Friday, September 24, 2010

Girls like Boogers, Boys like Romance: Let's Get Beyond Gender in Children's Books Already, People!

Well, cyberspace is all in a tizzy again. This time, it's a Wall Street Journal article called How to Raise Boys who Read. Hint: It's not with gross-out books and video game bribes.

I don't think the article is really that controversial. The writer, Thomas Spence, rants a little about Captain Underpants and the ubiquitousness of boogers and other bodily fluids in recent books aimed at boy readers. But the important part of his (ok, slightly old fashioned 'pro-classical education' flavored) message seems to be for parents to raise readers by turning off electronics and (*shocker*) having a lot of interesting books around.

But the cybernetic furor today among parents was palpable. The Scholastic blogging team at On-Our Minds (OOM) posted an also very reasonable response to the WSJ essay entitled Boys Should be Allowed to Read Books They Choose. The facebook posting of this article garnered 70+ comments within an hour or two - most of them to the tune of "Fart and poop jokes saved my son from a life of illiteracy -- God Bless Captain Underpants." (Ok, not exactly that, but something along those lines.)

The problem I have with both essays is as follows - neither challenges the assumption that there is something called a "boy book" and a "girl book." Call me an idealist (or just a mother of both a boy and a girl), but I think girls - if given the opportunity - like a good fart joke as much as the next XY chromosome. And my big reader boy can't get enough of 'girl' titles like the Betsy-Tacey books, the teensy-bit racist Little House series (as I blather about here), and lots of series that happen to have girl protagonists like Judy Moody, Ramona Quimby, and that annoying Junie B. Jones (boy am I glad that phase is over). Of course he also gobbles up Harry Potter, Septimus Heap, and Percy Jackson with just as much alacrity.

What's the big deal, y'all? Are we really that ridiculous?

Because, the other day, we went to a 9yo boy's house, where there happened to be a lot of Ramona Quimby covers in plain sight. To be friendly, I asked him "Oh, do you like the Ramona books?" (thinking he and my son could talk about them) The boy (who doesn't have a sister to blame) looks abashed - like he'd been caught in some criminal activity, and shook his head. Then his dad smoothly stepped in, saying "Oh, he loves the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and (yea, you guessed it) Captain Underpants books."

Say what? Are we so fixed on boy books and girl books now a days that big tough dads of schoolboys are ashamed if their sons read a little Beverly Clearly? What, are books with girl heroines too woosy to read or something? Because I clearly missed that parenting memo.

My son and I love the Franny K. Stein books - a girl who doesn't want to be a ballerina or a princess but a mad scientist with spiders and bats and zombies and stuff. How cool is that? I'm planning on handing my 6year old daughter the whole set when she gets up to reading them.

And right now, I'm writing a YA fantasy with a lot of boogers. And a princess. Who gets covered in boogers. In fact, I'd like to see more books about, say, farting butterfly fairies or zombie mermaids who fight evil (hm... evil fighting zombie mermaids...let me make a note of that idea) .
And let me tell you, my potty-joke and tri-wizard tournament loving son also loved it when Almonzo and Laura courted. Loved it. Big f-n deal, people.

I think the most important lesson I learned from following this cybernetic controversy today was that shared by a fellow comment poster on the OOM site. This poster brought the WSJ article to task for failing to recommend what I think is the one of the strongest predictors of raising book-loving boys and girls - which is for families to enjoy books together. (In fact, a while ago, I called for a nationwide reading streak where parents and kids read together at least 10 minutes a day. There were, like crickets chirping in cyberspace after that one...)

I don't think that we have to get our boys to wear cravats while they read, nor do I think we should limit them to doo-doo based literature because of some false fear of de-masculinizing them. Nor should our daughters only hold that bratty Pinkalicious or the fabulous yet uber-feminine Fancy Nancy as their only role models.

Boys like romance. Girls like boogers.

Let's stop segregating their books, already.

(Oh, and turn off the TV, take away their video games, and read together as a family while we're at it)

End of rant. Bow, bow. Clap, clap.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Story Rx: Why Postive LGBT YA Narratives Matter

Do stories matter? Can stories destroy lives? Can different stories save lives?

Yes. Yes. and YES.

Earlier this month, Greensburg, Indiana teen Billy Lucas took his own life after being harassed and bullied with anti-gay slurs. The narrative there? An old one, an awful one. Some lives are worth living, others aren't.

As a response to Billy's death, Seattle activist and advice columnist Dan Savage started a new online video channel called the "It Gets Better Project." The goal of the project is very literally to change the narrative for LGBT middle and high-schoolers by putting forth stories of gay adults who achieved joyous, productive, loving home lives - after living through the torturous years of high school. I just watched the first video - a charming 8 minute discussion between Mr. Savage and his partner of 16 years, Terry. The two (very cute, very happy appearing) men discuss the horrors of their high school years, but in contrast, the joys and adventures of their adult years - from meeting in a bar (and using really cheesy pick up lines on each other) to adopting their now almost 13 year old son, to going on black diamond snowboard runs as a family, to watching the sunrise in Paris.

