On Inspiration, My Mom, and How Drest Entered the World

If you’ve read my blog or follow me on social media or heard me speak, you probably know how much I am obsessed with Scotland. It wasn’t always that way, though. But I met Scotland at a pivotal time in my life.

I first visited Scotland when I was 13 years old. I was with my parents and my two brothers on a long trip to the U.K. and we drove up from London, through the Lake District, to Edinburgh. I remember stone everywhere, Edinburgh Castle’s cannons, eating chocolate, and being wet! I had fun, but I didn’t return for many years. (The affordability of it was part of the reason.)

Fast forward to 2015. My mother, one of the best friends I ever had, died of ALS. In her final days, I couldn’t be with her in person, but I called 4 or five times each day. I kept a list of stories and told her about memories we shared over the phone. She couldn’t talk but I hoped she could hear me. Among other things, I described the many wonderful trips we’d taken.

Mom and me

After she died, my older brother and I had a conversation about one of the things we learned from Mom during her illness: the importance of appreciating what was beautiful and doing things for yourself—a bit of the classic carpe diem philosophy, though appreciating beauty was a big part of it. My brother, who is a professional rafting guide in northern California, went river rafting in Costa Rica. My husband, son, and I planned a trip to the U.K.

When we planned our trip, it was late fall 2015. I’d just finished a near-final draft of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter and I wanted to take a research trip to a place filled with castles. I asked friends on Twitter where I could find the best castles. A few people recommended the Scottish Borders. I saw what was there (many castles! tons of history!) and was hooked.

Castles like this! (Craigmillar)

In early 2016, I signed with my literary agent for Drest’s story. And just as we were leaving for our trip, literally at the airport in New York en route to Edinburgh, I had my first chat with my editor, who wasn’t my editor then but who was interested in my novel.

Scotland and the Borders were a dream. We kept to Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders and dipped down to England to visit Corbridge and Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall, outside of Corbridge, England

I drove everywhere in a little car, on the left side of the road, and loved it. I was where I belonged surrounded by the things I loved: castles and history. I kept thinking of my mom, who would have also loved the history. (She was big on learning.) I was in a state of near-constant beaming.

Constant beaming like this.

One of my favorite castles to visit was Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh (on the outskirts of the city). As soon as I saw it, I knew this was a place that would matter. I took so many pictures. At that time I was thinking of another Drest book, one that would feature a strong noblewoman* with her own castle with a secret passage. This, Craigmillar, was going to be its façade. (*That strong noblewoman became Lady de Moys and the book became The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter.)

Craigmillar Castle (or, in Lady de Moys’s world, Harkniss)

I was inspired, in my element, and very happy. We drove down to Jedburgh to stay in a cottage on a sheep farm (parts of this feature in a coming book, by the way), where I checked my email… …and learned that my editor was making an offer for Drest and her world! Suddenly, the story of my wee lass was going to be a book.

I wrote The Mad Wolf’s Daughter a few months after my mother died. I wanted to write something that would help me escape my grief. So I wrote a story about what I loved most and what I’d always wished I could have read as a child. I learned it would become a book in a place I visited because of Mom.

I wish Mom could have seen Drest outside Edinburgh Castle’s Portcullis Gate. I can just imagine her smile.

Thank you, Mom, for teaching me so much about how to live. I miss you.

Reading Black Voices in Fantastic Middle Grade Fiction

I am angry and depressed by the ongoing systemic racism of this country. It needs to change. Every single person needs to understand that Black lives matter. Everyone needs that knowledge to be part of their daily lives. And we need to flood our libraries with books that show it.

Here are some of my favorite middle grade books by Black authors. And these are books that have a lot of joy in them (even though some may have some heaviness too). These are books for any kid of any race or ethnicity, books that kids enjoy.

And these are books that every elementary school classroom and library should carry.

 

My first is a recommendation for fans of creepy stories and folktales. These are some of the best books of that kind I’d ever read: The Jumbies trilogy by Tracey Baptiste. Kids who love good stories loaded with menace will eat this up.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks is brand-new realistic fiction that goes into family, truth, serious baking, as well as bias and our prison system. The writing is as warm as this cover art, and I know a lot of kids already love this.

