; the subject had been covered before (to say the least), so there was competition; and it can be difficult to get people to stop and appreciate beauty -- even beauty as obvious (to me, anyway) as the paintings in this book. The book would need something more to be published here, a prominent author or distinctive voice, someone like --

"Katherine Paterson," I said. I was sitting in Arthur's office now for my weekly meeting with him, and we were talking about how we could make these paintings work as a U.S. picture book. There was imprint precedent for pairing illustrations from a foreign picture book with text by another author: Three years before, Arthur had published a text for Confucius: The Golden Rule by Russell Freedman alongside previously published illustrations by Frederic Clement. [I should also note that I had checked again with Rachel to be sure she didn't mind letting the book go, and because she didn't share my background with or interest in the subject matter, she kindly passed it on.] Mrs. Paterson's name just popped into my head as I was speaking -- hadn't I read that she was a minister's wife? But surely she had done a book like this before . . . ? And would she want to write text for pre-existing illustrations? Would it be too presumptuous to ask?

In any case, Arthur agreed that Katherine Paterson would be great for this, so I went back to my desk and did a little research at She was indeed the wife of a minister and the daughter of missionaries -- she had even done mission work herself. There was no other Jesus biography listed among her publications. And then I came across this lovely statement on her FAQ: "The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress. "

That spoke incredibly deeply to me. For while my own faith may be defined some days as a struggle to have it at all, I do try to hold to the vision Jesus preached for all people: to love one another, and be kind and just to one another, and believe always in the possibility of both small and radical change for good -- and to attempt to live those beliefs much more than talk about them. And here Mrs. Paterson was applying that philosophy to stories, my other religion, and with such humility and grace herself. . . . I wrote to her in great fear and trembling, explaining my long admiration for her books and hopes for the project, and telling myself I had nothing to lose.

It was one of the best days in my publishing life when I heard she was interested. Many letters then passed back and forth, between me and Mrs. Paterson, me and her agent, me and Bayard Presse (the French publisher), me and Kendra Marcus -- and probably Mrs. Paterson and her agent, Bayard and Kendra, Bayard and Francois as well. The French author, Marie-Helene Delval, graciously agreed to let Mrs. Paterson's text replace her own. We tightened the narrative from 96 leisurely pages to 48 more focused ones. I flipped through various Bible translations to check quotations and parables, and, in the course of our correspondence, slowly dared to think of two-time-Newbery-Medalist, National-Book-Award-honoree, Astrid-Lindgren-Prizewinner Mrs. Paterson as "Katherine." (It helped that she is, I swear, the nicest and most humble woman on the planet -- who would probably bristle at that description because she is the nicest and most humble woman on the planet, but so it goes.)

I also came to appreciate her deceptively simple text for the book -- because how do you explain a story as complicated as Jesus's to a four-year-old? Even if you don't believe in his divinity, the mythology surrounding him encompasses sex, politics, history, religion, extreme violence, miracles, the very mystery of life and death. Katherine puts it all in terms a child could understand -- a phrase that is usually an insult, but here demonstrates her great understanding of and sympathy for children: For example, she identifies Jesus's disciples as his friends, and says that when they left him, he felt very alone. A four-year-old could know and appreciate that feeling of loneliness and abandonment. She frames the story, as the French book did, with images of light -- first the light prophesied by Isaiah, then at the crucifixion, "The light of the world had gone out." Again, any four-year-old alone in the dark would comprehend how this feels. And finally, my favorite line: "The light still shines through everyone who, like Jesus, lives the good news of God's loving kingdom." The book doesn't just tell children about Jesus's words of grace and hope, it teaches them that they (and we) can make a difference in a hurting world.

Francois's art takes this same relateable approach in making the story comprehensible to children: One illustration shows many followers of Jesus smiling; the next spread has the same layout, but different individuals, all of whom are frowning -- visually creating the transition in public opinion leading toward the crucifixion. (The book does not assign responsibility for the crucifixion to any particular group -- beyond any controversies, again, that's not something a four-year-old would be interested in or need to know.) The result is, I think, as beautiful and child-friendly as any picture book about Jesus out there, and one I never looked at without feeling incredibly privileged to be working with two such amazing artists.
After the content of the layouts was finalized, our designer Leyah Jensen created a big, spacious design, putting the 8" x 8" art -- which had originally been full bleed -- into a one-inch frame for a 10" x 10" trim size. The result feels lovely and gifty, a book you could give children for baptisms and first communions as well as Christmas or Easter. Along similar year-round lines, the gorgeous French cover art had featured a scene from the nativity--

