From the Archive, Nano 2011: Why Writers Should Visit a Large Bookstore at Least Once a Month

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nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participantIt’s November and that means it’s NANOWRIMO. To celebrate my first Nanowrimo novel, Zero Repeat Forever being on the way to publication by Simon & Schuster I’m revisiting a few posts from that crazy month, November 2011.

(Posted 11/11/19)

I stopped in at Chapters yesterday, on my way back from somewhere. I didn’t buy anything. These days I buy most of my books from a small retailer near my daughter’s swimming lesson. They have a limited selection, especially when it comes to middle grade and YA, but I only buy bestsellers that I’m desperate to read anyway (because I can’t wait to get to the top of the waiting list at the library), and they usually stock those.

Just ONE of my bookshelves

I know you can’t have too many books, but really people, I have too many books. I have books in every room in my house, including the bathroom. So mostly I prefer to borrow books from the library, which of course, everyone should visit at least weekly.

That said, I love to browse in big chain bookstores. The bounty of books inspires me, for one. Sometimes as I write I start to have doubts that my book will find a place I the world. The sheer numbers of books on display at Chapters oddly reassures me. It reminds me there will always be room for another book.

I also love the staff at big chain bookstores. While library staff are mostly college educated, and smaller bookstores are often staffed by the owners, mature business people with a sophisticated love of books, chain bookstore staff are regular people, many of them in their first job. I love that you can even find an actual teenager stocking shelves in the teen section.

Many times I’ve had animated discussions with a young bookstore staff member about the latest bestsellers, or some hidden treasure that no one has heard of. I also love their insight about what customers are drawn to, what is selling and what people are saying.  These bookstores are much busier than smaller retailers, and serve more than just the local neighborhood, so the staff there get a broad sense of the market.

Finally, sometimes the books themselves help me write. Yesterday I opened about a dozen popular teen sci-fi and fantasy titles, just to see how they start. I don’t want to read most of these–I can tell after reading the first few lines–but it helps to see how other authors are doing things these days. And a few of them seemed good enough that I’m going to get them from the library.

I managed to resist buying anything though. I can’t afford another bookshelf. Speaking of bookshelves, check out this awesome YA readers blog whatchyareading.net. One of my fellow NaNo writers is a contributor. They have great reviews of recent and upcoming YA releases.

STATISTICS AND DENIAL: A Hate Story

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*warning- triggers*

I don’t know why infographics are bugging me so much lately. They’ve been around for a while and they’ve never captured my attention for more than about four seconds. But last week one posted by, of all people, First Book got me going. The misleading use of statistics is something that has bothered me since I completed my undergrad degree in psychology. And infographics are often chock full of bodgy statistics. I really should just ignore them. But I care about literacy and poverty so last week’s infographic warranted a post. You know what else I care about? Women’s Rights.

Take a look at this infographic from WORD, which they posted on their Facebook. Study it for a few minutes. Take your time. I’ll be here.

So this infographic includes a range of statistics relevant to the rights of women, beginning with women at work and wage disparity, with particular focus on the even greater disparities facing women of color. Yep, fine. I’m familiar with these statistics – nothing too surprising.  As someone who works at home, I cringed on being reminded of the ubiquity of workplace sexual harassment though. Glad to be away from that.

Next there’s some stuff about poverty. Again, nothing that surprising. I didn’t know the poverty numbers were “the highest in 17 years” though. Not really shocked to hear it, but still, that sucks.

Then violence. One in four women will be the victim of domestic violence, one in five will be raped. Horrible statistics, nightmarish, but ones I’m well aware of.

Then I came along to this:

stats2

Well, I confess, this one made me go “huh?” Quite apart from the hideous graphic of a man beating a woman, this statistic – 45% of hate murders against transwomen – seemed bizarrely implausible. Not because hate crimes against transgender people are rare exactly;  they aren’t in the sense that if you are trans then you are more likely to be a victim of a hate crime than some other typically targeted groups. But I know there is quite a lot of hate crime in the USA. And a lot of target groups. And proportionally there are far fewer transsexuals than another frequently targeted group: male homosexuals (advocate groups estimate a 1/200 prevalence of male to female transexxualism, and about 1/10 for male homosexuality. These are the most generous estimates, and certainly not free from criticism), not mention African American or Hispanic groups.

So I started to look at the statistics. Again, I ran into the problem that this infographic does not cite its sources. I had to try to find supporting statistics myself. So I started with the FBI statistical database on Hate Crime, where I discovered to my disappointment that it looks like the FBI does not differentiate between transsexuals and homosexuals. Nevertheless, the FBI statistics quickly repudiated the infographic because according to their statistics only 20.8% of hate crimes were motivated by sexual orientation bias. So I’m thinking, where is this 45% coming from? Maybe it’s a small mistake. Maybe 45% of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation are against transwomen. As I said the FBI doesn’t break down their data this way, so I had no way of checking.

Then I realized the infographic said “hate murders” not “hate crimes”. Ah, I thought. Maybe this is where the figure comes from. It makes a certain depressing logic that transwomen, if they are victimized in any hate crime, it is likely to be murder. But the FBI tells me there was a total of FOUR hate murders in 2011. That’s four too many of course, but still – how do you get 45% of 4? So now I’m wondering where on earth this number came from, and it bugs me, because it calls into question ALL the statistics on this graphic. That’s just how my mind works. Is it based on the numbers over several years? What years? Are they basing it on some other research and coming up with a wildly divergent figure?

So I stare at the number again. And stare at it. And stare. And then I ask myself what seems to be pretty obvious question: why does a graphic about women’s right’s include a statistic that no matter how you look at it represents a very small number of incidents? Not that transwomen don’t belong in a chart about women’s rights – of course they do. They’re women. But when we’re talking about literally MILLIONS of victims of sexual harassment per year, millions of victims of domestic violence and rape what is the motivation for including perhaps TWO victims of hate murder?

So I’m wondering whether it was a way to get murder onto this chart in a way that supports the overall thesis about the continuing struggle for women’s rights. 45% is an impressive percentage I guess, and assigned to relatively small group of transwomen creates the suggestion that there is something horrible  going on, but wouldn’t the nearly 3000 women murdered per year in the USA be impressive enough? Maybe not in comparison to the over 10,000 men. “23% of murder victims are women” sounds almost like a win for women’s rights in a sick way. If murder could ever be a win. And it can’t.

