Monthly Archives: June 2014

Project: Bookshelf with J. Anderson Coats

Welcome to PROJECT: BOOKSHELF, a continuing series in which Mackenzi Lee tries to read every book on her bookshelf in the course of a summer while friends, writers, and readers drop in to tell us about their respective shelves. This week, we’re hosting J. Anderson Coats, whose book, The Wicked and the Just, should be on the reading list of everyone who loves historical fiction. Or Wales. What does she have on her bookshelf besides some creepy-ass candles? Read onto find out! 

But first, let’s take a look at my reading wrap-up.

This week, from my collection of unread books on my shelf, I read…

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

  • Genre: Adult historical fiction
  • Where I got it: Purchased for myself after the author did a reading at Porter Square Books, complete with a theremin demonstration by a local thereminist. What is a theremin, you ask? Aside from being the first electronic instrument and the subject of this novel, it is the weirdest music making device you will ever come across. You can find video here, and I encourage you to watch and be mystified.
  • What I thought: This book is stunning and haunting and I’m so glad I read it. The language is beautiful and poetic without ever feeling trite. However, like so many adult books in this genre, there are huge stretches of time where I felt like nothing was happening. It wasn’t happening beautifully, but I still got a little weary. It read very slow. But still highly recommended!

Marco Impossible by Hannah Moskowitz

  • Genre: Tween contemporary
  • Where I got it: Picked up during the great Simmons book grab of 2014
  • What I thought: While the emotional landscape of this book is impressive, there was too much going on. Too many characters. Too many emotional journeys. Too much wrapping up of those emotional journeys. In the end, it felt muddled, and the emotional impact was lost in the amount of it. Also the ending was so corny! Lots of over the top eye rolling was happening on my end.

Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

  • Genre: YA fantasy
  • Where I got it: Snagged from the free books shelf at work
  • What I thought: This book is so funny! Contemporary fantasy in the style of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. And Jennifer Strange is much like her fictional sister, Thursday Next, in her unfailing practicality.

And now, meet J’s bookshelf! 

I’m a bookshelf decorator. As in, my home has a lot of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves to spare me needing to paint the walls a nice color or purchase art or really expend any effort whatsoever when it comes to decorating.

2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #0 Decorating I2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #0A Decorating II

I’m also a librarian by profession.

You’d think this would mean my books are organized in some way.

But they’re not. By and large, they’re organized in one of two ways: 1) order of acquisition; or 2) size.

2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #1 Order of Acquisition2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #2 Size

There are some exceptions. One of them is a small but growing collection of books by people I know*:

2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #3 People I Know

*If I know you and your book isn’t here, it’s probably because I gifted it to someone. Please don’t throw things. :)

Another is a two-shelf unit across the hall from my bathroom known as the medieval bookshelf.

“Medieval bookshelf” is somewhat of a misnomer, as there are books about street ballads, historical artisans and craftspeople, and folklore that live there. But it is where all the books I use for research live, and they are organized by place and/or subject. Some of my most favorite things live here, notably a copy of Brut y Tywysogion (Welsh: Chronicle of the Princes) that came from Japan of all places and cost something like 17,000 yen.

2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #4 Medieval Bookshelf

Another is my husband’s textbooks from back in 2006 that haven’t been read since but apparently have been legacied onto this shelf:

2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #5 - Textbooks

(The creepy-as-hell candles need to be regifted STAT)

Also, here’s another legacy. When my son was little, he was allowed one shelf in the living room to keep whatever books he wanted so he didn’t have to keep running to his room to bring his favorites. He’s sixteen now, but this is what was left on the shelf from the last time it was used:

2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #6 - Kid Shelf Legacy

(And yes, Skepticism and Animal Faith was placed there by him, at age ten or so.)

And here’s why we’re about due for another bookshelf:

2014-6-2 Project Bookshelf #7 - Overflow

Being surrounded by books is comforting, which is why I’m not keen to impose an order. They remind me of people I know, people I love, so it really doesn’t matter where they are as long as they’re easily at hand.

