Trapped in Lunch Lady Land

Writing

In 2013 CBAY Books (which, I was happy to discover, stands for Children’s Brains Are Yummy Books) held their first writing contest, and I was the first winner in the Middle Grade category. The manuscript I won with clocked in at 15,000 words, but my wonderful editor, Madeline Smoot, suggested it would be a much stronger novel at 30,000 words. Turns out she was right.

Fast forward to 2014, and Trapped In Lunch Lady Land was born. Did my life change? Was I able to quit my job and become a full time author? Nope. But having a published novel was way up there on the bucket list. I had a book signing event at my local Barnes & Noble (no indie bookstores in my neck of the woods, unfortunately), which was a blast.

The very best part of the whole publishing experience, though, was doing school visits. I did a bunch, reading to kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, taking questions, and generally being flabbergasted by just how smart and funny they were. Kindergartners wanted to know what kind of pets I have, and told me in great detail about theirs. By fifth grade they were asking how advances work.

So what’s Trapped In Lunch Lady Land about? Here’s the elevator pitch:

Josh and Patty Anne aren’t exactly the best of friends (ok, they detest each other), but after they both end up trapped somewhere beneath their school in a land made completely of school cafeteria food, they quickly learn they have to work together if they want to survive. With the help of some unusual friends they meet along the way, the two must brave countless dangers unlike anything in the normal world. If they can survive the skybeater, the canisaurs and the tater-tot throwing ladle monsters, Josh and Patty Anne might just make it home alive.

Interested? Know an eight to eleven year old boy or girl who might be interested? You can check it out on Amazon at:

Here I am doing a school visit!

BOOK REVIEW—THE LAST WIDOW BY KARIN SLAUGHTER

Reading

Anyone who reads this blog regularly has probably realized that I read mostly genre stuff, specifically science fiction, fantasy and horror. Once in a while, however, I don’t mind a good, taut thriller. Karin Slaughter’s The Last Widow is part thriller, part police procedural, and an altogether fun, sometimes nerve-wracking read.

The Last Widow concerns a terrorist attack, an off-the-grid white supremacist group, kidnapping, and an undercover government agent. Slaughter does a lot of things really well here. She seems to have a deep knowledge of how law enforcement works on both the local and national level, from city police to government agencies including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the CDC. Everything she details rings true. Grudging cooperation, inter-agency squabbles, heroics and bone-deep weariness, it’s all there.

The terrorists’ plan, particularly given the current state of the world, is relevant and terrifyingly plausible.

One final thing I’d like to mention is pacing. Slaughter does something I found extremely effective, almost cinematic. Bear with me as I digress here. Did you ever notice when watching Goodfellas that in the final quarter of the movie, as Henry Hill’s life unravels, the pacing accelerates, the scenes are shorter, choppier? Slaughter’s chapters in The Last Widow start out long and dense, and then get shorter, punchier, almost breathless, toward the end. It works like gangbusters.

LULU HAS—A BALLAD

Writing

Lulu has a plastic Jesus on the dashboard of her car
she likes to think that maybe he protects her
Lulu sees the eyes of angels when she looks up at the stars
she says that sometimes late at night the statue smiles at her

Lulu has a radio on the nightstand by her bed
she spins the dial, searching through the static
Lulu hears the voices of the saints around her head
she says that if they ever stop it would be so tragic

Lulu had a mother, hung herself in Lulu’s room
promised everlasting joy if she would join her soon
promised that the hand of God would pull her from the tomb
people say that Lulu’s mom was crazy as a loon
now they say the same about Lulu

Lulu has a bible that she carries like a shield
she parries each attack with verse and chapter
Lulu reads aloud from it as she walks across the fields
she says what others think just doesn’t matter

Lulu has a television, the on/off switch is crossed with tape
she says the devil lives behind the screen
Lulu turned it on just once, a very bad mistake
now she sees the devil in her dreams

Lulu had a daddy, used to visit Lulu’s room
Lulu would lay very still and look up at the moon
finally he just up and left, and not a day too soon
people say that Lulu’s dad was crazy as a loon
now they say the same about Lulu

Lulu has a scrapbook filled with clippings from the paper
she says the rapture hides between the lines
Lulu says she doesn’t really care if people hate her
the earthly ones are the only ties that bind

Lulu has a journal where she keeps her secret thoughts
she sits each night and writes ’til long past dark
Lulu keeps it locked up tight, afraid that she’ll get caught
she says she fears the dog that doesn’t bark

Lulu had a boyfriend, never came to Lulu’s room
the time he spent with Lulu was like watching a cartoon
he only ever held her hand, but people just assume
people started saying he must be crazy as a loon
he would never say the same about Lulu

FAVORITE OPENING LINES, PART 3

Reading

Another round of favorite opening lines. Some of these are long, some very short, but all of them not only draw you in and make you want to keep reading, but tell you what kind of book it’s going to be.

THE PRINCESS BRIDE, WILLIAM GOLDMAN:

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

CARRIE, STEPHEN KING:

Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.

THE MARTIAN, ANDY WEIR:

I’m pretty much fucked.

THE HOBBIT, J.R.R. TOLKIEN:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

GOOD OMENS, TERRY PRATCHETT & NEIL GAIMAN:

It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one. The angel of the Eastern Gate put his wings over his head to shield himself from the first drops.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ARTHUR C. CLARKE:

Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.

A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DOUGLAS ADAMS:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS, JOHN CONNELLY

Once upon a time – for that is how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.

THE MAGICIANS, LEV GROSSMAN

Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.

INSIDE-OUT BOY—SPEC SCRIPT

Writing

Do you remember the TV show Inside-Out Boy? It was an excellent piece of claymation that ran on Nickelodeon for a few years in the late 80s/early 90s. Fast forward to a couple of decades ago, and I had an idea for some new stories set in the Inside-Out Boy world. Not content to sit on an idea I liked, I wrote a few spec scripts, and hunted down the production company that had produced the original series. As it turned out, they liked it. We started talking about the possibility, and it was a slim possibility, that we could move forward with the idea. Then…then 9/11 happened, and they were in New York, and that was it. But I still like the idea. Here’s one of those spec scripts.

Inside-Out Boy In:

The Grass Is Always Greener On The Inside-Out

SCENE: Bird’s-eye view of a suburban neighborhood at dusk; kids playing, lawns being mowed. This wholesome vision is shattered by the sound of a—

YOUNG GIRL’S VOICE

Help! Leave me alone, you bullies!

CUT TO: An access alley behind a garage with garbage cans, etc. Two punky looking teenage boys are teasing a cute young girl (Carla). They have taken her bike.

CARLA

Give me back my bike or I’ll tell my dad!

BOY A

Ooooh, I’m really scared! She’s gonna tell her daddy!

BOY B

Not if we put her in a garbage can…come on, Stu, let’s get her…

They approach her menacingly.

CUT TO: Close-up of Carla, looking terrified, as the shadows of the boys fall across her. She trips and falls.

CUT TO: The two boys approaching, from Carla’s P.O.V.

VOICE FROM OUT-OF-FRAME

Hey! Why don’t you dorks pick on someone your own size!

The punks look around puzzled.

BOY A

Who said that?!

