Groucho Marx on the entertainment value of TV

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The problem of finding age-appropriate books for a high level reader

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My twelve-year-old daughter reclined on the sofa, reading a book. As I walked by, I glimpsed the book’s cover: the picture of a young couple paused mid-kiss. Little alarm sirens went off in my brain. “What’s that book?” I asked.

In reply, she held up the book for further inspection and kept reading.

“Where’d you get it?”

“Library.”

Hm, I thought, and asked to look at it more closely. YA romance. The blurb told me next to nothing about the appropriateness of the content for a twelve-year-old, so that afternoon, I skimmed through the book. Two big things appeared:

  • Plenty of raw language (the f-word was frequent).
  • The sex scenes were not explicit by adult romance terms, between two teens who obviously cared deeply for one another. They used protection. They respected one another and were in a monogamous relationship. The young man’s father had a “pre-sex talk” with him about respecting women, mutual pleasure, and respecting his girlfriend if she said “no”. In other words, it was the best case scenario for premarital sex.

This is when I hate being a responsible parent. Now I had to decide: Was this okay for a twelve-year-old to read?

I’m not a prude. I’ve talked to my daughter about sex, sexuality, rape, my personal convictions and expectations for her behavior toward men. We’ve talked about STDs. We’ve talked about menstrual cycles. She rolls her eyes, as if to say, Mom, we’ve talked about this before!

(At one point, when I said we need to discuss something when Cecilia wasn’t around, she asked, “Is it about puberty?” Apparently, my talks about “becoming a woman” aren’t appreciated. This particular time the talk was about Cecilia being accelerated a grade. No rhapsodies on the joys of periods and bras. She was relieved.)

I’d rather her hear the facts from me and her father than peers.

But in a novel? What was the right thing to do?

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A few weeks ago, a Christian literary agent was discussing authors moving from the CBA market (Christian market) to the general market. A commenter made the suggestion that authors who didn’t want to have explicit content (language and sex) in their novels could always write for the YA and middle grade market. “They’re cleaner!” the commenter enthused.

Um, no. Obviously, this commenter hadn’t set foot in the YA or middle grade sections of a bookstore in a while. Books marketed for teens and tweens have just as much language, sex, and violence as anything in the adult section; it may be toned down (as the sex scenes in this novel were) but it’s still there. It’s marketed for a younger audience, that’s all.

We’ve encountered this problem frequently over the years. Both my daughters read at a high level for their age. One reads at a college level, the other at an 8th grade level. But they’re still twelve and seven, with the emotional maturity levels of those ages.

What is both challenging enough and age-appropriate?  

This may seem like whining about being too thin or too rich. I wish I had that problem with my kids, some parents grumble. I can’t get mine to read at all. Or, try having a dyslexic child!

But like being too thin or rich, there are problems with being too good at reading. As a twelve-year-old girl, I had this issue (or rather, my parents did). I was bored with the brain candy my peers read, I’d read all the standard children’s classics, I desperately wanted to read more grown-up things. I was also a fast reader; a three-hundred-page novel might be devoured in a day or two.

But I was still a child in many ways. It wasn’t like my mom could hand over Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick and expect me to understand them. Finally, she let me read Agatha Christie’s novels and the newly re-edited George MacDonald books. Murder mysteries and theologically-driven novels were deemed safe enough for my consumption. My sixth grade teacher asked me for book recommendations.

So I’ve been here before. Only now I’m the adult. Now I have to decide.

On one hand, I don’t want to unnecessarily censor content. That leads either to unfounded naiveté, believing the world is a safe’n’squeaky clean place, or to sneaking around, reading the banned books on the sly. Or, worse, sneaking around online.

On the other hand, she’s twelve. I’m the parent. I am responsible for my child and for exposing her to the real world in an age-appropriate manner.

Could I have used the sexual content as a springboard for a discussion? I’m sure I could’ve, and would’ve, if she were slightly older. It seemed to be a little too much information for a twelve-year-old, though. (Does she need to know how a guy puts on a condom?)

And what about the language? It’s one thing to know certain words and what they mean, and to know when it’s appropriate (or not) to use those words. It’s quite another to read a book where these words are presented as normal words for conversational usage.

I told her, “If you were older, I’d let you read this and we could talk about it. But I think the content may be a little too mature for you.” I explained my two areas of concern. I added that the book appeared reasonably well-written and when she’s older, I’ll let her read it so that we can discuss it together.