Coats - Author Photo 200J. Anderson Coats is the author of historical fiction for young adultsthat routinely includes too much violence, name-calling and pettyvandalism perpetrated by badly-behaved young people. Her first YA novel, THE WICKED AND THE JUST, was one of Kirkus’s Best Teen Books of 2012, a 2013 YALSA Best for Young Adults (BFYA) winner, and a School Library Journal Best Books of 2012 selection. It also won the 2013 Washington State Book Award for Young Adults. 

 Thanks for tuning in! Join us next Friday for more Project: Bookshelf.  Can’t wait that long? Visit the Project: Bookshelf archive.

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in which your book deal questions are answered

It has now been two weeks since my book sold. One week since I announced it to the wide world. In that week since, I have been reminded that I have both the best people in my life and am part of the best community. So thank you to all you friends and strangers who were excited for me and made my big news impossibly bigger.

In the last week, I’ve discovered that people have a lot of the same questions after you tell them you just sold a book. So I decided to compile my answers all in one convenient place. A book deal FAQ, as it were.

Hopefully all your questions are answered here, and if not, leave them in comments!

 

What’s your book called?

Apparently a lot of people missed this. It’s called THE SHADOW BOYS ARE BREAKING. This title is subject to change, as all titles are, but for now, this is it’s name.

 

Can I buy it now?

I know, I want it right now too! But alas—it doesn’t come out until next fall (as in 2015).

 

Ugh why does it take so long?!

Funnily enough, my book is actually coming out really fast in terms of a typical publishing timeline. Right now at my publishing job, we are working on books that won’t come out until 2017. Publishing takes a long time. Books are made up of a lot of pieces and it takes a lot of time for all those pieces to come together.

 

Speaking of your day job, are you going to quit it?

Aw that’s cute. In spite of Suzanne Collins and JK Rowling setting examples otherwise, not all children’s authors are rolling in the dough. Someday I would love to quit my day job and write full time, but today is not that day, because Boston is expensive and student loans are building at my back and I have to support my Diet Coke habit. So no, I’m not quitting my job, both for monetary reasons and because I really like my job. Jobs. Both of them.

 

What’s the cover going to look like?

I have no idea! Authors really don’t have control over that. But all of Katherine Tegen’s books have such lovely covers, I can’t imagine it will be anything less than extraordinary.

 

Um, why are you not publishing under your real name?

I’ve been a little surprised by how many people have been shocked and affronted over my decision to publish under a different name than the one that appears on my driver’s license. Turns out my last name has a lot of passionate defenders.

So here’s the deal about this—first of all, Mackenzi Lee is my real name. It is just my real name with the last bit hacked off. As previously discussed, my last name is long and intimidating, and after focus grouping it for over twenty years, I’ve discovered that most people’s initial reaction to my last name is panic. And I don’t want people panicking when they see the cover of my book. It is also very important to me as an author to be easy to find, and while many of you might think my last name is lovely and charming, try spelling it out in the nonexistent Goodreads search engine feature after only briefly glancing at it or hearing it said once in passing. I promise you will end up just banging your fist on the keyboard. That’s sometimes what I end up doing. So the dissection of my name is something I have thought long and hard about. It is not a snap decision. It was not decided by my agent or my editor or my publisher. It is not a rejection of my cultural heritage. It is instead a deliberate and well-thought out choice on my part in order to make me more easily accessible to the people who might someday read my book.

 

Wait, what happened to that other book you wrote?

What a good memory you have! So last summer, when I signed with my agent, it was not with this book. Back then, this book was only a few confused chapters saved in my file of ideas that might never get written. So yes, I did write another book before this one. It was about glass making in nineteenth-century Venice, and while I loved it dearly, and my agent loved it dearly, and even some editors loved it, it did not get published, and after sending it out to publishers for quite a while, it became time to, in the words of Elsa, let it go. There are so many factors that go into what books get published—it’s not always just which books are best—and for various reasons, this book did not get picked up. Maybe someday I’ll dig it back out and try again, but for now, it’s being left behind. Am I sad about this? Yeah, I guess, a little, but I also couldn’t have written SHADOW BOYS without writing that other book first.

 

So what’s book two going to be about?

