The Floating Saloon

On Sensitivity Readers; a Very Long Post

Warning: this is a long post.

There have been a number of articles on sensitivity readers in the last few weeks. Slate ran this one; Huffington Post this one over here; here’s the Washington Post. There are others. Google a few more if you want. Then go to Writing at the Margins, where you’ll find a description of what sensitivity readers do, just in case you weren’t already aware.

I’m a person who believes in sensitivity readers, in the first place because I’m a person who generally believes in having expert readers look over my manuscripts before my I call my books finished, but also because I write for kids. I think when you write for kids, the stakes are, in general, higher than they are if you write for adults, and I believe, basically, in taking the feelings and well-being of my readers into consideration. I don’t think I began my career in middle grade literature feeling quite so strongly about this, by the way–more on that below. But suffice to say, while writing Ghosts of Greenglass House, I made sure to find readers who could look at several aspects of the story that were outside my direct knowledge and experience.

This, by the way, if you read the comments on any of the articles I linked to above, apparently means I caved to excessive political correctness and allowed a bunch of overly-sensitive censors to water down a story that might otherwise have been original. I invite you to please imagine me either laughing my ass off as I type this or reading it with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Because I feel that, as with every other expert reader whose assistance I’ve requested in the course of writing a book, the input of these readers was invaluable. Simply put, their feedback made Ghosts of Greenglass House better. More on that below, too.

A couple weeks ago, I was honored to join Jennifer Baker and Jordan Brown on a panel moderated by Justina Ireland and presented by the Children’s Book Council. The panel was called “A Second Opinion: Utilizing Sensitivity Readers.” The panel was geared towards children’s and young adult publishing professionals who were interested in some best practices for working with sensitivity readers. Jennifer is an editor, author, and sensitivity reader; Jordan is an executive editor at HarperCollins; Justina is an author and maintains the Writing in the Margins website, including a database of sensitivity readers. I was there as an author who’d utilized sensitivity readers. Publisher’s Weekly did a nice write-up of the event; you can read it here. 

After that panel, I was contacted by a correspondent at NPR who was looking for an author who’d used sensitivity readers to answer some questions for a piece that I believe will air tomorrow (Tuesday). [Tuesday edit: Here’s the link to that interview, which also features my dear friend and colleague, author Dhonielle Clayton, as well as author Hillary Jordan.] Because I’m always afraid I’ll sound incoherent or rambly when I’m speaking off the cuff, I made some notes, and because I don’t know what parts of our discussion the NPR piece will ultimately use and because I didn’t wind up saying everything I’d written down, I decided to write my notes up as this post. The headings below are questions I anticipated being asked, followed by what I wrote up to help me organize my thoughts when I answered.

Isn’t this all a bit too much, the idea of hiring people just to avoid being insensitive? And paying them, too?

I do not. I love that sensitivity readers exist, and I am in awe of their generosity. These are people who are willing to share their knowledge and personal, lived experiences with complete strangers in the interests of bringing better stories into the world. And not all of these experiences are pleasant to relive and rehash, which, in addition to compensating basic time and effort, is one reason why paying sensitivity readers is important.

They do this so readers–and since I’m coming to this from the world of young people’s literature, I mean specifically kids–have a chance to see themselves and others like them reflected in books that feel authentic, that value their own feelings and experiences, and that tell those readers that they’re important and worth seeing in literature. I love the generosity of sensitivity readers because not only are they willing to give their time and emotional energy, they’re willing to do this in order to make literature a better place for another generation of readers. They’re willing to deal with the middlemen–authors like me, and all of our errors, assumptions, and ego–in order to make a positive change for strangers they’ll never meet.

And as for being paid–we’re talking about hiring people to do work, and people who do work should get paid. Editors get paid, copyeditors get paid–reading and critiquing a complete manuscript is work, and deserves to be compensated. Full stop.

Why did you feel you needed sensitivity readers for your book?

In Greenglass House and its forthcoming sequel, the main character is a transracial adoptee. In the first book, in addition to solving a mystery, Milo was dealing a bit with questions about his unknown birth parents. In the second book, he’s dealing a bit with the complications of being Chinese in a white family and feeling a bit alienated from his ethnic heritage.

With past books–and in retrospect I wish I’d done this differently–I’ve relied on my own research. And I do have a significant amount of personal experience with the international adoption process–my husband and I have been in the process ourselves for a number of years, and after numerous trainings and homestudies and conferences with social workers, I know that transracial families frequently if not always have to contend with complications about race and heritage. But I have never experienced myself what my character and his family are going through and I wanted to try and be as true to that experience as possible. Because of that, during the revision process of Ghosts of Greenglass House, I arranged for three transracial adoptees from different backgrounds to read the book and give me feedback, as well as two non-adoptee Chinese-American readers and two additional readers looking at other concerns.