Can their story make a difference? Yes. More importantly, this isn't one isolated story (like say, the story of a wildly successful LGBT celebrity like Ellen or Adam Lambert) - but a platform for a (hopefully) heterogenous group of stories. Such a multiplicity of voices - all different but all saying one unified message - "live through HS, because life can be great, life gets better" - can have enormous power because it changes the narrative. Such a project essentially makes concrete a future tense for teens whose present tense feels unbearable.

YA literature, I feel, has a similar responsibility. To create a platform for a multiplicity of narratives. And when it comes to the narratives of LGBT teens and teens of color - the publishing industry has a responsibility to publish texts that change the prevailing narratives of LGBT or teens of color as tortured, depressed, oppressed, and overall, a pretty sad and serious bunch. To allow for a multiplicity of narratives - happy narratives, sad narratives, kick-butt superhero narratives, mysteries, love stories, fantasy adventures, and on and on. David Levithan, the co-author of the brilliant Will Grayson, Will Grayson, has said of his whimsical 2003 debut novel Boy Meets Boy, "So much of gay teen fiction at that point was about misery and death and being the outsider... There was no room for happy gay kids. This book became what it was because of that." Similarly Will Grayson, Will Grayson makes room for a different gay teen narrative - full of usual teenage angst, but also full of romance, and whimsy, and three dimensional characters with full, complicated, funny, and touching lives.

Such texts change the narrative for LGBT teens - allowing a teenager to see him or herself in literature, and more importantly, see various possibilities for what an LGBT teen looks/feels/acts and lives like. But equally importantly, such books change the narrative for all readers (teen, LGBT, and otherwise). And the struggles of YA authors of color (LGBT and not), I think, is not only similar - but tied integrally to the struggles of LGBT authors -- to get our multiplicity of stories out there - not just exotic, serious, tortured, or anachronistic stories (check out these crazy Japanese Barbie dolls I just saw today -- I mean, say what?) but crazy, silly, adventurous, romantic, and kick-butt superhero stories too.

Hats off to you, Dan and Terry. Hats off to you too, David Levithan.

And hats off to you, the publishers, who understand the power of changing the narrative for us all.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Should we ban 'Little House'?: Racism in Classic Children's Texts

As we approach Banned Books Week (September 25 - October 2), the issue of book banning seems to be in the air. The YA writing community has been galvanized by one midwest community threatening to ban Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak - on the charge that discussing sexual violence is akin to pornography. This comes on the heels of another Missouri community officially banning Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. And of course, this all is shadowed by 9-11-10, a day whose memory became tarnished when some hate-filled individuals suggested it be used as a day to burn the Qur'an.

I am obviously appalled by these efforts to dishonor the written word - efforts motivated by xenophobia, hate, and fear. I blogged recently about the writer's responsibility to protest, stir up controversy and conversation, and challenge society to push itself in more just directions.

But what about written works that do the opposite? What about written works that promote stereotypes, prejudice and fear? As a rule, of course, I would say that freedom of speech means freedom of all speech. But, as a parent and pediatrician, what do I think about those works of classic literature which teach our children prejudice, racism, sexism or xenophobia?

I got thinking about this more deeply after reading Philip Nel's excellent blog post about Censorship of Children's Literature. In it, he discusses Roald Dahl's portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas as 'tribespeople' brought in small crates from the deepest jungles of a far away land. Although the original 1964 illustrations - in which the Oompa-Loompas were dark-skinned - changed by the 1973 edition - by which time they were white - the colonial implications remain. The Oompa-Loompas are a "primitive" people who don't mind - nay, even welcome - their status as chocolate factory slaves. As Nel discusses, the removal of explicit racial signifiers doesn't prevent this from being a racist gesture -- as it doesn't change a child's ability to assume that a non-Englishspeaking 'tribesperson' from a 'deep jungle' might very well be from Africa. His discussion of Dr. Doolittle is similarly nuanced.

In my household, it was my 8year old's recent fascination with the Little House on the Prairie series that raised my neck hairs. To be honest, I LOVED these books as a girl, and was looking forward to sharing them with my children. That is, until we started reading them out loud and I began skipping large sections - first about hunting, then about gun care, then skinning animals, and finally -- yikes -- all that stuff about the half naked, frightening, primitive, violent 'Indians.' (Had I forgotten all that?) And how much Ma Ingalls hates 'them'. Why? Because -- well, they're half-naked, frightening, primitive and violent. (Oh, yea, and mad that the white settlers are taking over their land - but we won't talk about that.) Even Pa Ingalls' semi-tolerance of 'Indians' is more a tribute to how cool Pa is than anything else.

