Monday, October 26, 2015
Friday, October 23, 2015
I looked at my calendar today and got a little excited.
Well, no, actually, first I picked my lower teeth up off the floor, because that’s where my jaw shot when I accepted the horrifying truth that it’s somehow October 23rd, 2015 even though January 1st, 2015 was, like, two weeks ago (I’m pretty sure).
For real, where did my year go?
Anyway, after that, I got excited. Not quite night-before-Christmas excited, but more about-to-get-on-a-rollercoaster excited. IT was that sense of nervous butterflies tickling the belly even as the heart picks up speed in the anticipation of something possibly, maybe awesome about to happen.
That is, something awesome is about to happen. First, Halloween. And if you don’t see the potential for a million and one delightfully creepy, crawly, sinister and scary MG stories being born of holiday that revolves around the dead walking the earth at the same time 90% of a community’s children are out begging for candy in masks and makeup, well, that makes me a little sad for you. You probably never love Goosebumps, either, did you?
But I digress. It’s after Halloween, see, that the real fun begins. Because on November 1st, millions of writers – pro and amateur alike – will slam down the gas pedal and surge out of the gate on another insane National Novel Writing Month. That’s NaNoWriMo to you and me, Russ. And, yes, I’ve gone on and on about this before – including why I think NaNo is extremely well-suited for Middle Grade writing – so I’ll spare you the recap*.
Today’s point is this: as writers considering NaNoWriMo, we find ourselves standing at the edge of a cliff dive down into the gully of 50,000 words worth of novel-drafting. Which begs the question: are you bungee jumping or throwing caution (and some would say sense) to the wind by going for it damn-the-torpedoes, full speed ahead? That is, do you plan and scheme, plot and outline ahead of time, using October to draw up character profiles and imagine scenes with the care of a model-maker sketching out a diorama before gathering up a shoe box, glue, and a set of pipe cleaners and setting to work?
Or do you just…jump off?
Myself? This year? I’m a jumper. I will, at some during this last week of October, settle on a basic idea for the book I intend to NaNoTackle™. After that, I might even go so far as to name the protagonist, if I’m feeling, you know, frisky. But that’s it. No plotting. No outlining. Just November 1st, an opening sentence, and a drive to see where this manuscript takes me.
Yeah, it kind of is.
Fact is, NaNoWriMo is the one time in the previous or future 12 months that I’ll approach writing this way. The rest of time I’ll drafting with sense and caution, by making sure I have a good idea of where I want to go before I put the keys into the ignition.
But it seems to me that if we always do the same things the same ways, we’re likely to usually get the same kind of results. And that’s fine if you’re making cars on an assembly line. But that’s not what we’re doing. We write stories for middle graders, a group that’s mostly defined by constantly trying new ways in the interest of learning more about themselves and the world they live in.
So maybe join me this year? Put down your color-coded outline cards and set aside your character sheets. Take off your parachute and/or that bungee cord, step up the edge of the cliff, and take the headfirst plunge with me into the Great Word Void this November. Sure, it might not work for you. Might not work for me, either. But there’s a always fantastic rush in finding out. And at the end of the month, “win” or “lose”, we’ll have some words written that we didn’t have before, and hopefully we’ll have learned a little something new about ourselves.
And isn’t that kind of the whole point of middle grade?
*Click that link. Click it! Cliiiiiiick it!
Monday, October 19, 2015
From School Library JournalGr 5–8—History comes alive in this imagining of the life of Eliza Scott, one of the daughters of Dred Scott, the slave at the center of a landmark case in American history. This novel begins after the Scott family has sued their owners for their freedom and they're waiting to hear a VERDICT. The Scotts are forced to live in the St. Louis, MO, jail, and all of the wages they earn are held in escrow by the sheriff. Not much is known about the real-life Eliza, but these authors' depict her as brave, headstrong, and intelligent. She attends a secret school for black children where she has learned to read, and she longs for a different life than that of her parents. But it is her fear of being imprisoned that ultimately puts her freedom in jeopardy. Against her mother's wishes, Eliza takes a job with one of her father's former owners, Charlotte Charless. In the midst of the chaos and fear caused by a cholera outbreak, Eliza crosses paths with the greedy son of Charlotte, Mark Charless, who is desperate for money to fund his Gold Rush dreams. As her family is fighting for their freedom, Eliza's own struggle takes a more dramatic and immediate turn. Not shying away from some of the ugly truths from this part of our country's history, this book addresses slavery, kidnapping, and the overall appalling treatment of black people. While the characterization is well done, the dialogue is a bit stiff. Ultimately, however, this book is a compelling and exciting narrative as well as a window into a possible history. VERDICT A great choice to support school curriculum.—Heather M. Campbell, formerly at Philip S. Miller Library, Castle Rock, CO
Monday, October 12, 2015
Author: Marisa Reichardt
Genre: YA Contemporary
Pages: 288 pages
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
My Rating: 5 / 5
But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school.
