November 30, 2013

Journaling - The final hours of NaNoWriMo 2013

Well, since a picture's worth a thousand words...

I did it! I hit 50,000 words at about 6:15 this evening... after writing about 8,000 words since 8:00 this morning. 8,000 words in a day isn't a record for me, but it's close to it.
Not only did I hit the 50K mark, but I finished the story too, which is an added bonus. For a while, I was afraid that the story was going to end up being much, much longer than that, but it all finished up quite nicely, I thought.
The finished story I ended up with is not even remotely close to the story I thought I was setting out to write, but that's perfectly okay with me. Honestly, I couldn't be happier with the way it turned out. The story I ended up with is (in my humble opinion) far better than the one I thought I was going to be writing.
It's amazing what giving up our preconceptions and letting God take control of where the story goes can lead, hmm? I found myself surprised by a lot of things, totally lost now and then, and a little panicky a time or two, but it all turned out okay. Even though this story is going to need huge amounts of editing, expanding, and rewriting before I can even think about letting it out, I've got a great place to start, and a story that I never dreamed I would write already written in its first draft.
NaNoWriMo 2013 has been an amazing experience. I know some of you probably aren't finished yet - after all, we still have two and a half hours until the deadline - but I sincerely hope all of you had a NaNo2013 as great as mine was!

November 22, 2013

Journaling - Week 3 of NaNoWriMo

Well, this week left me a bit bogged down - i.e. behind on word count and completely surprised at the direction the story has taken. It has actually been a very exciting process, though. While I've always written from a Christian worldview and with the desire for my writing to please God, with this story I decided to consciously, intentionally seek to write the story God wants, rather than fighting for the story I want. So at the beginning I told God that We are the Rising is His story, and to help me write it the way He wants it.
I was expecting that to have some effects on the story, but I wasn't prepared for how dramatic those effects would be. What started out as an idea for a fantasy story about a man and a dragon fighting to avenge themselves on the empire that enslaved them has turned into a story about Christianity's earliest arrival in Western Europe, and about how God can even use something as horrible as the Roman Empire to accomplish His good purposes. Of course, there is some of what I'm calling "speculative history" thrown in there too. Basically, it's my imagination playing with the concept of domesticated dinosaurs. (I had to find something to do with the dragon character, after all.) Honestly, I would like to see a lot more Christian writers start exploring that concept. We have plenty of evidence that people in the past did domesticate dinosaurs, so why not incorporate them into our fiction?
But one thing at a time - and the first thing on the to-do list is to finish NaNoWriMo!
Best of luck, writers! We're on the home stretch, so don't quit now!

November 15, 2013

Journaling - Week 2 of NaNoWriMo

Well, over last weekend I got several thousand words behind schedule, and I'm still trying to catch up, but I've at least managed to close the gap to about 2,000 words.
As far as the story goes... well, it's interesting. What I had originally thought would be a story about a former gladiator and a dragon going off on a quest to become the scourge of Rome has turned instead into a story of a former gladiator wanting to do anything but go after Rome, and feeling very betrayed that during his absence his sister has embraced some new, foreign religion called "Christianity," which he sees as a Roman (and therefore to be avoided at all costs) thing.
This is absolutely nothing like I initially thought the story would be, but I'll be honest - I'm liking this new thread a lot!

November 8, 2013

Journaling Week One of NaNoWriMo

So far I'm right on target with word count. Hurrah!
Unfortunately, that outline I mentioned making, while it held together and proved very helpful, only took up about 12,000 words, leaving me with 38,000 words of completely uncharted story to write. I honestly thought the outline would take up at least 25 or 30K words, and I figured that making up the last few thousand wouldn't be too hard. But, I guess it was to be expected. Since when do stories do what they're supposed to do, right?
For a nice change, I haven't come up with any ideas for sequels to We are the Rising. However... I did decide to convert it to historical fantasy and turn it into the prequel to another one of my ideas, one I've had on the back burner for a while but haven't done anything with yet. So in theory, a few years from now We are the Rising and The Last Ember will be a set. No, I haven't said anything here at the Lair about The Last Ember yet. But if you want a look, Click Here to visit the story board I made for it on Pinterest. Come to think of it, you can do the same thing for We are the Rising by Clicking Here!

How is NaNoWriMo going so far for all of you?