Love Like Sky by Leslie C. Youngblood is a fairly new realistic fiction book, the powerful and sometimes heartbreaking story of a blended family, sisters, illness, fitting in, and early romantic love. (And it’s very timely as well: One of the characters is involved in protesting police brutality against Black people.) This book packs in a lot of issues and weaves them together beautifully.

If you’ve ever heard me talk about Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance, you’ve heard me say that this book is like The Westing Game but better. With vivid scenes zipping between the present and the past, this mystery with its historical subplot and story of racism is utterly brilliant and a leader in the middle grade mystery genre.

The amazing Sharon M. Draper has written so many incredible books, Stella by Starlight high among them. It’s a historical novel about a girl in the 1930s facing the KKK in her community. My son reread this again and again, from 3rd grade to 5th grade, at least once each year. And wrote his one and only fan email to the author (who answered him within a day sharing news of her next book, Blended).

Finally, if Jason Reynold’s Track series isn’t in your classroom or library, you need to put it there right away. This series has a huge fan base in every school I’ve mentioned it to. They’re fast-paced, exciting sports books, but books with issues, and I’ve not met a single kid who hasn’t loved them.
 
These are amazing books. Kids love them. And by having authentic Black voices in these stories help children see themselves or see what kids of another race and ethnicity are like: with experiences distinct to the Black experience, yet with hopes and dreams a lot like their own.

(I tweeted the pictures and some of the text of this post on May 31, 2020.)

Black Voices in Middle Grade Historical Fiction

It’s crucial to have Black voices in the middle grade curriculum in classrooms. Too often, historical stories that have meaning because of the Black experience are told from the white perspective. We need to bring these stories back to authentic voices. Here’s are four of my favorite historical fiction books for elementary and middle grades that do this right  (each graphic has the publisher’s blurb and era).

 

 

 

(These images are from a thread I tweeted on June 3, 2020. I wanted it to be here as well.)

Story Bite #20 (Special): How to Write an Action Scene!

This is a little bit different from my other Story Bite posts. I wanted to try this format and see if young writers would this kind better (maybe I’ll just mix it up in the future). In this post, I’m sharing a video for a series created and hosted by Debbie Ridpath Ohi called Ask Me to Ask, in which authors and illustrators share tips relating to their crafts and answer a question.

Here’s my contribution: how to write an action scene. This could be a good introduction to my other posts on this, Story Bite Number 14 and Story Bite Number 15.

I love that Debbie used Minecraft in her intro.

What do you think? Was this fun?

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite action scene with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Story Bite #19: Building Character Through Sensory Details

Sensory details—of smell, taste, sight, and sound—make a scene come alive and can also make a character feel real. Thinking about sensory details and how someone reacts to them tells you a lot about that person. So even though this may feel like a post on descriptive writing, it’s really about digging deep into who your character really is and showing that through things like…fruit.

Here’s our inspirational image:

Strawberries, brambleberries, and raspberries from the Tay Valley, sold in the Stockbridge Market, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Diane Magras

The pictured berries from the Tay Valley in Scotland and are the best berries I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know if it’s the peat or the moss that flavors the water or if it’s the soil, but I’ve never eaten berries so sweet and with such distinct flavors as these. When a character has a memory of something like this—the best berries they’ve ever eaten—it could well turn into a defining moment. Let’s explore where such sensory details could lead us.

1.  Decide what kind of reaction you want your character to have related to these berries: a positive or a negative one.

Either one could do this job. You could use your sensory details to create tension or to build a sense of security. Think about the feeling you want to convey.

2. Make a list of what made the memory either positive or negative.

Positive: What made your character happy? Were they at home, or on vacation, when they ate these berries? Did they pick them in a garden or just enjoy from a bowl at someone’s house? (Whose house? A grandmother’s?) Who are the people they shared these berries with, or did they eat all the berries themselves? Were the berries served on a special occasion, or were they were simply a small beauty of everyday life, something that made the world feel normal and safe?

Negative: What made your character feel bad? Did these berries come from hard work picking in a field? Does the taste of a berry remind your character of the pressures they felt as an immigrant, or of fear of bias or violence? (Many of our farm workers in both the U.S. and Scotland are immigrants or temporary residents from other countries and, sadly, are not always treated with the respect and kindness they deserve for their expert and important work.)  Did someone shout at your character before they tasted one? Was your character supposed to eat the berries? Does the taste of these berries comfort your character in any way, or haunt them?