-- but we wanted to emphasize Christ's whole life over merely his birth, so we commissioned new jacket art from Francois, who delivered the piece you see at the top. (This nativity piece is now on the back cover.) I'm fascinated by the new jacket because every time I look at it, I find my eyes focusing not on Jesus, but the common people around him -- their expressions of love, trust, wonder, and joy -- which fits perfectly with Katherine's text about where light continues to shine: in us, if we choose to live it, every day.

The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children came out this month, and as I noted earlier, has already received two starred reviews, from Kirkus and Booklist. It is perhaps my mother's favorite book I've ever edited -- which means quite a lot to me, that I helped make something that means so much to her. Altogether, I love this book dearly, and if you have the chance to see it, I hope you love it too.

Brooklyn Arden Review: "The Golden Compass" film

With spoilers; also probably some unjustified harshness, because I reread the book recently and it's a hard standard to match. First, in prose:

A fascinating, gorgeous, well-meant waste. I'm not objecting to the removal of references to the church here -- and I mean really, for all the filmmakers' protestations about how it's no longer the church, if you have men in soutanes and bad hair discussing heresy and free will and "the Authority," you're clearly taking aim at something. What I'm objecting to is the muddling of Pullman's wonderful cut-glass storytelling by a writer-director who simply wasn't capable of translating it into cinematic form: Chris Weitz.

He got all the visuals right, the bears and the actors, the daemons and dirigibles. It's a glorious-looking film, as the book deserves. But from the two-minute opening sequence where all the mysteries and wonders of the book are thuddingly defined for the viewer, everything is spelled out, given away, black-and-white. There are multiple universes besides this one. Mrs. Coulter? Pretty but evil. The Magisterium? Despite the presence of Derek Jacobi, even more evil. Where the mystery of daemons and the threat of Gobblers once drew the reader on, now it's all "Daemons are your soul. Don't touch them!" "Hey, Lyra, someone's stealing kids!" "Gee, Roger, I hope they don't get you!" Et cetera, et cetera.

To be fair to Mr. Weitz, this was probably a damn near impossible book to adapt, given all the information packed into the narrative, and I can practically hear the studio executives at story conferences saying, "I really don't get this stuff about dust; audiences need to have a clear villain to root against; and hey, Daniel Craig is James Bond, remember -- could we have another action sequence?" And Mr. Weitz does communicate the majority of the information effectively; the dialogue usually wasn't that egregious, and while he moved a bunch of stuff around from the book, most of it works okay. (I actually liked the way he used the revelation of Lyra's parentage to show Mrs. Coulter's continuing manipulations.)

The thing is, though, while we get the facts, we don't feel them; we get the information, but not the emotional texture that makes it matter. Mrs. Coulter enters in a shimmer of gold and says one nice thing to Lyra, and instantly Lyra agrees to leave her beloved Oxford to go to the north with her. That should have been a longer and more intimate scene between the two actresses, establishing all of Mrs. Coulter's seductiveness and Lyra's wide-eyed susceptibility to it, but no, we've got to get on to the next thing. And thus when Mrs. Coulter turns out evil, it doesn't shock with betrayal or surprise -- we barely know her, after all, and Nicole Kidman is always such an ice queen anyway. . . .

The cinematography could have solved part of this problem: Shoot Lyra and Mrs. Coulter with their heads bent close together in the same frame, and their visual joining makes up for the lack of verbal connection. To point out the obvious, this is actually preferable in film -- it's what good movies do. But the unimaginative lensing by Henry Braham only compounds the textural weakness of the screenplay, as nearly every conversation is presented in boring, close-up shot/reverse-shot, stuff I recognized (literally) from Film History 101. (The conspiracy between Lyra and Ragnur Sturlusson (aka Iofur Raknison) was a welcome exception.) And the film seems to have been edited to make it as short as possible, except for shots involving the bears, so scenes get cut off before reaching any point of emotional closure. The result feels rushed and nervous, not suspenseful and authoritative -- Hitchcock remade by, well, Chris Weitz.

