We Were Liars: Too Unbelievable For Fiction?

We Were LiarsE. Lockhart’s We Were Liars begins ominously: “Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.” The Sinclairs are attractive, wealthy, and messed up. Seventeen-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman, the eldest grandchild of Tipper and Harris Sinclair, is giving away her belongings, one by one, except for her well-used library card. When she was 15, something terrible happened to her—and to her family—but she can’t remember it, and no one will tell her the truth.

Sadly, someone on the Internet under the guise of being a “book reviewer” told me what happened to Cadence (without a “spoiler alert”). Already knowing the twist—and feeling rather uncomfortable about it—I wouldn’t have read this novel had it not been the latest selection for Katie’s Fellowship of the Worms.* I decided to join in the read-along to assess how well Lockhart pulled off such a bold twist in the 200-odd pages between the terse “Welcome” and the tragic “Truth.”

It’s uncomfortable to see the deteriorating Sinclair family through the eyes of its emotionally wounded heir. Cadence’s sentences are short and full of pain and anger. It’s certainly an interesting read, but one that’s best for readers who won’t concentrate too carefully on the plot. Cadence’s “accident” just doesn’t add up. Would those kinds of physical injuries heal so quickly? Why wasn’t there a forensic exam? Where were the police? If the “accident” had happened as described, Harris Sinclair, Penny, and her sisters would know much more about what actually happened to Cadence, her cousins, and their friend than they do. The inadequate legal response to a catastrophic, potentially criminal incident reminds me of the absurdly half-hearted criminal investigation in Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly, another young adult novel about privileged New Englanders.

Adding to its flaws: Lockhart’s plot could have been solved instantly if only Cadence had googled herself, which is surely among the first steps these days in any journey of self-discovery.

Still, I appreciated aspects of this novel, particularly its references to classic literature. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is most directly an homage to Shakespeare’s King Lear, a tragedy I remember only vaguely, but it also has strong parallels to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which I re-read last January. The love of Cadence’s life, Gatwick Matthew Patil, is a modern version of Heathcliff, at least to Harris Sinclair. I nodded my head vigorously when Gat informs Cadence that Emily Brontë’s only novel is not a romance, as she has been led to believe, because “those people are awful to each other.”

On this blog, in An Unexpected Reaction to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I referred to the classic as “a brutal story about hateful people,” one that was about “obsessive infatuation,” not love, prompting a healthy debate in the comments.** I am glad to have Gat on my side — he’s the only character I actually liked.

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*Have you read We Were Liars? If so, check out Katie’s blog, Words for Worms, to join in the discussion!

**My other two Wuthering Heights posts are: (1) Trying to Keep An Open Mind About Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; and (2) Heathcliff: A Man or A Devil?

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Parenting Without The “Gatekeepers”: Who’s Afraid of the Self-Published Children’s Book?

Little Z is AngryMy parents didn’t regularly moderate my reading material when I was a kid, at least not to my knowledge.* They glanced at the covers of the books I picked out from the library and the bookstore, but they rarely prohibited me from reading something I had chosen. I’m similarly laid back about my children’s reading material, even though the ubiquity of the Internet and the rise of self-publishing raises concerns that my parents didn’t have to consider.

Today, my children have access to far more reading material than I ever did. Some of that reading material includes self-published children’s books, which Amazon has recently encouraged through the launch of KDP Kids, a tool to help self-published authors “create and sell beautiful Kindle books to millions of readers worldwide.”

I’m excited to see efforts that democratize the publishing world, which has a long history of bias against women and cultural minorities. I published my own New Adult/Contemporary Fiction novel, Two Lovely Berries, without ever agonizing over a query letter and without women’s shoes on the cover (Hallelujah!). Self-publishing was a good option for me, even if it is more limited in marketing reach than the traditional model — at least as compared to the handful of traditionally published authors who receive marketing support from their publishers.

Understandably, many readers believe that the blessing of a publishing company is an indicator of quality. There are undoubtedly some lemons in the traditionally published bunch, but it can be an efficient way to choose reading material. You can just grab a book off the (virtual) shelf and be assured some minimal level of quality. My method of reading reviews and sample chapters before purchasing a book, whether traditionally published or not, is far more time consuming, but it’s often rewarding. It results in a wider range of options than just what a publishing company thinks will sell.

So, for my reading taste, the gatekeepers are of little use. But do they still have a role to play when it comes to what my children read?

With KDP Kids, there are tools for self-published authors to “help parents choose the right books for their kids,” but who knows how effective those tools are. Will these tools successfully weed out developmentally inappropriate books and books with offensive material? For some parents, it may be comforting to know that the minions at a publishing company have approved of the material before inserting it into the marketplace.

