Friday, September 04, 2009

Got To Love a Good Kids' Series

I happily had an excuse to go book shopping yesterday. Not that I need a genuine excuse to go book shopping, but it's really nice to pull books off the shelves, decide to purchase them and justify it as Necessary.

I'm trying very hard to turn my fourth grade son into a Reader (yes, with the capital R). Unlike his older sister, who consumes books the way I did when I was her age, he simply doesn't find the pleasure in curling up on the couch with a great book. I keep thinking maybe this is because he just hasn't found the right One yet.

Not that I haven't tried hard to bring home the right morsel to tempt him. Whenever he expresses any interest in a type of book or a specific series, I rush out and snatch up as much of it as I can. As a result, we have the full Captain Underpants collection (through 2007, anyway) and countless episodes from the My Weird School epoch. I had words with the sales staff at both my local Borders and Barnes & Noble when neither store stocked even a single Jake Maddox title. And I've been to the bookstore twice to return duplicate purchases of the Bones books because I can't remember which ones my son has and which he wants.

Unfortunately, however, my son seems to outgrow his interest in a particular series as quickly as he grows out of last year's jeans. Just when I think he may be hooked good and proper, he's got his nose stuck in a computer video game, dust a quarter inch thick on his pile of books.

As of this summer, two series have kept me from despairing that my son will never read anything more complex than poorly drawn superheroes with underwear for a uniform. Yesterday he sent me out with instructions to locate two Weenies titles he needs to complete his collection. He's also informed me that he expects me to take him to the bookstore the second the doors open on October 12 so that he can snatch up the next installment of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid saga. It's the first time ever he's actually been aware of an upcoming release date of a book - something even I had no concept of when I was his age. I'm so very proud.

While I was indulging his love of talking Weenies, I also picked up some books with a bit more heft. In our Illinois school system, a big deal is made every year of the books nominated for a Rebecca Caudill award. It's practically a right of passage when students hit the fourth grade and can begin voting for their favorites off the list of nominees. After completing a Caudill book, students can have their picture taken as they hold up the book, and the school librarian hangs the snapshots all over the library. There's some honor in having your face plastered on the walls as many times as possible. I think my daughter might hold some kind of record.

So in order to encourage my son to read books that have a better chance in opening his worldview, I scoured the list of nominees for 2010 to see which titles might appeal to him. His teacher had informed us she'd be reading three of the books aloud to the class although she didn't specify which ones, so there was a certain amount of gambling I needed to do. I crossed off the ones with girl protagonists. As much as I HATE promoting the concept that boys don't read books about girls, I need to do whatever I can to tempt my son. I begrudgingly admit I have a better chance force feeding him boy stories.

I discovered, happily, that the book I thought most likely to appeal to him - Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass - was the very book he'd selected himself for in-class quiet reading time, although he was convinced the title was actually "Keys" because of the picture of keys on the front cover. It wasn't until I pulled the book off the shelf at the store that I confirmed they were one in the same.

I ended up with The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt and All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn. The second book came with the bonus of knowing my daughter had read and absolutely loved one of Hahn's other titles - The Old Willis House - so if my son took a pass, she'd probably want to read it. I should have guessed she's already read it (she has), and my son informed me that AtLBO is one of the three titles his teacher is reading out loud. I don't know if returning the book is worth it or if I could donate it to the school library.

I also picked up something I thought might tempt him because it's simply so off-the-wall. The Name of This Book Is a Secret caught my eye because I recognized the name of the author, Pseudonymous Bosch, from something I've read recently about character names. When I perused the book, it looked like a lot of fun. Plus, it's the first in a series, and I'm all for more of anything that works.

It's funny how I look at books for my kids these days with an eye on whether or not they are part of a series. My daughter is a book series addict. She's been through them all, starting back with Junie B. Jones, working her way through American Girl, Judy Moody, the Clique, and countless others. With the Hunter series, she made the leap over to fantasy, after which she discovered Twilight and it was all over. Because of her still-youngish age, I insist on previewing the teen vampire books she devours like candy, but for the most part, she's becoming a vampire expert. We now run into the problem of her wanting to run right out and get the next title in a series the second after she's read "the end" in the last one. She needs a job to feed her reading habit. I tried to talk her into writing her own kid's point of view book review blog as a way to share her thoughts, but so far, no sale.

In fact, I use her as my own personal book review service. For months, the Mortal Instruments book displays have caught my attention whenever I've wandered into the book store. Yesterday I picked up the first title thinking my daughter would like it. If she does, I'll read them myself. Twenty-four hours after bringing City of Bones into the house, she's a third of the way through it and walks around the house with the thing stuck in front of her face.

I do puzzle over why my daughter - and eldest child - is an avid reader while my son - and youngest - is not. They've both been exposed to my love of reading. We have so many books around our house there isn't a single room save the bathrooms that don't have shelves for books. I read out loud to both of them when they were babies, took them both to Toddler Time at the library, equally said no to both to buying candy and toys at the store but would always give in to a paperback story. They both contain half of my reading genes. But for some reason, only my daughter is like me.

My husband is not a book reader. He reads a great deal every day in the form of newspapers and trade magazines, both on line and hard copy, and he has a thing for biographies of sports figures and successful businessmen. But if he reads two fiction books a year, it's an accomplishment. He chalks this up to his short attention span. Rarely can a book hold his interest for more than a half an hour, so it takes him a very long time to finish one. Since the man can't sit still for more than fifteen minutes in a stretch, I have to agree with his assessment.

