Happy Holidays 2016

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Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled:
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With the angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.

Words: Charles Wesley (1707-88), George Whitfield (1714-70), Martin Madan (1726-90), and William Hayman Cummings (1831-1915)
Music: “Mendelssohn” chorus by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47), adapted by William Hayman Cummings

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Merry Christmas!
Chag Sameach to those who celebrate Hanukkah.

Before we go our separate holiday ways, I’d like to announce the winner of The Spirit Well by Charles Yallowitz. (If you are confused by that statement, click here.)

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That person is . . .

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Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . . (I could go on like this all day.)

Is . . .

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Is . . .

Jill Weatherholt!

Congratulations, Jill! You know the drill—please comment below to confirm, then email your info to me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Believe it or not, Kitty received gifts from a grateful fan. She chose not to share her Christmas bounty with anyone.

Baby Jesus image from freeimages.com. Book cover courtesy of Charles Yallowitz. Other photos by L. Marie.

You’re a Mean One, Miss Kitty

The following poem is my version of Clement C. Moore’s classic poem, with a bit of inspiration from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss. It explains what Kitty’s been up to lately, which I’ve hinted at a couple of times. (Yes, I know this is more appropriate for Christmas Eve. But you don’t want to wait that long, do you?) So, if you stopped by to learn who won the books in the latest giveaways (click here and here for the author interviews), check the end of the poem.

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, save Kitty—that louse!

While the children drew close to the warm fireplace,
Kitty took herself up the stairs to rob the place.

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But a child crept upstairs to observe her at work.
Yet Kitty heard her creeping, and turned with a jerk.

“Are you Santa Claus?” asked the sweet little tike.
“I’d like a Nintendo, and some kind of bike.”

“A Nintendo what?” asked the grumpy fake Nick.
“Nintendo’s a company. Please be specific.”

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“You’re not St. Nick!” cried the suddenly wise child.
“You’re grumpy and harsh; he’s sweet and warm and mild.”

“He sounds like a hot drink,” the would-be thief sneered.
“Take my advice. This Santa Claus? Well, he sounds weird.”

Kitty shooed the child off with a ten-dollar bill.
She returned to the sack she had hastened to fill.

But suddenly outside, there arose such a clatter.
To the window she raced. What on earth was the matter?

Sirens squealed in the distance—what a kerfuffle!
The window was shut; but the noise would not muffle.

She would be caught with the stuff she had stolen.
What could she say about a large sack so swollen?

So, she threw off the disguise, and then she made haste
Down the stairs with her usual cupcake at her waist.

“Oh children,” she said, “I’m a neighbor so near
I stepped through the window to visit you here.”

The child with the ten, not a word did she say.
She felt keeping mum made life better that way.

So, they gave Kitty cocoa and showed her a chair.
And soon, Kitty realized, she was better off there.

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Now let’s turn from a larcenous “Santa” to the winners of the books. As a reminder, I am giving away a copy of How to Share with a Bear and How to Build a Snow Bear by Eric Pinder, as well as Hard to Die by Andra Watkins and Our Justice by John Howell.

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The winner of Eric Pinder’s picture books is . . .
Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Jennie!

The winner of How to Die and Our Justice is . . .
Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Andy!

Winners, please confirm below. Jennie, please email your snail mail information and phone number to lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com. (Amazon will not deliver without a phone number.) Andy, when you email, please include the email address you use with Amazon.uk. I believe you can only get the Kindle versions of Hard to Die and Our Justice through Amazon.uk. Hope that is okay.

Thank you to all who commented!

Book covers from Goodreads. Photos by L. Marie. The Happy Places Shopkins Happy Home is a registered trademark of Moose Toys. Hello Kitty is a registered trademark of Sanrio Co., Ltd.

What Do Girls Want? I’m Not Sure

Before I get into the post, I wanted to announce that I’m still reaching out to authors as I mentioned in my last post. Expect the interviews at some point.

