Category: Life

On Sexual Harassment in the World of Children’s Literature

Though mostly silent on social media these days, I am aware of the earthquake taking place in the kidlit world. That’s the most accurate metaphor I can think of to describe this long overdue upending of the status quo. It’s the kind of event that leaves everyone shaken, and makes you question things you had assumed to be foundational, or self-evident. Perhaps some of us were unaware of the underlying fault line that has ruptured, or the depths to which it reached. In the interest of owning my own part in this, I’m the latter. I’ve been peripherally aware of these issues, but I haven’t ever undertaken the kind of examination that would have revealed the full reach of this problem. Because yes, this industry that I cherish has a problem. A very big and deeply ingrained problem. I wish I had been more fully aware of it before now, and I’m sorry that it took this earthquake for me to see it. My heart breaks for the women who have been harassed, devalued, and victimized. If that is you, then I want you to know that I believe you.

The fault line revealed by this earthquake needs to be addressed, urgently, and I want to do my part. I fear that this chasm, which has always been there, but only now opened wide enough at the surface for everyone to see, has the potential to divide our community of writers, and it already seems to be doing just that. Some people are actively taking sides and rejecting the claims of the other. To some degree, that is expected. It’s human nature to reject information that makes us feel uncomfortable. After all, belief seeks the path of least resistance; if we are passive in our beliefs, we go through life avoiding dissonance and hard truths the way a river avoids certain terrain on its way to the sea.

We might say to ourselves, “I know the accused, and they would never do that.” But that is the easier path. That is simply another way of saying that we don’t want to re-examine our assumptions and biases, which is evidenced by the speed at which people have already decamped into their corners, where they seem to be digging in for a lengthy siege before the facts are known. That some of the accusations are anonymous seems adequate justification for rejection, by some, even though the accused may not have even denied the claims. The harder path in all of this, the active path, is to allow for the possibility that we might have been wrong about someone. We might have been wrong about lots of people, or even an entire industry.

I am trying to take the harder path. I am trying to hear and consider things that make me uncomfortable. I’m trying to examine my own biases and assumptions, because this fault line will not be healed by refusing to acknowledge it or blaming the other side for its inevitable rupture. It will only be healed if we stick our heads together like Lego Batman minifigs, and clench our Batman abs, to pull together.

Right now, there are women who need our support, and none of us have the right to judge the validity of their experiences, or the validity of their responses to those experiences. If you ever find yourself deciding for someone else how they should think and feel about something, well, speaking as a psychologist, you’re engaging in a form of psychological abuse. If you’re doing it to a victim, you’re victimizing them all over again.

Just stop it.

Now.

And listen.

Ursula K. Le Guin

“Only for a moment did the spirit glimmer there. Then the sallow oval between Ged’s arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world. Through it blazed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous…”

As a twelve-soon-to-turn-thirteen-year-old boy, that moment in A Wizard of Earthsea stopped me. I’d been given what was at that time the Earthsea trilogy of books for Christmas, and I remember blinking at the page when I first read that scene and those words. I was aware even then, in a slow and plodding, newly awakening kind of way that something powerful was happening. I went back and reread that scene, those sentences. Then I read them again, and again, and again, until my inner ear heard them not as words in a book to be read, but for what they were: an incantation, an enchantment, a spell.

I realized then that Ged, in all his flawed and relatable anger and fear, was not the Wizard of Earthsea that I had assumed him to be. The real wizard of Earthsea could not actually be found within the story, and yet was present on every page, because the author was the wizard. Ursula K. Le Guin was the wizard.

I realized then that not a single word in that passage could be changed without breaking the spell she had cast over me. I knew the shadow could be nothing else but a clot, or it would be something entirely different than what it was. I knew with certainty that Le Guin had chosen every word with intent and with care. I sensed a kind of exhilarating power in that, and freedom, as though someone had just placed a wand in my hand.

I realized then that I wanted to be a writer, and now, nearly thirty years later, that moment with Le Guin has shaped the writer that I am more than any other experience or influence, and she has continued to teach me during these nearly-thirty years. I learned from every book of hers that I read, whether science fiction, fantasy, contemporary realism, or her essays and nonfiction. The lessons were not only related to the craft of writing, but also to the living of life. In her work I have always found wisdom, and truth, and grace.