I want to write the best possible book I can, and the most accurate book I can. I’m a very good researcher, but even after three years’ worth of preliminary research, when I wrote a book set on a privateer during the War of 1812 I lined up two experts for feedback. In books where I’ve had characters speaking languages in which I’m not fluent, I’ve had experts check my translations. Asking someone to read for perspective when I’m writing outside my own personal experience feels not at all different to me from those things. It’s not that I can’t empathize or do the imaginative work myself; it’s about improving accuracy and adding depth and detail, except I would mind less if someone found an error in how I’ve described a schooner than I’d mind if someone found that I’d been inaccurate or insensitive in writing a transracial adoptee. My inaccuracy isn’t going to hurt the schooner.

Which brings me to the more important point. I write for kids. If I’m going to ask them to go with me on an adventure that might be challenging, might be sad or difficult or frightening, I need them to trust me. I need them to believe that I’m on their side. If I somehow signal to them that maybe I’m not–that maybe I don’t understand them or don’t understand their experiences or that I don’t know what I’m talking about, then at best I’ve lost them. At worst, I risk doing harm.

Yes, harm. You’re free to agree or disagree, but for myself I believe that the way that children see similar kids represented in books can make a difference about how they feel about themselves, and how they understand (correctly or not) the way they fit into the world. I’m perfectly willing to scare a kid (see my published works), but I’d rather err on the side of not making them feel crappy about themselves than they already might. Childhood and adolescence can be pretty brutal to start with. I prefer not to add to it.

So for me, working with sensitivity readers is less about trying not to offend anyone (there’s no way to guarantee against that, because no two people read the same book the same way) and more about a) at minimum actively trying not to do harm to the very vulnerable audience I write for and b) ideally trying to write the best book for them, the one that they can read and think, this book was written for me.

What did you get from the experience?

I was fortunate in that, for Ghosts of Greenglass House, the readers didn’t find any massive, big-picture issues that needed to be addressed. Most of the issues were small and subtle, things that probably never would have occurred to me on my own, based on my own experience.

For instance, this is a sequel, and in reintroducing my main character and his family, I referred to his parents as ‘his adoptive parents.’ This, of course, was accurate, but the readers all felt that, since we were in the POV of the adoptee protagonist, referring to his parents that way felt distancing. I had chosen that phrasing out of convenience, as a way to quickly remind readers of Milo’s family situation, but from the perspective of readers who were also adoptees, that choice undermined the otherwise tight-knit family I thought I’d written. And it was an easy fix. Most of the critical feedback I got was like that–subtle things, but meaningful, especially to young readers and their families who might in some way or other identify with the characters.

And then there were what I’d call missed opportunities–things that the sensitivity readers had personally experienced that they were generous enough to share with me so that I could share them with the characters, or places where they saw the opportunity for me to make a stronger storytelling choice, or one that would resonate more deeply with kids in family situations like my protagonist’s. One reader reminisced about how her family helped her connect with her heritage through food and suggested I might use that to help show Milo’s family encouraging his efforts to connect with his. Another reader suggested I change a character’s name. Her suggestion for a replacement was way better than what I had started with, and because it relied on language fluency I don’t have, I would never have made that choice without her input. Two readers mentioned feeling alienated by family tree projects in elementary school, and with their permission, I gave that experience to someone in the book to share with Milo–after everyone also said they wanted more from that particular character.

Those things added beautifully to the story and made it richer. That’s an important thing to mention: this process isn’t just about someone telling you what you did wrong. It’s about making the story better, and not just for your sake, but for your target readers.

But political correctness! Censorship! Blaaaahhhhh!

Okay, stop. An author can, in fact, write whatever the hell he or she wants. Actual fact. You can write outside your cultural experience or not. If you do, you can hire a sensitivity reader or not, and if you do, you can follow the advice that person gives or not. So for a writer, it really is up to you. Just remember that if you put what you write out into the world, the public has a right to comment on it. There are a lot of good arguments for sensitivity readers. We’ve discussed some of them. But no one’s going to make you do it.

Unless, potentially, you decide to work with a publisher. Because once you sell your book to a publisher, you enter into a partnership, and you aren’t the only one making decisions about that book anymore. That’s just the way it works. If you feel you need to be the only one making decisions about the story you’ve written, and if you don’t look at the story as belonging to anyone but you–and some writers do feel that way, which is their choice–then the traditional publishing model might not be ideal for you. And today there are myriad alternative publishing options and platforms available to writers who want complete control over their projects.

If you do sign with a publisher, and if you the author choose not to worry about a sensitivity reader and the publisher does and this results in a disagreement, then presumably you work together to solve it as you would any disagreement that crops up during the editing process. I mean…that’s kind of what the editing process is about.

And I do think publishers–or at least publishers of books for young readers–should at least think about sensitivity concerns. I think they should utilize sensitivity readers and consider very carefully the feedback those readers give. For one thing, public opinion can impact sales, and using sensitivity readers can help identify potential issues before the book gets to print, which is just better for everyone.

