Trying Something New

Check this out.

What’s that you say? Is that a red mummy? No, but thank you for asking.

When a teen asked me to make a Yarny for her, I almost passed up the challenge. What’s a Yarny? It is the main character of this video game.

What’s it made out of? Red yarn for the body and white yarn for the eyes. But a wire armature was needed to give it a shape. That was why I almost said no. I’m pretty much a novice when it comes to making wire armatures. But I had some needle nose pliers, wire, wire cutters, and the requisite colors of yarn. So, I was without an excuse to refuse.

I watched this video to see how to make it.

The armature took hours just to bend the wire (a time frame that video doesn’t show).

That’s a wrap!

Almost ready for my closeup

I hesitated to do this, because this kind of project was fairly new for me. Months ago, I’d bought wire, wire cutters, and needle nose pliers for another project, under the inspiration of another YouTube video. But I’d given up on that project early on, thinking it was too hard.

In this case, the fact that a teen asked me to do it made me rise to the challenge (especially since this was the second time she’d asked). I watched the above three-minute how-to video several times, and bent wire until my hands bled. And then I wised up and donned my winter gloves. Made working with wire a little easier.

So, my Yarny might not look like much to you. (It is a work in progress after all.) But to me, it represents the hurdle I had to jump: the fear of trying something new (which is basically the fear of failure—the lizard brain at work).

Now that this project is near completion, I feel silly for having been afraid. Maybe you’ve felt the same way about something. Sometimes fear comes, because we don’t have all of the facts. The video I watched on how to make Yarny didn’t present all of the facts, despite how inspiring it was. It didn’t explain the large amount of time it would take or the bleeding hands factor for novices.

But isn’t that what happens a lot of the time? We’re shown a quick, this-is-all-it-takes video, but not the actual cost of a project.

Sometimes we have this view of writing. Skilled authors make it seem easy. We watch them in interviews after their book was published and think, I could do that. What we don’t see are the days, months, and years of writing, rewriting, editing, crying, chocolate eating, rejection, chocolate eating, persevering, etc. It’s hard to fit all of those into a three-minute video.

Speaking of writing, as promised, I have book giveaway winners to reveal. I’m giving away books by Jill Weatherholt and Sheila Turnage. Go back to this post and this one if you are totally confused.

  

The winner of A Father for Bella by Jill Weatherholt is

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Gwen Plano!

The winner of the Mo & Dale Mysteries series by Sheila Turnage is

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Ally Bean!

Please comment below to confirm. If you already have these books or wish to decline, please let me know, so that I can choose another winner. If you choose to accept what you won, please email me to let me know your street address or email if you prefer to receive an ebook.

Yarny wire skeleton image from playerattack.com.

Check This Out: The Mo & Dale Mysteries by Sheila Turnage

Today on the blog, I am thrilled beyond measure to have one of my favorite authors—the one and only Sheila Turnage! I’ve mentioned her in this post, this one, and others.

She is here today to talk about her middle grade mystery series, the Mo & Dale Mysteries, which began with the Newbery Honor-winning Three Times Lucky (click here to read a synopsis). In September, it will end (sob!) with The Law of Finders Keepers. Penguin Random House is the publisher of this series. Trust me. You will want all of them.

 

 

Sheila is represented by Margaret Riley King at WME. Her editor/publisher is Kathy Dawson of Kathy Dawson Books (which is the imprint for the last three books of the series). Now, let’s talk to Sheila!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Sheila: I grew up on an NC tobacco farm, and live there today with my husband Rodney, a dog named Callie, and way too many chickens, guineas and ducks. Well, I guess that’s more than four, even after I left out the goats.

El Space: Three Times Lucky won the Newbery Honor in 2013. How has winning this award been a game changer for you?
Sheila: Winning a Newbery Honor was huge for me. Honestly, at the time, I had no idea HOW huge. Thanks to that award, I get to visit schools all over the US and talk to kids about my books and about writing. Plus Three Times Lucky is published all over the world, which is just amazing. It astounds me to think of my mystery involving two best friends—Mo LoBeau and Dale Earnhardt Johnson III—being read by children in China, or Sweden, or . . .

The Newbery Honor was huge for my heart, too. It’s an amazing feeling, hearing your name called and walking out in front of all those librarians to accept that award. And it’s an incredible acknowledgement of a lifetime of work.

2657El Space: Mo and Dale are some of the best kid characters I’ve read on this side of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, all of your characters (Harm Crenshaw, Miss Lana, the Colonel, etc.) are well realized. What were the inspirations behind Moses, Dale, and their town—Tupelo Landing? Which character, if any, is like you? Least like you?
Sheila: Wow, thanks for the compliment!
Honestly, Mo’s just one of those characters who shows up, and starts whispering her story in your ear, if you know what I mean. She was just THERE one day—vivid and sassy and tender. And wearing those plaid sneakers. And Dale kind of grew into whatever space Mo left vacant, I think. They’re a great team.

