Friday, February 12, 2016

One Thousand One Hundred Twenty Four Words For One Thousand Words For War

                One Thousand Words for War is an anthology of nineteen short stories for young adults.  The theme is, unsurprisingly, conflict, both at the societal and the individual level.  It involves wars both external and internal, and a few situations in which the central conceit of the story is the absence of conflict.

                I’m on hype duty for the book, of course, as I’m one of its authors, and I can do so without apology.  I do need to acknowledge at the outset, however, that this is not some sort of George R.R. Martin-edited all-star ensemble of genre masters cranking out Hugo-worthy work at every turn.  This is sort of the literary equivalent of the NBA D-League All-Star Game.  We’ve got established authors with broad-based indy followings, like Susan Bianculli and Valerie Hunter.  We’ve got writers with excellent reputations in niche genres, like Mara Dabrishus and Anthony Cardno.  And then we’ve got semi-pros like myself, who shut our eyes tight, swing at the pinata as hard as we can, and hope to knock free an odd Jolly Rancher or Bit-o-Honey.  None of us is Gillian Flynn, but none of us suck, either.  Our work was picked from an enormous entry pool by professionally respected editors.  Make no mistake, this bunch can string together a sentence or two.

                So.  If this isn’t necessarily going to be the next Harry Potter, why would you wanna drop your hard-earned $9.95 on it?  I mean, apart from your desperate desire to own the complete set of DuBois works?  I’ve read through it a few times, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a good story collection, but a GREAT classroom resource.  Let me count the ways:

1.  DIVERSE PROTAGONISTS.  If you believe that it’s important for every kid to see himself or herself represented in literature, you won’t ever do better than the editors have done here.  Protagonists Nordic, African, Arabic, Latin American and Asian, straight and gay, cisgender and trans.  Got a few role models for your aliens or alien-wannabes, too.  No gingers, though, because to hell with them. 

2.  ACCESSIBLE MATERIAL FOR ALL READERS.  Writing YA forces an adult to strike a tough balance.  You’ve got to talk to teens without talking down to them.  As an author, you’ve got to remember who you were while still remaining faithful to who you’ve become.  I would add “you’ve got to produce something that’s fun to read while still possessing literary merit,” but a quick glance at the YA bestseller list demonstrates that while literary merit is often helpful, none would dare call it necessary.  That having been said, quality YA hits a note that nothing else in your classroom will quite be able to match in terms of creating new readers and stimulating tentative ones.  I think most of the authors in this anthology did a pretty good job of finding the sweet spot, and I suspect that even kids who don’t read willingly will find something they’ll connect to.  Edgar Allan Poe can’t promise you that.

3.  EXPLORATION OF CONFLICT AS A LITERARY DEVICE.  Most readers know conflict when they see it, but educationally speaking, it’s sometimes a hard target for in-depth exploration.  I don’t know that my own classes ever got too far beyond the “five basic literary conflicts” trope.  One Thousand Words For War comes at conflict from all directions, sequentially and simultaneously, and the short, easily-readable selections allows for teachers to compare and contrast different approaches within a single class period.  Of particular note are the experiments in the East Asian subgenre of Kishotenketsu—stories from which conflict is entirely absent.  Want your kids to understand conflict?  Show them what happens when it’s gone…

4.  NOVICE PROSE PIECES OUT THE WAZOO.  Speech coaches in particular will be intrigued by the use of these stories as competition prose pieces.  I don’t know that there’s necessarily any tournament-winners in the batch (though you never know), but most coaches will already have those.  What you have here is a set of pieces uniquely accessible to, and tailored to, the transitional skills of novices.  Plenty of descriptive action and opportunities to portray mood changes; clean action arcs; vivid and distinct characters; as mentioned above, characters suitable to all genders and ethnicities, with some pieces that will specifically reward the ability to portray a specific accent or dialect.  Here is your chance to get your new interpers out to tournaments with a minimum of fuss and a chance at reasonable success.  And to that end…

5.  TEACH YOUR KIDS TO CUT (BY) THEMSELVES!  Do you feel the same vague sense of disquiet I do at the ubiquity of competition-ready cuttings by Ken Bradbury and Don Zolidis?  Do you feel a creeping guilt at the idea that kids never have to learn to cut a piece anymore?  Come to us for absolution!  These pieces are ideally designed to enable you to teach your novices how to cut a selection.  Virtually all of the selections possess easily identifiable plot arcs and can be easily cut down to seven minutes by a minimally competent human.  Most students will also be able to clearly identify themes, which will enable them to write functional introductions.  I think there’s still value in teaching kids how to narrow a larger piece of literature down to its narrative essence, don’t you?  These pieces make that an achievable task.  Even your kids who don’t walk away from forensics as tournament winners will come away as more attentive readers and better literary analysts for the exercise.

6.  ACCESSIBLE AUTHORS WHO KNOW THEIR CRAFT.  Yes, your kids can write fan letters to John Green and J.K. Rowling.  No, they won’t write back—or, if they do, they won’t sustain a dialogue.  They’re not bad people, I’m sure; it’s just that the size of their fan bases render meaningful access impossible.  These, on the other hand, are emerging YA talents who can and will answer questions intelligently, and who in many cases append their author websites to their work for exactly that purpose.  A kid can dream of being Lauren Oliver, but a kid can realistically imagine being one of us.  We’re real, flesh-and-blood human beings who demonstrate that you can be whatever else you want to be AND a published writer at the same time.  We’re not the brightest stars in the literary heavens, perhaps--but you can reach up and touch us.

Oh, yes indeed.  Your English or competitive speech classroom needs One Thousand Words For WarGet ye to Amazon and put in your pre-order for our pending May release.  Review at your leisure over the summer, crank out some lesson plans, and release it on your unsuspecting teens come fall.  Refuse us at your peril, educators!