Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Afraid of the dark?
Not a bad thing to be
yet you'd be afraider
if you were to see.

Most spirits and specters
and hobgoblins hide,
so turn off the light
and stay unhorrified.

and clothes-closet-creatures
are nothing to fear
when you can't see their features!

The dark conceals ogres,
the zombie and ghoul,
their tails and their talons
their fangs and their drool.

A bedroom pitch black
is a happier place
than one where it's easy
to spot a fiend's face!

The darkliest dark
hides the fright'ningest fright,
so bear that in mind.
Sweet Dreams!  Nighty Night!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Books Fight Terror

Carol Herder
The following are my opinions alone and don’t reflect the blog’s or any of the blog’s contributors.  I've written a book review of an adult book to demonstrate how book censorship affects everyone.  I’ve just finished reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. I’d like to share some thoughts about this book.

Three Cups of Tea is about Greg Mortenson, a mountaineer who failed to climb K2, got lost, and stumbled into Korphe, a village in the mountains of Pakistan.  Dismayed to learn the village had no school, and thankful for the hospitality of the villagers who had little to give a stranger but nevertheless shared generously, he promised to build them a school.  The promise was hard to keep, and it took longer than he thought, but finally he built their school.  Later he founded the Central Asian Institute.  The institute builds schools for girls  in Pakistan.  Boys, of course, attended these schools as well.
I particularly found this part of the book interesting – when girls in a village started attending school the infant mortality rate and sickness in villages decreased.  Mortenson also came to believed that education was key to fighting terror.  Many boys, with no education and no options, joined the Taliban.  With education children would have choices.    After 9/11 this theory led Mortenson to Afghanistan to keep a promise to build schools there as well.
To underscore the wickedness of banning books I’ve copied out an excerpt from Three Cups of Tea.  This is what Mortenson found in the lecture hall at the Kabul Medical Institute:
Dr. Nazir Abdul, a pediatrician, explained that while the Taliban had ruled Kabul, they had banned all books with illustrations and publicly burned any they found.  Armed Taliban enforcers stood at the rear of the lecture hall during class, making sure the school’s professors didn’t draw anatomical diagrams on the blackboard.
I admit I got a little thrill when I viewed the 2010 challenged book list and learned I’d read several books on the list.  I remembered getting the same thrill after reading Dr. Zhivago and learning the manuscript had been smuggled out of Russia to be printed.  It’s human nature to be drawn to the forbidden.  So, might not other readers – adults, teens, and children alike – get that same thrill when they read Hunger Games, Crank, or Twilight?  If so, doesn’t that do the opposite of what this kind of list is trying to achieve.  Hmmmm
Yet, despite my little thrills, I’ve been humbled.  Imagine trying to learn anatomy without drawings of the human body?  Trying to feed a family without knowing about germs?  Having no option but to become a fighter when you’d rather be fixing computers?
Although Three Cups of Tea isn’t my favorite book, it made me think.  And isn’t that one of the basic requirements of any book?  When you read Three Cups you’ll see Mortenson understood this as well.  I applaud him for going out and making people think.

Although Three Cups of Tea isn’t a challenged book, controversial articles and reports have been written about it.  Here’s my take, but I encourage all to read about the allegations against Mortenson and make up their own minds.  Many of the claims have already been refuted, as well as people dropping out of the class action law suit against him.  To my mind the most important issue was the low percentage of CAI profits, 40%, spent on the building of schools.  This charge could quite possible be accurate.   However if you read the book you may believe as I do, that it wasn’t due to misallocated funds.  Instead I’ve come to the conclusion it’s due to Mortenson’s style of “helping.”  If he came to a village that needed a well, he built it.  He didn’t think about money.  Instead he thought,” how am I going to get the supplies up here?”  He thought about getting the job done.  It sure isn’t the best business model, but it’s Mortenson’s style, and it succeeded where very few others even tried to help.  In conclusion I’d say, don’t go by hearsay, read the book, read the reports, and decided for yourself.
Here’s a thought about food.  With the last harvest of green beans and herbs I’ve taken to roasting green beans and parsley tossed with olive oil and my own special blend of pepper.  In my pepper mill I’ve mixed coriander with white and black pepper corns and come up with a delicious new taste.  Roast the beans in your oven on 400 F for about 35 minutes, until they look a bit like crisp French fries.  You can’t go wrong with ANYTHING that resembles French fries!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hal Spacejock, Venture Untamed, and Helper12