It amuses and amazes me how many people have asked this. I’m too excited about book one (which is already written) to even think about book two (which is not). I don’t know what book two will be about. While I am definitely anxious about writing it, because I am a writer and thus plagued by irrational anxiety that I will never have another good idea again, I was calmed by wise words of encouragement from my agent: writing book two is like that scene in Harry Potter 3, where Harry knows he can conjure the patronus because he’s already done it before. So I am trying to be confident in my ability to conjure another patronus!

 

Is the whole world different now that you have a book deal?

You know, it really isn’t. True, I’ve been doing a lot of out-of-context grinning and some spontaneous dancing over the past two weeks, and probably will keep doing that for the next year and a half, but my life isn’t really that different than it was pre-book deal. It’s funny how things can change and still stay the same.

Have any other book deal questions? Leave them in comments! 

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Project: Bookshelf with Amitha Knight

Welcome to PROJECT: BOOKSHELF, a continuing series in which Mackenzi Lee tries to read every book on her bookshelf in the course of a summer while friends, writers, and readers drop in to tell us about their respective shelves. This week, we’re joined by Amitha Knight, a fellow Boston-area kidlit writer and Susan Bloom Discovery Award winner! She’s here to tell us about her bookshelves, and one special book that stands out. 

But first, let’s take a look at my reading wrap-up.

This week, from my collection of unread books on my shelf, I read…

Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine

  • Genre: YA historical fantasy
  • Where I got it: Thieved. But I won’t tell you from where.
  • What I Thought: Oh this one started out so strong. The writing and the setting are so, so pretty, but pretty isn’t everything. It lost steam about halfway through, and the plot drags, with too much of it is packed into the last eighty pages.

Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times by Emma Trevayne

  • Genre: Middle Grade Steampunk
  • Where I got it: ARC picked up from the bookstore
  • What I thought: I think my expectations were too high for this one, because it did absolutely nothing for me. Unobjectionable writing, but I had zero emotional investment in anything that happened. The world was underdeveloped, characters were flat, and there was none of the imaginative charm factor I was hoping for. The prettiest thing about this book is the cover.

Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

  • Genre: YA fantasy
  • Where I got it: Purchased for myself to complete the trilogy
  • What I thought: I really love this series, and while this wasn’t technically a bad ending, it just left me sort of unfulfilled. So much of what could have been done….wasn’t. Argh. I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing as a good way to end a series.

Guys, I am in such a reading slump! I am not liking anything I have picked up recently!

….And on that vaguely depressing note, meet Amitha and her bookshelf! 

We have several bookshelves in our house: my writing/research bookshelf in my office, my kids’ bookshelves in their rooms, a scifi shelf, and not to mention the growing pile of books at my bedside table. But our largest bookshelves sit in our living room, where we can see them, admire them, and be appalled at what a haphazard arrangement of books it is.

Amithasbookshelf

Once upon a time, our bookshelves were organized by author with a few categories separated out (my books from India that don’t have barcodes, his scifi collection, and my rapidly growing children’s literature collection), because my husband, the son of a former librarian, downloaded a program that allowed us to scan in our books and organize them. So we had all our books in order and cataloged on the computer…

…And then we moved. In our haste to unpack and feel moved in, we thought we’d just empty the books onto our shelves and then reorganize them later. That was a few years ago now and of course, “later” still hasn’t happened. Ah well.

Dragon

As far as the books themselves, I go to a lot of book signings and have numerous signed books from children’s authors (Shannon Hale, Gene Luen Yang, and Neil Gaiman, to name a few of the more famous ones), but one of the books I love the most is a book I tracked down and bought used online: a copy of The Secret Garden. This book isn’t particularly valuable (and I was dismayed to discover that it is abridged), however this specific edition has a lot of sentimental value.