3. Describe the berries—and your character.

Write about the scent (and any other scene in the room or field), the taste, the sounds around your character as they eat, and what your character sees. Base all of this on what you wrote before. What is your character’s reaction to eating the berries? What is the reaction of the people around them?

A scene like this can help your reader understand your character a bit more. It provides a window into your character and their joys or fears while setting the scene. If you want, you can even add backstory—the taste of the berries in the present make your character remember the taste of berries in a scene from the past and the mood and situation of that time. Sensory details don’t have to be just ribbons on your story but essential parts of the fabric (and they can still be ribbons).

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Story Bite #18: Creating Myths

As I’ve been sheltering in place to help keep my community safe, I’ve been thinking about what stories do for us during challenging times. They can help us look with new perspectives at what surrounds us, sometimes understanding it better or more deeply. They can also help us escape into worlds far from ours. Many people throughout history have used storytelling as a means of doing both.

I know that some people want to look straight at what’s going on while others would prefer to look away, so this Story Bite offers a few options. We’re going to work on a rousing myth. And here’s our image:

This is a classic deer hunting scene carved on a stone from sometime between AD 700 and 850. This stone was found in Scoonie in southeastern Scotland and now is kept by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. (photo: Diane Magras)

Ancient people—and people of today as well—often commemorated events with a sculpture. It might be a carving like this or built from other things (clay, sand, wood, glass, metal, or found objects like branches and leaves or bicycle rims and gears). But the artist is always thinking of the story that a piece will tell. Sometimes, from particularly ancient pieces like the one pictured, the story disappears into the mists of history (especially if there is no written documents for historians to examine as well).

So let’s create a story for this image and start with some questions:

Who does this image depict? Is it an ordinary hunt led by an ordinary person? Or a hunt led by royalty? Or a deity? (And if it’s a deity, is the deity the hunter, the deer, or the dog?)

What does this image depict? What’s going on with the central character? What’s the story that this picture is showing? You’ll want to imagine what happened before the scene depicted as well as after.

What’s the main point the image’s creator wanted to convey? Think of the takeaway, the warning, or the lesson of this story. It can be as simple as a tale meant to depict a character’s bravery and cleverness or a story with a clear moral.

For your Story Bite (pick one), write one paragraph or more:

1. Answer the three questions above with the pictured stone in mind. Create your own myth around it (though you can set your myth in your area or any place you like).

2. Draw a picture or build a sculpture depicting a mythical scene that you imagine. (Are there swords? Had to ask…) Answer the questions and create a myth for that scene.

3. Think of a story that describes something going on today and draw a picture or build a sculpture depicting it. Then answer the questions above and create a myth for today.

4. Pick a work of art from one of the amazing museums sharing their collections online these days (here’s the Getty Museum in Los Angeles as one resource) and answer the questions about that work.

If you want to go a step farther, give your myth a title. It can be as simple as “The Deer Hunt,” for instance, or be your takeaway point in a few words.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Story Bite #17: World Building and History (Today)

For this Story Bite in a time of global social isolation, I’m going to delve into one of my favorite parts of writing: research that helps a writer to understand a world. This post will also connect to the incredible historical situation we all find ourselves in today…but more on that in a bit. (By the way, keep in mind that all of the below is useful for fantasy and sci-fi as well. But stick with the concept of history for now, and certainly at the end. You’ll see why.)

The fundamentals of research allow you, the writer, to know your time and place—not just what people ate, and wore, and how they traveled (and if they traveled), but what issues were facing people’s lives. Some important questions to ask about another time or place as a writer—so you can recreate it—might be: What was life like? What did people care about? What mattered most?

Here’s our photo, some detail about an important historical site in Edinburgh, Scotland, that shares a bit about how people thought and what mattered in 1886…and in 2007:

About Well Court, Edinburgh. Photo: Diane Magras

Here’s the Part One of our Story Bite:

Write a series of questions that you would ask someone from the past—or from a fantasy or sci-fi world— to get to the bottom of what life was like for them. Would it be a medieval person from the time of knights and castles? Someone who lived in 1886 as Well Court was being built? A world where faeries and goblins lived alongside humans?