October 25, 2013

Interview with Perpetual Motion author, Bruce Hesselbach

{If you missed yesterday's post, be sure to scroll down and read the book review of Bruce's book, Perpetual Motion.}

MRP:  Welcome to the Writer’s Lair, Bruce! Since the steampunk genre is still fairly new, why don’t you start off by telling us a little about how you came to be interested in it? What made you want to write in this genre?

BH:  I enjoy science fiction and I enjoy history.  Steampunk is an intriguing marriage of these two subjects.  Most of my prior stories were either fantasy or science fiction, set in a fictional world I created.  I had a story that I wrote with a scene in a place similar to Bath, England, and reading about the spas and watering places of Europe made me think that the time immediately prior to World War I would be a great setting for a story.

MRP:  As far as the steampunk genre is concerned, you chose a very unique setting for your story. How did you decide on that location and premise?

BH:  I wanted to get away from using a fantasy world and set my story in the real world.  Most steampunk is set in London during the Victorian age.  I had not heard of a steampunk novel set in Germany and I decided I would write one.   This gave me the opportunity to portray German opinions through Fritz von Lassberg, and thereby give the reader a fresh perspective.

MRP:  I did find it very interesting to see Fritz’s opinions and thought processes through Sybil’s eyes, since we don’t often get to look at those specific ideas through a lens that lacks post-war “twenty-twenty hindsight,” as it were.
Interweaving fictional plots with historical facts can be extremely challenging for a writer, and your story is tied to some pretty significant historical events. What did you find most challenging about it, and how did you handle those challenges?

BH:  This was actually much more fun than work.  Once I picked out a time and place, I could read about many things that I had not heard of before.  One of the points of Dante’s Paradiso is that heaven is a place where you learn things.  I couldn’t agree more.  I learned about the apparition at Knock, Ireland; the history of Meersburg Castle; the battle of Bagamoyo; what Lord Tennyson wore when he went walking on the Downs; what performances Richard Wagner put on when he opened Bayreuth.   It was great fun.  The more I studied about the time and place, the more ideas I had for my story. 

MRP:  I was very appreciative of the attitude that your heroine, Sybil, had towards traditional clothing. Even though I have no problem with a girl wearing pants (provided it is with the permission of her husband or father) I get very tired of reading about heroines’ longings to “rebel” or “buck the system” to wear pants, and their complaining about dresses being so impractical. And yet Sybil has no problem doing anything—even hiking or mountain climbing—in a dress, which I found very refreshing. Tell us a little bit about your thought processes behind that.

BH:   A great example of a Victorian woman not in the least held back by the encumbrance of her dress would be Mary Kingsley, who climbed Mount Cameroon in 1895 while wearing extensive skirts.   This is a 13,760 foot mountain that had only been climbed a couple times before.  She was the first woman to ascend it, and she did it by a new route.  She went in the company of a crew of strong natives.  It poured rain the entire time.  The natives all became exhausted and dropped out.  She finished the ascent alone, an absolutely amazing feat by a fearless woman.  Another time her skirts and petticoats saved her from death, when she fell into a trap set for leopards.  It was a large pit with sharpened ebony spikes at the bottom.  But, due to her Victorian excess of clothing, she escaped what would have been certain death.  Even in our modern times, Sandra Weber wrote a book about Mount Marcy, the highest mountain in the Adirondacks, indicating that she likes to climb it in a long skirt down to her ankles, just as the Victorians did.  My hat is off to her.  Most people have a hard enough time hiking in shorts.  Women used to be called the weaker sex, but I don’t think Mary Kingsley was weaker than anybody.

MRP:  I shouldn’t say so!
Perpetual Motion isn’t like most stories, that simply say “Here’s how it is and this is what happened”. It truly invites the reader into the thought processes of the characters and puts him or her into a position where they have to try to figure it out on their own. The questions raised and the scenarios laid out are such that we really have to think about them—just reading the story isn’t enough. What inspired you to write the story this way, and how did you go about making it work without bogging down the plot?