But more importantly than that, in a perfect world, publishers of books for kids should be concerned with more than the bottom line. They should be concerned with doing right by their readers, and doing their best to be sure that the books they publish don’t perpetuate stereotypes or include potentially damaging elements. And even though what constitutes “harmful” is not always a clear-cut matter–look at any book that’s caused any kind of controversy in this way and you’ll find conflicting opinions–I think it’s incumbent upon publishers to think critically and seek informed voices and opinions to aid in making their decisions when in one of those potentially gray areas. The point isn’t to never ever offend anyone ever–because again, impossible–but to do due diligence and make informed editorial decisions before the book goes to print.

And if you’re still reading after all that, hey, thanks.

 

A Post about Biggest Things

A couple months ago when I thought maybe, maybe if I tried really hard, I’d manage a couple blog posts a week leading up to launch time, I asked some friends what would make good topics, because I am notoriously bad at figuring out what kinds of things might be interesting to the reader who just happens to land here. Dylan Meconis said she’s always interested in what the biggest challenge of a given project is, which got me thinking and ultimately resulted in a very short list of “biggests” related to The Left-Handed Fate. Here it is.

Biggest challenge of the writing (thank you, Dylan!):

I think there were two.

20121127_191625The first was being detailed enough about the nautical elements of the story for it to pass muster with people who love boats and can spot inaccuracies but not so obsessive about nautical stuff that it pulls readers out of the story. I like to use fun vocabulary generally, so using the same tricks that allow you to confidently toss around uncommon and lengthy words in books for kids helped here. It was also really helpful to have one protagonist who isn’t a sailor and hasn’t gotten confident with terminology or architecture or really any of the practicalities of sailing. Any time I figure Max would need something explained or spelled out, I figure a reader will, too (and vice versa).

The second was making the War of 1812 accessible. I loved writing about this war because I think it’s relevant today for a lot of reasons, but if you’d asked me what it was really all about before I started researching I’d have had a hard time answering. It’s not one of the wars you learn much about in school, and it’s not easily reduced to a single memorable issue that sticks in the memory like the American Revolution, the Civil War, or World War 2. Plus, we didn’t win the War of 1812. We got trounced by Canada, fought to maybe a draw, and even the final treaty ignored one of the primary grievances we had with England. And while it was consequential for the United States, the War of 1812 was basically a spoiler conflict happening at the margins of the wars happening in Europe. It’s a fascinating moment, but it was hard to pin down without getting overly lecturey and expositional.

Biggest fear about the book:

9780544052703_hresThis one’s easy, and my friends and family already know the answer. I’m afraid people will be disappointed that The Left-Handed Fate isn’t like Greenglass House. Yes, it returns to Nagspeake, which was a total joy, but it isn’t cozy. It falls somewhere in the space between Greenglass House and The Boneshaker: a little more darkness than Milo’s story, a little more humor than Natalie’s. And there’s a hint of The Broken Lands in there, too, and not just because Liao is a character in both. Folks who’ve read all three of the earlier books (or five, if you count the Arcana companion books) know that Greenglass House is the outlier, but so many more people read Greenglass House than the others, it’s hard not to be worried.

But in the end, if there’s one thing I have learned as a bookseller, it’s that not all books are for all readers. Still, it’s hard to apply that to my own books, when of course I want everyone in the world to love them all, especially the new one that I love to an unreasonable degree–but that’s plainly unrealistic. So this book won’t be for everyone, and that’s okay. And anyway, there’s Ghosts of Greenglass House coming out next year, so that’s comforting, too.

Biggest research problem:

Working out the architecture of the actual vessel called the Left-Handed Fate. But initially I wanted the Fate to be a really oddball vessel that looked nothing like anything else on the water–for those who’ve read Patrick O’Brian, I was thinking a bit about the “carpenter’s mistake,” the HMS Polychrest, if the “innovations” that made the Polychrest so dysfunctional had actually worked. But as I wrote I realized that constructing a ship like that was really outside my capability if I wanted to keep the nautical elements of the book realistic.

LHFDrawingAugust2DarkerOnce I let go of that idea, I wanted the Fate to be a Baltimore-built clipper, which really became a thing just after the era of the book. So she became a topsail schooner that incorporated elements of some of the other types of vessels that influenced the builders of what would come to be called clippers. And really what kept messing with me was the lower deck layout. It took me so long to get around to nailing that down that Eliza Wheeler (whose patience is really one of the wonders of the world) had already begun drawing and both of us had to revise what we’d done to match the final layout.

Biggest hope for the book:

That it does well enough to justify returning to this era and these characters in another full-length novel. I think that’s always my biggest hope when a book comes out. I fall so deeply in love with the characters that I want to return to them again and again. Even though I’m supposed to be working on other things, ideas are already starting to swirl. I hope, I hope, I hope.

Pre-Order THE LEFT-HANDED FATE, Get a Present from Me!

Well, we’re in the home stretch: just 24 days (as of July 30) until the launch of The Left-Handed Fate! And I hope like anything that you’re counting down the days, too.

