Monday, September 24, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Inside Out and Back Again

I just finished reading this year's Newbery Honor book INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, and I'm still tingling. Here's the publisher's description:

For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.
This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.

Thanhha Lai created a beautiful story in free verse, based partially on her own experiences fleeing Vietnam and seeking harbor in the U.S. in the 1970's. If books were food, this would be the equivalent of, well, fresh papaya. Sweet, smooth, complex, and gone too soon.

I love stories about immigrants, but this one particularly touched me. I live in an area with a large Asian population (many are attending Yale), and even now I see terrible misconceptions and stereotypes as well as blatant racism. Somehow this little subset of racism is tolerated or ignored, which is one reason why beautiful books like INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN are so important.

I very highly recommend it.

To find other MMGM posts, visit the blog of Shannon Messenger, who first put the Marvelous in Mondays. :)

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Poetry of Chapter Titles

I love chapter titles; do you? They remind me of the title of a poem, the way they give you something to think about, a clue to hook you, a feeling of what’s to come.

They are also one of the most difficult things for me to write. Only after my entire novel is finished and pretty polished do I go through and name most of the chapters. Here are a few examples from CIRQUE (the only one that was written before the chapter was number 2):

The Circus and the Sans-culotte
Doctor Guillotin’s Philanthropic Beheading Machine
A Body at the Turk’s Head
The Empire of the Dead

And here are some of my favorite chapter titles from other writers’ books:

How Nobody Came to the Graveyard
The Hounds of God
(The Graveyard Book)

The Glorious Whitewasher
Dire Prophecy of the Howling Dog
The Cat and the Pain-killer
(Tom Sawyer)

Still Knitting
The Knitting Done
(A Tale of Two Cities. 
The third is the one that had the most impact for me, but largely because of the build-up.)

Over Hill and Under Hill
Riddles in the Dark
Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire
(The Hobbit)

The Boy Who Lived
The Journey from Platform Nine and Three Quarters
Through the Trapdoor
(Harry Potter)

Finally, this last one comes from my husband Mark’s WIP. I love it for both its tongue-in-cheek humor and, speaking of tongues, the way it trips mine when I read it:

The Cursed Boy of Bickern Major

In which
Winifred Wootz has an encounter
with a celestial light socket and the baby
gets blamed

Do you have any favorites, of your own or others, that you’d like to share?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Yesterday you said tomorrow"

There’s a weight loss center near my parents’ house that regularly sets up funny or motivational signs by their driveway. Most of them are pretty hokey, but the one quoted in my title never ceases to strike me... Granted, part of that is because it's posted up in giant red letters like this:


It’s not going to make me start exercising or anything crazy like that. I do enough baby-lifts, jump-over-the-legos obstacle courses and run-the-toddler-up-all-the-stairs-to-the-bathroom-before-she-pees-on-me fitness routines to keep me from formal exercising for now.

But the saying applies so well to writing. I consider myself a highly motivated person, yet I am so often susceptible to a way of thinking that allows me to put things off. “This has been a really hard week, so I need more sleep.” Or “I just need to figure out my homeschooling routine by itself before adding morning writing to it.” And so on. Obviously the problem with this mindset is that it self-perpetuates if you let it.

This all applies on the grand scale as much--or more so--than on the small scale. It disappoints me when I hear someone say, “I’m going to write a book someday, but I just don’t have the time now.” Really? Do you really think you will ever have the time? If you’re serious about being an author someday, you have to start being a writer now.

Here are some figures: If you don’t start writing until your kids are all grown up--well, easy answer. You won’t have a novel until at least a few months after that. If you start writing only 100 words a day, you’ll have a draft of 50,000 words in about a year and a half. Even if you only write 50 words a day, you’ll have a draft in three years.

Like every art, writing demands practice. Great writing demands a habit of work that will only come about from--guess what?--working every day. Maybe over the next several years you’ll write a handful of unpublishable junk. The truth is, the junk has to get out of your system before the masterpieces can push through.

So :)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: What Came from the Stars

WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS is the fourth of Gary Schmidt's books that I've read, but the first that I've loved wholeheartedly. My reason for withholding complete admiration from the three previous ones is kind of complicated. See, I thought every sentence the man wrote was beautiful and brilliant. Completely. But when every single sentence made you stop and say, “wow,” it made it hard to get lost in the story. I felt frustrated, simultaneously bowing before the author's incredible skill, knowing that I’ll never be able to write half that well, and wanting to beg him, like a little kid, to get to the story. 

Before opening WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS, I mentioned to a friend, “You know, one of these days Gary Schmidt is going to write something that will amaze me.” By around the tenth page, I decided this was it.

WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS is both the story of a far-off world, about to crumble under the forces of evil, and a boy in the sixth grade from Plymouth, Massachusetts, doing a little crumbling himself after his mother's death. In order to preserve all the goodness of their world, the great Valorim of that distant planet forge all their Arts into a beautifully-crafted chain and send it hurtling into outer space at the speed of Thought...only to be found in the lunch box of twelve-year-old Tommy Pepper.

So—why this book was so different. I think including the other-worldly perspective allowed the author to pour all his beautiful writing into a place where it perfectly fit. The style was delightfully Beowulf-ish (yes, I was one of those nerds in college who used to read Beowulf aloud). But—when he switched to Tommy's viewpoint, in order to emphasize the contrast between worlds, the lovely language dropped away. It rang completely true as the voice of a mostly-normal twelve-year-old kid, and I loved it. As the worlds began to converge, so did the language, allowing so much of the change to be felt by the reader rather than bluntly pointed out by the author.