VOICE FROM OUT-OF-FRAME

 I did!

Inside-Out Boy leaps down from the garage roof, landing on top of a garbage can. He waves his arms and sticks out his tongue at the boys, making loud noises, exploiting his inside-out-ness. The punks become scared little kids and run away screaming. Inside-Out Boy watches them go.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Hah, that’ll teach ‘em.

I.O.B. turns back toward Carla, and really sees her for the first time.

CUT TO: Close-up of Carla’s face as I.O.B. sees her…she’s a blonde vision, light radiating from her face.

CUT TO: Close-up of I.O.B.’s face with a dumb smile and faraway eyes. He is clearly smitten.

CUT TO: I.O.B. kind of shakes himself, realizes he’s staring. He reaches to help Carla.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Here, let me help you up.

Carla recoils from his touch, tries to hide the look of revulsion that crosses her face but does not succeed. She scrambles to her feet, keeping her distance. This is one girl who does not think I.O.B. is cool.

CARLA

No, no, that’s okay. I’m fine, really.

Carla hurries past him, jumps on her bike. She pedals away, one bent wheel squeaking.

CARLA (OVER HER SHOULDER)

Um, thanks and everything.

CUT TO: Close-up of I.O.B. He realizes what has just happened.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (TO HIMSELF)

Wow, she was scared of me. I, I think I grossed her out!

CUT TO: I.O.B. walking home, slumped and dejected, as indignities are heaped upon him. Dogs and cats follow him, sniffing. A bird lands on his head, begins to peck. An elderly woman carrying a big pie to her neighbor sees him, screams and flips the pie up in the air; naturally it lands on his head.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (HOWLING TO THE HEAVENS)

I’m tired of being inside-out!

A gopher pops his head out of his hole, sees I.O.B., lets out a loud EEEK and dives back into his hole. I.O.B. hangs his head and sighs.

DISOLVE TO: The next day at school, I.O.B. sits in class, still grumbling. His teacher enters with Carla in tow, and I.O.B. perks up immediately.

TEACHER

Class, say hello to your new classmate, Carla Calloway.

CLASS (HAPHAZARDLY)

Hello, Carla…

TEACHER

Carla, why don’t you find yourself a seat.

I.O.B. realizes there is an empty seat next to him. He looks at Carla and smiles hopefully. Carla sees him and ducks her head. She heads for a desk on the opposite side of the room. I.O.B. drops his head on his desk.

DISOLVE TO: I.O.B. eating lunch with his best friends; Darcy, who lives next door, and Thomas, a bit of a nerd who thinks of I.O.B. as his own personal science project. I.O.B. gazes longingly across the cafeteria at Carla.

DARCY (TO THOMAS)

What’s with him?

THOMAS

He’s in love with that new girl, Carla, but she thinks he’s gross!

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Shut up, Thomas!

Darcy looks daggers at Carla. She’s been carrying a quiet torch for I.O.B. for years. She thumps I.O.B. on the head to get his attention.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Huh? Ow! What?!

DARCY

If Blondie over there can’t see what a cool guy you are, even inside-out, then she’s not worth the time of day!

INSIDE-OUT BOY

You’re just saying that ‘cause you’re my friend.

DARCY

Ooooh!

Darcy storms off, upset.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

What’d I say?

THOMAS

Man, you really have a way with the ladies.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Shut up, Thomas!

DISOLVE TO: Later that day, after school. I.O.B. and Thomas sit on the playground swings, talking.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Where’s Darcy?

THOMAS

She went home. She’s still cheesed off at you. You know she kind of likes you, right?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

You’re crazy! Me and Darcy have been friends forever!

THOMAS

Yeah, whatever.

They sit in silence for a moment, I.O.B. deep in thought.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Hey Thomas…I don’t want to be inside-out any more. Can you find a way to change me back?

THOMAS

Are you sure?

INSIDE-OUT BOY (DETERMINED)

Yeah, I’m sure.

THOMAS

Well, I love a challenge. Let’s go to the lab.

DISOLVE TO: Thomas’s room. It’s a nerd’s paradise, with computers, test tubes, Bunsen burners, etc. Thomas is wearing a lab coat, the pocket bristling with pens. I.O.B. looks apprehensive.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Now what?

THOMAS 

(WITH A BIG SMILE ON HIS FACE…

HE’S BEEN WAITING TO DO THIS FOR A LONG TIME)

We have to run some tests.

Collage of scenes, one dissolving into the next, as I.O.B. is subjected to all manner of silly tests while Thomas takes notes. He’s poked and prodded with odd-looking instruments. He’s hung upside-down and spun in circles. He hops on one foot while holding a goldfish bowl in one hand, balancing an umbrella on his nose and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

CUT TO: Thomas pressing the ENTER button on his computer keyboard, while I.O.B. looks on, exhausted.

THOMAS 

Keep your fingers crossed, here it comes.

A sheet of paper slides out of the printer. Thomas picks it up, not letting I.O.B. see it.

THOMAS 

Hmmmm…why didn’t I think of that?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

What? What’s it say?

THOMAS 

You have to swing up over the bar backward.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

You’re kidding…

THOMAS 

Nope.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (WITH CONVICTION)

Let’s do it.

DISOLVE TO: The swing set. I.O.B. takes his seat as Thomas and Darcy look on.

DARCY (STILL MAD) 

I hope you know what you’re doing. What if you turn inside-out again? You’ll end up being a big gooey mess.

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

I’m already a big gooey mess…besides, that’s not going to happen, right, Thomas?

THOMAS 

Um, right. At least, I don’t think so. So, you ready?

INSIDE-OUT BOY (HOLDING ONTO THE CHAINS)

Yep.

Thomas and Darcy get in front of I.O.B. and each grab a side of the swing. They back up, pulling the swing forward as far as they can.

THOMAS 

On three. One, two, threeeeee!

They rush forward, flinging I.O.B. backwards. The swing goes up in a big arc, almost parallel to the ground, before heading back.

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

Almost, keep pushing!

Thomas and Darcy keep pushing, the swing inching higher and higher.

CUT TO: Close-up of I.O.B. as he finally loops over in slow motion, upside down, chains slack. As he comes over the top he begins to transform, turning right–side out. He comes to a bouncing stop, looks down at himself and lets out a loud

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

Yeah! It worked!

Thomas and Darcy join him in cheering.

THOMAS 

I knew it would work! At least, I was pretty sure. Science triumphs again!

DARCY 

So now what? You going go tell your family?

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

Yeah, they’re really gonna be surprised!

DISOLVE TO: Mom and dad hugging I.O.B. in a stranglehold.

MOM 

Oh honey, we love you no matter what. Plus, now I can take the plastic off the furniture.

CUT TO: I.O.B. with his little sister, Shelly. She pokes him experimentally.

SHELLY 

Hmmm. You’re not sticky anymore. I’m gonna miss that.

She looks at him with a frown, then bursts out laughing and hugs him.

SHELLY 

Just kidding!

CUT TO: I.O.B.’s big brother Steve. He looks I.O.B. up and down, then bops him on top of the head and walks away.

STEVE (OVER HIS SHOULDER) 

Inside-out or not, you’re still a dweeb.