Secret Garden

The Secret Garden was one of my favorite novels as a child almost certainly because I fell in love with this specific book cover. I remember checking this book out from the library and thinking it was one of the most beautiful books I’d ever held. Obviously, I had to return the book, but for a few years afterward, whenever I went to a bookstore I would look for this specific edition of The Secret Garden, just to see if it was just as pretty as I’d remembered. Many years later, I tracked it down online. Interestingly, the thing that had fascinated me the most—the sundial—was actually on the back of the cover, when in my mind it had been embossed in gold and on the front of the book, instead of the girl. While the actual cover (which is still lovely) isn’t as amazing as my memory of the cover, just looking at it brings back one of my very favorite reading memories of rocking in our backyard hammock over summer vacation and being so caught up in this story that I never wanted to put it down. Little kid me would be so excited to know that I found this book. Grown up me thinks it’s pretty cool too.

broAmitha Knight is a full-timer writer, a doctor, and a mother of two. She was named a winner of the 2012 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award and received a Letter of Merit for her writing from the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2011.  If you’re interested in children’s author signings, she maintains a calendar of events for the Boston area (also on Facebook). Follow her: Twitter / Google Plus /Goodreads

 

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In which the book deal is announced

If you have been around me at all this past week, you might have found yourself asking questions such as, “Why does Mackenzie seem so happy?” “Why has all her usual grump and cynicism been replaced by aggressive cheer?” “Why is she smiling at me like that? It’s creepy. Make her stop smiling at me like that.”

Well at long last, I can tell you! I can finally explain why I have spent the last week vomiting happiness on everyone I came in contact with.

Two words, friends: book deal.

Book. Deal.

I’ll let the official announcement from today’s Publisher’s Marketplace1 explain further:

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So this is happening! It is a real thing and not just the fever dream I have sustained for the past three years!

What does this mean for you, my lovely friends? Well, two things, really. One, you all are going to have to put up with my Frankenstein obsession for at least another year and a half, so prepare yourself for every conversation we have—online or off—to include some sort of tangential reference to Shelley. Two, and more importantly, it means that at some point next fall, you will be able to walk into your local independent bookstore, mosey over to the YA section, and pick up a shiny hard-backed edition of my incredibly weird post-modern revisionist steampunk-lite meta-gothic-horror Frankenstein reimagining2.

My novel is going to be published3!!! There are not enough exclamation points in the world to convey how I feel about this!! I have been dancing to myself all week, and now you all can dance with me!

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Friends, I am SO EXCITED. And even that is an understatement.

 

  1. Publisher’s Marketplace! I feel so fancy and legit!
  2. And at an undisclosed time after that, you will be able to buy ANOTHER book of mine. Because did you see—two book deal! That means I get to write another one!
  3. By, in case you missed it in the PM announcement, Katherine Tegen Books, a YA imprint of HarperCollins. You might have heard of them. They publish a little book called Divergent.

 

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Project: Bookshelf with Heather Marie

Welcome to PROJECT: BOOKSHELF, a continuing series in which Mackenzi Lee tries to read every book on her bookshelf in the course of a summer while friends, writers, and readers drop in to tell us about their respective shelves. This week, we’re joined by the fabulous Heather Marie whose novel, THE GATEWAY THROUGH WHICH THEY CAME, comes out this August from Curiosity Quills Press. She is here to share with us the story of a hard-won bookshelf and the volumes that populate it.

But first, let’s take a look at my reading wrap-up.

This week, from my collection of unread books on my shelf, I read…

Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry

  • Genre: YA Zombie Post-Apocalyptic
  • Where I got it: A graduation gift from the MT
  • What I thought: This book, sadly, didn’t work for me. It was by no means a bad book, and I thought the zombie world building was excellent, but overall the characters didn’t resonate and their emotional arcs peaked too fast for me.

This was a light reading week for me. Some other things happened and I was distracted, plus the new job has me reading a lot of manuscripts at work, leaving me not wanting to read when I got home from work. I promise I will do better!  

And now, meet Heather and her bookshelf!  

I’ve always dreamed of having a room filled to the brim with books. Over the years I’ve collected hundreds of them, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t seem to hold onto them. Either I didn’t have the space, or I was moving for the hundredth time and had to donate them to local stores and friends. It always made me incredibly sad parting with them, especially when I’d become so dependent on the comfort they brought me. There’s something about the colorful spines with their elegant script. The beautiful covers that you could stare at for hours. I love the feel of the pages between my fingertips, and the crisp sound of the paper with each turn of the page. But most of all, I love plucking a book off the shelf, curling into a ball on the couch, and absorbing its words until the late hours of the night.

