July 2007

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Creative Souls

I love a book that takes what I expect and turns it completely on its ear, just as Simmone Howell has done with her debut novel, Notes From the Teenage Underground. Initially set up as a typical teenage summer vacation story about three friends who are looking for something exciting to do, Notes quickly becomes a compelling look at how friendships can so easily come apart. Teenage friendships can be built on the most casual of reasons but when you start to figure out who you are, start to find your personal passion, then that’s when your friends are supposed to support you the most.

Or maybe not.

Gem doesn’t fit in but she does have two good friends, Lo and Mira. The girls aren’t antisocial monsters, just on the fringe. They get along fine and when it comes to summer plans, Gem finds herself captivated with the idea of making an underground movie. Using Andy Warhol as her guide, she envisions making a bold statement about feminism and art. She wants to break free from everything that makes being a teenager a great big pain in the ass and make a statement -- or better yet, prove that she is capable of making a statement. She thinks her friends are along for the same ride. All too quickly, though, there are power struggles within the group that make it clear that to continue to belong, Gem must play the part in their trio that she has always has; she must be the follower, or she won’t be there at all.

Instead of writing a book about some friends getting together and making a movie, Howell goes to the far dark side of friendship in Notes. She gives us the moment where things splinter apart for Gem, Lo and Mira, but at the same time shows Gem transforming herself into a deeply passionate and creative person. The more she wants to impress her own statement into the movie, the more she discovers just who she wants to be. What is really interesting for the reader is that this metamorphosis is not spontaneous; it develops slowly through the course of the novel, urged along by Gem’s interest in the life of Warhol and the rest of his Factory group. Her research into women’s history is also well written, with names like Joan of Arc, Mary Magdalene, Phoolan Devi and Madonna dropped with ease. “You can be ugly or a virgin or a lesbian,” thinks Gem, “but whatever you are, you revel in it.”

Sounds like an outstanding message to me, and is just one line out of book full of memorable moments. Simmone Howell is off to a great career in young adult literature with Notes From the Teenage Underground -- I hope she stays the course and continues to craft more fearless and determined characters like Gem. (If you’re interested in making your own movie, Andrea Richards has recently written a book, Girl Director: A How-To Guide for the First-Time, Flat-Broke Film and Video Maker. Sounds pretty perfect to me!)

In sharp contrast to Gem’s story, Lemonade Mouth is about a group of teens coming together to create something much bigger than any of them could have come up with alone. I’m tempted to say that the freshmen that make up this high school band are your typical group of misfits because that is the sort of thing readers might expect but really, they’re not. From Wen’s near-catastrophic embarrassing moment in the novel’s opening pages, it is clear that author Mark Peter Hughes is going to take his readers pretty much anywhere in the encyclopedia of high school nightmares to bring his plot together. We’re talking monumental embarrassment here, guys.

The story is told from multiple points of view but mostly the five members of Lemonade Mouth: Wen, Charlie, Mo, Olivia, and Stella. They are classic outsiders but all for different reasons. Mo is the closest to being part of the in crowd; it is largely only her academic dedication that keeps her apart, whereas Olivia is very nearly invisible, and Stella has made a point of speaking (and acting) out against all things popular in her James Dean path to coolness (or is it more Marlon Brando?). Wen and Charlie are just not cool enough to fit in, and worse yet, not cool enough to realize that fitting in is the last thing they need to be trying to do. By accident, the five of them click in the most perfect musical manner while sitting in detention. Lemonade Mouth is born.

The story unfolds with a competition between Lemonade Mouth and the high school band that everyone thinks is the coolest (for no good reason other than a complete lack of competition). There is also a challenge against the hierarchy of popularity that pits jocks against musicians -- the marching band endures purely for half-time shows -- and administrative decisions based on the good of the athletic department and not the needs of the entire student body. Shocking, I know.

In a purely inspirational fashion, though, the new group gets their act together and they pull it off -- they use music to bring not only themselves into a cohesive unit but also to give voice to the hundreds of other teenagers just like them who are tired of being ignored at best or maligned as freaks at worst. Music is what they all have in common, and on stage the lyrics say the things they never thought to say themselves and set the student body on fire. The book is a perfect example of just why music is so important, especially when you don’t know what to say or how to say it. Consider this truth from the school’s beleaguered music teacher:

“The thing for you and your friends to remember is that you are artists. There will always be those who don’t appreciate the work of true visionaries. It doesn’t matter. To an artist, beauty and honesty are everything. The fact that music has the power to stir up controversy should neither direct nor impede the pure creative impulse. Be proud,” she finishes with a wink. “You played beautifully and honestly.”

What more could you want than that?

Lemonade Mouth is funny and touching and all things a good YA book should be, but mostly it is about falling in love with music and not giving up -- not even when any sane person would.