SC Poe's Indie Ebook Sampler #3

Hal Junior: The Secret Signal

By Simon HaynesSelf-published by Bowman Press, September, 2011Poe thinks this is MG mass-market-quality sci-fi spoof

First sentence: Captain Spacejock was patrolling the galaxy's deadliest sector in his sleek fighter, the Phantom X1.

Haynes opens this slick story with a limerick, a complete scale model of the universe (very small scale), and several fresh riffs on the old "fortunately-unfortunately" gag that Poe first heard and found hysterical at the age of 8. (And still does, evidently.)

Haynes swiftly introduces his characters and their space-station world, and gets Hal into trouble almost immediately.
The sample doesn't quite set up a single over-arching challenge for Hal, or even make it clear there'll be one, but there was plenty to keep Poe reading. Neat illustrations are included.

Alas! There's only one volume of
Junior out now. Too bad, because kids will want to tear through more stories right away. (Fortunately, the e-format can keep the "pilot" in circulation indefinitely.)

Hal seems to be the kid version of Hal Spacejock, the hilariously hapless MC of Haynes' traditionally-pubbed sci fi series. Kids may be eager to move across the Intertubes to the
adult series, but signals are mixed as to whether Hal Spacejock is suitable for readers under 17. (See its sample review, below.)

Rated Q for Queued to read later.

Hal Spacejock
By Simon Haynes
Originally published by Fremantle Press, dist. Penguin

Reissued by author, August, 2011
Poe thinks this is sci fi parody.

First sentence(s): Hal Spacejock was hunched over the Black Gull's flight console, studying a small chessboard balanced amongst the toggle switches, warning lights and status displays. Recently he'd read an article promoting the ancient game, claiming it would sharpen his mind, improve his memory and increase his attraction to the opposite sex.
Poe sampled this series because it's prominent in web searches alongside Haynes' MG ebook with similar title, and because online reviewers are already buying copies for their kids. Is that a good idea?

Hal pilots a decrepit freighter rocket. Bill collectors with murderous robot enforcers are beating on his door. Hal's situation is desperate enough to send him on what he thinks will be a trip hauling stolen goods. We know it will prove much more perilous. Suitably, the sample ends with Hal facing a crisis that's simultaneously dire and ridiculous.

Unlike Hal's ship (and brain), the plot's smartly constructed. There's just about one gag per paragraph, and the paragraphs are short. An online review compared the tone of this
series to Galaxy Quest. Poe concurs.

In the single editing glitch Poe noticed, a batch of sentences appears out of place. The snarl is easily sorted. (It's also a tad tricky to figure out where the teasers end and the book proper begins, which is page 5 in the Smashwords sample. )

Back to the reason Poe sampled. Is this series suitable for MG readers? The story and humor feel right on target. But Poe did find one profanity in the sample. And the Smashwords rating suggests readers 17 and up, without specifying why. So the sample's not enough to condemn or okay the whole. But parents will have fun reading further, even if they ultimately decide not to share.

Rated I for If you love spoof, satire, and parody, try this series. Even if you think you don't like sci fi.

Venture Untamed
By R. H. Russell
Self-published by Morning Gate Press, September 2011
Poe thinks this is YA combat/adventure fantasy-historical, with boy appeal

First sentence(s): Venture knew enough about death. Enough to recognize the distinctive coldness, the terrifying stillness.

That opening's a grabber. After that, it might take a bit of patience to untangle the cha
racters and grasp the complicated set-up. Long sentences and ambiguous pronouns don't make it easier.
Then, on page 22, we reach the fight training school promised in the blurb. Suddenly all is clear and every step logical. The pace picks up. We get lost in the story. If only the opening pages read like this!

