Thursday, April 27, 2017

EVOLUTION REVOLUTION: Simple Plans by Charlotte Bennardo (Review by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin)

Back in October, I wrote about the first book in Charlotte Bennardo's appealing series EVOLUTION REVOLUTION. I admired the adventurous and resourceful squirrel, Jack, and his quest to protect his woods from a human development project. I praised the style, and the illustrations. And I hoped that Jack's adventures would continue.

Well, continue they did. In this second book, we once again see Jack in action--but this time his efforts go to save a friend. I have to say, Charlotte Bennardo does a magnificent job of making us feel sorry for a rat!

Here's a summary of what the novel is about:
After leading the battle against the construction machines to save his woods, Jack the squirrel continues visiting his human friend, Collin. He brings Sister, and Bird, who can copy Collin's words. This allows Jack to 'talk' to Collin. When Jack shares what he learns with the other woodland animals, Fox wants no part of learning anything human. Rat is too busy teasing the humans who spy on the animals. When Rat gets tagged and caged, Jack has to figure out how to save him while avoiding the humans who want most to capture him--and won't stop until they do.
 I want to concentrate on the way Charlotte Bennardo elicits our sympathies for Rat. Her characters openly state that rats are abhorrent to humans. In fact, in one scene, when Rat and Jack harass the human characters who are spying in the wood there are plenty of screams! Rat is full of himself--his favorite appellation is "King Rat." Despite this, Jack feels gratitude for Rat's help battling the humans, and he introduces Rat to their human ally, the young boy Collin.

Collin, though unnerved by Rat, strokes him. Rat enjoys this, and suddenly we see Rat as not just a repulsive and aggressive creature but as a sentient being who has feelings too. The worst scene is when Rat is captured and caged, and a metal tag is pushed through his ear. At that point, I actually shuddered. Rat had my sympathies entirely.

Evolution Revolution: Simple Plans is smaller in scope than book 1, Simple Machines. But there is a deepening of characterization as we get to know the animals better. There is one more book in the trilogy, Simple Lessons. I can't wait to see what Jack and his animal friends will get up to next.

Here's the cover for the next book. (Once again, I think the art work by Cathleen Daniels is exquisite.)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Persistence by Paul Greci

A persistent hunter. (photo by Paul Greci)

There are many examples of persistence in nature because persistence is part of survival. But as humans we have choices about persistence that don’t have to do only with survival.

Several years ago I had knee surgery to smooth out a slightly torn meniscus. With physical therapy I managed over time to continue to do long distance running and still run marathons. I’m certainly slower than I was prior to the surgery; but I’ll keep on running if I can because I love it. With age, injury, and wear and tear, it’s inevitable that the human body slows down, breaks down.

One thing I love about writing is that barring any major physical or mental impairments, you can keep improving forever.

My recipe for improvement has one simple ingredient: Persistence.
For me, persistence means:
  1. Not wasting whatever amount of time I’ve created in my life to write, i.e. showing up.
  2. And, to paraphrase Laurie Halse Anderson: asking how I can make what I’ve written better instead of looking at it and saying this is pretty good.
  3. Even after I’ve done many revisions, be willing to do more. (In other words, keep applying point number two from above.)

I’ve heard a couple of successful writers proclaim the following myth: if you don’t have what it takes to write, i.e. talent, you never will. Quit wasting your time.

In contrast, James Scott Bell, in his book, Plot and Structure, referred to this as the Big Lie. He spent several years of his life believing the Big Lie before he realized that he could learn how to write fiction. Now, as you probably know, he’s published over twenty books. 

Needless to say, I agree with James Scott Bell!

What does persistence look like for you?

Paul Greci is the author of Surviving Bear Island, a 2015 Junior Library Guild Selection and a 2016 Scholastic Reading Club Selection.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book review: Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes, by Mary E. Lambert

"Annabelle has a five mile rule: She must keep her friends from coming within five miles of her home. That's because Annabelle's mom is a hoarder. Their house is full of stuff: canned goods, broken toys, old newspapers... It's everywhere except for Annabelle's spotless room.

