Monday, September 29, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Shakespeare Stealer

I picked up THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER, because I just read Blackwood’s CURIOSITY and was hankering for more from this author.
I’ve seen this book recommended numerous times, and I can’t say why I didn’t pick it up. I think it was the title and premise. I didn’t know if I could hang out with a character with a goal of stealing a beloved Shakespeare play.
But the great thing about THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER is that Widge grows into a character with nobler goals. And that, my friends, is worth the read.

Widge is an orphan with a rare talent for shorthand. His fearsome master has just one demand: steal Shakespeare's play "Hamlet"--or else. Widge has no choice but to follow orders, so he works his way into the heart of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's players perform. As full of twists and turns as a London alleyway, this entertaining novel is rich in period details, colorful characters, villainy, and drama.
What I loved about this book:
  1. Historical authenticity:  Widge's language, thoughts, and actions are always authentically Elizabethan. He never comes across as a modern character trying to survive in the past, which I sometimes encounter in historical kidlit.
  2. Character dialogue/language: One thing I really enjoyed about this book was how Widge spoke in a different dialect than some of the other characters. They make fun of him for saying “aye” and “nay” and other colloquiums. Widge's ongoing attempt to speak like a Londoner was a fun mini-plot within the story.
  3. Character Arc: Widge is sympathetic at first because he’s been put down and misused by others. Even the goal of stealing the play is forced upon him. But the beauty of this story is how he comes to realize that he does have a choice.
  4. Subplots that add to the main plot: I loved how Blackwood used another character who was struggling with similar issues to Widge as a comparison/contrast. If you’re a writer looking to study how subplots can support the main story, study how Blackwood uses Julian/Julia’s story.
  5. An interesting villain: Falconer is one of the most memorable  villains I’ve read in kidlit. I love that he’s menacing, and yet, somehow, relatable. The reveal at the end was fitting and didn’t diminish the story.
    I’d recommend this to readers who enjoy gritty and fast-paced historical fiction and enjoy authors like Avi (THE TRAITOR’S GATE) and Karen Cushman (WILL SPARROW’S ROAd others).
    Have you read any good historical fiction lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Monday, September 22, 2014

MMGM: The Two Princesses of Bamarre

Today I’m featuring an older book that was a re-read for me. Gail Carson Levine is one of my favorite authors, and I enjoyed The Two Princesses of Bamarre when I read it several years ago. But I picked it up again this summer for research, as I was researching using a fantastical object in one of my stories.

I wasn’t disappointed. I love how when you re-read a book, you find a different thing each time. I remember being struck by the interesting dragon on the first read, but this time, I was struck by the dynamics between the sisters and Addie’s growth as a character.

The synopsis:

The Two Princesses of Bamarre couldn't be more different. Princess Addie is fearful and shy. Her deepest wish is for safety. Princess Meryl is bold and brave. Her deepest wish is to save the kingdom of Bamarre. They are sisters, and they mean the world to each other.

Then disaster strikes, and Addie -- terrified and unprepared -- sets out on a perilous quest. In her path are monsters of Bamarre: ogres, specters, gryphons, and dragons. Addie must battle them, but time is running out, and the sister's lives -- and Barmarre's fate -- hang in the balance.


  1. A shy main character: I have mentioned before how I have a soft spot for shy heroines. It's a harder feat for an author to create a shy character that comes off the page, so I'm always impressed when an author achieves this. Addie is one of those characters—timid at first, but memorable.
  2. Interesting twists on fantasy tropes and magical items: This is what I expect when I read Levine. I know she’ll take something like a dragon or an elf we’ve seen a thousand times and make it all her own. I also loved how she used seven league boots and a magical tablecloth in this one.
  3. An epic poem: I really enjoyed how Levine used a Beowulf-like poem to foreshadow events and serve as a reminder of the theme. I’m usually one of those readers who skips epigrams and quotes, but this poem was just as interesting as the main story.
  4. A strong relationship between sisters, who couldn’t be more different. It was refreshing to read a book without sibling rivalry. Despite their vastly different personalities,  Addie and Meryl value each other’s good qualities and always support each other.
  5. A bittersweet, but fitting ending. I loved how Addie learned to be brave and how Levine provided us with a happy ending but with a cost. I’ve found that my opinion of a book hinges on the ending, and for me, this one did not disappoint.
    If you love quests, interesting fantasy creatures, and reluctant, but brave heroines, you must check out this book. And writers, if you haven’t already, check out Levine’s blog, where she answers questions from readers about writing:
     (If you don't mind spoilers, in her latest post, she talks about writing the ending of TWO PRINCESSES.)
Do you like to reread your favorites? Why or why not?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Monday, September 15, 2014