I edited out passages in our read-alouds, but as my child began to read the books himself, how could I edit his reading? I certainly wasn't going to cut out or blacken pages, nor was I going to stop him from reading these classic texts - which have a great deal of good in them -- girl heroines, love of family and nature, wonderful writing. Even if I could have - as a publisher, say - edited out those explicitly racist chapters from the Little House series, should I? Would such a gesture remove the overall colonial and racist history of Westward migration in the U.S.? Would such a gesture not re-enact the book banning/burning urges of those who oppose freedom of speech?

The only thing I could do was to explicitly discuss with my child my feelings about those parts of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. As well as to make sure his literary diet was varied, and consisted of plenty of other images of people of color -- of course the lack of multicultural children's books with multicultural protagonists out there (and their lack of humor and variety) is a whole other blog post.

Now, this doesn't mean I'm not squeamish regarding the unquestioning portrayal of racism. A few months ago, when my kids and I watched Disney's Peter Pan on DVD and the film got to that awful Native American village scene -- yea, I still fast forwarded over that.

When my 6 year old asked me why, my 8 year old (Little House reader) told her, "It's because it's promoting stereotypes. And stereotypes hurt people."

Well said, my boy. Well said.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Story Rx: Be Like Yoda, not Indiana Jones

This week, I had the honor of joining Saul Kaplan, Carmen Medina, Keith Yamashita, Tony Hsieh, Richard Saul Wurman, Rita King, and many others at Business Innovation Factory's 6th Collaborative Innovation Summit (BIF-6).

Among so many leaders in innovation, entrepreneurship, and business, I felt a great sense of trepidation in drawing from my own storied past - the fluttering mosquito net under which my grandmother would tell me tales of flying horses, bone crunching demons, princes, princesses, gods, goddesses and all their foibles. I swallowed my fear and told the audience a Bengali folk tale my own children love - a tale in which truth can not be achieved when searched for alone, but can only be found in conjunction with another person.

During my 15 minute presentation, I urged the audience, as I have my medical students and master's of Narrative Medicine students in the past, not to think of stories as things but as relationships. In medicine, we tell medical students to "get the story" as if the story is an unchanging thing, an inanimate idol, and they are to dig the thing up like some kind of underpaid and overenthusiastic Indiana Jones -- running away with their unearthed booty.

What I didn't say, because, well, I was nervous and forgot, was that I've been realizing we story listeners - doctors, nurses, teachers, parents, legislators -- have less to learn from good old handsome Indy as we do from little, green, large eared Yoda. To me, that backwards talking little imp ("Do or do not, there is no try") embodies all that is best about the Eastern mystic -- both wise and skilled, and yet, simultaneously, childlike, open, full of awe and wonder. Exactly what any clinician, leader, innovator, professor should be like - wise and humble at the same time. Both a teacher and a student.

Let us approach stories, then, not as colonialists, or archaeologists -- digging up precious booty to cart away to our own countries of plenty. Let us instead approach them like little green movie stars, or rather, mystics...children. Let us receive rather than take.

Let us hear the narratives of others with wonder and delight, being filled up rather than draining, plundering, or polluting that endless stream of magical stories that nourishes us all.


Yea, I'm feeling pretty inspired today. And as handsome as Harrison Ford may be with his bullwhip and fedora, that little green Jedi dude is looking pretty good to me right now.


Our judges have spoken and the winner of last week's book giveaway is

**Drumroll please**


Stay tuned for more author interviews, story prescriptions, and book giveaways!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Story Rx: Reading about Racism

Today was my 6 year old's first day of first grade. And as it happened, it was only yesterday that we read Ruby Bridges Goes to School. It's not surprising, because it's one of her favorite books, and we read it at least once a week. But today, I couldn't help but be struck by the bravery of 6 year old Ruby Bridges, the first African American student at a newly integrated elementary school, whose first day of first grade those many years ago was so very different than ours today.

My daughter goes, again and again, to this slim nonfiction volume from Scholastic. She pours over the images, including racist "Whites Only" signs. Now that she can read, she struggles through the words too - including the word "segregation"... a word she pronounced clearly in her little, bell-like voice.

At first, I was nervous that the racism the book describes would be too much for my daughter to bear. We are of color, and discuss prejudice openly - the fact that some people are sometimes cruel to others based on their skin color. I am in fact in agreement with those educators who say that the most sure-fire way to educate anti-racist children is to speak explicitly about racism. Not simply niceties such as "everyone is the same" or "all colors are beautiful." But to articulate to children the realities of prejudice and your own feelings about it - that it is wrong, and that all human beings regardless of color must struggle against racism in all its forms.

And yet, I cannot help my maternal instinct - the desire to protect my littlest one from the cruel realities of this life. Luckily my daughter's own fascination with the story of Ruby Bridges wins out every time - and we return to the brave 6 year old's story again and again.

