Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Secrets of Kidlit: The Call To Action - How To Get Your Protagonist On The Right Path

The last place I thought I'd get good advice on the craft of writing was nutrition class. After all, this class is about nutrients and basic biochemistry. There's not a lot of creative writing going on there. But the day our teacher explained why she'd stopped seeing clients, it was like a thunderbolt of clarity into the power of proper character motivation.

 "It's exhausting," she had said. "Everyday, I'd show my clients how to improve their health, but most people wouldn't change their habits." As she shook her head, I could see she shared Cassandra's frustration - she'd inform people of what they were likely to face in the future if they didn't change, but her warnings went unheeded.

"There's only one group of people who will make a permanent change to their diet without a fuss - people who have had a major health scare."

This stunned me for a moment. Only the people who have faced the reality of death are willing to make drastic changes to their lifestyle in order to survive. That's a painful revelation. But it also shed some light on a fundamental element of storytelling. Just as people must have a profound experience that incites drastic change, so too, must our characters.

In every successful story, something pushes the main character out of his or her normal routine. It's something powerful enough that it provides them with the motivation to make a journey they never thought they could face. In fiction this is often called the call to adventure. Most of the time though, people and fictional characters would consider this "call" to be a really rotten piece of luck.

Consider these characters or people:

Katniss Everdeen  - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Jyn Erso  -  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed
Frodo Baggins  -  Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
Cassie Sullivan  -  The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Mark  -  The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart
Cheryl Strayed  -  Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Harry Potter  -  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter aside (we'll get to that in a minute), every single one of these "calls to adventure" starts with life-threateningly bad luck. Katniss's sister gets chosen as tribute to the deadly Hunger Games. Jyn Erso and Frodo Baggins both discover they are in the wretchedly unique position of being able to destroy the Empire/Darkness. Cassie Sullivan's "call" happens when aliens show up to take over the world, kill her parents and kidnap her little brother. Both Cheryl Strayed and Mark get a wake-up call that leads them to leave everything behind and journey into the wilderness to save themselves by re-discovering the meaning of life.

But what about Harry Potter, you ask? There was no life-or death moment for him - not even when Hagrid pushed down the door and tied Uncle Vernon's shot gun into a knot. The wake up call in this story is much more subtle. It happens when Aunt Petunia admits that they've always known that

Harry was a wizard. She admits that they've lied to him his entire life and have always done the best they could to keep Harry's magic a secret - even from Harry. Worse, they make it clear that they have no intention of ever allowing Harry to embrace his true self. If Harry did not leave with Hagrid that morning, if he chose to stay with the Dursley's, his spirit would have continued to be crushed by his aunt and uncle and he would have experienced an emotional death.

People prefer the predictability of the life they already know so to make a change without some sort of "wake up call" doesn't often happen (for more on this, check out my previous post here). Unfortunately, not all people listen to the call. Not everyone is willing to make changes. It's the people and characters who DO listen to the call to action and take that difficult path that leads to change. In stories, this is exactly why we love and root for these characters - we want to see them succeed!

As you write, remember what draws us to read and write stories - it's that powerful human struggle to change into someone better. This is why it's important to kick your character out of his or her routine and set them on the path to empowerment. Keep in mind, drastic change is always unpleasant. And it might taste like kale-tofu smoothies.

But it also forces your character to grow in ways he or she didn't expect, and that helps to keep readers engaged in your story.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: Macy McMillian and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sixth grade is coming to an end, and so is life as Macy McMillan knows it. Already a For Sale sign mars the front lawn of her beloved house. Soon her mother will upend their little family, adding an unwelcome stepfather and pesky six-year-old twin stepsisters. To add insult to injury, what is Macy s final sixth grade assignment? A genealogy project. Well, she'll put it off―just like those wedding centerpieces she's supposed to be making.

Just when Macy's mother ought to be sympathetic, she sends her next door to help eighty-six-year-old Iris Gillan, who is also getting ready to move―in her case, into an assisted living facility. Iris can't move a single box on her own and, worse, she doesn't know sign language. How is Macy supposed to understand her? But Iris has stories to tell, and she isn't going to let Macy's deafness stop her. Soon, through notes and books and cookies, a friendship grows. And this friendship, odd and unexpected, may be just what Macy needs to face the changes in her life.

