A Tale of Three Trees

As promised, today I will reveal the winners of Halfway to Happily Ever After by Sarah Aronson and Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. See this post and this one if you’re completely confused by that statement.

     

     

Before I get to that, in honor of the first day of summer, here is a photo (the one on the left) of three trees I pass every day. Okay, yeah. You can only see the the trunk of the tree at the far right. So, the photo at the right shows the tree you couldn’t really see in the left photo (though some of the foliage in the left photo belongs to that tree). Yeah. I know. The knot holes give it a creepy look. So, let’s call it Creepy Tree. Despite its appearance, squirrels and birds by the score are drawn to it and to the one across the street from it. The latter tree seems like a happy tree, with its fuller access to the sun’s rays.

 

Happy Tree. Even the branches seem like a smile.

The tree in the foreground of the picture on the left (same tree in the photo at the right) reminds me of a brush, so its nickname is—you guessed it—Brush. Brush is a haven for birds. I’ve seen cardinals dart into it from time to time, though they usually live in one of the larger evergreen trees nearby.

   

Brush has reached a lovely height.

Brush is a place that many birds visit, but don’t live in. Sort of like a Starbucks or a library—a place they go to hang out in or work. But Creepy Tree and Happy Tree are the homes squirrels and birds return to after a hard day’s work.

Creepy Tree is less creepy from this side of the street (the Happy Tree side).

What makes some trees more habitable than others? It takes a squirrel or a bird to know best, since trees are their domain. But as I asked myself that question, I couldn’t help thinking about stories—places we find ourselves inhabiting, even if the settings are completely made up.

There are some stories we visit. We might read them once and move on. But there are stories we call home—the ones that draw us back to their pages again and again. We become citizens of their well-drawn worlds, and gladly tread their well-worn paths.

In what story worlds are you a citizen?

Speaking of well-drawn worlds, time for the book giveaways. Thanks to the random number generator, the winner of Halfway to Happily Ever After is

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Nancy Hatch!

The winner of Every Shiny Thing is

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Marian!

Congrats to the winners! You know the drill. Please comment below to confirm.

Author photos and book covers courtesy of the authors. Tree photos by L. Marie.

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Check This Out: Every Shiny Thing

Today on the blog, you will find not one, but two of my incredible VCFA classmates: the marvelous Cordelia Jensen (left) and the awesome Laurie Morrison. They are here to discuss their middle grade novel, Every Shiny Thing, which was published by Abrams in April. Click here to read the novel’s synopsis.

   

Cordelia and Laurie are represented by Sara Crowe. After the interview, I’ll tell you about a giveaway of their novel.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Laurie: 1. I used to be able to hula hoop for hours on end, doing all kinds of fancy tricks. 2. I ran three marathons before hurting my knee while training for a fourth. 3. I think chocolate chip cookies are pretty much the world’s most perfect food. 4. I have a brother who can play the piano by ear, like Ryan can in Every Shiny Thing.

Cordelia: 1. I was a certified scuba diver in high school. 2. I was a camp counselor for eleven summers. 3. When I turned 39, I got my first cavity, my first dog died, and I broke my first bone. It was like I turned 9 not 39! 4. I have boy girl twins who are 12, now we all read the same books!

El Space: How did your premise—two middle graders who come up with what has been described as an ill-advised Robin Hood scheme to raise money for people in need—come about?
Laurie and Cordelia: We started with a vision for our two characters and the relationship they would form, and we thought it would be compelling if Lauren developed a compulsion to shoplift and Sierra felt like she had to cover for her. But Laurie, who wrote Lauren’s point of view, is terrified of breaking rules and couldn’t fathom why Lauren would shoplift until she thought of the middle school students she taught and how passionate many of them were about social justice. We thought: what if Lauren is angry about the inequality she sees in the world around her and wants to do something to make the world a fairer place, sort of like Robin Hood…but then she gets carried away and her well-intentioned scheme spirals out of control?