Bottom line: very clever, very beautiful, very heart-wrenching, very humorous. Unless you really really really shy away from fantasy, you will love it.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Last week my little Zoe fractured her leg on the eve of her third birthday. She's hobbling around like a champion now, but life is still a little crazy.
So I'll be taking a break of my own until things get back to their normal level of chaos. See you next Monday!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Basking in the glow

There are so many great things about having critique partners that I couldn't start to enumerate them, but lately I have been dwelling on one in particular:

Having critique partners allows you to share your friends' success from an insider point-of-view.

So often in the writing world, we read crazy success stories and think, "Why her/him? Why don't I ever get lucky like that?" We're quick to write success off as chance, probably because it makes us feel better as we curl up in a hole with our chocolate, feeling a little like the only girls not invited to prom. (Okay, by "we" I mean "I." But it makes me feel better to imagine there are others...)

But with critique partners, we practically see the drops of sweat fall onto their keyboards. We know the harshness they have to put up with, because we've doled some of it out. It's obvious to us that any success was not happened upon but fought for.

Really, I think actual "luck" is a lot more rare than we think. Even if someone gets an amazing contract for the first thing they ever wrote the first time they queried it, we don't know how many nights they've stayed up reading, how much they analyzed craft, how they labored over that one manuscript to make it just right and how many drafts of that query they balled up and threw into the furnace.

Getting to the point here... I'm thrilled to share a couple successes of my own critique partners, and, far from curling up, I am basking in the glow of their glory:

Betsy Devaney has an agent! (Emily van Beek from Folio.) She has worked tremendously hard, been typing away at five in the morning for months, done the work, written, revised, repeated it all. Hearing her story sounds wonderfully like a godmother showing up to take Cinderella to the ball--but I can tell you that this Cinderella carved that pumpkin carriage out with her bare hands, wrangled a few horses and drove herself. I am so excited for her and can't wait to hear what happens next with her lovely stories.

And Kiki Hamilton has a new book coming out in less than a month: THE TORN WING, sequel to THE FAERIE RING. I haven't read the final version yet, but the draft I critiqued kept me shivering under my covers waiting to see what happened next. I so admire Kiki's determined nature and positive spirit.

Other critiquing friends are still hard at work. But I know their days are coming soon...

Monday, September 3, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday (MMGM)

I've enjoyed other bloggers' MMGM posts for so long now that I've decided to jump aboard the train. Middle grade fiction doesn't get as much press as the more commercially-focused YA these days, which isn't quite fair in my opinion. The voice of my father is now reverberating through my head: "Who ever said life was fair?" Well, it isn't. But at least I can give justice more of a chance in my own small way. :)
This week, I'd like to spotlight one of the most incredible middle grade books I have read in a long time (make that, I have read ever): Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz.
Because I go all gushy when I try to summarize it, here is the publisher's description:

The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is so expert at manipulating his stringed puppets that they appear alive. Clara Wintermute, the only child of a wealthy doctor, is spellbound by Grisini’s act and invites him to entertain at her birthday party. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with caravan, puppets, and his two orphaned assistants. 
Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are dazzled by the Wintermute home. Clara seems to have everything they lack — adoring parents, warmth, and plenty to eat. In fact, Clara’s life is shadowed by grief, guilt, and secrets. When Clara vanishes that night, suspicion of kidnapping falls upon the puppeteer and, by association, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. 
As they seek to puzzle out Clara’s whereabouts, Lizzie and Parse uncover Grisini’s criminal past and wake up to his evil intentions. Fleeing London, they find themselves caught in a trap set by Grisini’s ancient rival, a witch with a deadly inheritance to shed before it’s too late. 
Newbery Medal winner Laura Amy Schlitz’s Victorian gothic is a rich banquet of dark comedy, scorching magic, and the brilliant and bewitching storytelling that is her trademark.

Laura Amy Schlitz truly is a master storyteller. The deftness with which this story was told, the believibility and distinction of the varying voices through which she narrated, and the vivid world-building left me stunned. Literally. The beauty of this book, both its story and its words, made me gasp. The plotting and pacing made my heart pound. The emotion and themes left me thinking about it long after I had closed the covers. For me, that's the mark of a book that has gone beyond good to being great. Splendors and Glooms is going to be a classic.

I apologize for sounding like a high school essay here (but I always enjoyed those high school literary analyses!), but Splendors and Glooms stands out to me as perhaps the best exploration of the theme of grace that I have ever encountered in a children's book. In face, grace could almost be seen as a distinct character within the story: always there, always working and pulling from different directions, invisible yet ever present. I recently read one of Flannery O'Connor's essays in which she spoke of a moment necessary to every good story: the moment when grace is presented to a character and they must choose whether or not to accept it. That moment in Splendors and Glooms made me stop everything I was doing (I was trying to brush Lucy's hair with one hand while holding the book open with the other); my jaw dropped and I whispered, "Oh. My. Goodness. This is amazing." I generally don't talk to the books I'm reading. (Really.) But in this case I not only wanted to talk to it, but hug it. I will also hug Laura Amy Schlitz if I ever get the chance--be forewarned! I am so grateful to her for writing this incredible story and for giving it to the world.