Check This Out: Paper Hearts

Hello! With me on the blog today is the awesome Meg Wiviott, a friend from VCFA here to talk about her young adult historical verse novel, Paper Hearts, which debuts today! Woot!

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Meg is represented by Janine Le at Sheldon Fogelman. Paper Hearts was published by Simon & Schuster. Here is the synopsis.

Paper Hearts

Amid the brutality of Auschwitz during the Holocaust, a forbidden gift helps two teenage girls find hope, friendship, and the will to live in this novel in verse that’s based on a true story.

An act of defiance.
A statement of hope.
A crime punishable by death.

Making a birthday card in Auschwitz was all of those things. But that is what Zlatka did, in 1944, for her best friend, Fania. She stole and bartered for paper and scissors, secretly creating an origami heart. Then she passed it to every girl at the work tables to sign with their hopes and wishes for happiness, for love, and most of all—for freedom.

Fania knew what that heart meant, for herself and all the other girls. And she kept it hidden, through the bitter days in the camp and through the death marches. She kept it always.

This novel is based on the true story of Fania and Zlatka, the story of the bond that helped them both to hope for the best in the face of the worst. Their heart is one of the few objects created in Auschwitz, and can be seen today in the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.

Now, let’s talk with Meg!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Meg: (1) I was born in New York City. (2) I love cats. (3) When not writing or reading I spend my time knitting, weaving, or doing needlepoint. (4) I would like to be able to teleport, because I hate flying.

El Space: I’d love to teleport as well. Please tell us how you came to turn the true story of Fania and Zlatka into the novel Paper Hearts.
Meg: I first heard about the heart when I read online about a documentary, The Heart of Auschwitz (Ad Hoc Films 2010), in which the filmmakers try to find the women who signed it. I then visited the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, where the heart is on permanent display, and met with one of the filmmakers. Then I knew this story needed to be told.

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I first wrote it as a non-fiction middle grade, but knew the story needed to be for older readers. I shoved the story in a drawer for a year and worked on other projects, but continued to keep the story in the back of my mind. When I returned to it, I decided to tell it in verse, which gave me the emotional distance I needed as a writer—Auschwitz is a horrid place to go to every day. I resisted turning it into fiction, but had to in order to make it a complete and full story. So, while everything that happens in the book did not necessarily happen to the girls, all of it still happened. All of it is real.

El Space: How much research did you do?
Meg: Tons! The heart—pun intended—of the story came from Fania and Zlatka’s Shoah Testimonies. I also relied on the film. To learn about the world in which the story took place, I read extensively about Auschwitz in general and the industries who contracted with the Third Reich to use the prisoners as slave laborers. I then began to narrow my interests to survivor stories from Auschwitz, the orchestra, the Sonderkommando, and the Union Kommando. There is an extensive bibliography in the book, but I don’t think even that lists all the books I read.

El Space: You’ve written a picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, which also has a tie to the Holocaust. What do you hope children, and now teens who read the story of Fania and Zlatka, will take away from your stories about this important, but devastating historical event?
Meg: Benno and the Night of Broken Glass tells the story of Kristallnacht, which marks the beginning of the Holocaust, through the eyes of a cat.

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My goal as a writer is to tell a story as historically accurate as possible. But I want to be as gentle as I am honest. I can only hope that a reader will take something from the story so that someday, when she encounters injustice/discrimination/hatred, she will stand up and say, “This is not right.”

El Space: How did you make the choice to write for children and young adults?
Meg: I’ve always written. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to write for children and young adults, it just seems to be what comes out of me. Someone wiser and pithier than I said that we write at the age of our inner selves. Obviously, my inner self is not an adult.

El Space: What advice do you have for budding historical fiction authors?
Meg: Be honest to the history and to your characters. Do not impose your twenty-first century ideas on someone who lived in a different time and place.

El Space: What books or authors inspire you?
Meg: Any well written book is inspiring. When I was a kid, my favorite books were Where the Red Ferns Grow [Wilson Rawls] and My Side of the Mountain [Jean Craighead George].

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The books I’ve read recently that particularly inspire me are coincidentally all written by VCFA grads: Melanie Crowder’s Audacity, Heather Demetrios’s I’ll Meet You There, Catherine Linka’s A Girl Called Fearless, and Dana Walrath’s Like Water on Stone. These books are all beautifully written and tell important stories—the kind of stories I wanted to read as a child, the kind of stories I aspire to write now.

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El Space: What are you working on next?
Meg: My current WIP is another YA historical novel set in 1944 in Los Alamos, tentatively titled Hiking with Oppenheimer.

