Diversity and the stories we tell

Recently, in my search for diverse picture books and especially for books where my child could see other children who look like her in the illustrations, I came upon Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. This beautifully written and illustrated book, for those who haven’t read it, introduces babies from around the world and of many races with the refrain:

And both of these babies—as everyone knows—had ten little fingers and ten little toes.

The strength of the writing and illustrations meant that it took two or three or maybe five readings (because no one reads any picture book only once to their child) for it to hit me that that well-crafted refrain … wasn’t actually true. That the very book I’d bought to help my child celebrate her diversity and the diversity of all children was not about all children.

Because somewhere out there–many somewheres out there–there’s a parent who saw this book that was trying to be about all babies and set it aside because it wasn’t about their baby. Maybe this parent’s perfect, beloved, amazing child was born with polydatyly, or with a limb difference–yet here’s this book about how perfect, beloved, amazing children all have one thing in common–that they aren’t anything like this parent’s child.

At first I thought I was overthinking things. And then I thought I wasn’t. Intersectionality is tricky. It’s easy to say that no one book can be about every child and move on, but really it’s so much more complicated than that.

And this post isn’t about this one (otherwise lovely) book, or about any other one book, though I fear it will be taken that way. It’s about how I then thought a little more deeply about what the stories I tell mean for my child, who I want to embrace diversity not only when it’s about who she is, but also when it’s about the wide world she lives in.

I tell my child hundreds of stories every day, and not all of them come out of books.

Shortly after we finished the second or third or fifth reading of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, my child handed me her stuffed bat, which had recently lost an eye. She pointed to the spot where the eye had once been, asking without words for an explanation.

I almost went for the obvious story–that yes, the toy was broken, and yes, I could fix it. Then I realized there was another, truer story I could choose instead.

“You’re right,” I told her matter-of-factly. “That bat has one eye. And you have two eyes.

“That’s because everybody’s different.”

Tucson Festival of Books!

This weekend is the next Tucson Festival of Books! After six years, it’s hard to believe this event hasn’t been part of Tucson forever.

I’ll be there this Sunday, signing with Mostly Books from 12-12:45 p.m. (booth #148), and then moderating Ally Carter and Sarah Mlynowski’s Twitter and Trailers: Using Social Media to Promote Your Book panel from 4:00-5:00 p.m. (Education Bldg., Room 333).

And both Saturday and Sunday I’ll be on the UA Mall of course, enjoying the Festival. Hope to see many of you there!

Millions of Cats, Billions of Cats, More Stars Than in the Entire Milky Way of Cats

When it comes to picture books, not understanding the natural world inevitably leads to tragedy.


Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág

A cautionary tale about the dangers of relocating wildlife.

An old man removes an entire population of cats from their native ecosystem, only to discover he lacks the knowledge and resources to care for them on his own. When the cats grow hungry he offers them each a mouthful of grass, unaware that these obligate carnivores cannot subsist on such a diet. “What are you doing?” the old woman he lives with cries when she sees the cats, aware, as he is not, of how unsuited the creatures are for their new environment. Her fear proves well founded, as in their desperation for meat the poor felines ultimately resort to eating one another.

Only a single small kitten survives, young enough to live on the milk the man and woman are able to provide, but it faces an uncertain future as it grows “nice and plump” and nears adulthood.


Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton

The tragic tale of a good-hearted squirrel who lacks the skills to survive in the wild. Unable to tell the difference between a bear, a rabbit, a frog, and an owl, our hero’s lack of discernment proves fatal when he cheerfully accepts an owl’s invitation into her nest for “cookies.” The final details of the squirrel’s inevitable demise are, in a bold yet necessary move, left to the imagination of the reader.

“Uh oh,” indeed.

Goodnight Moon and the End of All Things

My review of Goodnight Moon, as posted to Goodreads:

A heartbreakingly spare story about the heat death of the universe. One by one the things of the world are bid adieu. Beginning with small losses–clocks, socks, a young mouse who will never reach adulthood, the stakes rise relentlessly until the loss of the atmosphere, stars, and sound itself. In the end the illustrated moon shines on, a reminder of things lost, but the protagonist–and the reader–are left sleeping in the dark.

I’ll confess it took me a few (hundred) readings to fully understand this book, but aren’t the best works of literature like that?

For further commentary on Goodnight Moon, I recommend God-Night Rune, a translation from the original Old English; and Goodnight Room, a look at the inner workings of the Great Green Room.

Star Wars, episode … yeah

So. There’s a trailer online for The Force Awakens, aka Star Wars episode VII. And I have thoughts.

(ETA: Here’s the first full trailer. The thoughts below are–more or less–nchanged by its release.)

