Friday, February 28, 2020

Book Review, Q&A and a GIVEAWAY: A Trifecta of MG Goodness for Wendy McLeod MacKnight's, The Copycat!

What would you do if you could literally look like any living thing you wanted whenever you wanted…

I gravitate towards books with humor, heart and a bit of magic, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read The Copycat by Middle Grade Minded’s very own, Wendy McLeod MacKnight! (Make sure you enter our GIVEAWAY at the end of this post!)

Here’s what the publisher (Greenwillow Books) had to say:

A funny, unpredictable and heartfelt new novel from Wendy McLeod MacKinght, the author of The Frame-Up. Ali has always acted like a copycat to make friends, but when she unexpectedly inherits the ability to change her appearance at will, fitting in seems impossible! Luckily, with the help of her family, new friends, and touch of magic, Ali might just survive middle school after all. A great pick for fans of Dan Gemeinhart, Erin Entrada Kelly, and Diana Wynne Jones.

A Little Book Review...

Ali Sloane's family moves around. A lot! They've never had a lot of money, and now are living with great-grandma Gigi who's about to turn 100 in a place so shrouded in fog that it seems to shout out to the world, "We have secrets!" And Ali's family definitely has some of those. Ali's also starting 7th grade at her 10th school, which would be hard enough without having to worry about her family's special Copycat powers, a mysterious family feud, reuniting with estranged cousin Alfie, and making (and then saving) new friendships all while following the RULES. Because creating and following the rules for any situation is how Ali has survived her family's vagabond life. 

Ali's wise and often funny directives are interspersed throughout The Copycat, as are excerpts from a book Ali's Uncle Percy wrote about the fog in Fundy. These additions were welcome and original writerly devices that added depth, mystery and hilarity to the story. Still, Ali learns that sometimes the rules can backfire. Sometimes the rules can change. And sometimes the rules just don't apply.

This was a rich and satisfying story, filled with wonderful characters and so many layers that it kept you wondering and waiting until the very end. The Copycat is about all those things that middle grade readers care about; family, friends and navigating life...with a nice layer of magical possibility thrown in for good measure. I truly loved this book and can see MG readers finding a friend in Ali and her imperfect but loving crew. (Teachers and'll want to get this for your kids!)

A Little Author Q&A...

Q: Where did you get the idea for this story?

A: I moved around a lot as a kid and sometimes, I really struggled to fit in. On top of that, I often went through a few friends until I found 'my people'. My main character, Ali, is so stressed from having to do this once or twice a year that she actually has no idea who she really is. 

I've always loved books with shapeshifter characters, but I didn't want to write a typical one. Then it hit me: what if Ali, who copies other kids' behaviours and likes/dislikes in order to fit in, actually starts to change into other people? The family feud idea followed shortly thereafter, because it made sense to me that not everyone would be happy to have that kind of power.

Q: The setting of the book, Saint John and the Bay of Fundy, are so important to plot...which came first - the idea or the setting?

A: I wanted there to be some kind of device that set the shapeshifting off, and I’ve always loved fog, so it seemed natural to set it in a city not far from where I live, Saint John, New Brunswick, which is often socked in by fog. It’s also where my mom was born and a place I visited all the time when I was a kid. I even made my grandparents’ old house the house where Ali’s great-grandmother, Gigi, lives! It is truly a magical place and well worth a visit! And the high tides in the Bay of Fundy are amazing!!!!

Q: There are so many interesting characters in this book at all different age ranges (I'm thinking of great-grandma Gigi down to Ali and her group of friends). Do you have a favorite? Is there a character you are most like?

A: I like to have different ages in my stories, because that’s what real life is like! And I also like showing parents’ vulnerabilities. Even when we parents try our best, we don’t always succeed!

As for a favourite character, that is hard! I love Gigi, because she reminds me of my grandmother, but I have a soft spot for Murray [a new friend of Ali's], who steals every scene he is in!

Q: Can you give a timeline of your writing process with this book from idea to acceptance? 

A: This was the second book of a two book deal with Greenwillow Books and it gave me SO much trouble. Even though it is technically my third book, it felt like a sophomore experience! I’d say it took about 10 months to get it from first draft to acceptance by my editor.

Q: Is there anything you WISH someone would ask you about the The Copycat or your writing process?

A: I don’t know about other authors, but I seem to forget how to write a book every time I start a new project. That’s a bit of a gross exaggeration, but only slightly! I think every book teaches you how to write better, and every book has a way it wants to be written. For example, Uncle Percy’s Book about Fog in the Bay of Fundy wasn’t in draft one, but Uncle Percy insisted it be included!

In other words: we are always learning as writers!

And p.s. Who would I want to turn into if I was a Copycat? Either of my two childhood heroes: Wonder Woman and Batgirl!

You can find a list of places to pre-order The Copycat here!