I’ve moved so much these last few years, which meant my book collection suffered dramatically. I went from two mini bookshelves, to none. Then I went from several boxes  stuffed into storage, to only a few with the books I couldn’t part with. As time went on, I told myself that I’d build my collection again. I begged and hoped someone would help me purchase another bookcase to display all the wonderful books that meant so much to me.

I knew I couldn’t afford a bookshelf. It was never something I’ve been able to fit into my tight budget. But last Christmas brought me the best gift, when my adorable husband went out and got me the perfect bookshelf. I nearly cried when I saw it. It came in this huge box and weighed a ton. I sat next to it all night and silently hoped we would head home soon to assemble it. No one in the room knew how attached I’d become to this gift, or maybe they did. I certainly didn’t hide my excitment. By the time we got home, which was pretty late, he asked if I needed help and I said no. For whatever reason, I wanted to put it together on my own. So I did.

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It took me all night.

When it was done, I dragged all the boxes out from storage and sorted the books on the shelves in no particular order. It didn’t matter to me where and why, it just needed to be.

When I stepped back and observed, my heart danced in my chest. I wanted to hug my arms around it and never let go. It was much taller than I thought, which meant more books! There was so much space needing to be filled, and there still is. But at the time, I knew it wasn’t complete until I added one particular book.

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver was a book I read in high school. It stuck with me all these years. There were times when I couldn’t even remember the title, and I’d find myself on the Internet scouring Google in hopes of finding it. And when I finally came across it, I promised myself I would buy it as soon as I could. But I never did.

Last year, out of the blue, I stumbled upon the book on the For Sale shelf at Tower Records. It was so random. In fact, I was struggling so much at the time financially, that I couldn’t even afford the sale price. My husband could see on my face how much the book meant, and, you guessed it, he bought it for me.

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I haven’t read this book since that first time in my 12th grade English class. And to be honest, I don’t even think I need to. I think we all have a book like this. Something we’ve read that changed us so much. Something that made you feel like nothing you’ve ever read before. A part of me thinks that reading it again will change the way it made me feel all those years ago, and all the years after. It’s something I don’t ever want to lose; that feeling of overwhelming emotion that one single book has brought to me.

I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll read it again. Maybe to myself when I’m all alone and needing that comfort, or maybe to my future children when they’re ready. But, to me, just having it on my new bookshelf is enough for now. And maybe it always will be.

Heather-AuthorPhotos-3-WEBSIZEHeather Marie lives in Northern California with her husband, and spends the majority of her time at home reading. Before she followed her dreams of becoming a writer, Heather worked as a hairstylist and makeup artist for several years. Although she enjoyed the artistic aspect of it all, nothing quite quenched her creative side like the telling of a good story. When the day had come for her to make a choice, she left behind her promising career to start another, and never looked back. Visit her online on her website, Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter

Thanks for tuning in! Join us next Friday for more Project: Bookshelf.  Can’t wait that long? Visit the Project: Bookshelf archive.

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Project: Bookshelf with Katja Nelson

Welcome to PROJECT: BOOKSHELF, a continuing series in which Mackenzi Lee tries to read every book on her bookshelf in the course of a summer while friends, writers, and readers drop in to tell us about their respective shelves. This week, I’ve got my good friend and fellow writer Katja Nelson telling us about the war on her bookshelves. 

But first, let’s take a look at my reading wrap-up.

This week, from my collection of unread books on my shelf, I read…

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

  • Genre: Young adult historical fantasy
  • Where I got it: I bought it as my admission ticket to see Sir Terry himself speak in New York City two years ago. As a result, it is signed. It’s one of my favorite books I own for that reason, but it’s sort of perpetually sat on my to-read list.
  • What I thought: This book was so great. Sir Terry’s trademark humor and heart, mixed with some great historical Easter eggs and some wonderfully imaginative additions. So great.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

  • Genre: Adult fiction
  • Where I got it: It was a “thank you” gift for being a World Book Night giver
  • What I thought: I aggressively disliked this book. Partly because I just expected it to be better from one of the Arrested Development writers. I did not laugh once in this whole book. I found no emotional connection in it. The characters were all annoying and I despised them. Especially the teenagers. Has this woman ever been around a real teenager? Ugh. I get it’s a satire but….no. This book just made me angry.

