Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The ideal costume ...

At this point, I could be a round pumpkin (23 weeks along ... I'm "gestating")! But since I can't bring myself to pull on green, gut-pinching leotards and an orange top, I'm taking the easy road ... "Mom-To-Be".
Actually, I'll be busy doing a STORYTELLING activity in "la Cuadra" -- a monthly art and culture activity in which we close down two streets and have exhibitions, music, and more. And since tomorrow is dedicated to children, we're reading ABIYOYO -- but adapting it to Colombian traditions. And the kids get to act out the parts of the father, boy, Abiyoyo, and all the animals he eats -- as well as the townspeople. It will be chaotic. But I hope the kids have fun and learn a few key words in English: RUN! RUN! ABIYOYO IS HERE! and GO AWAY!
But to keep with tradition, and since this is my favorite time of year, I did carve my pumpkins and ate "Boo Soup" at my favorite pizza place. (Pumpkin soup with fried zucchini).


Heidi Ayarbe

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween Costume

So what am I going as tomorrow? How about a taxi cab driver? I'll be ferrying my kids and their friends to their various Halloween appointments while I stay home and answer a few knocks on the door. As my kids have gotten older, I find myself stepping back. I am no longer needed to partake, or am I even welcome. But to amuse myself, I think I'll don some cat ears and orange earrings to work and scare my students who are already scared enough—and not because of Halloween. Tomorrow is portfolio check before midterms. Muahhhhhhahaaaaaa!

My Favorite Halloween Costume

I thought of all these fictional characters like the Wicked Witch of the West out of the Wizard of Oz or one of Roald Dahl's evil witches in The Witches, but my mind kept returning to reality. Tomorrow I'll be wearing my $1.99 black pointed hat from Long's Drugstore, my green makeup and scraggly teeth from the 99 cent store, a long black skirt and a velvet opera cape with satin braid that belonged to some weird ancestor of mine....Dracula? I'll be reading spooky stories to 4th and 5th graders at the Fifteenth Street School in San Pedro and hoping to scare them mightily. These children mostly come from Spanish speaking homes and many of their families absolutely believe in ghosts so if I do my job right, they'll all be shaking in their boots!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Favorite Villian

What an awesome topic. I love bad guys. They are the most fun to read. My reigning favorite would have to be the White Witch. Jadis plagues Aslan's new land, plunging it into an endless winter, preventing Christmas and Santa Claus from coming. Jadis followed Andrew in The Magician's Nephew from her homeland of Charn where she had killed her sister and all of her people to rule over rubble. She needed a new thriving land. She is chillingly evil and will kill any to get what she wants. I can just imagine her shrill shriek when she screams and how honeyed her voice must sound when she lures Edmund with Turkish Delight. Her garden of petrified creatures would give an strong heart pause upon entering her fortress. She commands not only weather but other elements of nature with the same power that Aslan himself wields. If not for Aslan's understanding of love and sacrifice and all that sappy happy stuff, Narnia might still be hers. To me, witches have long been among the creepiest of villians. The Wicked Witch of the East terrified me in the movies. I mean come on she was green, with monkeys, eww monkeys. But in my opinion the White Witch rules them all.

Lord Voldemort is my favorite villain.

"You carry him," Voldemort said. "He will be nice and visible in your arms, will he not? Pick up your little friend, Hagrid. And the glasses--put on the glasses--he must be recognizable--"

A great villain has to be fleshed out just as much as the protagonist. If not, who would be frightened? Who would be compelled to turn the page to see if the bad guy gets the good guy. He is the dark to the light, the yin to the yang. The villain balances the story, he creates conflict. I chose Lord Voldemort because I love him almost as much as I love Harry. Without Tom Riddle there would have never been a famous orphan. Without him there never would have been 'the boy who lived' or a friend I could laugh and cry with late into the night when I read each of the books.

Any character who must not be named is intriguing. But my very favorite part is that Harry and Voldemort are intertwined, each is so much a part of the other that neither can live peacefully as long as the other lives. Voldemort is the dark cloud that hangs over Harry. Who or what is your dark cloud?

I can only hope I will create a villain that comes even remotely close to Lord Voldemort, with the layers and depth that he has.


By the pricking of my thumbs. . .

So, I like lots of villains, really. I like ones that scare me, I like the ones in mystery books (when you don’t know who they are until the end,) I like goofy, inept ones . . . it’s hard to pick a favorite.