Annabelle can't let anyone find out what her house is like. They'll realize that her mom is crazy. They'll make fun of her. Or feel sorry for her. Or try to help.

But when the newspaper piles come crashing down on her sister's head one morning, it kicks off an epic fight between her parents that ends up with her dad taking off -- and her fix-it-all grandmother stepping in.

As Annabelle realizes how bad things have gotten for her little sister, while trying to navigate her first crush, not to mention stay sane herself, she's forced to come to terms with the fact that maybe she can't keep all her secrets to herself. Maybe she can't just throw her mom's things out... maybe she has to let some people in."

Praise for Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes:

"Annabelle's smart, perceptive voice is fresh and realistic. Well-drawn and sympathetic characters (even, eventually, Annabelle's parents) drive this immersive tale. This debut story is a standout."
-- Kirkus Reviews

"This poignant tale with an authentic and memorable narrator will resonate with many young readers–whether they have personal experiences with hoarding or not. Move this to the top of the realistic fiction purchase list in libraries serving middle graders."
-- School Library Journal

"Gutsy and affecting. A believably hopeful ending reinforces the story's call to face problems rather than hide or run from them, and to ask for help from others–especially family."
-- Publishers Weekly

"Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes is a heartfelt exploration of family and friendship, adolescence and sisterhood; it is a touching and real portrait of the beautiful mess that love and life can sometimes be."
-- Dan Gemeinhart, author of The Honest Truth

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes (published in March 2017) is Mary E. Lambert's debut novel. On her website, Mary, a VCFA alumna, writes that she always wanted to write about the complexity of the sister relationship, and that after some suggestions from her graduate program advisors, the idea for this book was born. Mary succeeded in portraying the emotional roller-coaster of not only the relationship between sisters, but also between mothers and daughters. I was fascinated by the component that Annabelle's mom has an out-of-control compulsion to hoard, but more that that, I was profoundly touched by the love that binds this family even though they're facing the worst crisis of their lives. Unlike many other books featuring broken parents, the love that the family members have for each other shines through the page, even when Annabelle's mean to her sister or even her mom. I loved that saving her family is the main desire line of the story, and that Annabelle isn't a traditional heroine in the sense that she solves the family problem. How could she? She's just a kid. But her actions, small when compared to other stories featuring saving the world, send the stone rolling so that her mom can finally get the help she needs. Annabelle's family is her whole world, so true to middle-grade kids. The raw emotion of Annabelle trying to function socially with her friends and the new boy she likes while at the same time she holds this huge secret in her heart make the stakes so high and important.

Annabelles' voice is true middle-grade, full of optimism, but at the same time, her awareness of the family situation makes her sound much more mature than her friends. Her relationship with her friends is another element that I admire of this story. Friendships are so crucial at the age that I was pleasantly surprised that the author gave Annabelle an amazing support group, while at the same time portraying the dynamic among the friends in a realistic and honest way.  

I admire how the author balanced the narrative as she portrayed the relationship between the sisters, the relationship between Annabelle and her mother, and in turns, the relationship of her mother with her own mother and sister, who although never appears on the page, is a looming presence on the story.

The impact of the climax of the story took me by surprise, in the best way possible. Although the story deals with heavy issues (dysfunctional family, sister with anxiety, etc), the narrative is never dark, but there is a sense of contained emotions all the way to the end, when the author executes the conclusion magisterially.

5 stars to Annabelle's story. I can't wait for Lambert's next book. She's an author to watch.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

Villains: Rivals, Agents, and Enemies by Joanna Roddy

Antagonists come in many forms: natural disasters, well-meaning friends, or even unwitting coincidence. But I think the most fun to write are villains. 

Project Mayhem has posted some great material about villainy in the past, but I thought I'd revisit the subject with some ideas that have been helpful to me lately.

Many many types of villains have been identified before. But I've noticed lately that there are often three levels of villains that come up within the same novel, especially those with young protagonists. So let's break them down and look at their roles, functions, and pitfalls.

