Monday, December 6, 2010

December 7th, Columbia College, Chicago

Anyone in the Chicago area want to come hear me yammer about strong characters in YA lit? Head down to Columbia College Tuesday, December 7th -- TOMORROW -- at 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm.

Strong Female Characters in YA Lit
Discussion with Laura Ruby

Description: Join award winning Young Adult author Laura Ruby for a frank discussion about strong female characters and feminist themes in YA lit. Ms. Ruby is the author of "Good Girls," "Bad Apple" and "Play Me." All of her books for teens include themes of female sexuality and the societal consequences of being a strong girl in today's fragile climate. Her books for teens are notable for their "heartbreaking" characters (School Library Journal), "pertinent, provocative, and dramatic" storylines (Kirkus), and their "frank, realistic portrayal of teen life," (VOYA).


Tue Dec 7 2010 4:00PM -- 6:00 PM
Columbia College
600 S. Michigan, Classroom #1

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Story That Ate My Brain

Great visit with some gifted/accelerated/fabulous kids -- including my niece -- at Holmes Middle School in Wheeling, IL yesterday. So many great questions about so many different things. My favorite, however, was the one I had the most difficulty answering. A girl asked, "How do you know if your work is any good?"

I said, "You have radio U-SUCK playing in your head, don't you?" The class laughed, and I went on to recommend Bird by Bird and told her that she had to focus on the feelings she was experiencing as she wrote. That if her writing was moving her, she had to trust that feeling. That she was the writer, but she was also her own first reader, and that if her work didn't move her, well it wasn't going to move anyone else.

And that's true, except when your despair and self-loathing drowns out every other feeling. Or when you've read your work so many times you have it memorized, and everything on the page sounds like the worst kind of cliche, and you're about as emotionally responsive as the half-dead ficus in the corner of the dentist's waiting room. The truth is, a lot of times you don't know if your work is any good. But you keep working anyway, in the hopes that you'll find your way to your story. And if helps any, kids of Holmes Middle, you're not alone . We all feel like we're right in the middle of the story that is eating our brains, and will, we are sure, be the death of us. Welcome to the wonderful world of writing. The thrills! The glamour! Who knew?

Right after I got home from my visit, my agent called with the good news that she liked my latest novel, and the somewhat deflating news that she wants me to revise the whole thing from the POV of a different character. Or maybe it was the POV of a chicken or cumulous cloud, I'm hazy on the details. I can do it. I can't do it. I change my mind every fourteen seconds or so. Maybe more coffee will help. Maybe the cats have advice. Maybe I can hire the children of Holmes Middle to write the book for me a la James Frey . I'll pay them entirely in Mountain Dew and Warheads. We will call ourselves Patheticus Gore and make a million little dollars. Or at least, I will. (Don't look at me like that. Kids love Warheads.)

But I wasn't lying when I told the kids that revision was my favorite part of writing. That I'd much rather wrestle with a malfunctioning manuscript than face a blank page. What I'm not sure I got across was the little period of mourning you endure when you hear that your story -- your baby -- is kind of cute but also a malformed and quite possibly psychotic, that it's got no arms, a couple of extra legs, fingers poking from the top of its wee furry head, and a single eyeball where its nose should be, and that the eyeball is staring RIGHT AT YOU, demanding you love it anyway. And when you stop feeling sorry for yourself, you find that you do love it anyway, and you get back to work.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


This is a test. This is only a test.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


An update about Tanya Lee Stone's book challenge: it was successfully handled by the librarian and principal. The book will remain in the library. Yay!

But now, I'm confused about this. I can't for the life of me understand what would lead a parent to challenge Newbery honoree Susan Campbell Bartoletti's book, They Called Themselves the KKK . Yes, I can see that the material could be disturbing. But isn't that the point? Teenagers shouldn't be exposed to American history if some aspects are disturbing? Why teach history at all?

Yikes. I'm glad there are librarians like this one .

Monday, October 25, 2010

I'm tired.

