In Your Face

If you have a daughter, In Your Face is a must-buy.

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My publisher sent me a copy. For me. You know, for me to read. But ten-year-old Silence skulked away with it before I even cracked the spine. She loved it. (She finished it in 24 hours, so I at least got it back quickly.)

Now that I’ve perused it myself, I’ve decided we both have to read it once a year for the next decade. The book covers everything from the Disney princess indoctrination of preschoolers to ideal breast shapes through the ages. As the mother of a half-Burmese girl who already complains that her body is different from that of her friends’, I particularly appreciated the chapter on cultural views of beauty.

Plus, the book is funny. Pointed, but still funny. It is not at all like having your mother lecture you about feminism.

Not that this will stop me from lecturing. I loved Vikki VanSickle’s latest post about the Bechdel test, so maybe I will harp on movie imagery next…

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DNA Detective

There is this wonderful stage of the book-creation process in which all the writing and illustrations are done, and no one has yet said the word “index,” and I get to see designed pages for the first time. So exciting!

I’ve just received the first page proofs for my Fall 2015 book, DNA Detective. And I LOVE them. Apparently, the designer has never worked on a children’s book before, but has always wanted to. I think she may have found her calling.

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(I am probably not supposed to post this yet. It hasn’t been proofread and it’s quite possible the art hasn’t been approved/purchased, but… well, it’s too late for them to fire me. It’s it fun?)

Hopefully I’ll be able to post a cover soon!

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The Quizzards of Oz

Well, our author team managed (barely!) to hold our own against some brilliant middle-grade readers at Vancouver’s inaugural Kids Lit Quiz on Friday. The only category in which they trumped us: Harry Potter trivia.

(Do you know the librarian’s name at Hogwarts? Because we didn’t, but they all did!)

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Posing with my teammates, Lee Edward Fodi, Kallie George, and Stacey Matson, in Little Flower Academy’s gorgeous library.

While we were there, we had a fascinating chat with Quizmaster and Kids Lit Quiz founder Wayne Mills. Wayne is a professor in New Zealand and by the sounds of it, he spends half his year travelling around the world organizing and hosting quiz events.

The sign at the front of the room proclaimed: “Welcome to the sport of reading.” Wayne pointed out that we spend all of our time in school helping those who are struggling with reading, and very little time celebrating those who are great. Meanwhile, there are fairs for the science kids and tournaments for the sports kids and nothing at all — especially no team events — for the literary kids.

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Quizmaster Wayne Mills with Stacey.

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Me trying to butter up judge Rob Bittner. (And to continue that trend, you should read his blog if you don’t already.)

This is a team event to trump all others. The winners in Vancouver (congratulations, Southridge!) will travel to Toronto for the nationals, and the winners at the nationals will travel to New England somewhere. I didn’t catch all the details, but I did hear “try their hand at throwing harpoons, to see how they would have faired in the days of Herman Melville.” How cool is that?

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I am officially a Kids Lit Quiz fan. But I wish I were 11, so I could try for the trophy.

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Likely not smarter than a fifth grader

I’m off to Little Flower Academy today to compete against middle-grade students in B.C.’s inaugural Kids’ Lit Quiz. It’s a competition held in countries all over the world, and popular for the past few years in eastern Canada.

Here’s part of what it says on the website:

In the style of popular learning competitions like the Scripps Spelling Bee, Kids’ Lit Quiz is a highly spirited and intense team event for students around the world.

Are you a KLQ Quiz Whiz?

Who had two nasty aunts called Spiker and Sponge?

Who owned a faithful dog named Snowy?

But here’s the problem: I don’t know the answer to either of those questions!

My resident middle-grade expert, Silence, has been schooling me all week in Rick Riordan facts. I have retained none of them. In fact, I was complaining about this on the phone to my publisher, and she and I couldn’t even agree on how to pronounce his last name.

I may be in trouble.

Fortunately, I will have three trusty team members by my side. Stacey Matson, Kallie George, and Lee Edward Fodi are joining me on this little adventure and they are all dazzlingly brilliant AND just plain fun to hang out with.

We have named our writers’ team The Quizzards of Oz. Let’s just hope no one peeks behind the curtain.

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Silence and Violence

My children objected to my calling them Monkey Girl and Monkey Boy in my blog posts. So, I told them to think of nicknames for themselves.

Silence and Violence.

Those are the names they chose.

I have to say, my daughter is not at all Silent, except perhaps in comparison to her brother, and my son is not at all Violent, except perhaps in comparison to his sister.

But they are not monkeys, either. At least, not most days.

Silence and Violence they will henceforth be.

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Un probleme

We have been dithering all week in the Kyi household, trying to decide whether Monkey Girl should apply for late entry French immersion. Applications are due January 30th.

We are all sitting so firmly on the fence about this that we probably have little picket-indents in our butts. And while sitting on said fence, we’ve asked many passerby for input. Teachers (you have to follow the child’s interests), teacher friends (she’d be among motivated peers), babysitters (Kits Secondary sucks, so put her in a program that leads somewhere else), friends who went to French immersion (you have to live in France or Quebec to become fluent anyway), friends who are French (yes, of course, everyone should speak French), friends who happen to call at the wrong time (more than 30% of UBC undergrads are multilingual)…

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The arguments against French immersion are mainly practicalities. We’d have to start driving her to school, she’d have to leave her friends behind, the French immersion school is being seismically upgraded, so the students are in portables, where there was a rat infestation in September.

These things are unrelated to Monkey Girl’s academic success, but they’re not small matters. I mean, rats? And driving to school? I dislike both of those things equally.

