Trash Can Days — A Review

Middle School as cultural touchstone

by Teddy Steinkellner, Disney-Hyperion August, 2013

This is an accomplished MG/YA novel with enough sophistication to appeal to older readers as well. It employs an eclectic narrative technique with four distinct first person points of view, mixed with excerpts from text exchanges, tweets, blog pages, letters and school announcements. Thank you Dos Passos. The setting is suburban LA, the weight comes from the drama of the relationships and the interplay of wealth and poverty, social status and gang violence. These contrasts are nicely captured by the central premise: the l friendship is between two boys, Jake the 7th grade Jewish son of a rich Hollywood producer, the other Danny,the Hispanic child of the family’s (unseen) maid and gardener. The other two narrators are Harrah, Jakes older sister, the 8th grade daughter of privilege and queen bee of their middle school and the most intriguing character of all, outsider eccentric Dorothy Wu, who provides a sort of Greek chorus on the goings on. All this from a recent Stanford grad who has no right composing such a polished, complex and satisfying novel at such a tender age. Highly recommended.



Selling My Books

As I write this sentence I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. You can see a few of them in my header.

I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part time booksellers on, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.

My rationale is that no one in my family will want them. I have a cinematic vision of the reading of my will, and when the executor says, “And my library of books, I bequeath to…” nervous eyes exchange glances, lips mouthing “please, not me.”  So why not monetize the holdings now, most of which were carefully selected from book sales and remainder tables, long before the practiced eye was replaced with a mindless scanner.

If you see something you like above, let me know.

P.S. The Bruce Jay Friedman, Harufs, Kinsellas, and Elmore Leonard are signed.

An extended essay on this top is now available at

To visit my bookstore (LTMadison Books) on






I’ve started a new novel for younger readers (what the publishers call middle grade) and it opens with a boy studying insects. Soon enough the butterfly will appear.

It’s hard to find an outdoor photo from my childhood where I am not carrying a butterfly net. I’ve not written about this before, because of Nabokov. Might as well start a novel about a middle-aged European man obsessed with nymphets. Still, I was many years away from reading Nabokov when the parents of a neighboring, older boy, instructed my mother on the process of constructing a net from cheesecloth, broomstick, wire hanger and duct tape.

I stopped romping around with a net when I became a teenager, conscious of the aura of effetism such a picture could conjure. Still, my fascination remained and I couldn’t help myself when I captured a zebra butterfly by hand on college spring break to Miami, about the same time I realized that my father’s zoom lens had a macro setting.

Within a few years I had invested in a Tamrom 90mm dedicated macro lens and was soon off chasing butterflies again. But I had completely forgotten this particular expression of that passion, until Google brought it back to my attention.

My story and pictures on the butterflies of New Jersey in New Jersey Outdoors is about halfway through this pdf:


Tennis Memories

Tennis has been a big part of my life. My first jobs were on tennis courts. I worked for the United States Tennis Association for close to a decade. I’ve written a book on tennis and published articles on tennis in: World Tennis, Tennis, Racquet, Tennis Week, Indianapolis Magazine, AmericanWay and Continental (the airline mags), and many more. My book is now a rarity (a perfect demonstration of the difference between scarcity and value) and finding my magazine articles would frustrate the greatest archivist. Still, a few of them are still buried somewhere out there in the world wide web. Here’s one, which is particularly apt, since its subject matter matches my tennis nostalgia as my ability to play fades and as I retire from the volunteer coaching I’ve maintained for the past 20 or so years.

Did I mention I taught my boys how to play? That’s Zach up above:


Tennis Memorabila, an article from Private Clubs Magazine:




On Completing a Novel

Ha! This topic reminds me of a response historian Barbara Tuchman gave a student when asked, “How do you know when your research is complete?” She said, “You know what they call a historian who waits for his or her research to be complete?” Pause. “Unpublished.”

At some point you have to  let go. I’m not at that point yet, but I’m getting close. Of course, when I say let go, I mean letting go for the first time. Letting go when the book is as good as I can make it — at least this month. But then I’m anticipating the famous agent “R&R” — not “rest and relaxation” but Rewrite and Resubmit. Then, if I am fortunate to find an agent who is willing, we go on submission. Perhaps the book piques an editor’s interest. The editor says, “Close, but [for instance] I found the antagonist one-dimensional, and perhaps you could change the MC (Main Character) from a 16-year-old-boy to a a 14-year-old girl with a multi-cultural background and ambiguous sexual identity.”

Hence my initial barked and sarcastic “ha!”

