Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 20

Visiting Bookstores: BookMonster In Santa Monica


BookMonster in Santa Monica has earned my long-term gratitude. They became the first brick-and-mortar bookstore to place signed copies of 50 States: A collection of short short stories on their shelves. 

They were one of four independent bookstores I reached out to around UCLA, where my daughter was attending a weekend softball camp, and we immediately struck up a dialogue. After some discussion, they agreed to take a couple signed copies at wholesale price, which they’ll likely offer up at a discount online and/or in the store. 

Why I’m thrilled that BookMonster was first.

BookMonster was among three independents I called because they almost permanently closed in March. The store hasn’t had an easy go of things. They were looted last June when things got out of hand in Los Angeles, and that was after being among several struggling booksellers that innovated curbside pickup during the peak of the pandemic. 

The primary reason they survived at all, which is also why they didn’t close on March 31, was because of the generosity of area book readers. People in Santa Monica didn’t want to see their local bookstore close. It’s an icon in the area, located at 212 Santa Monica Blvd. in Santa Monica, just northeast of Ye Olde King’s Head and King and Queen Cantina (which is where we had lunch after the book drop).

They also have some great member benefits, including 5 percent of every in-store purchase amount in points. Members are also the most likely readers who sell their books back. BookMonster buys books, up to 20 items per visit, provided they are in excellent condition. Many customers accept store credit in lieu of cash, using the title they turn in as an opportunity to walk out with a few more. 

If you have never been to BookMonster, it’s certainly worth a visit. In most cases, you wouldn’t ever guess most books inside are used. Even a handful of rare books in the back have been carefully preserved. This store is top-notch. The staff is excellent. The average visit time for browsing is a bit more than an hour for anyone who loves books. 

Bookstore visits are still a mixed bag for authors. 

I’m also grateful to BookMonster for two more reasons. Since book signings haven’t come back to all brick-and-mortar bookstores, accepting books from authors backed by new or small publishers isn’t easy. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are taking a bigger chance on every book they decide to stock. Even when I posted the event on my Facebook author page, I appropriately called it a book drop rather than a signing or meet-and-greet. 

The second reason I’m grateful addresses another wrinkle for bookstores in general. There are more books and authors today than bookstores have shelves. So many, in fact, that independent bookstores aren’t answering every inquiry. They might be more inclined if book signings were back, but we’re still a few months away from that. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll give up on contacting bookstores when travel softball takes us to a new location. In between whatever schedule my daughter might have, I can usually set time aside for at least one bookstore visit. Even if signings aren’t possible, I can still drop off a couple of signed copies — and then help them help my book by telling people online where they can find it. 

So please stay tuned. I may have a few surprises in the weeks and months ahead on where 50 States might show up. But for now, if you are in Los Angeles, the go-to bookstore for 50 States isn’t the oldest or the smallest or the hippest. It’s BookMonster in Santa Monica. They are the coolest.

Tuesday, June 22

Writing A Book: 50 States by Richard R. Becker


Two years ago, I started writing short short stories — so short that I sometimes called them scraps. And since I didn’t belong to any writer groups, I started sharing them on my Facebook author page. 

It wasn’t the first time short fiction appeared there (or longer stories on this blog, for that matter), but two things changed. It was the first time in my life I started treating my short stories like an assignment, with equal weight to any advertising/marketing deadlines I might have. Second, it was the first time I was committed to publishing fiction with consistency so people could anticipate a new story every week on my author page. 

Experience had already taught me both habits needed to happen if I ever wanted to add fiction writing to my repertoire. These were among the habits I adopted to become a freelance writer (which quickly evolved into Copywrite, Ink.), several publications (Key News * Las Vegas, and Liquid [Hip], and even this blog (which took off in 2007 when I made it daily). You have to be in it to win it.

Immersion is a critical key to creativity.

What I didn’t expect was how immersion opened up inspiration. After sharing the first few stories, I fell into a creative rhythm, and an overarching idea began to crystalize. 

I was inspired to write about seemingly random events happening or having had happened to different people in different places — stories that could stand on their own but were also left open to be continued in unexpected ways or possibly intersect with one another. I felt so strongly about this concept that I adopted some guidelines: each story would be set in a different state, and each would touch on a different psychological state as people face or cope with different life-defining events.

Once I formalized this idea, I applied lessons learned from two friends and colleagues to keep me going. One told me to always work for myself first. The other provided a proof of concept to be disciplined. One of his projects, The Daily Monster, was an exercise in illustrating a new monster every day, no matter what. 

