Friday, November 30, 2018

GUEST POST FROM YONA ZELDIS MCDONOUGH, AUTHOR OF COURAGEOUS


The idea for Courageous wasn’t even mine.   An editor at Scholastic contacted me and said the idea for a middle grade book about the evacuation at Dunkirk had been approved in-house and that they were looking for a writer; might I be the one?  Since I had already done something similar with The Bicycle Spy—Scholastic had handed me the idea and I developed it into a successful  book—I knew that this was a way of working that challenged me, in a good way, so I was game to try it again.  I fleshed out the synopsis, wrote a few sample chapters and waited; in a few weeks, I was told that I had the job.
            I knew very little about what happened at Dunkirk before I started researching it, but what I found out intrigued me.  Rather than a military victory, Dunkirk was a retreat in which the real heroes were not soldiers, but brave British civilians who stepped in to save their boys—and a lot of other boys too.  I loved the idea of writing about ordinary people, like Aidan, Sally and the rest of the village, who risked life and limb to help the stranded troops.  In rowboats, fishing boats, and sailboats, armed with thermoses of tea and the occasional Union Jack, men and women crossed the English Channel and brought over 300,000 men to safety. It was a stirring, inspiring tale.
            Since the movie was in wide release while I was researching and writing the book, I naturally went to see it.  I’m not a fan of war movies, and I approached this one with a sense of dread mixed with grim obligation.  Of course I was going to see it, but that didn’t necessarily mean I would like it.  To my surprise, I liked it very much and found it a nuanced and unexpected treatment of the subject. 
            Courageous in no way resembles the film.  But it was through watching it that I was able to expand upon my own story, giving it both texture and heft.   For instance, watching several scenes that took place on the beach, I realized that the soldiers would have sand everywhere—in their boots, their uniforms, their hair, mouths and noses.  And that soldiers who survived the explosion of their ship and landed in the water, would end up covered in grease and oil.  Such small but telling details helped make me create characters and situations that seemed real.
            I was also able to inject my own beliefs about war into the story, and made it clear that while war may sometimes be necessary, it’s still a horrific experience for soldiers on both sides of the conflict.  I allowed George, Aidan’s enlisted older brother, to muse on what the death of a German soldier—a man even younger than he is—will mean to that boy’s parents, family and friends.   I took pride in conveying that in more than one scene, and developed the theme throughout the novel.
            Writing about what you know and love is one kind of pleasure; writing to extend the breadth and depth of your understanding and awareness is another, and I’m grateful that writing Courageous gave me that chance. 
~
Grab a copy of COURAGEOUS.
Keep up with Yona Zeldis McDonough.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thank a Vet!

By Charlotte Bennardo

November is Thank a Vet month. While we salute and appreciate our military vets, on Smack Dab we're thanking all those veteran writers who have helped shaped our writing. There are lots of famous writers whose work I enjoy reading, and even admire them. Some though, have a spark that catches my eye and my soul so much that they influence me, like a long distant mentor who doesn't know I exist.

Here are some of my faves:

Marshall Saunders. This Canadian author, a fierce advocate for animal rights, wrote under her middle name because in the late 1800s, female authors weren't popular. She wrote romance and children's books, and it was her book, Beautiful Joe, a story written from a dog's perspective that I love. Reading it as a young girl, I was fascinated how the dog was narrating a full novel. I thought it was amazing, I'd never read anything like it. It influenced my Evolution Revolution series which is told from the perspective of an inquisitive squirrel.

Anne Rice. This world renowned author showed me the beauty of all the history that surrounds characters and stories. It wasn't enough to show the initial historical setting, Anne wove it all through her stories, from ancient Egypt to the 1920s to modern day; and not just the history of one place, but around the world, through many cultures and beliefs and lifestyles. I strive to reproduce the richness that her novels evoke.

Sherrilyn Kenyon. Only in the last few years has Sherrilyn written middle grade novels, with her Chronicles of Nick series. Initially an adult writer specializing in vampire, Greek, and other mythologies, she spread out to middle grade and graphic novels. Her characters are complex, flawed, and magnetic. If asked to pick one favorite character, I simply couldn't.

