Monday, October 5, 2015

Review: George by Alex Gino

GeorgeGeorge by Alex Gino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"She had genuinely started to believe that if people could see her onstage as Charlotte, maybe they would see that she was a girl offstage too.

Ten year-old George is a transgender girl who dreams of playing Charlotte in her class production of Charlotte's Web. However, the role of the kind and wise spider is a girl's part, and everyone around George sees her as a boy. George hopes that by playing Charlotte, people will see her for who she is.

This well-written story is as warm-hearted and kind as everyone's favorite fictional spider. George's journey toward being who she is meant to be is not easy. But she finds comfort in a few key characters -- the unabashed support of her best friend, the quiet acceptance of her older brother, and the calming influence of her principal. George's story is only beginning. The path to living her identity will be long. But the story builds around the hope that she will find others who will see her as who she is.

I was struck by one element of craft as I read. We talk about point of view as an authorial choice. First person versus third person is framed as the writer's preference, as if it is six of one and half-dozen of the other. However, Gino's decision to tell this story in third person seems as wise as Charlotte. As a result, George's thoughts are "she" instead of "I." The pronouns make all the difference and provide a gentle but unwavering reminder of George's identity. Who she is lives on every page because of this point of view. Kudos to them.

This story is lovingly told and age appropriate. It will change many young lives and fills a much needed hole on our children's bookshelves.

"She wished she could be Charlotte now."

I finished the story with a warm hope for George's future. We all wish we could instantly be the person we are becoming. Unfortunately, it's not that easy but, if we are lucky, we will have a best friend at our side as we try.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Secrets of Kidlit: How a Pantser Became a Plotter

Hi. My name is Gail and I used to be a pantser.

During a presentation on co-writing at the Midsouth SCBWI conference a couple of weekends ago, I mentioned that writing the You're Invited books with Jen Malone turned me from a pantser to a plotter. This devolved into a discussion of pantsing versus, well, pantsing, but it got me thinking about why and how I changed my entire approach to writing. 

Before I start in on the how and the why, I want to say that there is no one right way to write. You have to do what works best for you and your stories, whether that's starting a book with only a vague idea of where you're headed, meticulously planning each scene, or some combination of the two.


You're Invited chapter outline
I was a diehard pantser. I wrote three books that way, and two of them sold. And then . . . Jen and I started co-writing You're Invited. Turns out, you can't pants your way through a co-written book unless you develop some kind of mind-reading device! We plotted that book because we had to, with a synopsis and a simple chapter-by-chapter outline. 

The biggest surprises to me were 1) the book was still fun to write even though I knew where it was going, and 2) it didn't need massive rewrites, the way most of my books had up until that point. The plot was decent, the character arcs actually made sense the first time around, and the pacing worked.

Considering I'd rewritten half of my most recent manuscript twice before I even sent it to my agent, I was sold.


Gail's Five-Step Method to Becoming a Plotter (a.k.a. Plotting for Dummies, Like Me):

1) Buy Scrivener. Okay, you don't have to buy Scrivener, but it was on sale and I was curious. And holy wow, this program is a plotter's BFF. It has an outliner. It has a virtual corkboard with index cards. It has a place to collect all your research so you aren't floundering for names when your editor says, all brightly, “Can you send me your acknowledgments by tomorrow?” It has character worksheets, a place to collect images, and more color-coding than I could ever figure out how to use.

Pretend this is my backyard. Used under a Creative Commons
license, credit: Abe Kleinfeld.
2) Acts and Scenes. I started with a three act structure because it's simple and not intimidating, and, after all, I was a recovering pantser. I mean, anyone can think up a beginning, a middle, and an end, right? I typed those out on the faux-notecards in Scrivener and felt very proud of myself. Next, I wrote out the major turning points in the book. Then came the scenes that fit in between the turning points. The ones in the first act of the novel came easily, because I'd been thinking about them for a while. But the second act? Uh....wait, stuff has to happen in the middle of the book? I had some serious brain block, so I sat myself in my backyard and refused to go in until I'd come up with something like fifty possible things that could happen in the middle. It didn't matter if they were brilliant ideas or useless things, like Joey eats a pizza and learns that he really, truly, and with an undying passion worthy of a daytime Emmy, despises mushrooms. If I thought of it, it got written down. Out of the fifty, I culled about ten decent ideas, arranged them in an order that made sense, and plopped them down onto my wannabe-notecards. Voila, an outline-type-thing!

3) Characters. I'm of the opinion that most of what I learn about my characters, I learn as I write. So I didn't fill out any crazy questionnaires about the characters' favorite colors or fondest childhood memories. But I did come up with a physical description, suss out the character's biggest need and want, figure out how the character changed from beginning to end of the book, write out a little backstory so I could figure out their secrets, and brainstorm a few personality quirks and tics.