And the ending. Oh, the ending. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but cliches. On the one hand, I'm glad they didn't try the real ending, because they probably couldn't have done it right; on the other, the sheer guts required to attempt it would have covered over a multitude of sins, and given the story a powerful kick of energy, purpose, and rage heading into what hopefully will be movie #2.

Yes, hopefully -- because such is the pleasure of seeing a talking armored bear on screen, that I would pay to see it again in a second film. But to sum up this film, two limericks I wrote this morning:
There once was a young girl named Lyra
Whose story made me say "Oh my-ra!"
But on the screen
'Twas just scene after scene,
Till I'd consign the film to the pyre-a.

Oh, what should fans do with this show?
If we want to see "Knife," we must go;
But if they make another --
Please, not a Weitz brother!
Find someone who'll make true Dust flow.

Brooklyn Arden Review: "Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine"

Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine, by Jordan Harrison, directed by Les Waters. At Playwrights Horizons through December 23. For discount tickets ($45 instead of $65), call (212) 279-4200 by December 11 and mention code DDBL.

The most common and cliched piece of writing advice in the world is (say it with me, everyone): "Show, don't tell." In practice I often turn this into another piece of advice: "Dramatize!" If it's important to your story, don't just say the couple went on their first date and really liked each other: Play out the whole thing, who picked who up, what their greeting was like, where they went, what was said, letting the dialogue and actions alone chart the process of their getting to know each other, the rising emotional temperature. Good showing gets the reader in the moment with the characters and keeps them there, with telling serving only as confirmation of the emotion the showing engendered or narration to skip moments that aren't relevant. Showing is preferable because it creates feeling, the end goal of all art, so the cliche is a cliche because it works.

But telling in the right circumstances can be showing -- where the writer's conscious expert choice to break the convention of showing, and the reader's awareness of that breakage, reveals something even more powerful and real than conventional enacted drama could achieve. I am thinking of the middle section of To the Lighthouse here, and sometimes Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings," and, on and off, "From Doris to Darlene," currently running at Playwrights Horizons. I'm going to plagiarize and edit the press release for the show to summarize the plot:
"In the candy-colored 1960s, a biracial schoolgirl named Doris (De'Adre Aziza)
is molded into pop star Darlene by a whiz-kid record producer named Vic Watts (Michael Crane) who culls a top-ten hit out of Richard Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Rewind to the candy-colored 1860s, where Wagner (David Chandler) is writing the melody that will become Darlene’s hit song, under King Ludwig II's (Laura Heisler) obsessive supervision. Fast-forward to the not-so-candy-colored present, where a Young Man (Tobias Segal) obsesses over Darlene’s
music — and his music-appreciation teacher Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis), who loves Wagner's operas."

So, six characters, three interpersonal dramas, and seven decades -- for Doris's story spans the period from the 1960s to the 1990s, while the Wagner-Ludwig drama lasts until the king's death in 1886. Doris becomes Darlene, gets her #1 hit, gets married to Vic, gets disillusioned, and gets revenge. Wagner and Ludwig become co-dependent -- the composer on the king's money and admiration, the King on the composer's music and myth. And the Young Man becomes a Wagnerian disciple, thanks to Mr. Campani's passionate teaching, and begins to explore his sexuality, inspired by Mr. Campani himself. Any one of these dramas would be more than enough for a two-hour play, and to pack them all in, Mr. Harrison uses telling -- having the characters narrate their actions or feelings to compact the situation, characterization, or emotion. For example:
LUDWIG II. Young King Ludwig the second builds a dream palace in the mountains of Bavaria. The peasants are scandalized by the pink marble. Inside, Wagner sleeps very quietly. His sleep is quieted by the pink stone, which repels sound more effectively than all other colors.

WAGNER. Wagner dreams of enchanted swans and dragons and swords with names.

LUDWIG II. In the next chamber, Ludwig dreams of taller mountains, and pinker palaces -- and Wagner.
As with all telling, it helps that it's really good prose, witty and specific. (Mr. Campani is described as "looking as if he came into this world clean and stayed that way.") And the technique is incredibly effective in moving us through the decades where appropriate and then zooming in on particular moments with a well-timed zinger or detail. Nonetheless, I went back and forth between enjoying the wit and wishing Mr. Harrison had stuck to straight dramatization, showing -- especially because his showing, when it does happen, is so damn good. When Mr. Campani lectures on Wagner, the Young Man goes out on his first date, or Ludwig experiences one of the operas, the scenes are funny and moving, characterful and real. It's a compliment to the playwright that I came out of the show thinking both "I'd love to see this guy write a novel" and "I'd love to see another one of his plays that's all show."