Those thoughts begin in the summer of 1999, on the release date for The Phantom Menance, I was hiking through Capitol Reef National Park, miles from any movie theater. And at some point, staring out at a 360 degree panorama of some of the most stunning geology out there, I found myself thinking that I was missing something amazing, for all that I knew I was surrounded by things even more amazing that I’d consciously chosen over opening night of Star Wars Episode I. Still, I wondered if I’d made a mistake, choosing to go camping instead of waiting in line that week.

I hadn’t made a mistake. When I finally saw the movie a few days later, I knew that.

Still, I was an optimist. I saw both of the remaining prequels. The second time, I genuinely hoped I’d see something better. The third time … well, the third time, I saw the movie at a local drive in theater some days after release, mostly for the sake of completeness, but also “just in case” that something amazing might turn up after all.

Because the first three Star Wars movies, episodes IV through VI? Pretty much changed my life.

Teen me imprinted on The Empire Strikes Back hard, and from there there was no turning back. I practically memorized that movie. I practically memorized the novelization of that movie. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of self-insertion Star Wars fanfiction. Han Solo became at once my hero and my crush object. I did wait in line for Return of the Jedi, and while by the end of the movie my teen self was just beginning to understand how that movie–and the trilogy–weren’t perfect, I did not regret it. At all.

For me, the first trilogy was always about characters, not special effects. In many ways, although I was a voracious reader, it was the screen-based Han, Leia, and Luke who occupied the space for me that for later readers would be occupied by Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I loved their interactions and interplay, I loved the whole good-boy/bad-boy vibe of Luke and Han, I loved Han and Leia’s romance, did I mention I especially loved Han? (Later, I would think about the problems of Leia’s becoming an increasingly non-character over the course of the trilogy, and my decreasing engagement with her. But I was young, and my understandings were still growing, and I was unsubtle in my expectations. Characters who were larger than life and cast in broad–if problematic–strokes were still what I was looking for.) I loved, too, the sense of epic struggle, and being able to straightforwardly hate Darth Vader with all his straightforward villainy. (The flip side of this being that I was never sold on his redemption … but that’s a subject for another post.)

When Leia told Han she loved him, I cheered.

Years later, when Amidala told Anakin she loved him, I looked at the friends I was with, and we all mouthed the same word: WHY? (Jedi mind tricks, we later decided. Only Jedi mind tricks could explain that romance.)

It wasn’t just that I was no longer my younger, less subtle self by the time the prequels came along, though a couple decades of idolizing and being shaped by the original trilogy did mean that any new movie would have struggled to live up to the originals.

But the prequel trilogy, it didn’t even come close. For me, the heart wasn’t there, the soul and the characters weren’t there, and if the effects were pretty, well, unlike many the effects had never been what drew me to the Star Wars universe. Like I said, I enjoyed the novelizations as much as the movies. I was looking for character, and I was looking for story, and I’d probably have found those somewhere else if I hadn’t found Star Wars when I did–would probably have happily obsessed over something else instead–but Star Wars came along first and filled that space for me.

Star Wars shaped me as a fantasy reader (you didn’t think those movies were really science fiction, did you?), and it shaped me as a fantasy writer.

So. There’s a trailer for a new trilogy online. And it sure looks pretty.

I don’t care about pretty. It looks like it has characters too, but I can’t tell much about them from the trailer. And it looks like it has the Millennium Falcon too, which of course makes me smile, but the Millennium Falcon is not, by itself, enough, not unless I knew I’ll care about whoever’s piloting it now.

And maybe I will. The trailer, it doesn’t give me enough to know either way. And while I know there are in-depth analyses of every last detail of that footage out there, I haven’t read them.

Because I’m not getting my heart broken again. I’m not waiting in line opening day or opening week or … probably ever … for this one. I’m not thinking of it as the start of–or a return to–something amazing this time.

Unless. If enough people who I respect and whose story buttons are similar to mine tell me it actually is amazing–and not just visually amazing or tech and battle scene amazing–I’ll … think about it. But this time around, you all can take the opening day/week/month/maybe-forever hit for me.

I’ll be here at home with a novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, and several hundred thousand words of fondly remembered fanfic.

After the revolution, we’ll run more human interest pieces

CAPITOL CITY (PANEM) — Capitol University sophomore Jayden Sanderson studies a 3D simulation of a lush forest. He zooms in on a river that flows placidly through the trees. “There.” He points to a spot where the river’s bank broadens out. “It doesn’t look like much, but there’s just enough mud here for a Tribute to camouflage himself. The gamemakers didn’t count on that. The probabilities and projections always change once you add the human factor to a game. That’s the challenge.” The game design student smiles, making clear that as a hopeful future gamemaker, it’s a challenge he welcomes.