BH:  One aspect of writing in the first person is that the story is framed by what the character sees and hears.  Just as the narrator has to try to make sense of competing claims and explanations, the reader also has to puzzle things out along with her.  It is a shared journey. 
      I am more a reader of travel and exploration than of fiction.  One thing that I don’t like about fiction is that many writers go on and on about what the character is thinking.  This goes against my grain.  Wouldn’t it be more creative to let you infer what the character is thinking by what she says and how she acts?  In the case of Sybil Hardenbergh, I conceive of her as being far too modest to spend pages and pages telling you what she thinks.  It would go against her character and how she looks at life.  Instead, I tried to imagine how she would tell her story to a close friend.  She would feel free to confide about some things, but still she would maintain a large degree of modesty and reticence.   This becomes especially tricky when she falls in love.  Of course she has obsessive thoughts about her beloved, but she is too shy to spend pages and pages telling you about this.  You mostly have to infer it from what she says and what she does.

MRP:  You explore a lot of hypothetical moral and ethical dilemmas in Perpetual Motion, especially when it comes to issues related to time travel and historical events connected to Christianity. What can you tell us about that?

BH:  I’m very glad you asked that question.  The moral and ethical dilemmas drive the story.  It is not just theoretical; it is a matter of who dies and who lives.  War is a very grim and dark presence.  I present these dilemmas, but I don’t actually resolve any of them.  It is up to the reader to decide what is right and what is moral.  Let me give an example.   In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James wrote a ghost story.  He intended it to be a ghost story and he himself believed in the literary existence of ghosts.  However, a skeptic could read the story and believe that the ghosts where just a delusion of the crazy narrator.  That would be a perfectly coherent reading and the skeptic would still enjoy the story just the same as a believer in ghosts would.  When I became an Episcopalian in 1983, I wrote a poem about an alchemist in which I used alchemy as a symbol for the spiritual world.  I wanted the reader to decide for himself if alchemy were true or bogus.  In Perpetual Motion, I presented a number of perspectives from the devout Protestant Hardenbergh family to the young aristocratic scientist Fritz to the iconoclastic mad genius Erasmus Gegenwart.  I could totally empathize with the strong religious faith that Antoinette Hardenbergh has and this helped me draw her as a character.  On the other hand, I wanted the reader to enjoy the book regardless of whether or not he shares the beliefs of one character or another.   Yes, there are a number of very serious religious and ethical issues raised, but they are all subservient to the story and I am not trying to dictate how the reader may react to these conflicts.

MRP:  There were several aspects of the story that were never really “nailed down,” leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions. Is there a sequel in the works?

BH:  Since this is a coming of age story, I ended it when Sybil showed by her words and actions that she has actually matured from a very impressionable and bewildered youngster into a decisive and brave young woman.  For me, that was the end of this cycle.  In order to provide a more complete picture, I could have carried this story through new adventures and even as far as Sybil’s death.  After all, it is not just Sybil’s story, it is the saga of her family.   I think a sequel would be very much in order and I have had some people urge me to write one.  What writer could resist that?  Even apart from a sequel, I think it would be fun to write a story about Sybil’s father Otto, how he met Antoinette and how he decided to travel 2000 years into the past.  But first I want to finish a different story I am working on, a piece of literary fiction.  When I started going to a writer’s group in my home town of Newfane, I told them that I would keep writing stories until one of them got published.  Now that that has happened, I think I will keep writing stories as long as readers tell me they enjoy them.  

MRP:  Well, in that case, allow me to join the ranks of those readers! There is precious little originality in the literary world these days, but what I’ve seen of your work is most definitely new and intriguing. Keep it up!
Also, thanks so much for taking the time to share with us about your work and your ideas as a writer. It’s always great to get a peek inside the mind of a fellow author.

You can check out Bruce's book, Perpetual Motion, for yourself here:

