General Articles

Brandon Sanderson's CALAMITY is almost ready to go!

While I was catching up on what's new with my favorite YA authors this weekend, I found that Brandon Sanderson has the final novel in his RECKONERS series almost in its final form. The first book in the trilogy, STEELHEART, is hands-down one of the best YA titles in recent memory. Corrupt super-heroes, an underground resistance, and a breakneck pace. The follow-up, FIREFIGHT, was another excellent one.

Sanderson is an unbelievable writer, both in terms of quantity AND quality. His stated goal is to publish at least 2 novels a year.

I love how this blog lets you know just how much time he devotes to writing. He's stacking story upon story, edit upon edit, and the pace is unbelievable.

Read the whole thing here.

Why Graphic Novels Are Good For You

Written by Grant Goodman, 2/1/2015 As an English teacher, one of the most frequent requests I hear from parents is, “Can you get my son/daughter to stop reading so many comics and start reading real literature instead?”

Wait.

Can we re-examine that question?

Did you just ask me to tell your child to STOP READING something he or she likes?

That’s a firm “No.”

No, I will not.

There is a generational gap that leads to the misunderstanding of comics and manga and graphic novels. For many of our current parents, comics are those 3 or 4 panel gags that run in the newspaper. Or they’re the classic, simple superhero tales that they grew out of.

The problem is that if you shut kids out of comics/graphic novels/manga, you’re turning them away from one of our best learning tools out there. Comics are the marriage of image and word. They are expressive, they are detailed, and they are pieces of art.

Readers of comics learn to understand perspective, form, shape, and contrast. They can pick up a sense of motion, a skill for reading between the lines (or, in this case, “reading between the panels”). Most importantly, however, I argue that comics are a pure form of imagination boosting, which everyone needs.

I believe that adolescents who struggle with literature can benefit tremendously with comics. Part of what makes a strong reader is the ability to turn words into images. Comics bridge that gap. When you start building a mental library of how characters look when they deliver emotional speech, you can start carrying that over into literature. When you see a sweeping desert landscape that pulls the breath from your lungs, you have a template for when you come across it in a book.

I’m not saying that comics should only be there for struggling readers, though. There are plenty of works out there that rival the complexities of any novel you’ll ever pick up.

I can easily nominate the 27 volumes of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist as one of the greatest fantasy tales of our time: two brothers use alchemy in an attempt to bring their mother back to life. The experiment fails horrifically, forcing the older brother to sacrifice part of his body in order to keep his younger brother alive. The series follows their quest to find a way to restore their bodies, which forces them to examine their world’s military corruption, oppression of religious minorities, and the politics of a civil war.

If you want to learn how to take another look at comics, you should pick up Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It will teach you all about the inner workings of comics and how they’re good for us.

The bottom line is this: if you’re reading comics, you’re doing the right thing.

YA & MLK: Civil Rights and Acceptance

YA & MLK: Civil Rights and Acceptance Written by Grant Goodman, 1/19/2015

Today’s holiday is a moment that is marked by hatred and tragedy, triumph and persistence. The fact that human beings had to fight for their right to be considered equal to other humans is something that never ceases to sicken me. The fact that it still continues to this day is downright depressing.

There is hope, though. The idea of fighting for civil rights finds can be found all over the YA canon. The more we read about this topic, even in fiction, the less likely we are to continue the cycle in real life.

I’ll start with the Harry Potter series. In Harry’s world, there is a hierarchy of blood purity that some still follow. To these wizard, pure humans are, of course, the lowest form, but they still reserve their hatred for wizards who are born to fully-muggle parents. The slur word for them, “mudblood,” is one that cuts deep. While there is no de-facto protest movement in the Harry Potter novels, there is still the matter of these wizards standing up for themselves.

Since Mockingjay Part I is still in theaters, let’s go ahead and examine the Hunger Games trilogy. The citizens of Panem, those who reside in the poorer districts, are all enslaved. They are fenced in, cut off, under curfew, and subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by those in charge. Regardless of skin color, the residents of the lower districts are marginalized, demonized, and broken by the existing social structure of their world.

