Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chicago YA Literature Conference

I'm so pleased that I'll be attending the 10th Annual YA Lit Conference sponsored through Anderson's Bookshop! This fabulous event will have tons of amazing authors and fun activities. You can find out more about the programming here, and I hope to see you there!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Well, That's Okay: Banned Books Week, Sex, and Violence

This is not a story I ever intended to tell. 

It's Banned Books Week, and I have yet to really receive the honor of having a book banned--at least to my knowledge. And there are some amazing articles on book banning that I really think everyone should read--among them are:

As you can see, people far more qualified and smart and with much more valid experience have written better articles on the topic of Banned Books. And, frankly, I didn't really think that I had anything to add to the conversation.

But then Malinda Lo tweeted this article from the School Library Journal on "self-censorship." This is when someone (a library, a teacher--a gatekeeper to literature) doesn't necessarily ban a book, they just make the choice to not carry a book and make it available to students. And on the one hand, this is fine--gatekeepers are not the enemy, and it is their job to find material that is good for their charges.

But a scene from the article jumped out at me:

Soon Lyga started hearing stories about librarians who loved the book but refused to recommend or buy it, just in case someone complained. There was even an email from a high school media specialist in Maryland who was so nuts about Boy Toy that she read it three times—but ultimately decided not to include it in her collection.

“It’s sort of a soft, quiet, very insidious censorship, where nobody is raising a stink, nobody is complaining, nobody is burning books,” says Lyga about the plight of Boy Toy. “They’re just quietly making sure it doesn’t get out there.”

The book wasn't judged on its merit. It wasn't judged on whether or not the students needed it, or would even like it. It was judged on fear.

And when I read about that, I realized I do actually have a story that I can contribute during Banned Books Week.

I want to preface this by a few important things. First: I heard this second-hand, from an author-friend, so, as with all stories heard second-hand, please take this with a grain of salt. I trust my friend, and the validity of what she says, but I wasn't a direct witness.

Second: I love teachers and librarians. This story is not to speak negatively of either profession, nor of any specific individual. I'm speaking more about an attitude of our society.

And so, for the story:

An author-friend of mine was at a national teacher-librarian conference. This was not very long before my first novel, Across the Universe, came out, and Advanced Copies were at a table for the conference attendees to take and review for their libraries and classrooms.

My friend happened to be near the table when an attendee picked up a copy of my book. She jumped in and recommended the book to the attendee.

Friend: I think your students will like that book!
Attendee: I have to be careful which books I select for my school. Is it appropriate for high school?
Friend: I think so--it's recommended for ages fourteen up. But the story is about a murder mystery on a spaceship, so there is some violence, if that concerns you.
Attendee: Oh no, violence is fine. Is there sex?
Friend (starting to feel awkward): There's a scene in the book that does get a bit graphic, sexually. But it's relevant to the plot, and it's not gratuitous, and--
Attendee: *puts the book down on the table* No. We can't have any sex in the books for the school.
Friend: But it's a relevant issue. The girl in the scene is nearly raped and--
Attendee: Oh? It's not consensual sex? Well, that's okay. 

And she picked the book back up.

If we break down what this attendee was saying, she meant that in a school library:
  • violence--including graphic murder--is fine for her students to read about
  • rape and attempted rape/sexual violence is fine for her students to read about
  • consensual sexual relationships are not
And, sadly, this is often typical. Most books are banned not for violence (either physical, mental, sexual, or other), but because of consensual sex, healthy or not. The Hunger Games is literally about children being forced to kill other children, yet a picture book about two male penguins raising a baby penguin is banned more often

And then you have the books that aren't banned--such as Barry Lyga's book Boy Toy mentioned in the SLJ article--but are quietly taken out of the reach of readers. 

In Gayle Forman's post about censorship, she says:
I think parents think if they can ban ugliness in books, they can ban it in life, specifically in the life of their children. In a twisted way, it’s a noble impulse. But it’s completely misguided. And it also doesn’t work.
And this is true of other things as well. We want to keep our children innocent--it's the natural instinct of parents, of people. Keep them safe, keep them innocent.

