Thursday, January 31, 2013

7 Questions For: Author Marissa Burt

Marissa Burt writes middle grade fantasy and is the author of Storybound and the upcoming sequel Story's End. She grew up in Portland, Oregon, and drifted eastward, living in Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee, and South Carolina, before coming back home to the Pacific Northwest.

Along the way, she studied Sociology, Ancient Languages, and Theology and clocked hours as a social worker, barista, 5th grade teacher, bookseller, faculty assistant, and reference librarian. But not all at the same time.

Marissa now lives in the Seattle area with her husband and three sons where she enjoys time spent around family, friends, and good books.

Click here to read my review of Storybound.

And now Marissa Burt faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

An impossible question for any self-respecting book lover.  ;)  I'm going to limit my selection to fiction, because otherwise it would just be too impossible.  My top three in no particular order would be: Anne of the Island, by: L.M. Montgomery (really, all of LM Montgomery's books would appear on this list, but if I HAVE to pick one of her books, it would be this one.  Such a friendly book!), That Hideous Strength, by: C.S. Lewis (I love the entire Space Trilogy, but this one has some imagery that is particularly meaningful to me.), and the The Return of the King, by: J.R.R. Tolkien.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

I spend countless hours reading.  Seriously.  This is what I do with nearly every spare moment.  Even ones that I can't spare: I listen to audiobooks while I'm doing housework, sneak in some reading while my young sons have naps, and I always have a book in my purse just in case I'm out somewhere waiting in line.  Add to that the nights I stay up way too late to read "one more page", and I really can't give you a hard number.  

Writing is a little easier to pin down, though my writing tends to go in seasons.  If I'm working on a project, I'll often have several afternoons a week that I can devote entirely to writing.  But, for example, right now, when I'm waiting to hear back on a few things, I do no writing!!!  Such is the happy life of a writer who also spends a good deal of time taking care of her young children.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

Back in 2007, after the birth of my first son, I had the realization that this far-off dream I'd had of "writing someday" would never get any easier to accomplish.  I began to see that the less free-time I had, the more selective I'd have to be with how I spent it.  I began to write for one afternoon a week, playing with a story idea I had that was born out of my love for fantasy story-worlds - the book that eventually became Storybound.  

About a year later, I queried the book and was thrilled when Laura Langlie offered to represent me.  She has been such a kind and generous partner in navigating the debut-author process.  My wonderful now-editor Erica Sussman took a look at what was then titled The Tale of Una Fairchild and asked if I'd be interested in working on an exclusive revision.  Her investment in  the story was a huge gift to me, and I've so appreciated working with her and am happy that Storybound and Story's End eventually found a home at HarperCollins Children's.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I'm going to dodge your question a bit, and say that I suppose writers are grown.  I think all people have the creative impulse deep within them and carry the innate capacity for imagination and story-telling as part of their humanity.  I'd guess that whether this plays out on the printed page or not depends a great deal on environment and opportunity.   In my case, I think a good deal of how I see the world was given me when I was born, and my environment, the luxury of literacy, the influence of friends and family, and my education all channelled my story-telling into writing.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing about writing is the moment of inspiration - when the perfect scene pops into your head, or the solution of how to resolve a knotty plot-point appears out of seeming-nowhere.  There is great satisfaction in finding the right picture or character or symbol to translate into the story, and I love the abundance of creativity that keeps one guessing as to where a story might go next.

I think my least favorite thing is the flip side of that coin: not knowing where a story might go next. Sometimes this leads to a dreadful staleness, where I am just putting words on a page and wondering how in the world it will ever come together.  As I'm learning, though, this seems to be part of the process, and if I hold steady through the doldrums I inevitably end up back in a place of inspiration.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

I would suggest that aspiring writers read as much as they can and as widely as they can.  There really is no substitute for engaging the community of writers and readers in this way.  Additionally, I would encourage them not to wait for the perfect novel idea or some filled-out project to begin writing.  Write what you can - even if it is a scene, a character sketch, or a very short story.  I find that keeping a journal is excellent practice.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Oh dear!  This sort of question turns up every so often, and my answer probably changes depending on whose books I'm reading at the moment.  Today, I'd like to have lunch with C.S. Lewis, because I'm re-reading through many of his books, and I respect his work a great deal.  One of my favorites is his Letters to Children.  Any author who writes funny and warm replies back to his young readers - complete with doodled elephants and tigers - must be a lovely lunch companion.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book of the Week: STORYBOUND by Marissa Burt

First Paragraph: Una often told herself that she was invisible. Perhaps that was the reason people passed her in the halls, their eyes skimming over her slight form as if she were part of the scenery: a desk, a book, a classroom, a girl. It could also be the reason why Ms. McDonough, perched on her musty old pink chair, talked to her cats about Una as though Una wasn’t there. “The girl sassed me today,” she would say, or “The girl is quite selfish and irresponsible.” But Una didn’t mind too much. The cats couldn’t tease Una like the kids in the other foster homes had. There had been five foster families so far, and Ms. McDonough’s was the first where Una could actually be alone. Even at dinner, as they sat together at the long mahogany table, the surface polished to such a gleam that Una’s big violet eyes looked back up at her, even there Ms. McDonough never acknowledged her, and Una was left to her own imagination.

