Thursday, December 17, 2015

Happy Holidays

     Beyond Where You Stand is going on winter break.  I'll return with new posts on articles, books, reviews, appearances and other pertinent information.  Have a wonderful holiday celebration and a happy new year. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Surviving Through Story

     In a recent piece, New York Times columnist David Brooks discussed the traits and strategies that best lend themselves to overcoming trauma.  Super survivors, as he calls people with an unusually high capacity for this, have "a rock of inner security" instilled by a sense of deep and abiding love in early life, and a tendency to be slightly deluded (in a positive way) about their own abilities yet realistic about the problems they're facing.  But, he notes, "recovering from trauma is mainly an exercise in storytelling."  It is ultimately a matter of being able to write a new story for yourself, to construct a new narrative that moves you beyond the trauma and allows it to become a thing you can put in your past so that your future remains unwritten by dark psychological forces.
     We view time in terms of story: the past, the future and our own lives.  We construct the world in metaphors so that we can more easily understand and interpret it.  Our brains are constructed to work by story.  Maybe it isn't such a surprise then that, sometimes, it's stories that allow us to survive.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What Will the Force Awaken?

      Pretty soon, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens will light up movie screens with new characters, new battles, new dangers, new models of lightsabers and a new path of destiny for the Skywalker clan.
      Though the resonance of its narrative has mainly been attributed to mythology, Star Wars owes a great deal to the fairy tale: the clever farm boy who saves the day, the dashing rogue, the faithful animal companion, the sinister lord and, of course, the princess due for a rescue.  Princess Leia was delightful, to be sure, filled with pluck and competence that matched up to her male compatriots and then some.  But the movie that established the saga centered unsurprisingly on her rescue.  By the time we bid her farewell in Return of the Jedi, though her greater destiny as a Skywalker and a potential Jedi was revealed, we never really saw anything of it.  She was, in short, a girl in a world made for boys.
      None of the promotional material for the Force Awakens shows Dasiy Ridley's Rey wielding a lightsaber, but J.J. Abrams has proved himself a wily showman who likes to keep tricks up his sleeve and he's proven himself a proud champion of female protagonists.  Is it too much to hope that Rey has a few lightsaber tricks and maybe even a familial revelation or two up her own sleeve?
     As an author and a librarian who works to let children interpret and gain a deeper understanding of the world they live in through story, here's hoping that the Force Awakens helps blaze a new path of destiny for more than just Skywalkers.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanks 2015

     It's the same world it was last year, so there's plenty to be thankful for, and also plenty not to be.  As has become tradition here, though, these are a few small things that can make a day feel a little happier:

Person of Interest - The CBS television show is barreling towards its fifth (and probably final) season, but over the course of the previous four it has transformed from a gritty crime procedural about a reclusive genius and an ex-assassin turned vigilantes into an epic tale of a battle between two A.I. gods.  How it got from the one to the other, accumulating and losing engaging characters and exploring the deep moral ambiguity of surveillance along the way, is much of the fun.  In retrospect you can see how all the main beats were planned out from the beginning, thus providing Network TVs most satisfying and exciting story.

Spider-Woman by Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez - The highly entertaining story of a pregnant superhero, with the sharpest dialog and character work and the most inventive and energetic page compositions in mainstream comics.

The Great Forgetting by James Renner - A man returns to his hometown and stumbles into what may be the conspiracy to end all conspiracies, one that brings into question the very nature of memory.  If you enjoyed Those That Wake and What We Become you may find this a very worthwhile read.