El Space: The book was written in prose and poetry. What was your process for writing? What was your favorite thing about working together?
Laurie and Cordelia: Laurie wrote Lauren’s sections in prose and Cordelia wrote Sierra’s sections in verse. We had a big brainstorming session before we began writing, during which we figured out the midpoint and ending, and once we had written a little more than half of the book, we met again to plan a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of the story so it wouldn’t run away from us. But for the most part, we just went back and forth in a Google doc, one of us writing a chapter, then the other building off that chapter to write the next one, and so on. We both found the process incredibly energizing because we could bounce ideas off each other and improvise with each other as we went. And it was pretty great to get immediate feedback on the sections we wrote so we knew right away what was working and what wasn’t. And we gave each other lots of compliments as we went, which was also very fun and validating!

El Space: Talk to us about your main characters—Sierra and Lauren. How are they different than or similar to middle grade you? What advice would high school you give to Sierra and Lauren about surviving middle school? Why is this important?
Laurie: I was conscientious and loyal, like Lauren is, and I had brothers I felt somewhat protective of. I cared about injustice, but not as single-mindedly as Lauren does. And I was a rule-follower, so I never would have stolen! I think high school me would have been overwhelmed by the misguided intensity of Lauren’s Robin Hood plan. There were a couple of times when I was in high school when I really wanted to help a friend but realized I was not equipped to figure out how to do that, so I went to a trusted adult—the guidance counselor at my school—to ask for advice. High school me would have gone to the guidance counselor to work out a plan to help Lauren, and I likely would have tried to help her talk to someone she trusted, like her Aunt Jill or her teacher, Mr. Ellis. I would have advised her that there are times when things get intense and hard enough that you may need adult reinforcements and sometimes you may want to turn to adults other than your parents, and that’s just fine.

Cordelia: I was definitely a caretaker like Sierra is, which is part of the reason I wanted to write this book. I would tell Sierra (1) you are safe now, let yourself trust in your new environment and the people who are caring for you (2) if you feel overwhelmed in a relationship, seek help and support. Dare yourself to ask for help even if it feels impossible. Feeling like you are the only person who can help someone can become an addiction itself.

El Space: Social justice is a big theme in society and in your book. What do you hope kids will take away from your book?
Laurie and Cordelia: The School Library Journal review of Every Shiny Thing says the novel may encourage some readers to examine their privilege, which we were thrilled to see because we definitely like the idea that the book would make readers stop to think about things in the world that aren’t fair and things they can do—without resorting to illegal measures like Lauren does—to make a difference.

In addition, if kids are struggling with an addicted parent, we hope they will see that there are resources out there that can offer help.

El Space: Please tell us how your passion for writing books for kids developed.
Laurie: I only began writing fiction after I began teaching middle school. There was something about my students’ passion, humor, creativity, and honesty that inspired me deeply. I also went through a lot of big life changes when I was in middle school and high school, and I very vividly remember what it felt like to be that age and deal with big revelations and relationship shifts. I feel a lot of empathy for my middle school and early high school self and am moved to explore some of the intense feelings I had at those ages.

Cordelia: I have always been a writer and even concentrated in Creative Writing at Kenyon College as an undergrad. However, I began writing for kids after working with them. Besides having an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I have an M.Ed in School Counseling. I worked as a counselor in my twenties and was also a camp counselor for a long time (see fun fact). Once I became pregnant with my own kids, I was drawn to write stories and poems for the kids I had worked with for so long. I felt I had a lot more to say to kids and teens than to adults.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Laurie: I’m finishing up edits on my next middle grade novel, Up for Air, which is a summer story about competitive swimming, self-esteem, fitting in, and standing out that will come out next spring, and I’m working on a couple of other projects that are in much earlier stages.

Cordelia: I’ve been working on a picture book, a MG novel, and a YA—all in verse!

Thank you, Cordelia and Laurie, for being my guests!

Looking for Cordelia and Laurie? You can find them at these locations.

Laurie Morrison: website, Twitter, Instagram.

Cordelia Jensen: website, Twitter, Instagram.

Every Shiny Thing is available at a bookstore near you and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound.

If you’re a teacher and need resources to teach about the topics in Every Shiny Thing, click here.