Hey there, Esteemed Reader! We're doing something different today: 1. As promised, after this paragraph, we're only going to talk about this week's book (which means my reviews on Goodreads and Amazon will be the same as they appear here). 2. Starting today, I'm not only going to conclude with some of my favorite passages from the week's book, I'm also going to share the first paragraph with you. I figure I spend so much time talking about opening lines in these reviews, anyway, why not just make it a regular thing? Also, if I can't sell you on the merits of the week's book, why not let its author take a crack at it:)

Marissa Burt's Storybound is a wonderful fantasy middle grade novel kids will definitely enjoy, but that writers will absolutely adore. There are tinges of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, but Storybound is very much it's own thing and the perfect bedtime story for authors everywhere:)

And now, the fantasy of every fiction writer who ever lived and most readers: Imagine one day you're in the library browsing for a book and you find one with your name on it:

“Curious,” Una murmured. She flipped the book every which way but found no inscription. It sat fat and heavy in her hand, and she paused for a moment before opening the beautiful filigreed cover. All the pages had the same pretty silver lining, and Una turned them with reverent fingers. Then she stopped. She stared hard at the first page. “The Tale of Una Fairchild,” it said in a sharp black script. She read the line again, wondering if she was imagining things. She was Una Fairchild. 
How many Una Fairchilds could there be?

What if that book was your story, Esteemed Reader? What if it and some creepy elf dudes sucked you into the book and you were not only the star of your own story, but you could help shape it? If you're a fiction writer (and you're here, so you probably are) I know that's your fantasy (elf dudes aside), because isn't that why we write in the first place? To be sucked into the story of our choosing and to craft it?

To be fair, that's not exactly what happens to Una. She gets sucked into the land of Story with Peter, the good looking hero, a snobbish lady, and a talking cat (of course there's a talking cat!). It's worth noting Burt is too smart to bomb the reader with exposition the way I just did. Instead, she sucks Una into the middle of an action-packed dragon battle and makes Una work to figure out where she is.

Before long, Una's enrolled in classes learning about genre dialogue, experiential questioning, and history, here called backstory (love it). All the characters are very much aware they're characters, but Una herself is a WI, or Write In (so much fun). Una gets into all kinds of trouble in Story, learning new details about her parents' disappearance and what it means to direct your own story. There's too much detail to get into in one review or one book as Storybound ends with "TO BE CONTINUED..."

I have no doubt kids will enjoy Storybound, but this story simply demands to be read by writers, who will love it the most. There are so many inside jokes for just us book lovers, it's as though Marissa Burt is sitting beside you with her own pumpkin latte, and you're having a fun chat about a mutual love of writing and craft. For what else can this paragraph be if not a discussion of characterization:

“But everyone can’t be a Hero or a Villain,” Una said. 
Peter pushed an overgrown branch out of the way. “Well, that’s not exactly true. Most characters in Story are pretty clear-cut. You either learn how to save the day or how to try and destroy everything.”
“But that’s not right,” Una argued. “In real life, no one is completely good or completely bad. People are mixed-up jumbles of everything.” She told Peter about one of the mean girls at Saint Anselm’s who made fun of kids for the clothes they wore but always gave money to the homeless man who sat at the bus stop. 
“Well, things are different in stories,” Peter said. 
“You’re telling me,” Una said.

Not all the discussions are aimed at readers. Burt does a nice job of inserting some truths for children along the way without ever preaching, such as in this discussion of the objects coveted by villains:

“Knowledge,” said a boy wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Una thought he was the same boy she had seen the night before in the Woodland Room. 
Professor Thornhill paused at that. “Why knowledge, Mr. Truepenny?” 
“Because knowledge is power,” he said. His dark hair fell over one eye. “An evil Villain controls knowledge, both what is spread about and what is withheld. That is how he can gain power.” 
“Very good, Mr. Truepenny,” the professor said quietly. She was looking at Una now. “Truth is one of the most powerful weapons against evil. And wisdom, which enables us to discern how to apply the truth. Without truth and wisdom, how would we be able to tell the difference between the evil and the good?