Of course, my impatience with some of the telling is also symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that the Doris section is not nearly as interesting as the other two. Doris and Vic are basically caricatures of Connie Francis (say) and Phil Spector, and the decades their plotline has to cover and Ms. Aziza's awkward performance only highlight the essential flatness of those characterizations. Wagner operas and mentor/mentee relationships link all three sections, but the connections feel flimsiest here, and Doris and Vic run out of story long before Ludwig dies or the Young Man finds his courage. I think I would have been happy with an all Wagner-Ludwig/Mr. Campani-Young Man play, to allow more time for Ludwig's sad, strange story and a real resolution to the present-day relationship . . .

And more stage time for Tom Nelis, the actor who plays Mr. Campani, who was just wonderful. Precise in his pronunciations, point-device in his accoutrements and gestures, and with a strong singing voice, he beautifully conveyed Mr. Campani's operatic passion and resigned loneliness, and, what is more impressive, the connection between the two -- how the passion marks Mr. Campani as different even as it saves his life, and the character's consciousness of that fact. Everyone in the cast does at least triple duty as bit players in the other plotlines, and Michael Crane and Laura Heisler deserve special recognition for their excellence in both their main gigs and their supporting roles. (Indeed, all the actors should get kudos for negotiating the complicated staging, involving two turntables and lots of sliding doors; and kudos to the director and stage manager, too, for keeping it all running smoothly.)

In conclusion: Doris to Darlene is a "cautionary valentine" about the power of music in the lives of its creators, performers, and fans; and I send the show a cautious valentine in turn, for its ambition, its ideas, its wit, and, in Mr. Nelis's performance, its transcendence.

Little Things

  • A really nice Publishers' Weekly article about the tenth anniversary of Arthur A. Levine Books
  • An excellent time-wasting geography game. I can't get past Level 11 -- Geraldton, Australia? Really? But glory, it's fun playing up to it.
  • A lovely, lovely picture book I edited and adore, The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children, by Katherine Paterson and Francois Roca, has TWO starred reviews! (More on this book soon.)
  • Late-October/November/early-December SQUID replies will be going out tomorrow.
  • And I am going to be revising my submission guidelines soon to say "No SASE, no reply, sorry."
  • Weird trend of this month's SQUIDs: two ms. involving the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic.
  • Also something I was thinking of reading a couple recent submissions: If your manuscript is in third-person limited POV, take one chapter, cut out all of the internal monologue, and stick it in a drawer for a week. Then go back and see how much of that monologue really absolutely HAS to be in the scene for said scene to make sense. The reason I say this is because internal monologue very, very easily slides into redundancy or telling, and it can also very easily slow up a scene (especially a dialogue scene, if the narrator thinks something after every line); and not to put too fine a point on it, these things drive me crazy. Thank you.
  • Sort of like what Mark Twain said about the word "very," notwithstanding my use of it above: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
  • Also coming soon: a review of the play "Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine" at Playwrights Horizons.
  • Because it's that time of year: The Charlie Brown Christmas "Hey Ya."
  • And casting around for a terrific, unusual Christmas present? Everyone likes a share of a llama.

Miss Dynamite, Episode IV and Last

(My thanks again to KTBB for allowing me to share these.)

November 7, 2007. Miss Dynamite inspected the fire-engine red of her lips with satisfaction. It had been a long time since she'd been undercover -- though it seemed like just last night that Norman Conquest had been trying to get under her covers. Probably because it had been just last night. She checked the chambers in her .45. Harry Potter done, and the sad sack was still looking for a bit of magic. Good thing she didn't need Veritaserum to see through him. She flipped her new bob, put on her FMBs, and tightened the belt on her trenchcoat. “Empire State Building, and step on it,” she told the black-and-yellow.

The observation deck was thumping as she worked her way through the crowd. (Was that Tony in the corner playing turtledove to not-Mrs.-Lane? Men.) She found her quarry sipping a neat gin—not quite tall, dark, and handsome, but tall, bespectacled, and English would certainly do. She pushed back a blonde tress and gave him a come-hither. His gin may be neat, but she could be neater. He came hithe.

