Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Call for Submissions

Gosh, I wish I lived in Minnesota still.

Attention MN poets: here is a unique and fascinating call for submissions from the ever-creative Todd Boss. I love how he works to put poetry in new formats (like Motion Poems) and expose it to new readers.

And here is his Kickstarter Site with more info.

Look for more posts after Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 22, 2013

The secret to giving kids vaccines without tears

Here's a subject that's close to my heart, not only because I have a child but because my mother has done quite a bit of work in this exact field: reducing pain and fear in childhood injections. It's very doable: it has to do with how you talk about the shot and how you administer it. (Child in lap, breastfeeding if young enough. If older, give them the tools to distract themselves.) There's a lot of exciting work in the field of child's pain that's coming out of Canada, including this video, which demonstrates that shots are possible without a lot of tears.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How to Reverse Climate Change

Heard this TED talk featured on TED radio hour, grouped with several others that highlight cases where everything we thought we knew was wrong. (Malcolm Gladwell's talk, linked on this blog, was also featured.)

It gives me hope that individuals, working in seemingly unrelated fields, may yet make the discoveries and changes we need that will protect this climate-changing planet.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Even more terrible things are happening to the American Girl doll brand than you thought

After posting that comic about the highly clickable titles given to history, I feel pretty silly posting this article. The article is as snarky as the title. But, it does give a good point. Over the last 20 years, American Girl has gone from inviting girls into riveting times in American history--a gateway to more learning--to being just another book set close to your own experiences and celebrating you. I used to imagine myself as Kirsten or Samantha. I learned to knit after reading about Molly. And now? :(

From the Washington Post:

Even more terrible things are happening to the American Girl doll brand than you thought

By Alexandra Petri, Updated: May 1 at 3:00 pm

Dear American Girl,
What, what, what are you doing?
The Atlantic points out the dreadful change that the once-famed catalog of historic yet personable dolls is slowly undergoing. Forget Samantha the Victorian girl, Molly the plucky World War II doll with the Victory Garden, or original Colonial girl Felicity. Felicity’s been retired to the Upstate Doll Farm. So’s Samantha. Kirsten the pioneer? Gone. Instead, get a Girl of the Year, or a My American Girl who Looks Just Like You.
Full disclosure: I never had an American Girl doll but I got the catalog every month, read it cover-to-cover, and subscribed to the magazine. My parents offered to buy me Kirsten, the one who looked like me, but she had, in my 9-year-old opinion, a boring story. Her adventure was being part of a pioneer family. Trek across the country with your Scandinavian family in a slow, bulky vehicle without air-conditioning? I did that every summer.
But compared to what’s on the market now, Kirsten was adventure itself. At one point in her story, someone dies of cholera. She has to tangle with winter and rough conditions and being forced to dress up as Santa Lucia.
Here is the story of McKenna, the 2012 American Girl of the year: ”Ten-year-old McKenna Brooks has always excelled in school and in gymnastics. So when her grades suddenly fall, McKenna begins to doubt herself. With the help of a new friend, McKenna learns to focus on her strengths to overcome her challenges, one step at a time. But just as she begins to shine in school, McKenna is sidelined with a gymnastics injury. Will McKenna be able to springboard to success again?”
Maybe, as the Atlantic piece suggests, this is because Mattel now owns the American Girl dolls and is reshaping the brand in response to consumer demand.
Maybe we get the dolls we deserve. After all, the redirection has been to shape them in our own image. You can wear what Saige (yes, SAIGE) is wearing. Saige, in turn, will have no more adventure than is readily available to you. You can indulge in a spa day! A spa day, with Saige. No more trekking across the prairie or dealing with wartime rationing.
But is it choice or marketing? Maybe if they made more of an effort to sell us on history, we’d buy it.
You grow up with your dolls and through your dolls (or action figures, or stuffed animals, or whatever is your drug of choice). You use them to navigate miniature worlds. Limiting the range of their canonical adventures to the present-day, first-world problems of these little girls who are Just Like You is a big mistake. Sure, maybe you picked your first American Girl doll because she resembled you – actually a lot has been written on this – but the whole point was to give you an entry point to history. Felicity or Samantha or Addy reminded you that, during the Civil War and the Revolutionary War and all the fascinating important times of history, there were Girls Almost But Not Quite Like You. You could see yourself in history! You could engage with the biggest moments of the past!
In “Meet Addy,” “Addy and her mother make a terrifying journey north, holding fast to their dream that the war will end and one day, their family will be together again in freedom.” That’s the Civil War, mind you. In “Meet Molly,” “World War Two turns Molly’s family upside down. While her father is away, war threatens to break out on the McIntires’ home front, too.”
Contrast what Saige is facing: ”Saige Copeland loves spending time on her grandma’s ranch, riding horses and painting. Her school made the tough choice to cut art classes, which means she’s lost her favorite subject. So when her grandma decides to organize a “save the arts” fundraiser and parade to benefit the school, Saige jumps on board. She begins training her grandma’s beautiful horse, Picasso, for his appearance in the parade. Then her grandma is injured in an accident, and she wonders what she can do to help. Can she ride Picasso in the parade and make her grandma proud? Can Saige still raise money to protect the arts at school?”
As Hamlet says, “what judgment Would step from this to this?”
Well, ours.
Now — actual stories are being replaced with bland, featureless faces. The My American Girls have spawned a series of books where you fill in the blanks of her adventures. For instance, in “Bound For Snow,” “Readers can imagine themselves as the main character of this interactive story, a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime.” Yes, what a stretch of the imagination it is to pretend to be a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime. “She’s teaching Honey the golden retriever how to pull a dog sled, but the pup just doesn’t seem to be getting the hang of it.” How tough to put yourself in her shoes. A golden retriever? But you’ve got a chocolate Lab! What a great exercise.
There’s also “Braving The Lake” — in which, spoiler alert, “Readers can imagine themselves as the main character, a girl who loves swimming at the pool but is terrified of the lake.” (Remember when Addy escaped from ACTUAL SLAVERY?)
Dolls Just Like Us. Is this really what we want? The image is embarrassing — privileged, comfortable, with idiotic-sounding names and few problems that a bake sale wouldn’t solve. Life comes to them in manageable, small bites, pre-chewed. No big adventures. No high stakes. All the rough edges are sanded off and the Real Dangers excluded. It’s about as much fun as walking around in a life vest.
Yes, I know there are plenty worse toys out there. Still, it pangs. These dolls were once a stand-out.
Of course, that’s history. We’ve moved past that.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Some Thoughts on YA