And now, meet Katja and her bookshelf! 

The books on my shelves are at war.

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See? It’s a showdown between children’s fiction and literary fiction. I’ve got Karen Russell’s Pulitzer-Prize Honor novel Swamplandia! locked in battle with Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry-winning Tale of Despereaux. And Bruce Coville’s Into the Land of the Unicorns hovering uneasily over Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick. There’s The Illiad duking it out with The Westing Game, Don Quixote against The Golden Compass, Ironweed versus The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

All my life they’ve been at war. Growing up, I read children’s fiction nonstop, especially fantasy (I think children’s fantasy is very different from genre fantasy, and I like it much more than genre fantasy). I loved stories that glimmered like dwarf-made metal and shimmered like fairy dust. (I was especially fond of unicorns). But because there weren’t any fantasy stories at home, I’d bring home scores of them from the library (the books in Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop series were some of my favorites). In fourth grade, my dad gave me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone over Christmas, and I loved that book so hard I had read it ten times until I could read the second one. It was everything in one book that I loved: unicorns, magic, orphans, dreams. And it was funny too! I became a Potter evangelist. To everyone in my class I unashamedly testified of The Boy Who Lived. (I still do this, which is probably why I somehow ended up with three copies of it.)

The stuff ten-year-old me was writing was a reflection of my reading habits. There were a lotof unicorns in my books, along with plenty of magic and hordes of orphans with hitherto-unknown special powers. There were attics with secrets, and dreams that were more than dreams, and also some elements of Cardcaptors tossed in for good measure.

Like other kids who love reading, I often had to be sneaky, for fear some grown-up would pounce on me and command me to “make myself useful” or “go outside and play.” I learned to feel guilty about spending my time reading. (I also learned that people are more hesitant to interrupt you if you read in the bathroom.) (I’m pretty sure this is why the bathroom is my favorite room in the house.) But my guilt about reading was compound by my parents’ well-meaning nagging about reading The Classics—by which, of course, they meant boring, non-fantastical tomes that felt heavy and plodding and old, filled with dust and American wars and shabby clothes. But I didn’t want to read about kids whose lives were grim and sad and poor and rarely funny. I remember my mom suggesting I read Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and I got about a chapter in before I became so utterly bored that I did that thing I’d seen on TV, where the reader hides one book behind the other, like so. (I’m almost positive that my mom was not fooled by this.)

And I kept up all that fantasy reading and fantasy writing and fantasy evangelizing until high school, when I finally did what my parents had been telling me to do for years: I traded in my Weird Fantasy Books That I Should Be Slightly Embarrassed to Be Seen With for Socially Acceptable and Academically Impressive Classic Novels. And I stopped writing fantasy.

But they weren’t bad, those SAAICNs. In fact, I was surprised by their beauty. I was surprised by how much they resonated with me. I enjoyed some of them so much that I even started buyingthem (with a combined feeling of intellectual superiority and Benedict Arnold-ish guilt). But if anything, the classics made me less of a socially acceptable person, because now I had all these crazy ideas about relationships and religion and the nature of the human experience, all topics that made me not so fun at parties.

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My English major made me worse. I read a lot of literary fiction there—the only acceptable sort of literature inside the academy. But those books were beautiful too. And because I was reading literary fiction and writing literary criticism about it, I fell deeply in love with language, which meant feeling betrayed and fascinated by its slipperiness, by the necessity and impossibility of meaning-making. But I also felt that I was doing a good thing, reading Real Literature and writing literary criticism about it, instead of wasting my time with children’s books. Even though I was learning to question the literary canon, to ask what assumptions we’re making when we call some books Great Works of Art and others Merely Popular Scum That Is Undeserving of Our Attention and Will Never Stand the Test of Time, still I felt that I was finally making good use of my wordsy mind, that I was making my parents proud by studying The Classics. The decision to pursue an MA instead of an MFA partly grew out of feeling that writing literary criticism about literary fiction was superior, career-wise, to writing children’s fantasy. Children’s fantasy was something I could savor as a guilty pleasure, but not something I could take seriously, intellectually or vocationally.