What they are: Rivals are someone on the same level, or close to it, with the protagonist. They may only serve to drive the protagonist forward as a competitor who poses a true challenge, or they may become a bully who actively causes harm. Rivals are not typically the main threat. They are usually unrelated to the true villain of the story; however, they may be conscripted to become an agent of the greater enemy, or used as a pawn. They may also be somehow redeemed before the end, often as a result of their encounters with the protagonist. 

Examples: Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter), Josie Pie (Anne of Green Gables), Boromir (Fellowship of the Ring), Edmund (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), Marion Hawthorne (Harriet the Spy)

Function: The Rival creates situations that test the protagonist, calling out and revealing their strengths, weaknesses, and true character. They also serve as a foil to the protagonist, so that readers become more invested in the main character through seeing their virtues in contrast to the Rival's character flaws. They are a training ground for the climactic confrontation with the greater enemy and create try/fail cycles to track the protagonist's progress. In reality-based fiction, the Rival may be the only intentional human antagonist. 

Pitfalls: Like all villains, Rivals need to have a good reason in their own minds for treating our protagonist the way they do. Just being a spoiled brat or the next best competition isn't enough for them to single out the protagonist. Get inside their head and figure out what pressures, insecurities, and prejudices make them the way that they are. Frenemies, former friends, or family members can make for a much more complex kind of Rival who has both love and hatred at play in how they relate to the protagonist.

What they are: Agents are tools used by the true enemy to do their evil work. Often they are secret Agents, posing as allies but actually working against the protagonist. Sometimes they are overtly acting as a representative of a greater evil but are clearly motivated by lesser impulses and desires, which can allow for crueler and pettier torments for the protagonist. Sometimes they are corrupted or possessed by evil, or they may be a henchman. Often Agents are in positions of power or inherent trust, which lends to more surprising revelations and to abuses of that power, amplifying the largeness of the overall threat.

Examples: Wormtail/ Peter Pettigrew (Harry Potter), Barty Crouch Jr./ Mad-Eye Moody (Harry Potter), Professor Quirrel (Harry Potter), Luke (Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief), Saruman (Lord of the Rings), Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Function: Agent villains allow for layers of complexity to the greatest source of antagonism in a novel. They create good plot twists when their motives and loyalties are revealed. They give the reader a sense of the pervasiveness of the evil and the immensity of what the protagonist has to overcome. Agents are often the more interesting villains because their ability to deceive about their true motives gives the reader both good and bad interpretations of their character, heightening the horror of what seemingly good people are capable of. 

Pitfalls: Again, this type of villain needs a strong personal reason for doing what they do. They may believe in the cause of the true enemy, or they may be acting under duress, but their willingness to be used as an Agent has to have that additional personal motivation based on past experiences, beliefs, and circumstances. It can be tricky to keep a secret Agent disguised from your reader while finding that balance of giving them believable flaws, a compelling motivation for what they're doing, and some well-hidden hints before the reveal. Likewise, a too-perfect Agent will automatically be suspect. 

What it is: This is the mastermind, entity, Dark Lord, or true source of evil who will pose the greatest threat to the protagonist, which they must overcome. These are the more traditional villains. 

Examples: Sauron (Lord of the Rings), Voldy (Harry Potter), The White Witch (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), The Emperor (Star Wars), Lex Luther (Superman), Kronos (Percy Jackson)

Function: The Enemy's main function is to pose the greatest threat and bring the protagonist to their ultimate limits as they try to overcome that threat. They personify everything the protagonist must reject, and good Enemies actually do make clear the allure of their perspective, or offer such horrific consequences that the reader would understand why the protagonist would capitulate.

Pitfalls: One pitfall here is having only the central Enemy. As you can see from the above, layers of challenges with lesser villains better prepares the protagonist, and in turn the reader, for the final confrontation with the true Enemy. If you do layer in this way, though, you shouldn't just plunk in the Enemy at the end. Threads of the Enemy should be woven throughout the story, and the challenges the protagonist faces should relate in some manner to the ultimate challenge in the climax. Another major pitfall is to make the Enemy one-dimensional. Remember that every villain is a hero in their own eyes--they are a distortion of what goodness and heroism should be, not necessarily the total opposite of it. Understand why they do what they do.

