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5 Great Books to Read in 2016

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Neil Gaiman - Graveyard Book - Novel Conclusions - writing blog - literary blog

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book via Amazon

2016 is looking like a pretty great year on the reading front, y’all. Although I may also reread the Outlander series for the third time (the time travel, the saga, the accents, oh my…), I plan on hitting up a few books that have either been sitting on my shelf for a while or I’ve had my eye on. Here is a very abbreviated version of my to-be-read list in the next couple months:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Why:  Everything by Neil Gaiman draws you in and builds a world around you.  My favorite of Gaiman’s that I’ve read so far is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, although I’ve loved every one of his books that I’ve read except American Gods – that one was a little too graphic for me.

The Diviners by Libba Bray
Why:  Her lush characters and stories swirl around you like mist.  They hang about in your mind and make you think, not to mention that main character Gemma in A Great and Terrible Beauty was sharp and involving.  Also, the second novel in this series came out, which means that as soon as I fall in love with The Diviners, I won’t have to wait to read the second book – a little silly, I know.

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Why:  I have heard so many amazing things about this book. People are talking about it even now, several years later, not to mention the fact that Nathan Bransford endorsed it.  Also, I met the manager of The Last Bookstore in Downtown LA at a birthday party last year, and she said Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs (who were married at The Last Bookstore apparently, cool!) are pretty awesome people, which made me even more curious about their books.  (P.S. Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series is fascinating — totally worth checking out.)

Split Second by Kasie West
Why:  I saw Pivot Point on my shelf recently and realized that I have to find out what happens to Addie, who did the noble but painful thing in the first book. Does it pay off for her?  If you haven’t read Pivot Point, I highly recommend it; it walks the line of contemporary and speculative fiction cleanly and concisely.

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin
Why:  (A nonfiction pick, a little unusual for this blog, I know)  2016 is going to be a year of change.  I’d like to make some changes and work on making those changes into habits.  Gretchen Rubin wrote The Happiness Project, which I loved, and when I ran across Better than Before while perusing books at the airport, I had to pick it up.  Let’s all build some good habits together this year.

Have you read any of these books?  If so, what are your thoughts about them?  What are a few books you’re planning to read in 2016?

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The Dynamics of Time Travel in Fiction

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Back to the Future Day via Google Images

Today is a red-letter date in the history of time travel stories – the day Marty and Doc went to the future!  In honor of Back to the Future Day, we are going to explore the basic dynamics of time travel in fiction.  What are the consequences for your characters of the possible rules of time travel?

Each fictional universe works with different time travel rules, but the basic rules fall into 3 categories:

  • Changeable Timeline
  • Resistant Timeline
  • Predetermined Timeline

Changeable

A changeable timeline gives the characters much more freedom – and much more ability to screw things up.  Examples of a changeable timeline include stories like Ken Grimwood’s Replay and, of course, the Back to the Future series.

Although the mechanics are different, both of these stories offer characters the chance to change the future.  In Replay, Jeff and Pamela play out their lives over and over and keep waking up after death at age 18 in 1963.  They make different choices in each lifetime to unravel a mystery they are trying to solve.  In Back to the Future, Marty and Doc are working to rectify their accidental changes to the timeline and change the future back to what it should have been.

Resistant

A resistant timeline, such as in Stephen King’s 11-22-63 or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, offers the author a very interesting framework for the plot.  11-22-63’s narrator Jake Epping, in an effort to change history, tells us again and again, “The past is obdurate.”  Stephen King uses the obdurate past as an antagonist.  Diana Gabaldon in Outlander, meanwhile, uses the resistant past as sometimes good (e.g. I can’t do too much harm) and sometimes bad (e.g. what if I accidentally prevent someone important to me from being born?).

Predetermined

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban both provide great examples of a predetermined timeline.  A predetermined timeline sneaks up on our characters; they may know what is coming and have no way to change it.  Or perhaps they know they have to do something but must figure out how to do it.

In the Time Traveler’s Wife, part of the sneakiness of the plot lies in how sometimes Claire knows what’s coming and sometimes Henry does.  In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Hermione only realize just in time what they need to do to save their friends – and they have to figure out on the spot how to do it.

Each of these approaches comes with its own positives and pitfalls.  Which is your favorite?  Which dynamics of time travel did I leave out?  What are other examples of great time travel stories?