4) The Wall Method. Here's where I got crazy with post-its. I saw this on a few blogs and loved the way it looked, so I gave it try. I put the major action of each scene on a post-it and slapped them on the wall. Underneath, I used different colored post-its to track each main character's emotional arc and the romance. Each act of the story got its own “line” on the wall. It looked like this halfway through, and I loved it:
FYI, actual post-its work better than
note paper and tape.
But . . . I didn't use it as I drafted. I rearranged my fake notecards in Scrivener as I figured out that certain scenes would go better a different places in the story or added scenes or changed the pacing of a character arc, but I didn't rearrange my wall outline. Verdict? Great, if you can keep up with it. Otherwise, in the future, I'm going to save this method for revision.

5) Pinterest and Playlists and Research. I'm adding these because they helped me with the actual plotting. I've never actually used Pinterest – it always seemed to be the realm of the Crafty People who have endless hours to create adorable shabby-chic things I'd mess up with my first shot of Elmer's Glue and who organize clutter in pretty baskets and never seem to have pet fur anywhere in their houses. But, my fellow messy-house, non-crafters, Pinterest is AMAZING for book inspiration! I pulled together images of people who looked like my characters, the setting, and even a character's car, for heaven's sake. I kept it in  a browser tab as I wrote so I could flip back to it. I also made a playlist, which was fabulous to listen to in the car as I parsed out scenes in my head while on the way to and from my day job. And research! I did tons of research – and the key here is that I did it before I wrote, rather than chasing it down after the fact. I talked to several people about various aspects of the plot and googled like mad, and all of this helped me figure out different directions the plot might take.

Did I stick exactly to my outline? Nope. I rearranged as I went when I needed to. But did it give me a first draft that was more than just word vomit? Yup.

And that, folks, is how I became a plotter.  

Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: MORE HAPPY THAN NOT by Adam Silvera

More Happy Than NotMore Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

Full disclosure, Adam Silvera and I share the same agent, but I had many more reasons than that to eagerly read his debut YA novel, MORE HAPPY THAN NOT. When it came out, glowing reviews filled my twitter stream, and since then, it has gone on to garner an enviable list of accolades and awards.

All of them deserved.

It's hard a hard book to review, since the less said about it, the better, but I can tell you it's a complex and daring coming-of-age story. Set in the Bronx in the almost-present, it touches on issues of class, sexual identity, and the personal and societal pressures of fitting in. Actually, it doesn't touch on those issues. It immerses itself in them, diving headfirst into the mucky deep end, and it doesn't let you sit on the side while it splashes around, either. No, it pushes you deep into the mire and mess of teenage identity, and when it's over, it doesn't clean you back up. Silvera leaves you searching for answers in the same complicated, but strangely hopeful, world in which he places his characters.

The book is definitely on the more adulty-side of Young Adult. It is narrated by Aaron Soto, a teenaged fan of comics and games that he's really too old for, and Aaron's voice is raw and matter-of-fact about his life, including his sexual experiences and his attempted suicide. There's a healthy dose of science fiction thrown in, but I'd hesitate to call it a science fiction novel. Instead, Silvera has managed to make one of those rare books that comes along only every once in a while. A life novel, more real than not.

An excellent read. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Reaching Readers: Through Writing Workshops For Kids

Girl Scouts passing a summer day at camp with a zany writing experiment

Not all readers are writers (though I would argue that all writers are readers!), but many kids do become more interested in books when they develop their own passion for storytelling.

I've been having a blast this year leading writing workshops with the Girl Scout Council of Eastern Massachusetts and thought I would share one of our more popular writing prompts.

We call this one "What the Heck is Happening Here!?" I pass out printed (and laminated) pictures I've collected from the internet (the stranger, the better and the internet is the perfect source for strange! You can find your own simply by googling "weird images".)

Sometimes kids will choose to work together on a story based on the photo and other times they'll prefer to work alone--I say yes to any and all requests. My goal here is to make the atmosphere as different from a school environment as possible. I let them know upfront there will be no grades, no one checking spelling or grammar, and no rules on what they can write so long as they keep it PG-rated). While I encourage sharing aloud at the end (and offer to act as reader if the person wants to share but is to shy to read), I never require it because I know my nine year-old self would have been mortified at that prospect.

Ready for some crazy? Here are a few pictures to get you started, if you'd like to try this one at home with your own mini-readers.

This is the ultimate in commuter multi-tasking

Umm... I can't even....

Cat-Tain America?

He just looks so happy with his sewing machine prom date!

Er, this isn't one of the weird pictures. I hope!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow PlaceThe Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At a school for girls, on a Sunday night during dinner, the headmistress and her brother drop dead after taking a few bites of a delicious veal. The girls at the school having no love for the poor souls came up with a shameless plan to hide the deaths and go on with their lives at the school. Unfortunately for them things didn't work out as planned including the possibility of the murderer returning for its next victim.

There is not one thing I disliked about this book. But instead of long paragraphs of gushing let me tell you about my most favorite aspects: the setting, the voice and plot.