Mary Janice Davidson. An adult writer, it was her Undead series that showed me how easy it was to write humor. When you can sit in a crowded bookstore and laugh silly over a book, not caring that people are watching, you know the humor is spot on. It was the natural humor of her adult books that made me venture into humor, both in my adult books and my children's. The premise is simple- over exaggeration and pairing two things that shouldn't be paired. This works for kids as well as adults.

Julie Garwood. A consummate and bestselling romance author, I learned dialogue from her books. Like a lot of people, I struggled with making dialogue sound real, making it flow naturally. Whether we're a kid or an adult, the way we speak is vastly different from the way we write. Always taught to write in complete sentences, we all take short cuts, use improper grammar and slang, and generally speak in ways that make English teachers everywhere cringe. Once I learned how to cut the dialogue down, I got better at writing it without struggling.

Dav Pilkey. Yep, Captain Underpants is one of my favorite books/series. It's potty humor and ridiculousness and plain fun. Reading it to my son, I had the hardest time trying to say the words without falling into a fit of giggles. The book fit so well with my boys at that age that I kind of wondered if Dav was a young kid. To keep that kind of freshness in your writing for your audience as you age is something I strive for.

Dr Suess. I generally don't write picture books, but the beloved How The Grinch Stole Christmas is written so perfectly; it incorporates rhyme, rhythm, a moral, silliness, impossibilities made real, and captures the attention of both adult and child. You're just not human if this story doesn't delight you.

The Disney Storybook. Featuring all the best known and loved fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and others, these books kept me so engrossed that my cousin once remarked, "Why do you have to read so much??" They are simply and concisely written, making them perfect for a middle grader to read on their own, or for younger ones to listen to. The stunning pictures added to the wonder.

You may notice that there aren't many current middle grade or young adult authors. There were few when I was growing up, so I had to take inspiration from writers of books for older readers. There are many current authors whose work is just as beautiful and inspiring, so take a look around. While they may not influence my writing, they satisfy my need for a good story.

Photo courtesy of Pexels, Inc.

Happy reading, and thanks, all you vet writers!



Wednesday, November 28, 2018

On Not Acting (or Writing) Your Age



When I started thinking about which author I would write about for this month’s blog theme, my head was swimming. Should I focus on Beverly Cleary, who inspired me with her wonderfully funny books when I was a child? Judy Blume, who told the truth? Laura Ingalls Wilder, who made me feel as if I actually lived on the prairie? Arnold Lobel, whose delightfully weird Mouse Soup still cracks me up every time I read it?

But then I thought of an author whose books weren’t around when I was a child but who gave my daughters and me lots and lots of laughs: Barbara Park. For books that seem so simple, the Junie B. Jones series certainly taught me a lot about writing for kids. First of all, plot. Wow, could that woman keep a plot moving! There is never a point in any Junie B. book where your mind wanders or you’re not dying to turn the page to see what happens next. Second, audience analysis. Park knew what her readers would enjoy. Third, humor. How did she come up with all the crazy antics of our heroine? Taking a fish stick to school for show and tell on pet day? Genius!

But most of all, voice. The wonderful thing about Barbara Park is that I doubt most young readers who love Junie B. even know who Barbara Park is. Park, because of her amazing skill, is invisible. You really believe that a little girl named Junie B. Jones is telling you a story because the voice is so strong. You forget that an actual adult could be behind it.

As Junie B. once said, “Sometimes grown ups don’t act their right old age.” And thank goodness for all of us that Barbara Park didn’t write her “right old age,” either.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Recommended Reading by Chris Tebbetts

If I ever taught a course on writing novels for young readers, I know what at least part of my assigned reading list would look like. It centers around three books I’ve always recommended to people, each of them operating as its own mini-master-class in plot, voice, and form, respectively. (And FYI, although this is a middle grade-focused blog, I’m including middle grade as well as YA titles here.) 

Here are my recommendations, though I’d love to hear yours as well, in the comment section below. What does YOUR recommended reading list look like? 