9780805098006_FCSo, hey! Let’s talk about pre-orders. Some of you might know that I have strong feelings about the importance of independent bookstores. So for folks pre-ordering The Left-Handed Fate, if you pre-order from one of these bookmongers, I have a special gift for you. Actually, four special gifts, because each shop has something different. Order from any (or all!); they’re all happy to ship books anywhere in the country.

McNally Jackson Books, Soho, NYC

The first 40 customers to pre-order from McNally Jackson will receive a numbered and signed paperback copy of Bluecrowne from the original 200-copy printing funded by Kickstarter and printed in the store on the Espresso Book Machine. Bluecrowne, for those who don’t know, is the first adventure of Lucy Bluecrowne, one of the main characters of The Left-Handed Fate, in the city of Nagspeake. It’s a standalone story, as is LHF–you don’t have to read Bluecrowne first–but you’ll definitely have special insights and information if you do. Order here. 

Little Shop of Stories, Decatur, GA

LHFWithCopperplateThe first fifty customers to pre-order The Left-Handed Fate from Little Shop of Stories will receive a letter-sized print of an architectural drawing of the topsail schooner letter-of-marque vessel, the Left-Handed Fate. This is a drawing I made for my own reference while writing and revising the book, only I fancied it up for you with some walnut ink and nice paper and some charmingly wobbly copperplate. (Note: by the time you receive your copy, the copperplate might be less wobbly and amusing, but I had to put something here to get this page up.) Order here.

Porter Square Books, Boston, MA

20160730_081545Customers who pre-order from Porter Square will receive a signed (and personalized, if you choose) handmade cut-paper bookplate. This is a thing I should probably not have done because I’m really not to be trusted with a knife this sharp. Also I cannibalized a vintage trigonometry book to do it. BUT THAT BOOK HAD IT COMING. (Note: Colors may vary, because I made this one before I knew what color the inside pages were.) Order here.

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY

20160730_082301Customers who pre-order from Oblong Books will receive a bookmark in the form of a prayer card for Saint Pontila of Nagspeake, Patron Saint of Messages Sent in Bottles (to be clear, she looks out for the messages, not the senders or receivers, so invoke her at your peril). Those of you who’ve read The Broken Lands will already know a little about my fascination with prayer cards, although they have a different significance in The Left-Handed Fate.  Order here.LHFplusStPontila

Coming soon: launch party information! But if you’re in the vicinity of NYC or Annapolis, MD, or plan to be at the end of August or need an excuse for a trip, mark your calendars!

NYC Launch: McNally Jackson Books, Tuesday, August 23 7pm. All ages welcome.

Annapolis Launch: Barnes and Noble Annapolis, Thursday, August 25, 6pm. All ages welcome.

FAQs: The Left-Handed Fate and Bluecrowne

As of today, 35 DAYS TO THE LAUNCH OF THE LEFT-HANDED FATE!

9780805098006_FCAnd, predictably, I still keep forgetting to post here. On the other hand, I do have at least one good reason: I’m working like crazy to get The Illustrated Bluecrowne PDF ready for release before the LHF launch at the end of August. And since Bluecrowne is so closely related to The Left-Handed Fate (and since a forthcoming review actually refers to LHF as a sequel to Bluecrowne), I thought it would be good to talk a little about these two books and how they’re related.

Bluecrowne_Cover2Bluecrowne is part of an endeavor I call the Arcana Project, which is a series of short novels set in the same world as The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, Greenglass House, and The Left-Handed Fate—all of which are related to one degree or another, but all of which are stand-alone tales that can be read independently of the others. The Arcana books are meant to provide additional tales and, in some cases, show how certain books are related to others. I don’t publicize them heavily because I imagine them kind of like Easter eggs—if you find them, good for you! Enjoy. If not, no big deal. I had fun writing them. So far, there are two books, The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne. The Kairos Mechanism takes place after the events of The Boneshaker; Bluecrowne takes place before the events of The Left-Handed Fate. Here are some FAQs I get about how these books are all connected.

Q: I see that some of the characters in The Left-Handed Fate appear in an earlier book, Bluecrowne. Is The Left-Handed Fate a sequel? Do I need to read Bluecrowne first?

A: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO READ BLUECROWNE FIRST. The events of Bluecrowne take place first; however, both are truly standalone stories. (Bluecrowne is also the backstory of the building of Greenglass House, for instance, and explains the origins of two key clues to the mysteries Milo and Meddy solve, but I am completely certain that most people who read Greenglass House are entirely unaware of Bluecrowne‘s existence.) If you have (or do) read Bluecrowne before The Left-Handed Fate, hooray! You’ll definitely have insider information, including insight into Liao’s pyrotechnical gifts and the reason Lucy and her father aren’t excited to return to Nagspeake. But if you haven’t or choose not to read it, no big deal.

Q: Ok, cool. How do I get Bluecrowne if I want it?

A: You have three options.