One of you will be given a copy of this book simply because you commented. Check back on June 21 to discover the winner. 

Having read Every Shiny Thing, Lippy Lulu and Macy Macaron are inspired to do something to help others in need.
What would you do?

Cordelia Jensen author photo by Marietta Pathy Allen. Laurie Morrison author photo by Laura Billingham. Hula hoop from keywordsuggest.org. Scuba gear from ladyasatramp.blogspot.com. Social justice image from stephenandmary.org.au. Google docs image from heavy.com. Robin Hood image from freepins.com. Middle school image from sites.google.com. Shopkins Shoppie dolls—Lippy Lulu and Macy Macaron—by Moose Toys. Photo by L. Marie.

Making Friends with Failure: Guest Post by Sarah Aronson

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, today on the blog is a guest post written by the marvelous Sarah Aronson, author of the Wish List series, published by Scholastic, and other books. (Check out her website for a list of her books.) If you have read this blog in the last year or so, you will remember Sarah from this post and this one. And now, take it away Sarah!

If you know me in real life, you know I love a good graduation speech. This is partly because I grew up in academia, so I’ve heard a lot of them.

Two favorites were John Irving reading a work-in-progress, and Millicent Fenwick’s message to the Rutgers College Class of 1983: Be careful who you marry. (Great advice that was largely unappreciated.)

 

But mostly, like many writers and artists, I love a great perseverance story—a story that details someone overcoming years of rejection and failure and self-loathing, to finally get a lucky break and succeed.

This year, my favorite message of perseverance comes from Abby Wambach at Barnard College. (Note: she was the inspiration for Parker in Beyond Lucky—so in general—I’m a BIG FAN!)

   

She said,

Here’s something the best athletes understand, but seems like a hard concept for non-athletes to grasp. Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright—and they end up wasting it. Listen: Failure is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to be POWERED by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.

You can read the whole speech here.

I like how she puts this. Failure is a gift. Not something to fear. That’s because when we fail, we learn. We make connections. We grow. And thus, we should feel good about it. We should celebrate our failures. We don’t have to feel alone. And yet, we need to talk about it all the time.

Social media is packed with threads on perseverance and the struggle to succeed. Most of these messages are pragmatic. And hopeful. Successful creators offer the struggling artist hope: if you keep failing, someday, you will succeed.

For what it’s worth, I’ve written many times about my writing journey, my tangle (or perhaps tango) with failure and success. I have shared the moments when I hit rock bottom, when I promised myself I would find another path. I have shared how I challenged myself to write without expectations—to write for writing’s sake alone.

But this is what I’ve come to understand. When I was failing, talking on and on about how hard it was, I already knew what success felt like. The truth is, most people who write about failure only talk about it after they have succeeded. I rarely see anything about written about failure, while the failing is happening.

This was one of the reasons I wrote The Wish List series. In The Wish List, Isabelle seems to always be on the brink of failure. She does not like to study—because she has some learning issues. She has a hard time concentrating. Just in case that’s not hard enough, she has a high-performing sister. She is the daughter of the biggest failure of all, the worst fairy godmother ever.

  

Because of these books, I have spoken to lots of kids about kindness, determination, gusto, and failure. I’ve told them about my childhood failures (I came late to reading), and about the many drafts I always need to get the stories right. I tell them about the manuscripts that line my desk drawers. About what it feels like to hear no. To not know if YES is ever going to happen.

I will never forget the young reader who waited until everyone else was gone to ask me, “What if I’m not good at anything?”

She came to mind as I read Abby’s motivating speech. I opened up a discussion about failure on Facebook, in preparation for a session on Making Friends with Failure at nErDcamp Kansas.

Very quickly a few things became clear: Failure is not so easy in the present tense. Many of us need to experience a period of mourning—some time to get beyond it. (So if that’s you, don’t feel bad!) More important, fear of failure holds us back. It can keep us from taking risks that would pay off! It keeps us from envisioning greatness—from striving for more.

Although many acknowledged failure and its usefulness, many writers were privately grateful that they did not begin their journeys in this age of social media, where all of us are inundated with distractions that can make us all feel low, worthless, and overlooked.