“Of all the Book Expo parties in all the city, you walked into mine,” said a voice at her back.

Damn. This was no time for sad sacks (although she could use a bit of the old 1066 on the English don right quick). She put a boot in a tight spot to shut up Norman and tilted her head at the quarry. He took the hint. Soon they were all alone, high above 34th Street, with the lights below glittering like Mrs. Astor's insurance policy.

“So, Philip,” said Miss Dynamite, pocketing a key and pouring a bit of the good stuff, “ever thought about who you'd like to work with after The Book of Dust?”

Behind them, Norman pounded on the glass door, but she only shrugged and rolled her eyes. It was the Empire State Building, after all—and just another big hairy ape beating his chest.

The Frog in La-La-Land

To the Klein Family, and all my other friends too --

I was a little shy about writing this account of my recent adventures. . . . I may have spent a good deal of my young life on the East Coast, but I was spawned in the Midwest, and I like to think I retain that region's native modesty. But Cheryl said everyone would love to hear about my travels, so here I am!

In the interest of broadening my knowledge of the world, Cheryl and James decided to take me to southern California for Thanksgiving. (Conveniently, James's grandparents live near Los Angeles, so we had a fine base for exploration.) As a cold-blooded creature -- in only the scientific sense, of course -- I reveled in the warm temperatures. Can you find me among the tangerines?

And I loved all the palm trees!

We visited the Salvador Dali exhibit at LACMA.

(I think his mustache looks like a croquet wicket, don't you?) I volunteered to be photographed upside-down with one of his statues, the better to truly experience Surrealism for myself -- but I'm afraid the picture didn't come out. I gained amazing new insights into my Unconscious, though! James's sister Bridget picked us up for the trip to the grandparents', with one stop along the way:

Cheryl, James, and Bridget all seemed very impressed with the food; I personally thought it could have used a few more arthropods. We had a very pleasant Thanksgiving -- a wonderful dinner and a USC victory, plus a family card game. (While I've always thought of myself as a Frog of feeling, it turns out I have a terrific poker face.) We came back to L. A. for Universal City Walk, where the residents were already dressed up for Christmas:

And the next day -- Hollywood! The Sign (can you see it?) . . .
The Screen -- Grauman's Chinese Theatre . . .

And then, at my special request, we walked up and down Hollywood Boulevard until we found her, the one and only Star:

Ah, to be the statuette she called "Gorgeous" . . .

So I had a marvelous time in California -- and my dear Kleins, I look forward to seeing you all at Christmas! While the Midwest may not offer quite so much glamour, there's no place like home.

With much love from me and Cheryl,

The Frog

Kidlit Drink Night, Holiday Edition

I'm delighted to announce a Very Special Episode of our Kidlit Drink Nights -- the Holiday Edition!

Monday, December 10
7 p.m.
Faces and Names
159 W. 54th St. (between 6th and 7th Aves.)

Yes, Betsy and I were so impressed by this bar at the NCTE/Vermont College Happy Hour that we decided to move uptown. But more than that, because this is the holiday season, we are asking all attendees to please bring at least one book in new condition for donation to the Children's Aid Society. These can be novels or picture books, frontlist or backlist, hardcover or paperback . . . We'll take 'em all in hopes of sharing the wonderful wealth of children's literature with kids who may not otherwise have books of their own. Toys will also be accepted; if you'd like to donate money to the organization, please click here.

So come drink up and do good on December 10. I look forward to seeing you there!

Miss Dynamite, Episode III

[N.B.: The inside joke here is my longstanding crush on the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, who is not only a hilarious and insightful reviewer (see the description of Legolas's takedown of the mumak at this link), but, I believe, the world's closest living embodiment of Lord Peter Wimsey. Placetne? Hell yeah.]

February 8, 2004. Cads will be cads, but he'd been one cad too many, thought Miss Dynamite as she replaced her revolver. "Farewell, my lovely," she whispered as she let herself out. She needed a drink, she needed a vacation, she needed a whole lot of life insurance, she needed a barge with purple sails with a Tony who knew the difference between hardballs and highballs. What she had was a coat, a pen, and a manuscript.

"Grand Central, and step on it," she told the cabbie. The Campbell Apartment was all lit up for the holidays, and she'd been a very good girl. The Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith sat in front of the Campbell like an expensive Christmas present, and it unwrapped itself into something tall, dark, and handsome.