YA Retellings: an Epic Infographic

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For generations, storytellers, bards, and troubadours — ancient and modern — have been putting new spins on old tales.  One of the oldest collections of stories, the Bible itself, even mentions this in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

That which has been done is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.

Epic Reads recently put together a gorgeous infographic specifically focusing on these retellings in YA — 162 of them, in fact.  It could even be argued by some that a few of these original stories, like Romeo and Juliet, were based on earlier stories.  You’ll find the infographic below, and a complete list of the retellings can be found here.

I remember loving Robin McKinley’s Beauty as a kid and thoroughly enjoying Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted some years later when I stumbled across it as a camp counselor (that one makes great bedtime reading for a room full of kiddos).  Do you have any favorite YA retellings?  Or favorite retellings in general?

Novel Conclusions YA Retellings young adult novels ya books literary blog

YA Retellings Infographic via Epic Reads

P.S. While you’re here, don’t forget to check out The 10 Most Read Books of All Time.

The DNA of a Successful Book

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Although here in blogland, it seems like everyone is reading e-books, the general public still reads more print books than e-books.  According to this recent Pew Research Study, about 1 in 5 American adults read an e-book last year vs. about 7 in 10 reading any book last year.  However, the rise of e-books is giving us a fantastic new avenue for book-related data.  Reading a book on many e-readers lets publishers know which books people are completing and which books are just sitting on their virtual shelves.

Hiptype recently released a fantastic infographic, The DNA of a Successful Book, that dives into the publishing industry data.  What stood out most to me is that books with a female protagonist are 40% more likely to become a bestseller.  I wonder if that has to do with certain demographics reading more or if it is just a recent phenomenon.  I also noticed that younger groups are reading faster – but I wonder if that means they’re skimming or if they’ve actually learned to read more quickly from being around so much data from such a young age.  It also really took me aback that only 4% of sample chapters and bundled books are completed.  I wonder which bundled books were part of the data sample and what that implies for the broader picture.

What stands out to you?  What strikes you most about these little info bites?  Do you know of any books that match or contradict this data?

DNA of a Successful Book Infographic Reading Books Writing - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog

The DNA of a Successful Book via visual.ly

Make it Real: Building Diversity in Fiction

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Colourful Army by Maistora via Flickr

Traveling over the holidays has gotten me thinking a lot about diversity.  Everywhere you go, the people are different and diverse and represent different parts of the country in a wide variety of ways.  This is especially obvious traveling through airports.  At LAX, everyone was in a hurry, and I even spotted an older woman wearing serious fur and heels.  At 7am.  In Houston, passengers moseyed rather than striding along with urgency.  In Florida, a significant chunk of stout older ladies with big earrings, East Coast accents, and too-tight leopard print clothing edged everyone else out of their way.

A female YA author* recently wrote a tumblr post about character diversity and how most YA MCs (main characters) are usually pretty, straight white girls without any physical impairments.  First of all, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about those girls (and I personally find it obnoxious when people say “cisgender” — just say straight, people, OMG.  It’s like saying Caucasian or African-American instead of white or black.  It’s snotty.).  However, I do think it’s important to include representations of more than one type when you’re writing.  In fact, as a white girl in Southern California, I find it a little twilight-zone-esque when there are only white people around.  Here in LA, I’m definitely in the minority, and I notice when there’s no diversity.  I was up in Yountville near Napa with family on Black Friday, and my mom said, “Isn’t it weird that there only seem to be white people here? I wonder why.”

When I was teaching, I didn’t have any white students at all, and I struggled to find good books with minority MCs.  Also, I refused to include books in my classroom that were pro one race over another.  People who exclude all races but their own are just as bad as the KKK (I’m looking at you, MEChA and Ta-Nehisi Coates).  Suffice it to say, we read a lot of Walter Dean Myers.

Despite the lack of minority characters in popular YA, I would posit that it’s our duty as modern writers to include them when possible and as modern readers to ask for them when possible.  Having different types of characters encourages young readers to open their minds, in addition to the fact that if every one of our characters were just copies of the same character over and over with different names (cough*Heinlein*cough), it would make our stories pretty flat.

