Young Adult Fiction

I’ve been a fan of children’s literature for most of my life – though, truth be told, more as an adult. As a kid, I spend my kid-lit years on a mission to read as many “grownup” titles as possible. During my years teaching at martial arts studios, I figured reading some middle-grade and young adult titles would help me build rapport with my students.

Good young adult and middle grade fiction manages to speak at that maturity level without speaking down. The characters and plots aren’t as complex as those in adult titles, but they are fully realized and free of holes. Young adult books don’t pull punches in terms of language, sexual situations or “hot” topics like drugs and alcohol.

The Newberry Medal recognizes the “best” young peoples’ book of the year, and their choices are often excellent. However, I haven’t read one yet that dealt with the raw-nerved, pants-wetting social terror of being a teenager. Don’t get me wrong: I love me a Newberry book, but most of them read like something your English teacher wants you to read.

The best titles read like something your English teacher would be uncomfortable letting you read without first checking with your parents. Some examples I’ve read recently, in no particular order.

One Good Punch (Richard Wallace) A successful student and track star with scholarship prospects gets a wrench thrown into his future when a random sweep finds his friend’s drugs in his locker. He has to choose between sending his friend to jail or being expelled.

Fat Kid Rules the World (KL Goings) Local rock legend, drug addict and dropout stops the narrator from committing suicide because he’s fat and unpopular. The two start on a path of saving one another in a narrative that doesn’t blink about drug use, self image and family dynamics. As a bonus, the relationship between our narrator and his father is complex, angsty and loving. Just like the real thing for many teens.

Twisted (Laurie Halse Anderson) What happens when the kid who everybody used to pick on spends the summer working landscaping and comes back muscular, tanned and confident? His world-upside-down trip through social pressures, bullying, drinking, violence and sex turns what some teens fantasize about into its own set of problems.

The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex) A lighthearted romp through two alien apocalypses, Smekday follows a teenage girl and alien companion on a roadtrip through occupied America. It’s mostly funny, but often extremely violent – and sometimes both.

Burn (Suzanne Phillips) Probably the most depressing book I liked – and I made it all the way through HMS Ulysses. A special needs student’s reaction to systematic bullying pushes him nearer and nearer to violence. The end is surprising, timely and….just right.

Feel free to comment and bring more gems to my attention, or to tell me if you think I’m full it.

Thanks for listening.

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Gateway Games

It all started with chess. My father loves chess and my mother either hates chess, or hates playing chess with my father. Either way, as the oldest child, dad taught me early so he’d have somebody to play with. I later graduated to Risk, Dungeons and Dragons, Axis and Allies – games like that.

I love tabletop games of all kinds. I personally have a soft spot for the outrageously complex strategy games with hundreds of little plastic figures, and rules books that look like technical manuals. Dad and I still get together regularly to cover his pool table with miniature multitudes of murderous miliatias.

However, as a dad myself now, I appreciate what I’ve come to call “gateway games.” Gateway games are games robustly complex enough to keep me interested, yet simple enough my son can play it – and easy enough to whip out in a holiday get together without scaring off any aunts.

For my money, the two best gateway games on the market today are Scrabble and Ticket to Ride.

Most people are familiar with Scrabble. You make words with randomly drawn tiles, taking advantage of bonus squares to accumulate as many points as possible.

Fewer folks know from Ticket to Ride. In Ticket to Ride, you attempt to complete train routes across the continent by matching sets of cards you draw from a deck. The basic mechanic is a lot like rummy.

Why do these two disparate games both rate the designation of “best gateway game?” Although they play experiences are different, they share important similarities.

  • You can explain the basic mechanic of play in a single sentence.
  • Both allow for a complete game in under one hour.
  • Individual turns pass quickly.*
  • Quick score upsets are possible, meaning the people trailing on the scoreboard don’t stop having fun.
  • Winning comes from playing well, not by making others lose.