I.O.B. sighs, rubbing his head, then smiles.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (A LITTLE SARCASTICALLY)

There’s no place like home…but now there’s a certain blonde girl I have to go see.

DISOLVE TO: I.O.B. in a jacket and tie, a bouquet of flowers in his hand. He’s obviously nervous as all get-out as he walks up the porch steps of a nice house and rings the doorbell. Carla answers the door. She looks at him dismissively through the screen door.

CARLA

Can I help you?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Um, yeah, I mean yes. (HOLDS OUT THE FLOWERS) These are for you.

CARLA

Who are you?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

It’s me, the kid who saved you when those older boys took your bike. I guess I look a little different now. Anyway, I was wondering if you’d like to go to a movie or something.

CARLA

As if. So you’re not inside-out any more, I still don’t owe you anything. You really thought I’d go out with you? Yuck!

Carla slams the door in I.O.B.’s face. I.O.B. slinks away, crushed, and the night just gets worse. He runs into the elderly woman who had the pie before and tries to scare her out of spite. She hits him with her umbrella. A gopher pops up out of his hole and bites him on the ankle. Finally, as he crosses an alley, the two punks from before grab him up, pulling him into the darkness. We hear loud banging sounds, then the punks exit the alley, dusting off their hands, laughing.

CUT TO: I.O.B. in a garbage can, banana peel and miscellaneous trash on his head.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (DEFEATED)

I guess there’s only one thing left to do…

DISOLVE TO: The playground, late at night. I.O.B. peeks up from behind some bushes, scanning the playground. He zips from bush to tree like a ghost, making his way toward the swingset. When he’s sure the coast is clear he gets on the swing.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Here we go again!

I.O.B. begins to swing, higher and higher. As he climbs into the sky, his determined frown is gradually replaced with a smile. Finally, with a triumphant yell, he loops over the top and turns back inside-out. He leaps off the swing, plants his feet and raises his hands into the air.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Inside-Out Boy is back!

DISOLVE TO: The next day in the school cafeteria. I.O.B., Thomas and Darcy are sitting together, I.O.B. inside-out as can be. Thomas is shaking his head.

THOMAS

I just don’t get it. I can’t figure out why you turned back inside-out.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (WITH A SLY SMILE)

It’s a real mystery all right.

DARCY

So what’d your family say?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Oh, you know. Steve bopped me on top of the head, Shelly loves me no matter what, and Mom put the plastic back on the furniture. I guess life is back to normal. So who wants to hit the playground for some kickball?

THOMAS

I’m in. Darcy?

DARCY

You guys go on, I’ll be there in a minute.

Darcy reaches into her pocket and pulls out a big, juicy worm.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Darcy, what’s that for?

DARCY

That Carla girl is looking a little pale. I think she needs more protein in her diet, so I’m gonna add this to her spaghetti.

Darcy and Thomas high-five.

THOMAS

You go girl!

DARCY

No one messes with my boy—best friend. (SHE BLUSHES)

CUT TO: Close-up of I.O.B., a big embarrassed smile on his face.

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

Shut up, Thomas.

THOMAS

I didn’t say anything!

INSIDE-OUT BOY

You were going to…

THE END

THE BALLAD OF TRIXIE DELIGHT

Writing

I never tried my hand at a ballad before, and this may not be the usual subject matter for the form, but it was really fun to write.

they say there’s a corner of heaven reserved

for priests, politicians and barkeeps

we spend our time helping the people we serve

though sometimes their problems run chin deep

I’ve tended this bar for near twenty years

and I’ve seen more than I care to tell

I suppose that I’ve poured out an ocean of beer

and drunk more than my share as well

I’ve heard the confessions of killers and fools

and downed shots with a couple of saints

I’ve had punks strut in who thought they were cool

and watched them leave knowing they ain’t

of all the nights spent with one eye on the till

and one ear with some clown on the make

there’s one magic moment that stays with me still

one memory I can’t seem to shake

a hard rain had pounded the city all evening

and business had been pretty slow

one hand on my coat, I was planning on leaving

when a voice at the door said, don’t go

an old woman entered with slow, measured steps

took a stool at the end of the bar

her gaze when I caught it was none too direct

like the road she had traveled was far

I gave her some time to get settled in

a good bartender knows not to hurry

one good look at her face told me she favored gin

and I could see every bottle she’d buried

I’ve got a small problem, she said in a whisper

I had to lean close just to hear

if you’d pour me a drink I’d be grateful, mister

but I don’t have a penny to spare

the thing is, I’m not one for charity

I can set things right, given the chance

I offer you something of heart stopping rarity

if you stand me that drink, I will dance

I guess my face betrayed my thoughts

and she put me to the test

if you don’t know about it, you shouldn’t scoff

there was a time when they called me the best

the name I was born with is Mary McDevin

but my stage name was Trixie Delight

I gave more than one boy his first glimpse of heaven

and haunted a thousand men’s nights

then she slid off the stool and stood herself tall

walked arrow straight to the jukebox

she punched up one song, leaned back to the wall

and the whole damn place started to rock

she started off slow, just a sway to the beat

like each note was her own private lover

I will swear to this day she was giving off heat

and I thought about diving for cover

she threw off her coat with a flick of one wrist

shimmied out of her dress like a cat

and if someone asked me I’d have to insist

I no longer knew where I was at

I could blame it on the hour, or blame it on the beer

or maybe it was just a trick of the light

but I swear right now on what I hold dear

for that one brief moment she was Trixie Delight

the music faded and she quickly dressed

and an old woman sat down at the bar

I knew in my heart that I’d just seen the best

that I’d been entertained by a star

I poured her a double without saying a thing

and she knocked it right back like a pro

I was thinking about all of the joys this job brings

when Trixie said, it’s time to go

as she opened the door to let herself out

she turned and favored me with a wink

I may never know what that night was about

but I sure as hell know what I think

GUEST BLOG: NOT JUST OLD, DEAD WHITE MEN: ADDING CONTEMPORARY YA LITERATURE TO THE SECONDARY CURRICULUM

Reading

My son, Eric, is a third year high school English teacher. He wrote this as part of his final capstone project in college, just before starting full time student teaching. I think of this as his teaching manifesto. I asked him if I could share this, and I also asked him to write a followup on how it’s going, now that he’s been teaching for a few years.

Not Just Old, Dead White Men: 

Adding Contemporary Young Adult Literature to the Secondary Curriculum

When one thinks of the traditional novels read in high school, many come to mind. From The Scarlet Letter, to The Great Gatsby, to the works of Shakespeare, students across the country are reading texts written before most of their teachers were born. In fact, often before their grandparents were born. While these texts have provided important themes and subject matter, many students have difficulty both comprehending and connecting with these canonical pieces of literature. Because of this, students are not learning to the best of their abilities. They are getting lost and frustrated in the writings of old, dead white men, instead of opening their minds with texts they can identify with. I believe that instead of strictly teaching these canonical texts, one should incorporate young adult fiction into the curriculum. 