This is what scares me: in a life surrounded by stories of success, many of us are feeling anxiety. And sadness. We feel out of control. Not safe. We don’t celebrate the process as much as we should.

In Kansas, I shared this feedback. Then I asked the teachers how they approach failure with their students. Right away, I was filled with hope.

Compassionate teachers talked about responding to failure by specifically and meaningfully talking about what went right.

They talked about using humor to quash sadness, but at the same time, knowing that everyone is different. Sometimes, humor doesn’t work. Sometimes we simply need to feel it.

And of course, we talked about the power of community—about how much better we feel about risk taking when we feel supported and safe. Creativity—and great books are born—when TRYING is celebrated—when it is actually rewarded.

Dear writers,
Can we do that?
Can we use humor? Can we embrace sadness? Can we set measurable goals and celebrate them? Can we help each other feel safe?
Can we make friends with failure?

This is what I work to foster in my Highlights retreats and classes at writers.com. I set out to lower the bar, to let writers take risks. I want them to fail gloriously. Because when we do, in fact, only when we do, we succeed.

In those failures, we see seeds. Seeds and glimmers of what will be a foundation for a better draft. A deeper story. A more authentic character.

Take it from Teddy Roosevelt.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Writers, get into the arena. Be curious. Make trouble. Strive for what you want, but along the way, don’t cower, because failure is part of the process. You have to get used to it. If we stick together, we can all embrace it.

L. Marie here. Sarah just released the third book in her Wish List series, Halfway to Happily Ever After.


Book four of the series will debut on January 29, 2019. By the way, a picture book by Sarah, Just like Rube Goldberg, will debut on March 12, 2019.

I’ll be giving away a copy of Halfway to Happily Ever After to a commenter. The winner will be revealed on June 21.

Wish list book covers courtesy of Sarah Aronson. Beyond Lucky cover from Goodreads. Abby Wambach photo from gossipbucket.com. Teddie Roosevelt photo from commons.wikimedia.org. John Irving photo from sites.google.com. Millicent Fenwick photo from greatthoughtstreasury.com. Failure sign from teachertoolkit.me. Failure cartoon from clipartpanda.com. Other failure image from hownottodosocialwork.wordpress.com. Risk-Failure image from brucecoaching.com. Man in egg image from stevenaichison.co.uk. Success-failure image from livingwithtrust.com.

The Courage to Keep Going

Awhile back (this post actually) I mentioned that I might have news. I do, but not the kind of news I wanted to post here. But the reason why I am, is because I recently read some posts by people who had to courage to write about their pain. So, here I go.

In the post I linked to above, I mentioned that an interested party (code word for agent) expressed interest in my middle grade novel. I felt like Cinderella, finally getting a chance to go to the ball. But after I revised the manuscript at the request of that person (I now know what it means to bleed over a manuscript) and turned it in, I later learned that the interested party was now disinterested.

Cinderella anticipating the ball

You know how it feels when you’ve heard dozens and dozens of no’s, only to finally have someone say yes, but then to have that person turn around and say, “On second thought, no”? One of my sisters-in-law told me, “It’s like the rug was snatched out from under you.” A feeling she has also experienced recently.

Imagine this bear pillow is a rug. Now, imagine it being taken away.

I found myself spiraling into depression—an unfortunately familiar place, where getting out of bed seemed pointless. If you don’t suffer from depression, you might not understand that. And I get it. There are worse things in life than being rejected. But when you’re depressed, everything looks gray.

Some really good friends refused to allow me to stay in that dark place. So, with their prayers and encouragement, I got up. Took in a really entertaining movie (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) with a friend who also has had a hard time. Started a new book. Began revising some of the old ones.

Perhaps a disappointment like this might not rock you. You might even have a “Why don’t you do this?” piece of advice ready and waiting. Believe me, I get a lot of advice. To which I answer with this image:

We all have a path we follow. Some of us go in one direction. Some of us go in another. My path might not look the same as yours. The path I’m on is not an easy one (nor am I suggesting that others are). But it is the one I’m on. Believe me, I’m not a masochist who delights in my own pain. I’ve wanted to give up so many times.