Then again, maybe not. Censorship-happy parents have railed against many traditionally published books, such as And Tango Makes Three and The Family Book,** as bloggers across the Internet will discuss during Banned Books Week later this month. The ambiguous cover art in Pssst!, an enjoyable picture book, also hasn’t been safe from complaints.

Even I’ve disagreed with HarperCollins over the recommended age range for Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, and I don’t see eye to eye with Random House over Junie B. Jones (thanks to her atrocious grammar!).

So, the mark of a traditional publishing company doesn’t necessarily mean that a book is ideal for my kids. I research the book, regardless of its provenance, before I recommend it to my kids. Right now, there are quite a few self-published children’s books on our growing “To Be Read” list (reviews forthcoming!).

Of course, my twins are old enough to start choosing their own reading material, and I won’t vet everything they check out of the library or, in the future, buy with one-click. My hope is that I’m raising them to choose well and to come to me with questions when, inevitably, they end up reading something better suited for an older audience or something that promotes a message that differs from what we’re teaching them.

In some cases, the very worst books have the potential to teach children the most important lessons. For example, Junie B. is turning my daughters into future grammarians. ;)

*This post stems from Jancee Wright’s comment on my post last week, Junie B: Mom Versus The Kids. Thanks, Jancee (of Jancee Reads)!

**See also two of my favorite posts on this blog: (1) Please Stop Parenting My Children; and (2) What’s NOT Okay: Thoughts on Todd Parr’s “It’s Okay To Be Different.”

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Junie B. Jones: Mom Versus The Kids

Of my twins’ fictional “friends,” Junie B. Jones is my least favorite.

She has a penchant for troublemaking, she’s sometimes rude, and her grammar needs improvement. In many ways, she’s a typical six-year-old, but that doesn’t make her a good role model for my girls, for whom books are a tool to develop their imaginations and their grasp of the English language.

Barbara Park’s series, narrated by Junie B., has been controversial among parents and educators since its introduction two decades ago. Some applaud the series for creating a realistic character with whom six-year-olds identify, thus encouraging them to read, while others abhor June B.’s behavior and grammar.

There are many books that feature children who haven’t yet learned proper grammar — or as close to “proper” grammar as we speak these days! — but those books are often intended for older children who aren’t struggling with basic language “rules” the way typical five or six-year-olds are struggling.

I’m a pretty laid back parent, particularly when it comes to reading material for my kids, but I’d never encourage them to read Junie B. Jones books. That said, I wouldn’t prevent my kids from reading them either.

One of my twins “befriended” Junie B. in kindergarten, when her teacher read these books to the class. The teacher is a proponent of “kid writing,” making Junie B. books more palatable to him than they are to me. Now, other books have found their way into our home via the library and gifts from friends. So, we have several Junie B. books, and my twins read them.

As they prepared for first grade, my twins were particularly interested in reading Junie B., First Grader (at last!). They could’ve read it on their own, but I decided to read it with them, even though every line of it was like nails on a chalkboard to me:

Junie B. Jones At Last“Well, here we are, Junie B.,” [Daddy] said. “First grade. At last.”

My stomach had flutterflies in it.

Also, my arms had prickly goose bumps. And my forehead had drops of sweaty.

“I am a wreck,” I said.

Daddy smiled very nice.

[...] I looked at him a real long time.

Then I quick spun around. And I zoomed down the hall as fast as I could!

I tolerate it for the sole purpose of using it as the basis for a discussion about appropriate behavior and grammar. Thankfully, my twins’ grammar is far better than Junie B.’s, and so they actually correct the text as we go along.

Thankfully, they were also far more excited about first grade than Junie B. was. As of yesterday, my twins are officially “graders” (at last!):

First grade today
“Graders” was a pejorative term my twins used last year to refer to the older kids at their school (1st-4th grade). They don’t use the term quite so contemptuously now that they’re “graders” too. ;)

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A Review of Two Lovely Berries on Words For Worms!

Two Lovely Berries_Cover August 2014I can’t express the excitement I felt when I saw the first review of my novel, Two Lovely Berries, on one of my favorite book blogs, Words for Worms. I’ve been following Words for Worms for a long time, and I’ve also participated in her Fellowship of the Worms.

In her review of Two Lovely Berries, Katie wrote:

I don’t know what to say other than this book was excellent. I found the story engrossing from the start. Books that focus on interpersonal relationships sometimes turn a corner into a weird introspective place, but I thought Two Lovely Berries stayed grounded firmly in reality. Everything was realistically portrayed, and even the dramatic bits avoided abject melodrama. Tales of infidelity, workaholics, family violence, and sibling rivalry all blend together with refreshing glimmers of humanity that make the whole thing just work.