She groaned. “But I don’t have anything to read!”

“Wait until school starts. Then you’ll have plenty to read.”

And thank God for English teachers. Now she has a stack of books to read and she’s delved into The Screwtape Letters.

The Power of Fiction and a lesson in looking down at genre fiction

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Here’s a passage from a recently read crime novel, followed by an unexpected lesson learned:

cc33930fa883445589c2ac36d408233e“The girl was reading a novel by Felicitas Rose. At one point she held the book high enough for Studer to see the illustration on the cover: a man in jodhpurs and shiny riding boots was leaning against a balustrade, with swans swimming on a castle moat in the background; a young woman dressed all in white was coyly playing with her parasol.

“Why do you read rubbish like that?” Studer asked. Some people have an allergy to iodine or bromine, Studer’s allergy was to Felicitas Rose and other romantic novelists in the style of Hedwig Courths-Mahler. Perhaps because his wife used to read that kind of story, all through the night sometimes, which meant that his morning coffee was weak and lukewarm, and his wife had a soulful expression on her face.”

–Friedrich Glauser, Thumbprint, trans. Mike Mitchell, page 37

I ran across this passage in Friedrich Glauser’s crime novel Thumbprint and had to laugh. I don’t have to know Felicitas Rose or even if she’s a real writer to know what kind of novels this girl is reading. Or to know why the detective Studer, approaching the murder victim’s daughter for questioning, is disdainful of F.G.’s style novels. Or to know what this girl would be reading if she lived in the early 21st century and not the early 20th.

I’ve been a bit (okay, a lot) like Studer, and not just about romance novels, either. I’ve been known to be dismissive of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy. Allergic, with no sneeze-zapping medicine in the bathroom cabinet.

Here’s why. Most of the casual fiction-writing dabblers I’ve met in real life write in these genres. When I say I write mainstream or women’s fiction, they look at me like I’m either crazy (why would you write about that topic?) or confusing (what’s women’s fiction? mainstream? literary? What are those?). Then they talk about their “fiction novel.”

If you can’t see why that might frustrate me and make me roll my eyes, well, I’m sorry.

I know there are intelligent people writing in these genres; I’ve met them online and found them articulate, knowledgeable, and delightful. But these unfortunate real-world experiences probably account for my generally dismissive attitude toward these genres. Not fair, but true.

Lately, though,  I’ve come to realize that just because I don’t connect with a particular genre doesn’t mean that other people can’t connect to it.

What changed my  mind was a recent blog post by Writer Unboxed blogger Jo Eberhardt. In “The Power of Fiction,” she recounts a sadly familiar story of being bullied, taunted, and hurt by others during her teen years. Then a school gardener handed her a novel of speculative fiction.

In The Unlikely Ones, the main character, a girl called Thing, is being ridiculed, tortured, and imprisoned by a wicked witch. The girl has a stone inside her that causes her tremendous physical pain. Once the witch dies, Thing must journey to someone who can heal her of her physical pain, but along the way, she becomes a stronger person and is healed inside from the wounds left by the witch.

Jo says that she read the book twice in a week. From then on, when she was bullied, she remembered Thing. When she was kicked and taunted, she remembered Thing. And when she contemplated suicide, she remembered Thing—and chose to live.

All this thanks to a book of speculative fiction, a genre I’ve dismissed.

e5e0367b98f94053b04dfcb1b67c44d7I felt ashamed. I may not like a particular genre, but other people may adore it. I don’t connect with fantasy, romance, or SF, but others do connect and see themselves reflected in the characters. I may be blind to the value, but others—like Jo—do see value in those pages. It may even inspire them to choose life.

The value doesn’t depend on me and my literary standards or preferences. It comes from the truth itself, the truth that has been clothed in words and wrapped in the cloak of a fantasy story. It’s a story that simultaneously can and cannot exist in our world, and it’s a truth that transcends worlds altogether.

Life is valuable. You are valuable. Live.     

And I’ve learned a valuable lesson.

 

P. G. Wodehouse on friendship

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I love the smiles on these boys’ faces. What books could they be talking about, I wonder. Any ideas? I don’t know what little boys like to read.

Short story contest opportunity

Ever wanted to enter your short fiction in a contest? Well, I’m helping judge the Ruminate short story contest (officially known as the William Van Dyke short story contest) and the deadline has been extended until midnight TONIGHT. That’s Tuesday, August 11, 2015.

