Monday, October 29, 2018

A Villain After My Own Heart

by Charlotte Bennardo

Ah, villains. We love to hate them. Here is my list of the 5 best villains: (due to copyright issues, I can't put certain pics in...)

1. Hannibal Lector. I mean, if you look at him the wrong way, you're the main meal. And he's so smart you have no hopes of outwitting him. The scariest part? There could be people like that, serial killers, out there...

2. Severus Snape. Until the last book, he was the villain. And nobody was cheering in his corner. He was mean to Harry! He still has to be considered a villain, but a 'restored to humanity' one.

3. That creature from the movie Aliens.  Geez, I had nightmares for years! Freddy Krueger and Jason could take creep lessons from this pure evil character. *shivers

4. The unseen spirit in the Paranormal movies. I mean, you can't see it coming for you, dragging you down the hall! Maybe even the Alien would be scared.

5.  Dracula, played by Frank Langella. Yes, he's a vampire, but he's alluring, pulling you in until it's too late. Any villain can be horrific and no way would you be tempted to do anything for him, except stake him. In this movie version (1975!) he's handsome and charming; when he turns those big brown eyes on his victim, and recites poetry about lonely wolves singing in the night... Who could resist?

There are so many villains; some we want forever gone, some we take through our childhood, and some who are a little too close to real... Who scares you the most?

Photo by Toni Cuenca from Pexels

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Writing in Silence?

I wish I could find the quotation and who said it, but of course, now that I’m looking for it, I can’t. But it was something to the effect of, “When I write, I don’t want anyone else in the room. Not even me.” And to that I say, PREACH!

You hear a lot about how professional writers don’t wait for inspiration, how they write for a certain number of hours every day, no matter what. Once, an accomplished writer recommended to a group of us budding writers that we get up early in the morning and “just be in the silence” when we write. I think my children were still little then, and I wondered, “Silence? What is this ‘silence’ of which you speak?”

But indeed, silence is golden. Especially for writers. I grab that silence whenever I can.

You see, I require a house devoid of distractions when I’m writing. Sure, I’ve seen people with laptops at coffee houses, supposedly working on the Great American Novel. Maybe they’re killing it, but how? How can anyone hear a character’s voice when other voices are drowning him out? How can you believe you’re in another place when you can hear your husband and kids in the next room?

Oh, I’m not saying this is the way to do it. My productivity suffers as a result of this need for silence. If only I could learn to drown out distractions, I could accomplish a lot more every day.

I’ve tried earplugs. They help some. But I’ve decided that plugs in the ears of a writer are like phones in the hands of mothers with young children: the second you use them, everyone suddenly wants your attention. No sooner do I put my earplugs in than someone HAS to ask me a question RIGHT THEN.

So I generally just wait until the kids are at school and my husband is at work, and then I get to work myself.

Of course, even when the house is empty, my kitchen office isn’t exactly distraction free. It always seems that the second I really get into a story, the dryer buzzes, the dog whines, the oven timer beeps, the mailman knocks at the door, and someone calls or texts.

Sometimes I dream of those fabled lake houses or cabins in the woods where novelists go for a week or a month to work on a manuscript. I don’t personally know any novelists wealthy enough to afford such a getaway. Maybe if they had a getaway and could write the novel in such wonderful, sustained peace and quiet, they’d make enough money to afford the cabin or the lake house?

Ah, the catch-22s of writing….

Thursday, October 25, 2018


I was a big Judy Blume fan growing up. Big. Huge. To a great extent, THE PAIN AND THE GREAT ONE was the book that made me a reader. But I think JUST AS LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER may have made the biggest impact.

This is the cover I had. I owned my copy until it disintegrated.
Basically, it's about losing your best friend to someone else. At least, that's how I remember it. I was going through something similar at the time, and the book hurt and it comforted me all at the same time.

We've talked a lot about making villains real this month. I think the most painful, cruelest villains--the villains who can do the most damage--are the people your main character loves. 

The friend who does you wrong (or dumps you or ghosts you, etc.) is exactly the character who can rip your protagonist in two. It's a character your protagonist would know thoroughly--and would never depict as some two-dimensional bad guy. It's also the last person on earth the protagonist wants to think of as a villain. 