I am so glad that Two Lovely Berries turned out to be an enjoyable read for her. Check out my comment to her post to find out more about the origin of the novel and where my own twins make a cameo.  :)

For more background on the novel, see Freshly Pressed & Freshly Published!

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Book Bloggers Beware: The Early Lessons of Hadid v. New York Review of Books

Bloggers BewareAs vitriolic as many book reviews are—to the point that there is even an award for the “angriest, funniest, most trenchant” one of the year—relatively few of these reviews become the basis of defamation lawsuits. When it happens, it makes the news, and the latest one to make headlines is architect Zaha Hadid’s suit against The New York Review of Books and Martin Filler, the author of an allegedly defamatory review.

On June 5, 2014, the New York Review of Books published Filler’s review of Rowan Moore’s Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture.* In this review, Filler discussed Hadid’s response to the harsh labor conditions of workers at construction sites in the Middle East. He wrote:

[D]espite the numerous horror stories about this coercive exploitation, some big-name practitioners don’t seem moved by the plight of the Emirates’ imported serfs. […] [Hadid] has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. ‘I have nothing to do with workers,’ Hadid has claimed. ‘It is not my duty as an architect to look at it.’

According to Hadid’s complaint,* filed August 21, 2014, the not-so-teensy-weensy problems with this paragraph are that (1) construction has not yet begun on the project to which it refers and (2) the quotes of Hadid were taken out of context. The quotes were part of a larger statement (a response to an interview question) about the deaths of construction workers at sites unrelated to her projects. What she had said was (as stated in the complaint):

I think that’s an issue the government—if there’s a problem—should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.

[...]

I am not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I can make a statement, a personal statement, about the situation with the workers, but I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. [...]

That’s a far cry from how Filler portrayed it, and Filler issued a retraction for stating that workers had died at Hadid’s project.

So, this defamation lawsuit sounds like a slam-dunk for Hadid, right?

Maybe it is, particularly if Filler and the New York Review of Books are willing to settle it quickly to make it go away. But, as a purely legal matter, these cases are never easy for Plaintiffs, even with facts like these, because of the First Amendment implications.

I see two potential problems for Hadid’s claim:

First, although Filler’s portrayal strikes me as wrong, it’s not necessarily defamatory under the law. Hadid’s complaint has a strange line in it about how Filler’s article “induced evil opinion of her in the minds of right-thinking persons, while depriving her of confidence and friendly intercourse in society,” a paraphrase of an eighty-year-old New York court opinion that’s still good law today (Here’s an example of the case being quoted earlier this year). Beyond the amusing language, though, the problem is that, although Martin portrayed Hadid’s views unfairly, it’s hard to argue that she was held up to “disgrace.” See Yonaty v. Mincolla, 97 AD3d 141 (2012).

Second, even if Hadid proves that the statement was defamatory, she would probably also have to prove that Filler acted with “actual malice,” both because the statement was made while discussing a matter of public concern and because Hadid is a public figure. New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 U.S. 254, 283. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’d have to prove that Filler meant to hurt her — a “reckless disregard for the truth” would also qualify — but it’s typically a difficult element to prove.

So what’s the lesson for the rest of us, the “uncredentialed” reviewers without a legal team or insurance behind us?

Well, as difficult as these lawsuits are for plaintiffs to win, there’s no reason for those of us who write anything on the Internet to risk it. No one wants to be a defamation defendant, a time-consuming and expensive situation. So, check quotes, check facts, and limit the vitriol. This isn’t legal advice. It’s just common sense.

*The complaint is available here (PDF).

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Correcting a Kindergarten Deficit (As Requested By An Almost-First Grader)

How Raven Made The Tides

This summer, we sent our six-year-old twins to an arts camp, one with a performing arts component that we hoped would encourage our quiet little girls to emerge from their shells. Not only did the camp achieve this goal—performing on stage was their favorite part of the summer**—but it also exposed them to culturally diverse material that, apparently, they hadn’t experienced anywhere else.

Most of the performances were improvisational, but the final show was a choreographed rendition of How Raven Made The Tides, a Native American myth from the Pacific Northwest. After the show, which was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen, my daughter M. remarked, “In Kindergarten, we read mostly rhyming books, not much mythology, and definitely nothing about Native Americans,” prompting my sisters to buy her a copy of The Girl Who Helped Thunder And Other Native American Folktales during an outing at Barnes & Noble later that afternoon.