For plot: HOLES by Louis Sachar

To me, HOLES is as close to a perfectly plotted middle grade novel as I’ve found. It brings together disparate threads in a way that, ultimately, fulfills the definition of a good ending, which is that it be both surprising and inevitable. Along the way, this book kept me turning pages with a combination of its own great premise; a compelling series of asked-and-answered questions; high stakes (and then some); and, again, those unbraided plot elements that I had to simply trust Louis Sachar would bring together in the end, even though I couldn’t imagine how he was going to do it…until he did. 

Other recommendations in the PLOT category:

A SINGLE SHARD, by Linda Sue Park

WHEN YOU REACH ME, by Rebecca Stead 

HARRY POTTER SERIES, by J.K. Rowling  

ELEANOR AND PARK, by Rainbow Rowell (This one’s a bit of a cheat on my part. Really it’s the characters I love in this book, but the way Rowell uses character to drive plot here is masterful.) 


For voice: FEED by M.T. Anderson

This book blew my mind when I first read it, early in my writing days. The story itself is compelling, but it would have been a completely different book without the distinctive voice, which in my mind succeeds in three ways. 1) By employing elements of its own invention--book-specific slang and tone that was perfectly balanced between the unfamiliar and the accessible. 2) At the same time, it was rooted in the kind of credibility that allowed me as a reader to trust the author and settle comfortably into the world of the story without pausing to question his choices. 3) Maybe most of all, the distinctive voice in this novel helped create an overall resonance around the themes of the book itself, which for me were about language, the degradation of language, and what that means for us as people, right here and right now. 

Other recommendations in the VOICE category:

HOW LAMAR’S BAD PRANK WON A BUBBA SIZED TROPHY, by Crystal Allen 

THE PASSION OF DOLSSA, by Julie Berry

THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas 

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME, by Mark Haddon



For form: OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse

I am not a huge fan of novels in verse, and yet OUT OF THE DUST is one of my very favorite reads of all time. Karen Hesse has an amazing way of packing as much story as possible into the very limited form of her  short, poem-chapters. Like writing a picture book, every word counts here, and man, does she make them count! I’m not sure this is a fair way of measuring the book’s success, but for me, it was at times like I forgot I was reading a verse novel at all. Although, for the record, her poetry is gorgeous; her word choice is stunning in places; her economy is perfect; and it seems hard to imagine this book in any other form than the one Hesse chose for it. 

Other recommendations in the FORM category (verse novels; graphic novels; and while I don't have any epistolary novels in mind, that's one of many other forms that might go here):

AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, by Gene Luen Yang

FUN HOME, by Alison Bechdel (not technically YA, but a genius piece of writing!)

SOLD, by Patricia McCormick

MARY'S MONSTER, by Lita Judge






Sunday, November 25, 2018

AUTHORS I LEARN FROM (HOLLY SCHINDLER)


Uh. All of ‘em.

I’m really being serious. Loooooong ago, I had a prof for an intro to lit critique class. He told me that analyzing a piece had nothing to do with good. Other people with better credentials than some lowly college student had already decided the works I was reading was “good” or worthwhile. They were in the canon. My job, he said, was really to figure out why. 

Fast forward a few years, and I’m deep in the midst of trying to sell my first book (a task that took more than 7 years of full-time effort). I remember what that prof said. And I start reading all the latest releases that way. Every single one. I’d tell myself, “Somebody invested in this book. Why?”

I do it to this day, even with indies. Especially popular indies. I ask myself, “This book has an enormous following. Why?” Of course, Amazon reviews offer some insight. But I challenge myself to find something to admire in every book. Every single one.

The thing is, when you’re trying to sell a book and are up to your hair follicles in rejections, it’s easy to go negative. The negativity can be internally targeted (telling yourself “I’m not good enough”), or it can be externally targeted (telling yourself “All anybody acquires is crap. And of course, I’m too much of a genius for anyone to want to buy my books”). 

Neither is true. I guarantee it. 