Young adult literature looks very different from canonical pieces. Many works of classic literature look very similar, with the exception of writers like Joyce and Pynchon, but those writers are not typically read in high school. Young adult literature today, on the other hand, covers an incredibly varied number of formats, and often traffics in genres like science fiction and fantasy. Some contemporary young adult literature has nothing to do with genre at all, not an alien civilization or dystopia in sight, but the difference is, the story is set in today’s world, with characters the students can relate to. And if the characters are not like them, they are at least their contemporaries. Students can easily identify with the novels, and with characters who are like them, more so than with canonical texts. This leads to students actually reading the assigned books, and learning more. 

When one reads a canonical piece, the formatting is often essentially the same. There will be a narrator telling their story, set in some historical setting. There is nothing really unique about them. For the most part, these classic texts look the same to today’s student readers. This is in sharp contrast to what is currently popular. As an example, take the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, written by Ransom Riggs. The novel is built around vintage photos that both catch the eye and propel the story forward. This helps the student identify the plot and themes. As James Serafini says, “Using storyboards to simultaneously display images from a novel allows readers to focus on the images and design features necessary to construct meanings.” This method of writing works to engage the student with the text. A student connects with this kind of writing more than a canonical piece. Samantha Beatty, an eighth grade teacher at Wellston Middle School, in Wellston, Ohio, teaches this novel. She says, “Miss Peregrine’s is a text that is very popular at this age, and is something that my students really enjoy reading. The students connect with the text and its themes, allowing an excellent learning environment.” Because the students connect with the text so well, learning is not only easier, but it makes it fun, and fun translates to reading more. That is one of the most important facets of adding young adult literature to the curriculum. 

I mentioned that young adult literature looks very different from canonical texts. Books like The Hunger Games trilogy, or the Divergent series, present dystopian worlds that are clearly offshoots of our own. At the time of this writing, six out of the top ten novels on the NY Times Young Adult Bestseller List use dystopias as their settings. This is not just escapist literature. These novels, and many like them, use the dystopian setting to talk about important things like the corruptive threat of power, the role of media in society, the danger of totalitarianism, even religion. All in a palatable way that should be included in the curriculum. Instead of trying to jam something like The Great Gatsby down student’s throats, a book set in a world few of today’s teenagers can identify with (unless those teenagers live in Beverly Hills), including a novel that students can connect with helps them learn better.

Traditionally, guys like reading novels about guys, and many girls like reading novels about other girls. One issue that canonical texts face is that many of them are strictly geared towards the young men in the classroom. Many of these novels are written by men, about men, and for men. Even when the writers are women, the results are often the same. Very few canonical pieces feature a female character that young girls can look up to, and identify with. Novels like The Scarlet Letter and Jane Eyre feature a female lead character whom many consider to be weak; not exactly a role model for today. Without a lead character to identify with, many young girl students lose touch with the novel. However, young adult literature is a place where many young girls can find a character to look up to, to emulate. Hermione, Katniss, Tris, Eleanor; these characters are all powerful young women who make excellent role models for students, male or female. For teenage readers without good role models at home, they may turn to fiction to find their heroes. This is almost impossible to find in canonical pieces, so incorporating young adult literature into the curriculum fills an important role. 

Why should one include young adult literature into the curriculum? Well, at one Chicago high school, “Student’s don’t audibly groan when they whip out their books at the start of English class” (Eldeib). Many students have trouble connecting to canonical texts, either because of the language it is written in, or the content. Young adult literature can change all of that, as many of the themes are the same as canonical texts.  Young adult literature “Can be just as complex as classic canon, but can be more accessible and relatable” (Connors). This is an important point made by Connors, as it shows that young adult literature should be fully encompassed inside the realm of traditional texts. It is important that teachers instill upon their students that reading is important. Some believe that “The THAT of teenagers reading is more important than the WHAT” (Gibbons). In this day and age, with computers and iPhones and the internet, with videogames ever more popular, literacy is something that slips through the cracks sometimes. Young adult literature can help increase literacy. Instead of high school students just reading The Scarlet Letter, full of purple prose, moralizing, and what people today would call slut shaming, you can pair it with Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth about Alice. This novel covers the same themes as The Scarlet Letter, but in a much more accessible way. Reading a young adult literature take on a canonical piece, specifically pairing them together, gets students interested and able to identify with both novels. 

Traditionally, resources such as SparkNotes, CliffsNotes, and No-Fear Shakespeare have been the bane of the teacher’s existence. These resources allow students to take the easy way out, and not actually read the texts that are assigned. They just read the shortened version, try to pass the quiz or test, crank out a paper, and forget about it completely. One of the best parts of teaching a contemporary young adult novel is that often a SparkNotes has not been created for it yet. As Connors says, “…Used to promote close reading, which is considered essential for standardized tests”. Because the students do not have anywhere to go for answers but the text, they will be forced, at first through necessity but later through their own wanting, to closely examine the text. Students will have “discussions… [that] are an essential part of what happens within our classrooms nearly every day” (Roberts). Having full class, or small group discussions about the text opens students’ minds to what others think, and makes them really explore the text on their own accord. Using young adult literature truly opens new doors to students. 

Some feel that the current Common Core Exemplar Novels are dated. In fact, a survey done by S. Wolk, as quoted by Rybakova, says that, “Of the top ten books read in secondary schools nationwide, Shakespearian plays make up 30%, and of the top texts, one was written by a White woman; all other texts were written by White males. The most recent book that students read out of the canon is To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960”. It has been 56 years since the latest novel was added to the canon. The world has changed by leaps and bounds in that time, and yet, the literature students read in school hasn’t. That is an issue; this is why young adult literature should be supplementing these texts. How are students expected to identify with characters and events that were written decades before they were born? The literature taught in classrooms needs to change with the students, not be held rigidly in place. A changing of the guard needs to happen, at least partly. 

I am not saying that canonical pieces should be completely replaced, quite the opposite in fact. Young adult literature should be taught in conjunction with canonical texts. Many canonical pieces are part of the Common Core Exemplar lists, because of their importance as pieces of literature, and their importance to society. However, many young adult texts cover the same themes, in a more modern way that is relatable to teenagers. Look at The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Catcher is a classic novel, read in junior English classes across the country. Its main theme, of the struggle of growing up, and the loss of innocence, is still extremely applicable to students everywhere. However, it was written in 1951, when the world was very different than it is today. Holden Caulfield’s big loss of innocence in the novel is seeing the F-word written on a wall. However, in this day and age, that word is regularly said even in elementary school playgrounds across the country. The standards are different now than when Catcher was written. For those students who have trouble identifying with Holden Caulfield, there is a very suitable companion novel. The perfect novel to pair with The Catcher in the Rye is Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It takes the very same themes of growing up and the loss of innocence, but makes it more relevant for students. These novels are perfect to pair together, and can be used for close reading, and comparative essays. Pairing these two texts is an excellent way of blending the canon with the new.   

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most famous novels of all time, has themes that transcend time, and is still exceedingly relevant today. Racism is sadly alive and well; this is one novel that has aged well. But even To Kill a Mockingbird has a contemporary pairing. Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, is about a young African-American teenager on trial for felony murder. The novel focuses on racism in modern day New York. Monster is something that students can really relate to, as the main character is a teenager, instead of a young girl, like Scout. This pairing does an excellent job of combining the canon with the new, and is something that helps students learn. 