October 24, 2013

Book Review: Perpetual Motion

Author: Bruce Hesselbach
Genre: Steampunk

When it comes to writing book reviews, I sometimes feel like a broken vinyl record... or King Solomon. It seems that every review I write contains something to the effect of "This story wasn't very original," or "This story was just so cliche."
"There is nothing new under the sun!"
Once in a while, though, I'm fortunate enough to come across something that steps out of line and dares to be different... and this was one of those books.
Perpetual Motion is a story with all the classic elements you expect of steampunk fiction--gears and gadgets and intriguing inventions and gorgeous architecture, to name a few--but it shakes them up, gives them a twist, and with a generous splash of sci-fi and time travel thrown in you get a highly original, thoroughly engrossing novel that is unlike anything you've ever read before.
The author starts off with a setting that, as far as I know, is completely unique to the steampunk genre thus far in its short history: Germany, shortly before the dawn of WWI. From there he keeps the originality coming non-stop, but I don't want to say too much lest I give something away. ; )
This is a coming-of-age story, an adventure story, a family story, a love story. But more importantly, it is a story of ideas and worldviews. The author does a brilliant job portraying the progression of what start out simply as different points of view, as they grow in different directions and become much more serious--matters of morality, of destiny, opinions that could change the face and history of an entire planet.
The most fascinating aspect of this is when you, the reader, realize that you're seeing what is probably a very accurate picture of how and what people thought of real issues and events at that time, before they led into what we now know as WWI. With our modern, 20-20 hindsight, it's easy for us to decide what was right and what was wrong in the days before the Great War. But for the people actually living there, it might not have been so easy to tell, and this book offers a stunning hypothetical look into that struggle.
Another interesting aspect of Perpetual Motion was the way in which the author presents the viewpoints of the various characters. As I said, this is a coming-of-age story, and it is written from the first-person perspective of a teenaged girl who has found herself involved in a very complex world filled with many opposing ideas. Everyone she talks to presents their ideas and worldviews as truth, and the author offers no comment on who may or may not be lying or misguided. It is left to the viewpoint character (and, thereby, the reader) to try and determine what really is the truth and what is not.
Needless to say, this isn't a book you can just lightly skim over and still have a good grasp on the story. This is a book that needs careful attention and demands a lot of thought. That isn't to say that it doesn't tell a good story--on the contrary, it tells a fantastic story sure to delight steampunk fans--but it's a story completely saturated with meaning and thought-provoking ideas. I gladly give it a high recommendation--plus bonus points for being unique. ; )

Be sure to stop by tomorrow--I'll be interviewing Perpetual Motion's author, Bruce Hesselbach. He has been gracious enough to share some of his thoughts on steampunk, the historical research behind Perpetual Motion, some interesting facts about the real people who inspired the development of his main character, and more. Don't miss it!

I received a copy of this book free of charge in exchange for my review, but a favorable review was not required. My opinions are my own.

October 17, 2013

Ready for NaNoWriMo?

It's hard to believe that NaNoWriMo starts in just two weeks! That being said, I'm very excited for NaNo2013 to get here. I've been planning this year's project since August, so I can't wait to get started on it. I've put way more advance planning into this one than into any of my other NaNo projects - I even went so far as to write an actual outline for part of it! I'm treating it as a sort of experiment; my other NaNo endeavors have turned out fairly well (with the ghastly exception of The Queen's Flower, my 2011 project) without any kind of outline and very little advance planning, so with this one I want to see if having an outline from the get-go makes the result better or worse. I know, I know, NaNo is supposed to be an exercise in wordcount productivity, not prose quality, but hey - if you can get a good novel out of the deal, why not?

We are the Rising
 Desperate to discover the fate of his family, an enslaved warrior hopes to escape the life of a gladiator and return home by forging the only alliance he can--with the dragon he's supposed to fight to the death. 
My original intent was for this novel to be classic high fantasy, but the more I plan for it, the more it turns into some kind of historical fantasy. Think Celts vs. Romans... with dragons.
Oh well. It's NaNoWriMo. We'll just have to see what happens.

Are any of you planning on entering this year? Anyone who wants to be my Writing Buddy can do so by clicking Here.
In the meantime, tell us about what you're planning for NaNo this year! Feel free to share your logline or sneak peeks in the comments box.

September 26, 2013

Book Review: Finding the Core of Your Story

"How to strengthen and sell your story in one essential sentence."
Author: Jordan Smith