Thanks, Meg, for being my guest!

If you want to learn more about Meg, check out her website and Facebook.

You can find Paper Hearts at
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Indiebound

I’m giving away a copy of Paper Hearts. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. When you comment, you might share something a friend did to cheer you up. Winner to be announced on September 8.

Author photo and Paper Hearts cover courtesy of Meg Wiviott. Other book covers from Goodreads and npr.org. The heart from telefilm.ca and mhmc.ca.

Shattering the Glass[es] Ceiling

Today I’ll reveal the winners of Smile, the middle grade graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier. I have a surprise announcement about that. But before I get to that, let me distract you with this.

Not long ago, I watched a movie on the Hallmark channel involving an “ugly duckling” hero who turns into a swan. His hottening factor? Taking off his glasses at the suggestion of his dating coach. Suddenly, he’s Swoon City.

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Sigh. Remember this old maxim: “Men seldom make passes at girls [or in this case, guys] who wear glasses”? By the way, Dorothy Parker, famed writer/critic said that in 1937. Marilyn Monroe uttered a variation of it in the 1953 movie, How to Marry a Millionaire. I guess people still take that maxim as gospel. But I couldn’t help thinking that if the dude in the Hallmark movie had invested in a pair of stylish frames, he wouldn’t have had to take them off to be hot.

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I look better with glasses. You get it? I look [at things] better with glasses. Ha ha. Okay, I’m laughing alone here. Yes, I know the advantages of contacts. Many people love their contacts. I’ve tried contacts. My eyes simply don’t have enough moisture. So after much frustration, I returned to glasses and never felt happier.

Yet in some movies and TV shows, certain attitudes prevail about the wearing of spectacles. For example, the idea that people with glasses aren’t as attractive as people without them or seem nerdier. (Bet you’re thinking of the CBS show, The Big Bang Theory, right about now.) I’m here to announce that a paradigm shift about the limited appeal of glasses wearers is needed.

May I present Exhibits A, B, C, and D?

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© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation ryan-gosling-glasses

Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case. (You get it? Glasses case? Huh? Huh? Okay. I’ll stop.)

For a great article on the benefit of great frames, check this out:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2234931/Specs-appeal-Men-make-passes-girls-wear-RIGHT-glasses.html

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Now, I’ll reveal the winners of Smile. Here’s the surprise: I’m giving away THREE copies of the book, rather than two. I also have signed stickers.

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So without further ado or tired jokes, here are the three winners:

Andy Murray of City Jackdaw
Carrie Rubin of The Write Transition
Afton Rorvik of Afton Rorvik

Congratulations, winners. Please comment below to confirm, then email your street address and phone number to lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com. If you would prefer an eBook, please send the email address you use with Amazon. Afton and Carrie, when you confirm, please tell me if you would like red, orange, or blue daisies. I will send two to each of you. (They are about six inches wide.)

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I’m sorry that I can’t afford to send daisies your way, Andy. But you will get a book. :-)

Thanks to all who commented.

Triple Daisies

I’m working on more daisies. Sorry. The purple ones are spoken for.

How to Marry a Millionaire poster from doctormacro.com. Hot guys found at pinterest, swoonworthy.net, bookishtemptations.com, and blackdoctor.org. Dog with glasses from mrwallpaper.com. Eyeglasses frames from flowerhop.net.

Giving Away a Smile . . . or Two

Ever have one of those seasons when you’re so broke you can’t even pay attention? Welcome to my life. Consequently, I was offline for almost two weeks. Internet service providers don’t work for free after all. I haunted the library daily like an overzealous patron. But I couldn’t always get on the computer. And with a 60-minute time limit for the use of a computer, I could only check email and leave.

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I missed you. I missed posting on my blog and reading the posts of others.

One good thing that happened during my exile is that I finished a revise of my middle grade fantasy novel. I am now working on cutting scenes out of said revise. The fact that I accomplished so much in a short span of time made me painfully aware of how much I usually procrastinate online.

Meanwhile, I’m back online with a giveaway. Inspired by the kindness of friends who made me smile during a difficult time, I’m giving away two copies of an award-winning middle grade graphic novel called Smile by Raina Telgemeier. Why this book? Mainly because the publisher (Graphix/Scholastic), for some reason, sent me stickers autographed by the author.

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So to celebrate my return online and getting through the revision, two commenters will each get a copy of this book. Due to the cost of mail delivery, I can only send the stickers and two crocheted daisy coasters (in photo below; they make me smile) to people in the U.S. (Yep. Offline I accomplished things like learning to crochet daisy-shaped coasters. The pattern is here.) But don’t worry, those of you who live outside the U.S. and depend on Amazon.co.uk. I can still send you the book courtesy of Amazon.