So maybe the creator of this graphic included this perplexing statistic as the only way to get the word “murder” on it without revealing that in fact men are four or five times more likely to be murdered in the USA. It’s a bit half baked, but I could see that happening. I just don’t know. At this point I’m pretty much ready to give up. I  don’t get it. It bugs me but it’s not the end of the world. I should just let it go. Then I think of something.

Rape is a hate crime.

Rape is  hate crime. Rape/murder is a hate crime. We are constantly told that rape is a crime of anger and violence, of HATE, not of sexual desire. Certainly in the case of rape-murders this has got to be true. And get this – nearly 100% of victims of rape murders are women. About 90-95% of rape victims are women. Some rape victims end up dead. The overwhelming majority of those are women. And the perpetrator kills them because he hates women.

And yet, according to the FBI only seven, not seven percent, SEVEN “hate rapes” occurred in 2010. Excuse me? With very few exceptions (loving consensual sex between a 17 year old and a 21 year old for example, which in some states is prosecuted as statutory rape) ALL RAPES ARE HATE RAPES. And certainly all rapes that end in murder.

Rape is a hate crime! If rape was defined as a hate crime then the chart could furiously declare that “90% of victims of hate rape are women.”

According to US law the categories for the motivation for hate crime include race, religion, nation origin  actual or perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability. ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED GENDER, people. Many rapes occur because the rapist hates women. Therefore…yeah, you get it.

I get how political this is. I really do. The very concept of “Hate Crime” exists to address criminal animosity towards marginalized groups. The groups targeted, according to the FBI, are mostly minority groups. In 2011, of hate crimes:

  • 46.9 percent were racially motivated (although “16.7% of incidents were motivated by anti-white bias”).
  • 20.8 percent resulted from sexual-orientation bias.
  • 19.8 percent were motivated by religious bias.
  • 11.6 percent stemmed from ethnicity/national origin bias.
  • Less than 1 percent (0.9) were prompted by disability bias.

Notice anything missing? Despite “gender” being included in the statute, no hate crimes motivated by gender are recorded. Are you trying to tell me that of 80,000+ reported forcible rapes in 2011 (at best probably half the actual number), not one perpetrator scrawled “slut” or “bitch” on the wall? Or worse things? That when “slut” or “bitch” is scrawled on lockers, windscreens or front doors, this should not be prosecuted as a hate crime?

It’s almost as though the FBI doesn’t consider women a marginalized group.  And here it’s important to understand the difference between minority and marginalized.  I’ll tell you why. Because  groups can be marginalized even when they are in the majority. Ask black South Africans for example. Women are a marginalized group, so marginalized that we’ve even been pushed out of the targets of hate crime club. So much that hate crimes aimed at WHITE MEN make the list before rape does.

Were even those seven “hate rapes” racially motivated I wonder. Do the police even bother considering that a man raping a women of another race might be motivated by hate for her race? Cross racial rapes are quite rare, but they are out there, in the thousands. About 15-20% of forcible rapes or sexual assaults are committed by someone of another race than the victim. This translates to maybe 15,000 rapes or sexual assaults. Surely SOME of those were motivated by racial bias? All of them were motivated by gender bias of course, but I’m ready to give that up. Throw me a bone here, FBI. SEVEN hate rapes? You’ve got to be kidding me.

It just seems wrong. It seems to imply that kicking over a tombstone or vandalizing a church is a worse crime than rape. I’m sorry but it’s just not. The Orangemen could kick over every tombstone in Belfast and I still wouldn’t care as much as if they raped one Catholic girl. Or a Protestant  girl. Or any girl or woman, regardless of their motivation.

The marginalization of women is so deeply ingrained that it crosses all cultural groups, has existed pretty much since the beginning of recorded history and forms a vital part almost all religious organizations, as well as military organizations, who together by the way, control the entire world. And just as a black US president doesn’t mean racism is over, a few female prime ministers doesn’t mean the women’s movement can rest on its laurels. Not yet.

If everything on the infographic that started this all is true (and I think it is, apart from the 45% thing which I still don’t quite understand) then clearly women are still a marginalized group. Why then are hateful crimes against us not called “hate crimes”?

There’s an answer out there, but it’s so complicated and delicate that I don’t dare even try. I’ve finally been undone. That’s something.

Rant over.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Colored Pencils Should Be Easier to Erase

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Buying a Christmas present for a child in need today (can I digress and say how hard it is to buy a present for a 12 year-old girl you have never met and know nothing about?) I discovered erasable pencils crayons. What wonders. Made me want to repost this rather depressing meditation on what it means to live up to your own standards (or not). Anyway…

Back in March, Jodi Meadows, the author of INCARNATE tweeted “Colored pencils should be easier to erase”. Now I know she meant “they should be easier to erase than they are”, because let’s face it, they are unholy hard to erase. But how I read it was “They should be easier to erase than regular lead pencils”. And I found that kind of profound. I tweeted her so, of course to which she replied “sage nod”.

So what is profound about that? It’s funny how sometimes a whole new universe of understanding can pop out of one little phrase. “Colored pencils should be easier to erase.” What my mind immediately jumped to was that they should be easier to erase than lead pencils because to use them suggests more of a commitment, represents more of a risk. Any schmuck can doodle with a lead pencil. We’ve all done it all over the margins of our math homework and on library tables. But colored pencils are a whole other thing. You’re not just doodling with colored pencils, you’re drawing.  There are more ways you can go wrong with a colored pencil. As anyone who has ever tried to draw with them knows, it’s hard, much harder than with a lead pencil. And mistakes are easily made, but not easily unmade. Where is the reward for the extra bravery it took to choose colored pencils in the first place? Those who venture into colored pencil land should be granted a couple of extra do-overs. Life is so unfair.