Author Kelly Bingham has taken a different, and much more personally dramatic, tact with her book about a young artist, Shark Girl. As the title suggests, in the opening pages of this novel in verse, 15-year-old Jane Arrowood is bitten by a shark and loses her right arm just above the elbow. In the chapters that follow she struggles to physically recover from the trauma while also facing the psychological damage that a sudden loss of limb will cause. No one knows what to say or do, least of all Jane, who lurches through big feelings of anger, frustration, horror and despair every minute of her new life. The big thing though -- the thing no one wants to talk about but no can ignore either -- is that Jane is an art girl, always has been, always planned to be. She drew with her right hand.

In the middle of all of the hurdles Jane must now navigate, moments like going to the store for the first time, walking down a school hall for the first time, operating a hook as an arm for the first time, there is always hovering in the background the uncertain fate of Jane’s art. The annual school art contest, the one Jane has won three years in a row, is looming large, but clearly she will not be competing. “It’s my contest, It’s my win, Art is my thing,” Jane thinks. Even if she does draw again she wonders what those pictures will be:

Will the subject matter
be endless grays and white-capped
waves, gaunt faces, thin children,

I have no legs
to cross the bridge
toward Sunflower, Blooming,
and return home.

The bigger question for the reader, though, is how Jane will do it; even if she is committed to returning to her art, how does a right-handed artist accomplish that without a right hand? For Jane it means practicing in secret with her left hand, struggling to make the broadest of figures when she is accustomed to drawing the finest of details. I was a little disappointed that the only art she could imagine doing was a coarse imitation of the art she used to do. At one point Bingham flirted with Jane moving beyond drawing; she finds a jar of buttons in her mother’s craft closet and spills them all over the floor, noticing that:

Everything shifts
with the removal of just one black button
or the two blues
or the square white one
with the small red rose.

It’s almost like sketching.

I thought the author was going to take Jane into a new way of making art; that she was going to explore an aspect of an artist’s relationship with her creative impulses in a way that few books do. I couldn’t help but wonder while reading Shark Girl, as Jane expressed again and again that art is who she is, and perhaps all she is, that an artist should be an artist regardless of the medium they are forced by injury or circumstance to use. If Jane is thoroughly an artist then does she have to draw to express her artistic tendencies? Does she have to try and duplicate her old skill using her left hand, which will mean being a poor imitation of herself for a long time (perhaps forever) or could she do something else, learn some other art form? It seemed like that would have been the braver jump for her to make -- tough at first but in the long run probably more satisfying then the feel-good card with its left-hand drawn picture that Jane finally resorts to.

I thought that Bingham crafted a truly remarkable and thought-provoking novel with Shark Girl, but then shied away from making that final bold artistic leap with her character. Jane is an artist, whether she makes the same art as before the attack or not. I wish Bingham had let her be brave enough to realize that, so she could have shown us just what an artistic soul will create when forced to think outside of the box.

It’s one thing to read novels about creative characters, though, and another to really see artists at work. Jason Rodriguez has done something with his graphic novel collection Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened that is both beautiful to look at and a pleasure to read. As he explains in the introduction, Rodriguez has been collecting antique postcards for only the past year, but he latched onto a stellar idea for what to do with his odd little collection. Rather than put together a short story collection based on his own ideas about the cards’ origins (similar to Robert Olen Butler’s Had a Good Time), he contacted several comic book writers and illustrators and asked them to craft stories of their own. The result is as varied as readers can imagine. They range from Chris Stevens’s introspective family drama, “Blue,” to the enormous shocking creepiness of “Send Louis His Underwear.”

Love in so many incarnations is visited in this anthology, from the hurtful lies of Ande Parks and Joseph Bergin’s “Taken on Faith,” to the tragedy of Jay Busbee and Tony Fleecs’s love that can not be named in “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland.” “Cora’s Dress” will break your heart (it’s meant to) as will “Quarantined.” The Midnight Caller makes a surprising superhero appearance in “Holiday in Hades!” and World War II is revisited in “Operation Torch.” Most of the stories take place near the turn of the last century, as that is when the postcards were originally mailed, and the writers and illustrators are faithful to the time period and do an outstanding job of showing life in various locations (the prairie, Paris, the confines of a small town upper crust society home). Tom Beland is the only writer who seemed to place his tale in modern times -- the characters depicted in “Time” most certainly would not have looked that way in 1914. But his story is of the sort that could transpire in anywhen, and he gives it the sweet humanity that he is known so well for.