Okay, this is just the kind of thing that I was referring to in my previous post about book challenges. You don't think a certain assigned book is appropriate for your teenager, then you can ask for another selection. But stop, please stop, calling the books "porn" simply because you don't like them.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Every Week is Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week has come and gone, but it’s not as if the book banners have packed up their outrage and gone home. While my friend Tanya Lee Stone is enjoying the launch of her newest book , she’s also dealing with a challenge to her YA novel: A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL. Apparently, she told me, a few parents think that this spare and elegant verse novel is nothing but a “how-to,” and want it removed from a high school library.

“I’m assuming they didn’t mean that the novel is a ‘how-to’ on making good choices, surviving betrayal and being true to yourself,” I said.

Tanya said, “Uh, no.”

After I had gotten all my sighing and sputtering and snarling out of the way, we spoke about how horrible* it is to have your work called inappropriate and your intentions deemed suspect. But of all the frightening things that can affect teens—crime, poverty, hunger, bullying, drunk driving, suicide, drug abuse, date rape — I have to wonder why certain people are so determined to be terrified of books.

Not all books, though. While sexuality in teen books drives some people nuts, we don’t seem nearly as disturbed by violence. Where are the ardent challengers of THE HUNGER GAMES**, for example? Is it because we believe that any book honestly dealing with war must contain some violent content? Is it because all the adults are too busy devouring MOCKINGJAY to complain? Or is it because we can see more perverse brutality on a single episode of Criminal Minds? Why are we so much more freaked out by a naked guy than a guy with an ax?

Tanya’s situation reminded of that man who wrote to his local newspaper to call Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK “filth” and “pornography.” In his letter, he said, “This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers, and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. The cheer squad also gets their group rate abortions at prom time. As the main character is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like.” Female parts? Really? If this man actually read the whole book, he didn’t understand a word of it. He couldn’t recognize the deep pain and suffering underneath the layers of irony, and took the narrator’s acid sarcasm literally. (Actually, the sarcasm seems to have gone entirely over his head, a problem more commonly experienced by eight-year-olds). He missed the entire point of the novel, which was the main character’s hard-won battle with depression in the aftermath of a crime. If teens have no trouble getting this book***, why was this grown man so scared and confused? Was he conflating his horror over the crimes depicted in the book with the book itself? Or is he just crazy?****

Book challenges are usually classified as battles between conservatives and liberals: “You conservatives just want to deny the reality of teens’ lives,” vs. “You liberals just want teens to read smut and learn how to be ho’s.” But I wonder if this is not so much a fight between conservatives and liberals as it is an argument over the purpose of reading. That is, people who view stories as a way to experience different perspectives and think through problems versus people who view stories, even fictional ones, as lists of “facts” or “instructions.”***** (Or worse, lots of boring, useless stuff punctuated by naughty bits that can be read aloud at school board meetings.)

Like all authors I’ve talked to, I believe that parents have a right to tell their own teens which books they can and can’t read. It’s only when one or two parents try to decide for everyone else’s kids that I get frustrated and sad. I have an in-law whose religious beliefs make a lot of books — including almost all of mine — off limits for her kids. When her son was young, she would request a different selection if she found an assigned novel objectionable. Some of the books she objected to were favorites of mine; A WRINKLE IN TIME was one, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was another. It was hard to hear that her son wouldn’t be allowed to read books that had meant a lot to me when I was his age. Then again, I had to admire the lack of drama with which she asked for another choice. There were no letters to the paper, no press conferences, no self-righteous speeches, just: “Can he read something else, please?”

I think this lack of drama showed her kids that though she believed they weren’t ready for some of these books, she wasn’t freaking out over the books, she wasn’t scared of them. So, neither were they. They were curious about the books, maybe, but not scared. I believe it was Chris Crutcher who said that people who go ballistic over books dealing with sex or homosexuality or suicide or violence ensure that if/when their own children have to deal with these issues, their parents will be the last people they’ll ask for help. Why would they, when their parents are clearly so very frightened already?

And raising teenagers is frightening sometimes. But I believe you can be frightened and still act bravely. That means that you don’t start screaming porn! porn! porn! simply because you don’t like what a book has to say. If pornography can be defined as sex without context or redeeming social value, than books like A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL and SPEAK are anti-porn, that is, they are powerful and empowering stories that put issues of sexuality, betrayal, rape, and depression in meaningful context. They help teenagers think through these issues without having to experience them themselves, yet offer solace to teens who have. To turn these books into examples of porn, you must become a pornographer, you must strip away the context, strip out the characters, the plot, the poetry, the pain, the irony, the intelligence, the heartbeat, the story. You must slice up the pages, dice up the paragraphs and the sentences until all you have left are a few words or phrases -- Underwear! Backside! -- you can use to titillate your friends.