  • You can get the ebook right now in the format of your choice from any of the usual ebook retailers. You’ll see that there are two versions, and one is more expensive than the other. The more expensive version is called the Kickstarter Edition, and it includes a bonus story from The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book (which you will know of if you’ve read Greenglass House).
  • You can get the paperback very rapidly (how fast depends on your shipping preferences) from McNally Jackson Books, where the books are printed using the Espresso Book Machine. If you want your copy signed or personalized, there is a field in the online order form where you can request that (note that I’m only there once a week, so signed copies might be delayed until I’m next in). Order here, or you can call the store directly to order by phone (212-274-1160). Bonus: on most Saturdays, if you call between 10 and 6, there’s a high probability I’ll be the one answering the phone! Hi!
  • You can read it free (or pay what you choose) starting sometime in August when The Illustrated Bluecrowne ebook is released. Right now I’m waiting for the last few pieces of original art from the young illustrators, but I expect to have it finished and available for download by mid-August or thereabouts. It’ll be a PDF, so it should work for you whatever kind of reader you use, and I’ll add a link here as soon as it’s ready. The art, by the way, is really outstanding. I can’t wait to share it with you. Preorder here.

Q: A free illustrated version? What’s that about?

A: As part of the Kickstarter-funded publication budget of the Arcana books, I included funds for a digital edition that would be illustrated by young reader artists and offered free or pay whatever, with the idea that I wanted the artists to be able to share their work at no cost to their friends and families. (Any money contributed by readers who do choose to pay goes into the pot for the next book’s illustrators.) The artists are between 11 and 21, and each used a style of his/her own choosing. It is, hands down, my favorite part of the project.

Q: I see the Bluecrowne paperback says “Arcana, Volume 2” on the spine. Do I have to read The Kairos Mechanism first? WHY IS THIS SO CONFUSING, KATE?

It was odd because they were strangers, and because they came in on foot. It was odd because of what they carried.

A: You do not need to read The Kairos Mechanism before Bluecrowne (although if you want to, you can follow all the same info above to get it in ebook or paperback (order the paperback here, and the free-or-pay-whatever illustrated version is here). Like Bluecrowne, it’s a standalone story, although it is definitely more closely tied to The Boneshaker. As for why it’s so confusing: I overcomplicate things. There. I said it. It’s just who I am.

Q: I’ve read the Arcana books and I was really hoping you’d have one coming out this year, but I haven’t heard anything. Are you doing another Arcana book?

A: Yes. Two more at least. But not this year. I have discovered to my shock that my ability to turn out three thousand words a day disappeared the day I had a kid. So here’s what’s coming down the pike: hopefully first, possibly as early as next fall, will be The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book. Additionally, I have an as-yet-untitled adventure featuring Sam and Jin from The Broken Lands. Kickstarter backers of Bluecrowne will get an advance peek and free digital copies, because this book arose from a short story I promised as a bonus reward during the Bluecrowne campaign that turned out not to be a short story at all.

Here’s hoping that clears up the relationship between Bluecrowne and The Left-Handed Fate. Any other questions you have, pop them into the comments!

 

In Which I Sneak onto a Very Important Panel by Organizing It (Please Come)!

Yes, folks, I get to talk upper middle-grade with Rebecca Stead, Mariko Tamaki, and Nancy Paulsen! I’m kind of dying of joy, in part because, as an author, bookseller, reader and mom, I am a HUGE, HUGE fan of these women, and in part because this is a conversation I want to have as often, and as loudly, as possible.

Last year, I was really fortunate to be able to take part in a panel discussion at last year’s NESCBWI conference with Laurel Snyder and Aaron Starmer on the subject of upper middle-grade fiction. We called the panel “The Blurry Space of Thirteen.” It was a phenomenal discussion, and I’ve been on the lookout ever since for another chance to dive back in. After all, before Greenglass House, all of my books fell squarely into this awkward upper middle-grade range. My next book is upper MG. Nearly every book in my head is upper MG.

Now, if you have visited this site before basically ever, you know that I’m terrible at updating it. In the last year, I’ve blogged exactly twice, and one of those posts was this one: Just One Reason Why THIS ONE SUMMER’s Caldecott Honor Matters a Lot. 

You can read the whole (excessively long) thing if you have time, but basically my thesis is, books for the set of readers who fall in the icky transitional space between kid and teen are hard to serve in the kids’ book world for Reasons (see post for specifics). But it’s critically important that we serve these kids–they’re going through some of the worst years of their lives, if my memory is to be trusted at all (and I had it better than most kids). To serve them, we have to understand that their needs sometimes include books that touch on subjects that can make adults uncomfortable, and as book creators, we have to acknowledge that those stories often don’t seem to fit comfortably in either traditional MG or in YA.