I can’t help thinking of someone who came to speak to my SCBWI group. After 300 rejections for one book (you read that right), an agent accepted her manuscript. It was later published as the first of a three-book series.

Would you have the courage to keep going after that many rejections? That author’s persistence humbles me, especially when I consider that I only have a fraction of that amount. (And I’d thought having well over 60 rejections for one book was bad.) I think the title of a book I’m about to give away says it all: Keep Calm and Sparkle On! That’s what that author did. That’s what I plan to do.

If that’s not a segue, then I don’t know what one is. Let’s move on to the winners of the books that were the subjects of the interview posts here and here. They are Legends of Windemere: Warlord of the Forgotten Age by Charles Yallowitz

Cover by Jason Pedersen

and The Wish List #2: Keep Calm and Sparkle On! by Sarah Aronson.

The winner of Warlord of the Forgotten Age is

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Lyn Miller-Lachmann!

The winner of Keep Calm and Sparkle On! is

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Penny from Life on the Cutoff!

Winners, please confirm below. Thank you to all who have put up with my ramblings over the years.

Jumanji movie poster from dvdreleasedates.com. Path sign from geeksundergrace.com. Book covers and author photos courtesy of the authors. Other photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: The Lost Celt

Happy Memorial Day! I’m back on the blog finally! And I’m not alone—I’m with the awesome A. E. (Amanda) Conran, author of the middle grade novel, The Lost Celt, which was published by Gosling Press/Goosebottom Books this past March. This book is very appropriate for a holiday like this. I’ll tell you about the giveaway for it at the end of the interview.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Amanda: I’m originally from Leicestershire, England. It’s a county suddenly in the news, as you’ll know if you’re a historian or a soccer fan. (Richard III and Leicester City!)

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I moved to the Bay Area when my first child was six-weeks old. My husband had been offered a job at Industrial Light and Magic working on the new Star Wars films. It was his childhood ambition to work for Lucas. We only came for two years, but that’s what everyone says when they move here.

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I have a scar on my nose from being hit by a field hockey ball. I needed 12 stitches.

I’ve done a catch on the flying trapeze.

El Space: Wow! How did you come to write a middle grade novel about two boys—Mikey and Kyler—who think they have found a Celtic warrior in the twenty-first century?
Amanda: The Lost Celt is about how people return from war, how their return affects their families, and how we deal with this in society as a whole. It was inspired by a conversation with two emergency room doctors at a local VA Medical Center. They told me there were always more admissions in the ER on “certain nights,” when war stories or natural disasters were in the news. One friend remembered a man with red hair and beard, acting very much as I describe my Celt. My friend, who was truly worried for his patient, could not help but think he was witnessing a warrior, a Viking, in the ER. That idea, of the continuity of the potential effects of war through history, stayed with me.

There are many other factors at play in the inspiration for this story. I was fascinated by ancient history as a child. I painted tiny Roman and Celtic soldiers and visited historic sites across the UK, including walking Hadrian’s Wall. I read a lot of historical fiction, especially the works of Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece, as well as Greek classics like Homer. Most of these were stories about living through, and returning from, war.

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Add to this the fact that I grew up in a small English village where there were still veterans of the First World War and the Second World War. We even had a German ex-POW still living in our village working on the farms just as he’d done when he was a prisoner. Their stories surrounded us. One great uncle survived the trenches in the First World War only to die as he returned home. He was so eager to see his family that he jumped out of the train before it stopped at the station. He was trapped between the train and the platform and died two weeks later of his injuries. My Grandma’s favorite uncle joined up for the First World War at age sixteen. He was recommended for a medal for commandeering a tank, but refused to accept it. He said he acted only out of anger, not bravery, because his friends had been killed around him.

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It’s strange, but the fact that my generation was brought up by people intimate with the effects of war did not fully strike me, however, until I came to live in America. One particular incident really hit home. My mum was visiting and we went for a meal with a group of friends my age. When we left the restaurant, my mother burst into tears. “They ordered so much food,” she said, “and they didn’t even eat it. There was more food on that table than we had for our entire family for a week during the war . . . and they didn’t even eat it.”

