Scholastic Reads!

Arthur A. Levine being interviewed for the Scholastic Reads podcast
*sniff* I love my editor.

Why yes, in fact I WAS interviewed for the Scholastic Reads Podcast, thank you for asking.

I started writing my first manuscript ten years ago. Two years later I attended my first SCBWI Summer Conference, where I heard a certain editor deliver a keynote about picture books that included a single, sly photographic reference to a certain boy wizard. The year after that I exercised my newfound children’s/YA book discovery muscles by picking up a book about a character named Marcelo, whose story absolutely floored me with its depth of feeling and love for humanity. If someone had walked up to me at that time and said “hey, I know it seems like Arthur A. Levine and Francisco Stork exist on an entirely different plane of literary reality from you, but in 7 years you’re going to be featured in a Scholastic podcast with both of them,” I might have said “HOW GULLIBLE DO YOU THINK I AM?” Or maybe “EXACTLY HOW MUCH HAVE YOU HAD TO DRINK?”

Now, of course, things are different; Arthur’s both my editor and one of my very closest friends, and I’ve met and done events with Francisco, who’s every bit as big-hearted and generous as people say he is. Still, I wouldn’t have predicted this back then. Me sharing the spotlight with one of the finest novelists of our generation and one of the most acclaimed and successful editors of all time? I mean, come on, that would have been totally bananas.

Safety, healing, and TWO NAOMIS

Cover image for TWO NAOMIS by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick
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Safety and healing, safety and healing. I was interviewed in SLJ a ways back, and one of the questions was about having parents in my book who are, you know, alive, and also loving and engaged with their child. I don’t view that as a requirement for MG fiction, but it is a quality I love about TWO NAOMIS by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick.

TWO NAOMIS is about two girls who live with the aftereffects of divorce, and I have to admit that I was struck by the way the book’s four divorced parents are portrayed. I know from experience that divorce is a difficult, even traumatic experience for the adults involved, and it’s undeniably traumatic for the children involved, but I like it very much that TWO NAOMIS doesn’t frame the pain families experience from divorce in terms of personal failings on the part of the parents. They’re presented very much as people with frailties, strengths, hopes, and desires that are thoroughly, understandably human.

The two Naomis themselves struggle with things that are equally real, and unquestionably huge in the scope of their lives and experiences to date, but they’re not in ULTIMATE PERIL or anything. This isn’t the story of Nine-Fingered Naomi and the Ring of Doom, and I love that, especially during these days of grief and horror. I love the intimate scope of this book, I love its unstinting embrace of everyday humanity, and I love the fact that the girls, despite their very real struggles, are blessed with four collective parents who are involved, engaged, striving, and loving.

The two Naomis live in an atmosphere that never feels devoid of hope, sweet, blessed hope, and the possibility of experiencing safety and healing feels real from start to finish, not just for the Naomis, but also for readers of their story.

The EMLA Retreat

I’ve been very public with my enthusiasm for social media, including both Twitter and Facebook – many, many good things have happened for me through those channels – but I’ve always been aware of their limitations, even if I don’t often bother to enumerate them. There are ways in which I’m good at using social media – here on Facebook, for example, I’m capable of expressing thoughts and emotions with candor, clarity, and vulnerability, although like most people I do try to practice caution and curate what I say (with admittedly debatable success, at times). And of course, online communication is inherently and unavoidably incomplete; our physical presence is part of the fullness of our humanity.

I suspect I’m not the only one who struggles with the complexities of transitioning from online friendship to in-person friendship. I do believe online friendships can be meaningful and real, even if they are incomplete by nature, but face-to-face contact rightfully carries the potential for massive changes in perception. And my insecurities about those potential changes in perception are legion, because my ability to openly and emotionally communicate is far more hampered when I’m actually in the room where it happens (Hamilton FTW).

Five years ago I met a very large group of authors, illustrators, and agents with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, simultaneously, most of them for the first time, and in a setting that was anything but low intensity. It was my first EMLA client retreat, and I was very, very anxious. I had friends there, people I’d grown to cherish without having met in person, and I felt confident that those friendships would persist no matter what happened at the retreat, but the prospect of meeting EVERYONE at once had my inner engine of insecurity revving high. I was feeling so hopeful and so uncertain at the same time; I wanted to feel like I belonged in that community. I wanted that so, so badly.