Back in the day when I had a Barbie (or four), I tied a cape around her and made her a superhero. This was before Supergirl action figures existed. (More on that later.) A napkin made an excellent cape. And a parachute. My Barbie also was a spy who parachuted out of trees. She knew karate and had super strength. (Interestingly enough, the latest Barbie movie is Barbie: Spy Squad.)

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My BFF and I wanted our Barbies to be empowered before we even knew the meaning of the word empowered. Now, before I go any further, this is not a Barbie-bashing post. This doll has had enough controversy in her over 50 years of existence. (By the way, a really good book about Barbie is The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone.)

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Last week, I went to Toys “R” Us with a friend and her little son, and saw a huge display case full of Barbies in various professions. She’s a doctor, a spy, a businesswoman, a pet groomer—you name it. She’s even a pizza chef.

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Barbie’s handlers want her to be a role model. Female superheroes are getting their day too. Recently I read an article about a line of DC action figures for girls (including Supergirl)—something I would have wanted when I was a kid. You can read that article here.

Getting back to Barbie-like dolls, the Elsa doll pulls in more sales than Barbie. With her ice powers and staunch determination to be herself in Frozen, Elsa seems the picture of empowerment. (You’re probably thinking of the “Let It Go” song now, aren’t you? And after months of finally getting it out of your head. Sorry.)

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Her sister Anna, however, didn’t have ice power, but was heroic in a very moving way. (Which makes her my favorite from that movie.) Awhile ago, Time and Fortune featured articles on the empowering influence of Elsa and Anna. You can read them here and here.

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Now, many channels on YouTube feature discussions about toys, and include dolls in various fanfiction scenarios. (For example, Elsa marries Jack Frost; Baby Alive becomes a superhero.) So imagine my surprise when I saw not one but several fanfiction depictions of Elsa being kidnapped and having to be rescued. And those are just the YouTube videos. You have only to Google elsa kidnapped fanfiction to find a host of stories—some rawer than others. (There are several Anna-as-the-damsel-in distress scenarios too.) So much for empowerment!

“Now wait a minute,” you might say. “Anna had to save Elsa in the film.” True. And what a beautiful moment of sacrifice. But Elsa was not hand-wringing helpless. So many girls had mentioned how much they love Elsa’s ice powers and let-it-go attitude. And since many of the YouTube videos are fan-driven (many YouTubers asked fans, “What do you want to see?”), fans obviously desired to see the helpless-Elsa scenario. (I saw one of those videos just today in fact.) Many of these fans are girls.

You might think, Who cares? But as an author who is trying to provide strong heroines in books, I care. Yet I’m confused by the mixed messages. Last year, many people complained about Black Widow’s damsel-in-distress scene in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. (I was not one of the complainers.) Which leads me to believe that people want to see strong heroines ala Wonder Woman, Supergirl, etc.

The audience for Frozen, the YouTube toy videos, the non-YouTube Elsa fanfiction, and Age of Ultron differs to a degree. After all, Frozen had a very high preschool fan base (girls and boys) who probably did not see Ultron. I wrote probably, because I saw small children in the audience at the theater I attended. But there is some overlap, obviously, since Frozen grossed over a billion dollars. Many teens and adults loved Frozen, and were inspired enough to write fanfiction or request it on YouTube. But many younger kids also watch YouTube, sometimes with their parents. They make their desires known too. Based on what I’ve seen online, not only do I wonder what they want but also whether they have a different definition of empowerment.

What say you?

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I asked these girls how they defined empowerment, but they remained mum on the subject. I guess I’ll let it go.

Barbie images from ricardodemelo.blogspot.com, shoppingsquare.com.au, and pixmania.fr. Black Widow action figure from tvandfilmtoys.com. Barbie Spy Squad poster and Elsa doll from fanpop.com. Elsa and Anna dolls from disneytimes.com. Elsa with ice powers from blogs.disney.com. Photo of Popette (Moose Toys), Donatina (Moose Toys), Hello Kitty (Sanrio), and Strawberry Shortcake (Hasbro) by L. Marie.