Nevertheless, I’m getting very close to subbing. Especially to this one unnamed agent who closes submissions on May 1 for the summer. Time is getting short on that one.


Olin Sang Article — Western States Jewish Studies

Here is a rather crude scan of my article on summer camp that was published in Vol. XLV, Winter 2013 of the Western States Jewish History journal.

In order to view this without standing on your head, after opening right click and select “rotate clockwise.”




Remember Summer Camp?

My reminiscence about summer camp in the 1960s was recently published in a journal called Western States Jewish Studies. You might check at your local newsstand.

I love the abstract from EBSCO, one of the standard databases of obscure journals:

“A personal narrative is presented in which the author reflects on attending the Olin Sang Institute, a Jewish summer camp, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, with focus given to meals, discipline, and the use of firecrackers.”

You can see if your library has access by checking here:

I’ll see if it’s kosher to post some or all of it here. Stay tuned for the fireworks.



Printz Finalists Part 2 (With one Bonus Book)

Part 2 – Exploring the Printz Finalists (plus a bonus)

In Part 1 I looked at three of the finalists which featured highly stressed main characters – a gangbanging Haitian buried in rubble, a girl with severe Aspergers, and a street boy in 19th century London. Another common element, which I did not note in that post, is that none of these books depend upon a traditional central teen romance.

The two remaining books break from this pattern. In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Saenz tells a love story with a conventional arc. Two teens become fast friends, one clearly smitten, one resistant. The story opens with the 15-year-old Americanized, but Hispanic male narrator awakening to a feeling of loneliness and inadequacy. He is close to his mother, distant from his father. His sisters are 12-years-older, his only brother, also older, is in prison. It’s pretty clear in the opening pages that this will be a more self-reflective, interior journey. As such the strength of the book isn’t so much the tale, but the telling.

In Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wien spins a fantastical historical adventure whose central element is the intense friendship between two teenage girls. It begins with a sort of diary being written by one of the two girls; a diary which reveals the setting of WWII, and the circumstances: she is being held a prisoner of a sadistic German SS officer who is torturing her by making her live in her underwear (this is, of all the books, the one most clearly a TEEN book). By making it a journal, Wien is allowed to spin the tale from first person without revealing the fate of the teller. This is just the first gambit in what is a cleverly convoluted plot. The journal entries begin to tell the story of this friendship and solve for the reader how the narrator has come to her dire straits.

The third book I’d like to examine is the recently published Eleanor & Park, another more traditional romance, in which Rainbow Rowell partners two misfits: a loner half-Korean boy named Park from a well-adjusted loving family, and an impoverished eccentric Eleanor whose family situation is dangerous and dysfunctional. The story of their falling in love is so delicately and beautifully wrought that the book is clearly an early contender for the 2014 Printz.

One lesson to take away from three books which rely on a romantic (well, Verity is virtually romantic) attachment between two teens, is the amount of stress the authors layer onto the relationships. In Aristotle and Dante it is sexual identity, in Eleanor & Park it is Eleanor’s crippling home life and peer pressure, in Verity the friends are both brought together by the war, and then torn apart by it. Nothing comes easily to these relationships and only one of three ends well.  All three are worth reading to find out which couple survives.


The Threads of Award-Winning YA Fiction, Part 1

Weaving the Threads of Fiction

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading through the 2013 Printz finalists and winner. The Printz is the premiere award given to books written for teens.

I thought it might be interesting to look at one aspect of the writing and to compare techniques. Do the authors use a variety of story lines or character complications to increase narrative tension and drive, and if they do, how many of these threads do they introduce in the first ten pages or so? Because I’m only addressing plot points introduced in the early pages of the book, I’m confident that I won’t be revealing any spoilers. Let’s start with In Darkness by Nick Lake, this year’s winner.

In Darkness

The opening lines reveal the teenaged main character (MC) and first-person narrator to be buried alive in rubble, the result of the great 2010 Haitian earthquake. Alone and dying. This, it would seem, should be plenty of trouble. But listen to the additional woes laid on by Lake:

1. The MC is a killer, having committed his first shooting at age 12

2. He has witness horrors — babies abandoned, men coming back to life

3. He had been trapped for days and is suffering unbearably from thirst and hunger

4. He is in the company of decomposing bodies

5. He’s recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted before the earthquake

6. He has lost  his sister, taken away by gangsters

7. His father was chopped to death by machetes in front of him

In other words, Lake has put his character in mortal danger. But on top of this he weaves a life story which is fraught with complexity and deep wounds. He is not only a boy alone and dying, he a deeply damaged boy, and the particulars of this damage are the heart and soul of the book.