But Halloween is next week, and that has long been my favorite holiday. October is my favorite month in general, and Halloween is the perfect end to it. So, in honor of Halloween, I’ll say for now that my acme of bad-guy-ness is Mr. Dark from Ray Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The first time I read that book, it was a grey, windy day in October in Indiana – the kind where enormous sycamore leaves are cartwheeling across the lawn like scared animals and the clouds are low and heavy. I could feel that carnival blowing into town. Cooger and Dark were somewhere out there, I was sure of it.

And he knew. Mr. Dark knew exactly what to say to people, what it was that they wanted most, what one thing would make them screw up so royally that he’d own them for all of eternity. He had all those tattoos (nothing against those – I have some myself!) that turned out to be reminders of all the people he’d conquered (that’s the creepy part.) It made me shiver. Plus, in this day of too much, too gory, too depraved, like those Saw movies that I can’t watch, or half of the adult horror books out there that I can’t read . . . Mr. Dark is a pure villain. He’s scary without being gross. His possibilities are what terrify me about him. I love that.

So in honor of Halloween – Mr. Dark. Best Villain. Shudder.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What a bunch of nauseating little warts you are!

Matilda's vicious, child-hating headmistress Agatha Trunchbull of "Crunchem Hall Primary School" tops my list of favorite villains because she's so utterly deplorable, despicable, and repulsive.
She's a former Olympian (whom I doubt would pass a drug-screening test these days), expert in the hammer throw -- as she practices on her students. Her hero is Wackford Squeers (the horrific headmaster in Dicken's Nicholas Nickleby), and she loathes children.

I don't like small people. I can't for the life of me understand why they take so long to grow up. I think they do it on purpose.

And who else in children's lit has a chokey?!?
I love how Roald Dahl creates these characters that are so unbelievable, we have to believe. Even Matilda and her friends know that if they go home with stories about Miss Trunchbull, their parents would never believe them.
Would you?
And there's absolutely nothing redeemable about her which goes against everything we're taught to do as writers when we create characters. And it works. It goes to show that if you know how to break the rules creating a character that is absolutely enthralling, your readers will jump in with you!
Roald Dahl is an artist and Agatha Trunchbull is one of his masterpieces! (Or, should I say, a piece of work?!)

Heidi Ayarbe

Saturday, October 13, 2007

An Interview with Maryrose Wood

Maryrose Wood

Author of Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love and Why I Let My Hair Grow Out, Maryrose Wood has kindly stopped by The Wordslingers blog for a (virtual) cup of coffee and an interview. More information about Maryrose can be found on her website:

Hi Maryrose, thanks for being here! Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself.

First, thanks for inviting me to stop by your blog! It’s great. It makes me wonder how exactly a group of people could share a brain, but maybe that can be the premise of a YA sci-fi novel one of you will write.

I’m an author of YA fiction, and also a playwright, lyricist, librettist and screenwriter. I’m a mom, a dog-owner, an old-house-fixer-upper, a gardener, a middling tennis player and a novice kayaker. I’ve lived in or around New York City pretty much my whole life, but am feeling more like a country mouse than a city mouse these days.

Tell us about the books you have in print - and any upcoming ones, of course!

My first YA novel was published on ‘06, and another came out in 2007. I have two scheduled to come out in ‘08, and just signed contracts for ’09 and beyond! So I’ll give a brief round-up, and there’s more info on my website at
Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love (Delacorte), my first book, is a romantic comedy in which a pair of 14 year olds (one of whom has a mad crush on the other) do a science fair project to discover the Secret of Love. It was an ’06 hardcover release, and came out in paperback in July ‘07.

Why I Let My Hair Grow Out (Berkley) is a comic fantasy with an Irish twist. Morgan, a 16 year old Connecticut girl, gets sent on a bike tour of Ireland to help her recover from a recent heartbreak. Once there she ends up slipping back and forth in time to the days of Irish lore, where she discovers that she’s really Morganne, the half-goddess of old. The book came out in trade paperback in March ’07 and just went into a second printing; a sequel will be out next May.

My first ’08 release will be My Life: The Musical (Delacorte, March ’08), which draws heavily on my own history as a Broadway baby! Two Broadway-obsessed teens find out their favorite musical is closing; hilarity ensues as they get caught up in the frenzy to see the final performance. Along the way they solve Broadway’s biggest mystery, and their friendship goes through some important changes, too.

My other ’08 book is How I Found The Perfect Dress (Berkley, May ’08). It’s the sequel to Why I Let My Hair Grow Out. Morgan’s magical and romantic adventures continue, in Connecticut this time. This book definitively answers the age-old question: why are there no female leprechauns?