There's actually quite an undercurrent of conspiracy and shadow government throughout Storybound, hinting at a darker sequel. But the bulk of Storybound is humorous and fun. Burt's got some substance to share, but mostly she wants to show the reader a good time, and few things in fiction are so admirable. We all could use a good time now and again and I'm still laughing about the "Snow White" type character abusing the woodland creatures contractually obligated to do her bidding Fred Flintstone style. 

And that's going to do it. I hope you're digging the new review style, Esteemed Reader. Sorry I didn't have time to make it shorter:) 

I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Storybound:

"I basically saved your life." Peter looked very pleased with himself. "Like it or not, I'm your hero."

Una thought about what she had learned in class back at Saint Anselm’s. Governments that controlled what people read did it in order to control the people.

“And then they would whisk Una off to wherever they take those who disagree with them.”

"...You must remember that the roots of the tree are buried deep in Story’s soil,” she said, and leaned in so close that Una could see her toothless smile. “Schoolchildren should always learn their Backstory.”

“Besides, I don’t think characters have ever been big readers. Too busy doing.”

Here to show us she can act as well as write is Marissa Burt:

I can't read this trailer, but it sure looks good and I can't find an English version:)

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

Monday, January 28, 2013

NINJA STUFF: A New Era of Ninja-ing!

You might've noticed things are starting to look a little different around here, Esteemed Reader. Mrs. Ninja, and one of my critique partners, Jody Sparks, work in SEO, or search engine optimization. Apparently they're very good at it. For more than two years, Mrs. Ninja has been telling me about algorithms and user interfaces and flux capacitors and whatever the heck else is involved in her job. When people ask me what my wife does, I just smile and say, "she wrangles the internets." 

But as I've returned to Ninja-ing full time, it's occurred to me I have a blog that could use some search engine optimization. I have internets what need wrangling! So Mrs. Ninja has been patiently helping me craft a Middle Grade Ninja blog for the modern Esteemed Reader. 

The process of learning content marketing is as difficult and frustrating as leaning publishing, but necessary if I want my voice to be heard--and I do, I do! Eventually, covert government operatives will have read every email and blog post I ever wrote anyway, and I want to leave them a record worth reading!

All this to say, there's changes under way, Esteemed Reader. Old posts are being rewritten in a manner most sinister and Orwellian and YouTube videos are being added wherever I think they enhance. One thing I've noticed  is when folks recommend this blog, they frequently refer to it as a "hidden treasure trove" of interviews.

Perhaps it's all too telling regarding my more megalomaniac motivations that a blog that used to be subtitled "A blog about reading and writing middle grade novels utilizing ninja stealth and skill" is now subtitled "Robert Kent's blog about yadda, yadda." Today, this blog. Tomorrow, the world!!! 

But even so, I don't like the idea of this blog as a hidden trove. Are you kidding me!?! With all the great interviews with writers, literary agents, and editors we're sitting on, Esteemed Reader? We got to share this stuff with the world, man! 

Just think of all the writers we could unite with agents and editors. Think of all the readers who might be united with debut authors. So as I labor to make this blog slicker and to grow it's readership, know that I'm doing so out of a genuine enthusiasm for books and writing and a desire to promote both.

Shameless plug: I've added twitter and Facebook links to the bottom of every post as well as the usual comments option, and I'm going to need your help, Esteemed Reader. I can only promote our authors and their books so far. Tell people we're out here and we've got agents and editors and writers partying with us. 

And I'll do my part.

One thing Mrs. Ninja has made painfully clear to me is my posts are too long (surprise). Apparently the average blog post needs to be between 500-1000 words. My most recent review of The Dark Knight Returns is a whopping 3,200 words, which is perhaps a lot of time to invest and might dissuade certain Esteemed Readers. 

That's all good and well for a post about Frank Miller, who's already a legend, but what about a debut author? What if I just scared off some readers who might've poked about my review and decided to read her book?

Don't worry, my reviews will still be long. Me promising to shorten my reviews is like an obese person promising to lose weight. It's a good idea and we hope they will, but realistically, there are more pizzas in the obese person's future and there are more 3,000 word posts in our future. 

But starting with tomorrow's review of Storybound by Marissa Burton, I'm going to make a conscious effort to be concise. I'm still going to tell you about the book and what writers can take away from it, and then I'm going to stop. Instead of promoting other upcoming interviews, telling you about myself or something unrelated I find interesting, I'm going to tell you about the book and that's it. 