Indoctrinating the New Kid

Happy post-Valentine’s Day and Happy Presidents Day today (if you live in the U.S.)! This post has nothing to do wither either holiday! Enjoy!

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When I was a kid, the older kids in my neighborhood, when they weren’t trying to intimidate us younger kids or extort money from us, would teach us stuff. You know—stuff like Double Dutch rhymes; limericks they’d heard from kids older than them; curse words (in different languages); how to ride a skateboard; how to flirt; how to hold a cigarette and look cool (um smoking is bad for you, kids); how to hit a baseball. You know—stuff they thought was useful. After that, they would go back to ignoring us or telling us to stay out of their clubhouse. (Okay, that last one was just something my older brother would say to me.) We wanted to be like them, so we listened to them.

As I grew older, I taught those younger than me the ways of the world. Ha. I totally did not. I ignored or terrorized younger kids (like my younger brother). I was not an Obi-Wan Kenobi, out there in search of a young padawan to train.

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Perhaps that’s why I listened in fascination as Kitty took a young kid under her wing. Even a supervillain can be a mentor.

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“What’s your name, kid?” Kitty asked, somehow managing to look menacing even with a cupcake in her hands.

The kid flinched. “Isabelle.”

Kitty nodded. “I’ll call you Mel then.”

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Isabelle frowned. Or at least that was her intent. But try as she would, she couldn’t change the cheerful expression on her molded plastic face. “Mel? But that’s not my na—”

“Mel it is. And you don’t have to raise your hand to ask a question, Mel.”

“I can’t lower it. I was made this way. Just like you were made to hold that cupcake, right?”

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Kitty conceded the point, then cleared her throat and assumed a lecturing attitude. “Mel, to succeed in what I do, getting others to do your bidding must be as comfortable to you as this chair looks.”

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“Is that the Shopkins Comfy Chair? I love collecting Shopkins.” Isabelle reached for the Comfy Chair. “I don’t think I have this one.”

Kitty held out her cupcake like a judge holding out a gavel. “Don’t touch that. I’m using it to make a point. . . . As I was saying, as any successful entrepreneur would tell you, bending others to your will is what’s necessary for the good of the world. And what the world needs is the firm hand of a true leader. That’s why I demand yearly tributes from the leaders of all nations. . . . Um, you should be writing this down, Mel.”

Isabelle nodded, but I was skeptical of her ability to write anything well, since she had that one-hand-raised issue. But Kitty did not press the issue. Though I was curious as to what point(s) Kitty planned to make when she pulled these out . . .

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. . . I moved on at that point. But I had to admire her technique for imparting her wisdom. It was certainly different from that used by the kids in my old neighborhood.

Judging by the look on Kitty’s face while listening to Isabelle’s squeals of delight as Kitty set the above items on the table, I was certain Kitty had the same thought in her head as did I: Isabelle would never make it as a career criminal.

Sometimes imparting your wisdom is all you’re called to do for a person younger in age or someone less senior in your chosen career. The wise person, however, knows when to give advice and when to hold back.

When have you been the new kid? How did someone older or in a senior position help you?

Valentine hearts from tastefully-done.blogspot.com. Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi found at fanpop.com. Presidents Day image from presidentsday-2015.org.

Convenient Incompetence?

I get on various kicks. These days, I’m really into the Justice League animated series, having seen most of the Justice League animated movies. Though this series is well over ten years old, I’m finally getting around to watching the episodes of season 1 that I missed. Better late than never, I guess.

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The Justice League (from left to right) Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Flash, Hawkgirl

Maybe it’s the slo-mo hero walk as the theme music swells that gets to me, but I can’t get enough of the show. Here. Watch the opener for yourself.

Like it? Makes you want to put on a cape, doesn’t it? Or, perhaps it inspires you to find six people and make them walk with you in slow motion. While I love the series, one thing irks me: many times the heroes get a serious beat-down until the last few minutes of the second or third episode. (Episodes have at least two parts in this first season.) I’m not against a hero getting the worst of it in a fight for the sake of building tension. But some aspects are frustrating to me, especially if a character is (allegedly) almost invincible. Take Superman and Wonder Woman.