Maybe my son is just like my husband. His disinterest in reading gobs of fiction doesn't mean he won't read something or that he's a poor reader, just that he can't maintain interest for that long. Too, there are so many other forms of entertainment out there that offer a lot more bells and whistles. To my son, reading often seems like an inferior alternative, even if I know the truth. Add to it the chore of reading for school and he wants to spend his free time doing anything but reading for pleasure.

Still, I won't give up. I think a love of reading is a wonderful gift. And I truly believe success in school relies a lot on good reading habits which you simply cannot develop unless you read consistently.

Besides, I don't mind those trips to the book store in search of the perfect title that will turn that reading bug lightbulb on over his head.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Forks Exposed

This caught my attention this morning. Apparently, Forks, Washington, has earned itself a direct-to-DVD documentary for the extraordinary achievement of being the place where Stephenie Meyer set the Twilight series.

As I remarked in the EW comments section, I find this unbelievably ridiculous for many reasons.

First, it is such a blatant effort to make even more money off the Twilight phenomenon that the distributors would be less obvious if they walked up and down the aisles of movie theaters during showings of Twilight and New Moon and hawked crap like giant foam fangs, sparkly glitter vampire body paint and Edward Cullen wigs. Have they no shame? Nevermind, I already know the answer to that.

The other reason I find this so silly is that Forks offered absolutely nothing more than being located in the rainiest region of the U.S. on record to qualify it for the Twilight epicenter. Stephenie Meyer has admitted she did some kind of Google search for "rainy places" and Bam! Forks is the new Mecca for vampire groupies. She didn't manage to actually visit Forks until after she'd finished the first book and it was off being published. Things could have turned out to be a disaster.

What if Forks had been like one of the gazillion Midwestern towns dotting the state backroads, nothing more than a speed limit reduction sign and a closed-on-Sunday gas station indicating there is even a town there? Or Forks could have consisted of a one-block downtown with a hole-in-the-wall bar, an ancient appliance/furniture store and a tiny florist shop and craft emporium combo run by a lady named Mabel, the main bulk of the area actually a row of strip malls and big box retailers lining Highway 101. Realistic but not exactly picturesque. Somehow reading about how Edward and Bella headed to TGI Friday's after a quick stop at Best Buy to check out their subwoofers for Edward's Audi just doesn't create the feeling of a soul-mate love of all time in the making.

I'll give Meyer the credit of some research to make sure Forks did have a large enough population (3,275 in 2008) to have a high school or a hospital or even warrant a McDonald's. Additionally, she studied pictures of the area and was satisfied that the deep green forests surrounding Forks would meet her brooding vampire's needs.

Still, being dark and gloomy isn't usually enough to earn a real-life town a starring role in what has become arguably one of the most successful YA series ever much less a DVD of its very own.

Maybe I'm just feeling bitter because, as exemplifies Meyer's entire writing career, once again she lucked out in a major way. She has a dream, writes it down, it becomes a international best seller and a blockbuster movie franchise. She describes a handsome vampire and launches the career of the next teen heartthrob. She throws a dart at a map of the Olympic Peninsula and a random town becomes the hottest place to spend your summer vacation. With all due respect to Meyer's talent, I want to know where she stashes the bottle with the genie in it.

Oddly, my last vacation was spent in pursuit of confirming a setting for one of my own projects. With the particular premise of my story, I was limited to a very specific region of the country, yet I wanted my world to be contained in a particular type of town. I did loads of research, spent hours staring at Google Earth images, and hunted down ancient town records that could confirm that the history I needed to build upon was strong enough to support my entire premise before I chose a couple of towns I thought would work. I had every intention of using fictional names, but still I'm the type of writer who needs a real-world example to crib from.

So I packed up the hubby and we took a trip to this particular area. I bought the most detailed map I could find, we rented a car and headed into the countryside. Thankfully my better half loves nothing more than to explore, to drive aimlessly with absolutely no destination in mind, so he had no problem with our lack of vacation structure. He generously offered to drive so I could gawk at the countryside while I led him through all of my possible towns, trying to match my imaginings and story needs to the reality of what we found.

Some places were far too large and developed. Since I don't want my characters eating at Ruby Tuesdays or shopping at Aero Postale unless they hop on the highway for a ways, I crossed those towns off the list.

Other places weren't more than a single stop light that left me wondering how long the kids had to sit on the bus in the morning to get to the nearest high school. I want small and intimate, but remote and a pain-in-the-ass to run to the store for a gallon of milk is just a little too underdeveloped.

Some places didn't have the geographic features I needed - some woods with a winding road or two cutting between the trees, a middle-class neighborhood, a proximity to the ocean that allowed my characters to use it frequently. Nothing pulls me out of a story quicker than when a writer unfamiliar with a real-world location has his/her character perform some action that is logistically impossible given the region. Example: Bueller, Ferris, driving to the far northern suburbs from downtown Chicago in less than an hour during rush hour traffic. But I digress.

One town came fairly close to meeting most of my setting requirements, and it might have to do for my stand in. But I've come to see that I need to let go of reality completely. My story town might just have to be entirely fictional. Unlike Meyer, I didn't luck out and find my Forks.

Granted, I've never been to Forks. It may be the case that only tiny portions of it fit Meyer's needs and she simply ignored any parts of it that messed up her story. Too, while Forks created a very specific atmosphere in the Twilight series, it was never described in detail. Readers must fill in a lot of blanks with their own guesswork, and a visit to the real town might create a huge disconnect.

Perhaps this whole DVD thing isn't such a great idea after all. Kind of like pulling the curtain away from the man behind Oz. Better Forks remain that perfect rainy place where Edward and Bella frolic in the woods than face the fact that some businesses there use those tacky portable change-a-letter signs on a regular basis. Talk about killing the mystique.