Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Secrets of Kidlit: The Relevance of Things

Everybody has things. Important things, useful things, and the ordinary stuff we don’t think about unless it gets lost. But what things do we give to our fictional characters and how much attention should we pay to them? What do their possessions say about them? And how do we ensure that when a character uses an important tool or skill, it feels organic and momentous to the story? It is important to consider how your character’s belongings make your story sound authentic.

Let’s start with the ordinary things. Your character is going to need clothes and eating utensils and all the things that are part of everyday life. However, it is important that these everyday things are appropriate to his or her character and setting. For example, think about handing your character a hot drink. Does your character insist on drinking her tea out of a bone china teacup, or does an earthenware mug make her happy? Does your character run errands while sipping coffee from a Starbucks paper cup? Or from an indie coffee shop? Perhaps your story takes place in Japan and your characters drink from a tea bowl. A reader can get many clues about your character just by how she drinks her coffee or tea. These little artifacts are important to setting and characterization, but do not spend a lot of time describing them. Use them as a matter of course, because that is how your main character sees them. Remember that a character who lives in the middle ages would not marvel at the trencher he or she is eating out of.

Useful artifacts are important to your story because they either propel the character forward or hold him back. Forward moving objects help your character navigate his journey and/or challenge him. They tend to be things like a half of a locket, a treasure map, or a lucky slingshot. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling, one of the useful objects is the invisibility cloak. It allows Harry to explore the castle and gain the knowledge he’ll need later to defeat Professor Quirrel and Voldemort.

Another way these weighty objects propel the character forward is by using them in the “call to adventure” scene. Famous examples include: Luke Skywalker receiving his father’s lightsaber, Elizabeth Swan stealing the pirate medallion, Lucy Pevensie hiding in the wardrobe, and Frodo Baggins inheriting Sauron’s Ring. All of these objects lead the main characters on an unexpected journey. 

Backward moving objects frustrates your character by making it harder to obtain their goal. This could be a negative prophesy, a promise, or a physical ailment. A classic example is Hazel Grace’s oxygen tank in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green. The tank itself holds her back only a little, but it’s a clear representation of what makes her goals seem unobtainable: her cancer. In A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly, the hero is held back by the promise she made to her dying mother that she would never leave her family - even though she wants to college in New York City.

Whether the object moves the character forward or backward, it is important enough to stick around. Your character will not take this object for granted, therefore they will have an emotional response towards it. They may revere it or loath it, fear it or feel empowered by it. And the emotions can change. Just ask Frodo Baggins.

The most important object of the book is the skill, knowledge, and/or weapon that your hero uses to defeat the villain. This item must show up at least twice before the story’s climatic scene. The reader will feel cheated if a new weapon suddenly turns up at the big show down. Similarly, a weapon that has been used multiple times before defeating the villain often falls flat. To give this object the impact it needs, your character should struggle to use it. The struggle can be physical, mental, or moral, but the character must try and fail. Or achieve only a partial success. This ensures that both the reader and the character will arrive at the final showdown tense and full of doubt. Will the hero master the power or weapon in time? Probably not at first, but then he or she finds the strength or faith or knowledge to use the object at its full power (at last!) and defeats the villain.

Monday, April 13, 2015

REVIEW: Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Like No OtherLike No Other by Una LaMarche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I kept hearing, “If you liked ELEANORE AND PARK you’ll love LIKE NO OTHER.” Well, I loved E&P and the premise behind LIKE NO OTHER immediately hooked me:
A Hasidic Jewish girl and a black boy fall in love. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn. If that doesn’t scream tension, I don’t know what does!