     Happy Thanksgiving.  Wherever the holiday takes you, don't show up without a good turkey joke.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What We Become(s)

     I've posted about the art of titling before and also about my own difficulties with it.  If popularity is the standard by which we judge these things, then I guess I did okay with What We Become.  It is also the title of the tenth collection of the Walking Dead comic series and a recent zombie movie.  Apparently the title goes well with zombies.  I wonder if anyone told Charles DuBos about that when he said "the important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."  That, at any rate, is where I got the title from.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Warning: a Dirty Joke

     So here's a dirty joke, but it's for a good cause:

     A guy goes to his doctor and says, "Doctor, I've got this problem with my knee."
     "Well," says the doctor, "you've got to stop masturbating."
     "What?  Why?" asks the guy.
     "So I can examine you," says the doctor.
     As many times as I've heard it and told it, this joke never fails to induce hilarity.  It makes excellent use of humor's secret weapon, the unexpected. But in this case, there seems to be something deeper going on.  There is another level of shock that is integral to this joke's effect and it relies on the same device as, say, the move the Sixth Sense.  At the end, you are given a piece of information that undermines everything you understood before.  It collapses the entire world you thought you were inhabiting and makes you realize that the story you were hearing was actually something completely different than you thought.  It's a powerful device, though one that has admittedly been clumsily employed and overused in the last ten to twenty years of popular storytelling.  But this joke seemed to me a particularly elegant and illustrative example of it.  In just four lines a world is built, collapsed and reconstructed to immediate and extreme emotional effect.  What more could you want from a story?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

If You Steal

      If You Steal, the latest collection of compellingly off-kilter stories from the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, contains two of the finest comics released this year.
     The first is "Lorena Velazquez" a wordless tale of a costumed hero sneaking into a castle to rescue a captured woman from an impossible array of villains culled from the history of literature, comics, pulps and B-movies.  Jason illustrates in a minimalist style, inhabiting his panels with stoic anthropomorphic animals, all of which pays homage to the history of his art form at the same time that it gets under the form's skin and forces us to look clearly at the deep ironies inherent in its tropes and archetypes.  This story brings that dual homage/subversion to its delightful peak at the same time that it gently suggests that everyone needs help sometimes.
      The second is "New Face," which rehashes the classic pulp chestnut of the falsely accused man on the run and the woman willing to help him.  In this instance, though, Jason subverts both genre and form with a virtuoso twist so powerful, it seems impossible that it has never been done before.  Just as the fugitive's situation reaches its climax, the story told by the words diverges from the story told by the art, each branch offering the opposing extremes of how the tale could have ended.  In this divergence, Jason demands that you consider which has primacy, the words or the art; a profound questioning of the essential unity at the heart of comics.
      You can read an awful lot of comics in a year (in a decade, even) and only seldom will you come by an artist who incorporates an examination of the art itself into the entertainment.  That it's done as effectively as Jason does it here is more uncommon still. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Widow's Broom

     After reading to children professionally for more than fifteen years, I can say it is fairly seldom that a story actually renders them speechless and wide-eyed with the sublime tension of suspense.  It's all the more remarkable when the story is so subtly told.
     Such is The Widow's Broom by Chris Van Allsburg, which tells the tale of a lonely but kindly country widow named Minna Shaw, who inherits the broom of a witch.  Mr. Van Allsburg pairs his customarily evocative, precise and textured art with a way of conveying emotion and meaning that is sheer elegance, achieving a somber subtly nearly unheard of in picture books.
     Still more appropriate to the approaching holiday, The Widow's Broom balances a sense of the creepy with a deep understanding of what its young audience can handle.  It enthralls with a dreadfulness that turns out to be just dreadful enough to utterly delight.
     A treat of the non-standard variety for your Halloween.  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Devices and Conventions

     You write a book or two and your work can end up referenced in the strangest, and sometimes, most interesting places.  I just stumbled onto a website called TV Tropes, a wiki that catalogs "devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations."  Sure enough, there's a page for Those That Wake and What We Become.  A synopsis of both books is followed by a list of terms, each connected to specific points and descriptions from one of the novels.  It makes for a study guide or fascinating little abstract analysis; the result, I might add, of someone's seriously in-depth and insightful reading of those two books.  A fun and thoughtful site, and one I'm flattered to be included on.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