Of course the voice is rural North Carolina—which is where I was born, and live. I’ve been hearing the poetry of that language all of my life. And readers hear it in Mo’s voice, too.

As for Tupelo Landing, there are lots of small towns in rural North Carolina, and they’re the inspiration for Mo’s and Dale’s little town. If you come to visit, you’ll find tiny towns scattered all along our many rivers and streams. The waterways used to be avenues of commerce. They’re not now, but those great towns are still here—sleepy and slow.

I think I’m a blend of Mo and Dale, probably. I’m more like Dale when I’m writing a lot. And more like Mo other times. I hope I’m least like Mo’s arch enemy—the very stuck-up Anna Celeste Simpson, aka Attila Celeste. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m the least like her. Which is a relief.

El Space: Yes! Of the books in the Mo and Dale Mysteries, which was the most challenging book to write? Why?
Sheila: Each one presented its own challenges. But in many ways, The Law of Finders Keepers was the hardest to write, maybe because I knew it was the last and I was grieving as I wrote it. I wanted to write a book that was strong enough to end the series on. I think I’ve done that, so I’m happy with it. But honestly, it was hard on my heart. I’m going to miss Mo, Dale and Harm. All of them, really.

El Space: I will definitely miss them! What mystery books or shows, if any, inspired you as you created this series? Did you always have a certain number of books in mind for the series? Why or why not?
Sheila: When I was a girl I loved reading the Hardy Boys and so I guess they inspired me, in a way. I’ve always liked books with cliffhangers, and lots of action—and that’s what I write.

I really didn’t start out to write a series. I wrote Three Times Lucky as a standalone, and things unfolded from there. Each book is designed to be read as a standalone, or in sequence.

For kids who’ve read only Three Times Lucky, and want to know whether Mo ever finds her Upstream Mother—well, all I can say is the Desperado Detectives take up the case of Mo’s long-lost mom in The Law of Finders Keepers. Mo’s fans won’t want to miss it.

El Space: I have been waiting to find out! In rock, paper, scissors, what do you usually go for the moment you hear, “Rock-paper-scissors”? Seriously, which one? Why?
Sheila: Rock! I’m suspicious of scissors because they’re so snippy. And I get tired of using paper all day. . . .

El Space: What will you work on next?
Sheila: Thanks for asking! I’m already working on a new middle-grade book for my publisher/editor Kathy Dawson (Penguin Random House). It’s set in Eastern NC again—this time on the Outer Banks, near the Graveyard of the Atlantic. I’m having fun with it, and I hope readers will too!

El Space: Sheila, thank you for being my guest!
Sheila: Thanks so much, Linda! You rock! (paper-scissors)

Looking for Sheila? Her website’s under construction currently to add her latest book. So, you can find her at her author page on Facebook.

You can find the Mo & Dale Mysteries at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wonderful bookstores near you. But one of you will win a copy not only of the first three, but a pre-order of the fourth, The Law of Finders Keepers, which is available on September 11. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. The winner will be revealed on Monday, August 13.

Book covers courtesy of Sheila Turnage and also Goodreads. Author photo by Rodney L. Beasley. Guineas from animal-wildlife.blogspot.com. Newbery honor medal from somewhere on Pinterest. Rock-paper-scissors image from dramafever.com.

First Impressions

Today is my father’s birthday! Happy birthday, Dad! Since you enjoy good quotes and memorable sentences, this post is right up your alley.

Back in the day, sentences like this were all the rage:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Don’t get me wrong. That’s an incredible sentence. It ranked number 9 on American Book Review’s list of “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” But with shorter attention spans these days, sentences like the above aren’t as much of a draw. See, there’s a reason why Twitter posts have a 280-character limit. (Though that used to be 140, so maybe things are changing? Anyway, Dickens’ quote is 611 characters with spaces.)

Why am I harping on first sentences? Because we’re told that a reader needs to be interested from the first sentence of a book. As I read in this article, “How to start a novel: First sentences, first paragraphs” (which you can find here):

When starting a novel, you have one goal: To create an inviting entry point into your story.

And your first sentence is that entry point, beckoning a reader to draw near. But it needs to hook the reader. An article by Jeff Vasishta entitled, “Opening Lines: The Most Important Part of Your Story” (written for the Institute for Writers) describes it this way:

A newspaper headline serves one purpose–to make you want to read the article beneath it. The opening sentence in a novel tries to do something similar. It should make you want to read the second sentence.

And the next, according to Mr. Vasishta.