Shari Green is an amazing writer and this book in verse is so well done I thought about it for days after I finished. It’s brilliantly put together making it an unforgettable read. 

Macy, who is deaf, is dealing with a lot of things. Her mother is getting remarried. She will have new step sisters. And, to top it all off, she has to help her elderly neighbor pack up her house. But as the story evolves, relationships form, and we see the true beauty of friendship and coming to terms with our own struggles.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reaching Readers: Tips for a Successful School Visit

Today we welcome middle grade and YA author Christina Farley to talk about school visits! Christina's going to share some of her best tips, so get ready to take some notes . . .

Being a middle grade author opens doors for you to do school visits. Meeting my target audience and talking to kids who have read my books is literally the most rewarding experience for me as an author. It puts everything back into perspective and reminds me why I’m writing what I write. But putting together an author visit can feel like a daunting task. Where do I begin? What do I say during that hour with the kids? How do I even find schools to go to?

These are all real and valid questions that you should consider before you begin to think about doing a school visit. Today I thought I’d share some tips and ideas with you based on my experiences visiting nearly 100 schools.

Where to Begin:
Before the Visit:
  • When a school contacts you, make sure you have a contract set up. Be clear about your expectations. Consider your costs, the length of your sessions, how many sessions you will do, teacher supervision requirements, and the size of the group you will be speaking to. 
  • Send the school any pre-visit information that you have to spark student interest. Ideas include: pre-visit video, pre-visit activities, author visit poster PDF, an activity website of your book like the Book Scavenger (I’m obsessed with this book!) or my Gilded series, and your book trailer if you have one.
The Visit:
  • You’ve got the kids all pumped up about your visit but now it’s time to BRING IT! 
  • Authors do all different types of presentations. You can use Prezi, PowerPoint, or just have a Q&A. Just make sure you have a plan. 
  • Practice beforehand. 
  • Be ready for ANYTHING to happen. Think fire drills, abruptly ending your session, no tech, you’ve lost your voice (bring water and cough drops), the kids are out of control, no teachers in sight, and (my favorite) when the kids get so excited that they literally go BANANAS and you can’t calm them down. 
  • Check out these middle grade authors’ fantastic tips: 
    • Diana Peterfreund I wow them with interesting facts and tidbits about the research for my books, along with funny/dramatic power point presentation. I have one on my unicorn books where I show them all kinds of interesting real-life lore about unicorns they probably don't know. And now I have my Omega City series which is about bunkers, buried cities, space stations, and more. 
    • Kerry O'Malley Cerra I always show my old report cards. I wasn't the best student and this really surprises kids and helps those who are also not the best see that they can still become something. 
    • Dianne Marenco Salerni When I do a writing workshop with kids, after they complete the writing activity, I have them switch with their neighbors and read each other's work. Then I tell them we're going to play a game called "Rat Out Your Friend" in which they point out peers whose work is so good, we need to hear it. This is a fun alternative to asking for volunteers. 
Thank you so much, Christina! These are fantastic tips, and I can't wait to try them myself. For more school visit fun, check out these two past Kidliterati posts: Author Visit Tips and School Visits.

More about Christina . . .

CHRISTINA FARLEY is the author of the bestselling Gilded series. Prior to that, she worked as an international teacher and at a top secret job for Disney where she was known to scatter pixie dust before the sun rose. When not traveling the world or creating imaginary ones, she spends time with her family in Clermont, Florida with her husband and two sons where they are busy preparing for the next World Cup, baking cheesecakes, and raising a pet dragon that's in disguise as a cockatiel. You can visit her online at Find her online here: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube

A mystical adventure about a pulls-no-punches princess and the power of her magical pen.

A dark secret lurks in Keira’s family. She comes from a long line of Word Weavers, who bring their stories to life when they use a magical pen. But for generations Word Weavers have been hunted for their power. That’s why Keira is forbidden to write. When Keira discovers her grandma’s Word Weaver pen, and writes a story for the Girls’ World fairy-tale contest, she starts to wonder if anyone ever truly lives happily ever after. Inspired by the life and times of Gabrielle d’Estrรฉes, a real French princess who lived during the 1500s, The Princess and the Page follows the mystical journey of a modern-day “royal” who goes from having a pen in her hand to wishing for the world at her fingertips. Amazon / Barnes and Noble / IndieBound / Add it to Goodreads

Monday, April 17, 2017

Done Dirt Cheap by Sarah Nicole Lemon

Done Dirt CheapDone Dirt Cheap by Sarah Nicole Lemon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tourmaline Harris’s life hit pause at fifteen, when her mom went to prison because of Tourmaline’s unintentionally damning testimony. But at eighteen, her home life is stable, and she has a strong relationship with her father, the president of a local biker club known as the Wardens.