     F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the Great Gatsby among other things, said "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."
     Mr. Fitzgerald may have been referring to the foundations of actual heroism in the world, but we do seem to need our fictional heroes to struggle with pain and anguish.  Even the heroes that inhabit our most heightened realities aren't exempt: all the great superheroes origins are steeped in irrevocably lost homelands and dead loved ones.  For better or for worse, it's this struggle that defines them, just as our struggles define us.  In the end, heroism is in how we struggle.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


     The most satisfying thing about being an educator is seeing a former student achieve well-deserved success.  One of my former graduate students recently posted this piece for the Scholastic blog on a subject close to my heart.  It's nice to know there are such thoughtful and incisive people at the vanguard of this issue.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Banned Books Week

    As a librarian and educator (not to mention an author), I would be remiss in not noting that we are in the thick of Banned Books Week, which runs through October 3rd.  As a supporter of and writer about comics and graphic novels, I would be remiss in not noting here that the format is often particularly targeted by challenges.  Indeed, the Banned Books Week official website's case study focuses on Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

     Banning a book is cutting off an idea and ideas are the primary force in our learning and growth.  It's sometimes easy to say "well, sure, but not that idea.  That one's just trouble.  There are so many others to help us learn and grow."  But it's the notions that seem most uncomfortable, most painful at first that often prove to be the ones we need to become something better than we are, as a person or as a society.
      Something to consider as you take full advantage of the indispensable intellectual freedom we are afforded here by picking up a banned book and seeing what all the fuss is about.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


     The Austrian writer Peter Handke said "if a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood."
     Stories are how we come to understand the world we live in and navigate it as we grow.  With luck, a human being will find one or two in childhood that he or she can carry for an entire life.  After all, without a childhood, how can we ever properly grow into adults?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Comics Connector

     The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has been safeguarding the rights of comic book professionals for almost forty years now.  Recently, they launched the Comics Connector online resource, which helps schools find people who work in the comic book field to come for visits and discussions.  For more on this excellent initiative to tap into the form's educational potential, have a look at this article from School Library Journal, which includes comments from yours truly.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Truth, Justice and the American Born Chinese Way

 Gene Yang comes to the writing duties on the monthly Superman comic with impressive credentials, among them American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel ever nominated for the National Book Award.  It shouldn't be so shocking then that he has managed to tell a fresh story with this venerable character, nor that he balances his own particular voice with the tried and true rhythms of the quintessential superhero comic (ably assisted, it must be said, by veteran John Romita Jr.'s dynamic visuals).  His most awe-inspiring achievement, though, is that he has perfected the central relationship of the piece and, more astounding still, managed to evolve it.  Over seventy-seven years, the Lois/Superman relationship has been done well often enough, but Mr. Yang gets it so right it makes you realize this is how it was supposed to be all along.  Lois doesn't need Superman because he's big and strong.  She needs him because she understands what he sacrifices for the sake of others and for his deep and honest (and necessary) innocence.  Superman doesn't need Lois because she's pretty.  He needs her because she understands things in a way he never can, an understanding which breeds a certain toughness in her, but which she still balances with humanity.     
      This relationship is proudly on display in Superman 43, where it reaches a new level as Lois makes an impossible decision for Superman that he fails to make for himself.  At the heart of all this, of course, is Mr. Yang's ability to write compelling characters and to find a certain heroism even in those who aren't superheroes.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Wisdom of Tony Banta