Look, every author finds their path. Maybe it’s not even traditional. Maybe you’ll wind up going indie. Who knows? But if you’re on the trek to becoming an author, I HIGHLY recommend my trick. Find something positive and admirable in every book you pick up. It doesn’t matter if you like the book. Or finish the book. Find something to admire. Positivity breeds more positivity. 

After a while, positivity even bleeds into your work. 

In a way that makes your readers smile. 

And THAT’S the kind of work that winds up opening doors for authors.  

Friday, November 23, 2018

Gratitude for Imagination -- Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

"Daphne Becomes Laureate"


This Thanksgiving weekend I give thanks for a Rilke sonnet. It's one of the best expressions of  the artist's imagination I have ever read and inspired one of my own sculptures...Daphne Becomes Laureate, pictured here. The poem, the 12th Poem in the Second Series of Sonnets to Orpheus, is about the Greek myth of Daphne's pursuit by Apollo (crowned with laurel, the poet's god) and her transformation into her essential nature--tree.

Strive for transformation, O be inspired with the flame
Wherein, rich in changes, a thing withdraws from your reach;
The planning spirit who masters everything earthly,
Loves above all in the sweep of the figure the point where it turns.

What locks itself in endurance grows rigid; sheltered
in unassuming grayness, does it feel safe?
Wait, from the distance hardness is menaced by something still
      harder.
Alas—: a remote hammer is poised to strike.

Knowledge knows him who pours forth as a spring;
Delighted she guides him, showing him what was created in joy
And often concludes with the beginning and starts with the end.

Every happy space they traverse in wonder
Is child or grandchild of parting. And Daphne, transformed,
feeling herself laurel, wants you to change into wind.

This is an unpublished translation in Art and the Creative Unconscious by Erich Neumann page 205. This Thanksgiving, may you all find gratitude for your own imaginations.

Dia Calhoun is an author and sculptor. For more about her sculpture work, click here

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Learning from the Best: Inspiration & Craft

One of my all-time favorite books is The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.   What I love about this book is the simplicity of the story, the almost lyrical-like language, and the heart and soul of each one of the characters.  These are the kinds of things that inspire me to write.  So, when I create my characters and develop my plots, I think about the literary excellence of books like The Tiger Rising.  And, it's my hope, that because of these amazing examples of storytelling, I am able to write a better middle grade book.

Besides inspiration, the nuts and bolts of my writing have been immensely improved by Martha Alderson's The Plot Whisperer.  Alderson's clear, concise way of teaching authors about story structure has given me an understanding of how to put the parts of a story together in order to make it strong enough to one day be a book.  



I will be forever grateful to Alderson for all that I have learned from her about writing, and I will always be thankful to all the authors like Kate DiCamillo who have inspired me to want to create books for middle grade readers.

Happy Reading!
  



Monday, November 19, 2018

Veteran writers I have learned from

I have, throughout my life, had many long-standing writers I have followed and learned from. In elementary school, I sought books by Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Farley Mowat. I also enjoyed anything from Gary Paulson and James Howe. When I reached junior high, I fell in love with the writing of Alice Hoffman, S.E. Hinton and Christopher Pike. These have all been authors I have continued to follow, and love, and learn from as I became a college student and adult. In more recent years, as I began writing middle grade and young adult, I’ve come to follow authors such as Sarah Dessen, J.K. Rowling, Maggie Stiefvater, Ruta Sepetys, Raymond Chandler and Tawni O’Dell. There’s also a smattering of local authors I follow, and of course my writing and critique partners who encourage and inspire me year after year. I discover new writers and authors every year, my stack of to-reads is sort of the never-ending gobstopper that Dahl cleverly wrote about in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Through following our favorite authors, we see their writing styles hold steady with the familiar prose we love, and we often see them grow and change and enhance in both plot, character, world-building and construction of sentences. By always searching for new authors and writers, we keep our minds open and see different ways a novel can work. Or perhaps not work – not every style will fit every writer, and that’s okay. I hope my writing reflects the same, that I never stop learning and expanding as a writer. That my words get better and better as life goes on. Happy Reading!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Inspiration from a Literary Idol

My favorite book as a child, dreaming of someday becoming a writer, was Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace.
My favorite book half a century later, as a children's book writer with dozens of books to my credit, is Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace.