You can do this to every book. You can do this to any book. (Clifford the Big Red Dog? Well, what do you mean by “big”? What do you mean by “dog”?)

I lurk on a listserv for YA librarians.****** Something written by one of these librarians – forgive me, I forget his name — has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like: “every day kids are living the kinds of lives we wouldn’t want them reading about.” We’ve watched the news, we’ve seen the reports of teens committing suicide after being brutalized or bullied or betrayed or outed, unable to envision a better future for themselves, or any future, for that matter. Do we really want take away stories of survival from teenagers struggling to survive?

Uh, no.

* It sucks. I don’t know any author who delights in a book challenge, or sells more books because of one. Unfortunately, I speak from experience; challenges are humiliating and depressing.

**Not hating on HUNGER GAMES, I like HG.

***Here’s a link to Laurie HA reading her poem called “Listen” that includes actual teen reader responses to SPEAK. Scroll down for the video.

**** Let's go with crazy .

***** Or maybe they assume that all people under the age of eighteen view books this way, which is just annoying. If teens read BAD BOY like a “how-to” then they read everything like a “how-to,” no? So why am I not seeing legions of girls perched in the oak trees around my neighborhood, picking off other kids with their homemade bows like Katniss Everdeen?

******No matter what some people would have you believe, librarians take into account the needs and wishes of their individual schools and communities when they purchase books for their collections. And every day librarians knock themselves out helping parents find books for their teens, no matter what kinds of requirements/restrictions those parents have. “I’m looking for adult novels for my 7th grader, but we don’t want sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction or novels with bad language or bad behavior or cats or kissing. Must be between 272 and 365 pages. Blue covers only.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Five in Focus

So some guys at the Focus Features website asked me -- and four other YA authors -- what our favorite teen movies are and why. This was a stupidly hard question to answer, almost as hard as trying to pick my top five favorite books. But after much thought -- probably too much -- I came up with these . I'm sure if you asked me the same question tomorrow, I'd have five other picks. Because I'm like that.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Chicago Area Appearance July 17th

It's last minute, I know, but any Chicago-area teens who want to talk art and writing, come see me at the McKinley Park Library in Chicago on Saturday at 11:00 am. Details here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Still not sure how I feel about Twitter, but I thought this Twitter experiment from Kathleen Duey was very cool. You can read the whole thing here . Also, you can read Kathleen's thoughts about why she decided to write Russet's story this way at Cyn Smith's blog .

Monday, May 10, 2010

Highlights and Lowlights

Haven't blogged in a while, but I have an excuse: I sold one house, bought another, scraped miles of ancient wallpaper off plaster, painted seven rooms, gutted a kitchen, sanded floors, patched up 80-year-old plumbing, and moved, not necessarily in that order.

My mom tells me that the memory of the pain will fade, but I'm not buying it. When your own movers mock you for the amount of stuff you have, and then they're forced to make THREE trips with the moving truck over a couple of days, and then you must live in the middle of a construction site while the cats have little kitty nervous breakdowns in a tiny attic room more fitting for Mrs. Rochester, well...the experience is sort of burned into your brain.

But one bright spot in all the chaos of the last five months was the truly blissful week I spent at the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop in Honesdale, PA. When my friend Anne Ursu told me that this workshop would be focused on fantasy and asked me to lead it with her, I thought, sure, that could be fun. A week in rural Pennsylvania, hours of writing time in my own private cabin, students fascinated by faeries and elves and demons, fabulous food prepared by a gourmet chef, what could be better? But it WAS better, better than I ever thought. I've never met such hardworking, intelligent, warm and funny people who not only took their own work seriously, but took the work of the other students just as seriously. It sounds hokey but it can't be helped: I learned as much from them as they did from me.

There. I said it.

Now I'm back home and trying to get back to work. But stuff like this is making it difficult to focus.