I knew I couldn’t write a daily story, but I did feel confident I could write one a week. For a while, I was so motivated by the immersion of writing that I would sometimes write two in a week, scheduling the additional story in advance. It was a good thing I did too. Like many creatives, last year was very disruptive to the process. Having a few scheduled in advance kept me on track when I needed an extra week for some. 

The outcome was better than I could have ever imagined. 

50 States: A Collection of Short Short Stories was an exciting project because I didn’t always know where each story might come from or go. Most often, I would work on three story concepts simultaneously, mulling over the details until one of them solidified. Other times, the story might grow out of my research. It was really important to ground even the most speculative stories to a time or place.

For instance, I knew the story I wanted to tell about two runways meeting at a Greyhound bus station in Tennessee, but I didn’t know much about the Jackson transportation system, circa 1977. Research is essential for set dressings. 

Conversely, that story about a middle-aged man and a young basketball player in Chicago isn’t as reliant on location. I could have set this story in almost any midwestern urban center, and it would have worked. However, I thought name-dropping the short-lived Chicago Zephyrs lent a nice touch for a story taking place in 1963. 

The third story I call out on the back of the book's cover didn’t have to be tied to Oregon either. But once I decided Oregon could become a home for it, I researched wildfires in Oregon so I could use it as a reference for the fictional one in the story. Now, I couldn’t imagine this modern story playing out anyplace else. It belongs there.

Intersecting stories and paths that cross, divide, and double back. 

To keep track of what states were complete, I used to color in the state shape on a line art map every time I finished a story. I also added them to a project table list. The table includes: the title of the story, the state, the date it takes place, the word count of the first draft, the date of origination, and how many actions (likes, shares, etc.) were taken on the story once I posted it to Facebook. While it didn’t influence my writing, it was nice to see how some stories resonated relative to the number of people on the page. 

I have yet another document I’m using to track every character too. Knowing some details at a glance will help me later as every character could appear, connect with, or intersect with other characters or stories in the future. Some stories already have connections in 50 States, but it’s not apparent.

I did publish a longer short story (3,600 words) on Facebook about the Diamond family from the story Shine On You Crazy Diamond that appears in 50 States. It's called The Shut Out. Unfortunately, the story was removed from Facebook when it disabled a blog-like feature called notes. The feature never really took off, but I loved it and shared several longer stories there — some of which are being slated for another project. 

However, I am sharing some new short short stories on Facebook. This new project, 50 Threads, has obvious connections to the stories in 50 States. The very first short I shared was called The Beige Door. It is a direct continuation of the story The Blue Door, which can be found in 50 States. 

Keeping tabs on various projects and what’s next. 

My company, Copywrite, Ink., partnered with Blurb on the production and distribution of the project. Anyone interested in the book can track the 50 States by Richard R. Becker page as the book is added bookstores and booksellers. I’ll also post links to booksellers on the 50 States page hosted by my company Copywrite, Ink. 

I am publishing a newsletter with exclusive “first look” content and other news. The next newsletter is out in October 2021. I am also answering questions on Goodreads. I will no longer be sharing 'first look' content on my Facebook author page, but I will post announcements there (as well as on TwitterLinkedIn, and other social networks) so you know where to find it. 

Bookmarking this blog wouldn’t be a bad idea either. I see this space as in transition, with a little more focus on life, fiction, and writing. Who knows? We’ll see. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, September 24

The Elephant In The Room Of Banned Books Is Gray

banned books
The most common commercialized celebration of Banned Books Week is to create a display of the top ten banned book titles or top ten banned book classics (for sale), thereby making this week sometimes feel more promotional than purposeful. And while this celebration can prove useful in raising awareness or discussing ignorance, it's easy to forget these top ten lists come from a pool of more than 300 titles targeted for much bigger, broader and diverse reasons than we like to think.

This is one of the reasons I appreciated the article penned by Donald Parker that addressed some of the myths and realities of censorship. He cut to the heart of a bigger matter, reminding readers that not all banned books are challenged by conservatives, nor are they confined to school libraries and classrooms, nor are they classified as young adult fiction in an increasingly less tolerant world.

The truth is that censorship is a national problem without any real geographical, demographical, or socio-polictial preferences. People who seek to ban books are young and old, rich and poor, left and right, and live from one coast to the other. When you take a closer look at them, it's exactly as Ray Bradbury once called it in Fahrenheit 451 — whereby "minorities, each ripping a page or paragraph from a book, until one say the books were empty and the minds were shut and the libraries closed."

Eight Articles That Cut Past The Top Ten Lists And Aim At The Elephant.