Wendy McLeod MacKnight lives in New Brunswick, Canada and loves to read, write, cook, root for the underdog, watch movies and sometimes pretend she's living in the South of France. 

You can find her on Twitter, her website, and Goodreads. And, of course, blogging here on Middle Grade Minded!

And, a Little Giveaway... 

Be sure to enter below for your chance to win a signed copy of The Copycat! (And, we'd love to hear in the comments who YOU would turn into if you could be a Copycat for a day.) Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, February 14, 2020

4 Essential Tips for Developing Character Backstory

Know Your Characters, Know Their History

We often know our characters' personality traits, darkest secrets, and greatest hopes. But do we know the why behind it all? Do we know what shaped them to become the characters we are now going to torment through a novel, and maybe entire series, until they grow and develop into the shining people we all hope we can become? 

Or devolve into something we sincerely hope we will never meet. It's up to you. They're your characters, after all. Either way, knowing their background as you write will enrich the story you produce and make it real for readers.

Recently I was asked to write a history for the women's group of my local church. Just a 1-year history, highlighting important events and changes among our group. At first, I dreaded the job. But once I got started, sorting through old facebook posts and digging into the depths of my memory -  (Did anything happen last April??) - I found the process a blast.

What's more, it got me thinking. This could be a fun and extremely useful way to develop characters for novels. 

1. Break Your Characters' History into Meaningful Chunks.

Depending on the age of the character you are focusing on, this could be months, years, or decades. Honestly, it could even be days or weeks. The reason for this is that we are not simply splitting the character's life into equal chunks of time. Instead, we want to develop a history of life experiences that matter. Several could occur within one day. More often, they are spread over larger periods.

Once you've split your character's life into useful spans of time, dig into them. Each period is like a micro-story. If you decide to go deep in exploring backstory, be sure to also write a short one or two sentence summary of what happened and how it influenced your character. That way you can do a quick and easy review without needing to reread all the thousands of words you may write!

2. Ask Questions 

What significant events shaped this character's life? Which of these events is most relevant to their character arc in this novel? How would your character be different if one of the events didn't happen? What choices might this character make based on knowledge they gained through specific experiences? 

Have they lived in regions or cultures that are different from where they are in the current story? How does that affect their interactions with other characters?

What kind of baggage or damage does this characters carry due to things they've done or gone through? What exactly caused the dysfunctional thought processes or behaviors your character now struggles with? How did they deal with problems in the past? How are they different now? Who did they lean on? Who created difficulties for them? 

As you get started with exploring your character's history, other meaningful question specific to your novel will arise. This is a very useful exercise, especially if you are stuck on a plot point.

3. Import Pics

We all know a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Not only that, but photos can prompt ideas and storylines. So it's extremely useful to add photos to your character's history. Easier said than done, you may think. 

But honestly, there are endless sources for pics to spur your imagination. Keep in mind that unless you plan to publish, pin or blog the history you're creating, you don't need to worry about whether the images you choose are copyrighted. They are for your eyes only, sitting quietly in your notes, inspiring you. Search google images. There are tons. 

If you think you might want to share this history someday, choose photos from pixabay, Pablo, or Wikimedia Commons. Another useful approach is to create a pinterest page (here's mine!) where you pin images that remind you of your character, their life experiences, or the environments where they have lived. 

4. Organize Your History

You can create your history in a simple word document, evernote, or my favorite for storytelling - scrivener. If you use scrivener for writing, you can also have instant access to the history you create for each character. 

I love to keep my research, character details, plot organization, and backstory writing handy while I'm writing my novels. Scrivener provides a great way to have easy access to this information. However, if you use scrivener, be sure to compress your pics or the app will bog down. Another option is to import links to webpages.

Whatever format you choose, you can organize each character's history by breaking it up into the time periods you've chosen, exploring meaningful questions, and adding photos for the character at different times in their life as well as photos for significant life experiences.

What are some of your favorite strategies for developing character backstory?

Monday, February 3, 2020

STEM for the Middle Grade Minded - Review and Giveaway!

Cars, motors, and crash test dummies - Jennifer Swanson's latest book has it all! I had the privilege of reading SAVE THE CRASH-TEST DUMMIES and I've got to say it was one sweet ride.

This book does a great job of explaining the science and mechanics of car safety and relating it to kids and their families. From the days of the cow catcher and first roller bumpers to the high tech world of self-driving cars, Swanson keeps up a lively dialogue with the reader. She explains the evolution of safety features like seat belts, airbags, and side view mirrors, and how they impacted car design. The illustrations add a whole extra dimension with diagrams of motors, braking systems, and crash test camera layouts. Plus you get to meet a whole family of crash test dummies!

This is one book librarians are going to want to add to their collection for their STEM minded students. It's going to be a hit!
And if you would like it add it to your library...follow the Middle Grade Minded blog! I'll announce a winner next week!