     Watching my daughter's sometimes astounding, sometimes disappointing (to herself) performance in Little League puts me in the mind of the television show Taxi, surely TV's most melancholy sitcom.
     In the episode "Out of Commission" Tony Danza's hard-luck boxer Tony Banta faces the revocation of his boxing license after one too many knockouts in a row.  When asked why he even wants to continue in such a brutal sport anyway, Tony responds "I can't say I've ever had a great fight.  Hell, I can't even say I've had a great round.  But there have been moments."  He recounts a particular combination of "left, right, left hook" that left the crowd speechless and made him the equivalent of any of the champion boxers who ever lived.  "I always thought that someday I'd put a few of those great moments together and have that great fight."
     We build, little by little, in fits and starts, touching greatness and then seeing it recede, only to dive back into mediocrity knowing that next time, we have a chance of holding onto greatness just a little bit longer.  This applies to boxing, Little League, writing, and whatever else a human being might do to achieve something that resonates for everyone.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Have a Great Summer

     Posting will resume on Thursday, September 3rd.
     Have a great summer!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

No Fair

     Wanting the 4th of July to mean something other than fireworks and ice cream to my daughters, one eleven and the other nine, we got down to the nitty-gritty of democracy like this:
     Two hundred and thirty-nine years ago, there was this little kid.  Like all kids, this kid was made up mostly of its parents' thoughts and feelings and stuff.  But this little kid actually managed to say to its parent "everything you and all the other grown ups thought about how things work for the last two to three thousand years, everything you believed and knew and worked from, was actually wrong.  I know I'm a little kid and you never listen to me, but there you go."
     Looking back on all this civilization throughout history, what's wrong with it?  The answer is the rallying cry of my girls, of all children everywhere whenever confronted with injustice, a phrase so familiar that in many ways it lost its larger meaning:
     It's not fair.
     It doesn't just apply to which sister gets to stay up later.   It's the motivator for all of democracy, too.  We were just trying to make things fair.
     My daughters thought that wasn't quite as boring as all the other stuff we'd said to them.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review: Graphic Novels In Your School Library

     So, after turning up a few new quotes for my novels for the last two posts, I'll end the little series with something about Graphic Novels In Your School Library by Rebecca Oxley at the Library Quarterly.  She says "it concentrates the history of the form with spectacular brevity and specifically targets the school environment, providing far more than just reader advisory . . . Karp maintains a steady and judicious hand . . .  [he] has done a great service to teachers, school and public librarians, administrators, parents, and students by providing a solid grounding for later generations to build upon. I highly recommend it."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: What We Become

     Continuing last week's effort to catch up on some reviews of my work, I came upon one from Eric, a sixth grader who posted about What We Become at Book Trends.  He said "I recommend this 5 star novel to anyone who likes a good story and a little violence. The suspense will keep readers at the edge of their seats!"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Review: Those That Wake

     It's nice to browse around every now and then and turn up new reviews of my work or revisit some particularly strong ones.  For instance, J.P. Wickwire at the Daily Monocle said "Those That Wake is an exciting foray into genuinely frightening teen literature. And with the YA market being overrun with dystopian romances, books like this one stand out with their sheer originality."  While I'm generally in favor of excerpting one quote per review, I can't help but add that Ms. Wickwire also notes "Karp’s writing is striking, never sacrificing style for content (or vice versa).With deft use of subtle repetition, and offbeat descriptions, Karp constructs a story that stands on the head of a pin; a story that would not work if written in a different style."
     As you wander on through the labyrinth of your own imagination, it's good to know that you're actually reaching people out there sometimes. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Nonfiction Goes Graphic

     School Library Journal posted a story about "Nonfiction Goes Graphic," the panel at SLJ's Day of Dialog I moderated a few weeks ago, complete with many illuminating quotes from the panelists. You can have a look at it right here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


     On a regular basis, I wax poetic about old Chris Evans and his interpretation of Captain America.  What is sometimes a thankless task of bringing the moral outlook of a bygone generation into the face of harder-edged modern day heroics still feels necessary, not only in terms of the character but also to carry a torch forward for generations experiencing these archetypes of Good for the first time.  And so . . .   
     In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we find Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark at loggerheads with Evans's Steve Rogers once again, over Tony's penchant for making large scale (and dangerous) decisions (that often go disastrously wrong) on his own.  Tony defends his actions by talking about certain threats the Avengers will have to face.  "How were you planning to fight that?" he asks.  "Together," says Steve.  "We'll lose," counters Tony.  Steve's response: "Then we'll do that together, too."
     There are some things more important than winning.  Lose track of who you are and what you've set out to do, as an individual or as a group, then winning the battle may not matter at all.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Toy Dinosaurs