And then, the summer before I started my MA, when I suddenly had oodles of time in the evenings after work, I realized something was missing from my life. Yep, it was fantasy! I missed kid characters. I missed unicorns, and magic, and orphans, and dreams. I missed the lightheartedness of fantasy, its playfulness. So I went back to my local library. And I checked out armfuls of kidlit. And I started to read it again. And then I started to write it.

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It’s only now that I’ve started buying children’s books again that I know I’m finally taking children’s literature seriously again. Because now instead of only books that are the very most upstanding Classic Novels, there are more children’s books. There’s the Harry Potter shelf, of course—the nucleus, the heart of my book life. But there’s also Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

In my own circuitous way, my writing, my life, has been improved by my meandering path through fantasy and literary fiction. My time with literary fiction has changed the way I see kidlit. I treasure its linguistic economy. I see now what’s at stake in children’s fantasy. I see what’s important about battling dragons. I’ve been There and Back Again, and I think both kinds of books are essential. Both do irreplaceable work. They teach me to love better. They teach me to be honest, kind, and brave. They teach me about dark times and about hope. East of Eden taught me about agency; The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles taught me about creativity.

So it’s not a war on my shelves. It’s not even a truce. It’s a freaking love fest.

nelson{e}_59 (1)Katja Nelson is a writing and rhetoric teacher at Brigham Young University, where she is pursuing her MA in English Literature. Her favorite Muppets are Kermit, Beaker, and the Swedish Chef.

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in which my violin is fixed by a russian master and his dog

As you may or may not know, a few months ago I bought a violin. It should be noted that I am not an accomplished violinist by any stretch of the imagination. The word “novice” seems a bit generous to describe my skill. So my goal in purchasing said violin was to find something cheap but functional. I ended up buying one off Craigslist1. And for someone who knows nothing about violins and just wants to be able to play Greensleeves marginally well, it worked fine.

Until it didn’t. As the seasons changed, the pegs that hold the strings in place inexplicably refused to do their job. It didn’t seem like a big problem, but also not something I could fix on my own.

So a few weeks ago, I Gogglged violin repair. The first place that came up had both a high Yelp rating and was located near my school. Great, I thought, I have to pick up my diploma anyways. So I strapped my violin case to my back and set off.

sheeer

What I failed to notice was that the shop was located next to the symphony hall. And if I had noticed this, I might have realized that this probably meant they were accustomed to a certain caliber of clientele. Namely, not wannabe Craigstlist-trolling slightly-less-than-beginner violinists.

I approached the shop door and found myself greeted by a sign that announced in large, firm-looking letters NO WHISTLING. That’s weird, I thought. Maybe it’s a joke and these lovely violin-fixing people have a great sense of humor.

As soon as I opened the door, I realized immediately that this was not the case.

Inside, I found a room with fancy red carpet and walls lined with framed newspaper clippings and magazine covers, fancy art2, and only a few violins. As someone who used to get a lot of enjoyment out of walking into fancy stores in Europe and pretending I was rich, I know that the emptiest stores are always the most expensive ones. This shop was very clearly very expensive. The only furniture was a table so shiny you could see your reflection in it, surrounded by three straight-backed green leather chairs, and a desk at the opposite end of room with a tiny man and a tinier woman bent over it, neither of whom looked up when I entered. And stretched on the floor in the center of it all was a massive blonde dog. My parents have a St. Bernard, so I know a thing or two about big dogs, and this dog was BIG.

I hovered in the doorway, debating whether or not I should bolt. The giant blonde dog seemed to be the only one who noticed me, and he trotted up and sat down at my feet. I scratched him behind the ears.

sherly

After a few uncomfortable minutes, the man behind the desk acknowledged my presence by calling, “Yes, what is it you need?” He had a very thick accent that I can only describe as Bond villain-esque.

Tentatively, I edged across the room towards them, and began with a confident, “Um, hi. I have a violin and it has a problem, and I didn’t buy it from you guys3, but I was hoping you could maybe fix it for me.”