I hope you find this as helpful as I have! Please let us know in the comments if you've noticed this hierarchy before, or if you think there might be other things to add to the levels of villainy. Now go practice your evil laugh. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

So You Want to Write a Verse Novel by Caroline Starr Rose

April is National Poetry Month -- the perfect time to examine if your manuscript might be right for verse.

The more I write, the more I firmly believe there is no one way to write a book. I have yet to approach any of my manuscripts the same way. Here, though, are some things I’ve learned from both reading and writing verse novels:

Subject matter must be right for poetry

Some topics lend themselves more easily to poetry than others. Some subjects refuse to be written as prose. Many times an author will use verse to mimic the rhythm of the story. Here are a few books that come to mind:
  • Sharon Creech’s HEARTBEAT, about a girl who loves to run
  • Karen Hesse’s OUT OF THE DUST, where the spare language reflects the stark Dust Bowl setting
  • Lisa Schroeder’s FAR FROM YOU, about a girl who sings and and writes songs
  • Kwame Alexander's THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED -- two sports-focused verse novels that move and weave like a kid in motion

I read this dedication and then I died

Protagonists must be right for poetry

Often verse novels are told from a very close first-person point of view. Such writing calls for a lot of introspection on the protagonist's part.  Other times verse is used as a way for multiple voices to be heard, almost like a Greek chorus. Here are some examples:

  • Thanhha Lai’s INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, about a Vietnamese girl’s efforts to understand her new American home
  • Karen Hesse’s WITNESS, where the Ku Klux Klan moves into a quiet Vermont town, and citizens reflect on the change they bring
  • My BLUE BIRDS, where two girls meant to be enemies instead become secret friends

Poems should be able stand alone

Each poem in a verse novel must capture one moment, scene, idea, mark of change in your character's life. Ideally poems should be able to function separately from the rest of the book.

Poems must contribute to the whole

When I worked through my verse novel, MAY B., I kept a quilt in mind, treating each poem like its own square of fabric. Each patch had to be able to function separately while at the same time move the story forward. I trusted that if certain patterns and shades in my story quilt were repeated (think themes or story strands), eventually the interconnectedness would surface -- a much more organic approach than is normally taken with prose.

I also like to think of verse novels as a photo album, with each poem telling its own story as an individual picture would. When the photos are viewed together, an even bigger story is revealed.

Varied poem lengths

Without the structure of chapters, verse novels are simultaneously abrupt and fluid -- poem lengths can be jagged yet aide the plot in moving through scenes swiftly. It is often difficult to find a place to stop reading, as one poem often bleeds into the next.

Varied line lengths

Verse novelists play with key phrases or words they want to bring to their reader’s attention by the way they arrange words on the page. Stanza and line breaks can be used to slow or speed up reading, to draw the eye to important phrases, and to show readers how to best "speak" the poem.

Emotion and structure

The structure of a poem often communicates to readers a character’s emotional state.

How might fear look structurally? A verse novelist might use little punctuation or words tightly packed together. Maybe the language of the poem will unfold in short bursts, reminiscent of a child peeking into a darkened room and quickly slamming the door.

Poetic form

Some verse novelists use specific types of poetry (sonnets, for example), as Pat Brisson did with her book, THE BEST AND HARDEST THING. In writing about Sylvia Plath in YOUR OWN, SYLVIA, author Stephanie Hemphill chose to mirror the format of several of Plath's poems, giving her readers a sense of the poet's style, subject matter, intensity, and character.

The visual and the aural

When I was a teacher, I used to tell my students that poetry should be seen and heard. There is something special that happens when a reader experiences seeing, hearing, and saying a poem all at once -- the fullness of the poem is discovered this way. 

If you ever feel stuck understanding a verse novel, find a private corner and try reading it aloud.

Listen in

Verse novels are stories best communicated through the language, rhythm, imagery and structure of poetry. Is verse right for your story? Listen to your story. It will lead the way.