That post scratched the we-have-to-talk-about-upper-MG itch for a while. Then this spring, I got my hands on an advance copy of Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger, which lives squarely in the aforementioned blurry space,  alternating between middle-school and high-school POVs in its discussions of Things That Adults Are Uncomfortable Thinking About Kids Dealing With.  Cristin Stickles, through some magic that only she possesses, convinced the wonderful Nancy Paulsen, President and Publisher of Nancy Paulsen Books at Penguin Young Readers, to moderate our discussion, and NOW IT’S HAPPENING, GUYS! IT’S HAPPENING NEXT WEEK! I hope you’ll join us if you can. I truly believe this is an important conversation to have. All ages are welcome.

And now I leave you with the words of the wonderful Cristin Stickles, my partner-in-crime at McNally Jackson Books:

A great rule of thumb is to never trust someone who enjoyed middle school. It’s a miserable time for any halfway-decent human, that murky area between being a kid and a teenager, between Charlotte’s Web and The Outsiders, between elementary and high school.

The right books can be key to surviving this purgatory, but writing for the 11-14 year old set poses its a very unique set of hurdles. Join three authors who are up for the challenge in conversation about the not-so-wonder(ful) years and the books that can help kids get out (relatively) unscathed.

Join us, won’t you?

Just One Reason Why THIS ONE SUMMER’s Caldecott Honor Matters A Lot

This year the Caldecott committee chose six honor books (and Milford Command Central favorite The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend for the medal HECK YEAH BEEKLE!!).

This year’s awards were Interesting, with a capital I, for many reasons. One of the big reasons, a huge surprise (and for some, a horror) of this year’s ALA announcements was the inclusion of This One Summer, a story of girls trying to navigate that awkward time when childhood fades and adolescence begins, as a Caldecott honoree.

Now, for those who stumbled here from Twitter or Facebook or whatever and might not know, I write middle grade fiction, and when not doing that, I’m a kids’ bookseller. I have a little bit of a specialty in picture books, due in part to my undying love for the form and in part to my almost 20-month-old son, Griffin, so I naturally have opinions on both the Newbery and the Caldecott, and from multiple points of view: author, bookseller, mom. But this one I have special feelings about–feelings strong enough to get me writing a blog post, which I haven’t done since, what, September or something?

Won’t somebody think of the children?

So first: the controversy, such as it is. This One Summer isn’t a picture book. It’s a graphic novel. And while it is intended for young readers, it’s not a book for young children–it touches on some fairly grownup themes. There seem to be some folks who are angered because This One Summer doesn’t fit the form, the demographic, or the subject parameters that seem to be called for in a book given the same honor that was bestowed on Anatole, If I Ran the Zoo, Madeline, and Blueberries for Sal.

I get it, people. It’s easy to be nostalgic about awards that have been around, it seems, since time immemorial. It’s easy to feel that there is a particular kind of book that deserves that kind of award, and to believe that the books that win it ought to evoke the same feelings, by and large, as the Caldecott winners of our childhoods. For something so unlike the rest to be chosen, a book that is so clearly more grown up and meant for an entirely different subset of readers, and a book that contains material guaranteed to make some adults twitchy on top of all that–of course that seems weird, if not actually inappropriate. For most adults, whether moms or dads or just nostalgic readers, the Caldecott means something very specific, something that belongs to the comforting world of little kids tucked in for one last story before bedtime. And yes, many of us in kidlit believe fervently that the ALA needs an award for graphic novels, but that’s neither here nor there.

Here’s my rebuttal, in two parts.

Part the first: we have to get over our “feelings” about what the Caldecott is for and read the actual rules.

If you go to the ALA’s Caldecott guidelines here on the Terms and Criteria page of the ALA/ALSC website, you find the following (emphases mine):

From the “Terms” section:

The Medal shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the picture book except that the illustrations be original work. Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.

From the “Definitions” section:

  1. A “picture book for children” as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.
  2. A “picture book for children” is one for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered.
  3. “Distinguished” is defined as:
    1. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    2. Marked by excellence in quality.
    3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    4. Individually distinct.

And from the “Criteria” section:

The only limitation to graphic form is that the form must be one which may be used in a picture book. The book must be a self-contained entity, not dependent on other media (i.e., sound, film or computer program) for its enjoyment.

There’s more, of course, but by reading the actual rules that govern what is and is not eligible for a Caldecott Medal or Honor, we find that a graphic novel for any age would be squarely within bounds, and an illustrated work of any kind intended for a pre- or young teen audience is also squarely within bounds.

So if you have somehow formed an opinion that the Caldecott “ought” to be defined differently, I’m sorry, but it simply isn’t defined that way. Nobody changed or even bent the rules this year for This One Summer. The fact that books for older children aren’t honored as often doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be, if they are truly distinguished. The rules say unequivocally that they are to be considered. And isn’t that great? One of the most venerable awards out there is more inclusive than you thought. It recognizes that older kids also read visually and seek out visual storytelling experiences. I think that’s great. I think that’s incredibly important. More on that below.

Part the Second: Who’s thinking of the poor children that might accidentally pick this book up because it has a Caldecott sticker and be subjected to characters thinking and talking about things like (gasp) sex? 

