September 30, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: SPEED OF LIFE by J.M. KELLY

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

One of the things the kidlitosphere talked about a lot in the early days of the early 2000's was the preponderance of YA novels with ridiculously 1% families in them. Rare were the books where the kids had parents who worked blue-collar jobs, did shift work, or didn't go on to college, where the kids themselves didn't have the means to have their own cars or to pop on their traveling pants and hop a plane to Greece. Young adult literature, we realized, was normalizing a sort of White, Anglo, Cis, Het, "My Super Sweet Sixteen" lifestyle that very few people actually lived, and we wondered if authors and publishers shouldn't start looking more critically at the lack of inclusiveness in fiction for young adults.

That conversation started a chain of others, and change has been gradual; you now you can find novels in YA that aren't predominantly about the upper middle class. Generally, however, those characters are nonwhite -- so this novel (though the cover looks like it came from before 2000) featuring a hardscrabble, working-class white family with their relatable particular quirks and issues is a small and welcome surprise.

Synopsis: Small town Portland girls Amber and Crystal are the first in their families to graduate from high school. With a mother who has a gambling addiction and a stepdad who smokes pot and rarely gets off the couch, they know there's not always going to be food in the cupboard, and graduating wasn't always a sure thing, but they had a Plan. They were going to finish high school and move out, Crystal was going to get a full-time job at the mechanic shop where she worked, and Amber would take over at her aunt's tavern when she was twenty-one. They'd raise baby Natalie together, and make their life in Portland work.

That was a great plan -- and when it worked, it worked well. The school had daycare, their friend Han scouted out freebies for the baby from the paper, and even though sometimes Crystal had to type Amber's English papers, it was working. It stopped being a dream for both girls when a guidance counselor noticed Crystal's good grades, and asked why she'd not even considered going to college. It wasn't easy to think about moving away and doing something else -- she'd always been the flannel-wearing, grease-monkey sister with no social graces... but there was a college that taught restoration courses for old cars. She could actually open her own business, not just get a job. Suddenly Crystal isn't sure that the small dream she had is worthwhile anymore. But, if Amber won't go to Kansas with her for college, can she make it without her?

Observations: This novel contains a lot about reality - in a slice-of-life fashion that informs the reader even as it creates an interesting narrative. It's basically the story of a stupid, stupid choice, and the reverberations echoing through the lives of the girls as they take a detour from The Plan that has shaped their lives for the last several years. It's a detour - but it's also an adventure, and puts them both on a path to growth and change that they hadn't previously been capable of imagining.

I'm always pleased to see a novel featuring a baby born to a teen wherein the baby is not seen as being a catastrophe. Granted, high school pregnancy is very probably not a picnic by any means, but it's not the end of the world, because a teen's young, strong body can usually handle it just fine, and there's help and support in the form of WIC and high school daycare and other things to help teens finish school. Too few YA novels explore this, but I was pleased with how much subtle information this novel included. (YES! Car seats expire! Yes, if you feed a baby refried beans BAD THINGS HAPPEN.)

Another piece of reality the novel explores is that teachers often fail us and guidance counselors are NOT the answer to anyone's life's woes. The guidance counselor in this novel was clearly dealing with her own issues, and while she definitely gives Crystal a push in the right direction, she does no more than that. This reminds the reader that people can only give you what they have to give - that included Amber and Crystal's mother, their family members, and their teachers. Mostly, in life we get by on the grace of friends.

Conclusion: In real life, no one can save you... but you. There's no surprise manic pixie dream girl to provide your life direction and meaning; you have to choose to get up every day and put one foot in front of the other, in order to grab the life you want. While the novel wrapped up in a way that is a little tidy, this message comes clear. Though this isn't a "loud" book, or an "issue" book in most ways, it's a solidly positive book in that it gives two girls autonomy over their bodies, their minds, and their decisions -- and even allows for frankly STUPID decisions, while letting the reader understand that though sometimes we're stupid, life still goes on.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After October 11, 2016, you can find SPEED OF LIFE by J.M. Kelly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 29, 2016

Thursday Review: THE FORGETTING by Sharon Cameron

Synopsis: The "every X years something life-changing/terrible/wonderful happens" trope always reminds me of that Ray Bradbury short story "All Summer in a Day," which I read for school in maybe 6th or 7th grade and found incredibly traumatic. In that story, people live on a rain-soaked Venus where the sun only comes out for something like an hour every seven years. In Sharon Cameron's The Forgetting, every 12 years the city of Canaan descends into chaos as people prepare to lose their memories—all of them. Who they are, who their families are, things they've done.