This doesn’t make either the perfect game – my favorite game ever remains chess – but it does make both excellent choices for parties. They’re also great for introducing younger kids to the concept of playing board games. We have to train up the next generation of board game geeks somehow.

Thanks for listening.

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*Unless you get that one Scrabble geek who won’t pull his head out of the dictionary until he’s found the perfect word. I hate that.

Writing Professionally: Podcasts Addendum

As it turns out, I was only partially right when I posted that writing about podcasts helps to increase traffic. Last week, I saw another massive spike in response to my review of the “Veggies Go Crunch!” blog.

I guess this means that reviews in general will generate traffic. Put another way, we can apply a basic rule of marketing to success with a blog:

If you want results, don’t talk about yourself. Talk about other people.

In marketing, this usually gets expressed by emphasizing how a product will affect a customer, rather than the features of the product on their own. In a blog, this means literally talking about other people. This helps generate traffic in several ways.

  • People with internet alert trackers will become aware that you mentioned them, then come read out of curiosity.
  • Those interested in the subject covered by what you’re reviewing may find your blog while searching for the primary subject.
  • Folks you review may point out your review to friends, or mention it on their own blogs.
  • Reviewees and their fans may place a link to your blog from their own web pages.  This not only creates a direct route for their readers, but also elevates your page in most search engines.
  • People you review are more likely to comment on your post than many other folks. These comments can generate discussion and attention, leading to still more visits.

As I’ve said before, I’m still learning about this blog thing – but math can be a good teacher. The highest scoring days so far appear to be my podcast review post and the day “Veggies'” author found out I was talking about her.  And both of those posts continue to be the most viewed overall.

So that’s what I learned today. Thanks for listening.

Writing Professionally: The New Pulp Era

Four score years ago, give or take a few, our country enjoyed one of the greatest gluts of fun fiction the world has ever seen. A combination of cheap printing, low entertainment budgets due to the depression and an escapist zeitgeist for the country as a whole created an enormous market for – and supply of – stories about adventure, crime, spaceships and simple human optimism. Even the dark detective stories were optimistic in that the protagonists remained themselves while immersed in the darkness surrounding them.

I believe we’re in the middle of a second pulp era. Economic downturn? Check. World problems creating a need to escape? Check. Ultra cheap means of distribution? Check and mate. There is enormous opportunity to make it as a writer these days, with low costs of entry and a potential audience in the hundreds of millions. Opportunities to write professionally abound: SEO writing, content mills, professional blogging, web content, podcasting and ad copy are just a few of the ways you can keep body and soul together while honing your ability to write quickly and clearly.

Not everything that gets put out is good, but neither was everything during the fist Pulp Era. There are also fewer ways to pull ahead of the pack – owing to the same factors that have opened up the market in the first place. Writers simply need to hope that our ability, imagination and branding efforts will carve out enough of a niche to support our needs. I am just beginning to explore this aspect, but I will share what I learn as I learn it. You all are welcome to do the same.

Thanks for listening.

RANT: School Nutrition

There’s a new program at my oldest son’s school called Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) that encourages dads to come in and volunteer some time during school hours. Since I have a flexible schedule and I kind of like my kid, I signed up. It’s a good deal. I spend more time with my boy, help out in class, and provide a positive male role model for some kids who have to go without.

Here’s my problem.Part of the program means I get a ticket for free lunch at the cafeteria. Here are some examples of  the entrees available at my son’s school:

  • Palm-sized disks of pepperoni pizza.
  • Chicken nuggets with tater tots
  • Cinnamon roll with chocolate milk (this is breakfast)
  • French bread with tomato sauce, cheese and pepperoni
  • Yogurt with a “granola mix” consisting mostly of Froot Loops, Cheerios and chocolate chips.

You can click here to visit a page where you can access menus in the top left corner. Ironically, it’s titled “Nutrition Services Offers Healthy School Meals.”