Today, I cannot help wonder at the bravery of Ruby Bridges' mother - the woman who walked, head down, among those grim-faced Marshalls, through the jeering crowds of bigots, right behind her beautiful, pig-tailed child. Would I have had the courage to send my most precious baby into such a place - no matter how just or righteous the reason?

Ruby Bridges Goes to School is one of our favorite books to talk explicitly about race. Another is Jaqueline Woodson's Show Way. What are yours?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering 9-11: Writing is Dangerous, Writing is Freedom

I just read a powerful post on facebook by the YA author Ellen Hopkins. In it, she reminds all of us,

"In America, the First Amendment grants us the right to believe, to worship, to speak our minds as we please. There is a responsibility that comes with that, however. Responsible Americans do not burn books or flags or places of worship. Responsible Americans do not... use words to divide and make people hate each other simply because they’re different."

Writers have always known the power of words. Poets have been no less than lined up before firing squads for speaking the truth about their oppressive governments. Words of resistance have gotten authors banned, banished, killed, and fatwa-ed. Hear the words of Wole Soyinka who wrote that, "Books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.” Ask American poet and writer Audre Lorde, who, in her iconic “Cancer Journals” reminded us all that “silence has never brought us anything of worth.”

Or ask Salman Rushdie whose words earned him a whole worldwide fatwa, and who said that “A poet's work is to name the un-nameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep."

Words are powerful. And sometimes dangerous. Yes. Writers can say things with which we don't always agree. Absolutely. But when we as a society begin burning books - books of worship, or any other book - in the name of freedom, we commit a grave act that threatens that very freedom.

Let us remember those who died, and those who are still here, by promoting a more just and peaceful world. Let us use 9-11 to search for a world where words are sacred - words we agree with, words we don't agree with, words from holy books, and words from everyday books.

In fact, it makes me proud to be beginning my journey as a children's writer on a day like today. Because as we know, sometimes, the stories of children -- stories of equality, stories of peace, stories of justice -- are the most subversive ones of all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

CYN BALOG: An (only slightly snarky) author interview... and book giveaway!

Jersey-girl turned Pennsylvania-resident, Cyn Balog is the author of the YA paranormal novels Fairytale (Delacorte, 2009) and Sleepless (Delacorte, 2010). As if that didn't seem productive enough, she has two forthcoming novels from Delacorte: Starstruck (2011) and Living Backwards (2012).

I lost a bit of sleep last night finishing her latest page turner, Sleepless. Here's a teaser: Although he has been watching over her her entire life, Sandman Eron deMarchelle is not allowed to have feelings for his charge, the lonely Julia, a teenager with a tragic past. When tragedy strikes Julia again, Eron's time as a Sandman is drawing to a close. As he transitions to a human existence, can he save her from the supernatural dangers that threaten her very life?

School Library Journal called Sleepless "an interesting, compelling, fast-paced paranormal romance... Definitely recommended." Kirkus said "Suspense, believable characters, and an imaginative twist on a ghost story/romance makes for a lovely read."

If you can't find Sleepless in your bookstore or library, never fear! Cyn has the perfect advice below:

Q: Why has my library and bookstore not yet stocked Sleepless? Is it some kind of plot? Are you hoarding them to increase the demand? If so, it is working. I want to read it!

Cyn: Well, it's in most major bookstores; nowadays it's difficult to get into Borders and Barnes and Noble because of all the YA books coming out (and limited shelf-space), but both of them are stocking SLEEPLESS. Your bookstore must just be lame! Hee. As for libraries, it is obvious that your librarian does not read School Library Journal which calls SLEEPLESS "a must for library collections" or something like that. I think you need to move somewhere else, why are you living in such a lame place? Really, I know so many libraries are drastically underfunded and can't purchase every book out there, but a librarian did tell me that if they receive a request for a certain book, they do try to go out an obtain it. So if your library doesn't have a certain book, just ask!

Q: Why are your books about supernatural boys? Aren't girls supposed to be endowed with all the "frilly" powers - like helping kids and sprinkling sleepdust and flying about on gossamer wings? I thought boys were only supposed to be brooding yet sexy vampires and werewolves!

Cyn: No, this is a common misconception. I think we need more guys running around with wings and girly powers like painting ladybugs and rainbows and taking teeth from under children's pillows. That is way more sexier than any stupid werewolf or vampire who just wants your blood. I mean, ew, gross.

Q: You once told me that there was another book before Fairy Tale that you had a hard time selling. What did you learn in between that book and Fairy Tale?

Cyn: I don't know if I learned anything about writing in that time. I did learn that it's much easier to sell a book if you have a one-sentence hook that makes everyone go "AH!" than if you need five rambling paragraphs to explain it.