MMGM: A Whole Nother Story Series

I’m continuing with my theme from last week of highlighting books that appeal to kids (not just grownups). Today I’m going to share another favorite at my house. It’s not a book that I’ve heard a lot of buzz online about, but I enjoyed it as well as my 12-year-old, who read the third book in two days.

If you enjoy omniscient narrators, families on the run, books about scientists, and time machines, this one’s for you.

The synopsis for the first book:

Mr. Cheeseman, his three relatively odor-free children, a psychic hairless dog, and a sock puppet named Steve are on the run. Why? Because Mr. Cheeseman invented a time machine, of course. Now they're being chased by international super spies, top secret government agents, and a genius monkey. Dr. Cuthbert Soup, the head of the Center of Unsolicited Advice, narrates this wild adventure that will lead readers straight into next season's sequel: Another Whole Nother Story.

What I found interesting about this series is that it broke a couple writing rules.

  • The kid characters names kept changing. Usually it’s best to keep character names simple, so as not to confuse readers. But in A Whole Nother Story, the kid characters pick their own new names whenever they are on the run. I admit it could be hard to adjust to as a reader, but I loved how this added whimsy to the narrative. What kid doesn’t fantasize about choosing a new name?
  • The main character is an adult. Parents usually need to get out of the way in kidlit. But the dad, Ethan Cheeseman, is a major character in this series.  Although the kids solve many of the problems, the story wouldn’t happen without their dad.  It’s his story—of building the time machine and losing his wife—that drives the narrative.
    A couple of other things I enjoyed:

  • The omniscient narrator. I love Cuthbert Soup’s unsolicited advice sprinkled throughout the book, his plays on words, and general fun. My son particularly enjoyed  his interesting takes on history.

  • An interesting premise: Who wouldn’t want to read about a family on the run? Throw in some government agents, a mother dying under mysterious circumstances, and a time machine (that may or may not be used for nefarious purposes) and I was hooked.  I also liked how the question of finding out what happened to the mother was carried through all three books to completion in book 3.
  • Interesting side characters: Whether it’s circus performers without a circus or pirates, Soup never takes his characters too seriously.
  • Oh, and did I mention there’s a sock puppet named Steve?
    If you are a fan of omniscient narrators who have their own story like in Lemony Snicket’s SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS or Maryrose Wood’s THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE, you will love this book. It is not as dark as Snicket nor as cerebral as INCORRIBLE CHILDREN, but a lot of fun.
    *It’s interesting to me that many of the books that children love and are huge commercial successes are omniscient narrators. To me, this is breaking another rule, because writers are often advised to avoid omniscient.  
    What do you think is the appeal of omniscient narrators?

    If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Monday, September 8, 2014

MMGM: Bug Boy

Usually I feature a book that stands out to me, but it’s occurred to me that what appeals to my grown-up self doesn’t always appeal to kids. Have you noticed that many of the Newbery winners are much beloved by teachers and librarians, but not as much by kids?

So today I’m featuring a book that is much beloved by my 9-year-old. He’s read it multiple times, and it was his first foray into novels. This book is hugely popular at our library as well. I read it recently as well to see what the excitement was all about.

If you have a child in your life who loves animals, especially insects, this might be one to enjoy.

Here’s the synopsis from the back flap:

Bring on the spiders, stinkbugs, and grasshoppers. Charlie Kaplan, “Bug Boy,” thinks bugs are the best and is always on a Bug Alert for crawly creatures. But when he receives the Amazing Bug-a-View in the mail, Charlie thinks it’s a joke. Then he notices that the Amazing Bug-A-View proclaims, “See the world from a bug’s-eye view! Before you can say “Bug off,” Charlie turns into a …!

Why does Bug Boy appeal?

