Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Seven costumes remembered

A clown, face made up with paint that couldn't stand up to my onslaught of tears for no reason I can now remember. The over-sized T-shirt with its technicolor magic-markered design was a masterpiece. (Thanks, Mom!)

A robot made from a large cardboard box, plastic batting helmet wrapped in aluminum foil, copious glow sticks. In case anybody couldn't tell what I was, I wrote on the box in big Sharpie letters, "I am a robot."

A traveling salesman, which involved drawing on a mustache with eyeliner and raiding my dad's supplies for a briefcase and one of his exceptionally wide ties. (Thanks, Dad!)

A group of friends and I dressed as the Marx Brothers: Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, Chico.

A long-distance relationship. Girlfriend and I labeled ourselves as far-flung locations and wrapped ourselves together in phone-cord coils (back when phones had cords). Another time, feeling topical, we were bird flu. I wore a curly, yellow wig (not blond, yellow) and fashioned a jersey to approximate Larry Bird. She was a chimney.

A goriila -- because once I had a gorilla suit, this one was low-hanging fruit.

Whatever costume you might don, hope your Halloween is happy.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Penny for your thoughts

There's a literacy organization I support. In today's mail, I received a flyer from this organization touting an annual short-story contest. Students from grades 1-12 may participate, provided that they adhere to guidelines that "must be carefully followed."

A quick skim reveals requirements that sound intricate but fairly routine. One, though, lodges in my eye like a dust mote:

"Manuscripts with content dealing with self-destructive behavior will NOT be considered for an award."

I'll concede: Specifying go and no-go zones is the prerogative of the contest host. Still, my nose wrinkles at the scent of censorship. Shouldn't an opportunity open to teens permit them to mull a fraught topic like this through story telling? Or at least not explicitly rule it out?

What if this constraint were removed? Would the judges find themselves inundated with tales of self harm?

I worry that labeling topics taboo, like self-destructive behavior, makes them harder for young people and those who support them to address honestly, whether in writing or conversation. Are there times we must close doors like this so firmly? Are there times we shouldn't?

Community, what do you think -- in this case or related ones that now come to mind? Share your two cents in the comments below, and I'll make a donation for each thought shared in October to the American Library Association, which champions free and open access to reading and annually observes Banned Books Week.

Postscipt on Nov. 1: ALA contribution made. Thanks, community, for your thoughts.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Dystopia cornucopia

Usually being late to the party, reading or otherwise, I'm not surprised to be into dystopian fiction long after the genre's popularity wave has likely crested. This past weekend, I chomped through Francisco X. Stork's latest, Disappeared, and Emmy Laybourne's Monument 14. The former, a serendipitous library find prompted by a past winner from the same author (e.g., Marcelo in the Real World); the latter; a breathless eighth-grader's recommendation.

Stork's fiction hews close to realism, tracking the challenges of two siblings in northwestern Mexico: a brother being tempted into the drug trade and his sister, a tenacious journalist, investigating her best friend's disappearance. Their stories generally unfold by the numbers, nonetheless revealing a corrupt society unraveling even as people with integrity struggle still to do the right thing.

Laybourne travels a more sensational route: a weather apocalypse triggering numerous catastrophic dominoes. Despite this sky-is-falling scenario, the book's perspective proves intimate, focusing on a small band of teens, tweens, and younger kids marooned in their town's big-box store. I expected the story to devolve into Lord of the Flies in Walmart, but it sprang different surprises.

Most recently, I've begun The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which a friend of a friend touted while we watched playoff baseball. This one is aimed at adults -- its spartan, brutal style and subject matter for older readers. As with the previous titles, the world we know has ended. (It's not yet clear why.) I'm in the company of two perhaps paranoid survivors with access to a junky prop plane. Where we'll go, I have little idea.

Writing this slice, however, I have a better sense of my motivation for this three-book genre streak. Dystopian dysfunction mirrors a school year herky-jerkying its way through October's annual minefield.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reading eyes wide open

I favor reading widely, and I encourage students to do the same. That partly explains why something I recently read in Nabokov's Favorite Color is Mauve sticks in my brain.

In this accessible nonfiction text, author Ben Blatt crunches numbers about writing and literature. Quirky inquiries abound. He uses big data, for instance, to see how well Elmore Leonard and other authors heed Leonard's advice to spend exclamation points parsimoniously. In another chapter, Blatt compares professional and amateur authors regarding how much (or how little) they deploy cliches.

Blatt also explores, in his calculating fashion, how language might reveal implicit bias. One way he does this is by determining ratios of gendered pronouns in various texts. That leads to this observation on page 41:


Reading this, my brain felt like a record being scratched. I wondered: Should I now think less of The Hobbit and its author? Did the text still belong in a formal English curriculum? If so, how might I frame it to account for its slanted grammar? Should I go out of my way to tout, say, fantasy writer Tamora Pierce to balance Tolkien on this particular seesaw? (For that matter, might gender be more complex than a seesaw analogy?) Does a crude he/she ratio even qualify as a sufficient hook on which to hang my abashed hat? Lastly, to adapt a notion from Grace Lin: How much should reading mirror the lives we live versus open windows onto different -- sometimes unsettling -- experiences?

For now, I'll reach back to my first sentence like a life preserver: read widely -- in terms of text selection and keeping my eyes and mind open to what I find therein.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence, #3

In this mountain-studded, aspen-robed state that touts some 300 sun-splashed days each year, the current stretch of low gray skies and nine days of rain in the last ten disconcerts the denizens, yet even this seemingly aberrant meteorology -- an unsettling gambler's fallacy of drab forecasts, a radar loop of gloom -- fades inconsequentially in the somber shadows cast by Monday's headlines.