"Damn," she said as she took Handsome's arm. "I thought I was through for the day."

"Hiya to you, too, Gorgeous."

"You're still wrong."

"I thought we'd called it quits."

"I like long, slow goodbyes."

He took a break to get a grip and a Manhattan. "Still a Bellini and nothing else, doll?"

She set him straight and gave the manuscript to Charlie behind the bar. No sense in being careless. With a guy like Norman, you played your cards close to your chest, and he'd dealt the Knave of Hearts once too often.

"That guy over there's giving you the eye," he said, putting down his drink and picking up his cigarette, before he remembered the mayor.

"A Manhattan's not a Manhattan in Manhattan anymore," she commiserated, eyeing the guy right back. He winked, and Norman saw it.

"That goddamn Anthony Lane!"

She gave both of them a cool smile. Here was a Tony who knew the difference.

Briefly, Thankfully, Smartly

Back from a nice five-day vacation in southern California with James. (More to come when the pictures have been developed.) I am thankful today, as I was on Thursday, as I am year-round, for him, my family, my wonderful friends, my health, my job, my apartment, my church, my books -- indeed, almost all the books in the world -- freedom, music, movies, good design, and Plain Chocolate McVitie's.

If you're in New York, save the date for a special holiday Kid Lit Drinks Night on Monday, December 10. More details to come on that too.

And hey, look at this (courtesy of Betsy):

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Robert's Snow Reminder: Auctions Begin Today!

The first round of auctions starts today! Here's the full list and information (courtesy of Tricia Stohr-Hunt at the Miss Rumphius Effect).

Auction 1 will begin accepting bids on Monday, Nov. 19 at 9:00 a.m. with a starting bid of $50 for each snowflake. All bids must be placed before the close of Auction 1 on Friday, Nov. 23 at 5:00 pm. Don't forget that 100 percent of the proceeds from this online auction will benefit sarcoma research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and that all but $25 of the winning bid is tax deductible.

Read about all the illustrators who contributed to this auction at the sites linked below. (The order presented is the same as on the auction page.)

Miss Dynamite, Episode II

February 6, 2002. "She was as naked as a September morn, but a darn sight less coy." -- The Long Goodbye

Valentine's Day. The last one had ended with a round at the station. You don't mind a sexy man in uniform as a rule, but you prefer to be given wine and roses -- not the third degree. Lucky a chipped nail and a lot of mascara can do all kinds of magic, and some poor flatfoot with a lonely temperament is always a sucker for the weepy kind. Sure, it was a dirty card to play, but then, you'd been dealing for so long that you'd lost your Ace of Hearts a damn sight back. You hardly remembered holding it, and now all you seemed to be turning over were Jokers. Even Norman Conquest had folded, and left you looking at the Big House instead of a full one.

Still, you shut up shop and grabbed the package that had come in today's mail. Who needed chocolates when you had a pair of high heels, a full barrel, and a dress so dangerous Hoover would have thrown it in Sing-Sing -- if he didn't keep it for himself. Sam met you on the corner and you two hoofed it all over town, anywhere the drinks were cold and the jazz was hot. He was a good kid, and as long as you didn't get him started on the Dodgers, his jitterbug covered a multitude of sins. He dropped halfway through the night, however, just when you were getting started. They were all like that, and after the G-men had finished picking up the shell casings at the club, you found yourself under the bright lights yet again. As usual, February 14 was less like the Valentine's, more like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Miss Dynamite, Episode I

Many years ago now, my dear friend Katy (ktbb) sent me a greeting card whose cover showed the jacket from an old pulp novel: Miss Dynamite, starring that handsome detective Norman Conquest* -- and thus genius was born. Katy has now written four entries in the sad, swanky life of Miss Dynamite, and they all still make me laugh out loud every time I read them, so now I am sharing them with you.

* A joke I am ashamed to say I didn't get till last week, when I Googled "Norman Conquest" to find a picture of the book jacket and got this instead.


October 22, 2001. "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window." -- Farewell, My Lovely

Your lips: fire-engine red. Your heels: black leather, impossibly high. Your pistol: a Colt .45. Your name: Miss Dynamite. Impeccably coiffed, you leave your day job at a children's book company to roam the streets of Manhattan in search of a stiff drink and a stiffer man. But as you sip your highball at the club, in walks Norman Conquest, the most dangerous gumshoe this side of the Hudson. The last time you two tangled, you ended up with a bare ring finger and six months in the clink -- damn his eyes.