But can I really be trusted not to ramble? Well, like a man on a diet, I have to plan for my success. If you're trying to lose weight, don't hang around a pastry shop--keep yourself someplace conducive to will power:) I'm still going to want to ramble, so I'm setting up a new feature.

Introducing, Ninja Stuff, of which this is the first official post. From this day forward, on a day I don't have an interview or review for you, I'll be posting this column, telling you stuff you may or may not care about and satisfying my need to tell you about it at a designated place rather than taking up time in a poor writer's review and potentially costing them readers. It will be like a blog within a blog:)

From now on, if you want my take on a book, check out the Book of the Week. If you're curious about whatever stuff I want to talk about, check out Ninja Stuff. And it won't be just rambling. If I find some publishing news online or writer resources and want to share them, I'll do it here. I've also got some classic rants coming up I've excised from old reviews. 

Sound like a plan, Esteemed Reader? I know my many patient author friends are relieved I'll no longer be posting Tori Amos songs or reviewing shark movies in the middle of my Book of the Week Reviews:) I'll still compare literature to Batman, of course, but that's just kind of my signature style:)

This first Ninja Stuff post is under 1000 words. Not too shabby, but we'll just see how long that lasts;) 

And as for sharing stuff with you, here's an interview with Stephen King I dig:

Saturday, January 26, 2013

7 Questions For: Literary Agent John Cusick

John Cusick joined Greenhouse in January 2013 after several years with a small New York agency, where he began as an assistant and rose to be an agent with a fast-developing client list. As well as being a YA author in his own right, John is a sought-after speaker on writing, both at writers’ conferences and via webinars.

You can read his blog here:

For more information, check out my friends Natalie Aguirre and Casey McCormick's wonderful blog, Literary Rambles.

And now John Cusick faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

That’s a tricky one. To answer honestly I have to break them into categories, like the New York Times bestsellers. In children’s literature, Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth and Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting are genius. My all-time favorite is Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. My favorite book for grownups is Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov. It took me two reads to understand any of it, and I’ve since reread it more than any other book except The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which takes second place. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is third.

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

I have a weakness for movies about writers and artists. Amadeus and Wonder Boys are both up there. I’ve had many favorite movies over the years, but nothing comes close to the pure bliss I experienced seeing Jurassic Park in theaters as a kid. For T.V., Mad Men is brilliant, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica was amazing (Politics! Religion! Robots!), and on the other end of the spectrum, I’m down to re-watch Black Books anytime.

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

My ideal client works hard and writes a ton. He or she handles rejection like a champ, and is always striving to improve. I feel some kind of bond with all my authors; connecting on a personal level is vital for a positive professional relationship. I like to joke around too, so a sense of humor is a bonus (I feel like I’m filling out a personals ad!).

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I’d love to see a middle-grade series for boys set in a truly original fantasy or sci-fi world. I love page-turners, whether they’re adventure or contemporary romance; anything fast-paced is up my street. I like high sci-fi, but I’m especially interested in stories set in our contemporary world with a sci-fi or fantastical twist. Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I love horror and suspense. I’d be interested to read a sprawling, romantic historical. Tolstoy for teens.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

I love championing fantastic authors. I love listening to that little voice saying Holy cow this is really good!  I love spotting things I know a certain editor will flip for. And of course, the best moment is calling a client with an offer. Oh man, I wish that feeling came in chewable tablets, I really do. My least favorite part is having to part ways with a client or a house. Sometimes despite everyone’s hard work and best intentions, the fit just isn’t right. It’s always painful, but a necessary part of the job.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

1). Write a ton of books. It’s important to experience projects, a lot of them, from conception to completion to revision to re-revision. Writing endings changes how you think about first chapters, and starting from scratch teaches you where you’re going. Write good books and bad books, short books and long ones. But write as many of them as you can.

2). Don’t try to be a normal, balanced, sane individual. You’re a writer. Give in. This is what you do and it makes you crazy and obsessive and it often means the dishes are piling up and your hair looks like a forest fire and you’ve missed six dentist appointments. Oh well. Give over to it fully. Be a maniac. It’s worth it.

3). Have as many people read your stuff as possible, from friends to writing groups to strangers on the internet. It’s important to get a mix of constructive and not-so-constructive feedback. It will improve your craft and thicken your skin.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Definitely my all time favorite: Nabokov. From his interviews and biographies, he seems like the kind of guy who could talk about Russian literature, bad television, and the best place to grab a cup of coffee in Vienna, all in the same breath.  The one downside, I’d be so nervous he’d think I was boring!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

7 Questions for: Literary Agent Jenny Bent

Jenny Bent has worked in publishing for over 15 years, both as an editor and an agent, most recently as Vice President at Trident Media Group before founding The Bent Agency in 2009.  There she has continued her tradition of representing bestsellers, with over 15 titles on the NYT list since she opened her doors.

