YALLFest Notes: Wrap-Up

This is my last of three posts reflecting on what I learned at YALLFest a few weeks ago. I’m sure I could go on for the foreseeable future, but I’m going to stop at three. I’m not focusing on one or two authors here, but overall takeaways from the weekend.

  1. YALLFest was a really radical place to be. I somehow managed to forget that last year, YALLFest proved to be a verbally acknowledged space for mourning and hope post-election. This year, every panel was on top of social issues, every author that spoke talked about changing the world through literature, and Libba Bray kicked off the end party by singing “Born this Way” with a rainbow flag cape. That pervasive sense of hope and, yes, activism and revolution through YA, was tangible and amazing. It made me think, yes, this is where I need to be, what I need to strive for.
  2.  Strong characters make strong stories, and weak characters break stories.
  3. From Soman Chainani: You have to be in love with your story. IN LOVE. That will hold it together when things get messy. Write with love and the honesty of your on experience of being.
  4. From Patrick Ness: Write the books you should have had. Write the books that you needed.
  5. From Cassandra Clare: extreme pain in a book can clear the way for great happiness.
  6. I can’t wait for YALLFest 2018.
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YALLFest Notes: Angie Thomas

This is the second installment in my reflections on YALLFest, this time feat. Angie Thomas, who I got to hear speak twice–once in a panel called “The Here and Now”, focused on bringing contemporary issues into ya fiction, and again in the closing keynote with Cassandra Clare. Angie Thomas is not just a hell of a writer, but brilliant and insightful. She said a lot about what writing can do that really resonated with me and made me consider why I write.

The Here and Now Panel consisted of Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Patrick ness, Zac Brewer, and Kekla Magoon moderating, a frankly astounding array of people. That much awesomeness in one room is practically revolutionary.

“Through fiction we build empathy.” Thomas said this early on during the panel, and it turned into the theme for the hour. Reading a book makes alterity personal. It’s probably the closest you can come to actually living someone else’s life. You have no choice but to walk away from a book with some understanding of the perspective you were immersed in for the duration. This is something that I have long believed to be the prime directive of reading, and why diverse reading is so important, especially for young children.

Thomas also spoke about hope: how hope is not always found in happy endings. Hope can be found in the narrative itself, hope in the fact that change will happen because of this book, hope in someone seeing themselves where they didn’t before. Personally, unhappy endings make me feel like a pillbug caught in the sunlight. But I take her point.

Near the end of the panel, the question was posed: if writing is creating change, then are you [the authors] activists?” The answers that everyone gave were poignant and resonated with me, as this is exactly what I have been struggling with: bridging the gap between activist and author to author as activist.

The response of Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, was incredible. Activism, she said, is about agitation: it has always been incendiary. Her writing is deliberately inflammatory–she wants people to be uncomfortable reading it. That’s activism: change through uncomfortable confrontation with reality. The discomfort is necessary. Had it been appropriate, I would have been applauding in the theater.

As I was trying to focus and scribble down as many notes as possible, I was also critically examining my own writing. ] What is its purpose? If someone asked me if I was an activist, I would say “I’m trying to be.” If someone asked whether my writing was activism, I honestly don’t know what I’d say. I would want nothing more than to say “yes: I wrote this book to provoke change in the minds of those who read it”. But I don’t know if I’ve earned that through my narrative. And I want to earn it.

*This is the second post in a series reflecting on what I learned at YALLFest, author by author. Stay tuned for next week.*

Report from a Literature Symposium

What a day! I spent 9 am to 3 pm at a Children’s Literature Symposium held at my university! In attendance were Heather Bouwman, stupendous author of A Crack in the Sea, Allan Wolf, poet extraordinaire, Alan Gratz, author of The League of Seven, and Donna Washington, world-travelling storyteller. I spent the day absorbing some sweet, sweet knowledge from some amazing teachers. Here are some take-aways from each person:

Heather Bouwman: the heart of a novel is in the story, not the plot. The story is character growth, emotion, and connection to the reader. When you draft, draft the story, not the plot. The way we teach fantasy is not the way we read it–so draft with the reading experience in mind, not analysis and themes. Fantasy allows a temporary escape from which we return stronger and smarter.

Allan Wolf: the importance of interaction with a story, as regards to education (the conference was geared towards educators), and thinking about hard questions through fiction. There are so many ways to engage with fiction.

Alan Gratz: poetry isn’t about reading or writing poetry but rather about seeing the world through a poet’s eyes. See the world as if seeing it for the first time. Once you realize the ordinary is extraordinary, the whole world cracks open for you. Don’t let someone else write your story. And you have to boil a lot of sap to get a little maple syrup.

Donna Washington: story-telling is visual. It is about emotion, expression, voices, and audience participation. To be honest I’m having a hard time putting what I learned from her in words, because I haven’t processed it all yet–it was such a spectacular experience to hear her tell stories.

All in all, it was an amazing day. I have never experienced a story told as amazingly as Donna Washinton told them (she told us three), nor poems recited so enthusiastically as Allan Wolf. It was a privilege to meet H. M. Bouwman, whose book is indescribably beautiful, and I discovered I really need to read Alan Gratz’s books…

The whole day made me more and more excited for the rapidly-approaching Yallfest!