I’m thrilled to announce that I just signed a contract for my next projects with Delacorte as well, so I’m working on a brand new book right now. It’s called A Beautiful Nothing. Expect wine-making, boccie tournaments, and romantic misadventures, that’s all I’m saying at the moment!

You had an unusual path to publication. Can you tell us about it?

I’m not sure there is any “usual” path to publication; everyone’s work seems to find its own way and its own time. Perhaps my path is unusual in that writing novels had never been an explicit ambition of mine, though I’ve been a voracious reader all my life.

In round numbers, I spent my 20’s as an actor, director, and doing improv comedy, and then my 30’s as a playwright, screenwriter, librettist and lyricist. So, after spending a looooooong time being steeped in pretty much all the storytelling arts except writing fiction, I changed focus just a smidge and go figure – now I’m on my fifth novel! Life is funny, isn’t it?

The mechanics of that change involved an important bit of encouragement from my pal and wonderful YA author E. Lockhart, whom I knew from writing musicals. She was quite familiar with my writing for the theatre (much of which involved teen characters, by the way). She pointed me toward the world of YA fiction, which has proven to be a perfect fit for me.

What did you do to promote your books? What worked and what didn't in "promotion"?

Honestly, I think the number one thing anyone can do to promote a book is to write the very best book you can! This sounds self-evident, but it’s sometimes alarming how much writers tend to daydream about book tours and interviews on NPR when they haven’t yet written a fabulous book. Hear me, o wise ones! There is no substitute for writing a great book! The readers decide which books break out, nobody else does.

Given that you’ve written an awesome book, try to have the right title and best cover possible. This is not always something you can control, but do your best to work with your editor and publisher to achieve something eye-catching, right for the book and appropriate to your target audience. Good covers can’t save books that readers don’t like, but bad covers can prevent readers from discovering books they might love.

When you’re writing for young adults, having a web presence is essential; I think most people realize that by now. So do a website and perhaps also a MySpace page or a Facebook page so your readers can find you easily.

I like having lovely color postcards to hand out at trade shows or when I happen to meet someone who might want to check out one of my books. You can also do bookmarks or business cards.

I also do an emailed author newsletter about four times a year that goes out to people who’ve signed up on my website, as well as indie booksellers and librarians. It’s cheap, easy to do, and gets the news about my books in front of people who are quite important: the readers, booksellers and librarians who create “buzz” about books that excite them.

As for what doesn’t work — much of the stuff people think of as “promotion” – book store appearances, school visits, etc. – it’s my personal opinion that, unless you’ve already got a breakout book and a big fan base, these are too often very time-consuming ways to sell five books at a time to your friends, or your kids’ friends.

For name authors, book tours and the like are a great way to deepen and extend the relationship with their readers. If you’re not there yet, that energy might be better spent creating a top-notch body of work.

Do you feel pressured to produce now that you're a published author?

Well, I feel pressured to produce by the fact that I like to make my living writing! Given the choice between finding a job making frappucinos and coming up with a salable book pitch, I go with the pitch every time. Though the frappucino job would probably provide health insurance.

I’ve been very fortunate so far to have sold all my books on pitches, so I begin new projects already knowing what my deadline is. That’s a kind of pressure, though I prefer to think of it as structure! I don’t really buy the whole notion of “being pressured” to do things. One chooses to have access to electricity, therefore one chooses to do what must be done to pay the Con Ed bill. Writing is a proactive discipline: you and you alone sit down and get the first draft done and then you rewrite it until it’s as good as you’re capable of making it. Nobody can make you do all that work, but if you don’t you’ve chosen not to be a writer.

Where do you get your ideas?

Everywhere! How can a person leave the house for even five minutes without encountering some scrap of human drama or mysterious encounter or inspiring moment of beauty or disgust or frustration? To be alive and pay attention is all that’s required.

My personal familiarity with unrequited crushes, Broadway musicals, bike riding, New York City, and an as-yet-unrealized dream of visiting Ireland have all found their way into my books.

What is your writing process? Do you have a critique partner?

I sit in a chair for four or five hours a day, five a week and type stuff into a computer, and maybe five or six months later I have the first draft of a book. That gets rewritten a zillion times, then I turn it in, the editor gives notes, and there are further rewrites until the copy editors are screaming to hand it over, already, and then we call it done.