There are the people of Ishval in Hiromu Arakawa’s manga, Fullmetal Alchemist, whose homeland is taken over by a mighty military. The Smokies in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies are yet another persecuted group. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series has its skaa. And while few people have read it, I have always loved Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Eye of the Heron for its amazing story of a space colony caught up in its own civil rights movement.

The worlds of YA mirror our own in many ways. There are tales of oppression, messages about “the other” and the ways in which they are ostracized, stories of interplanetary love. They all come to the same conclusion: hatred for your fellow man (or alien or cyborg or ghost or robot) is one of the universe’s darkest traits. We will always explore these conflicts, because our own sad history is rife with them. One of the best ways to deal with it—to learn to move forward—is to familiarize yourself with the struggles of others so you can empathize with them. That way, when it’s time to figure out what is right, you’ll know where you need to stand.

VIDEO: Brandon Sanderson Wrote HOW MANY Novels Before He Was Published?????

It's a kind of a scary thought: Brandon Sanderson had written 12 full manuscripts before one of them was accepted and he became a published author. Thankfully, he broke through, and now book 2 of his phenomenal YA series is out.  (And go here to listen to an audiobook sneak-peek of FIREFIGHT.)

Check out this video and learn more about a talented writer who had to push on despite receiving mountains of rejection letters from publishers. The music is pretty cheesy, the words are great.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pLdI8f5BiI&w=560&h=315]

A Reader's Resolution

A Reader’s Resolution Written by Grant Goodman, 12/31/2014

This year I will go on a thousand adventures. I will travel across countries, through space, and all throughout time. I will partake in daring rescues and tragic failures. I will be a part of star-crossed romance and the kinds of deep friendships that we should all be lucky enough to have.

I will discover twenty new sentences that give me chills. I will find a new author whose words give my world more meaning and color.

I will do what I can to deal with the fact that there will always be more books than I have time for.

I will stop losing so many bookmarks.

This year I will turn more pages, tame more dragons, and solve more mysteries.

This is a year for reading.

NaNoWriMo Advice from Scott Westerfeld

11/12/2014 For those of you still keeping up with your daily writing, congratulations. While I've been successful with NaNoWriMo in the past, this year is definitely not my year.

For those of you who have only come across finished drafts of novels, this blog post from YA author Scott Westerfeld will give you a small glimpse into what it's like to write your very first draft. It's an ugly, ugly thing.

When we pick up novels from a store, we're looking at polished, shimmering products. But if you take a look at how much work goes into making that happen...well, it's a long, dark process.

Lemony Snickett on Writing a Novel

Some of you out there are currently wading through National Novel Writing Month. One of my absolute favorite parts of this month is that the NaNoWriMo crew gets authors to write pep talks. A few years ago, they had some guy named John Green. They've had pieces from Neil Gaiman, Brandon Sanderson, and Veronica Roth.

The best one I've ever read, however, came from Lemony Snicket. It's full of biting snark and surprisingly touching wisdom about what books can mean to us.

Even if you're not in the midst of attempting to write 50,000 words this month, I think you'll find it inspirational.

Check it out by clicking here.

The Hero's Journey (Monomyth) in YA

The Hero’s Journey (Monomyth) in YA Written by Grant Goodman, 11/4/2014

The Hero’s Journey (also called Monomyth) is a story pattern that appears again and again in literature and film. You can find it featured prominently in The Odyssey, The Princess Bride, and The Lion King, just to name a few.

While there are many “official” steps, here are the basics of what you need to know:

  1. The hero is forced to leave home to seek out adventure/a new life.
  2. Our hero meets a mentor or receives supernatural aid.
  3. There are several small challenges the hero must conquer.
  4. The hero experiences death and rebirth (not always literally, though).
  5. The power/skills necessary to succeed are finally mastered by the hero.
  6. The key obstacle is overcome or defeated, leaving the hero free to live without fear.