For some reason, today, this made me think of my short story, written in grade eleven, The Seventh Grade. As a rather lengthy aside I should point out that for those of you who are interested, this story can be found here, not only in the original English, but also translated into Chinese. How and why it was translated into Chinese and uploaded to the web is something of a mystery. Suffice it to say, I was never paid Chinese money  for this story, which I wrote in 1983, at least ten years before the Internet came into public use. Long story short, I think I’ve become a Chinese bootleg, like that Return of the King DVD my friend sent me from Hong Kong and my NOT Prada handbag.

Anyway, back to my story. Interestingly, to me anyway, this story was maybe the first thing I ever wrote that wasn’t in some way religious. In grade five I wrote this poem, for example:

Listen, listen, what do you hear?
The sound of God talking, deep in your ear.
The sound of the angels singing in choir
Their beautiful voices sing higher and higher
The sound of …
 

Urgh.  I can’t go on. You get the idea. Then I wrote a short story about Jesus looking through a window and another one about dying and eternity, or something; it’s possible they were both the same story. I also wrote a sci-fi-ish kind of thing in which a human meets an alien on another planet and waxes poetic on the way home about being like Noah’s dove and how Columbus means dove and how Columbus discovered America and she had discovered another planet and so on. As you can see there was all kinds of wrongness in my education.

In grade eleven, in Mrs. Crooks’s creative writing class, I wrote a short one man play called Whatsoever You Do which is not exactly a bible quote, but is the title of a hymn based on a bible quote (Matthew 25:35-40 for anyone who is interested, or doubts my pedigree). Perhaps this was the last hurrah of a fading belief system because I’m almost certain The Seventh Grade, which has no religion allusions that I can remember, was what I wrote next.

Here’s what you should know about this: up to this point, no one, least of all me, had really thought that anything I wrote was any good. In fact several times I was told that things were not very good. Lots of things I never showed anyone. But for some reason, somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I was going to enter a short story writing competition. I had, the previous year,  wanted to enter the one about Jesus looking through the window (I’m pretty sure it, and a similarly themed painting I did in art class, were inspired by a Pete Townsend song. I was a weird kid) but my teacher at the time told me, and I quote: “It’s not very good.”

Look, I’m sure she was right (this story did not survive the 80’s, much like my sisters purple, black and green Peter Pan boots which were stolen from me at a party, leading my friend Erich to have to carry me out to the car, leading me to fall in love with him, leading to a whole world of pain for me, him and his girlfriend, Rita). The story was probably crap, but “It’s not very good,” is hardly encouraging for a young writer who shows, if not exactly promise, then at least enthusiasm. But I overcame this minor setback, and armed with the things Mrs. Crooks taught me about conflict wrote The Seventh Grade and entered it into the province wide Permanent High School Short Story Contest.

Well, I won the contest. And that should have been a wonderful moment for me. My teachers were proud. The principal was proud. Hell, they announced it over the school PA. My parents were proud, and the prize was $500. In 1983, for a 16 year old girl with a fake ID, this was a lot of money. But it wasn’t a wonderful moment. It was a terrible moment, full of doubt and humiliation, because I didn’t think the story was very good. The story was later awarded another high school writing prize, published in two magazines, used as study materials in at least one school and translated, as I said, into Chinese and I think, included in a book of young Canadian writers published in China.

I still don’t think it’s very good. Read it and judge for yourself. Even for the 16 year old that I was, it’s shit. I kind of hate it. But most of all I hate what it did to me, because after that I didn’t write another short story for nearly ten years. I barely wrote another word. I was, in a word, mortified.

In about 1995 I wrote Hildegarde as a screenplay first. I re-drafted it once and sold the second draft to the first producer who read it. Then I won a national screenwriter development grant for it. I signed with a top agent. I got another development grant. I got a contract to write the novelization.

And I didn’t think it was very good. Don’t get me wrong. I like the movie, and the novel is kind of cute. But I don’t think it is very good. And I want to write something very good.

When you’re drawing with colored pencils, there comes a time when you just have to walk away from your drawing. You can’t erase, you can’t add anything else, you can’t color over mistakes. You just have to live with it the way it is. Even if you don’t think it’s very good. And to me, that’s not fair.

Writing for publication or production takes many things, perseverance, a thick skin, a certain madness, imagination, but above all courage. It takes courage to fill up your page with  colored pencils, knowing there comes a point you can’t change anything. Knowing that you will be judged on your colors the way they turn out, not the way you imagine them. Knowing that you can only improve one drawing by starting another one.

We writers can change things, of course we can, but only until our work is published or produced. Then it’s out there. My first published short story contains the phrase “pierced my heart like a dagger”. My “debut” novel is a not very well written novelization of a children’s movie that went direct to DVD. Harper Lee’s debut novel was To Kill a Mockingbird .

Sigh.

Pass me the colored pencils. I’m starting another drawing.

From the Archives: Why Writers Should Visit a Large Bookstore at Least Once a Month

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I stopped in at Chapters yesterday, on my way back from somewhere. I didn’t buy anything. These days I buy most of my books from a small retailer near my daughter’s swimming lesson. They have a limited selection, especially when it comes to middle grade and YA, but I only buy bestsellers that I’m desperate to read anyway (because I can’t wait to get to the top of the waiting list at the library), and they usually stock those.

Just ONE of my bookshelves

I know you can’t have too many books, but really people, I have too many books. I have books in every room in my house, including the bathroom. So mostly I prefer to borrow books from the library, which of course, everyone should visit at least weekly.

That said, I love to browse in big chain bookstores. The bounty of books inspires me, for one. Sometimes as I write I start to have doubts that my book will find a place I the world. The sheer numbers of books on display at Chapters oddly reassures me. It reminds me there will always be room for another book.

I also love the staff at big chain bookstores. While library staff are mostly college educated, and smaller bookstores are often staffed by the owners, mature business people with a sophisticated love of books, chain bookstore staff are regular people, many of them in their first job. I love that you can even find an actual teenager stocking shelves in the teen section.

Many times I’ve had animated discussions with a young bookstore staff member about the latest bestsellers, or some hidden treasure that no one has heard of. I also love their insight about what customers are drawn to, what is selling and what people are saying.  These bookstores are much busier than smaller retailers, and serve more than just the local neighborhood, so the staff there get a broad sense of the market.