Review: The Ship of the Dead

So on October 3rd I was walking through the bookstore, minding my own business, checking out the new arrivals, when I see Magnus Chase number 3, The Ship of the Dead, staring at me. My whole body went into low-level shock. My hand started shaking. I walked numbly to the cashier with a copy cradled in my arms. I knew it came out in October, but I most certainly did NOT know it came out that very day, October 3rd.

It’s the last book in the Magnus Chase trilogy, which is interesting because it did not feel like a conclusion. For one thing, it’s much shorter than the first two bricks. For another, it lack the energy of the rest of the series. The first two books literally had me glued to my seat, non-stop excitement, and The Ship of the Dead just didn’t have that.

It’s a much more character-driven book than the others as well, but, oddly, it’s not Magnus‘ character. The stars of this book are the side characters: Mallory Keen, Thomas Jefferson Junior, Halfborn Gundeson, Samirah al-Abbas, and Alex Fierro. Magnus is more the vehicle through which we appreciate their development. Plot threads that I thought would play a critical role in the finale, such as Hearthstone’s final return to his brother’s grave or Samirah’s struggle to overcome her father’s influence, felt more like episodic moments.

That said, Alex and Magnus’ relationship had me almost in tears. Perfection. Riordan’s nearly-effortless inclusion of queer characters and relationships while still providing thoughtful and poignant analysis via Magnus is inspiring. For that matter, his handling of all the diversity in Magnus Chase provides a standard we should all aspire to. And he doesn’t beat around the bush about it. Where he could have shied away from highlighting the diversity in this series, he instead embraced it. He didn’t take the easy way out and include romantic moments only when Alex identifies as a girl. There is constant positive discussion of Islam and Samirah’s practice, casual inclusion of nonbinary characters, frequent description of specific ASL signs, lipreading, and interpretation, and pertinent discussion of discrimination throughout the book.

While the conclusion to Magnus Case may not have been as non-stop and downright exceptional as the first two, it was still a hell of a book, if nothing else than for the wonderfully characterized, effortlessly diverse cast, and Riordan’s unflinching engagement with those characters’ identities.

Literary Influences

I am always thinking about how authors have shaped me, as a person and as a writer. Every so often I write a line of dialogue or use a turn of phrase, look at it, and realize that’s not me, it’s another author speaking through me.

I’ve tried to go for non-obvious options (so not Riordan, Colfer, Rowling, Lewis…) and steer towards subtler influences. I find it endlessly fascinating (and a little upsetting) that something which rocked my world to the core didn’t touch another’s life.

Naturally, most of them are concentrated in my childhood, which is why I personally believe MG and YA to be some of the most important literature out there. In no particular order, and with no discrimination towards genre, here are five authors + books to whom I owe quite a bit.

  1. Diane Duane and the Young Wizards Series: the dregs of Duane’s writing will probably be forever apparent in my own, in both tone and theory. I have met one other physical person who has read these books not of my urging, a beloved religious studies professor and kindred spirit.
  2. Wendy Mass and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life: the first realistic fiction book that really made me stop and think dang, that was a good book.
  3. Pat Murphy and The Wild Girls. This book had a level of influence on my life and writing that I cannot quite comprehend. I keep finding plot elements of it that I’ve subconsciously incorporated into my writing. It’s a book about a girl learning to write, which can be hard, but it’s also much, much more than that.
  4. Elizabeth Kay and The Divide series: a cooler feat of magical worldbuilding I have yet to find. The ending devastates me to this day, but in a good way.
  5. Francis Hardinge and Fly by Night: this book was my artistic muse as a child. I really do need to re-read it. I am left with the barest memories of geese, musty books, and a claustrophobic city.

I have of course read more books that have profoundly impacted me, and I hope I never stop meeting them along the way. But childhood books are different. They get you while you’re still malleable, and they change you. It’s kind of magical.

✴This has been a queued post, as I am currently in the Amazon with no Wifi.

 

 

Review: The Head of the Saint

head-of-the-saint-cover

I have officially read 3 of the 5 books I swore to read in 2017.  I just finished The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli. I have been attempting to obtain this book for a year now, and I finally caved and bought it online. I discovered that during that year, while I ruminated on how much I wanted to read it, I unknowingly wrote the book in my head. I only realized I had this when I was confronted, within the first two chapters, that the book is nothing like I expected it to be–in an excellent way.

Our protagonist Samuel is on a mission to fulfill the last request of his dead mother–to go back to her hometown and find his father. He arrives there with less than the clothes on his back, and takes refuge in the head of a giant statue of Saint Anthony, where he discovers he can hear the prayers of women looking for love.

Acioli tells this tale in a roundabout, matter-of-fact sort of way that I haven’t run into before. The understated way the story is written masks the bizarre nature of the occurrences in this small town, so that the reader almost does not realize anything is out of the ordinary.

I enjoyed this book a lot, finishing it in an afternoon. I did feel that Samuel’s characterization was inconsistent, and all other characters were exceedingly flat. It felt at points like I was reading about a boy navigating a town of stock characters, static and predictable.

But that was not enough to put me off the novel, and I was effectively immersed in the Brazilian town of Candeia. One notable detail are the names of the characters: every one of them was charming and offbeat, especially Madeinusa, whose father mashed together the beautiful phrase ‘Made in USA’.

I’m also glad that I read the ‘about’ section, because it turns out that Acioli developed this book at a workshop led by Gabriel García Márquez, who handpicked her based on her story synopsis. WHAT.