I've always been interested in stories set in the Victorian era. The way they talked, their mannerisms, their values and sometimes lack thereof. I may not be an expert but I felt like the author did well. I didn't want to close the book and leave the world she created when the story was over.

The girls were so different and unique in their personalities but at the same time they complemented each other the way sisters do. When they conversed I didn't get lost. I could tell right away which one of the girls was speaking.

The murder mystery kept me on the edge of my seat and the girls' shenanigans will kept my heart pounding, waiting for someone to uncover their plans. I thought I had it all figured out but did not see the last twist coming, and that was a definite plus.

I do have to say that, the book is one of those that are on the border between older Middle Grade fiction and Young Adult because of the content.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

K10: The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

The Kidliterati Ten is an interview series with young readers. We ask them about a favorite book and hope that you enjoy their answers.

Tell us a little about yourself: what is your first name, how old are you, and what is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
My name is Grant, I am 11 years old, and I like chocolate ice cream with Oreos.

What book did you read and why did you choose it?
I read The Scorch Trials because it is the sequel to The Maze Runner which is also a great book. In fact, I read the whole series.

Can you describe this book in one word?

What was your favorite part of this story?
I liked that the characters were out of the Maze but were still in danger. The world outside the Maze is much more complicated than I thought.

If you had a problem similar to the main character's problem, what would you do?
Thomas and the Gladers have been captured. I think I would have tried to do what the characters did in this book -- protect my friends and try to survive.

What would you say to your best friend to convince them to read this book?
My friends and I recommend books to each other all the time. I'd just tell them that it's really good.

What do you think about the book's cover?
I think the cover is really cool. I like that the letters come out of the page and are cracked like rock. The background looks just like I imagine the Scorch to be.

Would you want to read another book about these characters? Why or why not?
I already did! I read the whole series and the prequel over this summer. As soon as I finished one book, I grabbed the next.

Can you name another book that reminds you of this one?
This book reminds me a little bit of The Hunger Games series. But in The Maze Runner series, Thomas and the Gladers have been kidnapped and brainwashed. They don't know why they are facing the challenges they are facing. The characters never know what challenge is coming up next. The past is a mystery. Thomas and the Gladers have to figure out the past at the same time as they figure out the present.

If you could ask the author one question about this book, what would it be?
Did you ever imagine The Maze Runner series would be made into movies?

James Dashner answered a question very similar to this one in this interview with The Guardian:

"I absolutely considered it that way from the very beginning. Movies are my first love. And that's how I write -- I envision the story cinematically, picture it in my head, and then do my best to tanslate that to the written word. I wasn't arrogant enough to think it would happen this way, but I certainly hoped it. Always."

Thank you to Grant for sharing The Scorch Trials with The Kidliterati!


The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

Solving the Maze was supposed to be the end.

Thomas was sure that escape from the Maze would mean freedom for him and the Gladers. But WICKED isn’t done yet. Phase Two has just begun. The Scorch.

There are no rules. There is no help. You either make it or you die.

The Gladers have two weeks to cross through the Scorch—the most burned-out section of the world. And WICKED has made sure to adjust the variables and stack the odds against them.

Friendships will be tested. Loyalties will be broken. All bets are off.

There are others now. Their survival depends on the Gladers’ destruction—and they’re determined to survive.

Also, look for The Scorch Trials in movie theaters on September 18th!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Review: Duplicity by N.K. Traver

DuplicityDuplicity by N.K. Traver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whoa, what a thrill ride. I took off, and at first I didn’t know where I was headed, or who was leading me, but since a friend recommended this book, I had faith and enjoyed the ride. I was drawn into this unique techno world, of which I have little knowledge, at best. But this story wasn’t difficult to read. It just made me curious to read more.

High school student Brandon Eriks is switched out of his life, for hacking crimes, and in his place body double, Obran, steps in. Obran will go to school in his place, get better grades, dress more upstanding, and hang out with Emma, the girl Brandon is quickly falling for.

Obran was created by JENA, a highly sophisticated supercomputer that can do things that will scare you. Scared me.

Brandon has been sentenced to 20 years inside of JENA. Where he will continue to program for the super computer, all his days, every day, until the end of his day. But it’s not real, Brandon doesn’t sleep, only shuts down to meet the sleep time of his body double, who is ruining his life, and now pushing Emma away. He’s going mental with what’s happening, and it’s about to push him over the edge. But he meets Seb inside, with his—or is it her, ever-changing Avatars, who may know a way out. He’ll have to hurry because now the supercomputer is threatening the only girl he’s ever cared about.

I loved this story. Fast paced, scary at times when Brandon meets with some of the challenges put to him by JENA. Yet, I found myself snickering throughout, because of Brendan’s humorous voice. And the ended left me encased in chill bumps. Great YA read for those who like an energetic and fast-paced ride. Even if you aren’t into technothrillers—this was a lot of fun.

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