I’ve been studying the world of fiction publishing and marketing for long enough to have heard plenty about the importance of a good logline—or elevator pitch, or whatever you want to call it. But recognizing your need for one and actually writing one are two very different ballgames.
Until Jordan Smith contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to review his book for him, I’d never seen or even heard of a book dedicated solely to the construction of a good logline. But that’s exactly what Finding the Core of Your Story is: a step-by-step, how-to guide to writing a logline sure to catch the interest of potential publishers, agents, and readers.
Even if you’re new to the writing and publishing thing and you’re not even sure what a logline is, that’s okay. The author starts out with a straightforward explanation of the concept and purpose. From there he builds on with basic logline templates, then expands even further with concept ideas for using tools like irony, intersecting plot threads, conflict, and even a chapter dedicated to giving characters individual loglines. Even if you’re like me and your story has 14+ plot threads tangled together, don’t worry. Read the chapter “Untangling the Threads of Your Story.” Frustrated with trying to convey the uniqueness of your characters and/or story world in just one concise sentence? Read the chapters “Tickle Me with Your Adjective Feather” and “In a World Where…”
Even if you’re not to the point of needing to pitch your book to editors/agents/publishers yet, a logline is still a great tool to have on hand. Just this week I wrote a logline for the project I’m tackling in NaNoWriMo this year. Doing so has helped me figure out the characters and their motivations, as well as give me a core idea to focus on.
I could go on, but I’m sure you’re starting to get the idea.
The thing that really made this book super helpful and the logline writing process make so much sense were the examples the author used. Rather than just telling you to “find what makes the situation the most ironic and capture that in your logline,” he actually shows you how by writing loglines from real movies and books. For someone like me, who learns best by example, it was a huge help.
And if you’re writing one of those exceptional stories—you know, the ones that defy all the models and break all the rules—he’s got you covered there, too, not only with formats for handling those unique situations, but with great guidelines for highlighting just exactly what it is that makes your story so unique.
The author has a fun, conversational voice and a humorous approach—complete with generous doses of hilarious writers-only humor—that made this a delightful read.

Those of you who’ve been hanging around here at the Lair for awhile will have read enough of my reviews to know that I don’t just rave over any old book. But this is one of those special times when I am totally comfortable raving. : P
I whole-heartedly endorse this resource. Every writer—whether experienced or aspiring—should own a copy. Mine has become one of the two most-used books in my writing resource library, no joke.
Click Here to order Finding the Core of Your Story from Amazon!

I received a copy of this book free of charge in exchange for my review, but was under no obligation to review it favorably. My opinions are my own.

September 17, 2013

The Case for Good Taste in Children's Books

This post is a reprint from the July/August 2013 issue of Imprimis, a speech digest publication of Hillsdale College. The article was adapted from a speech delivered on March 12, 2013, by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. I don’t usually do reprints as blog posts, but this was just so stellar that I couldn’t resist. In my opinion, every writer should read this. It’s that good.
**Warning** This article does contain some very mature content related to very dark and, in some cases, graphic and obscene subject matter, which I have reprinted uncut. I assure you, I would not do so if I didn’t believe the point it makes is worth it. Any of my readers under eighteen may want to let their parents preview the post. You won’t hurt my feelings if you choose to skip this one, I promise.
“The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books”
By Meghan Cox Gurdon