"Hiya babe," he says. "Riker's treat you well?"

You consider giving him the brush-off, but then you remember that Arthur doesn't need that flap copy till Thursday, so what the hell. "You know," you say, "I bet some girls fall for your nice-guy act, but not me -- I just take the fall."

"Listen, gorgeous," he says, lighting a cigarette, "Nobody asked you to put two holes in Billy's tux -- while he was wearing it."

"I rather thought it improved his looks," you say. "Billy was never known for his sense, fashion or otherwise."

Arnie starts the band playing your song, and you grind out your cigarette on the bar and finish the highball in one go. "Come on, kid," says Norman, and you two step out onto the parquet, the lights reminding you that the last time you let yourself get dazzled, your intern took a one-way trip over the Brooklyn Bridge.

"So tell me," breathes Norman in your ear, "what's the word on the street about the manuscript for Book 5?"

But he shuts up real quick when he feels the cold steel of a barrel against his back. You just can't trust some guys. They make like they're angels -- till you see St. Peter’s boot-print on their backs.

"Bye, Normie," you whisper on your way out. What a city. You go out looking for stiff drinks and stiffer men -- and find yourself surrounded by plain, dead stiffs.

Back and Barack

Back from a very nice weekend at the Missouri SCBWI fall conference in St. Louis. My talk on character went well (with the small caveat that I had to skip five pages because of time issues -- but there is so much to say about character that while the material was good, it wasn't essential, and the talk still hung together anyway), and the First Pages apparently went really well too, judging from the comments afterward. . . . Editors learn to edit by looking at material that isn't in perfect shape and figuring out how to help it get better, but readers (and readers who are wannabe writers) only ever see the published material, which hopefully is in perfect shape; so they don't get that same experience of reading the non-working stuff, diagnosing the problems, seeing the problem patterns recur over and over again in manuscripts, and learning how to fix them. And hence the problems continue. This is what makes First Pages so interesting and useful for writers, I think: not just that you're getting an editor saying what she really thinks, but that you're seeing the mistakes other people make as well for once.

I am not sure when the full Character talk will be posted on my website, because my webspace is so full that I will have to delete another talk before I can put that one up; but I will try to post at least the missing five pages at some point, as well as the sections of the talk relevant to the questions discussed in the comments here. All those comments were really useful to me in writing this speech, as I consciously tried to answer every question brought up, so thank you.

(This is not good clear prose I'm writing right now -- knotty nested clauses, complex compound not very clear sentences, lots of passive voice -- but I hope you will forgive me this one night. Do as I say, not as I do.)

Olivia posted this in the "Dim Bulbs" comments below: the Free Rice vocabulary quiz. If you are an English-SAT nerd like me, it's do-gooder heaven.

Oh, and this:

is awesome. My friend Jeremiah made it, and you can buy the shirt here.

Robert's Snow: Mary Peterson

Mary Peterson was raised on a farm in Iowa, painting and drawing from life with her mom. Nature, both cultivated and wild, continue to inspire her work. She is a freelance illustrator and artist living in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and too-fat cat. Her snowflake is called "Snowy Snooze," and while Sean Qualls's snowflake made me want to walk through the woods on a snowy, silent day, this snowflake is what I'd want to come home to. It will be part of the first wave of auctions starting in just ten days now, November 19!

For more snowflakes from the past week, see the sidebar on Jen Robinson's Book Page.

And one followup to my post on Sean Qualls: He launched his own blog recently and posted the two pictures from his postcards -- which I completely misremembered. But they're still beautiful.


Dim Bulbs

I have actually finished my character talk four days before I have to give it. I am stunned. To celebrate, here's a little publishing humor, which someone sent me years ago:

Q: How many copy editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: I can't tell whether you mean "change a light bulb" or "have sex in a light bulb." Can we reword it to remove the ambiguity?

Q: How many editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Only one. But first they have to rewire the entire building.

Q: How many managing editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: You were supposed to have changed that light bulb last week!

Q: How many art directors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Does it HAVE to be a light bulb?

