Thursday, March 24, 2011

More on Books and Clean Reads

We had lots of great discussion with my post about books and ratings. Thanks for all the comments!

As I mentioned, I'm all for sites that provide guidelines to books. They give us a heads-up on the actual content rather than slapping a one-size-fits-all rating. I'm not for ratings themselves because they're too subjective too be truly helpful.

Since that post, a few sites like that have come to my attention. I'm sure there are others, but here's a few to start out with:

Good Clean Reads
A great site mentioned in the comments by its creator, Kim, is Good Clean Reads. She's developed her own system to "rate" books. I put that in quotes, because it's not so much a rating system as it is a way to clue in readers on content. (This brings me all kinds of joy. It's just what we need!)

Each "rating" consists of three numbers, from 1-5. The numbers represent sexual content, violence, and profanity. Put the numbers together, and a rating could look like this: 2.1.3.

Kim herself is careful to point out that even this system is subjective, but her system is just about as good as it gets.

Rated Reads
This site uses a simpler rating system (very easy, but probably not quite as effective as Kim's), that rates the level of content from "None" to "Dirt." I didn't know until I found Rated Reads and poked around that my good friend Heather Moore is one of their reviewers. One thing they have going for them is that they have a pretty decent-sized archive.

Parental Book Reviews
This site falls between the other two on how complex their rating system is. Parental Book Reviews uses a 7-level scale from "none" to "extreme," giving a rating on four content areas each: sexual content, profanity, violence, and "other notables," which I appreciated, and which includes things like underage drinking or other elements not covered in the other categories.

Reading Teen
This is a sister site to Parental Book Reviews, and it's aimed specifically at young adults. Fellow writer Braden Bell pointed me toward a brave and insightful post there, written by a mom, about sex in youth fiction.

It's long, but worth the read. Read it and discuss it with your teens.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WNW: St. Patrick's Edition, Take 2

Three years ago, I explained how I scarred my daughter on St. Patrick's day.

Last year St Patrick's day landed on a Wednesday, so we celebrated our word nerdiness with the holiday by learning about Irish terms.

This year, with St. Patty's being a Thursday, we're a day off, but I'm celebrating with Word Nerd Wednesday anyway, this time with a classic Irish phrase:

Éirinn go Brách

First off, Éirinn go Brách means "Ireland forever." (Or, according to Merriam-Webster, not "forever" so much as "until doomsday," which, let's hope, is forever away.)

I see it as sort of a mix between a patriotic call and a shout from the football crowd for their Cougars or T-birds or whatever. The fact that many Irish pubs post signs with the phrase sort of supports that theory. Other places say it's a battle cry (right up there with slogan from last year's post).

Another translation I found is "Go green the Irish." I wonder if "green" and "forever" have a common root in Irish. (Think: evergreen. Hmm. Where's an Irish linguist when you need one?)

If you Google the phrase, most of the links that pop up take a stab at answering, "How do you pronounce Éirinn go Brách?"

And then I giggle. Because there's not just one way to pronounce it.

Irish is just like other languages in that it has several dialectal differences. Just in the U.S. we have lots of variation in how we pronounce English, but then there's speakers from England, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and even Canada, with their own differences, all speaking English.

Ireland covers a much smaller geographical area than English speakers do, but there's still variation. has recordings of various Irish sayings (including Éirinn go Brách) in three Irish dialects.

To my untrained ear, they sound very different from one another. In some of the recordings, the Connacht dialect sounds almost Russian to me.

THIS PAGE of the site includes recordings of various St. Patrick's Day sayings.

Go there to learn how to say "Kiss me; I'm Irish," and, "Are you drunk yet?" in all three dialects!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ratings for Books?

I recently received an e-mail asking my opinion about the idea of creating a ratings system for books, like the one we already have for movies, TV shows, and video games. About two days later, the same issue came up in an online forum. Seems to be a hot topic right now.

I have rather strong opinions about this (I know, jaw-dropping news, right?). After I wrote a long letter in reply, I realized it was practically a blog post, so this post is pretty much what I sent back.

Feel free to agree or disagree with me.

First off, as a mother, I can totally empathize with the desire to have a rating system. I absolutely see where parents demanding one are coming from. It's getting harder all the time to find clean youth literature. To make matters worse, publishers are quite happy to put out books with "content." A lot of people think that talking about drugs, sex, violence, language, and more is not only "real" but good for kids. Others say it's a great way to reach youth because parents are clueless and won't realize what's in the books their kids read.