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Anyway, nice to “see” you again. I’ll announce the winners when I post next week. I’m still deciding on which day I’ll post each week.

What made you smile this week? I hope you’ll find a lot to smile about this weekend.

Book cover from Goodreads. Off button from youthleaderstash.com.

Time for a Change

Ever been in a relationship where your significant other sat you down and said, “It’s time for a change”? (That always sounds ominous, doesn’t it?) Perhaps you were the one who sat someone down and gave that speech. If you or someone you love felt taken for granted or wondered where the magic had gone, perhaps that was the catalyst for initiating the “time for a change” talk.

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Are you sitting down? Good. It’s time for a change.

Over the last few days, I’ve thought about this blog and the fact that lately I seem to be repeating myself. Some of the repetition is due to absent-mindedness—a product of the various stressors in my life, along with a need to complete my novel (not exactly a stressor).

To avoid stagnation, I mulled over my options. Cut down on posting? Give up the blog altogether? The latter was not an option I considered for long. After all, relationships take commitment. And I’m committed to this blog and to you who read it.

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They’re committed, too, though you might not wish to know exactly to what they’re committed.

So cutting back to posting once a week was the best option for the time being. I don’t want to wear out my welcome after all. I’ll see how that posting schedule plays out. However, I might occasionally have to post twice a week for special events like interviews, cover reveals, and other book-related announcements.

Ironically, this is my second post this week. But I had to post again in order to make the announcement about posting once a week. :-) I haven’t decided yet on what day I’ll post from now on. I’m mulling that over.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll continue leaving the light on for me. :-) Have a great rest of the week!

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Clock from sweetclipart.com. Lamp from clipartlord.com.

About a Boy: Crossing the Gender and Morality Lines

They say you should write what you know. Though I grew up with brothers, a father, and many uncles, and have had a number of guy friends over the years, I don’t pretend to know how guys think. Half the time I looked at my brothers as alien life forms when we were growing up. (Okay, yes. They felt the same way about me.) So whenever I have authored or coauthored a nonfiction book for boys or with boys as the main characters, I have had to do some research.

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I’ve mentioned before that I’m writing a middle grade novel. Framing the personality of one character, a boy who makes life miserable for my female main character, has proved challenging. I don’t want to strike the wrong note with this kid—i.e., making him a one-dimensional bully. We’ve seen plenty of those, haven’t we?

Some writers suggested using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help shape a character’s personality. I took the test as if I were my character and gleaned the ESTP designation—“Extraverted Sensing Thinking Perceiving (Extraverted Sensing with Introverted Thinking)” according to the Personality Page website. If you follow this blog at all, you might remember that I wrote a post on how I felt about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator awhile ago. (Click here for that post.) So I don’t have to tell you that the ESTP designation didn’t really help me understand my character any better. (Well, I guess I just told you.) The results felt too much like an armature without clay or the blueprint for a robot. Please don’t take offense if you swear by Myers-Briggs. Using this personality scale simply didn’t work as a character builder for me.

While I realize that a character is empty until I fill him or her with whatever personality I can provide, I needed my character to go “off the grid” a bit—to have less of a “ready-made” personality. In that way, he would feel more “alive” to me.

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Not this or this . . .

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. . . but this. Real. Alive.

I started by mining my memories for interactions with my brothers, male cousins, friends at school, enemies at school (like boys I’d fought in middle school), and boys in the neighborhood who were just acquaintances. Of course, back in the day, we didn’t have texting, social media, group videogame play, and other ways of communicating that kids today have. But our interactions had some similarities with those today: hanging out in parks; playing sports together; working on theatrical productions; serving on projects; being bullied.

That’s why I’m glad I have kids in my life: nephews; the children of friends; kids I’ve taught in Sunday school. They share their experiences with me even as we talk about videogames, movies, books, etc. For example, I once talked to a kid for over an hour about every Zelda game ever made. Because of that conversation, he felt he could trust me enough to tell me his worries about school.

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Other than the fact that they annoy their parents and siblings from time to time, the kids I talk to are basically nice kids who are not the bullying types. But in some ways, that suits my purpose. They help me to remember that sometimes people show different faces to different people. A kid who bullies others at school might not be thought of as a bully at home, especially if he’s nice to his grandparents and always takes out the trash.

As I continued to research, I cast my net wider: listening to kids in public places like malls, movie theaters, and museums. But you can see the limits of that tactic already. I run the risk of looking stalkerish. Yet watching them throw tantrums, laugh loudly and disruptively, and behave like, well, normal, has been helpful.