That's why everyone carries around a book—the book of their lives, so they can remember who they were and what happened before. Like everyone else in Canaan, Nadia the dyer's daughter writes in her book every day. But unlike everyone else, Nadia can remember. What she remembers is: some people have used the Forgetting in order to perpetrate lies. And so she's got somewhat of a secret life: sneaking out beyond Canaan's walls to explore and see what lies beyond. She knows she can't necessarily trust what they've always been told about their world, so she wants to see it for herself. One day, she gets caught by Gray, the glassblower's son, and from then on, they are both caught up in a web of secrets that becomes more and more entangled the deeper they delve…

Observations: Like other "we just live in this small, confined world and nobody questions it, ever" stories—Andre Norton's Outside, the Divergent series, Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time—it is fairly apparent early on that Canaan was created with a purpose. That isn't really a spoiler. It's the who, why, and where that are the mystery here, and the more clues Nadia uncovers, the more interesting it gets. I won't give too much away here except to say that it's an intriguing bit of speculative fiction and definitely action-packed.

The suspense is helped along by the premise—the fact that, every 12 years, everyone forgets everything, and at the point where we join the story, the Forgetting is coming, and soon. Nadia, as the only one who has any memories (however vague) of the previous Forgetting, is an easy character to immediately identify with in that respect. One side effect, though, of the fact that nobody really remembers anything but the past 12 years, is a bit of confusion on the part of the reader. For me, it took several chapters of moving in and out of that confusion, that memory loss, before I really felt like I had a handle on the mechanics of the story universe. Ultimately, I thought it was worth the slight muddling through I had to do in earlier part of the book—once I was past that, and Nadia's discoveries started to point the way to more and more intriguing revelations, I was much more engaged, and ultimately thought it had an effective and interesting ending.

Conclusion: Despite the comparison above to Divergent, this is not really a dystopian world; rather, it's a sci-fi adventure with interesting philosophical implications and a very good "what-if" premise at its heart: what if, every 12 years, we forgot everything and were no longer accountable for who we are or what we did?


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE FORGETTING by Sharon Cameron at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 26, 2016

Celebrating Banned Books Week!

How fantastic is it that the theme for this year's Banned Books Week (Sept. 25 - Oct. 1) is Frequently Challenged Books with Diverse Content? We are all about books with diverse content here (well, not ALL, but it's one of the themes we feature frequently), and books with difficult, important themes are often found among the banned and/or challenged book lists.

This year's list of Frequently Challenged Books with Diverse Content and more info can be found at this link, but I've also reprinted it below. How many have you read? I've only read 13! And parts of a couple others (y'know, lit class excerpts and such). It is an interesting list. Take a look, and let loose in the comments.

  1. A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines
  2. A Hero Ain't Nothin But a Sandwich by Alice Childress
  3. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
  4. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by  Sherman Alexie
  5. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds
  6. Always Running by Luis J Rodriguez
  7. Am I Blue?:  Coming Out from the Silence by Marion Dane Baue
  8. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  9. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Girl
  10. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
  11. Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X; Alex Haley
  12. Baby Be-Bop by Francesca Lia Block
  13. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  14. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out  by Susan Kuklin
  15. Black Boy by Richard Wright
  16. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A Anaya
  17. Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa
  18. Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite
  19. Drama by Raina Telgemeier
  20. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
  21. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
  22. Geography Club by Brent Hartinger
  23. George by Alex Gino
  24. Habibi by Craig Thompson
  25. Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman
  26. Hoops by Walter Dean Myers
  27. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
  28. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  29. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  30. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
  31. King & King by Linda de Haan
  32. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
  33. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
  34. Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino
  35. My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis
  36. Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron
  37. Nasreen’s Secret School by Jeanette Winter
  38. Palestine: A Nation Occupied by Joe Sacco
  39. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  40. Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez
  41. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor
  42. Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
  43. So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins
  44. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  45. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
  46. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  47. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  48. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  49. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  50. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  51. The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter
  52. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
  53. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  54. The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
  55. This Book is Gay by James Dawson
  56. This Day in June by Gayle Pitman
  57. Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan
  58. Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

September 22, 2016

Cybils Judging Panels Announced!

Just like this entire year has been flying past at inconceivable speed, the Cybils season is revving up without delay, and Tanita and I are both incredibly excited to be judging again. Tanita is part of the Round 1 YASF panel (which brings back memories of early days when I had the time to do the vast amount of reading for Round 1...I'd really like to do that again before too long, but it was not in the cards this year) and I will be on Round 2 for Graphic Novels along with a few familiar faces and a couple of new ones--so fun, and always a wonderful opportunity to talk books when the time comes.