But if we demonize sex--it's only something bad people do, it's only violent, it's only cruel--we don't teach our children about healthy, consensual, adult relationships. Education is vitally important, but sex is such a taboo topic in our society today that many teenagers do not have a healthy understanding of what sex is. I'm fairly sure any teacher in high school today can back me up on this. For me, I am haunted by the student who told me how she tried to use hot sauce as a contraceptive. I will never forget the look on the face of the student who tearfully told me she wouldn't report her rapist because her parents would then know she wasn't pure any more.

We live in a world where many states teach abstinence sexual education that leads teenagers to find information on sex from the media--the Internet, movies, television--and books. And yet, "In the first survey of its kind, School Library Journal (SLJ) recently asked 655 media specialists about their collections and found that 70 percent of librarians say they won’t buy certain controversial titles simply because they’re terrified of how parents will respond" (source).

We live in a world where Robin Thicke sings a gross song that says rape is nothing more than "Blurred Lines."

We live in a world where 16% of women have experienced an attempted or completed rape. Where there are 89,000 annually reported rapes in America. (source)

We live in a world where a professional educator wouldn't stock a book that has non-graphic, non-gratuitous consensual sex, but would accept one with rape.

Books about rape need to exist. But so do books about healthy, consensual sexual relationships.

Not stocking a book isn't as clearcut as open censorship. Making a judgment of a book's content is the job of educators and parents. And we all have morals we believe in, ones we make judgement calls based on.

I ask only this: when you think about what books you want to make available to teenagers--to anyone--remember that there is a difference between the books you want them to read and the books they need to read, just as there is a difference between the person you want them to be and the person they want to be.

Rocket Girl: My View of the Launch of the Antares Rocket

So last week, I saw a rocket launch into space.

This is not something that I expected ever to be able to say. But the good people at NASA have started an amazing program called NASA Social. They basically take people from social media and invite them to be impromptu reporters of the cool stuff NASA does--like launches. If you want in on this, they're doing several more launch with NASA Social, and you can still apply!

So just what did I do with NASA? Well, this:

I became an astronaut!



Okay, just kidding. But I did get to go to Wallops for the express purpose of seeing a rocket launch, which is almost as cool. And as an official NASA guest, no less!

And lest you doubt that I got to see the goods...

Um, here's a less embarrassing picture:

Another highlight? I got to finally meet long-time author-friend Jodi Meadows! You can read all about her experience of the trip here. It is more factual and includes less pictures of me geeking out.

Me and Jodi and my rocket. I called dibs.
The Antares rocket is carrying something called a Cygnus module--which is basically a giant storage container full of things for the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). What's on board? Chocolate.

Seriously. Chocolate. Astronauts needs chocolate. (And also other food, clothes, science experiments, and more. But chocolate!)

Here's a life-size model of the container that was being sent into space, so you can see how big it is. Although, actually, it was rather small compared to the actual rocket!

The back-end of the module--to the right and left you
can see the solar panels that provide it with power.

The front of the module--this is the side that connects securely to the ISS.

Me in front of it, to show you the size.

Close-up of the solar panels.
The day before the launch, we had an awesome time touring the Wallops Flight Facility. Wallops is doing a lot of interesting and new things with space--I found the balloons, which can reach low orbit, to be particularly fascinating (that's how Across the Universe entered space after all!).

This sample from the moon may or may not be (but definitely is)
research for my soon-to-be-announced new trilogy.
One of the coolest things for me to see, though, was how the rockets are actually made.

On site at Wallops is the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), which is a fancy way of saying "The Place Where They Make the Rockets."

They're working on Orbit 1 here. 
You can see why it's called Horizontal--basically, they lay the rocket out, make it, and then when it's ready, stand it up properly outside the building.

When it comes to rocket engines, size matters.
Here I am in front of one of two engines used for Orbit 1--the same type of engine that was in Antares. All the tubes--including the tiny tubes in the bottom cone that look like ridges--are for moving around the kerosene that fuels the ship. Rocket kerosene, because that is a thing that exists. This trip was awesome, yo.

Here's a closeup of two of the three stages of the rocket. The Orbit 1, like Antares, has three stages. The long tube on the bottom holds the giant engines and lots and lots and lots of rocket kerosene. Then it breaks off when it the rocket breaks atmosphere, and solar panels open up and steers the Cygnus into orbit before it, too, drops away after the module connects with the ISS.

