Cute Collectibles: Making a Heart Connection

Are you the kind of person who goes wild over collectible figures? About four years ago, I used to buy Squinkies for my second and third grade students as rewards. They loved Squinkies! What are Squinkies? Tiny collectible figures by Blip Toys based on themes (like the ocean; aliens and space; animals). But one day the stores stopped selling them. My students used to ask about Squinkies, but I had no idea why they disappeared. Was that the end of their story? Read on.

In the last couple of years Shopkins have racked up mega sales in the toy section. What are Shopkins? Tiny collectible figures by Moose Toys. I’ve shown a photo of some of them on this blog before. There are hundreds to collect, in categories like common, rare, ultra rare, and limited edition (quite difficult to find).

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So is it any wonder that this year, Squinkies are back with a reboot and categories very similar to the Shopkins categories? Success breeds competition in the battle for the attention of children (and the shrinking wallets of their parents)! I don’t own any of the new Squinkies, but you can click here to find out more information if you’re curious.

If you’re a parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle, maybe you’re cringing right now, as you imagine your child/grandchild/niece/nephew demanding toys like this. Or perhaps you remember a painful moment when you accidentally stepped on something like this—tiny but made of hard plastic—in the middle of the night. If so, you might wish to skip to the end, where I talk about writing. (There. There. It will be okay.)

Squinkies and Shopkins aren’t the only small collectible figures in town. There are also Num Noms by MGA.

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Each of these (with the exception of the pink motorized one under the brown choco swirl on the right) is a little over an inch tall.

I’m not exactly sure what they are, besides small collectible figures. They’re scented though. One smells like chocolate cherry, while others smells like caramel and strawberry.

And then there are the erasers by Iwako. A friend sent a bunch to me from Amazon.com. These are just a few:

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These also are a little over an inch tall.

And there is the queen of small collectible figures: Hello Kitty by Sanrio.

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She’s about a quarter of an inch taller than the Iwako erasers.

And then there are these: My Mini MixieQ’s by Mattel, which debuted this year at the Toy Fair in New York. So far, the only comment I’ve heard about them is a consistent one: “Awwwww. They’re so cuuuuuuute.”

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These figures are about three-quarters of an inch tall.

And there are dozens more. But I know what you’re thinking: These seem awfully girl-centric (though I know some boys who like Shopkins and some girls who hate this sort of thing). What about stuff for boys? Well, there are Star Wars Micro Machines and tons of other Star Wars figures (Hasbro), Five Nights at Freddy’s figures (Funko), Hot Wheels (Mattel), DC and Marvel action figures (Mattel and Hasbro respectively), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Playmates Toys), Minecraft (Mattel), and dozens of other collectible figures. (Girls like these too.)

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So what does this have to do with writing? Well, I’ll tell you my reason for paying attention to toy trends (besides liking them). Toy manufacturers know what appeals to the soul of a kid; for example, the desire to nurture or to be on an adventure. I once held up one of the Shopkins while talking to someone and soon had several people (kids and adults) crowded around me with sparkling eyes. This is the kind of rapt attention you want if you’re writing for kids, teens, or adults—the kind of attention that means you’ve made a heart connection.

Granted, translating this connection to the printed page is a challenge. Yet authors like J. K. Rowling and Rick Riordan have met the challenge. (So it is possible.) But they connected to what was in their own hearts first, instead of attempting to guess what might appeal to a kid. For example, Riordan loved his son and wanted to write about a kid with dyslexia and ADHD like his son. He was also a fan of Greek and Roman mythology, having taught these stories to middle schoolers for years. Thus, Percy Jackson and other series were born. Rowling’s mom died. Writing Harry Potter was her way of dealing with her own grief. She also loved The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, which combines fantasy and reality as does the Harry Potter series.

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What do you love? How does that translate to what you’re writing now?

Book covers from Goodreads. Minecraft toy from minecrafttoy.com. Star Wars Micro Machine blind bags from action figuren24.de.

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

28187   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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.

Check This Out: Legends of Windemere (Part 2)

Welcome back to the blog. Glad you’re here. Help yourself to a beverage. With us is the cool and clever Charles Yallowitz, here to continue the discussion of his series, Legends of Windemere. Charles also is a poet, so I’m sure he appreciates the alliteration I just used. 😀 If you’re a first timer, you  might want to check here for part 1 of the interview with Charles.

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And of course, there’s a giveaway. Two of those who comment today will win the first three books of the series. But first, let’s talk to Charles.

El Space: How do you decide how much back story to include in each subsequent book of the series?
Charles: Since I write in present tense, I can’t do a narrative that goes over what previously happened. I have to remind readers about prior events through character dialogues. This creates a basic overview of the back story from the perspective of the continuing characters. I try to touch on the big events of the past and bring them up if it makes sense. For example, there is a betrayal in Prodigy of Rainbow Tower and it gets brought up from time to time, either by remembering the deceased character or somebody brings up the traitor. The trick to carrying over back story in present tense is really to make it appear natural within the course of a conversation. If you can’t fit it in, then don’t do it. You can either wait for an opening to appear or create an earlier conversation to bring it up.