The White Bicycle

Beverley Brenna gives us another damaged MC and narrator, Taylor Simon, a teenager with debilitating Aspergers. Here are the complications that are detailed as the story opens:

1. Although Aspergers has made her highly dependent on others, particularly her mother, at 19, she is hungry for independence.

2. She and her mother have been dislocated to France.

3. Her mother may be on the verge of getting married

4. Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was eight

5. Her early school experiences, when she was undiagnosed, were horrendous

6. She is undergoing a philosophical search through the writings of Sartre

7. She has had a mysterious contact with a very old woman who ended up hospitalized

Once again, it is not enough to have a deeply damaged MC. Brenna layers on a history of woe and current complications, one on top of another, like a layer cake. It is the combination of all of these which produces the narrative drive that compels the reader onward.


Prolific and heralded novelist Terry Pratchett not only sets this book in Dickensonian London, Charles Dickens is a major player. The main character is a street boy. As the story opens, the boy, Dodger, finds himself going to the rescue of a girl beaten and thrown from a carriage. Both are subsequently placed under the care of a passing gentleman and his friend, the boy rather reluctantly. So we begin with a boy in abject poverty, who is living in the sewers of London. But then the plot thickens.

1. The identity of the damaged girl is a mystery

2. The poverty and deprivation of the boy is expanded in detail

3. The intentions of the gentlemen, as seen from the boy’s POV, are suspect

4. The girl has lost a baby from her injuries

5. The gentlemen enlist Dodger to help solve the mystery of the beaten girl

So Pratchett takes the wily, deprived Dodger and immediately complicates his life in multiple ways: by getting involved in saving the girl, by coming under the attention of two gentlemen of puzzling nature, and by being enlisted in solving a mystery.


If this sample were all you had to go on, the key to writing an award-winning book would be to start with a damaged MC: child gangster with a bullet wound, a murdered father and a kidnapped sister; deeply disabled Aspergers sufferer; street orphan. Then start piling up the complications, because one complication doesn’t seem to be enough.

Will this formula hold true for the other two finalists? Stay tuned.


Some Thoughts on YA Characters

I’ve been reading a steady flow of draft manuscripts from serious YA/MG writers, both through my critique group on in on-line critique sites. I’ve also been reading through the 2013 Printz Award finalists, which is the most prestigious award for books designated for teens.

One of my observations is that the acclaimed books have either an extraordinary main character in ordinary circumstances, a somewhat ordinary chactacter thrown into extraordinary circumstances, or the jackpot — an extraordinary character in extraordinary circumstances. Take this year’s Printz winner, In Darkness. Without providing any spoilers, the main charcacter (MC) is a cold-blooded teenage gang banger who specializes in assasinations who happens to be narrating while trapped under tons of rubble in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He also has some sort of magical  realistic connection with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the 1790s slave revolution. Double whammy for sure on this one. How about my favorite (so far) of the finalists: The White Bicycle. Narrated by a girl with severe Aspergers who can’t detect facial clues (or even recognize faces), and who is confused by the simplest non-literal expression such as “why don’t you sit on that for awhile.” But why not take the character far from her home in Canada? Say France. Giant whammy paired with a little whammy.

More commonly in the manuscripts I read in draft, the writer seems hesitant to take their character’s circumstances or personal attributes to the extreme. The character has a missing parent, but the pain is remote and obscure. Or the MC lives only in relative poverty (certainly not by Haitian standards). Or the circumstances are somewhat trying — Mom is dating a bad guy, a boyfriend is dabbling in drugs, kids at school are teasing.

Take a lesson from Hollywood. I recently was revisiting that beyond-reason story of thwarted genius, Good Will Hunting. The Matt Damon character is a good example of the kind of hurt the average YA writer seems to shy from. He not only gets in fights, he’s being arraigned for assault and looking at jail time. He not only comes from poverty, his father lays out a wrench, a stick and a belt and tells the little Matt to pick one for his beating. He’s  not only smart, he’s perhaps the brightest human being since Leonardo da Vinci. Probably smarter, actually, if you listen to the preposterous scene in the bar where he puts down a pompous Harvard student by citing chapter, verse and page of the obscure history book the Harvard boy is citing from as if it is an original thought. He solves overnight a problem that the MIT Fields Award winning prof has spend two years working on. You get the drift. Take an interesting idea (impoverished, thwarted smart kid) and exaggerate it to the point of unbelievability. You’ve got a hit!

So if you’re looking to break out from the crowd, it might be worth asking: is my MC extraordinary? Are the circumstances also extraordinary? Shoot for a least one big whammy and one smaller one.