Q: You also once told me that you were sure that Fairy Tale would sell once you had the idea of a boy who's a fairy - any other, uh, ideas like that? (Not that I'll use them or anything)

Cyn: Yes, actually, I just came up with one right now. It's a play on the shapeshifter thing, and it's going to be a mid-grade. My agent has been wondering if I could write mid-grade, since the genre is hot, but I never had an idea before, but now I do. Excuse me while I go add it to my idea file.

Seriously, I keep getting asked if I will ever write a series or a sequel, and my answer to that is "When I run out of new ideas." Which I never do. I am like a kid in an idea candy shop; shiny sparkly things distract me.

Q: How do you strike the balance between appropriate romance for a YA and going over the line? Is there a line any more?

Cyn: Supposedly there isn't a line anymore. I've heard that all of the supposed taboos have been crossed at one time or another, so anything goes. Not for me, though. I feel a sense of responsibility to handle things in a certain way. Now it's supposedly silly to think that teens are so stupid that they'll read my book and get certain ideas in their heads that weren't there before, but when you're constantly told that "everyone's doing it" by every TV show and book out there, you start to believe it. So I'm happy to be in the minority and say, "Hey, you know what? Everyone's NOT doing it." And I think a romance can be tasteful and yet still evoke the same emotions without being explicit.

Q: What's your favorite paranormal/fantasy book from childhoood? Now?

Cyn: I loved THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl when I was growing up. It was so much fun. Now I love the HUNGER GAMES books. Okay, I have a secret dream of being a dystopian author because I love dystopians. The only problem is that I am horrible at writing them (I have made several attempts).

Q: After writing the Great and Terrible Beauty series, Libba Bray switched directions entirely and hit it out of the park with Going Bovine. Is it possible for a children's writer to be pigeonholed (ie. as only writing supernatural, or picture books, or what have you) and how can one break out of the pigeonhole?

Cyn: Yes, while writing my third book, which started out as a contemporary romance, I was told by my editor that they really only wanted paranormal romances from me, so I added the paranormal romance later (STARSTRUCK comes out in Summer 2011). Now I am happily writing paranormal romances and seem to be on a one-a-year schedule with them. But there are ways to break out and write other things. First you can write other genres under a pen name. Or you don't even need to use a pen name, if your editor is okay with that. I think if you can write in more than one genre, great... doesn't matter who you are, a good book is a good book and will find a market, no matter who wrote it.

Q: What is your advice to budding fantasy writers? Not that I know any...

Cyn: It's not new advice... but just read everything you can get your hands on and don't ever give up. People will tell you it's impossible but from where I stand, it's probable as long as you keep working at it. Keep writing, keep learning everything you can from other writers, and keep submitting.

Q: Are your stories good medicine? (I think so but I'd love your answer!)

Cyn: Sure, I think that's true of anything that can take you away from the normal grind for a couple hours and help you relax a little!


Although I didn't know any of this when I interviewed her, here are some additional facts about Cyn, gleaned from her website

1. Her favorite ice cream flavor is Chocolate Marshmallow (I didn't even know that was an ice cream flavor!)
2. She once had a crayfish named Harry as a pet.
3. She can list all 50 United States alphabetically in 20 seconds or less (impressive!)
4. She has two double jointed thumbs!

Intrigued by Cyn and her paranormal YA novels?

***Simply leave a comment below to qualify to win a copy of Sleepless! Winner announced in 1 week!****

And (DRUMROLL PLEASE), our very impartial 6year old judge just picked the name of the winner of last week's book giveaway and it is:


If you didn't win the copy of Mockingjay - never fear! Our very impartial 6 and 8 year old judges will be picking another winner in just 1 week! Leave a comment below, twitter or repost the contest on FB to qualify to win Cyn Balog's Sleepless!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Story Rx: Listen to Words in the Air

All my fellow writers out there: listen up. Let me amend that: All my fellow writers, parents, pediatricians, urban planners, social workers, activists, teachers, fellow human beings -- listen up!

We who love words on the page have much to learn from words in the air.

Words that dip, sway and dance from a performer's mouth. Words that set fire to the imagination. Words that explode in your heart.

Go listen to spoken word poetry, people!

Last night, I had the honor and privilege of hearing Joshua Bennett perform for the second time. A twenty two year old who has performed as part of Brave New Voices, at the Sundance Film Festival, and for President and Mrs. Obama. He is a recent UPENN graduate who spent his college years doing spoken poetry with young people in prisons, a Marshall scholar on his way to England to study the history of Black disability, an upcoming PhD candidate at Princeton in performance studies. But most importantly, he is a young man with a light like a beacon in him, a calling to reform prison systems and urban education, a calling to educate pastors about homophobic, sexist and anti-disabled language, a calling to empower young people to share their stories and thereby actively narrate their lives.