It's been such a busy year for me, and for Tanita, too, so I think the routine of Cybils is a welcome comfort in so many ways and is incredibly rewarding to boot. I'll be blog co-editor again with Melissa Fox of Book Nut, so I'll be in charge of cruising volunteers' blogs and posting reviews of nominees and finalists to the Cybils blog once the reading period kicks into gear. It's something I truly enjoy and value because I seem to have less and less time to visit blogs just for the heck of it, just to see what others are reading and doing.

This year should be really interesting with the addition of Board Books and Audiobooks as new pilot categories, so I hope you'll have fun exploring along with me!

September 20, 2016

TURNING PAGES: METALTOWN by KRISTEN SIMMONS

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

The jacket flap copy for this novel was "Newsies" meets "Les Mis" or something like that, which made me chuckle, as I have seen neither and am not particularly interested in musicals, in any event. However, I like history a great deal, and had hopes for this novel from that point of view.

Synopsis: Metaltown is where it all gets done - where the detonators for the bombs are made, where the shells are filled, where the war gets its weapons while the ultra-rich Josef Hampton and his heir, Otto, get richer. The people of Metaltown are exhausted, grimy, and treated less as human beings than as cogs in the Hampton family's wheel, however -- and no one knows this better than Ty. She was raised in an orphanage, and has relied on the tight friendship and code of the streets of her friends, especially Colin. Colin isn't like Ty - once, he lived on the better side of town, went to school, and didn't have to work, but with his Mom doing double shifts at a factory, her girlfriend, Cherish, sick from corn flu, the sickness which comes from the bio engineered food which has killed hundreds, and with Colin's brother a junkie, they've come down in the world. Colin is all Ty's got, and though he's got a bit more family, she knows he's got her back, too. Or at least, he did -- but then he met the clean, pretty girl who reminds him too much of his old life. Lena's a Hampton - what does she know, really, about going without pay and working twelve hour shifts at the factory? What does she really know about suffering? Ty can't see anything good about Lena getting involved in their lives. She's determined to change the world of Metaltown - and all she needs is a guy like Colin at her back. They can start a union like the Brotherhood, and won't let anything stop them.

Observations: The podcast, "Stuff You Missed In History Class" recently had a piece on the London Match Girls Strike of 1888. If you remember this from the history of the Industrial Revolution, you know that the situation that made the strike happen was real -- the deadly bone rot caused from the phosphorus used in the match heads, the fires from the "strike anywhere" aspect of the matches, the poor working conditions, including dimness and long hours of standing, the fines for lateness or for talking, the charges for the tools the women used to make the matches -- and the fines for them being broken or stacked wrongly or whatever. It was, to put it succinctly, sharecropping with matches, and like most 19th century labor strikes, it was ugly and brutal and frequently covered in the British press, which brought out a lot of gasping from Nice People who were Shocked, Sir, Simply Shocked by the mere thought of such poor people living on London's East End and living in squalor, etc. etc. To be honest, I tend to hate stories like that, because I find that reality and the level of gasp-clutch-pearls painful -- simply because the whole idea of industrialists making bank on the backs of their workers isn't just a story -- it's real life today, and it never stopped, only mostly moved out of English-speaking countries. And yet: if we don't know about it, read about it, or talk about it, we don't remember what we have or where we came from. From that point of view, this is a necessary book.

This novel has a lot of the elements historically present in a story of unions and laborers -- poor working conditions, a union crystallizing from the desperation of the poor and mistreated, graft, and abuse. It lso has a series of coincidences, a clueless, idealistic, rich-girl white savior, and a love triangle -- which I bluntly think the novel would have been stronger and cleaner without. I found myself disappointed by that, and frustrated that a strong and smart girl like Ty turned into an all-about-the-boy girl - especially when there was SERIOUS STUFF TO DO -- but then, I'm always the one who rolls their eyes and throws the book across the room when the hero gives the girl a scorching kiss in the middle of a gun battle, and I loathe obvious plot devices like triangles. I didn't buy the romance and feel it detracted. Your mileage may vary.