Here are some questions I might ask:

  • What was normal for people to eat? What was special? Where and how did they get their food?
  • What did people do for medicine? Did they do anything special to keep healthy? What was considered “healthy?”
  • What did kids do during an average day? If they could do anything they wanted, what would they do?
  • What were some of the crises that their families dealt with? How did their family, community, or world deal with regional, national, or global challenges?
  • What did people worry about? What made people scared?

Go ahead and use these questions if you like or come up with your own.

Do you have your list now? Fantastic.

Here’s Part Two:

Answer your questions yourself: about your world right now.

You are living in a historic time right now. With the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s world across the world is being disrupted. Recording what’s going on around you is important. It provides what’s called a primary source document, which shows to people in the future what the world was like now according to people living in our world and time. These are crucial in understanding events and lives of the past, but many of the past leave gaps: Few primary source documents that were written by children exist.

Your voice matters. Imagine what your documents would be like for people to read a hundred years from now. This is your chance to tell part of a big historical story.

Part Three (optional):

If you were disappointed to end with current history and really want to write about the past or an invited world, please go right ahead! This is world building, a crucial part of writing any story, and you’re just creating your primary source document for your fiction world. Have a bit of fun with it and think about what kind of character would be filling this out. You can tell a lot about a character by their answers…just as someone can tell a lot about you by yours above! But pay a lot of attention to the final question. What made people worried? And maybe add this one: How would your characters react to a world like ours?

Further Directions:

I always invite young writers to share their Story Bites with me; I love to see what you come up with. For this one, with your permission and a guardian’s permission, I’ll keep a record of what you send on my website, linked to this post. As I wrote above, your voice matters. I want to keep a record of what kids are thinking right now.

If you’d like to share your Story Bite, please submit it through your teacher (I know a lot of you are working with Google Classroom!) or through a guardian and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. I hope this is helpful.

 

 

Story Bite #16: It’s All About Perspective

Perspective—the voice that tells a story—can entirely change a story’s meaning, purpose, and feel. Here’s an example: When I was four years old, I was invited to the birthday party of my older brother’s best friend, Aaron. There was a chocolate cake in the kitchen while activities went on outside. I grew bored with the activities and, when no one was watching, crept into the kitchen and licked off a good quarter of that cake’s frosting. I tried to join the crowd again without revealing what I’d done, but the evidence was pretty obvious all over my face. From my perspective, the experience had been something I had always wanted to do, and, even with the very angry scolding I received from my mother, it was worth it. From my mother’s, it was a huge embarrassment, and she felt bad for Aaron and his mother. From Aaron’s mother’s perspective, I was the kid who ruined her son’s birthday party (she forgave me eventually, but it took over a year). From Aaron’s perspective, it was hilarious, and there was plenty of cake still (he was always incredibly nice to me). Thus, the story of the frosting theft could either be one of triumph, humiliation, despair, or humor.

We’re going to play with perspective in this Story Bite. Here’s our picture:

Borthwick Close, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Diane Magras

This is a “close,” a narrow passage between houses, in one of my favorite places in the world: Edinburgh, Scotland. There’s a busy street, the Royal Mile, at our backs as we step into the close. Everything becomes quieter. The walls smell of damp stone and are cold to the touch. We’re going to write about a walk down to the end of Borthwick Close from three different perspectives.

Choose Your Voice
Let’s try out a few different types of voices. Pick a character from each category below, or create three of your own voices.

1. A nervous voice: someone who’s looking for their family, or is running away from a bully, or has followed a child or sibling or parent down the close (and the person they’re following has just disappeared beyond the sun)

2. A confident voice: someone who’s eager to explore, or lives in the building at the end (so it’s normal to walk down this close), or is hot and tired and being in the close is a relief

3. An angry voice: someone who lives in the building at the end but wishes they lived somewhere else, or is a visitor and has been lost in the city and is getting more and more frustrated, or is the sibling or parent or child following a family member above and is about to lose their temper

Have you picked your characters for each kind of voice? Now write a paragraph (around four lines, but it’s your choice) of this action in the first voice you chose:

Your character walks into the close, brushes against the rough and damp stone wall, feels their footsteps against the hard stone tiles on the ground, and hears a noise at the end beyond the sun.

Use first person (“I walk into the close”) or second person (“She walked into the close”) and whatever tense (present: “I walk” or past: “I walked”) you like.