But as the Capitol gears up for the 100th annual Hunger Games, not all citizens share Sanderson’s enthusiasm. Many question whether, in this era of unprecedented prosperity for Panem, the games have outlived their usefulness.

“Sure, the Games held Panem together during a tumultuous period in our history,” says District 7 mayor Raymond Mason. “But I think it’s safe to say no one’s thinking of rebellion now.” He laughs as he gestures to the living room of his spacious townhouse, as if to prove his point. Such luxuries, a generation ago unthinkable for even the mayor of this once-impoverished lumber district, have become increasingly common among all District residents. “The Games have served their purpose. It’s time to move on.”

Hortensia Cooper, however, says Mason makes the mistake of assuming the Games’ benefits are purely political. “The economic benefits are undeniable,” insists Cooper, who serves as acting director of the Capitol Chamber of Commerce. “The prosperity we see today is a direct result of the Games, and stopping them now could propel us into a fiscal depression the likes of which we haven’t seen since the dark days of the rebellion.”

Quintillian Booth, chair of the nonprofit advocacy group Panem Remembers, counters that running the Games has a cost, too, one that can’t be measured purely in dollars and cents. “We must also consider the cost of 2,302 young lives lost since the Games began.” That’s 23 Tributes a year, plus an additional 24 for the 50th Quarter Quell. “And who can forget the 74th Games, which didn’t have a winner?” Booth asks.

It was after the 74th Games—the same Games Sanderson now studies in his classes—that this debate began. That was the year District 12 Tributes Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark shocked viewers by taking their own lives and leaving the Games without a victor. “Yeah,” Sanderson admits with an uneasy laugh. “The gamemakers didn’t count on those poison berries, either.”

“If you weren’t alive then, it’s hard to understand the horror of that moment,” says Madge Undersee, mayor of the coal-mining district Everdeen and Mellark hailed from. “When we realized what Katniss and Peeta had done, well, it changed the way we thought about the Games forever.”

Graecina Sand agrees the way we think about the Games has changed. “We’ve taken the lessons of the 74th Games very much to heart,” says this year’s Head Gamemaker, “and we’ve made quite a few changes since then. Those changes include relying solely on trained volunteer Tributes, nanobots that see to it the slain die instantly and without pain, and a ban on poisonous plant life. “We’ve moved well beyond the barbarism of our ancestors,” Sand says. “The Games today are quite humane, and taking part is a choice and a privilege, as anyone who watches the Tribute interviews can attest.” That watching those interviews is now optional is another, more recent, reform.

Yet Cooper insists, “Today’s Tributes have less choice than we’d like to believe. The sums paid to the families of those who enter the Tribute training pools is quite substantial. For young people whose families are struggling to put food on the table, there often isn’t any other choice. In the old days the process was at least somewhat democratic, but today’s Games target the Districts’ most vulnerable residents.”

Still, with recent Games budget increases and new scholarships focused on mentoring promising game design students from outside the Capitol, the Games don’t seem set to end any time soon. Recent legislation seeks to open participation to immigrants from beyond Panem’s borders as well.

“The Hunger Games are a defining part of who we are as a nation,” says President Coriolanus Snow, who like Undersee personally remembers the 74th Games. “They have a long and storied history that I see no need to apologize for. Indeed, it is an honor to be a part of it.”


Written after coming upon a fanvid with its own take on the 100th Hunger Games.

On doing a thing I needed to do

As many of you know, my first sale was to one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover anthologies, and that sale gave me my first glimmer of hope that I could build a professional writing career. I recently had a story appear in a second Darkover anthology, produced by MZB’s estate, and I tremendously enjoyed returning to one of the places where my career began.

As some you also know, this week Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter revealed in public that her mother abused her.

I read and reread her daughter’s words this week. I read, too, portions of MZB’s own court deposition (from her husband’s trial, also for child abuse) that I hadn’t read before. Then yesterday I took a deep breath, and I added up the advances from my two Darkover sales, my Darkover royalties, and (at his request) my husband Larry Hammer’s payment for his sale to MZB’s magazine.

And then we made a donation to the anti-abuse charity RAINN for that amount. I’ll donate any future Darkover royalties, as well.

I remain proud of the Darkover stories I’ve written, and I respect the many fellow writers who also got their start on the pages of MZB’s anthologies and in her magazine. MZB played a huge role in many of our careers, and it’s not my intention to deny that, or to deny how deeply many readers were touched–and in some cases saved–by MZB’s work.

But I also can’t deny the harm caused by the flawed creator of that work. What I can do is see to it that my having written in her worlds goes towards fighting those same hurts and abuses in the places they’re happening now.