Scary? You bet.

Another issue is clueless librarians who aren't educated on their own job. Neil Gaiman (who was mentioned in the e-mail) is a great example of this problem because he doesn't write just for kids. He writes for adults, too. So just because one of his books (like his Newbery-winning The Graveyard Book) might be suitable for kids, you can't assume they all will be. A librarian should know better than to shelve all books by one author blindly in the same area.

A librarian should also be savvy enough to know the difference between children's (or MG in my genre primer in THIS post) and YA. Hunger Games (also mentioned in the e-mail I received) is definitely YA, not MG.

In our library, you'll find stuff like Harry Potter in both the children's section and the YA section, so there is some overlap, but many books belong strictly in one or the other. I think the author of Hunger Games did some MG in the past, so we may be looking at a Neil Gaiman situation where the librarian is assuming that all of an author's books fall under the same category.

I also totally get that there's no way for parents to read everything their kids do—a common argument parents are given. But that's impossible if you have avid readers and more than one child. (Check and check, in our family.) Parents do need to keep tabs on what their kids are reading, in whatever way they can.

All that said, I'm very much opposed to a ratings system for books.

The movie rating system we already have is horribly flawed to the point of being almost useless. Some movies that I would never let my kids see because the content, for me, is absolute trash, are labeled PG-13 while others, which are otherwise wonderful films, get an R-rating for one extra use of the F-word but absolutely no other content at all.

The LDS film Saints and Soldiers was originally given an R rating. The producers knew, of course, that their target audience would never watch it. They did some minor editing, taking out, if memory serves, a few seconds' worth of blood on a wound or whatever—and got their PG-13 rating. Seriously. That was the difference between R and PG-13. Then I find movies with "good" ratings like PG that I find offensive. I can't trust a rating to be a no-fail, safe guide, especially when my kids are on the line.

I also really hate the idea of putting my decisions into someone else's hands, especially when the chance of being able to truly trust a ratings system is pretty small. I also think it's the wrong thing to do.

Think of the Young Women Choice & Accountability value. The whole idea is that we are accountable for the choices we make. But if we go strictly by ratings, we're letting someone else choose for us, which makes us what, feel less accountable for seeing bad stuff?

I think this is precisely why not a single general authority has mentioned any movie ratings—including R—in 25 or so years, not since the mid-80s, and why the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet doesn't either. I believe the Brethren know full well that going by ratings isn't the best compass, that we need to be selective on our own, to make informed choices, which means not blindly following ratings someone else has slapped on.

There's simply no way to know if some else's values match ours. Following ratings can even lead us to watching garbage when it's in a film with a lower rating (so we can justify watching it . . . it's okay, because it's not R . . .).

Another issue is something I've learned working with the Whitney Awards: everyone has their own definition of what's appropriate and what's not, even among active Mormons. Opinions vary widely. Some Whitney academy members have complained that anything with violence shouldn't be a nominee. (Good luck finding an epic fantasy without war of some kind, and second, have you ever read, oh, Alma?) The fact is, everyone's sensibilities are different.

What I find okay—or offensive—will not match someone else's definitions of okay or offensive.

I believe that the minute we have a rating system for books, we'll end up with all kinds of problems that already plague the film industry.

That said, the one thing I would be in favor of is something like those movie sites that list specifically what is in a movie (such as which swear words are used & how many times, if there's nudity it says what kind it is, if there's violence it says specifically what happens, and so on).

That way I can make an informed decision knowing exactly what the content is without someone else interpreting the content by their standard.

Problem: That's not something the book industry could take on (pretending for a minute they'd be willing to). It would have to be a private enterprise, like those movie sites are.

So what can we do as readers and parents?
Talk to other parents and get recommendations about what their kids are reading. Talk to other librarians. School librarians often have a better pulse on the youth fiction market than public librarians, and they're often pickier about what is in their libraries. They also listen to parents more, but not if a parent is constantly in their face, and not if the parent complains about small stuff or about books they have only heard rumors about and haven't actually read. Before bringing in a complaint, be informed and pick your battles.

One thing I've found very useful is to visit Amazon and look up books you already know are good. Then click on the button for recommendations for books similar to it. Then read the reviews. You'll often get a good feel for content from them.

You can also find lists of "clean reads" for youth online, but be aware that there is really no way to concretely define "clean" or "offensive."