When you’re done with the first voice you picked, write exactly the same scene—brushing the wall, feeling their footsteps, hearing a noise (you decide what that noise is)—from the second voice you’ve chosen. And do it again with the third.

Read over what you’ve written. Which voice did you enjoy writing most? Which do you like most now? Did any one of them feel like a good start to a story? If so, this could be a great beginning: You’re starting right in the middle of an action with tension and a secret with that noise at the end.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share this Story Bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Genre Fiction for the Classroom

From You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, Tom Gauld, 2013

In the world of literature, there’s often prejudice against genre fiction. This becomes especially pernicious when it’s applied to children’s fiction: Students’ love of reading can ebb when they’re told or showed that the things they love to read aren’t “good” or worth reading.

Not all children love genre fiction (in fact, teachers have shared that many students who aren’t regular readers love realistic fiction because it’s often shorter and easy to jump right into). Yet for those who find their interests awakened by worlds with magic, special powers, kid-led adventure, romance, action, and more, it can be easy to assume that their favorite genres aren’t valued when they don’t see it in their classrooms. And it can be hard to sustain a habit of reading when much of after school reading is assigned books that you don’t care about.

I see that as a wasted opportunity: So much children’s genre fiction is rich with big ideas and powerful themes, transcending the label. Its authors want their books to please on the surface but also provide opportunity for discussion and deep exploration underneath.

I know some teachers don’t read a lot of children’s genre fiction and may not be aware of the depth of literature out there in that field. In September 2019, I put out a call on Twitter for recommendations from teachers, librarians, and authors. With the incredible response I received, I’ve begun a list of genre fiction for the classroom.

These are stellar examples of middle grade and young adult genre fiction, most recommended by teachers and librarians. Where I could, I included themes and links to teachers’ guides. The purpose of this list is to spread the word of how genre fiction can transcend genre and, I hope, give teachers and school librarians a few more options to add their book group selections for the kids who would prefer this kind of story.

This is a working list for elementary through high school teachers. It’s not even close to being a complete resource, and I plan to keep expanding it for as long as I have time. Please comment on this post if you have middle grade and young adult titles you’d like to suggest. Share the author, the title, year of publication, genre, and themes (not what the publisher defines as themes, but themes that would apply specifically to a classroom’s use of that book), and a link to any discussion guide or Teachers’ Guide. And if you’ve used this in your classroom, please share some of the topics or themes that you’ve discussed (you’ll see I have some teachers who did so on the list). Thank you!

One last request: Please share this post in your schools and on your own social media so that we can add to this list and reduce some of the hesitation people may feel about using genre fiction for serious purposes. I hope we can ensure that children in our schools always have a broad selection of books to choose from. Imagine a world where deep work of genre fiction is the subject of essays—and also the book read for pleasure late at night.

Story Bite #15: Writing Action (Part 2)

In our last Story Bite, we wrote an action scene. We focused exclusively on the path and the obstacles facing our character, but mostly the journey itself. Those scenes are fun to write. For many authors, they just flow onto the page: We’re narrating what’s going on and that’s often not too hard to write about.

But here’s something to think about: A really good action scene isn’t just the action but the feeling behind the action. It reflects why the action is happening in the first place. It includes the stakes (why it matters that the character reaches the end of the action). If you keep that in mind when you’re revising, you can add a whole extra layer to the scene.

Here’s your picture for this post: a close-up of tower of Abbotsford, the house that’s the destination for your character’s action scene.

Photo: Diane Magras

For this Story Bite: Take the action scene you wrote before (Story Bite #14).

Ask yourself: Why is it important for my character to reach the house? What will happen if they don’t?

Look for places to add a few lines to show that. It can be your character thinking about why it matters, and despairing when things start looking bad.

Here are a couple of examples of the kinds of lines I might use for my action scene:

“I have to reach the house, I thought. My family needs me. I dodged the cat’s next blow, my heart almost still.”

“The noisy machine was too close. In seconds, it would eat me. I would never see my mother again. But it was hopefully. I could never pass the green with that metallic beast.”

You may have guessed this by now, but this Story Bite is all about revision. I hope it will help you find ways to make your writing even richer and more emotionally powerful than before with just a few lines.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share this revised Story Bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.