1. Too Graphic? 2014 Banned Books Week Celebrates Challenged Comics by Lynn Neary. Neary catches up with Jeff Smith, author and illustrator of the popular series Bone, who was shocked to find out his series was named one of the top ten most frequently challenged books in America. Censors typically cite violence, racism, and a political viewpoint.

2. Costco Denies Political Motive For Pulling D'Souza's Book by Jerome R. Corsi. Corsi recaps the recent attempt by Costco to pull a book critical about Barack Obama from its stores. The big box store claimed the decision was made because of poor sales despite showing up on the New York Times bestseller list. Costco is a supporter of Obama and the Priorities USA super PAC.

3. Riverside: "Fault In Our Stars" Banned From Middle Schools by Suzanne Hurt. Hurt covers the best intentions of parent Karen Krueger to remove the book or only make it available for checkout with parental consent in a middle school library because it includes references to two teens having sex. When several members of the school committee agreed that the teen love story was inappropriate for that age group, it pulled the book and would not allow other schools to purchase it.

4. Confronting My Temptation To Ban Books by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush. Raushenbush raises an interesting point in asking people to skip past the top ten mot banned books in America, which he says pose no discernible threat, and challenge any anti-ban convictions by stocking library shelves with "recruitment propaganda from ISIS, or books and essays that perpetuate systemic racism, or sexist literature that denigrates women..."

5. America's First Banned Book And The Battle For The Soul Of The Country by Jim Miller. Miller takes a fresh look at banned book week not by being current but by looking backward. His article touches on the sensitive content of the New English Canaan by Thomas Morton, published in 1637. The book itself was put in the midst of two colonies clashing over ideas — specifically between Puritans and those "other" untamed colonists.

6. School Accused Of 'Purging' Christian Books by Todd Starnes. Starnes runs down the true account of a public charter school in Temecula, California, that stripped its libraries of any book with a Christian theme or by a Christian author. This included The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, which is a survivor story about a Christian family that helped Jews escape the Holocaust.

7. How Does Banning A Book Work? by Cristen Conger. Conger takes deep dive into the process of banning a book, including the legal precedence that dates back to the furthest reaches of literary history, which includes the work of Socrates in 399 B.C. Today, despite the U.S. Supreme Court already ruling that a book or periodical must be "pervasively vulgar" to constitute adequate ground for banning, people continue to challenge books for one reason or another.

8. America's Most Surprising Banned Books by Theunis Bates and Lauren Hansen. Bates and Hansen put together a list last year unlike most of the lists you will see this week. They told the story of thirteen titles and why someone sought to ban them. One of the more dubious mentions includes Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See because someone mistook author Bill Martin Jr. for an obscure Marxist theorist who had the same name.

Why The Elephant Is Gray And Books Will Continued To Challenged. 

It's mostly easy for readers and authors and libraries and booksellers to point at the most commonly challenged books in America last year and laugh at the reasons. But when you look beyond the list and consider the bigger picture, you can pinpoint a portrait of what Americans are wrestling with today. Look even deeper and find bigger questions being asked every time books are challenged.

Should books with religious viewpoints be allowed in schools (and is it a religious viewpoint not to have them)? Do parents have the right of oversight by minimizing the accessibility of some books? Is there an appropriate age limit for certain content (and if so, then who decides)? Are depictions of racism part of the problem or part of the solution?

Does expressing sexuality breed tolerance or temptation? Should booksellers be forced to sell all books or only those they agree with and support? Are history books beginning to exploit the power of complaint and using emotional bribery to invent ever increasing levels of social guilt? And what about those other books — the ones specifically written to incite, recruit, or defame?

These questions aren't always as easy for everyone as people tend to rally to protect their own beliefs and convictions but generally struggle to protect those they consider in opposition to their own. How about you? Is there a line you won't cross in defense against censorship? Maybe there are many lines.

Wednesday, October 30

Where Would We Be Without Words? I Can Imagine.

Literacy
Years ago, when John Corcoran told me that almost half of his students were not able to read beyond a third grade level, I didn't want to believe him. And yet, I believed him.

I believed him because third grade was a pivotal year in my education too. It was the same year that my grandmother made the decision to have me repeat the third grade outside of the public school system. Had nothing changed, I would have landed on the wrong side of a statistical division.

According to the John Corcoran Foundation, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Not all of them do. Corcoran was a teacher.

He learned to cheat, but only cheated himself. 

As Corcoran progressed through school, he became more and more resourceful in hiding his illiteracy behind his natural aptitude for math, athletic prowess and deep friendships. He hid it so well, in fact, that he taught bookkeeping, social studies, and physical education for several years.

Living this lie wasn't easy for him, he told me, but it was not nearly as painful as not being able to help students who faced a similar problem. They could not read and he could not teach them.