Finally, sometimes the books themselves help me write. Yesterday I opened about a dozen popular teen sci-fi and fantasy titles, just to see how they start. I don’t want to read most of these, especially after reading the first few lines, but it helps to see how other authors are doing things these days. And a few of them seemed good enough that I’m going to get them from the library.

I managed to resist buying anything though. I can’t afford another bookshelf. Speaking of bookshelves, check out this awesome YA readers blog whatchyareading.net. One of my fellow NaNo writers is a contributor. They have great reviews of recent and upcoming YA releases. Clear Eyes Full Shelves is another book blog I’m loving right now.

Dear High School, You Suck, Sincerely, The Real World.

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Well, this hasn’t happened in a while. A news story has inspired me to rant. Actually that happens all the time but whatever. For some reason I’m drunk. The reason could be the debate tonight, or possibly I’m just an alcoholic. Anyway. Here I go.

So this week, Whitney Kropp, a high school girl, who was voted homecoming queen as a prank did that classic American thing and came up smelling (and looking) like a rose. It’s a real Cinderella story.

Yeah.

Look. I’m happy for you, sista. Less impressed that you are a skinny girl with a boyfriend, but points for how cute your football player escort’s smile is. He looks like the cat that ate the canary. I’d love to know what he’s thinking. Anyway replay this story next year, or somewhere else with a fat androgynous girl who’s never even been kissed (me at 16) and I’ll be really captivated. For now: meh.

CarrieWhat’s making me rant is that this exact thing happened at my school TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO. I was in grade 12. The joke was played on the frosh (freshman) queen. I don’t remember her name but she was a chubby, very awkward social outcast. I didn’t really know her, but two of my best friends were freshmen and they told me how the class conspired to elect her frosh queen as a cruel joke. My friends didn’t think it was very funny. Neither did I. But she was crowned at the frosh dance (or something). I suppose she knew it was a joke on her. Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she did. Like I said. I don’t remember her name. She could be dead for all I know. I don’t think this was a positive experience for her.

For every Whitney Kropp who makes lemonade from lemons, there’s a Stephen King’s Carrie, a girl or boy for whom this kind of humiliation is the last fucking straw. Bullied kids kill themselves and others literally every day in the USA. When pundits ask why bullying and violence are so rampant in middle and high schools the answer is usually something along the lines of “well, kids are jerks.” An easy answer, blame the individual, because surely there is nothing wrong with our perfect society.

Okay, kids can be assholes. We get that. But let me ask you this: where in the real world are people encouraged to randomly choose someone to represent them in some way without that person’s consent? Obama and Romney have volunteered to compete for the job of president. We all know that if we could randomly choose any old person for the White House it would probably end up a tight race between Martin Sheen, Justin Beiber (who is Canadian BTW) and I don’t know, Snooki. Oh hahaha, we would laugh. Aren’t we funny for mocking the idea of democracy? Hahaha isn’t it amusing to place someone on a pedestal and worship/demonize them? Aren’t we witty for mocking someone else’s shortcomings in a public arena without their consent? Hahahahaha…

I’m all for student council elections. Candidates for student council nominate themselves. They are prepared for it. Incidents like the two described above don’t happen with student council elections. Prom king and queen, homecoming court and frosh king and queen are artificial and archaic leftovers from a time when villages voted for people to sacrifice to the volcano fairies. These symbolic sacrifices are providing even more opportunities to make young adults feel badly about themselves, trapped as they are in an arbitrary and synthetic environment with little or no control over their destiny.

WTF? Why is high school so fucked up? Because WE MAKE IT THAT WAY. We make it into a popularity contest that has no bearing on intelligence, interpersonal skills, spiritual or emotional integrity or morals. It’s a free for all, a dog eat dog contest where even the winners are losers. Is it any wonder that the teen suicide rate is so high? Why do we subject our young people to such cruel games? What does homecoming queen, prom king and harvest princess and prince accomplish for anyone? In what way does it prepare young people for the real world? At Walmart, employee of the month is based on sales and performance, not popularity. At Price Waterhouse promotion is based on results and effort, not attractiveness.

In the real world, success should be (and mostly is) based on ideas and determination and should have nothing to do with how good your parties are or what kind of car you drive, how rich your parents are or who your boyfriend is.

Once again, all too frequently it seems, it is time to really look at our school system and what it is teaching young people. From where I stand it seems mostly it is teaching kids how to be mean.

Rant over.

My Heart Is A Judgment Free Zone

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Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Not long ago my sister and I were talking about the emergence of high school Gay Straight Alliances. My sister was impressed with these clubs and commented “There was nothing like that when we were in school”.

“Sure there was,” I quipped. “It was called drama club.”

I’m not gay, but I was fat, nerdy, punk styled and unpopular, any and all of which got me bullied and teased in class, in choir, in band, in Brownies, in the playground, in sports teams, in gym, in intramurals, at dances and at parties. I was NEVER bullied in drama club. Drama club, back in the early 80s, was a haven for weird and bewildered misfits like myself. I hope that not much has changed.

Lots of my old drama club friends are now Facebook friends, though we are spread all over the world. Lots of them are gay or lesbian. But here’s the thing: officially, when we went to high school together, I didn’t know.

Despite the very true observation that there is not much diversity in YA literature, there are quite a few LGBT YA characters out there. I have recently read TILT by Ellen Hopkins wherein one of the main POVs is a gay teen. Yesterday I finished THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOU AND ME by Madeleine George which is about a very out lesbian girl and her very closeted girlfriend. A few weeks ago I read ANDY SQUARED by Jennifer Lavoie about a teen boy falling in love and coming out. There’s an out gay character in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky. There’s a lesbian minor character in GOTH GIRL RISING by Barry Lyga.

I really enjoyed all these books but my enjoyment was slightly bittersweet. I have never been a homophobe. My father was an actor and a drama professor for pity’s sake. I suspected my high school friends were gay – some of them anyway. Some others who came out after high school had been the target of my unrequited crushes. Just recently I spotted an old crush on Facebook and thought to myself “I wonder why I never hooked up with him…oh.” Yep. His Facebook profile made it clear he is gay. Maybe he didn’t know in grade nine and ten. Maybe he knew and didn’t want to tell me.  That makes me feel a little sad.