Conclusion: While there were plenty of stereotypes at play, there was some quiet diversity in this novel, which was good to see. A slow start - about the first 200 pages - before the action catches on might make this a tricky novel for those who like to simply leap in, but the gritty realism will keep most reading. I did wonder was how this dystopian world had come into play - historically how the world had come to this sorry pass to begin with - and unfortunately, that wasn't covered in the novel. The history behind a dystopia is as important, to me, as how people live in the here-and-now. As infected as people are today with the spirit of "never forget," how would people not know their history? World building questions will probably less to those in search of a fast-paced story with strong romantic elements. Will probably go down well for those who liked Patrick Ness' THE ASK AND THE ANSWER, Phillip Reeves MORTAL INSTRUMENTS books or the dystopian elements of INCARCERON.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. Today, you can find METALTOWN by Kristen Simmons at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 19, 2016

Monday Review: THE QUEEN OF BLOOD by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: The Queen of Blood, which comes out TOMORROW, is a foray into YA crossover fantasy by Sarah Beth Durst, author of numerous wonderful, whimsical, fantastical MG and YA fantasy titles such as (most recently) The Girl Who Could Not Dream (reviewed here). The author has such a facility for writing for all ages—her adult title The Lost (reviewed here) received acclaim as well—so I was not surprised at all that I enjoyed this one so much.

The Queen of Blood is Book 1 of the Queens of Renthia—Renthia being the world where the story takes place. In the nation of Aratay, as in the other lands in Renthia, there is an uneasy balance between the human denizens and the spirit world: spirits of earth, fire, ice, air, and water inhabit the natural world, and only the female humans might be born with the power to control and command spirits. The Queen of Aratay is the one who maintains this balance: selected from those with the innate ability and trained for years in the right skills to keep the human-hating spirits at bay.

Daleina grew up in the small village of Greytree on the forested fringes of Aratay, far from Queen and capital, training under the village headwitch to perhaps grow up and take her place. One fateful day, when Daleina is still a child, her village is attacked by spirits: something that isn't supposed to happen with the Queen in charge. But it sets events in motion, and Daleina finds herself a few years later just barely squeaking into the magical Academy at the capital, getting trained to use her rudimentary powers. Could someone as low in power as Daleina truly be in the running to be Queen? She doesn't know, but she's determined to learn as much as she can along the way…and help Aratay hold back the increasingly frequent spirit attacks. Of course, in a world that is increasingly subject to supposedly impossible incursions by malevolent spirits, one must expect the unexpected…and that pertains to Daleina's story, too.

Observations: There is an element of the magical school story in this one, like Harry Potter or (even more so) Princess Academy, and that is definitely a positive in my eyes. And like many school stories that revolve around the new kid, the smallest kid, etc., the protagonist goes from someone who is out of her element and seemingly lacks the same skill set as those around her, to realizing her own special and unique abilities and coming into her own power.

In fact, I think this is one of the areas where this book truly shines: Daleina is relatable because she is so very much someone who does not feel special at all, and yet she is. In compensating for the abilities she herself lacks, she is able to uniquely see and tap into the talents of those around her, and has the humility and pragmatism to actually do so. And this just might be the one skill that truly saves her life, and her world, as she grows into adulthood and is challenged in every way, physically, mentally, and magically.

Conclusion: I stayed away from specifics because this book was full of so many wonderful surprising elements in terms of world-building and the way the magic works, but here is one more teaser in case you need more reason to pick this one up: in Aratay, a forest world, everyone lives IN THE TREES, in magically grown houses that are an organic part of branches and tree trunks, getting around via bridges and zip lines from tree to tree and village to village, like Ewoks. If that isn't awesome enough for you, I don't know what is.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author/publisher via NetGalley. You can find THE QUEEN OF BLOOD by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you TOMORROW!

September 14, 2016

Starring Sherri L. Smith ~

It's Day 6 of the PASADENA blog tour!


Bad things happen everywhere. Even in the land of sun and roses.

When Jude's best friend is found dead in a swimming pool, her family calls it an accident. Her friends call it suicide. But Jude calls it what it is: murder. And someone has to pay.

Now everyone is a suspect--family and friends alike. And Jude is digging up the past like bones from a shallow grave. Anything to get closer to the truth. But that's the thing about secrets. Once they start turning up, nothing is sacred. And Jude's got a few skeletons of her own.

Welcome!

There's been a whole lotta Sherri L. Smith on this blog. One of the verrrry first reviews we featured, way back in the mists of time (in 2005) was of Tanita's then-fave Sherri book (the wearer of the "favorite" title tiara changes from moment to moment), LUCY THE GIANT. This was more gushing than an actual *cough* review, but we live to improve, people.