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They have super strength and are bullet proof (Wonder Woman through her bullet-proof bracelets), among other skills. But in many episodes, someone who seems to have less power is able to slip in and sock either of them on the jaw, which sends them flying back. Maybe I’m missing something, but if you can’t even use scissors to cut Superman’s hair (since the scissors would break), I ask myself, Does it make sense that someone could punch him on the jaw or in the ribs without breaking several bones in one’s hand? Same with Wonder Woman. I just watched an episode where a woman raised on Themyscira (home of the Amazons) and given super strength via magic, gets the better of Wonder Woman more than once. But shouldn’t a woman who was born an Amazon have a slight advantage over a woman who is merely given super strength? I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m just curious.

And Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz), who supposedly is one of the most powerful creatures around with his super strength, regeneration ability, as well as his ability to shape shift and mind read, regularly gets knocked unconscious.

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I know I’m quibbling here. May I remind you that I do love the show. But having watched some of the behind-the-scenes features, I learned that other viewers had issues. Some described Superman as “a wimp” (according to producers Bruce Timm and James Tucker). The producers admitted that they pulled back on Superman’s power to make the threats the Justice League faced have more weight.

Okay, I can understand that. If Superman or Wonder Woman could easily defeat certain villains, the stakes would seem pretty low. And with their abilities, watching them take down a villain practically with one hand tied behind their back would seem boring by the third episode. But that’s the issue with seemingly invincible characters, isn’t it? We don’t feel the tension if we know that they will easily defeat an antagonist. (That’s why I’m a huge Batman fan. He lacks super powers, so the stakes are usually high for him.)

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But I still feel frustrated when a character’s “incompetence” seems convenient for the sake of the plot. For example, if a villain is able to slip in and attack a character who supposedly has super hearing or psychic ability.

I know, I know. These characters were developed over many decades. So nitpicking comes easily to someone who does not have to write or produce an animated show every week. That’s why I need to carefully assess my own characters. If they seem too powerful (the Mary Sue effect), the threat is neutralized. But if they have certain abilities (like super strength), there needs to be a good reason why an allegedly physically weaker antagonist can get the better of them. A good example of this is Lex Luthor waving a chunk of kryptonite at Superman, knowing that kryptonite is Superman’s weakness.

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That’s why I’m inspired by a Justice League movie—Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths—which seems to hit all the right notes. In that movie, the Justice League are faced with their evil doppelgangers on a parallel earth. I won’t go into the plot. You can find that out here. Suffice it to say that the stakes are high for each character. And that’s what I want to keep in mind—high stakes for hero and antagonist alike.

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Making sure a character lives up to his or her abilities while keeping the tension high is a tightrope walk. But it’s worth the journey!

Maybe you’re not writing a superhero book. But if you have a hero (male or female) and an antagonist in some capacity, what do you do to keep the stakes high while avoiding making your hero seem conveniently incompetent?

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Hello Kitty, after assessing her archnemesis Jordie’s skills, has deemed him incompetent, and therefore worthy to attack.

Justice League image from supermantv.net. Wonder Woman from halloweencostumes.com. Superman from supermanhomepage.com. Martian Manhunter from dcmovies.wikia.com. Justice league: Crisis on Two Earths image from murrue02.tumblr.com. Lex Luthor image from listofcomicbooks.com.

It Takes Two

Ever have one of those days when a supervillain with a bulbous head seems to win, and all you can do is lie there and take it?

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Jordie isn’t sure how he wound up tied up with his own cape. But suddenly he finds himself on the ground with a blade of death headed for him, and a supervillain softly cackling in the background.

But suddenly a friend comes along and works with you to turn the tide. The supervillain is subdued, thanks to teamwork.

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If it hadn’t been for Sidney Duck, Jordie would have been toast. Now, the supervillain has been vanquished. Jordie and Sidney will share the cupcake, since the supervillain is headed to the nearest maximum security prison where cupcakes are not allowed.