Here’s an example for you, which is a spoilerific romp through a certain wizard story you may have heard of, called HARRY POTTER.

Harry is whisked away to Hogwarts, where he must learn to cope with being a celebrity and the pressures of wizard school. He finds himself mentored by a series of wizards: Hagrid, Dumbledore, Sirius. In book after book, Harry must confront the growing threat of an ever more powerful Lord Voldemort, until eventually he faces the fully revived wizard. Harry experiences death at the hands of Voldemort, though he comes back to life. Harry, having overcome death and becoming the master of the Elder Wand, is able to end Voldemort’s uprising. He has removed the world’s greatest threat and is therefore able to go on living his life.

There are several other prominent titles that follow this model. Suzanne Collins’ GREGOR THE OVERLANDER, Ursula Le Guin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, and Christopher Paolini’s INHERITANCE CYCLE are a few more that come to mind.

The next time you’re making your way through a YA adventure novel, there’s a good chance you’re following one of the most widely used story patterns in human history.

Sci-Fi YA and the Changing Tide

Sci-Fi YA and the Changing Tide Written by Grant Goodman, 10/28/2014

For the entirety of my teens, science-fiction was a term you simply didn’t say. It was social suicide. You were better off saying you were into picture books than sci-fi novels. Those were tough times.

For the record, I said it anyway. I found my tribe eventually and we had plenty of great times discussing ENDER’S GAME and DUNE.

But now, due to the rising trends of YA fiction, sci-fi is getting a new spin. As more teens dive into sci-fi novels like DIVERGENT or Marissa Meyer’s LUNAR CHRONICLES series, they grow up with a strong love of sci-fi.

What’s the appeal, then?

I’ve asked my students and the answers they provide tend to be along these lines:

1) They don’t know what their own futures are going to be like, so they like reading about other futures.

2) They love new technology. (Fairly obvious, right?)

3) They are beginning to understand politics and the fact that these dystopian settings are based on the idea of government gone wrong.

Science-fiction provides them with a strong “what if?” that is sometimes only one step away from the world they inhabit. Sometimes it casts them into deep space, sometimes they get to step sideways into an alternate version of Earth.

No matter what, it makes me incredibly happy to see so many sci-fi titles making it in the mainstream. I’ve always felt that science-fiction shows us that no matter how far we travel (distance or time), we can never escape human nature.

These tales force us to look at who we are and how we treat each other—and the more people who are reading them, the better.

Veronica Roth Writes to Music (and Maybe You Should, Too)

Veronica Roth to Writes to Music (and Maybe You Should, Too) Written by Grant Goodman, 10/11/2014

It has been a little while since Veronica Roth wrote about the music she listens to while she writes. (Check here, here, and here.) Even so, it’s a window into the craft of writing from one of the most influential writers in the YA scene.

Writing is all about channeling emotions and music is perhaps the most pure, direct artistic translation of emotion. One of my all-time favorite passages from Pat Rothfuss’ novels is as follows: Music touches [people’s] hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens." And he nailed it, because if you can find a song that somehow embodies the overall flow of the scene you’re writing, it will lock you in and keep you focused.

So let’s talk about Veronica Roth’s picks, shall we?

She mentions Mumford and Sons’ “Timshel,” a song that is not only hushed and beautiful, but also connected to John Steinbeck’s novel, EAST OF EDEN. That’s a double-literary bonus right there, for super-effective double damage.

She also gives a nod to Mumford’s “White Blank Page,” which swells and churns and honestly ranks among the best build-up songs ever written (according to me, that is.)

The band Now, Now was a part of her writing INSURGENT. I love their album, Threads, and I’ve seen them twice. Their concert performances have been nothing short of fantastic. Roth leans toward “Giants.” If I had to pick a writing song from them, I’d go with “But I Do.”

It’s fun to listen to the songs she listed and then try to pair them with the scenes from her novels.

Do you write while listening to music? Chime in with your top songs in the comments section. We'll trade picks.