There’s an optional salad bar on the way to the entree line, boasting iceberg lettuce, cucumber slices and some bell pepper sticks. Drinks are milk, chocolate milk or fruit juice.

My question is very simple:

How do they expect students to succeed full of that much grease and carbohydrate in the afternoon?

It’s no wonder kids have trouble staying awake or sitting still during the second half of the school year. Where are the whole grains, the lean proteins? Where’s the freaking water?

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if I can do anything – other than have my kid start packing a lunch from now on. I once shared a plane ride with a reporter from Colorado Springs who was getting an advanced degree from Johns Hopkins just so school boards would listen to him about things like this. Makes me pessimistic about my chances.

Any black belts candidates out there who need an idea for a project?

Thanks for listening.

Writing Professionally: Blogging Advice

Alert readers may correctly suspect that I’m new to blogging. From what I’ve read, it’s a good way to get the word out about yourself – provided you can keep coming up with interesting things to say. For me, it also provides potential clients with a sort of “living portfolio” of my skills as a writer.

So far, I’ve learned one important thing:

Talk about podcasts.

I’ve done nothing to promote my blog yet – I’m waiting until I’ve got three months of material up – but as soon as I posted that podcast review last weekend, my visits have literally tripled.

I guess people really like podcasts. I wonder what other subjects will get things moving like that.

Thanks for listening.

Podcasts Worth Listening To (Part One)

I’m a stay-at-home dad. I write full time from home, care for two children and see to the house, budget and cooking. I help my wife as much as possible to help her career grow in the direction she wants. This leaves me little time to sit on my butt and read.

This is a shame, since I really enjoy reading. Enter podcasts. It’s rare to find me working out, walking the dog, cleaning or cooking without a podcast – or audiobook – running in my ear or on the nearest computer. Here then, in no particular order, are a few of the podcasts I listen to most.

  • Fear the Boot – A podcast about “tabletop role playing games and a little bit more.” This is a round-table discussion featuring a core of hosts plus a rotating stable of regular guests. Besides its high production value, what I love most about this cast is the wealth of different opinions. Most gaming podcasts out there are either one guy spouting off, or a shameless shill for some gaming company. These guys offer amusing opinion and actionable advice. Generally runs about an hour.
  • Writing Excuses – Three successful science fiction writers talk about the craft and business of writing. Years ago, Lawrence Block published several collections of his columns for Writers Digest Magazine. This is the 21st century version of that invaluable set of tools – complete with Monty Python jokes and Firefly references, because these guys are the best kind of geeks. Run time is fifteen minutes “because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”
  • Stuff You Missed in History Class – A product of HowStuffWorks.com, this two-host history show gives a 20 minute rundown of fun facts and bizarre events from this history of our world. Topics run from Vlad Tepes to presidential debates to the Tower of London’s menagerie. Great for history buffs, and for stirring up creative juices for your fiction projects. As a bonus, co-host Sarah Dowdey has the sexiest voice in podcasting today. Run time is about 20 minutes, with earlier episodes coming in around seven.
  • Taking Control – Two professional organizers share bits of actionable advice on organizing your time, space and money. Two things set this cast apart from the other organizing podcasts out there. Their production quality is significantly better, and their discussions stay focused on the central topic for the episode. The advice ranges from broad concepts to naming specific products they’ve found useful. The only down side is they don’t cast as often as I’d like to listen. Run time is typically ten minutes.
  • The Dave Ramsey Show – I admit it. I’m a Dave Ramsey fan. His “Total Money Makeover” got my family out of our financial doghouse when my first business bit the dust in the middle of the recession. This hour-long program is the only radio show turned podcast I listen to. The advice sometimes feels recycled if you’ve followed him for a while, but it serves as a strong reminder to keep me on track.

There are thousands of podcasts out there, and hundreds worth giving a try. The five above fill up most of my iPod space that’s not taken up with audiobooks or music.

Thanks for listening