I hardly outline, but I do continually map and remap my plan for what the story structure will be as I work on the first draft — what the major turning points are, what the three-act structure is in Aristotelian terms, what’s the darkest moment of the story, how the subplots fit together, that sort of thing. Well-turned sentences can come later, but the architecture of the story has to be solid.

As I write I keep notes on what I discover about the characters, too, so I don’t forget stuff about them. Sometimes I also find it useful to make a calendar for the book – plot the various events on a real calendar to keep track of how much time is elapsing as the story unfolds.

At the moment I don’t work with a partner or group. Nobody reads my first draft until I’m ready to turn it in, then my editor and agent get it simultaneously. My middle-school-aged daughter also likes to read it before anyone else, so she’ll get a copy at that point too. After I have a final draft I might let a few close friends read it before the book is in galleys, just for fun and to catch any glaring stupidities.

The revision process is really a collaboration between me and my editor, so I prefer to let the main voice of feedback be hers.

I generally think writers can benefit from good critique, though, and groups can be enormously helpful. Remember that in my case I spent twenty years peddling my wares in front of actual live audiences, and there is no feedback quite like that! You cannot hide from a theatre full of people who don’t get it, don’t like it, don’t find it funny or whatever. I encourage early-career writers to show their work to peers and mentors and LISTEN to feedback; keeping your secret masterpiece in the drawer is not going to help you improve.

What are you reading right now? Who are some of your favorite authors?

Oh, gosh. Within the last week or so I’ve read Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost and Ann Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty. I’m currently rereading Much Ado About Nothing and Francine Prose’s immensely useful Reading Like a Writer. I am browsing through Camping for Dummies, and have freshly resolved to carry my Swiss Army knife everywhere I go. I’m intermittently rifling through some fabulous Damon Runyon stories, some P. G. Wodehouse too. I’m always reading a dozen things at once. I did finally have to cancel my subscription to The New Yorker because I found that I carried it around instead of books, and I prefer to read books.

My favorite author is Shakespeare. Homer’s good too, and Jane Austen and Nabokov and Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë and the people who write the SpongeBob SquarePants scripts, they’re pretty brilliant.

There are really too many to list, and my list skews deceptively upscale but “favorite” is kind of a loaded term. I think it’s important to read widely and without snobbery; fiction and non-fiction and poetry and biography and history and journalism and every scrap of compelling writing you can find, whether it’s “literary” or “genre” (note the highly ironical quotation marks) or a cartoon or whatever. It’s all storytelling; it either grabs you or it doesn’t.

In the YA world, I admire M. T. Anderson’s work madly and E. Lockhart is a constant inspiration; she writes superb contemporary realistic fiction that is always fresh and insightful and utterly devoid of clichés. There is a ton of great YA writing right now, it’s such a rich field.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be?

I would love to be a park ranger, or a kayak tour guide, or someone who worked outdoors in beautiful nature doing something physical. I realize that’s the opposite of someone who actually works sitting on her butt staring at a computer making imaginary things with her brain, so perhaps I crave balance!
(Wordslingers note: Yep - this is actually Maryrose herself in a kayak!)

What thoughts do you want to share for writers at all stages in their careers?

A favorite quote that someone once shared with me: your talent rises until it meets the level of your character. To succeed as a writer talent is helpful, discipline is essential, but the truth is your books can only be as warmhearted, fair-minded, intellectually engaged, righteously angry, vital and romantic and funny and wise as you are. Spend more time developing the body, mind and spirit and less time worrying about how to get an agent, and the odds increase that all will end happily.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Maryrose. Blog readers, if you haven't already, go buy her books!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Wonderful Book

One of my all-time favorite adult authors is Alice Hoffman (she also has some young adult titles). She has a way of making ordinary characters extraordinary. This one in particular touched me, The Probable Future.

The women of the Sparrow family are blessed/burdened with unusual gifts on their thirteenth birthday. Elinor can detect when someone is not telling the truth. Her daughter, Jenny, can see people's dreams as they sleep. Granddaughter Stella has a mental window to the future. The Probable Future is set in New England. Young Stella has to deal with her new burden of clairvoyance when one of her premonitions puts her father in jail, wrongly accused of homicide. She is led to a grandmother she was forbidden to meet and a house that resembles an elaborate wedding cake full of talismans from her ancestors.

It was possible to break chains, regardless of how old or how rusted, of that Jenny was certain. It was possible to forge an entirely new life. But chains made out of blood and memory were a thousand times more difficult to sever than those made of steel, and the past could overtake a person if she wasn't careful.--excerpt from The Probable Future.