Throughout the entire Betsy-Tacy series, which begins with Betsy-Tacy (1940), where Betsy first meets Tacy at her fifth birthday party, and culminates in Betsy's Wedding (1955), we see Betsy making up stories for her best friends Tacy and Tib, scribbling stories on promotional pads from her father's bookstore, receiving her first rejection for a story, having her first publication for a poem, competing in her high school essay contest, and finally marrying a fellow writer and creating a home together where both of them can flourish as authors.



These might be the best books ever written in the history of the world!

My fervent fandom for the books has led to so many touchstones in my career as a writer.

Because the books are heavily autobiographical, I was able to visit Mankato, Minnesota, the "Deep Valley" of the series, and make a pilgrimage to Betsy's house and Tacy's house, now maintained as charming museums by the Betsy-Tacy Society, of which of course I'm a lifetime member. The crowning moment of my career - and life! - was when I did a book signing at Tacy's house more than a decade ago.

I've published half a dozen scholarly articles on the Betsy-Tacy books in academic children's literature journals, and in 2017 I received a grant to do research at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, where Lovelace's papers are archived.

There I was able to witness first hand the meticulous research Lovelace did for each book, not relying on her own memories, but poring over back issues of Ladies Home Journal to note titles of magazine articles, products featured in advertisements, changing fashions, mentions of popular songs and dances, recipes, and more. She also engaged in voluminous correspondence with childhood friends fictionalized in the books, pumping them with questions like, "What were your religious beliefs about the time you were a sophomore in college? Did college work any change in them?" - favorite music ("Name pieces"), family traditions, personalities of their siblings, and further details about favorite stories, like "the time you took your grandmothers to the circus."

My favorite line in one of these letters, to Marion Willard (the original for Carney in Carney's House Party), was this one: "I can assure you that . . . as in the previous Betsy Tacy books . . . all the characters with any resemblance to living persons, living or dead, will be handled with loving kindness."

That has become a touchstone for me in my own writing: to handle all my characters (even though mine are almost entirely fictional) with the loving kindness that radiates through every Betsy-Tacy book.

At a silent auction at one of the Betsy-Tacy fandom conventions I attended, I even had the chance to purchase - yes !! - half a dozen ACTUAL PAPERCLIPS "used by Maud Hart Lovelace for her Betsy-Tacy manuscripts and research notes."
I've never yet opened this little packet or dared to place one of Maud's paperclips on my own manuscripts or research notes. I don't think I've ever yet felt worthy. Maybe I'll try to be brave enough to use just ONE of her paperclips in the coming year, hoping it will imbue what I write with her magic, with her wise and compassionate loving kindness. Maybe it will inspire me to try even harder to be for some other young reader the great gift she was, and will always be, for me.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Learning to Dance with the Dingoes!



I recently wrote about my ongoing search for a new agent. Despite having six books published, including a graphic novel that's coming out next year,  it’s a challenging task because I write historical fiction. I focus on forgotten characters (usually girls, who are not represented enough) and events (because I think as a nation, we are historically illiterate and have forgotten our own story) that helped build the American landscape. I also write American fantasy, both contemporary and historical, blending the tall tale tradition of humor and exaggeration that captures so much of the American identity into a unique form of fantasy. I touched upon the challenges of historical fiction, the ongoing argument on what is historical fiction, how and why it is relevant, and by extension why history is important. As a writer, one of the most stinging rejections that I get too many times is that, despite an interesting plot and engaging characters, “historical fiction is a hard sell.” (See my article Historical Fiction and All That Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff.)