The high school Min went to was in the worst area of Surrey, and he still turned out okay. The high school I went to was my town’s only high school, and there were probably more girls getting pregnant than girls in the French 12 class. Incidentally, both Min and I won our school’s respective French 12 awards. Though mine was likely because there were few competitors, and Min says he won because he organized the school ski trip on behalf of the French teacher.

We may be giving too much weight to a question that is unlikely to affect the entirety of Monkey Girl’s life. But then again, saying that is a bit like my mom saying: “I smoked and drank all through my pregnancy, and you turned out fine.” To which I always answer: “but think of what I could have been!”

She will probably turn out fine without French immersion. But it is a very strange thing to look at your brilliant child, brimming with potential, and try to choose the direction in which to steer her. What if she looks back and says: “but think of what I could have been”?

Or, “de penser à ce que je aurais pu être!”

And yes, that was courtesy of Google Translate. Now, excuse me while I go back to my fence.

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Reading by the numbers

Before January escapes me completely, I thought I’d have a look at last year’s reading list.

I read 87 books in 2014, including 36 novels, 40 young adult or middle-grade books, and three short story collections.

There were only eight non-fiction titles on my list, which I think is an inaccurate reflection of the amount of non-fiction that I actually read. The problem: I often don’t finish non-fiction books. I read a few chapters for research. Or I get distracted in the middle of them and never go back. Both Cooked and Consumed, for example, have been languishing half-read in my bedside table drawer for months now. Which is embarrassing. I am a disgrace to the non-fiction world.

But, onwards…

I read seven books by people I know — a number I think I should improve upon, as a supportive fellow writer!

And, as always, some of my favourite reads were recommended by friends, either real-life friends or virtual. Here are my three top picks (books, not friends), in case you’re looking for something to read this January:

Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson, was raunchy, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Usually all in one page. Plus, it has the most gorgeous cover of the year.

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Annabel is the story of an intersex baby born in rural Labrador. The journey the father goes through, from denial to acceptance to unconditional love, was wonderfully done, and I found myself thinking about it long after I’d closed the book.

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Derry Collier’s Open Secret is a crime novel that goes beyond clever to be warmly, insightfully smart. Plus, it’s set in my (fictionalized) hometown.

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That’s it for 2014! A big thank you to Denise Jaden, who included Anywhere But Here on her list of favourites for the year. I already have my copy of Denise’s Foreign Exchange, waiting to be read!

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The first book I read in 2015 was Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, which I thought was a novel. I chose it while travelling, from the public library’s Overdrive menu, via iPhone.

Though I LOVED being able to access the library from afar, I found Overdrive ridiculously difficult to navigate, especially on sketchy Burmese wifi. I basically clicked on the first book I recognized. Before beginning Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I knew that (a) it had a wonderful title and (b) John Green liked it.

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The book follows a collection of characters through their heartbreaking daily lives in a Mumbai slum. It was one of those stories that made me wonder, the entire time I read, “how did the author know all this?”

Then I reached the final pages and… it’s real! All the stories are true, the characters are actual people, and the author spent YEARS interviewing, videotaping, and recording in the slum.

The fates of the characters were already wrenching when I thought they were fictional. Perhaps because I’d just left Burma, also a place where many live in dire circumstances, I felt as if someone had taken me out behind the bamboo hut and kicked the stuffing out of me.

I’m making the book sound rather depressing, but it’s an inspiring look at the extent of human determination. And a reminder that we can’t always categorize villains and heroes, winners and losers, survivors and victims. Everyone, in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is a little of each.

If you happen upon it in Overdrive or elsewhere, it’s a wonderful and eye-opening read.

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Changed and unchanged

I hope you’ll forgive me if I take this blog to Burma one last time, because I’ve been pondering the changes that have occurred there since the last time we visited, a decade ago.

Burma’s borders have recently opened to foreign investment, construction has surged, and imported cars have rolled en masse onto the streets of Rangoon. Taxis have now replaced most of the five-passenger-plus-chicken moped loads. Shopping malls are edging out markets. Cosmetics ads have replaced propaganda billboards.

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Ten years ago, when our van needed gas, the driver pulled behind an unmarked thatched-roof hut and boys with jerry cans filled the tank while the engine ran. This time, there were modern gas stations.

The roads are still hand-built by men, women, and children who crush the rocks, carry the loads on their heads, and stir tar over open fires. But if I understood correctly, the crews are now paid, and no longer conscripted from the villages.

And, of course, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sun Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest. Her National League for Democracy has visible offices. Our children received NLD swag. People on the train read Democracy Times, and instead of referring in whispers to “our lady,” people talk openly of her work.

But despite all these changes, most of the country lives in crushing poverty. There are still bamboo huts on stilts in the ditches around the big new bank buildings. The government consists of the same men, now in different uniforms. And, as one outspoken friend put it: “maybe you can say what you want, and read what you want, but you still can’t do what you want.”

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It’s hard to know how optimistic to be about the immediate future, when so many are working so hard with little to show for it. Thanks to the influx of foreigners and the spike in investment, apartments in Rangoon cost more than they do in Vancouver, yet many are existing on wages of $50 or $100 a month.

There is hopefully more change still to come…

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Risk-taking for the new year

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between rejection and risk-taking.

This, after getting an email from a writer friend that read: “I’m having DEEP REGRETS about telling so many people that I’m [specific risk redacted for privacy reasons]. I’m worried now that I’m not going to get [it] and will then have to suffer the humiliation of telling everyone that.”

I sent my friend a big, bitter list of last year’s rejections to make her feel better. Wasn’t that sweet of me?

Seriously, though, every time we bundle up a submission or send out a query, we’re floating a new idea or a (hopefully) unique concept. Of course we’re getting rejected! Not getting rejected would be a sign we’re complacently treading water.

So here’s to embracing the possibility of failure in 2015, and taking risks anyway. I started my first proposal of the year after the email exchange above. Fingers crossed!

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