Every submission is read “blind”, meaning that I and the other judges don’t know who wrote the story. So if you do enter, don’t include your name, bio, and contact info in the story (like you would for a normal submission). And please remember that this is a contest for fiction, not non-fiction. You can read the full guidelines by clicking on the link I’ve provided above.

Pass along this information to any writers on your social networks who might be interested. We’d love to read your stories!

Don’t let society define your worth

If you’ve read the comments on my blog, you might know Dyane Leshin-Harwood. She’s bipolar, like I am, and has written this song. Watch and enjoy. (Don’t worry; I have plenty to say afterward.)

These lines stood out to me:

Don’t call me bipolar ’cause it’s not my name

Can’t you see I’m a person, there is no shame

Often, I see people who allow something to define them. It may be a mental illness or a physical disability. It may be the secret shame of something they did in the past. It may be something that someone else did to them. Whatever it is, it dogs their footsteps, nipping at their heels, biting, snarling, threatening, until it overtakes that person’s life. In their mind, they have become that Thing and only that Thing.

Yet no one is defined this way.

As usual, I was reminded of a book. (Shocking!) In this case, two books.

from Wikimedia Commons, photo from *AC85 B9345 911s, Houghton Library, Harvard University
from Wikimedia Commons, photo from
*AC85 B9345 911s, Houghton Library, Harvard University

One’s the children’s classic The Secret Garden. If you’ve read the book, you remember Colin Craven, the sickly son of the owner of the garden. The owner is a hunchback, and his is convinced his son will become a hunchback, too.

So Colin has grown up into a ten-year-old boy who lies in bed all day, every day, and gets whatever he wants, and orders everyone to do whatever he wishes, all the while convinced that he is getting a lump in his back. He searches for this lump every night. It is all that he thinks about. A lump means the beginnings of a hunched back, and a hunched back—well, Colin thinks he might as well die.

His cousin Mary sets him straight:

‘You didn’t feel a lump!’ contradicted Mary fiercely. (. . .) ‘Turn over and let me look at it!’ (. . . ) ‘There’s not a single lump there!’ she said at last. . . . ‘If you ever say there is again, I shall laugh!’

No one but Colin himself knew what effect those crossly spoken childish words had on him. If he (…) had not lain on his back in the huge closed house, breathing an atmosphere heavy with the fears of people who were most of them ignorant and tired of him, he would have found out that most of his fright and illness was created by himself.

Colin’s secret fear has defined him. In his mind, he is going to be a hunchback, and that is all that matters. He won’t try to venture beyond his bed because other people might stare at him for his hunched back, of course—a non-existent hunched back. He is sick, but it only defines him because he allows it to define him.

The second book I remembered was A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. After Jefferson, a young African-American man, is wrongly convicted of murder (by an all-white jury) and sentenced to death, all he can focus on is one thing: in his closing argument to the court, his defense attorney calls him a hog. He couldn’t be guilty of murder, the attorney tells the jury, because he’s dumb; all they had to do was look at his face and see this for themselves. “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”  The whites, even the one defending Jefferson, believe a lie, one that stigmatizes others based on their skin color.

Jefferson focuses on that one word: hog. If he looks like a hog, he might as well be a hog, he reasons. So he behaves like one. “‘I’m a old hog they fattening up to kill,’” he tells his visitor, the local teacher Grant Wiggins.

His grandmother asks Grant to help the doomed man. “ ‘I don’t want them to kill no hog,’ she said. ‘I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.’”

There’s no question of a last-minute reprieve. This is 1940s Louisiana; the verdict is never in doubt. Grant can do nothing to save Jefferson from the electric chair. He can only help him see his true worth and learn a few lessons himself. He tells Jefferson that he and the black community need him to do one thing: disprove the myth of white supremacy by dying like a man.

Later, the white prison guard, Paul, comes to tell Grant about the execution.

‘He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins,’ Paul said, staring at me and speaking louder than was necessary. ‘He was, he was. I’m not saying this to make you feel good, I’m not saying this to ease your pain. (. . .) When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, “Tell Nannan I walked.” And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.’

f1b4649cb64e4f5db6a9df86532f40a9Then the white man extends his hand and the black man shakes it.

Jefferson wasn’t the only one who learned a lesson. The lesson of the worth of a person, regardless of skin color or station in life, has broken down the barrier of prejudice.