As we blogged on, reviews of Sparrow, Flygirl, Orleans and The Toymaker's Apprentice were interspersed with guest posts from Sherri on such topics as blended families and the historical price of passing for white for African Americans in the US. Today this superb author is dropping by again to talk about her latest - blow-your-hair-back, Muppet-flail-and-exclaim-at-its-excellence novel, PASADENA. (You'll note Aquafortis had to take on the latest review. Tanita's had too many exclamation points.) We are - well, I'd say "speechless," with joy, but "speechless" rarely happens to Tanita, at least -- we are giddy with the privilege of probing her brilliant brain for all the writer goodies, so sit back and enjoy!


Finding Wonderland Blog: Readers by now are already being teased by a lot of little sneaky peeks at the book, knowing it's all about the Southern California scene. With idiosyncratic elements like surfing and rampant wild fires, in PASADENA SoCal culture is pretty much a character in its own right. Is this a novel you could imagine set elsewhere? Other than the aforementioned elements what do you think would and would not translate if this novel was set in the Midwest or in the South?

Sherri L. Smith: Hmm. Aside from the Los Angeles-based roots of so much of the original noir fiction canon, there is noir around the world, so I’d say, in some ways, yes Pasadena could translate. I’m thinking of another landscape I know fairly well, Chicago. If I tried, I could certainly adapt this story to be called Lincoln Park. I could even possibly write a Southern version called Orleans (wait a minute. I… uh… maybe I’d call it, Crescent City.) But the details would change.

What I think is key is having a line between the haves and have nots—which you can do just about anywhere. And you need to have a landscape with a voice of its own. It has to have a history that can echo throughout the story. Pasadena is special in that it offers such beauty and glamour, past and present. But you could say the same for the other cities. We’d lose the fires in favor of a snow storm in Chicago, or something out on the lake. I’d probably set it during the winter—such fantastic imagery as frozen beaches, and those first few blocks by the water where cars get iced in by the waves. Summer is another story in Chicago. The oppressive humidity, the experience of hot sidewalks and crowds. Maybe the pool would be indoors, though. The greenness of the river. There’s stuff to work with there. And New Orleans—I mean, come on! Maggie would have totally shopped at Trashy Diva down there. Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, gothic imagery… Now you’ve got me wanting to write two other versions of the book, just to see what would happen! What makes Pasadena the right spot for this story, though, are those noir roots, and the dream factory that is Los Angeles hovering just over the hill. There’s an unreal quality to Southern California, both a pretense and a grit, that isn’t quite the same as anywhere else.

Wonderland: So, here's another writer-ly question - this book is written so far inside Jude's point of view that we don't ever "see" her, and our vision of Maggie's circle of friends is filtered through what Jude knows - and what she does not. Kirkus Reviews comments (or, complains?) that "the absence of other markers implies [Jude's] white." What influenced your choice to write a so indeterminate a character?

Sherri: I did find that an interesting call out in the Kirkus review. Part of what pleased me about it, if that’s the right word, is that it touched on my original intent. When I set out to write this book, I decided the narrator would have no name. I wanted her to be the camera, and I wanted you, the reader, to be her. See what she sees, feel what she feels, but not limit yourself by deciding what she must look like. I didn’t want any judgement calls to be made on “that kind of girl.” However, when it came to Jude’s friends, they showed up the way they did. I had a really diverse group of friends in high school, so much so that a cab driver told us we looked like a United Colors of Bennetton billboard walking down the street. We were cool with that (and embarrassed, and creeped out, because… what?). But, as with Orleans, I didn’t want race to be the issue. People are the issue. That’s it.

Wonderland: *takes a moment to revel the ├╝ber 80's cool that was Bennetton... and the peak randomness of that comment*

Hmmm! With voices from the YA and children's lit book community emphasizing a need for more diversity of experiences written by writers of color, this "you are the camera" method is an often overlooked way of allowing every reader to see themselves - by deemphasizing appearance. I feel like in PASADENA, it really worked. Enough to cause comment, anyway, and comment is good, in this case! ☺

So, the big, exciting thing about this novel is that it's described as "noir." According to Wikipedia (so it must be true), noir fiction is a literary genre characterized by an amateur detective protagonist who is either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator in the explored crime. Additionally, the protagonist is also usually self-destructive in some way. YA lit has been criticized in the past as being too dark, as both celebrating and normalizing self-destructiveness in teens. What's your take on that, and the way adults view younger adults' capacity for painful and disturbing topics?