So that’s what I’m doing.

And I’m posting about it here–though this feels more like a personal decision than a public one–because silence about abuse creates the illusion of acceptance, and illusions gain power over time, and so sometimes, speaking aloud is more important than staying comfortable.

Realism and mythical lyrical magical books

So on the livejournal version of last week’s post about the hard-to-define magic-y mythic-y lyrical fantasy genre, the subject of books that have this feeling without being fantastical came up.

Dacuteturtle talked about how some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories have this feeling for her. Rachelmanija talked about how “secret garden” books do.

I realized that for me, this is a huge part of the appeal of, say, the Icelandic family sagas, which are often light on the magic (and vague about its nature), and which for lack of better terminology I’ve been describing as having the feel of Tolkien, with less magic and more lawsuits. Rymenhild talked about medieval myths and allegories on the livejournal post, which one could argue are either fantasy or a genre of their own. I’d add Beowulf to her list, once one adds the poetry of the Seamus Heaney translation. (Or, I’m guessing, the original old English.)

The contemporary examples that most readily come to mind for me are Deborah Noyes’ Plague in the Mirror (whose the timeslip is the only magical element) and Francesca Forrest’s Pen Pal (which feels magical yet doesn’t have anything that’s inarguable magic, though it does have things that arguably are).

Anyway, this all got me to thinking. Lots of folks talk about whether fantasy can achieve the same things realism can, with the spoken or unspoken assumption that a fantasy work is somehow more worthy or literary if it does.

But we don’t talk nearly so much about whether realism can achieve the things fantasy does, and reach for those heights. And whether it might be more worthy on some level if it does so, too.

Looking for a certain sort of book

So, there’s a certain kind of book I’m always on the lookout for. It’s not the only kind of book I’m on the lookout for, but it is the kind of book I adore when I find it.

I think of the genre as lyrical mythic fantasy. Books that can be spare, but not so spare as to lose that lyricism–this isn’t the genre of transparent prose. Books that can be dense, but not so dense that they lose a certain lightness and flow. Books that are deeply, richly immersive. Liminal perhaps. Transporting, but not only transporting. Books that make you believe the mythic is just through that veil over there, and that make you believe this as much or more through sheer language as through cleverness of worldbuilding.

You can see how this might be hard to describe. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully succeeded. When I mention what I’m looking for, I often get recs for straight up fantasy-adventure with a dash of interesting world-building. That’s not what I’m looking for (or not what I’m looking for when I talk about this kind of book–of course I like other kinds of books, too, and many books I adore don’t fit into this at all). I know what I do want when I see it, which of course is not very useful if one is looking for recommendations.

Examples include The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Changeling Sea, The Underneath, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Last Unicorn, maybe Moonheart and Mythago Wood (it’s been years since I read those last two, so they could have changed in memory). It almost, but not quite, includes The Blue Sword, but if I mention the Blue Sword, I get all the wrong sort of recommendations again. I just started Sorrow’s Knot, which looks like it might fit though I’m not far enough in to that yet to be sure. If Miyazaki wrote novels, it would include some but not all of his work.

Of course, all of this is highly subjective, and a book that fits this description in one reader’s mind won’t in another’s. That’s how reading works, after all.

But I thought I’d go ahead and ask, and see what I might discover. If any of the above resonates for you, and you think you might know the sort of book I’m talking about … any recommendations?

ETA: For some interesting further discussion of this sort of book, check out the comments on the livejournal version of this post.

Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest

(I’m behind on actually sharing my reading thoughts here, but do post more regularly on Goodreads as I read.)

I first read Pen Pal on the author’s blog, where it was primarily a series of letters between the main characters. When I started reading the final version, I initially was uncertain about the addition of other epistolary elements: journals, newspaper clippings, government files, letters from other characters, worried they would change the story I’d loved.

And they did … into something richer and deeper.

penpal.jpgEm is a child of water, living in a floating community on the Gulf coast. Kaya is a child of fire, imprisoned half a world away above a volcano.

They need each other, though they don’t at first know it.

Em believes in the Seafather who watches over her people. Kaya isn’t sure whether she believes in the Ruby Lady, but she was arrested for holding a ceremony for her, just the same.

When Em’s wistful message in a bottle reaches Kaya, their two stories become entwined, and the result is a numinous story about stories and how they wind their way through lives and through communities.

This book isn’t a fantasy, not really. But it hits a particular immersive mythic-y button for me that I don’t know how to describe–I only know it when I see it, and know as well that it’s hard to find.

And it gave me exactly the right sort of happy sigh when I turned the last page, as well.