There are many different types of diversity, not just skin color.  In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, we find Nazis, Jews, Communists, and working class Germans all together in one book, creating conflict.  In the Harry Potter series, Rowling brings us “pure bloods” and “muggle-borns” to create an overarching conflict through the series.  Additionally, she brings in characters of different ethnicities (Dean Thomas, Parvati Patil, Cho Chang, etc.), and makes a point by having their ethnicities not matter a whit.  In the Hunger Games series, the characters represent a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds and use these backgrounds to work together against the Capitol, especially in Mockingjay.  You can also find minority MCs in House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, among many others.

Which books have you read that represent diversity well?  Have you read any interesting blog posts/articles about character diversity?

*I can’t remember which author wrote this post, only that this post was linked on Cassandra Clare’s tumblr and may have been Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, or Ally Carter.  Or some other female YA author.  I spent 45 minutes digging through Cassandra Clare’s tumblr trying to find it.  If you know which tumblr post I’m talking about, please link it in the comments.

5 Things Olivia Blanchard Got Wrong: In Defense of Teach for America

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Detail of Painting by Angelo Bronzino via Wikimedia Commons

Just like Olivia Blanchard (who recently wrote the Atlantic piece “I Quit Teach for America”), I also quit Teach for America (TFA) before the beginning of my second year.  I was part of the 2005 Teach for America Corps; due to gang violence and having to file a police report against 2 teenage students who assaulted another student and me, I quit TFA in April of my first year of teaching.  I do not blame TFA for my resignation; even if I had taken the traditional route to teaching, I may have still wound up in that same classroom with those 2 unstable teen girls.

Though we both quit TFA, the stark contrast between Ms. Blanchard and me is that I still fully support TFA.  Despite all of TFA’s failings, of which there are many, I believe TFA to be the best widespread alternative teaching program in existence, and it has spawned some pretty fantastic, effective educational programs (look up KIPP, for starters).  There are a few arguments that Olivia Blanchard and others have been tossing at TFA, and I’d like to explain why they’re all essentially wrong:

  1. TFA is taking other “more qualified” teachers’ jobs.  Let’s be real here: GOOD TEACHERS DON’T USUALLY STAY AT ROUGH SCHOOLS, especially “bad” middle schools, unless they actually live in the neighborhood.  The middle school where I was teaching English in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles had a 35% turnover rate.  That means that about every three years, the entire staff was essentially new.  My school was grasping for teachers – we could barely even convince substitutes to come back.  These “more qualified” teachers were not appearing.  Why was there such a high turnover rate at this middle school and at most similar Title I urban middle schools in the US?  Because almost all teachers (not all, but almost all) hate teaching middle school, especially in a school where the average class size is higher than the average amount of desks in a classroom.  Teaching 200 plus hormonal 13-year-olds (rotating classes of about 35 kids each) – who are also involved in gangs, drugs, and underage sex, not to mention problems at home – is a daily lesson in psychological torture, the Marines of teaching.  After you pay two years of dues (and I’m not talking just TFA teachers, I’m talking most teachers), you can go teach at a better school that requires good teachers.  This was a common path.
  2. TFA doesn’t have enough minority teachers.  There were 12 TFAers and myself as first-year teachers at the middle school in Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught, and we were black, white, Asian, and Latino (and yes, I am a white girl, not a minority).  The other novice first-year non-TFA teachers at this middle school were all white.  The large majority of the staff members were white and black in a heavily (75%) Latino neighborhood.  This all means that TFA was actually bringing more diversity to the staff of this middle school (shocker!).  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 83% of public school teachers in the US are white.  In TFA, fully 18% fewer teachers are white (65% of the corps is Caucasian).  Once again, this drives home the point that TFA is more diverse than the average pool of public school teachers. 
  3. TFA teachers don’t have enough training.  First of all, my summer institute experience was different than Ms. Blanchard’s and closer to what TFA describes.  I don’t remember having any of the forced emotional sessions Ms. Blanchard describes, and I taught angry middle school students every school day, usually for 1-2 hours, in addition to crazy intensive amounts of classes about how to lesson plan and how to set achievable high goals.  Five weeks of teaching summer school and taking classes may not seem like much, but it’s more training than required in many parts of the country (in addition to the fact that the classes taught in summer institute and during our periodic weekend TFA seminars were actually useful and meaty, whereas the professional development taught at my school on in-service days was generally a time to grade papers and tune out the speaker).  In many states, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no training whatsoever can get an emergency certification where they are taking classes while teaching (which is what we were doing in LA Unified School District as TFAers, in addition to our “inadequate” summer training).
  4. TFA slams other public school teachers.  This may have been something that Blanchard inferred, but this was not my experience at all.  In my experience, TFA wanted to help all existing public school teachers.  In my experience, TFA was helping to shoulder the crazy burden that the government and society have placed on public school teachers.  We all got the idea that we were joining the fight, not creating one.  But perhaps I’m just an overly optimistic human being.
  5. TFA is creating a “revolving door of rookie teachers” (according to Julian Heilig, also cited by Olivia Blanchard).  Of Title 1 teachers in general, in a statistic quoted so frequently in my first year of teaching that it’s indelibly printed on my memory, 50% quit within their first 2 years (and 90% quit within their first 7 years – yes, teaching is ridiculously stressful, no matter which route you take to get certified).  Of TFA teachers, 60% stay in the field of education after their first 2 years.  That’s 10% more than traditional novice teachers.  That means TFA is bringing in a higher percentage of teachers who stay in the field than traditional routes.