I should point out that I grew up on the (very very far) fringes of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. I have close friends who live the strict Orthodox life, so I couldn’t wait to see how the author portrayed the lifestyle. I was quite pleased. Despite a few minor inconsistencies, the stringent observances were depicted with respect and taste. This is not an easy task to achieve in YA. We are talking about customs that are generally misunderstood by non-Jews and even most “mainstream” Jews. For example, boys and girls may never be in a room alone together, even by accident, and may never ever speak to each other unless under supervision . And touching the opposite sex, even for something as benign as a handshake? Forget about it! I was concerned that the author could depict these customs negatively, but on the contrary, the author explained the customs with respect. Of course the protagonist, Devorah, begins to question the stringent Hasidic rules, but even then, there is a deep admiration for her family and the traditions that she cannot easily cast aside. It would have been so simple for the author to have Devorah rebel against “the system” and denounce the rules, but this is not that kind of YA book. Kudos to the author for giving Devorah more respect for her traditions and not letting her make the easy choices.

The second side of this love story is Jax. He falls hard for Devorah and fast – a little too fast for me, perhaps—but he’s the boyfriend any teenage girl would kill for. Yes, he’s black, but that’s not the problem. The big problem is that Jax isn’t Jewish. The fact that he’s black doesn’t really matter. Devorah’s family instantly hates Jax because he’s a “goy” (a derogative Yiddish word for a non-Jew), but they barely acknowledge that he is black. This is Crown Heights! To this day, there is still a lot of racial and religious tension between Jews and Blacks in Crown Heights. I would have loved to see that played out more in the story.

Despite some minor complaints I had with this book, LIKE NO OTHER, sucked me into the story from the first page. I couldn’t put it down. It’s been a few weeks since I finished reading and I’m still thinking about Jax and Devorah. I’d love to see more YA cross-cultural books like this one that explore the balance between family, tradition, and coming of age.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Reaching Readers through Series Fiction

If you've ever fallen hard for a trilogy, you know how powerful series fiction can be for readers. Young readers are no different!

While stand-alone stories offer the satisfaction of completing the journey in one read, series fiction can help young readers develop a sustained interest in reading. That's been the case for my kids, so much so that I've come to believe series fiction is one of the great secrets of kidlit. Even when I'm working on stand-alone stories, I try to keep this series mentality in mind. As in, viewing the entire book as a series and allowing chapters to build in an organic way that makes the story easier to absorb. That is the particular magic of series fiction.

A series offers young readers the chance to move quickly through new stories, as the characters and settings are sometimes familiar (although also sometimes not!). There are fewer obstacles to reading, because the reader is already primed with all the necessary back story information. That familiarity is encouraging to readers who are just learning to love books.

For Young Readers

Some of our favorite early readers are the MAGIC TREE HOUSE series books. In case you aren't familiar with these books, a brother and sister discover a magic tree house that allows them to travel to other places and times, all while solving puzzles and riddles. My kids both loved the pace and imagination of this series, which has the added bonus of tons of geographical and historical fact!

Each book in the series is short--only ten chapters, with an average of 4 pages per chapter. Perfect for individual reading before bedtime, with excellent illustrations and cliff hanger endings to keep your young reader coming back for more.

A slightly older-age series that offers creepy stories are the GOOSEBUMPS books by R.L. Stine. These, too, offer fantastical plot lines, although there are different characters in each story. Think of them as X-files stories for kids, with nice, compact chapters that encourage young readers.

Illustrated Series

If you're looking for something with a graphic twist for readers who like illustrations with their words, the BIG NATE series books are fun reads, as are the DORK DIARIES. My kids both went through phases of devouring these kind of graphic novels, which have fast paced stories and punch lines on every page, as well as really realistic portrayals of friendship, school life and family struggles as kids get older and discover their own wants and desires in life.

My older son has recently moved on to fantasy series with zero illustrations--a big step that I think he was willing to take after learning that he could, in fact, finish reading whole books on his own. That confidence is something that I attribute to these earlier series that kept him coming back for more, at just the right pace and with plenty of engaging characters.

Series to Grow on

For books with page-turning action and a longer page counts, the WARRIORS series offers a more challenging but rewarding read for young readers. These stories feature animal protagonists who battle for survival among warring clans...of house cats. Yes, cats!