The agency recently expanded to include an in-house foreign rights agent and a children's book agent, Susan Hawk, formerly the Marketing Director at Henry Holt Children's Books.  She is looking for young adult, literary suspense, crime, romantic suspense, and general fiction.  Please see her website,, for submission guidelines.

Here is Jenny Bent in her own words:

In a career spanning 15 years, I have made a practice of making bestsellers - either by spotting new talent or developing careers for multi-published authors. My list is varied and includes commercial fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction and memoir. All the books I represent speak to the heart in some way: they are linked by genuine emotion, inspiration and great writing and story-telling. 

I was born in New York City but grew up in Harrisonburg Virginia in a house full of books where I spent many lazy afternoons reading in a sunny window seat. I went on to England to get a BA/MA with first class honors from Cambridge University. After graduation I worked in magazines, bookselling and agenting, most recently at Trident Media Group, before founding THE BENT AGENCY in 2009. I now live in Brooklyn in an apartment full of books and while there are not quite so many lazy reading afternoons, I manage to fit one in now and then. 

For more information, check out my friends Natalie Aguirre and Casey McCormick's wonderful blog, Literary Rambles.

And now Jenny Bent faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Honorable mention:
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

I Went Down (obscure but fabulous Irish movie from 1997)
Something Wild (Melanie Griffith and the awesomely scary Ray Liotta from 1986)
Old School/Bridesmaids in a tie

Television shows:
Hex (first season on BBC only)
My So-Called Life 

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

Prolific, courteous, honest, hard-working, kind, talented

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?  

Terrific women's book club fiction, suspense/crime with a female lead, really interesting, innovative, creative YA

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

I really love it all.  I get to read great books, meet smart and interesting people domestically and internationally (both writers and publishing people), I even like the geeky business stuff like contracts and accounting.  Least favorite thing might be that there's just not enough time in the day to get everything done.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Act as professionally as possible all the time and always be kind and courteous to everyone with whom you come into contact.  This is a small business and fortunes rise and fall all the time--be the person that others want to help, even when the chips are down.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Jane Austen.  Because so much of her life is surrounded in mystery--I want to know more!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book of the Week: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by Frank Miller

WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA to full-blown adult and is filled with adult content. It's absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.

Also, this review is a discussion of the full novel and contains all kinds of SPOILERS.

Oh, Esteemed Reader, I'm not sure if I can contain my asploding nerdiness today. I've often wondered how I might answer the 7 Questions I've been bugging other writers with for years now. By far, the hardest of the questions is the first one: What are your top three favorite books? It's a question so cruel I encourage writers to cheat, but if I were answering, there would be no cheating allowed.

Speaking of 7 Questions, we'll be starting up 7 Questions for literary agents again with two agent interviews this week to make up for lost time. I'm going to nerd out today, but Jenny Bent will be here Thursday and John Cusick will be here Saturday. Who loves you, Esteemed Reader?

But we were discussing the dilemma of having only three favorite books to choose. Which three would I choose? How would I choose? I'm certain Watership Down by Richard Adams would make the list, as would The Witches by Roald Dahl. I couldn't possibly forget It by Stephen King (I reread it every couple of years), or The Cider House Rules by John Irving,  or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and in all fairness, I ought to include Story by Robert McKee for the impact that one had on me. And what of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I also reread every few years. And also--no, I'll stop this now or we'll be here all day, but if I've reviewed your book here, rest assured it was the one I was about to say next:)

Esteemed Reader, if I were honest, my greatest love has always been The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and no listing of my most favorite books would be complete without it. If I so much as glance at a panel from that holy grail of graphic novels, I have to sit down and read the whole thing. I've bought an untold number of copies over the years and when someone tells me they don't care for comics, I give them a copy. In a way, this is sort of cruel. How can anything they'll ever read for the rest of their lives not be a let down after they've read the finest work ever composed by a man (but divinely inspired, I'm sure)?

I know what you're thinking, Esteemed Reader: A comic book? Isn't the Ninja a little old for comic books? Well, one, if you're a writer for the MG or YA market unfamiliar with comics, you're out of touch with an integral part of the culture of your readership. No one complains about me reading books aimed at children, so why shouldn't I read comic books?