As a collection, Postcards offers a wealth of ways in which to analyze, reconsider and dream about your own anonymous postcard, letter or photograph collection, and should be an early choice for any teen interested in writing or drawing. Beyond the typical forms of artistic expression, however, Postcards shows just how dynamically creative people think -- that they are able to transcend the obvious and break free of all conventions. How a postcard that asks, “If you get a chance soon or come down -- send Louis his underwear that he has in his trunk down,” could become the tale that Matt Dembicki and Jason Copland put together I will never know. There is much to think about in the collection that Rodriguez has put together and it should certainly spur some leaps of artistic faith on the part of curious readers. You can read Postcards and enjoy it on the level of good writing and art, but if you look deeper it will most definitely lead the stubbornly independent in all sorts of new and fantastic directions. Don’t be cautious with it -- use this book to go places you never thought a few lines could take you.

Finally, in August of 2000, “Someguy” started distributing 1000 numbered blank journals around San Francisco. He left them in bus stops, cafes and bars. All of them included a set of instructions asking participants to contribute something to the pages and then pass the journals along. He also provided a web site address, so they could update him on the location of the books, and asked that they eventually be returned. From that point what happened to the journals was entirely up to chance, and as he explains in the introduction to his new gorgeously produced survey of those books, The 1000 Journals Project, Someguy is quite pleased with the result of his experiment. “They’ve come to rest in hostels, cafes, and law offices; they’ve been lost and found, forgotten and remembered. They’ve been the subject of treasure hunts (#354), brought to remote mountaintops (#323), abandoned at airports (#001), left in the lost-and-found (#300) and stolen at gunpoint (#949).”

The 1000 Journals Project is ongoing and what will become of those still out in the “wild” is anyone’s guess. The book from the project is a stunning example of what will happen though when you unleash people on a project that has no boundaries or assignments. The book shows just what they will do -- whether great artists or not -- and what amazing things can be created by those willing to do anything they want with a blank page. As a spark to those still struggling with their own artistic goals, this book can not be beat, and for teens in particular, I think it will be a big conversation starter. (If you consider a conversation with hundreds of people you’ve never met as something worthy and significant.)

The entries in Project are culled from those books that have found their way home and are all presented in full glorious color. Oh how I love Chronicle Books for this kind of title; there really is no one better. There are also numerous letters that have been sent to the web site providing updates on certain books. This was how Someguy learned that #981 had been stolen while left in a book bag, but later showed up in a school lost and found. The message about #323 being left on a mountaintop (Mt. Tuhobic in Croatia) was also sent this way, and the information that a year later the journaller returned and found the book still there -- “Mountaineers were using it as a sign-in book.” He picked it up and took it back with him to Zagreb. And so it keeps traveling the world.

Beyond the interesting words and reports it is the pictures that truly dazzle. From drawings to photographs to collages created from magazines, there is so much to absorb while turning the pages that it is tempting to rush through, in the fear of missing something better on the next page. But do take your time with this; consider the images of politics and despair, silliness and joy. There are pictures drawn with crayons (a red dinosaur!) set on post-its and as part of detailed diagrams of something I couldn’t possibly identify (“Site V1-V4” according to the caption). Some journallers left invitations and e-mails, some merely spilled their guts in graphic and painful manners. More than anything, though, they honestly drew and said what they were feeling; over and over, they laid their hearts on the pages and joined in on a conversation that is still going on in pages all over the world.

If you want to be a creative person, if you feel that you could be a creative person, then The 1000 Journals Project is a great place to start. It will show you how to be brave, and how to tell the world just what you have to say.

For more books and discussion of all things literary be sure to stop by my personal site, chasingray.com and I’ll be back here next month with some truly excellent escapist fiction!

Cool Read: In The Sound of Colors: A Journey of the Imagination, author and illustrator Jimmy Liao has created what appears to be a lovely picture book for little ones but really is written for a far broader audience. On the first page we learn the narrator, a young girl, is blind (“A year ago / I began to notice / that my sight was slipping away”). She is going down into the subway and seems, so far, to be nothing more than a typical (and rather sweetly drawn) girl. But at the first stop she climbs up the stairs and exits into an orchard where she picks some apples off a gigantic tree, and then returns to the subway where, “the train scoops me up / and, like a memory / carries me along.” From there each succeeding stop is more outrageous -- she’s underwater, falling through clouds, walking through a garden maze, and visiting the moon in a bird cage. At this point the reader is well aware that Liao is telling a story of imagination but he isn’t done yet. There are more gorgeous two-page spreads of where she might be and where she is going to consider, more playful looks at a child’s idea of home and of her frustration over,  “the last thing I lost / was the light, / as if somebody / played a joke on me, / turned off the switch.”

How do you see colors or smell shapes? What does it look like to wait for books to be read or stories to be shared? What does a story look like -- really? As the girl goes walking, walking, walking, looking for what she lost in earnest, the reader sees the brilliance of her life, sees the colors and shapes and structures she visits in her mind. The Sound of Colors is beautiful and exotic and utterly original. It’s the kind of book that truly does transcend age and should most definitely be read by anyone in search of a new way to see the world around them. I love this book; it is truly like no other I have ever seen.