Janette Rallison, who is LDS and a national YA author (and a good friend of mine) has been added to lists of clean teen reads, and she's rather proud of that. She's fighting the fight to have good, clean books out there for teens. My girls adore her books; they're great, laugh-out-loud funny, and (by my definition) safe.

One fascinating thing happening right now in the national market is the huge influx of LDS novelists writing for youth. Some people, especially in the NY publishing scene, have talked about how there must be some kind of conspiracy (you may have heard about the supposed "Mormon Mafia") because so many Mormons are publishing youth fiction now and being wildly successful at it.

That's great news for those of us looking for cleaner reads. Although those books may still have violence, a swear word or two, or maybe some other mild content, you can bet they will downright squeaky compared to 90% of whatever else is on the shelves.

(Note from THIS POST: I'll still write up my tips for getting kids reading. I will, I will!)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Author Interview: Melanie Jacobson

Today I get to interview fellow Covenant author and friend Melanie Jacobson, whose first novel, The List, just came out. I got to read a tiny bit of it a couple years ago at the LDStorymakers conference when she was at my Boot Camp table, and I loved it. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of it. She's funny, kind, and has an envy-inspiring collection of shoes.

More about her: Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. After meeting her husband online, she is now living happily married in Southern California with her growing family and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher and a popular speaker who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog, Write Stuff.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started? (When did the bug bite you?)
I've always liked writing. I did a lot more creative writing and poetry as a child. I used to entertain my 8th grade earth science class by writing a epic tale of an old haunted house. My spiral notebook got passed around every day so they could read it during Mr. Murrell's lectures. The other kids constantly hounded me for new installments because that was such a boring class. By college, writing was all about essays and papers for my English major. Then I taught 8th grade creative writing for five years and I would complete the assignments along with my students, but I never felt like I had any time to tackle novel-length fiction. I always knew I would write a book one day; it wasn't until I quit teaching to stay home that I started noodling around on a story "just because" and my first novel was born .

Where did the idea for The List come from?
My husband, actually. One day he said, "You know what would be a cool story? A girl with a bucket list, only it's stuff she wants to do before she gets married." I loved it so I took it and ran with it. Setting it in Huntington Beach, CA seemed like a no-brainer. I was living there at the time and I know it's a hot spot for young single Mormons looking for an alternative to the Utah dating scene.

What research did you have to do for the book? What was the most interesting thing you learned?
Surfing figures prominently and I don't surf. However, my husband does and so do a lot of my friends. I asked a lot of questions, and my husband and I took a lot of walks down to the Huntington Beach pier. We would sit and watch the surfers and he would explain different techniques and vocabulary to me. It was surfing by osmosis. I'm not a confident swimmer so I was too chicken to try it myself. Besides, the Pacific is COLD. However, I'm a lot more interested in it as a sport now that I understand more about it.

What is your writing style? Are you an outliner or a by-the-seat-of-your-pantser? Somewhere in between?
I started as a pantser, but each manuscript was getting longer and longer, requiring more editing after the first draft. After my third manuscript when I had to cut over 20,000 words, (yes, twenty THOUSAND), I thought, "This is too painful and it takes too much time to overwrite and then revise." So on my most recent manuscript, I used the hero's journey approach and it was far more efficient. I didn't adhere totally to what I outlined because my characters are stubborn, but it definitely helped control the overwriting. So I guess that means that now I'm somewhere in-between.

What is your typical writing schedule like?
I write when my baby naps. If I can resist surfing the Internet, then I can knock out 1,500 words a day without much trouble. Of course, I rarely can resist the Internet, so I'm not always as efficient as I'd like. I never walk away from a writing session until I've hit at least 1,000 words, but that's my minimum. Stupid Internet. I'd have twice as many novels done by now if I weren't so easily distracted.

What is one big thing you've learned through the process of publishing your first novel?
That I'm a better writer than I thought. I'm learning to be okay with that instead of shrugging it off. It's a big deal and I'm giving myself permission to feel good about it.

What's been the biggest surprise about the publishing process?
How LONG it takes, for one. And I was also surprised by some of the elements I don't have any control over, like the cover or the title. So far, I've been blessed with a great first cover. I've had one title changed on me and I'm learning to like it. Either way, I've learned you have to make your peace with whatever it is because your publisher is in business to make money and they have people who know the market and what sells, so it's not a bad idea to trust their experience.