The series offers a premise that readers never tire of: the "untamed" nobody who literally fights his way up society's ladder. Vent is potentially heroic, yet engagingly flawed. His native smarts and bent for combat feel earthy and real; he earns his wins with sweat, not magic. The castle-and-dungeon world also feels more like alternate-history than fantasy, the way Jackaroo does, or The Kestrel. An almost Victorian motif, of true-hearted childhood sweethearts, promises a depth that many genre adventures lack.

Poe hopes the slow opening won't frustrate some of the readers who'd most like it—impatient and reluctant kids who could be hooked by a good action/sports story. Poe believes this series is worth engaging the help of someone as skilled with editing as Russell is at explaining arm locks.

Rated I for If you like action/sports stories with depth and heart, this series has lots of potential.


By Jack Blaine
Published by Jack Blaine Books, June 2011
Poe thinks this is YA dystopian fantasy/romance

First sentence: I was originally tracked as a Breeder.

The online sam
ple displays white type against a black background. Poe's eyeballs throbbed by the end of the first paragraph. Fortunately, a more readable version can be sampled on all the varieties of Magick E-reader.
That jumpy typeface was the only thing Poe could find to complain about. Blaine deftly establishes an engaging main character and an interesting dystopia. This world might remind you of The Handmaid's Tale, Never Let Me Go, The Giver, and Brave New World. Those are all fine company, and Poe anticipates another absorbing read here.

The sample ends on a suitable forward, although some awkward repetitions of the phrase that "they took the baby" made Poe wonder whether something was lost in the otherwise competent line-editing. Poe plans to find out, having rated this book

S for Snapped Up.

Poe's Rating System:

  • S for snapped up (Poe has already purchased the full)
  • Q for queued (the book is on Poe's to-be-read-someday list)
  • U for underwhelming (Poe will always explain the reason)
  • I for If/then (not Poe's cuppa, but perhaps it's yours)
  • R for rejected (Poe will always explain the reason)
  • E for editorially challenged (Poe will not mince words)

Caveat Emptor Internexi: Poe's reviews are intended to provide a springboard for further browsing. Genre and age classifications are Poe's guesses based on short samples, and may or may not accord with the classifications suggested by authors, publishers, or anybody else. The buyer is always responsible for deciding whether the book as a whole is appropriate for the intended reader's age, interests, and reading level.

Poe's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of other members of this blog.

If you'd like SC Poe to sample your ebook on this blog, please follow submission guidelines.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Woof woof meow meow

Talking with reading teachers I was asked to help find stories that reluctant readers will pick up. I had to think about this, and now if asked I would say, "Have you tried animal stories?" We could start with Charlotte's Web, right?

Animal stories have been around for a very long time. 2,500 years ago Aesop set down his fables. Many of them involved animals as the main characters. If I say “A Town Mouse, A country Mouse” can you remember the story? I'll bet you can.

Animals are part of our world and part of our stories. We share our world with them. Of course, they are part of our stories.

Sometimes they are used to teach children a lesson, an example would be Curious George. I know animal rights people sometimes express concern over poor George, but guess what? He's still in every library everywhere.

Some stories are purely animal—what the animal does is what the animal does. What has kept Charlotte’s Web as a classic is one, friendship, but two—a grounding in reality that keeps the book true. Templeton is a Rat and behaves like a Rat. Charlotte stays true to spiderhood and does what a spider should. It is this constant that allows us deeper into the story to fully love and embrace the characters.

There are stories of humanized animals—some stay realistic, others branch off into fantasy.
The Brian Jacques books.
Watership Down.
There are stories where the animal is the pulse that drives the human character. Some classics here—Walter Farley’s horse books, Margurite Henry’s horse stories (including Misty of Chincoteague—Newbery Honor book).