When I wrote to her seven years ago and sent her a copy of my first novel, I didn’t express enough of that. I felt insecure, and I didn’t want to bother her. But I did tell her that I was a writer because of her, and a couple of weeks later, much to my surprise, she wrote me back.

My hands trembled a bit as I opened the envelope, and I cried as I read the note in which she complimented and encouraged me with enthusiasm and sincerity. She spoke not to the me who had just sold his first novel, but directly to the twelve-year-old inside me who had a dream, and it’s hard to describe that kind of validation. Then, when she graciously offered a quote for the cover of my second novel, I felt that I had come to the completion or fulfillment of something profound, which of course means the beginning of something else.

A few years ago, I encountered another Le Guin quote:

“Socrates said, ‘The misuse of language induces evil in the soul…’  A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.”

If my work as a writer were to ever have a mission statement, that would be it. Richard Peck has said that as authors, we write by the light of every book we have ever read, and in the constellation of my literary inspirations and heroes, Le Guin shines brightest. She may have passed away today, but her light has not gone out, and her magic has not faded. Her spells and enchantments remain, full of truth.

WARNING: This Post Contains My High School Art

My, my, my. It has been a long time since I posted anything here, which is how I think 99.89 percent of blog entries begin nowadays. But on a whim I think I’ll post something today.

I’ve been feeling the urge to draw lately. Well, I’ve been feeling it for the past couple of years, actually. Art used to be a big part of my life, when I was younger. I drew and painted all through high-school, with dreams of going into comics or illustration, and the only thing that stopped me from committing to that path completely was my colorblindness. I found it incredibly frustrating to not see what everyone else would see when they looked at my work. I got tired of having to ask a friend, “Does this shade of green work for maple leaves?” as I mixed colors. So I focused on writing instead, because I could communicate my ideas so much more clearly with words than color. But sometimes I miss making visual art.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve drawn a couple of maps recently, one for a fantasy series roiling at the back of my head, and one that will probably appear at the front of the third book in my Assassin’s Creed series, Last Descendants. In drawing both maps, I realized it felt good to have pencil and pen in my hand again. So I went out and bought some supplies, and I plan to start making visual art again, just for me. I also pulled out some of my old junior-high and high-school work to look at. I’ll post some of it below, just for fun. Don’t be too hard on it. I was just a kid.

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Thoughts from a Book Tour

I’ve been traveling quite a bit, off and on, over the last month or so. I visited several cities, a few amazing bookstores, and numerous schools. The people I meet often wonder what a book tour is like. Some people assume it’s glamorous, and on occasion it does kind of feel that way. Some people assume it’s exhausting, and it can be. Some people figure it’s probably not all it’s cracked up to be, and that’s true, too. It’s all of those things, and I love it. But here is the important thing to remember: I am very, very lucky to be given the opportunity.

There are a lot of authors whose publishers don’t support them or their work in that way. Marketing budgets are limited, choices are made, and it is not always fair. I’ve been on both sides of those decisions. I’ve toured for some of my books, and I’ve had little to no publisher support for others, so I feel very fortunate and grateful when I’m given the opportunity to get out there and meet fans and readers. I try very hard not to take that for granted, because who knows when I’ll have that opportunity again. I try very hard to remember the times I didn’t travel anywhere, and I think about the writers I admire who should probably be out there on the road instead of me. When I visit bookstores on tour, I make a point to mention the books I love by other writers to the booksellers and readers. If I have room in my luggage, I buy books by other writers from those bookstores. I talk to kids about other writers and other books, because in the end, it’s all about turning young readers into life-long readers. It’s about making better humans, and books are perfect tools for that. If my being in a school, a library, or a bookstore can help build that excitement in young readers, then I’m honored to be given that chance, and I will always do my best.

P.S. A book tour wouldn’t be possible without the hard work and dedication of an amazing publicist. They work tirelessly behind the scenes (and after-hours) to make sure book tours are as successful as they can possibly be. I’ve been so lucky to work with Lauren Felsenstein Bonifacius and Emma Brockway. Now I work with Monica Palenzuela, and if you ever get the chance to make candles with her, don’t pass it up.