    As the dinosaurs' bodies broke down over the course of millions of year, they created the deposits of oil which we dig deep into the ground for.  The oil has a wide range of uses, one of which is to make petroleum, which is the base of modern plastic.  Plastic is what they use to make toy dinosaurs.  So when we hold one of these objects, what we've got is a fake dinosaur made out of real dinosaurs.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Trembling Houses

     Referring to our "fragility of thought," the Bureau of Surrealist Research in their "Declaration of 27 January, 1925," noted "on what shifting foundations, what caverns we have built our trembling houses."
     When this fragility is brought to our attention, it can make us reassess who we are and what our world is in vital ways.  Because such reassessment can be such a keystone to our growth, it pays to set those houses trembling real good from time to time.
     Such an experience naturally disturbs as well as enlightens, but if you're interested in having it in a "safe" way, I would heartily recommend a tracking down the works of Thomas Ligotti or Shaun Tan or a browse through some of the visuals from the Art Institute of Chicago's "Shatter, Rupture, Break" exhibition, which you can see by clicking on the link above, though the show itself is unfortunately gone now.  The image below, "Eye and Barbed Wire" by Nathan Learner, is from that show and serves as an excellent way to whet the appetite. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Day of Dialog

     As a companion event to Book Expo America, School Library Journal is holding Day of Dialog on Wednesday, May 27th, from 8:30 AM to 6:00 PM.  Day of Dialog will feature panels and presentations on new books and trends in the publishing industry.  I will be moderating the panel Nonfiction Goes Graphic, a discussion about non-fiction graphic novels with Don Brown, Claudia D├ívila, Nathan Hale, Maggie Thrash and Maris Wicks, from 3:45-4:30.  The authors and illustrators will present some selections from their upcoming works and we'll get into the nitty-gritty of applying comics art to real world issues.  The event is for librarians only, but if you're in the area, please join us.  You can learn more about the event and register for it right here.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

When Darkness Presses

     Among the 2015 Eisner nominees is one of Emily Carroll's recent webcomics, When the Darkness Presses.  I first experienced her work during my own tenure as an Eisner judge and I've returned to it many times, using her story Margot's Room with my graduate students as an example of how well comics can exploit the potential of digital platforms.  When Darkness Presses is no exception.  Have a look at the comic here (just click on the door to start) and note, among other things, the way the "page" composition shifts when the characters are in the basement room, so that the reader is literally being pulled downward with them.
     Congratulations to Ms. Carroll.  The recognition is well deserved.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hero at Large

     The much anticipated arrival of Avengers: Age of Ultron has put me in the mind of movies about heroes.  Hero at Large is a 1980 film that could not have been made today.  Struggling actor Steve Nichols (played by John Ritter) signs on to dress up as the comic book hero Captain Avenger and appear at movie theaters for the opening of the movie Captain Avenger.  On his way home, Steve stops in to his local deli for some milk and stumbles onto a robbery.  Still in his costume, Steve intervenes and sends the thieves scurrying.  Word of his deed spreads and New York starts wondering what this anonymous hero will do next.  Steve tries to live up to expectations, even as a PR genius employed by the mayor hatches his own plan for the flailing, would-be superhero.
     Part drama, part comedy, part romance with a little crime and political intrigue thrown in for good measure, Hero at Large benefits from 1970s cinema's penchant for marrying a sense of realism and honest questioning of larger issues even to what is ostensibly a simple entertainment.  Released just a couple of years after Superman, it was solidly part of an era that still saw superheroes as simple (if not simple-minded) children's' fare and the Captain Avenger movie depicted within Hero at Large goes out of its way to evoke Adam West's campy turn on the late 1960s TV show Batman.
     The current cinematic landscape is teeming with superheroes, or course, and yet their familiarity  robs the the idea of dressing up in an iconic costume of much of its power.  Somehow, with so many superheroes around, it's become harder to say something meaningful about heroism  But Hero at Large, stripped of fantasy elements, built unequivocally as a real world narrative, retains the power of its era and manages to ask more tangible questions about what a hero is than nearly anything available today.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Eisners 2015