One of my favorite first sentences in a novel comes from Three Times Lucky, a middle grade novel by Sheila Turnage:

Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.

It has verve.

Olive the Ostrich and Babette the Owl have verve though they are not sentences.

It made such a good first impression, I had to read the second sentence, and then the first page. That being good as well, I finished the book.

What about you? What was the last sentence that really drew you into a book? Do you have a favorite first sentence to share in the comments below? If you’ve written a book, how many sentences did you go through before you landed on the sentence that starts your book?

Birthday image from sodahead.com. Photos by L. Marie.

Write to Please or Write with Ease (i.e., What I Really Want to Write)?

Hope you had a splendid Easter. I had an Easter meal at the home of some friends and came away with a ton of leftovers, including the Peeps in the photo below that my friend Carrie decorated. I’m useless at this type of thing by the way.

Before church, I watched a behind-the-scenes video by a music artist I love, which was about the making of a video for one of the songs on her latest album. During this video, she talked about how she was finally at a point where she was no longer desperate to please people. She didn’t say that as if to imply that she no longer cared if anyone bought her music. The songs she’d written for the album came from a place of confidence and joy, because she was finally free to be who she was.

Kirstea feels free to be who she is. But she hopes she won’t become a free meal for the giant owl standing near her.

I love that sense of coming to a place where you create the way you want to create. Yes, there are risks involved. You put your stuff out there and people might hate it. Or they might love your vision.

That video came at an interesting time. I’d recently had a conversation with a grad school classmate who asked me if I felt pressured to write a certain kind of story (i.e., contemporary realistic issue-based or something based on the mythology of my culture). Please do not misunderstand me. I love both kinds of stories. I’ve actually had a contemporary realistic novella published under a different name. But honestly, I gravitate to fantasy stories based on the mythology to which I am most familiar. I told my classmate that I don’t like to be pigeonholed. I write the stories based on characters who deeply interest me, regardless of whether they look like me or not.

I seldom lean in the direction that well-meaning people steer me. In college when people told me I needed to major in something “useful” (like biology, poli sci, or physics) rather than continue in the writing program (part of the English department), I continued in the writing program. Though they didn’t see the “use” of such a program, I found it very useful when I had to write books.

To be fair, under contract I’ve written books that other people had suggested I write based on a need (like a picture book for an ESL program). Some were ghostwritten, others as work for hire under my name. (L. Marie is a pen name, as many of you know.) Pleasing the client (usually a publisher or a famous person contracted by the publisher) was paramount.

But creating a world like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, or Charles Yallowitz’s Windemere has been my desire since I was eight years old. That was back when cuneiform was all the rage. I’m very influenced by writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Sheila Turnage, Juliet Marillier, Robin McKinley, N. K. Jemison, Neil Gaiman, Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, Holly Black, and many others.

Sir Terry Pratchett, N. K. Jemisin

Still, I know several people who would never willingly read a story I’ve written because they don’t like fantasy stories. It would please them greatly if I returned to contemporary realistic fiction. I won’t say never, if a character comes my way whose story is compelling to me. But I won’t say yes just to please someone.

How about you? Is the freedom to create what you want to create something you desire? What do you think about pleasing others? Is that good, bad, or something you’re indifferent to? Feel free to share. (If you are curious about the video I mentioned earlier, you can find it here.)

Having escaped from the owl, Kirstea has resumed being free to be who she is. But now she wishes she was tall enough to carry off one of the Peeps.

Terry Pratchett photo from Wikipedia. N. K. Jemisin photo from Wired.com. Other photos by L. Marie. Kirstea Shoppie is a product by Moose Toys.

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.

Fantastic Four

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The “fantastic four” as perhaps you’ve never seen them. They’re willing to fight crime. But I’m not sure how effective they will be at it.

When I asked a friend the other day for advice on my WIP, she reminded me of the rule of three. What’s that? Wikipedia says:

The rule of three or power of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.

Perhaps that accounts for the large volume of trilogies out there. And nursery rhymes, folktales, films, and books like:

• “The Three Little Pigs”
• “Three Billy Goats Gruff”
• “Three Blind Mice”
• “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”
• The Three Investigators series

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The Three Musketeers (Dumas)
Three Times Lucky (Turnage)
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time (Mortenson)

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Three the Hard Way (1974 film)
¡Three Amigos! (1986 film)

But I think we’ve all been disappointed by a trilogy or two at some point, haven’t we? Maybe the first two books or movies were good. Yet the disappointment we felt at the close of the third—the crucial one—made us wish we’d never started the series in the first place.

Still, I’ve enjoyed stories with the rule of three firmly in place. Aladdin had three wishes. Macbeth consulted three witches. Cerberus had three heads. Three princes set out on a quest to free an enchanted princess.