If you enjoy animal stories, here are a few more you should look at these classics--
The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Graham
Stuart Little—E.B. White
The Trumpet of the Swan—E.B. White
One Hundred and One Dalmations—Dodie Smith
Dr. Doolittle—Hugh Lofting (available for free on www.pagebypagebooks.com)
The Black Stallion series—Walter Farley
Books by Marguerite Henry (24)

One very different one that was recommended by Leonard Marcus, the children's literature expert, is called Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones. It's a remarkable tale for a YA audience. Ken Oppel's Airborn is a popular one with middle grade readers. I've listed the Adventures of TumTum and Nutmeg previously, it's a charming adventure with two little mice trying to help a pair of children. It's a terrific read aloud.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Surprise! Or Not? Amazon Enters Publishing, Part II

By Carol Baicker-McKee
Amazon logo, upside down
In yesterday's post, I discussed this recent New York Times article on Amazon's expansion from bookseller to book publisher and summarized some of the positive comments I've been seeing about their move. Today, I'll describe the negative reactions and over the weekend, I'll wrap up with some questions.

Fears and Jeers
Basically the most common concern voiced is that Amazon is on its way to becoming a book monopoly, and that it will then stop being responsive to readers or supportive of writers. Other reactions include a sense that opening up the market will lower quality and increase confusion for consumers, as well as skepticism that Amazon's model will prove significantly different from traditional publishing's. Finally, many express satisfaction and/or loyalty toward traditional publishing.

  • Amazon and the big box booksellers forced most small, independent booksellers out of business - and now Amazon is forcing even the big box booksellers out of business (i.e., Borders). This has been bad for readers, reducing shopping choices; harming the book buying experience, for example by eliminating access to knowledgeable staff; and adversely shaping publishing choices by promoting popular books of lower literary merit over high quality books with smaller audiences. The same thing will happen in publishing if Amazon isn't checked. Do we really want a world where one organization controls the written word at every phase?

  • Once Amazon has a monopoly, they will no longer have an incentive to offer favorable terms to authors or be responsive to readers except as doing so benefits their bottom line. Whatever expansion/improvement occurs during the entry phase will be replaced by retraction/worsening over time.

  • Traditional publishing does a good job of gatekeeping, ensuring that most of the books that make it to market are of good quality and likely to appeal to consumers. They've been reviewed at multiple levels by multiple eyes, content-edited, fact-checked, copy-edited, designed, and produced with high quality materials. Amazon is deliberately setting out to reduce the amount of gatekeeping and speed up the process - and that will ultimately reduce the quality of books on the market, making choice harder for consumers.

  • There is really no evidence yet that Amazon's main publishing venture will be significantly different from the traditional model (except possibly bigger and more controlling). It is headed by a publisher from a traditional firm, and rather than developing new editors and authors, it is staffed with folks from traditional publishing, and it's stocking its list by wooing established, popular authors away from their old houses. So what will be better for writers or readers?

  • Whatever its flaws, traditional publishing has been good to me as a writer or reader. (What follows is a smorgasbord list!) As a writer, although entry is difficult, getting a book accepted for publication gives me a justified sense of accomplishment. My editor/publisher has a personal  relationship with me and has taken time to help me develop my career. I don't want to shut out my agent, who has helped me for years, from the process or profits. Also, I'd still need my agent to help me develop and submit only my best work and to negotiate a contract whether that's with Amazon or someone else. Almost no one in publishing gets rich, so the fact that most authors don't make a lot of money just puts them in line with others in the business. As a reader, I have a diversity of choices without being overwhelmed, and I also know what to expect in terms of quality/style from various imprints. Why fix what's not broken? 
Whew! A couple reminders: first, the points expressed here are a summary of others' views, not necessarily mine or any of the other members of this blog; second, you can read my original post with positive reactions to Amazon's transition here. Again, I urge you to do your own research and thinking about this development.

I'll be back over the weekend with questions related to these industry changes.

Breaking News! Today's New York Times (10-20-11) has an article you can view here about how three of the Big Six publishers have announced that they are (or are in the process of) giving authors access to online sales data and help with social media marketing tools, things many authors have been seeking from them for years and which Amazon has been offering for a while. Simon and Schuster's president and CEO denied their move was in reaction to Amazon's practice but was something that's been in the works for several years.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Surprise! Or Not? Amazon Enters Publishing, Part I

By Carol Baicker-McKee
amazon.com logo

The book world is chattering away about this recent New York Times article, "Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal" (10-16-11). That Amazon was entering the publishing business was not really news - they've been gradually adding imprints in niche genres like romance novels and sci-fi books and helping authors self-publish and sell e-books for a while - it's more that the pace, scope and implications of their efforts are becoming more apparent.