Two, this isn't just a comic book (or graphic novel if you prefer), this is a seminal work of American literature. I'm going to spend the rest of this review convincing you that Frank Miller, despite a so far disappointing later career, belongs on the same shelf as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Poe, and King (arguing that last name is the subject of a later post, but he's our Charles Dickens and folks will still be reading Pet Semmetary long after so many other writers' fiction is forgotten). The Dark Knight Returns is worthy of the same awed study one might give The Great Gatsby.

It's true there's a new animated movie version of The Dark Knight Returns (which is what inspired me to post this review). It's very good, despite leaving out the best lines from the book, which are internal monologue rather than spoken dialogue and would therefore have been somewhat awkward to work into a live-action version. I own the flick and I love it, but it's not the same. As is nearly always the case, the book is better, and the movie is something I enjoy because it enhances the experience of reading the book. So do yourself a favor, Esteemed Reader: if you have any interest in this story, READ it first, then watch the flick.

I will concede one thing, Esteemed Reader, which, if you read this blog regularly, you already know: I'm a Batman junkie. Any writer who includes the Dark Knight in their story has me at hello. I love Batman. I read the comic books. I've read novels, many of them just awful, and enjoyed every one of them. I sat in a theater for nine hours watching Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy (just to be crushed by how bad The Dark Knight Rises sucked--yeah, I said it). I've seen every episode of the old 60’s television series at least twice and I've seen most of The Animated Series. I own over two-hundred Batman action figures and I’m such a fan that I've seen the film, Batman and Robin, widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made (and rightfully so), more than once. 

I'm conceding all this at the top of the review for two reasons: first, to acknowledge that I have more than a little bias on this subject. Second, to prove that when it comes to Batman, I know my stuff.

Here's a clip from my never finished Batman movie shot in the summer of '97 when I was a wee  teenage ninja who thought the jokes you're about to hear were hysterical. Some of them still make me chuckle, others make me cringe. If you haven't evolved in your thinking since your teenage years, feel free to judge me. This clip is age-restricted for a reason and inappropriate for anyone under the age of, oh, let's say 18:

It’s hard to surprise me with a Batman story— I've read enough of them that I usually know what’s coming before the author does. I've also written over three hundred pages of my own Batman stories (and a knock-off MG novel). So when I say that The Dark Knight Returns is the finest Batman story ever told, believe that that is a statement to which I have given entirely too much thought and much of my misspent youth:) Moreover, The Dark Knight Returns is the greatest comic book ever written (Alan Moore's Watchman and Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead come close, but both must bow before the king).

There are many things that distinguish The Dark Knight Returns from the millions of other comics that have been written, but I want to focus on tone, structure, metaphor, and theme—terms not generally associated with comic books. Before we can talk about any of those things, however, it is perhaps important to discuss the timing of this comic. 

In 1986, comic book sales were in a slump and the predominant public image of Batman was Adam West, an image that had grown stale and tired. In an effort to increase reader involvement, DC comics had allowed fans to vote whether or not to kill a character named Jason Todd, who had replaced Dick Grayson as Robin. The vote to murder the new boy wonder was nearly unanimous by the few fans that bothered to vote and the sales for the issue were dismal. So when Miller approached DC comics in 1985 and asked if they would mind if he tried something new, DC executives didn't feel they had much to loose. Had Miller approached them in another decade when Batman was selling, they most likely wouldn't have allowed him to make such a radical departure.  

The beginning sales for The Dark Knight Returns were slow, but with word of mouth, it went on to become one of the best-selling comic books of all time. More important, many analysts say that Miller single-handedly resurrected Batman and comic books at large. Following the enthusiasm of fans, Warner Brothers threw out a script for a Batman film they had commissioned from Superman screenwriter, Tom Mankiewicz (I've read it and it's very meh), and brought on new writers and dark director Tim Burton to make a film version of Batman that would be similar in tone to Miller’s version of Batman. Without Frank Miller, we would never have gotten the first two Christopher Nolan films, and not just because Batman Begins stole whole sections of Miller's Batman: Year One

Quick aside: The Dark Rises sucks not just because the acting is frequently awful (looking at you, Marion Cotillard) and the dialogue is pumped full of awkward exposition, but because it fundamentally misunderstands who Batman is as a character. If you kill Batman's girlfriend, he doesn't quit and cry for seven years. It makes him angrier! And he certainly doesn't quit being Batman and leave the empire to some cop just because a constantly weeping Alfred wants him to settle down. I call bull on that whole movie except Tom Hardy's Bane, who was awesome despite not being Hispanic. 

Here's a link to a tumblr of people and animals dying like Marion Cotillard (the entire internets mock her).