     The Eisner Awards are the comic world's Oscar Awards and the the 2015 nominees were recently announced.  As a comic-lover and former Eisner judge, I'm always interested in how the awards continue to develop.  This year, I was delighted to see the growing number of female creators making the list.  Have a look at the nominees right here.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Couples Retreat, One More Time

     A last reminder:  the LREI librarians and Tech teachers are co-hosting an "unconference" on the integration of these two disciplines at the Fieldston school on Friday, May 1st.  If you are in education and are interested in attending, please join us.  Details about the day and how to register for it can be found here

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Comics Are Not Movies Waiting to Happen

     Alan Moore once commented that his (epoch-shattering) comic Watchmen could never be adequately adapted into a movie because it relied so heavily on the actual sequential art form to tell its story.  Perhaps because movie storyboards are done in panel form or because strips of comic panels bear a surface resemblance to film strips, comics have often been considered a sort of movie on paper, visual storytelling that was ready-made for easy translation to the screen.
     The truth is the form is full of its own visual language, and expresses itself in ways that film simply can't encompass (though, of course, film is full of its own intricacies that can no more easily be adapted into comics form).  The misinterpretation has something to do with seeing the comic as its parts rather than the sum of them.  Taking the entire work as an artistic whole, however, exemplifies some of the form's artistic possibilities.  Mr. Moore and artist Dave Gibboms, for instance, took the second half of Watchmen 5 (Chapter Five in graphic novel form) and turned it into an exact compositional reflection of the first half, creating a perfectly symmetrical comic book (the issue's title?  "Fearful Symmetry.")
     The next time you pick up a comic or graphic novel, take a look at a page in a slightly different way.  After you've read it from panel to panel, have a look at the page as a whole.  Plenty of comic pages are, admittedly, just one panel laid out after another.  But sometimes you hit a page that does something magical, either subtly or forcefully.  It takes control of your eye and guides it on a journey through the images in a manner no other medium possibly could.  Maybe it's about how the panels are laid out in relation to one another or maybe the figures guide you with their placement and body language effortlessly through the narratie or possibly the elements of the page comment on the very form itself.  A good place to start is with the work of Jack Kirby, who was considered the King for a number of reasons, but among them was his ability to plumb these possibilities and turn a single page into a work of art that deepens and magnifies the overall experience of reading the story.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

More Realistic, Less Believable

     It was recently recounted to me that  David Mazzucchelli, the incomparable illustrator of (among many other things) Batman: Year One, once commented that comics creators had put in a lot of work making superheroes more realistic and, in so doing, had made them less believable. 
     Fictional characters have a nature, both individually and collectively.  Superheroes were conceived as fantasies, the pure embodiments of ideals (social and physical).  Indeed, at the very beginning, they didn't really even have personalities beyond a commitment to that which they were fighting for.   As they evolved, they effectively developed personalities and simulated psychologies, but somewhere along the way, it feels like a line was crossed (maybe Watchmen was that line), where the deeper into realism creators went, the further they got from the characters' natures.  There comes a point where, when you try to explain and delineate the nuances of a fantasy, you merely highlight how much of a fantasy it is.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Spring Break

    Beyond Where You Stand is going on Spring Break.  A new post will appear on Thursday, April 2nd.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Way Inn