In the picture above, you can see stage 1--the long tube with rocket fuel--in the upper right corner. You're looking at it from the top--that red button is used to help with fluctuations as the rocket moves. The big round thing on the bottom of the picture shoes a white line around the inside, and red lines holding it up--this is the explosive that will detach stage 1 from the rocket.

Of course you know that I took detailed pictures of what makes stuff blow up.

After we saw the way the rockets work, we got to attend a pre-launch press conference and briefing about the rocket. This was really cool--we were there with the "real" media, and got to see the way NASA TV works.

Official NASA press conference.
One of the cool things about this whole trip was learning more about the space program. Funding came up quite a bit during the press-conference, and with good reason: this was the culmination of years of work (and millions invested) with a commercial partner. The Antares launched with NASA and Orbital Sciences, a private company, working together.

My knee-jerk reaction to this was negative, I'll be honest. I'm the girl who wrote about the FRX, remember? One of the big points of the Across the Universe trilogy was how when government turns to business, things get corrupt.


That's fiction, and the reality is, this was a partnership that makes a lot of sense. NASA works with two private commercial partners right now--Orbital and Space X--and they're using these private enterprises to do the low-orbit work, such as sending cargo to the space station--that enables them to focus their attention on other, bigger issues--deep space exploration.

Jodi taking notes at the briefing. I was the Ron Weasley to her Hermione.
And the running theme throughout it all was simply this: inspiration. During the briefing and the press conference, both NASA and Orbital made a point to mention the number of student projects going up with the cargo. They mentioned the Social program that enabled me to see the launch, and how they hoped that by spreading the word about the cool things like rocket launches, we'll inspire others to explore science and learn more.

After all, the NASA Vision is "to improve life here, to extend life to there, to find life beyond." It all added up to a very inspiring message of seeking beyond the boundaries of our own planet.

And guys? I want you to know, I was asking the important questions at the press conference and briefing. Now, I was too excited to actually get this exchange on tape, but here's how I remember it happening:

Me: You're planning on doing several of these low-orbit launches in the near future, you're working with commercial partners, you're planning on continuing this plan, and I wanted to know what you see the future of NASA and commercial ventures may be?

Official Science Person: We're planning on doing two more launches like Antares before the end of the year...

Me: No, what I mean is, do you think civilians are going to make it into space? Maybe like a lunar colony? Or day trips in orbit? *whispers* What I'm really asking is can I get to space?

Official Science Person: Oh, definitely. That is the future of the space program.

I take this to be an official and absolute promise that I get to go to space. I'll send postcards, don't worry.

But I know what you guys actually came here to see. The same thing I came to see. ROCKET LAUNCH!!!

Wait, let me back up. We were about two miles away from the launch site. Here's what it looks like from the NASA seats:

Most of the social media people camped out on the bleachers.
The "real" media lined up in the field with the highest of high-tech cameras.
It was amazing.

I don't know how to put it into words, but if I had to pick just one, I'd pick awe-inspiring. And I mean that very literally. I was inspired to feel awe. Much of what NASA was speaking about throughout the two days was all about how they hoped that this would inspire others, and, well, it did.

I can't tell you what it felt like to stand in those bleachers and hear "T-minus five...four...three..." To see the fires start up and, moments later, hear the low rumble of the blast. To see the rocket lift higher, higher, higher. To lose sight of it in the sun.

Above is my take--please excuse my screaming and chanting of "ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh"--it was exciting!

Here's the official NASA video of the event--far better than my version, but lacking in ecstatic whoops:

Awe-inspiring, yeah? It took just a little over five minutes for the rocket to reach orbit, and it'll spin around the globe for a bit before connecting to a station in space occupied with real people who are currently living there. We are in the future, guys, and it is awesome. 

And me? I'm just going to go ahead and start packing for my cruise to the moon.

With my new bestie, of course.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


As you know, next week I'll be a guest of the NASA Wallops Space Facility in time to see the launch of an Antares Rocket bringing supplies up to the International Space Station.

As part of the program, I get to attend two question and answer sessions with NASA experts--one specifically on the mission, one that's more general.