Honestly, do you think booksellers and librarians are idiots and just because it has a Caldecott sticker we’re going to shelve This One Summer in with the picture books? No. It goes with the big kid books, and by big kid books, I mean the books we understand to be intended for kids in the 12 to 14 year-old range. (Where those books go is another issue, but let’s not get into that here.) Booksellers are not idiots, by and large; nor are librarians, teachers, or parents, generally speaking–nobody would pick This One Summer up and get confused about who it’s for. I mean, really. You cannot get confused. It is obviously not for six year olds. If you look at this book and think, wait, this looks like maybe it’s for older kids, maybe even teenagers, but it’s got a Caldecott sticker, so…I guess that means it is okay for my first grader…well then, respectfully, reader, you are at minimum having an idiot moment, and it’s not reasonable for the entire world to reconfigure itself so as to prevent anyone from ever doing a stupid thing during an idiot moment.

And that isn’t even to say it’s for all kids aged 12-14 or so, but it is for some of them, which gets into another sticky area, which is what I really want to talk about here. (I know, right? Talk about getting to the point way too late.)

Why it’s Really Important (to Me, Kate Milford, and Probably a Couple Other People) That This One Summer Won an Honor.

The sticky area I referred to just then is the question of whether you, dear horrified reader, think kids of this or any age ought to be reading books that acknowledge the presence in the world (and in their lives) of things that make you uncomfortable and wish they wouldn’t learn about until they were at least old enough to legally order a beer in a state that considers you a minor until age 35. Things like alcohol, for instance, or abuse, or sex, or violent death, or whatever. Fill in the blank with whatever you’re most upset by the idea of a thirteen year-old kid thinking about.

Do you believe books should be fundamentally positive and uplifting, improving children’s lives for a few stolen hours by removing them from reality and transporting them to a world where the dangers are few, the stakes low-to medium in height, love (if present at all) is chaste and fulfilled by a kiss on the cheek, the way forward is generally clear and uncomplicated, and good is guaranteed from page one to conquer all? Great. You have so many choices. Lots of kids would agree with you, and thank goodness there are so many wonderful books that can give them exactly that experience: a safe, soothing read. At age 38 I still have books I go to for this, and many of them are books I’ve been reading since age 10. But not everyone wants that from every book. Not every adult, and certainly not every kid.

Now, I and people much wiser than I, have written in other places about the importance of difficult and dark books for children–and for purposes of this post, let’s keep defining “children” the way the Caldecott does: up to about age 14. But here’s my thesis in brief: books give kids a chance to experience things they have questions or concerns about in a safe way, and in conditions they can choose to leave at any time, simply by closing the cover. You may not want to believe, as a parent, that your kids are experiencing or even thinking about things that make you uncomfortable, but the likelihood is that they are. Hopefully they’ll come talk to you if they have questions. I certainly hope my son will. But I also know not every kid does, despite the best intentions of his/her parents. Maybe they’ll talk to friends or older siblings, but maybe they’ll feel too awkward, in which case, thank goodness there are books that tell them they’re not alone in their questions and concerns and fears.

And guess what a really tough age for those kinds of questions and concerns and fears is? Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. This is why books for this age, and especially really wonderful, sensitive, occasionally challenging and uncomfortably realistic books, are critically important. Twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds might browse the middle grade section and find they want something that addresses the feelings and experiences they’re facing in their real lives a little better. Then they might go to the young adult section and browse and find they’re not quite there yet. Ages twelve to fourteen make up a really specific time in a kid’s life. It really is its own weird transition.

But guess what? It’s not only really hard to write a book with a kid in that transitional period, it’s incredibly hard to sell them. I think this is mostly because it’s really hard to know, as a publisher or bookseller, how to market them and where to shelve them. My second novel, The Broken Lands, suffered from this problem, but I was lucky and had an editor who bought it anyway and took a chance on the book finding its audience. I know plenty of authors, though, who either couldn’t sell books with protagonists in that 13-15 age range, or were asked/required to age them up or down to make the books more clearly MG or YA, and therefore easier to market.

But thirteen and fourteen and fifteen year old kids need books for them, too, and if they’re going to have them, we have to write them and publishers need to buy them. Bookstores and libraries need to make room for these transitional stories (although full disclosure: we tried a “tween” section at McNally Jackson for a year or so and it failed, largely, I think, due to the fact that no kid self-identifies as a tween because it sounds ridiculous, so it’s got to have a better name, whatever it is). And parents need to understand that difficult books–which stories for that age often are, because that age itself is difficult–may be uncomfortable, but may also be really important to young readers in their lives.

This One Summer is, in addition to being a truly distinguished book, a very brave one. Its protagonists are twelve (I think I’m right about that, but someone correct me if I’m mistaken), but reading about them is not at all the same experience as, for instance, reading about also-twelve Rosalind Penderwick. And this is good, because there is room and a need for both representations of twelve, since both kinds of twelve (and many others) exist in the real world. Maybe, hopefully, the Caldecott honor for This One Summer–an honor it absolutely deserves on the merits of its visual storytelling, which really is tremendous–will help us all embrace the importance of and need for books for stories like this, for readers of this age–that awkward 12-14 period. I hope so, anyway. 