Sherri: First off, I have to disagree with part of that Wikipedia definition. These detectives are not always amateurs—just ask Sam Spade and the Continental. The key trait in noir is damage. Not just the crime committed, but the people involved. Everyone has ghosts. Everyone has scars. Young adult lit—all literature, in fact, is a reflection of life, informed by the experiences of the authors, and the stories they see around them. It’s possible that some books out there glorify this damage (or that some marketing teams do, sometimes it’s hard to tell), and it’s definitely possible that young readers take away the “wrong” side of the story. (I put that in quotes because neither side is wrong, but both sides should be taken into account.)

A friend of mine went to a girls’ boarding school. She had trauma in her past and tried to commit suicide. What followed was a rash of attempted suicides. (Somehow, no one succeeded). So, did she inspire a trend because it was “cool,” or did she give a bunch of other traumatized kids the inspiration to act out similarly (and, similarly, try to get help)? I don’t know. What I do know is, she was a teenager, and that some rough crap goes down in life, no matter what your age. We do a disservice to young people if we pretend otherwise. Can kids take it? Not always. Can adults? Not always. It doesn’t change the fact that life can be painful, terrible, and hard to navigate, or that it can also be amazing, blissful and joy-filled. In my opinion, YA books are there to help negotiate the middle path. How do we survive to adulthood? How do we not just survive, but gather the tools we need to thrive, both along the way and once we get there? We start with stories that have truth in them. Stories that say, this secret you live with is not just your secret. The shame you feel has been felt by others. You are not the first, and you are not alone, and guess what? We’re still alive. We’re still here. And you can be, too.

Wonderland: Yes. That's just the message we all hope comes away with every book we write, isn't it? "Not alone" is probably the first thing any of us want to know, ever.

So, another writer-ly question - Kurt Vonnegut once said that every (short) story writer ought to give the readers at least one character he or she can root for. How important do you think it is that readers strongly identify with the protagonist in a novel?

Sherri: Ah ha! Is this a question about likeability? You phrased it well. Characters do need to be identifiable, but not necessarily likeable. Jude is a tough cookie. I’m not, particularly. But I can get behind her. I think some of the best protagonists are complicated people who maybe even scare us a little, but we want to go along for the ride because we believe in what they are doing, or trying to do. We have access to their inner selves. We know what hurts them (surprise, it’s what hurts us, too!), we know who they love and what they fear, and we see ourselves mirrored in that. Maybe they deal with problems differently—I’ve never staked a vampire in my life, but I totally get Buffy. The main thing we connect with in a protagonist is their striving for a goal. I heard a Radio Diaries piece recently about how everybody loves an underdog. According to a study they sited, the majority of people root for the little guy. We love the idea of overcoming the odds. So, even if your protagonist is a puppy-kicking malcontent (boo!), if he or she is struggling to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, we’ll read along. Even if we secretly hope a bigger puppy comes along to bite him/her in the butt. (That’s just another obstacle to overcome—being a jerk.)

Wonderland: The likeability question is a little silly in some ways, but it really is a big deal for a lot of readers unsure how they're supposed to "like" some protagonist whose experiences - level of privilege, gender or ethnicity, sexual preferences, etc. - do not match their own... It can also come down to empathy building in some instances, too -- a tool which readers of any age can develop through reading and benefit from...!

And speaking of that empathy connection, after a fashion -- many fandoms basically live in 'shipping culture right now, with lots of romance and furious discussion about who ends up with whom, or who they should have ended up with as part of the YA's fandom's oeuvre. Will you talk a bit about how you chose to write about relationships in this novel?

Sherri: Ugh. So, me and romance. I tend to paddle around the edges rather than go into the deep end with love stories. (I’m working on that!) For a lot of my characters, love just isn’t the priority, at least not within the scope of the story. But Pasadena is all about relationships: who’s with whom, who means what to whom, who did what to whom—all the whoms you can fit matter. Friend circles are like that, like a giant kinetic sculpture that tilts and whirls wildly depending on the connections. I think there’s a question teens ask themselves that gets overlooked by a lot of the love triangle romances in YA lately, namely—am I loveable? Do I deserve love? Triangles imply that yes, you are the center of the universe and at least two people should be chasing you down at any given moment. And maybe that’s true for some people. But, ahem, for the rest of us, there can be some lonely nights spent wondering if it’s going to happen at all. And then, what is “it” anyway. Jude’s got baggage she’s not willing to unpack. Dane and Tallulah are storybook perfect, but it’s a short story and a long life. Hank and Eppie have their issues. Everyone does. Joey might be the most normal guy in the book, but his damage is his circle of friends. There is a saying I read somewhere that I think about whenever I see a friend who deserves better: “We only accept the love we think we deserve.” Chew on that for a while. (Bitter? Maybe. True? You decide.)