“Where did you buy it?” the man asked without looking up.

“Uh, Craigslist,” I said.

Slowly and simultaneously, they both raised their faces from the desk and gave me what can only be described as “the look.”

“Craigslist?” he repeated. I lost a few inches of height under his glare and nodded. I half expected him to raise one long, bony finger and use it to point me firmly to the door. Instead, he pursed his lips, removed his spectacles4 and said, “You may place your violin case on the table and wait for me.”

Oh really? May I? I thought.

But I was too intimidated to be a smart ass. So as instructed, I wordlessly placed my violin case on the table and sat down in one of the very straight chairs. The massive blonde dog wandered over and put his head on my lap. I opened my case and waited.

After a minute, the violin man came over and peered inside. And he cringed. Actually cringed as though I had opened my case to reveal a clump of festering human organs rather than my slightly battered violin. “My God,” he muttered, then removed my violin and began a doctor’s examination of it. I watched. The massive blonde dog drooled gently on my lap.

sherlcok

After a moment, the violin man put down my violin and gave me “the look” again. I wilted. “Come here,” he commanded. The dog and I both stood and came to his side. “Hold out your hand,” he commanded. I disentangled my fingers from the dog’s fur and showed him. “You are a pianist,” he said. I was a little freaked out by whatever voodoo powers had granted him this knowledge I had definitely not volunteered, but I nodded. Then he said, “You are not a violinist.”

I began to babble senselessly about how that was definitely true, hence the crappy violin, because I didn’t really need anything nice and I couldn’t afford anything better, I just wanted to learn because I’d always wanted to learn and sometimes you have to follow your weird dreams—

Thankfully, he cut me off. “I can fix it for $10.”

“Great,” I said. “Great, great, awesome, great, thank you.”

The massive blonde dog and I sat down again and waited while the violin man took my violin into the back. I tried and failed to regain my cool. The blonde dog sat as straight as the chairs. I scratched him.

After about ten minutes, the violin man brought me my violin back and started showing me how I should be tuning it, and why the way I had been tuning it had apparently compromised its internal structure. At one point, he made what I thought was a joke about what a mess my violin was. I smiled and said something like, “Ha ha, yeah, I know it’s a terrible violin,” and thought to myself, maybe this man has a sense of humor after all.

He did the slow look up again, and I realized immediately that he didn’t. “That is not a joke,” he said. “You should not laugh, you should be crying.”

I shut my mouth.

While in the process of showing me all the ways I was slowly murdering my already corpse of a violin, a young man walked in. The violin man stopped his diagnosis of my dying violin and gave the young man the same critical eye he had given me. “Excuse me,” the young man said in a thick accent. “I am in the States for sixteen days and while I am here I wish to purchase a violin from you.”

“What’s your budget?” asked the violin man.

“No more than five thousand dollars,” the young man replied.

I snorted before I could stop myself. They both looked at me, and I chose not to explain that I had paid one hundred dollars in cash to a man out of the trunk of his car for mine. I should not even be there.

The violin man told the young man he could wait in one of the straight backed chairs5, and commenced his free lesson on how to make my crappy violin less crappy.

sherls

Turns out, the violin man was not humorless. When I handed him my credit card, he asked me how I survived with a last name like mine6. We had a good laugh over that. Or rather he laughed and I nervous giggled. Then he looked me very seriously in the eyes and said, “You can still take good care of it.”

I told him I was going to. And then I skedaddled out of there without asking why patrons were so vehemently prohibited from whistling.

 

  1. Literally bought it out of the trunk of a man’s car down a dark alley. I am a Dateline special waiting to happen.
  2. And three more “no whistling” signs
  3. You guys! Surely no one had ever referred to these very upright people as you guys.
  4. Nope, not glasses. Spectacles. The word spectacles was invented to describe this variety of eyewear.
  5. The blonde dog abandoned me for him at that point, since his lap was more available.
  6. It should be noted my last name is not Lee. It is in actuality a Dutch monstrosity that consists of fifteen letters, six syllables, two capitalizations, two words, and a space.

 

 

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