But isn't that just like real life? How many of your own personal villains were once your favorite people on the planet?

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What does it mean to be a “Creative Professional?” Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

What does the combination of the  words “Creative Professional” mean to you writers and artists everywhere? What is the synthesis of creativity and professional? First thought typically—a professional is someone who makes money from her work. So, then the immediate question is…well, how much money? Am I a professional if I earn $5,000 for a literary novel? $100,000 for a best seller? A copy of the printed poetry journal for a poem? Money is one of the bottom lines of value in our culture.

However, some writers who win National Book Awards, especially in poetry, never make much money at all from their work. They certainly don’t earn their living from it, but likely from adjunct teaching or speaking. Perhaps then there’s a link between being a creative professional and reputation/credibility?

 Is seriousness a more useful word? Emily Dickinson was certainly serious about the poetry she threw in a drawer, but she certainly didn't make money from it. Does professional imply seriousness about making your work? One of the original uses of the word professional was for religious people who “professed” their vows. (I don’t think they do that for money!) A professional religious person, then, is a nun or monk. Perhaps creative professional might turn more toward ideas of commitment, dedication, or even consecration? 

Ultimately, I think all creative professionals will benefit from thinking through their own definition of this. For me the bottom line for calling myself a creative professional is not money or reputation. You can be a” serious artist” without making a cent or having any reputation at all. Dedication and consecration are more operative words for me. But, ultimately being a creative professional means somehow sharing my art, whether a book, sculpture, or poem, with the world. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Everybody's Had a Teacher Like "Old Hawk"

For this month's topic about favorite villains, I've decided to blog about a villain in one of my own middle grade books.  In my novel, Always, Abigail, the main character finds herself in a homeroom without her two best friends, which makes her first year of middle school seem somewhat doomed from the very beginning; but worse than that, her homeroom teacher is Miss Henrick aka "Old Hawk."

Here's an excerpt that will give you a glimpse of the "villain" she is:

Three Reasons She's Called "Hendrick-the-Horrible-Hundred-Year-Old Hawk"
1. She's horrible. You just have to know her; no explanation needed.
2. She's got to be at least one hundred years old by now.  (My mom had her when she was in sixth grade.)
3. She sees EVERYTHING that goes on - that's why she's called the Hawk.  She doesn't just have eyes in the back of her head.  She's got eyes in the hallway and on the playground.  No one knows how she does it.

Abigail goes on to describe her as the toughest, strictest teacher in the whole school.  But those are the very reasons Abigail's mom says that she'll come to appreciate Ms. Hendrick someday.

Old Hawk is one my favorite villains because I think everyone, young and old, can remember having a teacher like Old Hawk.  The difference between the young and old here is that usually as we grow into adulthood, we really do come to appreciate those teachers we had who seemed to be strict just for the sake of being strict.  As we mature, we realize all that strictness was there for a reason, and we end up appreciating them.  Why?  Because those strict, teachers, with those horrible nicknames, not only teach us things about math and reading and science, but they also teach us things about life.  Things that end up helping us to be better people than we would've have been had we not had them for a teacher.

So, this blog post is dedicated to those teachers.  The ones who may not have always been our favorite teacher while we were in their classes.  Ones who, maybe in some ways, were even seen as villains, but who, through their villainous strictness, taught us life lessons that just might make all the difference in the world.

Here's to all the Old Hawks we all know and, hopefully, have come to love,

Friday, October 19, 2018

Best Monsters and Villains and How it Inspires a Hero

It’s true. I enjoy a good villain.

Lord Voldemort. The Wicked Queen.


A haunted house.

The very best villains and monsters, in my opinion, are those that have a rich backstory. A thick history of what led them to their evil ways and devious deeds. Characteristics that make them human, sympathetic, even relatable.

With Lord Voldemort, we see a childhood of abandonment, abuse, loss and grief. The inability to fit in, make friends and identify with a family. These issues are paralleled in the series hero, Harry Potter. Despite the comparisons, the two make very different choices in life. Choices which result in building of character, love, compassion and family for one – and ultimate defeat for the other.

Loki also found himself at a crisis of identity when he realizes his father is not his biological father, his brother, not his biological brother. He feels inferior, and turns to anarchy to make up for his anger and hurt.