I understand it can be pretty hard for a gay teenager. In YA books there is often a sympathetic and non-judgmental friend who makes coming out, or falling in love for the first time, or just being gay in an intolerant world a bit easier. I just wish I could have been that for my gay friends. I wish they had told me. For some of them I would not have been surprised. For some of them I might have been a little heartbroken, but I would have gotten over it. Either way I could have been that person who never wavered in friendship. I could have been their confidant. Already in grade nine I had several gay adult males as friends (my father’s students, or my older sisters’ friends). I was a teenage fag hag way before it was cool.

One night I got roaring drunk with one of these high school boys at his parents’ house. We were 16 or 17. We talked about music and school and life and it was one of the most fun nights of my life. At the end of the night we walked across a dark field to go and spy on a jock we both detested (ah, high school). Halfway across the park we stopped and French kissed. I’m not sure why we did. Drunkenness maybe. I liked him, but not that way. I was pretty sure he didn’t like me that way either. The kiss was a toothy slobbery disaster. We were mortified for about five minutes, then we forgot all about it. We stayed friends. One of my best friends later took him to prom.

Anyway, we lost touch until Facebook reconnected us. And, yeah, he’s gay. So here’s what I’m wondering. Did he want to tell me that night? And why didn’t he? And what could I have done to make him feel more safe with me? To make him know that I was his friend no matter what.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s important to let your friends know if your heart is a judgment free zone. Maybe I didn’t make that clear back in high school. I want to make it clear now.

MMGM: BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin

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For this week’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday I whipped through the Newbery Honor Book BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin.

Sasha Zaichik has known the laws of the Soviet Young Pioneers since the age of six:

  • The Young Pioneer is devoted to Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism.
  • A Young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience.
  • A Young Pioneer has a right to criticize shortcomings.

But now that it is finally time to join the Young Pioneers, the day Sasha has awaited for so long, everything seems to go awry. He breaks a classmate’s glasses with a snowball. He accidentally damages a bust of Stalin in the school hallway.  And worst of all, his father, the best Communist he knows, was arrested just last night.Breaking Stalin's Nose
 
This moving story of a ten-year-old boy’s world shattering is masterful in its simplicity, powerful in its message, and heartbreaking in its plausibility.

A few weeks ago I reviewed MY OWN REVOLUTION, another Soviet Communism exposé,  that one about Czechoslovakia . Then last week I read BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY which concerned the fate of Lithuanians “transported” to Siberia by Stalin. So BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE rounds out my tour of the former USSR and the states under its hammer and sickle, so to speak.

Now I’m mad. It’s 2012. I’ve been reading books for children and teens since 1972. Why are these the first three kids books I’ve read about life under the Soviet regime? I personally know several people who escaped eastern bloc countries during the regime – people who have been living and working in the west for decades. Why are we just hearing their stories now?

It is not about dark subject matter, that I know. We’ve had detailed and graphic accounts of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime at least since I was a child. Not to mention the fictional dystopias that have been all the rage for years with their totalitarian governments, arbitrary arrests and systematic oppression. Sound  familiar?

Let me change tack for a moment. A few years ago I was teaching a 20th Century history course to some mainland Chinese students in Vancouver. We did a unit on WWII and the Holocaust. We visited the Jewish Museum. We watched a documentary. At the end of the unit one of my students put his hand up and I called on him. He stood, as they do and spoke in halting English “You know that Mao did this also?” he said.

I nodded somberly. “Well, yes, I have heard that,” I said. “I don’t know much about it”.

“He killed millions of people,” the young man said. He wasn’t emotional about it. He was almost bemused. I think perhaps he was wondering why I had made such a big deal of the Holocaust, since it was, by body count anyway, less significant than Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”.

Sometimes the worldview of these mainlanders would break my heart a bit. This was the same kid who after a unit about the suffrage movement asked, slightly petulantly: “What’s the big deal about voting anyway?” He was not outraged by Mao’s holocaust or his own disenfranchisement. He hadn’t yet twigged that there is another world out here, another way to live.

So what I’m wondering now is when one of these kids that I teach, one that choses to stay in Canada will tell their story or their parents’ story to a Canadian born child who will grow up to write a kids’ book on the horrors of living under Chinese Communism.

Are you twitching, cringing? Many of my readers are dyed in the wool lefties like me. Some of my friends parents took sabbaticals in China or Poland, so enamored were they with their promised utopias. For some of us it is hard for us to believe that communism, this great Marxist ideal, could have gone so horribly wrong. We don’t want to believe it. My own mother sings the praises of Cuba. The place people escape on half inflated inner tubes. Over some of the most treacherous seas in the world. To be a minority in Florida. “Everyone gets  education and medical care in Cuba,” my mother told me. “Also the case in many prisons,” I replied.

Kim Phuc, remember her? Here’s her picture, to remind you. She defected from Vietnam to Canada in 1992. I guess she really wanted to be free. I’ve read her biography. Her story would make a fantastic young adult book about Vietnam after the war. It would NOT be flattering about the regime that exploited her as a propaganda symbol.

There are a lot of gaps in the young people’s publishing world. We know that.  There are not enough characters or writers of color for example. There are not a lot of books about non-Anglo cultures at all, black, brown or white. And there is very little about life outside the democratic bubble of “western civilization”.

Is this because publishers/agents and even writers are afraid to point fingers and say “this sucks”? Have we been too skeptical about reports on the horrors of communist and/or totalitarian regimes? Do we not want to “judge”? Are we afraid of indoctrinating young readers with truth so off-putting as to seem one sided?

Maybe this is beginning to change. I hope so.

Well, anyway, though BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE is a powerful book, it has a surprisingly small scale for such a big subject matter. Not only is it a short book, but it all takes place in the span of less than 24 hours, and much of it takes place in the very confused mind of its young protagonist and narrator. But it packs a considerable punch narratively, so much so that I’m not sure many of its intended audience would be able to fully comprehend it with the kind of casual read that young readers typically do. Contrary to my usual stance, I think book might be best appreciated in the classroom, with the guidance of a good teacher.

BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE IS  just over 15,000 words with an age level of grade 4-5.

Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff, the ARCFor this week’s I Can’t Wait to read I’m going with PRINCE PUGGLY OF SPUD AND THE KINGDOM OF SPIFF another novel in verse from the brilliant author of ZORGAMAZOO, Robert Paul Weston.

Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff is, logically enough, about Puggly, the newly crowned prince of the very muddy, very unfashionable Kingdom of Spud.

Puggly is surprised to receive an invite to the lavish Centenary Ball in the oh-so-chic Kingdom of Spiff. As everyone knows, Spiffians are known for the poshest clothes and the fluffiest wigs, so it’s no surprise when Prince Puggly’s grand entrance ends in humiliation.

However, Puggly discovers an unlikely ally in Francesca, the bookish Princess of Spiff and together the two friends set out to teach the Spiffs an absurd lesson in style.

Rumor has it that Penguin will be sending me an ARC so I’m pretty excited! It comes out February 2013.

For more Middle Grade reviews and and recommendations, visit Shannon Messenger’s Blog.

Fighting (and losing) The War on (brown-skinned) Boys.

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So last week I ranted about criminal justice in the USA. In this post I’d like to combine some more thoughts on this topic with reviews of three excellent books on the subject.

Paranoia & Heartbreak: Fifteen Years in a Juvenile FacilityPARANOIA AND HEARTBREAK by Jerome Gold is made up of unedited entries in the journals Gold kept while he worked at Ash Meadow, a juvenile detention center in rural Washington State. The candid and personal nature of this book makes it a compelling read. Gold, although always sympathetic to the juveniles in his care, nevertheless confesses to viewing some of them as incorrigible, irreparably damaged by abuse or just plain irritating. He profiles several inmates who made an impression in him during his years at Ash Meadows but also goes into some depth about the political complexities he faced in this unionized but underfunded environment.

Gold doesn’t take special care in detailing either the background or the race of the inmates he profiles but readers get the impression that this is definitely a racially mixed group, if not very economically mixed. These are poor kids, most of them victims of abuse, some of them are gang involved and many have been addicted. True to its title, there’s a lot of heartbreak in this book, quite a bit of paranoia and not much hope. That’s the reality I guess. Gold was there for fifteen years so he would know.

In contrast LAST CHANCE IN TEXAS by John Hubner offers some hope. This book details a groundbreaking program in a Texas Juvenile Detention center which is literally a last chance for juvenile offenders to avoid long prison sentences in adult jails. Hubner profiles two inmates (they are called “students”), a boy and a girl at the Giddings School. The bulk of the book is made up of harrowing detailed accounts of the group therapy these kids must complete to graduate from the program and be eligible for parole.Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth

Again, the kids are victims of abuse. Again they are deeply psychologically damaged. Again, though racially mixed, the population of this facility is skewed towards minorities.  Not everybody succeeds in the Giddings School; Hubner makes that clear. But some do, and records show an unprecedented success rate in rehabilitating the most serious juvenile offenders.  The book, as a result, is much more clear in the position it takes about the treatment and potential rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

LockdownAfter reading two non-fiction works on a subject, it’s always hard to then turn to a YA fiction dealing with the same issues. LOCKDOWN by Walter Dean Myers is the story of Reese, a juvenile who is doing time for theft. Fresh from reading about the messed-up kids in Ash Meadow and Giddings, I found Reese a  little well-balanced. I liked his story, the relationship he formed with his fellow inmates, the staff and the residents of the elder hostel where he works on day release. But it all felt a bit sanitized. Even with the mild language and violence I felt Myers could have gone much darker with this story. Still, Myers tends to write for less accomplished readers so perhaps the simplicity of this story was necessary. The inmate stories in the other books were anything but simple.

There are some hard truths to be learned here.

I’ve learned that criminal corrections, especially juvenile corrections is a system that disproportionately affects minorities both in the USA and in Canada. But even once in that system, non-whites are treated more harshly. For example, in the USA of all the inmates  currently serving life without parole sentences (JLWOP) for non-murder offenses committed while juveniles, 100% are non-white. 100%. Surely that must set alarm bells off somewhere. It indicates not only the type of sentencing that contravenes UN regulations, but also an unacceptable imbalance in the sentencing of non-white youths. I’m not exactly surprised, by this,  given what we all know about the over representation of minorities in the criminal justice system, but it is still jarring. How can authorities and law-makers look at that statistic in particular and not ask themselves if the system is broken?

I’m sure there are all kinds of rationalizations. One is that longer sentences, and JLWOP sentences in particular, often result from a crime that is gang related. Certain courts add years to a sentence based on whether the crime was committed with a gun and/or was gang related. So a car-jacking by a known gang member, committed with a gun, for example will likely result in a much longer sentence than one committed by a non-gang member. Gang members are far more likely to be minorities. Ergo minorities are far more likely to be sentenced to long terms or JLWOP.

Shouldn’t this be a call to arms for reform to our schools, our gang prevention programs, our diversion programs, drug rehabilitation, youth employment and mentoring? Just because it’s only minority kids who are falling foul of these trends does that mean we can just blithely accept it? Isn’t the imbalance MORE of a reason to say “enough”?

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles are “cruel and unusual” and therefore non-constitutional. In many cases this will be retroactively applied so that some inmates currently serving JLWOP will be able to apply to have their sentence re-evaluated. This is an important step, but doesn’t mean that all JLWOP sentences will be re-evaluated, nor that JLWOP sentences will no longer be applied, only that courts cannot make them mandatory.

In short, it’s still okay in the USA to send children to jail for the rest of their lives. 2500 young men and women thus sentenced are in prison right now.

I think it is time we all take a step back and look at what I consider to be a war on teenagers, especially teenage boys, and doubly especially teenage boys of color. This is not as reactionary a perception as you may think. Many cultures treat teenage boys with extreme hostility, not the least of which the polygamous Mormon sects right here in Canada and in the USA. It is the biological imperative for powerful men (white, rich politicians and lawmakers in our culture) to mistrust and marginalize young men, because they represent a threat to their reproductive hegemony.

The young men who fall foul of the law are typically abused, neglected or ostracized by the high status males in their own milieu, including almost universally, their own father. They are then routinely and systematically mistrusted, mistreated and maligned by a parade of older male teachers, principals, truant officers, police officers, probation officers, lawyers, judges and corrections staff. Is it any wonder they crack and end up in life sentences? Is this not the exact result that the dominant males are hoping for? Permanent exile? Just like in tribal times, just like with the Mormon sects?

