Bookish Event!

This is a librarian thing rather than a writer thing, but it’s book-related, so I’ll post it anyway!

A coworker and I recently planned and presented a library program based on the Series of Unfortunate Events books/show/movie/aesthetic. We had a blast, and so did the kids who came to the party! Here’s what we did:

In preparation for the party, my coworker and I had fun making weird snacks! The Lake Lachrymose Leeches are sour gummy worms in Berry Blue Jell-O. (Fun fact: we had to buy real Jell-O because, while there are knockoffs that are slightly cheaper, we could not find them in any blue flavors. We wanted our lake water to be blue!) Once the Jell-O set, we just stabbed it with a sharp knife and inserted the gummy worms into the holes. The Lemony Cakes are lemon mini cupcakes with lemon buttercream frosting, and the Red Herrings are, naturally, Swedish Fish.

gummy worms in blue jell-o
Lake Lachrymose Leeches
“Mendacious” is a word which here means “not strictly true, because these dishes do not really contain leeches or herrings.”

snack table

These decorations were lots of fun to put together. The map is an old one of Raleigh, NC!

map decorated with pins, photos, and strings

cardboard signpost with silly sign labelsOur main, big craft was the felt Incredibly Deadly Vipers. Our volunteers had previously prepared three-foot-long strips of felt, tapered at one end, and little felt snake tongues. We followed the instructions in this video to have each kid (with assistance, if necessary) braid a snake. Both ends were secured with large amounts of hot glue.

Our secondary craft was making Unlikely Hazard Signs. Kids could make signs warning of unusual hazards from the books – giant pincher machine, anyone? – or make up their own.

“Hazard” is a word which here means something worth warning people about. Without signs like these, people might accidentally trip, eat poison, embarrass themselves on CCTV, or get run over by a fork-lift.

We had a Secret Code Scavenger Hunt, though we didn’t really get photos of that. Each kid got a sheet with a series of symbols, and they had to search the library for little cards on which the symbols were translated into letters. Worked well . . . except that we’re pretty sure some little kid walked away with one of the cards, as no one, including us, could find it. Such are the hazards of holding scavenger hunts in public libraries during open hours.

We also had Hook-Handed Double-Dealing, a game in which kids put on two hooks over their hands and then tried to flip over playing cards as fast as possible. They could either compete against each other, or against our awesome coworker who was running that station. They also had the option of playing alone while our coworker timed them, and then trying to beat their own best times. They loved that!

My coworker, looking nefarious

This was all great fun. I want to share the photos and description partly because, when I was planning this program, I really appreciated other people’s posts on Series of Unfortunate Events parties they had put on. So here’s me trying to pay it forward. I hope this might help someone put on their own party!

Fictional People who are #SquadGoals

Romantic ships can be great, but I was delighted recently to see some book bloggers listing their favorite fictional groups of friends. (I think I first saw it on ForeverAndEverly? Can’t find the post now, though, naturally.) So I’m stealing the idea! Here are a few books featuring groups of friends that I love.

The Amateurs series by Sara Shepard — Seneca, Aerin, Maddox, and Madison are brave, complicated people fighting their own demons but also being there for each other. And solving mysteries.

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling — Gotta love the Golden Trio! It’s not easy staying best friends when one of you is the Chosen One, one is a slightly neurotic brainiac, and one is just a steadfast pragmatist trying not to get an inferiority complex. Still, these three manage, and save the world at the same time.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan — Elliot, Luke, and Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle are an unlikely but surprisingly well-balanced and accepting trio who weather all kinds of challenges, from cultural misunderstandings to actual warfare to Elliot’s nonstop snark, which could honestly sink some friendships all by itself. And their banter is fantastic.

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater — Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah are all rough around the edges. (Except for Gansey, who is polished and shiny around the edges, like everywhere else.) They’re all wonderful in their own ways, but I actually like their friendship even more than I like most of them individually.

Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops manga by Neko Nekobyou — Rika, Keiko, Suguha, and Hiyori (and, by extension, their online avatars, who are the real stars in most of this manga) are sweet and supportive friends. I especially like how they defy stereotypes: they’re girls who game together and are equally likely to strategize over a mission or to squeal over a cute in-game outfit. Guess what? You can do both!

cover of Sword Art Online: Girls' Ops manga
Just some gal pals kicking butt and taking names, and also sometimes logging out and going to class.

This was kind of tough for me! I read a lot of YA, and friendships seem to take a backseat to romances in a lot of them. In some other books, there might be just one best friend (not a whole friend group), or conversely, the group might be too big for me to have a real sense of all the characters and their relationships. But while I didn’t come up with a lot of examples, the ones I did list are ones I love!

What fictional groups of friends do you like?

Edit: I found the post that inspired me to write this one! It’s this post on favorite couples, friendships, and squads in fiction from The Bookish Actress.

A Few Great Books of 2017

As we’re wrapping up 2017, I thought I’d offer a few of my favorite reads that came out this year. I haven’t had as much free time recently as I’d like, so I feel lucky that some of the books I did manage to read were this good!

book cover of Amina's Voice
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan – Realistic fiction is not normally my thing, but this sweet MG novel charmed me while also teaching me a few things about the experiences of some Muslim Americans.

book cover of The Dark Prophecy
The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan – I continue to be impressed by (A) Rick Riordan in general, as an author and a person, and (B) his ability to pull off writing a series from the point of view of the god Apollo.

book cover of Dreadnought
Dreadnought by April Daniels – My favorite of the year! The prose, characters, and world are all excellent in this YA novel about a trans girl who becomes a superhero.

book cover of One Dark Throne
One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake – Sequel to the fascinating fantasy Three Dark Crowns, which is a hard act to follow. I couldn’t put this one down, either. Kendare Blake can write, y’all.

What 2017 books did you love?

Two People You Might Meet in Fiction

Fellow #1: Hi, I’m a scoundrely rogue! The heroine will meet me first and be put off by my bad manners.

Fellow #2: I’m a polite and respectful gent who’s not afraid to express romantic interest in the heroine.

Fellow #1: Soon, though, you’ll learn that I have a HEART OF GOLD! This means that I’ll do something brave and self-sacrificing, but I still won’t stop being rude and inappropriate. Don’t worry, though – the heroine will come to find it charming.

Fellow #2: Meanwhile, my kindness will be revealed as a ruse. I’m actually straight-up evil. Doesn’t that make the first guy look good?

(Honestly, though, I see these two types so often that it starts to make me mistrust any male character who actually seems . . . well-behaved. Kind of unfortunate.)

Brave New Worlds

It is a truth universally acknowledged that fantasy writers like maps. I recently discovered two great websites that let you generate fantasy maps of your very own! (I am in no way affiliated with either of these sites. I just like them.)

Inkarnate lets you draw your own continents, complete with features like forests, towers, and notes. You create an account, which is quick and free, and then you get access to this map-creation station:

You can then save and export the maps you make. Here’s a little island I whipped up as an example:

map of a small island

That’s pretty easy, but it gets even easier: the Polygon Map Generator will randomly generate islands for you. Then you can view them in 2D or 3D, plus from other interesting perspectives, like “Watersheds.” You can keep playing around with the settings and randomly generating islands until you get one that inspires you. No login required – just hit the “Random” button! Then you can export islands you like.

Have fun exploring!

Books About Girls: a Clarification

I just saw another post lamenting the silly – but unfortunately common – idea that boys can’t be expected to read books about girls, even though girls commonly read books about boys. (In fact, we’re often required to, for school.) I’ve written about this before. So has the excellent Shannon Hale.

It strikes me that part of the issue may be that people have different notions of what “books about girls” or “girl-centric books” are. When we say “it’s a problem that boys aren’t expected to read books about girls,” I think we usually mean “books with female protagonists.” At other times, though, “books about girls” may be used to mean “books about the experience of being a girl” or “books designed to appeal to girls” (which usually means they are about romance and/or close female friendships, possibly with a side of fashion and gossip).