So imagination has to bridge the gap. (You knew I’d get to that eventually.) Imagination, free writing scenes that will never appear in the book, and soliciting feedback from beta readers all help to put clay on my character’s armature. The beta readers (which include some of the guys I mentioned in the first paragraph) are especially helpful, because they point out clichés and other blind spots.

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Not the betas I mean.

But in the end, it all comes down to spending time in the skin of my character, even when he behaves unpleasantly. I don’t have to agree with his actions. I just have to make them plausible. Going beyond the stereotype helps me remind readers that everyone is more than what he or she appears to be on the surface.

What’s the most challenging aspect for you about writing a character who is the total opposite of you?

Wooden art figure from polyvore.com. Robot from I, Robot found at irobot.wikia.com. Tween boys from howtoparentateen.wordpress.com, thehabarinetwork.com, and thelipkinsgroup.com. Bettas from worldofcutepets.blogspot.com and life.umd.edu. Scarecrow from commons.wikimedia.org. Link from dan-dare.org.

Much Ado About Middle Grade Books

A really helpful blog post by my good friend Sharon Van Zandt—“Hemingway’s Way”—and my recent review of several manuscripts for a venue I cannot name at this time prompted this post. You can get to Sharon’s post by clicking on the post’s title. Sharon mentions a tool I used to check my WIP. But I’ll talk more about that later.

First, let me ask you this: When you think of the primary audience of a middle grade book, what age group comes to mind? (If you’re an adult like me who reads middle grade books, maybe you think of yourself. Ha ha! If so, you and I should have ice cream together someday.) Do you think of middle graders—sixth through eighth grade? Makes sense, right? Middle graders—middle grade books.

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Here’s where life throws a curve. Middle grade books are for kids in third through sixth grade—kids 8-12. Yes, some middle graders read middle grade books. But young adult books are geared toward middle grade to high school-aged kids—a wide range of readers.

Remember the books you loved as a kid? Middle grade books are typically shorter than young adult books—around 30,000—50,000 words (longer for fantasy books). There are some exceptions, as you’ll quickly note if you’ve read the books in the following list.

Some Middle Grade Books
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

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Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
• The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
• The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

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Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Holes by Louis Sachar
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

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Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
Under the Mermaid Angel by Martha Moore

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And many, many others. There are some exceptions to the rules. The Harry Potter series is an exception, because it evolved over time. Its audience spans from children to adults. But this series started off middle grade.

I’m writing a middle grade book with an eleven-year-old protagonist who is about to turn twelve. I don’t pretend to be an expert on middle grade books, so I seek help whenever I can. The tool Sharon’s post mentioned provided one kind of help. It assesses the grade level when you copy into the tool an excerpt from your work.

When I copied several of my paragraphs into the tool, they were assessed at the third and fourth grade levels, which is fitting for a middle grade book. (Whew!)

Another help: the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which gauge the ease or difficulty of a passage read in English. Because of these tests, many periodicals and books have been assessed at a sixth grade level. Many middle grade books have a lower readability level than that. Again, there are some exceptions. Classic stories, crossover stories, some fantasy stories, and other stories meant for family reading might score higher.

Recently I read a few middle grade manuscripts with a high vocabulary (around the eighth grade level) that included F-bombs and other profanity, romantic relationships (including the desire for sex), and long passages of introspection. The inclusion of these items shows a lack of understanding about what’s considered appropriate for a middle grade book.

I don’t make the rules. But I’m tasked with enforcing them. And what became apparent to me very quickly was that these authors probably had not read many (or any) books geared toward the age level for which they claimed to write.

Do you know any musicians who never or only seldom listen to the music of others? Sounds ludicrous, right? Yet writing is a discipline that some feel they’ve mastered simply because they’ve written a story, all the while claiming they “don’t have time” to read books. (Or they don’t need to read, since “everyone” can write.)

Want to write a middle grade book? You might start by reading middle grade books—as many as you can get your hands on. Study the pacing, characterization, rhythms of dialogue, and the plots. Check online for the requirements for middle grade books, particularly word count and subject matter. Just because your favorite author could get away with a 90,000-word middle grade book that doesn’t mean you automatically can! And don’t forget that kids like to read about kids older than them, but still close in age. So though your protagonist might be 11 or 12, your core reader might be 8 or 9.

Click here for an excellent post by Marie Lamba on the difference between middle grade books and young adult books. Another good post is by Malinda Lo (click here for it) and this one by Judith Rosen. The latter mentions a bookstore that delineates middle grade fiction books as books for middle graders. :-)

Click here for a great reading analysis post by Shane Snow.