This year’s retreat is now over. It wasn’t an entirely seamless experience, because my personal and professional lives have been very eventful this year, and our industry is once again staggering through a barrage of controversy. I had to work hard to find my psychic footing, and the effort I had to make in order to engage was not inconsequential, but in the end the work paid off. I remembered how much has changed for me since my first desperately hopeful arrival five years ago. I realized, with relief, that my feelings of safety among this group of people have continued to grow. I realized that the structures and contexts that help me express my feelings of gratitude, affection, and connection to the people I see at this event each year are still there, and still function.

I remembered how lucky I am to have found my place at EMLA. I remembered I’m not alone in that feeling, and that I’ve played my own role in generating that feeling in my friends and colleagues. I remembered that my hopes about joining this community, which were so high and so fragile, have been realized more fully and powerfully than I imagined they could be. I’m so sad to be leaving, and I’m so grateful for that sadness, because it’s a responsive, reactive sadness. The sadness is only here now because it was preceded by so much meaning, so much love, and so much joy.

Blurbshare.

That’s terrible, isn’t it? Blurbshare. Sounds like a poorly branded social media app. Anyway, review copies of Unidentified Suburban Object are available on Edelweiss, which is fun news, if a bit nerve-racking because people are going to have, you know, opinions and whatnot. I shall therefore soothe myself by sharing a blurb. The book has received blurbs from some truly fantastic people – Ellen Oh, for example. Author of the Prophecy series. Author of the forthcoming MG novel Spirit Hunters. Founder and president of We Need Diverse Books™. Super-badass. Ellen’s one of my heroes, and this blurb means the world to me. I’m also entertained by the asterisked note from Scholastic. Behold!

“How much do I love this book? Unidentified Suburban Object is a wonderfully heartwarming and seriously funny tale about a Korean girl who has always felt alien . . . only to discover [REDACTED].* Mike Jung has a talent for writing books that I wish I had written instead. Curse you, Mike Jung!!!!”
— Ellen Oh, founder of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and author of The Prophecy Series

*Are you kidding? We’re not giving this away! You have to read the book!

Fresh Off The Boat, yo!

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On today’s episode of Children’s Writer Having Happy Fun Times: I’ve been tremendously enjoying my super-intermittent Twitter conversation with FRESH OFF THE BOAT star Hudson Yang, whose desire to play Vincent Wu in the imaginary movie version of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES put a nearly unhinged note of cheer into my day. I offered to send him a signed copy of the book, to which he responded with an enthusiastic yes, and how great is it that he’s excited to have a signed copy of my book? Young fella’s a Hollywood star, after all, and I imagine he has opportunities to meet all kinds of starry-eye-inducing people – his Twitter avatar’s a picture of himself with NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, for crying out loud. He’s still happy about getting a signed book from an obscure dude like me, though. Remarkable. I want to serve up major, major props to Hudson, who seriously made my day, and Hudson’s dad, who I’ve discovered I have more than one mutual friend with, and who’s clearly putting a foot way up in the hindquarters of that whole “raising a family” thing. ‪#‎fotb‬

Friends

I say stuff like this pretty often, but that’s because it bears repeating, so here it is again: I have not always been successful in being a social creature. I’ve spent long periods of time (notably during my adolescence and young adulthood) in which it seemed like I didn’t have a single friend in the world; feelings of isolation and loneliness have brought me to my knees many, many times. So the fact that the children’s literature community swung its doors wide open when I knocked is still an astonishing thing to me, something that almost defies belief. I’ve gotten to know people in this business who floor me with their creative brilliance, intellectual depth, generosity of spirit, and fully-lived ideals. I have the great good fortune of being able to mentally point to people throughout this industry and think “That person! That amazing person RIGHT THERE! Look at what she does with her life! Look at how he gives to people! They take my breath away! I get to call him my colleague! I get to call her my friend!”

It feels bloody miraculous to me, and I doubt it will ever stop feeling miraculous, you know what I’m saying?