Which authors are your biggest literary influences in the national market?
Janette Rallison, easily. That's a career arc I'd love to follow, and our styles are pretty similar, although I'm not writing YA. She's one of my favorite writers. Meg Cabot is another but I'm pretty sure my stuff is less . . . edgy? I hope people find my stuff as fun to read, though.

Any in the LDS market?
Aubrey Mace and I both write in the "chick lit" genre, and I love her stuff. I was excited to read Julie Wright's Cross My Heart because that's definitely the same groove I write in.

Any advice for aspiring authors?
Write as often as you can, and that is definitely more than however much you think you can right now. The more you write, the more you'll find time to write. But secondly, and I think more importantly, when you do write, ignore your internal editor. Just get the words down and worry about fixing them later. If you can resist the urge to tinker with your stuff every day and just move the story forward instead, you'll find you've got something great even with the mistakes. Editing gets in the way of creativity because it's critical by nature. You can go after your story with a hacksaw at the end if you like, but at least by then you'll have something to go after, instead of the same three chapters you can't move past due to an obsession with polishing them. Above all, just do it. Find a story that speaks to you and WRITE it.

GREAT advice!

Be sure to drop by Melanie's blog.

Friday, March 04, 2011

National Grammar Day

I'm offline most of the day, but before I unplug, I wanted to point out for my fellow word nerds that today is National Grammar Day. (March fourth/forth. Hahahaaaa!)

As you can imagine, Grammar Girl is celebrating big time.

Visit her site to send a celebratory e-card to your "favorite language lover or language offender."

She's got got ten grammar myths, a writing contest, t-shirts, and much more. Visit her National Grammar Day post for all the fun.

Go to iTunes to buy her new song, "March Forth." You can even get the sheet music for it. Here's the song. Listen closely to the lyrics for full appreciation!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

WNW: Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

How fun that Dr. Seuss's birthday lands on a Wednesday this year. Let's celebrate, Word Nerd style! (Fun word nerd bit at the end, I promise.)

(If it's all the same to you, I think I may celebrate with chocolate rather than green eggs and ham . . .)

When I think of Dr. Seuss, the former child in me remembers "Gertrude McFuzz," "Yertle the Turtle," and "The Big Brag." We had a collection with those three stories in it when I was a kid, and I loved, loved, loved it. To this day, Gertrude is one of my favorite Seuss characters. (I've since bought a new copy of that collection for my kids. Of course.)

The mother in me thinks of a few other things, like how stinkin' LONG some of his books are, and how your child will inevitably insist on hearing The Cat in the Hat Comes Back when you're exhausted and would prefer something nice and short, like a Sandra Boynton book.

(Note: The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, when read aloud, fast, takes a solid 9 minutes. Yes, I timed it. On several occasions. Trying to beat my record and get a child to bed. And as friends can attest, I can talk really fast.)

But the mother in me also appreciates how much he's done for childhood literacy. I cannot even guess at how many millions of children he's touched with his stories. How many have laughed at his pictures and puns? How many decided they liked books after hearing a teacher read one of his? (And that's not counting his cultural impact with the Grinch and so many other things.)

Because I'm a word nerd, English major, and writer, I probably also think of few different things that the average (read: normal) person doesn't when I hear the name of Dr. Seuss.

One is the sheer brilliance of his meter, rhythm, and rhyme. His work is best read aloud, and if you do it right, which isn't hard, the stories almost sound like songs.

This is one reason I hate the board book of Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? For the sake of space (a must for a board book), it cuts out huge portions of the text. That also cuts out all personality and rhythm, leaving a torn, bleeding mass in place of the original. It's choppy, jumpy, and all around obnoxious to read.

The writer in me thinks about how so many people dismiss Dr. Seuss's work as simplistic, or think they can copy his style and sell their own rhyming books for children. They have no idea how complex his poetry is and how hard it is to produce. That is, they don't know until they get a bunch of rejection letters.

And of course, my inner word nerd loves how he played with words and totally made up random ones that sound real and fun (much like Lewis Carroll and "The Jabberwocky").

Some of my favorite Seuss word inventions include sneech, fiffer-feffer-feff, lorax, zax, and wocket. A bigger (although incomplete) list is here.

One word on that list jumped out at me, and my initial reaction was to think it was a mistake: nerd.

But a little digging shows that both Merriam-Webster and the OED agree: If I Ran the Zoo, by Dr. Seuss, is the first time the word nerd showed up in print. He may well have invented the term.

And that gives me a new reason to rejoice in being a word nerd.

Happy birthday, Theodor Geisel.


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