What are some of your favorite middle grade books?

Book covers from Goodreads and Pinterest. Ice cream from smartcanucks.ca.

“Too Noble to Be Cool”?

At first I planned to ditch this post, but changed my mind and finished it anyway. So here goes.

Charlie-Hunnam-King-ArthurAn Entertainment Weekly article on Charlie Hunnam, who stars as King Arthur in an upcoming film directed by Guy Ritchie, got my hackles up, especially with comments like this:

Arthur has a bit of a Superman problem: He’s too noble to be cool or dangerous, and he’s rarely conflicted. (Sullivan 23)

In order to make him “cool,” the filmmakers decided to tweak Arthur’s origin story to make him a “streetwise” orphan ala Oliver Twist. I can’t help but notice how making someone “cool” usually involves putting that person in the theft/smuggling trade ala Han Solo, Aladdin, Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled, or, come to think of it, Indiana Jones. He didn’t just “borrow” those artifacts from those temples, y’know. (Yeah, yeah. Archaeology. Blah blah blah. But it really depends on your cultural viewpoint, doesn’t it?)

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For some, a character is interesting only if he’s the bad boy or at least has an edge to him. In other words, if the character is an antihero. I call this the Han Solo Syndrome. Though I have a soft spot for Han Solo, Flynn Rider, Aladdin, and Indiana Jones, I’m wary of the proposed revised history for King Arthur. While the filmmakers have a right to do what they want with this film, an attempt to revamp the King Arthur story flopped in 2004, as the article pointed out. I don’t fully know how Ritchie & Company will adjust Arthur’s back story for this movie. Entertainment Weekly gave only a few hints (like the fact that the new Arthur will be raised by three prostitutes).

According to Hunnam,

You need to see a character grow, and you need conflict. . . . If somebody is walking around with noble aspirations and then they find out that they’re King of England, wonderful, but it’s all a bit boring. . . .

I agree with him about the need for growth and conflict. But the “boring” judgment call shows a sadly one-note view of “good” characters. I’ve written about this before.

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Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur

“Too noble to be cool”? “Boring?” The issue seems to be with the notion of the heroic archetype. I’ve seen this archetype challenged more and more in our so-called “enlightened” age. When I was a kid, we used to call a virtuous person a “goody-goody” if we wanted to make fun of him or her. If we don’t believe anyone can be that selfless and noble, we might say the same. But what’s really needed is a better understanding of the strength and complexity of good.

Since the EW article focuses on a guy, I’ll concentrate on guys. I know some really good guys—men and teens with faith and ideals. But not a single one of them constantly walks around humming and thinking “noble” thoughts about kissing babies and rescuing puppies. All of them struggle with temptation, fear, doubt—the usual stuff. None of them claims to be perfect. They make mistakes. Yet they strive to be good husbands, good dads, good friends—good people. Doesn’t sound boring to me.

Would anybody call soldiers, fire fighters, police officers—people who rush into danger and protect others—“a bit boring”? Yet the people in these professions work toward what’s good. Many have a strong sense of justice and a need to help others. Yes, there are some bad apples according to current events. But for the most part, you’ve got people who put themselves on the line for others. Many of us know people in these professions. We see their foibles as well as their bravery. Good fictional heroes can be like this. (I’m thinking of Spider-Man, Green Lantern, and Luke Callindor, Charles Yallowitz’s hero in Beginning of a Hero.)

An author’s job is to develop characters a reader will find compelling. I grew up loving the story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. When I was a kid, I read T. H. White’s book, The Once and Future King. I never found it boring nor did I find Arthur “too noble to be cool.” He made mistakes and sometimes doubted his leadership; yet he strove to do the right thing. I find that compelling. But the filmmakers seem to think he’s not macho enough, and hope that Hunnam and his hotness will make Arthur an action hero. (Okay, the photo on the magazine cover makes a convincing argument.)

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The jury is out on whether or not I’ll see the new King Arthur movie. I’m not sure when it’s due out. The actors are still in the process of filming it. The only question I have for anyone adapting the story of an existing character is this: If you find that character to be boring or uncool, and have to make a whole bunch of changes to make him or her more interesting, why adapt the story in the first place?

Sullivan, Kevin. “The Sword and the Stone-Cold Fox.” Entertainment Weekly 31 July 2015: 20-27. Print.

Charlie Hunnam from hypable.com and femalefirst.co.uk. Flynn Rider from tangled-wallpaper.blogspot.com. Harrison Ford as Han Solo from solidsmack.com. Once and Future King cover from Goodreads.