Another pairing that should be done is the classic 1984, by George Orwell, with the newer Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. The conversation about government surveillance is currently at a fever pitch, with the San Bernardino shooter’s phone unlocking case dominating headlines. 1984 has never been more relevant. At the same time, Little Brother encompasses all that 1984 does, but it does so on the bleeding edge of technology, using words and ideas teenagers live with every day. Using both of these novels, in conjunction with current informative and non-fiction news articles, would make for an excellent unit that once again blends the canon with young adult literature, while keeping it relevant and interesting for students.

Chadwick and Grassie recommend first picking a theme, such as civil disobedience, and then finding both a canonical text and a contemporary piece to accompany it. In the case of civil disobedience, a classic work is Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which is a common text to read. However, instead of just reading that, one could accompany it with any of Cesar Chavez’s speeches. Chavez also offers an ethnic approach. Additionally, one could use any number of speeches from the Black Lives Matter movement, to give civil disobedience even more of a current twist. 

As has been said before, the canon should not be replaced; only supplemented. While some students really do enjoy the classics, many others have a difficult time getting into these novels. Fisher outlines several techniques that are very useful in teaching these difficult canon texts. The first is that modeling is a fantastic technique to help students learn. 

Students need to hear their teachers thinking aloud about complex texts. These events should provide them an opportunity to witness how another person works to understand the text. Importantly, teachers have to understand what made the text complex if they are going to effectively model aspects of text complexity. For example, if the sentence structure contributed to the complexity, then the teacher needs to model how she works to make sense of those sentences.

By modeling and using think aloud, students observe the proper way to dig into a difficult text. This method is extremely helpful for those students who are visual/auditory learners. Modeling is an excellent way to help students with difficult texts. Another technique is annotating. Fisher says that by color-coding as one underlines or circling words and phrases one doesn’t understand, or which appear to be key points, is very helpful (Fisher). A combination of modeling and annotating is one of the best ways to help students attack a text, and are great methods to use when using a difficult text. 

Young adult literature is not always accepted in every classroom. In fact, some believe that young adult literature has absolutely no place in the English classroom. Gibbons says that “… young adult literature lacks sophistication and literary merit. Teachers in our study indicated that YAL does not have the qualities of canonical texts, and, therefore, will not help students to meet the same curricular objectives”. However, young adult literature can have incredibly complex themes that more than hold up to scrutiny, and are more than able to add value to the curriculum. If one were to look at a novel like The Hunger Games, one could dismiss it immediately as young adult escapism that adds nothing to the conversation. However, on closer examination, strong themes like the power of sacrifice, the importance of standing up for what one believes in, and even civil disobedience in the face of a corrupt government are evident. I think even Thoreau would find something of value in Katniss’ struggle. This contemporary novel has very complex themes that more than hold up under a microscope. Young adult literature has a lot of value in the modern day English Language Arts classroom. 

Young adult literature has a lot of value in the classroom, if only teachers are willing to work with it. I recognize this would go against the grain in many school districts, and I do not think it could happen all at once. There are definitely challenges involved. For instance, when considering book pairings, one such pairing I thought of brought up something that should be briefly discussed. Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks with Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Both are heartbreaking and harrowing looks at drug addiction. But Cruddy, while one of the most deeply moving novels I have ever read, is also unsparing in its depiction of drug use, sex and violence. Books like this, and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and even His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman because of the treatment of organized religion, would be wonderful to teach, but could also lead to censorship challenges. In my view, the benefits would be more than worth the risk, but I recognize that this is one more thing a teacher must consider.

Baby steps may be necessary. I look forward to taking those baby steps when I become a teacher, and eventually giant steps, because I believe strongly that this is the best way forward to promote literacy and make fiction relevant to kids today. It makes many themes and ideas accessible to students, and for some it can instill a lifelong love of reading. While the canon has become that for a reason, adding young adult literature to it, not replacing it, is the key to an incredible, and incredibly relevant, ILA curriculum. 

Not Just Old, Dead, White Men: Revisited 

I wrote the above essay when I was a starry eyed, completely inexperienced 22 year old potential teacher, completing one of the last classes before I student-taught. In the five years since then, I’ve taught at two very different schools, and thought a lot about my ideals as a teacher, specifically relating to literature. 

Let’s be honest here: Many English teachers get into the profession because they have both a love of literature, and at the very minimum, a desire to work with high schoolers every day, and help them learn and grow for the future. Graduating college, I knew that I was going to struggle to reach at least some kids with literature, kids who had never picked up a book willingly in their lives. Sadly, that was a takeaway from student teaching. My hope was that teaching more contemporary literature would help these kids embrace reading. 

The first school I taught at, fresh out of college, was different than most. It was a boarding school for kids with emotional or behavioral disorders. Each of these students, while mostly of above average intelligence, all had issues that prohibited them from learning well at a traditional school. At this school, educationally, I could teach literally whatever I wanted. I was lucky enough, in my time there, to teach both a science fiction literature class, and a horror in literature and film class, two passions of mine. I was given the freedom to adjust my curriculum as I saw fit, and because of this, most of my students were highly engaged readers. This led to many in depth discussions and analyses during class, and ultimately led to them better understanding the meaning behind the content, the reasons why. 

I also taught traditional 12th grade English during my time there, but in that case I had to follow the lead of my co-teacher. My co-teacher was using a very traditional curriculum, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, my students seemed a little lost until we were able to make connections to their world, to build bridges between the novels we read and their lives. Students today almost demand more current curriculum, just to engage them. Something I’ve found to be true so far in my few short years of teaching, is that the more students trust you, and enjoy the content you bring to them, the easier it is to get them to listen. However, not all, or even many, schools allow a teacher to teach whatever they please. 

My current school has a very interesting background that affects some of my curriculum. It’s a relatively new school that has only been operating for about nine years. It was originally started by families who came from a biblical cult that has since ceased operation. This means that some topics, even as straightforward as evolution, really anything “slightly controversial” (I once got a small talking to for showing a documentary on Auschwitz while reading Night), are almost completely off limits. For example, I originally wanted to teach The Handmaid’s Tale, which I consider a brilliant work of fiction, as well as a novel that is easily relatable to modern society. That did not go over well. Additionally, my girlfriend, who also teaches at the same school, wanted to teach Monster, which is commonly read in ninth grade. That was also denied, for being too real.  For my ninth and tenth grade classes, I am required to stick to the essentials. Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and the like. I try my best to connect these texts to the modern world for my students, but it isn’t always effective. I have a little more freedom with my upper grades, and I can teach just about whatever I want in AP Lit, but it can be a struggle. 

This year, after literal begging from my tenth graders, I convinced my principal to allow me to teach something more modern. We read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, as a companion piece to 1984. In short, I was given the chance to test out my college ideals. This unit was done to great success, as the students had a very easy time identifying with the novel, the themes, the characters, everything. It led to some incredible conversations in class. I was lucky I was able to do something that could really show my students off. 

Looking back on everything, I still have a very long way to go to really implement what I want to do. I know it depends on the administration, on the location of the school, and so many other things. I want to stress that in many ways this is a wonderful school to work for. Their academic standards are rigorous, and the students post some of the highest test scores in the state. My students in particular are doing very well. What really matters in this day and age is to get students engaged. And so far, in my very early teaching career, teaching literature that is relevant to the students is one of the easier ways to accomplish it.

