Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On Book Trailers and Trying to Get Kids to Read

I’ve been working to get everything in order to publicize my new middle-grade novel, PRETTIEST DOLL (Clarion, November 6, 2012).  For the first time, I commissioned a book trailer.  The very talented and amazing Daniel Brown of Wide Eyed Pictures directed.  Here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrjXtcakOBY

Isn’t that little girl wonderful?  Her name is Payton Walker, and her parents wrote to tell me that she doesn’t really have much of an accent but practiced on the way to the shoot.  I think she nailed it.  She managed to capture exactly one of the qualities in Olivia Jane that most touched and interested me: that sense of wanting to put her foot down, say no, stop the bus and get off, all while not hurting anyone or making anybody angry. 

Even though PRETTIEST DOLL is about the world of beauty pageants, I hope it will be meaningful to any kid who feels pressured to participate in activities that don’t really interest her.  When I was raising my children, their friends were not involved in beauty pageants.  But I knew a lot of chess players and singers and black belts and Little League pitchers and gymnasts and swimmers and water-polo players and dancers and actors and goalies and divers and one kid who was on a trivia team and knew everything about European music history and one kid who fenced.  I hope they were doing these things because they loved them and not because their parents were living through them.  It’s hard to know for sure.

(The kid who liked trivia won over $59,000 on "Jeopardy" a few years ago. I think he was twenty-three when he did it.  He is one of my son's best friends.  You should have seen me yelling at the television when he won.)

When I first started writing children’s books twenty years ago, I never gave publicity a second thought.  But now, the combined effects of publishing-house mergers and the allure of other, more dazzling media mean that writers have to work hard to make sure their books get noticed.  I won’t lie: writing the narration for the PRETTIEST DOLL book trailer was a total blast, the most fun I’ve had professionally in a long time.  But the whole thing makes me a little sad, too.  Apparently, books all by themselves aren’t interesting to a lot of kids, who are more likely to read them if a good trailer hooks them first.

Isn’t it funny that reading is the one activity that some parents care about intensely until their kids actually learn how to do it?  And that these same parents sort of lose interest in their children being readers when the glories of the soccer field and the uneven parallel bars beckon?   Why don’t parents cheer when their kids want to lie in bed on Sunday morning and lose themselves in a good mystery?  (And by “cheer,” I don’t mean “pay their kids five dollars for every novel they read.”  I mean “cheer.”  Or better yet, “not cheer.”  Just let their kids alone, for once.)  Why don’t they see the value—the beauty—of a childhood spent under the spell of good books?
Not everyone likes to read.  That’s really okay.  I’m not suggesting that parents turn their crazed attentions to reading and try to make it into a competitive sport.  And I’m not denigrating athletics and music and theater and all the other wonderful things that teach children the value of hard work and self-discipline and membership in a group.

But maybe if parents let their kids know that reading really matters, it might even the playing field (so to speak) and allow books and kids to find each other.  To do this, parents would have to embrace the radical notion that it’s okay to engage in an activity that will not culminate in a trophy or a ribbon.  No clapping, no belt test, no team, no winning.   Just pleasure, and the joy of losing one’s self in an invented world.
Can we parents do this?  I don’t know, but I hope so.  I hate to think what writers are going to have to do in 2042 to get anyone to notice their books if we don’t.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


This has been a long summer, in most ways wonderful, but I haven’t been blogging at all.  I was thinking today about why this is.  I’m currently publicizing my upcoming middle-grade novel, PRETTIEST DOLL (due out from Clarion in November), trying to interest an agent in my travelogue/memoir of my mother (my own agent doesn’t represent non-fiction), revising a new novel, and traveling twice a week to visit my mother, who continues to decline. 

So I guess that’s why.

In truth, I have a lot of ideas for things to write about, but no inclination to do anything more than jot them down.  (In my head.  I haven’t held a pencil since 2007.)  So I figured that today, I would just take note of a few things and not beat myself up for not fashioning a whole post on any one thing.

--What is the proper etiquette for acknowledging other people while you’re running?  I run the same route through my neighborhood every day, and I see the same people.  There are a few friendly women who comment on my shoes (neon pink adidas) and an elderly man who walks slowly with a cane, pausing when he sees me to say, “Ah! Youth!”  There is a man about my age with a dog who always says something encouraging, and a lesbian couple with their dog that barks at me.  (His owners think he doesn’t like my shoes.) 

But there is a woman I see almost every day who ignores me completely.  She is not listening to an ipod.  I have tried saying “hi,” holding my hand up briefly for a cursory wave, and smiling.  There is no response.  Because I am a children’s book writer and children may read my blog, I will not tell you what I think when I see her coming now.  It’s mean, though.

--I love listening to big band music from the thirties and forties when I cook.  In the car, though, I only like blues or seventies R & B.  Why is that?

--I have recently read Alice Munro’s “Too Much Happiness” and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”  Both are short-story collections, and both are wonderful.  This is from Munro’s story, “Child’s Play:”
For a long while the past drops away from you easily and it would seem automatically, properly.  Its scenes don’t vanish so much as become irrelevant.  And then there’s a switchback, what’s been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it’s plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done.
Sometimes the universe gives writers a gift, and this quotation is one of those gifts.  I’m going to use it as the epigraph at the beginning of the book about my mother.
--I am usually the worst person in the world to watch the Olympics with, because I am always complaining about how little-girl gymnasts don’t get to have a childhood and why American TV doesn’t cover things like women’s weightlifting.  But I was better this year.  I really got into the spirit of the whole thing.  I’m starting to get why the things athletes do are meaningful and inspiring to people like me, who would never in a million years have thought I had anything in common with them.  But the older I get, the more I think that sports is really just a metaphor for life: you struggle and you overcome and you deal with setbacks and when you win, the whole thing was worth it, and when you lose, you wonder, but you keep doing it anyway, because the only other option is giving up, and that really isn’t an option.
So I liked the Olympics this year.
--There is a dj on KPIG named Uncle Sherman who I think is stoned whenever he’s on the air.  I just want a dj to tell me what’s been played and who sang it.  Nothing else.  Uncle Sherman should just stop talking.