On June 4, 2011, the number one trending topic on Twitter was the Anthony Weiner scandal. I happen to remember that, because the number two topic on Twitter that day—almost as frenzied, though a lot less humorous—had to do with an outrageous, intolerable attack on Young Adult literature… by me. Entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” my article discussed the increasingly dark current that runs through books classified as YA, for Young Adults—books aimed at readers between 12 and 18 years of age—a subset that has, in the four decades since Young Adult became a distinct category in fiction, become increasingly more lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.
Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent—and for some kids, very unhappy—but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective. Nor does it help that the narrative style that dominates Young Adult books is the first person tense—“I, I, I,” and “now, now, now.” Writers use this device to create a feeling of urgency, to show solidarity with the reader and to make the reader feel that he or she is occupying the persona of the narrator. The trouble is that the first person present tense also erects a kind of verbal presin, keeping young readers in the turmoil of the moment just as their hormones tend to do. This narrative style reinforces the blinkers teenagers often seem to be wearing, rather than drawing them out and into the open. The late critic Hilton Kramer was seated once at a dinner next to film director Woody Allen. Allen asked him if he felt embarrassed when he met people socially whom he’d savaged in print. “No,” Kramer said, “they’re the ones who made the bad art. I just described it.” As the story goes, Allen fell gloomily silent, having once made a film that had received the Kramer treatment.
I don’t presume to have a nose as sensitive as Hilton Kramer’s—but I do know that criticism is pointless if it’s only boosterism. To evaluate anything, including children’s books, is to engage in the faculty of judgment, which requires that great bugbear of the politically correct “discrimination.” Thus, in responding to my article, YA book writers Judy Blume and Libba Bray charged that I was giving comfort to book-banners, and Publisher’s Weekly warned of a “danger” that my arguments “encourage a culture of fear around YA literature.” But I do not, in fact, with to ban any books or frighten any authors. What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste; that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience; and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.
Books for children and teenagers are written, packaged, and sold by adults. It follows from this that the emotional depictions they contain come to young people with a kind of adult imprimatur. As a school librarian in Idaho wrote to her colleagues in my defense: “You are na├»ve if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school lives.”
What kind of books are we talking about? Let me give you three examples—but with a warning that some of what you’re about to hear is not appropriate for younger listeners.
A teenaged boy is kidnapped, drugged, and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he comes across a pair of weird glasses that transport him to a world of almost impossible cruelty. Moments later, he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, heart, feet, penises. Where the f— was this?”
That’s from Andrew Smith’s 2010 Young Adult novel, The Marbury Lens.
A girl struggles with self-hatred and self-injury. She cuts herself with razors secretly, but her secret gets out when she’s the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. Kids at school jeer at her, calling her “cutterslut.” In response, “she had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”
That’s from Jackie Morse Kessler’s 2011 Young Adult novel, Rage.
I won’t read you the most offensive excerpts from my third example, which consist of explicit and obscene descriptions by a 17-year-old female narrator of sexual petting, of oral sex, and of rushing to a bathroom to defecate following a breakup. Yet School Library Journal praised Daria Sandowsky’s 2008 Young Adult novel, Anatomy of a Boyfriend, for dealing “in modern terms with the real issues of discovering sex for the first time.” And Random House, its publisher, gushed about the narrator’s “heartbreakingly honest voice” as she recounts the “exquisite ups and dramatic downs of teenage love and heartbreak.”
The book industry, broadly speaking, says: Kids have a right to read whatever they want. And if you follow the argument through it becomes: Adults should not discriminate between good and bad books or stand as gatekeepers, deciding what young people should read. In other words, the faculty of judgment and taste that we apply in every other area of life involving children should somehow vaporize when it comes in contact with the printed word.
I appeared on National Public Radio to discuss these issues with the Young Adult book author Lauren Myracle, who has been hailed as a person “on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression”—as if any controversy over whether a book is appropriate for children turns on the question of the author’s freedom to express herself. Myracle made clear that she doesn’t believe there should be any line between adult literature and literature for young people. In saying this, she was echoing the view that prevails in many progressive circles—that young people should encounter material that jolts them out of their comfort zone; that the world is a tough place; and that there’s no point shielding children from reality. I took the less progressive, less secular view that parents should take a more interventionist approach, steering their children away from books about sex and horror and degradation, and towards books that make aesthetic and moral claims.
Now, although it may seem that our culture is split between Left and Right on the question of permissiveness regarding our children’s reading material, in fact there is not so much division on the core issue as might appear. Secular progressives, despite their reaction to my article, have their own list of books they think young people shouldn’t read—for instance, books they claim are tinged with racism or jingoism or that depict traditional gender roles. Regarding the latter, you would not believe the extent to which children’s picture books today go out f the way to show father in an apron and mother tinkering with machinery. It’s pretty funny. But my larger point here is that the self-proclaimed anti-book-banners on the Left agree that books influence children and prefer some books to others.