My kid can't get enough of these stories. There are ShadowClans and ThunderClans, struggles for survival and honor, and ultimately lessons about friendship and loyalty.

The series continues for many books, with many featured characters, and at 300+ pages each, they are no small reading task. Yet, the copies from our library are coveted and tattered, because they have struck a special chord that series fiction inspires in young readers: the love of characters, sustained over multiple stories and held dear to your heart.

Is there anything better?

If you have series fiction to recommend, please share the titles in the comments!

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers EditionThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition by William Kamkwamba
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the story of a young adult, who out of necessity searches for a way to bring electricity to his family, in the small village of Malawi, Africa.

When young William Kamkwamba discovers a dynamo (dynamoelectric device) on a bicycle, powering a light with the force of the peddler – he wants to learn how to bring that energy home. Energy is everywhere. How can he harness it?

“No one seemed to have the answers, so I set out to find them on my own.”

William becomes fascinated with the dynamo, and his first stop is the Library. A small library that he and his friends must organize each time the use it. There’s no order. And translating the English takes time. William’s learning a lot of new terms and ideas, but his curiosity holds him to it while he tries to figure out what goes where and the Science behind it.

No one in his village stays up past sunset, once they’re covered in darkness. But what if . . . he could bring light to his home? Then he could study after dark, and make up for the lost years when his family couldn’t afford the payments for his secondary education.

When last year’s harvest never came, the starvation that wrecked his village wouldn’t have to happen again. If he could harness the energy to bring water out of a deep well and water the fields. This would give them a second harvest. And his village could use the spigot, instead of traveling miles for water.

“Someone had to save our women, our trees, and I thought, why not me.”

He learns many things about physics, and so does the reader, in a clearly defined and entertaining way. And even if you know he’s going to build that windmill – the suspense when he struggles and eventually pushes through – you want to cheer him on. Everyone thinks he’s a madman, even his family worries until they see it for themselves. Though the project doesn’t get completed on its own. William’s friends help in very important ways.

This book was published in 2009. I haven’t read that one. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book for young readers, from the cultural escape to learning about William’s experience. His ingenuity and determination are a great inspiration for all young minds.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

K10: One Plus One Equals Blue by MJ Auch

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

This week, please welcome Evan!

Tell us a little about yourself: what is your first name, how old are you, and what is your favorite ice cream flavor?

Hey! I'm Evan, I'm 13 years old (going on 17), and my favorite ice cream flavor? How can I pick just one? Let's go with . . . all of them!

What book did you read and why did you choose it?

I just finished reading MJ Auch's ONE PLUS ONE EQUALS BLUE. I got the book a long time ago, and I was going on a school retreat that had a long bus ride, so I thought it would be a good read to take along.

Can you describe this book in one word?

Like the ice cream flavors, just one?! Wow, this is hard! I'd say colorful.

What was your favorite part of the story?

Even though it wasn't a "BAM!!!" moment, I loved seeing Basil finally embrace Tenzie's friendship so they could save their world together.

If you had a problem similar to the main character's problem, what would you do?

I would speak out unless it wasn't safe. Having a family like Basil's or Tenzie's could be difficult, so I'd need to find someone I trusted who could help me.

What would you say to your best friend to convince them to read this book?

Oh my gosh, it's amazing. Even though it takes a bit to really get into, this book can be really relatable to everyone. And you, like, fall in love with the characters and you just have to keep reading it and there's a lot of stuff that's really amazing. Just read it!

What do you think about the book's cover?

Hands down, perfection! Honestly, the cover made me want to read the book even more, which I feel terrible saying because so many people say not to judge a book by its cover. But it's amazing.

Would you want to read another book about these characters? Why or why not?

Definitely. Basil and Tenzie are pretty lovable people, if you ask me. I really wish I could have found out what happens after the book ends because you meet some really great people. I wish the book never ended!

Can you name another book that reminds you of this one?

A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE by Wendy Mass. Even though Basil is different than Mia (the main character), they both have synesthesia and a great story to follow.