Corcoran eventually did learn to read, but not until long after he left teaching and entered real estate. He was 48 years old at the time and an exception to the rule. Most people never learn to read.

A brief look at the growing literacy problem in the United States.

Literacy
There is a growing literacy problem in the United States and our self-confidence, much like Corcoran's self-esteem, makes us blind to it. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 14 percent of adults in the United States cannot read (the same number of people who do not use the Internet) and, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), this number swells to 40 percent when counting those who only possess level one reading skills (marginally functional).

High school graduation is not an indicator. As many as one in five students graduate without being able to read. About one in four graduate without being proficiently literate. One recent study, OECD Skills Outlook 2013, placed the United States 16th in literacy proficiency (among 23 countries).

The same organization warned that the U.S. was the only country among 20 OECD free-market countries where the current generation is less well educated than the previous one. It published this finding as part of the National Commission on Adult Literacy in 2008. It's not any better today.

Individual career paths aside, literacy is a family matter. 

Any time I step on stage or in front of a classroom, most people cannot imagine me as anything but a writer. Even with other occupational titles, writing has provided my career with a strong foundation. I write approximately 10,000 to 15,000 words a week (excluding email and social networks), which is the equivalent of a novel every other month (and the reason I don't write a novel every other month).

Ironically, I can imagine my career path without ever becoming a writer. From the onset, I wasn't very good at it because strong writing is indicative of being a strong reader. I wasn't a strong reader.

Reading came much later for me. I didn't learn to appreciate it until seventh grate. Writing came even later. My skill sets were only passable up until my freshman year. Both have stories for another time.

Teaching To Read
The point is that I can imagine it because I had to imagine it. But what I could not imagine would be the inability to help my daughter when she needed it most. She reads with confidence now.

While it has been an amazing journey transforming my daughter into a strong reader during the past six months, I can't help but wonder what might have happened without intervention. What if I didn't know how to read well, let alone teach? How long could she have hung on as a struggling reader?

Three days this week with literacy. Maybe you could connect to one.

All Hallow's ReadThursday is All Hallows Read. Most people pass out candy, but Neil Gaiman continues to make the case that people could pass out books instead. He calls the campaign All Hallows Read, a program that inspires more stories and less sweets for Halloween.

I wrote about the program last year, including five titles that have always conjured up an appropriate spirit for the season. Feel free to add The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, written by Gaiman. Coraline is another family favorite. The film is part of my family's Halloween lineup.

NCFLFriday is National Family Literacy Day.  The National Center For Family Literacy (NCFL)  is hosting a fundraising challenge for literacy. Proceeds from the campaign will help the center continue its work, which has helped more than one million families make educational and economical progress.

The reason family literacy is so important is that children's reading scores improve dramatically when their parents become involved and help them learn to read. This isn't possible without literate parents so the program goes a long way improving the household. The NCFL is my friend Geoff Livingston's account and he is raising funds along with hundreds of others. They have a "thunderclap" scheduled.

Cegas Valley Book Festival
Saturday is the Vegas Valley Book Festival. The Vegas Valley Book Festival is the largest literary event in Las Vegas, bringing together hundreds of writers, authors, artists, and illustrators to celebrate literacy and creativity. All programs and events are open to the public. Admission is free.

As social media director for AIGA Las Vegas, I have been overseeing elements of the social media campaign, including an event schedule on Facebook. If you are in Las Vegas this Saturday, there isn't a better way to promote family literacy and art appreciation. There is also an event kick off tonight with Catherine Coulter as this year's keynote.

One last thing for my own curiosity: What are you reading and why? I really would like to know. It's important because you never know who it might inspire next because words inspire lives. They inspired mine.

Wednesday, July 17

How A Little Love For Learning Can Jumpstart A Reader

Summer can be a mixed blessing for most children. While it gives them a little more freedom to play, explore extracurricular activities, and enjoy more free time, it also separates them from their natural love of learning.

The break leaves many of them at a loss after the summer, which is why most teachers set their startup lessons to be either refreshers or benchmarks. They want to know what these children retain over the summer.

Theoretically it works, unless these the children were already slipping in proficiency. Many children are. My daughter is among them.

Despite private school, she ended first grade with an F reading letter level on an A-Z scale, which represents an early reader at the start of first grade (not the end). She landed somewhere in the middle of her peers, which was better than my son did at that age in public school (and he had outperformed most other students there). But it really wasn't good enough.

If we assume that most children drop two reading letters over the summer — because they gravitate to books below their levels, if at at all — then we might also assume students like my daughter would automatically face challenges in second grade. Ergo, even if her new teacher started teaching the class at an H reading level, my daughter would have been critically behind as a student reading at a D level.