Haunted houses, like Hill House or the hotel in The Shining, are malevolent forces, basically mysteries that we cannot solve or even pinpoint. We only know they are working against our heroes in the story, that something terrible must have happened many years ago within those walls.

I think it is human nature to want to know what makes a person or entity go bad. What I write, especially in middle grade fiction, includes villains like crooks or misbehaving house-pets. A cat who feels mistreated and lashes out, a rat who has felt ostracized and unloved so he wreaks havoc, a pack of dogs who enjoy terrorizing the smaller of the food chain for fun and power. It is up to the heroes in my novels to deal and cope with these villains, not just in the opposing forces of animals they meet, but also that of general evil in the world. The events we cannot control. Sickness, job loss, changes in a community or in a family situation.

I think if readers, especially young readers, can see how a hero in a novel deals with wrongdoing and evil, they can apply it to their own lives. And, in turn, see how they themselves can be the hero in their own life. They may not all be Harry Potter, or Ace the Cat, but they are the main characters in their very own life story. If they see their favorite characters succeed, I think it inspires them to also aim for that goal. Stories have power. Stories have relation.

Stories are human.

Even monsters.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Antagonists as Protagonists by Claudia Mills

One very small moment in my third-grade year became a life-long touchstone for me.

I sang in our church's Crusader Choir, and a girl from another town named Claire Hatfield sat next to me each week at choir practice and shared my hymnal. One day, the thought suddenly popped into my head that while, to me, Claire Hatfield was just the girl who shared my hymnal in choir, to Claire Hatfield, I was just the girl who shared her hymnal in choir. In the same way that she was a bit player in the story of my life, I was a bit player in her life story, too.

The same is true, I've come to think, of protagonists and antagonists, both in fiction and in life. The antagonist in one character's story is the protagonist in the same story, told now from their point of view.

In my West Creek Middle School series, published much earlier in my career, each of the five books in the series features a different viewpoint character. And the two final books in the series - Alex Ryan, Stop That! and Makeovers by Marcia - star kids who weren't, well, so kind or empathetic to Ethan in Losers, Inc., or Julius in You're a Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman, or Lizzie, in Lizzie at Last. But when I gave Alex and Marcia their turn in the spotlight, I could see, for the first time, the hurts in their own hearts that led them to act as they had. I ended up loving them just as much as I had loved the characters they treated badly.

So many of the books that most broke my heart as a reader portray kids who act badly out of their own pain: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar, and the achingly beautiful Home from Far by Jean Little. Thanks to the artistic skill of Paterson, Sachar, and Little, the worse the characters act, the more we ache for them.

Down deep I don't believe in the existence of villains or monsters, at least not child villains or child monsters. Children can act thoughtlessly. Children can act cruelly. But inside each antagonistic child is a child who yearns to be the star of his or her own story. How fortunate we are as authors that these stories are given to us to tell.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Historical Fiction and All That Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff

Especially during these times when facts can be alternative and history can be revised, the ongoing argument on what is historical fiction, how and why it is relevant, and by extension why history is important, seems perplexing. 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.”

History often carries the stigma of being dry and irrelevant, says Y.S. Lee (The Agency 1: Spy in the House, 2010), but “the freedom of fiction is one way of exploring a subject that may seem intimating or remote. After all, it’s a kind of fantasy, a parallel world in which people act with recognizable human impulses and ideals but abide by very different rules.”

The genre of historical fiction is very broad, one that Mary Burns (1995) labels a “hybrid and a shape-shifter,” combining history with fiction. Or, as Trevor Cairney (2009) suggests, historical fiction is where “literature meets history.” Avi, an award-winning master of the genre, offers that some historical fiction stays close to the known facts, while others are little more than costume drama. “Ultimately, what is most important is the story, and the characters.” Facts, according to Avi, do not make a story. “Believable people do…Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction makes truth less a stranger.”

Historical fiction defies easy explanation. The controversy is grounded in conveying the ‘truth’ of history. Other popular genres have distinct rules that govern basic premises. Dystopian fiction, for example, features a futuristic universe in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through corporate, technologic, or totalitarian control. Using an exaggerate worse-case scenario, the dystopian story becomes a commentary about social norms and trends.