Virginia Campbell’s life hit fast-forward at fifteen, when her mom “sold” her into the services of a local lawyer: a man for whom the law is merely a suggestion. When Hazard sets his sights on dismantling the Wardens, he sends in Virginia, who has every intention of selling out the club—and Tourmaline. But the two girls are stronger than the circumstances that brought them together, and their resilience defines their friendship.

This is a beautifully-written book with a setting that has a life of its own. I adore a book with a vivid setting, and DONE DIRT CHEAP didn't disappoint. Set in the mountains of Virginia, the book focuses on the developing friendship between the two main characters (between whom the POV alternates). Tourmaline and Virginia are relateable characters, and I spent the book rooting for their friendship to work out. They each have their own romantic interests which complicate the problems they already face, and even though in one case, I almost thought the romance shouldn't work out, I still found myself hoping it would.

This is not a book to rush through. With its lyrical prose, it's a book to spend time with. The plot is strongly constructed, and I wanted to speed through it. But once I let myself slow down and savor the sentences, I found myself becoming more patient with taking a little extra time to read it. There are dozens and dozens of wonderful lines in this book, so I'll share my favorite:

"When girls stick together in this world, they're harder to pick off."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

K10: Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by Hal Johnson & Illustrated by Tom Mead

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 ice cream flavor?

Sierra, I'm 10. My current favorite ice cream flavor is pistachio almond.

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

I read Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods: 20 Chilling Tales from the Wilderness. I chose it because I wanted to read a creepy book.

Can you describe this book in one word?


What was your favorite part of this story?

Since it's 20 short stories, my favorite story was Hugag (each story is about a different fearsome creature). I liked this one the best because the hugag isn't a carnivore (Sierra is a vegetarian) and it isn't super creepy.

If you had to walk through the Lumberwoods, which fearsome creature would you least like to run into and why?

The squonk because it has wrinkly, warty, loose skin and contagious sadness.

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

It's awesome! If you like sort of creepy books, this is really the book for you... PLUS it glows!

What do you think about the book's cover?

It's the type of book cover that if I saw it at the store, I'd definitely pick it up and check it out. PLUS it glows!

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

Yes because each chapter is a new story so I don't get sick of the book too fast.

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

No. I've never read another book like this... Which I think is a compliment.

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

How did you come up with all of the names for the creatures?

*Thanks so much for sharing this book with us, Sierra!*


If you're feeling brave and think you'd like to experience the Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by Hal Johnson, illustrated by Tom Mead for yourself, here's more details...

Just for kids, twenty bone-chilling tales about the most dangerous fantastical beasts in American folklore. Meet the Snoligoster, who feeds on the shadows of its victims. The Hodag, like a spiny-backed bull-horned rhinoceros. The Hoop Snake, which can chase prey at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour and then, with one sting of its tail, cause it to turn purple, swell up, and die.

Illustrated throughout, including eight drawings printed with glow-in-the-dark ink, Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods is for every young reader who loves a good scare. The book was originally published in 1910 by William Thomas Cox and is now inspiringly retold by Hal Johnson, author of Immortal Lycanthropes. The creatures are all scales and claws, razor-sharp teeth and stealth, camouflage and single-minded nastiness. Straight out of the era of Paul Bunyan, they speak to an earlier time in American history, when the woods were indeed dark and deep and filled with mystery. The tone is smart and quirky. The illustrations have a sinewy, retro field-guide look. Read them around a campfire, if you dare.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: The Wood by Chelsea Bobulski

The WoodThe Wood by Chelsea Bobulski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do not travel on the paths.
Do not linger after dark.
Do not ignore the calling.

Sixteen-year-old, Winter, is a guardian of the wood, the same wood that took her father. She protects the travelers who pass through, making sure they return to their time period. Otherwise, the world could implode.

It’s a dangerous job. Winter works all day to ensure the travelers are guided back to their threshold. But, if she’s caught in the wood after sundown, the shadows, called Sentinels, rise; the icy cold follows their razor sharp teeth.