Indeed, in the early years of the Cold War, many left-wing creative people in America gravitated toward children’s literature. Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University, has written that Red-hunters, “seeing children’s books as a field dominated by women… deemed it less important and so did not watch it closely.” Among the authors I am referring to are Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Ruth Krauss, author of the 1952 classic A Hole is to Dig, illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak. Krauss was quite open in her belief that children’s literature was an excellent means of putting left-wing ideas into young minds. Or so she hoped.
When I was a little girl I read The Cat in the Hat, and I took from it an understanding of the sanctity of private property—it outraged me when the Cat and Thing One and Thing Two rampaged through the children’s house while their mother was away. Dr. Seuss was probably not intending to inculcate capitalist ideas—quite the contrary. But it happened in my case, and the point is instructive.
A recent study conducted at Virginia Tech found that college women who read “chick lit”—light novels that deal with the angst of being a modern woman—reported feeling more insecure about themselves and their bodies after reading novels in which the heroines feel insecure about themselves and their bodies. Similarly, federal researchers were puzzled for years be a seeming paradox when it came to educating children about the dangers of drugs and tobacco. There seemed to be a correlation between anti-drug and anti-tobacco programs in elementary and middle schools and subsequent drug and tobacco use at those schools. It turned out that at the same time children were learning that drugs and tobacco were bad, they were taking in the meta-message that adults expected them to use drugs and tobacco.
Which is why good taste matters so much when it comes to books for children and young adults. Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave—what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. They create norms—and as the examples above show, the norms young people take away are not necessarily the norms adults intend. This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called “problem novels”—books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death. (This scenario is from Cheryl Rainfield’s 2010 Yong Adult novel, Scars, which School Library Journal hailed as “one heck of a good book.”)
The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.
In journalist Emily Bazelon’s recent book about bullying, she describes how schools are using a method called “social norming” to discourage drinking and driving. “The idea,” she writes, “is that students often overestimate how much other kids drink and drive, and when they find out that it’s less prevalent than they think—outlier behavior rather than the norm—they’re less likely to do it themselves.” The same goes for bullying: “When kids understand that cruelty isn’t the norm,” Bazelon says, “they’re less likely to be cruel themselves.”
Now isn’t that interesting?
Ok, you say, but books for kids have always been dark. What about Hansel and Gretel? What about the scene in Beowulf where the monster sneaks into the Danish camp and starts eating people?
Beowulf is admittedly gruesome in parts—and fairy tales are often scary. Yet we approach them at a kind of arm’s length, almost as allegory. In the case of Beowulf, furthermore, children reading it—or having it read to them—are absorbing the rhythms of one of mankind’s great heroic epics, one that explicitly reminds us that our talents come from God and that we act under God’s eye and guidance. Even with the gore, Beowulf won’t make a child callous. It will help to civilize them.
English philosopher Roger Scruton has written at length about what he calls the modern “flight from beauty,” which he sees in every aspect of our contemporary culture. “It is not merely,” he writes, “that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts”—here we might include authors of Young Adult literature—“are in a flight from beauty…There is a desire to spoil beauty…For beauty makes a claim on us; it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”
We can go to the Palazzo Borghese in Rome and stand before Caravaggio’s painting of David with the head of Goliath, and though we are looking at horror we are not seeing ugliness. The light that plays across David’s face and chest, and that slants across Goliath’s half-open eyes and mouth, transforms the scene into something beautiful. The problem with the darker offerings in Young Adult literature is that they lack this transforming and uplifting quality. They take difficult subjects and wallow in them in a gluttonous way; they show an orgiastic lack of restrain that is the mark of bad taste.
Young Adult book author Sherman Alexie wrote a rebuttal to my article entitled, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood.” In it, he asks how I could honestly believe that a sexually explicit Young Adult novel might traumatize a teenaged mother. “Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”
Well of course I don’t. But I also don’t believe that the vast majority of 12-to-18-year-olds are living in hell. And as for those who are, does it really serve them to give them more torment and sulfur in the stories they read?
The body of children’s literature is a little like the Library of Babel in the Jorge Luis Borges story—shelf after shelf of books, many almost gibberish, but a rare few filled with wisdom and beauty and answers to important questions. These are the books that have lasted because generation after generation has seen in them something transcendent, and has passed them on. Maria Tatar, who teaches children’s literature at Harvard, describes books like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Books, and Pinocchio as “setting minds into motion, renewing sense, and almost rewiring brains.”
Or as William Wordsworth wrote: “What we have loved/others will love, and we will teach them how.”

The good news is that just like the lousy books of the past, the lousy books of the present will blow away like chaff. The bad news is that they will leave their mark. As in so many aspects of culture, the damage they do can’t easily be measured. It is more a thing to be felt—a coarseness, an emptiness, a sorrow.
“Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as if it does not matter.” That’s Roger Scruton again. But he doesn’t want us to despair. He also writes:
It is one mark of rational beings that they do not live only—or even at all—in the present. They have the freedom to despise the world that surround them and live in another way. The art, literature, and music of our civilization remind them of this, and also point to the path that lies always before them: the path out of desecration towards the sacred and the sacrificial.
Let me close with Saint Paul the Apostle in Philippians 4:8:
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
And let us think about these words when we go shopping for books for our children.
Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.