If you could ask any question of NASA, what would it be? I'll be recording everything, so if you have a question you want answered, I'd be happy to ask for you and bring back what I learn here!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I'm Going to See a NASA LAUNCH!!! Also: ponies.

I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am about this one: I'm going to see a NASA launch!

Next week I'll be a guest at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, in time to see an Antares rocket blast off to the International Space Station!
Date: September 17, 11:16 a.m. EDT
Mission: Orbital Sciences Demonstration Flight
Launch Vehicle: Antares
Launch Site: Wallops Flight Facility, Va.
Launch Pad: Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A
Description: Orbital Sciences will launch a demonstration mission to the International Space Station, testing out the Cygnus cargo vehicle as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

The NASA Wallops Flight Facility was recently in the news for the successful launch of the LADEE rocket to the moon. LADEE is testing the atmosphere and dust on the moon, for no other reason (in my head) than to start work on a lunar colony which zomg cool (note: it's not about a lunar colony, this is just my own wishful thinking...or IS IT? is. BUT STILL).

Here's how the LADEE launch went last week:

And next week I get to see a launch again! AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!! Don't worry---I'll be taking LOTS of pictures and videos and all sorts of things. That's actually the reason I get to go--NASA took application for people to come and record the launch, sharing it with their social media contacts (with a special shout-out to Megan Shepherd, who told me about the program)!

And I'll be with author friend Jodi Meadows, which is gonna be extra fun! AND we're going to be on an island WITH PONIES. Wallops Island is super close to Chincoteague Island, where the beaches are home to a native breed of wild ponies.

That's right people. ROCKETS AND PONIES.


Monday, September 9, 2013

I See You: Representation Matters

I've had a few emails and tumblr messages from redheads lately that have surprised me a little.

It surprised me because I tend to see redheads a lot in books--although I might be biased because of my Weasley boy love. And it surprised me because it never occurred to me that making Amy a redhead was significant. I didn't intend to write a redhead so much as I was trying to write someone who was the opposite of Elder.

The very first fan letter I got was an extraordinarily personal letter from a young girl from Greece. While I don't want to be too specific and violate her privacy, a large part of the letter was devoted to the girl telling me about her sister, who had red hair in a culture where that was very rare, who was always told by her peers that her hair was ugly. And then she read about Amy, and Elder who loved her, and Elder who loved, specifically, her hair. And for one of the first times in her life, she didn't see ugly in the mirror.

Just thinking about the letter brings tears to my eyes--I never in a million years thought that something as minor (to me) as making a character's hair red or not would be so important to someone else.

But I've been thinking a lot lately about representation. I confess this isn't something that I thought of when writing the Across the Universe series, although there were other issues in terms of race and prejudice that I attempted to show through the work instead.

By M. Steffens, Brazilian Designer & Illustrator
But it's something I'm thinking about now. Perhaps inspired by a quote I saw on tumblr about a month ago, one that has really stuck with me:

“Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”  — Whoopi Goldberg

Growing up--a white, middle-class girl--this never really occurred to me, that there were people who didn't see themselves on television. I was blissful in my ignorance.

But I'm also very grateful that I'm not as ignorant as I once was. Maybe it's been the years of seeing movies that don't pass the Bechdel Test, or maybe it's just because I've grown up some. Maybe it's because on every single Breathless Reads book tour I've been on, at least one man has asked us why we write books for girls and not boys, why won't anyone think of the underrepresented boys, and asking the person who asks this to just look outside isn't considered answer enough. I know part of the reason why I'm more aware of the world around me, its diversity and its prejudice, is because of my friends, the ones I've made in the past few years, the ones who are more different from me, who helped me see the world through their eyes, or at least see the world with them in it. 

I don't claim to have eradicated all my ignorance, but I'm glad I'm more aware of the world around me, more aware of what I can do to help make it a better place--because you can't really do good without seeing the bad that exists. 

Calvin and Hobbes
Words are powerful things. They can start--or end--wars. People believe in words. They are the fundamental expression of ourselves, the division between human and not, the means by which we learn. And while people use words to teach, to express art, to proclaim truths, at the most basic level, people use words to simply say:

I am here. 

