Sunday, November 24, 2013


     I met Jennifer Hubbard at an SCBWI conference this past June, and in August I interviewed her for this blog.  There, I noted that Hubbard's third published YA novel, UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP, was due to be published by Viking in September 2013, and that I couldn't wait to meet Maggie, its protagonist, when that happened.  I must confess that it's taken me until the end of November to meet Maggie (my fault, not hers!), and the pleasure it brought me exceeded all my expectations.  In fact, this book was not only a gripping read; it dealt with the topic of bullying in such a deep and powerful way that I think it should be on the required reading list at every high school in the country.
     Seventeen-year-old Maggie Cameron was bullied mercilessly in junior high school by Raleigh and her posse, apparently targeted for no better reason than that Raleigh had sniffed out her vulnerability.  All through seventh and eighth grade, Maggie lived her school days in a constant state of terror, never knowing when or how the next attack would strike.  Her intensely vivid flashbacks illustrate that for her, she had survived the equivalent of two years in a war zone.
     Maggie's reprieve arrived in the form of Raleigh's family's relocation to Italy after her eighth-grade graduation.  In the years since, Maggie has been able to relax her constant vigil - but only to a degree.  She is not about to win any popularity contests, but she's managed to form two close friendships: with Sylvie, to whom she can talk about almost anything, and with Nick, whose stepfather has taught him and Maggie hiking and mountaineering skills.  Over the past few months, Nick's stepfather has dropped out of their increasingly ambitious hikes, due to problems with his knees, and Nick and Maggie's solo outdoor ventures have brought her a kind of joy she's never felt before.  Now, she's tentatively beginning to try to sort out how much of the joy stems from the sense of accomplishment and power that climbing a mountain can bring, and how much stems from being with Nick.  But what good does it do to try to decipher how she feels about Nick when no boy could possibly ever be attracted to her?  Because if there was one thing Raleigh and Company made crystal clear to Maggie, it was that she was permanently, incurably unlovable.
     And then.. Maggie's worst nightmares comes true.  Raleigh is suddenly here, back from Italy, attending Maggie's high school, and Maggie's fragile new sense of safety and security is swept away like a mountain climber halfway to the summit being overpowered and swept to his death by a deadly gust of wind.
     Every word of dialogue in this book rings true, from the kindness and compassion Nick and Maggie show each other, to the cruelty Raleigh once inflicted on her hapless victim, to everything in between.  Because Hubbard gives us plenty of nuanced and conflicted secondary characters: Adriana, who used to be Raleigh's sidekick back in the dark days, but who now seems to want to be something different; Vanessa, who's girly and popular but whom Maggie would probably like anyway, if she weren't much too interested in Nick; and Sylvie, who pulls back from Maggie just when Maggie needs her most.  And, because it's actually not all about Maggie, we learn that Nick has his own personal Raleigh - one even harder to fight back against, because it's his emotionally abusive father, no longer a part of Nick's household but still very much a part of Nick's psyche.
     Hubbard told me in her interview that she wanted this book to explore, not so much bullying itself, but its aftermath, and that's indeed what it does.  No one is spared.  I've heard it said that when people become addicted to drugs or alcohol, they stop growing emotionally, so they remain arrested at the age at which their addiction began.  In a similar way, Hubbard suggests, victims of abuse become so traumatized that their development is arrested too.  Perhaps because Maggie has loving and supportive parents, she doesn't respond to her victimization by identifying with her tormenter and becoming one herself.  She does, however, discover to her horror that because of the trauma she's experienced, she seems not to have developed a normal level of empathy.  Her damaged view of the world is polarized between Me - the one everything is wrong with - and Not-Me - the people for whom life is smooth and easy, and whose inner lives therefore don't require much attention.  It's only when Maggie unwittingly jeopardizes both her friendship with Sylvie, and the possibility of having something more than friendship with Nick, that she must face the fact that no one goes through life without having to deal with fear, loss, and insecurity, and that from time to time everyone needs a helping hand.
    I plan to get in touch with my local school board to recommend adding UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP to its high-school curriculum.  It not only conveys truths about relationships and power that would benefit all teens; its characters are utterly believable, its story line is memorable, and the writing is so good that it's almost invisible.  This is Hubbard's best book yet, and the most wonderful part of it all is that I feel absolutely certain that there are even better ones still to come.  Maggie finds her power in this book, and so does Jennifer Hubbard.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


     You are sworn to secrecy, okay?  Because, while my husband and I were permitted to accompany (i.e., drive) our daughter to National Portfolio Day in New York today, and were (amazingly) even granted clearance to see what was in her portfolio, I am obviously forbidden from sharing any of it with outsiders.  But I'm going to anyway, so DO NOT betray my trust!
     So. National Portfolio Day, for anyone who does not have artistic offspring, is a day when representatives from 40 or 50 art schools show up at a mammoth convention center to review the portfolios of the senior-level prospective art students who bring them to be critiqued.  There must have been a thousand kids at the Javits Center today, maybe more, and an equal number of accompanying parents, most of them standing in line at one school's booth, holding a place for their kids, while the kids stood on line for another school.  This is how I learned that behind every accomplished young artist stands at least one awesomely supportive parent, swallowing his  fears about how the hell his kid is going to support herself, and doing everything possible to just help her achieve her dreams.  Here is my lovely daughter, turning her back on me when she saw me trying to take a picture of her:

     Okay, now here comes the really Top Secret part.  You remember that you're sworn to secrecy, right?  Well then, here are a few of my favorite items from her portfolio.  A still life:

A sketch entitled "Scream:"
And the aptly titled "Me Picking My Nose:"
     Uh-oh.  She just walked into the kitchen.  Gotta go!  But if you tell anyone about this, you're gonna swim with the fishes.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