This fall, the bookseller will publish 122 books, all in both electronic and physical versions, across a broad array of genres. It has hired an industry veteran, Laurence Kirschbaum, to head up the program, and it has been signing up (with big advances) some big names like Tim Ferriss (of the Four-Hour books) and most recently, Penny Marshall. And it recently introduced the Kindle Fire, a tablet for Amazon books and media, with Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon's CEO, calling Kindle an "end-to-end" service.

So what does this mean for authors? For publishers? For agents?

Russell Grandinetti, a top executive at Amazon, downplayed the threat to traditional publishing, but compared the change to the introduction of Gutenburg's printing press, noting:

“The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

 From comments to the article and around the blogosphere, clearly lots of folks argue that even writers and readers also have both risk and opportunity in this changing publishing/bookselling climate.

I encourage you to read the NY Times article yourself, as well as other pieces like this one in Forbes Magazine (from 2008, to give you a sense of how long folks have been worrying about Amazon's expanding role) and check out the comments to the articles and on book sites, like Verla Kay's Blue Board (you have to be a legitimate book person and join to read the comments there). But today I will summarize the main comments I'm seeing in support of Amazon's foray into publishing - tomorrow I'll review the criticisms and worries.


Basically, Amazon increases competition and opportunity which can be good for both authors and readers. Also Amazon has a history of being good to authors.

  • Traditional publishing has always been too rigid a gatekeeper, shutting out many good, publishable manuscripts that can now make it to market and find readers (and then make money for their authors). This change will particularly benefit niche genres (like poetry or fan fiction) and hard-to-market formats (like short fiction and collections). 

  • In the wake of vertical integration, traditional publishing firms have been gobbled up by media/entertainment conglomerates, making the bottom line all important. Publishers are thus less willing than ever to develop new authors, take risks on unusual or more literary books, or invest marketing in midlist books. This has led to a narrowing of choices for readers as well as limiting opportunities for authors. Amazon's entry into publishing may shake things up and force publishers to change or perish.

  • Traditional publishing is too slow, unresponsive, and controlling. Few houses are open to unagented work, it can take six months or more to hear back about submitted manuscripts and years to get an accepted book to market. Authors have little influence over many crucial decisions, like covers and even titles. Amazon offers a faster, author-controlled process with its self-published ebooks and at least for now appears to be more author-friendly with its emerging traditional program.

  • Authors get too small a share of revenues under traditional publishing. Amazon's e-publishing program allows authors to retain a much bigger share and their traditional publishing one seems to be promising both large advances and bigger percentages, which they can afford by cutting out unnecessary middlemen. This will ultimately benefit both authors and readers, by making a writing career more realistic and appealing for more good writers.

  • Publishers do less and less for most authors, while Amazon has been doing more and more for them, giving them access to sales figures, ways to interact with readers, and the possibility of hanging onto a larger percentage of sales. Amazon already has opportunities that make marketing easier and less expensive for authors, so why not go with them right from the start?

  • Publishers have been entering the bookselling market themselves for years now; it's hypocritical of them to criticize Amazon for crossing into their territory. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

 So what do you think about the possible benefits of Amazon's entry into publishing?

Tomorrow: Jeers and Fears about Amazon's Publishing Program
Later: Questions Related to these Developments
(Added 10-20-11: You can view Part II here)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Rutgers Road Trip

by Marcy Collier

My head is spinning (literally and figuratively).

Five days before Rutgers, I took my kids to Idlewild Amusement Park in Ligonier for Hallowboo. After trick or treating through story book forest, we rode some rides. After the second spinning ride, I became violently ill. The spinning wouldn’t stop. All week. My doctor prescribed vertigo medicine which made me ten times worse. Fast forward to Fri. I have a six hour drive to New Jersey for the Rutgers-One-On-One. What to do?