Every generation maligns the one that follows it. My grandparents hated rock n’ roll, my parents hated punk, I’m supposed to  hate hip hop , my hip hopping nephew will no doubt hate the inter-planetary bleep that his children will obsess over. In a healthy, self-actualized culture this lack of cross generational understanding is nothing more than a source of tension at the Thanksgiving table. But our culture is not healthy.  Doubt and fear permeate the national psyche even in Canada – it is far worse in the USA. People who are unsure of their next mortgage payment, who don’t know how they can afford health care, who feel as though the enemy is at the gates, who wonder if the planet might turn against them operate in siege mentality. The options for the young males in situations like this are twofold: go to war or go into exile. In our culture exile is prison.

High schools are little better than prisons themselves. Many have metal detectors and armed guards. Students are locked in. Fights are almost daily. How bad does this have to get before someone twigs that this is not working anymore? How far will this war on youth go? I don’t have answers for this but I do have a suggestion that I hope you all take up with me.

It is time to start working for teen suffrage. Before women’s suffrage women were routinely marginalized, abused, incarcerated (often in lunatic asylums), disenfranchised and exploited. They had no power and they had no voice because they had no vote. Sound familiar? I’m joining the call to lower the voting age to 16, with voting for 14 year-olds available based on testing, like a driver’s license. Let’s not forget that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in response to American men being drafted to fight in Vietnam before they could vote.

Now teenagers are being tried as adults, they are trapped in an education system that nobody thinks is working, they are supporting themselves, they are plugged in and informed, they are carrying the dreams of their parents on their shoulders,  they are raising their siblings, they are inventing apps, they are joining campaigns, they are protesting, tweeting, facebooking and blogging. They have a voice, but no one is listening because their opinion doesn’t matter to policy makers. They can’t vote; they can’t elect someone.  Who cares?

They are asking for help; they are not getting it. How can we change this?

Rant over.

June Reads, Book Tweets and Thoughts on Smoking in YA Lit.

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June was another big reading month. I tweeted most things and reviewed a few things too. Here’s the run down with a few other thoughts, particularly about smoking in YA lit.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky,

Tweet:  PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER Stephen Chbosky – compelling read. Charlie felt ynger than 16 but I guess that makes sense. Demerits for smoking

Look, I get that teens smoke, take drugs, have sex and generally carry on in various obnoxious ways. The thing about smoking is that it cannot be paid off in a YA book. While you are a teenager, there are no consequences to smoking, apart from it costing money and making you stink. With drugs or alcohol it is easy, and dramatically, narratively possible to show a realistic portrayal of some of the negative consequences in a YA book. These don’t need to be dire (although they can be) but every teen has that time they puked, or passed out, or let a guy fondle them or shagged the wrong girl, or were stupid and stoned in front of people they respect. That’s real. That’s balanced. It doesn’t have to be a message, but it should be real. I rarely come across a well written YA book that doesn’t take a balanced approach to drugs or alcohol. I have never seen it depicted as only glamorous or mystical.

The problem with tobacco smoking is that it is, in this book (and in LOOKING FOR ALASKA), depicted positively as something an awkward teen can share with his cool new friends, and also something that relaxes his crippling anxiety. Look, that IS what tobacco does. That’s real. The problem is that the negative consequences of tobacco smoking can be (and are in 1/3 to ½ of smokers) death. That’s right, death. But unfortunately for us YA authors, those consequences don’t materialize until the 30’s or 40’s. So we can hardly show poor Charlie coughing his lungs out with cancer at the age of 16 can we? We can’t show him leaving behind a wife and kids. So all we’re left with is glamor and relaxation.

I’m not in favor of censoring, but I think as YA authors we should take a look at this tricky issue. I would hate to think that some horribly anxious and awkward kid took up smoking because it seemed to help Charlie and nothing bad came of it. The fictional Charlie, who was 16 in 1991 would now be 37. One of my best friends died of mouth cancer at 39. Two cousins died in their early 40s. Did Charlie keep smoking? How long does he have?

But bonus points for the abortion. I’ll concede that.

PINNED by Sharon G. Flake

Tweet: PINNED by @sharonflake is both sweet and complex with two unpredictable characters, tons of voice and a lot of adorable awkward teen love.

Sharon Flake agreed to be interviewed about PINNED so I’ll be blogging more about this book later I the year.

UNWHOLLY (Unwind, #2) by Neal Shusterman

Tweet: So UNWHOLLY by @NealShusterman is totally AWESOME!! Reread UNWIND yesterday and read UNWHOLLY today. Cross-eyed now but delighted.#amreading

I’ve ranted about UNWIND many times on this blog and made getting an ARC of UNWHOLLY  one of my main goals for ALA12. I only had to stalk Neal Shusterman and Simon and Shuster for two days to get it too! And it was so worth it. I love this series more than ever.

GOING UNDERGROUND, by Susan Vaught

Tweet: GOING UNDEGROUND by @susan_vaught is a funny, moving, disturbing read.

I’ve been doing some research about juvenile justice and how the law treats juvenile sex offenders lately. This book popped up in a search and I tracked it down at the library the same day. Apart from being a well written and moving story, the injustice is reveals about how children who make completely normal adolescent mistakes is horrifying. Everyone with a teenager or preteen should read this. Teachers should read this. Prosecutors, lawmakers and defenders should read this.

THE FREEDOM MAZE: A Novel by Delia Sherman,

I reviewed this excellent book earlier this month.

JUMPING OFF SWINGS by Jo Knowles

Didn’t bother finishing this one. If you want to know why look up my Goodreads review.

I KNOW IT’S OVER by C.K. Kelly Martin

I actually enjoyed this book,  but I had some problems with the subject matter. Check Goodreads for my review on this one too.

HARLEM SUMMER by Walter Dean Myers

This novel was a little didactic, especially about the history of Harlem during the prohibition years. But I still rather enjoyed it. I think it’s a great introduction to Jazz and black history as well as being a good, suspenseful story about a kid who feels very contemporary, despite the historical setting.