Many condemn the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, and consider the historical fiction genre a betrayal. Perhaps a better way to understand historical fiction is to take a lesson from The Doctor. Yes, that Doctor: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect…but actually, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.

It seems to me the same thing can be said of historical fiction.

In historical fiction, setting is usually considered ‘historical’ if it is at fifty or more years in the past. As such, the author writes from research rather than personal experience. But as an old turnip, my personal history dates back to the years prior to Korean War. The Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Riders, the Bay of Pigs, the JFK Assassination, the Landing on the Moon, and the first Dr. Who episode are not some fixed points in history but a function of my experience. Yet, for these last generations, these are often just dates in a textbook. And the plot is a linear expression that begins on a certain date. The award-winning book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995), depicting the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing of 1963, is often listed as historical fiction. Yet I remember vividly watching the events unfold on my parents’ black and white television.

Still, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. It was illegal for women to be soldiers, and to vote. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias.

The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

Some facts, such as dates of specific events, are fixed points in time. We know, for example, that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1 to July 3, in 1863. The interpretations of what happened over those three days remains a favorite in historical fiction. My interpretation of the battle, in Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, August 2014), featured three perspectives that are rare in these historical fiction depictions: the daughter of a free black living seven miles north from the Mason-Dixon line, the daughter of the well-to-do local merchant, and a girl disguised as a Confederate soldier. The plot weaves together the fates of these girls, a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a battle that ultimately defined a nation.

In other words, history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate.

Historical fiction introduces readers to different points of view. Writer Kathi Appelt offers that one of the most provocative books to achieve this goal is M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (2006). “It broke my stereotypical assumptions about the period and events of the time,” says Kathi. And in so doing, “it broke my heart.” Reading different perspectives can build a reader’s “emotional sensitivity.” As Amy von Heyking (Scholastic Canada) says, “their moral and social awareness grows as they consider reasons for people’s behavior in other times, other places or specific situations.” Such stories provide the “insider’s perspective,” allowing readers to reach a new, deeper understanding of the other’s experience.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, another master writer of historical fiction. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

Defining the ‘historical’ in 'historical fiction' is a bit wobbly, depending upon the age of the critics and researchers can be unrelenting in their quest for accuracy. The process of writing historical fiction, like researching history itself, is neither straightforward nor a risk-free process. But I am reminded what Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough once said, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate…The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good. [But] there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”

As the Doctor tells her companions, and in so doing reminding everyone, through those doors...

“… we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me... nothing will ever be the same again!” 

--Bobbi Miller

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Villains in Everyday Life, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

I've never been big on including traditional villains and monsters in my books. After all, I don't write fantasy, where many of these characters are a natural part of the stories. All of my novels are contemporary and realistic, set in present day.

I've had several readers email me when they're doing a book talk or project on one of my books, asking -- who's the antagonist in this story? I usually ask them who they think it is :)

Since our topic this month is on villains and monsters, that got me thinking, who are the antagonists in my stories? And the answer is that I like to weave my "villains" into occurrences and circumstances in the characters' everyday lives, so they're not obvious, but are very real, which is probably why it's a challenge for young readers to figure that out.

In my second novel, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, the antagonist is not a person, but a situation. The neighborhood cul de sac in which much of the story takes place has become detached and distant. A 5-year old character, Thomas, senses this, as he fights invisible "bad guys" in the circle of eight houses. The main character, Nina, starts doing some anonymous good deeds with the hope of bringing people back together. There's an older neighbor who's suspicious of all these unusual happenings and many readers think she's the antagonist, but she's really not. She's just a nervous ninny with a temperamental poodle.

In my first book, Calli Be Gold, the antagonist was the overwhelming pressure that parents can place on their kids to succeed in sports and activities. And in the novel I'm currently working on, the villain is the effects of climate change on a small lakeside Wisconsin town.

Things like that scare me more than Voldemort, even though he's one of the best villains ever written.

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. Her next middle grade novel will publish in May 2020. Visit for more info.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

What Are We So Afraid Of? By Chris Tebbetts

I’m going to take a tangent to this month’s topic (Villains) and share an excerpt from a lecture of mine, where I look at the role of FEAR in the creative process. Read on… if you dare. :-)

Resistance to the creative process takes on a lot of forms, but if we’re boiling things down to their nature or essence, FEAR is a good one-word candidate, evidenced in part by how much has been written about it. Books like “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland; “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert; and “The Courage To Write” by Ralph Keyes have been highly illuminating for me, and represent the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what’s been written on this topic.