So what is it that makes Miller’s Batman stand out from so many others? The most common response to this question is to site Miller’s extreme departure in tone. Miller’s Gotham City is a dark place, but not an unbelievable one. Gone are the laughable crooks in masks carrying bank bags of loot and saying things like, “Give me all your money, or I’ll pump you full of lead.” The streets of Miller’s Gotham City are populated by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, street gangs, rapists, and serial killers.

In one memorable panel, a lowlife with a knife pulls an elderly woman into an alley and whispers the chilling words, “HEY, MOMMIE... ...COME IN HERE WHERE ITS WARM. I NEED YOU, MOMMIE. MAKE ME FEEL SAFE. TALK SOFT...” I don't know what he plans to do after saying that, but it can't possibly be less than devastating (don't worry, spoiler, Batman stops him). 

In another sequence, a pimp cuts the face of a prostitute in the back seat of a cab, paying the cab driver to keep quiet as he does so. When Batman arrives on the scene, he beats up the pimp and destroys the cab driver’s payoff money, and while he ensures that the prostitute is safe, he makes no attempt to help her (where are the innocent citizens to sing Batman's praise?). Nearly all the street thugs carry guns, and not just revolvers, but automatic weapons drawn overly large to illustrate the danger they pose in the hands of teenagers, who appear almost unable to lift the firepower they're toting.

Batman himself is dark and bitter and not entirely mentally stable (it's worth noting that Miller was among the first to openly propose a grown man dressed as a bat might not be wholly sane). Batman drinks alcohol, tortures street punks, beats criminals to the point of hospitalization (gunning down one with an automatic weapon, but presumably not killing him), and even appears to have a sexual relationship with a prostitute (named Selina Kyle, naturally). Likewise, we’re treated to a straight-edged Commissioner Gordon rationalizing shooting a seventeen-year-old street punk in the face. Although Batman has rarely been portrayed as dark as in Miller’s version since, his vision of the Dark Knight set the tone for the Batman we are still reading about today—dark, brooding, and outside the law; a far cry from the wham! pow! days of Adam West. 

Merely citing his departure in tone is to do a great disservice to Miller, because he’s not just writing dark for the sake of being dark. The Dark Knight Returns has all the hallmarks of a great work of literature adapted to the world of comic book superheroes. Miller’s true objective in The Dark Knight Returns is not just to revolutionize Batman or to tell a great Batman story, though he accomplishes both things, but to write a biting and relevant piece of social commentary. The closest literary parallel with this comic may be Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Superman in the role of Tom Sawyer, Batman in the role of Huck Finn, and society as a whole in the role of Jim the slave.

Batman and Superman are America's mythology. Long after the fall of the American empire (it'll never happen, of course, I'm singing Stars and Stripes Forever as I write this, but if it did...), future civilizations piecing together who the Americans were would recognize the import of these characters--why else would there be representations of them literally everywhere? Look down your nose if you will, but Batman has a made a bigger impact on American culture than Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, and Leopold Bloom combined. He's our Sherlock Holmes and Superman is our Hercules, and it is only fitting they have their own epic poem to sing their tale. The Dark Knight Returns is that poem as written in lyric or not, Miller's prose is poetry.

Something that is immediately striking about The Dark Knight Returns is its structure. Miller presents us with Batman at age sixty, returning to his life as a crime fighter after a ten-year hiatus. It's an odd place to begin, so when the great epic is compiled by future generations, they'll need to include Year One. 

Worth noting is the way that not only Batman has changed, but also the way so many other characters, famous to fans of DC comics, have changed as well. And every character introduced in this story has a thematic purpose, from the Joker, who's grown old and passé when compared to modern monsters, to Lana Lang, Superman’s high school girlfriend, who's grown old, fat (it was the 80's and the height of the "no fat chicks" bumper sticker), and bitter, because Lana's lost faith in her Man of Steel. Note that Dick Grayson, a former Robin, has become a politician and no longer wishes to have any contact with Batman.

No review of The Dark Knight Returns would be complete without at least mentioning Carrie Kelley, the first female Robin. Her journey from admirer to partner is exciting and emotional. There's also a "reformed" Harvey Dent, whose infamously bifurcated face has been corrected with plastic surgery so that both sides match (but which side, good or evil, is left for the reader to decide).

And no definitive Batman story would be complete without an appearance by the Joker. No one is more excited about the Dark Knight's return than his greatest nemesis and it's telling that he is in a near catatonic state until Batman reappears and the old clown is given a reason to live again. In a stroke of genius, Miller sets the final showdown between Batman and Joker in "The Tunnel of Love."