Alice Hoffman has an eloquent, graceful way of bringing characters to life in my mind. Reading one of her books is like a hot bath after a long day, relaxing and luxurious. I can only hope that one day my characters are as haunting and enchanting.


Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson

TWISTED, by Laurie Halse Anderson, tracks the unravelling of former geek Tyler Miller, as he faces senior year as the school pariah. Tyler had performed the "Foul Deed" the spring before, landing him on probation for the summer. The Foul Deed, the mispelled spray-painting of school property, was a misguided attempt to gain popularity after years of invisibility in the realm of nerddom. Along with a few inches of height, Tyler gains muscle mass at his forced labor job over the summer and re-enters the fray a new man—and catches the eye of the school's Queen Bea, the woman of his dreams, Bethany. Through a series of painful misadventures, public humiliations, academic free-fall and a beating, Tyler is forced to confront the truth; his poor self image has nothing to do with what he looks like or what he's done and has everything to do with the emotional knot he's in because of his twisted relationship with his volatile father. Ultimately Tyler confronts his Dad in an emotional and carthatic scene.

Ms. Anderson, noted for her ground-breaking YA novel, SPEAK, has covered familiar territory for her, but loses none of her biting wit and awkwardly painful moments. The book is heart-breaking, humorous and hopeful, all at the same time. I will probably read this again to absorb the masterful way Ms. Anderson builds a story based on characters who in less competent hands might be unsympathetic.

As a parent and former teen the book touched me on many levels and kept me turning the pages until I finished it, sadly, way too fast.

A book we NEED to read ...

Maybe, Tears, OC, Maggot, Jewel, Rainbow, and 2Moro are a cast of homeless teens and young adults trying to survive life on the streets in New York's bitter winter. Maybe, Mr. Strasser's MC, has left home to join "an asphalt tribe." Over the course of the book and through telling scenes and snippets, Maybe's character emerges as well as her feelings about this dead-end life on the streets.
What I loved most about the book was the humanity of the kids trying to survive. And how they are so VISIBLE, though we perhaps choose not to see them. The book is filled with heartbreaking scenes of abuse, drug abuse, prostitution, prejudice and death. One particularly poignant scene is when a woman from PETA is horrified these kids are feeding a puppy fast food hamburgers. She's indignant and tells them they're not fit to raise a dog.
Tears asks, "How comes she cares so much about a dog? .. What about us?"
"Nobody cares about us," Maybe responds.
I had to stop after reading that line and put the book down. How often have I just passed a homeless person without actually seeing him or her? I'm embarrassed to say too often.
Todd Strasser takes on the tough social issue of homelessness in this bleak YA novel in which there are few happy endings. Strasser, though, without being cheesy or making it an easy novel weaves a thread of hope in the novel and the strength of love that friends find.

Heidi Ayarbe

Read this book!

Since I rarely read middle grade or YA fiction while I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of adult books lately. It makes a fun change. So, the book I’m recommending is Run, by Ann Patchett. I should say I am immensely biased – Ann Patchett is my author of grown-up books. Her work is accessible, her plots are interesting, and she has a way with images and phrasing that make me have to put the book down every twenty pages or so to catch my breath. That’s high praise!

Run is her latest novel, about a young African-American girl, a Boston Irish-Catholic political family and how an accident on a snowy night links them together. It’s a theme that comes up in her work a lot – random events that bring people together and irrevocably alter the course of their personal stories. This particular book is so newly-released that I don’t want to give away any of the plot (I’m spoiler-averse, myself,) but it is an absolutely lovely book that sticks with you. Which is another thing I love about Ann Patchett – her stories linger. Weeks after I finish them, scenes and images from her books, Run included, bubble up in my brain. To me, that’s the best sign of a good writer.

For more information, you can visit

Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Banned books: Gallileo's book was banned

I can't help but think about the original banned book. When Johannes Gutenberg perfected movable type in the 1400s the powers that be got restless. It wasn't going to be as easy to keep the unwashed masses ignorant for much longer, because movable type meant plentiful books. Plentiful books meant the spread of knowledge, and worse yet, new ideas. Nearly two centuries later Gallileo wanted to let everyone know the earth was not flat, but indeed round, certain entities (psst: it was the Spanish Inquisition) arrested him to stop his heretic claim. Too late! The knowledge spread throughout Europe and beyond, because of the written word. Poor Gallileo had to suffer for his banned book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, under house arrest until he died.

And so began the modern age.