I don't think written words will suffice in communicating the power of this young man's performance poetry. And so I urge you to open your ears and hearts and listen to him perform

10 Things I Want to Stay to a Black Woman (this one had me weeping in the front row)
Tamara's Opus (the one he performed at the White House)

And for those of you interested in how performance poetry can capture the embodied experience, check out:

Brave New Voices
o Jasmine Bailey, "Sickle Cell":

o Devin Murphy, "Tourettes"
o Brittany Wilson. “Fish, Gritz & Buttermilk Biscuits.”

But hold onto your seat, because you just might fly away on the wings of these young performers' words...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Spoken Word Poetry at Narrative Medicine Rounds 9/8

For the past two years, I've been organizing Narrative Medicine Rounds at Columbia, a lecture series (usually) the first Wednesday of every month where writers, scholars, and clinicians come to read from and discuss their work at the interstices of humanities and health care. In the past, I've had Oliver Sacks, Sharon Olds, Alex Kates Shulman, Perri Klass, Julie Salamon, Michael Greenberg and many others.

This Wednesday Sept. 8th, I'm terribly proud to be welcoming Joshua Brandon Bennett, a performance artist and spoken word poet. He's a brilliant intellect and breathtaking performer.

Rounds are free and open to the public!

Narrative Medicine Rounds
Wednesday, September 8, 2010, 5:00-7:00 p.m. Faculty Club, 446 P&S Building,
630 W. 168th Street (Between Broadway & Fort Washington Ave.) NY, NY **accessible entrance through Presbyterian Emergency on Broadway off W. 168th St. take Presbyterian elevators to the 4th Floor**

(Crip)Walking on Water: Thinking critically about race, performance, and The Disabled God.
Performance artist Joshua Bennett has recited his original work in venues ranging from the Sundance Film Festival to The White House. He is a Marshall Scholar, Ford Foundation Fellow, and doctoral candidate at Princeton University whose work integrates issues of disability, stage performance, and racial identity.

Rounds begin at 5:00 followed by refreshments.
Free and open to the public.
College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University 630 WEST 168TH STREET PH 9-EAST, ROOM 105 NEW YORK, NY 10032 PHONE: 212-305-4975 FAX: 212-305-9349

Monday, September 6, 2010

What Makes a Good Writing Partnership?

Collaboration. What makes it good? What makes it bad? How can we tell the difference?

My last story prescription (posted 9/5) blithely recommended co-authoring as a cure to procrastination (especially for women authors, lured by the siren-song of family and laundry). Writing in relation demands that we honor a colleague as well as the work, and I think for some people, that is much easier than feeling "selfish" on a solo project. As Anjali so rightly pointed out for that last post, co-writing also gives me courage to take on projects I might be afraid to tackle alone (There's safety in numbers, after all, check out this lice-picking French family pictured above).

Then I got to thinking:

Is it more important to collaborate or to find the right collaborators? Can the right collaborator at one point of time/for one project be the wrong collaboration for another?

So I thought I would just riff a little: What are the qualities I genuinely value in my writing and editing collaborators?

1. Good humor - things don't always go right, deadlines don't always get met. it's good to laugh about it with your collaborators.
2. Friendship/care/love - I enjoy collaborating with people who care about me as a person as well as a colleague
3.Generosity - I think collaboration is best approached with a good deal of generosity. I don't think I could deal with a collaborator who wanted to make sure we were doing 50/50 work ALL THE TIME. I think reality is you go do what you can when you can - making sure to catch the slack some times because you know there will be other times (your kids are sick, it's your anniversary, your boss just screamed at you and you're having a Very Bad Day) when you need your partner to pick up the slack.
4. Flexibility - I mentioned in my earlier post that one collaborator, Marsha, would come up to work at my house because I had small kids and erratic babysitting. It wasn't a 50-50 thing at all, she was MOSTLY schlepping up to see me. I appreciated that deeply, and tried to make sure that I was similarly flexible to other needs of hers. My current collaborator Karen, just finished some edits for us while I was coughing and feverish last week. I would happily do the same for her (see points #2 and 3 above).
5. Enthusiasm -I have a lot of energy for things about which I am passionate - including my writing. I can imagine it would be really hard to work with a collaborator who was sluggish, or low energy, or a pessimist.

What are the qualities you seek in a writing partner?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Story Rx: Stop Procrastinating! Co-Author Something!

We are not all multi-armed goddesses. But we can be.

Call me a quack, fellow women writers, but I think I have found a sure cure for the disease of procrastination. And it's called co-authorship.

I recently finished the 9,000th round of edits on a middle grade mystery I am co-authoring with my best friend from second grade, Karen (See her lovely blog on this at Carpe Keyboard). The impetus for the project was equally about creating art together as it was about simply creating together and therefore being together. Despite living across the country from each other, the project gave us the structure around which to regularly communicate - through email, Skype, and a variety of online collaboration tools like Mikogo. It allowed us to both nurture our creative impulses, and gain a critical and a not-afraid-of-telling-the-hard-truth reader for our writing.