Wonderland: I like how you put that - what is "it" indeed! And, since no one has time for my rant on The Statistical Improbability Of Love Triangles In The Average Lifetime, we'll just move on... ::cough::

So, your last novel prior to this one was a crazily magical historical fantasy; the post-apocalyptic novel before that was a different beast entirely, as was the WWII historical fiction you published prior to that. Would you speak a bit about writing across various genres, how you approach publishing for different groups, and why you chose, unlike many writers, to write everything under the same name?

Sherri: I believe you were the ones to call me the “will not be pigeon-holed Ms. Smith!” I love that title. I will wear it proudly! My writing is as broad as my reading and my interests. If you write what you know, and what you love, I couldn’t do any less. The biggest adjustment for me was not so much genre-based, but age- and gender-based. Adjusting my vocabulary to better suit a middle grade reader was a challenge. The Toymaker’s Apprentice also features my first male protagonist (with apologies to Daniel, who is really a secondary character in Orleans). In various drafts, Stefan—this boy on the cusp of adulthood—came across as too young, too old, too emotional, too pensive, too everything. It was Lisa Yee who told me to cut his dialogue by a third and use action instead of dialogue wherever possible. And my husband who said, “If you love this other character, make him like that guy.” And I did. And it worked!

As far as pseudonyms go, I have notebooks full of pseudonym doodling the way I used to write my own name (or more often, my crush’s name) in bubble letters down the page in elementary school. I’m jealous of Anne Rice for having such a pseudonym-able name! Sadly, I have never settled on a good one. When I first thought about it, I canvassed a few writers. One told me the story of a person who wrote a fun little book under a pseudonym and saved their own name for “serious” writing. Well, the fun little book became a huge success. The serious stuff did not. And then they were faced with outing themselves so they could promote (and enjoy) their success. So, no pseudonyms for now. Although my agent once suggested Bella Donna Boudreaux. (Any X-Men fans out there?)

Wonderland: Okay, that has GOT to be the pseudonym you use for your first realy bodice-ripper of a romance: the beatific Bella Donna Boudreax. I LOVE it. The pseudonym of an already fictional character wins ALL the things!

What is the first piece of noir - book or film - you remember coming across and really enjoying?

Sherri: My introduction to noir was probably in film school, or more likely in a Sunday matinee on TV as a kid. But I wouldn’t have known it at the time. The first noir to really speak to me was probably neo-noir: Blade Runner. I’d say that grabbed me for both the visuals and the story. But, if you want to go for pure cinematography, then Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles. The opening shot of that movie—three and half minutes, uncut—is legendary. Unmatched until Robert Altman’s insane eight minute opening in shot in another noirish film I like, The Player. And Alfonso Cuaron’s mindblowing three minute 20 second shot in Children of Men. In fact, Children of Men might also qualify as a noir—gritty world, anti-hero—except, unlike so many noir stories, it ends with a spark of hope. (I hope you’re making a list. We have a whole film festival here!)

Wonderland:(I AM making a list. Not even joking, here.)

While noir is traditionally a male-dominated genre with the hard-boiled detective type, you went with a female narrator. There's a sort of accepted conventional wisdom that YA readers need to see "strong female protagonists." Is "strong" the right word, and would you describe the women in PASADENA in that way? Who do you characterize in this novel as being most and least in need of rescue?

Sherri: While “strong” is a fantastic trait to explore, I’d say what’s needed are well-rounded, “real” female characters across the board. I say “real” because there will always be an element of the unreal in fiction, an elevated version of reality. But, real women are multi-faceted. They can be strong and sometimes weak, smart, creative, insightful, and the opposite of each. If we create characters with depth, you’ve got something that lasts. The wonderful thing about Pasadena is how messed up everyone can be—sometimes. The men, the women, the boys, the girls—I think there is a sense of reality to each of them because of the damage that noir insists on in its residents. They each have their moments of strength, wisdom and weakness. And, to me, that’s very human. To answer your second question, again noir is the great equalizer. Everyone is a lost soul to some extent. Everyone has a psychic wound. Sometimes they save each other, sometimes they have to save themselves. Or, at least, they have to try.

Wonderland: YES. Strong is a thing, yeah, but real is ... something so much bigger and deeper and more vital.