The wood is ill, black tar drips from the leaves, and it’s spreading. Travelers are found in bad shape, stricken to their core by the darkness of the wood and the poison and the shadows.

Winter isn’t alone. She worries about her mother, while her mother worries if she’ll return home each day, or if the wood has taken her. There’s Uncle Joe, who’s worked closely with her father, and more like brothers through the years as guardians of the wood. Uncle Joe watches over Winter. He wants to protect her where her father left off.

So when a boy passes through the wood from the 18th Century, a mortal, begging for help, who might know where her father is, she listens. Reluctant, at first, helping him goes against the most important rule of the guardians: No traveler can pass through a threshold into a time that is not their own.

Together, they set out to save the wood, and find his parents, Old Ones who disappeared that may know what’s happening to the wood and how to stop it. But the ancient one, Varo has returned, an outcast 500 years ago. Could he be darkening the wood, and using Dragon’s Bain, the one thing that could kill an immortal guardian?

A fast-paced fantasy with a time-travel twist, a forest that comes alive with dark forces, magical benevolent fireflies, friendship, sacrifice, and a satisfying conclusion, make for an absorbing read.

Recommended for readers 13 and up.

Release date: August 1, 2017 by Feiwel & Friends

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Secrets of Kidlit: Building Characters on the Page

Like many aspiring writers, I read some books and took a couple of workshops on character development to improve my craft. And while there are a lot articles on how to create a character profile or chart a character’s arc across a plot, there aren’t as many on how to develop a character with every line we write about them. In this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned about how to get the character onto the page.

Appearance: At first we’re tempted to write down that she has brown hair and green eyes, but it’s better if we give details that the character chooses, rather than what’s been given. This will tell us much more about her personality. The short bob that requires little care or time may tell us about her impatience or her confidence. The crust in his eyelashes can underscore matters of hygiene or hurry depending on the scenario.

Possessions: We’ve all read meticulous passages detailing every article of clothing worn by a young adult heroine, but just a few touches can give us clues to her preferences. Whether she wears earthy sandals or black combat boots tells us about her peer group. If he carries a copy of The Economist or Mother Jones in his briefcase or backpack also changes our impressions.

Dialogue: Entire books have been devoted to this part of the craft, but what a character says (or doesn’t say) and how it is said shows us what she/he is trying to communicate, either directly or indirectly. The vocabulary and tone are doorways into the character’s relational world. The challenge for the writer is to choose which moments to dramatize. Not every interaction is deserving of dialogue.

Facial Expressions: These are why face-to-face conversations communicate so much better than texting, emailing or emojis. Our expressions are the most effective means of conveying social information, and they do so instantly. It makes a world of difference if the word “No” is accompanied by a glare, a scrunch of the nose, or a wink. Spice up your dialogue tags with some expressions rather than the tired “he said.”

Gestures: These other non-verbal cues tell the reader so much about what is going on inside the character, sometimes more effectively than what is said. If she taps her lips before speaking, we get the sense that the character may be choosing her words or holding something back. When he keeps his hands folded in his lap through out the date, we wonder if he is too proper or just trying to control himself.

Actions: Taking gestures to the next level, what a character does tells us more about them than what she/he says. Joe may like to talk about spirituality, but if he also rises each morning to meditate for half an hour, we know how central it is to his life. Whether Jane drops in on a campus protest on her way to the dining hall or takes an all-night bus to a demonstration at the capital are defining actions. And contrasts between deeds and words can open up new levels of depth and complexity.

Thoughts: What our character is thinking is the highway to his or her inner world. The task is to decide what and how to reveal it. Too many paragraphs of silent monologue can quickly become tedious, but flashes of inner dialogue can illuminate how a character is processing a confusion, decision, or frustration. Although internal discourse provides instant insight, writers are encouraged to use it only when dialogue and actions would not communicate it better.

Emotions: Like their thoughts, what characters are feeling tells the reader all about their internal weather. The writer's mission is to find a tactile way to show feelings. How the body reacts to an emotion, and how it is experienced by the character translates what is really going on inside. Whether her stomach clenches or his lips tremble at the first wave of love describes entirely different dispositions.

For further reading, one of my favorite books on character development is Nancy Kress’ Dynamic Characters, which is a trove of ideas for writers at every level.
All the best, Chris Brandon Whitaker


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