Most of us will never have to face a supervillain along the lines of Hello Kitty, Dr. Evil, or Lex Luthor. But sometimes we’re the supervillain or at least we act like the henchperson of one. Who else but us plays the “You really messed that up” tape over and over in our head? Who else but us whispers, “You’ll never finish that” or “Everyone else will always be better at that than you”? You know where those statements come from: the real supervillains—Doubt and Defeat.

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Dr. “One Meellion Dollars” Evil and Lex Luthor

But suddenly along comes a friend who sees things differently. Where we see, “Ugh! I can’t believe I wrote such crap,” he or she sees, “Wonderful,” “Could be awesome with just a little polish.”

Aside from being grateful to find a Cutie orange in my Happy Meal today, I’m grateful for my Secret Gardener and blogger friends who continually rally around with a few carefully chosen “You can do its” to help me vanquish Doubt and Defeat.

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Writing is a solitary venture. Yet there are times when we writers need something that only someone else can provide: another perspective. Two heads are sometimes better than one.

So, when a supervillain like Doubt or Defeat comes around and whispers,

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I’ll be back . . .

Do yourself a favor and call a friend. Don’t let Doubt have the last word.

And speaking of the last word . . .

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Lex Luthor from youngjustice.wikia.com. Dr. Evil from cupofjoepowell.blogspot.com. Cat from LOL Cats.

Hello, Killer

Look at her. You wouldn’t expect her to be a public menace.

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Public enemy number 1?

But recently McDonald’s recalled 2.3 million of the Hello Kitty Happy Meal toys because of one containing a whistle. Turns out it was a choking hazard. Because of reported incidents of choking, thankfully with no loss of life, the recall had to happen. So while the Hello Kitty figure above might seem like a fugitive from justice, she isn’t the one specifically described in the recall notice. You can see that notice here. But she has guilt by association.

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The real culprit

It’s sad, isn’t it, when something meant to bring joy to a child turns out to be harmful. Yet the toy as a harmful device can be found in the world of fiction also. The most effective villain is one you don’t see coming. Who would suspect a toy? Dolls/action figures seem to be the toys of choice when it comes to mayhem. Perhaps this is because some dolls look sort of creepy. Sorry to break this to you if you’re a fan, but I’m simply not a fan of the porcelain dolls so many people collect. They’ve always given me the creeps. Apparently, they scare others also.

I can’t help recalling “Invasion of the Secret Santas,” an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold where an action figure every kid wanted for Christmas turned out to be a tiny robot programmed to steal from the families unfortunate enough to have one. Guess that’s what you would call a ho-ho-heist. (By the way, the Santas below are not the toys I just mentioned. I couldn’t find an image of those toys. But these robot Santas with their cheerful, porcelain faces and hidden bombs caused chaos also.)

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“Joy to the world! Your town is doomed!” Everybody sing! Or perhaps “You better watch out . . . Santa Claus is comin’ to town” is more appropriate.

Kim Possible, an old Disney show, had a similar premise in a movie release—So the Drama (2005)—where toys in the kiddie meals were evil robots.

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An episode of Twilight Zone from 1963 called “Living Doll” featured Talky Tina, a persistent doll who turned to murder when she took a dislike to someone.

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Creepy, isn’t she? You don’t want to make her angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry. (Hint to those who recognize that last statement. It’s from the old Incredible Hulk series from the late 70s/early 80s.)

You’re probably thinking of the Chucky horror movies right about now, aren’t you? They feature a doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer.

Stuffed animals also get their licks in. Let’s not forget the Toy Story movies, which had villainous toys as well as hero toys.

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Lotso the Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear had lots o’ attitude. You don’t want a hug from him.

Childhood fears have such power, don’t they? That’s why a toy as a villain has extra potency. It taps into the fears we remember. Better on screen though, than in real life. No child should have to fear being harmed by a toy.

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He looks safe. . . .

Batman: The Brave and the Bold image from ign.com. Talky Tina from examiner.com. Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear from officialpsds.com. Kim Possible: So the Drama poster from disney.wikia.com.