And yet, historical fiction seems to be one of those steadfast genres. As UK literary agent Kate Burke (What’s Hot in Historical Fiction, 2018),  a common theme in popular historical fiction over the last thirty years is that protagonists in historical fiction tend to be “suffering witness to history”, in which writers pair small characters with big circumstances.This pairing seems perfect for middle grade and young adult readers.  To illustrate this point, consider Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), in which foster child Liesel struggles to survive the rise of Nazism, Germany. Or Kimberly Brubaker Bakdley’s The War That Saved My Life (2015), which follows ten-year old Ada’s plight to survive in war torn London. Or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (2008), in which the cruelty of slavery is seen through the POV of thirteen year old Isabel. In fact, Arleigh Ordoyne of the Historical Novel Society (Young Adult War Fiction: Fixture or Trend, 2018) suggests that roughly half of the historical fiction published in recent years  can be categorized as war fiction. And while more are sandwiched in eras between wars, these characters tend to be immersed in war-affected circumstances. Historical fiction consistently wins the Newbery Award. Consider Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (2011), Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (2008), Lynne Rae Perkin’s Criss Cross (2006), Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira Kira (2005).

"But history isn’t really about the past. It’s about human nature. We use the genre as a lens to see ourselves in a different age. To write on the human condition is to write with a reliance on history." -- Justin O’Donnell, Why Historical Fiction Will Never Go Away

So why the hard sell? And where do I fit in? 

To answer these questions, and find the courage to keep going, I came across two inspirational reads that address the writer’s plight.

Michael Alvear, and his The Bulletproof Writer: How to Overcome Constant Rejection to Become an Unstoppable Author (2017). Alvear has published fifteen books, written columns for The Washington Post and New York Times, and contributes to NPR's All Things Considered. ALL authors, reaffirms Alvear, deal with constant rejection.  And we’ve heard all the testimonies from famous writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephan King and Ursula LeGuinn. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich rejected J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Publisher and editor Barney Rossett hated J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, calling it a mishmash.

In fact, as Alvear asserts, “publishing is one of the few industries that systematically rejects its most talented people.” Would Sony or Verizon reject Steve Job’s resume with a form letter? Would Citigroup tell Warren Buffet that he doesn’t have what they’re looking for? That he doesn’t fit in?

Rejection becomes like an infection, says Alvear. We internalize it, give it more meaning than it deserves, and amplify it by taking on a chronically self-critical inner voice. It makes us question our skills, and our worth. It gives us writer’s block, and worse. It can also make us give up altogether.

What I like about this book is that he doesn’t offer cutesy quotes or power slogans, or as he calls them, motivational Band-Aids. Instead, he gives insights into how and why we receive, interpret, and react to rejection, then he offers some tools that we can use to move past the rejection. And the first thing he does is to outline three basic facts about the publishing business:

  1. Rejection is most likely not an indictment of your work. 
  2. No matter how many books you’ve published, you will not be spared the wrath of rejection.
  3. Less than one percent of writers make a living wage. The odds are overwhelmingly against you.
BUT! -- and this is a big but -- on the other side of rejection is acceptance.

Grounded in science, Alvear looks at how the brain is hardwired for fight or flight. Rejection feeds on the writer’s worse fears. And, according to Alvear, it can feel like it’s just a matter of time before the dingo eats your baby. “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones,” he quotes his research. The nature of publishing reinforces this built-in negative bias. The trick is, of course, is learning strategies that make the positive stick like Velcro.

In other words, we need to learn to dance with the dingoes!

Fearless Writing, by William Kenower (2017). This is the perfect companion to Alvear. Drawing on personal experience, Kenower elaborates on the writer’s worst fear: what other people think of our writing is more important than what we think of our writing. As Kenower suggests, what makes this fear so insidious is because of its apparent practicality, reinforced by the nature of the publishing business. As working writers, we need others to like our writing: agents, editors, publishers, critics and, most importantly, readers. Sometimes this fear becomes so overwhelming, we become blocked, or change the story we want to write to what we think others would read. Either way, we lose our story. Kenower offers a series of practical exercises that explores how to break the hold of this particular fear, and to find the confidence to write your story fearlessly. Don’t fear the wobble, Kenower states. Just write your story.

I just received my 36th rejection of the year. BUT I have also just finished another story, and have begun that process of submission. Yes, onward!