So…what are we writers so afraid of?  Plenty, as it turns out.

And thinking about all of that brought me around to thinking about the power of the WHAT IF question. WHAT IF is great for storytelling. What if a giant peach grew in my back yard?  What if deafness was a superpower? As it turns out, though, WHAT IF is also great for anxiety.  What if the elevator stops between floors? What if I need to get off the plane and I can’t?

I’m someone who has dealt with panic attacks on a number of occasions—especially in enclosed spaces—and it occurred to me a while back that my storyteller's tendency to ask WHAT IF also had an evil twin. As far as I’m concerned, the root of anxiety is all about projecting myself into an unknown – and as yet unrealized outcome.  

How do you scare an audience? For one thing, you include doubt about the outcome. How’s it all going to turn out? What’s going to happen? Will they get there in time? 

Likewise, a lot of writing fears – most of what’s in that previous image — turn on doubts about the outcome. What if they don’t like me? What if I can’t finish this story? What if I never publish again? To the extent that the key to anything is staying present in the moment, including writing, then fear about the unknown future is kryptonite.

On the other hand, as I continued to read on this topic, I found some good news, too. For instance, this idea:


I love this image. For me, it’s truest in the middle of the night. That’s when my career always seems to be crashing and burning around me in the most convincing way – probably because I’m a captive audience, lying there in bed, where darkness turns my vision inward while I try to get back to sleep. 

And maybe 3AM isn’t your problem. Some of you are captains of serotonin, I’m sure (and envious, too). But for the rest I encourage you to take a look at when you’re the most vulnerable to the lies you tell yourself. For me, it's taken some real effort to see those moments for what they are --- night time illusions that nearly always go away in the day, and usually because getting back to work is the perfect antidote. That awareness is no miracle pill, but it helps a lot.  

Lawrence Block wrote:  “Once we are aware of our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think. …. Fear and courage are like lightning and thunder: they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner.”

Here’s another take I like on the subject:


Says Toni Morrison: “When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information.” And in The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes says, “It’s important to distinguish between toxic and nutritious anxiety.” He refers to page fright, our version of stage fright, and the energy it can bring to the process.  

The difference, I think, is between putting fear into the story—using the present writing moment to capitalize on that energy, even if it makes me uncomfortable – and, on the other hand, dealing with those future-minded fears, the ones that are based in all kinds of stuff I can’t know or control.  

Anne Graham, daughter of Billy Graham, spoke about fear in a TED Talk radio hour podcast I heard.  She spoke about it as a natural, even necessary, companion on the way toward (in the case of her examples) enlightenment, but I’d extend that to the kind of truth-seeking we do in storytelling as well.  She spoke about Muhammed receiving the Koran—what she called the core mystical moment of Islam; and about Jesus on the cross in his last moments.  His final words, she says, were “Father why have thou forsaken me?” Muhammed, she said, “was held not by conviction but by doubt.” 

These were moments of trembling and fear, not elation or enlightenment, even though that’s exactly what these people, or characters, were on the cusp of. “Abolish all doubt,” she says, “and what’s left isn’t faith, but absolute heartless conviction.” The results, for us, might be a didactic or even soulless story.  In religion, it’s fundamentalism. I love that quote, and I love that it came, for me, from a somewhat unexpected place. 

And then lastly: 


Fear—the non-nutritious kind—is mundane.  In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert explains it like this:  

“If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown. Well, so do I. So do we all. But there’s nothing particularly compelling about that. Do you see what I mean? You don’t get any special credit, is what I’m saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown.” 

So, is there a bottom line here? I suppose for me, it would be this: Fear is part of the creative process. It’s also a shared (can we say universal?) element of making art in this world, and any time I spend hoping to avoid it completely is not time well spent. Rather, let me be aware of it, allow it to play its part in my writing process, and, above all, never let it stop me from forging bravely--or at least, semi-bravely--ahead. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Monsters and Villains by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Thinking about this month's topic - monsters and villains - took me on a trip to my childhood and the books I read. The books that have stayed with me because of the hero of the quest, but also because of the villain the hero had to encounter. In the days before Harry Potter and Voldemort, there were still plenty of scary characters in the pages of books.