    I love A.S. King for many reasons. Here's a partial list:
     1. She writes wonderful, gripping, hilarious, quirky, deadly serious YA novels about extremely real characters dealing with very important issues, without ever letting the issues overshadow the characters.  I've talked about her and her books a lot on this blog.  She is unique and fearless, and her books have earned many starred reviews and won many prestigious awards.  She is on her way to the top of the profession.
      2.  When I (Nobody from Nowhere) asked her, just out of the blue, she let me interview her for this blog last year and was very patient with my questions, as obtuse as she seemed to think some of them were.  And before the interview actually happened, she emailed back and forth with me for a while, taking the time to ask me about my own writing and to offer me writerly encouragement.  I mean, who does that??
      3.  She doesn't watch television.  So I'm not the only one.
      4.  She chose me as the winner of a limerick contest that she ran on Twitter a few months ago.  About virginity, as a matter of fact.  And as a prize, she sent me a book called "Losing It" which contained one of her stories.
      5.  I own a great recipe for corn chowder that she once posted to her blog, or Facebook, or Twitter - I don't remember which one, since I stalk her on so many media.  Used the recipe today, in fact, only quintupled (I won't bore you with the story of how I ended up getting 40 ears of corn for free).
      6.  I met her two nights ago at the very cool Clinton Book Shop, and was not surprised to learn that she's as warm and down-to-earth in person as she seems to be in social media.  (Did NOT get my picture taken with her, though.  Nobody else was doing that there, and it seemed like it would have been really inappropriate for me to ask.)  One of the things she mentioned is how thrilled a young girl had been that day when she'd replied to her on Twitter, "as if I were John Green or something!"  See, A.S. King doesn't even know that she is John Green.
     7.  She has the same first name as my daughter.

     I'll stop the list there, though I could go on.  But there's a point here: A.S. King's latest novel, REALITY BOY, has just been released (Little, Brown, 2013) and is already clad in starred reviews, and I am giving away a freshly-autographed hardcover copy to a lucky contest winner.

     I'll quote here from some of the starred reviews.  Publishers Weekly: "A nuanced portrayal... This is a story about healing."  School Library Journal: "King's trademarks - attuned first-person narrative, convincing dialogue, realistic language, and fitting quirkiness - connect effectively in this disturbing, yet hopeful novel."  Kirkus Reviews: "Heart-pounding and heartbreaking... A compulsively readable portrait of two imperfect teens learning to trust each other and themselves."

     To be completely honest, I'm sort of hiding behind the starred reviews as a way of avoiding reviewing the book myself.  It's deceptively simple to describe the plot: 16-year-old Gerald Faust's whole life has been defined by his family's stint on a fake-nanny reality TV show a decade ago, and by his own role on that show as the designated family-wrecker.  Due to his unique form of response to this situation, highly popular as it was among TV viewers, Gerald is still known to his peers as The Crapper.  Due to his more recent activities, he's also known as someone occasionally capable of acts of horrendous violence.  Now a high school junior in special ed classes, he possesses an anger management coach; no friends; and a lifelong belief that everyone on the show was right about him.  He's going to end up either in prison, or dead.  And then he meets this girl.
     But what is the book about?  That's what I'm struggling with.  Is it about healing, as PW says?  About the power of love, a la Kirkus?  About our society's obsession with celebrity and our schizophrenic attitudes toward the celebrities themselves?  About the dangerous unreality of "reality" TV, and the false perceptions it creates?  About what happens to kids who grow up subjected to parental neglect as well as to physical and emotional abuse from a sibling?  Is it about how victims of violence often end up being perpetrators? Or is it about all of the above?  And if it's all of the above, isn't that approximately 30% too many themes for one YA novel?
     Despite this quibble of mine, REALITY BOY is a great read.  I also believe that it's an important book, in large part because it was written by an important author.  I would like people to read it and figure out what they think it's about.  And in furtherance of that goal, I'm hereby sponsoring a contest, with an autographed copy of this book as a prize.   SO: in order to enter the contest, which will run from now until next Sunday, Nov. 17th, at midnight Eastern time, leave a comment to this post answering the following question:  Name a literary protagonist who possesses at least one truly ugly trait but whom you nonetheless care deeply about, and explain why you do.

     P.S.  And by the way, in honor of Veterans' Day: In EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, A.S. King engages in one of the strangest and most moving discussions of the impact of military service on future generations that I have ever seen.

     P.P.S. And here is what Laurie Halse Anderson has to say about honoring veterans, including her father.

Sunday, November 3, 2013


     Now, I know there are some haters who don't think of New Jersey as The Great Outdoors. My post tonight is for their benefit - and for yours, because I have every confidence that YOU'RE not one of the haters, right? A couple of hours ago my dogs began looking out of the window and going absolutely berserk. I let them out in the back yard, and they proceeded to go even more berserk, so I followed them out to see what was going on. And there, on my next-door neighbors' front lawn, a flock of wild turkeys stood, utterly ignoring my dogs, looking casually around as if they were the property's new owners.
     I was too stunned at first to do anything but stare at them and call my husband out from watching football to come stare at them too. It wasn't until the turkeys began to mosey off the lawn and down the street that it dawned on me to grab my cell phone and follow them. Here's what happened:

They crossed the street -

And found another neighbor's lawn -

Where they made themselves at home -

Until they decided it was time to move on -

Up the block -

And beyond.

     FYI - when a wild turkey who's been daydreaming suddenly realizes that the other members of his flock have started to move on without him, he chases after them, squealing "Eeee!  Eeee!" and sounding very much like a preverbal human child.    
     Yeah. This all happened. So the next person who makes a "Which exit?" joke around me better be hungry for a knuckle sandwich, you know what's I'm saying?