There are all sorts of blogs you can read to tell you that The Book Thief is a wonderful book, and I'm not going to contest any of them. Engaging, filled with characters you won't soon forget, a full scope rarely seen in YA, and a unique and important setting (Germans living in Nazi Germany--people who are not Nazis but simply trying to make ends when war makes them poorer than they already are)--it's a powerful book. It's also about friendship, discovery, and a love of words. And, of course, stealing books. I recommend it.

But, here's what has me interested: the marketing. Both The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger (see previous post) are marketed as Young Adult. I'm going to guess this was so that they would sell better. It's not a bad decision; I think these books would be appealing to a young adult audience. That said, they break two major "rules" of YA.

1) The protagonist should be a teenager. These books stretch both ends of that spectrum: BT features Leisel, who is 10 at the beginning and just 14 by the end. Messenger's protagonist, Ed, is 19. He drinks a lot of beer and lives on his own, as do his friends. It's not that you don't see this in YA, but somehow I have this image of his editor or agent saying "yeah, this book could go either way, so let's go YA because it's hot..." Just interesting. Hey, maybe I'm wrong.

2) Voice. There's no rule, but YA is typically written in a voice that feels very immediate and present, often in first person. Messenger's got that. But The Book Thief? You know who the narrator is?


Yup. On the face of it, the least personal and present voice you could think of. The book opens with Death describing his job, his fascination with the colors of the sky, and his encounters with Leisel. Not an instant attention grabber, at least for me.

It works, though. Death is very present and very relevant to a story set during WWII. It takes away some of the shock of, you know, death in the book, and Death's POV lets us see a far greater story than one girl's life.

Maybe I'm cynical, but I'm not sure Zusak could have broken in to the YA publishing world if The Book Thief were his first book. That said, I'm glad he did. I'm glad readers of all ages can read it.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Emily Recommends...

It's been a while since I've offered a book recommendation. Here's one I could hardly put down: I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. It's the book he published just before his internationally acclaimed YA Historical Fiction book The Book Thief, but--dare I say it?--I liked this one better. (More on that in my next post.)  The Messenger was utterly engrossing, mysterious and heart-warming.

Ed Kennedy is a 19 year-old cab driver with no prospects and no plans to change that. He goes to work, plays cards with his equally unmotivated friends, and longs after his best friend, Audrey, without ever trying to make a move. So it would have stayed for Ed, living in the dodgy end of town...but then one day, almost without meaning to, Ed apprehends a man attempting to rob the bank he's in. The media attention is nice, but then he receives a playing card in the mail. An ace of diamonds, with 3 names on it...

Here's how the book is cleverly advertised:

protect the diamonds
survive the clubs
dig deep through the spades
feel the hearts

As a writer, Zusak gives himself an interesting challenge. Ed Kennedy must "do something" for each of the three names (most of which are written in riddles) for each of the four Aces in a deck. That's quite a predictable structure, but Zusak keeps us guessing. What will the task be? How will he rise to the challenge? Who is behind all of this, threatening him to keep going when he considers giving up? There is enough predictability in the structure to keep me comfortable but enough mystery to keep me turning the page.

I just have one complaint.

*******************SPOILER ALERT ************SPOILER ALERT****************
(Okay, I know the book is practically a decade old by now, but still...)

The reveal was a letdown. I've been going through in my mind, and Zusak picked the only possible person I can think of who could realistically be behind all that: the author.

Pro: Like the book thief's surprising twist of a last line, it launches our attention jarringly out of the book and into the world. Pretty powerful stuff actually.
Con: Going meta-fiction on us feels like a cop-out. He's tasteful enough to say it indirectly, with a bit of humor, but still. I didn't want to be pulled out of the book, and bringing in the author in such a way feels like a juvenile device.

Then again, I still admire Zusak's voice, and I highly recommend this book. As for my complaint, he can laugh about it all the way to the bank.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home

Holy Cow! Press's new anthology The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home is hot off the presses, just in time for the cold weather and coming holidays to turn our thoughts to hearth and home. Holy Cow! Press is a neat little (one-man) press based in Duluth with a real place in its heart for poetry. This is the second collection of his that I've been in (the first being Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude) and they always do a nice job. You'll find a mix of known and lesser known names. What's nice about this one is its inclusion of cultural perspectives. My poem "A Hundred Things" was written in honor of a Congolese woman trying to make her new home in America. No matter where you go, there are certain expectations of home you carry with you.

On a side note, I just have to say something that wows me. My poetry has appeared in 6 or so anthologies in the last few years. FIVE out of six times, my favorite poet Naomi Shihab Nye has been the same book. I feel like I'm doing something right, being near greatness....

Friday, November 1, 2013

20th Century History, Yahoo Style

From a writing as well as a history standpoint, this cracked me up. Good job, xkcd