A Halloween Post

It was Halloween over the weekend, which was appropriate to the book I’m currently writing. It’s a Victorian horror novel, and will be for a much older, YA audience than my usual, middle grade books. It’s been a new and interesting challenge to write, and I have to say I’ve creeped myself out a couple of times, both from the writing and the research, because man, the Victorian London underworld was NOT a very nice place. I mean, just to give you a taste, this was a place where guys would sell live sparrows on strings, at a penny apiece, as a kind of one-use toy for children to play with, AKA torture. If that kind of thing is going on, you know you’ve got some serious societal issues with empathy. And fun times for me writing about them! The book will be dark and violent, but I hope it will also be ultimately redemptive and hopeful, and I’m trying very hard to avoid any gratuitousness; when I include something that makes me uncomfortable, I make certain it’s not going in just to shock the reader, but serves a vital narrative purpose that can’t be accomplished another, better way. I’m not sure when this books will be out, but I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of the month or early December.

While we’re on the subject of Halloween, I had some fun with my step-kids’ costumes. One of them wanted to be Link, from The Legend of Zelda, but I couldn’t find a belt I could re-purpose into a baldric for her sword. So I went to Tandy Leather, and a young gentleman there was incredibly helpful in getting me sorted out with all the leather and tools I would need for the project. Here’s the finished product:

baldric1

photo (2)

The stitching isn’t the best, and my hands felt like they’d been run through a meat grinder for a few days, but it was actually a lot of fun. In fact, I may have just picked up a new hobby.

Jaime made the rest of the costumes, and here’s my step-daughter as Link.

link

And here’s my step-son as a “deku scrub,” which, he will correct you, is not a character, but a race from Legend of Zelda.

dekuscrub

It was quite a fun Halloween. I hope yours was, too.

Before I go, just a last bit of writing news and updates. I get MANY emails and comments on the blog asking when the next Quantum League book will be out. I am so, so sorry that I don’t know. That’s up to my publisher, as well as other factors outside my control. I have written a draft of it, and I think it’s pretty cool. If you want to read it, I would recommend letting your local bookstore know that you want it.

But in the meantime, I have a new series starting up with a new publisher. The Arctic Code, book one in the Dark Gravity Sequence, will be out next April, and I’m really excited about it. It’s going to a place I’ve never gone in my books, namely the future. When I have a cover and I can tell you more details, I will.

Books written, books yet to be written.

The books I have written may explain why I haven’t written an entry here in quite some time. Since I last posted, I’ve written the next Quantum League book, the sequel to Spell Robbers, and did a rewrite on the first installment in an SF/adventure series I’m doing for Harper Collins. I’m really excited about both, and I’m looking forward to talking about them more in the coming months.

The fact that I can write sentences like the ones I just wrote still catches me off-guard at times. I’m so happy and honored that I get to write stories. People often ask which of my books I like the best, and that’s a difficult question to answer. I usually reply that I like the book I’m currently writing the best, which means it’s a book no one else has read. That’s because the story I’m currently writing is the one that’s alive in my head. Those are the characters who’re living their lives and talking to me. When they stop talking, there’s no story, and when I’ve finished a book, it’s no longer a living, moving thing. I don’t know if that answer satisfies the one asking the question, but there it is.

Of course, it’s also true that I love different memories from the writing of each of my books, and it’s hard to pick a favorite memory, isn’t it? Each writing experience brings its own unique pleasures and challenges. Each book means something different to me, personally and artistically. I’m proud of all of them, each for their own idiosyncratic reasons.

In the next week or so, I’ll be writing a nonfiction piece, with an accompanying short story, for a really wonderful anthology called Been There, Done That. The project aims to show students how authors connect our real-life experiences to the stories we tell, and the roster of writers contributing to the anthology is mighty impressive. I’m honored to be a part of it.

After that, I’ll be tackling something very new for me. It’s still quite early to be talking about it, but this next book will likely be shelved in a slightly different part of the store or library than my other novels. I’m a bit nervous about it, but also incredibly excited. I’m still in the research phase (which, let’s face it, I love) but I’ll be starting in on the writing very soon.