When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside.
Underwater is a powerful, hopeful debut novel about redemption, recovery, and finding the strength it takes to face your past and move on.
I talk about voice a lot. I tell students and aspiring writers that making theirs unique and personal to them is absolutely essential. I tell myself that I have to keep pushing to improve the one I've already developed in my own stories.
Because voice...it's the blanket we build that the reader wraps themselves in while they read our work.
The voice can be warm and fuzzy.
It can be heavy and soft.
It can be prickly and slightly itchy.
It can be a million different sensations.
One thing I've never even considered, though, is how it can completely change within a story.
Marisa Reichardt's Underwater does just that. She introduces us to Morgan, a teenager under a self-imposed house arrest. We don't know exactly why Morgan won't go outside. We catch glimpses of the events that led her to be so scared of the world beyond the threshold. She hints at it, comments on it, reminisces on the tragedy, and we feel every short breath, every skipped heartbeat, every bit of weight carried around by this girl. All because of the voice Reichardt wraps us in.
There's Evan. Morgan's mom. Morgan's brother. Her therapist. Her own desire to regain that connection with the life she's turned her back on.
And the voice begins to change.
It's so subtle. So gradual and smooth that I didn't actually catch it at first. I was about three quarters through the book when I noticed that I could breathe easier. I was smiling. I wasn't gripping the edges of the book so hard that the cover was getting wrinkled. So I flipped back several chapters and realized that Reichardt had been weaving an entirely new blanket for me while I'd been reading. Everything from the descriptive language to the overall sentence structure had been evolving right under my nose without me knowing it.
It's brilliant. And so perfect for this story. Because this story is all about change and moving on. We finally discover what's been keeping Morgan locked inside her house all this time. And while this story doesn't get wrapped up in a tidy, neat, bow in some Disney-esque ending, it does leave us with such a wonderful sense of hope.
This is a book I hope everyone reads at some point. For students and teachers, it's so relevant. To readers, it's rich with complexity. To writers, it's a study in how an author can create a character so compelling, so layered with emotion, one who changes so much within a story, that the voice has a complete arc of its own, too. And that's why I'm giving Underwater by Marisa Reichardt a full five stars. Her book not only was a heartbreaking read that left me smiling, it made me want to become a better writer.
Monday, October 5, 2015
1.) What grades/age groups do you work with?
I work in a small, k-12 school. I teach English in the upper school, and I run a book club for elementary and middle school students.
2.) What are some of your favorite middle grade books?
The BFG, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Doll Bones, A Snicker of Magic, Goodbye Stranger, P.S. Be Eleven, and I am currently reading and loving both The Akata Witch and Rules for Stealing Stars.
3.) What genres/topics do kids seem to ask for the most?
I think fantasy is the most popular genre, but we definitely have kids who gravitate towards contemporary.
4.) What book titles are the most popular right now?
Our students recently read and loved Breadcrumbs and The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu. A few students are also really into the Emily Windsnap series, by Liz Kessler.
5.) What do kids seem to like the least or what do kids complain about when it comes to books?
Students often express frustration when they feel confused by a text. That can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they don't understand what is literally happening in the story. Sometimes the plot structure is complex or the vocabulary is unfamiliar. In those moments, I try first to validate their confusion ("Yes, there are a lot of characters to keep track of here." Or "Yes, it was tricky when that flashback happened."). Then I try to help them learn strategies to overcome their confusion. Chris Tovani has an amazing book about this called I Read it, but I Don’t Get it. The strategies hopefully benefit students in their later reading lives as well.
6.) What gets kids excited about reading?
My students love getting lost in the world of a story. They love a mystery to solve or a secret to uncover. And I love to see them empathize and become invested in the wellbeing of the characters. They also relish the freedom that comes with the ability to read on their own. For students at that age, reading is very much an act of independence, exploration, and maturity.