My favorite monster was, and still is, Frankenstein.  Not only because he was scary to look at, but also because he was so much less a monster than the man who created him and the people who misunderstood him.  A classic tale that makes us consider the monster hidden in all of us.

As far a villains go, there are a few that sent delicious shivers down my spine as a kid. The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland with her gleeful willingness to chop the heads off little girls.

Another memorable rogue was Fagin from Oliver Twist.  An opportunist who found a way to exploit children under the guise of caring for them. He housed and fed them while society ignored them. If they had to pick pockets and become thieves, oh well, it was all part of life in Victorian London.

 While frightening to my childhood soul, these villains paled in comparison to the quintessential villain of all time: The Wicked Witch of the West in L Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Scary enough to shake the slippers off of any young girl, this character came to life in all her green-faced glory in the form of Margaret Hamilton in the classic movie.  Scary to look at, to listen to, and to be in the same room with.  

There's a villain to remember!     

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Name Names? Hmm.

By Jody Feldman

I’m a softie. In my perfect world, everyone would live allergy-free, amid blue skies and meadows, near mountains and oceans, with all the modern conveniences. We'd smile and scamper and frolic like the happy, little creatures and---
Okay, that makes for boring stories (and lives). Enter the villains.

My perfect villain doesn’t have a particular name. Take your pick: Cruella, Scar, Urusula, Maleficent, Gaston ... I could go on and on with Disney characters alone (most of which, of course, were borrowed from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and more). What makes these villains extra dastardly is the way they make us sprout an entire field of empathy for the main characters.

What good are Cruella without the Dalmations, Scar without Simba, Urusula without Arielle, Maleficent without Snow White, Gaston without Belle?

Unless the author/creator makes us feel, first, for the victim, then the villain is just an ugly being we malign on Twitter. The hunter, without the hunted, cannot exist.

Which is all a lot of musing to come to my point. I do not have a favorite villain. Then again, there was this guy from the old Batman series. I think I just liked his riddles.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? --- by Jane Kelley

I just finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The novella has become such a part of our culture that I felt I knew the story without having read it. (I confess that when I was a child, I mixed up the two characters. I believed that Mr. Hyde was the good fellow and Dr. Jekyll was the bad one, based purely on the sound of the names.)

But it is Mr. Hyde who is so terrible that everyone he encounters shrinks from him in horror.  He has no super powers. He has no arsenal of weapons. In fact, the murder we witness was committed with a walking stick. So then what makes him such a monster?

I'll quote from what Dr. Jekyll says about him in the novella. "All human beings are commingled out of good and evil: and Hyde alone in the ranks of mankind was pure evil."

Dr. Jekyll should know. He created Mr. Hyde. In a confessional letter which we finally get to read at the end of the novella, Jekyll explains that he had suffered from his struggles to subdue his worst traits. To avoid feeling guilty, he embarked on an experiment. He took a chemical that enabled him to separate into two men. Jekyll would be good. But Hyde would be unfettered by compassion or morality or any of our better traits.

Hyde does despicable things. (Which the author decides not to name.) Jekyll suffers some remorse for this. He is also frightened to discover that sometimes he transforms into Hyde even without using the chemicals. Jekyll tries to quit letting Hyde lose upon the world, but Jekyll can't. He finds it unbearable to be completely good. "I began to be tortured with throes and longings." And when he gave in to them, "My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring."

No good can come of this. For many moral reasons, but also because the chemical runs out. No more can be found. Jekyll writes his confession and finds the means to deliver it to his friend (and lawyer). Then he does not kill himself--and his monstrous creation. Instead, he takes the last draught and turns back in Hyde in hopes that Hyde, being hounded by justice, will commit suicide. Hyde does.

Many have tried to identify what inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to create these characters and this tale. Some hoped that the tale was meant to show the dangers of straying from the path of righteousness. Some have wondered what were Stevenson's own dark secrets. Why doesn't he describe Hyde's actions in the novella? Certainly most other writers would.