And speaking of real, let's talk about Sherri-when-not-writing. As well as being an author, you have had creative day jobs working in film and stop motion animation, creating comic books, working in construction, and in a monster factory. Does your hands-on creative work fuel your brain, or does your writing brain more inform your hands-on work? Which do you find more challenging?

Sherri:I tend to have the most boring job in the most interesting places, so the chicken or the egg question has changed over the years. I had my own stories first, and my work in animation in particular helped me further develop my writer’s toolkit. Since then, it’s been a bit of a volleyball match. I always have a story on the stove, and being around other creatives helps add to the soup. Then, I can operate on auto pilot in the real world, making the donuts, while in my head I’m in the kitchen doctoring my soup. The most challenging part is being in one realm when you want to be in the other. There are days when writing gets so lonely and isolating (when you are slogging through a rough spot) and I long for a co-worker to stop and tell me a story or someone to joke with. And then, when the crap on the desk is piled high and there are a million interruptions, or worse, when you are chained to a desk and phone and nothing is happening… then, I wish for nothing more than to be in front of my laptop writing furiously away. That’s the hardest. Loneliness passes, but the denying the urge to write turns me into a harpy.

Wonderland: The best thing in the previous answer is that there's ALWAYS A STORY ON THE STOVE. The Sherri-well has not run dry! *happy dances*

So, a final question on the story - Maggie and Jude are, in some ways, polar opposites, just as Maggie and many of her friends seem to be equally dissimilar. What was it about this girl, Maggie, and her particular friendships which called to you? What is the big idea, or takeaway that you want readers to derive from your story?

Sherri: There are some people that move between worlds. Maybe they’ve got charisma, and everybody loves them. Or maybe they just know how to listen, and everyone needs that. Maggie is that girl, “genre” hopping, like me, I guess. When my mother died, we had to pull the funeral together rather quickly, so we had no idea who would show up. Who actually came was amazing. There was a two-year-old boy who had been her friend his whole life. College and grad school friends of my brother’s who remembered how she would cook for them whenever they passed through town. Old men, war veterans, young mothers, a woman she hadn’t seen since high school. It was beautiful and the priest, who had never met her, could not help but comment. Who was this woman who had appealed to so many different folks, enough so that they were willing to miss school, or work to see her off? Maybe I was echoing that. We walk through a lot of different lives and leave footprints. Maybe being aware of that will make us tread more kindly through the world.

As for the big idea, the takeaway from this story? Remember, everyone has felt what you feel, even in your darkest moments. Show a little love, and lighten the burden if you can. If not, show the love anyway. Sometimes all you’ll have left is knowing that you gave what you had to give, even if it doesn’t end the way you want.

How sad is that? Maybe that’s the other takeaway—Sherri L. Smith is effing morose. But that’s okay too, because she’s well-rounded and “real” so she’s got some peppy moments, too. Cheers.

Wonderland: You are not morose! That's... well, now you've cast aspersions on "real" so I can't say you're realistic, but... asi es la vida. The takeaway of the novel for me is that this is life - in its more weighty, specific instances, and in its broader aspects as well. Sometimes the load we bear is pain -- and realizing that yours is not the only pain scours clean your perception -- sometimes just in time, other times, when it's too late to do anyone much good.

As we always do, we've gone deep and splashed some in the shallows as well - thank you, Sherri, for coming by and dropping some wisdom (and some film suggestions) and having a most excellent conversation with us!


Thanks for joining us for Day 6 of the PASADENA blog tour. Blog-friends, do NOT miss PASADENA - it's a book with a cynical protagonist who made me laugh and wince - about the unexpectedly wrenching banality of life and loss in sunny Southern California.

Have you missed any stops on this blog tour? Check this handy list and see where Sherri has been & where she will appear next:
* Day 1: @Karen's TEEN LIBRARIAN TOOLBOX
*Day 2: @Ana & Thea's BOOKSMUGGLERS
* Day 3: a GIVEAWAY@ GREAT IMAGINATIONS
* Day 4: @Jen's I READ BANNED BOOKS
* Day 5: @Tirzah's THE COMPULSIVE READER
* Day 6: ~ HELLO, YOU ARE HERE ~
* Day 7: @Christin's PORTRAIT OF A BOOK
* Day 8: @Bonnie's FOR THE LOVE OF WORDS
* Day 9: with the smiling kitty @IN WONDERLAND
* Day 10: @Sabrina & Samantha's THE FOREST OF WORDS AND PAGES
*Day 11: Finishing up @HERE'S TO HAPPY ENDINGS