Thursday, April 29, 2010

When is an Eleven Year Old an Adult?

Jordan Brown, an eleven-year-old boy, got up one morning, had his breakfast, picked up the shotgun his father gave him for Christmas, and shot his sleeping, pregnant, soon-to-be step-mother in the back of the head, killing her and her unborn child.

Then the boy and the woman's seven-year-old daughter boarded a school bus together. The girl asked Jordan what the loud noise had been. He told her it was nothing.

It sounds almost incredible, but prosecutors in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, believe it happened in the death of Kenzie Marie Houk.

At school that day, no one noticed Jordan Brown exhibiting any unusual behavior. He was arrested later in the day, but has maintained the he didn't do it. It makes one shiver to think that a child could be guilty of such a cold-blooded act of violence. But his cool demeanor could, of course, simply be because he is innocent.

Whether Jordan Brown is guilty of premeditated murder is something that the courts will determine. But what has already been decided is that this pre-teen will be tried as an adult.

As an eleven year old, Jordan could have been tried as a juvenile. If he was found to have been the one who killed Houk, he would be found "delinquent," not "guilty" as is the case in adult court. He would be sent to a juvenile facility whose goal would be to rehabilitate him rather than to punish him. He could be held no longer than his twenty-first birthday, when he would be released, whether he was rehabilitated or not.

Pennsylvania law allows an offender as young as age ten to be charged as an adult if the circumstances of the crime warrant. In this case, the prosecutor believed he had no choice but to request that the court charge Jordan as an adult. The act, according to the prosecutor, was premeditated. Jordan allegedly brought his youth-sized shotgun down from his upstairs bedroom that morning. When the seven-year-old noticed it, he went back upstairs and concealed it under a blue blanket when he returned downstairs. A blue blanket with a shotgun hole in it was found near the body in a downstairs bedroom. If true, this behavior would meet any standard for premeditation.

Jordan's father has argued passionately that his son is not guilty, and should be tried as a juvenile, allowing the father to secure his release on bond. The judge, however, agreed with the prosecution. Jordan Brown, now twelve, will stand trial as an adult.

As a result of this ruling, Jordan Brown can be held in the county jail with adult offenders until his trial. If he is found guilty of first-degree murder, he would be sent to an adult prison with more adult offenders where he would spend the rest of his life without possibility of parole. He could not, however, be sentenced to death. While Pennsylvania does provide for the death penalty in such cases, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that execution of offenders under the age of sixteen constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

The prosecutor argued that staying in a juvenile facility until he was twenty-one would not provide sufficient time to rehabilitate Jordan Brown. Some other observers say Jordan is just plain evil, suggesting he is a sociopath for whom there is no hope. His father says he is an "all-American boy" who is innocent and does not understand what is happening to him.

What troubles many about such cases is that children the age of Jordan Brown might not, and some would say cannot, have the intellectual and emotional maturity to understand the consequences of their actions. They do not yet comprehend death, and so cannot comprehend the gravity of shooting someone in the head.

I remember a story that made the news several years ago about two young brothers, about twelve and fourteen years old if memory serves, who were hunting together. Each had a shotgun, and they were walking single file through the woods, with the elder brother in the lead. As they trudged along, the younger boy decided it would be funny to shoot the hat off his brother's head, as he had seen in cartoons on television. Not surprisingly, the older brother died instantly. There was no evil intent in that case. Clearly this was a child exercising childish judgment without understanding the probability of lethal consequences of his actions. But I wonder if he would ever be able to forgive himself.

Could Jordan fully comprehend how serious his actions were, or did he think shooting Houk was somehow an acceptable expression of anger? Could he appreciate how permanent death is, let alone how horrific?

When is an eleven year old an adult?

What do you think? Should the punishment fit the crime or the criminal?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What do you read? What do you write?

A friend recently asked me the question, "What do you read?" It's not all that unusual a question among bibliophiles, but it got me thinking.

I read a lot of nonfiction, and always have, in a variety of subject matters. I am intrigued by learning more about areas in which I know little, and reading other authors' takes on subjects I know well. My favorite subjects are history, politics, current affairs, and law, with some memoir thrown in.

For fiction, my favorite authors come from varied literary traditions and genres.

Number one on my list has to be Jane Austen. I love rereading her novels, watching the televised versions of her stories, and sharing commentary on both with other "Janeites." I enjoysome of the many spin-off, Austen-esque novels available from modern writers. I recently became a lifetime member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), and love the chance to be among others who feel the same way.

And, since we're talking about the classics, Charles Dickens has to be a very close second. There's a reason every school child still reads his work--or should.

I enjoy literary fiction, but confess that I most often choose to read popular fiction.

Who can argue with the success of J.K. Rowling? Her Harry Potter books are entertaining, and, for the most part, an excellent example of what fiction writing should be: a sympathetic, damaged, protagonist in conflict with an antagonist of equal or greater strength, surrounded by an assemblage of memorable characters, and a story that grabs and holds the reader's attention.