There was definitely a disconnect between my mother’s experience, my own upbringing, and that of my friends. I think it was this that led me to make one of my main characters a veteran of a recent war. I hadn’t planned to, but as I listened to the news, I became aware how deeply the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were affecting a relatively small portion of our society. Unlike the experience of previous world wars in Europe, it struck me how large a gap there was between those who were serving and their families and those of us who were not. That did not feel right. I wanted to write a book that addressed that gap a little. Stories were not being shared, as the stories of earlier wars were shared when I was a child, or even the stories that the ancients told. I sometimes wonder whether the ancients were more willing to tell it, and accept it, how it is. Their understanding of a hero was more complex and maybe more helpful than ours today. As Grandpa says, they were all closer to war than we are.

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El Space: Mikey and Kyler play the type of videogame that a lot of my friends love to play—military strategy. Are you and/or your kids gamers? Did you have the game in mind when you first developed the book? Why or why not?
Amanda: Yes, my son really enjoys playing military strategy games, particularly Rome Total War. It was a subject of some debate/ambivalence in our household, which I reflected in Mikey’s mom’s attitudes in The Lost Celt.

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In earlier drafts Mikey played with toy soldiers. The video game only came into the story when my editor asked me to make Mikey absolutely sure he was seeing a real live Celt from the word go. Immersing Mikey in a video game world that pitched Romans against Celts was the obvious choice. I could move his focus directly from the screen to the world in front of him in the VA and make the connection very easily.

El Space: You deal with a subject I haven’t seen much in middle grade books—PTSD. Without giving spoilers, why is that important to you and/or for young readers to learn about?
Amanda: I was brought up by children of war whose parents experienced and fought in both the Second and First World Wars. I think we are only just acknowledging their experiences, how they dealt with them and how some trauma/issues may have been passed on. At the time, everyone was in the same boat and they just got on with it.

According to the VA, 7–8% of the general population will experience PTSD at some point in their life. Depending on the conflict, 11–30% of service members will experience PTSD at some point. It’s really important to recognize that most service members don’t return from war with PTSD, but it’s also important to recognize that your mental health is important and there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. I don’t want to think of children or adults dealing with the after effects of trauma on their own. I think that is the key: being in a community, not alone.

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El Space: If you could go back in time to witness any event in history, which would you choose?
Amanda: I’d like to see my village before and after the Roman invasion. There’s a Roman villa on the hill above my village and, although it’s hidden underground, artifacts come up to the surface after every ploughing. I’d love to know who lived there.

El Space: What kinds of stories delight you?
Amanda: The Owl Service by Alan Garner, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, or The Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo epitomize the sort of story I adore: books that resonate with a sense of place and the strength of our connection with the past, both real and mythical/magical. All the books I read as a child were like that: When Marnie was There by Joan G. Robinson, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner and the historical fiction of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Henry Treece, and Roger Lancelyn Green.

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El Space: What are you working on next?
Amanda: I’m working on two projects. The first is a middle grade based in France in World War One. The second is a historical middle grade based in a town much like San Rafael in the 1870s.

Thanks, Amanda, for being my guest!

You can find Amanda at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

The Lost Celt is available at these fine establishments:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Goosebottom Books
Indiebound

But two of you will get a copy of your very own. Just comment below to be entered in the drawing! Winners to be announced on June 6.

Book covers from Goodreads. Star Wars logo from hr.wikipedia.org. Rome Total War image from gamehackstudios.com. PTSD image from talesfromthelou.wordpress.com. Iraq/Afghanistan Memorial from old.mcallen.net. First World War Memorial from oxfordhistory.org.uk. Hadrian’s wall from medievalhistories.com. Leicester City Football Club logo from ebay.co.uk. Richard III from abc.net.au.

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.

Suspending a Character’s Disbelief and Ours

I’ve got book winners to announce, but that will be at the end of this post. Mwahahahaha! So grab a donut and pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea while I talk at you for a minute.