  • Jefferson was no longer just a “black” to Paul.
  • Paul is no longer just “one of them” to Grant.
  • Grant is no longer just a “black” to Paul, but someone he wants for a friend.

There are huge differences in these three scenarios, of course. Dyane and I do have an illness, unlike Colin, who is mostly ill from his fear of being ill. And Jefferson never has been a hog, no matter what his defense attorney says.

But we all need that reminder that our true worth doesn’t lie where society says it does. Humans are so much more than one word, a diagnosis, a lie from the mouth of a so-called defender.

We are beautiful, complicated beings, made in God’s image. That’s what I believe. But even if you don’t believe in God, at least believe this truth:

We are more precious than words can express.  


  Two random notes:

Note #1: If you haven’t read A Lesson Before Dying, you must. It’s labelled on Amazon as “women’s fiction” (probably because it was in Oprah’s book club) but it’s not a book just for women. Powerful read.

Note #2: Dyane has written a memoir about her postpartum bipolar experience that will (we hope) be published in fall 2016. Stay tuned.

Beginnings: daunting, difficult, and doable

It seems all wrong to write about beginnings in the middle of August. Beginning conjures up images of new years, calendars flipped to pristine white January pages, with strains of Auld Lang Syne coming from the stereos. Alternately, beginnings smells of spring and warmth and blossoming trees and pollen. Spring cleaning, short sleeves, and the need to buy Zyrtec and its kissing cousins.

So, August? Beginnings?

But it is the beginning of many things.

d3557dd7b9104b72b7fe04ddfa5996ceSchool started for my children. (Another thing that seems wrong: starting school when it is still 100 degrees outside.) New school supplies, new uniforms, new teachers, all that. We had our annual LAMA breakfast; the weekly Tuesday workdays were announced; the rush toward Southern Tradition has already begun. Overwhelming.

I’m starting draft #2 on novel #4. It’s overwhelming. Was it like this the last time I started a second draft? Did I read the first draft and shake my head and think, “what a load of crap”? Did I doubt that I’d be able to bring it into a cohesive form?

I’m reading submissions for Ruminate’s short story contest again. That is overwhelming, too. Was it like this last year? I strain to remember reading the 2014 entries. Was I impressed? Did I know which I wanted to pick as my top twenty favorites, or did I hesitate over the final selection, dither between a handful of great stories?

Beginnings can be hard. Bertie Wooster, bumbling hero of P. G. Wodehouse’s series, agrees:

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about to long  at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.

Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.

–P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves

I’m betting that every slush pile reader who’s stumbled onto this passage nods in agreement. Doesn’t matter if they adore Wodehouse or not, snort with laughter at his comic stories or chunk the book against the wall. We’ve all read novels that fool about too long or read like a scalded cat.

All writers recognize this feeling of being snagged at the start of our story. (And we’ve had drooling with envy feeling when we read another writer’s wonderful metaphor. “Scalded cat.” Love it.) The advice we read can further snag us: no prologues, start with action, raise a story question, establish an atmosphere, no weather forecasts, ditch the backstory, cut the first three pages, dialogue is okay but potentially problematic . . .

Anything can be made into a problem. Even something as simple as typing the first word on a blank page.

Now I remember. I did feel this snagged when I started my second draft. I did wonder how to tackle the story. I did feel this way—and I got unsnagged and wrote more drafts.

I began reading the short stories for the contest, and now I remember: I did struggle with narrowing my choices down to twenty. I did like some immediately, but others took a few more readings until I was confident that they were solid choices. I did feel this way—and I plowed through and was thrilled with the finalists and the winner.

This morning, as I stood in the school library chatting with fellow LAMAs, I noticed a woman standing by the wall. She had a dazed, overwhelmed expression on her face. A newcomer, I guessed, and introduced myself. I was right. Her family is new to the school; they don’t know anyone. In a school like ours, with people who have attended church, ball games, school functions, and raised children together, it’s tempting to look around and see others who are at ease and think, “I’ll never fit in. I’ll never know what they know or who they know or where anything is.”

That was me last year. I did wonder if I’d ever find my place. I probably had a similar expression on my face at the first LAMA breakfast. I did feel that way—and I worked hard and got involved and met people.

Beginnings are difficult, but they don’t stay beginnings. They morph into middles. We learn, we grow, we don’t stay beginners forever. But when you’re at a beginning, it can feel that way. It’s only when we look back that we can see just how far we’ve come.