The Importance of a Sense of Wonder

The Importance of a Sense of Wonder Written by Grant Goodman, 10/5/2014

“Stuff your eyes with wonder”

-Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Look, I’m not against mainstream fiction. I read a lot of it. My stack of books that I’ve read includes plenty that focus on people in New York, trying to deal with the daily pressures of life. They’re great reads. But they don’t spark up a sense of wonder. Most of the time, they hit me with character loss and disappointment, followed by a brief flash of triumph. That’s the connection.

The YA lit I tend to read still has those emotional moments. In addition, though, it feeds my imagination in a way that fills with me awe.

For comparison: mainstream fiction is like a real-life candy factory, full of loud, metallic machines and conveyor belts. YA genre fiction, however, is Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, stuffed to the brim with wild ideas and impossibilities.

I need places like Hogwarts, with its nearly-headless ghosts and its moving staircases. I need inventions like the anti-gravity tech in Steelheart. I need to know that Tally has access to toothbrush pills in Uglies. I want to see Edward Elrich use his alchemy.

Those are the ideas that exist outside the ordinary. They’re a reminder that we can color outside the lines. They push the boundaries of what we accept and they make us think about whether or not we can make those little pieces of fiction into reality. To me, they’re as necessary as oxygen and music. Without them, everything is gray around the edges.

So what are the YA creations and inventions that you’ve come to love? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Percy Jackson: An Intro to the Odyssey

Percy Jackson: An Intro to the Odyssey Written by Grant Goodman, 9/30/2014

(A big thank you to one of my students, who suggested writing about Riordan’s novels!)

Everyone who's anyone knows that Rick Riordan’s final book in the Heroes of Olympus quintet comes out soon. Riordan’s tales of modern Greek and Roman heroes have been flying off the shelves year after year, making him a mainstay in the YA kingdom. (Fun fact: the first novel, The Lightning Thief, will be turning 10 years old in July.)

In honor of this upcoming release, I thought I’d put an English teacher’s spin on it and connect the dots between some of Riordan’s references to mythology and their more deeply-rooted roles in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. It's yet another reason why YA also appeals to an older audience.

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD.

  1. The Lotus Hotel and Casino

In The Lightning Thief, Percy, Annabeth, and Grover, find themselves trapped inside of the Lotus Hotel and Casino, where time slips by without anyone noticing.

This moment is a reference to, among other tales, Homer’s Odyssey. In Book IX, Odysseus and his men seek refuge from their days at sea and come to the land of the Lotus eaters. The people there do no physical harm to Odysseus and his men, but they offer the men a taste of the lotus. The magical flower is like a drug; those who eat it lose their desire to do anything else except stay and eat more lotus. In the end, Odysseus is forced to retrieve those who have eaten the lotus and he has them tied down on the ship so they can sail away.

  1. Aeolus’ Castle

Leo, Piper, and Jason find themselves trapped by Aeolus in The Lost Hero. The wind deity is bent out of shape because he isn’t officially labeled a god. Yes, he controls the winds, but apparently “Master of Winds” isn’t good enough for him.

The cursed crew of Odysseus visits Aeolus in Book X of The Odyssey. Aeolus subdues the North, South, and East winds by stuffing them into a bag and sealing it. This, he assures them, will provide the men swift and safe passage back to Ithaca. The crew sets sail, finally ready to return to their island.

With home on the horizon, Odysseus takes a nap. His men decide to see if Aeolus’ bag contains silver or gold, unleashing the winds and blowing the ship back to Aeolus’ island. The wind master deems them cursed by the gods and refuses to offer his help anymore.

From there, they sail on, into disaster after disaster.

  1. Calypso, on the island of Ogygia

The nymph Calypso is stuck on the island of Ogygia. In The Battle of the Labyrinth, Percy is washed ashore and Calypso brings him back to health. He breaks her heart when he leaves the island on a raft. (Honestly, I think it is the best scene in all of the books Riordan has written so far. Really sends a tremor through your heart.)