Jasper Fforde is an author I might have overlooked but for a friend. Based on his recommendation alone, I purchased two books by Fforde before reading anything he had written. That is a remarkable leap of faith for me, but one worth taking as he has become one of my favorites. (The Eyre Affair is the one to start with.)

I am on my third Connie Willis book in a row. After reading The Doomsday Book, I moved on to To Say Nothing of the Dog, and now to Lincoln's Dreams. From there I'll go to Bellwether.

Jan Karon's characters and small-town settings keep me coming back. And, although not shelved in fiction, James Herriot's tales of the connection between humans and their animals are old favorites.

I have always enjoyed mysteries, since my first Nancy Drew, in part because I want to puzzle them out before the protagonist does. I will read at least one book in any cozy mystery series I can find--as much for research as for pleasure.

Looking at the list above, it seems I prefer classics, sci-fi/fantasy, and mystery. I would never have described myself as a sci-fi/fantasy reader. I don't think of myself that way, but Rowling, Willis, and Fforde wouldn't make the list if I weren't.

They say you should write what you read, yet I do not try to write fantasy. I do not consider myself well versed enough in the genre to consider dabbling in it. I write mystery, and hope that others will try to puzzle them out before the protagonist does--but fail!

How about you? What do you read? And what do you write?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

To E-Book, or Not to E-Book

I am a book lover, as are most of my friends. Like them, I like the feel of a book in my hand, the scent of the paper, the touch of the page. I like being able to flip back and forth in a book, rereading a passage, checking a fact, and somehow knowing where on the page I first read it.

You can't get quite the same experience from an e-book. In fact, many book lovers believe that reading an e-book is a sort of sacrilege. I understand that. Really, I do. But . . .

I make no apologies. I own a Kindle. In fact, we are now a four-Kindle family--and we love them.

Since our house already has bookshelves lining nearly every wall, and each bookcase is stuffed with books that overflow into stacks on the floor, by the bed, on top of the desk, and on every table or other flat surface, the idea of getting a book without having to store it somewhere is pretty attractive. It is especially wonderful as an option for those books I know I will only read once. You know the kind. They are the ones that you gobble up like potato chips, but do not need to preserve for posterity--or even pass along to a friend.

And the Kindle is wonderfully portable. I took it with me to the doctor's office yesterday, and it helped me pass the time (over an hour and a half altogether) spent waiting to see someone. Normally, I would bring a book, but with an hour and a half, what if I had finished the book, and all that was available to me were old copies of People magazine? With the Kindle, I carried many books with me, and could get more almost immediately if needed.

Best of all from my husband's perspective, when I read the Kindle in bed, the book light doesn't flash in his eyes, nor does the paper rustle, every time I turn a page. And the cat cannot pull the bookmark out of place. It's not that I have abandoned purchasing traditionally-published books, but I am happy to be among those reading e-books as well.

Yet, it seems everywhere I look these days, people are writing about the end of publishing as we know it. According to the apocalyptic predictions, because of e-publishing the traditional model is dead. Soon, no books will appear in hard copy, bookstores will close, publishers will no longer offer advances to authors, and, worst of all, unknown authors will never get a contract to have a book published.

It sounds a bit hysterical when one considers that e-books currently make up about 3% of the book market. For a few years there weren't many e-book readers out there, but in the past six months both the Barnes and Noble Nook and the Apple iPad have come out, making it likely that the number of e-book buyers will increase. Publishers Lunch, a daily email newsletter, has devoted several columns to this question. In one, it noted that "Stephen King sees 40% of fiction and 25% of non-fiction sales as e-books," by 2019. [December 28, 2009] Still, does that mean that the publishing world is coming to an end?

If you have been following the juggling for position among publishers and sellers of e-books over the past few months, you know that the industry is having a hard time adjusting to its new pressures and opportunities. The price of e-books, discounts to sellers, the agency model, and author royalties are all a concern to agents, authors, and consumers as well.

Perhaps the book industry should read the book Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. It offers perspective on adapting to change in work and in life.

Ironically, it's not available as an e-book.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Novel Is Great!

Great news!

I went to my writers group on Tuesday evening to hear their feedback on my work in progress. Guess what! They LOVED it. They said it was the BEST THING THEY HAD EVER READ. They extolled it as READY FOR PUBLICATION!

Then I sent my agent a copy, and she was THRILLED! She said I could expect a SIX-FIGURE ADVANCE, and that it was certain to hit the NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST and receive a PULITZER PRIZE!

April Fools!

When did you catch on? Was it the advance or the Pulitzer that gave me away?

While the second paragraph above is pure fantasy, the first paragraph is a flat-out lie! But what good would my writers group be to me if they had given me that kind of review? As all authors know--no manuscript is EVER perfect. What the group did, though, was give me some helpful comments on pacing, characterization, and description. For that I thank them.

There is more hard work ahead, but it is work I love. I am happy to go back to my novel and make it better, because the thing they did NOT do is tell me it was irretrievably bad. I also thank them for that.

And that's no April Fools!