I had three plans in place, but knew regardless of how I felt, I would get my spinning self to Jersey. By Friday morning, the car sick feeling was still there, but the dizziness had stopped. I drove in the rain to New Brunswick. My fellow bloggers told me about the Blueboarders’ dinner held the night before the Rutgers conference. I tentatively made my way down to the hotel restaurant and asked if I could join them. Thank you, Blueboarders for welcoming me! They were the nicest group of writers. We had a fabulous time. There’s nothing like going to a conference and socializing with people who get you. Part way through dinner, Andrea Brown Literary agent and Blueboarder, Jennifer Laughran
(http://literaticat.blogspot.com/) joined us. Everyone was super excited.

After a sleepless night, I woke up and drove to the Rutger’s Cook Campus Center which was a new venue this year for the conference. I listened to my fellow bloggers’ advice (see the Monday, October 11, 2011 post). I picked up my folder, sat down and went through it, feverishly jotting down notes. I met up with some new and old friends as we discussed our plan for the day.

Author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (http://olugbemisolabooks.com/) gave the opening talk. Her success story speech inspired everyone who listened. She had been in the same place as each of the mentees. She could relate to our anxious feelings and described her first Rutgers conference. Her words of wisdom stuck with me throughout the day. She said, “Don’t get it right. Get it written. We strive to tell our stories, but they’ll never be perfect.”
Vivian Grey

Founder and council chair, Vivian Grey welcomed the crowd. She launched the Rutgers conference 42 years ago when writers for children did not have a voice. The conference has evolved and flourished led by an all volunteer group. With all of the changes in publishing, Grey said, “There will always be a need for good storytellers and excellent illustrators. Technology cannot replace the need for talent.”
Margery Cuyler

This year’s conference was dedicated in the memory of Steven Kroll, beloved author, advocate for children’s literature, and generous, longtime friend of the conference. Margery Cuyler (Publisher, Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books) talked about Steven’s hard work for the children’s book industry and his contributions to St. Joseph’s School.

Each mentee broke up into a five-on-five session with agents, editors and authors, where we were able to ask questions and discuss the current market conditions.

Then the mentees listened to a lively panel discussion between Megan Bennett (Art Director, Abrams Books for Young Readers), Barry Goldblatt (Agent, B. Goldblatt Literary Agency), David Lubar (Author), Deborah Kogan Ray (Author/Illustrator), and Harold Underdown (The Purple Crayon website). Marietta Zacker (Agent, Nancy Gallt Literary Agency) moderated the session with questions that had been submitted prior to the conference by mentees. As an author or illustrator, you need to be smart and savvy. An agent can play many roles. Let them identify your market and help sell your manuscript. Sometimes a stand alone story will shine a little more than a series. But other panelists disagreed that in certain genres, sequels are expected. Harold Underdown said there are many secrets to getting published. “There are different stories and different paths. Find your own path.” David Lubar said he asks a “what if?” question every morning. “Jot down those thoughts or you’ll lose them.” Barry Goldblatt’s advice was “write, draw or paint as if your life depended on it.”  

The groups broke for lunch. I enjoyed talking with agent and council member Tina Wexler (ICM) and editor Annette Pollert (Simon Pulse).

Then each mentee had a one-on-one session with their mentor. My mentor, agent Becky Vinter (Fine Print Literary Management) had terrific suggestions and spot on advice for both my query letter and first chapter. Thank you, Becky. You’re awesome!

Before we knew it, author Jon Scieszka was onstage. He gave an hilarious speech about his childhood and the trials and tribulations of being an author. He talked about his new print/multimedia series, Spaceheadz which I can’t wait to buy for my older son.

Co-conference chair, Brian Schatell gave closing remarks, and I found it hard to believe that the conference had ended. The day flew past me.

I got on the road, stopped over in Harrisburg to have dinner with my best friend and made a quick stop at Chocolate World. Where else could I buy two giant cases of Hershey’s bars for $ 25.00 for Halloween candy? Didn’t you always love getting the big bars for Halloween? No spinning rides, though.

I arrived home after midnight, and my head is still spinning. In a good way.

Thank you Rutger’s One-On-One mentors and council for putting together an awe-inspiring conference. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.