She appears in The Odyssey, playing a very different role. She isn’t nearly as kind. She keeps Odysseus prisoner on her island for seven years. Calypso even offers Odysseus immortality if he stays with her and he turns it down. Eventually, Athena convinces Zeus to allow Odysseus to make his way home to his wife and son. Hermes is sent to visit and he commands Calypso to let Odysseus go. From there, Odysseus makes a raft and begins the final stretch of his long journey home.

Why YA Works for Adults, Part I

Why YA Works for Adults, Part I Written by Grant Goodman, 9/24/2014

You don’t have to hide it anymore. You can come right out and say that you read YA, even though you’re an adult. YA-focused book clubs are popping up in every major US city. Book signings are filled up by post-grads and young couples.

So what led us here?

Part of it is the ongoing nerd revolution. The central tenets of geek culture have seeped into the mainstream. Maybe it’s that the people who loved the stuff as kids are now finding themselves in positions of power and attention. Or maybe that Harry Potter kid broke open a fissure in the collective hearts of humanity and everyone realized that books starring teens can connect to all of us on a very deep level.

Much of the appeal of YA for adults, I’m going to posit, comes from a sense of nostalgia. We’ve had time to recover from the hormone rush and the anger and the senses of loss that run deep. The media we consume at that age stick with us for life. There are studies that have been done and they tie adolescent experience to why we hold so tightly to the music from our teens. It should make perfect sense, then, that a book centered on teenage life will invariably trigger memories of our own lives, the kind that are soaked in intense emotion, that really light up our brains.

This could be for better or for worse. There were moments in Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart that absolutely made me cringe, because David’s social oversights and blunders reminded me so much of my own (you know, despite the fact that he’s busy trying to kill supervillains in a wrecked version of Chicago). And then, of course, there are moments in which you witness a character get something right, and you remember how it felt to finally get something done that even the adults in your life couldn’t accomplish. Read Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave and you’ll get several examples of that. (I’ll leave it vague, no spoilers here.)

This topic, why YA appeals to adults, is one I plan to come back to every now and again. Until then, though, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

What are your thoughts on why YA is taking off among an older readership?

Post #001: What It Means to Be a Reader

Post #1: What It Means to Be a Reader By Grant Goodman, 9/21/2014

You get it. You’re in on the big secret. You know the password.

You have an active imagination. You know how to tune out the noise around you. You’re a page-turner, you have ink on your fingers, your homepage is set to GoodReads.

To be a reader, of course, means everything.

It means that you’re willing to jump into other people’s shoes. You’re okay with exploring a new world. You understand that it’s fine to feel like fiction can surpass reality. You spend so much time surrounded by reality, anyway. So you open up a little door to somewhere else, you test the waters, and when you come back to your own world, you see things a little differently.

Being a reader makes you a magician. You make something out of nothing. You bring life to someone who doesn’t exist. The flick of your eyes across the page is the spark that makes characters run and fly or crash and burn. Without you, nothing happens. Harry stays under the stairs forever. Katniss never leaves District 12. Beatrice Prior never becomes Tris. You make that happen.

The world of a reader is often solitary. You don’t get together with people so you can all read in the same room at the same time. That isn’t really how it works. You spend your time in that worn, comfy chair, or out on the balcony in the sun, that place where the light is just right.

But you have to do it by yourself.

This is not a curse. You learn to become happy with being in your own head. You explore your thoughts. You learn to appreciate silence. Sometimes, you realize, it’s better to step away from the glowing screens and the buzz of traffic and the constant conversation. There’s time for that, too, but you don’t need it as much as you used to.

You, like so many of us, know the value of words, the weight that they can carry. They can melt you down, they can freeze your blood, they can soothe. But words can hurt you, too. They can leave scars, they can break your heart. Maybe you turn those scars into tattoos. Maybe you write down those seven magic words and tape them to your desk. Or maybe you just lock them away and keep them as a treasure for yourself. That’s fine, too.

Whatever the case, you’re a reader. You’re one of us.

So, welcome. This is November Notebook, a place for people like you. You’re going to like it here.

-Grant