Since we are both spouses and mothers, and people who hold other day jobs apart from fiction writing, the collaboration also helped us keep ourselves accountable to the work. There was no pushing off the writing as "selfish" or "unnecessary" in the face of home/life/family demands. Why was this? Because, as women socialized in this culture, we each felt obligated to the other. Had I been writing this book alone, I might have convinced myself it was foolhardy to "waste" so much time chasing a pipedream - especially when there was dinner to make, laundry to fold, bills to pay. But, being obligated to my friend shut off this internal nay-saying voice. Sticking to the writing was as much to honor our friendship as to honor the work we had created together.

My colleague Dr. Lucy Candib has written about "writing in relation" as a way for women physicians to cave out a space for their academic writing. I wonder if the same can't be said for all types of writing.

My collaboration with my friend Karen wasn't my first such co-authored project. Many years ago, I convinced my mother Shamita to co-author a book of translated and adapted Bengali folktales with me. That book lead to many other essay and article writing projects that were at first facilitated by the fact that we were living together - later by the fact that we trusted each other implicitly as editors, readers, and intellectual colleagues. And I don't think its a coincidence that my current YA WIP, although a solo-authorship, is inspired by much of that early work my mother and I did together. Besides which, Mom just gave me the most amazing editorial suggestions on it. (You rock, Ma! Whoop!)

[Caveat: A co-author has to get it - both in regard to life, and writing. For example, when I co-edited a volume of prose and poetry with my colleague Marsha, I knew she was the right partner for the job because, even though her own kids were grown, she was incredibly flexible about my life as a mom of young children, including my erratic babysitting coverage. She understood that as a nursing mother, I couldn't leave an infant for long stints of time, and was unbelievably gracious in not only driving up to my house to work, but integrating nursing/diaper changing/sandwich making/band-aiding and so much more into our meetings. If I'd been co-editing with someone who didn't get it the whole project might have been a disaster -- so whoop! to her too!]

So my story prescription for this cozy Sunday? There's still one more day of vacation left. Call your mother/sister/best friend/partner over. Put on a pot of coffee. Rev up the laptops. and start that writing project you've been putting off.

The laundry folding can wait another few days...

**Remember to post a comment on my Sept. 3 post on Mockingjay if you'd like to possibly win a free copy of the book! You may have a copy, but how about one for that friend/sister/mother/ writing partner?**

Friday, September 3, 2010

Oh, Mockingjay, Why Doth Thou Mock Me? A (slightly snarky) book review...and book giveaway!

Seriously, Suzanne Collins? Seriously?

Like any other warm blooded, YA-loving, post-apocalyptic girl, I was waiting all summer with my finger poised over my "order" button for your book. All June and July, I was dreaming of your take-no-prisoners, arrow slinging teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, and her two possible suitors: the stalwart miner-by-day hunter-by-night Gale, and the gentle croissant maker turned scary reality show contestant Peeta.

I shot a couple of arrows at a fair and for about half a second, felt very Katniss-like. My (adult) friends and I engaged in all sorts of ridiculous SAT style word games on your characters' behalf: Gale is to Peeta as Han Solo is to blank? (Luke Skywalker, of course. See this hilarious post from Forever Young Adult for more similar silliness.)

I was all aquiver (pun intended) with anticipation, imagining what delightful reality TV-inspired machinations you might create in your spookily possible futuristic world of 'the hunger games' - where the downtrodden districts willingly send their children off to an all televised gladiator-style fight to the death for the amusement of the ruling Capitol. Your final book was in my mind no less than a documentation of a social justice movement - the downtrodden rising up against their overly plastic surgeried oppressors, Katniss taking her place as the Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion and freedom. (I even hummed a few bars of Do you hear the people sing from Les Miserables as I wrote this)

So what the heck happened? Agreed, Mockingjay is chock full of accessible writing and fastpaced action. I see glimmers of my beloved Hunger Games and Catching Fire - that fine balance you are able to strike between teenage angst and morbid homicidal detail. But here are some of the bones I have to pick with you, dear Sue:

1. A whole lotta angry and crazy: Without giving any spoilers, many of the main (and even not so main) characters of Mockingjay are either a. angry, b. crazy, or c. angry AND crazy for a lot of the book. While I admit, they have a lot to be both crazy and angry about - what with a civil war and food shortages and all -- the fury and insanity got a little tedious. It was as if Mockingjay needed a mood makeover from some of the frothy, over the top television producers and stylists from the previous books - I bet Cinna or Effie could pretty up all that dark lunacy.

2. A lack of snark: Speaking of those frothy television personalities, part of the reason the first two books of the series work so well is that they are in fact snarky, tongue in cheek re-imaginings of current day reality television. Without that snark factor, this is just a story about teenagers getting their limbs chopped off. And that never made for good prime-time.