RuleOfAnime3

Um, this does not count as the rule of 3. But it’s fun all the same.

Though I appreciate the rule of three, I’m partial to the number four for a number of reasons. As a kid, I read the Fantastic Four comic books. (Yes, I’m looking forward to the reboot of the movie franchise.) I was born in the fourth month. I enjoyed The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle. A four-book series of mine was published ages ago. (Now out of print. That’s the downside of publishing, kids. Stay in school. Don’t do drugs.) The character Four (below left) in the Divergent series by Veronica Roth is hot. And though we usually associate three ghosts with Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he actually talked to four ghosts, if you count Jacob Marley. But Dickens followed the rule of three with the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future.

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Yet as fantastic as four is, I can’t say I’ve deliberately put four of anything in a book with the view of making it funnier or more satisfactory. I’m hesitant to do so unless I’m certain that what I’ve added is organic to the story, and not just a plot device. Because that’s the thing about rules sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes, they’re just gimmicks that get in the way.

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Here’s where I confess that I’m toying with the idea of adding a fourth main character  to a young adult novel I started last year. I had hopes of making it work with three perspectives. The rule of three, you see. Months ago, I put that project down in favor of the one I’m working on now. But a fourth character’s perspective keeps coming to mind, one begging to be explored. Who knows? Four might be the charm.

Do you follow a rule in your writing? If so, how has a writing rule enhanced your story?

In honor of four, here’s “The Four-Legged Zoo”—a Schoolhouse Rock video:

Christmas Carol scene from iam2.org. Book covers from Goodreads. Number 4 from raggedglories.blogspot.com. Rules of Anime 3 from gabriellevalentine.synthasite.com. Fantastic Four comic from comicmegastore.com. “Fantastic four” photo by L. Marie.

Do You Believe in Magic?

I wasn’t going to post today, but the thoughts were fresh in my mind, thanks to a conversation with a friend, and couldn’t be ignored. I’m in a rather soapboxy mood, so feel free to tune in or tune out.

Remember in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion discovered the “wizard” hiding behind the curtain? This “wizard” tried to play it off by his warning to them to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

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Too late. He’d already been exposed as a complete sham—a humbug, according to the Scarecrow. He didn’t have a drop of magic within him, and couldn’t really give them what they desired—a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, courage for the Cowardly Lion, and a trip home for Dorothy—except through nonmagical means. But there was magic in Oz. The witches proved that. Later, even the humbug wizard gained magic. You have to read Baum’s Oz books to learn how. Yet the man-behind-the-curtain notion is still pervasive in our day and age.

We live in a cynical age. We’re used to reality TV and news reports that take us “behind the curtain” by debunking magic acts or exposing as frauds politicians and authors who claim they’re telling a “true” story while making up key facts. We’re tired of the lies, aren’t we? If there’s a man behind the curtain, we want to know!

Sometimes we take this mindset to the books we read. As adults we learn to “put away childish things” like believing there are fairies in our backyard or that dogs can talk in order to embrace reality. That’s why we categorize fairy tales and other such stories as stories of childhood, rather than for adults. If we happen to pick up a fantasy book, the use of magic is severely scrutinized, slapped with a deus ex machina label, or written off as “convenient” if it doesn’t seem “realistic” enough to suit our adult sensibilities.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanYou know what? I for one have had quite enough of the search for the man behind the curtain. This doesn’t mean I plan to bury my head in the sand and totally ignore reality or reality-based fiction. It means I’m going to continue to unabashedly cherish those stories that take me to magical places or to ordinary places that seem magical, and then try my best to offer that kind of journey through my own writing. The stories I loved as a child I still love as an adult. Grimm’s Fairy Tales has a prominent place on my shelf, not hidden underneath the bookcase out of fear that someone will check my bookshelves and ask about what I’m reading. I’m a firm believer in story magic. I love miraculous escapes and magical derring-do. And many of you do too. I wasn’t the only adult reading Harry Potter’s adventures.

I love the fact that authors like J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Holly Black, Juliet Marillier, Jaclyn Moriarty, Charles Yallowitz, Caroline Carlson, K. L. Schwengel and many others are unapologetic in the use of magic in their stories. If you haven’t already, you might check out Moriarty’s Colors of Madeleine series; Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere series; Carlson’s The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series; or K. L. Schwengel’s Darkness & Light series.

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Or consider stories like Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, The September books by Catherynne Valente, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and other books that remind you of the magic (and sometimes sadness) of childhood. Be willing to suspend your disbelief and leave your cynicism at the door as you take a journey through these pages.

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Do you believe in magic? I do. I still believe in the power of stories to transform us and transport us to unforgettable places. Do you?

Oz photo from takaiguchi.com. Book covers from Goodreads.