POEM—TRIPTYCH: ARMAGEDDON

Writing

1.

standing on the broken summit of the hilltop

surrounded by his disciples

the mad prophet rants

feet planted in hellfire

head spinning in a fever dream

hecklers come to laugh at the crazy-eyed fool

in the death-dusted robe and the halo of pity

who is overstepping set bounds

scorn for a man who does not know the limits

the sky shatters

opens great cracks and rends in the clouds

that slowly reveal the night sky

disciples chant at the insane stars

the hecklers inch back from the frenzy

the mad prophet opens his eyes

hear me

he screams at a world

that for him is coming apart at the seams

hear me

he shouts at the lost sheep who cower about him

i am god!

a tear opens in the sky

allows passage for a searing bolt of lightning

a moment later an acrid stench and a rumbling echo

the crowd slowly disperses

no praise for wind-blown, smoldering ash

2.

now there are more

and the light in their eyes is a secret shade of madness

the hecklers scoff from hidden places

hesitant

not sure if the limits matter any more

afraid that the boundaries have been forgotten

in place of the death-dusted robe

a legion of uniforms

gold buttons and blood-stained medals

the halo of pity has been thrown to the wolves

and the odds have been evened

thousands of turrets

and shafts and gleaming barrels

that catch and splinter the sunlight

banks and rows and bunkers and stockpiles

all pointed bristling at the sky

that say

more eloquently than words

we are god!

fingers poised over switches

punch down in savage haste

all the sounds of destruction fill the air

the machineries of war clash

tangible grinding against intangible

the oceans erupt in their rocky basins

the hot lands shake apart

the walls of the world tumble down

the walls of heaven fall away

and nothing left in either place

3.

a cockroach struggles up

through ash and rubble

and decaying layers of the past

it breaks through to the surface

stretches to full height against the pale red sky

looks about with slow comprehension

says in a small brittle voice

i am god?

there are none left to refute it

BOOK REVIEW—WHEN WE WERE MAGIC BY SARAH GAILEY

Reading

I’m not big on long play-by-plays when it comes to book reviews. For myself, I prefer being surprised by the twists and turns a novel takes in getting from front cover to back cover. So this is all you’re going to get in terms of plot: When We Were Magic revolves around six friends who all share the ability to do magic, and one boy who is dead, accidentally, at the hands of one of those friends.

The other thing you need to know—this novel just may be my favorite read of the year, and it’s been a pretty good year so far. It’s being marketed as YA, and while it’s true that nearly all the characters are teenagers, I would recommend it to anyone who reads genre fiction. This is the fifth book by Sarah Gailey I’ve read, and each one has impressed me. Their world-building is well thought out, exactingly rendered, and intriguing. When each book ends, I find myself wanting to go back to that world again, immediately. Gailey creates fully rounded, wonderfully quirky characters, each with distinctive personalities. They do not truck with stereotypes. Their treatment of gender is a masterclass in sensitivity and inclusivity.

Gailey does all of those things in this novel, maybe even better than in their previous books. Two things I especially want to call out for special mention—their treatment of magic, and of friendship.

Magic, as presented here, is truly awe-inspiring. Each friend can do general magic, and also has a special talent unique to them. When they cast spells together, Gailey’s descriptions of cooperative magic, the way they work together, twining their talents, is quite simply beautiful. The other thing is, these girls are still learning about what they’re capable of. They’re not wizened, powerful wizards, bored with their immense powers. They are discovering their limits, or lack there of, and experience both wonder and fear as a consequence. Through their eyes we, as readers, get to experience that wonder and fear as well. So good!

If magic is one pillar this novel rests upon, then friendship is the other. These six friends have complicated, sometimes fraught relationships that feel real and lived-in. There is love, and lust, and jealousy, and the supreme joy of knowing that no matter what happens, this circle of friends will have your back. Gailey pulls this off with downright giddy assurance.

I finished When We Were Magic late last night, and have already recommended it to half a dozen friends and family members. This one is special.

NOT A BOOK REVIEW—HAMILTON AND SIX

Reading

As you may have noticed by now, I blog about writing, drawing and books. That’s it, pretty much…at least until now.

I spent this past weekend in New York City with my family, and we saw two shows—Hamilton and Six. After giving it some thought, though, I think this post is actually right at home here. The thing is, both of these shows are, for want of a better word, literary. Let me explain.

Hamilton has been around for long enough, and earned enough accolades, that even if you haven’t seen it, you probably have a general feel for what it is and what it’s about. Yes, it’s about Alexander Hamilton. But to me, most importantly, it’s about the power of words. The point is stressed, over and over again, that Hamilton both read and wrote obsessively. As one song says explicitly, Hamilton writes like he’s running out of time.

Not surprisingly for a show about the power of words, about the ability of language itself to inspire, ignite and rabble-rouse, Hamilton itself is drunk and besotted with words. The songs, many of them rapped, are dense with word-play, with rhymes inside of rhymes inside of rhymes. Lin Manuel Miranda is above all else a writer in every sense. This show must have more words per minute than any other show in Broadway history, and every word matters. Miranda has accomplished something rare and special here. I was going to say something really cheesy here, like he has not thrown away his shot, but that would be…well, I guess I just said it. Sorry.

Six is not nearly as well known. It started out in London, had a run in Chicago, and has only been on Broadway for a few weeks. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s how I describe it: Imagine if the six wives of Henry the Eighth were reincarnated as the Spice Girls and told their collective history, from their point of view, in song. Rather than rap, the songs are exuberant eighties pop, but they share similar DNA with the songs in Hamilton in that they’re clever, filled with word-play, and share a message of empowerment that’s sorely needed right now.

One other thing. Based on the crowd reaction, this show is going to be huge! I’m talking Beatlemania level excitement, which it well deserves.

BOOK REVIEW—LOCK IN BY JOHN SCALZI

Reading

John Scalzi has become one of my most reliably favorite authors, thanks predominantly to the Old Man’s War series of novels. They are military space opera in the best sense, with big world building, characters you come to truly care about, and exciting battle scenes. These novels are worthy successors to Joe Haldeman’s Forever War (one of my favorite novels ever) and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (minus Heinlein’s troublesome politics and misogyny).

Lock In is a different animal completely, but I really enjoyed it. Published in 2014, it’s set in the aftermath of a global pandemic, which is a little eerie given current circumstances. Lock In is a police procedural built around a meticulously rendered near future science fiction setting. Scalzi excels at this kind of world building, with absolutely believable, and absolutely terrifying, science that is complex yet easy to understand. Given everything I’ve read by Scalzi, I’m not surprised that the science fictional aspects of the story are riveting. What makes Lock In such a pleasure to read is that the murder mystery and subsequent investigation at the heart of the story is equally satisfying.

If you’re a fan of hard science fiction, police procedurals, or both, give Lock In a try.

SHORT STORY—”CLOSING FOR THE NIGHT”

Writing

I’m really proud of this short story. It first appeared in a middle-grade anthology titled Side Show 2: Tales of the Big Top and the Bizarre.