Luke_Cross_SwordsEl Space: Which character is most like you? Least? If you were a character in your series, what powers would you have?
Charles: Luke Callindor [left] will always be the most like me, but he’s in much better physical condition. We share the same ability to become frustrated, and we think in ways that can confuse people. He does it in battle while I do it in my writing. The character that I’m the least like is probably Sari, since the one I’m really not like hasn’t shown up yet. Sari has a level of flirty confidence that I’ve never had. There’s a true sense of freedom that I get from her whenever I write her scenes.

In Windemere, I would train as a warrior, because I love swords. I don’t know if I’d develop any powers, but I would love to have Luke’s ability to see sound. It’s a small power that I randomly rolled in the game [Dungeons & Dragons] and kept for the book. His sound sight has turned into such a versatile ability that it’s become my favorite to use. This answer just turned into “I would be Luke Callindor,” didn’t it? My second answer is that I’d learn illusions and use them to tell stories in taverns and festivals.

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El Space: You have several female characters. What are the challenges of writing across the gender line?
Charles: I’ve never really thought about the challenges when writing my female characters. Their gender is only a guideline to help me remember pronouns and a few habits. I think a challenge for many is to make a female hero strong and feminine. There’s this habit of making a woman in fantasy either fragile with femininity or tough as nails with a more masculine attitude. The term butch gets thrown out there a lot, but I think it’s better to say that they’ve been androgenized. It’s very much about balance and pulling out the right aspects of a character for the right situation.

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Kira and Trinity

Nyx_GlowingOne thing that I have gotten in a little trouble for is that I don’t shy away from my female characters getting injured. I’ve read a lot of fantasy where the women will come out of a battle either unscathed or a little banged up, while the men are nursing some pretty bad wounds. I couldn’t see many of my female characters doing this, especially Nyx [right]. This has led to a few scenes where Nyx takes a beating while doling out enough destruction to avoid being called weak. So it is a risk to have a female hero who gets hurt in the same way as a male hero, because it touches on a sensitivity of some readers. The trick is to not do it often, not overdo it, and make sure it has a point for the plot instead of only gaining sympathy for the character.

pile_of_booksEl Space: I agree with that! Now let me ask you this: How has indie publishing changed since you first started? What advice do you have for an indie publishing newbie?
Charles: I haven’t seen much of a change since I’ve only been at this for a year. Amazon seems to come up with new promotions and rules every few months, but I think that’s part of the evolving system.

My advice to new indie authors is simple:
(1) Keep writing! Cliché, but true. I’ve seen a lot of indie authors stop writing and then wonder why people forgot about them.
(2) Connect with other authors to get support and talk shop. Many authors have paved the way for other indie authors. They know about the formatting, marketing, and other aspects of the business. Also, you never know what a new indie author will stumble onto and share with a veteran.
(3) Never publicly react to negative reviews, because that will make you look unprofessional. If it really bugs you, then find a friend or another author to vent to through emails. Just make sure they want to hear you rant first.
(4) Some people will tell you that this is a competition between authors. Well, it isn’t, because we’re all in the same boat. You will get farther and help the overall indie author community by sharing knowledge, joining blog tours, and supporting other authors. With every successful indie author, the choice to self-publish becomes more accepted as a viable path.
(5) Have fun. I don’t really have to go into detail here, do I?

El Space: Great advice. What authors inspire you?
Charles: Many authors inspire me, so it’s hard to pick a handful. I actually take a little from everything I read and watch, but I’ll try to give some kind of list. There’s the fantasy greats of Tolkien, Lewis, Saberhagen, and Le Guin. I love the characters written by John Flanagan in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series and Rick Riordan’s various series. To name a few others, Orson Scott Card, Edgar Allan Poe, Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist), and Mel Brooks. As you can see, I’m all over the place with my inspirations. It’s a miracle I can write a coherent sentence.

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El Space: How many books do you anticipate for your series? What are you working on now?
Charles: Legends of Windemere will have 15 books and another book will be done to clean up a potential loose end. After that I will have to decide on the next series to work on, but I’m probably going to start in on my vampire series. The Windemere vampires have an interesting history and that series is going to be a lot more brutal than what I’m doing now. I currently have two WIPs at this moment. One is preparing Legends of Windemere: Family of the Tri-Rune for a March release. I’m waiting on cover art and final edits to be done. I’m also writing Legends of Windemere: Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue, which is the 7th book of the series. I figure I’ll be able to relax around book 15.

Thanks, Charles, for hanging out on the blog with me! I’ve enjoyed your visit!

Looking for Charles? Head to his blog, Facebook, Goodreads, Wattpad, or Twitter. Legends of Windemere can be found at Amazon. Two of you will win the first three books of his series. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on March 7.

Thanks for stopping by!

Cover art of the Legends of Windemere series by Jason Pedersen. Character art by Kayla Matt. Legends of Windemere covers courtesy of Charles Yallowitz. Other covers from Goodreads. Sword from knife-depot.com. Books image from onkaparingacity.com.