  1. It has a likeable main character. Charlie’s not too complicated. He loves bugs and is a semi-expert on them. I think even kids who don’t like bugs would appreciate his singular focus and smarts.
  2.  A cool magical item and premise. What kid hasn’t imagined what it was like to be something different? Seeing life through a bug’s eyes was one of the most interesting parts of the book for me.
  3. A great ending. I won’t give it away, but I love how Charlie’s particular skills are used to solve his problem.
  4. It is based on the author’s own experience. In the afterword, Sonenklar shares how her son attended a bug fair (like the one in the book) where he ate stir-fried mealworms (!). She also once judged a pet contest where she voted a tarantula the “pet with the most pleasing expression.”
  5. The character arc with Charlie’s enemy. This book has a great final chapter. But then I’m a sucker for a reformed antagonist.

As it’s fairly short and has illustrations, this is a great first MG novel for kids. It would appeal to animal lovers and bug enthusiasts and kids who like magical objects, although I’d consider this “fantasy light.”

There's also a sequel, BUG GIRL, which continues Charlie's adventures.

And here’s a question for the comments: Do you think the MG books that kids like are different from the ones grown-ups rave about?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Art of Not Writing

When I was first getting serious about my writing, it seemed like all the advice I heard was write, write, write. As long as you kept writing, everything would be okay. Fast draft. Don’t think too hard. Just get it out. You can always revise later.

If I got stuck, I would just push through. I’d write something, anything, to get to the other side, to the end.

I wrote pretty decent beginnings, but my endings were (you guessed it) were downright awful.

I produced two drafts of two different novels like that, and by the end, I realized they had so many structural issues; they were nearly unfixable.

That’s when I started doing something different. When I got stuck, really stuck, I stopped writing. I might switch to another document and start brainstorming. Sometimes I’d stop and write in my journal. But I didn’t keep going with the scene.

If I was stuck, I realized, it was my subconscious telling me something. This scene wasn’t working. I knew it on a deep level, even if I couldn’t verbalize it.

Sometimes I work on another manuscript, read for fun, eat lots of chocolate, or watch entirely too much Netflix.

Usually I feel a pang of guilt: but I’m not writing! But there is no timer, no race, no arbitrary finish line. I’ve learned from experience that rushing doesn’t create good writing.

Invariably when I step away, if I am just patient and wait, the inspiration comes. It’s a step of faith.

But my writing is better for the waiting.
If I were to give one piece of advice to my younger writer self, it would be: Don’t rush.

I give permission for this to be used in the ISWG analogy under the writing category.

ISWG: Nonnewbie No Man’s Land

I remember the first few times I attended a writing conference. The flush of excitement when an agent or editor requested pages, the insider publishing knowledge, the feeling that I was really doing this—pursuing a lifelong dream. I was really a writer.

But my experience at writing events in the last few years has been a mixed bag. I love meeting other writers and sharing our journeys on this crazy writing road. I love the camaraderie, the fun, the buzz of talking about writing all day. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I learn something new.

But I can’t say that I learn a lot, and that’s frustrating. It’s one reason I rarely go to expensive conferences nowadays. I don’t want to fork over a lot of money to be disappointed.

You see, I’m no longer a newbie, just learning about the process of publication or how to develop my voice or create conflict. I’ve been doing this for awhile. (12 years, in fact) But at the same time, I’m not published yet (except in magazines), so I’m not an expert either. I know I have much to learn.

But when it comes to classes and conferences, I’m in a sort of no man’s land. Not a beginner. Not an expert. Somewhere in between.

And every time I come against this—go to one of these events and realize I know almost as much as the presenter, it’s frustrating. I know so much, but I’m not there yet.

I try to be patient. I am greatly encouraged by the fact that it took Gail Carson Levine, one of my all-time favorite kidlit writers, ten years to be published. When I heard her speak at my first writing conference, she joked that it took her about the same time to become an author as it would have to become a doctor.

I know I’m getting closer, my writing is improving, and if anything, the whole process has taught me the value of patience. And that all I can control is how well I learn this craft. And learning the craft—the very act of writing—brings me an incredible amount of joy.

But it’s hard to figure out where I fit in the writing world: not an expert, but no longer a beginner.
Do any of you feel like you’re in the no-man’s land? How do you cope?

If you're wondering what Insecure Writer's Group is:

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time. 
Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter hashtag is #IWSG
The awesome co-hosts for the September 3 posting of the IWSG will be Laura at My Baffling Brain, mark Koopmans, Shah Wharton, and Sheena-Kay Graham. 
And it's our three year anniversary of posting!