    Attending a conference, Neil Double checks into the Way Inn, one location of a Holiday Inn-like super-franchise.  But the Way Inn's hallways wind much deeper than anyone suspects and when Neil follows the wrong person through the wrong door, he steps into a surreal nightmare of cosmic proportions.
     Will Wiles has written a powerful rumination on the effect our modern physical and social structures are having on the world and on us.  Beyond the fact that it's beautifully written, I found that Mr. Wiles explores many of the same ideas I do in Those that Wake and What We Become, though with his own sophistication and expression, of course.  If I may be so bold as to say so without Mr. Wiles's permission, the Way Inn feels like an adult counterpart to my own young adult novels.  For this, as well as for reasons of pure quality and enjoyment, I couldn't recommend the Way Inn more highly.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Couples Retreat Redux

     The last Couples Retreat, a conference on collaboration hosted by the LREI librarians and Tech teachers, went so well, they asked us to do it again.  The next retreat will take place on Friday, May 1st, when the fine folks at Fieldston have agreed to co-host and open up their space for attendees.  All details can be found here.
     If you missed it last time, please join us.


Thursday, February 26, 2015


     They say conflict is the basis of all drama.  They even say the three kinds of conflict there can be.  Those are:

1. Man vs. Man

2. Man vs. Nature

3. Man vs. Self

     I always thought they skimped in the Man vs. Society area, but I guess you could make a case that it falls under number 1 (or number 2, if we're going to let the metaphor of Nature stand in for a lot of stuff).  Anyway, I was watching the television show The Slap, which does a really excellent job of distilling conflict and making it personal and interesting, and it got me thinking about how a well written drama can create a conflict within the audience itself.  A primary way of doing this (which, again, The Slap does exceedingly well) is by making you root for someone who is not particularly likable (admittedly something of a trend in modern television writing, between your Don Drapers and your Walter Whites).  A subtle variation on this, and perhaps more difficult to manage, is knowing the guy you're rooting for is doing the wrong thing.  The Slap may be doing this, too.  At only the second episode (of its American incarnation, anyway), it's too early to tell.  But it will be fascinating to watch it unfold.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Plowing with Your Mind

     Gordon B. Hinckley, who was the fifteenth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among many other things, said "You can't plow a field simply by turning it over in your mind."
     As a writer, you spend an awful lot of time in your own head, and that is a work of sorts, searching for plot and character along the winding paths of your imagination.  But it's awfully easy to get lost in there, caught up in the planning, dreaming of where you could go.  Ultimately and practically, once you've laid the groundwork in your head, a single written sentence is worth more than all the hours you spend dreaming up the mountains your going to scale.  Naturally, this applies to life outside of writing, too.  Take an entire day to think about what you could do and how you could do it and then take ten minutes to actually do something and see which accomplishes more.  Mr. Hinckley knew that, even with prayer on your side, eventually, you just have to get off your keister and get to work.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

This One Summer, These Two Awards

     A hearty congratulations to This One Summer by cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki for winning both the Caldecott and Printz honors.  Their book is the first graphic novel to ever receive a Caldecott honor and the second to finish in the Printz final circle (Gene Yang's American Born Chinese won the award in 2007).  I should also note, in a shout out to my own former ALA awards committee, that This One Summer was on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, as well.
     The first time a form takes one of the top honors in a mainstream awards field, it's a watershed moment and well celebrated.  The second time it happens tends to be slightly less notable, but the very fact that it's not quite as surprising means that the form has arrived, that it's established in the view of "respectable authorities."  For the sequential art form it's been a long, hard climb, and there's still ground left to cover to be sure, but comfortably ensconced in libraries and classrooms and in the embrace of the wider world, the most grueling work has been accomplished.  It's thanks to artists like the two Tamakis, who carry the form to ever greater heights, that it's come so far.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Best Fortune I Ever Got

    "The best way to have the last word is to apologize."