Take, for example, graffiti. The history of graffiti is fascinating, and some of the oldest examples of graffiti is the simple, common phrase: I was here. Don't believe me? There are six known, recorded examples of "_______ was here" in graffiti in Pompeii. Satura, Floronius, Daphnus, Staphylus, Aufidius, and Gaius Pumidius Dipilus all carved into stone that they were there, in Pompeii, and their statement is still visible, more than two-thousand years later. There's a sort of immortality in their proclamation. 

Graffiti from Pompeii

And this basic, fundamental need to exist--and be recognized for existing--is a simple, simple thing. It's the reason why someone smiling at you on the street can make your day, the first step to falling in love, our desperate desire for tombstones and graveyards. We all want to make our mark on the world. We all want to be recognized for existing. 

That is why representation matters. 

Zen Pencils recently had a comic based on a Marc Maron quote that illustrates this idea of our desperate need for simple acknowledgement of our existence. In it, he likens the idea of having people acknowledge our existence to the relief a druggie gets after a hit. It's a powerful, disturbing image. 

And, in a very real way, it's also true. 

Zen Pencils
But keep in mind: actions speak louder than words. And that is why representation matters so very much in books--in all forms of media, actually. This is about more than diversity--it's about humanity. It's about honesty. The world is not the narrow, limited view the media commonly expresses. There is so much more beyond what you can see from your doorstep. To paraphrase Inception: You mustn't be afraid to see a little further, darling. 

See a community that's not all white. See a love that's not all normative. See a book setting that's not all American. See a family that's not all middle class or rich. See a world that's not all yours.

I believe in the goodness of humanity, and I believe we're on the cusp of change. But I also know that, sadly, articles like this one by author Cindy Pon are still necessary. Websites like Diversity in YA are still necessary. Publishers like Tu Books are still necessary. Books like those of Cindy Pon, Malinda Lo, David Levithan, Kwame Alexander, Phoebe North, the Diverse Energies anthology, the upcoming works of Christy Farley and Alexandra Duncan--these are necessary and important.

Representation is important. At its most basic level it says: I see you. And in this world of bright lights and hollow dreams, of statistics and caricatures that turn people invisible, that is important.

I see you. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Live Your Life

One of the most common questions I get at events is, "What advice do you have for aspiring writers?"

And typically, I say, "When given the choice between staying in your room and writing, and going out and experiencing something completely new, do the new thing."

This surprises some people. And don't get me wrong: practice makes perfect, and if you want to be a writer, you have to write. It's basically the most fundamental step of the process.

But you have to live, too.

And you have to live a wide variety of experiences. One of my favorite quotes is by Eleanor Roosevelt: "Do one thing every day that scares you." The more you experience--especially the things that seem scary or impossible or crazy--the better writer you are. Even if you're not writing a horror novel, you need to be able to describe the feeling of fear. Even if you're not writing a romance, you need to describe love.

And you never know where your experiences will take you. For example, one of the first videos I ever uploaded to YouTube is this one:

When I posted it--all the way back in 2010!--I was just sharing something cool I'd seen while traveling to Venice, Italy, with my class. It was a new experience, and one that I thought was amazing.

Three years later, glass and glass-making became an integral part to the development of Centauri-Earth in Shades of Earth.

I didn't go to the glass-making demonstration thinking I'd research my novel. I didn't even have the idea for the novel yet--and wouldn't for years to come! I was just experiencing life.

That is why life experiences are so important. If you feel writer's block, or are just bored with your writing, or even if you're not--don't put on blinders so big that you forget to experience new things. Discover the world around you so you can make up more worlds of your own.

Recently, I was at the beach with some of my family. While there, I went swimming alone, thinking about the new book series I'm working on. Before I knew it, I'd sketched out the entire opening of the second book. That was what I call "intentional inspiration." I was looking for inspiration, and focused on what I needed to do, and the story came to me.

But on the last day, we saw a lightning storm. A very HUGE, dramatic lightning storm, the likes of which I'd honestly never really seen before. I was in awe of it the entire time, shocked at the beauty and danger of nature.

And the storm found its way into the story, too. It wasn't intentional inspiration. It was life, seeping into the words of my novels. And that is often the very best inspiration there is.