Monday, January 19, 2015

Book Review: Wheels of Change by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Not long ago, one of my cousins had to suffer through a small tragedy when his iPod Classic bit the proverbial silicon dust. To make things worse this happened just after Apple announced they wouldn’t be making the Classic anymore, so he wasn’t able to replace it or have it repaired. This makes me want to carry mine around in a thick layer of bubble wrap now, because once it stops working I’ll be forced to move on to something new. This idea of how advancing technologies can push us out of our societal comfort zones is the central theme of Darlene Beck Jacobson’s new MG book, Wheels of Change. Interestingly she uses historical fiction to reflect on the topic, setting her story in the early 1900s when automobiles have not yet taken over the world.

Twelve-year-old Emily Soper is far more interested in her father’s carriage construction business than she is in jumping through all of the cultural hoops that will help her learn to become a proper young lady. When the first automobiles of the time show up in her community, she nervously considers what this will mean in the long-term for her father’s work. While wondering what she can do to help him, she gets caught up in several other changes happening around her, including the activity of women suffragists, the effects of racial intolerance, and finding the direction of her own life.

The book has a decent length for a MG novel, coming in just shy of two hundred pages. Each character in the story is presented in a way that makes them easily identifiable for readers, and the settings and time period benefit from what had to be extensive research by the author.  By having Emily participate in or witness so many historical touchstones of the time period, I feel the story occasionally runs the risk of losing the attention of some readers, who might skim through chapters to pick up their favorite story threads or characters. Emily’s point of view on the social issues addressed reads as informed by hindsight at times, but this could also be a draw for a young history fan.

It’s hard for me to read anything middle grade without seeing it from a teacher’s point of view and wondering how my students would connect with it. Wheels of Change is the type of book I’d suggest to a student with a particular interest in American history.

More about Wheels of Change

Friday, January 16, 2015

Do You Know Which MG-ers You’re Writing For?

As I was floating peacefully through my twitter feed Wednesday night (surely in an effort to seek enlightenment rather than an act of avoiding the revisions that are hounding me like a pack of yellow-eyed, slavering, were-jackels), I noticed and retweeted this tweet by Scholastic:

The graphic in question is actually from the What Kids Want in Books subsection of a much larger, more encompassing Kids & Family Reading Report from Scholastic, all of which is probably worth some eyeballs from anyone interested in writing for children. That is, I mean, you should read it, not sacrifice actual eyeballs to it because a) ew, eyeballs, gross, and b) it’s an online report and cares nothing for the paltry sacrifices  of your people.

Anyway, it was fascinating to me, in particular, as a kidlit writer who also happens to be a profound data geek somewhere deep in the cold, dark recesses of his shriveled little heart.  That said, discussing the full report could expand into a discourse of both epic and epochal proportions, and, let’s be honest, that’s a conversation to have with your best writer friend over a soy latte or cappuccino the size of Paul Bunyan’s boot at your favorite coffee shop.  Still, considering just the infographic posted in the tweet, though, was pretty instructive for me.

First of all, it was nice to see the ages of readers that make up what’s traditionally thought of as “middle grade” (admittedly, though, it does stretch a bit beyond it on both ends of the age spectrum) broken down a little more than usual. Often times, two different books that people say are undeniably middle grade “middle grade” could actually be very different depending on whether the target readers in question is 8 year old or 14.  I mean, 14 is a lot closer to 18 than it is to 8.

Of course, for most of us familiar with kidlit, this is not exactly as Earth-shattered a revelation as, say, the time you realized that Sprite was actually made by Coke. It does, however, underline something not all of us think about when we’re talking to other MG writers. That is, your preferred target age group may not be the same as someone else’s target group. Trust me, it’s always worth it to make sure you’re not comparing apples and pomegranates.

Being a middle-grade writer myself, though, the real value of the graphic was personal. I couldn’t help but take a moment to calculate where my MG books tend to fall in the age ranges specified. That is, its a chance to evaluate whether or not I’ve been writing the kinds of things I hope will draw the attention of the 9-12 year old age group represented by my kids. Because, as I’ve said, they’re the ones I most imagine reading my books.

The good news is that I see’m to be hitting the marks. My MG novels are all adventures with some element of mystery to solve, regardless of whether it’s warp-speed fueled jaunt through open space or the tale of a creepy night locked in a house that may or may not be haunted. And the characters tend to be a varying mix of smart, strong, and brave that won’t quit until they find a solution to their problems, even if they do usually need a little help from their friends to get there.