This affects the conversation a lot! After all, this:

eight books on a pink background, titles listed later in this post

. . . may turn off a lot of boys. It turns off a lot of girls, too. Others love it. Some boys love these books, too, or would if they felt they were allowed to. The boys and girls who do want to read these books should be able to enjoy them without judgement, but I wouldn’t argue for pushing people to read them any more than I would argue for pushing them to read sports books or mysteries. It’s nice to at least try it out, to broaden your horizons, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to a broader idea of “books about girls” that encompasses all books with female protagonists, then you get something more like this:

twenty-five books, titles listed later in this post

These books range from horror to humor, from fantasy to romance. There are mysteries. There is action. There are comics. The settings are different. The tones are different. The protagonists are very different people, with one thing in common: they are female. If that’s enough for a reader to say, “ew, girl book, I won’t read that” – or for a parent to say “my son won’t read that” or a teacher to say “the boys in my class won’t read that” – then society, we have a problem.

In case anyone’s curious, I’ll list the books here. All are books I’ve read and enjoyed. I went with mostly YA (with one or two MG) both because that’s my own reading preference and because kids and teens who are reading these books so often fall victim to this weird genderization of reading preferences.

Graphic One:

1. Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
2. Vanished by E.E. Cooper
3. Ali’s Pretty Little Lies by Sara Shepard
4. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
5. The Selection by Kiera Cass
6. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
7. My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
8. Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

Graphic Two (repeats some books from Graphic One):

1. Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
2. George by Alex Gino
3. Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
4. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
5. Ten by Gretchen McNeil
6. This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
7. Sweet by Emmy Laybourne
8. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
9. Endangered by Lamar Giles
10. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
11. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
12. My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
13. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
14. Ms. Marvel, vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson
15. They All Fall Down by Roxanne St. Claire
16. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
17. In Real Life by Cory Doctorow
18. Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill
19. Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley
20. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
21. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
22. Adaptation by Malinda Lo
23. Huntress by Malinda Lo (ha, I didn’t even realize I had put in two Malinda Lo books – and right next to each other!)
24. The Selection by Kiera Cass
25. Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

On Dodging the Obvious

A somewhat-belated Happy New Year!

corgi with confetti
May you have plenty of occasions for confetti in 2017.

I recently read The Impostor Queen, a YA fantasy by Sarah Fine, and was struck by the importance of copper in the fantasy world where it’s set. It made the world – and therefore, the book – feel more unusual and distinctive. Copper isn’t as well-known or symbolically loaded as silver or gold, at least in Western storytelling. Indeed, I see it used as a hair color more than as a metal, especially in YA fantasy, where it seems like every other heroine is a redhead.

(My theory on this: authors avoid going with dark hair for their [usually white] heroines, because it might seem common and uninteresting *brunette sigh* and avoid blonde because it sometimes comes off as a shorthand for “is conventionally gorgeous” and they want their protagonist to be relatable and not an obvious beauty queen.)

Returning to the point! Lots of specific elements, from gemstones (e.g. rubies) to animals (e.g. wolves) to flowers (e.g. roses) appear frequently in Western fairy tales. They’re rich in symbolism and associations, and can provoke certain feelings or assumptions from the reader just by appearing. This can make them useful in fantasy storytelling, especially if you want a classical fairytale feel. But there’s also an opportunity there to make your fantasy world stand out by doing something different.

If your fantasy world is geographically unlike Europe, this will likely be a moot point. If your protagonist grows up in the tropics at the edge of a jungle, she might learn to beware not of wolves or bears but of jaguars. If you’ve based your setting on China, then your heroine is perhaps less likely to wear rubies than she is to wear jade.