3. A lack of arena: Part of the charm of your previous books was the incredible detail you give to your gaming 'arenas'. The dead victors faces projected in the night sky, the hallucination-inducing insects, the cornucopia full of weapons, etc. Without such a 'center' I felt lost in Mockingjay - your descriptions of The Capitol-as-arena fell short for me, too superficial, too lacking in detail, too quickly glossed over.

4. The mom is such a weenie: I suspended my disbelief as I read your other books, accepting that parents of the oppressed districts would somehow allow their children to enter a televised killing field - created for the amusement of the ruling Capitol. (You can find a similar argument here at League of Extraordinary Writers). But in your third book, the two dimensionality of the adult characters has reached an all time high. I understand the mom had to be a serious weenie for the readers to buy that she would allow her daughter to enter the games to begin with; yet, the maternal weenie-dom of Mockingjay is almost too much for this reader mom to bear.

5. The Deus Ex Machina factor: Ok, again, don't want to give a major spoiler, but let me say this. A long ago writing teacher of mine once told me that at some point in the writing process, all writers get bored of their own characters. At this time, it suddenly seems like a good idea to conclude that all of the book was in fact a dream, or to have a space ship come in and sweep everyone off to some other planet. He urged me to avoid the delectable temptation of sticking all my characters in a plane, and, say, making the plane go down in a fiery ball just because I couldn't think of another way to end the misery of my own story. Now, do I think that Suzanne Collins has succumbed to this urge? Uh, do parties at the Capitol serve purgatives in fancy glasses? (the answer is yes.. and the airplane thing is just a metaphor, for those who haven't read the book yet)

[And I won't even get into the issues of race and class - Mitali Perkins wrote a lovely blog post last year about how 'postracial' these books try to be and yet, everyone is blonde (Peeta, Prim) or at least grey/light eyed (Katniss). Have there been a central people of color in the series since Rue and Thresh?]

So, Mockingjay fans, go at it. Tell me I'm wrong. Convince me that rage and lunacy do make a good story. I for one could do with more froth, snark, and fun.

***One person will win a brand new handcover copy of Mockingjay! Simply leave a comment on this page to qualify to win! Check back to see if you were the winner - winner announced in 1 week!***

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Stories are good business too: Upcoming Business Innovation Factory Summit

***Keep an eye on this blog for upcoming book give-aways!***

For the last 10 years, in my work at the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University, I've been preaching that stories aren't just good medicine, they are central to the medical relationship and integral to healing. When doctors had nothing else in their black bags, no antibiotics, no fancy imaging studies, they had the ability to listen and be with patients. Indeed, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested that the call of the suffering other is a primordial call - that being present for another's suffering defines our very humanity.

The work that the Narrative Medicine Program and similar groups are doing across the country: seeking to ensure that medicine honors the role of stories and practitioners are expert story-elicit-ers, story-listeners, and story-interpreters, is therefore both forward thinking and rooted in age-old healing traditions. We are innovators and we are, in a sense, traditionalists. Don't forget the story, we cry!

All well and good. And yet, as someone with little to no experience in the world of business, I was flabbergasted to learn of the import that The Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI places upon story. Story is the heart of their yearly Innovation Summits - a way for innovators in health care, education, and business to share best practices, illustrate systems change, and think across disciplines and silos.

As I prepare for my upcoming presentation at the Business Innovation Factory Summit on September 15th, I decide to begin with a Bengali folktale -- something that resonates with both my love of children's stories and my own cultural traditions of oral storytelling. Here, I get to bring together my own seemingly disparate worlds - children's literature, writing, medicine, narrative, health care - but also worlds I never imagined entering - those of business, corporations, people involved in selling things. (!)

As part of my presentation preparation, I recently listened to CEO Tony Hsieh speak at a past BIF Summit. His talk was about his corporation's company culture - placing the customer first - and how their hiring and firing practices support this company culture first above all else. He described how all employees - even higher level executives - are required to go through two weeks of call center training.

Then, about mid-way through his talk, Hsieh told a moving story about humanity, witnessing, and healing. He described how a customer had placed an order with for her husband, only to have her husband be tragically killed in a car accident before the items ever got delivered. The call center representative walked the grieving widow through the return process, and then, sent flowers to the man's funeral as a symbol of the company's sorrow at the customer's loss. The Zappos employee had no company protocol to guide her in such a situation, but she also had the liberty to make the decision on her own without a supervisor's approval.

Apparently, the widow was so touched, she talked about at the funeral, and now not only is the woman a loyal customer, many of those at the funeral are as well.

Here is a case of how doing the right thing - in the words of Narrative Medicine, standing witness to someone's suffering - also fed the company's bottom line. A case of stories being good business as well as good medicine.

{for the record, I have nothing to do with the company nor have I actually ever bought anything from them!}