Why should anything I say count since I was one of the quitters?  Even though I was horrible at classroom management, I found out around the time that I left that my seventh grade English students did better on their secondary periodic assessments (colloquially known as SPA tests) than any of the other seventh grade English classes in a school of over 2000 students.  They actually learned to write five paragraph essays.  I was more than a little shocked that my kids did so well, but maybe TFA made a wee little difference to my students after all.

Teach for America is making a difference and putting teachers in classrooms where no one else wants to go.  Recently, a Mathematica study has shown that TFA math teachers create more results than non-TFA math teachers in poor schools (equal to about 2.6 months additional instruction), no matter their experience level; that’s pretty substantial stuff.  Teach for America is not perfect, but they are taking decisive action on a problem that many other people only complain about.  That deserves support.

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Getting Reluctant Readers Reading: the Grown-Up Edition

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An Interesting Story by Leon Perrault via Wikimedia Commons

If you Google “reluctant readers,” you’ll find quite a bit of material on very young and middle grade readers.  These ideas are absolutely important; however, recently, I’ve been thinking about grown-up reluctant readers.  About 25% of adults will actually go an entire year without reading a single book (craziness!), and most read 6 books or less per year.

Although it would be a whole other post to go into the intricacies of this (see here to start), in my humble opinion, reading enhances everyone’s life, not just the lives of the person who is reading.  Readers become more well-informed, more sympathetic, and more well-rounded than non-readers.  They develop better problem-solving skills from exposure to different ideas.  They develop better communication skills.  We could really go on for a while, but if you’re already here reading this book-related blog, you’re probably already on the same page.  What I’m getting at is that the more we can nudge non-readers into reading, even if it’s just a smidge more than they’re reading now, the better our world will be.  I’m always a fan of making the world a better place.

So how do we encourage others to read more and therefore improve our larger world?

  1. Do not (publicly) judge what others are reading; it doesn’t pay to be discouraging.  It might horrify me a bit that my teenage cousin is reading some disgusting political propaganda book, but at least she’s reading something.  I’m sure there are some five dollar words in there somewhere to build her vocabulary.  It might be disconcerting to sit next to someone on the subway reading 50 Shades of Gray, but at least they’re getting back into the habit of reading books.
  2. Ask about books that they have read.  If you can get someone talking about a book they read that they loved, it might remind them how much they miss reading.
  3. Recommend easy “transition” books (e.g. transitioning from not reading).  The book that finally got my man back into reading was Hunger Games (he picked up my copy, of course, after seeing me wrapped up in it a few years ago).  He spent a number of years after undergrad just reading accounting textbooks and movie scripts (he’s an accountant who used to work in the film industry), and he says that Hunger Games was just like a movie script.  It hooked him, and he stayed up until 2am one night finishing it.
  4. Talk about books you love.  Enthusiasm is infectious.  My mom, my dad, my boyfriend, my best friend, my friend’s mom, and a coworker –among others – have all been talked into picking up The New Geography of Jobs after my enthusiastic description of the book’s awesomeness and its applicability to everyday life.  When I first read Hunger Games, I was similarly excited – though I still haven’t talked my mom into it.  She’s afraid it’s too violent (and she’s into Game of Thrones!  Talk about violence!).
  5. Recognize people for reading.  This may sound silly, but people need to be validated.  A simple “That’s awesome you make time to read!” goes a long way.

How have you been successful in encouraging friends to read?  What could we add to this list?

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