As I’ve discussed in Racial Diversity: The Pros and Cons of Subtlety and other posts on this blog, I am a strong proponent of introducing children to diversity through literature (in addition to real life experiences). It looks like my inclusive reading preferences have already rubbed off on my daughter, who has turned out to be more similar to me in personality than she is to anyone else in our family — including her twin. I don’t have to nudge her towards these selections; she demands books that feature diversity.

So, of course, we’ve been reading Native American folktales over the last few days, a story or two at a time, which is all we can accomplish because of the lengthy discussions each story inspires.

The Girl Who Helped Thunder And Other Native American Folktales is a collection of  Native American stories divided by geographic region.*** Some tales are easy for my daughters to process, while others present more challenging themes, including ones that even I have trouble reading in literature (as I discussed last week in Reasons to Avoid a Beloved Classic).

The Girl Who Helped Thunder Thumbnail CoverFor example:

When the stepmother in The Blind Boy and the Loon (Inuit) blinded her stepson with rotten whale blubber, one of my daughters cried.

When the father in Why Owl Lives Away from the People (Wiyot) starved his children, my other daughter gasped, and when he burned his wife’s legs with a stick from the fire, they both screamed, “Why would he do something like that?”

But, as hard as it was to read about these atrocious behaviors, my daughters wouldn’t let me put the book away, no matter how many times I offered to read something else with them. They wanted to know how these stories ended, and I acquiesced because avoidance isn’t a strategy I often take in parenting. For previous posts on where I draw the line on what is appropriate/inappropriate for my children, see How Do You Talk To A Child About The Holocaust? and Julie of the Wolves: An E-Book My Children Won’t Read Until They’re Older.

In this case, it was easier for me to indulge their curiosity because, after reading ahead, I knew that these folktales weren’t graphically violent and that, ultimately, the moral at the heart of each story was exactly in line with what we are teaching them: abuse, neglect, and greed are wrong.

My daughters aren’t too young for those lessons.

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*The main picture is a still from a video of the performance (hence the poor quality of the image–which is just as well because I don’t want the other children to be identifiable). S., in the long-sleeved white shirt, was a raven, and M., in the green shirt, was a crab.

**Clay was another class they particularly enjoyed. Our basement is now a museum of children’s art after nine weeks of art camp!

***The Girl Who Helped Thunder And Other Native American Folktales is a collection of stories retold by James Bruchac and Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Stefano Vitale. It does not contain the tale my daughters performed. We have a xerox copy of How Raven Made The Tide, which I will scan and keep forever! :)

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Reasons To Avoid A Beloved Classic Novel (For Now)

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) is a beloved novel that portrays poverty, class, and gender dynamics through the experiences of Francie Nolan, an 11-year-old girl when the story begins in 1912.

Or so I’ve been told. This is one of those novels that just about everyone I know read—and loved—when they were teenagers. But I never did.

I downloaded the e-book to my Kindle on December 17, 2012, but it just sat there as I grappled with my fear that I wouldn’t like it as much as my friends did. It’s kind of awkward to read a beloved classic for the first time two decades too late in life.

This week, I finally clicked it open, read Anna Quindlen’s Foreward, then abandoned the book.

Why?

These days, with my work seeping into the rest of my life, I’m cautious about how I spend my limited reading time. Quindlen’s eloquent, spoiler-laden Foreward made me think that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn just isn’t the right kind of literary entertainment for me.

The Foreward began with these decouraging words:

“As much as any other beloved book in the canon, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn illustrates the limitations of plot description. In its nearly five hundred pages, nothing much happens.”

She immediately qualified these words as being somewhat “inaccurate,” but the damage was already done. It’s hard to commit to 500 pages of “nothing much.”

With Quindlen’s second paragraph, my motivation to read the novel only continued to drop when she casually mentioned its portrayal of a “pedophile who grabs a little girl in the hall.” That’s not “nothing,” it’s more like “nothing I want to read for leisure.”

There are times when I’m able to read books that address serious and important topics, but this week, when I’m entirely focused on legal work related to sexual violence, I don’t want to go anywhere near this topic in my meager time off.** I guess I only want to read the type of material that Francie’s teacher demanded she write (as Quindlen mentioned in the Foreward): stories about “the beautiful and serene” rather than about “what she really sees around her.”

So, I’ll have to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at some other time.

For now, as I come up with alternative reading material, I’m just going to imagine myself here:*

anguilla

Have a beautiful and serene weekend!

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*Anguilla (my sister took the picture). To see more calming scenes, stop over at Donna’s Garden Walk Garden Talk.

**ETA: However, I have been able to include these themes in my own creative writing (such as in Two Lovely Berries). I use writing as a way of coping with the type of work I do.

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