You can see the potential problem here, especially because many parents are unfamiliar with the various reading level benchmarks. They simply see their children reading and smile, thinking it's good enough. It's not. My daughter would have been lost after the first few weeks of school.

How parents can develop an accelerated reading program for young students.

Awareness is always the first step. Take some time to become aware of reading level benchmarks and find out where your child finished at the end of the school year. It doesn't matter which benchmarks the school uses — letter, numeric, or Lexille (a.k.a. Lexi). All benchmarks correspond to a grade level.

Some parents just don't know. While I knew my daughter's level this year, we never knew my son's reading level when he was that age. If you don't know, don't panic. Look up the books he or she has read or looked at since the end of the school year. A search with the book title and words "reading level" will usually produce a landing page that corresponds to one or all benchmarks.

Discover books to move them forward. Assume that the books are at their reading level (or a little less) because children (like adults) tend to gravitate toward what they can read easily and not what will improve their reading. Have them read whatever is on hand (or that they have been reading) out loud to demonstrate their strength at that level. You'll immediately get a sense of their proficiency.

Depending on how well the student reads, choose books that are at their level (if they are struggling) and slightly higher. Make sure you double check the approximate level too as all book publishers use different measurements. For example, Penguin Level 2 books are generally first grade books; some "I Can Read" Level 2 books are second grade books; and some Scholastic Level 3 books are second grade books.

Encourage kids to read the books out loud. It doesn't take much time. Between 15 minutes and one half hour of reading time every day is enough to propel them forward. Just remember that from their perspective, natural story breaks make more sense than random page counts or hard time quotas. They'll enjoy reading to a preset goal.

It's also best for parents to pick the books. Sure, children can provide input, but parents need to be aware that young readers pick books based on topics and characters they know. From experience, these better known characters tend to have clunkier writing and thinner story lines. Too many weak stories will cause young readers to become discouraged. So try to pick books with strong stories while paying attention to the language lessons.

Learning words by sight is a tiered process. Any time a student comes across a word that he or she doesn't know, block out everything except the first syllable (or block out everything except the root word) with your fingers. Most of the time, doing so will give them just enough confidence to get it right. And if they struggle, explain any rules that might help: e.g., sometimes "gh" sounds like "f" and sometimes it's silent.

The point is that you always want to help them solve a problem as opposed to reading the words for them (and letting them parrot you). Only when all else fails do you read the word and tell how why they missed it. Then ask them to reread the sentence and pay attention to whether they've mastered the word on the next occurrence. If they haven't, add it to an index card.

Flash card drills help create intangible rewards. Every morning after breakfast and/or after lunch or dinner, my daughter and I now work through flash cards that are mostly made up of missed words. There are only about eight or ten cards to go through one time. (It's important to only go through the pile one time per session to ensure long-term retention.) The only other words I include are instructional words; words that may appear in second grade instructions like "complete," "correct," "length," etc.

If my daughter gets it right with no assistance, we put a mark on the card. When she gets five marks on the card, she keeps the card and rips it up. As she rips these cards up, new ones are added so there are always plenty of cards at various stages of completion.

She thinks of it as an achievement reward and each ripped up card is celebrated. And if she misses a flashcard word in a story, I give her a one-time prompt that she already ripped the word up and we don't want to add it back. She immediately remembers. As an aside, never offer candy or monetary awards because you'll risk teaching them to love the reward and not a love for learning — which I believe is the ultimate goal of any teacher.

When my daughter returns to school this year, she will be well beyond her peers. 

If you read through these accelerated reading steps, then you'll likely be left with one question. Does it work? Within four weeks, my daughter moved from F to K on an A-Z scale. At this pace, she might reach Q by the end of the summer. To put that into perspective, Q is the letter for a fourth grade reader.

A few days ago, I spoke to a group of educators about communication (and I'll be sharing the deck next week). It was during my presentation that I shared one of my observations about education: I have never met a kindergartener who wasn't enthusiastic about school. So if we want to solve the problems with education, then we have to look at what happens between kindergarten and the fourth grade.

I believe reading proficiency is one of the biggest things that happens or, perhaps, doesn't happen. Too many children have not met the reading level required for their grade level. Their parents don't know it.

At yet, reading is the core requirement for every other subject (including math, with its abundant word problems). It seems to me the problem is apparent. Unless the material is easy to read and the problem easily understood, how can they ever hope to understand it or solve it, let alone enjoy it? Exactly.

Literacy is the key to every other subject, along with a love of learning. It needs a little more attention. It needs a little more awareness. It needs more advocates. So how are you spending your summer?
 

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