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hammer into Anvil

     Whiplash is an excellent film with an enjoyably unusual subject matter and a criminally under-discussed performance by Miles TellerJ.K. Simmons, always a top-of-the-line actor, turns in another stand out performance, but his character is by far the flashier and it's Teller's subtle and engaging performance at the heart of the film.
     Anyway, the film appears to espouse a philosophy that's worth looking at.  Simmons notes that all his terrifying bluster as a conductor of young musicians has always been to drive them on to greatness, to force them to the brink of destruction so that they can produce the truly great art that changes the world.  Any potential artist that can't take it, he suggests, was never going to be great anyway. A gutturally satisfying outlook on the surface and no doubt true of a limited segment of potential artists in the world, it still denies the idea that there is a burgeoning artistic sensibility that is subtle and delicate and requires slow nurturing to bring it to fruition.  This is the belief that we can only be forged in the fire of the crucible, between hammer and anvil, never honed carefully to pinpoint beauty and perfection.  This feel like a blunt (maybe even dangerous) sentiment that plays to the worst of America's mythology about itself.  That does not, of course, mean that it isn't fitting for the character to say or believe.  Yet the movie does nothing to overtly balance it.  Does it have an obligation to?  Well, that's a whole different question. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Black Hat

     Having previously considered aspects of heroes and antiheroes, I was interested to come across some salient  comments on villains in Chuck Klosterman's literary ode to that cultural and real world type.  In his book of essays I Wear the Black Hat, he notes "in any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least."  This applies mainly to your master villains (say, Blofeld or Lex Luthor) and encompasses both the villain's key quality of lacking empathy and also that he has a level of superiority that makes him that much more threatening.  It's interesting to note how well this applies to good fictional villains, but generally does not apply to real life villains.  Most human beings have the benefit of caring about something other than themselves and most villains you're likely to run into in daily life -- a mugger or bully, for instance -- don't gain a sense of threat from their superior knowledge.
     He expands his discussion in another essay, talking about a real person (D.B. Cooper) and commenting that "he should be a villain.  But that overlooks the one intangible that makes Americans forgive everything else: superhuman self-assurance . . . Is there anything more attractive than a polite person with limitless self-belief?"  What's most fascinating about this is that it is applicable in both real life and fiction and to both villains and heroes (it's a fitting description of, to name just two, James Bond and Superman), but also points up a great paradox in the human psyche. it makes no accounting whatsoever of either morality or motive, which both seem like they ought to be central arbiters of who and who is not, a villain.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Marianne Dreams

      Marianne Dreams is a children's novel by Catherine Storr, written in 1958, back when such books were a little denser and maybe a little more merciless.  It tells the story of a ten-year-old English girl who is struck with an unexplained illness and, while confined to bed, draws a picture of a house that she begins dreaming about.  The dreams seem to encourage her to add elements to the picture and, as she does so, the dream world of the house deepens and expands.  And that's merely the beginning.
     Though adapted for theater, television (as Escape Into Night) and film (as Paperhouse), Marianne Dreams seems to remain somewhat obscure to mainstream readers.  Possibly this has something to do with its tone, which must have caught readers somewhat off guard back when it was first published.  It is thick with an eerie atmosphere and an uneasy sense of foreboding that is still distinctive in the world of children's literature.  A fascinating walk off the beaten path for adventurous younger readers, it should also prove quite an unusual treat for adult readers whose tastes run toward the ethereally macabre. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Strange Library

     As a librarian, it's always fun to see unusual depictions of libraries in literature.  A recent, and particularly delightful example, is in Haruki Murakami's  The Strange Library, a characteristically lyrical and bizarre work that features the following passage, sure to delight librarians across the world.
     "Don't you think that's awfully cruel?" I asked . . .
     "But, hey, this kind of thing's going on in libraries everywhere, you know.  More or less, that is."
     This news staggered me.  "Libraries everywhere?" I stammered.
     "If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?"
     "But that doesn't give them the right to saw off the tops of people's heads and eat their brains.  Don't you think that's going a bit too far?"