Q: How many copy editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: The last time this question was asked, it involved art directors. Is the difference intentional? Should one or the other instance be changed? It seems inconsistent.

Q: How many marketing directors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: It isn't too late to make this neon instead, is it?

Q: How many proofreaders does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Proofreaders aren't supposed to change light bulbs. They should just query them.

Q: How many writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: But why do we have to CHANGE it?

Q: How many publishers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Three. One to screw it in, and two to hold down the author.

Q: How many booksellers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Only one, and they'll be glad to do it too, except no one shipped them any.

(One the original e-mail forgot: How many agents does it take to screw in a light bulb? Leave your responses in the comments below.)

Pairs Spating

  • Movie Reviews 1: The Darjeeling Limited and Dan in Real Life. Darjeeling is yet more familial whimsy from Wes Anderson, and after the overindulgence of The Royal Tenenbaums and especially The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I was prepared not to like it very much. But the director is working against a much wider background than usual -- the stunning beauty of India -- and with a much more limited principal cast -- only Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody; and those two factors seem to have humbled and focused him, so he develops the stories of their private disappointments and shared grief in a depth that, for once, isn't overwhelmed by the idiosyncratic (some would say cutesy) details. Though the details are there too, of course: custom-monogrammed suitcases, laminated schedules, the delight of a well-ordered train compartment, and color and music everywhere. Even if you get impatient with the film, wait around for a late dream sequence on the train -- a fantasy of order and harmony as beautiful as anything I've seen on film this year.
  • Movie Reviews 2: And Dan in Real Life. This film is probably not going to do that well -- the title is "Dan in Real Life," for one thing, and its poster features Steve Carell's head on a stack of pancakes, for another. But it really, really deserves to do well, and I hope you will go see it, because it's an intelligent, funny, character-driven grown-up romantic comedy, and if we want Hollywood to make more of those (which I do), the ones available to us have to make money. . . . Heck, I might have to see it again, and I honestly wouldn't mind. It opens with Carell as a trademark Good Guy -- the kind of dad who makes individual sandwiches for each of his three daughters. After they arrive at their family reunion, he slips away from the bustle one morning and meets Marie (Juliette Binoche), a beautiful, lively woman who listens to him, who clicks. But just as he's telling his family about this wonderful creature, his brother's new girlfriend arrives: Marie. Love and jealousy turn Dan into a jerk, but because you sympathize with him, the results are heart-wrenching as well as funny -- the kind of film where the audience says "Aww" and means it. (And there are some very funny bits with the family as well -- Dan's brothers tease him about a potential date with an improvised soul song titled "Ruthie Pigface Draper.") The director and screenwriter is Peter Hedges, of What's Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy, and if you appreciated those movies (or even if you didn't), you should see this one.
  • Me in Media 1: This is waaaayy out of date, but if you have never heard my dulcet tones and are desperate to do so (and I hope you can hear the sarcasm dripping off said tones right now), I was part of the child_lit picnic featured on the Fusenumber8 podcast here. (I'm the one talking about Forever as "first base in Chapter Four, second base in Chapter Five," etc., and later going on about the Vanishing Cabinet in Harry Potter.)
  • Me in Media 2: And I'm quoted in an online sidebar to a Horn Book article on sequels here.
  • Delightful Sports Link 1: My favorite sportswriter, Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star, now has a blog, where he continues to be funny, heartfelt, and amazingly verbose.
  • Delightful Sports Link 2: If you have not yet seen "the Trinity play," it is here, and it is hilarious. (Courtesy Five Bucks.)
  • Quote 1: "The most futile thing in this world is any attempt, perhaps, at exact definition of character. All individuals are a bundle of contradictions -- none more so than the most capable." -- Theodore Dreiser
  • Quote 2: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat ... Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is what is contrary." -- John Milton

The Quote File: Mignon McLaughlin

Everything I know about Mignon McLaughlin comes from A.Word.A.Day, which, when citing her quotations, says she is a journalist and author, born 1913, died 1983. These are the five quotes in my Quote File, but a quick Google search turns up both more information (look at the names of those sons! True or Wiki?) and more delightful pith.

Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.

True remorse is never just a regret over consequences; it is a regret over motive.

The best work is done with the heart breaking, or overflowing.

The hardest-learned lesson: that people have only their kind of love to give, not our kind.

Don't be yourself. Be someone a little nicer.