CLOSING FOR THE NIGHT

 Darkness crept up on the carnival like an old tom, slow and easy. A sign hung over the entrance gate: JOJO’S ALL-MECHANICAL CARNIVAL. The sign hung sideways, a confusion of peeled paint and rain-warped wood, the colors washed out by the passing years.

Gent permitted himself a faint metallic sigh as he rose to his feet. He let the rocking chair fall back and settle itself. Another night, another closing. Knee joints squeaking, Gent walked down the three wooden steps to the parade grounds. It had rained earlier in the day, and the ground was still muddy. Water splashed up to soak the edge of his tattered cape, and brown-spotted his tarnished brass legs. 

The small clapboard house that was Gent’s home sat in the shadow of the Ferris wheel. He pulled back on the switch, and the big ride ground to a halt. Lights, the ones that still worked, blinked out one by one along the wheel, dropping it into silhouette. 

Gent made his way from ride to ride, shutting them down. At the merry-go-round he had only to turn off the music. The ride had long-since ceased to turn. The tape was worn, and the tinny melody ground out slowly, in fits and stops. Gent let it play for a while as he wandered through the patterned labyrinth of his memory, where laughing knights rode to battle on their gaily painted steeds, and the music rang out to announce their coming.

So many memories. Gent had been the caretaker of the carnival in its heyday. He had strolled through the crowd, joking with the men, complimenting the women. His pockets were always filled with candy for the children. Gent’s sculpted ivory handlebar mustache curled to pinwheels at the ends. His ivory hair cascaded to his shoulders like the froth of a mountain stream. His white top hat was always tipped in greeting.

Gent shook himself, alarmed to hear a loose rattling sound. Enough. He had a job to do. 

He stopped the last ride, then crossed to the long, low sideshow building. The crude paintings on the outside had worn away, leaving only the barest outlines of the spider girl, the lobster man, the bearded lady, the alligator boy, the many others who had steadily pulled in the marks. 

Jojo had at first tried mechanical sideshow attractions, but it had not worked out. People came to a sideshow to be repulsed and shocked. Mechanical attractions could not do that. So he brought in human performers, the best, pulling them out of retirement in a celebration of deformity. The customers did not seem to mind that this one aspect of the carnival was not mechanical, and Jojo saw no reason to change the sign.

Open resentment existed between the humans and the droids, at least at first, but year by year their relationship mellowed. Gent felt true sadness when they left. They were all gone now, left with the last wave of colonists, gone to the stars.

Gent entered the sideshow. He walked down the row of parted, threadbare curtains to a small booth at the end. The only one who had not left—a two-headed baby floating in a large jar of formaldehyde. Its limbs had atrophied, skin wrinkling back from bone. Four eyes glistened like milky pearls. It stared into the darkness, lips pursed in identical frowns.

Gent had put off giving the baby a proper burial. It was his last, pitiful link with humans.

The slow, mournful wail of a harmonica drifted in on the night breeze. Gent left the sideshow behind and headed for the midway. This was the worst part of closing for the night. His fellow droids, the ones still operating, were all too human in their suffering.

Gent followed the sound of the harmonica to behind the first trailer. Kentucky’s brass skin had been inlaid with polished teak. Now the teak was discolored, the brass spotted, but a black felt derby still perched on his head.

Kentucky tipped his derby as Gent came into view. He dropped the harmonica into his lap. “Good sir, would you sit for a story? A bit of excitement to color this drab evening?” Gent heard a note of pleading in his voice.

Kentucky was a storyteller. It had worked fine in the old days. People would wander around back of the trailer, pulled in by the haunting sound of the harmonica. When enough had gathered, Kentucky would begin.  He knew a thousand stories. Tall tales and breathtaking adventures, stories to quicken the pulse and touch the heart. Pirates and ghosts, fair maidens and fire-breathing dragons, dastardly villains and heroic children.

And if the crowd thus gathered was just right for the pickpocket’s trade, it was a fair price paid for the entertainment given.

“Not tonight, Kentucky. Tomorrow. Right now, it’s time to shut down.”

Kentucky grabbed Gent’s arm, held tight. “Please, Gent. I’m getting tired of telling myself the same old stories every day. I need to look in someone’s face and see them smiling, or crying, or anything! The back of this trailer ain’t much of an audience.”

“Yeah, Kentucky, I know. And you’ll have an audience, just wait, they’ll be back. But right now it’s time to shut down.” Gent slid his hand to the back of Kentucky’s neck and eased down the switch. Kentucky drooped forward. The brightness in his eyes died and his arms dropped into his lap. Gent curled the fingers of one hand around the harmonica.

Gent never got used to the wide, desolate midway. Without a laughing throng of people, it was just sad. All that’s missing are tumbleweeds, he thought. 

The gaming droids had long ago rusted away. They were buried in the plot of swampy land beyond the row of trailers. They had never been more than simple machines. Jojo knew that no droid, no matter how complex, could top a human hawker. But the sign said ALL-MECHANICAL, and except for the sideshow it was so.

The gaming droids had squatted on casters and shouted, “Try your luck!” in a hundred different voices as they proffered darts and balls, rings and hoops. When the people left for good, they rolled into corners and shut down. Perhaps, Gent thought, they were the lucky ones.

Most of the trailers along the midway were tightly shut, the heavy corrugated shades pulled down and welded in place. Gent made his way past them, to the lair of Stupendo the Great.

Stupendo sat back in shadow, his cape billowing, his high top hat tilted at a jaunty angle. Stupendo had been a marvel in his day. His golden hands flashed to and fro, creating illusion after illusion with dizzying speed. His polished obsidian eyebrows were always raised, as if in surprise at his own mastery. Now when Stupendo moved into the light, Gent saw that the top hat was brimless, the cape a rag. His left eyebrow had broken off. And scrambled circuits, besides.

Stupendo fanned an incomplete deck of tattered playing cards before Gent. “Pick a card, any card at all.” Gent smiled as he took a card. The three of hearts. Stupendo tapped the deck with his magic wand. “Ah ha!” he shouted triumphantly. “Your card is…the queen of spades!”

Gent smiled again as he slipped the card back into the middle of the deck. “Right again, as always. But now it’s time to shut down.” Stupendo chuckled to himself as Gent flipped the switch.

Gent made a wide detour around the geek pit. When the geek had ceased to function, they had left the body there, unable to lift it from the pit. It lay there now, overgrown with fern and ivy, surrounded by the bones and severed skulls of chickens and rats.

The geek had been a prime draw. Built with its software purposely corrupt, it was a wild thing, truly dangerous, and the deep pit with its close-set bars across the top was a necessary precaution. Its iron skin bristled with spiky hair. Its body was corded with muscle, arms long and snarled. It walked with the sideways gait of an ape. Its eyes burned with a red, hateful fire.

To Gent had fallen the task of running the geek show. Four times a day he stood on the bars over the center of the pit and gave his spiel. Then, averting his gaze, he dropped in a live chicken, or a sleek black rat. The geek would fall on the animal with a guttural roar. Grasping the animal at the neck with steel teeth, it would shake its head back and forth in a frenzy until head parted from neck in a bloody shower. Foam running down its chin, the geek would proudly display the headless, jerking body. Men screamed and women fainted, but they kept coming back for more.