The most important character aside from Batman, however, is Superman. Superman is working with the United States government, which Miller goes to great pains to illustrate as corrupt. In fact, in one memorable panel, the American flag transforms into the ‘S’ of Superman’s symbol, as President Reagan orders Superman to Gotham City to personally quarantine Batman and offers him a medal for doing so. 

Much of the comic is devoted to characters on a television screen from ineffective and corrupt political leaders, to psychologists defending the Joker and Two-face, to officials declaring Batman a public menace. The purpose of these broadcasts is to show that it is American society that has become ineffective and corrupt, and Superman becomes the symbol of this. Batman wages a war on crime and Miller paints the US government as placing the rights of criminals and the interests of corporations above the rights of her citizens (where would he get a crazy idea like that?). Batman becomes the antithesis of official America, as represented by Superman.

Miller's story culminates in an all-out battle between Batman and Superman, in which Batman fakes his own death, symbolizing that the time of heroes may be over—at least, as far as those in power are concerned. Before dying, however, Batman says these words to America’s premiere superhero: 


And with these words (arguably the greatest line every written for Batman), Batman denounces Superman and American society, then fakes his own death to escape, not unlike Huck Finn lighting out for the new territories, ahead of the rest. But the book does not end on an entirely cynical note. In the last panels, we see Batman alive and well, training an army of others, who, like him, have lost faith in convention and feel that they also must take justice in their own hands.

The Dark Knight Returns is being taught in literature classes across the country. By combining classic comic book methods with traditional literary techniques, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns has ushered in a new breed of novel: the literary graphic novel. The Dark Knight Returns is a groundbreaking achievement that has set the bar higher for all comic books that follow and redefined what is considered to be American literature.

And that's going to do it. If you're still reading, I appreciate you're being patient as I let my full geek out.  Come back Thursday and Saturday. You never know. You might just find the perfect agent to represent your work. And check back in next week when I give you my word as a Ninja, we'll be discussing an honest-to-goodness MIDDLE GRADE book:) I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Dark Knight Returns, each of which is tattooed on my heart forever (note, these passages were written to accompany multiple art panels and look a little silly on their own, but I've done my best to type them as they appear in the novel):



Two-face: TAKE A LOOK... HAVE YOUR LAUGH. I'M FIXED ALL RIGHT. AT LEAST... BOTH SIDES MATCH. HAVE YOUR LAUGH, BATMAN--TAKE A LOOK! ...TAKE A LOOK... Batman in response to an image of both sides of Harvey's face being hideous and a bat: ... I SEE... A REFLECTION, HARVEY. A REFLECTION.

Batman to Joker's burning corpse: STOP... ...STOP LAUGHING...



STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

7 Questions For: Editor Erin Clarke

Erin Clarke is an executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House, where she has been for fourteen years. Erin works on a wide range of projects from picture books to young adult fiction. She is the editor of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the #1 New York Times bestseller Wonder by R. J. Palacio, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan, the Tia Lola Stories by Julia Alvarez, When Life Gives You OJ by Erica S. Perl, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane, Lena’s Sleep Sheep by Anita Lobel, Pirates vs. Cowboys by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Davis Barneda, and the Dog Loves books by Louise Yates.

She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter and loves to read, read, read, and occasionally run.

And now Erin Clarke faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?
My favorite books change on a daily basis, but today I’ll pick:

Adult Books:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Anything by Thomas Hardy
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Children’s Books:
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?
The Third Man
The Thin Man movies
Good Will Hunting (I’m a Boston girl at heart)

I don’t watch much television, but I do love Downton Abbey.

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal writer?
My ideal writer is someone who is hardworking and not afraid to take chances while writing. I don’t want to work with authors who write the same book over and over again, even if I happen to love that book.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?
I would love to see more queries for smart, literary, stand-alone middle grade titles to come across my desk. 

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an editor? What is your least favorite thing? 
I love working with talented people who are passionate about children’s books. These people include writers, agents, other editors, designers, publicists, sales reps, copy editors, managing editors, production people, booksellers, librarians, and teachers. So many of them work incredibly hard everyday—both behind the scenes and on the front lines—to get books into the hands of young readers.
My least favorite thing is seeing a book I adore not receive the attention or readers it deserves. Many good books rise to the top, get glowing reviews, hit bestseller lists, and, most importantly, find readers, but many do not and it’s heartbreaking to watch.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)
Read, read, read.
Don’t be afraid to take chances and write outside of your comfort zone.
“Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do with it.” –Maxwell Perkins

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Again, this changes on a daily basis, but today I’d choose Calvin Trillin. I love his food writing for the New Yorker (if we could meet for some Singapore street food that would be all the better) and adore his memoir about his wife, About Alice.