BOOK OF RHYMES: THE POETICS OF HIP HOP by Adam Bradley

A great rundown on how hip hop lyrics evolve, the techniques that are used, how it relates to “poetry”. I’m hopelessly ignorant about hip hop so it was hard to relate since I hadn’t ehrd of most of the artists and tracks, but nevertheless this is a scholarly and interesting review.

GOTH GIRL RISING (The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, #2) by Barry Lyga

Tweet: Loved GOTH GIRL RISING by @barrylyga . Poor Kyra, she’s hard to like but I saw a lot if high school me (punk not goth) in her.

This is a great example of how to do the smoking thing. Kyra smokes. She’s messed up, yeah so she smokes. Her friend questions the irony of her smoking when her mother died of cancer. Kyra gets it. She doesn’t quit or anything, but we know she gets it. That’s enough. That’s real.

EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL, by Simmone Howell

Tweet: Stayed up to 4am reading EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL by @postteen. So excited by real-size heroine, I guess. #realgirlsrule

I loved this Australian set book A LOT. Loved the messed up heroine and loved that she’s a big girl. HOWEVER why is the girl on the cover so slim? I was disappointed with this. Very disappointed. Badly done Bloomsbury USA. Badly done.

TILT by Alan Cumyn

Tweet: Very much enjoyed TILT by @acumyn. Great book for boys and people who like boys! #amreading

This was a very fun and sweet book with one of the most hilarious “consequences of teen sex” scenes I’ve ever read. But it had depth too, and plenty of angst. My only complaint is that it was trying a bit too hard to be a sports book – the basketball felt tacked on.

THE RELUCTANT JOURNAL OF HENRY K. LARSEN Susin Nielsen

Tweet: really enjoyed the reluctant journey of henry k larsen by @susinnielsen. visceral yet innocent somehow. an odd mix but it works

I reviewed this book earlier this month.

MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD, Francisco X. Stork

Tweet: MARCELLO IN THE REAL WORLD by Francisco Stork.. Complex, deep and poignant. 4/5 stars

I loved this “neuro-atypical” protagonist, though I was a little uncomfortable with his robotic speech. I’ve never really heard and kids on the autism spectrum speak like this. Apart from that, this was a really great book which I strongly recommend.

THE BEST AND HARDEST THING by Pat Brisson

See my review on Goodreads to get my thoughts.

Why I’m Okay with Fifty Shades of Grey

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The REAL reason I went to the big bookstore today.

I went to a big bookstore today. Unlike most of my visits there, which are purely about browsing, this time I made a few purchases. I had gift cards, a thank you present from a student I mentor. As I was paying for my books I smiled to myself at the stack of books displayed near the cashier – Fifty Shades of Grey of course. Apparently booksellers are displaying this title thus so shoppers won’t have to suffer the embarrassment of asking for help finding it. Like condoms or something. I doubt I’d be embarrassed. I think I’d just waltz in and shout “where’s that crappy porno book?” or something like that.

At any rate, I considered reading Fifty Shades, to see what the fuss is. But now there has been so much fuss that I pretty sure I already know what it is, so I don’t think I’ll bother. Life’s too short and my reading pile is too tall. I didn’t add Fifty Shades to my purchase despite its attractive point of purchase marketing.

But I asked my cashier, a conservative looking woman possibly of South Asian descent and maybe about my age, if they were selling a lot of “that awful book”. She groaned, literally groaned and proceeded to accuse most of the people buying of being “not normal readers”. I wasn’t sure what she meant at first; I thought perhaps she meant they were deviants or something, kind of a harsh assessment really. I mean, it’s just a book. But then she clarified that the book was mostly being bought by people who didn’t normally buy books, or read. As a book professional she could tell the type. I believed her. I remember being able to tell the newbies when I worked in a theater in Toronto. They were the ones who when handed a program would say “Oh, what’s this?”

So Fifty Shades is bringing non-readers to the bookstore, maybe even the library. Is that so bad? The same thing happened a few years ago with Twilight. It was the book that made teen girls who rarely read get enthusiastic about books. Yes, their bookish classmates might have sniffed derisively but so what? At least they were reading.

And let’s not forget that ten, fifteen years ago (is it that long, really?) Harry Potter did the same thing for tween boys. It created readers. Even then, if you recall, people bemoaned the fact that it was a “silly wizard book” that was causing all the fuss in middle schools, rather than, I don’t know, David Copperfield or Lord of the Flies I suppose. I mean come on, really? Harry freaking Potter, people. How can that be bad?

The Harry Potter books are better than the Twilight books; they just are. And Twilight is by turn, better than Fifty Shades. Maybe (God help us) Fifty Shades will turn out to be better than the next phenomenal book that entices the next hold-out of non-readers into bookstores. Who will it be? Teen boys? (gosh I hope so). Grown men? I predict the next “phenomena” will be just such a book, another non-reader appealing book, perhaps a combination of Fight Club, Little Brother and From Russia With Love, maybe with a bit of easy sex. I predict it will be a pile of steaming crap too (unlike those three books), but that shouldn’t matter. As long as it gets non-readers reading.

My reader friends and I have oft decried the poor quality and questionable messages in the Twilight books. From what I understand the sexual politics in Fifty Shades are even worse. Well, that’s a shame, but what are you going to do? They get people reading.

Here’s the thing. One day, a girl who loves Twilight is going to tire of those books. She will pick up any number of better (or worse) copycat books. But  in time she will tire of those books too. And the dull suburban housewife who thrills at Fifty Shades and  Bared to You and all the forthcoming offshoots of this frankly perplexing trend will eventually tire of these formulaic books.  And the teen boys and men will tire of whatever over-packaged under-written dreck is coming next.

One day that girl will pick up a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice.

One day that bored housewife will pick up Tropic of Cancer or Lady Chatterley’s Lover .

The boys and men will eventually read Fight Club, Little Brother and From Russia with Love.

And that’s when we win, people.  We win because readers ultimately travel UP not down. It doesn’t matter where you start and there is no destination. But the journey is always upwards. Better books, more challenging books, books that require thought and effort. The journey is what matters.

As long as people are reading I’m okay with Fifty Shades of Grey.