Gent was dragged back to the present by a shrill, cackling laugh. Madame Blatsky, the only other droid still living, and she was raising a ruckus.

By the time Gent reached her trailer, Madame Blatsky had quieted down, though her eyes still sparkled, and her carved mahogany cheeks seemed flushed if that were possible. Madame Blatsky reclined in a womb of Turkish rugs, the colors now muddled and indistinct. The faded sign above her read, Madame Blatsky, Palms Read, Fortunes Told, Prophesies Given.

Before Gent could say a word, Madame Blatsky began to talk, and the words poured out like thin wine from a goblet. “I saw a vision! They’re coming back, the people are coming back, they’re coming in their great silver ships, and they’ll reward us for waiting. They shall bedeck us in riches, in fine silks and spun gold, they’ll encrust our bodies with jewels and precious metals, and they’ll carry us in splendor…”

Gent turned her off. It was always the same. Each day she shut down her senses and entered a trance. At twilight she woke with a yell, convinced she’d had a vision. Madame Blatsky had begun to believe in herself. At least she still had some faith, some hope. 

Gent made his way slowly back to his house. Tonight had been a bad one. They were all nearing the edge, and it was only a matter of time before they slipped over. Perhaps they had been built too well. Loneliness, Gent thought, is a curse that man could not have wished upon us.

Gent looked up as a tendril of cloud snaked across the moon, sending a shadow racing along the ground toward the merry-go-round. He closed his eyes. For a brief moment it had looked just like a small child running to catch the ride before it began.

SHORT STORY—”BAGGED”

Writing

This story was first published in an anthology titled Nasty Snips, a collection of short horror. This one is indeed short, clocking in at a little over 500 words.

BAGGED

It was the witch’s fault.

There were other contributing factors. Paul’s friends had convinced him that a new club in the Industrial Flats was the place to be for a steamy summer night costume party. They had goaded him into wearing the wool Sherlock Holmes costume that was now causing him to sweat and itch uncontrollably. Yes, his friends were partly to blame. And alcohol had been involved; enough said about that. 

It was the sight of the witch across a dance floor crowded with trendy, costumed partiers, however, that had caused his present predicament. He had caught just a glimpse of her; alabaster skin, raven black hair that refracted the spinning lights like a prism, the flash of a slim yet curvy body between the folds of her black satin cape. Beneath the cape a Moebius strip of leather, lace and chrome that revealed more than it concealed. Her boots were leather, intricately laced; wickedly high heels that pulled the sleek muscles in her calves taut. She held a mysteriously oversized black leather purse protectively against her body.

The witch was dancing by herself, spinning in slow, looping circles. Her body seemed to catch and hold the music, like each note was her own private lover. Paul watched her with an attraction that bordered on physical need; he felt like a small planet in orbit around a novaed sun. Their eyes caught just once. She held his gaze with eyes the color of anthracite, until he had to look away, dizzy.

When she left the club Paul followed, helpless.

He was lost. Paul had no idea how long he had been following the witch. It was as if he was hypnotized by her impossible beauty, a moth drawn to her black flame. He vaguely remembered scrambling up and over a concrete bridge abutment, scraping his hands raw on the rough edge. He had crossed a railroad trestle above water mossy green in the moonlight, making his frightened way in the dark from one precarious foothold to the next. There was a long-deserted factory, rusted scrap metal piled into angular mountains. The witch moved with fluid grace, always too far ahead to catch, yet always in sight. At some point, they went underground.

The witch stopped. Paul stepped into a cavernous room where old fluorescent lights sputtered fitfully, sending hard-edged shadows careening across the space. Shapes moved in the darkness all around him. As they staggered into the spastic light, the shapes became people, dozens of them, dressed in rags and cast-offs. They carried bags or pushed squeaky shopping carts filled with bags and trash. They’re just bag people, Paul thought, and started to laugh. He had been spooked there for a minute. 

The first rock caught him by surprise. He was on the ground before he realized what had happened, blood running into his eyes. They advanced methodically, stoning him with surprising precision. When they stopped, the witch was standing in front of him, smiling. She set her bag down next to him with great care. Something moved inside it.

The last thing Paul saw before his connective tissue began to dissolve was the creature that oozed from the bag. It wrapped its many arms around his body, releasing a fluid that burned like napalm.

When Paul’s body was suitably prepared, the witch’s master laid eggs in the flesh jumble. The bag people danced long into the night, in celebration of the birth to come.

BOOK REVIEW—GIDEON THE NINTH BY TAMSYN MUIR

Reading

Honestly, the cover blurb from Charles Stross is a perfect distillation of Gideon the Ninth: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” There’s more of course, so much more, but one of the many pleasures of reading this gonzo masterpiece is discovering for yourself what happens, so I’m going to leave it at that, except to reiterate—skeletons! So many skeletons, so many bones, so much bone and blood magic. Yes, I said magic, but this is most definitely a science fiction novel, with rigorous scientific world building.

Since I’m leaving the delights of the story for you to discover, what I want to talk about here is voice, that mysterious thing that makes a writer sound like no other. Holy shitballs, Tamsyn Muir has a voice unlike any author I have ever read. Reading this novel is like riding a roller coaster without being strapped in, part terrifying funhouse, part fever dream, all startlingly original. Muir writes sword fights (Did I mention there are sword fights? There are sword fights!) with thrilling precision. Her action scenes are heart-stopping.

There are something like twenty characters roaming the crumbling halls of Canaan House, the novel’s setting, and not a stock cliche in the bunch. Each of them are fully realized people, with unique personalities, styles, talents, and many, many secrets. Another thing—our two main characters, Gideon and Harrow, are still teenagers, and despite having formidable powers and skills, they are still recognizably teenagers. They are snarky. They develop crushes, even under the most dangerous circumstances.

I have to mention the dialogue. It is sharp-tongued and profane, and often feels utterly modern. Muir is walking a tightrope without a net, and it shouldn’t work at all, it really shouldn’t, but damn, it works beautifully. I found myself reading the dialogue out loud, a big smile on my face.

This is Muir’s first novel, and the first fiction I’ve read by her. I can’t wait to read more. Happily, Gideon the Ninth is the first novel in a trilogy, and book two, Harrow the Ninth, is coming out this year.

One final note. The ending of this book broke me in ways I haven’t completely processed yet.

FAVORITE OPENING LINES, PART 2

Reading

More of my favorite opening lines. I had fun with this last time, so I’m coming back for more. I like some of these for the language, some for the way they draw you immediately into the story, some because they tell you so much, and some because they tell you nothing at all, but make you want to know more.

NEUROMANCER, WILLIAM GIBSON:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

(I love this, but weirdly for what was, when written, bleeding edge cyberpunk, this hasn’t aged well since most folks no longer have dead TV channels.)

1984, GEORGE ORWELL:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.

THE LOVELY BONES, ALICE SEBOLD:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DOUGLAS ADAMS:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

CRUDDY, LYNDA BARRY:

Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ARTHUR C. CLARKE:

Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.

THE MARTIAN, ANDY WEIR:

I’m pretty much fucked.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, KURT VONNEGUT, JR.

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, SHIRLEY JACKSON:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

CHOKE, CHUCK PALAHNIUK:

If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.