“Whenever I got those rejection letters, I would permit my ego to say aloud to whoever had signed it: ‘You think you can scare me off? I’ve got another 80 years to wear you down! There are people who haven’t even been born yet who are going to reject me some day – That’s how long I plan to stick around.’”Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love.

Bobbi Miller 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Middle Grade Then and Now, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

When I was young, there wasn't really a category of books that were designated as 'middle grade.' I remember reading and loving Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. (Oh, to live on my own island, away from my annoying two younger brothers!) I read classics, like Heidi and Little Women. And later, in high school, I read S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders and a slew of books by Paul Zindel, the most memorable being My Darling, My Hamburger. He was more or less a YA author before that genre was called YA. I remember reading gothic romance novels too, like Green Darkness by Anya Seton, which were all the rage when I was 16.

It wasn't until I was a mom and participated in mother-daughter book clubs with my daughters that I read today's middle grade novels. And fell in love with them. There were two that resonated so much that I knew I wanted to write one of these books. Or try to, anyway. They were So B. It by Sarah Weeks and Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles.

I didn't think these novels were just for 9-12 year olds! They're compelling, deep, heartfelt, poignant, real stories with true-to-life characters that get under your skin. Plots that prompt the reader to ponder important, essential life questions. Conflict that keeps the pages turning.

Could I create something like that?

I read them several times. I studied them. I learned what ingredients made up a good story for this age group.

I tried to write a middle grade novel. Fail (of course). I wrote another. Fail #2. Those documents are stored safely on my computer and they're not going anywhere. I think of them as practice books, sort of like an archeological remnant of early cave drawings. But, like those plucky heroines in the two books who are determined to pursue answers, I kept at it. And at some point, something worked. I wrote something that got a nibble. Then a deal!

This month, my fourth middle grade novel will be released from Aladdin Books, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. It's a sequel to last year's Ethan Marcus Stands Up. I had such fun with these two books, which are narrated by five seventh-graders, digging into themes of determination, sibling rivalry, and learning to get along with others who see the world from a different lens.


I don't think I've quite yet reached the level of Deborah's and Sarah's extraordinary works, but I keep trying. I continue to be inspired by them and so many other middle grade authors.

There's no other writing world I'd rather be a part of.




Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Calli Be Gold, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Ethan Marcus Stands Up, and Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. Catch up with her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Book Review: THE ART OF BEING REMMY by Mary Zisk

I recently read a fun book that was an entertaining trip down memory lane. THE ART OF BEING REMMY by Mary Zisk takes place in 1965 during the height of the Beatles fame in the USA. The heroine Remmy Rinaldi, who wants to marry Beatle Paul (she wasn't the only one!), also aspires to be an artist against the wishes of her father. The only way she can prove to Dad that girls can be artists too, is to win the Art Competition.





Here's my review of this delightful and funny story:



The Art Of Being Remmy by Mary Zisk is a delightful time travel trip back to 1965 when the Beatles reigned supreme. Remmy Rinaldi and her best friend Debbie ADORE all things Beatles and make a plan to one day meet their idols. Remmy also loves art and has a second secret plan to develop her Spark as an artist, even though it means going against her father’s wishes. Girls in the 1960’s need to know their place and follow the path men have set for them. A path that includes being housewives, mothers, maybe teachers, nurses , secretaries or stewardesses. But artists? NEVER!

Remmy is determined to prove her father and everyone else – including her once friend Bill – that she can be a great artist. Good enough to win a contest. She keeps her drawings in Super Secret Sketchbooks and earns her own money to take painting lessons so she can enter the Art Awards Contest.

Lots of challenges get in the way of Remmy’s plan, including problems with her best friend and a devious French Rat Fink. Along the bumpy road of 7th grade, Remmy learns that some rules are worth challenging and fairness for girls in all aspects of life is one of them.

This illustrated middle grade book is a funny and charming peek into the days when the Beatles took the world by storm and the force of female protest was at their heels. An entertaining read that celebrates creativity and girl power.
 


Darlene Beck Jacobson