In other words, congratulations to me! It turns out that based on the research, I’m writing middle grade stories in my MG novels, particularly well-suited for 9-14 years olds.

Which, I suppose, shouldn’t come as much of a shock, since that’s what I set out to do and everything.

Still, sometimes it’s nice to see it validated with actually data, right there in (somewhat colorful) black and white.

What about your MG motivations? Do your stories fit in with what your target audience wants? Or are you just writing what you love, and figuring that someone else might love it too, no matter what the age?


Monday, January 12, 2015

How do you choose your next WIP?

Writing the book was exhausting. And fun. And blah blah blah. But now it's done. Yay! And published. Unbelievable! And then it was back to work on the second one - or ten.

But I couldn't get going. My MG writing languished, but not for lack of material - or ideas. Quite the opposite was true. Making myself focus on one book was giving me fits. It was quite frustrating and it felt impossible to go in any particular direction.

Because the ideas and characters for competing stories wouldn't leave me alone, I wrote. But still, I couldn't find my direction. I badly wanted to be working on my next book - perhaps too badly. I didn't want to waste time - or words, but still, I couldn't find THE THING that would be next REAL WIP. Maybe I just needed to find that one plot line or character around which everything else could be written!

Could I find a way? Maybe. But I approached my second novel with the assumption that it would fly off my fingers as did my first. HA! Wrong.

Since it was an emotional and personal story, the rough draft of my first book wrote itself in about a month. But I'd had years to consider various elements of TREE ROPER, and even then, revisions took a long time.

When it was done, published, out in the world yada yada, I was ready for that next book to begin. So I searched for that character or premise which I could look straight into its cliche'd eye, shake its metaphorical hand and say "It's you and me to the end."

I thought I'd found it a few times, but after several thousand words into each manuscript, another voice or premise would distract me - SQUIRREL! - and I'd have to jump into a new shiny. After a few months or so (and approximately 50,000 words) I told all those competing ideas to shut it! 

Best. Decision. Ever.

I still wrote, but not with a particular manuscript in mind. I backed off, but I kept notes, wrote backstories, and penned dialogue on the competing ideas.

And, I read some books. (There's nothing like a reading break with a few good novels. You know what I'm talking about.)

And you now what? It worked!

By taking the pressure off myself to focus NOW and write THIS story, I was able to step away a little and breathe. That gave me a fresh look at those crappy, disjointed words and stories I'd been putting down. Though they're mostly crappy, some are better than others and many of them are pointing the way forward with this next book. It's coming together. Slowly.

One plot has gripped my attention longer and stronger than any others, so I'm diving back in with renewed enthusiasm. And I have ideas and material for more books waiting in line.

I'm relieved, and excited, and writing with a purpose again.

And I'm curious. How do you move on to your next WIP? Must you choose from a billion ideas racing throughout your brain or is there ONE BURNING IDEA always waiting, ready to singe your pages?

Monday, January 5, 2015

End of 2014 classroom roundup!

I'll admit, I'm sort of a pusher.

After I read a good book, my students know they're going to be getting a new addition to the classroom library with my personal recommendation. I always urge them to try new genres, new authors, new reading levels. Sometimes it's a crash-and-burn situation and the kid returns the book to the shelf looking like she just tried to eat a banana soaked in pickle juice.

But sometimes it works. Sometimes my students discover a new favorite. A new love. A new door to their imaginations that they had absolutely no idea was there.

Today I'm sharing my classroom's top five absolute favorite reads (in no particular order).

1) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the entire series)
    Jeff Kinney

2) The Maze Runner (again, the whole series)
    James Dashner

3) A Snicker of Magic
    Natalie Lloyd

4) Coraline
    Neil Gaiman

5) Bridge to Terabithia
    Katherine Paterson

What I love about this list is how varied it is. We've got classics, newer titles, horror, fantasy, humorous, contemporary, post-apocalyptic. I'm a big believer in letting students pick what they want to read. I always recommend titles or authors, but I never don't let them check something out. That's the beautiful thing about reading. It's a journey. If the book's too tough, they can take the trip with a parent or friend. If it's not right with them, there are hundreds of other adventures in my classroom library that they can brave.

My goal in 2015 is to recommend even more titles, including ones from authors I know. I want my students to have an incredibly diverse literary foundation when they head off to middle school.

And I'll happily provide all the bookish bricks I can.

Happy reading!