I haven't read the biographies. I know little of his life. But I believe that he was not just exploring the duality of human nature. I think he was fascinated by his own powers as creator.

Jekyll was good. Hyde was evil. But we can't forget that Jekyll created Hyde. And refused to destroy him. So I wonder who really was the monster?

In Graham Balfour's biography, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, he quotes Stevenson's wife.

"In the small hours of one morning, I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily, 'why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.' I had awakened him at the first transformation [from Jekyll into Hyde] scene."

Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Who is the Queen of Hearts? by Deborah Lytton

The villains that scared me the most when I was a young reader were the Wicked Witch of the West from THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ by L. Frank Baum and the Queen of Hearts from ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll. I was impressed that Dorothy and Alice were brave enough to stand up to such frightening villains. I hoped if I were faced with such challenges, I might display the same courage.

As a writer, I see these characters differently. Now I understand that the antagonists are essential to the plot of the stories and the growth of the main characters. Without the Queen of Hearts, Alice would never become strong enough to find her way out of the rabbit hole. Without the Wicked Witch, Dorothy would never discover her own worth and find her own path home. The characters are used to reveal weaknesses in the heroines that they must overcome to succeed.

In my own realistic fiction writing, it is my goal to find the humanity in my contemporary villains so that readers can understand them. The heroine's worst trait can often be mirrored in the antagonist. It is only through the resolution of the relationship that the heroine can recognize herself in the eyes of the other character. Sometimes, the antagonist in the story can even be the heroine herself, for her own fears or insecurities might be standing in the way of her triumphant success. The conflicts that arise in the stories we write can come from a witch or a queen or even from the girl next door. As long as we find a way to keep the pressure on the main character, the conflict will work to propel the plot forward. So today, find the humanity in your villain. Seek to challenge your heroine. And write a story that readers will cherish for years to come.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Meet Samantha Rose, one of My Favorite Villains of 2018 Middle Grade Books

One of my favorite middle grade reads this year has been HOPE IN THE HOLLER by Lisa Lewis Tyre. You can read my review with some words from Lisa herself at Live Your Poem. Here's the summary of the book as provided by the publisher:

The poignant--and funny--story of a girl trying to be brave and find her place in the world after she's sent to live with scheming relatives.

Right before Wavie's mother died, she gave Wavie a list of instructions to help her find her way in life, including this one: Be brave, Wavie B! You got as much right to a good life as anybody, so find it! But little did Wavie's mom know that events would conspire to bring Wavie back to Conley Hollow, the Appalachian hometown her mother tried to leave behind. Now Wavie's back in the Holler--and in the clutches of her Aunt Samantha Rose. Life with the devilish Samantha Rose and her revolting cousin Hoyt is no picnic, but there's real pleasure in sleeping in her own mother's old bed, and making friends with the funny, easygoing kids her aunt calls the "neighborhood-no-accounts." With their help, Wavie just might be able to prevent her aunt from becoming her legal guardian, and find her courage and place in the world.

I love this book for many reasons -- and one of them is because of Wavie's Aunt Samantha Rose, who is so very easy to despise! Here's how Wavie describes her in the book:

"And Samantha Rose reminded me of rock candy, sugary sweet and hard enough to crack a molar. She threw around a lot of honeys and darlin's but they were always added on top of something bad.

'The toilet is clogged. How about trying your hand with a plunger, honey?'

'You'll be getting free meals at the school, so it'd help if you left the cereal for your uncle, darlin'.'"

One of Wavie's habits is to rearrange letters and make up new words. Here are some of the words she conjures out of "Samantha Rose:"
"I'd written TRASH, TORN, TEARS, RAN, MET, RANTS, MONSTER on my first night."

So, writers and readers: do yourself a favor and meet Samantha Rose! You'll be so glad you did. xo
Irene Latham is an Alabama author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books for children and adults, including Leaving Gee's Bend, 2011 ALLA Children's Book of the Year and Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she also serves as poetry editor for the Birmingham Arts Journal

Monday, October 1, 2018

Smack Dab News

Michele Weber Hurwitz had a new deal announced last week in the Publisher's Weekly Children's Bookshelf newsletter. This will be her fifth middle grade novel.

Congrats to Michele!