Regarding BONE GAP

Last night I blurted out a series of tweets on this topic – a typically shrewd move, Tweeting on a late Saturday night – but I felt like, oh, I don’t know, expounding a bit, so here we are. Here I am, at any rate. It’s uncertain how much of a WE is happening here, but anyway.

I am so envious of Laura Ruby right now.

“But why?” you might say. “Upon what base was fixt the envy wherein, Mike?” My first answer would be “Please don’t use poetry as the basis of a question, it’ll reveal my ignorance about poetry.” My second answer would be BECAUSE I JUST READ BONE GAP, DUH.

Have you read Bone Gap yet? It just hit the shelves, with what seems to me like something less than the global fireworks display of acclaim and excitement it deserves. Holy flying spaghetti monster, it’s good. It’s one of those books that makes me think AW GEE WHIZ, I WILL NEVER WRITE A BOOK THIS GOOD AND THAT’S IT, GAME OVER. Thick, soupy, ocean-size envy is what I’m wading through right now, and I’m glad.

I might not have been glad about this 10 years ago, and in truth, I might not be glad about this with every author’s work even now, because I was not and am not something more (or less) than human. I didn’t use to accept envy as a normal, understandably human experience – I used to think it was bad, bad, bad, ba-a-a-a-ad and damn, now I have that stupid song from the horrible movie version of the Lorax in my head, GAH.

Point being, I used to think envy was a negative experience, but I no longer do. I think it’s still hard, complicated, even painful, but I don’t equate those qualities with negative or bad anymore. I have separated my experience of envy from my capacity for judgment, huzzah! Please join me in humbly celebrating the majestically enlightened state of myself!

Er, anyway, this still fairly recent benign view of envy has been very helpful while reading Bone Gap, because it truly is one of those books that make me fervently wish I had written it, or could write something like it. It is astonishing. The quality of the prose is delectable and lush; the characters are shot through with beauty and complexity; and the way the story spills over from one world to the next and back again is dizzying in its mystery and dexterity. Best of all, reading Bone Gap proved to be an emotional experience of such power that I was knocked absolutely ass over teakettle. I felt, as they say, all the feels.

Because I’m a writer, and every bit as human as the next writer, my thoughts in the moment were akin to “oh well, I could never write a book like this. Laura Ruby’s magical cabinet of writing skills has the goods, and mine has an open bag of stale potato chips and a three year old can of off-brand cream soda. She’s awesome and I suck.”

I know, it’s quite the silly-ass line of thinking, albeit a forgivably human one. I’m not Laura Ruby, and Laura Ruby’s not me. We’re different people and different writers, and trying to make an apples-to-apples comparison between my books and hers is an exercise in absurdity. Why, it’d be like arguing about which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek! (We’ll talk about that later, when I have 48 consecutive free hours to set aside – I have many thoughts.)

But, BUT, I am now this stunningly evolved specimen of humanity who experiences a genuinely unhealthy or destructive reaction to envy no more than 78% of the time, which has allowed me to understand my envy of Laura Ruby’s new book for what it truly is: admiration; respect; wonder.

I would not feel so envious of Laura if I didn’t at least partly comprehend the spectacular degree of difficulty she confronted in writing this book. I would not feel this much envy if I didn’t understand how much discipline, skill, focus, and sheer force of will it takes to create art of this magnitude. I would not be managing this much envy if it wasn’t clear to me that some of us are farther along on the path to creative greatness than others, and that while I feel pretty good about the way my skills are developing, Laura is on an altogether different playing field. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to Laura Ruby and the magnificence of her accomplishment in writing Bone Gap, I feel envy because I know I’m seeing someone do the calamitously hard work of giving concrete shape to her creativity at something like peak capacity.

It helps that I already had so much respect for the way Laura conducts herself in the public arena. She’s obviously intelligent as hell, and stands up and uses her voice in ways I admire and feel inspired by. I have many heroes in the world of children’s publishing, and she’s one of them.

it’s good to feel this okay with envy, you know? I’m not saying I enjoy it. It’s not exactly fun. But it’s not a negative thing, because it stems from something good. From something great, in fact. Experiencing the greatness of a book like Bone Gap and being able to support someone I admire in exchange for coping with some envy? I’ll make that trade every time.