On a personal note, it occurs to me I haven’t updated you all on some life changes I’ve gone through in the last year. I have remarried. My wife is an absolutely amazing woman named Jaime, also known as the sophistimom. She blogged a bit about our meeting and marriage, so if you’d like to read about it, you can click here. We are happy, and life is good.

A bunch of stuff!

I’ve been very, very busy lately, and I’m just poking my head up for a moment to say that yes, I am alive, before dropping back under. (Although. I am on twitter, now, and I am able to update there a lot more frequently than here, FYI.) In the past few weeks I’ve written the bulk of the first book in the Quantum League series, and now I have to switch gears to write my installment in the Infinity Ring series. So I’m going from a magical-heist novel, to Golden Age Baghdad, and I’m having way too much fun with both of them.

Before I go, I just want to say a few things.

First, if you have emailed me in the last few weeks (or *ahem* months) I’m sorry if I haven’t gotten back with you. I hope to get caught up on my email soon, but I’ve been saying that for a while now.

Second, I am behind on a few things people are expecting from me, and have been expecting for quite some time. You know who you are. Thank you very much for your patience.

Third, Icefall will be out in paperback on February 1st (officially – you’ll probably spot it before then), and the ebook price has dropped recently as well. Just in time for Christma- Oh, wait…

Now that I have said those things…

Do you remember the 12 year old composer I’ve mentioned before? Well, he just won first place in the student competition of the National Association of Composers for a piece inspired by the green violin in The Clockwork Three! Here is his acceptance, and a performance of the piece.

And here are some more wintery photos from the last couple of weeks. First, a couple of the lake by my house:

And one of Muppet, who treats snow like Scrooge McDuck treats his money bin:

And a couple of deer, as photographed from my bedroom window, hence the slight blurriness:

And finally, the other day we left the house, a single Oreo in its plastic sleeve on the kitchen counter, and we came home to this. There was no one home but the cat. I think Oreos should include “No opposable thumbs necessary!” on their packaging.

And that’s all I got for now.

You can almost feel the fur coats…

The other day, after we’d had a heavy snowfall, I took the dogs for a walk in the woods. The forest had a very Narnia feel about it. I imagined Mr. Tumnus with his parcels and little umbrella around every tree (and it also made me think that I need to get a lamppost like Neil Gaiman). Look at the photos below, and tell me if you agree.

The dogs had a good time, too, following invisible trails of scent, collecting snowball boots on their legs. They both love the snow. Love it. Muppet will literally burrow through it, while Coral bounds across it like a deer. Here are some pics I snapped of them.

Coral

Muppet

And early this morning I woke up to find we’d had a few little night visitors right up against the front porch.

I think they must have come by at different times, or the place where the tracks intersect would probably look quite different.

PEN Center USA Award, and the first snowfall of the year

A few weeks ago, Scholastic was kind enough to send me to Los Angeles to receive the PEN Center USA Award for Icefall. I have to say, I think this was one of the most intimidating events I’ve been to. It’s partly because I was there alone and didn’t know anyone. It’s partly because it was held in Beverly Hills, and I’d spent that afternoon walking past stores I didn’t think I could even afford to set foot in. The banquet and ceremony were held in a ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and there was a cocktail reception before the event, during which I was just sort of hanging out on my own at the edges, watching the people and simply enjoying being there.

At one point, while I was texting my editor, I looked up and saw someone standing right in front of me who seemed familiar. She had red hair, and it took about five seconds for me to think to myself, “That’s Molly Ringwald.” And before I could decide if it was a good idea to say anything to her, she looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back and blurted out, “Are you Molly Ringwald?”

“Yes,” she said.

I’m sure at this point she usually gets the Breakfast Club or 16 Candles appreciation, but I was more interested in the fact that I thought I’d heard she’d written a book. So I asked her about it. It’s a collection of short stories tied together by a theme of betrayal called When it Happens to You. We talked about that briefly, and then she asked about my work and we talked about Icefall.

The whole interaction lasted maybe two minutes, but it was kind of fun to have a Hollywood moment while I was there. I thought about asking to take a picture with her, but after feeling the mood of the room, I decided I didn’t want to be that guy.