If you could ask the author one question about this book, what would it be?

What happens to Basil and Tenzie after the book ends? Oh, wait. That's kinda like asking for a sequel. Write a sequel, please!

Thanks, Evan!

The blurb:
Twelve-year-old Basil knows he's special--he's been associating numbers with colors since he was a kid. His gift (or curse) has turned him into somewhat of a loner, but his world begins to change when he meets Tenzie, the new girl in school who has similar freakisms. She, too, has synesthesia (a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another). At first, Basil is somewhat annoyed with Tenzie's pushiness, but after Basil's estranged mother returns, his life is turned upside down . . . and Tenzie may be the only person to help him put it back together again. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone GapBone Gap by Laura Ruby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Would you rather live in a mansion, a castle, or your childhood home?
None of them. They aren't real.

The seams of the world can thin and fray. In some places, it's easy to fall through the void between. The small town of Bone Gap is just such a place.

Like Finn and Sean's mother, people in Bone Gap have been known to slip away. The motherless boys have made ends meet on their small farm, and when a beautiful girl named Roza appears in their barn, no one questions her history. Not Finn, who adores the way she brings the O'Sullivan home to life. Not Sean, who falls deeply in love with her. But when Finn witnesses a dark stranger abduct Roza, the town doesn't believe him. People slide through the gaps all the time. Months pass as Finn writes his college essays and falls for the girl down the road. Slowly, he begins to believe he can bring Roza back. Saving her may save his brother too.

Describe a book using only nouns.
Brothers, bees, horse, night.

Days after reading the last page, I am still haunted by this story. The mystery and the mundane walk side by side as the tale unfolds. BONE GAP is a story about perspective and what it means to really see the people you love. The lyrical language is a dream, but one that lets you dig in the garden with dirt under your nails. BONE GAP is simply breathtaking, one my favorite books of 2015.

Which crop has the largest impact on society and why?
Corn. If you are still enough, it will whisper its secrets.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 27, 2015

Trailer Reveal for You're Invited by Gail Nall and Jen Malone!

Hey there, party people! You're invited (sorry, couldn't resist) to check out the trailer for our own Gail Nall's and Jen Malone's new middle grade novel, which releases May 19th. This one is all about best friends and summers at the beach and, most definitely, parties! But mostly best friends...

Here's the trailer:

And here's a bit more about You're Invited:

Four best friends start a party-planning business in this fresh, funny tween novel from the authors of At Your Service and Breaking the Ice.

Twelve-year-old Sadie loves helping her mom with her wedding planning business, and with Sadie’s mad organizational skills, she’s a natural! That’s why it’s so devastating when her mother “fires” her after a Little Mermaid–themed wedding goes awry.

Enter Sadie’s best friends: sporty Vi, ace student Lauren, and boy-crazy Becca. The girls decide that in order to get Sadie’s mom to reconsider, they have to make her see how amazing Sadie is at party planning. Except no one’s gonna hire a twelve-year-old to plan a wedding. A birthday party, though? Definite possibility.

Before long, RSVP—your one-stop shop for the most creative parties in town—is born. Of course, Sadie can’t wait to prove herself to her mom, but the other girls also have their reasons for enlisting: Vi has her eye on the perfect gift for her hardworking dad, and Becca’s all aflush at the thought of connecting with Ryan, the new Irish cutie in town. And though Lauren thinks she’s too busy with summer studies to “officially” join, she’s willing to help out in any way she can.

But in this particular party-planning business, nothing goes according to plan! Sadie’s mom is a perpetual no-show, Vi’s archrival is dead set on ruining her summer, Becca can’t seem to get Ryan to glance in her direction, and Lauren keeps choosing studying over her friends. Is the girls’ friendship strong enough to survive a business? Or does RSVP spell the end of these BFFs?

And guess what? You can pre-order You're Invited in hardcover, paperback, or as an ebook! Yup. You sure can. In fact, Gail and Jen would probably be pretty happy about that. 


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