But you can certainly vary these elements even in a story with a generally Europe-like setting (the world of The Impostor Queen gave me a Scandinavian vibe). Maybe your heroine’s country doesn’t mine rubies, but has large deposits of topaz. Maybe roses aren’t their thing, but tulips are. Topaz and tulips have fewer classical associations, at least in Western fantasy, but will likely still be well-known to readers. You could go for something less recognized, like iolite or anemone. These have the advantage of being more of a blank slate, association-wise, and perhaps introducing readers to something new. You’ll have to make sure to describe them well, though, as readers may not have a ready mental image of them.

You can include an element like this prominently – like the copper that is used practically everywhere in The Impostor Queen – or as a subtle touch. Think about how common this [metal/gem/animal/flower/etc] is in your fantasy world. Who has it? What is it used for? What does it signify to people?

If you know a good fantasy book that does this, I’d love to hear about it! And while we’re on the subject of book recommendations, allow me to give a shout-out to my favorite novel read in 2016, The Goblin Emperor. Fabulous fantasy. What books did you love last year?

Diverse Books to Add to Your Reading List

Sometimes, when the world seems a little scary, you ask yourself: how can I use my powers for good? We all have powers of one kind or another. In addition to writing, it happens that I am a librarian. So here is one of my powers: book recommendations.

Note: Possibly you have encountered the term “own voices” (often seen as a hashtag, #ownvoices). It’s become popular in the publishing and reading community. This term refers to books about diverse characters (people of color, LGBTQIA people, people with disabilities, and more) that are written by authors who themselves come from those groups. I, like many, think that a sensitively-written book featuring diverse characters is valuable no matter who writes it, but I also recognize that there is value in (A) the authenticity of a book that draws on personal experience, and (B) promoting the voices of marginalized people, who often have a harder time reaching a mainstream audience than white/straight/cis/ablebodied/etc. people do. So the following list is of “own voices” books.

The world benefits, and we benefit, when we see diverse points of view. Here are some books that can help us do that. These are all books I have personally read and can highly recommend, which means that they skew heavily toward books for teens, though I’ve included a few other categories. If you’re holiday shopping, they make excellent presents!

Picture Books

Just in Case by Yuyi Morales – beautiful book that teaches the alphabet as well as having a charming, sweet story

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña – winner of the 2016 Newbery and a Caldecott Honor book

Little Red Riding Hood by Jerry Pinkney – classic story; rich, gorgeous illustrations

Please Puppy Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee – adorable illustrations; cute story that reads aloud well

Middle Grade Books

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander – exciting basketball-centric story written entirely in hip-hop-esque poems

El Deafo by Cece Bell – funny, cute, and surprisingly informative graphic novel memoir

Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle – sweet novel in verse about a boy who, after his mother goes to jail, goes to live with his uncle and bonds with him and his search-and-rescue dog

Young Adult Books

I’ve heard people complain about YA books as a whole being too grim and bleak. Some of these books, I admit, are pretty sad and/or scary – and sometimes that intensity and feeling is what you want! (After all, The Fault in Our Stars became a smash hit for a reason.) But for people who could use an uplifting story, I’m tagging some of these in particular as ***Not a Downer!*** Doesn’t mean nothing bad happens in them, but it means they are ultimately uplifting and leave you with hope, excitement, and/or other positive feelings.

Ash by Malinda Lo – lovely Cinderella retelling
***Not a Downer!***

Brain Camp by Susan Kim and Faith Erin Hicks – this graphic novel is creepy, but fun-creepy
***Not a Downer!***

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina – thrilling historical fiction set during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when power outages and fires swept NYC while the serial killer Son of Sam terrorized the city
***Not a Downer!***

Fake ID by Lamar Giles – smart, fast-paced thriller
***Not a Downer!***

The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco – a poetically-written, chilling ghost story based on Japanese folklore

Hero by Perry Moore – clever and thoughtful superhero story packed with fantastical action
***Not a Downer!***

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon – absorbing story that shows the aftermath of an incident when a white man shoots a black teen

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth – clever, quietly-powerful story of a boy struggling with poverty and discrimination who discovers that if you let them, your friends can be exactly what you need
***Not a Downer!***