During the banquet, I was seated at a table with several of the judges for the award, as well as one of the other finalists, Gretchen Woelfle (for All the World’s a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts). Everyone was lovely, and Gretchen already wrote up a great piece on the event and what PEN Center USA is all about. It’s definitely worth a read.

That’s me giving my speech. Thanks to Drew Filus for snapping the picture.

When I went up to receive my award and give my acceptance speech, I talked about what an honor it was to receive the same award that had been given to Ursula K. Le Guin a few years ago. I haven’t ever blogged about Ms. Le Guin in detail, or what her work has meant to me. I think that’s something I need to remedy in the near future. I am a writer because I read her books.

It was a really wonderful evening. Thank you again to PEN Center USA for the honor, and to Scholastic (I’m looking at you Candace!) for their support in sending me. And congratulations to the other finalists!

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We had our first snowfall of the year a couple of days ago, and woke up to this:

The back yard.

The front yard.

Pretty magical. I looked out the window and felt a bit like Ralphie in A Christmas Story on Christmas morning, with the harp music playing and everything. It has put me in mind of the holidays, that’s for sure.

And speaking of holidays, a good friend of mine, Kimball Fisher, has written a short story for the Christmas season. It’s titled Finding the Baby Jesus. I really enjoyed it and blurbed it. It’s available through Amazon.

 

Zombie Cats, Some Pretty Scenery, and a Red Dawn

I’ve been researching quantum theory recently, and by “research” I mean that I’m trying to wrap my math-challenged head around something that is even more amazing, disturbing, and shocking than I thought it was. Things (very small things) really can be in two places at once. The observation of something writes the history of that thing before you observed it. Schrodinger’s cat can be both alive and dead. Two electrons can affect one another across vast distances, instantaneously. The quantum behavior of very small things defies our intuitive understanding of the world around us, supplanting the Newtonian “approximation” that we take for granted. Quantum physics is where it’s at, and it’s pretty mind-blowing. I mean, it’s arguably the most proven theory in all of science, and a third of the world’s economy is comprised of industries based on quantum mechanics (things like lasers and the microprocessor in your computer and your phone).

I’m researching all of this for The Quantum League, and it’s got me really excited to write the series. If you’re interested, Brian Greene, a physicist with a gift for being able to describe very complex concepts in understandable ways, took on the quantum realm for the PBS show Nova. You can watch it below, if you’d like.

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And now, some pictures of my new yard and neighborhood, as promised.

my front yard

my back yard

the view from my office

The family of turkeys that love to stroll through my yard, completely unperturbed by my two barking dogs, whom they drive completely insane.

Still unperturbed.

And now, a few pictures of the neighborhood.

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For those of you who are of a certain age, do you remember the movie Red Dawn with Patrick Swayze? Well, last night I dreamed it. Sort of. I’m still not sure who the invaders were, but they were Russian-like. Except they had ships like those crazy flying armored whale things in the Avengers.

Yes. Like that.

Well, since Robert Downey Jr. et al never made an appearance, the Russian-ish invaders pretty well managed to subjugate the populace. Everyone was just surrendering. That was when my brother and me got a rocket launcher. (That sentence would make you chuckle, or at least raise an eyebrow, if you knew my brother and me.) And we shot down one of these ships. But it didn’t just fall out of the sky. No, it careened, smoking, blazing, right over our heads into the White House. The explosion that followed would make Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich both applaud and weep and turn in their directors’ chairs and bullhorns (they use bullhorns, right?) in the knowledge that they will never, ever be able to surpass such cinematic awesomeness.

After the shock of seeing something so spectacular wore off, the pseudo-Russians started looking for who had fired the rocket, so my brother and I stashed the launcher in an open cab and walked away. No one knew who had done it. We were anonymous heroes.

I woke up at that point, but if I had continued dreaming, I’m certain our bravery would have inspired others and incited an uprising that would ultimately drive the vaguely Russian invaders from our soil.

The thing is, I don’t normally remember my dreams. One of the last dreams I remember led to Icefall. I doubt this dream will lead anywhere, fictionally, but if it does, watch out, Bay and Emmerich.