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Ever read a book where a character is handed a truth that would require a major paradigm shift for him or her to accept? For example, the character suddenly learns that magic or monsters really exist.

We’ve all read stories of characters who stubbornly cling to disbelief in the face of tons of evidence to the contrary. They insist that they’re dreaming or “this isn’t really happening” until they reach a plot point (at least halfway through the book) that pushes them toward belief. Or we’ve read stories where a character instantly accepts a completely world-changing viewpoint without a struggle. There are also stories where the character seems to ignore what would be totally obvious to a seven-year-old. I think of that as the Lois-Lane-can’t-see-Superman-behind-Clark-Kent’s-glasses perspective. That’s why we don’t necessarily suspend our disbelief as we read. (Or sometimes we go along for the ride because the characters are so beloved or iconic.)

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Lois, have you noticed anything unusual about Clark? No? Some reporter you are.

Here is where foreshadowing can be an author’s BFF. An author can hint at the possibility that something major is going to happen at a future point. Foreshadowing also is a reminder that things are not always what they appear to be. It provides a solid base to make a character’s suspension of disbelief seem inevitable.

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Prince Zuko of the Avatar animated series and Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Sometimes though, a rip-off-the-bandage approach works to move a story along. I can’t help thinking of two episodes of Doctor Who, series 4 (2008), starring David Tennant as the Doctor (BBC/BBC America).

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In Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, an extremely chilling 2009 Hugo award-nominated two-episode arc written by Steven Moffat, we see a little girl talking to a psychiatrist, while her anxious dad hovers in the background. Such an innocuous scene. The little girl has told the doctor—Dr. Moon—about her dreams.

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Doctor Moon (played by Colin Salmon) and the little girl (played by Eve Newton)

In her dreams, she goes to a library—a place where she feels safe. But as we watch the episodes, we realize that all is not what it seems. Later in the first episode, because of a dangerous development, Doctor Moon has to share a shocking truth with the little girl, a truth that would require a paradigm shift for her to accept. (Quote below from IMDb. **SLIGHT SPOILER.**)

Dr. Moon: What I want you to remember is this, and I know it’s hard. The real world is a lie and your nightmares are real. The Library is real. There are people trapped in there. People who need to be saved. The shadows are moving again. Those people are depending on you. Only you can save them. Only you.

**END SPOILER.** You can read this Wikipedia article if you want to know the plot. Or, I would suggest watching the episodes. They are extremely good.

Another example of a character having to shift from disbelief to belief comes from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/Philosopher’s Stone (the title depends on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be on), Hagrid tells Harry the truth about Harry’s extraordinary life in this scene from the first Harry Potter movie, directed by Christopher Columbus (2001).

Rowling set the stage earlier by having weird things happen that Harry witnessed, but couldn’t explain. So when the big reveal comes, his struggle for acceptance doesn’t feel contrived.

I’m facing a similar issue in my middle grade book—a character struggling to believe something extraordinary about herself. I’ll ask you the same questions I had to answer for the character: If you were told that magic really exists, what’s the first thing you would do? What would you say or ask?

While you think about those questions, I’ll move on to the book giveaway. Thanks for you patience. If you recall, last week I had mentioned two great books: None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio and Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue by Charles Yallowitz. You can find those posts here and here. Jordie and Hello Kitty wanted to be in on the reveal. You might have to enlarge the photos below if you have trouble reading the names.

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The winner of None of the Above is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

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The winner of Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

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Congratulations Jill! Congrats, Professor! Please comment below to confirm.

Now I will leave you with a photo I am calling, “The Five Geese of the Apocalypse.” For some reason, they were just standing there on the ledge looking out. Surveying their domain perhaps?

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Doctor Moon and the little girl from stevegoble.blogspot.com. Doctor Who, series 4, DVD cover from Wikipedia. Lois Lane and Clark Kent from goodgirlsinc.wordpress.com. Coffee and donut from wisdomwoman.com. Zuko from glogster.com. Anakin/Darth Vader from tvtropes.org.