The Living by Matt de la Peña – taut thriller that follows a boy who is working on a cruise ship when a tsunami wrecks it, and the survivors realize that tsunamis are far from the only disaster hitting their world

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson – witty, exciting, utterly fabulous superhero graphic novel series
***Not a Downer!*** Seriously, like, the least downer-y thing ever written

Otherbound by Corrine Duyvis – fantasy with great worldbuilding, tight pacing, and an original premise
***Not a Downer!***

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee – well-researched, well-plotted, well-written historical fiction set in San Francisco during 1906, the year when a deadly earthquake strikes

Pointe by Brandy Colbert – a teenaged ballerina’s life is shaken when her childhood best friend, who was kidnapped years ago, is returned

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan – a sort of romantic comedy set in high school; fun and unusual; also deals with bullying/harassment in a positive way
***Not a Downer!***

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp – not for the faint of heart, this powerful story offers the viewpoints of various students during a terrifying school shooting

Adult Books

The Arrival by Shaun Tan – gorgeous, uplifting wordless graphic novel about an immigrant coming to a fantastical new city (great for kids and teens, too!)

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo – I cannot tell you how lyrically beautiful this book, full of Chinese folklore, is, but trust me, it will suck you right into its intricate, fascinating world

House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle – gorgeous storytelling with touches of magical realism

Some resources to check out for further recommendations:

Seven Great Nonfiction Books for Writers that Aren’t About Writing

Writing fiction – even writing fantasy – doesn’t mean you make everything up. Does your book have human characters? Does it have animals, plants, stars, diseases, art, wars, pretty much anything that exists in the real world? Then your book will be stronger if you know something about how those things really work. Research: luckily, it’s more fun than it sounds.

There are fabulous books out there that are specifically about writing. I especially like The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond. Books like that can boost your craft, for sure. But it’s also helpful – and incredibly fascinating – to read other nonfiction that touches on topics relevant to your work. (Bonus: these books make you more interesting to talk to at cocktail parties, and you can recommend them to friends who aren’t writers!) The following seven books have illuminated various topics for me, including . . .

1. FoodWhat the World Eats by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel
book cover
This book’s creators visited dozens of countries all over the world to photograph families with all the food they eat in a week. There’s a profile of each family, plus a list of all the food they consume in an average week, including brand names and prices in US dollars. Plus, it has features on things like street food – scorpion on a stick, anyone?

2. Plants, and the Domestication ThereofThe Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
book cover
In a breezy, storytelling style, Pollan explores the histories of four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and the potato.

3. DiseasesSpillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
book cover
A zoonosis is a disease that crosses over from a nonhuman animal species to infect humans. This book plots the course of several outbreaks that started in animals before jumping to humans. The author also goes to adventurous lengths to meet and speak with people who are on the front lines of zoonosis research.

4. AnimalsMammals by Juliet Clutton-Brock
book cover
Come for the cool photos, stay for the weird facts. This Smithsonian Handbook might just introduce you to your favorite mammal that you’d never heard of. This was where I first learned about binturongs, and life has never been the same.

5. WarThe Hutchinson Atlas of Battle Plans: Before and After by John Pimlott
book cover
Clear without being condescending, this book explains significant historical battles and shows the movement of troops using before-and-after maps (hence the title). It profiles battles from all over the world and all through history, each one chosen to emphasize a specific factor, e.g. “smart leadership” or “underestimating the enemy.”

6. Nineteenth-Century EnglandWhat Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool
book cover
Theoretically, this book is intended as a desk reference for people who like to read Victorian fiction. It’s a funny, highly readable explanation of the nitty-gritty details of life in England in the 1800s, from the etiquette of fox hunts to the treatment of servants to the currency system.

7. More Things About the Nineteenth Century, and Not Just in EnglandEveryday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon
book cover
Does this book overlap some with the last one? Yes. Is it still worth reading, if you’re interested in the time period? Absolutely. Interesting and clever, this book has tons of great citations from period documents.

I’m always looking for more great nonfiction books, whether they’re relevant to my writing or not. Any recommendations?