*Edited to fix two typos and one instance of Rosalind/Rosamund character name confusion. -KM

Upcoming Events

Please note that some events listed below are private events for schools and are not open to the public. If you’d like to schedule a magical Visit From Kate for your school or library, email me at kate (at) clockworkfoundry (dot) com.

Skype visits: For the moment (read: unless my schedule gets straight up nutty), I do not charge to Skype with classes that have read the book to be discussed, so long as the sessions are under an hour and can be scheduled for times when I have a babysitter.

In-person visits: They can be arranged. Contact me if you’d like to discuss specifics.

It’s the Greenglass House Launch Party, and You’re Invited!

The Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture 
Cordially Invites You to Join Author Kate Milford and Illustrator Jaime Zollars 
in Celebrating the Launch of 

ggh__jkt_nospine (1)

Tuesday, August 26th at 7pm
Hosted by McNally Jackson Bookmongers
52 Prince Street
Between Mulberry and Lafayette Streets
Soho, NYC

Light refreshments and a story will be provided. All ages are welcome. 

Can’t join us in person? The first 20 web preorders at McNally Jackson will include a copy of the special-edition novella, Bluecrowne, free.

Countdown to the Release of Bluecrowne

BluecrowneCoverWrongSizeSuddenly it’s June, and I really don’t know where May went. But this weekend I’ve been running QA on the Bluecrowne ebooks, and within the next week we’ll go to press with the paperbacks (which clocked in at 279 pages long!), so I wanted to leave a quick note here for those who are wondering how to get their hands on the book.

The ebook should launch by the end of this week, available in all formats (DRM-free) including PDF, and retailing for $5.99. The paperback should (crossing my fingers that what I say is true, but I do believe that it is) be available and shipping by the end of next week. It will retail for $16.99*, although, as with The Kairos Mechanism, I will have a bundled book+PDF+media rate shipping package available as well.

So, how do you get your copy?

READERS-IN-GENERAL:

At special early-bird prices, you can pre-order the PDF here and the paperback+PDF+domestic media rate shipping here. Fancier/international shipping are also available at cost–just drop me an email and let me know where you are and how fast you’d like your book to arrive. The pre-order prices will last through July 3.

The ebook will be available through all the major channels, but for extra points I encourage you to purchase through Vook, because it’s a better deal for me as the author (you still get your choice of DRM-free formats for iBooks, Nook, Kindle, or Kobo). The PDF will remain available through Gumroad. I’ll add relevant links as soon as they’re live.

The paperback will be available either through me (bundled with PDF, domestic media-rate shipping included) or through McNally Jackson Books (book only, shipping according to store policy). Again, links forthcoming.

TEACHERS/LIBRARIANS/BOOKSTORES:

I have a very limited supply of books from the print run paid for by Kickstarter that I can make available to you for use in your schools, libraries, and student book clubs, but when the first printing runs out, sadly, that’s the end of that. Retailers, same thing goes.

*You may be thinking, that looks a lot more like the price for an adult paperback than for a juvenile paperback, and you’re right. The higher cost is due to the higher cost of printing on McNally Jackson’s Espresso Book Machine, which I chose to do for two reasons: 1) It’s a way I can support my favorite independent bookstore; and 2) It prints far more beautiful books than most POD services do. I don’t make much money on the deal, but you get a really gorgeous book and we both get to support a really wonderful and (I think) important store. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

This Saturday: The Phantom Tollbooth Reader’s Theatre at McNally Jackson!

Cancel your plans. I’m not kidding.

This Saturday, May 17th at McNally Jackson Books at 4pm, in honor of the inaugural Indies First Storytime Day, twelve intrepid bookish folks invite you to join Milo, Tock, and the Humbug as they embark on an epic quest to bring Rhyme and Reason back to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

Join our heroes as they navigate a perilous royal banquet in Dictionopolis! Cheer as they realize that they, and they alone, can restore the semblance of order to a world gone crazy! Thrill at the theatrical stylings of writers who haven’t rehearsed but whose scripts contain stage directions anyway! And, of course, rediscover the magic of a book you have loved since forever. Extra points if you bring a friend who, through some massive childhood reading fail, has never experienced the magic of The Phantom Tollbooth.

Featuring  Sophie BlackallMatthew CodyAdam GidwitzClaire LegrandKekla MagoonMichael NorthropJeffrey SalaneCourtney SheinmelNatalie StandifordMary G. Thompson, and yours truly, our performance will be followed by a Q&A moderated by Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, and a book signing. 

All ages are welcome. Hope to see you there!

Who: You and all your friends
Where: McNally Jackson Books (52 Prince Street, between Mulberry and Lafayette)
When: Saturday, May 17th at 4pm